Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities

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Oxford Fellows ‘envisaging the weather’; drawing by Max Beerbohm from Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story, 1911

British universities face a crisis of the mind and spirit. For thirty years, Tory and Labour politicians, bureaucrats, and “managers” have hacked at the traditional foundations of academic life. Unless policies and practices change soon, the damage will be impossible to remedy.

As an “Occasional Student” at University College London in the early 1970s and a regular visitor to the Warburg Institute, Oxford, and Cambridge after that, I—like many American humanists—envied colleagues who taught at British universities. We had offices with linoleum; they had rooms with carpets. We worked at desks; they sat with their students on comfy chairs and gave them glasses of sherry. Above all, we felt under constant pressure to do the newest new thing, and show the world that we were doing it: to be endlessly innovative and interdisciplinary and industrious.

British humanists innovated too. Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, Frances Yates and Peter Burke, and many others formulated new ways of looking at history for my generation. But British academics always admitted, as we sometimes did not, that it is vital to preserve and update our traditional disciplines and forms of knowledge: languages, precise interpretation of texts and images and objects, rigorous philosophical analysis and argument. Otherwise all the sexy interdisciplinary work will yield only a trickle of trendy blather.

There was a Slow Food feel to British university life, based on a consensus that people should take the time to make an article or a book as dense and rich as it could be. Good American universities were never exactly Fast Food Nation, but we certainly felt the pressure to produce, regularly and rapidly. By contrast, Michael Baxandall spent three years at the Warburg Institute, working in the photographic collection and not completing a dissertation, and several more as a lecturer, later on, writing only a few articles. Then, in 1971 and 1972, he produced two brilliant interdisciplinary books, which transformed the study of Renaissance humanism and art, remain standard works to this day, and were only the beginning of a great career. Gertrud Bing, E.H. Gombrich, J.B. Trapp, and A.M. Meyer, who administered the Warburg in those days, knew how to be patient. Their results speak for themselves.

From the accession of Margaret Thatcher onward, the pressure has risen. Universities have had to prove that they matter. Administrators and chairs have pushed faculty to win grants and publish and rewarded those who do so most successfully with periods of leave and other privileges that American professors can only dream of. The pace of production is high, but the social compact among teachers is frayed. In the last couple of years, the squeeze has become tighter than ever. Budgets have shrunk, and universities have tightened their belts to fit. Now they are facing huge further cuts for three years to come—unless, as is likely, the Conservatives take over the government …

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