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15 March 2023

Letter of the week: In defence of higher education

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By New Statesman

Universities aren’t making you, us or them stupid (Cover story, 10 March). The great majority of those who work in universities, be they professors, administrators, technicians, managers, cleaners or security staff, or indeed vice-chancellors, are committed to creating and sustaining an environment where students can thrive (whatever their career or life ambitions) and academics can conduct groundbreaking research. There are plenty of challenges, not least financial and regulatory, but universities are far from soulless and philistinism is externally imposed, not self-generated.

Golden-ageism and a desire for the donnish dominion of the elite higher education past are threaded throughout Adrian Pabst’s article – but those days are not coming back. He identifies many problems facing the sector, some of which are very real indeed. The 400,000-plus people working in higher education will share the ambition for greater investment from government in one of the country’s greatest assets and one of the primary means of securing our future economic and cultural success. But few will welcome the dismal prospectus offered here.
Dr Paul Greatrix, Nottingham

[See also: Why universities are making us stupid]

Universities challenged

Adrian Pabst (Cover Story, 10 March) criticises “Tony Blair’s arbitrary target of sending half of school-leavers to university”. This academic year 37.6 per cent of UK 18-year-olds started university – very similar to that of most EU member states. For Japan the figure is over 50 per cent. Despite hefty tuition fees, an increasing number of youngsters wish to take degree courses. Why would we want to deny them the opportunities of a university education?
John Boaler, Calne, Wiltshire

Adrian Pabst overlooks the socially progressive widening of access to universities, delivered most notably by the former polytechnics. This tackled the class, gender and race obstacles that preserved the former elitist system. University staff under constant pressure to deliver more for less do not deserve his acrimony, and the NS would do better to critique public policies towards universities and champion realistic alternatives. 
Philip Garrahan, emeritus professor, Sheffield Hallam University; Freda Tallantyre, emeritus professor, University of Derby

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As a postgraduate student, I agree with several of Adrian Pabst’s observations, especially the dismay at the corporatisation of academia. However, the paper from the Journal of Controversial Ideas is an unhelpful and salacious example of current academic publication. I often see how academics are pigeonholed into increasingly niche research areas, but as the article notes this condition is produced by forces in the journal industry. It would have been helpful for Pabst to highlight those academics engaging in community-based participatory research to guide future academic research.
Hannah Redman, North Yorkshire

Adrian Pabst is wrong to say that the “perpetual production of papers is a requirement for academics to prosper professionally”, at a time when the REF (Research Excellence Framework) allows for a maximum of five “outputs” (journal articles and monographs, mainly), produced over six to seven years, to be attributed to an individual. The focus is no longer on volume, but on research quality. 
Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos, head of law, Goldsmiths, University of London

Adrian Pabst decries the promotion of transferable skills over specialism and advocates a renewed mission to educate students into social citizenship. It is true transferable skills were often promoted as a Thatcherite way of making graduates more marketable and business friendly – not necessarily a bad thing. But they’ve also often been used to promote civic-minded and collectivist activities via student unions, societies, university settlement organisations and community exchanges. 
Mark Thorp, Manchester

[See also: The great university con: how a British degree lost all value]

Big state solutions

John Gray is right (The NS Essay, 10 March). War, climate change and the end of Thatcherism pose challenges that Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak prefer to duck. But is Gray’s solution – public ownership of utilities – up to the mark, especially in the light of Wolfgang Münchau’s prediction (Lateral View, 10 March) of “the worst economic crisis since the 1970s”? The trials we face demand an emergency mobilisation of resources, “a reassertion of the primacy of the state over the market”, as Gray says, and a new social and political settlement. 
Martin Yarnit, Sheffield

Ye of little faith

As an activist for gay and lesbian rights, I agree with Joanna Cherry’s eminently sane take on the criticism of Kate Forbes (Diary, 3 March). I thought Forbes’s honesty was refreshing, and she recognised two central principles of a modern democracy: the separation of church and state, and the importance of the rule of law. I think what Forbes said and how she said it offers salutatory lessons for all. It is possible to hold socially conservative views and not seek to impose them on the majority – and the left needs to recognise that it is not necessary to be ideologically pure to respect civil rights established in law.
Allegra Madgwick, London N16

Green space

As Green party politicians, the German vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck, and foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, would probably be surprised to find themselves described as “more like Blairites” (Editor’s Note, 3 March). Greens across Europe have a distinct identity, and in the UK their limited representation is not because of a lack of pragmatism or because they are “closer to Corbynites” but the result of Britain’s undemocratic first-past-the-post voting system. Labour members voted overwhelmingly for electoral reform at their last party conference, and their leadership would do well to remember this.
Tracey Beresford, Pancrasweek, Devon

God’s own single market

Your Leader (10 March) references the Prime Minister heralding the “unbelievably special position” Northern Island has attained from his deal with the EU, especially on the single market. The rest of the UK may feel it has an inferior arrangement. A compromise could be to offer other areas such as, no bias intended, Yorkshire, the same trading relations as NI and call it something novel, even radical: levelling up. One has to start somewhere.
John Marshall, Bridlington, East Yorkshire

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[See also: Today’s global economy may look like that of the 1970s, but the crises we face are worse]

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe