After neoliberal misery will come collegial and creative universities

Self-organising academics who are still passionate about their jobs will diverge from depressing, neoliberal institutions to create new, democratic ones, predicts Monika Kostera 

February 12, 2019
yawning-student
Source: Alamy

Highly qualified academics with roots in other countries are leaving the UK. Brexit is one reason. Another is the state of the UK university. Work at a UK university demands skills that have nothing in common with the traditional academic craft and it prevents professionals using their academic skills. 

Would a symphonic orchestra employ an experienced conductor and make her sell tickets and fill in online forms, without letting her ever play any music or rehearse with the musicians? Sound pointless? Well, that is what UK universities do. 

Once so glorious, British universities now top all the rankings (together with the US ones), and make people miserable, depressed and suicidal. 

Far from being a dinosaur myself, even I can remember when universities stood for values. Professors and students developed relationships of mentorship and care. Lectures were meant to inspire. Academics were respected for their courage of thought and imagination and students wanted to change the world for the better. Learning was free and regarded as a common good. Creative work was protected and research regarded as a value above market or political use. Academics did not earn much, but they felt good about what they were doing. There was a democratic management system adapted to universities known as collegiality. Academia was sensual and wild, something to dream of. 

Yes, universities were also patriarchal, elitist and exclusive, but we were determined to change that in our lifetime. Instead, another change happened. While the misogyny, contempt and classism are still there, the soul – or the meaning of it – fell out. 

Academics are made to sit in endless excruciating meetings, listening to phrases such as: “passion for enhancing productivity”, “enthusing leaders”, “deliver equitable and sustainable futures”, which would have been as out of place in the pre-neoliberal university as a loud fart during an opera performance. 

Controversial only a few years ago, now it is standard business to have one’s lectures recorded, so-called “lecture capture” – something that is as good a substitute for the vulnerable and dynamic learning relationship as porn can be said to be a good substitute for marriage. Not to mention the fact that the intimacy of the classroom is violated. 

Academics are made to work in modern-style barracks known as “open office spaces”, even though this is a ferociously destructive work setting for people who need to focus. The omnipresent surveillance cameras on campus are now taken for granted, whereas only 10 years ago they were widely known under their good name – spying. 

Academics act as tour guides, usually in their free time, in order to “deliver” the “student experience”. Never mind what the students become experienced in. Ethical committees serve as a replacement for ethics – the more of them and the more bureaucratically convoluted the forms, the less real ethos left to teach and to embrace. Many academic couples work in different cities – countries, even, and are made to move around constantly, because an academic who works in the same place for more than three years is taken for granted. Work in academia is misery. 

My interactions with people from outside academia in different countries show that while there is still an enchantment and recognition for the unique role and conditions of the profession in countries such as Poland and Sweden, there is none in the UK. It’s a job like any other. If one enjoys filling in online forms it is surely fascinating, but if someone would like to do research, which for centuries defined academia, they would do better to avoid it. 

So what’s so special about universities? Would the British voter, given the choice, care about funding universities with their taxes? I seriously doubt it; they are businesses after all, so let them mind their own business. 

And yet, and yet…there are still many academics in the UK who sincerely care about research, not just bringing in funding; about writing, not just being “REF-able”; about teaching, not “delivering modules”. 

But it is extremely unlikely that someone will listen to them within the current neoliberal system, which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. There are those who still believe that it is a kind of liberalism; I call it radical nihilism. The structures have been destroyed and cannot be brought back. 

However, what will probably happen at some point, and the sooner the better, is people self-organising and creating new, democratic universities: places of radical creativity, a celebration of inclusive collective exploration, of truth and collegiality. It is what comes after what management professor Peter Fleming labels the labour camp-style workplace management . After the last sadistic HR email is sent and the system finally implodes, there will be no going back.

Monika Kostera holds professorships at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland and at Linnaeus University in Sweden.

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Print headline: Brave new world

Reader's comments (9)

It's a shame Professor Kostera feels that way. As a late entrant into academia after working in commercial software development, consulting and teaching in FE I have found my dream job. I'm still calling it that some four and a half years since slithering into a university. It's a place of opportunities, a place where I feel welcomed and valued, where getting up and going to work is a pleasure. Maybe I've just been lucky in institution. but I am content and don't see the sort of issues that she has encountered.
I have some sympathy for these comments but the truth is that large-scale institutions like universities inevitably need management in financial, procedural and structural senses. What academics have not done is to create freer means of educating their audiences inside and outside universities. Given the resources of the internet. that is where attention should be focused.
As someone of the same age as the author, I can agree with some of the points, However, like one of those above, I cannot take such an extreme view. The world has moved in an unfortunate direction (not the predicted leisure time of my childhood) but my own department is relatively benign even if not completely devoid of seeming pointless paperwork. It seems unlikely that the idealistic vision of yet more universities will come to pass because whatever we say about a vocation, one still has to support one's family. It is much more useful to be difficult in one's current post since (so far) universities do not have a "hire-and-fire" culture. We seem to be stuck in the UK with a system that is neither properly state supported nor a US-style free market where students are the only arbiters of module quality.
Spot on. We should probably have a new name for British Universities, suited to a silly, grandiose version of their current role. How about 'knowledge consultancies'? They are very depressing places to 'work'. Everyone I know in one would like to (a) leave the country (b) take early retirement (c) go back to a more collegial system. I don't share the author's expectation that (c) is possible. The system has been too debased.
The author holds academic positions in two non-UK institutions. I would appreciate knowing which UK ones she has worked in, if any, to have formed such extremely negative views. From the article the data seem to be drawn from conversations she has had with people who work in UK universities. I don't think I would feel confident writing and article about the academic experience in Poland or Sweden (where I do have academic contacts), based solely on what those people tell me. Generalising of this kind, and over-stating, does not - in my view - contribute to what is, of course, an important debate.
I work in a UK university and I can confirm most if not all of what the author says about UK universities in general applies to my own institution specifically. Over the last couple of years it has been turned into a bureaucratic nightmare that is run by an autocratic Vice Chancellor, served by servile and unthinking metrics fetishists and "passionate" but clueless minions with an almost sadistic urge to sanction deviant behaviour and to monitor and micro-manage everything. Their marketing and PR are top-notch though. The management of most UK universities, it seems, are morally rotten to the core (from what I hear from colleagues, purely anecdotal sure) and treat universities as nothing but income-generating degree factories (this is probably an undue generalisation to some, but I am writing a comment not a paper, right!?). The system does not reward reflective deep scholarship or careful collegiate stewardship but single-minded careerism and close to pathological egotism. The purported excellence of these institutions is nothing but a figment of a collective delusion (and a distant past). The erstwhile professional integrity, autonomy and freedom of academia in the UK (on which its world-wide reputation was built) has been shaken to the core by the meddling "reforms" of successive governments and the willing executioners and apologists within universities. The author is quite right about this. Brits appear to have a knack for destroying every sector they used to be good at and a talent for ignoring the writing on the wall for far too long (Keep calm...). Now it is the universities' turn it seems.
Prof Weait, This thing called 'google' have you heard of it? https://www.dur.ac.uk/business/research/management/profile/index.php?mode=staff&id=15253 WM
An excellent article! Shame the author didn't get to the heart of the problem - the 'politically correct', postmodernist, morally cowardly, pseudo-liberal, white-guilt/anti-masculine BS that has come to pervade public sector activity in the UK. The trans-Empress may score you lots of 'diversity points', but she still has no clothes, and her freezing to death as a result os overdue...
I assume Tom Kitten means we need the opposite of the ragbag of 'progressive' thought he critiques in his contradictory and perhaps tongue in cheek comment.... So that means we need more of the old hierarchical, traditional, elitist, western-centric, white, aggressive, indivualistic, male, perspective...?! You can see where this direction takes us, and it is away from just about every social and humanities scientific discovery of the last 100 years and more. I can see quite a lot of this line of unreason in the UK public (and private) sector, hence the mess we are in.

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