Book Review: Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities


David Williams the Leadership Foundation’s web editor on governance reviews Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities.

Stefan Collini’s latest book, Speaking of Universities (Verso, 2017), is a collection of talks, lectures and articles, delivered and written between 2013 and 2016.

Much of the book’s content has not previously been published. This said, readers familiar with Collini’s previous book, What are Universities for? (Penguin 2012), or his articles published in, for example, the London Review of Books will not be surprised with many of the arguments presented in his latest book.

A summary of some of Collini’s main arguments are set out below. Although role of governors and government bodies receives only a rare mention, their period of stewardship should take account of the accumulated intellectual heritage of the university, and the role of each generation in building on the work that went before, and on laying the foundations for the next generation. This reminds governors that during their period of stewardship they should seek to achieve an appropriate balance between the immediate and longer-term needs and positioning of the institution.

An academic working in the field of humanities, Collini’s perspective is informed by his own personal experience and observations. He questions both the growing power within higher education institutions of professional managers (previously known as administrators) and the focus of successive governments on the direct links between higher education and economic prosperity. He argues strongly that an adequate case for universities cannot simply be made on the basis of their contribution to economic prosperity. However, he accepts it is difficult to change the public discourse.

Examining the role of higher education, a fundamental tension is between intellectual, open-end, inquiry and the more immediate instrumental (economic) aims. Both academic research and the education of students should not be overly focussed on narrow economic outcomes: ultimately such a focus does not serve the needs of the state or individuals.

Collini strongly challenges the arguments put forward by government to justify the reform of higher education in England and the introduction of income-contingent loans. He believes the introduction of the latter was poorly conceived and managed, and may well end-up being more-costly to the public purse, than the system they replaced.

The rationale for the government’s actions in seeking to reform higher education is that there was something wrong with the system, and that the proposed changes will put them right. However, it is not clear what was wrong with a system that many judged to have been successful, or that the changes will lead to improvements.

Seeking to create ‘a market’ for higher education is ill-conceived, and the suggestion that the student is a ‘customer’ at the heart of the system disingenuous. Higher education is a ‘post-experience’ good, the full benefits of which cannot be known in advanced by the prospective student. Consequently, how can a student judge the value of the product they are buying? Equally, HEIs choose who they accept onto to their courses; as much as the other way around.

While acknowledging that it is important that universities provide good teaching, and that there has long been anecdotal evidence that this is always the case, Collini does not believe the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will improve the quality of teaching. Attempts to make judgements about quality, using quantitative indicators as proxies for quality are doomed to failure. There is every likelihood that the selected proxies (indicators) will prove to be largely irrelevant and become ends in themselves. Citing the experience of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), evidence submitted in support of their TEF assessment by institutions is likely to create the opportunity for ‘systematic boasting’.

Collini rejects the idea there is a necessarily reliable link between student satisfaction and education quality. Nor does he believe that students are necessarily in the best position to make an informed judgement. While this may be true, Collini fails to acknowledge the possibility that traditional routes for gaining the views of student about their course are not always effective and that low levels of satisfaction shown by a student survey may offer a further avenue to bring about change. To Collini, if teaching is undervalued by universities, it is a consequence of the distorting effects of the REF and of underfunding the expansion of student numbers that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s (i.e. a permanent reduction in the unit of resource). While there is some merit in both of these points, it does risk the suggestion that universities bear no responsibility for ensuring they provide consistently good teaching.

As institutions (particularly those that Collini is likely to have in mind) typically in their marketing literature and at open days heavily promote the idea of research-informed teaching: what steps should institutions be expected to take to ensure the quality of the student experience is high? This question does not receive much, if any, of Collini’s attention, leading to a risk that the reader gains the impression that research matters more, and that any research-active member of staff will automatically be an effective teacher?

At the core of an institution’s quality is its intellectual quality and creativity. The primary focus of universities should be on extending and deepening human understanding: this results in the greatest long-term benefits to society. Universities’ longer-term cultural and intellectual role needs acknowledgement alongside a focus on supporting economic growth.

Collini notes in passing that what is needed in the UK is a world-class system of higher education, rather than more world-class universities. This is a crucial point, but one which is not developed.

Collini accepts that universities cannot just criticise the proposed changes initiated by government, but must be pro-active in making their case. With this in mind, the idea of ‘publics’ is introduced. Publics are constituted by participation – even if only passively – and this is reflected in their discourse. As there is more than one public, there is no such thing as the public view of higher education. To reach and influence different publics, the form and message needs to be tailored accordingly.

From the perspective of governance, Collini asks on whose behalf do the trustees who form an institution’s governing body exercise their responsibilities: ‘who are they holding their institution in trust for.’ He suggests the need to recognise both the inter-generational nature of knowledge accumulation and the time required for a university to build its reputation. The accumulated and collective knowledge base of the higher education system reflects past, as well as current investment. Each generation through investing in higher education helps to build the base of knowledge for the next. Today’s students of higher education benefit from past investments. By implication the stewardship of trustees should recognise not just the immediate institutional needs, but the need to sustain the intellectual inheritance of the institution.

Such has been the pace of change in the higher education policy environment, not surprising some of the pieces contained in Collini’s book appear dated. That said Collini makes many valuable points, and exposes and refutes a number of key assumptions underlying current public policy. He offers a strong and powerful defensive of role of (traditional?) universities and the importance of academic staff in directing their own affairs; although acknowledges the tension between professional autonomy and public accountability. He, himself, is clearly uncomfortable with the direction of change, and recognises that a new way forward needs to be found.

Collini is at this best in pointing out what he sees as unhelpful changes in the policy environment for higher education, and their anticipated impacts. He is less helpful or clear, in offering an alternative and better way forward (assuming the movement back to an earlier era is not possible). Although he expects the system of higher education will continue to evolve in the 21st century he does not offer a view as to how the policy environment might be reconfigured to ensure this exerts a strong and positive influence on the future shape of the higher education sector.

David Williams has worked with governing bodies in higher education for the past 15 years. He manages the governance section of The Leadership Foundation provides resources and development for members of governing bodies and those working in governance throughout higher education. Visit