Cap and gown

Cap and gown

Universities must celebrate uncertainty to survive

Students have become consumers, but they don’t always know what they’re buying. j.o.h.n. walker

Universities have long been viewed as institutions that produce knowledge for the common good.

They do this in a variety of ways: by undertaking research that leads to developments in health, culture, science and technology; by teaching skills that equip graduates to serve the community in their work as teachers, doctors, engineers and artists; by fostering citizenship and self-understanding; by sitting at the head of a universal education system; and by serving as apolitical places dedicated to disinterested scholarship and learning.

These are the reasons that, throughout the 20th century, societies have valued universities, funded them, and seen them as public institutions.

At the start of the 21st century, however, universities find themselves in turbulent times. In the UK, regulatory reforms are dramatically reshaping the ways our higher education institutions are funded and how they go about their core tasks.

In 2008 the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) introduced a new system for assessing research. As well as ranking the quality of publications and requiring a set number of “outputs” from each “research active” academic, the Research Excellence Framework introduced the controversial new element of “impact”. For the first time, under this criteria, funding is dependent upon institutions’ ability to demonstrate the influence of their academic research outside the university.

Then in 2012, the government changed the way higher education was financed. It abolished or significantly reduced direct funding for teaching, allowing universities to charge up to £9,000 a year in fees and shifting to a system in which students would fund most of the cost of their education themselves, through publicly funded loans.

The same year, the government lifted some of the controls on student recruitment, enabling universities to admit an unlimited number of students who had achieved at least two As and a B in their A Levels. In 2013 the threshold for uncapped recruitment was dropped to include students with an A and two Bs.

These reforms are premised upon a belief that the market is the best way to govern knowledge. They turn students into consumers who purchase education as an asset, and require universities and academics to compete to demonstrate their value according to a set of pre-defined measures. Such changes, it is thought, will increase both the quality and the efficiency of the work universities do as makers of knowledge.

Let’s be clear. Universities do need to serve the societies in which they are located.

They do need to be accountable for the public money they receive, to be accessible to all who would seek to enter them, and to reach out beyond narrow academic audiences.

But if we value knowledge – and we should – we need to ask ourselves careful questions about how it is formed.

In all the discussion about the “knowledge economy”, it is easy to forget that the condition for knowing is not-knowing. If universities are places dedicated to knowledge, then they are also – by necessity – places devoted to uncertainty.

Any academic worth their salt will admit to this. They will tell you their expertise is the product of a lifelong struggle with incomprehension, and that every thing they claim to know is contingent upon a host of things they don’t. To the extent that universities are places where knowledge is made, then they are places where people learn to ask difficult questions, wrestle with previous approaches and test untried ideas. And they are places where this process is undertaken collectively: in conversation with colleagues, with students, and with past scholars.

Yet the new market-driven world of higher education seems to have little place for uncertainty. Uncertainty costs a lot of money, its usefulness can’t be predicted, and few people see the value of owning it. It’s not very easy to sell and it’s very hard to measure.

But uncertainty is central to the process of gaining knowledge. Researchers don’t always know where their investigations will take them, students don’t know what it is they need to learn, and the “impact” of work is rarely obvious or quantifiable from the outset.

If universities need to get better at telling the wider world about what they do, then this messy process needs to be part of the story they tell.

The recent reforms in the UK instrumentalise research, privatise public educational assets, and attempt to create a market in higher education. In doing so they drive a wedge between knowledge and uncertainty.

Uncertainty is discomforting. Governments, like individuals, would prefer to live in a world of maximum information, quantifiable gains, and known outcomes. But life is chaotic and disordered. Universities need to be supported as homes of untidy processes, difficult enquiry, and endless questioning. Only then can they fulfil their mission as institutions that produce knowledge for the common good.