Clarity and Chaos: Words, Ideas, and Universities

History is difficult. Comparative history is harder. And comparative policy – the study of ideas, power, history and practice across countries – is more challenging still. If I have learned one lesson from reading about comparative educational policy, it is to tread very carefully. Assumptions and comparisons are fraught with local complexity.

Stefan Collini is a professor of English at Cambridge University, a literary critic, and one of the most thoughtful commentators on English higher education writing today. He has made the transition to public intellectual through penetrating analysis – in academic publications and in the popular press – of English higher education policy. He writes with wit, wisdom, and informed perspective. Collini’s recent effort, Speaking of Universities, is a collection of his essays on policy and how we think , talk , and argue about higher education. It is an engaging work, written over the past few years for an audience knowledgeable about England and its educational history. However, even if you know little about English universities, the REF, TEF, the BIS, and the funding changes of 2010, there is much to learn from Collini and this book.

The essays circle around several key themes: the anemic and defensive language employed by those who purport to support universities, the deceptive and destructive language of educational consultants and corporate reformers who seek to increase the “efficiency” of universities, and the recklessness and poor consideration of the many changes reshaping English higher education policy. Collini is right, too; the ways that we talk about universities is stale, repetitive, and more often than not misses what is important. The debate is neither constructive nor headed in a way that leads to positive change. New ways of talking about university, research, and learning are needed. These concerns have relevance to America and other countries.

I found Collini’s analysis of the structure of the discussion around higher education reform particularly provocative. He notes that government officials (or educational bureaucrats/decision-makers) presume to understand the public’s wants and needs – and therefore justify their “reforms” to higher education as means to ensure that this imaginary public is better served. Collini takes apart the very concept of that idealized “public.” He argues effectively that there are many “publics.” Noting that universities invariably struggle to address their publics’ competing wants, he rightly insists that we must get out of the government-university-public triad mindset. Collini emphasizes that universities and their defenders need not craft their arguments solely as defensive. He references reports, scholarship about what has and has not helped over the years. He questions why “markets” are assumed to be the best framework to think about education. His aim is to reframe and reconceptualize the form and tools used in our debates of policy. Collini wants a better way to talk about universities.

It isn’t all grim going; there is much humor in the book. Collini skewers management consultant speak with Orwellian accuracy. He recounts a few of his own foibles, and writes with true compassion about what it means to be an academic. If you care about ideas and teaching, you know that an institution of higher education is much more than metrics, measures, outcomes and reports. It is about how we humanize each other and ourselves, reaching for something better. In Speaking of Universities, Stefan Collini reminds us of this and more.

David Potash

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