For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution

How the pursuit of truth is under threat.

For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution
Thomas Docherty
Bloomsbury Academic, 208pp, £19.99

"The university today," Thomas Docherty announces, "is in need of friends." It is "increasingly besieged and beleaguered", as "there has been a sure and steadily generated encouragement of a culture of mistrust around the institution and its activities for some time". His book bravely sets out to examine the sources and workings of this mistrust, and to show how it has led to policies that have not merely damaged but actively obstructed the purposes for which universities exist. The book is an avowed polemic, with some of the rhetorical exaggeration natural to that genre, but none the worse for that. If it helps to make more people aware of the contradictory and short-sighted way that universities are now discussed and managed in Britain (he mostly confines his attention to Britain), then it will more than earn its keep.

Docherty, a professor of English and comparative literary studies at Warwick, is particularly good at describing the way in which, in whole areas of university life, from policymaking to promotion to many aspects of teaching, process has replaced substance. The root problem is that the culture of mistrust cannot cope with the notion of judgement: that has to be replaced with procedures which are "transparent" and "robust" (these words are now best understood as a tribal chant, expressing allegiance rather than bearing meaning). Behind the dominance of this empty proceduralism in many parts of life, universities included, is the defensive belief that it is more important to reduce the possibility of complaint or litigation than to lead minds into uncertainties whose benefits are not always knowable and certainly not equally shared. This goes along, as Docherty points out, with "the demise of argument or debate". That archaic activity, it is alleged, simply involves the declaration of "opinions", subjective expressions of "taste". They must be replaced with something that can be measured "objectively" - in other words, quantified.

Behind all this is a larger development in British society (though it has parallels elsewhere), and that is the concerted and hugely successful propaganda campaign of the past three to four decades to promote the superiority of "business" values above all others. Docherty fears that the university is now being treated as a "menial service-provider for this vague world of business". The whole agenda of "transferable skills", for instance, "diverts attention away from the specifics of academic or intellectual content" towards capabilities thought to appeal to employers. And the recent Browne review of the financing of higher education is “a perfect example of all that is wrong with our thoughts about funding", seeing the university as subservient to the needs of something presumed to be "more real" - "a vaguely generalised realm of 'business', usually simply meaning private-sector commercial activity".

Docherty skewers the unrealism of Browne's premise that university applicants are entirely rational consumers in a position of perfect knowledge, actuated only by the desire for material gain. The logic of this model is that, instead of vice-chancellors, "we have people who think of themselves as some kind of specialist retailers".

Less flamboyantly, he points out that if "student choice" really is going to drive the provision of courses and spread of departments in British universities, this in effect hands decision over to 14-year-olds and their advisers, as that is when the determining choices have to be made. He is just as acutely perceptive of the self-righteousness of those who berate particular universities for attracting a low percentage of applicants on free school meals while complacently accepting "a state of affairs in which so many thousands of children are in such poverty that they need to be given free meals".

The book is more critical than practical in character, even though among Docherty's positive suggestions is an interesting proposal for a more general first two years at university, along the Scottish or "liberal arts" model, to correct the hyperspecialisation of the present system. Yet, above all, and rightly, in my view, he insists that what is needed is the political will to counter, rather than cave in to, the tendentious dogmatism of market individualism and to re-state the far more compelling case for public provision of collective goods that are not reducible to economic prosperity.

For the University is a useful and telling indictment of much that is wrong with how universities are viewed and managed at present. Yet, as an attempt to win the "friends" the in­stitution needs, it suffers from two problems. First, Docherty rather overplays his hand when he defines the purposes of the university in terms of such goals as "justice" and "democracy". Universities pursue fuller, deeper insight into all aspects of the human and natural world, but the value of these inquiries does not depend on their contribution to an external political ideal. We can certainly claim that such understanding, when diffused through a society, may help the functioning of democracy, but that functioning is not the purpose behind the pursuit of truth.

It is tempting to try to ramp up the university's standing in this way, just as others are prone to claim that its chief purpose is to make us all better people, but I suspect that most readers see through these overheated rhetorical strategies. Universities extend our understanding of many matters that have no tendency to make us more empathetic or turn us into better citizens, any more than they necessarily tend to contribute to increasing GDP. The case that must be made is for the value of such enlarged understanding on its own terms.

And that touches on the second problem: to whom does this book speak? Much of the time, it seems to assume a readership of other academics with interests in literature and philosophy. There is little here about more detailed forms of scholarship, less still about the social sciences, and practically nothing about the natural sciences or the great variety of professional schools that universities now shelter. The case "for the university" must surely try to encompass these activities.

More importantly, that argument needs to address and persuade those thoughtful and curious readers who do not work in universities, but who sense that in recent decades official policy may have been damaging something precious. Docherty offers some excellent arguments against these policies, but surrounding them with discussions of whether Hannah Arendt's notion of free action owes more to Heidegger or Hegel may not be the most effective literary tactic for engaging such readers. The early chapters are marred by a cross between name-dropping and the sort of conceptual juggling that will strike most people as simply higher punning.

The very manner in which the case for universities is made should exemplify the clarity and subtlety of the best academic writing, not the bad habits of theory-dulled seminar-speak. The university does need friends, now more than ever, but it is a general truth about making friends that this succeeds only when we are at least as interested in other people as we hope they will be in us.

Stefan Collini's most recent book is “That's Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect" (Seagull Books, £9.50)

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan