Sausage factory culture puts the squeeze on ideas

May 5, 2006

The rights of academics to question conventional thinking and to pursue often controversial and unfashionable ideas are under threat from the "sausage-factory mentality" that is taking over universities, academics will hear at a conference next week.

A series of motions to be debated at the annual council of the Association of University Teachers in Scarborough paint an apocalyptic vision of British higher education, arguing that universities have lost their way under the weight of market forces, commercial pressures and "managerialism".

The fundamental purpose of higher education is collapsing through a "systematic corruption of knowledge, the dumbing down of the intellect and a Philistinism of learning", the motions suggest.

One warns that even academic debate about the issues facing the sector is blocked by the very people who run universities. The motion calls for the creation of new "academic fora" to be established outside institutional structures to rediscover the "spirit of insubordination" and the "academic art of questioning everything" to challenge managers.

Another motion laments that commercial pressures mean that even senior staff "can no longer be trusted to defend academic values", while a series of motions warns that academics' free speech is in jeopardy.

"People don't know what universities are supposed to be," said Hugh Hubbard, a senior research fellow and an AUT activist at Leeds University, who is behind one of the key motions.

"Since the 1980s, when the measurements that decide who is in and who is out started to emerge, through expansion and top-up fees today, all the initiatives are coming at us faster and faster."

Academe was being turned into a sausage factory churning out cheap and uniform products, but even this machinery was breaking down, said Dr Hubbard, who spent 22 years of his career in materials science on fixed-term contracts.

His motion, expected to be a key conference talking point, warns: "After nearly 30 years, the ideology of market managerialism is now pushing into British universities with escalating ferocity. This managerialism and auditing culture results in the systematic corruption of knowledge, the dumbing down of the intellect and a Philistinism of learning that affects both the form and content of all our intellectual endeavours. Among our staff there is a growing sense of alienation."

The motion "reaffirms the academic art of questioning everything" and mandates the AUT to encourage the establishment of "extracurricular democratic social fora". "These fora, organising within universities but outside the control of management, would predominantly focus on university governance to develop a critical analysis of managerialism as applied to British universities."

Another motion from Leeds warns that universities "are now entering a period of chaos and political conflict" and that "managers and senior academics can no longer be trusted to pursue an academic agenda nor to defend academic values from outside interference".

A motion from Cardiff's AUT warns "that the free market cannot provide for all of the needs of society" and asserts that "education is a right, not a commodity".

A spokesman for the national AUT said: "Cost-cutting and the demand for immediate results could lead us to a situation where (the structure of) DNA would not have been discovered because Crick and Watson would have been moved on for wasting public money on pie-in-the-sky ideas and failing to come up with the goods within a certain time frame."

Four motions address the issue of academic freedom, with Glasgow's AUT expressing "grave concern" at "the increasing number of attacks on academic freedom" and warning that academics are no longer able to "express views that do not concur with those of management".

Yet some AUT members believe that academic freedom has its limits. Perhaps the most difficult debate next week will concern Frank Ellis, the Leeds lecturer who has openly expressed the opinion that black people are "educationally inferior" to whites, and his right to free speech, no matter how controversial his views. A motion condemns Dr Ellis's views and calls on the AUT to "support protests outside Ellis's classes" and to "call on the university to implement its disciplinary procedures swiftly and decisively".

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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