If you follow UK higher education at all you’ve almost certainly come across the writing of Stefan Collini, most likely in
London Review of Books
. He’s not a higher education specialist (as he frequently disclaims in his work); rather, he is a professor of English Literature and Intellectual History at Cambridge who happens to have developed a rather impressive sideline in writing wry, droll, heartfelt critiques of UK higher education policy.
I find him as annoying as all hell. My back goes up every time I see his by-line.
This reaction, I recognize, is probably a bit suspect on my part. After all, he and I do bear at least a passing resemblance in our respective roles as higher education gadflies, and it’s not as though I disagree with him about the basic inadequacies of successive UK governments on this file. And we both use humour as a tool (though he is wittier and less likely to resort to sumo metaphors). Perhaps the problem was therefore with me and not him? In any case, last time I was in London I picked up a couple of his more recent books –
What are Universities For
Speaking of Universities
– in order to read them and work out what I might be getting wrong about him.
One thing I quickly realized I had wrong about him was that I had him pegged as one of those
life was better when
types, always hearkening back to some mythical golden age of higher education. He’s not that: in fact the first half of
What are Universities For
contains some quite good history of the subject, including some excellent material on why Cardinal Newman is such a dubious standard bearer for the values of liberal education (among other things, he was suspicious of the study of history because it cast doubt on the Book of Genesis). He’s a little shaky on foreign models of higher education (he seems to be under the impression US flagship publics are mostly publicly funded, which hasn’t been true for yonks) but hey, we all make mistakes. He’s reasonably progressive on the expansion of higher education and is certainly not one of those “everything went south after polytechnics became universities” types, although generally speaking his view of universities is not one in which student voices are especially important. He even has what I think is a pretty good description of the mission of universities which is (to paraphrase) to seek understanding, without accepting any artificial stopping point. All this is to the good.
The problem is that while he says all the right things about not wishing to be seen as being backward-looking, anti-modern, stuck-in-the-mud, etc, the fact is you know his prime audience is people who are precisely all those things. The long, erudite sentences (never one where three would do), the close textual analysis of government documents full of condescending asides. The constant confusing of the values of the humanities with those of the university as a whole. You know the dinosaurs are cheering him on every step of the way, and that he loves those cheers even though he protests that dinosaurism is clearly not on, heavens no.
This is often the case with people who can tell you very clearly what they are against but not very clearly what they are for. And Collini sidesteps that question at virtually every opportunity. The only serious drum he bangs is that universities have value beyond the purely utilitarian one of economic growth, and therefore need to be justified in something other than economic terms. To do otherwise is to invite further barbarities. To some extent he is right – certainly the UK policy debate is driven by third-rate econ-talk to a degree genuinely unknown elsewhere and, and barbarities have certainly flown thick and fast over the past decade – but it’s pretty thin stuff. Say someone removed the economic terms, and – as I strongly suspect would be the case – it made absolutely no difference to government policy. What then? Collini is silent on this, much as he is silent on virtually everything to do with funding and accountability. He will disclaim any thought that universities have a god-given right to a certain amount of funding, and certainly not challenge the notion that institutions are free from the need to provide public accountability, heavens no, but I’ve read over 450 pages of his stuff this week and if you can find a single word about how accountability
be rendered you’re a sharper-eyed reader than me.
When it comes to public policy, it’s easier to be critical than constructive. This is doubly true in higher education, which is an extremely complex field, and triply so in the UK where so much government policy is plainly ridiculous. Hell, if I had to deal every day with the sorts of policy inanities my British colleagues deal with, I might sound like Collini.
But if you happen to be lucky and talented enough to be a Cambridge don (of intellectual history no less), then frankly this is not good enough. To critique without proposing alternatives, to say what you are against without saying what you are for, is the very quintessence of Ivory Tower snobbism; doubly so when delivered with Collini’s generous side-orders of condescension. By definition, it promotes status-quo-ism. That he retains such a huge following among the UK literati no doubt suggests a lot of people share his derision (as I do) UK policy. But it is a dead-end, both intellectually and politically.
What with Monday being Family Day and all, next week seem like a good time for me to take a winter break. The blog will return on February 24
: have a good week.