Back to the Future? Humanist Values in Higher Education

‘Through free lectures, debates and daily meals cooked in the kitchens…we attempted to demonstrate that there was an alternative model of education – and an alternative model on which to base society – at the heart of a university descending into a neoliberal nightmare.’

This was how a student activist from Glasgow University described the experience of the UK’s longest ever student occupation. These inspiring words resonated so strongly with me. I have lived all my life close to or within university environments. My grandfather lectured at Cambridge. My aunt and two of my partners were lecturers. I have studied for degrees (4 of them) at four universities and taught at three. My siblings and their partners all work in universities. Most of these people, like myself, entered university work with a strong commitment to teaching young people and an attachment to a set of values which I would characterise as ‘humanist’ – by which I mean an ethical but non-religious (in the sense of not believing in a power superior to human beings) approach to living and working:

‘a commitment to helping all individuals to achieve their potential; compassion; empathy; respect for others and for the environment; tolerance and acceptance of diversity; democracy and egalitarianism; open-mindedness; freedom of thought and the pursuit of truth; opposition to oppression.’

Sadly, in the past ten years of my working at Bristol University I have seen these values under severe attack from a very different and opposing set of values: a corrosive competitive individualism fostered by the neoliberalism of the broader socio-economic climate; a banal managerialism imposing a dull uniformity; intolerant and complacent elitism; the judgement of all activities in terms of the ‘bottom line’; profit before people; ruthless careerism; and lack of compassion for those judged ‘weak’.

Why has this happened? And what is the resistance to it? I am ashamed to say that many basically good and decent-minded people have gone along with the neoliberal tide. I think there was some arrogance that we could ‘play the game’ in order to survive financially while inwardly remaining true to our ‘real’ values. This separation of surface and reality was, at the least, naive. Some people were ‘bought off’ – bribed with privileges and high salaries for managerial posts or research success. The fact that ‘remission from undergraduate teaching’ is such a commonly sought reward tells us a lot about the culture! The introduction of ‘market supplements’ for those in disciplines where they could have earned more by working outside of universities , such as law, economics and accounting, was another nail in the coffin of the old collegiality and egalitarianism, signalling the acceptance of market values by significant sectors of the academic body. The introduction of the managerial apparatus of appraisal, performance management and audit allowed people with a taste for power to climb to middle management positions and operate fairly brutal systems of surveillance and bullying over both vulnerable new young recruits and older colleagues now suddenly turned into ‘subordinates’. Those who stood out against all this and proclaimed the old values suddenly found themselves out of favour and at risk of reproval, disciplinary measures – or worse. A number have ‘left’ the university. A neoliberal nightmare indeed!

Those at the top of an organisation must of course bear heavy responsibility and a major factor in all this has been the supine behaviour of most of the vice-chancellors and their various lieutenants. They were willing to sacrifice the old organisational values of universities for the sake of maintaining their slices of the public funding cake and perceived political clout. Readers may judge of their success! Moreover, the politicians must have split their sides observing how the various little cabals of universities, such as the Russell Group or the Million Plus group, jockeyed to promote their particular vision of the universities’ roles. Universities UK signally failed to defend intellectual freedom. No wonder Sir Steve got his knighthood! Only a few of the university leaders broke ranks as is acknowledged in this sharp critique by David Price, the Vice Provost of UCL:

‘In defending universities’ importance to the economy, we have become victims of our own success; we have adopted the values of our poltical masters and degraded our own aspirations. It is time to resist and, ultimately, to reverse this trend – time for us to reclaim, assert and fulfil our true potential.’

Can we do it? And is it desirable? At the moment such a resistance is limited, perhaps, to a new radical cohort of students plus old survivors from the 1960s like myself. But I believe the mood of uneasiness is such that we can grow it.

Some will criticise my views and claim that I see the past through rose-tinted specs; certainly there were imperfections in the old collegial epoch. It was paternalistic and nepotistic, women and non-white people were patronised, marginalised or excluded. Despite that, I believe a return to that more collective and caring moment is a necessary start in building an inclusive HE culture that values and respects diversity and endeavour. Thomas Docherty, professor at Warwick and one of the few not afraid to attack the neoliberal orthodoxy, reminds us that back in the eighteenth century the humanist scholar Vico told his students that the purpose of the university ‘is to be educated for the common good of the citizenry’. Vico would have applauded the Glasgow students. So – yes- back to the future.

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