Why I... have no regrets about having left academe

November 14, 2003

Mark Kleinman. Head of the Housing and Homelessness Unit at the Greater London Authority

The conference facilitator suggested introducing me as an "ex-academic".

That didn't sound right. "I think it would be more accurate," I suggested, "if you call me a recovering academic." I went through my presentation. The PowerPoint worked, the water jug was full and the room had excellent acoustics - a triple whammy that I'd never achieved in 20 years in higher education.

Like many of my contemporaries, I had become steadily more disillusioned with academe, despite a successful career culminating in a chair in a top-rated university. "You'll be frustrated," I was told. "You won't have time to think." Neither of these turned out to be true. But none of my academic colleagues told me I was making a terrible mistake. In fact, many cornered me to ask: "How did you manage to do it?"

And why did I do it? Higher education used to be a profession where you traded off a high level of personal autonomy against reasonable financial rewards. Now, rewards have collapsed from the merely inadequate to the truly ludicrous. At the same time, outside a handful of elite institutions, autonomy has virtually disappeared as the entire system groans under a bureaucratic nightmare.

Not all of this can be blamed on the government. At my first university committee meeting, the chairman asked for my view of Item (b) Reorganisation of the Structure of University Committees. I glanced at the paper and saw a sprawling diagram of boxes and lines that looked like part one of a "Build your own home PC" kit. "I am in favour of the change," I declared. "Just look at this structure - it's ridiculous, antiquated, inefficient. We must sweep it away." Around the table there was an embarrassed silence, broken only by the chairman, who pointed out, sotto voce , that the diagram was a new "organogram" for the 21st century, developed for us by a management consultancy.

Academe has always had bureaucratic tendencies, but they never used to matter. Committees were for ritual combat, a squash court of the mind and a break from the mainly individual pursuit of scholarship. But fusing these tendencies with the Vauxhall Conference managerialism of the Higher Education Funding Council for England et al spawned a creature familiar to aficionados of 1950s science fiction - an ever-spreading blob that slowly takes over the world.

The causal relationship between form-filling and Nobel prizes remains, as the research journals would put it, "unproven". A moderate level of rooting around in blind alleys seems a reasonable price to pay for genuine creativity. Otherwise, we will end up in the same desperate situation as Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall , who incentivises his class by offering a prize of half a crown to the longest essay "irrespective of any possible merit".

With its unerring ability to misread the Zeitgeist, the New Educational Quangocracy determined to turn higher education into grey-suited middle management just as the rest of the world moved in the opposite direction.

In the academy, the humanities have to be "relevant" and mumble about cost-effectiveness, while in tellyland, historians wear leather jackets, hire agents and don't get out of bed for anything later than the 16th century. Professors are forced to learn the language of business plans and line management, while chief executives and government advisers tear down management hierarchies, insist on "thinking outside the box" and expound the virtues of "paradigm shifts" and the "learning organisation".

Higher education in Britain is in danger of losing its mission and vision underneath all these missions and visions. We need academics to do three things: to know stuff (scholarship); to find out more (research); and to communicate that knowledge and enthusiasm to others (teaching). All the rest is incidental.

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