The Russell Group Tagline Rap

It’s August. Just as I was leaving for my period of ‘annual leave’, this crossed my Twitter feed – 88 college taglines, arranged as a poem. Be inspired – oh yes. So here is my Russell Group Tagline Rap for 2015.

Together we can go beyond

A place of possibility

Developing great minds

For student satisfaction

Ambitious and innovative

A world top 100

An engaged university

A research beacon

Be inspired

Change the world

Your ticket to Newcastle

It’s meant to be.


Whatever Happened to Academic Freedom?

Paul Greatrix, writing on the Wonkhe blog on July 14th 2015, includes an account of how, as recently as the 1980s in the UK, autonomy, academic freedom and academic standards were thought to be inextricably linked.

In the blog piece, he quotes two key higher education reports: on efficiency (The Jarratt Report 1985), and on degree validation (The Lindop Report 1985). Both contain appeals to academic freedom.

  • “The most reliable safeguard of standards is not external validation or any other outside control; it is the growth of the teaching institution as a self-critical academic community’. (The Lindop Report 1985, p6)
  • “Academic excellence is crucially dependent on academic freedom” (Jarratt Report 1985, p6).

Academic freedom, then, is an issue of academic standards. What has changed, in the 30-year interim, except the infiltration of neoliberalism and managerialism? Why does each new report on governance, standards and ‘quality’ in higher education overlook this essential element? Harvey writes that democracy is viewed as a luxury, only to be afforded under optimum conditions of affluence – and for ideological reasons this is prevented in public services which must be kept ‘efficient’. “Neoliberals therefore tend to favour governance by experts and elites” (2005:66).

On July 6th 2015, a letter to The Guardian, signed by over 100 UK academics, spelled out the consequences of this toxic working environment for academics: “This deprofessionalisation and micro-management of academics is relentlessly eroding their ability to teach and conduct research effectively and appropriately. A compliant, demoralised and deprofessionalised workforce is necessarily underproductive, and cannot innovate.” This belies notions of efficiency, performance, outputs and change management so relentlessly advocated by university managers.

Thomas Docherty (2014), who sharpened his critique during the months of his suspension from Warwick, writes: ‘We are perilously close to a position where the unquestioned power of management is declaring war on the academic community, the university, itself; civil war in academia’.

Perhaps, then, if we can find a way to persuade managers to be critical, we may go some way to returning academic freedom to its rightful place in the academy.

August 3rd 2015 and one lone vice-chancellor raises the flag for academic freedom in the Times Higher. “Great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends upon it. It demands the unshackled possibility to question and seek knowledge wherever it is to be found, and to convey this to students without fear of intervention or sanction by the state. A value that is globally understood to be a prerequisite for scholarship”.



Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief history of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

England Rejects the Learning Tower of Pisa ?

Earlier this month (July 2015), the Times Higher announced the news that England will not be taking part in an OECD project to make Pisa-style international comparisons of graduates’ learning gain. This came as a surprise, given the priority this Conservative government has placed on learning gain and on a Teaching Excellence Framework.

To those of us following the debate, the OECD’s AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes) project seemed like the only game in town. Now, apparently we are back to the drawing board on what measures may constitute learning gain and the TEF (see previous post for critique).

The story was followed up in The Guardian on 28th July.The first thing that struck me was what seemed like a collective sigh of relief by the nation’s vice-chancellors and other HE worthies. This from a group of people who have never met a ‘tool’ they couldn’t beat their staff with. Except this time, the ‘tool’ could not be gamed, or weaponized against academics. It threatened, instead, to appraise the qualities of England’s graduates, and clearly there is an insecurity about how they might hold up in international comparison. After all, the much vaunted REF has managed to avoid any kind of international evaluation, so why not the TEF? Perhaps the vice-chancellors had read a recent report from HEPI indicating that students from other countries work harder than home students. Or perhaps they had also seen pictures of students in Guinea studying outside under the floodlights at the airport, and shuddered at the comparison with pictures of the more bacchanalian evening adventures of UK students.

students study under airport lights

Maybe they had also sensed disapproval from the Higher Education Minister as he diagnosed grade inflation among the escalating numbers of First and 2.1 degrees awarded. But in any case, this was an unexpected retreat after we had listened for months to all the sermonizing about empowering students to demand better teaching and make universities accountable for the public spend.

Whatever had made the VCs and their friends anxious, it is clear that the TEF may be charting new and uncomfortable ground. UK universities have become really adept at process – what is known lower down the ranks as ‘quality bollocks’. Do your learning outcomes show a hierarchy of cognitive domains? Do they line up with your modes of assessment? Yes, indeed they do, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with teaching quality or learning gain. After several years of this, I am now giving master classes in this to my US colleagues as they enter a new era of fictitious ‘assessment’. In the UK, we have process down to a fine art, but engagement is less of a triumph. This we need to address, since nobody ever signed on to a university course because its quality management processes were optimized in strategic alignment.

If engagement means active, enthusiastic participation in a course leading to measurable learning outcomes (precis of a definition offered in an HEA document)  we have a problem in UK universities. Lecturers complain that attendance is poor on many courses and that students fail to prepare for seminars or read outside of class. There is a culture of permitting students with failed modules to progress to the next level under rules of ‘compensation’. I understand that most students have other responsibilities such as paid work, but still, many graduate knowing they would have got more out of their courses if they had tried harder. This, I think is one reason for the reluctance to enter into international comparisons of learning gain and transferable skills.

But none of this features among the justifications recorded in the Guardian article. On the question of AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes), Peter Williams, former CEO of the Quality Assurance Agency is quoted in the hard copy of the article, “I thought the whole thing was a nonsense”. Alison Wolf, of King’s College, London, offers a more cogent evaluation, “It is basically impossible to create complex language-based test items which are comparable in difficulty when translated into a whole lot of different languages”. Comparability is more likely to depend on culture than on language, so given the constituency of the OECD, we can probably reject that claim.

My understanding of the AHELO assessment was that it followed the kind of reasoning, problem-based scenarios presented in the CLA (Collegiate Learning Assessment), so I turned to my colleague Louise Cummings for a view. Louise – a linguist and philosopher – pretty much dominates the field of informal logic and scientific reasoning under conditions of uncertainty (Cummings 2015). Would performance on these tasks be affected by translation from one language to another? No. A firm, no.

So, as I write, the University Alliance (the ‘mission group’ which used to be for ‘business-oriented universities, but now claims “we are Britain’s universities for cities and regions. We believe in making the difference across everything we do”) is holding a day event to discuss the TEF. I’m sure they would prefer to find a way of slipping back into their comfort zone of process-oriented subject review. But if we have to have a TEF, it should be more like the US NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement) which would put the emphasis where it belongs: on student engagement, and on “how the institution deploys its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate”.  I’m not making great claims for this particular instrument, but something similar might give us a picture of how to marry teaching effectiveness and student learning measures.

Cummings, Louise. 2015. Reasoning and Public Health: New Ways of Coping with Uncertainty. London: Springer.

How not to measure teaching quality and learning gain

I blogged previously about learning gain just after the General Election.

At that point there was not much to go on but a hazy promise in the Conservative manifesto to “introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality… and require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates”.  On July 1st 2015, Jo Johnson added some more details; the teaching REF was intended to be outcomes focussed, in other words, not focussed on the kinds of ‘quality’ processes that universities had perfected over the last 20 years. The Conservative government hoped to devise a test of learning outcomes that, anticipating the skills of the best schemers in universities, would not be open to gaming.

In the Times Higher on 23rd July 2015, Julia King, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, made this comment about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF):

First, it needs to measure the right things. It cannot be a superficial extension of the data provided through the Key Information Set, a variant on the Quality Assurance Agency’s higher education review or some rehash of the subject league tables that drive universities to offer higher and higher proportions of firsts and 2:1s.

Too right, and while I don’t agree with all her conclusions, I appreciate her drive to ensure that the TEF is based on “a properly evidenced measure of that quality”.

It was disappointing then, in the same week, to read a guest blog hosted on Wonkhe from Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University. The piece started with a critique of the validity of current DLHE (Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education) data, and I became hopeful of a rebuttal of some of the cruder measures of graduate success. However, in the piece, entitled Finding New Ways to Measure Graduate Success, Peck explicitly rejects measures which, while not the sole determinants of teaching quality, might at least impact positively on the student experience. On the list are Staff Student Ratios and spend per student, which he regards as perverse, and rewarding inefficiency. As I read on, disenchantment grew:

“Secondly, the forthcoming availability of HMRC tax data to HESA and the Student Loans Company means that we could use a robust measure where we can select the census point at which we present data on average earnings by university and/or by course. This would not be dissimilar to the approach some rankings take to MBA programmes. With secondary education performance data also being brought into the mix, we have the hope of finding a much needed way to measure added value or learning gain”.

Now, I’m all in favour of looking at learning gain and allowing that to inform improvements to the student experience. I’m not in favour of releasing irrelevant and crude data in a league table. I’m still pondering the author’s logic when he presents graduate salary levels as an indicator of ‘value added’ by universities, and appears to see this as a proxy measure for learning gain. Universities are repositories and generators of research and knowledge, not factories for ‘salary men’. I would have hoped the nation’s vice-chancellors would have challenged those assumptions, not propounded them.

Here are five reasons why the equation of graduate salary, teaching quality and learning gain is unfounded.

  1. The glass floor effect. On July 26th The BBC news lead story was that middle class families are able to prevent their children from sliding down the social scale, regardless of talent. Clearly, then, graduate salaries are more likely to correlate with social class.
  1. The continued existence of a gender pay gap underlines how fanciful it is to assume that a high salary results from ‘value added’ higher education. Have only male graduates received better teaching? Data from the Fawcett Society indicates a pay gap of 19.1%. Admittedly, this figure encompasses pay for all workers, not just graduates, but points about the motherhood penalty, and outright discrimination are still valid, even in universities. Talk of perverse incentives! Would universities accept more white, able-bodied, middle class males onto courses, if they were likely to earn higher salaries?
  1. Economies are not stable. Middle class professionals continue to feel the force of austerity caused by bankers’ irresponsibility. ‘Generation rent’ may never attain the standard of living of their parents, but this has resulted from a failure of the generational compact, not the failure of universities.
  1. Similarly, we cannot predict which subject areas may prove lucrative. Recently, graduates of any discipline who work in finance have received higher salaries, while pay and employability for graduates in IT and bioscience have taken a downturn.
  1. The SBEE (Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015) has unleashed a huge data salad of graduate earnings, student loan repayment and course/ university attended. . At best, there may be an association between your earnings and your alma mater. This raises the question of construct validity – a notion drilled into all educators – make sure you have the appropriate measure in order to draw conclusions. Association of any set of measures does not indicate causality, so Peck’s suggested metrics are not even valid as proxy measures of learning gain.

Those of us who care about the future of higher education in the UK cannot let these lazy assumptions dominate the agenda of academic institutions. The data points may link up, courtesy of the SBEE, but the logic does not. It would be ironic if we allowed universities, of all places – interrogators of assumptions, busters of myths and challengers of fallacies – to be led by spurious metrics for what will probably turn out to be immeasurable.

teaching quality venn

The paradox of the ‘under-performing professor’

This post has been inspired by an apparent declaration of hostilities towards professors in a number of universities. The weapon of choice has been performance management, and some aspects of audit culture have been liberated from their usual role of absorbing academics’ time to becoming instruments of punishment.

In universities we have seen a deprofessionalization of academic staff which has manifest itself in a number of ways. In, many areas, disciplinary groups have been broken up and atomized across the university, in response to management‘s fear of ‘silos’. In others, productive interdisciplinary groups have been disrupted by reorganizations which have obstructed innovation. In at least one famous case, an entire centre was vandalized (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in 2002) because its members refused to surrender to the neoliberal commandment that research must be a competitive and self-important process.

The one thing that academics were permitted to retain was a system of academic esteem bestowed by promotion to professor. This was trusted to reward talent, reputation and diligence, but in recent years, even those who attain professorial rank are subject to this regime of never quite ‘becoming’. In several UK universities, the intrusive gaze of Human Resources has recently fallen on alleged ‘under-performing professors’. I have managed to obtain performance criteria documents from a number of universities where professorial targets have been revised.

In any sane university, to talk of ‘under-performing professors’ as a generic description, would be recognized as pure incongruity; since Human Resources decide the ever-ascending criteria for promotion to this level, they might be trusted to not betray their own judgment. There seems to be some degree of ‘moral panic’ among senior management teams as in many universities, crude targets for grant income are now being set for individual researchers. Increasingly in universities, as well as undergoing six-monthly performance reviews (as frequently as newly appointed probationers), professors must now meet exacting criteria for ‘quality’ of publications. Progression to the next professorial level must be achieved within five years, and this depends on meeting certain ‘drivers’, which include securing a research grant as PI every two years, producing REF 3* and 4* ‘outputs’, supervising graduate students, producing a significant impact case study, leading high-prestige international collaborations, and of course, continuing to teach. Failure to meet these expectations will result in the public humiliation of improving performance procedures, and possible demotion. No accrual of reputation can be permitted; the criteria must be met every year, not just over the course of a distinguished career. In this way, any prestige associated with the rank of professor must be considered temporary, as is its tenure. Professors, then, have been made to join the expanding precariat of the academy. Ben Knights (2013) cites Sennett (1998), who recognizes that “a regime which instills insecurity, in which you are… ‘always starting over’ is inimical to the longer term processes of memory and imagination.

This is the society of control outlined by Deleuze (1990).  Foucauldian (sequential) disciplinary regimes (Morrish, 2011)  give way to ones in which, just as one hurdle is surmounted, another, higher one presents itself, with the end point always at the far horizon. We find this reflected in management documents on performance review with a lexicon of journeys, milestones and checkpoints, but the individual is never allowed to arrive at the promised reward. Gatekeeping measures such as the imposition of perpetual training, perpetual review of publications or multiple-staged applications for promotion, must be endured, even to participate.

Performance management has recently been under scrutiny by the press, academics and their trade union, University and College Union. The death of Stefan Grimm in September 2014 shocked the academic community. A very moving appeal to the academic community appeared on this blog:

Professor Grimm held the Chair in Toxicology at Imperial College, London, and he took his own life after being threatened with performance management procedures when he was deemed not to have brought in ‘prestigious’ grant money.

His obituary on the Imperial College website reads:

Over the past 20 years, his work to this scientific field includes 50 publications in top-ranked journals, two books, more than 3000 citations and 5 patents on innovative strategies for screening novel genes involved in cell death pathways and new anti-cancer genes. Professor Stefan Grimm chaired and co-organized international conferences and served as reviewer for research-funding organizations and many international scientific journals. Recently, Stefan was elected as fellow of the Society of Biology. (

This hardly looks like the profile of an ‘underperforming’ professor. His crime, though, was that he prioritized science rather than the accumulation of capital. It took seven months for Professor Alice Gast, the President of Imperial College, to make a public statement on Stefan Grimm’s death. In an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, on 17th April 2015, when asked directly about the case, she offered this oblique comment:

Professors are under pressures. They have a lot on their plates. Professors are really like small business owners. They have their own teaching to perform. They have their own research and they have their research funding to look after. They work with teams of post-docs and post graduate students. Then some of them work on translational work and develop entrepreneurial and new companies and spin outs. It’s a very highly competitive world out there. The collaborative nature and the way in which we’re moving towards highly collaborative work I think helps because one starts to recognise that you can’t do it all alone. You need a team. You build a team with the very best colleagues. You have not only that interplay between the different backgrounds and disciplines but you get the new ideas that are generated by bringing diverse people together. (

There has been a shockingly rapid move from entrepreneurship as metaphor, to a state in which it is both literal and mandatory. It features as a ‘key competency’ in academic job descriptions, and there is now an expectation that professors will earn their own salaries and research expenses. In addition, professors are seen as a kind of Praetorian Guard who will build a university’s brand with ‘outreach’ activities such as media interviews. As we know, institutional branding is about the manipulation of appearances, but when that is made a priority in a professor’s workload, you know that academic values have been forsaken. It is a world which creates posts like an Associate Dean of Eureka Moments (Bristol University 2015) and a Pro Vice Chancellor of Ambition Innovation and Student Satisfaction (Anglia Ruskin 2015).

It is common in the performance management documents I have collected, for reference to be made to ‘stretching objectives’ which are purported to sit in between an individual’s ‘comfort zone’ and the  ‘panic zone’. ‘Stretching objectives’ are presented as desirable, but objectives which place individuals in their comfort or panic zones are not. There is a disturbing presupposition in this discourse of comfort zones. To be asked to go beyond it makes the patronizing assumption that one’s life is normally comfortable. It certainly reveals that those charged with auditing and defining these comfort zones are fortunate in this way. It is a discourse which permits no acknowledgment that the employee may find teaching or research extremely stressful, at least some of the time. Their domestic circumstances may add additional stress – illness of a child, the loss of a partner’s job, death of a parent – these may all lower the threshold of discomfort at work. The managerial class, who can at least assuage some of their discomfort with a larger salary, should check their privilege and ‘think outside the box’ they have just casually ticked.

It is not clear what results university managers expect to emerge from a system of unattainable targets, constant surveillance and audit, and the knowledge that any dip in ‘performance’ may see their contracts terminated, but the death of Stefan Grimm should have brought this kind of disciplinary regime to a swift halt in any ethical institution. In some universities, professors are subject to an inversion of operant conditioning whose ‘incentives’ would be recognized by Milgram, not Skinner. In all this talk of drivers, stretching, and comfort zones, did anyone stop to think of the psychological risk of treating professors as though they were computer processors with a limited life and inevitable disposability? I am not a professor, but many of my friends are. They are all passionate, creative, rewarding colleagues and professionals. They are remapping their fields for others to follow. The fact that they may not be one of the 15 in 100 who wins a research grant is really no reflection on the significance of their work.  They are people whose primary identity is defined by their scholarship. Did nobody in HR raise an objection that treating a professor like this is inhumane, because it certainly makes me weep? The last word on this belongs to Stefan Grimm. “They treat us like shit”, he said at the end of his last email to colleagues. And then he ended his life.


On September 7th-8th 2015 a seminar on Language of Money and Debt was held at Roehampton University. The organizers were Dr Annabelle Mooney and Dr Evi Sifaki and I was a keynote speaker. This event fell close to the anniversary of Stefan Grimm’s death. We felt it should never be forgotten. In response to the Music for Deckchairs blog piece, which asked us all to do the academic equivalent of ‘putting our bats out’ for Stefan, we decided to build a cairn of books. Each participant was asked to bring a book to share with our students, our colleagues and ourselves, which might help us to deal with these pressures. It is the most fitting memorial we could think of.

Stefan Grimm cairn


Deleuze, G. 1990. Postscript on the Societies of Control. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 3-7.

Ben Knight    Knights, B. 2013. ‘Politics and enhancement: the English Subject Centre’ in (eds.) Deborah Philips and Katy Shaw. Literary Politics: The Politics of Literature and the Literature of Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave. pp181 – 193

Moriarty, Philip. 2015.  The use of raw grant income as a performance target has got to go – now. Times Higher. June 18th.

Morrish, L. 2011. Con-Dem-Nation and the attack on academic cultures. Campaign for the Public University. November 2nd 2011.

Gender and performance in the neoliberal academy

In my previous blog post, for ‘A feminist leaves NeoLiberal U’ I was responding to some of the concerns that a colleague had raised, in her letter of resignation, about her gendered experience of the neoliberal, competitive, speeded up academy. My colleague is the mother of young children, and has found the multiple demands of teaching, research and administration overwhelming, especially in a context of institutional panic about the REF and league tables, and escalating expectations of ‘excellence’. Below I offer more thoughts on the particular impact of the culture of restlessness on women in universities, as this seems to have touched a nerve among readers on the blog and on Twitter.

In the UK, performance review and REF submission loom large as ‘drivers’ of academic anxieties. In the US, tenure and promotion take their toll, especially on women, who may face domestic as well as professional expectations. This is a reflection written by a female US academic about her upcoming mid-tenure review:

For some of us, it’s not that we are afraid to lean in. It’s that we have jumped in head first and are barely treading water even when we are considered “successful.” It’s not that my success has come at the expense of family or that my career advancement has been stifled by raising a family. It’s that my success in academe is simply not the kind of success that I envisioned myself. Success should feel good, make you beam with pride, feel as if all your hard work was worthy of something bigger. I envisioned, and frankly deserve, a type of success in which the next panic attack isn’t just around the corner and in which supportive spouses don’t feel like they must resort to ultimatums to cultivate a meaningful family life. (Sangaramoorthy, 2015)

As this example shows, it is important to recognize the differently gendered effects of the neoliberal preoccupations with competitiveness, efficiency and increasing productivity. Without wanting to appear essentialist about the particularities of the effects, we need to take into account the realities of many women’s lives. Lynch (2010) and Evans (2010) both refer to the ‘careless’ university which only rewards ‘careless’ employees. It is your bad luck if you have caring responsibilities which limit the time you can devote to ‘productive’ work.  Shame on you if you wish to mentor a younger colleague, and overlook a publication deadline. Capability procedures for you, if you happen to lose the lottery of research grant ‘capture’. Women, writes Evans, must be prepared to perform according to the metrics of success that have been derived according to norms of masculine lives.

So far, I haven’t even addressed the extent of the extra imposition faced by women of color. As well as acting as role models and sources of counselling and affirmation for students of color, institutions often burden such faculty members with promoting and building diversity. These assignments soak up time, and expectations of published outputs are rarely adjusted accordingly.

And these are the good institutions that claim to care about diversity. For the most part, it is barely acknowledged except in the form of an Equality and Diversity department, there to ensure legal compliance and statistical monitoring. There is no intervention against the compulsory conformity, the inscriptions applied by racist structures on bodies seen as different – these all belie institutional claims and commitments to diversity. I have borne witness to the exclusion of several black women colleagues: their careers casually thwarted by neglect; their unique contribution to the student body forestalled.

For all of us there is a common theme. Our professional lives are dominated by the need to provide discursive evidence that we are compliant with the managerial regime in the form of performance management reviews, teaching evaluations, student satisfactions surveys, research excellence frameworks. Failure to enter into the discourse results in illocutionary silencing, since one has become literally unintelligible to the managerial mind.  By locating critique outside the range of the sayable, our resistance is blunted (Davies and Bendix-Petersen, 2005: 85). The discourse of audit, as Strathern (2000) explains, is often about ‘helping’ people to monitor themselves, and indeed, Gay Tuchmann (2009) has said that we do this as reflexively as a diabetic pricks her finger.

What I found so rare in my colleague’s letter of resignation is that, even at a point of desperation, she has somehow found the reserves of self-worth to think her way outside of this. There is a peculiar force field to audit culture and the rituals of verification (Power 1999) that go with it. Regimes of performance management formalize these to the extent that our whole academic identity has been re-shaped by a series of managerially-imposed criteria, which for many of us, are simply incongruous with academic values and aspirations.

The response to my blog post on Twitter was heartwarming. I feel encouraged. I have no idea how my colleague is feeling, but I’m guessing there is a poignant sense of a supportive community, though intangible, invisible and located somehow out of reach. This is the clandestine academy that Thomas Docherty has written about. There is an urgency, as I will argue in my next piece, for making our views known to management – to resist the discourse one performance indicator, driver and dashboard at a time.


Davies, B. & Bendix Peterson, E. 2005. Neo-liberal discourse in the academy: The forestalling of (collective) resistance. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2 (2): 77-98.

Docherty, T. 2011. The unseen academy. Times Higher. 10th November 2011.

Evans, M. 2010. Coercion and consensus in higher education. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 3 (2): 39-54.

Lynch, K. 2010. Neoliberalism and marketization: the implications for higher education. European Educational Research Journal 5 (1): 1-17.

Misra, J. and Lundquist, J. 2015. Diversity and the ivory ceiling. Inside Higher Ed, June 26th.  Accessed 3rd July 2015.

Sangaramoorthy, T. 2015. A hockey mom seeks tenure. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Strathern, M. (ed) 2000. Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge.

Tuchman, G. 2009. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

A feminist leaves NeoLiberal U

Liz Morrish replies to a feminist colleague’s letter of resignation. 

I was very sorry to read your letter of resignation. I was, though, delighted that you decided to circulate it among colleagues at NeoLiberal U, along with an article, rapidly becoming a classic, if my Twitter feed is any predictor, by Mountz et al in the Great Lakes Feminist Geography Collective, offering a manifesto for a slower pace of academic life. This is what you have not found at NLU, and you weren’t prepared to go on sacrificing the possibility of intellectual creativity, family life and personal space forever. Sometimes principles have to be lived by, because that’s the right thing to do. NLU doesn’t seem to have any other principle than to ‘maximize the staffing resource and leverage the maximum from the academic contract’ (I paraphrase).

It has been a long time since we sat down and discussed all this. That is just your point, though. In the speeded up university, with its distorted constructions of academic ‘productivity’, schedules are crafted to eliminate the necessary practices of caretaking. In my field of work, this is known as ‘relational practice’, and in its most benign form, it is attributed to women. I haven’t been doing much relational practice recently, and have been contemplating this neglect during a period of sabbatical. There is a tendency at work to hole up in offices, and scurry past colleagues you know to be in need of support. It is emails like yours that make me aware of how many of us inhabit the same private hell of alienation, shame, stress and guilt.

All of this is well documented in the Mountz piece, and by Ros Gill, Maggie O’Neill, Mary Evans, Kathleen Lynch, Bronwyn Davies and Eva Bendix-Petersen, Priyamvada Gopal and many others. The critiques of audit culture are mounting, but not as fast as the university ratchets up its demands for ‘accountability’. You found it impossible to prepare and teach new modules each year, do good research, cope with constant change and restructuring, and still be told that you are not working hard enough. I agree, it is uncongenial and it is abusive. As new ‘benchmarks’ for 3* and 4* ‘outputs’ are set by managers who seem oblivious to the demands of our profession, you looked ahead and found the future unsustainable. Sadly, you are not the first, or the last. We have let many hugely talented, capable, and caring, women slip out of the academy without an attempt to address the issues which prompt their departures. It is truly a care-less institution. There is official denial that there is a problem with staff retention, and to frame it in HR terms, your significance must be set against the importance of ‘the role’. There is only ‘the role’; you were merely the temporary place holder. And as you point out, there will soon be some newly-minted PhD who will be prepared to work the 60-70 hours a week necessary to fulfill ‘the role’. In the end, you had the strength and integrity to realise that academic freedom cannot survive in the hot-house culture of perpetual surveillance and ‘kaisan’ that has become the way of life at NLU. What you have observed – a system that stifles intellectual endeavor as much as it considers itself productive and dynamic – is termed ‘acanemia’. It disguises its damage by pretending that its individual parts are malfunctioning. You have correctly diagnosed the system as being sick. This has not prevented you from being harmed however, by what Ros Gill has called the ‘hidden injuries’ of higher education.

I wonder what was the last straw? The broken promises on workload equity and research time? The shifting goal posts for promotion? The time wasted on pointless change? The lack of collegiality? The authoritarianism which ruptured the working relationships you had developed? Or was it the growing awareness that immediate managers have as little power to improve your conditions as you do?

Given the totalizing reach of the in-corporat-ion, I am pleased to see you refusing to allow yourself to be judged by those absurd binaries and exclusions which govern our working environment. The ‘performance reviews’ which consider only the visible and measurable workstreams. And the monetizable, of course. Research active status will now be a designation earned only by a new, homogenous and care-less elite. It will not be allowed for the slow, careful writer who wishes to do scrupulous and yes, pleasurable work. In this obscene inversion of academic values, such a person may well be subject to the discipline of ‘capability procedures’ if we read the strategic plan. For capability now equals not scrupulosity of process, but speed and quantity of ‘outputs’, possibly augmented by the requisite citations and H-index. This is a world of multiple Neoliberal Us which have decided to eat their young. We have lost a good dozen in the last few years. Those former colleagues are now beyond the reach of REF, NSS, QAA, PDR and a whole host of officious, soul-sapping bureaucracy. Now that you are leaving, those others among us who critique the regimes of performance management, surveillance and ‘output measures’ are a little more isolated. It is affirming to hear similar perspectives from younger voices which discount managerial narratives of entrenched positions quarantined among peevish golden agers.

I’m sure, given the opportunity you deserve, that you would have ascended the ladder and made it all the way to professor. But, this accolade, too, has been reformulated to reflect an institution which never reaches its goals. No process is ever allowed to reach fulfillment, and so it is with academic careers. You thought you had arrived? Think again! The collective vice-chancellors of the UK seem determined to declare the area a professor-free zone, as one after the other, universities have declared war on their professors Taking your bow after an inaugural lecture is your first step into a new precariat. It can only be a matter of time before HR departments are instructed to replicate that strategic insecurity among the rank and file academic staff.

So get out and stay out of academia would be my advice. It is unlikely to get better. Three years from now, big data will see us all reduced to just a blinking light on a faculty ‘dashboard’. But I would like to thank you for your work. I’d like to thank you for not just turning your back and leaving silently. Thank you for calling out the insanity, and refusing to submit to false definitions and measures. You leave with the admiration of your colleagues, which to me, is the only prize still worth having.

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism