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Friday, 9 November 2012

Council for the Defence of British Universities? Or of a Pleasant Lifestyle?

The Great and the Good have just founded a Council for the Defence of British Universities. They reckon that higher education is threatened by its cruel exposure to market forces - home students made to pay up-front for tuition, international students recruited on their ability to pay and given degrees in exchange [ maybe I made that bit up], academics made to account for their activities with new research time funded only when  there are results to show for the last tranche of funding.

I am not convinced by their anguish.  I think these academics (most of them it seems my age or older) actually want to defend a lifestyle, admittedly a very pleasant one but not necessarily one which should be funded out of other people's taxes.

There are big differences between Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities and I am only going to write about Humanities. I will come at it this way.

There was a time when important work in the Humanities got done by people in demanding professional  employment or by those whose private means or pensions freed them from the daily commute of professional life. Both were willing to devote time and energy to their hobby. I guess most of them were chaps, though not all.

Nowadays, a city banker is more likely to spend his weekend snorting cocaine than translating a codex. The real challenge is to persuade him that he might find the latter more satisfying.  And from the point of view of efficient use of public resources, how much better that the banker does it out of passion than that some academic of modest talent has to be given a lifetime salary to get just a little bit of translation out of him.

It's not so long ago that there were academics who boasted that they had never published anything. I was taught by one at Oxford. You wouldn't know his name. These people were often quite widely read and knowledgeable but the most important fact about them was that they were able to live very pleasant middle class lives without having to put in much by way of a day's work. Some drank too much and some were very fit from strenuous hill walking. You could fill in the details of the lifestyle to suit yourself. The most important thing though was that you didn't have to worry about where next month's pay packet was coming from.

In other words, being an academic was a bit like being a vicar, and just as few vicars shook the foundations of theology so few academics rocked the boat of their chosen subject. That would have been too much of a distraction.

And when academics did write - and do write - it's often unreadable and unread. Go into a big university library and look along the tops of the bound journals of philosophy or classical studies or art history or ... ninety percent of the pages have never been opened.

Bring on the bankers producing  new accounts of the life of Boudicca. Bring on the traders fighting over the correct interpretation of  Adam Smith. Bring on the geeks and the nerds able to make it all accessible for free on the Internet. It does already happen: Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan) is not an academic, nor is  Liaquat Ahmed (Lords of Finance - a really splendid history) . What such serious researchers may need is  a long stretch of writing time at the end of a project. This is the kind of thing foundations like the Leverhulme Trust can provide. It's not necessary to turn people into full-time academics.

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