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UK: Challenging ruling mantras of higher education
There is a special kind of British humour that is very good at locating the absurd in everyday life. It draws our attention to much of what we take for granted just by tone of voice or the raising of an eyebrow. Either of these can be enough to effectively place scare quotes around a cliché; or draw our critical attention to something, and make us laugh at the sudden absurdity of what once seemed authoritative.

Professor Robin Briggs of All Souls College, Oxford University, is a master of this very British combination of comedy and critique.

In South Africa to deliver the TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture at the University of Cape Town, it was with twinkling eyes that he intoned the ruling mantras of what usually passes for common sense in global higher education policy.

He began his lecture by repeating the words of former British Minister of Education David Blunkett: "Higher education generates the research, knowledge and skills that underpin innovation and change in the economy and wider society."

This assertion, suggested Briggs, was "unobjectionable enough", unless - and here he paused with the sense of timing essential to all comedy - "unless you are allergic to truisms".

From there, he went on to emphasise the importance of some of the 'unstated corollaries' of Blunkett's central idea of a 'knowledge economy', and to challenge the particularly narrow perspective on higher education that it proposes.

From this perspective - which Briggs cautiously qualified as 'neo-liberal', though suggesting that neo-liberal doctrine amounted to little more than a "a job lot of rhetorical tricks and buzzwords" - the 'essential mission' of higher education is to generate economic growth, ignoring the complex reality of the broader social functions of higher education systems.

In the end, in Blunkett et al's fixed idea, rather than serving the public good, higher education is intended to benefit the private pocket.

In this narrowing of the university's traditionally broad and varied social functions, it becomes just one more industry "with direct economic impacts". The university's broad educational mission is construed as purely vocational, with "job training for specific professions" as its central aim.

Meanwhile, the core of university production, research, becomes effectively confined to knowledge with "potential industrial and commercial outcomes", with a significant downgrading of "blue-skies research and almost anything in the humanities".

Arguing with the appeal to evidence characteristic of the historian, Briggs suggested a more complex reality than the neo-liberal vision assumes.

The actual evidence, he argued, suggested that across "large areas of the job market employers continue to express a preference for basic literacy, numeracy and analytical skills, with recruits trained on the job rather than during their formal education".

Similarly, the historical record showed that "research and development have a very unclear relationship to wealth generation" and Briggs roundly criticised the recent attempts in Britain to impose the criterion of 'impact' as a measure of research value.

Here, he argued, "the government has crossed the line into interfering directly with the research choices made by individuals, while predictably showing a gross misunderstanding of how research actually works, even in utilitarian terms...The university can only remain intellectually healthy if it preserves truth as an absolute value, not a merely contingent one."

All in all, he concluded, the more rational approach would be "to welcome mass higher education on general grounds, while accepting their supply will heavily outweigh their demand in the labour market, and not assuming any direct economic benefit from a simple expansion of student numbers".

Of course, as he admitted later, in conversation after the lecture, the rational approach is hardly likely to appeal to any populist politician who is only interested in the short-term and couldn't give two hoots about the potential damage to institutions like the university which necessarily operate in terms of long-term goals of the social reproduction of the cultural capital in which the possibility of advancing knowledge is embedded.

Trained at Oxford under the great Marxist historian Christopher Hill, Briggs came to the discipline at a moment when it burst out of a conception of history simply as the policies of the state and the actions of Great Men.

As it shifted focus onto the lives of ordinary people, history became a discipline that allied itself with others - literature, economic, the social sciences in general - in order to seek, as he put it, to "reconstruct the whole of life and see how we got to where we are now".

His foundational work on the witch trials in France in the 17th century may seem far-removed from his current concerns with the reigning ideology of higher education policy. But Briggs was willing to admit there were at least some similarities between 17th century witch hunters and 21st century academic managers.

The most violent and authoritarian religious leaders - those who burned the most witches - tended, he said, "to look backwards, and to be attached to last year's theology".

Similarly, he observed, the authoritarian templates that today's higher education policy-makers try and force on universities globally are themselves old-fashioned and strangely out of kilter with the most recent ideas of good management, which no longer seek to work in a top-down and punitive fashion, but rather encourage horizontal collaboration, "more Apple than General Motors".

"It's only when you stand back and look at things in a holistic way that you become rather terrified about just how destructive this current trend in higher education policy might be," he noted. "Abstract reason [as embodied in the new managerial practices of surveillance and control] always has a tendency to take over, and something like that seems to be happening now." When it does happen, he warned, "you are bound to end up with extraordinary distortions and dysfunctional outcomes".

It is in this currently threatening situation that Briggs calls for a certain necessary politicisation of academics, who need to speak out against these distortions and destructive trends.

"We need to be much more aggressive about defending our corner," he observed: "I do seriously thing we need to shout louder."

And shouting louder - or at least amplifying rational analysis against the claims of received ideas - can have some success, as Briggs's own example shows.

When Oxford imported a new vice-chancellor from New Zealand in 2006, his mission was to force a new managerial template on the university by packing the university council with business people, and taking the control of the university away from academics.

After a bitter campaign, in which Briggs played a leading role, the vice-chancellor's new measures were defeated 60-40. He shortly resigned, and the university remains, at least for the moment, a bastion of traditional academic freedoms.

Briggs's humour, and the strengths of his analysis, ultimately derive from the same source. This is the very idea of graduateness that tends to disappear from the rhetoric of the new managerialism and its narrow focus on vocationalism.

It is the ability of graduates in all fields to take a critical distance from the received ideas of the day, and therefore to have at least the potential to 'speak the truth to power'. At this moment the capacity of speaking the truth to power and attending to, rather than preferring to forget, the complex social reality in which any economy in fact subsists, is much needed.

* John Higgins is Andrew W Mellon Research Professor in Archives and Public Culture at the University of Cape Town.

* This article first appeared in Getting Ahead, the Mail & Guardian's monthly tertiary publication, on 27 August 2010. It is republished with permission.
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