With relentless quality assessment, targets, mission statements, economic 'return on investment', intellectual property, metrics and the other trappings of performativity, it is little wonder that more and more of us have begun to ask the basic question "what is the point of universities?". Many have attempted to raise the issue through newspaper columns, books and the occasional public rant. Often though, such have been seen as a reactionary backlash from over-privileged and under-working academics, much in the way that school teachers have long been maligned over 'long holidays' and cushy terms and conditions. There is not necessarily a great deal of public sympathy in this post-Thatcher era of contracts, outsourcing and globalisation. However, the basic question is arising with increasing frequency these days. In Scotland, for example, University Principals now have monthly meetings with the new government to try to hammer out some shared understanding of aspects of funding, research and teaching, for example.
Whether such meetings actually probe to the deeper issues at stake is not clear, but it at least mirrors the realisation that ad hoc policy making without a fundamental vision of what a 'higher' education is all about is no longer tenable.
Here, in Galway, this is the topic of our 2008 Higher Education conference to be held on June 5th and 6th and we'll be using this blog over the coming months to discuss this issue in more detail. To get the ball rolling, we took a 'vox pop' sample of participants at the recent SRHE (Society for Research into Higher Education) conference in Brighton seeking quick, off the cuff answers to get a feeling for how some academics at least, view their raison d'etre.