‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life … Rethinking the Public University (Prof John Brewer) #ImagineBelfast15

Rethinking the Public UniversityThe public university is dead … a slow and lingering death, … and its corpse lies lifeless in every senior managers’ meeting, in every classroom and every tutorial venue … in every boarded up common room and every closed bookshop.

QUB’s Prof John Brewer argued over lunchtime that neo-liberalisation and a marketisation of higher education – as much a Thatcher and Blair process as a ConDem coalition one – has destroyed universities.

Surprisingly, those responsible for the patient’s care were like vultures … Vice chancellors were supine and failed to charge their duty of care.

In his contribution to the Imagine!2015 Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics, the social scientist summed up the problem and the solution with an alliteration:

Universities have lost their public function and their public funding … but must now find fidelity.

His definition of fidelity included trust and moral purpose.

Universities gave been turned into businesses in which commercial concerns have destroyed their moral virtue and purpose. They have become bursar-led not academic-led. Their value must be greater than a mere contribution to the economy. Value is worth, and esteem and social good.

Students have been transformed into fee-carriers, customers carrying cash.

John Brewer quoted statistics saying UK universities £36m spent on student marketing in 2012/13, a 33% increase on 2010/11. He noted a four-fold increase in unconditional offers being made to university candidates.

He’s a stiff.

‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies!

‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig!

‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!!


Snapping out of the Monty Python sketch, John continued:

We have run down the curtain on the public university.

Prof John BrewerThe institutions needed to rebuild, reshape and refashion. Public universities began as medieval institutions created by the church, but are no longer fit for purpose in a late-modern world. Change is needed for 21st century.

He noted that academics can be amongst the most resistant to change. The rise of discourtesy in the management of the modern university is paralleled only by the tendency of academic staff to whine!

Pressing need for universities to recapture their soul.

He used ecclesiastical language, arguing that there was a pressing need for universities to “recapture their soul” from the marketeers and embrace a moral dimension and a moral purpose.

The once revered ancient institution of the public university has changed beyond recognition We need to turn this loss into an opportunity. Universities need to recapture and reshape their global mission for the 21st century to make themselves truly public again. This requires them to redefine their public value and make themselves relevant to the complex problems threatening human kind. This requires more change to universities not less. Broader visions not narrower. Greater ambitions not smaller ones. Requires universities to be outward facing with a renewed sense of public purpose and civic engagement.

Universities seek to climb to the top of the tree. John Brewer would prefer that they are motivated to more to the part of the forest which has taller trees. Universities need a new devotion to make a difference to people’s lives.

Yet universities need money. That can be found through fidelity: trustworthy institutions that local communities feel some ownership of, rather than a posh place that exists on a hill.

John Brewer listed four principles that he felt were more important than any marketing strapline.

  • Universities should have an obligation to the betterment and improvement of society.
  • Universities should practice an ethic of responsibility.
  • Universities should promote the advancement of morally constituted knowledge (in both teaching and research) – knowledge in terms of objective science and research directed towards social good.
  • Universities commit themselves to understand the global challenges that risk human kind and threaten the social good.

Why were universities not acting as a “civilising and humanising mirror for societies” to see themselves in and learn about themselves? Teaching and research should be publicly engaged, and not just for the sake of knowledge.

We should aim not to train minds but to change minds, and hence to change society.

John Brewer cautioned that the university tutorial format is dead. Interdisciplinary efforts to focus many departments on different aspects of the same problems or topics was required. Asked for exemplars, he pointed to Newcastle University’s creation of three institutes to tackle themes of “societal challenge”: ageing, social renewal and sustainability.

There are encouraging noises emanating from our two local universities that they will perhaps set down their “Russell Group” and “We’re not like them!” placards and cooperate rather than purely compete. This is good news for local students, and the only way to survive the cuts to public funding that they will face over the next four or so years. Though hoping that cooperation leads to a blended Queen’s University of Ulster may be like searching for the unionist unity unicorn!

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  • notimetoshine

    “Universities gave been turned into businesses in which commercial concerns have destroyed their moral virtue and purpose”

    Well frankly its about time. The poor service given to students in many universities was and is a disgrace. They never had an outlet, after all it was more or less ‘free’ to them. These days however students are consumers and have the right to demand better service and a better experience. The universities are moving slowly to this but not quick enough.

    “…academics can be amongst the most resistant to change…”

    This is very true. They don’t seem to realise that students ate customers these days and shoddy services will not be tolerated. I suppose its an institutional mindset and it will change but for those academics who experienced a system before fees it must be hard.

    Marketisation or the commercialisation of universities is not necessarily a bad thing. Even though I paid for uni I still experienced unhelpful and incompetent academics, lack of office hours, delays in feedback, interrupted lectures and seminars, with no recourse and an academic staff that weren’t bothered with this. This was in a uni that would be considered to gave commercialised.

    Commercialisation has a way to go. I am returning to higher education this year hopefully and the more market driven student (customer) driven the experience the better.

    If you are paying for a service then the service provider needs to ensure excellent provision

  • barnshee

    The “public” university is alive and well on the web
    I have revisited subjects from my A levels (eons ago) via on line course at MIT UCLA and HARVARD all FREE since I don`t care about certificates + don`t want another degree-just want to learn for fun.

    QUB (and Brewer) have been left behind by events

  • chrisjones2


    The Internet has transformed the playing field …or will do. Why buy an expensive and sometimes crappy degree from UU when you can go online, do a qualification with a major international university that’s recognized as preeminent in its field, fit it around your life and spend less on it?

    I accept that the university experience is far more than just the academic side but that will change too.

    With its reputation QUB has a chance to ride this wave …its not too late …. but UU will be utterly dead in the water in 10 years time no matter how big a new campus they build All of this will take vision and drive and seed capital though.

    I think its the vision and drive that is missing. They are still focused on more buildings and more posts

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear, notimetoshine, “Marketisation or the commercialisation of universities is not necessarily a bad thing.” All very nineteen eighties!

    Just how do you think that any commercial enterprise makes a profit? Underneath all the “efficiency” propaganda is the single salient fact that for a profit to occur, someone must be sold something that is worth less than what they are paying. Certainly the customer needs to be persuaded that they are being offered “excellent provision”, this is the job of marketing, but if they are being given something worth as much or even more than the money they are parting with, then the provider will make a loss. Very, very simple economics.

    Good service and committed teaching is not linked to commercial values, but to the desire of those engaged in teaching and research to offer, (ahem), “good service and committed teaching” something that is always going to be more likely when they are driven by something more than money.

    I think that thirty and more years of steady decline under the commercialisation of education pretty much speaks for itself. In this context it is important to realise that QUB’s membership of the Russell Group ( they are considered to be one of the twenty-four best Universities in the UK) marks them as one of those Universities that are considered to be succeeding commercially. Makes you think…..


  • notimetoshine

    “Good service and committed teaching is not linked to commercial values, but to the desire of those engaged in teaching and research to offer, (ahem), “good service and committed teaching” something that is always going to be more likely when they are driven by something more than money.”

    But good service has not and is not being provided by those with a drive for more than money.


    The above is quite prescient and shows a willingness by students now they ate paying for things and seeing the value of the education to challenge the service ghey recieve. I personally found that the older staff who came up in the free system to be less willing to provide excellent service.

    At the end of the day if I am paying for something I expect the best. That means the best teaching, the best access, the best facilities.

    Now the quality of university service is still not good enough but with the way people are paying for education they have ways of challenging it.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    But can you not see that this situation is the outcome of the commercial culture that has developed everywhere since the Thatcher revolution? Those of us who went to University in the 1960/70s and experienced a university education not driven by market forces can certainly tell the difference, especially those of us who have been engaged in teaching at one of the local universities in recent years.

    Sure you can “expect the best” where you are paying, but the simple profit equasion I’ve described ensures that you will alawys get less than what you are paying for. that is what profit means. It is the commercialisation of education that has created the alienation you are describing through short contracts and financial squeezes. The older staff are those who have been most demoralised by at least twenty years (longer over the water) of being required to prepare detailed written reports (just one example) in their own time in order to provide work for several levels of management, in a situation where in order to assess “value for money”, etc, layers of management now frequently outnumber teaching and research staff. Its what the commercialisation of education actually means, and this constantly growing pressure on those actually coming into contact with students is exactly why you are experiencing poor performance from harassed and threatened staff. It is this endless accounting to management layers and the limiting of teacher hours paid for that is what is really eating into the student/teacher contact time.

    As long as people require a University degree to enable them to earn more money than those who do not have degrees, there is no effective way to challenge this in commercial terms. So you take your custom elsewhere? What you are not taking into account is that Queens is one of the Russell Group, those considered to be the very best Universities, with a superior value perceived in their degrees by the job market. What you are complaining about actually IS top end!!!!

    The only way to challenge this woeful decline in standards is politically. It is reliance on commercial forces that has brought us to this pass, and no amount of wishful thinking about “the market”, with the same old slogans about the balancing power of market forces is going to make it any different in the real world. Remember that these things are simply reifications. When you find yourself in a deepening hole, what you need to do is to stop digging!

  • Kevin Breslin

    Why is unionist unity being compare with university unity here? Issue here is a lot more important than a few seats in Westminster back benches in my opinion.

    There are plenty of research cluster groups between QUB, UU and other universities not just in Ireland and Britain but elsewhere.