Top positive review
Insightful, although very pompous to begin with
on 18 January 2016
This is quite a short book, with a focus that's probably obvious from the title - given the vast range of institutions, courses, disciplines, academics and activities - what does the word 'university' even mean? He doesn't really come to an answer, but he does frame the debate in some interesting ways.
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.