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.
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.