Last week, I decided with several colleagues from The Critical Institute to write an open letter expressing our deep concern about the ongoing marketisation and corporatised management of UK universities which, in our view, are relentlessly degrading and eroding both teaching and research.
We asked similarly concerned senior academics to co-sign the letter and just a few days later over 120 UK-based professors had agreed to do so. Within 48 hours of the letter being published in the press, it had been shared on social media almost 3,500 times. We had clearly hit a nerve.
Of course, we are not the first to have sounded the alarm in this regard, but my co-signatories and I wanted to mark the accumulating sense of stress, frustration, anger and even despair we all are encountering in our working lives as academics. Our sense is that these feelings are far more widespread than most realise (several of us are psychological therapists as well as academics).
The responses we have received to the letter pre- and post-publication have revealed the depth of anxiety among academics of all levels and across all disciplines - and even those who we approached but who declined to sign tended to agree with the thrust of our concerns (a worrying number said they did not dare put their names to the letter for fear of retribution or victimisation).
Some of those who responded to the letter have indicated that the difficulties in their institution are actually “much worse” than we described, while very junior academics, including sessional teachers and post-docs, have described their feelings of insecurity and of being overwhelmed by – as one of them wrote – “more admin, more bureaucracy and less research”.
Interestingly, professors of management were among the strongest supporters of our argument, and this chimes with our experience that universities, under pressure to become more like corporations, are relying on business models and associated “audit culture” practices which are not only ill suited to the processes of academic teaching and research, but which are also outdated in their own right, relying heavily on the micro-managerial surveillance, regulation and control.
As a corollary, there are constant demands for ever-increasing standardisation, repetition and duplication, which are in direct contradiction to academia endeavour, which is about inventing, innovating, creating, and critical thinking.
This is the language of “skills” reaching its logical apotheosis: the university as a place that trains obedient staff for a compliant workforce, and which - at worst - privileges a conservative “status quo” ideology.
It’s worth adding that although we sought only UK signatories for our letter, our argument has also received significant support internationally. It is clear that these developments are global.
We warmly invite any academic who also shares these concerns either to add their signature to the letter, or to send us their ideas for further action.
We have to believe that, together, we can make a difference – for if we cannot, then we will soon say goodbye to the academy as we have known it.
Karín Lesnik-Oberstein is professor of critical theory at the University of Reading and director of the Graduate Centre for International Research in Childhood: Literature, Culture, Media.
The Critical Institute’s open letter
The UK’s universities can justifiably claim an outstanding international reputation, generating multiple direct and indirect benefits for society, and underpinning our core professions through training and education.
Yet these attributes are being undermined and degraded from within and without, with innovation, creativity, originality and critical thought, as well as notions of social justice, being threatened by forces of marketisation demanding “competitiveness” and “efficiency” in teaching and research.
This generates continuous pressures to standardise, conform, obey and duplicate in order to be “transparent” to measurement.
Government regulations and managerial micro-management are escalating pressures on academics, insisting they function as “small businesses” covering their own costs or generating profits.
Highly paid university managers (and even more highly paid “management consultants”) are driving these processes, with little regard for, or understanding of, the teaching and research process in higher education.
Yet these outdated models of “competitiveness” and “efficiency” have long since been rejected not only by those who believe in quality education as a force for social change but also by progressive business thinking worldwide.
This deprofessionalisation and micro-management of academics is relentlessly eroding their ability to teach and conduct research effectively and appropriately.
A compliant, demoralised and deprofessionalised workforce is necessarily underproductive, and cannot innovate.
Unprecedented levels of anxiety and stress among both academic and academic-related staff and students abound, with “obedient” students expecting, and even demanding, hoop-jumping, box-ticking and bean-counting, often terrified by anything new, different, or difficult.
Managerial surveys then “measure” their consumer “satisfaction” – such are the low ambitions of today’s universities, locked into a conservative status quo mentality; for what is there left to learn, when you already know it in order to demand it?
We call upon parliament’s newly elected education committee to conduct an urgent investigation into these grave matters.