Everyone who cares about the future of higher education should read Marina Warner’s two eloquent articles in the London Review of Books and, if possible, commit them to memory. The first was a diary of her own painful experience at the University of Essex of the entrepreneurial mindset that planners in the US and the EU want to see instilled in higher education, and how she was eventually compelled to resign. The second article just appeared this month; it analyzes how British universities have been “beaten into the shapes dictated by business” and why there has been so little effective resistance.
Warner taught creative writing at Essex and the examples in her articles are drawn from the humanities. But she makes it clear that when she calls for a higher education not motivated by the mindset of short-term economic considerations, she has the pure sciences in mind as well. This passage, which quotes former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge), applies as well to pure mathematics:
Learning, he said, uncovers the multiple meanings of a work – a text or any other artefact – not in order to find a solution but to open the way to further questions. ‘Difficulty is good for us,’ he said. It is ‘good for us to be reminded not to settle for the quick answer’…
The entrepreneurial mindset appears in the very first pages of my book:
The current economic crisis, arriving against the background of a global trend of importing methods of corporate governance into university administration, and to foster an “entreprenurial mindset” among researchers in all potentially useful academic fields, places new strains on this situation of tolerance. The markets for apodictically certain truths or for inputs to the so-called “knowledge economy” may some day be saturated by products of inexpensive mechanical surrogate mathematicians; the “entrepreneurial mindset” may find mathematics a less secure investment than the more traditional arts. All of this leaves a big question mark over the future of mathematics as a human activity.
Warner’s article ends with a series of very modest demands to repair the damage inflicted by what she calls the “new managerialist philistinism.”
What should we be calling for? A number of things spring immediately to mind. Since universities are charities their executives should be paid accordingly: yet the £110,000 salary of the director of Oxfam was recently criticised for being too high. The differential between the highest paid and the lowest paid in a university institution should be no greater than, say, 7 to 1; at present, the ratio is more like 14 to 1 (UCL student protesters calculate that the vice chancellor is paid a cleaner’s annual wage every 19 days). A university should not receive more than a limited proportion of its research funding from companies or individuals for whom it is working directly; and a significant proportion of the research should be entirely free of all economic and intellectual strings, so that the humanities and pure sciences can have a place. We academics have dug ourselves into the nuclear waste tip of the REF; we should green it over and move to another place where we might flourish a little less self-destructively.
However utopian these demands may appear in the current intellectual climate, just being able to state them and to understand their implications goes a long way to helping us erase that “big question mark” over the future of all human or humanist activities at the university, mathematics among them.