How to Ruin a University Without Really Trying

As Stefan Collini discusses in Speaking of Universities, none of the things universities aim to do -- from educating people to achieving research breakthroughs -- can be achieved under the conditions they’re increasingly being made to conform to.

Playing nice and getting along hasn’t accomplished much at all, other than the ruination of what used to be some of the world’s premiere university systems.

Among the varied casualties of western society’s neoliberal turn, few are as remarkable as the ongoing demise of its university systems. A mere 40 years ago its post-secondary institutions were still exalted as the living, beating brain of Euro-American civilization. Today, thanks to the predations of instrumentalist thinking, austerity economics, and spinelessly complicit intellectuals, its universities are crumbling, despised pockets of byzantine wealth upheld by indentured precarity; hollowed out by a poverty of soul as moral as it is fiscal.

Western society’s intellectual decline has no shortage of erudite chroniclers, and Stefan Collini is among the first-rank bards. The death-song these bards sing is not one of heroic demise but of tortured decay: the crumbling of post-secondary education has been a painfully gradual process. Collini, Professor Emeritus at Cambridge and Fellow of the British Academy, hopped on the tenure track in time to witness much of that journey from a first-class carriage. His writing style has the self-satisfied insouciance of an accomplished and decorated academic; it lacks the ringing desperation and rousing cry for change of younger academics who realize they may never achieve any sort of employment in their chosen field, let alone tenure. But what his essays lack in fervour they make up for in insight and analytic forthrightness.

The primary value of his latest book Speaking of Universities lies in its blunt-speaking. Collini says up-front and unapologetically those things that many academics want to say but either can’t figure out how to articulate as arguments or are afraid to, lest they be blacklisted for doing so. If the book’s essays seem sometimes disjointed or repetitive, it’s because they’re mostly recycled versions of various talks and articles strung together into a book. Never mind: his erudite and often witty style makes up for the disjointing, and the repetitious message is one that urgently needs to be repeated because no one seems to be getting it.

Collini calls out the destructive — and self-defeating — managerialism and ‘audit populism’ of today’s universities. They are being destroyed by an invasion of individualist, ‘market democracy’ principles, which combine a “reductive economism in public policy” with “an ostensible egalitarianism in public debate”; the result is “a damaging short-termism, an emphasis on measurable forms of accountability, and a loss of both trust and autonomy.”

This is the message he hammers home again and again. The benefits of universities — both fiscal and social — are always long-term and indirect. Efforts to generate, or demonstrate, immediate short-term value, whether in the form of annual revenue generation or in the form of graduate employment data, will either fail to reflect the benefits of universities or may even undermine those benefits by stymieing and derailing them in the pursuit of short-term gain. Universities benefit society in countless ways; but the best of those ways are ones which can neither be controlled nor even accurately demonstrated in any sort of accounting fashion. If you want the benefits of an educated population, you must trust in the ultimately unmeasurable and uncontrollable process of education to make it happen. If you seek to isolate that process and control it (say in the name of cost-effectiveness) you risk condemning your efforts — and ultimately your society — to failure.

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This in many ways has been the experience of the western world, particularly those countries with Anglophone university systems that once dominated the intellectual sphere. Australia, Canada, the United States, and of course Collini’s chief subject the United Kingdom have all witnessed their university systems succumb to neoliberal market thinking (the term ‘logic’ is inappropriate, as it is rarely logical) and the erosion of intellectualism (and its offspring: good education and research breakthroughs) which inevitably follows.

Fear of the Mean-spirited, Mob Mentality

Other chroniclers of neoliberalism have observed that it thrives (and cultivates) a meanness of spirit: instead of striving to improve living and working conditions so that those on the bottom rungs of society are hoisted up the ladder, it inspires a race to the bottom wherein people seek to drag others down to their level. ‘Down with pensions; down with job security; down with tenure! If I don’t have it you shouldn’t either!’ goes the refrain, and even if the public does still grasp the value of universities to the improvement of society (and preservation of civilization), academics and administrators are seized by the fear that if they do not appear to be adhering to this self-flagellating populism, then they’ll be targeted too. Instead of arguing and fighting for the legitimacy of what they do and the higher purpose they serve, they offer up — encouraged and led in this process by their highly paid bureaucratic administrators — the necessary privileges they enjoy (academic freedom, basic research, good teaching) on a silver platter, in an effort to ingratiate themselves with the murderous neoliberal mob they expect to be just around the corner, coming to burn them alive (and cut their grants).

Which is not to say that the short-term, narrow-minded mob mentality of audit populism is not something to be concerned about.

“In a public culture that is so sensitive to the prejudices of the right-wing popular press, there is a very great and easily mobilized hostility to anything that can be represented as professional-class welfare-sponging,” Collini writes. Never mind that the corporate and governing elites of society engage in far more egregious and parasitical conduct; instead this “popular interpretation of ‘accountability’ means, therefore, not democratic answerability or demonstration of proper stewardship of public funds. Insidiously, it comes to mean — though this is never made explicit, of course —

that the working conditions within these professions should be made to correspond more closely to those recognizable to the majority of the working population in the society at large…” In other words: precarity and underfunding, and tyrannical short-sighted managers ruining the whole undertaking.

There is a broad case to be made in almost any aspect of modern life against the application of austerity ideologies and neoliberal instrumentality, but Collini focuses primarily on what he knows best: universities. It’s both his strong point and his weak point. On the one hand, failing to see the struggle to defend universities as part of the broader struggle against austerity ideologies and neoliberal policy-making inevitably isolates universities, which is part of what has weakened the position of those who seek to defend them, and the confidence they have in pitching their argument to the broader society, which is also suffering.

But on the other hand, he’s quite right. None of the things universities aim to do — from educating people to achieving research breakthroughs — can be achieved under the conditions they’re increasingly being made to conform to. If people want their society to enjoy the benefits of universities, they have to allow those universities to enjoy the ‘benefits’ (if one chooses to call them that) —

– academic freedom, generous research funding with no guarantee of immediate return, state-funding with low or non-existent tuition fees, etc., etc. — which make those broader gains possible.

How to Measure Excellence Without Using the E-word

Part of the problem, of course, is that there is no way to objectively measure intellectual excellence. An entire industry has been built around trying to do just that; indeed, it’s what most overpaid administrators spend all their time, futilely, trying to do. It’s the reason they desperately hire more administrators and assistant administrators and divert even more funds from teaching and research into fly-by-night schemes for benchmarks and standards; ‘centres of teaching excellence’ and ‘teaching frameworks’ and ‘teaching innovation strategies’.

The result of this, as Collini notes, is that every university in the land, and every unit of which they are comprised, sing out their “commitment to excellence” in an infinite variety of vision statements and strategic plans, as though a silly catch-phrase like that could ever have any actual meaning.

Excellence, Collini wryly observes, “is the term reached for by the bureaucratic mind when it has no idea how to identify real achievement in the activity in question.”

“[G]ood teaching can be judged but not measured,” he writes. “[T]he business consultant’s model of setting benchmarks by which to measure ‘continuous improvement’ is internally inconsistent as well as destructive of good teaching.”

“One of the challenges facing all societies in the twenty-first century is that the legitimate democratic concern with accountability constantly threatens to restrict and damage the necessary level of professional autonomy. It is a hard truth for legislators and administrators to accept that what, ultimately, determines the quality of a university is the quality of the thinking done by its academic staff, and that that is not something that legislators and administrators can control, though they can certainly constrain it.”

All of this leads to what Collini brilliantly identifies as the ‘paradox of management’ in universities. The practices of university administrators “are bound to be endlessly frustrating for the administrators themselves, since they cannot compel or otherwise bring about the production of the thing that matters most — intellectual quality, whether in teaching or scholarship or research. They are therefore encouraged by society to expend their considerable energies on schemes which they can control — forms of surveillance and assessment which have the appearance of ensuring that the objects of a university are being properly pursued, but which are in reality simply external indicators of their lack of effectiveness in the one thing needful.”

This is what’s wrong with universities: managerialism run wild. A state of affairs in which “the procedures, values and interests of those charged with running an institution take priority over the purposes for which it is supposedly being run.”

A good administrator, observes Collini, would be one who worked to provide whatever conditions academics believe they need in order to teach and do good research. Instead, what we are saddled with today are poor managers, who “exact compliance from academics in procedures which are proxies for the real business of teaching and thinking well.” There is no administrative or management technique which can produce good teaching or research breakthroughs; only the idiosyncratic thinking of academics can do that. “Consequently, the most lavishly funded and most efficiently run university which has largely fourth-rate academics will remain a fourth-rate university.”

Sadly, most universities strive for funding and operational efficiency, rather than the thing that matters the most: good thinking.

An Undefensive Defence

Collini warns, quite rightly, that academics should not resort to defences about how ‘relevant’ they are, in response to the narrow-minded managerialism and audit populism of contemporary society; at least not defences that are framed in the terms of market populism. Doing so really has not worked at all. That doesn’t mean, he notes, that universities shouldn’t point out the importance and value that they serve. “But [the case] needs to be made in appropriate terms, and these terms are not chiefly, and certainly not exclusively, economic. They are intellectual, educational, scientific and cultural. In addition, it has to be emphasized that higher education is a public good, not simply a set of private benefits for those who happen to participate in it, and therefore that it is a mistake to allow the case for universities to be represented as a merely sectional or self-interested cause on the part of current students and academics.”

“There is always a risk that well-meant attempts to demonstrate the ‘relevance’ of universities to society’s needs can end up being counter-productive. Society actually obtains the greatest benefits from universities by encouraging them to concentrate on doing the things they are particularly good at, and not by trying to turn them into some form of company laboratory or apprenticeship scheme… we in universities should not be so defensive: more is to be gained, by everyone, if universities explain in their own terms the character of what they do and why it is significant and worthwhile rather than repeating and colluding with a discourse which always risks becoming reductive and short-termist.”

Collini warns that the complacency of academics in this process — particularly the successful ones — is driven by a belief that managerialism is simply an irritation that can tolerated as long as it allows them some freedom in which to do the things they wish to do. But he warns this is false and deceptive thinking; allowing the creep of managerialism has “fundamentally altered not just the conditions in universities but the very sense of identity and relation to one’s work. There is an insidious process by which we become what the categories we use every day tell us we are.”

What does this all mean? Academics should be unapologetic about their worth to society, and the need for society to support what they do. They must also have the courage to stand up to the generally poor managers who run today’s universities and refuse to play the game that those managers want to play in defining the worth of universities in ways which accord with the dominant neoliberal ideologies of their ruling regimes. Playing nice and getting along hasn’t accomplished much at all, other than the ruination of what used to be some of the world’s premiere university systems.

It’s unlikely we’ll see academics rioting in the streets anytime soon, despite the fact that would probably be a lot more productive than their ongoing complicity with their own decline. But the first step toward tackling these problems — and this seems to be one of the key messages Collini hopes to convey — is that authentic intellectuals must stop playing along with the delusion that the various turns toward neoliberal instrumentality and audit populism are in any way a positive achievement. They must acknowledge their universities are being run by gangs of bureaucratic fools; a multitude of emperors-in-new-clothes who are convinced their insubstantial duds are the latest fashion. And they must stop playing along.

After all, our collective future is at stake.