Universities at War, by Thomas Docherty

This powerful polemic should be in every undergraduate’s welcome pack, says Mary Evans

February 12, 2015

A character in David Lodge’s 1988 novel, Nice Work, remarks on “the extraordinary meekness with which the academic establishment has accepted the cuts”. Although budget cuts made to the university sector by Margaret Thatcher’s government were followed by a degree of relative prosperity, more recently, even harsher attitudes towards the state funding of higher education (or anything else) have, Thomas Docherty argues in this passionate book, ensured that “money has systematically replaced thought as the key driver and raison d’être of the institution’s official existence”. As every academic knows, new imperatives about various ways of making money (through obtaining research grants, for example, and embracing something generally described as “entrepreneurship”) play a considerable part in the expectations, and sometimes the aspirations, of universities.

Universities at War was written, as readers of Times Higher Education will know, while the author was suspended from his University of Warwick post and forbidden to maintain academic contacts. This form of compulsory study leave has resulted in a learned account of the current conditions of universities (largely in the UK) and of the many forms of literature, both fact and fiction, about them. As such, it is a book that ought to be in the welcome pack for every university student and member of staff: a cogent critique of authoritarianism within the academy and a stirring defence of universities as what Docherty describes as “secular” places, committed to debates that challenge the enforcement of ever-closer connections between the priorities of the university and those of the wealthy. It is not that previous forms of social privilege in universities are not mentioned, but rather that Docherty focuses on a new form of privilege: less that of the person, more that of the rationale. Emerging (and emerged) interests and functions within the governance of universities, as he argues, serve only to limit the parameters of debate.

Docherty’s case about the suppression of dissent and discontent within universities is powerful, and echoes expressions of concern about the present and future of the UK academy made by Miriam David, Rosalind Gill and Gayatri Spivak, among others. But making powerful cases about universities and their various failings, is of course exactly what academics ought to be able to do: it is, after all, our function to examine the certainties (and the pieties) of the worlds in which we exist.

Yet as much as we do this, we must also consider other questions about the form of this engagement. One is the extent to which academics themselves – and not just the derided managers and vice-chancellors – are so socialised into various forms of competition that we have found it almost impossible to challenge the destructive exercises, such as the research excellence framework, that serve to divide colleagues and institutions. It is not blaming the victim if we look closely at the ways in which the foundation of academic exchange, developing, discarding and debating ideas, can come perilously close to the often absurd competition that has been foisted on universities, making the war in them truly one of all against all. In the light of this, we must return to Lodge’s words, and the problem of how to make contesting the insidious annexation of the universities a common, and successful, cause.

Universities at War

By Thomas Docherty
Sage, 160pp, £45.00
ISBN 9781473907782 and 3910614 (e-book)
Published 4 December 2014

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