What Are Universities For?

What Are Universities For?

What Are Universities For?

by Stefan Collini

Penguin, $22.95 pb, 240 pp, 9781845144820

Glyn Davis

Glyn Davis

Glyn Davis is Professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne, and has been Vice-Chancellor of


What happens if we take seriously the metaphor of a marketplace of ideas? Philosopher John Armstrong and economist Carsten Murawski recently tested that question in an article on theconversation.edu.au, by exploring the implications of a market logic for higher education (20 March 2012).They argued that student choice would remodel the teaching and research agendas of our universities – not instantly but over time, much as water carves out shapes in sandstone. The online response was instant, and unambiguous. Academics and doctoral students rejected the language of markets as profoundly hostile to their vision of a university. If students start paying for instruction, said one respondent, institutions will soon pander to ‘the lowest common denominator amongst student interests’.

Such are contemporary clashes about higher education – platonic ideals of the university on the one hand, talk of competition, capital, skills, and choice on the other. There is no debate, just incommensurate views of the world shouted at each other from a great distance. So the need is pressing for a book titled What Are Universities For? Cambridge Professor of Intellectual History Stefan Collini is the right author, following two decades of entertaining and provocative essays about aspects of higher education practice (some reprinted in the second section of his book).

Collini delights in shaming bad language. He is scathing about government-speak, disingenuous higher education reports, management babble, and the uncritical use of corporate lexicon to describe scholarship:

I work in the knowledge and human-resources industry. My company specializes in two kinds of product: we manufacture high-quality, multi-skilled units of human capacity; and we produce commercially relevant, cutting-edge new knowledge in user-friendly packages of printed material. I hold a middle-management-level position, responsible to a divisional head who reports directly to the Chief Executive. We have been increasing output of both products during the last twenty years, while at the same time pursuing a cost-cutting programme by making efficiency gains of 1% per year. We compete in a global market-place and our brand-recognition scores are high. The company’s name is HiEdBiz plc, and its motto is: ‘World-class products at rock-bottom prices.’

In other words, says Collini, ‘I’m a university teacher. I teach students and I write books.’ Reviews have praised the Swiftian prose that marks passages in What Are Universities For? The book is often great fun. Collini ridicules an advertisement for a senior university administrator who can take the institution ‘beyond excellence’. He criticises ‘impact’ and ‘bibliometry’, constant data collection, research assessments, rankings and measures of academic output that blight contemporary academic life.

Collini’s principal subject matter is British universities, and the loss of agreement about the role and meaning of this institution. At the start of the twentieth century, he suggests, Britain supported three distinct models of a university: ‘the Oxbridge model: residential, tutorial, character-forming. There was the Scottish/London model: metropolitan, professorial, meritocratic. And there was the “civic” model (“Redbrick” was a later coinage): local, practical, aspirational.’

This distinctive pattern, itself an outcome of centuries of institutional development, has been eroded by national policies that impose conformity, sacrificing the local and distinctive in favour of a single, dominant model. Collini suggests institutional diversity has been overwhelmed by the traditional hierarchy of disciplines. The ubiquitous comprehensive research-intensive campus, with a similar mix of undergraduate and graduate programs, has become the only acceptable form for a university. National policy is the instrument of conformity. Rules designed to be fair and neutral become expressions of orthodoxy. In Britain, as in Australia, universities become more alike over time.

The analysis could be pushed further, but Collini stays within the confines of his title. He carefully defines a university – a ‘protected space’ which allows students to understand a particular ‘packet of knowledge’ and the relations of one field to others. This exploration is led by teachers who are themselves researchers, constantly questioning and expanding the body of ideas they teach. For students, time to traverse ideas, command bodies of knowledge, and appreciate the contingent nature of all disciplines is a ‘useful preparation for life’.

Collini offers an impressive reflection on the distinctive characteristics of university education, developing themes from the liberal education promoted by John Newman. The realisation that knowledge is neither fixed nor eternal distinguishes such education from professional studies, which seek to acquire and apply an already elaborated and sophisticated body of understanding.

For Collini, a liberal education is valuable in itself; it need not be justified by some other goal, such as ‘job-ready skills’. We must accept the intrinsic worth of some activities. As Collini notes in a memorable passage, ‘If we find ourselves saying that what is valuable about learning to play the violin well is it helps us develop the manual dexterity that will be useful for typing, then we’re stuck in a traffic-jam of carts in front of horses.’

Hence Collini arrives at a definition of a university, and an account of its character, at odds with a market logic. Universities should not be shaped by market forces. There may be little undergraduate demand for the study of ancient Iranian language and literature, ‘but there is a formidable scholarly tradition here which must not be lost, and which has a wider significance than can be measured by merely citing current undergraduate numbers’.

‘For Collini, a liberal education is valuable in itself; it need not be justified by some other goal, such as ‘‘job-ready skills’’’

Likewise, Collini argues for a high degree of institutional autonomy and self-governance. Some matters are not reduced easily to data sets. A community of scholars may be better positioned than a ‘non-expert public’ to make an informed judgement about the best use of resources within a university. Since for Collini universities exist to pursue the public good, we must constrain the influence of both markets and governments. Otherwise, following Keynes, we will shut off the sun and the stars ‘because they do not pay a dividend’.

What Are Universities For? is well argued, but not complete. Two problems remain – the question of the state, and the empire of the mind. The role of government is the question underpinning the debate between the philosopher, economist, and readership of The Conversation website. To argue for universities to remain outside the world of commerce and exchange is a popular trope within the academy. Unfortunately, it offers few clues to effective policy. Collini wants funding bodies to make decisions based on intellectual considerations, not just on quantitative measures of demand. But how, exactly, is this to occur? Discussion about universities cannot ignore questions about how universities should be funded, regulated, and licensed. This is the hard work of policy argument, and is missing from Collini’s analysis. If we are not happy with current institutional arrangements – and few are – what follows?

Collini is acute about government policies that fail, bureaucratic scrutiny that intrudes, and clumsy attempts to apply the logic of business to the work of scholarship. He acknowledges the limits to his inquiry – What Are Universities For? is not a White Paper but a polemic. Yet Collini reprints old essays, rather than grapple with the most pressing questions that arise from his argument: if we are to preserve the public good character of universities, what policy framework best achieves that outcome? What is the reasonable balance between accountability for public money and respect for scholarly expertise? And what voice for students in shaping our institutions and their curriculum?

The second silence arises from Collini’s account of British universities. He stresses the rigid orthodoxy that has descended on the sector, with each university aspiring to the same narrow measures of esteem. Collini attributes this conformity to disciplines, organisation, and even campus design.

This seems a necessary, but not sufficient, explanation, since it passes over the role of those within. The empire of the mind is as powerful as any government instruction. Academics, too, have accepted a single model of a university, and reinforce the hierarchies of institutions, journals, and acceptable subjects embraced by the dominant ideal. Attempts in Britain, as in Australia, to create distinctive and different institutions flounder as new institutions copy the already successful ones, and so reinforce a standard model. The pressures of tradition, esteem, and peer recognition within the profession reinforce the effects of government regulation.

The United States, by contrast, with its market for higher education, has sponsored a wider array of institutions, including the best in the world. This is the fundamental insight of the philosopher and the economist – when students can exercise choice, for better or worse they challenge the inherent conservatism of public universities.

Stefan Collini has produced a timely, often subtle, and always engaging polemic. Yet, for an author so good at the telling blow, Collini pulls his punches in the closing chapter. His analysis leads logically to difficult but fruitful questions about how best to realise the ideal. Perhaps the next memorable essay by Collini will take on this most important challenge.

Published in May 2012 no. 341

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