Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Know Your Enemy

"What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business. And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it."

Sarah Churchill, Professor of American Literature at UEA, bang on the money as regards the war being waged on the humanities at British universities. She has previous form on the subject, having written an indignant response to Nicky Morgan's comments last autumn suggesting that studying the humanities is worthless and a waste of time in terms of getting a job.

It should be said that anecdotal evidence from friends still working and studying within academia suggests that while the humanities might be under a disproportionate degree of threat, all academics are finding themselves under severe pressure, "pulled apart by the competing demands of their non-academic overlords and the newly powerful 'consumers' of their 'product' – the students" (in the words of the article's author, Alex Preston). Certainly, Nick Hillman, former education adviser to David Willetts, is very wrong - it's not academics that are stuck in the 1950s (they're under no illusions that we're living in a different era altogether) but the way they're perceived by the likes of Hillman and the political class more generally.

What's interesting about Preston's piece is that he doesn't simply argue that the assault on the humanities might be detrimental to the nation in terms of the creativity and analytic abilities of young graduates entering the job market - he goes further and looks to the actual evidence of China, where a rigid and targeted education system with a strict focus on the STEM subjects is having precisely that detrimental effect. There's an irony that we in Britain appear to be looking admiringly at the Chinese model at the same time that the Chinese are coming to realise its limitations and looking to the British higher education system for help in producing creative individuals rather than churning out highly qualified automatons.

(Thanks to Cat for the link.)

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