The Sycophant

Everybody has heard by now that British higher education is in a parlous state. Indebted students. Overworked staff on squeezed pay. Misery all round. The question is who is responsible. Some misdiagnose the condition, blaming overly inclusive admissions policies (‘Some people just aren’t university material’); others see an epidemic of wokery (‘Students nowadays aren’t willing to be challenged’). Far more sensible to point the finger at recent governments, and at the university bosses and managers their policies have empowered. The damage they have wrought is incalculable. Yet this too leaves out an important part of the picture. The uncomfortable truth is that academics have been complicit, and often instrumental, in bringing about the present predicament. It’s awkward to say it. For one thing, I am an academic myself. During strikes (which, to academics’ limited credit, have become more frequent – albeit belatedly – in recent years), solidarity seems to require the putting aside of internecine gripes. Victory to the UCU! And all that.

But the elephant can only be ignored for so long: we need to talk about academics. Rather like journalists, academics exhibit a profound mismatch between self-image and reality. They pride themselves on being independent thinkers and see themselves as possessing a somewhat irreverent or subversive orientation toward authority. But in fact, this self-conception masks its opposite. In a famous interview with Noam Chomsky in which he schools Andrew Marr on the ways in which the media selects for ideological positions, Chomsky draws a connection between this mechanism of ideological control and the education system:

There’s a filtering system, that starts in kindergarten, and goes all the way through, and it’s not going to work 100% but it’s pretty effective. It selects for obedience, and subordination… There’ll be behavioural problems. If you read applications to a graduate school you’ll see that people will tell you, he’s not, he doesn’t get along too well with his colleagues, you know how to interpret those things.

Academics are on the whole people who did very well in school. That is not to say that they all liked it, of course. But by and large, they would not be where they are if they had been utterly unable or unwilling to tolerate the kind of rigidly hierarchical and authoritarian structure that characterises school. Those who tend to fall foul of authority are usually weeded out well before the time of graduate study (‘behavioural problems’), with the result that academics as a group tend to be disproportionately deferential. It may not look that way to academics themselves, but this is hardly surprising: what counts as conformism (or rebelliousness) is relative.

This fundamental disposition toward conformity – detectable in the political alignment of the bulk of academic work – is on display in many a departmental or union branch meeting. It’s not that academics aren’t habitually disgruntled, or that they don’t complain constantly about the erosion of working conditions or the latest assault on educational standards. They are and they do. A typical academic gathering could easily be mistaken for a support group. But if after the rounds of Ain’t It Awful someone suggests doing something about it – such as simply not doing the latest thing that management has demanded we do (and which everyone has just agreed is pointless, harmful, or both) – those defiant voices melt away. ‘Oh no,’ they say, ‘that would probably upset management; we’re in a weak position as it is.’ And so they grumble and roll over, time and again.

If there’s one thing that infuriates academics more than university managers ever could, it’s other academics suggesting that they’re not being radical enough in standing up to management. I can well imagine that somewhere, an academic (perhaps one of my own colleagues) is reading this and already frothing at the mouth. Do I not understand the importance of maintaining good relations with management if we are to get anywhere at all? Would I have the department closed down in my quest for ideological purity?

For those of us who have recently emerged from a period of dutiful flirting with a briefly (if imperfectly) compos mentis Labour Party, this is all too familiar. The rage that those seen as overly radical or ‘hard left’ provoke in union and party ‘moderates’ alike. The unmistakable fact that they dislike us far more than the official opposition (management, the Conservatives). The lectures on the importance of being ‘strategic’ (and point-blank refusal to entertain the possibility of differing ideas as to what that means). The framing of opponents as idealists, irresponsible wreckers, out of touch, undemocratic or dictatorial, thuggish, or infantile (perhaps the ubiquitous idea of ‘grown up politics’ also belongs to the long shadow of childhood and school, in which a powerful con-trick equates maturity with acquiescence). And the sad reality that, in both cases, the supposedly outrageous radicals are really not very radical at all.

Negotiation and diplomacy are, of course, important, in university politics and beyond, as is ‘picking your battles’, and expending your ‘political capital’ wisely (though the people who most liberally employ these phrases often seem unwilling to pick any battle at all). The fear that resistance will be met with a punitive response, meanwhile, is not unfounded. It is hardly paranoid to worry that a department with a reputation for trouble-making might be ear-marked for closure. That concern cannot be taken lightly. Yet if resistance is often futile and sometimes counterproductive, that still leaves a question ordinarily beloved by political ‘sensibles’: what is the alternative? The answer of many academics, implicit or explicit, seems to be as follows: we cultivate good relations with management so that they see us as reasonable and trustworthy; we will then be in a better position to press our claims through reason and argument. What this approach presupposes is a basic commonality, or at least compatibility, of interests and objectives between the parties involved. Under such conditions, it makes sense to expect a certain reciprocity, whereby when we are nice to management, management will be nice back.

In many domains of life, that is how human relations work. But, clearly, there are also relationships and situations in which this fails to hold, or in which the dynamic is reversed: you give an inch, and the other person will take a mile. The relationship between labour and capital is one example. There is room for negotiation and compromise between the parties, certainly; but the way for workers to protect their interests is not to be as nice and obliging as possible toward their employers, but rather to flex their collective muscle by forming strong unions and strategically withdrawing their labour when the situation requires. This has nothing to do with how nasty or nice the employers or owners of capital are as individuals: workers and bosses have their parts to play, and they are going to play them more or less no matter what.

The relationship between university managers and academic staff is not precisely that of capital and labour, but it is much closer to this than to a relationship between neighbours or friends (this despite – and perhaps camouflaged by – the fact that there is a great deal of overlap between the populations: many managers are or used to be academics). Managers have their agenda, one fundamentally at odds with the interests and wishes of most academic staff: slashing ‘costs’ through cuts and casualisation, hiking student rents, increasing capital expenditure, inflating bosses’ salaries, expanding the role of private ‘providers’ in everything from cleaning to counselling and teaching. Ceding ground, acquiescing to their demands in the hope that this will be rewarded is a bit like throwing lumps of meat to a shark and hoping that it will not come back for more. ‘You’ve been very obliging, so we won’t push you any further,’ said no manager ever. Control is to the manager as profit is to the capitalist (and in the contemporary university, profit too is never far away). ‘We got away with that’, the real-life as opposed to the imaginary manager says: ‘What’s next?’

With departments closing all around us, and for reasons that often have nothing to do with their ‘performance’ or with anything their members have or haven’t done, the idea that we might save ourselves by keeping our heads down is, at best, a hope that they’ll come for someone else first. In reality, even this is so uncertain a strategy as to border on magical thinking. This is not to pretend that it is easy to stand up to the bosses, or that real improvement is possible without wider political change (scrapping fees, for a start). But it is possible, through strategic non-cooperation, to slow the decline, to make things sufficiently arduous and annoying for the enemy that they will think twice before making the next attack. From this perspective, the ‘strategic’ position of many academics and their union representatives looks a lot like Einstein’s definition of madness: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But it is not madness, exactly. It is teacher’s pet syndrome: an ingrained trust in authority – the conviction that those in power are basically reasonable people who have our interests at heart – and an equally ingrained fear of getting in trouble.

There is a tendency among the ‘Oh, the humanities’ crowd – those who defend, rightly if sometimes insufferably, the intrinsic social value of higher education – to tell a particular story about the decline of the British university. It all started to go wrong around 2010, the year when £9k fees were forced through (they were imposed on the first cohort of students in 2012). This story paints an overly rosy picture of what came before, and conveniently erases the role of the narrators in precipitating the Great Falling Off which so exercises them.

Many of the things that have ruined higher education can rather – like the things that have ruined our society more generally – be traced back to the 1980s. The first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which sought to evaluate and rank academic research (and to allocate funding accordingly), was held in 1986. Older and retired academics tell a familiar story about how this unfolded: much scoffing and derision at the philistinism of attempting to measure research ‘quality’, followed by total acquiescence. ‘I said, obviously we should refuse to participate in this’, one of my elder informants recalls. ‘They said: ah, but we can probably do quite well in it…’. It was in the Thatcherite 80s, too, that tenure was effectively abolished (since which even ‘permanent’ academics can in practice be got rid of with relative ease). That decade also saw the first big push to introduce the sharp differentials in pay that most academics now regard almost as a fact of nature (that at Cambridge University until the 1980s there was one basic lecturer’s salary is likely not only unknown but virtually unbelievable to many who work there today).

So, the rot did not begin in 2010 when the Tory–Lib-Dem coalition tripled tuition fees, nor in 2004 when the Blair government raised them to £3,000 a year, nor in 1998, when it introduced them. Fees are a disaster, but today’s marketised nightmare has deeper roots. And then as now, academics do not come out of the story looking good. At every step, they have not only failed to mount effective resistance to the forces that have mutilated the sector, but they have been actively complicit. And I do mean ‘active’. The RAE and its successor, the Research Excellence Framework (‘the REF’), are not done to academics but by them: senior academics form the panels and assess the ‘outputs’, even as they moan about the burdensomeness of the task and the overwhelmingly negative effects of the exercise on the life of the university. Again and again, they grumble and scoff (‘“Impact”? Ludicrous! “Prevent Duty”? Nobody could take it seriously…’), and again and again, they roll over.

Academics, it seems, are like the acquaintance who Dorothy Parker said ‘speaks 18 languages and can’t say “no” in any of them.’ The issue is not just servility, however, but a hubris that can superficially look like servility’s opposite, as when academics tell themselves that they are only humouring management while actually pursuing their own, subtly subversive agendas. But management, academics often forget, are generally indifferent to mockery or critique, however finely-crafted and devastating. They are happy enough to let us tire ourselves out. One of their favourite tactics, in fact, is to set academics onerous, pointless tasks to keep us busy. Could we gather some evidence to support our claims that the new policy is having a detrimental effect? Could we present the case for why we really need to have such things as offices? Could we fill in this consultation? Academics exhaust themselves writing meticulously argued treatises against the latest deleterious thing management wants to do, and then management do it anyway. Often, we even do it for them. Could we nominate some teaching rooms that we could stand to lose, in order to help management decide how to redistribute the ‘space envelope’? Would we mind drawing up a plan for whom to make redundant and in what order?

Yet the idea of academics as incapable of protecting their own interests captures only part of the truth. There is a clear sense in which the docile behaviour of academics is self-defeating. But equally clearly, academics are not all in the same boat: the well-paid professor has little in common with the lecturer on a fixed-term contract. If they lack class consciousness, it is partly because they do not constitute a class (and tend to have an uneasy relationship with that category even on the occasions they acknowledge it as something that might have relevance to them).

Another ingredient in the typical academic’s mental mix (also plausibly school-borne) is a deep-seated competitive individualism. It’s this which accounts for the ease with which academics are seduced into auditing and ranking exercises and jumping through the proliferating hoops that are the prerequisites for promotion. It’s this, too, which likely explains the generally low (though rising) rates of unionisation among academic staff. Even those who are union members often do not go on strike. They treat the union as a kind of insurance scheme (something that might be useful for them in a dispute over a promotion, for example). Some strike for part of the time, apparently seeing industrial action as a kind of ‘every little helps’ situation. Anecdotally, the willingness to forfeit pay seems to be inversely proportional to wealth and salary. The poorer and more precarious, the more willing to take risks and financial hits. The richer and more secure, the more liable to be heard complaining about not being able to afford to strike.

Individualism of this kind is the opposite of solidarity, which in academia is decidedly patchy. Nowhere was this more apparent than during the 2018 pensions strike and its aftermath. Graduate students and casualised academics, who can only dream of having retirement incomes to defend, turned out in droves to protect the pensions of their more secure colleagues; not long after, when the union balloted its members again over the issues of pay, workload, inequality and casualisation, few branches met the 50% turnout threshold. Permanent academics, false as their sense of security may be, are apparently more concerned with their next grant application than the fate of the temporary lecturer who will be brought in to cover their sabbatical. As a result, the unchecked march of casualisation is leading to a paradoxical proletarianisation, subjecting junior academics to a hazing ritual of insecurity and impoverishment only the independently wealthy can afford.

Who’s to blame for the plight of higher education? Time to consult the mirror. Looked at one way, academics are their own worst enemies. But viewed from another angle, their failure to defend their own collective interest makes more sense: the collective is not their concern. If the goal is to get ahead of the next guy, then a general deterioration of conditions is a cost that can be borne. For all the heart-rending laments from academics about the state of the universities, the reality may be still more depressing. Maybe they like what they see.

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘In the Academic Counting-House’, NLR 123.