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.