Why the audit culture made me quit

When Liz Morrish opened up to students about the pressures academics are under, disciplinary proceedings culminated in her resignation. She reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside

March 2, 2017
Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Source: Getty/iStock montage

When, in 2015, I started my blog critically analysing marketisation, consumerism and audit culture in universities, I was aware that a large number of academic staff in anglophone universities seemed to be leaving the profession. I didn’t expect to be joining them quite this soon.

Late last summer, for instance, Sara Ahmed very publicly resigned as director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London, over the alleged sexual harassment of students by staff. At about the same time, I too found myself at a point of feminist snap – the moment at which your faith in academia finally yields to terminal antipathy – albeit for different reasons.

It all happened quite quickly. Last year saw the intensification of outcomes-based performance management in many universities, and I chronicled this on my blog, Academic Irregularities: Critical University Studies. This led to invitations to speak at several universities.

In the UK, much of the rush to management by metrics is in response to shifting government incentives and policy changes, which, fed through the mechanism of the research excellence framework, affect institutional priorities, reputations and funding levels. Many of these metrics are quite outside the control of academics. Nevertheless, they have been weaponised as tools of performance management, and the very nature of the scrutiny creates a hostile environment for academic freedom.

The most objectionable expectation is that of research grant “capture”. According to a 2015 investigation in Times Higher Education, one in six UK universities had some form of financialised targets for at least some of its academics, and the trend seems to be continuing even though grant success rates are as low as 12 per cent in one UK research council. I have found it profoundly disturbing to bear witness to an unforgiving climate that seems to privilege economic values to the complete neglect of academic values – or even academic value to a discipline. It is akin to judging athletes on their commercial endorsements rather than on how many gold medals they win.

Other institutions have imposed more granular surveillance under the guise of new “robust” policies of performance management that construct academics as liabilities, not as creative institutional assets. So, for example, at a number of UK research-intensive universities, professors are required to defray their own salaries with grant income, and this “key performance indicator” eclipses any contribution to teaching, scholarship or academic mentoring. At best, this myopic view of performance restricts how that “human resource” may operate, from shifting conceptions of what constitutes research, or work at all, to the narrowing of institutional definitions of “competence” to exclude non-compliant personality types. In more encouraging news, however, management at Newcastle University conceded last summer that it was time to abandon coercive metrics and adopt a consultative and collegial approach to improving research (“Newcastle University ‘to drop draconian research targets’”, News, 8 June 2016).

Another pernicious development has been the spread of anticipatory performance management, including the requirement to declare intent to publish in designated high-impact factor journals and in preferred research areas. Even when those “outputs” are peer-reviewed and published, they may often be subject to internal reviews, whereby close colleagues are obliged to deliver graded verdicts on them. It is hard to think of a more effective way to pollute collegial relationships and increase personal stress, as well as constrain academic freedom. These career-defining judgements are often repurposed as a tool of academic fracking – separating out researchers from teachers. Having been fortunate enough to have a career of more than 30 years in academia, I know that these two endeavours are inseparable.

Sara Ahmed and I are by no means the only feminist academics over the past couple of years to have resigned, after decades of claiming space for collaborative, interdisciplinary and slow scholarship, as well as personal development transformation and reflexive practice. These notions recognise the value of research in contributing to a conversation about power and privilege. And they highlight the fact that apparently objective research may nevertheless reflect the social location of the researcher. Feminists have brought to the academy the theoretical and practical tools to ensure that the impact of different experiences of race, class and gender on academic labour are understood. Feminist scholarship has advanced the argument that there should be no one-size-fits-all performance expectations in the academy.

But although universities may have policies on diversity and inclusion, these principles have evidently been poorly internalised because we now see an embrace of processes guaranteed to amplify structures of inequality. All researchers are now measured against the most exceptional, often unencumbered, scholars, regardless of individual location or ambition. Academics are required to be productive within the tightly delimited notions invoked by management, and to be visibly competitive while never being quite sure what the competition involves.

I have found this to be utterly alienating. Universities in the UK, the US, Australia and many other systems that have adopted a neoliberal model have been turned into what Richard Hall, professor of education and technology at De Montfort University, calls “anxiety machines”. In a 2016 paper, “Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety”, he and Kate Bowles, senior lecturer in communication and media studies at the University of Wollongong in Australia, argue that this anxiety is intentional and inherent in a system driven by improving performance.

There are also emerging threats to academic freedom in the form of slippage between the audit and disciplinary functions of performance management. Until recently, I had spent my entire career without having encountered a single colleague undergoing disciplinary action or performance improvement monitoring. Now, recourse to these procedures has become almost commonplace in some universities. It is not clear what results managers expect to emerge from a system that torments staff with unattainable targets, constant surveillance, constant audit and the knowledge that any dip in “performance” may result in their contracts being terminated. But the suicide of Imperial College London professor Stefan Grimm in 2014 after he was told that he was “struggling to fulfil the metrics of a professorial post” should have brought this kind of punitive regime to a swift halt in any ethical institution. Instead, in some universities, the system of “incentives” would be instantly recognised by the subjects of Stanley Milgram’s infamous psychology experiments, which tested the willingness of individuals to obey authority even to the point of causing severe pain and distress to others.

My recent work has been situated in the expanding field of critical university studies. This is an approach that invites scholars to be critical of the structures, assumptions and power relations that govern the academy. After all, in the UK at least, academic freedom is enshrined in law, and most university statutes and articles of government reflect this. Yet it is clear that, in practice, universities have rather different thresholds of tolerance for critics of higher education practice. At one extreme is the controversial suspension of Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, for insubordination after he allegedly made ironic comments and used negative body language towards his head of department. At the other is the defence by the vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, Sir Keith Burnett, of the right of one of his academics, Craig Brandist, to write an article likening UK higher education policy to that of Stalin’s Soviet Union, after the professor of cultural theory and intellectual history was chastised for doing so by Sheffield’s HR department.

This capriciousness of managerial commitment to academic freedom means that to be a critical scholar is to live with uncertainty. Far from being reassured by the published statutes, those of us who blog and tweet must adopt a strategy of academic defensive driving, hoping to avoid what Bowles calls an episode of social media “gotcha” by university management. And if established academics feel threatened, imagine the vulnerability of a young scholar who is called to this kind of work.

Man looking over a ruler fence
Getty (edited)

In March last year, Times Higher Education republished a blog piece that I wrote on the causes of stress and threats to mental health in academic life. The piece recounted how, on University Mental Health Day, I opened up to students about some of the pressures their lecturers were under. Many readers were kind enough to retweet the link, respond under the line or email me personally to let me know that my article resonated for colleagues around the world. But after it had received 10,000 hits on my own blog and spent four days trending on THE’s website, my previous employer objected to it and I was obliged to ask for it to be taken down. This inaugurated a disciplinary process that I felt curbed my ability to write further on the topic, or to have a frank dialogue with students on mental health in universities. So I decided to reclaim my academic freedom – outside the academy.

Research in critical university studies inevitably involves being critical of our local working practices and conditions, inasmuch as these have their origin in institutional as well as governmental policy. We must be free to document those experiences and make them available for analysis in terms of power and privilege. Indeed, I regard this as an obligation, and I am sustained in this belief by the generous and encouraging responses posted on my blog.

As I was beginning to write this article last autumn, I saw a draft of the Copenhagen Declaration cross my Twitter timeline. It offers some principles for ensuring university autonomy, academic freedom and a humane workplace: “These include the right to intellectual and professional self-determination within the context of the organisation’s welfare, the right not to be fired at will, the right to a workplace that does not tolerate bullying and other abuses of authority, the right to criticise the institution in public, and the right to reject inappropriate forms of assessment.”

I had thought that I and others in the UK already had those rights, but what I see in universities is a repeated failure to align actions with stated principles. There is a widespread perception that when management revokes established rights, this has the effect of eroding academics’ trust in the system, and it has certainly contributed to my own disenchantment. Academia badly needs a manifesto for academic citizenship to counteract the project of managerial colonisation. It is obvious that there can be no self-determination or academic freedom within a working environment that is censorious and authoritarian, regardless of how many times “empowerment” features in the strategic plan.

In his seminal 1950 article, “The Idea of a University”, the political scientist Michael Oakeshott assumed that “intellectual hooligans” were safely beyond the walls of academia, but now we encounter members of this constituency installed in its plushest offices. At this point, what I value more than anything is the opportunity for activism to reclaim the academy from them, and to write according to my conscience. Unfortunately, this kind of rearguard action can only properly be fought from the outside. And so I have resigned. 

Liz Morrish is an independent scholar. @lizmorrish. She blogs at academicirregularities.wordpress.com

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Print headline: Audit culture is a resigning matter

Reader's comments (13)

Liz, you write with superb clarity. I know students will be missing you greatly.
This should become the mission statement of all Universities...
The word that really resonates with me is 'empowerment'. I was told being put in the Underperformance Improvement Procedure was ... empowerment!
Liz, greetings from Mexico City. When my former department at Queen Mary University of London dismissed in 2009 my next-door-neighbour - who was the best intellectual mind amongst all of us & the harderst worker, but one who had not gained a large grant during his "probation" - I collected in his defence 53 signatures from within a department of 62 and 40 letters of support (including a couple from colleagues who did not sign the petition). Seeing that almost unanimous support of Robin didn't save his position, I resolved to resign in protest. So I understand your decision. In my case, the most supportive colleagues talked me out of quiting on two arguments: 1) that we should not surrender to the managers, who only gain more personal power/money as the university loses its academic credentials & 2) a promise to keep up the fight for a collegial department despite the terror that ensued from this - first of its sort in our microenvironment - dismissal. Then a new management team arrived and in 2012 to "restructure" the department. As an outcome, little over 20 members of staff from the 62 are still present. I am the only one who is still fighting (5 years later) at an employment tribunal to formally show that my dismissal was unlawful. This has meant a personal toll, however it has also meant that I can appreciate in a different way the dilemma whether to quit or fight, having chosen the latter (I note that you chose a combination and I congratulate you for sticking to your promise to continue exposing the horrors of the corrupt managerial establishment on the day you departed). One case I feel should be listed next to the ones you name; that of my colleague, friend, collaborator & mentor, John Allen, Professor of Biochemistry. His major "crime" was to support me and others when we were being faced with retrospectively applied (nevermind their insulting nature) "criteria" for redundancy. Employment tribunals have already shown that John's dismissal was unfair. My question is what are the consequences for the Queen Mary managers responsible? I suppose the same question lingers in my mind for those overseeing the culture that lead to Stefan Grimm's suicide and the few other stories you list above and the thousands of others that go untold publicly. UK higher education is dying under the present regime, even if it is allowed to keep its fancy name. I look forward to you and others taking the lead to remove the parasites from within.
I write from the perspective of one who doesn't know it all and never will, and the more I read the less I know. I have spent 30 years teaching and the same number of years taking different courses at postgraduate level. I have attended 4 different universities over my time and I am current undertaking postgraduate Law courses at a university at the moment. We in schools and colleges have a true independent inspector from OFSTED watching us teach. This can happen at a moments notice. Further all documentation associated with a course has to be inspection ready at all times. Each lesson has to be inspection ready with a lesson plan in place. We have to teach the whole class, groups, and one to one within the same session. At the end of the class we have to ask questions of the class to ensure that each member of the class has understood the aims and objectives of that lesson. In addition we have to ensure notes are taken and that homework is set and marked by the very next time we see that class. I can tell you now that very very few class based sessions at a university have had any thorough teaching content. I have also worked as a researcher within a university and know well from being a qualified teacher that the skills required to teach and those with regards to research are quite different. I have taught throughout all phases of education, so I understand this well. University staff are merely witnessing the reality of checking that public money is being used well. However I can say that despite the audits in place, poor teaching is rampant and the only way for university staff to move forward is to split the skill sets. Researchers attract research grants which are audited using a variety of methods and teaching staff stand in front of an OFSTED inspector. Only then can prospective private clients be assured that good quality teaching is taking place and that the private paying client is going to feel satisfied. The often awful use of statistics to hide raw scores simply will not wash any more and fools nobody. My last university trumpeted its statistic that 71% thought the teaching at the university was excellent, what it failed to say was that only 4% bothered to fill in the form and I was one of those 4% and I have the email on that. I had to run a complaint against that university and received half my money back but it took my time, and I am not pleased. My current university is a teaching university and that choice was deliberate, my experience there has been good but the impersonal way education is delivered at university level is off putting and could be addressed. Further lecturers from overseas must be able to both speak and write English fluently and must not make up the majority within a Department. I did not turn up to a university to struggle through broken English delivered with a thick accent when attempting to understand the technicalities of English Law. Please remember I am the private customer paying very hard earned money for a course on English Law. Keep the customer satisfied or forever earn their wrath.
I'm incidentally one of the manageriat in the HE sector. Your specific point about separating research and teaching reminds me of a recent quote from a VC "if there is no input from research into teaching, you might as well just read it all on the internet". In my recollection, the best attended lectures were not those where we spent 5 minutes on the learning objectives at the beginning, 40 minutes of OHP/powerpoints and 5 minutes recapping the learning objectives, all delivered to appeal to multiple learning styles. Those were the lectures where we asked one of the more compliant students to collect the handouts and all the references were to textbooks that we already owned. The lectures that were packed out were those where researchers eloquently delivered the subject matter, largely through the lens of their own research, and for which the follow on reading was a series of terrifyingly new research papers. The more eminent the researcher, the more enthusiastic the attendance. University is not school.
Just wondering whether this commentator has read beyond the headline. The piece is about academic freedom.
Liz, Just to suggest how much support exists by "white males" for you and the road you traveled, I resigned last year form a university where sexual harassment was rampant, and no matter how hard I worked, the senior administrators could get away with whatever they wished. I was asked by faculty and staff to represent them in sexual and gender harassment proceedings against the university. Then became the target, and after 8 years of teaching and research, receiving a scholarship award and some of the highest ratings from my learners, I had my heard earned sabbatical taken away from me and given to a totally incompetent colleague. I took a one year leave of absence without pay, and then resigned after 9 years with the institution. The stress of ostracization by many of my colleagues was something I just could no longer tolerate. Your critical work in your discipline is most appreciated by folks like myself, who no longer have ANY faith in a system bent upon self destruction.
That's a very sad story. And yes, the approach may have its origin and location in feminist politics, but this is widely shared by many in universities.
This piece resonates with my own experience in academia. Targets shift on a daily basis. Even sustained good quality performance is judged to be inadequate. The system is self-destructing because of punitive responses by senior and middle managers who fear being seen to fail. It will shorten careers and blight mental health.
An excellent article far too many overpaid managers using the REF to hit academics on the head with for not getting enough 4 star papers and enough research grants. Academics should refuse to participate in the REF or get involved in assessing the submitted research as it is just giving managers the tools to bash academics with.
Thanks to Liz Morrish and Times Higher Education for this powerful and illuminating essay. Liz Morrish, your work makes a difference, and the more you publish, the more you help others caught in the system. As one who retired in the U.S. before these developments became as egregious as they are now, it's distressing to realize what has happened to the great academic institutions. I'm sure that many of us-- even those of you who are quite young-- entered academic careers because of a great love for learning and the sharing of knowledge, understanding, questions and ideas. For me it was perhaps too much of a romance-- the lawns and trees of a university campus, the libraries, the classrooms full of students both indifferent and eager, all represented the hopes of humanity. Certainly in my 35 years of teaching there was great frustration at administrative mediocrity and incompetence, at lack of imagination, at lack of diversity, at favoritism for toadies and not-so-subtle discrimination against innovators and questioners. And yet the remnants of the ideal were enough there, and Academic freedom was enough there, that one could still thrive and teach and encourage inquiry and creativity in students. How sad and disturbing it is to see what young academics today are going through or have gone through--not just for yourselves, but for the future of higher education. It's very interesting to read the comments of many here, who speculate on how to rebuild or create a better system, and whether or not that is possible. With such minds as These, there seems to be a great deal of possibility--and it's exciting to imagine what very different ways of learning thinkers like you may bring into being in the coming years. Please keep writing! Charlotte
Thank you THE and Liz Morrish for a powerful, insightful analysis of the sad state of higher education in UK and too many other places, including the US. When talented, skilled, experiences faculty members must leave to write and save their souls, universities are clearly in crisis from the same ideology that has whipped non-profits, health care, K-12. K.O'Mara, SUNY-Oneonta, NY.

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