Archives for posts with tag: universities


Copies of my book arrived in my post box this week!  They came totally unannounced.

It is a strange experience: to have lived for so long with the promise of the thing and then suddenly for it to be there incarnate, in your hands. It’s also a bizarrely solitary one. How do you share the lonely labour of years? I did what we do now in the 2010s and invoked social media. Then I wrote to all those who feature in my acknowledgements, and now I thought I’d tell you too.

So here is my Preface. I sweated over it because it feels like this book is in many ways about me – but then perhaps that is true for all authors. I hope it says something about how and why I came to write the book, and maybe gives a little indication of what it might be about …

In many ways this book began more than fifteen years ago at the University of Adelaide, where I frequently spent undergraduate seminars gazing at the fading photographs of past history professors hanging on the wall. George Cockburn Henderson, Keith Hancock, G.V. Portus, and Hugh Stretton all stared down at me, and written after all their names were the letters M.A. (Oxon). I cannot have been anything but dimly aware of this at the time, and neither do I remember being especially conscious of the uniform image of the white, male scholar they presented. However, when some years later their path to Oxford was one that I too followed, I began to wonder.

Initially I wanted to write about ideas. I wanted to know what they meant to people, where they came from, and how they got made, particularly in the context of the British Empire. But aware of my own unlikely passage to Oxford, and with the Adelaide professors still staring down at me, it seemed impossible to do this without thinking about the people who made knowledge, and the institutional structures and contexts that made them. I realised that before I could write about ideas I needed to know a lot more about the worlds that produced them – and academia seemed an obvious place to begin.

This study focuses on the elite world of universities in the United Kingdom and the settler colonies, and on the white, middle-class men who inhabited them. As instruments of culture and expertise, these were institutions that helped extend colonial rule, and the knowledge produced by those who worked in them was dependent upon a host of situated relationships with local agents and actors whose participation has since been erased. My focus, however, is not on these expanding and expansionist aspects of imperial universities but rather on their internal practices, structures and organisation. Not all readers will be sympathetic to this endeavour, but I hope this book will encourage them to think in new ways about the history of subjects and institutions they know well.

This book is therefore about the origins of my own academic career. It is my attempt to understand the system of which I am part, the traces it has left upon me, and the disparities that continue to characterise it…

Empire of Scholars: universities, networks, and the British academic world, 1850-1939 is published by Manchester University Press and you can buy it through Amazon (a bit cheaper than MUP) or (cheapest of all thanks to free global postage) the Book Depository.

Divinity Schools, University of Oxford

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 


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