Fine mess we're in

October 13, 2000

Valentine Cunningham laments the neo-managerial destruction of old academic values

As the deadline for the research assessment exercise approaches, and we say farewell to yet more colleagues lured away to other universities anxious for their publications to go on their list and not ours, and - ho hum - the academic books suddenly throng in, all those titles that have been stalled in the pipeline for ages but now magically appear just in time to make those same lists, the question arises with certain force: what does the institution of higher education care about?

What I mean by the institution of HE is the whole shebang, Foucauldianly considered, the big structure in which we live and move, as well as the bits of it we all know better - my own immediate, local institution. What does it care about? Does whatever it cares about include my best interests, as a teacher and researcher?

They - yes THEY, THEM, up there, out there - talk a lot about standards. They seem to care about those. But, of course, they only talk about standards as the ventriloquist's dummy of government - which is the mark, naturally, of their infected role within the whole established national institution of authority and governance - of power as, again, Foucauld magisterially portrays it.

But hopes for high standards in teaching and research are smothered by all the other rhetoric of our institutionalised times: by talk of factory models, of input and output, and productivity, and measurement. In other words, all that heap-bad-medicine of government-inspired rhetoric that pours daily into universities, egging on a grim reduction of our business to, well, merely a business, a push-pull machine for mechanistically turning out something called graduates. So that what our great project seems to come down to is an existence merely for the sake of numbers - numbers of raw students in, numbers of finished products turned out, numbers of research papers published.

Bleakly observed, the local institution seems to have thrown in the towel. Degree-factory rhetoric is all we hear. University employers make no effort to reclaim universities as places where the old values might flower again - you know, all that now mouldy-fig stuff about the free play of mind, and the increase of knowledge and, even, wisdom, and education for its own uninstrumental sake. Rather, they spend all their management might making their place the one with the most cost-effective products. What our corrupted institutions care most about now is how well they look in the RAE and the teaching quality assessment as ends in themselves. Their business is merely to keep up the institution as measurable on the mechanistic scales. And the consequences are terrible.

Our modern institutional ways are particularly bad for the very life-blood of the university - teachers and researchers - and thus for students. New-style university managements are, actually, counter-productive. If you piss off your teachers and researchers you are eating the seed-corn, selling the family silver, sapping the life-blood. You would think our institutions were suicidal, the way they treat us - with the bad pay they collude in, the abolition of tenure they have agreed to, the rash economisings by engineering early retirements of good people, with the weekly questionnaires and the constant abuse of our time and energy and their acceptance of piss-poor TQA-inspired formalisms and, abomination of abominations, their utter short-termism (their kowtowing to the silly time-scales of the RAE bods, their iniquitous short-term contracts - you can have your job back at the end of the long vacation if you ask nicely).

And now there is the poaching of staff merely for the sake of RAE ratings. Not for their quality as researchers and teachers per se, but for the good of the research production-line list.

"I had someone else before I had you/And I'll have someone else when you're gone" is a cynical song from the 1920s that applies nicely to our institutional times. But managerial cynicism is rampant in higher education as never before. They (THEY) don't care about the poor bloody infantry. I know of a teacher-researcher poached for the last RAE only to find herself booted out the following year, her image-enhancing function over; others complain of the raw deal they get from their new place once the golden handshake stage is over.

Institutions need the goodwill they have eroded, even simply to meet their own mechanistic goals. Loyal service from committed people is what universities require - loyalty to an old unselfish idea about the importance of knowledge and truth and honesty of mind; loyalty to students; loyalty to the local institution. Our universities throve on these intellectual, moral and personal high grounds. They will not thrive if they chuck it all away. People are fed up, they are glad to give up and retire; they are going into internal exile, clock-watching, minimalising their effort. The government-inspired way, the neo-managerial way, is a mess none of us can survive on.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English, Oxford University.

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