As I traverse the world, I find that many of the same complaints are being heard concerning the qualities of universities in each and every country I pass through, any two or three from: they do not teach enough, they do not give out enough information to aid students, they do not attract enough students from lower socio-economic groups (or they do), they are inefficient, they act as hotbeds of political dissent, they charge too much, and so on. The charge sheet is a lengthy one.
What seems clear is that politicians, policy makers, journalists, and indeed many members of the general public seem to believe that there is somehow something wrong with universities. Behind all these complaints – some of them legitimate, some of them not – it is this perception which prevails, a feeling that something is somehow going awry about universities which needs fixing.
Why should that be? It’s no good bemoaning the unfairness of it all. That won’t do anything. We need to set out to actively change perceptions and to do that we need to understand the reasons why universities tend to be at best objects of suspicion and at worst downright unpopular.
I suspect that universities have hardly done themselves any favors on this score. They may have argued their case, but current circumstances suggest not nearly well enough.
Part of the reason is the arguments themselves. For example, Martha Nussbaum’s argument in Not For Profit that universities are wellsprings of democracy, though it has merit, comes across to many outside universities as highfalutin and elitist.
Then, too often universities confuse their concerns with the concerns of the general population. People in universities may well work extraordinarily hard at what they consider the outer limits of thought but to many in the general public this often seems to translate as dilettantism.
Then again, universities rarely come together to defend each other as much as they might. In many countries, the forces of competition have needlessly produced a kind of isolationism.
Most importantly though, universities have very rarely put the case publicly that universities are a public good. By arguing their case in purely utilitarian terms (which, I might add, it is perfectly possible to do), they have let this argument go by. That does not mean that the public good is some stable or sacred thing but it can be argued and it should be continually reargued.
Part of the reason for this lachrymose state of affairs is that there have been very few intensive national media campaigns which have promoted universities (although Universities UK is in the throes of starting one). As a result, universities are hardly ever painted in glowing colours.
And why not an international media campaign to reassert the value of the university as a public good? No doubt such a call will sound utopian to some but it could be done. After all, there are some very well off universities in the world and they could easily fund it and, in the longer run, I am sure that it would pay them to do so.