University of McKinsey, Wall Street campus

Wilhelm Humboldt, founder of the modern research-university model

An interesting New York Review of Books piece on three books on the modern British and American university – two academic studies and one five-year plan by HEFCE, the quango responsible for holding the British university system in a headlock over a vat of hot oil – analyzes the causal links between the modern bureaucratization of higher education and some brainy schemes hatched by American management consultancy firms from the first Bush era onwards. It adds a dimension to the familiar narrative of capital’s Anschluss of higher education and encourages us to reflect more intelligently and honestly on the cause of the current malaise, which we often blame too easily on government.

The most influential of the systems began life at MIT and Harvard Business School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, moved east across the Atlantic by way of consulting firms such as McKinsey and Accenture, and reached British academic institutions during the 1990s and the 2000s through the UK government and its bureaucracies. Of all the management practices that have become central in US business schools and consulting firms in the past twenty years—among them are “Business Process Reengineering,” “Total Quality Management,” “Benchmarking,” and “Management by Objectives”—the one that has had the greatest impact on British academic life is among the most obscure, the “Balanced Scorecard” (BSC).

The commonly held stereotype of the academic life is perhaps an image of pompous, port-swilling scions of the privileged upper-middle class doing a spot of teaching from time to time but spending most of their lives on holiday or griping at their colleagues while revelling in the petty power they exercise over awe-struck students. This does, I’m sorry to say, still partly reflect the performance of parts of Oxford and Cambridge, whose institutional mechanisms sustain arcane conventions for longer than in other universities. It does the university system no good and a lot of harm to deny that this is a problem in some areas, since it is observably the case (more or less the minute that an outsider is brought into dinner on high table). But for the most of the ‘sector’, as its called in the argot of market liberalism, the picture is not just outdated – it’s utterly alien.

Most academics outside Oxbridge spend their non-teaching or -research time engaging in spirit-crushing admin whose principal function often seems to be the ‘robust’ (a favourite word of the managerial class) demonstration that ‘research outputs’ are being ‘delivered’, ‘impact’ demonstrated, and ‘best practice’ upheld in all areas. Although academics tend to do this work joylessly and with a large degree of cynicism and contempt for its intellectual vacuousness, they still do it. The torments of the present system, which more than just being distressing for academics are actually destroying the principal area in which the values of enlightened civilization are developed and fostered, are being sustained by academics who know very well that the system is rotten, stupid, and cowardly in the face of increasingly totalitarian ideological state apparatuses yet nevertheless act as if behaving in this manner is right.

Let’s be clear. There are many enthusiastic academic adopters of this abstruse language of the McKinseyites. They shape an important part of the future of research funding through their membership in the higher echelons of the funding councils. They steer academic departments and faculties through internal and external audits that rely on these principles which are so toxic to both thought in the present and hope for the future. Some drift into higher management positions within universities, almost always relinquishing any former interest in research or the intellectual life (if it ever truly existed). Others become heads of department for a few years and return to normal teaching and research duties thereafter. There is no standard type of academic who succumbs to these ideas and this language, no identifiable enemy to civilization in that sense. We’re all at it, all of the time, in small and large ways.

We’re trapped in a pernicious ideology, and while dissent is easy enough to voice among open-minded people who have in the main based their lives on the pursuit of insight through dispute and argument, in the end all ideas of resistance to the ideological imperatives are utterly quashed. In this sense Terry Eagleton’s recent Guardian piece on the impossibility of bringing humanities-based universities (which is to say virtually all of them) and capital into union with one another – ‘universities and advanced capitalism are fundamentally incompatible’ – is entirely fanciful. The humanities may know that their ideals are divergent from and incompatible with capital’s, but they act as if they are not.

The problem may be one of class. All academics are middle-class by nature of their profession and most were congenitally so. I know from speaking to them that some of those few who emerge from lower-class origins (in my case, County Durham miners and factory workers) feel an enormous social and cultural lack of fit within the system. But they also sense a failure of nerve in a class that is for historic economic reasons allergic to any form of resistance. History has treated the middle classes well, and when a former site of middle-class privilege is under sustained attack of unfathomable brutality (and success), there is no obvious way to respond. It isn’t polite to talk back to the Vice Chancellor; it isn’t decent to kick up a fuss in committee meetings in the department or faculty; it isn’t realistic to expect one person to be able to change a system.

First, politeness and decency must be rejected as oppressive tools. Only the secure can enjoy these perks. Those who have nothing have to beg and fight – rudely and indecently – because they have no other choice. And although it is certainly not realistic for an individual at the bottom to change the course even of a single university’s policy at the top, that sense of quietistic defeatism (again, typical of a class that has safety nets) is blind to the change that can be brought about when people unite in common purpose.

As so often, the challenge of the Left is to persuade people who believe the right things to act in the right way. But we have to stop blaming the government and the idiots who run our universities. It’s our fault for playing the game.

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