Thomas Docherty: it’s time to kill off the social mobility agenda

Leading critic of marketised higher education takes aim at external appointment of vice-chancellors and the ‘student experience’

July 24, 2018
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“I suppose it’s a bit shocking to say I don’t believe in social mobility,” admitted Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick. “How could I say that, when I’m a kind of product of it? I come from the working class East End of Glasgow, the only person in my primary school to go on to education beyond the age of 15.”

Yet he has always remembered the role of luck in his own educational progress.  

“I happened to be able to spell the word ‘Czechoslovakia’ when I was five years old,” he recalled, “because I saw it on a television screen at the end of a cartoon. A week later, we were asked in school if we could spell ‘Czechoslovakia’, and I was the only one who could do it. That was luck. It doesn’t say anything about me.”  

What he disliked about “the social mobility agenda” was “the idea that to be working class is somehow so bad that anyone with any sense would want to escape from it”. Yet, if that is the case, “then the real problem is the problem of social justice…a university sector that wants to replace that with a small interest in social mobility, as if that was somehow going to solve the problem, is completely missing the point.”

Professor Docherty, who was suspended from Warwick for nine months in 2014, charged with undermining the authority of his head of department, until all charges were dropped, has long been an outspoken critic of the marketisation of the sector. He has now set out his arguments in depth in a book called The New Treason of the Intellectuals: Can the University Survive? It ends with a chapter of “preliminary hypotheses towards a manifesto”, which takes aim at many sacred cows.

Along with “social mobility”, “widening participation” and mission groups, Professor Docherty wants to see an end to the external appointment of vice-chancellors, with internal candidates instead being selected in a staff vote.

“To do that job best, you need to know the institution well, as well as to have a view about the way the sector as a whole works,” Professor Docherty said. “That entails a process whereby a leader emerges from the institution itself.

“But that position has to be one that is contested in the sense that someone has to say: ‘Here is how I would make improvements, running it for the next five years.’ And here’s another candidate [putting forward other views], and the body begins to vote on that.”

Such a move would increase “the democratisation of the sector, when we are increasingly trying to bring into these roles people who are not even in the first instance academics and think of the university as a business”, Professor Docherty said. “Even an academic from another institution doesn’t know how this one works – it’s about internal knowledge.

“There’s an analogy with specialists in different branches of medicine. You wouldn’t take the consultant urologist and put him or her in charge of geriatrics. There are specifics to each institution that have to be addressed.”

Nor does Professor Docherty have time for “the student experience”, since “it focuses everybody’s attention inwards. If I’m in a seminar or a laboratory focusing on the student experience, I am looking towards the student and she is looking towards me. There are centripetal forces drawing us inwards. It’s much better to have a sort of centrifugal force, sitting in a seminar room with the students and [asking]: ‘What is the relation between what we are doing here and the lives of people who, for whatever reason, are not here today?’ That’s the point of education.”

In reality, in Professor Docherty’s view, many universities are full of “absolutely superb teaching of the kind I am describing. But that’s not the official version…What I would like to do is acknowledge the fact that good quality teaching is an outward-looking thing rather than driven by the clichéd language of the marketplace and the student experience. Let it be made clear that the official version of events does not only not accurately describe what is going on, it literally misleads – or mismanages – the institution.

“It’s part of the logic of betrayal and complicity. You have to pretend you are doing certain things. Everybody knows that the reality of what is going on is fundamentally different, and indeed fundamentally better.”

The New Treason of the Intellectuals: Can the University Survive? was recently published by Manchester University Press.

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