On March 15th, The Guardian’s Sir Simon Jenkins published yet another attack on public universities:
Jenkins’s arguments are by and large a retread of points that have been made time and again in recent years. That’s precisely why it is so important to challenge his views. Members of the privileged classes like Simon Jenkins enjoy a degree of access to authorship in leading mass media publications that is very hard to match for most. (Do try, for instance, to publish in The Guardian’s comment is free blog if you are not well known, not well connected, and don’t hold certain status credentials.) Through the incessant repetition of certain arguments, commentators such as Jenkins are able to shape the vocabulary in terms of which public issues can be described with credibility in the public sphere and outside of which accounts of these public issues become either unintelligible or illegitimate. This insight has been used in the USA by scholars such as George Lakoff to explain the lasting success of the American right in shaping public perceptions of issues such as public health care (‘socialised medicine’) or abortion (‘right to life’). The same would apply to debates about higher education in the UK and the rise of a new philistinism as dominant mode of imagining ‘teaching and learning’. The sheer power of repetition over public perceptions should not be underestimated. In the current case, it requires an equally continuous and clear reply.
So, for the record: The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins is completely wrong. He is completely wrong because he misunderstands what universities are all about. And he is completely wrong because he frames his respective arguments in a kind of hyper-assertive macho language that substitutes forceful assertion for reasoned deliberation.
Jenkins’s asserts that universities have become “spineless lackeys of central government, lickspittles at the trough of subsidy”. A few sentences later, he contradicts himself by pointing to current political conflicts over the REF, the teaching grant, etc. This contradiction results from Jenkins’s inattention to the issue of academic freedom that lies at the heart of much of academics’ resistance to the Conservative government’s thrust to privatise HE. To make it plain: Academics are interested in writing books. Academics are interested in publishing articles. Academics are interested in teaching students. Money figures into the equation when academics need funds to undertake projects that otherwise cannot be done. Money figures into the equation when politicians and academic administrators insist or insinuate that academic life should be about money, rendering scholarship as a privatised efforts by academic-entrepreneurs to contribute to economic growth where needed.
It’s thus telling that Jenkins uses Stefan Collini’s recent What Are Universities For? as a foil against which he pits the words of a “bold economist”, who seems to deride traditional universities as almost entirely redundant. Jenkins’s argument here proceeds in the usual three-step sequence. First, he reduces Collini’s complex arguments to naked special interest. He presents academics like Collini as both ‘useless’ and self-servingly interested in preserving their status by draining public funds. Second, in so setting up his argument, Jenkins refuses to engage altogether with the idea of higher education as a public good in various ways vital to the functioning of the democratic public sphere. This is an idea considered extensively in Collini’s book and in other recent publications on the subject matter. Proponents of higher education privatization such as Jenkins typically refuse to engage with this part of the debate because it raises thorny questions about political conflict and the role of values in political and economic life. These questions are prone to casting the idea of a privatised education system limited to training skilled workers in a rather negative light; hence, they are best avoided. Through such avoidance, Jenkins is able to present Collini’s book to his readers as “blatant special pleading”, assuming that these readers are uninformed and have not read Collini’s book. Third, Jenkins tops his efforts off with his use of the aforementioned hypermasculine language, disparaging and deriding Collini’s work and the idea of the public university. In broad brushstrokes, claiming authority by quoting his bold economist, he derides the public university as “a cross between a finishing school, a community centre and a monastic scriptorium”. Bafflingly, he seems critical of scholars’ “appetite for research”, due to its supposed strain on public budgets. He chooses to disregard the fact that much research across many disciplines does not incur direct costs. Even more strikingly, he seems oblivious to the fact that many of the intellectual and artistic achievements in the modern Western world have been made possible by the public universities he decries. What then is Simon Jenkins’s ideal university? He does not state this quite clearly but his concluding statement seems to epitomise his mindset in a roundabout way:
“Besides narrowly vocational courses, higher education is not an investment but a socially advantageous consumption good. It should return to focusing on its users, and cross-subsidise its lofty ideals within each institution.”
Here we seem to have arrived back at the idea of the university as a kind of vocational training centre focused on equipping its ‘users’ with skills that are instrumentally useful in economic life. That’s just the idea which Stefan Collini and others have skilfully criticised in book-length treatises. So Simon Jenkins peddles this idea to his readers by disregarding counterarguments, misrepresenting the works that advance these counterarguments, and perpetuating an understanding about the historical role of universities in Western societies that is factually incorrect. Jenkins’s piece is anti-intellectual and profoundly manipulative, in that it relies on the assumption that his reader’s won’t have read Collini’s What Are Universities For? and will buy unthinkingly into his wrong claims about the book. This style of debate – manipulative, adverse to a genuine exchange of ideas, reliant on authoritative language, overtly or covertly anti-intellectual – exemplifies many or most of the recent public interventions in favour of higher education privatisation. This style of debate needs to be robustly challenged in every single instance. Readers need to be well informed, and genuine debate needs to take the place of the mixture of political authoritarianism and manipulative populism that currently prevails. Only if such change takes place and if academics play a more active role in it will the public university have a chance to survive.