Stefan Collini: “Who Are the Spongers Now?”

Stefan Collini, Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge and author of the important book What Are Universities For?, has a wonderful review article in the London Review of Books responding to the Conservative British government’s proposal to establish a Teaching Excellence Framework.  Responding specifically to a new Green Paper written by Jo Johnson, the minister for universities and science, Collini’s essay, “Who Are the Spongers Now?,” makes broader statements about higher education that are equally relevant in the U.S. and no doubt elsewhere.  Here are some excerpts from the article’s opening section:

“. . .  I do wonder whether it isn’t increasingly the case that the way we use such terms as ‘universities’ and ‘higher education’ may . . . be best understood as the deployment of an inherited vocabulary without the underlying assumptions that for a long time made sense of it. I am not suggesting that any particular phase of the historical development of such institutions should be treated as normative. There is no one ‘right’ understanding of the term ‘university’ that would have commanded assent in 11th-century Bologna, 21st-century Beijing and all points in between. But there is a family resemblance among the assumptions that sustained thinking about universities between, roughly, the development of the first modern versions of that institution in early 19th-century Europe and the great enlargement of what was still essentially the same form in the thirty years or so after 1945. Much of our contemporary discourse about universities still draws on, or unwittingly presumes, that pattern of assumptions: the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on.

“While that conception of a university and its purposes is still very much alive and may, I suspect, still be the one held by a great many ‘ordinary’ citizens, we may be nearing the point, at least in Britain, where it is starting to give way to the equivalent of . . . barren utilitarianism. If ‘prosperity’ is the overriding value in market democracies, then universities must be repurposed as ‘engines of growth’. The value of research has then to be understood in terms of its contribution to economic innovation, and the value of teaching in terms of preparing people for particular forms of employment. There are tensions and inconsistencies within this newer conception, just as there are in the larger framework of neoliberalism: neoliberal thinking promotes ‘free competition’ in international markets, while the rhetoric of national advantage in the ‘global struggle’ often echoes mercantilist assumptions. But, gradually, what we still call universities are coming to be reshaped as centres of applied expertise and vocational training that are subordinate to a society’s ‘economic strategy’.

“To those who find the newer conception persuasive, even self-evident, existing universities can seem to have been disappointingly slow to recognise their proper role, retaining their archaic structures of self-government, their gentry-professional ethos and their blinkered devotion to useless knowledge. Since the 1980s much has been done to ‘reform’ – that is to say, destroy – such features and to render these inward-looking and obstructive producer-cartels ‘fit for purpose’. But more remains to be done, and the key to the transformation, it turns out, is to be found in that unlikely embodiment of right-wing market thinking at its purest, the student.

“The general logic of such thinking depends on treating people exclusively as economic agents. The central social relation is the one between buyer and seller. Hitherto, the primacy of these roles has been disguised by various inherited mechanisms that shielded individuals from direct participation in markets. These mechanisms – at the collective level, ranging from direct state ownership to arm’s length public bodies, and at the individual level, from defined-benefit pension arrangements to student grants – are progressively being eliminated. Consumer ‘choice’ is now sovereign, and each agent is responsible for his or her own economic salvation. The role of government in this conception of modern society is largely confined to making sure that markets work. . . .  According to the prevailing dogma, markets work ‘properly’ when the interests of the consumer are maximised: real competition will ‘drive up quality’ and ‘drive down prices’. Since in actual markets this is not what tends to happen – competition more often leads to near monopoly power for the largest producers, who can then fix the markets to their own benefit – the government, in the form of the regulator, is continually having to step in to make competition work properly, and it does so as the champion of the consumer.

“It is the application of this model to universities that produces the curious spectacle of a right-wing government championing students. Traditionally, of course, students have been understood by such governments, at least from the 1960s onwards, as part of the problem. They ‘sponged off’ society when they weren’t ‘disrupting’ it. But now, students have come to be regarded as a disruptive force in a different sense, the shock-troops of market forces, storming those bastions of pre-commercial values, the universities. If students will set aside vague, old-fashioned notions of getting an education, and focus instead on finding the least expensive course that will get them the highest-paying job, then the government wants them to know that it will go to bat for them.

“But who will it be batting against? The logic of consumerism dictates that it is the producers, or ‘providers’, who will, if unchecked, threaten the consumer interest. So, on the side of the angels are students, taxpayers and the government. Arrayed against them are the universities and, more particularly, academics, who, unless kept to the mark by constant assessments and targets, will revert to type as feather-bedded, professional-class spongers. A curious inversion has taken place whereby academics now occupy the demonised role formerly assigned to students, who must now be defended in their efforts to obtain ‘value for money’.”

Collini goes on at some length to evaluate the Green Paper’s proposals on how to define, measure and assess such educational “value for money.”  And while the specific proposals are British, American scholars will readily recognize their U.S. equivalents.  To read the rest of the article go to:

[My thanks to Michael Meranze for calling my attention to Collini’s article.]

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