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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The State we’re in (with apologies to Will Hutton): Part 1

These thoughts (I don't promise anything very startling or profound) about the dynamics of the British higher education world, in which I live and work, are prompted by a number of things. I have been thinking about writing a piece (though it will have to come in several 'pieces') like this for some time but the immediate cause was ‘Anonymous’ asking me whose side I am on in the current discussion about the AHRC and The Big Society (I would say debate but debate would require two things that seem to me to be lacking at present: two sides willing to engage in a discussion, and something clearly established to be discussed). The issue of fees, of the impact agenda, and the current dispute between the UCU Union and the VCs, the employers, also come into the equation. So, too, do various other gripes that concern me, about admissions, about feedback-driven teaching, about the often-demoralising nature of students. Thus in one sense this piece, spread over several instalments rather than one long rant, is about ‘the state we’re in’ but is also a case study of how states work, as I see it, using the way in which governments, at least from Thatcher’s onwards, have got universities to bend to their will. In this the current AHRC saga is – if we have been correctly informed about it - only the latest and perhaps clearest symptom.

Regular readers will not be surprised to see that I trace the roots of the problems to the sorts of ‘values’ which I see as introduced during the Thatcher years; the culture of late free market capitalism, the pernicious myths of competition and choice, the triumph of the vapid, talentless New Labour middle management type and vacuous and insidious talk of ‘transparency’, ‘collegiality’, consensus and the rest’, and so on. Thus this sketchy critique of the situation within British universities will have to move beyond that to more general issues of late capitalist* economy and attitudes within it.

Ultimately, at least as I envisage it, the problems we find ourselves confronted by find a common origin in successive governments’ (Labour and Conservative) successful reduction of British universities to a series of competing cells. This takes a series of forms; it is not simply the conversion of researchers in HE from fellow seekers after knowledge into rival competitors for money and status, crucially important though that is.

Let’s take the issue of the introduction of fees. One of the most disappointing features of this (and I think that disappointment rather than anger is the Leitmotif of these thoughts) has been the absolute absence of any sort of opposition by ‘our leaders’, the vice chancellors of ‘Universities UK’. One must be forgiven for thinking that these people have actually been rubbing their hands with glee. Indeed, I can think of at least one who has described the introduction of fees as ‘an opportunity’. I find this – as I said – disappointing. I find it very disappointing indeed. My own institution recently won the Higher’s University of the Year (prizes and league tables are a huge part of the general problem as I will discuss in the next instalment), something which obviously we’re proud of as we think we do a good job. That said, I’d be uneasy about turning that into any sort of implied claim that we ‘do it better’ than anyone else, even if only on a ‘season by season’ basis (as though it was the FA Cup). It would have been nice for our VC to have taken the opportunity as something more than a photo-opportunity for some (mildly embarrassing) air-punching (as though it was the FA Cup), as an opportunity – perhaps? – to say something about the promotion of social inequality commensurate with the introduction of high fees. But no. Sadly all that has come from the VCs (with – to my knowledge – the exception of the VC of Christ Church Canterbury) is a deafening silence (repeatedly satirised by Laurie Taylor in his comments on the back of the Higher), broken perhaps only by the sound of the ker-ching made by the cash registers in their eyes ringing up new profits and perhaps a new pay-rise (more on VC pay-rises anon).

I don’t actually, as I’ll come on to say, think that our VCs necessarily do a bad job – in fact, as I will come on to discuss more fully, I genuinely think that the management of my own institution does a pretty good job. Part of the problem is simply that there is no body (or nobody), even in Universities UK, who can claim to speak for ‘the sector as a whole’. As well as the binary divide, renamed from the division between Universities and Polytechnics as the division into pre- and post-’92 institutions, there is ‘The Russell Group’, ‘the 1994 group’, Oxbridge will always have its distinct agendas (regardless of the Russell Group), and so on.

This is symptomatic of the general process: the reduction of the sector to individual cells – but notice too how some of this ‘cellularisation’ has come at the initiative of the universities themselves (e.g. the Russell Group), which is why the strategy is so effective and so very worrying. Essentially, if one can divide the ‘governed’ (in this case the HE sector) into small groups or cells and make the distribution of resources (patronage) a matter for competition then there will usually if not always be some group (at least) within each cell, perhaps the whole cell, that will see some advantage, vis-à-vis its competitors/rivals, in doing what the government (the ministry) wants. In other words, within each group it is likely that the argument of a sub-group, to the effect that the latest governmental ‘initiative’ can be made into an opportunity, a way of doing better than other cells or groups, will carry the day. Thus the various cells end up doing the government’s work for it.

This is an absolutely classic dynamic which one can see in all sorts of states through history. It is – fundamentally – the same dynamic as can be witnessed in the early Roman Empire, wherein within a couple of generations each conquered tribal group or civitas ended up governing itself for its imperial rulers. Minimal central bureaucracy was required. This was because a situation existed wherein social, political and cultural benefits, of crucial importance in competition within and between civitates, accrued from participation in such local government. Crisis occurred when these benefits no longer pertained, leading to the state having to intrude its own personnel into local societies to make up for the short-fall.** This crisis eventually led to the late imperial situation where (by ancient standards) a large bureaucracy governed the Empire. But this bureaucracy essentially performed the same sorts of function that municipal government had fulfilled in the early period. Within each local or regional society, people competed for posts and advancement within it because it brought (fundamentally) directly analogous forms of material, social, cultural and political advantage. Thus once again the cells of the empire ended up doing the work of government for the state.

You can see the same dynamic at work within the totalitarian governments of the last century and in any number of other states. In the Third Reich there was a dynamic referred to as ‘working to the Führer’ which has an obvious relevance to the current state of play with regard to the AHRC (without triggering Godwin’s Law!). Again, the management of state patronage meant that within the cells of the Reich people would do the government’s work even before any direct order was issued, because they knew it was what the Führer wanted and would bring his favour. If (and as far as I can still no satisfactory elucidation of the business has yet appeared) the AHRC did indeed decide to shift its existing priorities towards ‘the Big Society’, in order to make sure of funding, then this would look - pretty discreditably - like pretty much the same sort of thing in practice.  In some ways caving into direct pressure would be more honourable.

The fracturing of the sector into competing cells, sometimes at the initiative of cells within the sector, seems to me to be doing the same thing – actively participating in an agenda favoured by the government/s of the time, without a general order or policy initiative even being necessary. Why should it be that this was the case? How is it that Higher Education institutions themselves have produced a situation which is, in my view, fundamentally antithetical to the furtherance of any real educational ideal? An explanation is what I want to suggest in Part 2.


* Why do those of us on the Left call it 'Late Capitalism'?  Is it wishful thinking?  'Developed Capitalism' would seem to me to be a better appellation, without the implicit Marxist teleology, contained in the phrase 'Late Capitalism', that Developed Capitalism has within it the seeds of its own inevitable collapse.

** One could see (without, I must stress, claiming any prior right to funding by pointing this out!) one of many key problems for Cameron’s nonsensical Big Society project by considering this imperial Roman experience. You might be able to argue that what the early Roman Empire saw was something like Cameron’s notion of a ‘Big Society’ – insofar as this has ever had any precise delineation. People within local communities carried out the government for the state; the local aristocracy provided public amenities from their own pocket (fat chance of Philip Green, Fred Goodwin and the rest doing that…) looked after infrastructure, and so on without central governmental involvement. The early Empire was, you might say, a model of ‘small government’. And yet, in fact none of this would be possible without the state, its backing and its underpinning. Everything that legitimised such local authority was a formal position within the state. The legitimacy of raising every denarius that funded local infrastructure was based on it being an imperial tax or levy. Every time the local magnates built a bath-house, a forum, a temple, a circus at their own expense it was in order to move higher up the social and political ladders of the state and to get their grubby hands on their share of the proceeds of the state. Which leads to the ultimate point that this hypothetical ‘big society’, whilst simultaneously only being a front for a ‘Big Government’ and only being possible because of the legitimation provided by ‘Big Government’, was a situation of massive oppression, bribery and corruption. (In this, it’s difficult to see Cameron’s Big Society being very different.) Finally, as I have suggested, in practice the ‘small government’ of the early Empire was functionally much the same as the supposed ‘big government’ of the Late Empire.