I am moved by the generosity of some people. Yesterday two visiting academics from North America gave up two hours of their time to offer me an individual tutorial, together with my supervisor whose idea it was. Not only was it immensely useful for me, but it also went some way to restoring my faith in higher education.

I am sufficiently idealistic to believe in the value of education for education’s sake. I do not believe that the worth of something lies solely in the measure of its value to the financial economy of the country. (Interestingly, on that point it seems that the government is pretty inconsistent too as it is on the verge of compromising the future of  British research and development resources for the immediate rewards of the US dollar.)

There is a disturbing seductiveness, especially in times of austerity, to the argument that universities should be aligning their undergraduate courses and postgraduate research to the economic needs of the country. Why research dead languages or ancient history when we could be pushing forward engineering in all its manifestations? I am always amused by these arguments at their most basic level – for example, the assumption that someone who was fired up by history could instead be persuaded to study engineering (and have any aptitude for it).

Running parallel to this philosophy has been the rise of universities as Big Business. The introduction of student fees (and more importantly the vastly higher fees for overseas students) has focused the minds of vice chancellors, themselves now massively remunerated at levels much more in line with CEOs than of the academics that they used to be. Vice chancellors are very variable in their support for their academic staff, as has been demonstrated over the ongoing industrial action for better terms and conditions for academics. My own observations suggest that VCs of small universities are very supportive of all their staff and students, working with a shared vision based on the importance of education in its widest sense. Perhaps not surprisingly larger institutions appear much more business orientated, and far more rife with the divisions that often accompany this ethos. I clearly remember reading Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful‘ as a student in 70s.

‘his point is still valid as the wellbeing debate today demonstrates; despite our increased wealth since the 70s, we are no happier. Schumacher warned against exactly the issues we are now dealing with as levels of mental illness – depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress – rise and the World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the second most common health problem in western developed nations by 2020. This was what Schumacher feared, and his answer was “small is beautiful”. Go back to the human scale: human needs and human relationships, and from that springs the ethical response of stewardship to the environment.

What is most striking about the book now is its bold idealism. No one writes like that now; reading Schumacher’s bracing prescriptions for our future, it is chilling to realise how so many thinkers, politicians, academics have all signed up to a deadening pragmatic consensus and our thinking has been boxed into a dead end of technocratic managerialism. Small is beautiful is the cry of the romantic idealist, and there seem to be none left.’ (Madeleine Bunting, Guardian 2011)

I hold up my hand to being a romantic idealist!

One of Schumacher’s central thoughts concerned the importance of relationships, and the deleterious effects of anonymity. The Big Business ethos anonymises its workers, leaving them isolated and alone despite working in a huge organisation surrounded by people. This has spread to universities, where it is not uncommon for senior academics to be unknown to other similar academics in their own faculty. At undergraduate level I suspect that it is possible to graduate from a large department in a large university without ever having met most senior staff, let alone be known to them. This contrasts markedly with smaller universities, and it is not surprising that student satisfaction scores are consistently high in small institutions.

The spread of the business philosophy into higher education has had a direct effect on postgraduate education. Increasing pressure to deliver according to the Research Assessment Exercise (replaced this year by the Research Excellence Framework) eats further into the time of academic staff. The pressures are significant; this is the purpose of the REF:

  • The funding bodies intend to use the assessment outcomes to inform the selective allocation of their research funding to HEIs, with effect from 2015-16.
  • The assessment provides accountability for public investment in research and produces evidence of the benefits of this investment.
  • The assessment outcomes provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks.

This is clearly aligned to the ‘outcomes should provide benefit to the economy’ ideology of the government, but is it aligned to furthering the development of new knowledge – which is surely the prime function of postgraduate education?

I am fascinated that a university education system that has developed from the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge, both predicated on the tutorial system, should now have relegated the tutorial to the lowest rung of the ladder. The individual tutorial is deemed so unimportant that the time allocated on some postgraduate degrees is less than 3 hours a year, which I find absolutely extraordinary.

We develop ideas through reading, through observation, and perhaps most importantly through conversation with others who have interests and knowledge in similar fields. Isolation and anonymity do not foster creativity.

I am grateful indeed for the generosity of some academics.


One thought on “universities

  1. So much I agree with here. The pressure to fit an agenda instead of carrying out research and academic activity that you are passionate about has increased beyond all expectations and yet there are still many academics finding ways through this.

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