Monday, 19 April 2010

The Once-Great British University

A book by the American academic Jonathan R. Cole sets out with commendable clarity the 12 commandments that any university needs to flourish. His concern is the American system, and as he charts its rise, its extraordinary achievements, and the threats it faces, he distils the essential characteristics required.

Many of his current concerns apply in spades to the UK situation as British higher Education is currently structured, and if Professor Cole is worried about the United States, he would be utterly despondent by what is going on here.

In brief, his commandments are as follows:

Universities should

1. promote universalism so that merit prevails and only impersonal criteria are used in establishing scientific facts;
2. favour organised scepticism and question anything that resembles dogma;
3. create new knowledge through the provision of a decent infrastructure including laboratories and research libraries;
4. guarantee free and open communication of ideas and allow for criticism through open and public exchange;
5. advocate genuine disinterestedness so that individuals do not profit financially from their research;
6. promote free inquiry and academic freedom so that orthodoxies are constantly questioned;
7. base research on international communities that communicate openly with each other;
8. use peer-review systems so that arguments are tested by the best in the field;
9. work for the common good so that a more enlightened public can emerge;
10. ensure that governance involves the "company of equals", making sure that academics have a significant voice in running the institution they are part of;
11. promote intellectual progeny so that the next academic generation can emerge;
12. maintain the intellectual vitality of the community by attracting the best minds.

At the moment, many of these are either under threat or have disappeared. Universities increasingly discourage organised scepticism and criticism through open and public exchange through the use of gagging orders on academics to stifle criticism of management;

Peer-review systems become irrelevant if management takes over and decides what is, or is not, useful research;

The spread of corporate interests(especially in medicine) has given far too many academics a very clear financial interest is research which prejudices objective judgment;

Governance no longer has anything to do with the “company of equals” but has fallen into the hands of a self-appointed band of managers detached from the institutions they control;

and the intellectual vitality of any institution cannot survive, nor will the best minds be attracted, as long as managements attempt to control their academics through threat and coercion.

All of the positive conditions did apply in Britain a few decades ago. They do so no longer.

-- Iain Pears

-- The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected.
By Jonathan R. Cole. Public Affairs, 640pp, £20.99. ISBN 9781586484088.
Reviewed in THES, 8 april, 2010:§ioncode=26

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