Remaking the University: The Idea of the English University

By Michael MeranzeMay 23, 2017

Remaking the University: The Idea of the English University

Speaking of Universities by Stefan Collini

SINCE THEIR ASCENSION to power in 2010 (first as senior party in an alliance with the Liberal Democrats and then on their own after 2015), the English Conservative Party has been driving a systematic restructuring of England’s higher education funding and organization. Although the most infamous part of this restructuring was the government’s dramatic increase in student fees and institutionalization of a complicated loan and graduate tax system, that was simply one facet of their plans. The Conservatives have also aimed to make it easier for private companies to become universities, to force universities to adopt market rationality and goals in their relationships to students and communities, to remove state subsidies for teaching while simultaneously increasing state oversight of teaching, and to link higher education more directly to the immediate workplace desires of England’s business classes. In many ways, despite the rhetoric of a “free market” in higher education, the Tories have created a more intrusive state structure that will engage in constant auditing and intervention into the lives of English universities. In all, they have proposed the creation of what the philosopher Andrew McGettigan has termed a new “higher education settlement” premised on both the centrality of human capital theory and the assumption that English universities have failed to successfully expand their students’ human capital.

At the heart of this new structure lies two intertwined concepts: the student as consumer and higher education as a transactional relationship. The English government has been insistent that it is putting “students at the heart of the System” by forcing universities to provide more information about outcomes and costs. But in reality, the publicized outcomes relate less to either learning or the quality of experience than to the possible personal income that comes from attending specific universities or entering specific programs within universities. Treating income as the primary outcome not only sidelines questions of the alternative values and gains of a university education but also makes success or failure dependent on forces far beyond the university’s control. Are we seriously to think, for example, that universities suddenly did a worse job of educating students in 2009 than they had in 2007 simply because their unemployment rate went up during a recession? At the same time, the government is hoping that this increased information will force price differentials within higher education — those whose graduates earn more will be able to charge more (up to £9,000) while “lesser” institutions will need to compete through price.

In this schema, higher education becomes a relatively direct transaction between student-consumer and university-provider in which the education-commodity is purchased in pursuit of a particular income. From this assumption it follows that student-consumers should take out loans to purchase the education-commodity and then pay the loans back through a graduate tax that will kick in at a certain level of income. The Conservative government recognizes that the state will lose a certain amount of money that it loans and conceives of this loss (as well as greatly reduced teaching and research grants to universities) as the public share of what is now a public-private contract. From this vantage point, the most important aim is to increase the number of providers, and therefore competition, while driving less successful income generators out of the system. Then, in theory at least, price will become a reasonable facsimile of value (conceived of as income). Of course this also means that education as a cross-generational public commitment to a whole society loses its meaning. But as true children of Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration that “there’s no such thing as society,” this loss of meaning doesn’t bother the Tories.

To be sure, the Conservatives have faced strong and ongoing opposition to their plans. Student-led protests rocked both England and the government in 2011 and beyond, groups of committed faculty like the Campaign for a Public University have offered ongoing critical analysis and protest, and even that noted outpost of indigenous English radicalism the House of Lords has done its best to modify and blunt the government’s efforts to increase both state and market controls over higher education. But the government has proceeded forward in the face of widespread opposition and has just passed a new Higher Education Bill that threatens to create new and more cumbersome audit practices and to surround the learning process with ever greater red tape. English higher education is at a crossroads.



Stefan Collini, a professor of English and intellectual history at Cambridge, has had a distinguished career as a historian of English public discourse in the 19th and 20th centuries. His particular focus has been on tracking and analyzing the changing nature of public voices — both the styles of individuals who have intervened in public debate and the dominant metaphors and concepts that have shaped the nature of public understanding itself. This has entailed an examination of what he has termed “public moralists” — figures whose writings do not fit exactly into the categories of political or moral thought but rather some combination of the two. His writings have ranged from early studies in the history of political economy to reflections on the uses of history, the place of public journals, and the nature of different writing and reading publics in modern English life.

Since the Conservative ascension, he has also emerged as one of the most important and most consistent critics of the new dispensation in English higher education. His latest collection of essays, Speaking of Universities, follows upon and deepens his earlier What Are Universities For? (2012). In both works, Collini offers extended criticism of current efforts to reduce universities to the terms of external — largely market — values. But Speaking of Universities goes further. Whereas What Are Universities For? aimed to debunk a series of increasingly commonplace assumptions about the role of universities in contemporary Britain, Speaking of Universities offers a sustained argument for recognizing the centrality of attending to the history of the language that has been offered to describe and direct higher education. It tackles the large redefinition of the purposes of universities and higher education that underlies the Conservatives’ policy. In addition, it presents us with an extended example of — and justification for — the necessity of a sustained public argument in favor of the purposes of universities.

The volume brings together public addresses given at universities in England, Scotland, Australia, Europe, and the United States, an address given to parliamentarians at the Houses of Parliament, and revised versions of essays he wrote for the London Review of Books, as well as shorter pieces for newspapers, occasional speaking, and one radio program transcript. It ranges over an array of issues central to the recent history of the university: the rise of business jargon, the attacks on academic and institutional autonomy, the growing weight of managerial authority, and the reduction of higher education to an offshoot of economic policy. It thereby displays Collini’s effort to address a wide variety of higher education publics and issues and to insist on the importance of academics doing so. His labors have had an effect on the public debate. In a recent forum on the book, Collini engaged in an exchange with David Willetts, arguably the Tory theorist of the new higher education system and formerly the Minister of Universities and Science; that Willetts felt the need to respond to Collini is a sign of the importance of his efforts.

The book’s format does makes for a certain amount of repetition. But it is a self-conscious repetitiveness. As opposed to the academic world, where simply repeating an argument does not necessarily strengthen it, in the political realm it is only sustained statement and restatement of arguments that enables ideas to emerge and take hold of audiences. For Collini, this repetitiveness is especially important because of the assumptions embedded in language that shape what we think of as reality:

It would not require any particularly fancy philosophical footwork to establish that our experience of the world is in part constituted by the categories we use. Words are not a kind of decorative wrapping paper in which meaning is delivered, with the implication that they could be stripped away, or others used in their stead, without making any difference to the “real” content. Concepts colonize our minds and we become used to thinking about ourselves and our world in their terms; our actions are only identifiable as this action rather than that action in terms of the language in which we describe them.

Speaking of Universities, then, insists that to preserve and develop higher education demands that we depose the language of management and business efficiency and replace it with a renewed language of scholarly autonomy. In both its form and its substance, it enacts the arguments in favor of the public importance of scholarly engagement in promoting scholarly judgment.

At the heart of Collini’s critique of the current transformation in thinking and policy is a simple notion: that the purposes of institutions matter. One of the central themes of Speaking of Universities is the repeated ways that the singularity of universities — as sites of scholarship and teaching — has been drowned out in the emphases placed on income, outputs, and quantifiable productivity. To take only one example of this new language (quoted from a “supporting analysis” of one of the Government’s Higher Education White Papers), Collini cheerfully provides us with:

Economic theory suggests that individuals will invest in higher education up to the point where the private marginal benefit (PMB) equals the marginal cost (MC). However, there are additional benefits to society (SMB) which are not considered by the individual when making their [sic] decision to invest in HE. As a result the optimal level of investment from society’s perspective may exceed that which individuals would make, causing lower investment in HE than would be socially optimal.

Leaving aside the obvious crimes against the English language, this passage reduces the process of education to a transaction akin to purchasing a car. The entire experience is eviscerated in the government’s attempt to justify its intervention into the higher education market to ensure greater productivity. This approach precludes any values aside from obtaining marketable skills; the transformation of the character and perspective of the student is irrelevant.

Similar transformations are moving forward in the world of scholarship proper. The English academy has long had a system of nationwide research evaluations (usually overseen by what are called “Quangos” — semi-governmental bodies supposed to operate at “arm’s length” from the formal ministry they assist). But in recent years, the English government has been constructing and deconstructing both the relevant Quangos and the evaluations they oversee. This process has led to a heightening of emphasis on evaluations in terms of the “Research Excellence Framework” (REF). Not surprisingly, the overall effect has been to increase both the labor involved in these evaluations and the financial costs for institutions that do not do well.

One key element of evaluation today is “impact.” Two problems emerge immediately from the English government’s attempts to judge scholarship by impact. First, this method of measurement does not actually judge scholarly impact at all (since it is often slow to develop and difficult to quantify) but instead seeks to tally scholarship’s level of use. Second, following inevitably from the above, the reality of impact depends on external factors over which scholars have no control. On the most obvious level, it is far easier to demonstrate impact if you are in a STEM field than if you are, say, an ancient historian. But even within fields, “impact” is often serendipity. To demonstrate his point, Collini reports on the case of a colleague of his — a scholar of English poetry — who found himself helping out with an exhibition at a local museum on a poet he had written about. This collaboration led to the need to document how many people had visited the exhibition, to determine if there was any way to recover their comments on the experience, to analyze what effect visiting the exhibition might have had in terms of what the REF termed a “change in their behaviours,” and so on. As Collini notes, there is little in this sort of data that can actually speak to the scholarly quality of academic work:

But in reality these kinds of effects, even if desirable in themselves, as no doubt many of them are, do not testify to the quality of the research at all. My colleague’s scholarship on this poet would still have been of the same high quality whether or not he had happened to be involved with this museum, let alone whether we could demonstrate beyond doubt that a thirteen-year-old visiting with a school party had written in the comments book that the exhibits were “ace.”

This emphasis has meant that more and more of the labor and resources of universities (and in this case a museum) have been turned toward meeting externally imposed — and highly artificial — demands. But it also means that there is a reduction (not a total elimination, since there remains some room for an analysis of scholarly quality) of the importance of informed judgment in favor of quantified data.

Here quantifiable impact studies and ranking systems serve the same function as the transactional imagination does for students. Collini is at his most acute when dissecting the illogic of the ways that ranking systems purport to demonstrate the quality of different higher education systems. For universities, and indirectly for students, the ranking systems provide a picture of false objectivity. They do not distinguish the quality of education; instead, they are based on a series of dubious proxies — the amount of money spent on research, the number of Nobel Prize winners, and the degree to which universities reject applicants. These various efforts to quantify the task of the university are not simply misleading, they actively distract from the questions that need to be asked. As Collini concludes, “Until we free ourselves from the current fetishized form of quantification we shall find it impossible to have an adequate discussion of the nature of intellectual activity, and until we can have such a discussion we cannot say whether universities are doing what they should be doing and doing it well.” We are speaking of universities in the wrong way.



If we accept that the Conservatives aim not merely at transforming the financing of universities but also at redefining their purposes and practices, then we are left with a question: what can be offered as an alternative? Here Collini is simultaneously at his most incisive and his most frustrating. Speaking of Universities argues at length that the heart of higher education must be scholarly thinking and judgment (in teaching, research, and writing) and that that core must be entrusted to academics judging the state of their own fields of study. Universities must direct themselves in accord with the demands of knowledge and not of business or the government. It is only under the sign of knowledge that true scholarship can proceed and that real education can take place. Collini offers a bracing riposte to the common transatlantic doxa that increasingly demands that universities be judged by their entrepreneurial quality and their capacity to gain external donors in a marketplace of commodified projects.

But as much as I would assent to Collini’s vision, it remains — as perhaps my summary paragraph also did — abstract. In part this is by design. Collini is committed to the defense of individual disciplines, and as a result to offer a singular vision of what the university should be for (to use the title of his previous book) would be contradictory. As Collini suggests, “a university education has to be in large part an education in a discipline, though what is really happening is education through a discipline.” But he fails to specify with greater concreteness what his sense of intellectual judgment or quality is, and thus fails to offer a vision of the university that counters the bureaucratese of his governmental overlords. This is not adequate to the challenge we face.

Some sense of the difficulty can be seen in the chapter “Reading the Ruins: Criticism and ‘the Idea of the University.’” As Collini argues, the “idea of the university” discourse (which takes it bearings from the famous work of Cardinal Newman) has shown remarkable resilience. It has developed both as a coherent tradition with common intellectual landmarks and as a cohesive project defining the university against an economistic or utilitarian reduction to society’s immediate needs. “Idea” literature has therefore stood as one side of an ongoing debate about universities: it has been “constantly seeking to crystallize what is entailed by the logic of open-ended enquiry,” whereas, Collini continues, “‘needs of society’ statements are constantly attempting to rein in the consequences of an excessive attachment to that ideal as it has allegedly shaped actual academic practices.” Collini’s loyalties are clear here — crystallizing a logic of inquiry on the one hand, reining in an ideal on the other — and it is hard to disagree with him. Whatever else one may think universities should do, if they are forced to lose an emphasis on scholarly inquiry it is hard to see how they remain universities. But if the “idea of the university” literature is, as he writes later, a “series of attempts to chip off some of the limescale that corrodes the pipes of our thinking, allowing us to see the inappropriateness or even the absurdity of terms and procedures that we were otherwise in danger of treating as our own,” that is not all that it is. Collini’s depiction of the “idea of the university” literature makes it a sub-theme of the larger “culture and society” tradition that Raymond Williams wrote about long ago and that Collini and others have criticized but also extended in their critiques of market values.

There is truth in Collini’s analysis of “idea of the university” literature, but it is a partial truth. The idea of the university tradition has been contextually more dynamic and forward looking, I believe, than his categories allow. Although Collini is too fine a historian not to note the specific and changing historical contexts that helped provoke books on the idea of the university, his emphasis on the sameness at their core prevents him from taking their full measure. Consider a book that Collini mentions but does not engage deeply: F. R. Leavis’s Education and the University: a Sketch for an “English School” from 1943. To be sure, Leavis was a highly controversial figure in the anti-popular-culture wing of the culture and society tradition. But Education and the University is not simply a defense of traditional standards against the intrusions of society. Though it does begin with the seemingly obligatory chapter on “the idea of the university,” Leavis’s proposals are distinctly new. Take one example, his proposal for a revamped Tripos in English. At Cambridge, the Tripos are a set of exams that mark the culmination of a program of study, and the English Tripos had been established around World War I and a full faculty only constituted in the mid-1920s. Rather than a backward-looking gesture, his proposal for an “English school” was a concentrated examination of modernity. Indeed, Leavis advocated focusing the English program on an interdisciplinary examination of the 17th century as an essential site for understanding the modern world. Now I doubt that most professors of English would share this view in our more global and neocolonial world; indeed, to many the 17th century might as well be ancient history. But the point surely is that “idea of the university” literature is more than its repetitive history of the articulation of values; it is also a site for thinking about specific discipline-based interventions into the future of higher education that can be as concrete and engaged in bringing the past to bear on the present and future as any “needs of society” could ever be. It is that concreteness that we need today.



It would be easy to dismiss the English case — with its Parliamentary system, nationalized higher education policy, strange Quangos, and post-imperial anxieties — as too singular to be anything but an esoteric curiosity for the rest of the world. But that would be a mistake. Instead, for readers in the United States, the English case offers a compressed — and thereby more clearly focused — version of the changes that are proceeding in more piecemeal fashion here. For readers in nations that retain a stronger commitment to state-supported higher education as a national good, the English case may offer a vision of one possible future to prepare for so as to avoid.

Indeed, with the possible exception of the English tradition of Quangos, there is little in the world that Collini is analyzing and criticizing that would not seem familiar to American academics. We have all witnessed the transfer of the costs of education from the general public to individual students and their families, the state’s dramatic reduction of per-student contribution to public institutions, the consistent denigration of the liberal arts in favor of more “practical” learning based on potential income, the elevation of STEM over the humanities and social sciences, the growing anxiety over rankings and the spread of corporate public relations, the rise of managers and managerialism, and the final realization of Clark Kerr’s famous depiction of the university “as a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

It is in this context that Speaking of Universities is so important. Collini’s insistence that university faculty need to reassert the university’s specific purposes in the face of the demands of — and for — money is an essential one. The varied histories that he presents in the volume make clear that the cost of accepting the rule of revenue and the drive to become “like business” is the loss of purpose. They also make clear that any serious effort to reclaim the purposes of the university cannot come from the managers who are themselves too enmeshed within the demands of fundraising and the desire for expansion. The next time you hear someone declare the pablum of the day — “you don’t want to leave money on the table” — you can be sure they are not thinking about the purposes of the university. It is only through the consistent speech of dissident voices like Collini that we have any hope of remaking the university as a place defined by academic judgment and thought. Otherwise, in both England and the United States, the managers will continue to redefine the university out of any meaningful existence. If Collini doesn’t provide a concrete way forward, he more than demonstrates its necessity and indeed the necessity of a new way of speaking of universities.


Michael Meranze is professor of History at UCLA. He co-edits the blog “Remaking the University.”

LARB Contributor

Michael Meranze is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specializes in US intellectual and legal history, and a member of the American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He is the author of Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia 1760–1835 (North Carolina, 1996), co-editor (with David Garland and Randall McGowen) of America’s Death Penalty: Between Past and Present (NYU, 2011), and numerous essays on legal and intellectual history. He also co-edits the blog Remaking the University.


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