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Speaking of universities

David Eastwood argues that universities are in danger of forgetting how much language matters

Among the gifts that I was given on retirement as vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham was an annotated version of ‘the Banned List’. Yes, it sounds Orwellian, but I like to think of it as being Orwellian in the best sense. It was my version of Orwell’s list of words and phrases that should not be used—words that would be struck out of documents that crossed my desk for approval. The process was humorously codified and gently policed by my fine colleagues.

Some words on the list were banned by mere prejudice: my preference for ‘continuing’ over ‘ongoing’ is simply my sense of the importance of elegance in language. My preference for ‘in future’ rather than ‘going forward’ was again partly a quest for elegance and partly bridling at normative progressivism. I laboured to confine ‘space’ to describing a physical reality, not a bureaucratic metaphor; hence, it was forbidden to write: ‘Sophie is following up on the regulatory piece and is doing some work which will impact in the strategy space.’

Pretentious nonsense

Some were banned as an ultimately unavailing attempt to prevent the rise of the pretentious and the nonsensical. ‘Holistic’ was a particular bête noire, as in ‘going forward we need to take a holistic view of the ongoing challenges’. I am not sure, despite its passionate usage, that ‘holistic’ really means anything. A test: ask people to say what a ‘holistic’ approach or solution is and you normally find they wave their arms and mumble: ‘Well, it’s holistic.’ The solipsistic rarely gets us anywhere.

Some bans were an attempt to reintroduce rigour. Take the irresistible rise of ‘world leading’, which seeks to elevate the mediocre merely by a linguistic trope. I lost count of the number of world-leading summits many strategy documents celebrated. ‘World leading’ therefore went on the banned list, unless, as a colleague summarised it, “the subject in question demonstrably is; distinct from ‘world class’, for which the evidence bar is lower but still applies”.

Provider reduction

Some decisions to ban, though, were deeply serious. I lost count in my later years as a vice-chancellor of the number of letters I received with the Lilliputian salutation ‘Dear head of provider’. I was never that. I could have accepted head of institution, though I would have bridled. What I was, and what I was privileged to be, was the head of a university, and reducing a university to a ‘provider’ was an act of remarkable, and wilful, diminution.

The use of the term ‘provider’ implies an institution that delivers (provides) something created, legitimised and constructed elsewhere. The ‘provider’ is thus conceived as a place of delivery, of consumption. Its agency is virtually non-existent and, crucially, the terminology implies both dependence and accountability.

A university is something quite different. A university is a place of discovery—discovery of knowledge and, I would argue, discovery of self. It is a place where knowledge is created, ordered, challenged, published and, of course, taught. It is a place where faculty and students come together to explore, to challenge, to learn and to assess that learning. It is a place of vaulting ambition. It is a place where what is known is hallowed and what is not yet known or understood is the subject of a ceaseless quest.

Definition of a university

That is why a university should be defined as somewhere that admits the students it chooses to admit (recognising its accountability as a publicly funded and publicly licensed institution); that teaches courses it has prescribed (recognising an accountability for quality and professional practice); and that examines in ways it determines. At the same time, it must offer a spirit of, and resource for, free enquiry. Above all, it is a community of people and of the mind.

None of this is an argument against universities being publicly accountable, but it is an assertion that autonomy matters and that the systematic erosion of the autonomy of universities can and will diminish their quality. Globally, the relationship between the quality and autonomy of university systems is repeatedly attested.

Thus, my objection to being cast as the head of a provider could not have been more profound: the label diminished my university, my colleagues and our students.

Coarsening of debate

Lest this be thought of as simply or exclusively dealing with what has been done to universities, we must also attend to what has happened and is happening within them. Here we have seen a coarsening of the language of debate, a policing of language rather than a celebration of its ability to explore and explain, even a reflex to cancel rather than to be curious. I would venture to assert that everything that matters in a university is way too complex, and way too important, to be reduced to 280 characters.

If universities are anything, they are places where we debate well; indeed, they are places where we model how we debate and what exploration should mean for the societies we inhabit and serve. Universities must ground themselves in the provisionality of understanding. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that orthodoxies petrify and inquiry liberates. It should remind us of the tyranny of certainty.

In universities, language matters. It is the essential tool of the trade. If universities are to flourish, if they are to be what they should be, they should aim to rediscover language, and modes of discourse, that elevate. Truth should come from the rigour of methodology, not the loudness of assertion. In the process, our universities will rediscover the confidence that I fear we are in danger of losing.

David Eastwood was vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham from April 2009 to December 2021.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight