Universities should not become corporate affiliates

I entered full employment in academia late in life after a long period as an independent writer. What have I learned since I began teaching at the University of Essex more than 10 years ago? That something has gone wrong with the way the universities are being run. Above all, I have learned that not everything that is valuable can be measured.

I was forced out of my professorship at Essex after being told, first, that I couldn’t retire because I was needed (for the next round of research assessment in 2020); second, that I should accept the job of chairing the Man Booker International Prize in 2015; and finally, that I was to be congratulated on gaining a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford – non-stipendiary and part-time, but a chance to do some research – only subsequently to be informed that policy had now changed, and I would be required to teach full-time.

After I wrote about the experience in the London Review of Books, letters and emails poured in. The correspondence reveals a deeper and more bitter scene in higher education than I had ever imagined.

I had thought that Essex was a monstrous manifestation, but it turns out that its rulers’ ideas are ‘the new normal’, as the Chinese government calls its present economic plan.

Cries also reached me from other countries, where the new methods have been taken even further: from New Zealand and Australia, above all; from Europe, especially the Netherlands, and from certain institutions in the US. Others wrote to say that once they had contributed significantly to the Research Excellence Framework, their posts were terminated: their usefulness was over.

Some had obtained large grants, and found themselves pushed out when the funding ended. Some have agreed to contracts that require them to obtain x amount of grant money if they are to keep their jobs or look forward to any kind of promotion. Some had been told to change their research topic to something that lay outside their expertise entirely. Agreed contracts are being tossed aside.

Towards privatisation

All this follows from the changing economics of higher education policy. Cuts are the tools of the ideological decision to stop subsidising tuition and to start withdrawing from directly supporting research.

What we are in effect moving towards is the privatisation of universities. The effects are not yet clear: student numbers have grown by 40% or more in some places; in others, they have dropped by a similar amount; the number of part-time students has dropped by a third over the last four years.

Meanwhile, student debt is reaching crazy levels: since 1990 when the loans began, it has risen to £54.36 billion (US$80 billion), and is currently increasing by £5 billion per year.

In these conditions, many university staff are looking for work elsewhere: we are not replacing teachers or scholars in the numbers we need.

People are afraid to complain for fear of being ‘disciplined’. Gagging orders enforce the silence. There were 5,528 recorded cases of agreed non-disclosure in universities in the three years before 2010 (the most recent figures available).

The cost of these cases stood at £4.4 million in payouts to staff and £7.1 million in legal costs for universities. Why? Why, in a time of cuts and a war on waste? And with all the talk of transparency and accountability, why do the administrators need to enforce silence?

Another kind of silence is the silence of no comment which universities resort to when confronted with protests and complaints, from inside or outside. As Stefan Collini says in his trenchant study, ‘What Are Universities For?’, “compelling and often devastating criticisms appear to have had little or no effect on policy-making. The arguments have not been answered; they have merely been ignored. Rather than blaming academics for not speaking out sufficiently strongly, the conclusion … is that those who make policy are just not listening.”

Independence of thought

A university is a place where ideas are meant to be freely explored, where independence of thought and the Western ideals of democratic liberty are enshrined. Yet at the same time as we congratulate ourselves on our freedom of expression, we have a situation in which a lecturer cannot speak her mind, universities bring in the police to deal with campus protests, and graduate students cannot write publicly about what is happening.

Gagging orders are not always even necessary. Silence issues from different causes: from fear, insecurity, precarious social conditions and shame at complaining about a job we are lucky enough to do for the satisfaction, not the money. This has stood in our way; or rather, it predisposes us to be compliant with authority, even in a neoliberal regime.

People open themselves to exploitation when the sense of self-worth that derives from doing something they believe in comes up against a hierarchical authority that is secretive, arbitrary and ruthless.

'Cruel optimism' – in Lauren Berlant’s resonant phrase – afflicts the colleague who agrees to yet another change of policy in the hope that it will be the last one.

The cruel optimism that motivates the colleagues who undertake examining for the Research Excellence Framework has grown out of a long, deeply held belief in the value of knowledge and the wish to pass it on – from one person to another, from one generation to the next.

Yet university life has depended on this willingness of colleagues to undertake all manner of tasks above and beyond the ordinary job, reading one another’s work, writing recommendations, making nominations, translating, assessing and examining and sitting on councils and external bodies, developing analyses and plans, arranging for this and that conference or lecture or seminar series, without every moment and every act being quantified and calculated.

Not everything that is valuable can be measured.

But I am talking as if the chief sufferers from cruel optimism are teachers. This is, of course, not the case; students are above all the victims. The new managers want to pack ’em in and pile ’em high – and then neglect their interests by maltreating their teachers.

The spread of business-speak

Faith in the value of a humanist education is beginning to look like an antique romance.

As universities are beaten into the shapes dictated by business, so language is suborned to its ends. We have all heard the robotic idiom of management, as if a button had activated a digitally generated voice. Like Newspeak in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, business-speak is an instance of magical naming, superimposing the imagery of the market on the idea of a university – through ‘targets’, ‘benchmarks’, time-charts, league tables, ‘vision statements’, ‘content providers’.

Such terms now pepper every document circulating in every institution, not just universities.

Like the necromantic mirror of the Snow Queen, they swallow everything up and deaden it. The code conceals aggression: actions are undertaken in its name and justified by its rules; it pushes responsibility from persons to systems. It pushes individuals to one side and replaces them with columns, boxes, numbers, rubrics, often meaningless tautologies (a form will ask first for ‘aims’, and then for ‘objectives’).

Rowan Williams – the former archbishop of Canterbury who is now master of Magdelene College, Cambridge – recently spoke with unqualified fury to members of the Council for the Defence of British Universities about the “barbarity and incoherence” of current higher education policy documents. Learning, he said, uncovers the multiple meanings of a work – a text or any other artefact – not in order to find a solution but to open the way to further questions.

“Difficulty is good for us,” he said. It is “good for us to be reminded not to settle for the quick answer”. The ticked box and the league table close down minds and narrow the world for the individual and for all of us in our relations with one another. Williams called his way of learning “honestly difficult”.

The business model for university research requires stock-taking, which is done through the Research Excellence Framework, or REF. The distortions the REF creates are various, so various I can’t give a full list. It has evolved no clear account of what academics do or why what they do is worth supporting.

It is also gameable. Some universities actually do better in the league tables because they support fewer people to do research.

The data are presented according to so many different criteria that after the REF announced its findings last year, one university after another claimed to be in the top 20 – until around 50 had done so.

Devouring the time of people who could have been teaching, writing and studying, the REF has been quite hallucinatorily wasteful. It has also failed to redistribute research funding to any significant degree to smaller players outside the privileged Russell Group. Everywhere, young academics are slicing off their heels and cutting off their toes to fit into the glass shoe.

At the same time, with tuition fees now at £9,000 (US$13,200) per student per year, and more from graduates, money is gushing into the universities. If the students are from abroad, they pay more, often a lot more. Where is all this money going? How is it being spent?

Drift away from arts and humanities

Universities vary in the way they are responding to government policy. Some are committed to maintaining standards of teaching and research. Others by contrast are determined to pursue profit, diversifying through a range of ‘joint ventures’ and commercial enterprises.

Buildings of glass and steel and other more fanciful materials are rising the length and breadth of England and Wales. They are to house departments of business studies, engineering, computing, government studies, life sciences – any subject with manifest economic applications.

I am no Luddite. I believe we should invest in learning and experiment in the applied sciences. But the balance is becoming seriously skewed against education and research for their own sakes, and against independent thought and study. There is a real danger that universities are consciously defining themselves as affiliates, even satellites, of corporations and government, using academics to carry out cut-price research in their interests.

Some of this research is bound by gagging orders, too, in this case for the purpose of protecting intellectual property. But the strongest trend is the drift away from academic activities, from scholarship and from the arts and humanities, altogether.

It feels in some places as if the humanities are surviving on sufferance. These are not expensive subjects for universities to run, especially if the workforce can be degraded by casualisation. The fees of students in these cheaper subjects are then transferred to support the cost-heavy sciences. Yet the humanities are treated like Cinderellas because they attract less grant money than, say, a military-industrial project.

Universities are not businesses. Legally, they are charities, but the closer analogy would be a public coastal path or an urban park, a place created for the good of citizens. The current denaturing of the universities treats them less like a park than a shopping mall.

A new nomenklatura has arisen: the vice-chancellors and their ever proliferating numbers of pro vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors along with a burgeoning army of fundraisers, whose fees are not easily discoverable in the accounts.

Managerialist philistinism

The UK general election is coming, and it is a good time to speak. What should we be calling for? A number of things spring immediately to mind.

Since universities are charities their executives should be paid accordingly. The differential between the highest paid and the lowest paid in a university institution should be no greater than, say, 7 to 1; at present, the ratio is more like 14 to 1.

A university should not receive more than a limited proportion of its research funding from companies or individuals for whom it is working directly; and a significant proportion of the research should be entirely free of all economic and intellectual strings, so that the humanities and pure sciences can have a place. We academics have dug ourselves into the nuclear waste tip of the REF; we should green it over and move to another place where we might flourish a little less self-destructively.

The new managerialist philistinism is spreading. Even as it claims to be keeping universities alive and well and inclusive, it is wrecking the ideal of emancipation through learning. If universities continue to go the way of the corporations, a fine system of public stewardship, evolved over the decades to educate citizens for their good and the good of society in the present and the future, will have been perverted and disfigured.

Marina Warner is a Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford, Professor of English and Creative Writing, Birkbeck College, University of London, President of the British Comparative Literature Association, or BCLA, and a Patron of the Hosking Houses Trust. This is an edited version of her article ‘Learning my Lesson’ in the London Review of Books.


Truly fantastic article. The longer I am in academia, the more I am getting bitter and disillusioned. A very sorry state of affairs indeed, especially as teaching is seen by many academics and administrators as "useless".

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page

True! Same story in Australia!

Anthony Halog on the University World News Facebook page