Zero-sum game

The government’s ruthless, distorted idea of ‘competition’ will impoverish the whole academy and everyone in it. Thomas Docherty muses on a prescient 40-year-old speech warning of the trap at the end of the rat race

May 31, 2012

It is now 40 years since Jimmy Reid gave his opening rectorial address at the University of Glasgow. In Scottish universities, the rector is elected by the student body, and his or her key duty is to represent the students in the governing body of the institution. This gives us a democratic way of “putting students at the heart of the system”, in that poignant and pregnant phrase so abused in recent times. Reid embraced the role with fervour and honour, and took his rectorial duties as seriously as he took the dignity of work itself.

His speech, on 28 April 1972, was a major cultural event, making headlines around the world. The New York Times described it as being comparable in importance and power to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863. Central to both is a commitment to fundamental principles of democracy and to the pursuit of liberty and equality, and both speeches call for universal participation in this great pursuit. For Reid, this meant participation in the activity of advancing what he called “our common humanity” and he argued that the object of education “must be to equip and educate people for life, not solely for work or a profession”. Reid, we should recall, was the trade unionist who organised not a strike but a dignified occupation and work-in when the government of the day falsely accused the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders of being inefficiently uncompetitive.

The address was certainly of its historical moment, in 1972’s “permissive society”. “Any society which permits over one million people to be unemployed is far too permissive for my liking,” Reid said. It was also described as being extremely prescient, “40 years ahead of its time”. Now, 40 years on, it has a great deal to say about our contemporary predicaments in the sector, and especially to the prevailing ideas of competition and “world-class competitiveness”, through which, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills tells us, we will “create a dynamic and efficient skills system with informed, empowered learners and employers served by responsive colleges and other providers in their areas”.

Reid is dismissive of this kind of thing. In the language of 1972, before we had embraced the managerialist jargon of BIS-world in its self-regarding utopian occlusions and obfuscatory mystifications, competition and competitiveness were more accurately described as “the rat race”. In one simple but eloquent formulation, Reid points out that: “A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.” It is the essence of a university education that we should learn to reject both “the false morality” of a rat race that blunts our critical faculties, and the competitiveness ideology that “would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement”.

Our contemporary language of competition derives partly from a badly misunderstood version of Darwinism, where survival by adaptability turns into the victory of the most ruthlessly, aggressively competitive. This yields a false version of a morality measured only by success over others. A second source for this ethos comes from the commercial world that we are enjoined constantly to ape, where “competition” is seen as the driving force for innovation and for the improvement of the quality of goods and services.

Why would the world of business welcome competition? It seems counter-intuitive that a commercial enterprise would welcome something designed to drive profit margins down while promising ever-improving quality to its buyers and putting ever-greater demands and exigencies on the producer. In business, competition allegedly prevents the establishment of cartels, which might otherwise operate as an oligarchical set-up whereby a business elite profits at the expense of powerless individual consumers. BIS reproduces these truisms almost verbatim from the European Union’s competition legislation, importing the same ideology into the world of the university.

A logic of competition in the commercial world actually tends to produce conformity and standardisation: the successful product is copied, with consumer choice being thereby reduced. All that happens is that we start to attend either to utterly minor differences between products or, more usually, we attend to the utter superficialities (and expense) of brand prestige or “class”. Behind the truisms, is it not the case that competition provides an alibi or cover for what are essentially unofficial and unacknowledged cartel behaviours?

In the university sector, this is exemplified with total clarity over tuition fees: everyone, in competitive fashion, immediately tried to set the highest permissible fee, and it took a series of gymnastically manipulative actions from the government to persuade some vice-chancellors to bring those fees down to simulate market conditions. The fundamental starting point, though, is that competition drove prices up, not down. That is the original impulse of competition in the sector, because price becomes a proxy for quality. Yet, as we all know, in the present system, it is going to be extremely difficult to maintain quality at all; the actual tendency will be for it to go down, and the task facing the academic on the ground is to maintain the quality of education despite the policy of competitive fee-setting and charging. That policy diverts attention and energy from our classroom or lab work, requiring us instead to prove our “competitiveness” by prioritising bureaucracy and measurement.

A certain logic becomes clear: competition drives prices up to the maximum that the marketised consumer will bear, while driving quality down to the lowest possible common acceptance level. This might be why the commercial world likes it. Notwithstanding the various regulatory proclamations regarding competition, as in EU legislation for example, competition is there to eliminate rivals, and gradually to transfer widely distributed wealth into the hands of an elite few. The natural tendency is towards the establishment of oligarchies; or, if that is found too strong for our taste, at least towards the production of conformist behaviour among consumers.

The ideologies of competition in this world-view are based on the fantasy of the ideal consumer, whose entire rationality has been reduced to that of the automatic calculator, seemingly undisturbed by any external factors, such as the inconvenience of being what Reid called “human”. It is taken as axiomatic that this consumer wants to spend the least possible money for the best possible quality. However, in the real world, consumers do not operate in such an insultingly simplistic fashion.

Joseph Stiglitz long ago demonstrated the falsehoods of such “market fundamentalism” as he called it. Consumer choices are not based on mechanical or even reasoned discrete actions, and certainly not on some abstract version of crude “rationalism”. We might choose different cars, but that choice is not based on a simple calculation about the car market; instead, it is complicated by other socio-cultural factors, such as status anxiety or even geography. In a globalised world, such parochial ideas about markets allow us also to ignore the Gulf of Mexico fisherman whose livelihood is ruined by our addiction to oil and our addiction to competition.

I may choose to study in a Russell Group “competitive” or world-class institution; yet the presence of a “C” grade somewhere in my academic profile precludes that. As we know, a “C” in the entry profile affects the university’s own competition for its place in league tables, for entry qualifications are a competitive “key performance indicator” that determines status and confers a competitive edge. Here, students are chosen, they are not free “empowered learners”; they are nowhere near the heart of the system, except as fodder for someone else’s ambition.

Further, competition leads inevitably to the creation of winners and losers. Reid was eloquent on this, but he also pointed out that, actually, everyone loses: the losers are not just those who are beaten in the competition, but also the supposed victors. They too “have lost essential elements of our common humanity”. Fundamental to the counter-competition argument is the idea that we share certain needs in the social realm, and that the university should be addressing those needs and not serving competitive advancement measured by private gain. “Real fulfilment for any person lies in service to his fellow men and women,” said Reid, adding that universities should “meet social needs and not lag behind them”.

The proper articulation of competitiveness among universities is the “mission group”. Now, competition silently, covertly, justifies the creation of a systematised class structure, while deploying the myth of “widening participation” to deny everything else that goes along with class. Better terms for the widening-participation cliche might be those advanced by Reid and Lincoln - democracy and equality. However, in the competitive sphere, we don’t have room for such a vocabulary. Nor for its realities: consider the percentage of any university’s actual turnover going towards bursaries and similar support, and we see that “widening participation” is a cover for the maintaining of class privilege.

This privilege exists in the form of the organised oligarchical cartel-style self-interested behaviour endorsed in and by the very existence of mission groups, our own Premiership, Championship, Lower League and even Non-league divisions. Some welcomed Lord Browne’s review and his marketisation legacy precisely because they saw the possibility of making gains for their own class of institutions. That is to say, competition was a cover for self-interest. Over time, some institutions will even secure “promotion”, as from the 1994 to the Russell Division (we could call it “social mobility”). Those groups, of course, appear to give credence to the idea of competition, football-league style; but they lack substantive reality. It is fantasy football.

We should recall that the institutions that make up the Russell Group, the arrangement that started the whole thing off, operated exactly like an oligarchy: the group is a self-selecting elite. The vice-chancellors of a small number of institutions with large medical schools get together to discuss the specific economic difficulties involved in having large medical schools. It makes sense to share some ideas - that is, to collaborate, not to compete - to ensure that the fiscal arrangements within those institutions work well. However, this self-selected but collaborative “Russell Group of vice-chancellors” metamorphose, by a strange metonymy, into a “Russell Group of universities”, competing now for advantage over others for rationed public and other funding. In this, the good of initial collaboration turns into selective competition governed by an elite cartel.

This all does massive damage to university culture, for in the end competition is always about private profit or gain. Don’t ask “who wins and who loses”; ask instead “cui bono?” Who benefits from the fact that the University of X tops the league tables? Does our society and its citizens profit? Does the university sector profit? Do students profit (or is it only those who are graduates of X)? Do we genuinely want to see our own institution and its students “win out” over students who go elsewhere? Recently, we have been told to think of this as an “employability” criterion for league-table competitiveness, as if anyone could ever imagine that there is some kind of causal link between the way I teach prosody in Milton and the chances of securing a £35K job with KPMG. If we subscribe to such nonsense, then we surely also have other, fundamental and moral questions to answer as a consequence.

Instead of competing, listen to Reid arguing that the university should take its place in the vanguard of a movement for the bettering of humanity. He replaces the idea of competition with what we might call leadership: taking a stance - in his case a political and moral stance for the common good - and asking that the university plays a leading role in advancing that. Is this not where we should look for honour or reward? The novelist David Foster Wallace argued something similar in another university address, his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College in Ohio, when he said that true freedom lay in “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day”, as an alternative to “the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing”.

The dignity of these addresses - Lincoln, Reid, Wallace - puts our current versions of liberty (reduced to allegedly “free” marketised choices), of equality (as “widening participation”) and of democracy (not of citizens, but rather of wallets at the heart of the system) in properly assessed perspective. Where Reid was concerned with substantive and democratic realities, our contemporary “competitiveness” ideology is based on a fantasy and on a misleading account of how the university and its activities of study and research are formed. It allows us to see how demeaning an exercise in crude self-aggrandisement the current ideology is. At the centre of this fantasy is the ill-considered adoption, by the university sector, of the idea of “competition”.

It is time to get off the mindless rat wheel; time to stand for something more valuable.

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