‘Business-like’ mentalities are triumphing over intellectual judgment in Britain’s universities

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Recent events in Europe and the UK have forced us to face the fact that Higher Education is currently in crisis: intellectually, financially and politically. Research and teaching have become disconnected; employment has become increasingly insecure and exploitative, with a rise in “casual” contracts; knowledge production has become thoroughly dependent on the possibility of pursuing revenue, and intellectual concerns have largely become a management matter. Meanwhile, students are paying more and getting less. Modules, courses, whole departments are being closed down. Retiring staff are no longer being replaced. The university has lost all cohesion and the intellectual community is fast-dissolving. More worryingly, as of yet there has been little organised resistance; what resistance there has been has appeared isolated, fragmented, and easily put-down.

A striking, but by no means isolated, example of these trends is the recent closure of the internationally renowned Middlesex University Philosophy Department, discontinued for undisclosed “financial” reasons. Given the everywhere-acknowledged fact of this department’s excellence, this decision clearly demonstrates to us the precedence in the academy of a “business-like” mentality over intellectual judgment and integrity. Worse, this intellectual crisis in turn disclosed to us a deeper political crisis, when staff and students at Middlesex were suspended following peaceful protest actions. More worryingly, these attempts by the University to forcefully end protest were backed up by a High Court injunction against the protesters, just as had occurred last March in response to anti-cuts protests at Sussex University. In this connection we might also note the High Court interference with RMT rail workers’ and TUC British Airways strike actions, and identify a disturbing trend.

At Lancaster University we are beginning to feel the effects of this crisis, particularly in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. In the last academic year we experienced cuts to research and travel funds, the incongruous merger of the philosophy, religious studies, and politics departments, the last minute scrapping of core Music Studies modules, and a “change of administration” for the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) – to list just a few examples. While new buildings rise-up around us, and perfectly serviceable slabs are set to be replaced with granite, staff face increasing pressure in relation to research, teaching and administrative duties. Other “casual” staff, including research associates and postgraduate teaching assistants, find themselves taking on increasing responsibilities while remaining grossly underpaid (or even “invited” to volunteer for unpaid teaching) and unlikely to find full-time lectureships. Meanwhile, students find themselves attacked from above as the weakest link in the chain: while the little education they receive becomes steadily more meagre and worthless, their Vice-Chancellor is everyday courting the Government and media with speeches suggesting that tuition fees of more than £7,000 a year are acceptable. These same students are meant to feel grateful that they have been allowed to study at all, as Government cuts have, for the second year running, left hundreds of thousands of applicants without university places.

It is at this moment, when those who have placed themselves in charge are providing us every day with spectacular new examples of both their irrationality and their incompetence, that we are forced also to recognise that we have thoroughly abdicated our agency to the university and Government bureaucracies. Whilst the crisis gathers pace, the unions (NUS, UCU, etc.) appear fast asleep. Or worse, they are seen to be actively collaborating with the managers, the bureaucrats and the Government – are seen constantly betraying their own members. At both the local and the national scale – in our places of work, study, and leisure – all decisions and changes occur with little or no consultation. A state-of-exception prevails; we are told that we face “difficult times”; we are told to consult the news and to blame one set of politicians or another – or economic laws, or human nature. But, we don’t need to consult the news because we are already, everywhere, confronted in our daily working lives with the fact of this crisis, with our complete alienation from all decision making processes, and with the threat of there being worse to come.

Keep an eye out for further comment pieces in SCAN and for an upcoming Lecture series on The Crisis of Higher Education.

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