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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Universities, do they work?
Across the world, universities are more numerous than they have ever been, yet at the same time there is unprecedented confusion about their purpose and skepticism about their value. What Are Universities For? offers a spirited and compelling argument for completely rethinking the way we see our universities, and why we need them.

Stefan Collini challenges the...
Published on 10 Dec. 2012 by tariqmuda

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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What's a university for? Stefan Collini knows but can't tell you.
Universities Collini style, are for smart people. This book is an amusing, well written but poorly argued survey of the state of universities in modern Britain. Collini describes the university landscape in particular the huge growth in the past couple of generations (from one in twenty to one in two of the school-leaving cohort) in university attendance, and the...
Published on 14 Dec. 2012 by T. J. Jones


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Universities, do they work?, 10 Dec. 2012
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Across the world, universities are more numerous than they have ever been, yet at the same time there is unprecedented confusion about their purpose and skepticism about their value. What Are Universities For? offers a spirited and compelling argument for completely rethinking the way we see our universities, and why we need them.

Stefan Collini challenges the common claim that universities need to show that they help to make money in order to justify getting more money. Instead, he argues that we must reflect on the different types of institution and the distinctive roles they play. In particular we must recognize that attempting to extend human understanding, which is at the heart of disciplined intellectual enquiry, can never be wholly harnessed to immediate social purposes - particularly in the case of the humanities, which both attract and puzzle many people and are therefore the most difficult subjects to justify.

At a time when the future of higher education lies in the balance, What Are Universities For? offers all of us a better, deeper and more enlightened understanding of why universities matter, to everyone.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A bit of a bumpy ride - if only it was all like the second part., 6 Mar. 2014
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Andrew Dalby "ardalby" (oxford) - See all my reviews
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Often people skip the introduction to books especially if it has latin numerals as this usually means that it does not form a part of the main text of the book and possibly it would have been better if I had. The problem is that the author shows his bias and his excess protectionism of the humanities against the charge of being useless compared to useful. So he disparages the sciences in the introduction and as a scientist this already put me in a position of wanting to reject his arguments.

The first half of the book is very academic and dry. Some of the arguments especially those looking specifically at the humanities I found very frustrating, arrogant or impenetrable. He says that a lay person should not be able to understand a paper in the humanities just as they cannot understand modern science. I am an editor of a science journal and I believe strongly in making science accessible and cutting through the arcane language. If the work cannot be understood by non-experts then there is no chance of inter-disciplinary cross-fertilisation and this is bad for all academics. So on that point we fundamentally disagree. As for usefulness PPE seems to have provided half of the current cabinet and I do not think there are many science graduates in government.

Where the author comes into his own is the second part which is a series of previously published articles that were responses to changes in government policy. As these are written for a less academic audience they are much easier to read and also much more convincing. His attacks on bibliometrics and the assurance of quality in both research and teaching are brilliant and witty. I especially like the section talking about the cutting of all funding of humanities imagining that the opposite had happened and that it had actually happened to sciences. As he points out scientists (except for the greedy, political, grant hoarding ones) also feel the need to support colleagues in the humanities and see a common goal of universities. So I feel he did not need to take the excessively defensive and anti-science position that sometimes appears in the first part. So I think there is enough in the second part to swing my opinion from 2-stars to 4-stars but if you skip the first half it would be a 5-star book.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Universities: who calls the tune?, 22 May 2012
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Collini is saying essentially that the purpose of universities is all the things that they may reasonably choose to undertake. Underlying this are: that the life of the mind is a key element in humanity; that, even when usefulness to society may weigh in consideration of what should most receive support and funding, prediction of effectiveness is very hard; that universities are generally staffed by(highly) intelligent and conscientious people who will reach good decisions. The backgound to his efort in this book is what many see as increasingly instrumentalist approaches by governments determined to push university endeavour towards the potentially economically useful: in pursuit of which aim they insist on the application of mechanistic measurement, which is often misleading and always effort-consuming. While Collini is concerned particularly with work in the humanities, the argument runs wider.
We are in deep waters here: communication between author and lay reader is not easily achieved. And many will continue determined not to listen let alone engage in argument. But Collini does well by any anyone willing to give time and attention to working thru what he carefully expounds and discusses.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Begging an unanswerable question..., 20 Mar. 2012
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Dr. G. SPORTON "groggery1" (Birmingham UK) - See all my reviews
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Collini's book is not a serious attempt to answer the question he poses. It is more an assertion of the value of the University as a public good, and an invitation to join the cause (though a paragraph on p 56 comes very close). His task is made more problematic by the fact that universities are a heterogeneous bunch that lack internal consistency as individual institutions, let alone as a sector, and that we live in a moment that thinks all public policy is about economic growth at the exclusion of everything else. He is strong on disposing of some of the more traditional defences of university privilege, despatching Newman and his ilk, and contextualising the argument about instrumentalism that currently rages across the piece, demonstrating less of an affinity with the past and more concern about the future of higher education once purged of its uselessness. For Collini, the idea of leaving the fate of the sector in the hands of the nation's 18 year-olds is anathema. Working in an HEI, I can't help but agree with him: it is an abrogation of responsibility to the emerging generation by politicians and civil servants who are always looking to shift responsibility from their own shoulders.

His problem is the same as everyone else who has tried to deal with these issues: whilst his argument for support remains one that is generalised and abstracted, the flat-footed, practical types that dictate policy (and he cruelly exposes their intellectual limitations in the analyses of their White Papers and so on) point gruffly at the absence of utility to the failed economy and ask why universities should be indulged. His intellectual sneering is funny, but also indicates the extent to which the bureaucrats of varying sorts cannot formulate another argument, or respond effectively to ones like Collini's. We are gazing across a gulf of mutual incomprehensibility. Collini's case centres around the role of the Humanities, in a manner reminiscent of Carey's defence of literature in another polemical book (What Good are the Arts?). Yet, despite agreeing with much of his analysis, and greatly amused by much of his writing, it is hard to believe universities are the great Corinthian institutions Collini claims them to be. Between chronically wasteful and talentless management, droves of second-rate, monster-fee-paying international students whose pass marks are financially underwritten, recalcitrant colleagues who refuse to change 'on principle', and ludicrous quality assurance regimes, one could almost embrace the Browne Review as the beginning of the end. This is not solely the fault of Browne (though surely his 'reforms' will be disastrous), but of our own lack of care at what are universities have become through the inability of the sector itself (especially its leaders) to properly articulate its value in the public domain.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, subtly argued, passionate and wickedly funny case for re-thinking the debate about Universities, 19 Nov. 2012
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.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The author's been to university!, 16 May 2012
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This book is vital fodder for parents of university students, the students themselves or anyone interested in the question - how much should universities be funded by the taxpayer? So that's pretty much all of us! Irrespective of whether you agree with the author's conclusions he directs us to the problems and, crucially, demonstrates the core skill I think universities are for, namely the ability to analyse issues, construct powerful arguments and to evaluate issues critically. The underlying problem is that there is no simple answer to the question of what universities are for, nor how (much) to fund them. The author's writing is clever and extremely witty at the same time. He occasionally writes sentences that require more concentration than others, but that strikes me as a good thing!

Reading this book prompted me to read The Trouble with Higher Education: A Critical Examination of our Universities. This (previously written) book looks drier on the face of it, but is an interesting perspective alongside that of Collini. Whilst it goes deeper into issues that may be more of interest to those in academia, it still raises questions I think students would find useful in order to understand the perspective of universities and the consequences of certain choices such as modular based degree courses. Again it demonstrates the skill of analysis and critique. I recommend the Hussey & Smith book as well.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Made a convincing case, 2 Oct. 2013
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This book was clear and concise and made the case well that universities are not only there for economic reasons but for cultural ones as well. I guess he was preaching to the converted in that sense as it is something I feel passionately about. Definitely worth a read if you are interested in the arguments around the purpose of higher education.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 21 May 2014
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This review is from: What are Universities For? (Kindle Edition)
A very enlightening view into the mind of a humanities lecturer at a traditional University. He provides convincing arguments, from this perspective. Balanced? Well I teach in a Business School, so wouldn't be qualified to comment.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Very good, 1 Aug. 2014
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Murray (Manchester UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: What are Universities For? (Kindle Edition)
Much-needed analysis of the current crisis in university funding - should be required reading for every politician.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 16 Jan. 2015
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Important book for my work with Philosophy for Educational Renewal
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