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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear