Being measured and judged alongside friends and colleagues was too much

Goldsmiths’ reduction of people to expendable costs corrodes the necessary conditions for learning. I’m leaving, says Les Back

August 2, 2022
Security Officers at Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, in South London are campaigning for their jobs to be brought ‘in-house'  to illustrate Being measured and judged alongside friends and colleagues was too much
Source: Alamy

I still recall the bright autumn morning in 1980 when I first stepped through the bustling entrance of Goldsmiths, University of London to attend my admission interview. Crowds of students moved like hundreds of rule-defying chess pieces over the tattered linoleum chequerboard on their way to class. The walls were plastered with political flyers and posters advertising events in the students’ union. The closest university to where I lived, Goldsmiths was the first I’d ever set foot in, and it has been my academic home for the best part of 40 years.

Goldsmiths Institute was set up in 1891 to promote education in economically deprived south-east London. Admittedly, this mission may have been news to the rather pompous geography professor who saw me off the premises after my interview.

“Have any of your brothers and sisters been to university?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, immediately feeling out of place. “My brother is a welder, I am the first in my family to apply.”

“Oh, right. Good,” he replied, shaking my hand and wishing me luck.

But Goldsmiths’ warden at the time, Richard Hoggart, was very much on board with widening educational opportunity. The author of the classic portrayal of working-class life The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart saw Goldsmiths as connected to the “great tradition” of workers’ education. He reflected in his memoir, An Imagined Life, that Goldsmiths was “a remarkable inspirer of devotion; and devotion runs right through to the long-serving academics and…the administrative staff at all levels; it is more than a place where they earn their wages.”

I was one of those devotees and I followed Hoggart’s provocative suggestion to “intellectualise the neighbourhood”. The cultural life of south-east London became my research topic and hinterland for virtually all my books and essays.

But I can go on no longer. Late one April evening, I tweeted: “I thought I would never write this but I am leaving Goldsmiths after more than 40 years as a student & teacher. The prospect of drawing my salary while watching colleagues lose their jobs is unliveable. This is not the ‘Great Tradition’ of learning Richard Hoggart described.”

The response was overwhelming. My phone buzzed with reply after reply as my message was retweeted more than 600 times and liked almost 4,500 times. Some responses were from students I’d taught in my very first anthropology seminar as a postgraduate. One colleague wrote that it was as if the “raven had deserted the Tower of London”. Many responses were concerned with what had precipitated my decision. I spent the best part of two days explaining.

The commercialisation of modern UK universities drives staff turnover via both ambition (individual and institutional) and necessity (the precarity of short-term, part-time contracts). But until relatively recently, it was common for academics to stay for long periods at one institution. Think of Zygmunt Bauman’s association with the University of Leeds, or Bridget Fowler and the University of Glasgow.

This didn’t necessarily make for harmony: intra-departmental grievances sometimes festered. And teaching the same material year after year runs the risk of turning you into a complacent self-parody or cliché. As Bauman once wrote, the local can be both a “refuge and a trap”. Still, for me, Goldsmiths was more refuge than trap.

My watershed moment was last year’s announcement of 20 threatened redundancies among academics – nine in English, creative writing and history – and 11 in professional services. This academic year has also seen 37 days of strike action in the most bitter industrial dispute I’ve ever witnessed. Then there are all the “stealth cuts”, achieved when staff move on and are not replaced. It has been like living through an academic civil war, and I started to realise that my own department, sociology, could be next for the euphemistically named “consultation” process. In one tweet, I wrote: “I just got to the point where the prospect of having to be measured and judged alongside friends, colleagues & students was just too much.”

Everyone who works in a university is a teacher. We need each other to do the work of teaching. Often, students owe their completion of their degrees less to their academic tutors than to the nurturing reassurance of the department secretary. The reduction of people to expendable costs on a balance sheet misses this fundamental truth and corrodes the necessary conditions for learning.

Academic austerity prompts us to ask ourselves whether we are worth our cost to the institution. I know I did. I am expensive: maybe the equivalent of more than one younger colleague. And while senior managers have talked me out of taking up previous opportunities to leave, this time there have been no phone calls or cups of tea with the warden. The photographic portrait on my plastic Goldsmiths ID card is so faded that it is barely visible; it has become a symbol of my vanishing connection with this job.

But I have often found myself saying that regardless of what the politicians or managers might believe, we make the university whenever we gather to learn together. There is no redundancy or resignation from that vocation. It is just transported to the next place where people think, reason and dispute the true nature of things.

Les Back was born in south London and studied at both undergraduate and postgraduate level at Goldsmiths, University of London. From October, he will be head of sociology at the University of Glasgow.

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Reader's comments (5)

And you left Goldsmiths for Glasgow to experience more of the same in HE...?
Sorry you have decided to leave academia, but you are largely correct. You are a cost on the profit and loss account. Students are revenue, the aim is to maximse the difference with revenue exceeding cost. You are for all intents working in a factory awarding degrees with pleanty of firsts and 2.1 to keep the customers happy. The managers and bureaucrats want to make sure they get their unhealthy slice of the action and will not hesitate to try and work you harder and cut your real pay until the pips squeak.
Reality Rules. Universities are now market and customer lead. If the customer no longer wants your subject at your institution you need to adapt. Either learn to teach a new subject, with stronger customer demand, where you are, or go to a new institution where demand for your subject is higher (and / or they have a vacancy) - Glasgow. Shop around for what suits you. Academics need to make their own choices of where to teach in the same way as students must decide on the subject they want to learn and the location they want to attend.
Academics should check that they are not jumping from the frying pan to the fire. Perhaps moving to the private sector or industry might reap better rewards?
Hello Les, On holidays and immensely enjoying Academic Diary, between kids and waves. The Diary unintentionally shines a spotlight on your care for students, intellectual reflexivity and warmth, imprints to support, remind and challenge us at Goldsmiths. A priority is to engage with Albertswright's (No. 3 reply above) views. We need to argue that Higher Education is a Public Good helping students to think critically about discursive formations such as the strengths and limitations of free market economics as well as where we want to be on the society-no society continuum and why. Your presence in south-east London will be hugely missed. Thank you, Mx

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