For decades, UK universities have been bound by increasingly restrictive management practices, loaded with endlessly augmented administrative burdens, and stretched virtually to breaking point. Now, in the two years since the publication of the Browne Review, “a radical reform of the higher education system” has begun, designed to change its character fundamentally, permanently, and virtually overnight.
Although these radical changes were planned in detail before the last election, no democratic mandate for them was ever sought. Although opposed by student protests, devastated by scholarly criticism, and unsupported by even the most elementary analysis of the empirical evidence, these changes are being driven forward relentlessly without benefit of Parliamentary debate or public scrutiny.
This is from the web page of a new organisation, the Council for the Defence of British Universities. It has sixty-six Founding Members including a few I have mentioned here: Michael Atiyah, Richard Dawkins, Robert May, Roger Penrose, Martin Rees; I don’t think I ever mentioned Marcus du Sautoy or Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, but they are there as well, along with many people from all fields of learning. Most of them not just scaremongers, I would say.
I am in sympathy with their views. The need to chase funding by increasing student numbers or getting more grants has put huge pressure on academic freedom.
The American law professor Michael J. Sandel said,
… the university’s purpose … is not to maximize revenue but to serve the common good through teaching and research. It is true that teaching and research are expensive, and universities devote much effort to fund-raising. But when the goal of money making predominates … the university has strayed far from the scholarly and civic goods that are its primary reason for being.
He was talking hypothetically, inquiring into what the primary reason for being of a university is; but it seems to me that we are increasingly moving towards the situation he describes in the last sentence. When you hear of young lecturers on probation being told, not just to apply for grants, but exactly how much money they should apply for (not the amount they need to do their research, which in mathematics is likely to be very modest), you realise that we are entering new territory.
Please consider supporting or joining this organisation. Being an academic has never been just a job where you do what you are told and don’t ask questions; if it were to become this, the universities would no longer be universities, even in name.