Red tape has made comrades of us all

February 3, 2006

Christopher Read detects the stench of Soviet bureaucracy as new RAE criteria force academics to meet Five Year Plan-style targets

It was in Leningrad in 1971 that I wrote my first personal development plan. In the ten months that followed, I made friends with the everyday heroes and heroines whose lives were constantly blighted by heavy-handed Soviet bureaucracy. I also had my own clashes with the bureaucrats, besieging an office for a day just to get permission to take a train to Moscow and wasting hours trying to book a phone to call home.

Little did I know that learning how to wrestle with bureaucracy was the key skill I would acquire on that visit. Nor could I have guessed that this ability would ultimately become so readily transferable back home.

I had seen the future and it didn't work. Well-intended regulation had become a nightmare of unaccountability, democracy stultified by bureaucracy. Parallels back in the UK seemed remote. My students would ask what the Petrograd Soviet of 1917 was like, and I would tell them to think of student unions where small competing elites depend on the volatile votes of uncommitted masses to legitimate their platforms and mandates. And they would ask about totalitarianism and I would suggest they consider the university, where the vice-chancellor is voted for by an appointed sub-committee of an appointed sub-committee of an appointed committee. But that was as far as it went.

The main feature of the Soviet system of higher education was control. All academics were subject to constant scrutiny over their teaching methods and content, research plans and work rate. Curricula were centrally determined and academic freedom was restricted to small, private circles and harmless subjects. Stalin was the founder of the vocational curriculum. Big utilitarian disciplines bulldozed highly suspect social studies and humanities to the margins. The latter were dangerous. They encouraged independent thinking. How lucky we were in the West - we would never sacrifice freedom to utility.

But then we woke up one morning to the regime of the government inspectors, the Quality Assurance Agency and the research assessment exercise. Their influence has now become so deep that we await the publication of the new RAE criteria with the trepidation of a Soviet manager, wondering if we will be able to fulfil the plan and how far we will need to disguise reality to conform with the criteria. And beyond the massive central controlling apparatus, intrusive local progeny have spawned everywhere - centres to teach us to teach, quality control committees, research supervision committees, mentors on top of mentors, appraisers of appraisers - all there to give a comradely hand. It is not only candidate members of the party, sorry, probationer academics, who have to put up with them. Everyone has to. What are your four proposed RAE publications? When will they be out? Do you really want to do this when it doesn't count as much as doing that?

To meet the requirements demanded of us, long-forgotten Soviet practices have re-emerged. Many of us are "storming", that is, vastly increasing the tempo of output as the plan deadline approaches. Journals are inundated with late articles and then suffer a dearth when the deadline has passed.

"Falsification" of returns creeps in. Compare the ever-rising Soviet plan fulfilment to inflating exam results at all levels. Almost as many people get firsts today as went to university in the 1960s.

It is ever harder to choose one's own topic and proceed at one's own pace.

From being freestanding artisans, we are being weaned on to tractor-factory style production lines. At a recent RAE briefing, a senior panel member jokingly concluded that after the census date we could all read and write what we liked. Once upon a time that was called academic freedom. We took it for granted back then.

Like the Soviet system, the regulatory regime in higher education threatens to be family unfriendly, promote bland conformity and distort wider scholarship. In recent years, activities such as involvement with schools, writing textbooks, innovating tuition and even regular teaching of first-year undergraduates have all been devalued before the fetish of research. It has come to resemble the Soviet concentration on fulfilling plan targets at all costs. That earlier folly was famously caricatured in a Khrushchev-era cartoon. A factory fulfilled its plan for 2 million watts of lightbulbs by producing one enormous, world-beating - though completely useless - 2-million-watt bulb.

In about 1930, older workers saw the Stalin revolution as no more than a new, more sinister and more onerous form of old-fashioned exploitation.

Younger workers, however, bought the Stalinist vision of a new modernity.

In the Donbas, young miners sported slogans saying "Long Live the NKVD". By 1937, however, they were wishing they had listened to the old-timers.

Christopher Read is professor of modern European history at Warwick University and author of Lenin: A Revolutionary Life , published by Routledge, £12.99.

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