The insecure scholar: The Judas generation

The revolutionaries who shook the academy’s foundations allowed the managerialists to take over

March 2, 2010

In last week’s column, I praised the senior academics who mentored me. This week, however, I want to argue that despite the kindness of many senior scholars, their generation collectively betrayed my generation.

Those academics who entered the university system as students in the 1960s and 1970s are now either retired or approaching retirement. They benefited from the massive expansion of higher education in that era. They received liveable undergraduate grants, and funding for PhD study was easier to obtain then than it is now. Academic jobs were also more flexible. Even when I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s, there were plenty of academics from that generation without PhDs, or who obtained them during the course of their lectureships.

In the humanities and social sciences, that generation instituted a revolution in scholarship. They pioneered feminist and post-colonial theory and brought an awareness of power and the problems of canonicity into the academy. They helped to make the study of humanity more critical, less smugly reliant on received wisdom and common sense.

The problem is that the revolutionary generation that benefited from the expansion of higher education and shook up the academy failed to resist developments that challenged everything their revolution was about. I’m not talking about the savage Thatcherite cuts to university spending in the 1980s – they were more than reversed in the 1990s and 2000s. I’m not even talking about the introduction of fees and student loans in the 1990s, which were an inevitable, if highly debatable, corollary of efforts to widen access. No, what I am talking about is the creeping progress of managerialism into the academy.

It is the research assessment exercise (and its replacement, the research excellence framework), quality assurance and the development of a culture of targets, “learning outcomes” and league tables that have had the most baleful effects on higher education. Over the past 20 or so years, diversity has been squeezed out in favour of a bureaucratic one-size-fits-all system that channels academics down a diminishing set of narrow paths. They are pressured to publish only in academic journals rather than seek a wider audience. Voluminous grant application forms fill their days. Lecturing becomes a tick-box process in which individual charisma and inspiration are discouraged. Diverse paths into university employment have been whittled down to a career path in which only a PhD will do. Diverse ways of being an academic have been eschewed in favour of narrow and measurable versions of academic practice.

My own “career” has suffered in this managerialist environment. My mild disability and the concomitant difficulties with full-time work mean that the dominant model of career progression doesn’t work for me. My excellent track record in teaching in community settings and writing for a wide variety of publications is virtually meaningless. It is irrelevant that I am an internationally respected scholar with a CV brimming with interesting publications and innovative research projects. All that matters is that I don’t have enough journal articles and conventional lecturing experience. I didn’t join the academic train immediately post-PhD and now I can’t seem to rejoin it mid-career. I admit that it was partially bad luck and ill health that put me in this situation, but the homogeneity of available career models in the managerialist academy has made my life incredibly difficult.

And it was the 1960s/1970s generation that let this happen. They rolled over when the RAE was proposed and let the managerialists take over. While many (most?) of them didn’t like it, they never fought it as they could or should have done. Perhaps they were demoralised by the failed struggle against Thatcher’s cutbacks, not realising that managerialism is eminently more resistible. Governments often ignore strikes against cuts as they, after all, hold the purse strings. Yet if the academy had shut down in protest against the RAE, would employers and the Government have had the will to hold out? If academics had refused to join RAE panels, who would have made up the numbers? If senior scholars refuse to publish journal articles, who could force them to do so? Although managerialism seems unstoppable, it only works if people co-operate with it. I understand that junior scholars may not feel able to say no, but those further up the tree have less excuse.

One of the most pathetic things I’ve seen in the academy was one of the world’s leading Foucauldians, whose life’s work dealt with power and governmentality, advising me how to play the system when filling out a grant application. If he couldn’t use his scholarship to challenge what was happening in his own backyard, what good was it?

So j’accuse: the generation that helped to open up the academy has helped to close it down for my generation.

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