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Rowan Williams on Stefan Collini: against the market in universities

Left and right alike seem to have nodded through the half-baked utilitarianism and economism of much recent policy.

Higher education has now joined the ­growing list of subjects (immigration, multiculturalism, nuclear armaments, freedom of speech) about which it is increasingly difficult, it seems, to have an informed public argument. A hugely ambitious and successful programme of government-sponsored “reform” has enshrined various assumptions in the debate: that HE is primarily an exercise in promoting national economic prosperity; that there are quantifiable criteria for judging the quality of research; that the academic profession is in constant need of guidance from outside in order to save it from self-indulgent, inefficient and irrelevant activities; and that the basic model of education in general and universities in particular is that of a product which has to be marketed to individual consumers (students) and is naturally to be assessed in terms of consumer satisfaction.

As any academic who has not spent the past decade on Mars will know, Stefan Collini has emerged as the most eloquent, ­witty and persistent critic of this deadly mythology. But this new collection of writings makes plain that he is not defending a lost, intellectually pure golden age of academic independence, still less a socially selective ideal or an abandonment of accountability. Even more than in his earlier works, these essays, especially the substantial historical survey of HE ideals (“From Robbins to McKinsey”) and the critique of the notion of the student as consumer (“Higher Purchase”), concentrate on showing the sheer incoherence of public policy documents, with their liberal use of what he nicely calls “the Mission Statement Present” and “the Dogmatic Future” as grammatical devices, “to disguise implausible non sequiturs as universally acknowledged general truths”.

Flannel about empowerment and the increase of purchasing liberty conceals a barbarous indifference to the notion that learning changes you, that this takes time, and that the point of the intellectual life is not productivity but comprehension, and the liberty to ask awkward questions. The proposal that the quality of teaching should be measured by levels of graduate salary is simply one of the more egregious versions of this indifference – as if the graduate who becomes a primary school teacher, a junior doctor, a development worker or, for that matter, a post-doctoral researcher in biomathematics has been taught less well than one who heads for a City law firm.

Collini also nails very effectively some fallacies around admissions, as well as rhetoric which suggests that current “reforms” will move towards an increase in social mobility. Many such changes – proposed and actual – have the effect of restricting the freedom of universities to make creative allowance for social disadvantage. Enhanced insistence on A-level scores alone as a benchmark for admissions is the likely result, as he points out (following the devastating analysis of Roger Brown’s 2013 book with Helen Carasso, Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education). This emphasis will reproduce in universities the inequities and anomalies of secondary education and privilege the already privileged. Moreover, the idea that “new providers” entering the market can simply be allowed to compete until they fail rides roughshod over the needs of actual students in institutions that are bound to be spectacularly insecure.

The conclusion is inescapable: the policy documents that Collini discusses (and there have been even more of them lately – above all, those leading up to the current Higher Education and Research Bill, with its “Teaching Excellence Framework”) don’t seem to know what an evidence-based argument looks like. But it is convenient to represent universities as both a tiresome burden on the public purse and a set of rotten boroughs entrenching privilege for students and staff. This allows policymakers to use HE institutions as scapegoats for the problems of the secondary school system and continuing unfairness in the distribution of intellectual and other resources between private and state schools (an imbalance that some independent schools work to offset).

It is tempting to say that the vacuity and muddle of far too many national HE policy statements reflect exactly the loss of a tradition of critical thinking such as the university is conventionally supposed to foster. Concern for rigorous method – for inquiry and exposition – is fundamental to credibility in academic life. This may be slanted towards empirical evidence or towards theoretical elegance, depending on what the subject is, but it is always something that reins in self-serving rhetoric. If we have no notion of rigorous argument, all that is left is the contest of power; all argument is only a conflict between more and less successful styles of manipulation.

Collini takes his two epigraphs from George Orwell and T S Eliot – an unusual coupling, but an effective one: Orwell on how slack and vague language “anaesthetises a portion of one’s brain”, Eliot on the necessity of resisting the hidden determinism of the language of “lost causes”. Collini’s own prose is seldom if ever slack – though, oddly, I found the only chapter in this book that didn’t quite gain traction was the essay on the future of the humanities, where I thought more was required on the need to question cultural facts with the same energy as we question “natural” facts.

He emphatically refuses any fatalism about universities, whose ailments he diagnoses so ruthlessly. Left and right alike seem to have nodded through the half-baked utilitarianism and economism of much recent policy. If we want not only a productive but a critical society, it is surely time that Collini’s challenges were taken up by those who shape public policy.

Rowan Williams is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a former archbishop of Canterbury

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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