How my generation let down our students

The year I got my doctorate, in 1969, there were 23 lecturing jobs I could have applied for in Britain; and at least one had no applicants. The fifteen new universities that had just been created were still recruiting and their graduate students had not yet reached the market. The situation quickly turned to one of job scarcity; and Heath’s government chose this moment to announce a pay review that included the polytechnics and teachers training colleges as well as the universities. The lecturers’ union, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), chose to stay out on the grounds that we were part of the ruling class, the Civil List, and should not be considered with the others.

The Civil List dealt with the pay of the royal family, admirals, judges, professors and so on. It expressed the idea of a small ruling elite based on Oxbridge. The proportion of the population entering universities was still much lower than in the leading European countries, about 1 in 8. Mass recruitment of first-generation lower-class provincials into the profession (a consequence of the Butler Education Act of 1944) made it unlikely that university teachers would remain in the charmed circle of ruling insiders. The polytechnics were given a pay rise of 25% and the universities nothing.

In the early 70s, concessions on work conditions were made by the AUT in exchange for small pay rises. I argued with my union activist colleagues, most of whom were Trotskyites. Why are we exchanging the privileges of university life for pay increases that could be wiped out instantly? They replied that the bulk of the AUT’s constituency was scientists and all they were interested in was pay. I asked why we were placing our faith in the state. Shouldn’t we try to build a broad educational alliance with the schoolteachers’ unions? They might even accept our leadership. We had to find a popular constituency somewhere. As it was, most people thought university lecturers were intellectual snobs and had too many holidays. No politician would lose any support by shafting us. And indeed Wilson’s government froze our pay in a year of 25% inflation, thereby wiping out the small increments laboriously negotiated by the AUT.

My generation failed to master the art of self-reproduction. Although our parents had fought the war against fascism and then installed the welfare state that smoothed our path into higher education, we thought of ourselves as orphans, cut off from them. So we had no clue what to do with our own children and students. The sheer task of upward social mobility absorbed all our energies. We had no time to reflect on how to conserve the free profession we had joined. And of course, it was never the intention of our masters to allow us into the ruling class. Instead, the university teachers had to be pushed down the class system. It started as niggling about pay and status in the 70s. The die of our proletarianisation was cast then. But it took Margaret Thatcher to work out how to put the boot in.

Intellectual and social life in the British universities was relatively generous in the 60s and 70s. We still didn’t have heavy teaching loads. We nourished a sense of ethical responsibility towards our colleagues and students that had been eroded in France, Germany and Italy by mass enrolments. The Cold War kept a steady flow of capital-intensive research projects coming in, which was good for morale on the whole. Certainly social scientists bought the new idea that Research is King, without being as directly useful to the powers as the real scientists.

My story is mainly about that early turning point. The gruesome denouement is better known. Thatcher decided to pick off all interest groups who might use the old corporate state to obstruct market liberalization. Chief among these were the unions and the big cities. She cleansed her own party of the old Tory gentry who nourished the fantasy of a humane politics (‘the wets’). But she also took on the civil servants, the judges, the doctors and, of course, the universities, who represented a possible source of cultural resistance to the assumption of local powers by the central government. The only institution she left unharmed, for obvious reasons, was the City of London.

The English ruling class was always ambivalent about education. What would we all do with it, if not undermine the status quo? Thus in the 80s, the Tories pursued a policy of dumbing down aimed at converting the UK into an offshore facility for international corporations inside the EC. What could be better suited to banishing subversive thoughts than the tedium of the assembly line? By now the university teachers had lost whatever radicalism was a spillover from the 60s and they settled in for trench warfare with the bureaucracy, a war that they inevitably lost.

At a time when society is supposed to have been decentralized by the internet and neo-liberal economics, the British state has been centralizing remorselessly. Tocqueville once argued that the British had a strong state and a decentralized administration, while the French had a weak state and a centralized administration. Since 1945, the position has been reversed. Because of the powers of the shires and the municipalities, as well as the Oxbridge-based establishment, Britain largely missed out on a modern university syllabus when the chance arose in the 1920s. The result was a kind of amateur flexibility that was our strength as well as our weakness, when compared with the rest of Europe and America. This tradition was brutally demolished in the 1990s.

A revolution has descended on the universities, a coercive mix of artificial markets and bureaucratic interference. The government, faced with a cash shortage, wanted to concentrate its spending in the best places. This meant breaking up the myth that all British universities were alike and equal. The autonomy of university lecturers, who now earned less than schoolteachers, was further reduced by putting them into fierce competition with each other. The method of assessing research and teaching has been well-publicized. This audit culture is like painting the Forth Bridge. It never ends. As soon as one exercise is completed, another is on its way. Slowly the victims master the system, upgrade their scores and then get told that the money isn’t available after all because there were too many winners.

The number of British universities was doubled by the simple expedient of adding the polytechnics to the list. This made it easier to discriminate between them. Everyone was forced to expand recruitment (Oxbridge resisted), so that the proportion going to university was tripled. No more money was forthcoming, however. The combination of mad bureaucratic directives and expanded enrolment has broken the moral adhesion of university teachers to a common calling. A radical differentiation has taken place, with established individuals enjoying enhanced rewards and freedom, while upcoming scholars have been reduced to performing casual labour with no long-term prospects. The same lower-class provincials, like me, who once struggled to keep their heads above water, now ignore their responsibilities to the next generation, taking leave for research and writing, while their university saves money by hiring a post-doc for a pittance.

Blair’s government has now introduced student fees and the financial squeeze on the universities continues. My own discipline, social anthropology, displaying a touching reliance on the state, decided to concentrate itself in a handful of universities. We barely acknowledged our role as educators. Enrolments have collapsed and fewer students will pay to take a subject whose mission is unknown to the public and offers few prospects of a job. Collectively we resemble the passengers on a driverless bus, staring out of the back window, while it heads for the precipice. I have a lot of respect for my individual colleagues, especially for the young people who have overcome the odds to find a toe-hold in our profession. And I believe that anthropology’s future is bright, given the relevance of systematic knowledge of humanity as a whole to emergent world society. It is just that we must develop innovative strategies for disseminating this knowledge beyond the limits of an institution whose sell-by date is already past. But that is a whole other story.

The universities outside Oxbridge were not nationally significant before the twentieth century. In the 1890s, the middle classes were more likely to go to a theological seminary for their higher education. No institution was more closely wedded to the fortunes of the century’s dominant social form, national capitalism, that attempt to control money and markets through central bureaucracy whose premises have been undermined since the 1970s. Certainly there is no more reactionary class than the academics. I know of no other whose response to the social revolution of our day is to cling to the idea that things can stay more or less as they were.

There is no reason why people seeking higher education in the 21st century should look to these universities for it. The names and the buildings may still be there in a few decades time, but what goes on within them will be unrecognizable today. And it was us, the lucky beneficiaries of our parents’ war and its aftermath, who threw it all away.

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Category: Human economy