Posted tagged ‘Durham University’

The elitism of a new mission?

March 13, 2012

So what should we make of this? Four English universities that had until now been members of the ‘1994 Group’ – which according to its website exists ‘to promote excellence in research and teaching. To enhance student and staff experience within our universities and to set the agenda for higher education’ (grammar and punctuation as on their website) – have moved their membership to the so-called ‘Russell Group’, which says it ‘represents 20 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector’; except that it doesn’t, as it’s now 24 universities. If you need to know (and really, you don’t), the four are the universities of York, Durham, Exeter and Queen Mary (the name of a college of the University of London).

The Russell Group and the 1994 Group are both examples of what are usually described as ‘mission groups’. Therefore, they exist in order to bring together institutions sharing a particular and unique mission. But if this is all about mission, then the four institutions concerned are moving from a group with one particular mission to another with, you know, exactly the same mission, as far as the rest of us can make out. The Russell Group, having invited the transfer group, are really happy, while the 1994 people are bemused. And if this particular transaction creates the impression that 1994 Group membership is a waiting list for the Russell Group, then the 1994ers are in trouble.

Presumably what we are learning here is that the ‘mission’ groups in England are all about status, rather than about strategy or mission. Their role is to identify who are members of the elite, or at least of a group self-identifying as an elite. They do have some Scottish members, though thankfully this membership does not appear to matter much in practice north of the Border.

Of course in some ways all higher education institutions are about nurturing an elite – in this case an elite of thought, analysis, scholarship and learning. Education is about bringing out the best in people and ideas, for the benefit of society. Nor is there anything wrong with universities wanting to be the very best; intellectual competition is often good. But what we are getting is the culture of the club: the idea that your associations need to smell of exclusivity. And however much this is presented as intellectual excellence, it is going to be affected by thoughts of social elitism, even if that was never intended.

Of course universities need to collaborate and to find like-minded partners. But in the end, that is a different game. Finding a club, enticing though it may seem at times, is an ambition that will always place the ultimate mission of academic excellence in its real essence at risk. It should be pursued with a great deal of reluctance.

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Tainted money?

March 20, 2011

As recent events in Libya unfolded, one story that got a fair amount of air time was the donation to the London School of Economics of money from Saif Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader. Inevitably of course further investigations by journalists have revealed other donations and grants from the region, including a research grant accepted by Durham University from the Iranian government, and another Libyan payment made to Liverpool John Moores University for developing a teaching programme for a local university.

If journalists keep sniffing around they will find more. However, we should beware just a little of the righteous indignation that this sort of story seems to encourage. As higher education in parts of Europe and America interacts much more closely with the rest of the world, it is going to come into close contact with governments without any great democratic credentials. Mostly we don’t care that much. Nobody was saying a word about Libyan links three months ago, though some of them were well known. But in fact there are teaching and research links with dozens of countries that don’t even aspire to (never mind practise) European-style liberal democracy. While it is embarrassing no doubt for the LSE to have footage broadcast on television of an event in which academics made obsequious comments to the Libyan leader, that probably could have been any university.

It is of course shocking that Colonel Gaddafi was willing to turn his guns on his own people; but rather than come over all indignant now it would be far better to have a clearer think about the appropriate response to offers of financial support from governments whose democratic credentials are in question (whether currently involved in violent attacks or not).