Early Career Researcher and Teacher (SOAS)
Mid-November saw the launch of The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU), an independent campaigning organisation that “exists solely for the purpose of defending academic values and the institutional arrangements best suited to fostering them” from the “short term, pragmatic, and narrowly commercial” practices that–according to the CDBU–currently dominate Higher Education in the UK.
The CDBU met with dissent from the very start, and saw the departure of seven founding members in its very first week of existence. It has also been marred by accusations of elitism and anachronism — accusations that, given the preponderance of “middle-aged, pale, male Oxbridge professors or Lords of the realm” on the Steering Committee (Bell), are going to be difficult to refute. In a recent article for the THE, Alice Bell intelligently unpacks some of the CDBU’s limitations with the intention of opening up space for “constructive debate” around the Council, its aims, and its approaches. In this post, I seek to add to this debate by providing a postgraduate researcher perspective.
Like Bell, my antipathy to the CDBU doesn’t lie with its aims per se. In general, I agree with the values put forward by the Council, and know few people–if any–in UK HE who don’t work overtime to uphold them. Although I find some of the concepts a bit outdated in their current articulation and the far-right choice of name baffling (charmingly satirised in the THE’s crusader illustrations, above), I’m prepared to give the authors of the CDBU’s manifesto the benefit of the doubt. What I’m not prepared to do, however, is to let the Council get away with their conservative approach to upholding these values, and their attempt to insulate them from changing economic and institutional circumstances.
According to the CDBU, “after decades of subordinating [academic values] to other priorities, it can no longer be taken for granted that every educated person understands the enormous value to society as a whole of maintaining places devoted primarily to the pursuit of understanding and to the transmission of that pursuit to the next generation”. The phrase “taken for granted” is revealing, for this is exactly what UK HE has done: by assuming that its contribution to society is self-evident, HE in the UK has blithely brought about its own destruction. To me, it is glaringly apparent that, instead of subordinating its values to other priorities, HE in the UK has allowed these values to occlude sustainability, accountability, and public engagement. To not appreciate how and why HE needs to change is not just myopic, but an insult to those who have worked extremely hard in recent years to make HE more sustainable and accountable, both in education and research and in administration and support. While Bell argues that much of the CDBU manifesto “seems to be about keeping outsiders at arm’s length”, it’s crucial to acknowledge that its approach is also about excluding those within HE who have adapted and innovated in response to the times.
As part of a generation of postgraduate researchers whose future in HE is more likely to lie in administration and support than in education and research, it infuriates me that the buck has been so quickly passed. The majority of the CDBU’s Steering Committee have lived out their academic careers during a golden age, a time of high employability, generous funding, and limited accountability. I appreciate that it must be hard to see this change, but enough is enough. Academia is supposed to be about seeking out new intellectual challenges and devising innovative solutions, not about sanctimoniously grumbling over the intrinsic value of the life of the mind. I’m regularly roused from my default state of despair by news of how brave individuals and organisations have adapted in intelligent and, most importantly, visionary ways to the challenges that HE currently faces: Wittenberg University’s commitment to securing its financial future without compromising its mission and institutional strengths for example, or the American Historical Association’s approach to defining and promoting the value of history by improving professional standards and accountability both come to mind. In an ideal world, this is exactly the kind of work that the CDBU would promote, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
To conclude, if the CDBU is to have any credibility with people of my generation, both in HE and beyond, it needs to move beyond its parochial grumbling, and use the substantial cultural–and, one suspects, economic–capital of its Steering Committee and member institutions to support intelligent and sustainable change, examples of which might include supporting research into the definition and measurement of cultural value, and public engagement with–and perhaps even, shock horror, participation in–this research, or furthering understanding within HE of the opportunities for increased financial sustainability. My first suggestion, though? Updating the website with a section on “What We Do and Why We Do It” wouldn’t be a bad way to start…