Thursday, 7 July 2011

Gather round to hear Simon Blackburn destroy the government's ideas

Now I'm on p. 24 Times Higher Education magazine, I think I can rightfully call Professor Blackburn (Philosophy, Cambridge University) my colleague.

I ranted about the government's Higher Education White Paper, and good sarcastic knockabout stuff it was too. But the good professor uses philosophy to take the government outside, stamp on its glasses and duff it up good and proper. Some extracts:

Forty-five years ago when I had to decide on a career, it was a glittering prize to go on to doctoral studies and thence to gain a post in a good university. Now with students shouldering what is perceived as a crippling level of debt, and only a bureaucratically hag-ridden and demoralised profession to enter at the end of it, one wonders how anybody is motivated to do so - and indeed there are worrying signs that many are not. They cannot be blamed, especially as there are many fewer grants available for postgraduate studies. The Arts and Humanities Research Council, for example, has significantly cut the number of postgraduate grants it gives out in favour of shovelling money into Mickey Mouse projects that it imagines to be vaguely associated with the prime minister's "Big Society" agenda or, as we learned last week, sponsoring X Factor style competitions for dramatic young lecturers. (For its New Generation Thinkers scheme, the AHRC worked with BBC Radio 3 to find young researchers who could make "fascinating" radio programmes about their academic work.)

I am entirely in favour of providing potential students with as much information as they can use when they choose a university or a course. But it is interesting that even that great liberal and apostle of free exchange, John Stuart Mill, had doubts about the value of free choice when it came to education. As he famously said: "The uncultivated cannot be competent judges of cultivation. Those who most need to be made wiser and better, usually desire it least, and if they desired it, would be incapable of finding the way to it by their own lights." In other words, if potential students care mainly about the quality of the clubbing in the city housing the university, they are unlikely to pay much attention even to the salaries its graduates achieve, let alone other indicators of the kind of cultivation it offers. Few parents closely acquainted with teenage decision-making will place bets on the wisdom or sanity of the choices that will be made, even if they have no option but to let their children get on with it.

One might also wonder whether the reward structures of society are so unquestionably healthy as to play this role in directing student choice. It is understandable that a young person might want to be a mathematician who works in the City, devising schemes for making money out of financial bubbles, as opposed, let us say, to being a social worker. But I do not entirely approve of universities advertising that this is the choice to make, nor telling themselves that they exist to facilitate it. 
universities will quickly turn their admissions offices into sales departments, anxiously scanning the zeitgeist for the next hook with which to lure students. There will be even more glossy brochures with pictures of happy young people drinking coffee and kicking balls about. But will these blandishments translate into meeting their needs? 

 it is more admirable, and more enviable, and more likely to yield a degree of self-knowledge, to be living with an active and well-stocked mind than without. A person can properly be quietly proud of his or her achievements and understanding, whereas taking pride in possessions and wealth is more likely to be vanity or narcissism. As John Ruskin said, there is no wealth but life, and it is the quality of life that universities exist to nourish.

Expanding the understanding and imagination of students is a great task. It can be done only by people whose own understandings and imagination are in good order, which is the reason why good teaching and the desire to contribute to a subject go together. Just as it does not talk about the needs of teachers, the White Paper does not talk of research - apparently there was to be a chapter on that, but nobody knew what to say, and it has been deferred to another document due in the autumn. 
Perhaps we should not have expected better. The problems of funding higher education are real enough. Once it was determined that it was students who were to bear the cost, rather than general taxation, then indeed, as the president of the Oxford University Student Union well said, lipstick had to be found to put upon the pig. Honeyed words about the student experience were perhaps the best cosmetic available.
What an ironic shame that studying philosophy at Cambridge will become the preserve of the well-heeled to an even greater degree than now, should the government get its way.

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