What is ‘public’ about the Public University?

 I was visiting UCL yesterday, where students are involved in an occupation as part of the ongoing campaign against the Coalition’s pernicious policy of higher education funding (we don’t have one at the OU, cos there aren’t any students at Walton Hall). These occupations are interesting not least because they are seeking to directly shame the VCs of individual institutions, who as a collective group have proved horribly supine in their response to the government’s decision to allow an increase in fees AND to slash public funding in support of teaching of all but a select ‘strategic’ subjects. The last few weeks have exposed clear divisions within the University sector, with representatives of the Russel Group and other research intensive institutions quietly accepting proposed changes as inevitable, while the most forceful criticisms of these proposals, and defence of the public value of higher education beyond the personal benefit derived by individual students, have been made by articulate VCs from institutions such as the University of Central Lancashire and Canterbury Christ Church. This division is so clear that it has generated a debate about whether the Universities UK, the umbrella representative body for the whole sector, has lost its legitimacy as an effective representative by adopting such an accommodating tone – you can track the tensions in recent articles and letters in the Times Higher.

All of this will come to a head this week when the Commons gets to vote on the tuition fees proposals. But one of the more important aspects of this campaign is the way that it has very quickly exposed fault lines around the terms in which the politics of newly austere public sphere is going to be fought out: on the one side, a set of arguments which invoke particular images of ‘fairness’ and focus all the attention on the idea of higher education as a system distributing benefits upon differentially advantaged individuals (on this criterion, of course, there are aspects of the current proposals that are easily commended – the OU has loudly celebrated the equalization of treatment of part-time students as potential high education debtors); on the other side, an argument about the public good of higher education residing in various collectively bestowed, and collectively enjoyed benefits which are more than the aggregate of all these personal benefits. The best thing I have read on this issue is Stefan Collini’s critique of the perfect-market idiocy that informs the Browne Review (whose membership is indicative of a shift in the ‘public’ quality of these sorts of reviews). Collini points out that the headline coverage of the Browne Review, and the protests and campaigns since too, has been on the issue of fees increases; and he elaborates on how there is a much more fundamental aspect of the Review, which is its proposed (and largely accepted by the Coalition) ‘dismantling of the public character of higher education’, which he describes as ‘breathtaking’ in its scale. The emphasis of Collini’s analysis on defending the public quality of higher education in a broad sense has quickly found expression in a newly established Campaign for the Public University. In a letter published in The Times earlier this week, the broader issue is clearly stated: “The issues at stake for the future of higher education are not only to do with the proposed increase in student tuition fees. We believe that the public university is essential both for cultivating democratic public life and creating the means for individuals to find fulfilment in creative and intellectual pursuits.” The letter also refers to the results of rather extensive research survey undertaken by Ipsos MORI on behalf of HEFCE and also published last week, which, to cut a long story short, showed rather widespread support amongst the public for government investment in higher education and a broad appreciation of the varied benefits (economic and non-economic, individual and collective) of higher education. The OU currently has a research centre, CHERI, which also focusses on exploring and promoting the public dimensions of higher education, engaging in empirical research but contributing to conceptualizations of the place of higher education in reconfiguring the public sphere – partly through links with CHERI, some of us hosted Craig Calhoun at the OU earlier this year, whose talk about the changing public status of Universities now seems even more pertinent than it did back in March – you can see the lecture here.

The only thing that worries me about the tone of debate at the moment around these issues is the danger that certain aspects of a rather tired Two Cultures debate are already being reproduced, so that ‘the public’ benefits worth defending from the more extensive marketization of higher education end up being represented in terms of the apparently non-instrumental value ascribed to ‘the humanities’. I think that path threatens to undermine much more expansive, inclusive understandings of the public qualities of higher education, by just reproducing some hoary old (class-bound) stereotypes about ‘really useless knowledge’ being the embodiment of the public value of University life. I think the challenge is to acknowledge and defend a pluralist range of ‘uses’ and ‘instrumentalities’ that higher education helps to sustain.

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2 thoughts on “What is ‘public’ about the Public University?

  1. Pingback: The Open University and funding cuts « OU Activists

  2. Pingback: What are the humanities good for? | Pop Theory

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