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December 02, 2010

Revolting Academics

Whilst many toasted the Spending Review as a sign that government finally realised science as “vital”, other members of the academy stared quite gloomily at what seemed like a very bleak future. At first, it seemed as if looking glum was all anyone was going to do. They might sit and deconstruct the perimeters of what is meant by a notion of “fairness” if they so wished, but the recommendations of the Browne Review seemed, in this current climate, inevitable. It was as if they either didn’t believe the implications, or had given in to it.

There was the NUS/ UCU demonstration. Its date, the 11th of November, looked pretty on placards (10/11/10) but it seemed rather late in comparison to Science is Vital, which had put together an impressive petition, lobby all before the Spending Review. It’s probably worth noting that it wasn’t just the remarkable organisation of Science Is Vital that made their campaign so successful; they were building on networks that run back to the 1980s, even earlier. The Campaign for Science and Engineering, which underpinned much of the Science is Vital action, was founded, as Save British Science back in 1986. Also, in the 25 years since the “Bodmer report” on the public understanding of science, a whole industry for science communication has developed and, though it badly needs to be better, a growing cultural acceptance for engagement within the scientific community. There’s a myth that science has it hard when it comes to public engagement. Science still has huge challenges in this area, but academic humanities and social sciences can be equally abstract, if not more so and just doesn’t have the industry to help it communicate with the public which the natural sciences do.

The 11th November demo came and went, but with “student violence” dominating the public discourse on the topic. HEPI published a “devastating” critique, and Stephan Collini wrote a thoughtful piece in the London Review of Books. Still, there was little action and little debate.

Gradually, however, shoots of debate, critique and defence started to crop up. Collini and HEPI seemed to be passed around. Birkbeck held a conference and put the talks online. Essays inspired by this event are now being serialised on the Guardian website. The Campaign for a Public University was launched, complete with impressive website and a piece in the Times Higher (you can also follow them on twitter). You can also show support to the Campaign for the Humanities and Social Sciences, or Defend the Arts and Humanities and there is news that the Academy of Social Sciences will launch a Campaign for Social Science next January too. This, with a slightly larger remit to bring the need for social science and associated funding more prominently to government and wider public (not just Browne response). UCL Historian Michael Collins wrote a piece for Open Democracy calling for a Public Commission of Enquiry on the future Higher Education, which transformed into a letter to the Telegraph signed by various academic luminaries. This followed a letter to the Guardian in support of student protests signed by 300 academics. In the last few days, I have seen drafts of two other, similar letters to national press.

The questions now are whether the various tribes of the academy can work together, and whether they can move past essay writing. At first I was annoyed by all the fractions and despaired that Professor X would never stand by Professor Y (insert your own academic fight here), but I wonder if it might be of use. They need to be aware of each other, but maybe the culture of disagreement endemic in academia is a benefit here. The various fractures of campaigns show a range of different ways of looking at the issue, just as letter-writing and petition signing is different from the student occupations. Perhaps such a diversity of groups, standpoints and approaches is best way to prod everyone into open up public debate on higher education and with it, find the best way of proceeding (Browne or otherwise). As for moving past essay writing, that’s to be seen. Much of the defence of humanities and social sciences education is based on the idea that a good bit of essay-writing can provide a launch-pad for positive social action.

One thing’s for sure, campus life seems a little faster than usual.

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Comments

Can I add an honorable mention for my Vice-Chancellor at Sheffield, Keith Burnett, who wrote (as a physicist as well as a VC) an impassioned piece on 20 October in support of social sciences, arts and humanities: "One of our most powerful resources as a country, and as a university, is our cultural insight, our deep questioning of our own society and ideas".

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=413960

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