Friday, May 8, 2015

MICHAEL BAILEY - The strange death of the liberal university

Those working in higher education now face a choice - capitulate to the de facto privatisation of universities, or fight it.


British universities, though still not-for-profit charities, are being hastily fashioned after private companies and the consequent narrowing of higher education’s raison d'être. The idea of the University as a place of civic education and critical enquiry has been put to a premature death by a raft of neo-capitalist political rationalities that promote inter alia divisive competition, false economies and philistine instrumentality. Academics are bound by ever multiplying forms of spurious measurement, misleading quantification and performance management. Students, in turn, are treated more like consumers than they are citizens, increasingly defrauded with a candyfloss world of university branding and marketing gimmickry

Published some 80 years ago, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England remains a compelling and pertinent read. The nub of Dangerfield’s thesis is that, contrary to the received wisdom of the times, the war of 1914-18 was not to blame for the breakdown of Victorian liberalism; rather the decline of Liberal England was the result of radical social forces that emerged in the early twentieth century. Additionally, whereas many of his middle-class contemporaries lamented the stability of high Victorianism (a cultural hegemony that lots of Edwardians took to be unassailable), Dangerfield cheerfully mocked the conventions and modes of conduct that were associated with a Liberal parliamentary democracy, not least its civilised pretensions and political conservatism. Nowadays, it would seem that we are witnessing the strange death of the liberal university. 

Various commentators have noted how British universities, though still not-for-profit charities, are being hastily fashioned after private companies and the consequent narrowing of higher education’s raison d'être. The idea of the University as a place of civic education and critical enquiry has been put to a premature death by a raft of neo-capitalist political rationalities that promote inter alia divisive competition, false economies and philistine instrumentality. Academics are bound by ever multiplying forms of spurious measurement, misleading quantification and performance management. Students, in turn, are treated more like consumers than they are citizens, increasingly defrauded with a candyfloss world of university branding and marketing gimmickry. Grant capture, consultancy, citations, impact, quality assurance, unique selling points, student surveys and league tables, have become the new deities that all shall worship.

Whilst the above developments have gathered apace since the financial crisis of 2007/2008, and austerity cuts to public spending notwithstanding, recent criticisms of higher education marketisation have noted how UK academics (among whose number I include myself) are themselves partly to blame for the passing of academia as a liberal bastion: ‘striking absence of powerful and united collective dissent’, ‘consensual silence’, ‘docile polity’, ‘almost complete capitulation’, are just some of the charges that have been leveled at university lecturers and professors. And those academics that do attempt to retain their integrity by refusing to observe the ‘Gospel of Mammonism’ risk being inculpated (as with the inquisitions of the Counter-Reformation) of error, blasphemy, heresy even - censure, denunciation and excommunication soon follow if the accused declines penance and reconciliation.

Not surprisingly, academics have long failed to defend intellectual liberty or to confront inconvenient home truths. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, the Cambridge classicist-cum-satirist, F.M. Cornford, cautioned junior colleagues, especially the Young Man in a Hurry with a conscience, to heed the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent, which is to say:

that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.

Reflecting on his travels through the industrial heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire during the hungry thirties, George Orwell aimed much of his polemic, not at Westminster, but at the failings of self-styled metropolitan intellectuals who ‘get on’ by ‘kissing the bums of verminous little lions’, and whose left-wing opinions are ‘mainly spurious’. Elsewhere he famously likened the passivity of many of his liberal-left contemporaries to the biblical story of Jonah:

being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought… There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the complete indifference, no matter what happens … Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility.

It was in a similar fashion that Edward Thompson noted the reactionary and self-regarding nature of the species Academicus Superciliosus, ‘the most divisible and rulable creature in this country’, following the expose of the so-called ‘Warwick files’ controversy in the early 1970s. Living their lives as if ‘struck by a paralysis of will’ and ‘in a kind of Awe of Propriety’, Thompson opined that though talk of academic freedom ‘is for ever on their lips’, academics are in fact ‘the last people to whom it can be safely entrusted, since the present moment is never the opportune moment to stand and fight’. And just as Orwell was concerned for the future of ‘the autonomous individual’ in the face of totalitarianism, Thompson was equally troubled by the emerging ‘new methods of management’, their ‘insistence upon the subjugation of the individual to institutional loyalties’, and ‘attempts to enforce loyalties by moral or disciplinary means, by streaming procedures or by managing promotions and career prospects’. 

Finally, with his usual prophetic boldness, and with Julien Benda’s trahison des clercs in mind, Thompson predicted that most university teachers would retreat ‘within the limited area of manoeuvre allotted to him within the managerial structure’.

More recently, former Essex professor and literary critic, Marina Warner, has voiced several scathing criticisms about her own unfortunate experience of university managerialism, whilst simultaneously recognising that she herself may have been ‘culpable of doziness’, ‘naive, culpably unobservant as I went about my activities at Essex’. Putting aside the personal circumstances that caused her to quit Essex and the resulting commotion (which are widely known and do not need repeating here), much of what Warner has said hits its targets; moreover, her general observations throw further light on the sinister forces presently at play within British universities and their damaging effects: ‘the culture of obedience and deference’ that is cultivated through ‘fear, insecurity, precarious social conditions and shame’; ‘the silence of no comment which universities resort to when confronted with protests and complaints’; and if all else fails, constructive dismissal and the use of ‘gagging orders’. Warner’s most damning indictment, however, is her likening of UK higher education and its ‘rulers’ ideas’ to ‘the world of Chinese communist corporatism’:

… where enforcers rush to carry out the latest orders from their chiefs in an ecstasy of obedience to ideological principles which they do not seem to have examined, let alone discussed with the people they order to follow them, whom they cashier when they won’t knuckle under.