Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Am I bovered?

I went to a round table in London on Monday night. The point of the evening was to discuss the question: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences: why should we care? The event was chaired by Peter Hennessy of QMUL and we were addressed by three academics and then by David "Two Brains" Willetts MP, the Minister of State for Higher Education and Science.

Obviously, the evening's discussion was guided by the question: why should we care? As another participant remarked to me, however, surely they were preaching to the converted. Not a single person there attended because they were unsure of the answer to the question.

So what was the point of the exercise? To impress the Minister with the importance of the arguments that stand in favour of funding arts and humanities research? I'm not sure about that either. After all, while the sciences, engineering and all applied subjects are in a better position than us, it is not as if the government is professing philistinism as a policy. As Sir Humphrey Appleby tells us somewhere, 'It could NEVER be government policy! Only government practice.'

My cynic's instincts tell me this was the kind of mock punch up which is supposed to give expression to stakeholder opinions without ever running the risk of taking them too seriously. The speakers pressed the minister with arguments in favour of funding. He took them all on board, even though he seemed to say at one point that it was easier to produce cutting edge research on an obscure French author than it was to produce cutting edge research in mathematics or science. You see the implications? There is the unfounded implication that foreign languages are a bit easy really; you only need to replace an English word with a foreign one, right? And then there is the well-founded implication that a lot of research in the arts is ephemeral. I think we might need to plead guilty to that on the grounds of diminished responsibility. But what do you expect in a culturally relativist age?

Still, Willets's comment really gave away one of the two veiled assumptions of the evening. The first veiled assumption - hmm, what else can assumptions be? - is that all this research funding is about productivity. A nod was made in the direction of scholarship, by which we mean the individual's command of his subject taken as a broad discipline. But clearly the generation of new research was the point that was at stake.

And that itself is a grave mistake. There is a lot of research out there, but without scholarship we are at a loss to decide what is important and what is not. We cannot build scholarship if we do not have the time. And we do not have enough time because we are expected, like demented followers of Carlyle's Teufelsdröck, to produce, produce, produce. Since when did leisure stop being the basis of culture? Since we were bound to produce research like battery academics.

And that leads us to the second veiled aspect of the evening: nobody dared answer the main question by saying that we should care because a lot of people are soon to lose their jobs. Since there are so many cuts to be made to the Higher Education budget, I do not see how else it can happen. There is going to be a massacre. Swansea University just announced only last month that they were reducing their Department of Modern Languages from twenty-two staff to just ten! Expect many others to follow in their wake.

Okay, maybe you feel that the best thing that could be done for education in this country is for there to be a culling of the academic classes. I understand the animus, even if I cannot share it. But seriously, any culling will only reinforce the message with those academics who survive - and Lord knows, they will be the ones who know how to dodge the bullets or push their colleagues into the hail of fire! - that productivity and battery fertility are the conditions under which research must be carried out.

We should, I hasten to add, be bothered about all this. First because scholarship is cheaper than research, so what exactly is the problem about funding it? Second, because in the culling, the priority will be given not to those things that are important for us to know as humans, but to those things which it is deemed useful for the State and for the University to keep alive. And, in the current conditions, that means utilitarian and commercial concerns will prevail, alongside some fashionable tosh. I'm not putting down utilitarian or commercial concerns per se; but is this what wonder and wisdom are all about? I very much doubt it. Once education was thought of as a privilege which was rightly extended to the masses; now it seems like it is another tawdry department store or, as Michael Burleigh said recently, a cash-and-carry.

As I say, these are matters about which we should all without exception care.

But, like Lauren Cooper, so many of us seem not even to be bovered.


GOR said...

”…that means utilitarian and commercial concerns will prevail.”

It would appear Ches that we are already there stateside. One of the things that shocked me in higher education here in the US was discovering that one could attend a course purportedly given by an eminent professor only to find that said eminence rarely graced the lecture hall. Most lectures would be given by a graduate student or ‘assistant lecturer’. The reason given for this was the need for the professor to ‘write’, ‘do research’, ‘secure grants’ or engage in other activities to raise funds for the particular institution or enhance its reputation.

There’s something incongruous about this. If a professor is eminent in his field his primary function is as a teacher, imparting his knowledge to his students – which is presumably why he was hired in the first place. Certainly he needs time to increase his knowledge and expertise and contribute to the advancement of his particular discipline. This entails time for research and most likely the writing of books and papers. But if he is employed to teach, then that should be his primary function - not fund-raising or other ‘outside ‘activities.

Education funding is always a contentious issue, but one wonders if at times the concerns for institutional reputations do not take precedence over actual teaching. Which reminds me, I’ve got to read Blessed Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University one of these days…

J. Christopher Pryor said...

I'm sorry to bring the conversation down to pop culture, but Tate is very talented and by far my favorite Doctor's companion. Here is a another clip similar to the bovered sketch but done in Shakespeare's English.

Mark said...

Is it still the case that the funding of university departments is determined according to their performance in the Research Assessment Exercise?

If so, departments are clearly going to retain the people who produce the research (however humdrum it might be) that brings in the money from government and to dispense with the scholars.

One hears of great mathematicians of the past who never produced any research but just wrote letters to their friends in such a way that their groundbreaking ideas eventually filtered out. Presumably such people would never be employed today.

I've been told that in Holland the salary of academics is determined by the Dutch equivalent of the RAE - thus, presumably resulting in a culture dominated less and less by scholarship and more and more by research.

GOR said...

"Academics teach just six hours every week"

Title of article in the Irish Independent this morning...


Mark said...

Some time in the 1990s the Times Higher published a report which said that the majority of articles in academic journals were read by between 0 and 5 people.