A vote to leave the market

July 3, 2014

As an Englishman living in Scotland who has spent half his life in England and half in Scotland, I will be voting for independence on 18 September.

I intend to vote this way not for nationalist reasons but because of the Westminster government’s policies. Scots want to escape the financial/economic policies that have led to a UK government and personal debt of £2.5 trillion, and also that government’s foreign/defence policies. There is also a third policy that I want to escape, and that is the way that universities are run.

In the early 1990s, the Conservative government introduced the market system. The essence of the system is that the quality of academics’ work is measured by the amount of money that it brings in. This system is flawed in two ways. First, research is dialectical in the sense that it is based on disagreement: you get progress in science and scholarship only when academics disagree. This prompts discussion, and through that debate we arrive at a better analysis. But the research excellence framework, and research council evaluations of grant applications, are based on the premise that one or two people can read a piece of academic writing and make a definitive judgement on it. Research isn’t about definitive judgements, it’s about debate and investigation. The REF and the obsession with external funding stifle debate and punish originality while rewarding conformism.

Second, when students become customers, the game is up. You change from delivering a university education to delivering customer satisfaction. The two are incompatible.

With the introduction of the market system, the mission of UK universities changed from the pursuit of truth to the pursuit of money, in a micro-financial way. “Managers” were brought in. They are ideological secret agents whose job it is to threaten and bully academics into toeing the market-system line. The market system is producing a generation of scholars for whom it is the norm to obey orders.

Not having universities in the real sense of the word suits the Westminster government because this situation allows it to pursue its financial/economic and foreign/defence policies without opposition from intellectuals.

How many of the UK’s hundreds of university economists and management specialists predicted that the pseudo-privatised banks that emerged from the deregulation of the 1980s would collapse in 2007-08? None. How many of the political scientists warned that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 would end in disaster, killing a million people and creating more terrorists than it removed? None.

When academics were in control of their teaching and research, the universities were run in a calm, collegial, humane, tolerant, non-political, pragmatic and efficient way. Under the market system, the running of universities is a politicised and commercialised frenetic, micromanaged, interventionist and interfering, bureaucratic and box-ticking, rigid and dogmatic, soulless and shambolic blunderbuss.

If the UK breaks apart, the cause will not be nationalism but rather the disastrous, extreme right-wing policies pursued by the Capitalist Party of (Southern) England, be it the Conservative wing, the Liberal Democrat wing or the Labour wing.

Christopher Beedham
Department of German, University of St Andrews

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Reader's comments (3)

This is a brilliant analysis of the plague currently affecting UK universities. However, there have been many brilliant articles published on this topic and nothing ever happens and no improvement is ever registered. I think colleagues should realise that this is not a matter of arguing the case convincingly. It is a question of power. It is naive to think that those who now shape the UK universities need to be given convincing arguments that their policies are wrong and that somehow when they have seen the light, things will change. Those who run UK universities are interested in power, not in argumentation. They will continue doing what suits them because they can.
This is impassioned and highly readable. However it's comments regarding research council approaches to evaluating research bids is simply wrong. Normally an AHRC bid will be reviewed by three or more peer reviewers, after which the applicant takes the lead in their response, and then it is read by three or more panel members. All preceded normally, hopefully, with an internal read-through and supportive guidance by the applicant's own University colleagues. Time-consuming, but fair, and fundamentally aligned to Nolan's principles. It is not a system led by managers but by fellow researchers. And Scotland's researchers have succeeded very well using this system.
Replying to Craig Richardson’s Comment, no matter how well the research councils do their job it doesn’t alter the basic flaw of the wider context. Under the market system, imposed on UK academics in the early 1990s by the Westminster government (at the time Conservative but not changed a jot by Labour and Lib Dems subsequently being in government), pressure is put on academics to apply for research grants whether they need or want one or not, with the result that many of them change their topics or methods specifically to one which requires money, even if it is in a scientific or scholarly sense less interesting. In this politically engineered dash for cash it is inevitable that safe, uncontroversial and government-friendly projects will tend to get funded, whilst innovative and risky projects which are out of line with government policy will not. In the arts and humanities thousands of academics spend hundreds of hours preparing grant applications, paid by the taxpayer and the fee-payer to do so, in a situation where we know that at least 80% of them will be turned down. It is a waste of academics’ time and a waste of taxpayers’ and fee-payers’ money. The system is politically motivated, it was not designed by academics. I will be voting for Scottish independence on 18 September in the hope of swapping (southern) English political dogma in the universities for Scottish common sense and common decency. And I hope that England will eventually learn from the Scottish example. Christopher Beedham Department of German, University of St Andrews

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