A Motley mirror image

March 26, 1999

Ann Oakley'snew novel mocks the bureaucracy and frustration of working in a 1990s university

All the characters and conversations in my forthcoming novel about university life are, of course, entirely fictional. But anyone who knows anything about academic careers these days will probably recognise familiar themes.

Overheads is set in the University of the East Midlands, located outside the unprepossessing town of Motley, which has more than its fair share of the socially excluded. Those who work at EMU are not themselves socially excluded, though, like other university staff, they often feel they are. They suffer from a crumbling infrastructure, divisive working conditions, lack of the basic tools with which to do their jobs, and an atmosphere of growing insecurity about their futures.

Over everything at EMU hangs the shadow of monetarism. Not much in universities is valued these days apart from what can readily be translated into financial currency. The old currency of scholarship has virtually passed away. But, rather than actively mourn its passing, the characters who people Overheads are sucked into a distracting game of acronyms, memos, mission statements, strategy groups, committees, and, of course, endless unproductive meetings. Lurching from one internal crisis to another, they are starved of the time and imagination to take a step back in order to figure out what it all means.

Translating fact into fiction is a well-known survival activity. There are many reasons for writing novels, but trying to gain a sense of sanity and order out of an experience of delusion and disorder is certainly one of them. In my own case, writing fiction is definitely a therapeutic technique. I am not sure what my colleagues think. I was once asked in a job interview whether I intended to go on writing fiction. I replied that I thought my "hobby" occupied less of my time than the golfing, drinking and business activities of some of my colleagues.

Behind what goes on at EMU and other places there are quite a few sinister trends. The chronic under-resourcing of higher education in this country is one of them. The competition (for status and resources) between research and teaching is another. There is little doubt that research is the poor cousin here. Job contracts for teaching and research staff are both more likely to be short-term, but an explosion of shorter and shorter term contracts in the research world provides an extremely fragile base for the doing and dissemination of high quality research. My own university, typical, I suspect, of many, operates an uncomplimentary official distinction between "academics" and "researchers".

The characters in Overheads grapple with one common manifestation of these themes in particular, the expropriation of some people's labour by others in the form of what is known as the "overhead" element on research grants. I do not think the research staff in Overheads would mind if their overheads were used to house and resource the research they do, but that is not what happens. The fate of the overheads (in the novel and elsewhere) is a bit of a mystery.

Universities are not open, accountable, transparent systems. It is well-known that discrimination is particularly likely to occur within such systems. In the novel, Judy Sammons, an assertive young PhD student at EMU, is pursuing the question of gender discrimination. According to recent Association of Union Teachers figures, women form nearly half of the higher education workforce, but are concentrated in the lowest grades and have the worst pay. AUT general secretary, David Triesman, called this "a picture of systematic discrimination for which no employer has a sustainable excuse".

Tackling institutionalised sexism (the term Judy Sammons would use if she were doing her PhD now) has, like scholarship, passed out of fashion as one of the things universities ought to do. These days an academic (or a researcher) could spend her/his entire life being spectacularly "successful" in monetarist terms, teaching enormous numbers of students, bringing in huge quantities of research grants with impressive overheads, and writing large numbers of RAE-listable publications, but in the end s/he might have helped no student to understand more about anything, have contributed nothing to knowledge, and have driven forward not one iota the mission of an informed and evidence-based professional practice and public policy.

Perhaps the characters in Overheads would not put it so boldly - though one or two of them do from time to time. What we see in the novel instead is what many of us experience - a dedication to inward-looking processes in which more and more time is spent on internal procedures for organising and distributing people and resources and for reducing quality to quantity. We know that the annual cost of the research assessment exercise is in excess of Pounds 4.5 million, but we do not know the cost of the kind of perpetual internal organisational wrangling that goes on in EMU and in other universities all the time.

The apex of the devotion to money as the measure of all things is the financial management review, in which a team of external profit-making consultants is raked in to carry out some form of cost-benefit analysis of a particular department or type of activity. There are few institutions where this approach is applied evenly, so the characters in Overheads can perhaps be excused for seeing the financial management review as a strategy that is essentially annexed to the malign purposes of management. The fact that very little of this is intentional does not make it any more tolerable (though that it happens in such an opaque and undemocratic way does arguably make it worse).

The financial management consultant in Overheads has a breakdown, because he gets a glimpse of what these trends in university life represent. He sees that this is a world that has substantially lost its way, that has been hijacked by too many ephemeral and ultimately unproductive concerns. However, the novel is ultimately conservative in ways that I should probably not spell out, because it might deter people from reading it.

I would like people to enjoy reading the book because I enjoyed writing it. Indeed, I continue to be amused by the thought of these people congregated in their concrete blocks off the Motley roundabout doing what a lot of us do, only worse. On one level, such a novel has only one purpose - to amuse. Academic pomposity must laugh at itself, or we are all definitely doomed.

The American academic Carolyn Heilbrun wrote 11 novels under the pseudonym Amanda Cross. Her secret came out when she found herself corresponding with the same person under both names about her fiction and non-fiction. I have chosen not to take the pseudonymous route. The issues are simply too important to be secretive about.

Ann Oakley is professor of sociology and social policy at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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