When I was at primary school, one of the things they did to keep us occupied was make us perform a strange, tuneless chant about a factory worker named Joe. ‘Hi!’ we would shout. ‘My name’s Joe! And I work in a button fac-tor-ee. One day, my boss came to me and said “Joe! Are you busy?” I said “No!”’ As the chant developed, poor Joe would be given more and more instructions. First it was ‘Push this button with you right hand!’ and we would have to jab our right index fingers rhythmically in the air while continuing to chant. Then it was the left hand, then the right foot, then the left foot, then the head. I don’t remember there being any natural stopping point. It just went on until we made mistakes, forgetting some of the ‘buttons’ or losing our balance and falling over.
Earlier this year I wrote about the planned changes to mental health provision for students at the University of Essex. The details were murky but the outline was clear enough: yet more cuts and outsourcing. Though seemingly unwilling to give staff and students a clear explanation of what was going to happen, the university was at pains to emphasise one point: that this was to be an ‘expansion’ of counselling provision for students – a 30 per cent expansion, no less.
Having finished my PhD, I’m looking for a job, checking the academic recruitment websites every few days and keeping an ear out for teaching assistant positions. Most jobs with a September start advertised this late in the year are part-time and fixed-term. A Russell Group university in London, for instance, has been looking for a lecturer in British Intellectual and Cultural History, who will be paid the equivalent of £40,000 a year. On a half-time contract over ten months, they'll get about £16,700: just enough for a single person to be able to afford to live in London, according to the Living Wage Foundation. They will probably be able to pick up some more work, but their chances of reaching a full-time entry-level lecturer's salary (£32,004, according to the nationally agreed pay scale) are slim. It's more likely that they will be forced to use most of their unpaid time to do the research on which their prospects of a future academic career hang. Problems of this kind in academic employment are not new. But another vacancy which recently closed appears to plumb new depths.
I woke yesterday morning to the news that the vice chancellor’s office at Queen’s University in Belfast had cancelled a symposium, due to take place in June at the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo. ‘Incomplete risk assessment’ was the reason given. All day yesterday I kept schtum. Too busy working. At least I convinced myself that was the reason. When I woke in the early hours of this morning I wondered if I hadn’t actually been carrying out a bit of risk assessment of my own.
The director of Harvard admissions has said that being a ‘Harvard legacy’ – the child of a Harvard graduate – is just one of many ‘tips’ in the college’s admissions process, such as coming from an ‘under-represented state’ (Harvard likes to have students from all 50), or being on the ‘wish list’ of an athletic coach. For most applicants to Harvard, the acceptance rate is around 5 per cent; for applicants with a parent who attended Harvard, it’s around 30 per cent. (One survey found that 16 per cent of Harvard undergraduates have a parent who went to Harvard.) A Harvard study from a few years ago shows that after controlling for other factors that might influence admission (such as, say, grades), legacies are more than 45 per cent more likely to be admitted to the 30 most selective American colleges than non-legacies.
In the brave new world of know-biz, universities now issue ‘tone of voice’ marketing-correctness drills to staff charged with handling the ‘brand’. The comms and marketing wonks who write them face a tough challenge: to pander to their institution’s special-snowflake syndrome, while spouting the same commercial cobblers as everyone else.
Last month Amsterdam students occupied the Bungehuis building on Spuistraat, in protest against the university’s ‘Profiel 2016’ plan to shred jobs and academic programmes. Hardest hit is the humanities faculty, rated in the top thirty globally in 2011, where around 100 staff face the axe. Within humanities, ‘small’ languages such as Arabic, Polish and Italian will no longer exist as majors. Falling enrolment is blamed, though humanities admissions rose from 1417 in 2006 to 1875 in 2010. The cuts aim to save €7 million from 2017; other humanities programmes may be ‘consolidated’ into a generic liberal arts structure.
Last year, students at Cambridge campaigning for a living wage for staff were told by a senior official that their college was ‘a business first, a home second’. A few months later, King’s College hosted George Osborne and others at an international economics conference. Students were hauled before the dean for singing a protest song as Osborne walked past them in the bar. One of the things they were angry about was that the conference had taken over the student coffee shop – part of their home – for its corporate hospitality.
More than half the academic staff at London Metropolitan University – around 840 people – are on zero-hours contracts. Their hours of employment vary from term to term or year to year. Most earn nothing during the university holidays. They do the same work as permanent staff but have no job security, minimal prospect of advancement and inferior benefits. Many are teaching courses that they designed: their work is not incidental or unskilled. They can be fired at a month's notice. Many have been in this position for years.
University fees are a dead issue from the point of view of the major political parties. But the last year has seen the development of a new student protest movement that attempts to move beyond the question of fees to the broader logic of the Browne Report. Local campaigns to pay a living wage to support staff have merged with calls for flatter top-to-bottom wage ratios and a reshaped, democratic university administration involving students and academics as well as managers. It's nothing to match the size and anger of 2010, but the movement possesses something like its reanimated spirit – together with the usual attachment of the British left to heroic defeat.
On Wednesday 29 January, 150 students from around the country met at Birmingham University to discuss the next steps in their campaigns against the privatisation of education, outsourcing of university services and selling off of student debt. After the meeting, the students picked up red and black flags, put on masks and marched around the campus. Some unfurled a banner from the top of Old Joe, the university's clock tower named after Joseph Chamberlain. Others spray painted and chalked slogans onto the red brick walls: 'Occupy, Strike, Resist'; 'No more 1984.' When protesters tried to enter university buildings, security tried to stop them. There was some pushing and shoving. Soon the police arrived. A university spokesperson later said that 'the university had no choice but to ask the police for assistance in restoring order and protecting students, staff and university property.'
'I don't normally cover my face, but I don't want to be identified,' the young woman told me last month. A student at al-Azhar University in Cairo, she was wearing a pink hijab and sweatshirt with a mustard-coloured bandana over her face. 'This is me,' she said, pulling aside the bandana with a smile. She couldn't have been more than 20. Many of the other young women around us had wrapped their faces in scarves to conceal their identities from the soldiers and policemen standing nearby.
As well as tripling fees and changing the repayment structure of student loans in 2010, the government has been looking into ways of ridding itself of loans that predate 2012, currently worth around £40 billion. They asked Rothschild to produce a report on the possibility of selling off the loan book to private investors. The report was delivered in November 2011, but only made public in June this year after a Freedom of Information request and a botched attempt at redaction.
Cambridge University promises its students ‘a supportive environment’ and ‘specialist assistance should you need it’. ‘Students who are struggling with a particular problem or feeling a bit lost won’t go unnoticed,’ it reassures us. ‘Don’t worry.’ But when the Guardianrevealed last week that Cambridgeshire police have attempted to infiltrate student activist groups and record the names and details of protesters, the university declined to comment, saying the case was a matter for the police.
When my father was a student at the University of Cape Town in the 1970s, the university went to court to prevent the police coming onto campus during political demonstrations. Yesterday Michael Chessum, the president of the University of London students’ union, was arrested on suspicion of an offence under Section 11 of the Public Order Act – failing to notify the police of a public procession. The procession in question was a demonstration the previous day of maybe 200 students, on the pavement outside the students union, around the perimeter of Senate House and in the Senate House car park.
We have had occasion before on this blog and in the pages of the LRB to note the enthusiasm shown by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in helping government to liberate academic research from antiquated notions of free intellectual inquiry. Its latest inspiration is this announcement of opportunities for what it is pleased to call ‘follow-on funding’.
The Modern Language Association of America has finished its 128th annual convention. This year, ten thousand delegates descended on three sprawling, super-heated and mall-lined hotels in Boston. Well-established fears – the steady corporatisation of the academy, the encroachment of market forces on academic publishing, the shameful ways in which early career academics are treated – had had their influence on most of the papers I heard. Many of the panels were about how to sell yourself as a graduate student, or find a way into the increasingly closed shop of a tenure-track academic career, or avoid it altogether. There were panels on ‘Myth-busting the Job Search’ and ‘Marketing Your PhD in Literature and Languages’. At a panel on ‘Humanisms Old and New’ the medievalist James Simpson said we were saddled with ‘a legacy of 15th-century philological humanism’ that was outdated. If we tried to justify the humanities as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, he said, ‘we’re going to lose.’
Last November, the higher education minister, David Willetts, came to Cambridge to deliver a talk, in a series about 'the idea of the university' organised by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. But as he came to the lectern, a number of audience members (both students and academics) stood up and read, or performed, collectively, a poem articulating opposition to the policies he was advocating. They continued to read and repeat the poem until after a few minutes Willetts was ushered away and the lecture and question and answer session cancelled. In the aftermath of this, and of the small occupation of the lecture theatre that followed it, one PhD student was singled out for reprisal by the university authorities, and made subject to the university’s disciplinary procedures.
The University of California, Davis, where I teach, has long been popular with parents looking for a safe and sequestered life for their children, deterred by the history of student radicalism at Berkeley or Santa Cruz. Until the weekend, the only spraying known to be going on at Davis was on the university farm (it was founded as an agricultural college). Last week a small rally was organised partly in protest at the recent violence of the Berkeley campus police force, which set about dispersing a peaceful occupation with night sticks. The chancellor (who was in China at the time) described it as ‘nudging’, but it looked – and by all accounts felt – like vicious beating. But now other California campus are rallying in support of the Davis students.
Medical research has long been the darling of American politics, left and right, in times rich and poor. Now, however, the veneration of spending cuts and deficit reduction, from the Tea Party to the White House, is threatening the world’s greatest bankroll for medical science, the National Institutes of Health. The biomedical establishment is resounding with warnings of delayed cures for cancer, blighted scientific careers, and the rise of China. The financial threat has also inspired unusually frank talk about the way NIH spends its money, large amounts of which never get to the laboratory.
Saturday 26 November at 10 a.m.Venue: Edmond J Safra Lecture Theatre, King's College London The Research Assessment Exercise, corporate sponsorship, ‘impact’, the Browne Report, a 200 per cent increase in tuition fees, the introduction of private universities, budget cuts: we are living through a period of rapid and sweeping change in higher education. Where will the changes leave us, and what higher education come to look like? What do the changes mean for our idea of the university?
Oxford University announced earlier this month that it has appointed the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron (Tate Modern, the National Stadium in Beijing) as the architect of the new Blavatnik School of Government. Last year the Russian/American ‘billionaire industrial philanthropist’ Leonard Blavatnik gave Oxford £75 million, a gift it has described as ‘one of the most generous in the University’s 900-year history’. Oxford is making a sizeable contribution of its own: £26 million and land for the new school in ‘the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter’, a ten-acre site in the centre of the city, masterplanned by the office of another starchitect, Rafael Viñoly.
The company secretary of the Russell Group, Glynne Stanfield, has told Times Higher Education that 'universities could be in private hands in six months':
Mr Stanfield said private equity firms or "trade buyers" (established private higher education providers) could buy out a university in its entirety and thus gain its degree-awarding powers...
A private equity firm or trade buyer could buy a stake in a university, providing the institution with working capital in return for using its degree-awarding powers overseas, for example.
The price of freedom, as we all know, is eternal vigilantism. In its quest to build the Big Society, the coalition government, like its predecessor, has determined to let a thousand grasses squeal. So the general public is regularly exhorted to rat on housing benefit frauds, bogus asylum seekers and in-the-pink incapacity benefit cheats, not to mention suspected ‘terrorists’. Shop a looter! posters currently grace Manchester’s Piccadilly station. As its trains pull out of each station, the ever drear TransPennine Express enjoins passengers to report ‘anything suspicious’ to the TE conductor. I’m writing this on one of their trains, and there’s a bloke on the other side of the glass partition in First Class who looks a bit dodgy. He could be a serial tax evader. Time to tip the clippie the wink.
In the last few days, more than forty of us have collectively resigned our membership of the Peer Review College of the Arts and Humanities Research Council: we will no longer referee colleagues’ (usually hopeless, often hapless) applications for research money. We quit in protest at the AHRC’s announcement a couple of months ago that the Big Society was to be one of its research funding priorities, and its subsequent insistence that this did not impugn academic freedom – on the grounds that the decision was an independent one and not imposed by government. More resignations are expected as the AHRC digs in over this ‘justification’ of its Browne-nosing hope of favour. For British academics to act like this is unprecedented.
Tough times for Greeks, and for teachers of Greek, as the austerity regime bites. Royal Holloway’s classics and philosophy department is the latest to go. Under the plans, seven posts are being scissored, and another five classicists are being moved en bloc to history. The philosophers will be shunted to the politics and international relations department. Royal Holloway’s classics BA degree will be binned. Edith Hall is being shunted over to English, presumably on the grounds that she does research into Renaissance performances of classical drama – which seems a bit like moving an expert on the history of enclosures to a job in estates management. Happily, though, it’s not all downsizing, short-staffing and curriculum cuts on planet academe. One who isn’t facing the dole queue is Rick Rylance, who today takes over as the chair of Research Councils UK.
The New College for the Humanities must have looked like a winner on paper. A higher education Britain’s Got Talent fronted by celebrity academics not just on the payroll, but taking a dividend. Financiers on board. Mayor BoJo’s blessing. Saudi princes by the tanker-load offering their custom. And then the project has seemingly shrivelled faster than a LibDem campaign rosette. Birkbeck swiftly distances itself from the NCH and parts company with its founder. The college’s financial, fiscal and institutional status prove foggy. It turns out that the Cannadine-Colleys are only showing up for one lecture each a year. Poor A.C. Grayling gets ambushed in Foyle’s and smoke-bombed when all he wanted to do was puff his college and shift a few copies of his rewrite of the Bible. Is nothing sacred?
Professional opposition to the government's higher education policies is growing. Tomorrow afternoon, academics at Oxford will be debating and voting on a motion of no confidence in the minister for universities and science, David Willetts. A similar vote may be going ahead in Cambridge, and petitions have been started at Warwick and Goldsmiths. Philip Pullman's account of going to Oxford for interview gives a sense of what's at stake.
In the LRB earlier this month, Iain Pears regretted the government’s progressive undermining of the Haldane principle, ‘the century-old understanding that research should be protected from political interference’, and noted in passing that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) had issued a document stating that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) ‘will systematically address issues relating to... cultural renewal contributing to the “Big Society” initiative.’ On Sunday, the Observer made quite a bit more capital out of the same story.
For all Plato’s hopes, an education in philosophy is no guarantor of virtue. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s 2008 PhD from the LSE is an alleged kickback for a £1.5 million bung from the Gaddafi Foundation, now to be rejected, though it isn’t clear what’s going to happen to the £150,000 that’s already been spent. The LSE is also investigating allegations that the thesis was plagiarised, on the faintly ludicrous imputation that nobody in cahoots with the Mad Dog of Tripoli could knock out a competent discussion of John Rawls.
In the latest issue of Genome Biology (thanks to Alan Rudrum for pointing it out) there's an angry open letter to George Philip, the president of the State University of New York at Albany, from Gregory Petsko, a biochemist at Brandeis, protesting against the budget cuts that have led to SUNY axeing its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and theatre departments. As for the argument that the humanities don't pay their own way, well, I guess that's true, but it seems to me that there's a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business.
Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv claims to be the largest university in Israel. Its official goal is to cultivate and combine ‘Jewish identity and tradition with modern technologies and research’. Fifteen years ago, after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by one of its students, the university set out to temper its right-wing tendencies and become a more liberal institution guided by ostensibly neutral professional procedures and regulations. Bar-Ilan may have continued to provide accreditation for two colleges in illegal West Bank settlements, but it also developed an excellent gender studies programme and hired a number of left-wing academics.
Staff in the philosophy department at Middlesex University were told last week that they were being shut down. You won’t have read about it in the papers. The numbers are small – just six full-time faculty, a hundred or so students – and it would be easy to imagine that this was the sort of trimming that every university will have to undertake as they respond to Peter Mandelson’s announcement, in December, that cuts of £950 million will be made to the university budget over the next three years. Easy to imagine, too, that the departments forced to close will be those that aren’t doing so well: they will have falling student numbers or mediocre research ratings, perhaps a poor track record attracting grants. Philosophy, though, is the highest-rated research subject at Middlesex; in the most recent research assessment exercise in 2008, the department was ranked 13th out of 41 institutions in the UK, ahead of Warwick, Sussex, Glasgow, Durham and York, and first among the post-1992 universities. Undergraduate applications are healthy; its MA programme is the biggest in the country. Explaining why, despite all these things, philosophy had to go, Ed Esche, dean of the school of arts and humanities, told staff that reputation made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the university: it couldn't be allowed to interfere with their calculations. What, then, does matter?