What are universities for?

The growth model of academic inquiry

Before Christmas, I blogged on a couple of occasions about the likely effects of a new set of criteria for the distribution for research funding in British universities. The "Research Excellence Framework" (REF) stipulates that "significant additional recognition will be given where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life. Impacts will be assessed through a case-study approach that will be tested in a pilot exercise."

Many academics working in the humanities were quick to point out the likely effects on their fields of an economic growth-oriented model of academic funding, in which "impact" is a key criterion. In a petition submitted to No 10, leading researchers urged

the reversal of the Research Councils and HEFCE policy to direct funds to projects whose outcomes are determined to have a significant "impact". The arts and humanities do have such an impact, but it is typically difficult if not impossible to judge this in the short term. Academic excellence is the best predictor of impact in the longer term, and it is on academic excellence alone that research should be judged. "Users" who are not academic experts are not fit to judge the academic excellence of research any more than employers are fit to mark student essays. The UK is renowned for its creative industries. But the roots of creativity in the intellectual life of the nation need sustained support and evaluations based on short-term impact will lead to less impact in the long term.

A letter from the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici published in the latest issue of the TLS suggests that university administrations have already taken the REF to heart, and are setting about restructuring their institutions in its image. I have a particular interest in what Josipovici has to say, as he's writing about my alma mater, the University of Sussex, where he taught for many years. His letter is worth quoting at length:

A document has come into my possession which might be of interest to your readers -- an email, in fact, which the vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, Michael Farthing, has sent to all undergraduates, explaining to them his plans for "the development of the university". These plans consist of the sacking of over 100 staff and the closing down or reduction of a number of "areas", so that the word "development" is somewhat ironic, but in keeping with the tone of the document, which is couched throughout in the worst bureaucratese. Thus: "Our aim is to continue to invest in successful areas in the university and grow our income where possible."

As one might imagine, this is not good news for those disciplines which have always been seen as at the heart of the humanities side of English universities. "In some areas," the VC says, "there are no opportunities for sustainable growth and we need to make targeted reductions in those areas while continuing to develop our university as a broad and balanced research-intensive institution across the arts and social sciences." It is difficult to see how this last aspiration is to be met when it is followed by this: "In a number of schools we are now seeking financial savings, including engineering and design; English; history, art history and philosophy; informatics; and life sciences." By contrast, predictably: "In academic schools with recent growth and good prospects for the future, we are pressing ahead with our growth and development plans, including the schools of business, management and economics; global studies; and media, film and music" . . .

The question this raises is: Are universities really businesses? And if not, what are they? Are they to become forcing houses for the immediate economic development of the country and nothing else (ie, are business and media studies to replace engineering, English, history and philosophy)? If that is what the country wants, so be it. But we should be clear that it means the end of universities as they have been known in the west since the Middle Ages.

I don't think Josipovici's conclusion is at all apocalyptic. Rather, it seems to me entirely uncontroversial -- we're sleepwalking into uncivilisation.

I'd encourage students and academics to leave further examples of the kind of thing described here in the comment box below.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.