There is a special kind of British humour that is very good at locating the absurd in everyday life. It draws our attention to much of what we take for granted just by tone of voice or the mere raising of an eyebrow. Either of these can be enough to place quotes effectively around a cliché or draw our critical attention to something and make us laugh at the sudden absurdity of what once seemed authoritative.
Professor Robin Briggs of All Souls College, Oxford, is a master of this very British combination of comedy and critique. In South Africa to deliver the TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture at the University of Cape Town, it was with twinkling eyes that he intoned the ruling mantras of what usually passes for common sense in global higher education policy.
He began his lecture by repeating the words of former British minister of education David Blunkett: “Higher education generates the research, knowledge and skills that underpin innovation and change in the economy and wider society.”
This assertion, Briggs said, was “unobjectionable enough, unless” — and he paused with the sense of timing essential to all comedy — “unless you are allergic to truisms”.
He emphasised the importance of some of the unstated corollaries of Blunkett’s central idea of a “knowledge economy” and challenged the particularly narrow perspective on higher education that it presupposed.
From that perspective — which Briggs cautiously qualified as “neo-liberal”, though suggesting that neo-liberal doctrine amounted to little more than a “job lot of rhetorical tricks and buzzwords” — the “essential mission” of higher education was to generate economic growth, ignoring the complex reality of the broader social functions of higher education systems. In the end, in Blunkett et al’s fixed ideas, rather than serving the public good, higher education was intended to benefit the private pocket.
In this narrowing of the university’s traditionally broad and social functions, it became just one more industry with direct economic impacts. The university’s broad educational mission was construed as purely vocational, with job training for specific professions as its central aim. Meanwhile, the core of university production, research, became effectively confined to knowledge with “potential industrial and commercial outcomes”, with “blue-skies research and almost anything in the humanities” downgraded significantly.
Characteristic of the historian, Briggs appealed to evidence to present a reality more complex than the neoliberal vision assumed. The actual evidence, he said, suggested that, across “large areas of the job market, employers continue to express a preference for basic literacy, numeracy and analytical skills, with recruits trained on the job rather than during their formal education”.
Similarly, the historical record showed that “research and development have a very unclear relationship to wealth generation”. Briggs roundly criticised recent attempts in Britain to use ‘impact” as a measure of research value.
He said “the government has crossed the line into interfering directly with the research choices made by individuals, while predictably showing a gross misunderstanding of how research actually works, even in utilitarian terms … The university can only remain intellectually healthy if it preserves truth as an absolute value, not a merely contingent one.”
All in all, he concluded, the “more rational approach” would be “to welcome mass higher education on general grounds, while accepting their supply will heavily outweigh their demand in the labour market, and not assuming any direct economic benefit from a simple expansion of student numbers”.
Of course, as he admitted later in conversation after the lecture, the rational approach was hardly likely to appeal to a populist politician interested only in the short-term and who couldn’t give two hoots about the potential damage to institutions like the university, which necessarily operated in terms of the long-term goal of the social reproduction of the cultural capital in which the possibility of advancing knowledge was embedded.
Briggs trained at Oxford under the Marxist historian Christopher Hill and came to the discipline at a time when it had burst out of a conception of history simply as the policies of the state and the actions of Great Men. The focus shifted to the lives of ordinary people and history became a discipline that allied itself with others — literature, economics and the social sciences in general — in order to seek, as Briggs put it, to “reconstruct the whole of life and see how we got to where we are now”.
Briggs’s foundational work on the witch trials in France in the 17th-century might seem far removed from his current concerns with the reigning ideology of higher education policy but he was willing to admit there were at least some similarities between 17th-century witch hunters and 21st-century academic managers.
The most violent and authoritarian religious leaders — those who burned the most witches — tended “to look backwards, and to be attached to last year’s theology”, he said. Similarly, the authoritarian templates that today’s higher education policy-makers tried to force on universities globally were themselves old-fashioned and strangely out of kilter with the most recent ideas of good management, which no longer sought to work in a top-down, punitive fashion but rather sought to encourage horizontal collaboration — “more Apple than General Motors”.
“It’s only when you stand back and look at things in a holistic way that you become rather terrified about just how destructive this current trend in higher education policy might be,” he said. “Abstract reason [as embodied in the new managerial practices of surveillance and control] always has a tendency to take over and something like that seems to be happening now.”
When it did happen, he warned, “you are bound to end up with extraordinary distortions and dysfunctional outcomes”.
It was in this currently threatening situation that Briggs called for the politicisation of academics. He said they needed to speak out against these distortions and destructive trends. “We need to be much more aggressive about defending our corner,” he said. “I do seriously think we need to shout louder.”
And shouting louder — or at least amplifying rational analysis to counter the claims of received ideas — can have some success, as Briggs’s own example shows.
When Oxford imported a new vice-chancellor from New Zealand in 2006, his mission was to force a new managerial template on the university by packing the university’s council with business people and taking the control of the university from academics. After a bitter campaign, in which Briggs played a leading role, the vice-chancellor’s new measures were defeated 60/40. He resigned and the university remains — at least for the moment — a bastion of the traditional academic freedoms.
From a South African perspective, Briggs’s humour and the strengths of his analysis ultimately derive from the same source. This is the confidence that comes with thinking for yourself — the very idea of “graduateness” that disappears from view in the new managerial focus on vocationalism. It is the ability of graduates in all fields to take a critical distance from the received ideas of the day and therefore at least to have the potential to “speak the truth to power”.
But it’s a sobering thought to wonder what might have become of Briggs’s Oxford campaign on a South African campus. Here his robust defence of academic freedom could — ironically enough — have been charged with “bringing the university into disrepute”.
Perhaps resistance to excessive managerialism here might be started by “outing” those universities that currently deploy this stifling rule, which is so contrary to the ethos of academic freedom.
John Higgins is Andrew W Mellon research professor in archives and public culture at the University of Cape Town.