Lost children of the audit revolution

Once upon a time, the academy saw its role as subjecting prevailing ideologies to a critical eye. But after decades of political pressure, it has surrendered its independence and lost its soul, laments Stephen Logan

April 18, 2010

Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s paean to the interdependence of teaching and research, “A precious symbiosis” (8 April), was both heartening and saddening.

Heartening, because it seems to me that his emphasis on the reciprocity of teaching and what is sometimes rather misleadingly called “research” is well judged; saddening, because my own attempts, in private and in print, to win support for the opinion he expresses have been largely unavailing.

You don’t, as Bob Dylan once said, need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows; but if you want to change the prevailing tendency of current thinking about the function of the university, it helps to know that ideology is always the more potent for disguising itself as nature.

I remember reading in what was then the Times Higher Education Supplement in the 1990s – when the actuarial readjustments of government policy on higher education had largely taken effect – an article by a sociologist explaining that academic responses to such shifts in policy generally went through several distinct phases: first, sporadic (hence disorganised) resistance; second, grudging resignation to altered educational priorities; third, sceptical acknowledgement of the new criteria for assessing academic work; and finally, unconscious assimilation of those criteria.

The result is that universities whose excellence once depended on resisting any attempt to judge their activities by the criteria of the marketplace end up announcing on websites and in job advertisements that they “achieved” a five-star rating in the last research assessment exercise.

The nearest that academic policy has come to redressing the delinquencies of government thinking is to introduce a perfunctory assessment of “teaching” to accompany that of “research”. When a university subsequently boasts of the numbers of students getting firsts, it is easy to detect the same surrender to inapposite criteria as operates in the masquerade of “research” achievements. At some universities, getting anything other than a first or 2:1 may now be said to require some initiative.

The two most creatively resourceful teachers I had as an undergraduate would not have been acclaimed as notably “research-active”, according to the 1980s governmental criteria still in force today. One of them, sensing how his form of dedication was becoming undervalued, took early retirement in a state of ill health. The other emigrated.

To say that academics should devote themselves to teaching, however, is as reckless as to say that they should devote themselves to publishing articles and books. A better course, it seems to me, would be to accept that in the academy as elsewhere, people may fruitfully exercise their talents in different ways.

A second means of making the academic environment less inhospitable would be to stop identifying “research” with publication in the academically accredited formats. This is an error of judgement, which, in a less servile academic culture, careful thinkers would be anxious to avoid. The humanities need to demonstrate their humanity by not destroying the morale of those who serve them.

Among contemporary literary academics – to comment only on my own field – there are those with a gift for writing (in newspapers and magazines, as well as in peer-reviewed journals); those with a gift for communication that may lead them to a commercial press rather than an academic publishing house; those who write poetry, as well as those good at writing and/or talking about it; those with a gift for teaching one-to-one or in small groups; those with a gift for lecturing; those with some detailed knowledge of adjacent disciplines, such as philosophy, theology or psychoanalysis; and those whose accomplishment (and usefulness to colleagues and students) is a matter of staying more securely within their own field.

There are textual scholars who inch towards what they think of as more accurate knowledge with the patience of kingfishers; and there are freewheeling critics who inspire by their flights of audacity. Caution and recklessness can oscillate in a person’s thinking and not everyone is creative in the same way all the time. The range and balance of capabilities in each individual is naturally varied; and trying to force everyone into the same professional persona is likely to entail disfigurement. People teaching at British universities in the first three-quarters of the 20th century would be unsurprised by such claims; but now to insist on them is to outlaw oneself as a miscreant, a naive non-pragmatist, an incompetent or a failure.

The university, according to one conception of it at least, is an institution that exists in order to provide a vantage point from which the ideological presuppositions of the age can be questioned. The testimony of at least a significant minority of academics has suggested for some time that the university as it is currently evolving has renounced its critical function in order that it should, like a worryingly obedient child, reflect the ideological tendencies of an audit culture.

My suspicion is that, when it becomes possible to see our phase of educational history in a longer perspective, the past 30 years, at least so far as disciplines within the humanities are concerned, will seem distinguished chiefly by a lack of creative nerve.

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