What's wrong with university? Laurie Taylor interviews Stefan Collini
Amid the research targets and funding reforms our once world-leading centres for higher learning have lost their way. Laurie Taylor meets Stefan Collini, the Cambridge don mounting a fight back
Why, I wondered as I stumbled around Kings Cross station trying to discover the Cambridge platform amid the turmoil of renovation, did I ever think it a good idea to go and talk to Stefan Collini about his new book What Are Universities For? How could I strike any sort of critical stance when I fervently agreed with almost every word of its savage indictment of current government policies on higher education?
It was hardly as though I could expect the distinguished Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature to be more articulate or accessible in person than he was in print. Collini writes with such skill and precision and humour that to ask him to put his argument into other words would seem about as appropriate as asking a poet to be so accommodating as to dispense with their prosody.
My doubts only grew as I sat back on the train and flicked through the dozens of passages in his book that I’d marked with exclamation marks. There was the section where he reminds us that universities can often expect to come under attack from governments because of their inbuilt tendency to go beyond the particular tasks that government has set for them. “One begins to wonder,” writes Collini, “whether societies do not make a kind of Faustian pact when they set up universities; they ask them to serve various purposes, but if they are to be given the intellectual freedom to serve those purposes properly, they will always tend to exceed or subvert those purposes.”
But, of course, in recent years governments have regularly ignored any such pact and endeavoured to find ways of bringing universities to heel by insisting that their proper purpose is to contribute to the development of the national economy. To achieve this aim politicians have devised entire new systems of centralised regulation and brand-new methods of measurement.
One of the first areas to attract attention was research. In the past it was happily accepted that part of the money paid out to universities from central government should go into research conducted by academics. But as the number of universities grew and grew, this seemed one area in which some of the escalating costs could be curbed. Why not set up a central mechanism, which could measure the actual amount of research being done by individual academics and then withdraw money and research status from those who failed to make the mark? This was the origin of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).
Critics of the RAE argued that its measurement techniques encouraged academics to concentrate upon short-term research that could be readily turned into journal articles rather than upon long-term projects which would not earn immediate RAE points. It was, others argued, a process (Collini awards it “the prize for bare-faced inanity”) which favoured quantity over quality and also one which took up a great deal of administrative time.
But there was even more anxiety and anger aroused by the successor to the RAE. This new centralised set-up, the so-called Research Assessment Framework (REF), added another criterion to the research tick list. From now on all researchers, whether they worked in physics or metaphysics, were required to indicate the “impact” of their research. Whereas the RAE was a device to bring recaltricant academics to heel and save money, here was an explicit attempt to award points to academic research that could be seen as contributing to society. The “impact” of any piece of research has nothing to do with its intellectual effect upon fellow academics, it is all about the impact it might have upon the economy or medicine or public policy or public opinion.
So how, asks Collini, engaging satirical gear, is one to measure the impact of a piece of research in the humanities? Should one, for example, award an impact score to the literary scholar whose work on poetry gets taken up by a television producer and turned into a popular series? This certainly could be said to have made a public and market impact. But what does such popularity tell us about the quality of the research? As Collini argues, “meretricious and vulgarising treatments” (which concentrate, say, on the poet’s sex life) may stand a greater chance of success than nuanced critical readings. And will scholars then be encouraged to work on topics that have such “market” potential?
I recall a moment in the 1960s film The Graduate when a well-meaning older friend puts his hand on the young Dustin Hoffman’s shoulder to give him one word of advice about a future career and whispers: “Plastics”. Should senior colleagues similarly be whispering in their junior colleagues’ ears: “Tudor monarchs”?
Collini is equally scathing and equally amusing about other centralised agencies. Here is his delicious characterisation of the role of the so-called Quality Assurance Agency, which was given the task of ensuring that all universities had a set of processes in place that would assure quality. Or, in Collini’s words, “This was the agency set up to, er, assure quality, i.e. the body whose task it was to make sure that what was being assured was quality, or in other words, if what you wanted to do to quality was to assure it, then this was the agency for you.”
It was only the announcement of Cambridge station that stopped me from relishing even more passages from Collini’s book, that and the recognition that in 20 minutes I’d have to suppress my laughter and my admiration and try and strike something at least resembling a critical pose.
Perhaps, I suggest to Stefan, as we settle down in his large, comfortable room on the fourth floor of the new Faculty of English building, he’s enjoying himself just a little too much at the expense of the regulators. When so much public money is being spent on higher education, perhaps they need to be called to order from time to time. I recall my own early days in academia when I personally knew several high-earning academics who did very little teaching and when questioned about their research could readily take refuge in some ill-defined reference to it being under way.
Collini shook his head gently as though suddenly disappointed with me. “I don’t think I agree with that. Of course there’s been an enormous change across society generally in terms of the concern for public regulation, and in particular the concern to catch anybody who’s sponging or loafing. But in my experience you might have to prevent people in universities working too hard rather than not enough. We’re natural obsessives who get into this business. We maybe did carry a few people who abused the system, but having time allowed the development of the very kind of thinking and teaching which is now put under such enormous pressure by these new forms of constraint. Most people wanted to be seen to be doing good work. There were very few people in my experience who were a scandal.”
And the cost of putting in place all these new forms of regulation was a loss of trust?
“That’s right. Once upon a time there was the idea that people like doctors or academics, small, highly professional, educated groups, were doing something quite serious and could be trusted to get on with it. That was all right when there was only a small group of academics but when it grows, so does the idea that society should poke its nose in more.”
But even if one accepted that there were only a few people among the otherwise serious dons who abused the system, might it not also be argued that some of those “serious” dons were actually engaged in research of such an insular, self-serving nature that they could hardly expect to be financed for life out of the public purse? I remembered hearing about one don at a provincial university who allegedly spent much of his time editing a little magazine called The Locke Newsletter which dealt almost entirely with relatively minor aspects of the philosopher’s oeuvre.
Collini shook his head vigorously. “No, I’m not persuaded even by that example. You need to ask not about the individual, but about the world of discourse to which he is contributing. In American politics and elsewhere there are many references to Locke and how his philosophy underlies the whole question of representation and the American Revolution. There is no moment when you can say that research on Locke has gone from potentially feeding into that larger discussion to complete navel-gazing. We simply can’t tell.”
So he wouldn’t give any credence to the claim that the RAE and its successor the REF had done something to improve the quality of at least some research?
It was, I realised, another rhetorical question. Even as I asked it, I remembered the manner in which Collini had dismissed just such a claim in his book. He’d noted a White Paper proclamation that the RAE “has undoubtedly led to an overall increase in quality over the last 15 years” and commented that “rarely can the Fallacy of the Self-Fulfilling Measurement System have been better illustrated. More departments receive higher ratings now than in 1986 when the system was instituted: ergo, quality has gone up. This corresponds to the period assessed by the RAEs: ergo, it is the existence of the RAEs that have ‘led to’ this ‘increase in quality’.”
I quickly added in another line of argument. Isn’t there a danger, I suggested, that in dismissing all these government attempts to check up on what happens in universities, you end up implying that everything in the past was perfectly fine? Wasn’t it reasonable, for example, to suggest that something should be done to ensure that academics knew how to teach? After all, the old laissez-faire system condemned thousands of students to hours of inept lecturing simply because most academics regarded the idea that they should take teaching lessons as impinging upon their academic freedom.
Collini took the point. Yes, of course, academics should be taught how to lecture. “I think back with shame to my first year or two as a lecturer, standing up there mumbling away about some obscure topic. But there’s a big difference between thinking, ‘Ah, here’s an organisation which has got to adjust to a new world’, and thinking, ‘Ah, here are a lot of wankers who are always getting away with it. Let’s put them straight.’ A very big difference. There’s some idea here in certain circles, and [Universities Minister] David Willetts may be in those circles, that universities have got to be brought to heel. There’s an animosity, a hostility.”
Collini is far from alone in his fight against some of the recent attempts to regulate what goes on in university courses and research, far from alone in seeing the dangers involved in Willetts’ current determination to allow private universities to compete against their public counterparts, far from alone in objecting to the new policy of treating students as customers, and using tuition fees to create a “market” in higher education. But he recognises that he might be better off without some of his allies, particularly those who use the current malaise as an opportunity to return to some semi-mythical notion of the perfect university of yesteryear. He resolutely refuses to take that path.
“One of the things I would want to say very emphatically is that I am not taking a nostalgic position. I think the expansion of higher education has been a huge democratic gain. There’s a view that because it has expanded so much it must be damagingly diluted. There’s a view that the post-1992 universities can’t be doing any serious intellectual exploration, can’t be really helping students develop, can’t be anything else but some sort of pre-employment factory. I don’t think that’s true. Of course some degrees are instrumental. But I don’t think there’s any hard and fast distinction between something being done for its own sake and something being done for some instrumental purpose. Universities have always trained people for jobs. But one of the things that universities still do is help students relativise the fixed bit of knowledge they’ve been given, to see where it comes from, to see what the alternatives might be, and start to think in a more comparative way. That is still a distinctive thing about universities. But when people start trying to say what they think is in some way essential to the idea of a university, they almost inevitably go back to when they were about twenty and what they first remember about it, and the older they get the longer ago that was.”
He had allies he could do without? “This has been the story of my life. One of the things that I dislike is the categorising of people by their address. If this book of mine were not signed by someone who teaches at the University of Cambridge it would have a different response. There’s just no doubt about that. Sussex would be better. Greenwich or Teeside better still.”
But as Collini persuasively argues in his book, he may not need to rely entirely on like-minded academics to join him in the fight back against the more absurd aspects of the government’s present higher education policy. There is, he maintains, “still a popular conception, almost a longing that the university should be a protected space in which thoughts and ideas can be pursued to the highest level. Whatever the reality of the experience of actually attending one of today’s semi-marketised, employment-oriented institutions, there remains a strong popular desire that they should, at their best, incarnate a set of ‘aspirations and ideals’ that go beyond any form of economic return.”
He makes the point even more strongly when I ask if the fight back has any real chance of success in forcing a government rethink, the sort of success that has been at least partly achieved by those practitioners and members of the public who have taken up arms against some of the crasser and more market-oriented NHS reforms.
“We’ve all become too defensive and too nervous. We assume that there will be no agreement out there about what universities do, their worth to society. But for most citizens there is an intuitive sense that while there may be abuses and there may be things that should be tightened up, there is still the intuitive sense that there is something here which is intrinsically worth supporting. When they get to hear a public talk by an academic they don’t want to be told that the reason the academic is talking to them is because it proves the impact of their work. They want to hear what it tells them about their world. You might have thought that public lectures were a kind of dead Victorian genre, but they consistently attract large audiences.”
On my way back by bus to Cambridge station – “where’s your student card?” asks the driver as I hand him the fare – I suddenly find that I’m being gripped by the sort of radical fervour that once allowed me to stand up to the horses in Grosvenor Square. I have a real urge to mount a platform and tell every academic in the country to go out and buy Collini’s book and then join the fight back against the government assault on the universities. If I get a chance to mount the platform I’ll begin my speech with this declaration from Collini: “What is at stake is whether universities in the future are to be thought of as having a public cultural role partly sustained by public support, or whether we move further towards re-defining them in terms of a purely economistic calculation of value and a wholly individualistic conception of consumer satisfaction.”
It’s not exactly snappy enough for a banner but it has the edge over the slogan chosen back in 1977 by those dons who marched up and down Whitehall protesting about the decline in the size of their monthly emoluments. The watching spectators were, we learn, more than inordinately mystified to find themselves confronted by banners that bore the single injunction “Rectify the Anomaly Now”.
One can only hope that when today’s disgruntled, over-worked, embattled academics finally take to the streets, they display, albeit for quite the wrong reasons, a rather better idea of how to make an impact.
What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini is published by Penguin