Fare thee well

December 11, 2014

Having worked as an academic for more than 40 years, I’ve decided to retire next month. Several colleagues have asked me why, given the option to work beyond 65. There are a few reasons. One is that I want to make sure that the pension I receive is the one I originally signed up for. While I had given notice of retirement before the University and College Union decision to take industrial action, I knew that an attempt to degrade the pension scheme was in the offing. Unless effective resistance can be mounted, it seems that in the future only those whose salary levels pretend they are worth many times more than ordinary mortals will be deemed to deserve a decent pension.

But the strongest reason for retiring is that I no longer feel that I work in a university. For me a university is a collegial organisation devoted exclusively to developing academic knowledge and facilitating students’ understanding of it. Today, of course, universities are businesses, with decisions increasingly being made on commercial grounds. In the case of research, it is no longer possible for many academics to devote the time necessary to read the relevant literature, think about and discuss the issues, and find and analyse evidence in ways that could provide the basis for sound answers to important questions. Instead, what is prioritised is the securing of external funds, along with “efficient” production of “outputs” and maximising their “impact”. In the case of teaching, courses are judged in terms of how much money they bring in, relative to their costs, and whether “customers” are satisfied.

Two senior colleagues who are some way from retirement have also decided to leave, even without new jobs to go to, for very similar reasons. Perhaps I should feel guilty for being able to retire now, and on a reasonable pension, but my overwhelming emotions are sadness and anger. As with the dismantling of the welfare state and the NHS, what has been lost will likely not be recognised (beyond those directly affected) until it is too late.

At least I will no longer have to sit in meetings where ludicrous demands are discussed as if they were feasible and desirable, and where cynicism is the only recourse in the face of what is presented, ideologically, as reality. I will escape filling in forms requiring compliance with pretence. I can ignore the irrational policies and elude the petty surveillance. But I will not forget those who have no escape: who continue to face the choice between “embracing change”, in the idiotic language that now prevails, and genuine academic commitment.

I’m on my way out, but I fear that the university may have gone already.

Name and address withheld

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