14 March 2011

The death of the university in the UK

The current issue of the London Review of Books has a very interesting and very depressing short article, by Iain Pears, on the problems afflicting universities in the UK as a result of the idiocies perpetrated by, first the Blair/Brown regime and now the millionaire barbarians of the Coalition.
Unfortunately, you'd need to be a subscriber to access the text online (LRB would be doing a favour to academe by opening up this article), so I shall try to summarise what Pears is saying, although bear in mind that the commentary is in my words, no his!
     Pears attacks the government on several fronts: first, he points out that a government preaching the hazards of debt has introduced a policy of student fees that will result in more people getting into greater debt.  Personally I find it a) sickening, that the sixth richest economy on the planet is "unable" to afford to educate its young people, while spending billions in supporting the banks, erecting self-glorification edifices such as the Millenium Dome, financing the 2012 Olympics and fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, it seems, anywhere else (while simultaneously getting rid of soldiers and materiel, and b) hypocritical, that these rich people were all educated when fees were either low or non-existent and now think it appropriate to charge £9,000 a year for a degree programme.
     Secondly, he draws attention to the takeover of the research councils to do the bidding of government in supporting what it imagines to be 'the national interest'.  Consequently, all research will be required to show 'relevance' to that interest and the result will be millions spent on pointless research that has little or no real scientific impact in order to ensure that the pea-packers have a better can, or something equally trivial. And where are the Chair-persons of the research councils in all this - well, they are government appointees of course, rolling over to have their tummies tickled on the way to the House of Lords or chairmanship of one of the new quangos being set up to monitor all of the changes.  As Pears points out:
On 20 December, in response to disquiet from the research agencies, the government issued a Written Ministerial Statement asserting that ‘prioritisation of an individual research council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for ministers.’ But this was followed by so many get-outs that it offered no real safeguards at all. These allow the government to divert money to ‘key national priorities’ – which it can set – and provide for no appeal against its directives. 
     The final point is that in the next research evaluation exercise, all disciplines will be required to show the 'impact' of their work on the world at large.  Again, the Higher Education Funding Council reveals that it is nothing more than a tool of government by going along with this proposition and most Vice-Chancellors have done either very little or nothing at all, in trying to bring some semblance of rationality into the process.  For some disciplines, such as engineering, it may be quite easy to show what the impact is, especially if research has been done for and with industry.  But how easy will a humanities scholar, producing, say a critical edition of the plays of Christopher Marlowe, to demonstrate 'impact' on the world at large?  And yet the 'quality' of an academic's work will have a weighting of 20% assigned to 'impact'.  As Pears notes:
If no one really knows what impact is, it is at least clear what it isn’t: scholarship is seen as of no significance. What the government and Hefce are interested in is work that is useful, in a crudely defined way, for business or policy-making. The effects on the sciences will be unfortunate. Last month Thomson-Reuters published a list of the top 100 chemists in the world. Only four are British, and at least one of these gained his place on the list for work that would not be found to have sufficient impact to warrant a grant under the new system.
     So, on top of being faced with a drastic reduction in funding for teaching purposes, plus the loss of students who will be unable to pay the increased fees; or, rather, unwilling to take on the increased debt, plus the loss of overseas students through the government's misguided attempts to reduce 'immigration', there is the nonsense of the research evaluation, which will cost, collectively, millions to perform, when the process could have ceased now, given that the research profile of the universities is now sufficiently well established.
     The implications of this are clear: the British university will no longer be a desirable place in which to work, conduct research and teach students and those who can will vote with their feet and get out to a country that still values higher education for its intrinsic scholarly returns, rather than its 'impact' on the priorities of government.  As for those thinking to coming to work here, my advice would be to think again, and the same advice would be offered to those thinking of returning from abroad. However, the latter might find it easier to find a post when the exodus gets going!

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