This beautifully written, subtly argued and passionate book is an intense pleasure to read, and needs to be widely read.
It's starting point is that the terms of public debate have become so degraded that we have lost any real understanding of what universities are really about and for, and why they matter. This book is an attempt to restore that understanding.
The first half consists of a potted history of the evolution of universities and an exposition of what they are, what goes on in them and why they matter. Collini cautions against nostalgia for some golden period, sketching successive changes that have transformed universities, the way they are funded and their perceived role in society. He argues against a false duality between 'arts' or 'humanities' and 'science', and tries to suggest how both have in common the notion of academic inquiry as an open ended but disciplined (and shared) pursuit. He argues that university education is a good in its own right, both for the students and for society, not as an instrument towards employment or citizenship or whatever. It is a measure of this book that he manages in passing to connect this to an essentially humanist idea of what life itself is about, and for.
The second half consists of series of reprinted essays attacking various policies introduced over the past 25 years - the obsession with measuring 'impact', the false dichotomy between 'research' and 'teaching' as a complete taxonomy of academic activity, the invasion of business-speak and the catastrophic mistake of 'marketisation' of higher education. It should shame anyone on the Left that this ghastly chronicle of destruction has progressed with no perceptible difference between Labour and Tory Governments (predictably, Blunkett's intervention proving especially and gratuitously harmful).
I'd have to think long and hard for an example of public policy described with such clarity and yet such subtlety. Collini's chapter on Newman's 'The idea of a university', lovingly describing this towering edifice while quietly demonstrating that it has no foundations, is worth the cover price alone. His description of what universities actually do - the wrong-headiness of breaking it down into exclusive categories like 'research' and 'teaching', the (as he puts it) 'illimitable' nature of academic inquiry, the inherently cooperative nature of academic work that makes 'competition' as particularly doltish way of trying to run it - are profound and necessary insights. A particularly powerful device he uses is to accept the principles and aims of current policy as given, and then demonstrate how they must inevitably defeat themselves.
I doubt many books on education policy make one laugh out loud, as I often did with this one. For one of Collini's strengths is to control and channel the passion, indeed deep anger, that he so clearly feels, and one way he does so is through satire. His deception of 'that strange animal, the tax payer', or of how Socrates would undoubtedly have failed an Athenian Research Assessment Exercise, are among many such passages.
A sign of the power of this book is that Collini's arguments continue to detonate like time bombs in one's mind long after one has finished it. So often, books on public policy leave one thinking, OK, I agree with points A, B and C, not with D or E, job done . This is different: one has not only learned to think in a different way about the subject, but is provoked to go on thinking about it for oneself. The book wonderfully illustrating its own thesis.
Another sign is that it has resonances way beyond the immediate subject. As a civil servant whose career was made on the Thatcherite New Managerialism, including performance measurement, competition and the like in another sector, I was brought to reflect on whether the new (and to my mind - here I differ from Collini - immensely necessary) understanding which that created may not also have done violence to other values, other ways of looking at and describing public services, indeed public life.
The book is open to the criticism (which Collini to his credit himself articulates): OK, you've had your fun, so what do you propose? And there is no answer here. Indeed, while Collini cautions against mere reaction, it is pretty implicit from the analysis that what we really need to do his row back to c 1980 - and spend a lot more public money - even though he acknowledges that that is never going to happen.
But his purpose is not to set out yet another blue print for reform, but to enable discussion of the future of universities to take place on the basis of a much richer and more accurate understanding of what they do and why it is worth it than the current obsession with employment and financial gain, or with fees and equality of access. In this he succeeds quite brilliantly, and we should all be grateful to him for it.