death of the university?

bergens tidende, 27 may 2010

Middlesex University in London has a global reputation for its philosophy department, which is one of the most important centres in the English-speaking world for the study of modern European thought. The Research Assessment Exercise rates it as the best at the university. Last month management announced that the entire department is to be axed. Why? Because it is not cost effective. Middlesex philosophers may be world-famous but they do not generate sufficient income to make the study of Kant or Wittgenstein profitable.

Middlesex is, in fact, only one of several philosophy departments in British universities, including Liverpool, Sussex and King’s College London, threatened with major cuts or even closure. The assault on philosophy is part of a wider onslaught on the humanities. At Middlesex University, for instance, the history department has already been closed down, the English department cut back and recruitment to Modern Languages suspended.

In part this is the result of a squeeze in public funding. In February, the old Labour administration announced that universities would lose £1bn in government grants over the next three years. The new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is likely to slash funding even further.

The problem, however, goes deeper than simply spending cuts. The government has over the past decade pursued a policy towards higher education that threatens to transform the very nature of universities. This policy is defined by three main developments: the introduction of the market into higher education, a view of students as consumers and an instrumental attitude to knowledge.

Last year the government department overseeing higher education was scrapped and responsibility for universities handed over to the Department for Business. The change was symbolic of the attempt to erase the distinction between universities and businesses. Universities are expected to charge for their courses, compete for students and sell research to corporations.

The trouble is, it is difficult to sell a neuroscience degree or a lecture in medieval literature in the way one might sell Cornflakes or cars. The prime motivating factor in universities is not financial success but intellectual excellence, and such excellence has to built up over decades - an idea designed to give heart attacks to accountants. What has therefore come to provide fiscal discipline in higher education is not so much the market as an army of bureaucrats whose job is artificially to create market pressures by introducing targets, transforming teaching quality into quantitative figures, and using such figures and targets to create a ‘league table’ of universities. In the past five years the numbers of student in British universities has risen by 9 per cent, the number of academics by 10 per cent – and the number of managers by 33 per cent. And it’s managers rather than academics who often now make decisions, even at faculty level.

As universities have turned into businesses, so students have turned into consumers. Students, the former Business Secretary Lord Mandelson suggested last year, need ‘to become pickier, choosier and more demanding consumers of the higher education experience.’

There is, however, a fundamental difference between being a student and being a consumer. Education is not a product but a relationship and a process, a relationship between student and tutor, and a process by which knowledge transforms the individual. When someone buys a car or a hamburger, he or she is purchasing a pre-packaged, ready-made commodity to satisfy a specific need. Education is about creating critical thinkers whose skill is precisely the ability to challenge ideas that are pre-packaged or ready-made or designed to satisfy such a need.

Once students become consumers, their whole relationship to education changes. They come to look upon ideas, not as ways of understanding the world, but as possessions that they can trade for a better job or greater social prestige. Just as when you hand over cash to a car salesman, you expect a good car, so these days students, for whom education has become a commercial transaction, expect a good degree. Having purchased a service, they regard not just access to education but a degree itself as their ‘right’.

What they are more ambivalent about are the very things that truly define a good education - difficult questions, deep reflection or challenging lecturers. These are now often seen not as means to more profound understanding but as obstacles to attaining a good degree. From a business perspective, the customer is always right. So increasingly universities put pressure on academics to reduce the intellectual complexity of their courses and to give students good grades even when they do not deserve it – because that is what the customer wants.

Once education becomes a commodity and students consumers, the idea that there is an intrinsic good in learning becomes eroded. Instead, all knowledge is evaluated solely according to its ‘impact’. Knowledge becomes instrumental: its value is solely that it allows us to achieve something other aim. Indeed, it is no longer ‘knowledge’, simply information.

For many of today’s students, knowledge is important only insofar as it promises them a good job. For universities, academics are useful only so long as they are profit machines. And for the government, universities will be judged, in the words of one official document, by their ability ‘to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society and public policy.’ It does not matter, in other words, how valuable an academic subject may be as a source of knowledge, or how cherished the academics are. If it does not have an immediate economic or social impact, it must be discarded.

In British universities, the most visible victims of this process are the humanities departments, and philosophy in particular. But the sciences, too, will suffer. Funds for scientific research are increasingly being allocated according to whether such research is commercially viable or socially important. ‘Blue skies research’ – scientific investigations for the sake simply of developing knowledge of the world – is becoming more difficult to fund. Such research is, however, the lifeblood of science. From the theory of evolution to investigations of the ‘Big Bang’, the greatest scientific breakthroughs had little immediate economic or social impact. What will happen to the twenty-first century equivalents of such discoveries?

I do not wish to contrast the state of universities today to some mythical 'golden age'. The irony, however, is that the impact of old-fashioned knowledge, developed for the intrinsic value of such knowledge itself, is often far more profound than the kind of profit-oriented research that is now all the vogue. When, last year, Liverpool University threatened to close down its philosophy department, Professor Brad Hooker, president of the British Philosophical Association, wrote a letter to Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of the university.

‘Any university without philosophy’, Hooker observed, ‘will lack a forum for studying some of the most profound and pivotal questions. For philosophy is the discipline that addresses questions about what knowledge is; about how human beings should behave individually and collectively; about whether there are sound arguments for religious belief; about the nature of truth and beauty; about which forms of reasoning are valid; and about the underlying presuppositions of other subjects, from history to psychology to biology.’

A society that refuses to think about such issues because they are not profitable is one that quite literally has lost its mind.