Sunday May 9, 2010
As many visitors to thinkBuddha.org may know, Middlesex University has decided to phase out its philosophy programme on the grounds that it is of no financial value. This, despite the fact that philosophy was the highest rated research subject at Middlesex – for what it is worth – in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (which, to those of you who are uninitiated, was the name given to the mildly demented bureaucratic procedure for judging the quality of university research outputs, now superseded by the arguably rather more demented Research Excellence Framework. But I digress…)
This is, perhaps, only the beginning. Now that the election here in the UK has come and gone, there is much talk of public spending cuts, and higher education will be in the firing line. The message, increasingly, is only those courses that can serve the interests of the business world will be the ones to survive. The tender-hearted amongst us (and, alas, I am one such sensitive soul) might protest that surely there is more to education than serving the interests of the business world. But this seems not to be the common view. Just over a year ago, I put this very question to a high-ranking university official who I chanced to meet. “I understand,” I said, “that universities are keen on forging links with business, but what happens when there are conflicts of interest, when pedagogical and intellectual demands conflict with the interests of the business concerned?”
He hesitated. “Well…” he said, “I think possible to get too philosophical about these kinds of questions.” Then he went on to explain that there never had been any such conflicts of interest at the institution with which he was involved. This, I suggested, struck me as more than a little odd. Surely there should be conflicts of interest in any such collaborations, and surely these conflicts were the kinds of things that demanded that we should get just a little bit philosophical about some of the issues involved.
But the moment had passed and the conversation moved on. One cannot, apparently, be too philosophical in the world of higher education. This is something that the philosophers at Middlesex have found out to their cost. And they will not be the last. All of which is bad for higher education. But philosophy itself has not – after all – always lived in the academy; and it may not necessarily flourish best in these circumstances. When I lived in Durham about a decade ago, there was a curious individual who two or three times a week used to set up a table and a couple of chairs on a bridge over the river Wear. On the table he placed a sign reading something like “Philosopher: Please talk to me (free of charge)”. I now regret that I never took him up on his offer. Who knows what I may have learned, what wisdom he may have been able to impart?
This is hardly a utopian vision; but perhaps in the coming years, on the bridges of our cities, we can look forward to a flowering of philosophers and sages, each setting up their stall, where those seeking genuine wisdom might come to debate the deeper questions of life’s mysteries and problems. At the very least, those who want to ask these kinds of questions might save on spiralling tuition fees, leaving the universities to go about their serenely unphilosophical work of serving the interests of the world of business whilst they themselves get on with asking the serious questions presented by human life.
For a petition to save philosophy at Middlesex go here.
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