Book Review – Stefan Collini asks What Are Universities For?

Book cover - What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini

I picked up What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini for two reasons. I had been impressed by Collini’s article in the London Review of Books last summer critiquing the Browne review. (I also enjoyed William Cullerne Bown‘s comments on Collini’s piece.) Universities are one potential employer of PhD graduates, so it was in the spirit of “know your enemy” that I wanted to find out what one current academic had to say about the future of the sector.

Collini has been interviewed a number of times surrounding the publication of his book, both on the radio and in print. In common with other polemicists, he sounds more moderate in person than in writing, where the `sneering tone‘ that Alice is critical of can be detected.

Collini’s book has been reviewed elsewhere, and not always favourably – this review in the Observer is particularly damming. The book is in two parts. In Part One, the scene is set. Collini offers a synopsis of the history of universities in Britain, and discusses what the purpose of the university was when the idea was conceived and how this has changed to the present day. Part Two is a collection of previously published (or broadcast) essays, each addressing a different aspect of higher education policy over the years, from the introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise in the late 80s to the above-mentioned commentary on the Browne Review.

Two aspects of this book were of particular interest to me, and I suspect that they were perhaps not the points that Collini imagined would be the salient ones for his readers. The (necessarily) brief history of universities in Britain was informative. For example, I knew that there had been an expansion in the numbers of students entering higher education in the UK in recent decades, but I had not appreciated just how dramatically numbers increased – from something over one hundred thousand undergraduates in the early sixties to two and a half million today. Even since the mid-nineties, numbers have increased three-fold. It is not a surprise to me that those who have witnessed these changes are remarking on them.

The other chapter that I found interesting was the chapter about the humanities. There are no full-time undergraduates studying for degrees in the Humanities at Imperial College, although our Department of Humanities offers courses in languages and humanities that students and staff can take for credit or interest. Scientific researchers do not seem to get as defensive as Collini becomes in this chapter, where he describes the study of the humanities and its value. I was surprised to read that

the combined budgets of the seven research councils in the UK amount to some £3 billion, but only around 3% of this goes to the Arts and Humanities Research Council

and wondered briefly how the country might be different if these figures were reversed, and the lions share of the research budget spent on Humanities, and a fraction on Science, instead. I suppose I was not aware that the Humanities felt they needed defending in the way set out in this chapter, but having read it, I have a clearer picture of what motivates their study.

The chapter comprising the essay that was published to coincide with the introduction of the RAE made me wonder how funding was distributed in the pre-RAE days. The RAE has been around as long as Higher Education has been on my radar – at the time I was applying for undergraduate study, departments boasted of their RAE scores and I understood that this entity was one component of league table rankings, although at the time I had little idea what it meant. I can imagine how the introduction of such bibliometrics would have incensed academics, but is the perception of such measures different among those whose careers have developed with these exercises ever-present?

Collini’s book is readable and lively, with touches of humour. I imagine that many of Collini’s readers will be “the converted” to whom he is preaching, and I would be surprised if his book has much effect on policy – Willetts, for one, seems unconvinced. However, What Are Universities For? filled in some gaps in my knowledge and gave me greater insight into the challenges current and future academics are likely to face.

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3 Responses to Book Review – Stefan Collini asks What Are Universities For?

  1. Tom Phillips says:

    Interesting review. Think I’ll pick up a copy on the basis of your last sentence — lots of gaps in my own knowledge about RAE and funding. Better to plug them sooner rather than later I think!

  2. Falko says:

    Quite coincidentally, the last two books I’ve read were complete opposites. The first one was this one by Stefan Collini and the second was “Shake the World” (James Marshal Reilly).

    I found Collini’s book pretentious and quite boring. Yes, I do understand that there is value in fundamental research but Collini’s argument, that one cannot understand the value of research unless you have actually performed research yourself, is quite condescending. I agree that Universities should not be run as businesses- a point made numerous times in the book- but I disagree that the academics should be given free reign to decide their own academic pursuits (unless, of course, they are self-funded).

    The latter book (Shake the World), although less intellectual and slightly more populist, emphasised that adding value to someone/something should be the main point of all our actions. Reilly is of the opinion that society is inherently good (Something Collini also suggests with his satirical take on “the taxpayer”) and that we can identify when something is worth doing or not. I truly believe that good research will always be appreciated by the general public (just as good art, music, food etc. will also always be). Maybe I am being naive?

    That being said, I think that “What Universities are for” fails to make a convincing argument. It seems too defensive and self-preserving.

  3. Pingback: Collini and Science | Athene Donald's Blog

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