The Limitations of the University
The endless expansion of the University is unsustainable
Strikes and disrupted teaching in Britain and France in December 2019 help focus instructive questions about the relevance of universities. The strikes certainly indicate the need to consider as part of an economy with confused labour relations and a strong sense of entitlement. Lumping together the strikes poses problems. Thus, in my university, Exeter, last Friday 88% of lectures in History were cancelled and 96% in English, but 0% in Medicine and 2% in Engineering. Such figures suggest the value of parting with Union negotiations and switching to individual contracts.
But let us step back from politicised trade unions for a moment and consider some wider issues. Across Britain, cities with universities have seen a splurge of building, and, indeed, an index of activity and prosperity has become the presence of a university, which helps explain why Exeter is more prosperous than Taunton, or Plymouth than Torbay. This splurge is based on the combination of the bipartisan drive to rise student numbers (which certainly lowers youth unemployment), the very loose and highly speculative money policies of student and university financing, and the British obsession with children going away for university, and, in preference, to en suite accommodation. Leaving aside the massive liability to the taxpayer of the student loan system, indeed it’s semi- fraudulent character, this combination is only really sustainable if money is very cheap. Thus, the expansion of numbers and buildings and the loose money is an instance of the more general impact of Quantitative Easing on the nature and character of British life. Yet again, unsustainable assumptions have been encouraged. In the case of the universities, this is especially the case from the Labour Party, the NUS, and the UCU. Thus, the fraud is a double one: on the public, but also on students and staff who convince themselves/are misled into assuming that this expansion can be sustained.
The fraud is a double one: on the public, but also on students and staff who are misled into assuming that this expansion can be sustained
Leave aside by the way the technological impact of online courses and resources, including podcasts. These offer much, and often higher quality and a more sustained presence than those provided by staff on the picket line. This is not the case for Science teaching, but is for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Online teaching has many disadvantages, and notably in terms of feedback, seminar contact, and sociability. However, in a changing world, more of these will be provided online, and the balance of advantage for many, not least mature students, will not necessarily be with residential universities.
There is also the question of the nature of Humanities and Social Sciences’ research. There are institutional and professional prejudices towards certain types of research and particular political- intellectual parameters and outcomes. This is not true of all academics; but is the case with many and is encouraged by the world of grant-giving, by the pressure for group projects, and by a pedagogic partisanship. The last is most clearly manifested in the pressure to ‘decolonise’ the profession/syllabus et al. This call, which is now pronounced in my university and others, might appear empty and foolish, which it is, but is, in practice, sinister and Orwellian. The composition of the academic staff is instructive at this point. Not only, compared to the population as a whole is it heavily disproportionately on the Left, and notably the Left of ‘identity politics’, but also more international. As a consequence, the emphasis in the syllabus is understandable. Universities emphasise freedom of speech, but, in practice, this is highly partisan, and notably so given the composition and views of much of the staff. Whether the teaching of Humanities and Social Sciences is fit for purpose is worthy of consideration.
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