What are Universities For?, By Stefan Collini


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The Independent Culture

This is a book, very definitely, of two halves. Part One consists of a measured, though critical, analysis of recent trends in higher education in England. It is not an elegy for past glories and even less an updated version of the "more means worse" arguments still looming over the editorial columns of many newspapers. Stefan Collini, professor of English and intellectual history at Cambridge University, instead demonstrates a sharp understanding of modern higher education and for those unfamiliar with the recent growth and diversity – including, one suspects, many currently inhabiting the, er, more ancient universities – here is a good place to dissociate the myths from the reality.

So, for example, there is a deft demolition of the relevance of John Henry Newman to present debates, a critique both pointed and witty. Furthermore, there is a recognition of a number of key issues which drive the character of modern universities – the vast growth in student numbers (especially part-time and mature students), the impact on subject mix (over half a million studying business studies and law alone), the welcome enfranchisement of female students and the extension of opportunity, albeit unevenly, to all regions and socio-economic groups.

Part One also contains a chapter which deals with the position of the humanities. Collini does not entirely escape the charge of special pleading here. As a (lapsed) sociologist I have spent almost an entire academic career as an exponent of a "useless" discipline, a mantle subsequently passed to "media studies". Collini is correct to point out the limits of strident, over-defensive, self-justification, but his discussion would have been more rounded – and potentially less divisive – had it also taken into account the pressures on the natural sciences, where, in most cases, research is a sheer impossibility without external funding and where a rampant "arms race" among research-intensive universities has ensued. Is this really what Collini wishes to see visited on the humanities, if research assessment were to be abolished?

Nevertheless, Collini is quite clear about one crucial element of universities today. Expansion of opportunity has brought about qualitative changes which, even where undesirable, are largely irreversible. There is no going back to some idealised version of a 1950s senior common room, occasionally intruded upon by deferential students. There has been a price to pay for an expansion almost entirely with public funds. Once upon a time it was the role of governments to provide for the needs of universities; but now universities are deemed to provide for the needs of governments. Even though our universities are, according to a recent study, among the most autonomous in Europe, this shift has engendered a kind of inner loneliness in their world.

And so to Part Two. Here one might reasonably expect Collini's analysis to be taken forward into, if not a manifesto, then at least an agenda. But instead, we find reprints of articles written over the last 20 years, many of which take the arguments backwards. Their inclusion is justified on the grounds that they are thereby made more available. In reality, they serve to demonstrate how much Collini's thinking has matured and moved on. So we have a book which would have been twice as good if it had been half the length.

Now this is a real pity. A half-time lead has been thrown away. For everyone with even the slightest interest in higher education policy knows that the present state of affairs is unsustainable and that after the next election we shall, once more, be embroiled in a further debate about the nature, structure and financing of higher education in this country. Part One of Collini's book presents an excellently cogent intellectual basis for thinking about these issues.

It does, though, focus on some easy targets – the depressing utilitarianism of the debate over the past 30 years; the decline of trust in professional judgments and the rise of egregious audit; the conflation of quality and standards.

On other issues he is more silent. Higher education is both a public and a private good, but we have never had a properly grounded debate about proportionality, still less what the public investment is supporting (access? Standards? Intellectual capacity?). Collini's faith in an enlightened public purse is honourable, but which political party will go into the next election on a manifesto of raising taxes in order to give more money to universities?

So should we seek to fix the present system or argue the case for a new one? I see no appetite for a fundamental reform of post-18 education, yet year by year further and higher education converge around a notion of vocational tertiary education, while the elongated diversity of higher education suggests some structural reform is overdue.

Universities are certainly over-regulated, but the sector is equally under-planned. Policy should not be driven solely by student financing arrangements (as Collini makes clear), any more than a one-size-fits-all funding arrangement for research and teaching will give adequate incentives to the various dimensions of excellence which need to be sustained across the sector, though not equally in each and every university. The US, to remind ourselves, has over 3,000 universities, but less than 300 with graduate schools. And most institutions offer a baccalaureate undergraduate degree, not an honours one. Hong Kong has recently reformed its sector to meet modern needs. Is it so out of the question that we cannot even contemplate this, but rather bumble on in our dysfunctional way?

So it is two-all after 90 minutes, but still everything to play for in extra time between now and 2015. Collini's book, I hope, will kick-start a serious debate. As a precursor, he has successfully reminded us what, indeed, universities are for.

Sir Howard Newby is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool. Between 2001 and 2006 he was chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England