This month we read of students and alumni of the University of Oxford protesting the opening of a new Earth Sciences laboratory funded by the oil company Shell. And this is by no means the only instance in which private corporations are supporting academic research.
At the University of Manchester BP is funding a new multi-million pound energy research centre, and in 2003 the research group Corporate Watch published a report on the oil industry and university funding that identified partnerships between oil companies and Cambridge, Aberdeen, Imperial College London, Herriot-Watt and Dundee universities. In 2000 Nottingham University faced a storm of protest over its decision to accept £3.8 million from British American Tobacco, while at Oxford Rupert Murdoch funds a Chair in Language and Communication.
These universities all maintain that accepting this money brings with it no external conditions, and that scholars funded by such endowments retain full academic freedom and independence (see for example Nottingham University’s memorandum of understanding with British American Tobacco).
But it is not coincidental that this growth in the corporate backing of university research comes at a time when the government is making historic cuts to its funding of higher education. To survive the stormy seas of shifting government regulation and global competition, universities are being forced to look for new patrons. Read the rest of this entry »
I spoke recently at the Guardian’s Future of Higher Education Summit about the importance of universities, and it’s now gone up on their website. You can watch the talk here, or read the text below.
“As a panel we were asked to speak about what the sector can do to pull together and communicate the value of higher education to politicians and the public. I just want to make three points.
First, I think we need to begin by calling the problem by its name; the problem that besets British universities at the moment. We often get caught up in all the issues whether that’s open access or REF or student fees – we get lost in the detail or we get crisis fatigue. But I think these are all symptoms of a problem that I call the enclosure of the epistemic commons.
Second, I think we can put our own house in order. That involves a number of things. It involves thinking about ourselves as engaged in a shared project across our various diverse institutions; it involves abolishing the mission groups; and it also involves democratising internally – there is often a real disconnect between the official image of a university projected by managers and that which academics such as myself feel that we are engaged in, which is very messy and involves students crying in your office sometimes.
But then third, and perhaps most importantly, I think we need to tell new kinds of stories about who we are and what we do. At the CDBU* we have various ideas about how we can do this, but I think we need to articulate the value of our institutions. I think universities are really remarkable kinds of institutions. They are one of the few places where older people and younger people come together in a partnership; where alive people and dead people talk to each other across the distances of time; where people who are inside the institution collaborate with people who are outside the institution; where people who are here collaborate with people who are far away. They are places dedicated to the messy, on-going, and uncertain business that is life, and this is deeply, deeply human. Unfortunately these are qualities that are not tailored to the marketised, priced world where value is commodified and preferably tradable, but it’s exactly for these reasons that they are very, very precious institutions and it’s the reason that I think we need to defend them.”
*Council for the Defence of British Universities
Across the world, higher education is increasingly characterised by talk of ‘internationalisation’. Taking a number of forms – from charging foreign students full-cost fees to establishing overseas campuses and offering offshore degrees – internationalisation is big business. These activities offer cash-strapped universities a way to increase their income while also advertising themselves as institutions that equip students to work in the global knowledge economy.
But to a historian of the British Empire, much of the current talk about internationalisation sounds strangely familiar. At least four of its contemporary variants can be traced back to the 19th century, when the expanding routes of British trade and empire were creating new kinds of global connections and different forms of educational entanglement. These earlier versions of university internationalisation deserve attention, for they have much to tell us about the possibilities – and the perils – of the phenomenon in the 21st century… read the rest of this article in the THE’s 8 March 2012 issue.