Tomorrow sees the publications of the results of REF 2014, the assessment mechanism that evaluates the quality of academic research published over the last six years (and determines how much funding university departments will receive on the basis of that evaluation). I don’t want to get into the various problems of rationale and method that have dogged REF 2014; they are problems inherent in any system that attempts to reduce something as complex as research to a points system. Instead of anticipating the debates about league tables and the unfairness of the REF system that will ensue tomorrow, I’d like to recommend a piece of writing that I read recently and that encapsulates, for me, much of what universities are really for. In 1918 the social theorist Max Weber delivered a lecture in Munich titled ‘Science as a Vocation’. Weber has much to say in this lecture about the role of the scientific method in the development and dissemination of knowledge, but many of his key conclusions are relevant not just to the sciences but to all fields of education. In a statement that applies, in my opinion, not just to university teaching but to academic research and to all forms of education, Weber states that the vocation of the teacher, and the goal of educational work, is to ‘teach […] students to recognize “inconvenient” facts’. In a phrase which he acknowledges is ‘immodest’, but which he uses nonetheless, Weber asserts that enabling students to embrace the stubborn complexity of knowledge constitutes the ‘moral achievement’ of education.
For Weber, European culture in the early twentieth century is characterised by disenchantment and ‘rationalization’, by an irremediable loss of religious certitude. Education and academic study cannot be made to replace religion, but they can help students to make sense of this post-religious culture. Education demonstrates to them that knowledge can only be acquired through an honest consideration of the awkward difficulties of the subjects they study: ‘in the lecture-rooms of the university no other virtue holds but plain intellectual integrity’. This is as true for the humanities and the social sciences as it is for the sciences, and as true for research as it is for teaching. Academic work, at its best, unflinchingly reveals and interrogates facts, no matter how inconvenient those facts may be to those in power or to dominant ideologies or orthodoxies. Weber argues that the teacher ‘fulfils the duty of bringing about self-clarification’; by asking their students to consider difficult questions and inconvenient facts of all kinds, teachers can help them to think more clearly and critically about their intellectual assumptions and about their position within society. Again, this does not apply exclusively to students: academic work enables teachers and researchers, too, continually to rethink their own assumptions and beliefs.
Weber is no idealist, however, and I hope that I’m not either. He recognises that, in the Germany of the early twentieth century, academic careers are inescapably determined by what he calls ‘plutocratic prerequisites’, by the need to earn money and to attract as many students as possible to any given programme of study. He is painfully aware of the distorting effects of this focus on profitability and popularity over intellectual integrity – ‘I have a deep distrust of courses that draw crowds’ – but he also recognises that it is ‘unavoidable’. It is this recognition that arguably makes Weber’s lecture as relevant in 2014 as it was 100 years ago. The work of British universities is now more than ever shaped by ‘plutocratic prerequisites’, by the necessity of making money through the enrolment of fee-paying students, through the securing of external research funding, and through the application of research to ‘economic impact’. In a November 2014 survey of undergraduate students run by Which?, a majority of respondents expressed a wish, not to be treated as passive consumers or customers, but for more challenging and demanding academic work. A spokesperson for the National Union of Students commented that the survey ‘highlights the damaging effects of the market principles imposed on higher education by politicians’. Despite the ongoing marketisation of higher education, students still wish to engage in the difficult struggle with intellectual challenges and inconvenient facts. And it’s still the job of teachers and researchers to help them to do so.