I have agreed to speak at a conference later this month on the question, 'What is a university for?' When I attended two of Scotland's ancient universities as a student in the 1960s and 70s, my answer would have been fairly straightforward and might have referred, perhaps idealistically, to the acquisition of knowledge and the pursuit of truth. Those who were fortunate enough to undergo the experience had the opportunity to develop as individuals, with the hope that they would subsequently make a positive contribution to society.
The Robbins report of 1963, which heralded the first phase of expansion of the sector, offered a fuller account of the aims of higher education, listing four key elements: instruction in skills relevant to the world of work; promotion of the general powers of the mind; the advancement of learning; and the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship. I wonder how many current university principals would subscribe to all of these aims.
In the years since Robbins, higher education institutions have changed dramatically. This is partly, but not exclusively, because of the increase in the number of universities, especially post-1992, and the consequent explosion of the student population: whereas in the early 1960s, only some 4% of school leavers went on to study for a degree, now the figure is nearer 50%. The consequences of this are not only economic and managerial: they inevitably raise issues about priorities and purposes.
As higher education consumes more public resources, governments put pressure on universities to align their operations to national targets. Research is expected to make a measurable 'impact' rather than to be pursued for its own sake. Findings that are perceived as critical of government policies are not welcome. Some observers see these developments as a serious threat to academic freedom. 'Truth' has become just another commodity, subject to negotiation and the dark arts of public relations.
The culture of universities has also altered dramatically. There is now a deep divide between senior managers (academic bureaucrats) and frontline teaching and research staff. The former monitor and police the work of the latter in various ways, creating a climate of suspicion and hostility. The excessive salaries of many university principals are perceived as a betrayal of the traditional values of the academy. Again, the granting of honorary degrees to 'celebrities' and others of questionable reputation is cited as further evidence of confusion about what universities are for. A substantial body of writing about these concerns now exists, but it is largely ignored by those at the top.
There are strong pressures (ideological, political, economic) to make universities deeply conformist institutions, in which creativity, alternative thinking and constructive dissent cannot flourish. Perhaps most worrying of all is the fact that many of those who now rise to senior positions are people who are adept at peddling the fashionable discourse of the moment, but have little sense of the higher purposes to which intellectual endeavour should be directed.
Ruth Davidson has suggested that the Scottish government could ease the country's housing shortage by building a number of new towns, the project to be overseen by a housing infrastructure agency. She argues that we are facing a housing crisis comparable in scale to that in the period after the second world war. The political response at that time was to give approval for the creation of East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Cumbernauld, Livingston and Irvine between 1947 and 1966. This programme certainly provided new homes for many thousands of people, but the towns became associated with poor planning and an unattractive grey concrete landscape.
Several of these 'first generation' new towns either won or were shortlisted for the controversial (and now-discontinued) annual 'Plook on the Plinth' award for the most dismal place in Scotland. As a nation, we have been slow to recognise that the visual attractiveness of the built environment is a major factor affecting the quality of life. More importantly, housing is one of the key 'domains' in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, which provides valuable data on the patterns of social and economic disadvantage across the country.
Ms Davidson has been roundly criticised by the other main parties for 'hypocrisy' on the grounds that it was Mrs Thatcher's policy of selling off council houses in the 1980s – through the 'right to buy' scheme – that has been a major cause of the current shortage of affordable housing. It is certainly a significant policy shift by the Tories but, if there were to be a special award for hypocrisy, all parties would have no difficulty in securing nominations (eg the SNP on a second referendum; Labour on Trident; the Lib Dems on university tuition fees in England).
Instead of exchanging insults over who is responsible for the inadequacies of current housing provision, wouldn't it be a pleasant change if the parties could work together to agree on a programme of renewal that could transform the lives of many of those currently living in sub-standard accommodation or unable to afford private renting? And, if they could avoid the architectural mistakes of the post-war new towns, that would be a real bonus. As a start, they could do worse than look at the report of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors Housing Commission published three years ago, referred to by Ms Davidson. But the prospect of such cross-party collaboration is remote, given the record of tribal hostilities played out daily at Holyrood.
In his book, 'The Lies of the Land: A Brief History of Political Dishonesty,' Adam Macqueen lists the personality traits that are required to go into politics: 'A fairly big ego. Being able to think on your feet. A high boredom threshold. Clubbability. Willingness to compromise. A slight sense of public duty. And, in many cases, a massive capacity for self-destruction.' It is not exactly an admirable list of qualities, but experience demonstrates that decency and niceness are unlikely to take you very far in the political world.
Macqueen's reference to self-destruction suggests another unattractive characteristic. Those whose political careers hit the buffers because of financial impropriety, sexual indiscretion, ill-judged public utterances or addiction to alcohol, are usually disinclined to retreat to the sidelines straight away. They often resolve to stay and fight their corner, asserting that they 'have done nothing wrong' or that they are determined to clear their name. Such responses, even in the face of damning evidence, indicate that overweening arrogance and a deep sense of entitlement can be added to Macqueen's list. Too many politicians think they are above the standards of behaviour they seek to apply to others. But despite this, if they have developed their 'clubbable' skills sufficiently, they might expect to be readmitted to the political fold after a suitable period of rehabilitation.