Writing recently about the debacle at the BBC, the Oxford historian Ross McKibbin described the corporation as belonging to a “class of institution, which we might call ‘public’, that Britain does extraordinarily well”. Our universities, he went on, are institutions of the same kind – neither arms of the state nor businesses subject to the logic of the market but autonomous bodies with which governments deal at arm’s length and in which intellectual inquiry is pursued for its own sake and without regard to any putative economic benefit that might accrue from it.
At least that’s what they were. In truth, the idea of the university as a self-governing home for the disinterested pursuit of scholarship has been under attack in this country for almost 30 years.
You might say that the rot set in with Sir Alexander Jarratt’s 1985 report on “efficiency studies” in UK universities. Jarratt recommended that they should henceforth think of themselves as enterprises in the education “delivery” business.
Once responsibility for the funding of teaching and research had passed from the University Grants Committee, a body staffed largely by academics, to the Higher Education Funding Council, whose board also includes bureaucrats and business people, universities were encouraged to compete with each other.
Competition intensified with the introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise, in which university departments were ranked according to their research “output”, and its successor, the Research Excellence Framework, in which 25 per cent of any departmental rating is now accounted for by “impact”, defined in terms of its “benefits to the wider economy and society”.
At the same time, universities were subjected to ever more intrusive regulation by central government. The result was an ugly hybrid of marketisation and dirigisme that has no equivalent anywhere else in the developed world.
According to Gordon Campbell of the University of Leicester, successive UK governments have regarded universities as “nationalised businesses that exist to serve the economy”. (It is no accident that universities now fall within the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills rather than the Department for Education.)
Campbell made this claim in his address to the inaugural meeting of the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU), held this month in central London.
The historian Keith Thomas set out the aims of the CDBU, which include reasserting the “principle of institutional autonomy” (or putting university managers in their proper place) and defending the intrinsic, as opposed to instrumental, value of academic research. Low morale in British universities – and most of the people I know who work in higher education tell me morale has never been lower – has less to do, Thomas argued, with anxieties about funding than it does with a sense that the “central values of the university are being sidelined”.
It’s not just misbegotten government policies that the CDBU is opposing, therefore, but, as Thomas put it, an entire “philosophy”. The magnitude of the challenge it has set itself was clear when one speaker at the meeting observed that none of the organisation’s founding members, who include 19 peers of the realm and over 20 knights, is a university vice-chancellor.