I see no appetite for a fundamental reform of post education, yet year by year further and higher education converge around a notion of vocational tertiary education, while the elongated diversity of higher education suggests some structural reform is overdue. Universities are certainly over-regulated, but the sector is equally under-planned.
Policy should not be driven solely by student financing arrangements as Collini makes clear , any more than a one-size-fits-all funding arrangement for research and teaching will give adequate incentives to the various dimensions of excellence which need to be sustained across the sector, though not equally in each and every university. The US, to remind ourselves, has over 3, universities, but less than with graduate schools. And most institutions offer a baccalaureate undergraduate degree, not an honours one. Hong Kong has recently reformed its sector to meet modern needs. Is it so out of the question that we cannot even contemplate this, but rather bumble on in our dysfunctional way?
So it is two-all after 90 minutes, but still everything to play for in extra time between now and Collini's book, I hope, will kick-start a serious debate. As a precursor, he has successfully reminded us what, indeed, universities are for. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Try Independent Minds free for 1 month.
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What Are Universities for? by Stefan Collini
UK Edition. US Edition. Log in using your social network account. Please enter a valid password. Keep me logged in. His recent essays in the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books were widely praised for skewering government proposals for their incoherence and inconsistency, and echoed what many academics had felt but been unwilling to say.
Collini never really answers the question of what universities are actually for, but follows the question in a number of interesting directions.
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The volume is split into two parts. The first is more reflective whilst the second is more rhetorical, reprinting updated versions of a number of his earlier public outings. The fundamental argument in both parts is that universities have marginalised their humanities activities because of a drive to demonstrate their value to society. The humanities are distinctive because they individually can appear to be dilettante obsessions.
And what is true for humanities is also true more generally for most kinds of non-vocationally focused higher education. So the paradox is that the people who have made the case for universities being useful have not been able to fully grasp that certain subjects are useful, but that their use is not their justification. The institution of a university produces useful outcomes, but the point of that institution is not those useful outcomes. The problem with recent policy is that it has mistakenly assumed that this to be true.
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The effects have been profound for higher education as a whole. To try and make good this problem, Collini argues that one cannot start from arguments about use. There are two great strengths in this book. The first is that the criticisms made are well-founded. The second strength is that it is a very well-written book, and is a pleasure to read. Collini uses his literary talents to create a friendly atmosphere for the reader. The language has both the idiom of the professor entertaining in the senior common room as well as the friendly, instructive cadences of the tutorial. The overall effect is to make the reader highly sympathetic to the volume.
But that sympathy cannot override a more general feeling that the book promises a great deal more than it can deliver. Collini is very quick to hurry his audiences past the anecdotal and assertion-based sections of his arguments, even conceding this shortcoming early in the volume. The effect is that for all the book is excellent in diagnosing the problem, his prognosis and prescription remain insufficiently precise to form the basis for informed action by universities, professors or even Ministers. We know what Collini is against, in short, but it is much harder to see except in the most general terms how his favoured vision of the university might be delivered.
That should not detract from the fact that its two strengths more than justify its exceedingly reasonable cover price.