In higher education quality, not equality, matters

Stefan Collini's new book asks What Are Universities For?, but his relativist view of Truth and Knowledge prevents him from giving a satisfactory answer.

Angus Kennedy

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In the week that Stefan Collini’s What Are Universities For? was published, professor Les Ebdon was appointed director of the Office of Fair Access (OFFA). He threatened universities that fail to take a large enough quota of under-qualified and disadvantaged students with the ‘nuclear option’: punishing fines and capped tuition fees. Ebdon is thoroughly committed to bending admissions policies to the ends of widening student access and increasing social mobility. Many universities responded to his threats by saying that they were already open to all, regardless of background, but that letting standards fall would damage their ability to contribute to economic growth.

In this context, ‘what are universities for?’ is exactly the question that needs to be asked as university education is increasingly treated as a means to specific ends, whether it’s social mobility or economic prosperity. Collini is robust and polemical in his rejection of the latter, railing against what he calls ‘the tendentious dogmatism of market individualism’ to make a ‘far more compelling case for public provision of collective goods that are not reducible to economic prosperity’.

At that level Collini’s book is very welcome, and indeed overdue. It mounts a rear-guard defence of the university in its own terms and not as an engine of economic growth and shows that the humanities are particularly in need of defence. I applaud his argument that ‘prosperity is valuable…because it provides the wherewithal to extend human understanding’, and not the other way round.

Collini is well-known in the ‘university wars’ for his occasional angry essays against government and official colonisation of the university. He has defended academics against demands that they justify research in terms of impact. He has defended resistance against the auditing obsessions of policymakers and university managers.

And yet, the book is not the stirring defence of the university we so desperately need. There are two critical problems with it. First, Collini downplays the importance of the access agenda and the relentless assault on standards that it represents. Second, he gives up on the university as a place where knowledge is pursued as an end in itself through a post-modern queasiness about the ‘reality’ of ‘knowledge’.

Objectives, objectives, objectives

Ebdon’s appointment is proof, were any needed, of the uniquely low regard in which the life of the mind is held today. Rather than needing a university access tsar to get more students in, almost regardless of ability and certainly of motivation, universities desperately need a higher access bar: a way of keeping people out so they can preserve what they are uniquely for.

That’s not because increased student numbers per se have led to a dumbing down or a fall in standards. If there was a clamorous public demand for institutions that regard the pursuit of knowledge as an end itself, then the number of applicants would not be a problem. What is problematic is that policymakers and politicians see increasing student numbers as the main goal, even overriding the question of whether people want to be at university or not. Many, it seems, don’t want to be there, or they only go in order to get a piece of paper to certify their employability.

That is why access tsars place such stress on telling young people how much fun university will be, rather than what hard work it will involve. It is also why every admission of a student from a family with no background of going to university, or even without aspiration to higher education, is seen as a victory.

Collini usefully devotes a chapter to the transformational changes that have swept over the British university in the past 30 years, leading it into what he calls a ‘new institutional world’ and stretching even an elastic conception of what a university might be for to breaking point. In 1939, there were 50,000 students at 21 universities in Britain. By 1980, there were 300,000 students at 46 universities. Today there are over 2.25million studying at some 130 institutions. The number of under-graduates have increased 10-fold over this period, while an unprecedentedly high number (850,000) are part-time students. All these students now enjoy less time with tutors and lecturers as the staff-student ratio has plummeted to 1:22 from a one-time high of 1:8.

So more than half of enrolled students are not students at all in the traditional image of a full-time, young under-graduate who spends much of their time in the library (where, by the way, students now spend on average of just under five hours per week). More than half of students are at the ‘modern universities’ – the old Polys – which, therefore, is the university sector today.

Collini further notes that in the 1930s ‘at Oxford and Cambridge the proportion studying in arts faculties were 80 per cent and 70 per cent respectively. In 2009, those studying pure “humanities” subjects… accounted only for some 11 per cent of undergraduates.’ The huge expansion has been in vocational and ‘applied’ subjects. So in 2009 60,000 read English while 293,000 did ‘subjects allied to medicine’ and 330,000 took business studies and accountancy.

It strains credulity to imagine that the huge increase in numbers along with a whole set of new demands have not greatly altered almost everything about the university. There are now a host of ‘teaching objectives’ that must be strived for, rules about student-teacher ‘contact hours’, research excellence frameworks, auditing regimes, ‘person-centred’ this and ‘life-long learning’ that, a growing hostility to writing and reading books, demands that dons who want funding for research first dream up projects and justify them in terms of their ‘social impact’.

All this might in fact be taken as clear evidence that the independence of the university sector has been crushed, or at least as proof that universities have dumbed down. Collini, however, is resistant to suggestions that there might have once been some mythical golden age. He points out that the ideal of the autonomy of the university has always been honoured more in the breach than the observance. He calls on us to be realistic and sees the huge changes as really just happening in the administration and finance of the universities and not in scholarship and science. He finds ‘a good deal of continuity in the fundamentals’.

Cultural relativism: it’s plain wrong

Collini is right to point out that the autonomy of the university has always been in a fraught relationship with the pragmatic demands of politicians and society’s need for practical and applied knowledge. Nonetheless it was an ideal that significant sections of society held dear for a long time and one that could survive so long as knowledge retained a wider authority. It is the low regard in which Knowledge with a capital K and Truth with a capital T are held today that gives the lie to Collini’s view that ‘the character of the disciplined but open-ended enquiry in which the larger numbers now engage may, in principle, have altered very little’.

It is ironic that Collini makes a strong case for the truthful notion that ideas matter and can impact society by demonstrating the incredibly destructive and corrosive impact that the ideas associated with cultural relativism have had on the higher education sector. Collini is very uncomfortable with the idea of knowledge, particularly with respect to the humanities. He sees their goal as ‘understanding’ which he glosses as equalling ‘experience plus reflection’. For Collini, knowledge is something too objective, too universal, too ‘out there’, as opposed to understanding, which is ‘in here’, particular and subjective.

‘One of the consequences of insisting on that distinction is that knowledge is seen as in some sense objective, as a pile or hoard that exists “out there”, whether anyone is tending it or not, and that any suitably energetic person can climb to the top of. Understanding, on the other hand, is seen as a human activity that depends in part upon the qualities of the person doing the understanding.’ One almost gets the feeling that Collini views understanding, not as something one gains and holds (that would be too aggressive, possessive, elitist) but as an attitude, as being understanding, being a good listener, respectful, sympathetic. Knowledge is from Mars, understanding is from Venus.

What matters, then, is not so much truth as perspective and the right attitude. It’s a matter of where you stand, of who you are. It’s not about what you study, what you learn, what you might become. This means that Collini, funnily, ends up saying that it actually does matter whether or not you are a woman, black, poor and so on, because you will have a different perspective and a different truth depending on your background, race and gender. According to this view, your identity is in fact essential because it is your experience and your reflection on it that matter. This is why Collini is not the man to reject the access agenda or to resist moves to accredit life skills, because, from his point of view, the more perspectives the better.

Seeing understanding in this way leads to a static, frozen, conception of knowledge and a very limited view of what the university is for. Collini writes: ‘A university, it may be said, is a protected space in which various forms of useful preparation of life are undertaken in a setting and manner which encourages the students to understand the contingency of any particular packet of knowledge and its interrelations with other, different forms of knowledge.’

Anyone who gets access to this kind of university will soon want out if any flicker of a heart still beats within. A university education is not, ideally, a matter of recognising ‘the ways in which particular bits of knowledge are not fixed or eternal or universal or self-sufficient’. A university is precisely about trying to reach the eternal, about understanding the whole, touching the universal. The clue is in the name!

When Collini says a university is a place where the movement is ‘from the narrow to the broad, from the closed to the open, from the fixed to the fluid’ he is actually describing the access agenda, not what a university is for. It’s the other way round. From the many to the one is the way the university should try to lead us. From the confusing multiplicity of the real world to the ideality of the one (and back) has always been the ambitious direction of the university and, in this, as a community of scholars, it is a model of our waking daily quotidian struggle to make sense, do something, and give quality to our lives.

It is simply not the case that giving more funding to the university sector as it exists today will be anything more than good money after bad. It should indeed be a public good that we should happily fund for the benefit of society as a whole, but what we have instead are universities where the parts that are public are not good (grinding engines for social mobility), and the parts that are good are not public (the survival of a ‘hidden curriculum’).

Let’s focus on quality, not equality

The access agenda and relativist epistemology share a profound hostility to a caricatured portrait of the university as an elitist ivory tower. Both are licensed by a society that is ambivalent about the possibility of truth and objective knowledge. The simple fact that historically only a few have ever brought us to new truths has been reinterpreted as the idea that the few claimed only they could understand the truth. The idea is that, in reality, all our truths are as good or better than theirs and so the point of a university is to provide a space for whomsoever wants to chat over their different and differing perspectives in a non-judgemental, playful and inconclusive sort of a way.

Valuing equality over education necessarily leads to a dilution in quality because excellence is not something that can be shared out like loaves and fishes, but it is something we can all strive towards. I firmly believe that higher education should be open to all and ideally free. But the freedom that matters most today is that the university be free to pursue the truth.

We need an account, not of what universities are for, but an account of what the university is for. An account that does not say the university is for something in the way that spoons for example are for eating soup, but that explains why universities are for the best (nb if universities are to eat soup, long spoons are best). We need an account that captures the magic of the process whereby a community of scholars coming together as one can mirror and reflect the process whereby society creates itself: how the university at its best is an ideal real.

We should try and present such an account and, as Collini argues, we need a Cardinal Newman for the twenty-first century ‘to articulate in the idiom of our own time the ideal of the untrammelled quest for understanding’. We certainly need something more inspiring than a vision of scholars as searching for inconclusive ‘patterns in the carpet’.

More immediately, maybe, we need an honest debate about the fact that there are large numbers of students in the Higher Education system who should not be there, and do not want to be there. The effect of three years of university on someone not committed to scholarship, with no academic interest or potential, can only be to turn them off higher learning for life and to confirm in them and in society a cynical view that university is indeed a waste of time. Nor is the effect on the other students of the fact that half the tutorial or seminar group is silent and disengaged to be underestimated.

I am convinced that if a million students were taken out of the HE sector it would be good both for them and for universities. If nothing else it would be shock therapy for a society that wanted to reaffirm the ideal of the public intellectual and the importance of ideas. One that did not allow for a retreat of its best minds into relative irrelevance, narrow specialisms, and even a denial of the need for their ‘general intelligibility’. One that no longer suffered universities that ‘misrepresent their own fundamental activities’.

Equally, experiments to refound the university outside the present academy are to be applauded and the more the better, particularly in the humanities and liberal studies. I think of AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities for one. It can be immensely difficult for those inside the academy to look dispassionately at what has happened to the institutions they have worked in for many years and often have great affection for. This can make them very resistant to any experimentation outside the walls of the academy and to deny that anything much is wrong inside. That is an understandable self-deception. But it is not nostalgia for a golden age or perfectionism that creates a need for the university to be remade. Is it because education is such a serious matter that we owe it to ourselves to take it seriously enough to admit that it is not unheard of for the institutions we create to stagnate and even eventually die.

It was in an honest and firm conviction of the possibility of objective knowledge and of truth that Renaissance humanism developed outside the great monasteries and rejected, too, the dusty scholasticism of the medieval university. There is just such a demand today to escape the constraining and conformist confines of what Collini calls HiEdBizUK and to seek out the sunlit upland groves of the best that man has thought and said.

Angus Kennedy is head of external relations at the Institute of Ideas and convenor of The Academy.

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