19 June 2010

The state of the universities

An article by Anthony Grafton (of Princeton University) in the New York Review of Books (April 8-28), page 32 entitled "Britain: the disgrace of the universities" points to the decline of the humanities in Britain, rightly attributing the decline to the target setting, 'new managerialism' culture that now pervades all but the most ancient of our universities. Grafton points out that once upon a time visiting US academics envied the conditions in British universities - but no longer.  And things will get worse.  Not only do we now have Vice-Chancellors who believe that students are "customers" and that they are running businesses, but they are also anxious to keep on the right side of the prevailing political ideology at the same time as they try to maintain funds by ensuring that not too many overseas students manage to fail their courses.  Indeed, failing courses seems to be very difficult these days - after all, the "customer" might sue the institution. Grafton is not entirely complacent about conditions in the USA:

"In Iowa, in Nevada, and in other places there's talk of closing humanities departments. If you start hearing newspeak about "sustainable excellence clusters", watch out. We'll be following the British down the short road to McDonald's."
I suspect that Grafton has got it right to a greater extent than he knows - certainly the UK government's policy of reducing places in universities (while other countries with bigger problems in Europe are increasing them) leads one to suspect that they would be very grateful if the McDonald's University model could be applied more widely.

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