Whose university? why? pt 3

Ahead of the Browne Review, and the associated storm of nonsense in the national press, I’ve been getting very interested in the nature of the university, and how this has changed over time. With the fees issue, the influx of private institutions into the UK and cuts to research funding, we are going to be living through some great upheavals. I think it is important to show that the virtual stasis within the system between 1992 and 2004, and from 2004 onwards, has been an anomaly, and that change is embedded into the DNA of the institutions we work for. This is part 3 of a short series of blog posts: this post focuses the future, the previous post was on present day funding pressures, the first focused on the history of state funding for the university system.  

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license.

As I write, we are mere hours away from the launch of the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance and the first whir of of the fearful machine that will change the face of higher learning.


This is the same machine that has turned our private sector into the behemoth that we placate with government bailouts and job cuts, and protect or mollify with new laws and new crimes. The machine that turned friendship and trust – ideas and beauty – into one man getting richer as other toil.


And this is it. We’ve reached the end of the profit margin. We can patch up the business models, flutter life into the stock certificates, pump the corpse of commerce with tainted coins and bills clawed from the hands of the exploited masses. We’ve no oil, no energy, no growth. The crops are dying, the seas are dying. The stories that we tell ourselves – the American dream, the myth of the self-made man, the benevolence of the market, the meritocracy, the idea of perpetual growth – they never were true, and we always knew it. But now even the leaders can only parody the mechanisms of belief.



If we have a last hope – is it too late to talk about hope? – it is our own ability to understand, to create, to synthesise and to draw together. The first academic was a man drawing patterns in the sand. And we all did it, we drew patterns, connections, network diagrams… we were nodes in the lattice of learning, explaining as we created, weaving the strands together.


And we are the only ones that truly understand this machine that is coming for us. In many ways we built it.


There are contradictions, flaws, logical errors. Who better than we to point these out? Even in the past week we’ve seen the hot ice and wondrous strange snow of cuts that cost money, price rises that bring in nothing, market fundamentalism that leads to Sir Green’s call for the Government to exploit and twist the so-called natural and immutable market forces to benefit itself.


In a world where jobs and income are in danger we are urged to take on more debt.


In two major reports, days apart, we are called upon to collaborate and compete, monopolise and diversify, act local and buy global. There’s no rationale here… they’re as scared as we are.


More so, because they are cowering not because of what they are about to destroy or what is already falling around their ears, but because they know that we can and will hold their ideas to account and that those ideas will be found lacking.
  • Lacking in a logical sense, incoherent, self-contradictory, divorced from the very cause and effect that they claim we need to “get real” and understand.
  • And lacking in a spiritual sense, without a dream, a vision, an inspiration, a sense of any purpose beyond one number rising as another falls. They show us a balance sheet, we show them the stars… and the gods, and the artists, and the dreamers dreaming.
We hold the very secrets of the universe in the University, a treasure beyond value, and we don’t sell them, we share them.


Our Arcadian islands have gotten tarnished over the years. Our own “big society” of scholars and seekers of truth has taken in those who can advise us how to play their game (as if we couldn’t if we wanted to). We have our own balance sheets now too, our own income/outgoings, shortfalls and profits. We even mutilate ourselves to fit their image – a department lost here, a lab there, a few thousand books and journals tipped into the great stack. Good people held back because they care more about truth than money and the corporate way.


The last thing we want is to claim that we can play that squalid game better. Our argument is that the game is wrong, the whole game, and if anyone can find another one it’s us. Think of all the things we do that isn’t make money… we invent, we reappraise, we reuse; we expose young people to worlds and ideas they never knew existed. We’re a community, and we are part of other communities. And we dream, the last dreamers in a world that has forgotten how. But they’ll be needing us, if not now then soon.


Departments that close, institutions that fold. They won’t come back. They say that we shouldn’t hand our children debt, but let’s at least have something to hand on that we are proud of. Or the stories we’ll be telling them of learning for all and the life of the mind will be of a land as far away from their daily experiences as fairytales. And I want some new stories, some better stories, to tell my son.


This post owes a debt to some of the amazing writing around the Dark Mountain project, and to Joss Winn, Richard Hall, Dave White, Adam Cooper, Rob Pearce, Lou McGill, Brian Lamb, Amber Thomas and everyone else I’ve agreed and disagreed with over the past few months.


This is the end of a series, and as once again I’m reminded by some it’s not my job to look at the big pictures, it might end up being the end of my contributions to these conversations. I hope not though, but anyway thank you all for the words of encouragement and support. And let’s hope I’m back later this week to go over Browne in more depth.



3 thoughts on “Whose university? why? pt 3”

  1. Great, provocative series. I was thinking of the Dark Mountain even before you cited it at the end.But this: “I’m reminded by some it’s not my job to look at the big pictures, it might end up being the end of my contributions to these conversations. I hope not though, but anyway thank you all for the words of encouragement and support. And let’s hope I’m back later this week to go over Browne in more depth.” — I don’t like the implications one bit. Wishing you the best.

  2. Cannot understand why I’m listed there David. Thanks for the series – and filed for future reference. Thanks also for the intro to the Dark Mountain.Must say though that I think there are not enough people who see the bigger picture in the world and that bringing the bigger picture to your job is vital – and I should know…Keep looking down…

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