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Defending the University

In all but a few countries, university budgets are under attack. It is no fault of universities that this is the case, but there may be fault in the way in which universities have portrayed themselves. In the mind of the public at large, it often seems as though universities come quite a long way down the priority list, meaning that they have become an easier target than many other activities.

Take the case of the U.K., for example. A recent Universities UK survey found that most people in Great Britain had no idea how important universities were as employers or as economic forces, considered that they had very little general impact on society, and only really acknowledged their role in technological innovation. They had a vague idea that they were good, though not just how good relative to the universities of many other countries. At least to judge from Web posts there are two main issues that lie uppermost in the minds of the more vocal British public when thinking about universities. There are “too many students” and there are “too many” supposedly Mickey Mouse courses. In other words, much of the British public still sees British universities as being like schools, only kind of a bit more but with an attitude problem. Depressing reading to be sure but the kind of reading that could be replicated in many other countries, I suspect

There are, no doubt, all kinds of stout defences that can be raised against these kinds of perceptions: more and better publicity, better lobbying, and so on.  But I want to make two more general points. One is that, so far as I know, there is no central repository of the defences raised in other countries except what can be gleaned from the pages of The Chronicle and similar publications.  It would be very useful indeed to know what ideas other higher-education systems have put into practice to defend higher education and how well they have worked. I was impressed recently by a workshop in London which looked at what lessons the California experience might have for the U.K. As a start, more comparative events of this kind would be a real boon.

The second point is that many countries now need to institute what might be called a change of cultural style in how higher education is communicated as a value. Whilst the United States is certainly not a model for all higher-education systems it does some things rather well. I am struck by the comments of David Cannadine, the eminent historian, in a recent “Point Of View” column for the BBC, concerning the difference between British and U.S. graduation ceremonies. In the U.K., graduation ceremonies tend to be seen as a kind of symbolic full stop, letting go of a particular part of the educational life course. In the United States, in contrast, commencement ceremonies, tend to be seen as just that, a means of stepping forward into life. Each university can thereby keep up a relationship with its alumni, call on them for help and guidance. They become citizens of the university with responsibilities to pass their good fortune on to others. At least until recently, U.K. universities have never really done that and it has been to their detriment in producing students who want to keep in touch with higher education and are likely to be favourably inclined towards it.

Both of these actions may seem comparatively small but they are part of a pattern of laying defences which strikes me as imperative at this point in time. Not everyone is in this together but surely enough are that we can use our experiences to help each other.

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