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.

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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