What are universities for?

Saturday 30 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Student Union

What is the university for? In what many see as its heyday in the mid-to-late-twentieth century, the university was understood at least in principle to be a place of academic research and intellectual exploration that was to some extent autonomous from immediate social and political pressures and occupied a position in society that was valued in its own terms. Today, the idea that academic research is valuable in its own terms is highly contested. The last government controversially sought to change how academic research was evaluated by emphasising demonstrable ‘social and economic impact’. The new government is rhetorically opposed to this approach. Universities secretary David Willetts is ‘in favour of curiosity-driven research whose applications may take time to emerge, if at all’. Yet tellingly universities remain subsumed in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Research councils and university rectors continue to feel the need to justify their entitlement to public money in instrumental terms: ‘Fund us and we’ll prove we deliver x,y,z’. Indeed, in an era of public spending cuts, shouldn’t universities have to demonstrate their value as much as any other sector?

The idea that universities are spaces for intellectual reflection is increasingly seen as out of date. Willetts has written to all universities demanding they issue statements to demonstrate how their students are supported in terms of career guidance and work placements. Universities are also being instructed to help overcome social inequalities by accepting students who have not achieved the required marks. This approach seems to have seriously negative consequences, especially on those subjects not deemed easily able to demonstrate their social and economic ‘impact’. Renowned university departments and chairs which are not held to be ‘financially viable’ face the axe: despite protests, humanities departments at the universities of Middlesex, Sussex and Westminster and at King’s College London bear the brunt of attempts at savings, with philosophy departments made to feel particularly vulnerable. 

What is lost if ‘curiosity-driven research’ is sidelined, and higher education is required to prove its worth as a training ground for jobs? Are philosophy or ancient history or literary analysis or basic science unimportant, because they don’t have obvious social benefits? Some argue the problem is that the market has a dread of things that can’t be measured, but in that case how is it that knowledge was seemingly valued for its own sake in the recent past, under governments of both left and right? What has changed in the way knowledge and intellectual authority are understood and valued?

Listen to session audio:

 

Speakers
Dr Philip Cunliffe
senior lecturer in international conflict, University of Kent; co-editor, Politics Without Sovereignty: a critique of contemporary international relations.

Philip Moriarty
professor of physics and EPSRC leadership fellow, University of Nottingham

David Sweeney
director, research, innovation and skills, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)

Drs Astrid Wissenburg
director, communications and information, ESRC

Sukanta Chaudhuri
emeritus professor of English, Jadavpur University; scholar of European Renaissance literature and textual studies; translator; writer and campaigner on urban issues and educational planning.

Chair:
Dr Tara McCormack
lecturer in international politics, University of Leicester; author, Critique, Security and Power: the political limits to emancipatory approaches

Produced by
Dr Tara McCormack lecturer in international politics, University of Leicester; author, Critique, Security and Power: the political limits to emancipatory approaches
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