How did it come about that the last government - a Labour government, let's not forget - could have placed responsibility for the universities in a department of business? Getting to grips with such a question is important for understanding the source of the Browne report, the report that has created the environment in which the current Coalition government is implementing changes to the university system, including, most importantly, the complete withdrawal of the block teaching grant for the majority of subjects in the system with the important exception of the so-called "STEM" subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and some unspecified language courses. That all of this was recommended by a committee established by the last government is of some significance since the driving of the logic of its recommendations has certainly not come from new research.
What Simon Head reveals very well is that the background to the Browne report can be found in a series of articles published during the 1990s in the Harvard Business Review. The key notion that was presented in these articles was that of the balanced scorecard, a new method of measuring business activity meant to go beyond the traditional focus on revenues, net profits and return on investment. In this approach the concern shifts to relations with customers, internal business procedures, financial indicators such as profit and loss and indicators of "innovation and learning". The stress on the latter has been key to the transformation in the relationship between universities and government.
The vocabulary of "metrics", "impact assessment", "indicators of esteem" and "units of assessment" has arisen from this shifted direction of attention on the part of government. Towards the end of the last Labour government one of the factors that contributed to the placing of universities under the regime of the department of business was the attention in particular to "impact" assessment. The introduction of this notion into the assessment of research was self-consciously presented by the government as a way of ensuring that research had a clear connection to the demands of business and was not seen to be directed to internally academic concerns.
Essentially the universities thus become understood as simply a research tool of the enterprise that is known as UK PLC. As Simon Head points out this has specific implications for science research since following the demands of business there has a special meaning. It means following the dictates and concerns of the pharmaceutical industry. This has some clear specific dangers to research which thus becomes understood through the prism of what best suits such industry not through the demands that would naturally arise within the research itself.
With regard to the rest of the university the regime will doubtless drive research again in very specific directions. It isn't true that philosophy research cannot be effected by this as many think. For example, the University of Sheffield has its primary philosophy research centre named and funded by the Hang Seng Bank of Hong Kong. Whilst less brazen than this the direction of research at some other universities is also directly governed by the prospect of attracting research grants from a wider orbit than government in a number of places such as is apparent at the Centre for Professional Ethics at the University of Central Lancashire and the interest in related areas such as business ethics is part of this phenomena as is the general explosion in the areas of practical ethics and applied ethics.
The research assessment system in the UK is almost certainly going to soon end in its current form with a likely focus on giving most money to those who already have most resources and an ever-increasing stress on driving research, in all subjects and at all levels, in directions that are most likely to produce non-government revenue. The follow-on from research in the area of management studies suggests that the university is being re-thought from top to bottom as an increasingly integrated sector of the market economy. The talk of "privatisation" is not relevant to either analysis of it or any prospects of resistance to it. The analysis should centre on the nature of this change, a change that will ensure that any areas of "pure research" will be marginalised and confined to "top schools" whilst making the relationship to the private sector in terms of research provision the central question for any academics free enough to pursue research.
Two points emerge from serious consideration of this. Firstly, anyone hoping to understand the change in the university is well advised to begin learning management theory and working through its application to the running of their institution. Secondly, the key point in the imposition of this model to the running of universities has been the fragmentation and passivity of the university response. The sectoral divisions that lead the Russell Group to adopt positions quite at variance to those of Million+ ensure that successive British governments are likely to continue to redefine the university in the image of a corporation. Amongst the central trends in this will be the continued casualisation of large parts of the university work-force, the further introduction of degree programmes with direct linkages to industry and the redefinition of philosophy as a subject that can help sharpen the imperatives of management outside the university. Resistance has to centre on more than protection of research areas that don't fit such a model although this is certainly important. It has to consist in the development of a critically different image of the point of university education though one of the key problems in such an approach has been the willingness of academics to invoke tired models from the past. Unless a different vision to the corporate one can be provided that shows the continuing viability of an education that puts the market more at a distance than governments now seem to desire then it will become increasingly likely that academics will be "providers" of a "service" for "consumers" of "innovation".