The New Spongers?

Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books Vol. 38 No. 2 · 21 January 2016
pages 33-37 reviews

Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 4741 2492 8

Collini argues that:

Much of our contemporary discourse about universities still draws on, or unwittingly presumes, [this] pattern of assumptions: the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on.

While that conception of a university and its purposes is still very much alive and may, I suspect, still be the one held by a great many ‘ordinary’ citizens, we may be nearing the point, at least in Britain, where it is starting to give way to the equivalent of MacIntyre’s barren utilitarianism. If ‘prosperity’ is the overriding value in market democracies, then universities must be repurposed as ‘engines of growth’. The value of research has then to be understood in terms of its contribution to economic innovation, and the value of teaching in terms of preparing people for particular forms of employment. There are tensions and inconsistencies within this newer conception, just as there are in the larger framework of neoliberalism: neoliberal thinking promotes ‘free competition’ in international markets, while the rhetoric of national advantage in the ‘global struggle’ often echoes mercantilist assumptions. But, gradually, what we still call universities are coming to be reshaped as centres of applied expertise and vocational training that are subordinate to a society’s ‘economic strategy’.

… It takes no great insight to foresee that a form of TEF-guff will develop in parallel to the existing REF-guff

Follow this link to the full article to read about the potential fate of the academic as ‘sponger’ (akin to the familiar stereotype of the ‘student sponger’ in the 1960s).

Collini’s review applies his critique of higher education policies previously published in What Are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012). This book prompted much debate in the weeklies. Fred Inglis gave it a positive review in the Times Higher Education whereas Peter Conrad in the Guardian gave it a scathing one, stating that the book was ‘heavy on hand-wringing and light on real answers’.


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