As British universities receive the results of their research assessments, AC Grayling considers what future there is for the idea of a liberal education and laments the demise of the intellectual scholarby AC Grayling / January 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
According to Wordsworth the world is too much with us; “getting and spending,” he says, “we lay waste our powers.” He reminds us that we need opportunities for reflection-a place apart, to think and to enquire. One might say that Sunday afternoons offer individuals a prosaic remedy for what Wordsworth laments: a chance to step aside from exigencies to consider the larger matters.
Societies likewise need their places apart, and for the same reasons. The reflective enterprise is not divorced from practicality; it offers a calm space to seek ideas, solve problems and make discoveries. What Sundays are to individuals in these respects, universities are-at least in part-to societies.
Or so they should be. They were not always so, and are at some risk of ceasing to be so, especially in the humanities, where the effects of new ways of financing universities is hastening changes that are undesirable-making it harder to realise the ideal of a liberal education.
British universities discovered on 19th December how they performed in the current research assessment exercise, whose aim is to rank university departments by research quality. The rankings guide Britain’s four higher education funding councils in allocating resources. The aim is to help the universities’ paymasters ration money.
The idea of a research assessment exercise is, relative to its purposes, a good one. Given that resources are limited, a basis is required for sharing them. And the exercise has some clearly good effects, among them the upsetting of anecdotal rankings of universities by identifying centres of excellence in unexpected places.
But the exercise has flaws. By further rewarding good institutions, it entrenches the divide between good and bad ones. Departments with an eye to the ratings tend to appoint established researchers with proven records, rather than younger, unpublished candidates. As good departments attract money, so they attract better faculty and brighter postgraduates. The less good lose in all these respects, and the system becomes more two-tiered. In the US there is a big difference between teaching-only colleges and universities with prestigious research centres. It might be that, even in a wholly publicly funded system, this is the best way to ration resources; but if so, an honest step in that direction is preferable to Darwinian attrition.
The concern discussed here is more general: by its emphasis on research, the funding councils promote a conception of the university which ignores aspects of its…