Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Barbarians inside the gates

...and in the UK they are usually called "vice chancellors". Terry Eagleton explains how they, their minions and the politics which drive them are bringing about the slow death of the university.
Elsewhere in Britain, the situation is far different. Instead of government by academics there is rule by hierarchy, a good deal of Byzantine bureaucracy, junior professors who are little but dogsbodies, and vice chancellors who behave as though they are running General Motors. Senior professors are now senior managers, and the air is thick with talk of auditing and accountancy. Books — those troglodytic, drearily pretechnological phenomena — are increasingly frowned upon. At least one British university has restricted the number of bookshelves professors may have in their offices in order to discourage "personal libraries." Wastepaper baskets are becoming as rare as Tea Party intellectuals, since paper is now passé.
Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos and issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose. One Northern Irish vice chancellor commandeered the only public room left on campus, a common room shared by staff and students alike, for a private dining room in which he could entertain local bigwigs and entrepreneurs. When the students occupied the room in protest, he ordered his security guards to smash the only restroom near to hand. British vice chancellors have been destroying their own universities for years, but rarely as literally as that. On the same campus, security staff move students on if they are found hanging around. The ideal would be a university without these disheveled, unpredictable creatures.
In the midst of this debacle, it is the humanities above all that are being pushed to the wall. The British state continues to distribute grants to its universities for science, medicine, engineering, and the like, but it has ceased to hand out any significant resources to the arts. It is not out of the question that if this does not change, whole humanities departments will be closed down in the coming years. If English departments survive at all, it may simply be to teach business students the use of the semicolon, which was not quite what Northrop Frye and Lionel Trilling had in mind.
Humanities departments must now support themselves mainly by the tuition fees they receive from their students, which means that smaller institutions that rely almost entirely on this source of income have been effectively privatized through the back door. The private university, which Britain has rightly resisted for so long, is creeping ever closer. Yet the government of Prime Minister David Cameron has also overseen a huge hike in tuitions, which means that students, dependent on loans and encumbered with debt, are understandably demanding high standards of teaching and more personal treatment in return for their cash at just the moment when humanities departments are being starved of funds.
Besides, teaching has been for some time a less vital business in British universities than research. It is research that brings in the money, not courses on Expressionism or the Reformation. Every few years, the British state carries out a thorough inspection of every university in the land, measuring the research output of each department in painstaking detail. It is on this basis that government grants are awarded. There has thus been less incentive for academics to devote themselves to their teaching, and plenty of reason for them to produce for production’s sake, churning out supremely pointless articles, starting up superfluous journals online, dutifully applying for outside research grants regardless of whether they really need them, and passing the odd pleasant hour padding their CVs.
In any case, the vast increase in bureaucracy in British higher education, occasioned by the flourishing of a managerial ideology and the relentless demands of the state assessment exercise, means that academics have had little enough time to prepare their teaching even if it seemed worth doing, which for the past several years it has not. Points are awarded by the state inspectors for articles with a bristling thicket of footnotes, but few if any for a best-selling textbook aimed at students and general readers. Academics are most likely to boost their institution’s status by taking temporary leave of it, taking time off from teaching to further their research.
I should add that the metrics of research productivity create the incentives for fraudulent research, fake academic journals, fake peer reviewing rings, and citation log rolling.
According to the British state, all publicly funded academic research must now regard itself as part of the so-called knowledge economy, with a measurable impact on society. Such impact is rather easier to gauge for aeronautical engineers than ancient historians. Pharmacists are likely to do better at this game than phenomenologists. Subjects that do not attract lucrative research grants from private industry, or that are unlikely to pull in large numbers of students, are plunged into a state of chronic crisis. Academic merit is equated with how much money you can raise, while an educated student is redefined as an employable one. It is not a good time to be a paleographer or numismatist, pursuits that we will soon not even be able to spell, let alone practice.
The effects of this sidelining of the humanities can be felt all the way down the educational system in the secondary schools, where modern languages are in precipitous decline, history really means modern history, and the teaching of the classics is largely confined to private institutions such as Eton College. (It is thus that the old Etonian Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, regularly lards his public declarations with tags from Horace.)
It is true that philosophers could always set up meaning-of-life clinics on street corners, or modern linguists station themselves at strategic public places where a spot of translation might be required. In general, the idea is that universities must justify their existence by acting as ancillaries to entrepreneurship. As one government report chillingly put it, they should operate as "consultancy organisations." In fact, they themselves have become profitable industries, running hotels, concerts, sporting events, catering facilities, and so on.
So Eagleton has decided to jump on the 'consultancy organisation' bandwagon.
I myself have decided to throw in my lot with the hard-faced philistines and crass purveyors of utility. Somewhat to my shame, I have now taken to asking my graduate students at the beginning of a session whether they can afford my very finest insights into literary works, or whether they will have to make do with some serviceable but less scintillating comments.
Charging by the insight is a distasteful affair, and perhaps not the most effective way of establishing amicable relations with one’s students; but it seems a logical consequence of the current academic climate. To those who complain that this is to create invidious distinctions among one’s students, I should point out that those who are not able to hand over cash for my most perceptive analyses are perfectly free to engage in barter. Freshly baked pies, kegs of home-brewed beer, knitted sweaters, and stout, handmade shoes: All these are eminently acceptable. There are, after all, more things in life than money.
And for a few quid or a loaf of freshly baked bread, he'll tell you what a few of these things are.

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