Chair's report, 2011–12

Robin Osborne

2010-11 has been a year of reversals. The university education that we had all grown up to consider an unashamedly public good has been declared a private benefit. But just as one world (of departments for education), which seemed to value teaching, declares itself to value only research, so another world (of Vice Chancellors), that set store only by research income and despised teaching, has discovered a new enthusiasm for good teaching. Like all reversals, these will certainly have some tragic consequences – though just how tragic and for whom is not yet clear. But perhaps most important is that by reflecting on these reversals we come to see more sharply the failures of recognition that have led to the current situation.

Abandonment of public-funded university education in the arts and humanities must count as the biggest reversal of them all. As far as the government is concerned, apparently, all we are good for is research, for which they will at least continue to give some funding (at least if it is directed to the 'public benefit' that is the favoured gloss on 'impact'). As for what we teach students, that, it seems is not, in the eyes of the coalition government, anything of value to the country as a whole, so whether we do it or not is to depend upon whether we can persuade 18 year-olds that they want what we offer. And the government, at least, thinks that they will only want it if they think it will lead them to a higher salary job.

It is true that we sold the pass on university education being free under the last government. In retrospect the sabres that have been so vainly rattled in the last year should have been unsheathed against Tony Blair. But whatever the government claims about there having been no change of principle, what is happening now changes the face of university education. Changes it to something none of us signed up to take part in. If university education is merely a finishing school, as the government seems to propose that it should be, few of us would want to be employed in finishing schools.

Fortunately, no one believes what the government says about university education. And with some reason. A government that introduces a graduate tax with a headline about not introducing a graduate tax can't expect to be listened to. Nor can a higher education reform supposedly introduced because existing higher education could not be afforded, but which saves no money at all – just directs the money in loans to 18-year olds rather than grants to HEIs – have its ideological basis long disguised. And whatever one thinks of that ideology, it is hard to do other than despise a government that has been so crass in its attempts at deception.

We will, I hope, go on fighting against the HE reforms, just as, I hope, we will go on fighting against the idea that research quality has any direct connection with research impact. But just as if impact is going to be set store by we need to make sure impact is measured in ways that are least harmful to the research we do, so we need to make sure that we make the most of the reforms of higher education, even as we try to reverse them.

What the HE reform proposals have effected is anything but the downgrading of teaching that they presuppose. Such is the utter distrust of government that the reforms have effected a reversal, in at least some Universities, of administrators' attitudes to teaching and research that gives teaching the whip hand. Twelve months ago research was still all the university administrations cared about, and it was supposed research weaknesses, spuriously deduced by reading RAE 2008 results as a league table, that were central to the threats being applied to some Classics departments. Then, once it became apparent that Arts and Humanities undergraduates were going to bring in a fee that actually covers the cost of teaching them, departments which attract large numbers of students and teach them with very modest human resources, as most Classics departments do, came to look positively attractive. The complete turn-around at Leeds between this year and last, and something close to a turn-around, even in the course of the year, at Reading illustrate this.

What is happening at RHUL, however, should temper any sighs of relief. RHUL found ways of cooking the books (top-slicing large amounts off the fees on the grounds that students paying £9000 would need their lecture rooms refurbished...) and of introducing vastly pessimistic recruitment assumptions in their attempt to write-off their Classics degree and their Classics department. Whether a reversal can be achieved there may still depend on the unknown question of whether the prospect of paying larger fees will indeed change the subjects that students apply to study.

When the reversals of this last year are put in a broader perspective what is striking is how little dancing to the tune of the day turns out to benefit anyone. RHUL is a department that danced very effectively to the tune of getting in large-scale research grants, and when throwing out the net to catch professors purely with a view to attracting graduate students and research money was the name of the game it played that game with great success. With a new VC, and new tunes being drummed out, yesterday's successes come to be paraded as tomorrow's liabilities.

The thought that research was all that mattered was never a sensible thought. In the case of medical or scientific research, even perhaps in the case of research in pure mathematics, one might contemplate the possibility that the 'discovery' made in research will in itself directly or indirectly so transform the world that a lifetime of effort devote only to making that discovery makes sense. But that is hardly a plausible model for arts and humanities research. What could one contemplate discovering in history that will so transform people's understanding? Or what enlightening reading of, or way of reading, a literary text could give so much pleasure that the world will never be the same again? The great research projects – Oxford's Archive of Performance or Lexicon of Greek Personal Names – enable patterns to be discovered that could not previously have been seen, but however much those new patterns enrich our understanding of the past or of forms of cultural expression, they won't change people's lives and they won't radically improve the efficiency or effectiveness of how we teach history or literature. What they will do is enable us to explain more efficiently and effectively some things that we already explain, and to explain for the first time other things we never could explain in the past. Trained by these insights, those whom we teach will be more alert to a greater variety of ways of construing their own experiences and others' accounts of their experiences. They may not live longer, but they will, to an unmeasurable extent, live better. It is by educating us, and enabling us to educate others, that arts and humanities researchers make their impact. And if there is a quiet victory to be celebrated among the great reversals of 2011 it is the explicit mention, at least in some of the REF documents now out for consultation, of education as one arena in which HEIs can show the impact of their research.

That's why research needs teaching. However much we envy those with permanent positions at the Princeton Institute, or at All Souls, all research institutes do is lengthen the chain between the researcher and the main beneficiaries of research. What is the point disseminating research solely in print, for others to take up and transform into oral discourse, when you can talk about it to a live and listening audience directly? It isn't just that having to persuade people in a lecture or seminar that what you have been worrying about in the library or the archive matters, improves the rhetorical skill with which the research is conveyed; it is (and we might compare the reservations Plato expressed about writing) that the tone of voice adds a dimension to exposition, and can clarify, and so render far more effective, what is being said (just as this sentence would have been a lot clearer to the reader had you heard me speak it aloud).

But so too, teaching needs research. At every level the best teachers pass on to their pupils what cannot be found in books – whether or not the teachers themselves think of what they are doing as research. The value of the arts and humanities in opening up new ways of seeing can only be conveyed by those who are themselves opening up for themselves new ways of seeing. This isn't about having a new theory in answer to every problem, as the endless rhetoric of 'innovation' sometimes seems to urge. It is about realising that the old problem can be, indeed must be, reframed, seen in a new light, compared with a text or event or thing that has not previously been considered relevant.

The statutory objects of most HEIs play a set of variations on 'education', 'learning', and 'research'. It is on the balance between these three that the excellence and sustainability (to pick two popular buzz-words of policy documents) of the university depends. The Gadarene rush to a fast drying-up sea of research grants must not be followed by a blind march up country to the chant of 'education, education'. Whatever the winds of change may bring in the coming year, we need to recognise that it is by keeping ourselves equally engaged in research and its educational deployment that we will both protect Classics (and our own jobs) and achieve our greatest impact.

Robin Osborne
University of Cambridge
September, 2011

CUCD Bulletin 40 (2011)
© Robin Osborne & Council of University Classical Departments 2011

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