Terry O'Connor

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Festive reflections


Summer is festival season: Hay, Edinburgh, Glastonbury and their swarm of satellites and derivatives. Whatever your interests, there is a festival to match. Some of them are now so specialised and obscure that Michael Flanders’ joke about a Festival of Olive-Stuffing looks prescient. At York, we are several days into our Festival of Ideas, an annual excuse to liven up the exhausting final lap of the academic year by putting on a bit of a do.

 Ideas are, or should be, the stock-in-trade of a university. We deal in new ideas about the world, or new ideas about how to communicate that knowledge. At the Festival of Ideas, new things are tried out, essayed, run up the flagpole. Authors talk about their latest productions, in part with the hope of attracting sales, but also to present and discuss the core of their thoughts and discoveries about Edward IV, Paraguay or walnuts. There will be poetry, some of which may scan or even rhyme, and there will be elegantly-expressed wisdom from the likes of Seamus Heaney. Art will be installed and viewed, drama and music will be enacted. Audiences and participants will react, respond and reflect, opening their minds a little to something new.

 It would be good to think that the rest of the academic year runs along similar lines, opening our students’ minds to reflection and response. Some of us may even be naïve enough to believe that remains possible. So much has happened in UK Higher Education over the last decade, however, which seems to militate against the open exchange of ideas. Education has become a commodity, a service to be purchased from source providers, namely universities. Students are less inclined to engage with a seminar on the sterile vacuity of post-modernist critical theory if their sights are set on the cardinal points of exam, degree, job and salary. I do not blame any student for taking a cynically-focussed view of their objectives at university. They are merely adapting to the prevailing political and economic environment. That environment says that education is all about qualification for work, getting a degree to enhance your long-term earnings, so as to be able to pay off the loans that fees and housekeeping required of you in the first place. And ideas? Yes, worthy things to aspire to, so long as they are relevant to the exam.

 On the research side, too, ideas are being squeezed out. As the Research Councils and charities find their budgets under pressure and their raisons d’êtres closely inspected, so the emphasis has shifted towards fail-safe research. To succeed in attracting research funding, a good idea is not enough. What is the purpose of this investigation? Can it definitely deliver results in the time available? What will be the impact of your new discoveries? And remember, please, that impact must be tangible and quantifiable. So far as I am aware, no Research Council application form carries the question “Will some business or individual entrepreneur be able to make a lot of money out of the results of your research?”, though it might be more honest if they did.

 But surely we academics can freely exchange ideas? Up to a point, yes. Take care, though, that the brilliant insight you share with colleagues at another university does not become the core of their successful megaquid grant bid. And do not blame them if it does. Those colleagues will be under the cosh to bring in external income to a certain value every year in order to be regarded as doing their jobs properly, just as you are. What about the results of our research? Surely we can exchange that knowledge and those ideas freely? Don’t bank on it. The ghastly spectre of the Non-Disclosure Agreement now stalks the ivory towers, frightening nervous academics into keeping schtum about their research until their funders, backers, colleagues at a more influential institution are ready to launch their news to a waiting world, to maximum impact (for which, see above). So you have found the maker’s signature on the Turin Shroud? Keep that to yourself until the project Principal Investigator has the book deal and TV rights signed and sealed.

 What price ideas in this Craven New World of higher education? There is some good news, some glimmering light in the murky darkness. One opportunity to bounce some ideas around is to talk to the public. Give a lecture on group selection in the evolution of moles, put on an exhibition on fish in classical Western art (and call it Poussin to Poisson?), or demonstrate how to transmute base metal into gold using a microwave oven and Cillit Bang. People will come, and they will be interested. The general public does not have exams to pass: they can afford the luxury of curiosity and broad-minded interest. Furthermore, they will ask intelligent questions and give you some ideas in return. You will not be marking their next essay, so they will be honest with you. That is the strength and the joy of a Festival of Ideas. The constraints and paradigm-shifts that have done so much damage to higher education are temporarily in abeyance, and the exchange of ideas and information can flourish. Furthermore, York’s Festival is subversive, in that the majority of events are free. Just imagine that: ideas flow, people enjoy themselves, and nobody makes a profit. How very old-fashioned, and thoroughly refreshing!


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