Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Destruction of British Universities

There has been a lot of talk about universities recently - ranging from undergraduate fees to graduate unemployment, and from vice-chancellors' salaries to funding for research. But there seems to be very little discussion of what universities are for, and how they can best achieve their true purpose.

I spent almost thirty years working in universities - first at Sheffield and then at Oxford - and observed at first hand the gradual loss of morale amongst the many fine academics that I knew well. And yet the situation is far worse now than when I left Oxford just under a decade ago. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Simon Head says that "The British universities, Oxford and Cambridge included, are under siege from a system of state control that is undermining the one thing upon which their worldwide reputation depends: the caliber of their scholarship."

Over the last fifty years the whole higher education landscape in Britain has changed in a way that would have been unthinkable in the immediate post-war years. At the end of the war there were only nineteen universities in the whole United Kingdom, of which twelve were in England, four in Scotland, two in Wales, and one in Northern Ireland. By the end of the 1960s this number had more than doubled following the recognition of a number of existing University Colleges and Colleges of Advanced Technology as independent universities, together with the creation of seven completely new institutions and the revolutionary, non-residential, Open University.

All of these universities followed the long-established tradition in which research and teaching went hand-in-hand. Both institutions and their academic staff believed that the benefits of being tutored by someone who was actively carrying out research at the leading edge of their field more than outweighed the theoretical disadvantage of professors and lecturers only being part-time teachers.

But there were already signs of a change in the official view of the role of universities within the wider society. I well remember an occasion in the mid 1970s when Fred Mulley, Secretary of State for Education and Science in Harold Wilson's government, visited Sheffield University. He was a Sheffield MP and during his visit he was asked by the head of the local branch of the Association of University Teachers if he could do something to assist in the current pay negotiations. His reply was blunt and to the point: "If you won't go on strike you can't expect more money."

At that time very few university teachers would have even considered taking "industrial action", not least because they were unwilling to do anything which might adversely affect their students - and clearly refusing to teach or, even worse, to mark examination papers might have disastrous results for those students. But it was a clear indication that government did not see the role of universities in the same way that those working in them did.

There were no major changes to the British university system during the next twenty years, but in 1992 everything changed with the creation of 38 new universities from existing polytechnics, followed by more than thirty which had previously been other types of higher education colleges. Few, if any, of these new universities had any tradition of research, as they had been established purely as, locally funded, teaching institutions. Indeed, I remember a friend who was a lecturer at the former Sheffield Polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University, being formally forbidden to carry out any research work - even in his own time during vacations!

There are now more than 130 universities in the United Kingdom and, with the best will in the world, they fall into several very different groups. At one extreme are the twenty leading, research-oriented, universities that have formed themselves into the Russell Group, while at the other are some of those recently created universities which are still, in all honesty, colleges of further education. To suggest that, in some way, a student studying for a BA in Adventure Tourism or Culinary Arts, or even the infamous Media Studies, at one of those new universities is in any way comparable to one studying Literae Humaniores (Greats - Classics, Ancient History and Philosophy) at Oxford, Natural Sciences at Cambridge, Medicine at Liverpool, or Engineering at Sheffield is laughable. And yet government policy appears to try to keep up this fiction.

One of the major problems besetting British Universities, even Oxford and Cambridge, is that almost all of their funding comes from the state. This means that the government of the day has the power to drive change in universities in pursuit of its own objectives, which increasingly are in complete opposition to the traditional role of universities in the United Kingdom.

Which brings us to the notorious Research Assessment Exercise.

The first of these four-to-five yearly exercises took place in 1996 as a means of enabling the Higher Education Funding Councils to share out the funds available for the support of university research on the basis of the overall quality of each department's research, rather than on the somewhat arbitrary basis that had been used before in which the number of students and the previous level of research grants had played a significant role. This was especially important given that the majority of British universities by then had little, or no, serious research experience on which to draw. But evaluating the quality of research is not as simple as simply weighing the publications and ticking the right boxes. But regrettably that is the approach that successive governments seem to want to use. The result has been a horrendous distortion of the whole purpose of scholarship.

Every few years the whole work of university departments is disrupted by the need to prepare the submissions for the latest version of the RAE whose procedures, it hardly needs saying, have a habit of changing each time. Indeed, Simon Head emphasises this point in his article when he says that "an especially dysfunctional aspect of the British system, on display throughout its twenty-year existence, is that the particular KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that the British universities must strive to satisfy have varied at the whim of successive UK governments."

This is not the place to discuss the many failings of the procedures used, which range from ignoring the work carried out by many of the best researchers, who are often employed on fixed-term contracts, to giving priority to routine journal or conference papers over real works of scholarship published in the form of a book - either commercial or otherwise. But there is no doubt whatsoever that it has changed the nature of whole universities - and not for the better. The "pursuit of learning" - the centuries-old purpose of a university - is now unimportant by comparison with satisfying the latest set of RAE objectives.

The other side of the coin is the desperate attempt by successive governments to dramatically increase the number of young people attending "university".

On 28th September 1999 Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth that "today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century." It was a good sound-bite, but its result has been catastrophic, for it gave a generation of school-children the quite unrealistic idea that half of them would not only go to university, but that they would benefit both financially and in other ways from the experience. In fact, as many people warned at the time, such a huge increase in the number of degrees awarded would simply lead to massive disappointment as young people who could have learned a good trade or other skill on which to build their future were misled into spending three years studying for a degree which was never going to get them a better job, but which saddled them with a huge debt to repay once, or if, they did start earning a proper salary.

Moreover, the universities did not have the teaching resources to cater for such a large increase in student numbers and pressure from government has led to a further move away from the pursuit of learning towards becoming an arm of government policy. Indeed, one of the most visible signs of this change is that fifty years ago the government department which oversaw higher education, and universities in particular, was called the Department of Education. Since then it has changed into the Department for Education and Science (1964-1992), the Department for Education (1992-1995), the Department for Education and Employment (1995-2001, and the first sign of the major shifts that were to come), the Department for Education and Skills (2001-2007), the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (2007-2009), and, finally, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (since 2009). Thus the government department with direct responsibility for overseeing universities does not even mention any form of education in its title!

It is a sorry tale. Fifty years ago our universities were amongst the best in the world. Now, apart from Oxford, Cambridge, and two or three others, they are, at best, second rank. Unless there is a radical change in the government's view of universities, which seems unlikely, or unless the best of them can find an alternative source of funding which will allow them their academic freedom once more, which is only marginally less likely, it seems probable that a thousand years of excellence will soon be just a memory.

And we all let it happen.

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