For most of the twentieth century, the purpose of universities was twofold: To enable suitably qualified persons to study in depth an academic subject in which they were interested, and to allow senior scholars the facilities to pursue research which would extend the boundaries of knowledge. Those, one might think, are sufficiently demanding and admirable aims. They are not good enough, however, for the politicians and business magnates who currently manage British universities, and are regarded as absurdly outdated and self-indulgent. What these people think universities are for is to increase our GNP and international competitiveness. All other considerations must give way to this.

Throughout the 1980s, universities had to cope with an expansion in student numbers combined with brutal cuts in government funding, but they somehow maintained the “top-down” model I just sketched. Then, in the 1990s, came two decisive changes. In 1992, the Polytechnics (institutions of higher education offering more vocational courses) were allowed to call themselves universities, doubling the number of “universities” overnight without effacing the real—and important—distinctions between the types of education available. This blurred the concept of university education in ways that were not always helpful. More damagingly, in 1998 the state grant, which had enabled undergraduates to study at minimal or no cost to their families, was replaced by the student loan which, upon graduation, students must repay over time. (It is estimated that someone who began a British university course in the Fall of 2011 will owe around £27,000 [more than $43,000] on graduating.) This created a “bottom-up” model in which a university education became a right to be claimed instead of a privilege to be earned, and students became customers in the academic marketplace.

Stefan Collini, a professor of English at Cambridge, in this often hard-hitting, polemical book, duly notes these changes, but is nowhere near angry enough about them. The first, more valuable, part of the book is all new material, while part two reprints previous work, some of it now very dated; room should have been made for Collini’s withering critique of the Coalition Government’s latest white paper on higher education, which he published in the London Review of Books in August 2011. There he quoted the white paper’s mind-boggling description of its own proposals as “crucial to ensuring that students experience the higher education they want”! The objection that, as he went on to say, “The model of the student as consumer is inimical to education”—since students are in no position to know what they want in advance, and in any case there may be things which they might not want but nonetheless need to know—cuts no ice with the politicians who run our universities from not the Department of Education, but the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills. That ludicrous title betrays a total incomprehension of the function of universities, or indeed any educational institution.

Collini is notably unsympathetic to those, like myself, who deplore the current situation and compare it unfavorably with that of a generation ago. We are diagnosed as exhibiting “a rather unintelligent form of conservatism, and one doomed to irrelevance.” Fortunately, there are more important things to worry about than being relevant. The British education system inhabits an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which each August sees the publication of new record percentages for the top grades in the university qualifying examination, yet each October the new cohort of undergraduates has to be given remedial tuition in English and mathematics, essay writing, and independent learning techniques. The first year of many degree courses consists of work which would once have been done in school. Seminar groups are often too large for any real discussion to take place, but smaller groups are impossible because of the falling staff to student ratios consequent upon job cuts. Faculty members are expected to “prove” the direct fiscal benefit of their own research to their university’s economic productivity, or lose their tenure. (“Direct” is interpreted quite literally; it won’t do to cite sales figures of one’s books, or peer references in footnotes and the like.) As a result of falling standards—indignantly denied by successive governments of every stripe—degree courses have been diluted, and degree classes (First, Upper Second, Lower Second, Third) abolished in many places. At my alma mater it is possible to graduate in English Literature without having to take an examination paper on the plays of Shakespeare! Smaller departments, judged to be uneconomic, may be merged or closed down, making a mockery of government propaganda about “expanding choice.” The concept of learning for its own sake is dismissed as an uneconomic pipedream. (In a probing analysis of Newman’s Idea of a University, a text routinely cited in this connection, Collini points out that everything for Newman is underpinned by theological principles and that therefore, even for him, the acquisition of knowledge cannot be an end in itself.) No one can blame the students, conscious of the burden of debt, for wanting degrees that will lead to employment. They have passed through a system in which all their learning is geared to what will be examined, and they know no other possibility. Nor do their younger teachers, themselves the products of the slimline courses of the 1980s and beyond.

This bleak outlook doesn’t apply to all subjects, of course. Business schools and the sciences, whose contribution to our economic welfare can be assessed, are in a comparatively flourishing state; it’s the humanities that are in danger, partly because their practitioners find it hard to explain to civil servants and politicians what it is that teachers of literature, classics, history, or philosophy actually do. Collini writes admirably about this:

Very little that is of any interest or significance in our lives is like a crossword puzzle or a chess problem. The kinds of understanding and judgement exercised in the humanities are of a piece with the kinds of understanding and judgement involved in living a life.

Whereas research in mathematics and the sciences pushes forward and the history of those subjects is a separate field of enquiry, the humanities constantly re-examine and reconfigure their own past, constructing fresh interpretations of the development of culture, society and thought, in ways whose importance resides precisely in their irreducibility to the kind of quantitative criteria demanded by bureaucrats. Like everything else, economics only makes total sense in a human context; as Collini drily observes, people “do not care for their partners or their children in order to generate a profit.”

Collini also has some forceful remarks about the charges of “elitism” routinely leveled at those who express concern about falling standards. Not only are such jibes cheap, they are particularly hollow coming from a government in which fourteen out of the twenty-three members of the Cabinet were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge. Nobody objects to rigorous selection (which is what people call elitism when they want to approve of it) at the highest levels of achievement in science, sport, or music. Why then object to it in education? The answer, as Collini says, lies in the perennial British agonizing about social class. A liberal democracy shies away from the idea that some people should have things that others can’t, and it has been a mantra of all recent governments that university education should be “accessible,” which seems to mean that it should be open to anyone who wants it, whether they are intellectually equipped to profit by it, or not. The existence of an independent secondary school sector, whose former pupils still tend to dominate the university population at the expense of those educated by the state, makes the problem no easier. Independent schools, which charge fees that can approach £30,000 (more than $48,000) a year, can afford to be better resourced, better staffed, and more savvy about university entrance procedures than most of their rivals. Universities have been told by government to take more state school pupils, or have their funding put in jeopardy. Hence their anxiety not to make courses too difficult. There comes a point, however, at which complex matters just can’t be simplified any further without ceasing to be what they are; this applies just as much to the study of history or literature as to that of pure mathematics or astrophysics.

As long ago as 1975, F. R. Leavis declared that “there’s no redeeming the democratic mass university,” agreeing, probably for the only time, with Kingsley Amis, who said more epigrammatically, “More will mean worse.” Collini, I sense, would reject both views as too negative. He is right to say that mere lamenting won’t get us anywhere, but the business model of universities is, I fear, too entrenched to be dislodged. That model—which sees competitiveness rather than collaboration as the scholar’s modus operandi, and national economic well-being as the raison d’être of higher education—begs questions which matter to those outside universities as well as those within. As Collini says, to demand that any publicly subsidized activity serves the needs of the economy is to invite the question of what needs the economy serves. That is not a question we are likely to hear asked any time soon.