Oer the past decade, Stefan Collini has won widespread recognition at home and abroad for his incisive criticism of British higher education policy as it has developed since the 1980s, under Labour and Conservative governments indifferently. He has not been alone in this, of course: Andrew McGettigan has been tireless in unpicking the tangled threads of wishful thinking, cynicism, dogma and sheer recklessness that pass for rational financial policy and practice both in government and in the academic institutions themselves, while Helen Small—to take just one more notable example—has struck a contrasting emphasis, undertaking a critical appraisal of the current array of arguments in defence of an education in the humanities.footnote1 But Collini’s record has been outstanding for its stamina and critical range: within the past decade there have been lectures to universities in Australia, Portugal, the us, Italy and the Netherlands, as well as several vintages of the uk system, addresses to conferences of various kinds, unions and a Westminster parliamentary committee, articles for the print platforms where he has long been a familiar name, the London Review of Books and the Guardian. His range of topics extends from finance to axiology, bookends of a comprehensive engagement including the apotheosis of management and metrics, the follies of official research and teaching assessment, the status of students and the relative merits of different kinds of support for research and scholarly activity. From these diverse occasions, so many interventions in a single field of engagement, come the texts making up the bulk of his second book on the subject, Speaking of Universities.footnote2

This has always been Collini’s preferred mode of operation. He is a committed and skilled practitioner of the higher journalism, a master of what Bagehot in the middle 1850s characterized as ‘the review-like essay and the essay-like review’.footnote3 Most of his books are focused compilations of such occasional pieces. The twin volumes Common Reading and Common Writing, from 2008 and 2016 respectively, are noteworthy cases in point. Between them, they contain thirty-seven chapters largely made up from thirty reviews of some sixty titles, the first offered as ‘essays on literary culture and public debate’, the second on ‘critics, historians, publics’. They are evidence of enviable productivity and of the freedoms inherent in this prose form, even if those subtitles seem a little strained, not quite equal to their role in containing the miscellaneity within. Collini’s intellectual histories lean towards portraiture rather than conceptual schemes: he has a liberal’s suspicion of ‘the pretensions of a full-blown ism’ and so of what is pejoratively called ‘labelling’—of others as well as himself.footnote4 At the same time, he is wary of the kind of history that provides the occasion for many of his essays—biography, which normally privileges the detail of an individual life over social-structural conditions—while showing what may be done in the frame of the genre with a virtuoso one-sentence exercise in the cultural stratigraphy of the subject, in this case the conservative historian Arthur Bryant:

The figure whom Britain’s cultural and political establishment had gathered to honour in Westminster Abbey in the 1980s had sustained into the 1950s a relation with a public defined in the 1920s and 1930s while writing in the manner and with the confidence of an Edwardian man of letters who in turn was striving to emulate the achievements of Victorian historians.footnote5

Collini’s Bryant is the ‘historian as man of letters’, and Collini himself is the historian as writer, self-consciously working with a rhetorical palette more varied than that of conventional scholarly discourse. Playful as well as ‘pin-striped’, his critical resources include all the ranges of mockery from mischief-making to satire. It is striking too how often his texts are shaped by a single presiding metaphor. Cyril Connolly is associated, not for the first time, with fine food and wine. The historian A. L. Rouse’s writing habit appears akin to dipsomania: ‘It hardly comes as a surprise to learn that he was a teetotaller: he didn’t need it.’ And Stephen Spender, as editor of the cia-backed Encounter, emerges as a self-deceiving cuckold.footnote6

Not too much should be made of that inevitable element of miscellaneity, however. Collini’s historical coordinates have been constant over time: his field is English intellectual culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with strong leanings towards historical and literary thought—and occasional excursions to the us, as in his treatments of Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling. And within that field, a particular concern has been critical resistance to ‘declinism’, which Collini regards as a fixation of the culture. He has recently devoted a book-length study—originally the Clark Lectures given in Oxford in 2017—to this topic, arguing that English literary criticism as it took shape in the first half of the twentieth century was in effect a kind of cultural history, and one governed by declinist assumptions, a redoubt of ‘the nostalgic imagination’ and, as some would more bluntly judge, a ‘misplaced cultural imperialism’.footnote7 The general thesis, in its broadest terms, will be familiar to many readers but has never been elaborated in such fine detail or with the same archival support. However, the book was a long time in the making, and years before the lectures were given, Collini had opened a second critical front. Declinism was no longer the main object of engagement, which was now something like its opposite: a thoroughly modern and thoroughly destructive programme of ‘reform’ of the Anglo-British higher education system—no decline this time, and not so much a fall as a wanton felling.

The changes have not been uniformly negative. In the past three decades, universities have tripled in number (from 46 to 140-plus), while the student population has grown at double that rate (from around 350,000 to more than two million), and Collini is unequivocal in his support for this as ‘a great democratic gain’.footnote8 However, he adds, over the same period of time ‘the whole ecology of higher education in Britain has been transformed’ in ways that the expansion of the system did not itself require: ‘Most of the procedures governing funding, assessment, “quality control”, “impact” and so on that now occupy the greater part of the working time of academics were unknown before the mid-1980s.’ Norms of governance have been revised to promote ‘top-down control’ by ‘senior management teams’ at the expense of ‘vestiges of academic self-government’. The core functions of the universities have been discursively refashioned as the elements of a business, to be run as such—or as organizations of that kind are thought to be run. In a complementary reform, the most widely known of them all and not merely another case of the pervasive linguistic programming of the period, students have been recast as customers: the consumers in the academic marketplace, financed now by a government loan scheme rather than grants from general taxation, and bent on value for money. For many of the universities, this will be a salutary discipline, the official reasoning goes: direct financial support for teaching has been discontinued or reduced to a top-up, and success in the resulting competition for fee-paying students is now essential, with predictable gains in quality over time. For others, it is an opportunity. By 2013, more than half of the institutions validated as fit to receive government-funded fee income—and operating at significantly lower levels of regulation—were private, ‘for-profit’ as well as ‘not-for-profit’, with the latter sometimes the former trading in organizational disguise. In that year too, thanks to the intensive cultivation of emerging student markets in Asia and elsewhere, higher education ranked as the uk’s seventh-largest ‘export industry’.footnote9 In the space of a generation, higher education in the uk has been remade, and, under most pertinent headings, remade for the worse. The workings of the process, as recounted, analysed and assessed in what remains, for all its singularity of emphasis, a very diverse book, call for reading in detail, not least among those for whom this dismal British history may not yet presage a confirmed future; a critical report, in contrast, may best be framed in summary and correspondingly general terms.

The central term in Collini’s critical account—its governing negative—is metrics, meaning ‘the currently favoured, but actually doomed, endeavour to translate informed judgements of quality into calculable measures of quantity, and then to further reduce those quantitative proxies to a single ordinal ranking’ in one of the league tables that have proliferated since the 1980s, becoming an obsessional focus of attention and effort throughout the system.footnote10 There is no doubting the ascendancy of quantitive measures in the evaluation of goals, purposes and achievements, including, increasingly, as a negative corollary, the fading of considerations that are not amenable to quantifying procedures. But the objection cannot be to quantitative methods as such. That would be naive, and misplaced as well, given the central role of quantification in necessary processes of administration and assessment. (After all, Collini’s general wording would be a fair description of the process of aggregating, say, two dozen academic ‘judgements of quality’ to produce a final degree classification, each class itself internally ranked.) What is objectionable is the ascendancy of quantifiability as a threshold condition of relevance and admissibility, a species of transcendental reductionism in the plane of all that Speaking of Universities upholds as ‘judgement’. We need look no further than the familiar, degraded world of academic research. Scientific and scholarly projects do well in these times to internalize the definitions, priorities and time-scales of the Research Excellence Framework (the sometime Research Assessment Exercise, first run in 1986), as a main condition of finding institutional support. Reputation—the regard of peers and of serious audiences—is a frothy index of achievement if it cannot be captured in scores and tables. League tables generally don’t only reduce particular and distinct activities to a single numerical scale; they offer perverse compensation by generating distinctions that may not be detectable in working reality. Ten or fifteen institutions may differ within the space of 1–2 per cent, but the visual code of the table—equally spaced differentiation in the vertical plane—renders such trivia grave and lapidary, carves them in stone.