Academia’s doom loop (and how to escape it) - Reflections after a roundtable with Stefan Collini

If local surgeries were run like a modern British university you would soon, quite rightly, take your health problems elsewhere. A visit to your local GP would find a forlorn and overworked figure, busily rescheduling their own appointments because patients kept cancelling on them, wondering when your own appointment would be over so they could get back to their real tasks for the day: ranking colleagues for a mock General Practitioner assessment exercise (in advance of a national exercise next year); designing a strategy to increase patient numbers (perhaps by offering out of hours services?); and thinking how to sugar coat the salary savings the local Health Trust have insisted be found by middle management (refusing any increase for another year looks like a good bet). This evening they may (or may not) get to keeping abreast of medical knowledge in their field. The sad thing is that modern British Universities really are run a little like this. We are a long way indeed from the days when Harold Wilson could proudly declare the Open University (our first “university of the air”) open for the provision of quality and affordable education in a modernising democracy.


Dissecting quite how this state of affairs came to be is the unenviable task that British Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature, Stefan Collini, has taken upon himself.  For those who don’t know, Collini’s real expertise is on the cultural function of literary criticism (including his 2006 history of the concept of “the intellectual” in Britain, Absent Minds). But along with others such as Andrew McGettigan (The Great University Gamble) and more recently Maggie Berg (The Slow Professor) he has become one of our most piercing and eloquent critics on the history and role of the university in modern society. Collini’s most famous (2016) book, Speaking of Universities, is a sustained cry against any and all essentialism of the intellect: a refusal, firstly, to call for any singular vision of “the” university (be it Humboldtian, post-Napoleonic, or even Anglia Polytechnian); but equally a full-throated critique of all attempts to define what universities should do in the name of any one vision of “the” public. On both fronts, as he brilliantly shows, that is precisely what the British university has become: a standardised delivery vehicle for the provision of status and self-serving rhetoric. Collini is rapier-like in his criticism of this fact, and his arguments have long since made it into public debate on the continent. 


Which is what brought Collini to Norway last week. With the Norwegian government showing signs of wanting to emulate aspects of the British experience (particularly as regards metrics and funding for research) the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the Young Academy of Norway organised a roundtable with leaders from across the sector to explore just what exactly might be at stake in any moves to follow the British model. As a British academic who also lives and works within the sector in Norway, I was one of the other participants. The topic of our discussion was “Academia’s role in society.” But it very quickly boiled down to a two-fold discussion: namely “whose academia?” And “which society?” Those, as I’ll try to outline below, are the really critical questions – and on current form, Norway is doing a better job of answering them than the UK. 


There are, of course, some fairly fundamental differences between British and Norwegian universities: including the continued existence of core grant public funding for universities in Norway (officially slated at around 80 per cent of income, though in practice the core element may be nearer 50) and a far greater degree of intra-institutional autonomy and workplace democracy, both of which turn out to be key in the story which follows. The two systems operate at an entirely different scale as well: the UK has 136 universities to Norway’s 10. But per capita, the percentage of working age population with higher education qualifications is not actually all that different (around the low 40s in UK and high 30s in Norway). Society has about the same stake in universities (and universities in social outcomes) in both places, in other words, and the knowledge economy is highly valued in both countries. Yet Norwegian universities have largely avoided the full-bore marketisation to which British universities have been subject in recent years. Where did we in the UK go wrong, then? As with Brexit, the rest of the world is curious to know. 


Anyone working in UK Higher Education will have their own version of this story, of course. But Stefan Collini’s account of just what exactly has happened is unmatched in its clarity. Collini frames his account historically. “Universities in the 1970s,” he says in a nod to the massification of higher education that ultimately drives his narrative forward, “were probably closer to those of fifty or even seventy years earlier than to those of thirty of forty years later”. To be clear, Collini is not suggesting that the postwar development of higher education that came before offers any pre-lapsarian model we might somehow return to. For one, the expansion of education was not always altruistic (it was often, as in the US, also to serve the military industrial demands of a Cold War economy). For another, it was not always as ‘pure’ in its vision as Wilson’s rhetoric about the OU might suggest. The upheavals of 1968 did not take place mostly on university campuses by chance.


But there was a degree of autonomy and trust, and the sector was valued for what it was (its use value) rather than for what it could be used to do (its exchange value): a distinction to which we will return. While there was never any more of a golden age in academia than there was in society at large, the real changes have come about with the massification of education (not to be mistaken for the ‘mass education’ of the 1960s) that took place in the 1990s. This is all in keeping with the wider story of socio-economic changes post-1970s that I try to lay out cross-nationally in Empire of Democracy. Collini focuses in on the changes in Higher Ed. There are two plots to the story that then unfolds within British universities from the early 1990s onwards. One concerns bad economics. The other is a tale of bad management. Let’s take the economics first. 


The beginning of the slide came with the introduction, under New Labour, of “top up” fees in 1996, followed by “variable fees” in 2006 (which ended up not being variable at all, since all universities opted to charge the highest rate). This was in the context of the massive post-Cold War rise in student numbers: related to yet distinct from the post-92 ending of the “binary” system of universities and polytechnics. What the introduction of fees enabled was a reimagination of higher education as a limited market for ‘social mobility shopping’: a vision fully in accordance with the then New Labour government’s Third Way-ism and with post-Cold War liberal economics, which prioritised equality of opportunity over equality of outcome. Meritocracy was the academic ideal to which these twin drivers of change could most easily be hitched. And for a university professoriate grown fat on the thicker grass it was reason enough to wave through an expansion of the outer pasture which was also, they did not stop to notice, a ‘for sale’ sign planted on their own favoured crofts as well.


The introduction of tuition fees first broke the taboo on the marketisation of higher education. But New Labour – it warrants noting – was primarily interested in competition as an aide to public sector efficiency. By contrast, the Tories, when they came to power in coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010, were interested in something else entirely. As they saw it, education was a vast and still largely untapped market. For that reason they simultaneously increased student fees to £9,000 and removed almost all government funding. Collini’s book is excellent on the consequences that flowed from this one-two fiscal sucker punch: for it allowed the government to not only create a fully open market for education, but to also engineer artificial scarcity within this market, further amplifying competition between different “providers” (this being what universities now start to be called). 


And compete they most certainly have done. Over the past decade British universities have established overseas campuses everywhere from Dubai to Shanghai. They have issued bonds and turned themselves into financial vehicles the better to get ahead. They have renamed their buildings after their new philanthropic donors (or in the case of one Cambridge college, Murray Edwards, renamed themselves) and they have submitted themselves to endless rounds of university rankings and research assessment exercises no matter how speciously this sometimes makes them behave. 


Confronted with all these changes, the great question that historians will have to answer in the future is not only how did all this happen, but why on earth did universities in the UK allow all this to happen? It is a lesson that other nations, like Norway, might usefully learn in the meantime. Because market pressures on education are broadly the same wherever you look: and Scandinavian social democracy, of itself, will prove no better defence against the tides of Higher Ed neoliberalism than Third Way British socialism ever did. What matters is what lies within. What resources do universities possess with which to buck the trend? 


This brings us on to our second plotline in the decline of the British university: the seemingly effortless roll-out of this programme across the sector and the willing take-up, on the whole, of the new culture of the market within universities themselves. Of course, it is the height of fashion (or at least a tired cliché) to speak of the university sector as a “challenging environment”, and to tut-tut about the ills of the modern world that have led it there. We all indeed need to adapt and to modernise. But universities have greater collective voice and power here than Vice-Chancellors like to let on. They don’t, of course, because emulating a corporation (which you can do without actually being one) is something that serves them rather well (it also pays rather well too). But one can hardly blame the Vice-Chancellors for doing what they do best. The problem lies with the lack of university structures and procedures that might constrain them, that would – more importantly – ensure that universities are run in a more open manner and in the interests of the academic labour force itself. But British universities have lost almost all such independence as they once had. 


The very lack of such structures (truly accountable Senates, proper internal debate and consultation, the obligation to teach rather than the obligation to obtain students, the job security required to take intellectual risks) variously represent the architraves and the jambs of the open door through which British Universities have been marched by the ear into the brave new world of neoliberalised higher education, with its endless metrics (the REF, the TEF, and coming soon also the KEF; the NSS the Time Survey, the entry boxes on annual appraisals for engagements with CAPD) - all with those dour and empty invocations to “excellence”. One reason the British University strike last year was so welcome was for the way it broke through the culture of disgruntled ascent regarding the lack of real decision-making power that had taken over British academia during the past decade. 


Moreover, the strike raised, in fairly direct ways, three basic issues that also cropped up in the discussion hosted by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences last Friday: labourvalue, and governance. Each of these issues is, on one level, relatively mundane. But each bears directly upon the more profound questions of what universities are for and how they should be run. Each is somewhere the UK has gone wrong and other countries might yet get it right. 


The first is a very simple point. Universities are not just “research centres” or pinnacles of “educational achievement”; they are places where people labour. All intellectual work is labour (though the way it is discussed in Higher Ed planning documents and university strategies assumes that staff carry their ideas with them into work each day, pre-formed on arrival). To the contrary, thinking, understanding, and sometimes even just ‘knowing’ all require time to develop: something in vanishingly short supply today in modern academic life. They also require remuneration (we’re not living in Wittenberg any more). The strike that took place last year was ostensibly about one aspect of this: proposed “reforms” to academics’ existing pension scheme (which would have left them, on average, £200,000 worse off each). But everyone involved knew that it was really about working conditions, status, and workplace relations more broadly: about the fact that nearly a third of UK academics are on part-time contracts while the workforce is progressively casualised; about the fact that nearly one in three Early Career Researchers has reported mental health problems while workloads grow and the pressures of achievement gain bite; about the fact there are no ways of putting a stop to the relentless carve up of a once fine career. 


The second issue that universities in the UK need to take a stand against (and others to avoid) – Collini mordantly describes the UK here as the “budgie in the coalmine” – is the utterly misguided importation of quantitative metrics by which to measure intellectual output. There are any number of critiques that one could level at the REF (and its surrogates) in this regard: it is wastefully expensive (the 2014 REF cost £240 million to undertake); it amounts to pseudo-science when its metrics are so insensitive they simply cannot measure what they purport to evaluate; it leads to inequalities within the sector based not on quality but resource (Oxbridge will always be better equipped to game the system); it encourages a culture of competition over collaboration and output over absorption (is it more important in any temporal transect of a career to be writing lots or reading lots?); it encourage a certain style of (salami-sliced) output, with the deep reflection that monographs provide being one obvious casualty; it mitigates against risk taking, especially among early career scholars and may even lead to poor topic and research question selection (so much for rewarding ‘excellence in research’); it has (empirically) led to bullying of staff and re-asserts masculinist notions of what ‘quality’ is. 


The list could and should go on. As Collini notes, however, the greater damage may turn out to be something much harder to see in the short term. Because metrics as used in the REF and other forms of competitive assessment ultimately lead universities into a paradoxical dead-end. On the one hand they create a hierarchy that separates universities apart even as they converge around a similar set of corporate values, language and management style. This denies the many other things a place of higher learning can be, the types of knowledge and training (e.g. vocational) it might provide, and diversity across the sector. It’s the familiar problem we see on every British High Street where you can almost always, without fail, choose between a Starbucks and a Costa for your coffee. On the other hand, it means that universities, like all sensible actors in this arrangement, will seek to be the best possible version of the thing they are allowed to be. They will focus their activity not on doing good teaching and research but on making sure it looks like they are doing good teaching and research. 


But it doesn’t stop there. The latest metric to be rolled out across the sector in the UK is the TEF, or Teaching Excellence Framework. The TEF will judge universities according to their achievement on 6 core metrics (including student retention rates, the NSS, and graduate employment), very little of which has any bearing upon actual teaching content. The TEF is universally unpopular. Only 1 in 10 of 6,000 UCU members surveyed in 2018 support it; and 80 per cent reported they had had zero consultation prior to the scheme’s roll-out. And yet here it is, already filling up the annual meeting calendar. It is one more reminder that content, as such, doesn’t really matter anymore in British Higher Ed. Note also that with that last metric on graduate employment the logic of the system comes full circle: students, as consumers, now become a metric themselves - which is hardly in their best interests either. As a result of all these changes universities have lost a grip on the two things one would have thought were their very essence: time and the truth. Time in the amount of wasted labour, misdirected imagination and quiet reflection. And truth in Bernard Williams’ second sense of sincerity (given universities are now busy gaming the various metric systems). 


Why then, do they do it? The answer is simple: because a high score allows them to set and to justify a higher fee. Why do they need a higher fee? This brings us on to my third and final issue upon which I believe the future of British universities is likely to be won or lost from today. This is the matter of university governance and of workplace democracy within that. Actually, to be more precise, it is the lack of workplace representation (and a lack of willingness to use such structures as do exist) that has allowed university management to transform universities’ mission from an intellectual (or even social) endeavour to one focusing primarily on the creation of income and brand identity. To achieve this universities have dramatically increased both their surplus and their capital reserves in recent years, even as senior management are actively cutting costs. It is a highly damaging financial model but thanks to the lack of workplace democracy it goes largely unchallenged still. 


Both elements of this financial model – the surplus and capital investments – are important to understand if academics are to push back at what is ultimately driving through the changes we have been seeing. As UCU has pointed out, one London university alone made a surplus of £50 million over 2015-17, enough to give all staff and students £1500 and still have a £14 million surplus left over. But the world itself is not enough in the new economics of the university: not if they are to engage in grand new capital projects that will make their campuses truly stand out. They ‘need’ those capital projects because (a) they will attract in more students and so more student income it is hoped; (b) such developments can be used not just for teaching and research but for ‘spin off’ projects and for-profit schemes; and (c) it helps universities attract further investment capital, public-private partnerships, and philanthropic donations. Of course, it also means that universities then require those healthy surpluses in the first place (the reason most requests for further FTE get turned down) so that they can show financial stability: bluntly put, British universities need a lot of money in the bank these days so that they can borrow even more. 


Except that his process isn’t always in their own hands to determine any more: see also the annual scrap for students among those who are unable to guarantee them. And that leads many universities into a trap: because students, AKA consumers, also come with greater demands than before. And why shouldn’t they? They quite rightly expect all those better services and shiny buildings they were shown in the open day brochures to be in place now, while they are studying, and that means universities have even more pressure to take on the financial risk of large-scale developments. It’s a Catch-22. Only actually it is worse, because now universities often have so much debt to repay on their capital outlays (around £10 billion across the sector) that they worry about how long they could service that debt if their income dropped (as little as 42 days for another London university, according to one recent report). And what does that mean? It means they cut back on the one thing they know they can: staff jobs and salaries. Meanwhile, it is those same staff who are expected to manage the growing pressures of increased class sizes, marking loads, administrative and pastoral duties and so on.


This is a problem ‘for’ the sector (in an existential kind of way). But it is also a problem in a much more concrete way. Because what is happening as a result of these changes is a transformation of the social and intellectual life of the university itself. By this I mean, in part, the creation of a precariat of underpaid lower-level workers providing basic services at an ever more competitive rate. But it also results in the creation of an academic labour force divided against itself: where “academic related” staff who ought to be working closely with academics are now farmed off as “professional services” and set up in a competing column on the university pay ledger; where faculties compete with and increasingly resent ‘cross-subsidising’ each other; where academic staff who can escape it all by buying out their time increasingly do so, leaving those who cannot to pick up all the teaching. We will end up with Departments being nothing more than teaching hubs while faculties cling to the status of star performers in cross-disciplinary hubs. Before long the scholarly life is turned into little more than the supply-chain provision of cheap imitation goods.  


All of which brings us to the doom loop of my title: a focus on the shop window (the glass-plated utopian visions of the likes of “Universities UK” and “Research England”) as the only thing that ‘really’ matters, a ‘precariatisation’ of academic labour and inappropriate goal setting in pursuit of university management’s “ambitions”, and the introduction of ever more inappropriate means of adjudicating that process so that, at the end of the day, the profit-driven ends of modern higher education are not up for discussion and the means can be said simply to be ‘necessary’. The result is that British universities are becoming more and more homogenous, distinguished only by the extent to which they can ‘portray’ themselves as special, while academics become increasingly disillusioned with the whole affair. The job not only loses whatever spark it once had, it doesn’t get done as well either. Fewer academics take intellectual risks (why bother when, as an early career researcher in particular, it makes more sense to salami slice your work and ensure you hit the outputs you need to secure employment). The quality of academic endeavour, which is critical for the knowledge base of society and for sustaining the sorts of critical citizens these ‘post-truth’ times require, withers on the vine. The university is now no longer a seat of learning, or even of higher education. As the FT has reported, it is a market for the sale of educational commodities: all co-existing with the most rigorous of metrics and transparency of procedures. 


This is an admittedly rather bleak snapshot of university life in the UK today. And as was brought home to me on Friday in Oslo, not everywhere is as bad. The UK is a good way further along the doom loop than somewhere like Norway (with the Netherlands perhaps lying somewhere in between). The question then becomes, how do you turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one? How do you put the use value of education back into the picture in place of the exchange value which has come to dominate today? I’ll have more to say about all this in a future blog. But suffice to say for now that knowing what we really want from our universities and recovering a much greater degree of workplace democracy within them are both critical to the task.