Why public universities matter

I’ve just come on an excellent opinion piece by Professor Peter Scott of the Institute of Education in the Guardian about the two contrasting philosophical/ideological camps — traditionalists and modernisers — that are emerging in British Higher Education. The article was published on April 3, but, hey, I’m a slow reader.


So for traditionalists, higher education needs to be more “private” to resist the market. For modernisers, higher education needs to be more “private” because the market is the measure of all things. No matter. Either way the public university is finished.

On the contrary, the public university is like democracy – a flawed institution perhaps, but so much better than all the alternatives. The reason is that higher education is a public good – not (just) in the technical economists’ sense that large public benefits accrue that cannot be allocated to individual beneficiaries, but in terms of more fundamental social and cultural values.

There are three compelling reasons for keeping higher education public. The first is the witness of history. Universities have played a central role in the construction of national identities.

Scottish universities have contributed at least as much to the identity of Scotland as its on-off parliament or established Presbyterian Church.

Exactly the same can be said about the great land-grant universities in the US, or German universities in the 19th century, or universities across Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. All distilled some essence of their nations, for good or ill.

More practically, the state has stepped in to make good the deficiencies of tuition fee, industrial and philanthropic funding. The greatly extended systems of higher education and research we possess today simply would not exist without public patronage. The University of Buckingham may be a counter-example, but it is a tiny one, with 2,000 students – the size of a small faculty in a standard university.

The second reason is that science can only flourish in an open environment. If research findings are corralled by proprietary restrictions or commercial constraints, they cannot be properly tested. Of course, great philanthropic foundations support open research. But private interests do not, and cannot. State funding, for all the clutter of politically generated “themes” and “priorities”, is the best guarantee of open science.

The final reason is that universities act upon that most sensitive of all interfaces, between academic excellence and democratic rights. Fair access and widening participation are not, as some in the Russell Group seem to believe, irritating impositions by leftwing politicians; nor are they acts of noblesse oblige charity…

All good stuff. But the nub of the matter is captured by his analogy with democracy — “the worst system except for all the others”. The ‘problem’ with democracy (as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore might have put it) is that it’s inefficient. Much simpler, cheaper and more efficient to have a benevolent dictator (like Mr Lee and his successors). Likewise, our justice system is mightily ‘inefficient’ — all those lawyers, trials, juries, assumption of innocence until proved guilty, etc. Much simpler to be able to lock up baddies on the say-so of a senior policeman.

But in both cases we tolerate the inefficiencies because we value other things more highly: political liberty and freedom of expression in the case of democracy; the belief that a system of justice should be open, impartial and fair in the case of our court system.

Like democracy, public universities are also ‘inefficient’ — often, in my experience, woefully so. And only some of that inefficiency can be defended in terms of academic freedoms; much of it is down to the way university culture has evolved, the expectations of academic staff, poor management (rather than enlightened administration), and so on — things that could be fixed without undermining the really important values embodied by the idea of a university. The advent of serious tuition fees in English universities will have the effect of highlighting some of the more egregious deficiencies — poor (or at best uneven) teaching quality, little pastoral care, archaic pedagogical methods, etc. But any attempt to remedy these problems is likely to be seen as interference with cherished academic freedoms, and resisted accordingly. Already, however, students are beginning to ask questions: why, for example, should they pay £9,000 a year for crowded lectures, ‘tutorial groups’ of 50 or more, zero pastoral care and — in some cases — lousy social facilities? Why should complaints about the crass incompetence of a particular lecturer be ignored by the Head of his department? (These are gripes I’ve heard from students recently, though not at my university.)

The problem isn’t helped by the crass insensitivity of many of the new ‘managers’ in UK universities — people who may know how to run a business but haven’t the faintest idea of how to run a university. There’s no reason in principle, though, why one cannot have universities that, on the one hand, function as liberal, critical institutions which cherish and protect freedom of thought and inquiry while at the same time providing excellent ‘customer service’ to their paying students. Making that blend a reality will not be easy to achieve, but it can be done.

The ‘debate’ about Higher Education is, in many ways, analogous to the debate about Intellectual Property in a digital age. In both cases, what’s important are the central values that we wish to buttress and protect. In the case of universities, it’s the idea of the university as a place of free inquiry, a critical institution. In the case of IP, it’s the importance of ensuring that society has ready access to new ideas and that innovation is not stifled by the vested interests of old industries or institutions. But in general nobody talks about the values. This may be because they’re intrinsically intangible: values are beliefs about what is good, important or ‘valuable’. Value-conflicts therefore cannot be resolved by resorting to facts, because rival sets of values may be incommensurable (to use Thomas Kuhn’s famous term): there’s no rational way of deciding whether Bach is superior to Beethoven. Given the irreconcilability of values, the only way we have of deciding is political: insofar as the current US presidential election is about anything, it’s about two sharply-conflicting sets of values, and in the end the votes will decide which set gains the upper hand for the time being.

Because values are intangible, conflicting and too abstract for most public discussion, they tend to be left out of policy discussions. The Browne Report on the financing of British HE, for example, is drenched in values, but they are nowhere discussed in the document, and it has been left to scholars like Stefan Collini to unpick and expound them. But the Browne report is absolutely typical because much of what has happened to British public institutions over the last three decades can be best explained in terms of values.

It all goes back to Margaret Thatcher who, when she was PM, was both intrigued and infuriated by the BBC (with good reason IMHO). So she asked her advisers a question: how can one rationally evaluate public (i.e. non-market) institutions like the BBC? How could she know whether it was giving ‘value for money’? The answer, she was told, is that one cannot — because of the value-problem mentioned above. Dissatisfied, Thatcher commissioned a consultancy firm to advise on how government can determine whether it is getting value for taxpayers’ money in the public sector. The consultants reported that while values were difficult or impossible to ‘evaluate’, nevertheless there were some things that could be measured — the number of visitors to a museum, for example; average length of queues for hospital operations; the citation-record of university scholars. Beans that could be counted, in other words. And so Britain embarked on a frenzy of bean-counting in the public sector — a frenzy that continues unabated to this day, and is what gave UK universities the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad.