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What are Universities For? Paperback – 23 Feb 2012
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An eloquent and impassioned book (Economist)
Collini is astute, analytical, and often killingly funny (Bevis Hillier Daily Telegraph)
Collini is that rare bird, a don who can be read with pleasure (Michael Barber Tablet, Books of the Year)
One of Britain's finest essayists and writers (Ronan McDonald The Times Higher Education Supplement)
[A] timely lecture for the coalition of dunces ... this is a closely argued defence (Independent on Sunday)
The book is a bit like some university courses. It is erudite, well argued, carefully researched, a fine addition to the debate about the purpose of university education (Scotsman)
[Collini is] stern and splendid in his brief history of the hot debate on useful versus useless knowledge (Fred Inglis Times Higher Education)
It is extremely well written: Collini's prose is lively, well-reasoned and persuasive. The book is a refreshing example of a faculty member engaging with the wider issues of higher education rather than perceiving them through the narrow prism of his own discipline ... a valuable, timely contribution to the discourse (Gerry Wrixon Irish Examiner)
A critique both pointed and witty (Howard Newby Independent)
Collini writes beautifully (Chris Patten Financial Times)
Collini puts his finger on the nub of the problem facing universities. Collini's book is a must-read (AC Grayling Literary Review)
About the Author
Stefan Collini has become one of the most respected voices in public debates about universities and their place in modern society.He is a Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University and Fellow of the British Academy, who frequently contributes to The Guardian,The London Review of Books,The Times Literary Supplement and The Nation.Reviewers of the recent, Common Reading: Critics, Historians,Publics (2008), described him as 'one of Britain's finest essaysists and writers.'Other works include Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (2006),Public Moralists (1991),Matthew Arnold: a Critical Portrait (1994) and English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture (1999).
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The first half of the book, unfortunately, is pretty heavy on naval-gazing and pomposity. It seems like a self-conscious attempt to mirror the polemics and poeticism of writers such as John Newman, noting himself as he does that a list of bullet points is rarely sufficient to stir the passions. There's no denying he is an eloquent and insightful writer, but so much of that gets lost in the way in which he wraps his arguments up into flabby, flowery phrases.
But, about half way through the prose starts to tighten up considerably, and he becomes much looser - the second section of the book is a reprint of several short monographs he'd written previously, so the tonal shift isn't entirely unsurprising. But in these he's far more economical with language, and much better at dissecting the issues and even being genuinely funny. The last section raises a three star book to four stars, and it's a shame that the beginning wasn't similarly sharp.
I have something of a vested interest in the answer to this question - I saw first hand some of his remarkably prescient predictions of the implications of Dearing and Browne. Replacing the subsidised public good of English higher education with a market economy was a dreadful blunder, eroding relationships between staff and students and creating a fraught, tense environment shaped largely by the naive expectations of 18 year old school leavers as to future economic value of courses. That was one of the major reasons why I returned to Scotland, where the HE sector is not yet so infested with marketisation. But fundamentally, the question remains - what is a university? And why do we feel the need to defend the good a university does in narrow, economic terms? Why do we feel the need to justify it in terms of 'international competitiveness' or 'impact on GDP'? We come across as defensive and ultimately unconvincing when we do that. Much better to harken back to the words of US president John Adams, who said 'the whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expense of it'. Access to Higher Education isn't for everyone (and I would be very much in favour of parallel and socially equivalent opportunities for those that don't yearn for an academic qualification), and in attempting to make it so we end up diluting the key features that make it so valuable. I've often said that the mark of education (formal or self-taught) is the ability to hold an intelligent conversation on any given topic, and while you don't get that from university you do I think, by and large, as a general trend, end up put on the right *path* to develop that ability. For me, that's always been what universities are for - they're for raising the level of public discourse. That's kind of the answer the book comes to in the end, so I didn't come away from it with my preconceptions challenged, but I did come away with my perceptions broadened.
I'm sure this mini-review comes across as pompous as I said the book was. But I'm an unabashed elitist, so it's sometimes hard to hide that in day to day discourse.
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.