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I don’t think UK universities have lost their way. But if things carry on like this, the way ahead will be narrow and constricted. Universities will become just another step in the school system, extraordinary entities laid low by an inability to produce their own answers to the dilemmas that beset them.
It’s no good trying to blame it all on an overweening government. Ministers have a legitimate interest in what universities do. Nor is it fair to say that universities have just fallen in line with government thinking. Yet there has been an odd lack of confidence in their response to the many government interventions of the past few years – even though, as I’d be the first to acknowledge, the circumstances have been very difficult. Some of the best institutions of their type in the world are strangely lacking in fight.
That’s bad enough. But what is genuinely extraordinary is the lack of big ideas about what universities might do instead produced from within their own ranks. Universities are idea factories, but when it comes to themselves they rarely seem to have any that don’t just follow accepted tramlines.
This matters, especially for research universities – which are not being marketised so much as industrialised. The kind of research they do is increasingly being mandated. So is how they do it: for example, a consensus seems to have formed that research should be done in teams, and judged as such, as though research could be squeezed into just one model of thought, instead of consisting of a concert of different approaches. Research moves from being the preserve of creatives to an input-output process that throws greater numbers of people at a problem – few of whom have the space for the kind of sustained attention that various writers first pointed to well over a century ago as the royal road to originality. That may partly explain why research productivity seems to be declining, if understood as ideas generated per capita.
In other words, industrialisation is turning academics into bureaucratised professionals whose time is assigned to known returns, rather than creatives who are helped to make time to innovate. There is plenty of evidence from industry that bureaucratic professionalism stifles creatives’ best impulses and damps down their ability to produce really groundbreaking work – as well as signalling a general lack of respect.
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I suppose one could say that the current situation is a pity but is an inevitable outcome of greater and greater size. However, given the multiple problems the world currently faces – which research universities will have a major role in solving – I think it is rather more than a pity. To paraphrase Schopenhauer, universities should be the means to allow academics to hit targets no one else can hit or, indeed, see. Research universities should not be making that task harder by creating more and more distractions.
That is why I am leery of the degree of student number growth that has occurred in many UK research universities. That growth makes it much more difficult to attend to their creatives except through increasingly linear management and a battery of rules – especially as the student interest takes up more and more space.
A response like this is likely to be portrayed as elitist and, to an extent, it is. Many decades ago, the Oxford sociologist A. H. Halsey pointed to the tension that exists in universities between democracy and excellence, and although it manifests in different forms, that tension still exists today. In research universities it has to be managed and that’s difficult to do when you’re managing from a greater and greater distance.
I am well aware that all this might sound analogue in a digital age: more an elegy than a prospectus. But as I have looked back at past thinking on universities I have realised that a practical idealism about them did once exist (and given the existential threats the world now faces, that idealism isn’t an accessory, it is a must-have.) In the 1960s there was a flowering of new ideas about universities and individual institutions were not scared to make major innovations. We need the same effort now. Maybe not a new Robbins report but something close. And if the government won’t do it, universities should.
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My book is a small attempt to begin to break the ideas logjam by producing proposals that I am quite sure many will disagree with: national all-postgraduate universities, for example (as posited by Peter Laslett in the 1960s). I am not necessarily against large universities, but if size needs to be achieved, joint action between universities that produce research rather than student scale might be a better way to go. I’d like to see the Office for Students replaced by a proper intermediary body and research universities brought back under the aegis of the business department, as Robbins would surely have recommended. Given how many universities there now are, I’d like to see the annual student migration to university scaled back. I’d like universities to be able to charge 100 per cent overheads on research – or at least funders to acknowledge that universities are paying for a fair whack of the research they are commissioning instead of blithely carrying on as though they are the sole funder. And so on.
All this sounds crazy? Fine. My answer is “So what would you do?” I want to hear ideas. Criticise mine, of course. But for each criticism you make, provide your own idea of what you think might work instead. And it needs to be an idea that will open up the way ahead and bring back some of that practical idealism about universities that is so sorely needed at this point in history.
Sir Nigel Thrift is chair of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management and was vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick from 2006 to 2016. His book, The Pursuit of Possibility: Redesigning Research Universities, is published by Policy Press.
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