Why universities matter

Tamson Pietsch 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 an 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.”