‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life … Rethinking the Public University (Prof John Brewer) #ImagineBelfast15

Rethinking the Public UniversityThe public university is dead … a slow and lingering death, … and its corpse lies lifeless in every senior managers’ meeting, in every classroom and every tutorial venue … in every boarded up common room and every closed bookshop.

QUB’s Prof John Brewer argued over lunchtime that neo-liberalisation and a marketisation of higher education – as much a Thatcher and Blair process as a ConDem coalition one – has destroyed universities.

Surprisingly, those responsible for the patient’s care were like vultures … Vice chancellors were supine and failed to charge their duty of care.

In his contribution to the Imagine!2015 Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics, the social scientist summed up the problem and the solution with an alliteration:

Universities have lost their public function and their public funding … but must now find fidelity.

His definition of fidelity included trust and moral purpose.

Universities gave been turned into businesses in which commercial concerns have destroyed their moral virtue and purpose. They have become bursar-led not academic-led. Their value must be greater than a mere contribution to the economy. Value is worth, and esteem and social good.

Students have been transformed into fee-carriers, customers carrying cash.

John Brewer quoted statistics saying UK universities £36m spent on student marketing in 2012/13, a 33% increase on 2010/11. He noted a four-fold increase in unconditional offers being made to university candidates.

He’s a stiff.

‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies!

‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig!

‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!!


Snapping out of the Monty Python sketch, John continued:

We have run down the curtain on the public university.

Prof John BrewerThe institutions needed to rebuild, reshape and refashion. Public universities began as medieval institutions created by the church, but are no longer fit for purpose in a late-modern world. Change is needed for 21st century.

He noted that academics can be amongst the most resistant to change. The rise of discourtesy in the management of the modern university is paralleled only by the tendency of academic staff to whine!

Pressing need for universities to recapture their soul.

He used ecclesiastical language, arguing that there was a pressing need for universities to “recapture their soul” from the marketeers and embrace a moral dimension and a moral purpose.

The once revered ancient institution of the public university has changed beyond recognition We need to turn this loss into an opportunity. Universities need to recapture and reshape their global mission for the 21st century to make themselves truly public again. This requires them to redefine their public value and make themselves relevant to the complex problems threatening human kind. This requires more change to universities not less. Broader visions not narrower. Greater ambitions not smaller ones. Requires universities to be outward facing with a renewed sense of public purpose and civic engagement.

Universities seek to climb to the top of the tree. John Brewer would prefer that they are motivated to more to the part of the forest which has taller trees. Universities need a new devotion to make a difference to people’s lives.

Yet universities need money. That can be found through fidelity: trustworthy institutions that local communities feel some ownership of, rather than a posh place that exists on a hill.

John Brewer listed four principles that he felt were more important than any marketing strapline.

  • Universities should have an obligation to the betterment and improvement of society.
  • Universities should practice an ethic of responsibility.
  • Universities should promote the advancement of morally constituted knowledge (in both teaching and research) – knowledge in terms of objective science and research directed towards social good.
  • Universities commit themselves to understand the global challenges that risk human kind and threaten the social good.

Why were universities not acting as a “civilising and humanising mirror for societies” to see themselves in and learn about themselves? Teaching and research should be publicly engaged, and not just for the sake of knowledge.

We should aim not to train minds but to change minds, and hence to change society.

John Brewer cautioned that the university tutorial format is dead. Interdisciplinary efforts to focus many departments on different aspects of the same problems or topics was required. Asked for exemplars, he pointed to Newcastle University’s creation of three institutes to tackle themes of “societal challenge”: ageing, social renewal and sustainability.

There are encouraging noises emanating from our two local universities that they will perhaps set down their “Russell Group” and “We’re not like them!” placards and cooperate rather than purely compete. This is good news for local students, and the only way to survive the cuts to public funding that they will face over the next four or so years. Though hoping that cooperation leads to a blended Queen’s University of Ulster may be like searching for the unionist unity unicorn!

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