Higher education has now joined the growing list of subjects (immigration, multiculturalism, nuclear armaments, freedom of speech) about which it is increasingly difficult, it seems, to have an informed public argument. A hugely ambitious and successful programme of government-sponsored “reform” has enshrined various assumptions in the debate: that HE is primarily an exercise in promoting national economic prosperity; that there are quantifiable criteria for judging the quality of research; that the academic profession is in constant need of guidance from outside in order to save it from self-indulgent, inefficient and irrelevant activities; and that the basic model of education in general and universities in particular is that of a product which has to be marketed to individual consumers (students) and is naturally to be assessed in terms of consumer satisfaction.
As any academic who has not spent the past decade on Mars will know, Stefan Collini has emerged as the most eloquent, witty and persistent critic of this deadly mythology. But this new collection of writings makes plain that he is not defending a lost, intellectually pure golden age of academic independence, still less a socially selective ideal or an abandonment of accountability. Even more than in his earlier works, these essays, especially the substantial historical survey of HE ideals (“From Robbins to McKinsey”) and the critique of the notion of the student as consumer (“Higher Purchase”), concentrate on showing the sheer incoherence of public policy documents, with their liberal use of what he nicely calls “the Mission Statement Present” and “the Dogmatic Future” as grammatical devices, “to disguise implausible non sequiturs as universally acknowledged general truths”.
Flannel about empowerment and the increase of purchasing liberty conceals a barbarous indifference to the notion that learning changes you, that this takes time, and that the point of the intellectual life is not productivity but comprehension, and the liberty to ask awkward questions. The proposal that the quality of teaching should be measured by levels of graduate salary is simply one of the more egregious versions of this indifference – as if the graduate who becomes a primary school teacher, a junior doctor, a development worker or, for that matter, a post-doctoral researcher in biomathematics has been taught less well than one who heads for a City law firm.
Read it all (emphasis mine).