The antidote to cranial rectal insertion in the academic world
Following on from the their launch last night, I am starting to warm a little to the Council for the Defence of British Universities. On their launch on Tuesday, Keith Thomas was reported as saying, “We must be as constructive as possible. We must not attack any particular policy without having a sensible policy to put it in its place,” which addresses my concerns about the risk of just being critical. And Howard Hotson, Chair of the Steering Committee, commented that, “We need to remind the general public what universities are for, why we need them in something like their current form more than ever.” Hear, hear.
So what are universities for? This is a very important issue, as long as we all know what universities are for, it will be easier to defend them. But in my handful of years in UK academia I have not yet found a common idea of what we do stand for, even though I’m sure we all have some elements of commonality.
Here is my attempt to justify the value of universities…
Universities are a vital component of a healthy democratic society because they are institutions of independent thought, free from undue influence from government, business or fluctuating popular fads and fashions. It is only through this independence that universities can nurture independent learning and creative thought, both in students (through their studies) and in staff (through their research). This ensures that society has people who can challenge established thought and who are free to ask awkward questions. People who will create new knowledge and make new discoveries, not for personal gain, but for the benefit of society as a whole.
This is not inconsistent with the values and aims of the CDBU and indeed, overlaps considerably. The difference, I believe, lies in trying to word it from the perspective of the public, not the academic. Embedded in both are principles of academic freedom and access to knowledge, which is where I hope the CDBU starts their action.
One thing to note: I don’t consider “knowledge for knowledge sake” to be a valid reason for universities. Keith Thomas suggests that academics should be free “to pursue knowledge and understanding of the physical and human world in which we live and to do so for their own sake”. The problem I have with this terminology is twofold. Firstly, there is a value hierarchy hidden within this mantra. That is why established scholars scorn the idea of studying golf course design, while approving the appreciation of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. Let’s be honest here – some knowledge is perceived to be of higher “value” than others, and that leads us down a path where the end result is no longer “just for its own sake”.
The second issue is that many people justify this mantra on the basis that scholarly inquiry that is free of immediate, or obvious, application often leads to some of the most significant practical advances at some later date. But this is merely justifying blue skies thinking on the basis of impact – the timescales may be different, and the method is less formulaic, but the value is inherently the same as applied research. Put this way, the “knowledge for its own sake” approach is merely a different strategy for achieving high impact results.
One final thought after yesterdays press coverage. Richard Dawkins apparently suggested that the “dead wood” in universities – those academics who have run out of steam in terms of research and teaching – could be encouraged to take up university administrator roles. As Marx was known to have said: “Why, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
 That’s Groucho, not Karl.