Can we stick together and regain the lost plot?

March 5, 2004

The free-market fundamentalism unleashed on universities must be reversed, writes Bob Brecher.

The imposition of differential tuition fees - the most devastating attack on higher education in decades - has elicited a good deal of comment, and rightly so. But very little has been said about how it is going to impact on our everyday working lives.

How should we, as academics, respond to Tony Blair's final nail in the coffin of a university education that isn't just touting a "product" to those who can afford it? Most important, how is the younger generation of academics going to cope - poorer, busier and even more harassed than we older ones?

Make no mistake - as Keith Joseph knew but even Margaret Thatcher didn't dare implement - when students pay different prices for different courses at different institutions, the market takes over. We will no longer be professional academics but merely jobbing crammers or researchers.

The motivation offered by professional engagement with students and subjects that gets you through the day - with a pile of essays to mark, two meetings to get through and an article to finish - will be gone. Our job will be to make a profit for the business that employs us. Even those of us lucky enough for the time being to work in something still recognisable as a university (and how many is that?) will see it transformed into something very different.

Just as our "leaders" - with some very honourable exceptions - either intended all along (the free-market buccaneers among them) or foresaw but didn't have the guts to resist (the cap-in-hand appeasers), universities will now be businesses supplying a commodity to customers able to afford the highest price.

But if the university we work for cannot be expected to command our respect or our allegiance, perhaps our academic interests and disciplines can.

That's just as unrealistic, however: we've already prostituted those by collaborating in the research assessment exercise scramble for brownie points. And yet without some sense of respect for, and allegiance to, what we do, how are we to get through that day, that week or that term (sorry, that semester) without becoming the cynical hacks we sometimes ill-advisedly accuse others of being?

Well, maybe it's the students; maybe they make all this worthwhile. Some do, and that's important; and hopefully there will always be some real students, despite the commodifiers' best efforts.

But however hard some of us might try to stem the tide of commodification, most students, being treated as customers, will increasingly behave as customers. Not only that: they'll quite reasonably expect to get what they pay for, and the more they pay the better they'll expect the product to be.

Just try giving a third to someone who has shelled out top whack to one of the "better" universities.

So what does that leave? Is Ted Wragg just being realistic when he says that "you should retire if you want to be an academic" ( The Times Higher , December 19/26)? Should those at the beginning of their careers give up trying to keep alive the notion of a professional academic and just get on with whatever they're told to do as grateful employees? Or is there an alternative to the "realism" of the market?

Well, perhaps all is not lost. Perhaps there are still enough people coming into universities who have not been subordinated and corrupted by the false gods of competition and deference to wealth and power. We'll just have to find out.

And if at least some of our newer colleagues are willing to protest and to resist with us oldies, in however small a way - if collegiality has not yet entirely disappeared - then perhaps the free-market fundamentalism unleashed on our universities can eventually be reversed. But we'd better be prepared for the long haul.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, University of Brighton.

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