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Right Teaching
January/February 2010


Misery seems to be prevalent in British universities. Take, for instance, the lengthy cris de coeur published by the Cambridge English Professor, Stefan Collini, in the Times Literary Supplement

Before Christmas, Collini was banging on about the Research Excellence Framework, which the Higher Education Funding Council for England and its Celtic analogues plan to substitute for the earlier and equally contentious Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). His main gripe is that "impact indicators", used to gauge the wider economic or social "impact" of research in engineering, medicine or public policy, are going to be foisted on the Humanities. He fears that this will invite someone studying a second-rank Victorian poet to find that his subject had a colourful sex life, if only to secure measurable "impact" through a couple of minutes on BBC Radio 4.

Of course, his is an insider's view of academia, where such parochial concerns are bound to loom large. But British universities have been in the news lately for other reasons, notably whether they are committed to free speech as they habitually claim. The University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit attracted the hostile glare of the media when emails came to light, which, according to the Daily Telegraph, indicated that evidence was being suppressed. 

In a minor key, in his response to a mean-minded review of the historian Andrew Roberts's latest book, Simon Heffer wondered whether the reviewer, a Cambridge professor and rival author, was committed to free speech, since he apparently objects to Conservatives writing history.

I have also heard of attempts to block university appointments on the grounds that "X" or "Y" is a neocon or rumoured to be Islamophobic. Those who engage in such attempts should beware, since their emails too may be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Some subjects, notably climate change or human rights law, have moved to the level of pseudo-religious dogma, making it impossible for critical voices to be heard within academia. One shudders to think what may go on in some of our proliferating institutes of Islamic Studies.

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