Cambridge professor Stefan Collini warns for consumerism in academia
Cambridge professor Stefan Collini is renowned for his books on the role of universities in society. He has been a prominent critic of neo-liberal policies in higher education, as well as an eloquent defender of the humanities. For the next three months, he is a visiting fellow in the Institute of Historical, Literary, and Cultural Studies in the Faculty of Arts. 'Dutch poetry classes should be given in Dutch.'
Two things have struck Stefan Collini since he arrived in Nijmegen, five days ago. Firstly, the extraordinary strong wind. Secondly, the English fluency of Dutch people. ‘You all speak such good English, compared to most people in other European countries. In practice, this almost seems like a bilingual university to me. For an Englishman like me, this is a great advantage.’
Invited by the Faculty of Arts, the professor of Intellectual history and literary criticism will be a guest in Nijmegen for the coming three months. His activities mainly consist of giving lectures, participating in public discussions, and taking part in the activities of the hosting Institute. Or, as Collini puts it, ‘to be around and talk with people about their current work’.
For the Faculty of Arts, Collini is a temporary, but remarkable ‘catch’. He wrote bestsellers on the role of universities in society, such as Speaking of Universities and What are Universities for? (which was translated into Dutch). In these works he criticises the processes of marketisation and the increasing influence of so-called ‘accountability’ in universities, and how these processes transform students more and more into consumers, as if they imagine themselves being in a supermarket rather than a university.
‘My criticism on universities is accurate but does not change policy’
Your books What are Universities for? and Speaking of Universities joined a growing library critiquing the business-like university. Do governments listen? Do you see improvement in the way they formulate their policies?
‘I do not believe that short-term policy changes are ever very likely in these fields. In the case of Britain, we have a government which in general is committed to neoliberal policies broadly attempting to apply what they regard as a discipline of the market to various areas of life, not just education. Such a government has shown itself in other areas to always be completely deaf to criticism. So I think, though the criticism that I and others have made on universities are accurate – and they are read by some people in the government – they do not change policy.’
‘But there are more reasons for writing my critical accounts of contemporary higher education policy. The first is to articulate to ourselves, academics and students, a better understanding of the activity we’re doing. So many of us feel that the categories and descriptions that we get from government policies are not adequate. One by-product of articulating a better view is that, if we can have those sort of discussions collectively, then it’s also good for our morale. When I go to various universities in Britain, I’m struck that the academic staff in particular, and to some extent some of the graduate students, are feeling rather dispirited. They feel that the situation is unpromising, as if universities are subjected to unsympathetic treatment by the government. With that mood it’s very hard to carry on doing one’s best work in terms of teaching or research.’
The Dutch education sector, including higher education, is in disruption, with demonstrations and even a strike to demand more public investment. Does the defense of the public university require this kind of political action? Or should we rather focus on the search for the articulate and convincing argument?
‘I think we should have both, for sure. Such political action is important in raising the profile of these questions, not just in attempting to persuade the current government but also in raising the profile of questions about universities in society. I also think it is underestimated that such organised demonstrations are a good part of the education of those who take part in them.’
In The Netherlands a new student loan system was introduced a couple of years ago. Students have to take up more debt. What lessons could the Dutch government learn from the British experience, where higher education is even more expensive?
‘There are different aspects to this question of fees. The aspect that is probably most talked about is the possible deterrent effect on people from less privileged social backgrounds. They worry more about possible debt. That’s a serious issue, although the evidence in Britain suggests that the simple existence of the system doesn’t necessarily discourage people from less advantaged social backgrounds.’
‘Whole society benefits from education’
‘Another question is about the justice of the financial system. The fee system puts the emphasis more on the student, or the former student who pays, whether or not they earn a lot of money. This has an immediate appeal these days: the person who benefits from the education, should pay for the education. That seems misleading to me. The whole society benefits from the education. The fee system is making more individualistic what should be the collective financing of a public good.
‘Thirdly, there’s the way a fee system encourages the model of consumerism and encourages the idea that universities are competing with each other in a market. There are reasons to worry. The higher the fee goes, the more these dangers will come up.’
Do you see student consumerism as the outcome of the fact that higher education is getting more expensive?
‘I think it is a deliberate policy of this and the previous British government to turn the experience of being student in a British university into one that is more consumerist. Partly it is meant to bring the rights of a consumer, including the right to complain and to get value for money. In Britain, there’s quite a tendency to encourage students to think of their experiences in consumerist terms and to think of teachers as there to provide a service, rather than seeing education as a public good which the student is benefiting from.
‘We haven’t seen all the effects of this yet, but in the United States there’s much more experience of students or their parents claiming various things, including being entitled to good grades or results. There are many examples of complaints on the way the examination has been marked, with the argument “I paid a lot of money for this.” We are just beginning to see some of that kind of pressure in Britain too and because of the way that institutions are assessed, depending on a mechanism that involves student opinion, the recent result has been that it’s in universities’ interest to give more high-ranking marks for their degrees. We have grade inflation – the results have gone up. It looks like we’re more and more pleasing the students, rather than educating them. There can be some tension between those aims. A phrase that is very important in this in Britain, is “student satisfaction”.’
You are a strong defender of the humanities. In the Netherlands, they’re going through hard times. Because they didn’t get enough students, the study of Dutch Language and Culture at de Vrije Universiteit will not be organized from next year – it doesn’t make enough money. How do you look at this?
‘I look upon it with dismay. You cannot say it is simply the outcome of recent changes in higher education. It’s the outcome of a whole emphasis since the 1980’s on utilitarian considerations that have made recent generations of students more anxious about their economic future and employment and which have systemically downgraded or devalued all kinds of things. All things that have to do with culture used to have quite a high status in society, that has diminished.’
‘A commitment of universities to maintain teaching and research in the language of their own society is important’
I also think universities have some responsibility to try to maintain subjects or areas which are of importance, even though the numbers of students are small. This may involve an element of cross subsidy – taking money from something that makes more money to support something that doesn’t. An absolute commitment of universities to maintain teaching and research in the language, culture and history of their own society is important. It’s not going to happen somewhere else! If nobody in, say, Norway studies Norwegian literature, people are not going to do it elsewhere. It may be not essential that every university maintains every small subject, but nationally you need some strategy to make sure that they are kept alive well enough across the system, and that means not treating each university simply as a separate economic unit in competition with every other university.’
It’s fair to say the University of Amsterdam still offers Dutch Language and Culture.
‘They do now, but maybe they won’t if they go the same way.’
At the same time, Dutch universities tend to attract more and more international students. Would it be damaging if English became the predominant language for higher education in the Netherlands?
‘I’m all in favour of international students, I’m much more guarded about the dominance of the English language. In terms of the recognition of research, careers and promotion, it means that certain forms of publication and certain topics of research are automatically favoured because they’re regarded as international. Someone who works on some comparative topic which includes English language material will look to be having greater reach and significance for their work than somebody who works in the local vernacular language. That’s wrong! The person who is the great expert on medieval Dutch poetry is maybe a more distinguished scholar than someone who works on race and gender in several countries but publishes in English.’
‘I have sat in on courses in different universities in Europe which were given in English and it’s a great achievement in some way. They’re very international, real communication is happening, and that’s all good. But sometimes they are all – teachers and students – finding it very difficult to do justice to the nuance and detail of certain material if they’re doing it in English as a second or maybe a third language. They speak it for functional purposes very well but they may not have the same familiarity as with their native language, especially in the case of the students. I think we have to recognise that Dutch poetry classes may have mostly to be given in Dutch, because in the end you need that connection to do that kind of work really well.’
About the role science plays in society: do scholars always have to make a contribution to economic and societal changes?
‘Universities do make a contribution to society in all kinds of ways. The danger obviously is, when we interpret societal benefit in economic terms only. Then something fundamental to our education and our research is likely to be sacrificed. In all fields – humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, medicine – there is necessarily a kind of open-ended element to research. You cannot tell quite what you’re going to find or how valuable it is going to be. That’s essential to the process of discovery and inquiry.’
You’re probably not supporting the Dutch National Research Agenda, formed by questions from Dutch citizens to science.
‘It depends what direct power it has. If a commission picks the ideas, it’s probably not going to be very different from the existing system. If that encourages a general sense of public ownership of research, that’s a good thing. Once it becomes the case that you can shape a research agenda by voting, then I think it’s very dangerous.’
Do universities themselves have to do more to convince plumbers and gardeners of the general benefit of a university?
‘Yes. Although it’s important to distinguish between, on the one hand, misguided attempts to measure the impact of universities, and, on the other, what seems to me the desirable attempts to persuade the larger population of the interest and value of what we do. I think we’re conscious we should do more of that and that’s right, making the kind of research and the kind of teaching we do better known – inviting people to events, organizing open days, having public lectures or whatever.
But that is not the same as “justifying” what we do, it’s more a matter of disseminating it, trying to make the interest of it clear to people who might otherwise have no knowledge of it. The more you move towards “justifying”, the more the range of propositions that are recognized in public debate tends to narrow. But overall I do think universities should do more to connect with our various publics.’
We shouldn’t go too far in justifying, is that what you’re saying?
‘These questions of “too far” are always difficult: how far is too far? What we have to recognize is that in public debate the tendency is: try to find some consideration that will have indisputable legitimacy with the wider public. That is possessed by few things. Possibly prosperity and economic growth, possibly something like social inclusiveness these days. But universities serve wider social goals than just these.’
Do we still need to ask something about Brexit?
‘O God. Madness! I have nothing original to say on this topic. Who knows why it’s happening and who knows what the outcome is going to be?’