The 18th book in the Palgrave series on Critical University Studies tells us there is a lot to critique in universities in the 21st century. The problems detailed in Steven Jones’ book are familiar to HEPI readers: higher education funding, marketisation, academic precarity, management by metrics, and students positioned as consumer. Jones discusses all of these, together with a chapter on culture wars and freedom of speech controversies. His view of academia is discouraging: a sector where precarious staff, menaced by exhortations to be ‘resilient’ and ‘agile’ suffer imposter syndrome, and where ‘quit lit’ is a ratified genre of academic writing.
Jones focuses his critique on the pervasive spread of market ideology and neoliberal values given extra impetus since 2012 by the new tuition fee regime in England and the removal of student number controls. This perspective is often dismissed by commentators who claim to be perplexed by the meaning of the term ‘neoliberal’. Jones, on the other hand, demonstrates its explanatory value as he convincingly clarifies the connection between ideology, policy and language, and changing practice in regulation, pedagogy and research. Universities have seen the widespread imposition of markets, competition and accountability (which Jones does not entirely dismiss) and this has led to the acceptance of discourses of student as consumer, personal (financial) responsibility and value for money. This has successfully indemnified the taxpayer against their intergenerational responsibility to educate the young, instead transferring the bulk of the cost to the identified student beneficiary.
As a result, the acquisition of a university degree has been increasingly framed in commodified terms. This has been evident when we consider the attacks by The Times in the summer of 2022 on international student recruitment by the Russell Group. The UK public are led to suspect that universities have become mercenary institutions which have allowed their children to be displaced by foreigners with larger fee tabs. Paradoxically, however, attracting a healthy overseas student contingent can elevate a university’s ranking. This cements the status of their degrees as an elite product, attractive to ambitious students and their parents. The sad fact is that universities have styled themselves as ‘we are international’ while neglecting to ensure an international experience for most UK-domiciled students and even discontinuing degree courses in modern languages. No wonder, as Jones reveals, some universities spend millions on marketing the symbolic rather than the academic offerings. New students may be greeted on the clearing hotline by professional footballers while others are introduced to the city by a staffer in a tiger costume.
Critique of Marketisation
While university managers have been panicked into an embrace of market values, the Government’s application of principle is more inconsistent. The market is one that has been manipulated by interventions like allowing students with high A-Level grades to ‘trade up’ university offers. There has been a similarly fluctuating commitment to ‘students at the heart of the system’ such as when the National Student Survey was dismissed as a key Teaching Excellence Framework metric when scores failed to condemn the government’s less favoured universities. There is no need for student opinion when a quantifiable metric of graduate salaries is available to serve as a dubious proxy for teaching quality. As long as the measures are congruent with market ideology, they are preferred to, say, the student voice which asks for decolonisation of the curriculum. It is more convenient to disparage such calls as ‘political’ if their concerns do not align with those of university managers.
Vice-chancellors have not been rewarded for their genuflection to the market, though. They are forever obliged to exalt employability and yet derided for teaching subjects coded by the media as non-serious, such as gaming, which are nevertheless in high demand in a growing sector of the economy.
Critique of university management
Jones argues firmly and persistently that university senior managers, have neglected their duty to defend the sector from the damaging effects of political interference and a consistent ‘deficit narrative’ in the press which has eroded public trust in universities. He punctures the conceit of managers who style themselves as chief executives or, more often now, as presidents with chiefs of staff, who with swaggering pretension, ‘lead change’ and ‘shape for excellence’, oblivious to the alienation around them. Meanwhile, individual academics have often been left to be monstered by the right-wing press for fear of offending a Government wedded to myths of ‘lamentable teaching’, ‘mickey mouse courses’ and specious culture wars, revealing that ‘[W]hile the establishment has grown anti-university, universities have assuredly not grown anti-establishment’ (p.226).
Call to action
The book is a call to action and Jones lays out precisely where intervention and restructuring are necessary if the sector is to recover its sense of purpose and public trust. Competition has served the sector poorly, constraining the opportunity to articulate shared values and promoting conformity. Universities should be tasked, as New Zealand’s are, with being the critics and conscience of society, and for Jones, ‘The first step is for universities to resist being co-opted into a system it is their primary role to critique’ (p.248).
Everybody invested in higher education – managers, policymakers, students and staff – needs to seize the narrative for education as a public good. That narrative is encoded in linguistic choices: higher education is in receipt of investment not subsidy; it is for pleasure, creativity and inquisitiveness. The problem, in an era of metric infallibility, is that none of these is as measurable as value for money, graduate salaries or even ‘satisfaction’.
Jones’ appeal for integrity in university management should be an uncontroversial one. Managers could start by heeding current research in Business and Education departments which is sceptical of outmoded managerial practices such as management by metrics which lead to compliance rather than innovation. Accountability is necessary, but other metrics are possible, as we know from the work on responsible metrics which informs the current project to review the REF – Future Research Assessment Programme.
Jones makes a case for what we thought we already had – autonomous universities with democratic participatory governance, held accountable by independent regulators.
This is a well-written and engaging book. Jones’ ability to write an introductory paragraph is a model that could serve all academic writers. There was a quote on almost every page I wanted to commit to memory. I hope it inspires more people to believe in the benefit of higher education and counter the destructive narratives that undermine it.