Professor Mary Evans' critique of 'the death of the universities' has breathed new life into the higher education debate.
You can’t judge a book by its cover – but you can tell a lot from the title. Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities is an uncompromising attack upon the process that has turned the British university from a place of higher education and thinking, however imperfect, into a site of ‘battery farming for the mind’, where academics and students are enslaved by the principles of audit, assessment, and regulation, and the role of the university is reduced to meeting the needs of the market in Britain’s so-called knowledge economy.
When it was first published a year ago, Killing Thinking received acclaim from the academic community. This autumn, Continuum has brought out a new, cheaper paperback version to stimulate discussion among a wider general audience – parents, would-be students and the many others who are perturbed by the concern that a university education ain’t what it used to be. Mary Evans’ critique remains accessible and fresh, raising some important questions about the value of higher education in a culture increasingly driven by instrumental considerations.
In the introduction to Killing Thinking, Evans, who is professor of women’s studies at the University of Kent, explains that the book was ‘inspired by the experience of working in a British university in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first’ – which ‘has not been a happy time’. From the expansion of the higher education system under the Tories in the 1980s to the Blairite goal of getting 50 per cent of young people into university, from the self-conscious introduction of a market ethos into academic life to the spawning of new, all-powerful regulatory bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), Evans exposes the relentless way in which knowledge, creativity, and education have been drummed out of British universities, to be replaced by ‘the painting-by-numbers exercise of the hand-out culture and [the transformation] of much research into an atavistic battle for funds’.
And that’s only on the first page. Killing Thinking is a slender book, passionately written and free from jargon, and it pulls no punches in describing the miserable state of the British academy today. The chapter on ‘audit and compliance’ is titled ‘The Heart of Darkness’; the chapter unravelling the democratic-sounding language employed by the regulatory system makes extensive use of comparisons with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Evans is not alone in her objections to the audit culture – as she explains, such complaints frequently appear on the pages of academia’s trade journal, the Times Higher Education Supplement. What is refreshing about Evans’ critique, however, is that she refuses to pay lip-service to the leftist-sounding justifications that are given to the expansion and modernisation agenda – that it is more democratic and equal than what went before.
Evans makes clear that she is not harking back to some golden age, in which the university was ‘a world of intellectual conversation, engaged students and limitless indulgence’. To do so would be ‘to depart to the realms of fantasy’ – ‘we cannot easily defend the past, or invoke that past as an attack on the present’. As a professor of women’s studies, Mary Evans can also hope to avoid the caricature of those who criticise the modernisation agenda as fusty old men, bent on preserving their position at whatever cost. Unlike many critics, Evans recognises that a combination of political and cultural agendas has set the modern university on its disastrous course, making it impossible simply to blame the political right, or the cultural left: ‘The attack on the traditional ‘high’ culture of universities has come, in Britain, from a complex coalition: left-wing modernisers, Tory pragmatists and all-party and all-class philistines’.
Whoever instigated this process, its outcome, according to Evans, is no good for anybody – particularly its purported beneficiaries, students from less-than-privileged backgrounds, or women. ‘Increasingly students are being asked to pay for the costs of the regulation of higher education rather than the education itself’, she argues in the introduction – and as the new universities proliferate, the elite institutions of Oxbridge and London have become more desirable to students, yet less attainable: ‘More people are allowed access to higher education than ever before, but the most valuable rewards of higher education are, arguably, more concentrated (and at least as exclusive) as in the past’.
As for women, whose all-but exclusion from the ivory towers has been replaced by a greater number of female than male undergraduates, Evans contends that the sheer burden of regulatory demands means that ‘women are not just as disadvantaged in contemporary universities as those of the past but arguably more so’. Women have been given access to the university at the very time that this means conscientious conformity to the tick-box demands of the QAA, regular outputs to the RAE, and generally behaving as ‘the “good girls”‘ rather than creative thinkers capable of great things.
So it has not been a happy time, indeed. What, if anything, can be done to rescue the keen minds and educational resources that still exist in most universities from the mindless conformity of the battery farm? When I put the question to her, Mary Evans said that she hoped that the republication of her book would spark precisely this kind of discussion. ‘The first reaction, when it was originally published, was a lot of recognition from academics and students about what is going on in universities’, she tells me. ‘The second was: “Yes, it’s all terrible, but what can we do?” – a terrible sense of passivity, as if academics didn’t own the university, and this was just how it is. That was what I found the most depressing. I hope now that we can have a public discussion about what can be done’.
A little book like Mary Evans’ may not tell the full story of the crisis in Britain’s universities, but it’s enough of a start for a debate that goes beyond the walls of the academy. The government has the regulators, the proscriptions and the financial clout, but when it comes to any kind of vision for the future of high education, it cannot see beyond the next set of A-level results. Instead of putting up and shutting up, disgruntled academics, sold-short students and anyone else with an interest in education should think about adding their own thoughts and writings to those of the unhappy dissenters, and formulating their own vision about what a university should be for.
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