Gary Day

May 21, 2004

Embracing the language and philosophy of business can only lead to dumb perversions in university culture

I'm too old to be an angry young man and too young to be a grumpy old one. Neither of which stops me ranting like Jimmy Porter or declaring with Victor Meldrew that "I don't believe it!" What on earth is going on? There were a number of articles in the press last week about universities and all of them assumed that they were businesses. Well, yes, I suppose they are in a way. Since the government won't fund them properly, they have to raise money themselves. But is that all they are? Have universities totally acquiesced to the idea that civilisation is no more than a country's balance of payment figures?

The language of commerce, which Dr Johnson wisely observed corrupts the tongue, is gradually becoming the master discourse of academia, against which all those specialist subjects with their different insights into human nature are judged and found wanting. I know of a department in one institution where staff are forbidden to use the word "students"; instead they must at all times refer to "clients". And you thought universities existed to enlarge expression. It was at this same place that a head of department proudly declared that he was not an intellectual. His rise has since been meteoric. We must not stretch the students, we must satisfy the customers. We must adapt to them, not they to us, and that can only undermine what we have to offer.

It's the same all over. I went to my local health centre recently and was asked to complete an "Improving Practice Questionnaire". How did I rate the warmth of the doctor's greeting? Gosh, I don't know. Should I mark him down because he didn't spring up from the chair, declaring that he was delighted to see me, or give me a big hug? Pretty soon there'll be questions on whether there were enough jokes about the Holocaust in the modern history module.

But it's not only students who have to fill in forms. Managers in some universities care so much for their staff that, like anxious parents, they have to know where they've been and what they've been doing and so they've devised a special form just for that. We can't be trusted to organise our own time. We might go to a library or, worse, think something. And that would never do. We are not here to have ideas, we are here to achieve excellence. That's why key skills matter more than subject knowledge.

Of course, there's part of me that would be glad to see subject knowledge disappear completely. It's the lack of it that causes some of my students to fail. And when they do, I have to explain why. I can't say they didn't attend because that means I'm not interesting enough. Nor can I say they didn't do any work because that means I wasn't motivating them sufficiently. I'm not quite sure what's left, but whatever it is, it's my fault. It reminds me a bit of Russia in the 1930s when people confessed to crimes they didn't commit for the good of the state.

Now there's a thought. Surely there can't be any connection between business and dictatorships. I know both are keen on five-year plans - wasn't it Stalin who originated the phrase? - but that's pure coincidence.

I'll have to ask a historian, if there are any left after what Charles Clarke said about them.

Many people in academia seem to welcome being part of the free market, and they are comfortable with the idea that universities should provide the graduates employers need. They're wrong. In the first place, the free market is not free: the government bails out private companies with taxpayers' money, none more so than the arms industry. In the second place, there are far more graduates than there are graduate jobs - 400,000 to 70,000. Employers want cheap labour more than skilled labour. That's why corporations transfer parts of their operation to those parts of the globe where labour costs are lower than in the UK.

In any case, what are universities doing underpinning an economy that's based on arms and damages the social fabric by creating extremes of wealth? According to a number of reports, one in three Britons now lives in poverty. It's time universities stood up for themselves and for the rest of society. Of course they are part of the wider economy, but to the extent that they develop the intelligence and, yes, educate the sensibility, they have a responsibility to resist the reductions of commerce. If we lose that, we have no argument against exploitation or dumbing down. If, after a hard day on the minimum wage, people want to come home and see a woman insert a penny whistle in her vagina to play God Save the Queen , well, that's all right then isn't it?

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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