Friday, 9 March 2018

How I Learned to Love the Academy, or, Grounds for Optimism

One of the things that I find difficult is focus, particularly around work. I am, as you may have noticed, intensely interested in politics, structures, power and cultures: these things inform some of my research and provide the framework through which I view macro- and micro events.

I'm from a largely middle-class family with some history of higher education: as far as I can tell, my paternal grandfather was the first to attend university, taking a medical degree from University College Dublin in the 1930s. Both my parents took medical degrees, and all my five siblings have degrees (from much more prestigious institutions than the ones I went to and work at, they unfailingly remind me). Despite being the one with the worst school record of all (4% in a maths exam was a particular highlight), I'm the only one to pursue an academic life. Finding out at 18 that reading books and talking about them could be a way of life rather than an invitation to another playground beating was quite a revelation. The point being that encountering the idea of the academy has been enormously influential on me. I went to Coleg Prifysgol Gogledd Cymru/University College of North Wales in 1993 - by the time I graduated it was Coleg Prifysgol Cymru/University of Wales, Bangor and now it's Prifysgol Bangor University. It was small, buzzing with intellectual and social life, and quietly proud of its democratic origins, funded by subscriptions from slate quarriers.

Behind the scenes, no doubt, it was torn by all the tensions inherent in higher education: financial worries, political pressures, recruitment concerns, the balance between intellectual and skills development and all the other things that come with being a polymorphous institution. None of this was visible to students: I went to lectures and tutorials, read books, edited the student newspaper, stood for election (mostly unsuccessfully), went on demonstrations, partied, played sports, ran out of money, lived in terrible houses, met people from all over the world and from every background and generally had a great time. My tutors varied widely in personality and approach, but they were intellectually ambitious and caring at the same time. I came out of it, in short, a better person than I'd gone in. Did I know what I wanted to do next? Not at all. Going to university wasn't really a conscious choice, more an expectation, and leaving it seemed like being expelled from paradise. The problem was, I'd been turned into an idealist. I'd experienced the ideal of the university in what seemed to be its purest form: a community that fought its internal battles passionately and no doubt viciously, but always in the service of a higher purpose: the creation of a better world for everyone through intellectual labour.

I did an MA at Bangor and then a PhD at my current workplace, an post-92 HEI whose adherence to the polytechnic ideal of widening participation to the working class and the excluded proved equally attractive to me. I'm not only still here because I'm unemployable, I'm also still here because I believe that fine minds aren't solely the product of the comfortable suburbs.

The point is, and I'm sorry it's taken me several paragraphs to get this far, is that universities in all their variety are special places. They're full of people – students and staff – who engage in the common pursuit of knowledge and ways of thinking that transcend their immediate context. I have a contract (much-abused) with one chartered institution to teach a specific set of students and engage in particular research, managed by a group of people with medieval titles. They can hire and fire, and they can – and do – practice particular styles of management and discipline within a local culture. All of us, however, explicitly and with varying degrees of commitment, acknowledge that there are deeper connections and responsibilities which go beyond the immediate. I work for my students, for the wider intellectual community, for my colleagues within and without this and other HEIs, and for society. It's an enormous privilege not to have to serve burgers or hoe turnips, a privilege I'm conscious of. I think I understood some of this as a student because it was made clear by my tutors, and I hope that my students get some of this from me.

While my experiences have placed me firmly on the political left, none of these principles are inherently left wing : some of the doughtiest supporters of the university as a space protected from the chill winds of reductive atheism, capitalism or state interference have been conservatives, such as Cardinal Newman and Michael Oakeshott (and for a very interesting and different take, which rejects Newman as outdated, see this piece by Mark Leach). Last night I went to a launch for a very expensive book, Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. Written, edited and supported by some of my friends, it traces the poisoning of the Higher Education ideal by marketisation and the idea that the sole purpose (expect for the children of the 1%) of HE is to fit young people for soul-destroying, insecure and badly-paid work, while telling them that they're 'investing' in themselves. Within the wider neoliberal social framework imposed by a government with no majority (building on the work of a Labour government which capitulated to the Invisible Hand), Hall and Winn's contributors consider whether universities as an autonomous sector of society can be rescued, and if so, by whom.

One of the problems, they say, is a leadership module of Big White Usually-Male Saviours, and several chapters look at alternative structures such as Co-operative Universities. In the case of the Birmingham Autonomous University, they say it's time to burn down the tainted institutions and start again. I can attest to this saviour mentality, having been a university governor for some years and an employee for longer. I went to a training course for HE leaders, and on arriving the programme director said 'Oh, you're from XXX: your VC is a visionary'. My heart sank. Visionaries run a gamut from Jim Jones to Joanna Southcott, with only the occasional Rosa Luxemburg and they're never good at challenging structural issues. They can bring energy and new ideas, but cultures and economic conditions rarely change in response to a single person's direction. In Weberian terms, I'd far rather live in a bureaucratic system than a charismatic one.

My view and always has been that universities should be vehicles for social justice and enlightenment, and that a university is a collection of groups united hopefully by an intention to understand and improve our lot. Although Liz Morrish has a wittier formulation:
Clark Kerr … said a university is a series of fiefdoms united by a common heating system
In that case, my HEI is united by bafflement at the (non)functioning of the heating system.

The contemporary university, however, is the sometimes-willing captive of its management. Our students and colleagues sometimes forget that they are the university and that managers should be implementing the carefully-considered policies set by academics, students and service department staff. Certainly my faculty and institution managers often behave as though students and staff are their minions, serving their visions. I have a lot of sympathy for them in many ways: it's almost impossible to work out where the money is coming from with no economic and political stability, but I do feel that we're becoming like the banks before they crashed: captured by their highly-enumerated senior executives, few of whom have ever published a paper or taught a class recently or at all, and captured by a mindset of metrics and income often through no fault of their own, in an atmosphere of doom and gloom. The neoliberal turn has produced universities run like businesses in which managers talk about 'business cases' and 'customers'; these universities produce students who think like customers and staff who are encouraged only to think of 'skills' and 'employability: a reactive institution and culture which has been described as the 'sub-prime university'.

At the launch last night my only contribution was to suggest that those of us who believe in universities as a public good need to recapture a sense of utopianism. There's no reason any subject shouldn't reach for the stars, whether it's astronomy, English or fashion design. Fashion is on my mind because on the other side of the glass wall from last night's launch, students were industriously designing lingerie: it felt rather like an episode of Father Ted. The joy of the current USS Strike is that students, academic staff and all the service department colleagues in the USS scheme are discovering the joys of being members of a community. Shorn of the disciplinary surveillance of the subprime-U, they've discovered that they're all on the same side. They've gone through the small print of the pensions assault, uncovered scandal, corruption, greed and plain bad maths, and communicated these things wittily and effectively to people who are discovering they aren't, in fact, customers but colleagues. It's been wonderful. Oxford University staff overcame the dirty tricks of their VC to reassert academic leadership of the institution, alumni everywhere are putting pressure on managers and Universities UK has been exposed as rotten to the core.

My view is that this provides an opportunity to end the discourse of decline. We have so much of which to be proud, and we are bursting with ideas. The public – apart from my brother, apparently – seems to understand that it's a good idea to teach critical thinking, to research things that aren't obviously and immediately profitable, that not everything should be run like a KFC and that the 'nice' bits of HE shouldn't just be reserved for the nice white children of the 1%. Last night Liz Morrish praised Birmingham City University for the bravery involved in setting up a BA in Black Studies (imagine the 'business case' for that, and the parents wondering how that will get you a job). We need to support and follow them. Every time a minister attacks degrees in Medieval Literature or whatever, we need to challenge them long and loud. We need to encourage our students to take the weird path, and we need to provide managers with the backbone required to buck the market. I can't remember who said it last night, but it was suggested that we should encourage the view that a Vice-Chancellorship isn't a reward: it's a burden. In the more civilised universities, course leaderships and department headships are rotated because it's understood that bureaucracy is a necessary evil that takes us away from students and research, and nobody should shoulder that load alone for too long. I've long thought it should work like that here, and now I'm very attracted to the idea that the VC should have her 5 years and then return to the ranks of researchers and teachers. A visiting senior scholar told me recently that at his institution, anyone in senior management with an academic profile has to do a minimum number of hours in a classroom per year, and make a REF return. It's a long time since most faculty and executive managers ran a seminar or submitted a journal article: they've long forgotten what it's like to do either, let alone both (while writing a TEF report…) and it's time they rediscovered those joys.

Above all, we need to take heart from the knowledge that we don't work for HEFCE, the OfS, the director of finance or the marketing department: we work for civilisation. That sounds massively pompous - because it is - but it's still true. The old slogan still applies: Another World Is Possible.

Because, in the spare time between tweeting GIFs about UniversitiesUK, I'm still a literature academic, I had a rummage through my memory for literary representations of universities. I'm not altogether in favour of campus novels: it's a bit too solipsistic, but I've accumulated a number of them across the years. I have to say: we're not universally adored out there. The posher, older universities are universally derided as the archaic playgrounds of bitter contemptuous snobs with no connection to the 'real world' (Porterhouse BlueLucky Jim); places like mine are laughed at for letting the (often over-sexed) proletariat rabble in (Sharpe's Wilt or Jacobson's Coming From Behind) or for aspiring to be like the old places (one aspect of John Wain's A Winter in the Hills which is actually a quietly wonderful novel). Spirits curdle, murders are committed, blood feuds emerge from petty differences and – almost universally – young women are sexual prey. Campuses provide authors with microcosmic cultures in which proximity exacerbates the worst aspects of wider society: Sayers' Gaudy Night is a classic of its claustrophobic kind: the academic Gormenghast. Alison Lurie's novels play it for laughs until you realise you're crying, while Donna Tartt's The Secret History reinforced all the suspicions about universities being carnivalesque spaces for a self-appointed élite (I hated it because I got the sense that Tartt secretly loved the monsters she'd created: I like Brideshead Revisited more as I get older because it feels less and less like Waugh wants us to celebrate rather than understand his cast). I loved May Sarton's The Small Room for its dated innocence and seriousness: an entire university is ripped apart over an accusation of undergraduate plagiarism, and John Williams's Stoner for its air of quiet dignity and simultaneous desperation. I hated Reginald Hill's An Advancement of Learning because it spoiled a good campus crime thriller with a pathological obsession with breasts: not a female character appeared on the page without the narrator giving you an update on the size, shape and movement of said glands. Oh, and it reproduced the same female-academics-as-hairy-predatory-lesbians trope which appears in Gaudy Night and Jilly Cooper's Riders.

Universities like mine don't usually get a look-in: campus novels tend to be about the kind of place that has cloisters, but I'll give an honourable mention to Frank Parkin's The Mind and Body Shop which, despite some knockabout xenophobia, uncannily predicted the modern university down to the high-street outlets and the VC clad in a tracksuit covered in sponsors' brands, doing workouts in the office he's converted to a gym.
The Vice-Chancellor of a large English college in Liverpool is remonstrating with the hapless Professor Douglas Hambro of the Philosophy Department: ""If you're still in the red at the end of Trinity term. . .you'll go the same way as Classics and Math and English."" In the modern university, all subjects have to earn their keep (there are coin-operated turnstiles in lecture rooms), and professors are supposed to act as hacks for foreign countries--one of Hambro's venal colleagues, Counselor Hedda Hagstrom, is doing research on a grant from OPEC to prove that children's IQ's are raised by leaded gas emissions.

Beyond the obvious novelistic attractions of the campus as a setting, the better ones are a good corrective: they remind us that we are privileged, and that we have responsibilities to the society that has given us – very reluctantly in the case of recent administrations – to use our time and power wisely, and to open the gates with pleasure rather than resentment. They also teach us not to take ourselves too seriously…

1 comment:

GMS said...

"the same female-academics-as-hairy-predatory-lesbians trope which appears in Gaudy Night" - really? Where?