Whose side are we on in this moral contest?

Universities should not acquiesce in a system that perpetuates inequality - they must take a stand against it, argues Thomas Docherty

April 24, 2014

Source: Getty/Alamy montage

Is the university a bulwark against crude force, uneven development and unequal enjoyment of ‘the good life’? If so, we would surely envisage it as supportive of greater equality

There is a contest on for the future of the university. That contest concerns matters of fundamental ethical and political importance, and its causes lie in the problem of structural social inequalities. As in wars, there is a danger of collateral damage, which in this case is the potential degradation of academic freedom, free speech and dissent on campus.

In April 1919, philosopher Paul Valéry sent two letters to the London-based journal The Athenaeum. He wrote: “We, the civilised, now know that we, too, are mortal.” The shock occasioned by the Great War’s devastations had shown that civilisation itself was as precarious as the lives of individuals; perhaps civilisation as such has been but a transitory interruption in a world history whose otherwise normal condition is a Hobbesian war of all against all, governed by the brutalities of the powerful and strong as they overwhelm the weak by physical or martial force.

For Valéry, the world is shaped by inequalities in nature: some regions are more richly endowed with natural resources, valuable minerals, more fertile soil, and with conditions permitting the easy development of social infrastructures. A very different thinker, Leon Trotsky, would describe this as “uneven and combined development” in the International System or world order. Both Valéry and Trotsky follow classic “liberal” economic lines regarding inequality: Adam Smith characterised the distribution of worldly wealth in terms of “natural advantage”; and David Ricardo made “comparative advantage” the basis of an early idea of international markets.

Massive structural inequality is potentially dangerous, however; and especially so if it is construed as uncontestable because “natural”. Whereas Trotsky advocated revolution, Valéry’s prescription was to strengthen the force of civilisation to countermand the triumph of brute natural force. His description of civilisation bears a remarkable resemblance to the characteristics that we might associate with the university: “a burning but disinterested curiosity; a scepticism that is not pessimistic; an attention to mystery that does not resign itself to unknowing; and an eager aspiration for progress”.

One way of considering the question before us is to state that the university, now, has an ethical choice. Should we acquiesce in a belief that the forces of nature constitute a given to which “there is no alternative”, thereby incidentally justifying inequalities that lead to the extreme violence of martial struggle; or should we critique the alleged inevitability of such “natural advantage”? That is a pressing question not just for individual scholars, but actually for the university institution as such.

We can endorse a situation in which “might is right”, where the biggest bullies get the greatest rewards by using their “natural advantage” and the normalisation of violence to intimidate or take advantage of the weak. This way, the university takes a position “for” the entrenchment of already existing privilege and the subsequent endorsement of increasing social inequality, leading to social breakdown. Alternatively, we can contest such a position, by an appeal to the university as a proponent of “civilisation” and to our sociopolitical engagement with civil society and civil culture. This, by contrast, entails the university deciding “for” greater social justice and cohesion. As we are constantly enjoined to ensure that the university today demonstrates beneficial “impact” through “public engagement”, it follows that the university is fundamentally implicated in this choice. To take this latter view requires us to face up to those potentially tyrannical forces who enjoy the “natural advantage” of their power, who feel no need to justify rationally their advantages, and who brook no dissent.

Bob Dylan once sang that “this world is ruled by violence, but I guess that’s better left unsaid”. This is the corollary of our ethical choice: either find the courage to say what needs to be said, or endorse a systemic “natural” violence by silence and complicit, “unsaid” acquiescence. This is evident in everyday tensions in the contemporary academy. It affects not just the university’s external responsibilities as a worldly and socially engaged institution, but also its internal structures of governance. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously rehabilitates John Stuart Mill’s description of democracy as “government by discussion”, but our institutional structures – and not just in universities – are increasingly recognisable as “governance by fear”, by the requirement for a conformist acquiescence in things that are “better left unsaid”.

The public sphere of 1914 was dominated by inequality: democratic suffrage, demands for freedom from tyrannical order by elites, and the extension of justice and freedom at both political and personal levels were all in question. Now, a century later, such issues still determine evaluations of how our university institutions engage with the public sphere; and structural and systematically growing inequality remains a core concern.

Most governments today consider public engagement and impact simply in terms of the university’s contribution to economic growth. Robert and Edward Skidelsky, in their recent attempt to reconcile the demands of economics with the ethical demands of “the good life” (How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life, 2013), describe the obsessive focus on growth as “politically orchestrated insatiability”. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have also persuasively shown that “economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work” (The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, 2010). When the political establishment continues to regard growth as the foundation of all value, we end up with what they term “segregation by poverty and wealth” where “the rich are willing to pay to live separately from the poor”.

The consequence of economics-without-ethics and of socio-economic segregation is the breakdown of civil society itself, because the relentless pursuit of growth becomes simply the cover for the systematic transfer of commonly held wealth into the hands of the few: the story of “privatisation”. In our contemporary predicaments, “natural advantage” is increasingly clearly revealed as the triumph of the financial sector and networks of wealthy elite oligarchies or individuals, whose weighty economic advantages are rewarded, often at the cost of the already poor and weak. Students should recall that, when the cost of university tuition was transformed into potentially seriously impoverishing personal debts in December 2010 – two years after the banking crisis started – one bank announced a bonus pot for its top executives of £1.6 billion, or 33 per cent of the total funding for all university teaching provided by government pre-Browne. In other words, one bank’s executive bonuses equalled a third of the cost of all university teaching, for more than 2 million students in the sector in 2010.

It is with this socio-economic structure and its attendant political economies that our sector is now compliant. Consequently, today’s student has become identified not with critical thinking, but rather with measurable gross domestic product. She or he is a valuable “resource” – a “human resource” – necessary to sustain the ongoing smooth operation of a neo-liberal economic machinery that constitutes and governs our “advanced” or rich societies, where economic growth has supplanted any idea of a good life as a foundation for the social or public realm. Paradoxically, the more that the sector proclaims its “good life” commitment to “the student experience”, the more it converts students into fodder for league table statistics through the National Student Survey and other audit trail results. Those results are vital to the distinctions that ensure inequalities across the sector, with so-called “world class” institutions as the new elites increasingly staking their claim upon more and better resources, thereby further weakening the sector as a unified whole.

Feature illustration (24 April 2014)

As chair of the Russell Group in 2009, Michael Arthur argued that 90 per cent of all research funding should go to the elite (25-30 institutions). This is important: what it does, by design or not, is to argue that the students who attend well over 100 other institutions should be deprived of a teaching that has been informed by colleagues doing adequately funded research. Not only that, but in 2012, Sir David Watson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, argued that the real elite consisted of only five universities (Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, the London School of Economics, and Imperial College London). Such positions actually endorse inequality as serving the public good.

How did it all come to this? “Politics” is the answer. In 1979, when Labour went into opposition, it also sank into ideological turmoil and sectarian splits, remaining in opposition for 18 years. Meanwhile, essentially unopposed, free market Thatcherism and Reaganomics became the new norm, entrenching natural advantage under the cover of supposedly fair “market competition”. Tony Blair, elected to Parliament in 1983, realised that factionalism would guarantee permanent opposition. Therefore, there had to be a strict rein on anything that threatened a sense of unity, in order to gain and keep governmental office. The wartime propaganda machinery that crushed dissenting voices through the 1982 Falklands crisis and that revived the popularity of Thatcher, ensuring her re-election, had created an image of a unified nation. After the miners’ strike in 1984-85 and the identification of dissent as “the enemy within”, “unity without dissent” became the key to power.

Blair’s strategy involved two things: a branding exercise as Labour became New Labour; and the rise to centrality of the spin doctor whose task, according to Lord Mandelson, was “to create the truth”. The spin doctor turns potentially negative stories into good ones: like Milton’s Satan, the spin doctor says “Evil, be thou my good”; and, moreover, she or he commits all of those in the spin doctor’s party or constituency to the resulting official line, without the pandemonium – a version of parliament – that dissent can occasion.

Private sector business acts similarly, and calls it “efficiency”; but public sector institutions then follow suit, often inappropriately. Internal university governance, for instance, seems to follow similar prescriptions for the management of its constituent parts. First, there is the gradual but cumulative introduction of the brand (logo, strapline and merchandise from T-shirts, mugs and pencils to expensive prestige jewellery). Branding – appropriate for merchandise but not for thought – requires not just unity, but also behavioural and intellectual conformity. Communications departments become the equivalent of the spin doctor; where political parties have whips, universities have brand managers; HR becomes the ultimate arbiter of all conduct, policing behaviour like “cops on campus”. Economist Chris Dillow describes such managerialist ideology as “the belief that all organisations can be managed from above by leaders”. The segregation of that elite leadership from the academic community grows ever wider.

What has this to do with inequality? Everything, and more. University of Cambridge political scientist David Runciman argues that British democracy is currently suffering a crisis of confidence, partly as a consequence of intrinsic institutional failure. Indeed, many establishment institutions have lost popular confidence (banks, the Metropolitan Police, GCHQ, Parliament – and universities). For Runciman, “what these institutional failings have in common is that they arise from a growing sense of impunity among small networks of elites. As British society has become more unequal it has created pockets of privilege whose inhabitants are tempted to think that the normal rules don’t apply to them.” In short, democracy is replaced by institutionalised oligarchy. Such institutions, according to journalist Simon Jenkins, “are peculiar in all being vulnerable to a built-in authoritarianism”.

The university sector is in danger of falling into an authoritarianism governed by networks of elites, the 1 per cent whose driving force is the normalisation of structural socio-economic inequality, and the entrenchment of ever-greater privilege through the reduction of all human life to economic calculation devoid of ethical responsibility.

The university is an institution that is pivotal to civil society in real, material terms. That society is currently menaced with precisely the kinds of social breakdown that lead to war, and in particular to wars over natural resources, such as water, oil or food. Hence the question: is the university a bulwark against crude force and larger-scale – world-scale – uneven development and extremely unequal enjoyment of “the good life”? If so, we would surely envisage the university essentially as supportive of greater equality, an institution whose guiding principles are shaped by a desire to counter the hierarchies that are yielded by the accidents of physical force, the accidents of geopolitical circumstance, or the now clearly menacing power of the financial sector and its “naturally advantaged” 1 per cent constituency.

This, in sum, is what marketisation of the sector is about. It is what the tuition fee debt crisis is about. It is what the self-appointed elite Russell Group is about. It informs the debates around vice-chancellors’ pay, where published figures reveal pay rises in some high-profile and controversial cases of as much as 40 per cent being awarded in recognition of work actually carried out by academics who are offered 1 per cent. It lies behind Universities UK’s gaffe over gender segregation on campus. It explains why forcible eviction of legitimately protesting students is preferred to democratic and participatory debate. It explains the drive towards conformity and to implicit governmental control of the sector, where public servants, academics and students become afraid of speaking out lest they jeopardise their livelihood.

Behind all this is the express politicisation of the sector that has placed it in the service of the neo-liberal naturalisation of inequality. That is the outdated economics that has been seen to fail, and that has been destructive of the good life grounded in democratic equality and justice for which the university should stand.

There is a contest for the future of the university. It may well be time to think about whose side we are on, and to whom we owe responsibilities.

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Reader's comments (2)

Passionately written about a point that cannot be proven, Docherty’s article fails to use anything beyond platitudes to actually demonstrate why equality has any positive effect on the average person. The high achievers certainly don’t want to be brought down to average, and the low achievers welcome being brought up to average -- but what about the substantial middle? If Docherty or anyone else wants to get serious about equality of outcomes, then he must pester and guilt-trip businesses into hiring college graduates for the types of positions they trained for. The status quo is that industries and commercial organizations are merely deigning to let degree holders be a cashier or waiter. Of course, such persuasion is as fantastical as Docherty and colleagues’ insane wish to force equality upon a diverse population whose members range from 0% on a given humanistic characteristic all the way up to 100% in terms of an observable, behaviorally measured human maximum. To wit: How “equal” can you make someone who “lacks the intangibles?” My dishwashing supervisor -- who now heads the entire restaurant operation at my alma mater -- described me this way to my face when I inquired about leadership opportunities, and what could I do except appreciate the revelation that is how some very powerful people saw me? (And undoubtedly continue to view me, given my abysmal post-graduate work history?) What would you do to make me “equal,” Tom “Treacle” Docherty? How do you help someone who’s been unable to break through into the world of professional employment -- despite having nominal credentials such as a master’s degree in public administration -- and has been blacklisted from placement into manual labor positions due to a temporary injury (tendonosis)? And then, how do you propose we do that for every such lacking member of society -- to thereby achieve this much-ballyhooed “equality” to which you refer?
If one accepts that a higher level of civility, rationalisation, historical understanding and humanism is achieved with higher academic standards - otherwise known as collegiality - then one needs to ask why the author sees as the only choices of academics "to face up to those potentially tyrannical forces who enjoy the “natural advantage” of their power, who feel no need to justify rationally their advantages, and who brook no dissent" or "become afraid of speaking out lest they jeopardise their livelihood". Is there not a choice to embrace the change, bight the bullet, and perform as per each manager's wish? Interestingly, we lack voices that the university sector is in fact moving in the right direction, voices writing in defense of the "dishwasher supervisor" type of management as introduced by the previous commentator, now becoming the rule in the sector. In contrast to industry managers directing workers to generate products, where a knowhow of the production line preexists, University managers directing academics to generate and transmit knowledge is an oxymoron. There can be no "university" or "college" in the absence of its members being in charge of institutional decision making - managers are ensuring the death of the academic existence. The social consequences will take many more years to become evident. But responsibility lies accordingly to the level of knowledge each individual - academic, politician, student, citizen - commands.

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