Stefan Collini’s piece (English universities are in peril because of 10 years of calamitous reform, 31 August) is an expression of the immense collective frustration of UK academics. Many would add their own voices, were it not for a fear of drawing attention to oneself and ending up on the chopping block in our hire-and-fire job market.
My life has been defined by the fortunes of British universities. My father came to the UK from India in 1990 to take up a PhD scholarship at Cambridge. Our family later settled in Northern Ireland, where my father has worked in academia for 25 years. At 18, I went to Cambridge from a Belfast grammar school, remaining there for a doctorate.
The professional situation for junior academic colleagues is cut-throat, serving the consumer model delineated by Collini. It’s depressing; most of us will not get academic jobs in the UK and will either leave our field or this country. Quite how our government expects to maintain “world-leading” universities by decimating their workforce and manipulating their activities is a mystery.
Collini is right to focus his class critique on England and Wales, where the hegemony of independent schools quashes dreams of equal opportunity. Northern Ireland retains a problematic grammar school system, but the position of universities there is little better.
All education is ultimately just one element of a society in which people should be supported to flourish in their chosen area. Lamentably, our overlords have lost sight of this.
Jesus College, Cambridge
• Stefan Collini says our higher education system is “structurally consumerist”. Perhaps the worse example of the impact of this concerns criminology. An ever-increasing number of youngsters appear to wish to don white overalls and become scenes of crime officers. Consequently, the number of single and joint honours degrees in criminology has increased, while degree courses in social policy and sociology have declined.
Thousands of criminology students graduate every year, making it possible for every convicted criminal to have their own criminologist as an adviser! The imperialism of the subject sweeps up any social harm (from environmental harm and soon, no doubt, Brexit) and studies them within the narrow parameters of crime, policing and criminal justice. Covid-19 shows the folly of these developments. In England and Wales, in the first 21 days it killed roughly the same number of people that convicted murderers kill in an average year.
Professor Emeritus, sociology, Queen’s University Belfast
• One of Stefan Collini’s sentiments in particular resonates: “the core experience of life-changing education is … about encountering manifold forms of otherness”. It is this aversion to otherness that has led to the monoculture of marketisation afflicting academia and the broader economy.
This, in turn, undermines the resilience we need to face the multiple crises we are confronting. It also keeps us in a condition of opposition precisely when we need to embrace the African philosophy of Ubuntu, sometimes summarised as “I am because we are”.
Equipping students with an appreciation of our interdependence, rather than embedding an “us and them” mentality, would enable us to meet the aspiration to offer world-leading education in a way that perceiving university as a beauty parade for a shrinking jobs market never will.
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