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<nettime> Edufactory Blues: Rachel Malik, Keith Thomas, Michael Wood : U
Patrice Riemens on Thu, 22 Dec 2011 12:59:31 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Edufactory Blues: Rachel Malik, Keith Thomas, Michael Wood : Universities under attack

I am awakening from my lurker-slumber (enhanced by the fact that I just 
underwent eye-surgery for retina detachment - went all very well, thank 
you) to post these three pieces from the LRoB. Myself have given up 
academia some time ago - in fact I was kicked out under the motive that 
I was not "representing any form of measurable scientific added value 
whatsoever" - funily enough exactly the same words used in the Middlesex 
philosophy department collective sack five years later (I have always 
been ahead of my time, the most impardonable political mistake acoording 
to Francois Mitterand...), and I actually fail to understand why people 
stay there - that includes you, guys and gals - since todays 
universities have by an large become what my friend Rolf Pixley aptly 
calls 'KFZs' - Knowledge Free Zones (as befits an epoch of fact-free 
politics). Okay, I know a few oases, individuals and sometimes whole 
collectives, but generally speaking, to quote Rop Gonggrijp in a 
defiierent setting, "we have lost the war". And the reason why is most 
eloquently put forward by Michael Wood in the third piece ('Why pay for 
Sanskrit?): we cannot talk to the decision makers any more, since their 
language is impervious to our arguments and if we adopt their language 
we cannot phrase these anymore and automatically adopt their viewpoint 
(I wonder if that is what English analytical philosophy understands as 
'performative'). I always say "you just could talk Japanese to them 
(assuming they are not - and even then ...;-)

Cheers for now, and; HAPPY ENDING, HAPPY LANDING!
patrizio & Diiiinooos!


bwo Virginie Mamadouh/ Ewald Engelen

Nice pieces in the London Review of Books on the glaring discrepancy 
between the self-image of contemporary universities as projected by the 
board of directors through glossy brochures and other carriers of 
corporate humbug and the lived reality of staff and sudents...

Very uplifting ;)

Universities under Attack (1)

Rachel Malik

For a long time I believed that being an academic wasn't just the best 
career for me - which it clearly was, I loved it - but one of the best 
it was possible to have, especially within a university system committed 
to expansion. Yet recently I took voluntary redundancy after teaching in 
the humanities at Middlesex University for 18 years, and for the 
foreseeable future I have no desire to work in any university in this 
country - or, I imagine, elsewhere.

The attack on universities takes many forms. My focus here is on attacks 
from within: attacks on staff, academic and administrative, and attacks 
on knowledge that come from inside universities themselves. 
'Universities' is not a simple plural. The 'academy' is a messy 
conjunction of increasingly conflicting elements and interests and these 
cut across the familiar oppositions between old and new, rich and poor, 
deserving and undeserving. Thus Middlesex is not just or most 
importantly a struggling post-1992 institution. Its management worked 
out a long time ago that survival and success did not lie with domestic 
students. The university has two overseas campuses - in Dubai and 
Mauritius - and is actively searching for a site and partners for a 
third, probably in India. Like many others, it has attempted to 
commodify as many of its assets as possible: courses and programmes in 
the form of franchises; research; and various types of higher 
educational and pedagogical expertise.

It wasn't always like this. When I arrived in 1993 and for a good number 
of years after that, it was a wonderful place to work. Demand in the 
humanities was buoyant, and this was crucial to the opportunities we had 
to build teaching programmes from scratch and rebuild others, and to do 
our own research, encouraged both by the intellectual culture in which 
we worked, and by something else that has become increasingly rare: 
sabbatical leave.

Today the most reliable communiquà from the institution is the corporate 
newsletter. By 'reliable' I mean that it arrives regularly and contains 
no bad news. It is the familiar story of visions delivered, research 
impacting, champions championing. This corporate version of the 
institution is completely at variance with the lived reality of the 
staff and most of the students. These representations, like much else, 
exist for the benefit and reassurance of foreign partners, actual and 
potential. Meanwhile, on another part of the website, the voluntary 
redundancy scheme is now permanently open, punctuated by frequent 
compulsory redundancy operations. Both are designed to erode morale and 
force staff to accept increasingly degraded conditions of 'service'.

Discrepancies of this kind are a part of everyone's working life, but at 
Middlesex they were particularly jarring. In nearly all respects ours is 
an institution with no past. I do not mean by this that it does not have 
500 years, or 150 or 50 years of history and tradition to look back on. 
I am talking instead about the managerial embrace of a particularly 
degraded form of the modern. The management speciality is 'radical' 
reorganisations: of teaching programmes, organisational structures and 
research priorities, all of which must be achieved at absurdly 
accelerated rates. Such revolutions are always justified as a necessary 
response to external conditions and to a future whose only certain 
quality is its uncertainty. Emergency is our everyday: it is always 

When yet another one of these restructurings is declared, what we do - 
teaching, thinking, writing, marking, planning - is never taken into 
consideration. It counts neither as activity nor as value. Anyone who 
expresses reservations about the direction chosen for the future is, by 
definition, inflexible and disloyal. This is a particularly cynical 
version of modernity. No one wants to be on the wrong side of the 
future, and that future is achievable only through a complete 
cancellation of the past.

This revolutionary tempo sits uncomfortably with the rhythms of teaching 
and research. Last year Middlesex closed down its philosophy department, 
which has since moved to Kingston. It was an excellent department. It 
also had all the contemporary indicators of 'research excellence'. When 
I asked my dean about the decision, it was obvious that excellence 
hadn't been enough to save the department, so I asked him why the 
extensive funding the unit had earned from its RAE scores and various 
other funding sources had been no protection against immediate closure. 
He was (for once) perfectly clear: 'But that's over, that's finished,' 
he said, meaning that what was already earned simply did not count.

Within this 'logic', it is virtually impossible for an individual or 
group to accumulate intellectual value or capital, much less trade on 
it. This may sound - and it obviously is - cack-handed and incompetent, 
but something of the same logic is at work in the short-termism that is 
currently remaking the academic workforce.

Many university departments simply could not function without the 
energy, talent and goodwill of part-time lecturers, but the pattern of a 
skeleton permanent teaching staff supported by part-timers and those on 
teaching-only contracts has become a model for staffing in many 
institutions, and not just because it is cheaper. Those small numbers of 
permanent staff are increasingly going to be employed to develop, write 
and monitor courses that they will not teach and that exist primarily as 
units for sale or rent to a variety of markets, national and global. 
Little, if any, thought has been given to the impact of this on teaching 
and learning by the universities adopting this model. This commodifying 
of a course or a degree programme or a set of quality procedures is bad 
news. For one thing, the majority of academics and students are becoming 
ever more remote from the places where knowledge is produced. It is now 
seen as naive to insist on the natural connections between teaching and 

Further, the global market, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a very 
conservative place: the role of self-censorship, the weeding out of 
anything that might prove controversial, is a necessary consequence of 
the edu-business model. The result is courses that become ever more 
anodyne as they compete to imagine the inoffensive. In various 
departments at Middlesex, course content is already indirectly 
determined by partner institutions, national and international: it can't 
be taught here, unless it is taught there.

There has been a good deal of discussion about the direct pressures put 
on academics to produce work that sits comfortably within the research 
assessment criteria. However, I would suggest that as the financial 
situation worsens, institutions will need to apply less pressure on 
researchers to go where the money is. Academics will make their own 
adjustments, will internalise the priorities of the funding councils, 
and adopt them as their own. Soon they will become adept at second or 
even third-guessing them. Such pragmatism probably doesn't make for very 
good research. But that pragmatism is likely to be strengthened as the 
nature of research itself is redefined.

In various forms of higher educational discourse, research is already 
starting to float free of 'content', that tricky, highly specialised, 
fancy knowledge that presents such a challenge to institutions such as 
Middlesex. Education is becoming a training in learning. Students learn 
a good deal about how to 'do' team-work and assess their peers, but 
rather less about the Victorian Novel or the Role of Literature in the 
Contemporary. Similarly, research has come to mean one of two things: 
the quantifiable thing that needs to score well in the Research 
Excellence Framework, or a set of transferable practices or methods.

These practices, increasingly generic and cross-disciplinary, are being 
taught to postgraduates, and increasingly to undergraduates, 
particularly those in what are now called 'research-rich institutions' 
looking for ways to justify their fees. Just as the good manager takes 
pride in being able to manage anything, so the good researcher will take 
pride in being able to research anything. Not knowing much about a 
subject area will present no difficulty, rather it might be considered 
an advantage, for the researcher will be untroubled by disciplinary 
loyalty - just like the manager who comes in from outside.

This may seem hyperbolic, but there are already strong precedents for 
this sort of approach in both management and teaching. And perhaps it 
isn't so very far away from happening in academia. I recently chanced 
upon a website that provides students in humanities and social sciences 
at a UK university with information about the various types of research 
training available to them. Some of these were valuable - training about 
writing for publication, conferences, the profession and so on (we would 
be fools to reject professionalisation) but I was brought up short by a 
workshop on 'the literature search':

This second interactive workshop will provide an opportunity to find out 
how to identify the most important and influential literature from the 
literature search. Participants will use measures to identify journals 
with high impact factors, articles with large citation counts, and 
influential authors. Strategies for reading will also be discussed, as 
well as understanding how much to read, when to stop, and options for 
taking effective notes from reading materials.

This doesn't call for elaborate interpretation. However, I find the 
unthinking correlation between 'influential literature' on the one hand 
and 'high impact factors', 'large citation counts' and so forth, rather 
worrying. Even before the first REF has run, its metrics have been 
adopted as the primary indicators of value and esteem. This research 
programme is offered, I might add, by a Russell Group university. Of 
greatest concern, perhaps, is that the training offered here is totally 
divorced from any particular body of material. Faced with such a 
free-floating model of what knowledge is, perhaps we should all think a 
little more carefully about the future of that proprietary 'my' in 'my 

Universities under Attack (2)

Keith Thomas

We are all deeply anxious about the future of British universities. Our 
list of concerns is a long one. It includes the discontinuance of free 
university education; the withdrawal of direct public funding for the 
teaching of the humanities and the social sciences; the subjection of 
universities to an intrusive regime of government regulation and 
inquisitorial audit; the crude attempt to measure and increase scholarly 
âoutputâ; the requirement that all academic research have an âimpactâ on 
the economy; the transformation of self-governing communities of 
scholars into mega-businesses, staffed by a highly-paid executive class, 
who oversee the professors, or middle managers, who in turn rule over an 
ill-paid and often temporary or part-time proletariat of junior 
lecturers and research assistants, coping with an ever worsening 
staff-student ratio; the notion that universities, rather than 
collaborating in their common task, should compete with one another, and 
with private providers, to sell their services in a market, where 
students are seen, not as partners in a joint enterprise of learning and 
understanding, but as âconsumersâ, seeking the cheapest deals that will 
enable them to emerge with the highest earning prospects; the 
indiscriminate application of the label âuniversityâ to institutions 
whose primary task is to provide vocational training and whose staff do 
not carry out research; and the rejection of the idea that higher 
education might have a non-monetary value, or that science, scholarship 
and intellectual inquiry are important for reasons unconnected with 
economic growth.

What a contrast with the medieval idea that knowledge was a gift of God, 
which was not to be sold for money, but should be freely imparted. Or 
with the 19th-century German concept of the university devoted to the 
higher learning; or with the tradition in this country that some 
graduates, rather than rushing off to Canary Wharf, might wish to put 
what they had learned to the service of society by teaching in secondary 
schools or working for charities or arts organisations or nature 
conservation or foreign aid agencies or innumerable other good but 
distinctly unremunerative causes.

Our litany of discontents makes me realise how fortunate I was to have 
entered academic life in the mid-1950s, and thus to have experienced 
several decades of what now looks like a golden age of academic freedom, 
âwhen wits were fresh and clear,/ And life ran gaily as the sparkling 
Thames;/ Before this strange disease of modern life,/ With its sick 
hurry, its divided aims.â It was a time when students were publicly 
funded and when the Treasury grant to universities was distributed by 
the University Grants Committee, largely made up of academics and 
working at armâs length from the government; they understood what 
universities needed and they ruled with a light touch, distributing 
block grants and requiring only that the money be spent on buildings, 
teaching and research. It was a time when the ânewâ universities of the 
1960s were devising novel syllabuses, constructed with an eye to the 
intellectual excitement they generated. Of course, there were fewer 
universities in those days, and only a minority of young people had 
access to them. It is a matter for rejoicing that higher education in 
some form or other is nowadays potentially available to nearly half of 
the relevant age group. But because there are so many universities, real 
and so-called, there are fewer resources to go around and the use of 
those resources is more intensively policed. As a result, the 
environment in which todayâs students and academics work has sharply 
deteriorated. When I think of the freedom I enjoyed as a young Oxford 
don, with no one telling me how to teach or what I should research or 
how I should adapt my activities to maximise the facultyâs performance 
in the RAE, and when I contrast it with the oppressive micro-management 
which has grown up in response to government requirements, I am not 
surprised that so many of todayâs most able students have ceased to opt 
for an academic career in the way they once would have done.

Confronted by philistinism on the scale of the Browne Report and the 
governmentâs White Paper, what are we to do? Where can we turn? Not to 
the present government, for it is committed to the notion of the 
university system as a market, driven by economic considerations. And 
not to the Labour Party, which, when in government, introduced tuition 
fees in 1998, trebled them in 2004 and declared in a document of 2009 
that universities should make a âbigger contribution to economic 
recovery and future growthâ, and in opposition has been almost totally 
silent on the whole matter. Not to Hefce, in its new role as âlead 
regulatorâ, for its chief executive has, unsurprisingly, welcomed the 
White Paper with enthusiasm. Not to the research councils, whose role as 
government agencies has become increasingly blatant. Not to the law 
courts, for it is surely unlikely that they will grant the recent 
application by some students to have the fee increase deemed a breach of 
human rights. Not even to the academic profession as a whole, for only 
in a few universities do all their members have the right to express 
their dissent publicly, as in the recent vote of no confidence by the 
Oxford Congregation, and in many institutions they dare not even 
complain to their head of department, for fear of subsequent 
persecution. Not to the vice-chancellors, for, with some honourable 
exceptions, they have been remarkably supine in the face of increasingly 
maladroit government policies, and are understandably more concerned to 
see what their own institutions can gain from the new arrangements than 
to challenge them directly.

Let me, nevertheless, suggest a few alternative ways forward. First, on 
tuition fees. The new provisions for student fees have been hastily 
arrived at and chaotically presented, with much backtracking and many 
changes of mind, and little visible financial saving at the end of it, 
for the state still has to put the money up front and will certainly 
fail to recoup it all in thirty yearsâ time. But in an age of mass 
higher education, and without either a reduction in other forms of 
public expenditure or a willingness to raise the level of direct 
taxation, fees are undoubtedly here to stay. The governmentâs great 
failure has been its inability to present its scheme for what it is: a 
graduate tax, payable only by those earning above a certain level and 
only for a fixed period of time. Instead, potential students have the 
mistaken impression that they will be crushed by a lifelong burden of 
intolerable debt. The other day I heard a mother on the radio lamenting 
that, if her son went to university, he might never get a job and would 
therefore be unable to repay his colossal debts. Universities should do 
all they can to help poor students by fee waivers, scholarships and 
maintenance grants, but above all they should try to dispel the fog of 
misunderstanding which the governmentâs ineptitude has created.

Second, we must press for changes to the Research Excellence Framework 
(REF), formerly the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). In my 
experience, this operation, though initially a stimulus, has in the 
longer run had appalling effects. It has generated a vast amount of 
premature publication and an even larger amount of unnecessary 
publication by those who have nothing new to say at that particular 
moment, but are forced to lay eggs, however addled. In the social 
sciences, it has discouraged the writing of books, as opposed to 
specialist articles, and by making peer review the ultimate arbiter it 
has very probably enshrined orthodoxies and acted as a curb on 
intellectual risk-taking and innovation. Everywhere, it has led to an 
unwelcome shift in academic priorities, for younger faculty have been 
encouraged to do all they can to secure outside research grants which 
will allow them to escape from teaching, which they now regard as a 
vastly inferior activity; and it has induced vice-chancellors to emulate 
football clubs by buying in outside âstarsâ on special terms and 

The RAE has also been absurdly rigid in its requirements. A few years 
ago, a colleague in another university published a huge book, based on a 
vast amount of archival research, meticulously documented, beautifully 
written and offering a new and formidably argued reinterpretation of a 
major historical event. I remarked to a friend in that university that 
this great work would certainly help their prospects in the RAE. âOh 
no,â he said. âWe canât enter him. He needs four items and that book is 
all heâs got.â At a recent meeting of the editorial board of a 
multi-volume historical project, the question arose of what should be 
done if some of the chapters submitted proved to be unsatisfactory. The 
obvious answer was to delay publication until they had been properly 
revised. But it was at once pointed out that this would be very hard on 
the other contributors, who were relying on their work appearing in time 
to be included in the REF. So if the worst happens, we shall face an 
intolerable choice: should we meet the REF deadline at all costs? Or is 
our primary obligation to ensure the quality of the completed work? 
There must be hundreds of scholars who are currently confronting the 
same dilemma.

I contrast this with my own experience in the old, supposedly 
unregenerate days. The college where I became a tutor in 1957 had only 
19 academic fellows. Of these, two did no research at all and their 
teaching was languid in the extreme. That was the price the rest of us 
paid for our freedom and in my view it was a price worth paying. For the 
other fellows were exceptionally active, impelled, not by external 
bribes and threats, but by their own intellectual ambition and love of 
their subject. In due course three became fellows of the Royal Society 
and seven of the British Academy. They worked at their own pace and some 
of them would have fared badly in the RAE, for they conformed to no 
deadlines and released their work only when it was ready. I became a 
tutor at the age of 24, but I did not publish a book until I was 38. 
These days, I would have been compelled to drop my larger project and 
concentrate on an unambitious monograph, or else face ostracism and even 

I should like to see the abolition of the REF altogether, but since no 
one has been able to think of a better method of selectively allocating 
research funds to universities, it is probably here to stay. Yet we 
should at least press for a longer interval between each round of 
assessment, say, ten years rather than six, a much greater emphasis on 
the quality of publications rather than their quantity, and the 
relegation of âimpactâ to an optional extra rather than an essential 
requirement. Since the REF is a scheme which is workable only if 
academics co-operate with it, the universities could easily achieve some 
reform here, but only if they maintain a united front. Unfortunately, 
those institutions which are currently most successful in the 
competition have no incentive to change the system, its undesirable 
intellectual consequences notwithstanding. We should also enlist the 
support of the House of Lords, which has on past occasions successfully 
come to the aid of the universities, most notably in 1988, when it 
amended the Education Reform Bill, so as to ensure the freedom of 
academics to express controversial or unpopular opinions without placing 
themselves in danger of losing their jobs or privileges.

My final suggestion, and much the most important, is that universities 
should collectively and publicly refute the repugnant philosophy 
underlying the Browne Report and the White Paper by reaffirming what 
they stand for and what they believe is their correct relationship to 
students on the one hand and to the government on the other. The 
original purpose of universities in the Middle Ages was to train 
students for service in Church and State, but the undergraduate 
curriculum was in the liberal arts (which, of course, included science 
and mathematics), and only after graduating did students take up 
vocational courses in law, medicine and theology. Today, universities 
aim to enable students to develop their capacities to the full; in the 
process, they acquire the intellectual flexibility necessary to meet the 
demands of a rapidly changing economy. But a university should not 
provide vocational training, in the narrow sense of uncritical 
indoctrination in the rules and techniques of a particular trade. 
Institutions which do that are an indispensable part of the higher 
education system. But if their courses are vocational and their staff do 
not engage in research, it does not help to call them âuniversitiesâ: 
that way they end up being regarded as inferior versions of the real 
thing. We need a diverse system of higher education, but only some of 
its components should be universities and much confusion is created by 
the indiscriminate application of that name.

Advanced study and research are essential attributes of a university and 
some of that research will have vital social and industrial 
applications. But that is not its primary purpose, which is to enhance 
our knowledge and understanding, whether of the physical world or of 
human nature and all forms of human activity in the present and the 
past. For centuries, universities have existed to transmit and 
reinterpret the cultural and intellectual inheritance, and to provide a 
space where speculative thought can be freely pursued without regard to 
its financial value. In a free and democratic society it is essential 
that that space is preserved.

That will not happen unless the fate of our universities becomes a 
prominent political issue. We need constituents to badger their MPs and 
voters to make their views felt in the polls. This will prove a 
demanding task, but I think that the British public might prove a more 
receptive audience for our message than is sometimes assumed. Moving, as 
I do these days, among retired people of a certain age, I am struck by 
how many of them, though not university-educated, are strongly committed 
to the values of higher education. They sustain the cultural 
institutions of the country, whether museums and galleries, or concerts 
of classical music or the National Trust. They read books and, unlike 
some students, they seem to enjoy going to lectures. We should mobilise 
their support, and that of others like them. What we need to do now is 
to clarify our aims and then to form a pressure group â perhaps the 
Council for the Protection, not of Rural England, but of British 
Universities. We should secure the help of an enlightened benefactor, 
hire a public relations agency and take our case to the country.

Must we pay for Sanskrit?

Michael Wood

A couple of markers may help. We are all situated somewhere, even if we 
see ourselves as cosmopolitans emancipated from mere biography. I was a 
beneficiary of the old idealistic British system, a grammar-school boy 
who went to Cambridge in the 1950s when not too many people were so 
lucky. If we canât afford such a system any longer because we wish to 
make a good education available to many more people â if that is our 
real reason and our real intention â then we have to think of proper new 
ways of funding it.

But we can also remember the values of such a system, whatever the 
costs. My parents had to be persuaded to let me stay at school after I 
was 16, but they were fairly easily persuaded, and the whole larger 
culture helped to persuade them. Higher education was a good thing 
because it was free, and it was free because it was a good thing. It was 
what we now call âcultural capitalâ â and far more closely connected to 
culture than to capital. That sense of education as a âpublic goodâ is 
itself of inestimable value and makes everything else possible: music 
college as well as agricultural college, free inquiry, disinterested 
curiosity, engineering school, degrees in dead languages. We can gloss 
this value in detail, and we should; but we canât and shouldnât turn it 
into value for money, or confuse value with extensive use.

But what if we are not given a chance to provide this gloss, or turn out 
not to be up to providing it? Second flashback, to the bad old days this 
time. I returned to England at the time of the Malvinas War, sometimes 
known as the Falklands War, and taught at Exeter University until 1995.

When asked about this period, I usually say I found the battles on 
behalf of the university (the department, the school, the discipline, 
our younger colleaguesâ jobs) very hard work but exhilarating: there was 
something to fight about. But it was no fun losing all of the battles, 
and I am still trying to work out what it means that we should so 
thoroughly have lost all of them. What can we do about it?

Let me put the matter as starkly as I can. If we canât speak the 
language of our enemies, not only will they not listen to us â they 
might not listen to us anyway â but they canât. We need to be saying 
things they could hear if they would listen. âTheyâ, by the way, 
includes all kinds of people within universities as well as outside 
them. But what if we canât speak that language without losing the 
battle? What if the very language wins the battle by definition? What if 
we canât speak of cost-effectiveness because we donât understand either 
cost or effect in the way our enemies do? How do we make astrophysics 
sound useful without turning it into science fiction? Just what sort of 
transferable skills do we pick up from Greek metrics? I think of a line 
from MallarmÃ: whatâs the good of trafficking in what should not be 
sold, especially when it doesnât sell? A thought triggered by David 
Willettsâs amiable description of the publications a distinguished 
scholar might bring to the RAE as âa good back catalogueâ. Austin and 
Wittgenstein had plenty of thoughts, and a huge influence on philosophy, 
but at the time of their death almost no catalogue, back or front.

This is not a narrow question of terminology â although Iâm not sure 
questions of terminology are ever all that narrow. During the Thatcher 
years, as during the Reagan years in America, a strong assumption arose 
that the quarrel was not between right and left or between different 
opinions and positions, but between those who knew what reality was and 
those who didnât. If you didnât know what reality was â that is, if you 
disagreed with those who were sure they knew and had the power to 
implement their views â it didnât matter whether you were right or 
wrong, since you were irrelevant anyway. And reality was ... whatever 
you could get a largish number of conservatives (small c) to take 
seriously. This move was particularly devastating in America, where 
liberals shared with conservatives a consensus against extremes, and on 
the whole still do. Left-wing liberals were a special problem, because 
they genuinely believed they had gone as far left as anyone could 
reasonably go. The current array of protests in both Britain and America 
is an encouraging sign in this respect: dissent may be rational again, 
rather than someone elseâs insanity.

So when what is real, in relation to university education, is student 
demand and jobs in the future â a pair of premises about as fictional as 
you can get â what are we to say in favour of the pursuit of knowledge 
for its own sake? Especially if the very notion of doing anything for 
its own sake has more or less vanished from the national landscape? What 
can we say that is not vague, without falling into the market trap?

Here are two modes of an answer, which we may need to deploy both 
together and separately, as strategic need arises. First, the quest for 
knowledge needs no justification except the energy and enthusiasm, the 
passion it inspires, and a society that doesnât encourage such quests 
for their own sake has already started to impoverish itself in ways it 
may not be able to see. Nietzsche once defined human beings as animals 
who had invented knowledge â well, literally they had invented knowing, 
erkennen, âgetting to know thingsâ, and recognising them. If we canât 
care about knowledge enough to let others look for it even if we donât 
want to, we shall be the less human for it, or human beings of a lesser 
kind. And here even this first answer based on the virtue of 
disinterested inquiry begins to slide towards the practical, since a 
society that does not value knowledge in this way will soon be outpaced 
in all kinds of areas by societies that do.

Second mode of answer. If we live in a secular society, and do not have 
a special insight into Godâs plans for us, we donât know what knowledge 
will be useful to us in the future. And more important, we canât know 
what knowledge we may find at the end of an apparently pointless or even 
crazed inquiry. Many of our most useful inventions began in the realms 
of purest theory. This is not to be mindlessly optimistic. The motto 
from Marie Curie hanging up outside the British Library is quite wrong. 
âNothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.â We may 
well fear many things, and we should, and some things we shall fear 
because we understand them. But this is not a reason for not wanting to 
understand them. We can deal well or badly with the knowledge when we 
have it; but we can hardly want to shelter in our ignorance, it isnât 
any safer there.

If you want it youâll pay for it and if you wonât pay for it you canât 
have it is a perfectly reasonable principle if youâre running a small 
shop, but it wonât even work for a business, once it reaches any size â 
youâll lose out to the competition, which isnât watching the pennies so 
closely. Where is the invention, the new technology, all the wrong roads 
in research that allowed a few right roads to be found? In the part of 
New Jersey where I live the object of much local nostalgia is not any 
university or establishment of learning, public or private, but the old 
Bell Laboratories, fondly remembered as a place where people pursued 
research for its own sake, with only a secondary thought of profit for 
the company. I have never entirely believed that these laboratories were 
this legendary place, but Iâm not sure my wary scepticism should survive 
my just acquired knowledge that the place has been the home of seven 
Nobel Prizes. In any event, such a set-up is clearly possible, or was 
possible. And can cease to be possible, as is shown by the record of the 
current owner of the labs, the French company Alcatel-Lucent.

And this possibility leads me to the distinction between business and 
business-speak, and more broadly between the working corporate world and 
the world of business and management schools. We are being asked to 
imagine our universities not as real businesses, but as dream businesses 
of the kind thought up by people who work only with models and 
yesterdayâs quality assessments. Of course, the distinction is not 
absolute. There are businessmen who really believe in the free market â 
until it stops believing in them. Thatcher believed in the market until 
the Americans stopped buying British aeroplanes. Then she believed in 
the special relationship. Business and management schools no doubt do 
teach practices that are (sometimes) actually practised. But my 
experience of working with the Leverhulme Trust, for example, suggests 
strongly that many leading executives, like the rest of us, are 
interested in quality for money, which is quite different from value for 
money, and even interested in qualities that donât immediately have to 
do with money at all. Their question would be, about a Sanskrit scholar, 
say, âHow good is she?â not: âWho cares about Sanskrit and why should we 
pay for it?â This is in contrast to Thatcherâs response to an 
undergraduate at Oxford who told her she was reading history. Thatcher 
is supposed to have said: âWhat a luxury.â Those who think the 
supposedly unpractical sides of higher education are a luxury for which 
the state has no responsibility are right in a quite wretched way. They 
wonât have to pay for them. But their children will, and so will ours â 
and not with money.

Keith Thomas and Michael Wood spoke at âUniversities under Attackâ, a 
conference sponsored by the âLondon Reviewâ, the âNew York Reviewâ and 
Fritt Ord held on 26 November at Kingâs College London.

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