Locked in the ivory tower

February 19, 1999

Increased pressure to perform within universities is forcing academics to disengage from the public arena, argues Sheila Rowbotham

I entered academia late in life to discover my colleagues struggling to adjust to Conservative government decrees to intensify productivity, adapt to the market and notch up more publications. This belief in balance sheets and measurement seems to have been inherited by new Labour.

To be fair, the preoccupation with measuring has certain advantages. Reputation, like skill, is frequently puffed out by biased cultural assumptions about status and worth rather than by the activities of people themselves. Quiet diligence can be demonstrated statistically in those lists of publications and articles.

On the other hand, the disadvantages are evident. The increasing pressure on time in higher education tends to mean that work that can be notched up and counted is inclined to take priority. Even for academics in secure positions there is a strong tendency for purely internal criteria of what constitutes significant activity to take over.

Young academics are particularly vulnerable; they are exhorted to publish,to publish in the "right" journals and to present career projectories. Any propensity to roam is thus being circumscribed and the danger is that a future generation of teachers will be enclosed tightly within academia.

As early as 1987, the American social theorist Russell Jacoby, in The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academy, observed that this was already taking effect in the US. The non-academic intellectuals, who had played an important role in the broader culture were disappearing. He warned that under the pressure of professionalisation US universities were in "Idanger of yielding to a new scholasticism insulated from larger public life". In contrast, Jacoby pointed to such figures as Lewis Mumford,whose work challenged the inhuman application of technology, and C. Wright Mills, whose recognition of the social significance of personal experience was to affect the thinking of the women's liberation movement.

My generation, who were students in the 1960s, benefited greatly from an older generation of intellectuals formed by the depressed 1930s and second world war when there had been powerful pulls towards engagement with society. The expansion of higher education in the 1960s and 1970s meant that many lecturers from adult education entered universities, bringing with them a recognition that academia was only one aspect of knowing.

Influential social historians, such as E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm played an important role in bridging the gap between academic scholarship and a public with a general interest in history and social issues. In a younger age group, Stuart Hall and Raphael Samuel were to continue this tradition. The former has moved between theorising about culture and personally encouraging young artists and thinkers in the black community: the latter, before his death, created the popular history workshops at Ruskin College, Oxford, which led to the formation of the History Workshop Journal.

The impetus for the first women's movement conference was a tiny meeting at a Ruskin history workshop in the autumn of 1969 and it is often forgotten that the first women's studies courses began in the Workers Educational Association not the universities. Women's studies came into being amid passionate debate about the connection between the academy and a broader constituency.

Many women academics have struggled to continue the tradition of facing both ways: thus Lynne Segal's work on feminist theory has reached both students and a wider readership, while economist Diane Elson has written about gender in the practical context of development policy as well as in academic publications. But the strains on individuals who buck the trend towards focusing only on university demands are considerable.

The long-term consequences of the narrow and bureaucratic definitions of "professionalisation", which have exercised such a pervasive influence in the past few years, extend beyond discomfort to the individual. What happens to thought when the links between academy and everyday life are severed? Disciplines such as sociology and social and economic history arose from perceived problems in the world outside.

Universities have been enriched by such interconnections. The semi-permeable membrane between society and academy is vital and it is people who are crucial in this interaction. Such processes of exchange and communication resist calculation. We risk losing a precious heritage as a result of this anxiety about totting, measuring and producing.

Sheila Rowbotham is a research fellow in the sociology department, Manchester University. Her collection of essays on history and autobiography, Threads Through Time, is published by Penguin, along with the revised edition of A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States.

* Are academics rejecting a wider public role because of pressures to publish and perform? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk.

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