Collini at the Hot Gates

Stefan Collini, Speaking of Universities

Verso, 304pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781786631398

reviewed by Rafe McGregor

Stefan Collini is Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge and one of Britain’s foremost public intellectuals. His emphasis as a public intellectual has recently shifted from modern intellectual history to the higher education system, specifically the analysis and critique of the causes and consequences of the Browne Review in 2010. Speaking of Universities follows What are Universities For? (2012), and Collini has also expressed his concern with the direction higher education is taking in the UK in Common Writing: Essays on Literary Culture and Public Debate (2016) and Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics (2008). Speaking of Universities is a collection of review essays divided by the form Collini’s commentary takes: Part I, ‘Analyses’, consists of three lectures delivered from 2012 to 2016; the three review essays of Part II, ‘Critiques’, are from the London Review of Books 2011 to 2016; and Part III, ‘Occasions’, comprises two parliamentary submissions and three invited addresses, from 2011 to 2015. With the exception of the essays in Part II, the rest are previously unpublished and the addition of an appendix with 11 short pieces published or presented from 2011 to 2015 makes the volume a very welcome addition to the ongoing debate.

What are Universities For? was primarily intended to expose the Browne Review as a literal reductio ab absurdum – not an argument that has absurd consequences, but a ridiculous consequence in itself – of reducing the plurality of values associated with a university education to its economic value, the measure of the financial benefits of enhanced employment opportunities against the financial cost of the education. With four years of Browne’s HiEdBiz in action upon which to draw, Collini’s continued criticism in Speaking of Universities leaves no room for doubt as to the damage that has already been done and the future dangers of a neoliberal imperative with privatisation as its ultimate goal. He argues that even if we accept the value monism that lies behind HiEdBiz, the financial model imposed on universities is flawed and therefore unlikely to achieve its stated aims of reducing government expenditure and making universities more cost-efficient. In adopting this approach, Collini wisely avoids the problems associated with most defences of the humanities and tackles the likes of Browne, Mandelson, Cable, Javid, Johnson, and the others responsible on their own terms rather than by appealing to values they do not seem to hold. Collini points to two economic problems with HiEdBiz, both of which are caused by prioritising the short term over the long term.

Browne’s Review was followed by a White Paper entitled Higher Education: students at the heart of the system (2011) and students paid the price for relocation to the heart of HiEdBiz – roughly, a tripling of fees – the following year. These fees, approximately £27,000 for the tuition fees for an Honours degree (subsequently increased), are standardly funded by student loans provided by the government. But because loans are assets rather than debts in accounting terms, the Treasury is able to maintain the healthy debt to assets ratio indicative of low financial risk-taking. The crucial question, of course, is how much of the debt will be recovered when the first loans are due for repayment in 2045? Collini points out that the most optimistic estimates are 70%, with many closer to 50%, and in 2013 The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills – now the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy – calculated that approximately £191 billion will have to be written off as unrecovered in 2046. This isn’t so much a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul as robbing Peter and Paul’s children so that Paul can keep his books balanced. In addition to sleight of hand sacrificing future prosperity for current book-keeping, the commercial transaction upon which HiEdBiz is based is between a single buyer (applicant) and a single seller (university). What is lost in this model, according to Collini, ‘is the conception of a national system of higher education as a collective investment in a public good, where each generation bears part of the cost of educating its successor.’ In other words, if Browne had insisted on treating higher education as a business transaction, he could at least have correctly identified the parties involved.

One of the many undesirable consequences of HiEdBiz is that if universities are acting as economic agents they will provide: (1) the lowest standard of education (2) for the highest price they can charge (3) while maximising recruitment. An easy way to cut costs and risk is to place a greater reliance on casual, sessional, or adjunct lecturers. This exploits both students and lecturers. The inevitable reduction of the standard of education delivered is not because casual lecturers are worse teachers – most academics have done a spell of sessional work while in their early career stage – but because they are poorly-paid with no job security beyond a year at best and sometimes as little as a week. In his acceptance speech for the Truman Capote Award, reprinted in the Chronicle of Higher Education in February 2017, literary critic Kevin Birmingham exposed the mass exploitation of such academics in the US. Only 17% of faculty in English departments are tenured and 31% of the untenured live near or below the official poverty line. In consequence, the priority for 83% of English lecturers in the US is securing the next gig or making ends meet, but as long as standards don’t drop to the extent that recruitment or retention are affected, near-complete reliance on associate staff makes perfect economic sense.

Speaking of Universities is well-argued, timely and full of insight. Collini presents a carefully-considered, meticulously-measured critique of a policy most often on that policy’s own terms, but here is my concern – who will read it other than people who are already worried about what he called ‘Browne’s Gamble’ in What are Universities For? Collini is well aware of this problem: his introduction is subtitled ‘Hand-wringing for Beginners’ and he acknowledges that he may be ‘spitting into the wind’ while continuing to oppose the changes and to encourage his readers, listeners, and the public ‘to press for something better.’ In the final chapter, he tells a short autobiographical story justified on the dual basis of being true and making him look ridiculous. If I may be permitted an example on the same grounds . . . Shortly before reading this book, I became aware that a humanities department in a Russell Group university with which I was familiar had awarded eighteen doctorates from 2013 to 2015 and that only one of the graduates was in a permanent academic position – just to be clear, that’s a 5.6% employment rate. I coined the phrase Zero-Hours Doctorates and pitched a Birmingham-inspired article on the current state of untenured staff in the UK to six publications with a specific interest in higher education. I did not receive a single reply, not even to provide information for an article that someone else would write. Either the full extent of this problem is unknown or, much more likely, very few people care about it. Hence my fear that Collini is preaching to the converted. I have nothing but admiration for his elegance, energy, and ethics – but it is the type of admiration I reserve for the Armia Krajowa, the Light Brigade, and 300 Spartans.