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8 January 2010

What are universities for?

The growth model of academic inquiry

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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:

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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.