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Does the Government understand what universities are for?

Originally Published 04 March 2002

In a previous feature, Professor Andrew Oswald posed the question 'Does the Government understand what universities are for?'. Here are your responses:

Dr Saul Jacka, Department of Statistics

  1. The Cabinet does not understand what universities are for. Who decides what universities are for? By all means, let us avoid the pretension of referring to the "Academy" and of trying to establish an unbroken line back to Plato. Nevertheless, without such an incontrovertible pedigree, who is to choose? There is, surely, much in the argument that "the people pay, so they should say".
  2. Utilitarian - that is not what you and I do. There's scope for a couple of long essays here. In brief, we are, in part, utilitarian: European universities have long possessed departments (faculties) of Law, Medicine and Engineering. Moreover, universities in search of funding have not just connived at this depiction of ourselves as golden egg-layers but have actively encouraged it. Finally, innovation of most kinds comes from people who either think deeply or almost not at all (although both camps do have a presence outside universities).
  3. ....copies of CommUnicate on the desks of Margaret Hodge and Estelle Morris. This, I fear, is where Professor Oswald and I diverge. Had we done our jobs properly this would not be necessary, and since we haven't it will be of no help (I will not tax the reader by rehearsing the famous quotation about Margaret Hodge's third class. But it must be clear that she, for one, is not about to subscribe to our views about the purpose or methods of universities.) No, it is to the public and to our students that we have to appeal. We have to sell education both as an end in itself - ideas do furnish a mind - and as a tool for material advancement of both the individual and society.
  4. ....universities are in the truth business. Exactly why politicians are not the group to persuade.
  5. ....universities are in the excellence business.

Let's just unwrap that one a little bit. Are we in the business of catering to it or fostering it or both? I hope the answer is both in which case why has so little been heard from us about the debasement of (some) A levels?

Where were we when Oxbridge was being slated for rejecting students with predicted straight As when many of us knew that (virtually) all their applicants fell into that category?  Why do we accept the performance indicator of percentage of undergraduate intake coming from state schools? - Setting this figure as a performance indicator pressurises us to hide differential performance between private and state schools and removes an incentive for improving state school academic performance.

  1. ....universities are in the freedom business - Ah yes! This is why tenure was only abandoned after we?d all been to the barricades.
  2. ....universities are in the elegance business: well, sometimes. In Mathematics and Statistics, elegance is more often a product of scholarship than of original research, "chalk is cheap, so we'll do it as it comes" [A Einstein]. We have not been conspicuous in our efforts to support the former, indeed have wholeheartedly adopted 'original research' as the sole descriptor of our intellectual output. Most of our students wouldn't recognise elegance if it turned round and hit them with its Gucci handbag.

Politicians find universities bewildering 90% of them are university educated, so where did we go wrong?

In the 17 years I have been at Warwick I have heard these issues discussed many times, although rarely so elegantly and persuasively. In all that time the view has prevailed that persuasion beats confrontation. In truth, Warwick as an institution has very little alternative: with no 'Foundation' we are at the mercy of the politicians. Our resources are inadequate to fight the latest innovation, whether it be TQA, RAE or XYZ. Over the next 17 years we could change that, by talking to our students and to the public and by giving them a sense of membership or "ownership". But that won't get the next research paper/book written and it won't set that exam.

Pavel Erochkine, Undergraduate student, Department of Economics

The government wants useful universities that are focused on business needs, that provide students from a variety of social classes with high quality skills and that produce top quality research. Andrew Oswald believes that universities are "in the truth business - in the excellence business - in the freedom business ... in the elegance business" and forcefully claims that "the job of a real university is not to be useful". As an international student at Warwick, I believe that the job of this university is to give me good value for money by providing me with the skills, knowledge and facilities to help me to succeed in life.

At the latest General Meeting the Vice-Chancellor stressed that one of Warwick's priorities is to promote its international standing and reputation. To attract international students, Warwick must offer them good value for money, to improve its international reputation in research it must produce more publications, to build links with multinational businesses it must become more useful to them . The Vice-Chancellor also wants to make the governance of the University more accountable and transparent, to develop its regional role, to extend the scope of its research and to do other things, mostly utilitarian in character. It seems that the Vice-Chancellor himself wants to make Warwick more useful, which diametrically contradicts the objectives of Andrew Oswald. What happens when the objectives of members of an organisation are different from the objectives of management?

Andrew Oswald sends a clear message: "the job of a university is not to be useful and we [academics, I suppose] must keep explaining that". Imagine an organisation that continuously says to its customers (as Andrew Oswald does to fee-paying home and international students) "we are not useful". Imagine a social institution that demands money from the Government and at the same time rejects the Government's goals and objectives. Can the Government be interested in supporting such an institution? And, if Andrew Oswald claims that universities are not useful, how can he be such an active supporter of tuition fees?

Dr Saul Jacka, Department of Statistics, responds to Pavel Erochkine (above)

Mr Erochkine says that Warwick is a social institution, that the academics should do what they're told, that the university should provide him with value for money and get him a good job and, incidentally, run Professor Oswald out of town on a rail for not reading the latest version of the mission statement and for dissing the VC. I'm sure that we (the academics) will all conclude that there's not much to disagree with there.

I agree that Warwick should provide students with value for money and that Warwick is a social institution. I think that most of Warwick's academics share a sense of mission, even if we can't quite agree as to what it is and I hope that after all that we might dispense with the rail.

 The Issue: Does the Government understand what universities are for?