Winchester University’s decision to splash £24,000 on a life-sized statue of Greta Thunberg – who needless to say, has zero connection to the city – was met with both outrage and hilarity.
Outrage because since the effigy was commissioned in 2019, the university has enacted swingeing library cuts and two rounds of staff redundancies (despite the vice chancellor’s salary of £233,207). And hilarity because the statue looks rather more like an extra from the Hunger Games than the 18-year-old climate campaigner. Which might be part of the messaging, I suppose.
Locals were less than impressed, mounting a brief campaign to replace it with a statue of the local Big Issue salesman. 'When they unveil it I’m going to push it over, so there,' one vowed on Facebook. Another pointed out: 'They can always tear it down and throw it in the river'.
As someone who lives down the road from the site – and who used to teach at the University – I was hardly surprised by the news. The place has recently branded itself the 'University for Sustainability and Social Justice' (their capitalisation not mine) and its website has been plastered with woke messaging.
The university, we are told, holds dear the core values of 'Compassion, Individuals Matter and Spirituality' (again, not my capitals) and believes that 'academic freedom leads to big ideas which in turn lead to social justice'.
But in the end, of course, it’s not about Social Justice, Sustainability and Spirituality. It’s about dosh. Since the government introduced tuition fees and student loans, and then ramped them up to the obscene levels they currently occupy, higher education culture has collapsed. In the past, taking a degree was largely about becoming a well-rounded human being who will contribute towards the overall health of society. Now it is held as a commodity.
Sixth-form students contemplating a hugely expensive three years at university will naturally be driven by potential returns on investment. Why spend tens of thousands reading English when you could do maths, computer programming or business studies, and end up with higher earnings? Courses that are seen as both interesting and potentially lucrative are in high demand. Criminology has boomed in recent years, with more than 700 courses around the country – regardless of the tiny number of professional criminologists actually in the workplace today.
The recasting of student as customer and tutor as service provider is an inversion of the master-disciple dynamic that has been honoured since Plato. When I was teaching at Winchester, I remember living in fear of the dreaded feedback forms, by which my students – or rather, my customers – would pass judgment on my performance. I was a lowly freelance lecturer on occasional hours; too much negative feedback would have put me out of a job. How can you provide academic rigour to students when you’re afraid of making them uncomfortable? How can you mark their essays and examinations accurately when there’s a commercial pressure to give good grades? These were some of the concerns that led me to abandon academia.
The commoditization of higher education has created many dysfunctions of this sort. The drive for profit leads universities to court oppressive regimes with shadowy agendas, like China. As paying clients, students are simultaneously empowered to hound lecturers out of their jobs and exploited, as their borrowed money is funnelled into university coffers and used to regenerate local economies. Universities get slicker and more corporate, with the ancient principles of education being supplanted by the profit motive. Student accommodation, facilities and services mushroom in the towns, with entrepreneurs vying for the borrowed undergraduate pound. And the end result is waves of new graduates – particularly those from second rate universities – being turned out into the world with substandard degrees, dim prospects and a shedload of debt, having never even been asked to leave their comfort zone.
Which brings me back to Greta Thunberg. The statue, which is to be cast in bronze rather than cork or recycled fish skin, is to be unveiled in Winchester this week. Let’s be real: it’s not about Sustainability, Social Justice or Compassion. Again, it’s all about dosh. When the sheet is pulled from Greta’s sainted head on Tuesday and her blank eyes stare out across a windswept campus, there will be little doubt that this is little more than a publicity stunt. University chiefs have sniffed the wind of youth culture and are positioning themselves accordingly, angling to brand Winchester a Mecca for the woke. More Greta equals more students which equals more money, is the calculation. After all, that vice chancellor salary isn’t going to pay itself.