UK: The LSE debacle and the role of a university

Let me claim my 60 seconds of fame as (another) visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. I can confirm that the post is unpaid, the desk is hot and, in my case at least, the noise atrocious. If it is not Westminster Council road-drills in the morning, it is the pub next door after 1600.

However, what drives me to write is not the case of the LSE, but of universities in general. The present frenzy over misjudgments, possible misdeeds and shoddy practice in some (or maybe many) British universities is nasty, and tips the balance too far.

I am as fed as up as the next person with the fact that degrees might be awarded which sully an institution's reputation; that donations might be dodgy; and that there are some greedy vice-chancellors.

I hope that allegations of university offices renting out the vice-chancellor's own Swiss chalet are unfounded, and that not all external university-related earnings - such as for serving on the Higher Education Funding Council for England board - go into the vice-chancellor's pocket (in any case, why isn't it standard practice to pass them back to the university?).

I also regret as much as anyone the nauseous academic celebs boosting the brand, attracting students and - guess what - never being present to teach.

Yet on the issue of the future of universities, we should surely think more about the principles for which we want modern universities to exist.

I've dug out one of the lectures I remember most clearly from my doctoral days. It was a lecture Fred Halliday gave at the LSE on 7 May 1998, on the function of universities, entitled "What May We Understand, and Not Understand, by the International University".

Halliday, celebrated for his wide-ranging analyses of global politics, had something perceptive to say here too. I believe his thinking helps to steer a debate as to what universities today may aspire to.

A public good

Halliday's concern was with what globalisation was possibly doing to universities. He presciently saw globalisation as a form of internationalisation quite unlike that associated with universities' traditional collegiate academic collaboration. The risk, he maintained in a memorable phrase, was that universities would turn into "shopping-malls of the mind": there to serve drop-in customers.

The way to avoid this, he said, was to go back to the basics of what a university is, as advanced by such major intellectuals as Ralf Dahrendorf, George Steiner and Ralph Miliband: namely, a guarantor of creative tension in which knowledge, intellect and skills were held in balance.

With this in mind, he went on to argue that the distinctive function of the university is to keep that tension: between scholarship and engagement, abstraction and application, teaching and research.

That is the frame in which academics exercise their functions of imparting ideas and knowledge, encouraging students to think and training them in the skills and knowledge relevant to the modern world. Together these factors enable a university "to stimulate and to endure".

Thirteen years on, the risks of customer-based university education are greater. It is now the consensus among policy-makers that higher education is predominantly a private good.

The evidence is everywhere: in the tuition-fees issue that convulsed British universities in autumn 2010; in the British government's cavalier 'saving' of public funds by removing financial support for teaching in the arts and social sciences; in the much stronger managerial culture; in the ever-tighter regulation of government funding; and in the necessity to appeal to the market for private support.

All these serve to sideline the academic, and along with them the notion of higher education as in large part a public good.

As I have moved from journalism to academia, one of my life's interests is to be regularly in contact with academics who live out the values Fred Halliday described, helping to ensure that their institutions and their disciplines "stimulate and endure".

I see them at the LSE. I see them in the discipline-based associations to which I belong, and I see them in countries to which my work has taken me in the last few years: Russians, German and British academics working together in Freiburg; Croatian and Greek academics acting on their international networks to shake up some cosy arrangements that history has helped to perpetuate in their national system. I saw the same thing last summer when teaching the politics of European higher education at the University of Oslo, with some extremely rigorous students from several parts of the continent.

Halliday ended his 1998 lecture with a favourite (if surely apocryphal) story, one which would grace his repertoire in later years too. It concerned the Chinese students in Japan in the early 1900s who translated The Communist Manifesto. Their version of its most famous phrase was: "Scholars of the World, Unite. You have Nothing to Lose but Your Shame."

Today, that is not a bad rallying-cry for those who fight on for strong universities to be part of the public good.

* Anne Corbett is visiting fellow in the European Institute at the London School of Economics. Her books include (as co-editor) Education in France: Continuity and Change in the Mitterrand Years, 1981-1995 (Routledge 1996) and Universities and the Europe of Knowledge (Palgrave 2005).

* This article was first published on www.opendemocracy.net under the title "The idea of a university: Fred Halliday's truth". It is republished with permission.