It's 'official': dissent sacrificed to conformity

British universities are drifting towards a "dangerous state of affairs" where they are governed by "official knowledge" and "official teaching".

August 30, 2012

That is the view of Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, who argues that we are losing "the licence to engage with ideas that are critical of social norms and existing values", with "dissident thinking...sacrificed to a tacit demand for conformity".

In an article published in the forthcoming issue of Index on Censorship magazine, he looks back to the replacement of the University Grants Committee (and its short-lived successor, the Universities Funding Council) by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 1992.

"Where the UGC had acted as a buffer between academy and government to stop us becoming civil servants, Hefce's management statement virtually requires that we make our academic freedom subservient to the state," he writes.

"The university - without legislation - was now tacitly politicized, and our research and teaching legally constrained and restricted."

While acknowledging that "things are not always as crude as this on the ground", Professor Docherty writes that academics who "continue to maintain their integrity and independence" are doing so "despite the prevailing norms, and their chances of official recognition are therefore much diminished".

Meanwhile, "the logic of accountability" had led to "the Quisling attitude of our vice-chancellors", who, whether opportunistic or myopic, had "fully internalised the economic logic that endangers our freedoms".

Equally suspect, in Professor Docherty's view, is the research excellence framework, which "restricts the thinking behind our increasingly sclerotic research base". Furthermore, "peer review ensures that we do the government's work and cut ourselves in a form of self-harm. We are like Kafka's Joseph K [in The Trial], watching his executioners with their knife and realising that he is expected to wrench it from them and 'plunge it into his own breast'."

The new issue of Index on Censorship, titled "Censorship on Campus", will be published next week. It also includes reports on academic freedom in El Salvador, Israel, Thailand and Turkey, as well as an analysis of the fresh tactics being used by creationists on US campuses.

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