By Mark Bergfeld
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What Are Universities For?

This article is over 11 years, 7 months old
Stefan Collini
Issue 368

With the indefinite postponement of the Higher Education Bill Stefan Collini’s latest book is timely. It lies somewhere between the various manifestos of the movement and the white papers of the government. Collini sets out to defend the notion of the “public university” while at the same time accusing the government of a “reductionist consumerist” higher education policy. This makes it a must read for students, activists and trade unionists in higher education and all those interested in defending it.

Collini celebrates the inherent worth of intellectual inquiry. His writing is accessible and interesting. Ultimately however there must be an acknowledgement that the ideas of the ruling class have always reproduced themselves in universities. They are part of what Gramsci called the “hegemonic apparatus” through which the ruling class legitimises its own rule. The ideological function that churches fulfilled under feudalism, for example, is now fulfilled by universities under capitalism.

The notion proffered by some commentators that universities are “liberal” places of free thought and debate has a flipside – the “illiberal” belief that a small elite should produce all the knowledge in society.

The current crisis in higher education has been preceded by waves of privatisation and marketisation. University workers are already one of the most casualised sectors of the entire workforce.

As much as the Browne Review was about lifting the fees cap it was also about shifting the burden of the crisis onto students and workers. The relationship between lecturers and students was also to be transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold. Collini’s approach that says the university shouldn’t have to make a contribution to economic growth is refreshing.

The Browne Review sought to create free competition both between universities – by introducing variable fee levels – and within institutions, by slashing all funding to arts, humanities and social sciences. (Collini is particularly vicious in his attack on this second aspect). Those universities with a lesser reputation and market value would charge less. Departments and faculties that could not generate a profit would have to close down.

We are already seeing the adverse effects of market forces. Seventy five percent of all institutions charged the maximum of £9,000.

However hard Collini attacks notions such as the “university experience” or “student satisfaction” the book still begs the crucial question of how we should resist the onslaught on public higher education. Collini gives a partial response by emphasising what the wreckers of our universities ignore: the value of universities as a public good.

According to Collini the government does not believe that higher education has any intrinsic value. Indeed the Higher Education White Paper, unlike other government-commissioned reports, doesn’t talk at all about the value of the university. Willetts even acknowledges that “it ended up on the cutting-room floor as the central argument was about changes to the financing of teaching”.

As Willetts has gone ahead with plans that will favour wealthier students at entry level and force universities into ruthless competition for places with each other, Collini is right to emphasise issues of access and funding in his polemic. His acknowledgement that “universities cannot correct for the effects of a class-divided society” will chime with many.

Sadly the book does not offer the strategy that is so desperately needed to defend the public university and consequently is not the antithesis to Willetts’s white paper. Indeed, Willetts has written a short article in the Times Higher Education in which he states, “I agree with all these propositions and am always grateful to Collini for reminding us of these important truths. But I simply do not recognise his attempt to apply these wider propositions to higher education policy today.”

Of course, one cannot blame Collini for receiving applause from the wrecker of our universities. It does point, however, the limitations of those academics who believe that they can defend the public university by simply writing about it – without having to ally themselves with students occupying buildings and the UCU members defending their public sector pensions in the face of government attacks.

With the number of university managers growing four times faster than academic staff, UCAS applications dropping by 15 percent and students entering the labour force with ever greater amounts of debt, the question “What are universities for?” is now, more than ever, tied up with the question of what kind of society we want to live in.

Mark Bergfeld

What Are Universities For? is published by Penguin, £9.99.

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