I read Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? last week with very mixed feelings. In the past, I’ve much admired his polemical essays on the REF, “impact”, the Browne Report, etc. in the London Review of Books and elsewhere: they speak to my heart. If you don’t know those essays, you can get some of their flavour from his latest article in the Guardian yesterday.
But I found the book a disappointment. Perhaps the trouble is that Collini is too decent, too high-minded, has too unrealistically exalted a view about what actually happens in universities which is too coloured by attitudes appropriate to the traditional humanities. And he is optimistic to the point of fantasy if he thinks that people are so susceptible to “the romance of ideas and the power of beauty” that they will want, or can be brought to want, lots and lots of universities in order to promote the ideas (as if they would suppose that the task of “conserving, understanding, extending and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific, and artistic heritage of mankind” was clearly ill-served when there were only forty universities in England, as opposed to a hundred and whatever).
The cultural goods that Collini extols, perhaps enough will agree, are not to be measured in crassly economic terms and should be publicly sustained. But that thought falls so very short of helping us to think about what should be happening with the mass university education of almost half the age cohort, about what should be taught and how it should be funded. Collini’s considerations — if they push anywhere — might indeed suggest the ring-fencing of a relatively few elite institutions, to be protected (as in the old days of the UGC) from quotidian government interference and direction. He mentions the Californian model (layers of different kinds of tertiary institutions, with a lot of movement between, but with a sharp intellectual hierarchy, with research concentrated at the top). But Collini just doesn’t say if that is where he wants us to go.
I am still musing about Collini’s book which I’d finished on the train down, while in the Central Hall of the National Gallery. I am looking at one of their greatest paintings, Giovanni Moroni’s The Tailor. The tailor’s gaze is challenging, appraising: I sit for a while to gaze back. It was a busy weekday afternoon. But in ten minutes or more not one other visitor walking through the Hall pauses to give him a glance.
A bit later, I go to see once more the painting I’d perhaps most like to smuggle home and put over the mantelpiece, Fra Lippo Lippi’s wonderful Annunciation. I spend another ten minutes in the room where it hangs. One other person wanders in, and rather rapidly leaves again. Even Vermeer’s Young Woman Standing at a Virginal — and isn’t she on the ‘must see’ list in every pocket guide? — is surprisingly lonely, and almost no one stops to keep her company.
Take away all the school parties, take away all the overseas visitors, and who is left? You might reasonably imagine that the English don’t really care, or at any rate don’t care very much, about the art which is on show here. Oh, to be sure, we chattering classes know which blockbuster exhibitions are the done things to see: Leondardo in London or Vermeer in Cambridge will, for a while, be chock full of people. But from day to ordinary day? Some are vaguely glad to know that the National Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum are there. But, to be honest, a nice National Trust garden is really more our cup of tea (with scones and jam to follow, thank you).
I’m sure it’s not that we are more philistine as a nation than others (the Uffizi in December isn’t suddenly full of Italians glad to take advantage of the absence of tourists). But equally, I wouldn’t overrate the interest of even the more educated English in Culture with a capital ‘C’. When I was a Director of Studies, I used to ask my students towards the end of their time in Cambridge if they’d ever visited the Fitzwilliam: almost no-one ever had.
Collini, to return to him, reflects that “Some, at least, of what lies at the heart of a university is closer to the nature of a museum or gallery than is usually allowed or than most of today’s spokespersons for universities would be comfortable with.” And I rather agree. But where does the thought take us? I doubt that even Collini thinks that the tepid interest of the English — or some of the English — in museums and galleries can be parlayed into a wide public enthusiasm for spending a lot more on universities in these difficult times. So what’s to be done?
But perhaps I’m too torn to think straight about all this — torn between sharing Collini’s romanticism and acknowledging the element of unrealistic fantasy. I’ll say no more. Here, instead, is a cooler appraisal, perhaps the best response to his book yet, by the Chancellor of the Other Place.