A long way to utopia

November 23, 2001

How can young academics have ideals in our cost-obsessed culture? asks Matthew Watson.

My department scored full marks in its Quality Assurance Agency assessment last week so, unlike many of my peers around the country, I have no concerns that a poor QAA score will provide the context in which I become an "efficiency saving". Neither have I experienced the insecurity of academic life on a short-term contract, always exposed to external demands for cost-cutting. As a consequence, most other academics at the start of their careers may see me - working in an excellent department with secure employment status - as extremely fortunate. There is no need to take to the soapbox, it could be said, when everything in my garden seems so rosy.

But how can anyone's garden truly be considered rosy in a sector where the career prospects of so many of the younger cohort are so fragile? Why, when young academics meet in common rooms around the country to discuss their collective futures, do they do so fully attuned to the language of the "new public management", whereby, whether consciously or not, they identify themselves and each other as potential cost impediments to true value-for-money academic provision?

Why is the language of financial constraint as much a part of our professional vocabulary as that of educational attainment and intellectual opportunity? And why, when I talk to my PhD students about their career-development needs, and they tell me that they're already proficient in delivering the line "and would you like fries with that?", am I not 100 per cent sure that they are joking?

I want to be an academic, first, to allow my students to share the intellectual exhilaration that I feel by questioning commonsense assumptions about the way in which our world works and, second, to be able to do the research that enables me to continue to experience that sense of intellectual fulfilment. I am aware that these goals are utopian but, unlike many contemporary policy-makers, I make no apologies for that.

While I believe that we should continue to set utopian standards such as our academic ideals, and that government policy should be directed at providing the structures that help us attain them, there is another view. This is the view of the "new public management" that currently finds favour in Whitehall. This states that utopian ideals should be subordinated to the real-world imperatives of centrally imposed budget constraints and administrative concerns for demonstrable value for money.

It may always be necessary to seek a balance between these two visions of the future. However, an acceptable compromise surely does not entail structuring young academics' teaching duties so that they are concentrated solely in the most profitable areas of student demand, irrespective of whether this corresponds to their research interests. Nor does it entail setting unreasonable targets for published outputs, often with the caveat that this is the only way to land a "proper" job, even if this is at the expense of the quality of research. And it certainly does not entail the increasing use of short-term and even casual contracts, through which young academics are forced to think of each other not as colleagues but as competitors for a limited supply of permanent jobs. None of these features of the working environment for so many young academics is conducive to sustaining morale; and neither is the existing structure of quality assurance.

I recognise that quality assurance checks should be in place. Yet when quality assurance entails setting targets as a supposedly "scientific" test of the suitability of our provision, and when target attainment in a society increasingly obsessed by league tables leads to pressures for standardisation of provision, it is time for those in positions of authority in our universities to question government policy in the sector.

They must make it clear that our own professional standards, backed by the rigorous mechanisms of internal audit that are already in place, are sufficient to ensure quality provision.

I am sufficiently realistic to accept that there are real constraints within which we must all work. But I come from a social scientific tradition in which we are taught to believe that things might always be different. Of course, this first requires that those in positions of authority have the will to make things different. It is time to resist the further encroachment of "new public management" techniques into higher education and, in so doing, provide a working environment in which the academic vocation is once again suited to realising unashamedly utopian goals.

Matthew Watson is a lecturer in the department of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham. He is a speaker at "Academia 2010: views from the next generation", the annual conference of the Standing Conference of Arts and Social Sciences, which takes place tomorrow at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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