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In Britain, an Assault on Academic Values

The following is a guest post by Thomas Docherty, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick and a member of the steering committee for the Council for the Defence of British Universities.
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Leading scholars in Britain attended the first meeting of the Council for the Defence of British Universities, held November 13 at the British Academy.

For a number of years, British academics have watched the growing disquiet among American scholars about the general trajectory of higher education in their country. We’ve seen the complaints and warnings about the growth of corporate-style management at universities; the commercialization of research to replace business investment in R&D; and the downgrading of studies in arts, humanities, and the social sciences.

Now our universities are lurching their own way into precariousness, and in many ways threaten to overtake the United States on the path toward corporate thinking and placing commercial values above academic ones.

The entire administrative apparatus of universities—including the councils that finance research, state financing agencies, and senior university management—appears to endorse a shock-doctrine series of government-directed “reforms.” These include tripling tuition, requiring that all research demonstrate an economic impact, an embrace of for-profit education, and a deference towards business practices. As in the United States, the academic community is uneasy that the sector should unquestioningly accept the idea that the scope of education—and indeed, human freedom—is reduced to a celebration of shopping for degrees in a supposed “free market.”

Under this thinking, our academic community is no longer a community of scholars: We are “human capital,” a “human resource” whose function is to sustain a system decided by senior management. Dissident views or thoughtful critiques are not to be held, much less expressed. Unsurprisingly, many in academe are disaffected and despairing as they see concerted attacks on fundamentally socially responsible academic and scholarly values: education for the common wealth and general public good.

However, British academics are fighting back. This month a prestigious group of scholars formed the Council for the Defence of British Universities. While a number of organizations exist to represent academics in the public square, there are two things remarkable about the council. The first is that its founding members include an extremely broad church of distinguished thinkers. Aside from well-known public intellectuals like the naturalist Sir David Attenborough and the ethologist Richard Dawkins, members include former and current presidents of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of London; Fields Medal and Nobel Prize winners; senior politicians from the major and opposing political parties from the Upper House of the British Parliament; and senior academics from all disciplines and from a broad range of types of institution. These scholars—many of them in ostensibly privileged institutions or positions—are using their standing to defend the entire university sector.

The second notable thing is the council’s unique mission: It is the only group that exists to put university education back into the hands of universities, and to do so with the determination to reinstate the primacy of academic values. The council has issued a Statement of Aims that should form the basis for how the nation approaches the management of universities, their financing, and their social, cultural, and economic importance. Central to the aims is university autonomy and respect for the independent demands and exigencies of scholarly work.

Corporate management might conceivably be good for some businesses, but it has no place in the university sector. Our administrators need to serve the primary academic functions, but increasingly—and in this they simply replicate a more general social malaise—administrations exist to perpetuate themselves, like some kind of carcinogenic cell that threatens the academic body.

The council hopes to exert influence in Britain, but the common good it wishes to serve goes beyond our borders. I hope American scholars also find that the moment is ripe for the reassertion of academic values and join us in our work. We’ve already received suggestions about the formation of sister councils outside Britain, and we’d certainly  welcome an American counterpart. As is clear, the threats to academic values are not just local to Britain: They are global.

As one founding member of the council, the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, put it: We should unite in this, as “we have nothing to use but our brains.”

[Photo by Stephen Tiley, courtesy of the Council for the Defence of British Universities]

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