Higher education is receiving much attention in British mass media these days. There is much debate about the period of prolonged turmoil that universities are facing and the contours of academic life that are beginning to emerge from this turmoil. The narrowness of this debate is quite striking. In two of my previous posts, I have already remarked on the ostensible inability of commentators to imagine higher education as anything more than an ‘industry’ to be instrumentalised in the pursuit of economic profit. This inability requires further attention, I believe. First, it has important implications for the future of higher education in Britain. Second, Britain has been for decades one of the central laboratories in which neoliberal society has been bred. What happens here is likely to have direct consequences for academic life around the world.
To explore the ways in which higher education is publicly imagined today, The Guardian is as good a starting point as any. In particular, the newspaper’s online sections on higher education are quite revealing. On occasion, one can find thorough and complex discussions of the dynamics of contemporary academic life. With remarkable frequency, however, the pieces that are published there simply reproduce dominant common sense and do offer little in the way of critical or innovative commentary. Let’s consider two examples. Today (September 20), the newspaper’s online Higher Education Network featured prominently an article on academic career paths and a discussion of measures that might improve graduate employability. The latter was written by Allyson Glover, programme director of an employability project by the European Social Fund and various higher education institutions in Cornwall. Glover is frank in her assessment of the purpose of higher education:
“In a new HE world of exorbitant tuition fees and high graduate unemployment, where students must increasingly view university as a business investment not a rite of passage, the early lessons from UCP is that it is possible to deliver employability, enterprise training as well as work placements, by linking universities to regional governance and business.”
If higher education is a ´business investmentment´, then it is quite sensible that initiatives such as Glover´s should strive, as the argues, to make universities in Cornwall “speak another language, that of local business” and to deliver for Cornwall in a time of crisis “a skilled, educated, practical and employment-ready graduate workforce”. Thus, Glover´s article is written from beginning to end in business jargon. It´s not that ‘employability’ is not a significant goal. The issue is that, by foregrounding economic considerations about higher education to the point of exclusivity, the possibility to imagine higher education in any other way is comprehensively suppressed. Allyson Glover´s article and its prominent placement along other such texts contribute to this suppression.
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It is telling in itself that The Guardian has given a businesswoman a privileged space to express her views about higher education, rather than consulting, say, an academic, an academic administrator, a student, or a representative of one of the academic trade unions. This parallels the newspaper´s coverage of the current crisis at London Met; here a businessman representing a for-profit education company of colourful reputation was accorded a similar privilege. But let’s examine what Claire Arnold has to say. She presumes certain changes in the academic landscape as a simple given to which scholars have to adjust:
“Changes in how universities and research are funded has meant that there are fewer permanent, full-time posts available. In addition to the reduction in the number of posts, the perceived value of having a career in higher education has changed over the last 30 years. In all, the career progression options for an ambitious academic has also evolved and any academic intending to thrive in this environment needs to be aware of the changes and plot out the options available to them.”
She then goes on to suggest innovative strategies for the pursuit of an academic career in this challenging environment. One is to become a globally mobile academic and leader in one’s field of research. Another is to further one’s career by turning oneself into a popular media personality. However, Arnold acknowledges that these options might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and she has alternatives in mind:
“So what are the options for academics who neither want a career abroad or on TV? One feasible career move is to cross over into higher education management and consider roles such as dean or vice-chancellor, which were traditionally the preserve of academics nearing the end of their career.”
Given the outstanding salaries that vice chancellors receive and the scores of people that are recruited into their ranks every year, this is clearly a smart move for young academics. In any case, Arnold concludes that, no matter which path a budding scholar might choose, “flexibility” and the recognition that they need “to go where the money is” are crucial to their survival. She is an optimist, though, and she argues: “With the right support, postdoctoral and early career researchers are likely to have the flexibility to keep pace with the changes and progress to dean or vice-chancellor.”
Claire Arnold’s advice is completely unrealistic, of course. The political implications of her argument are much more interesting, though. Two points are central here: First, there is the seeming assumption of inevitability of a situation in which stable careers are not readily available to early-career academics. This situation is presented as a simple given that requires individuals to adjust and become flexible and innovative. This account of changes in the academic world bears a striking resemblance to neoliberal discourse on market functioning, where markets are rendered as forces of nature that cannot be meaningfully questioned and that create demands to which individuals need to yield if they wish to survive and thrive. You need to go “where the money is”. From this follows, second, the radical depoliticisation of the academic world. Precarious academic career paths are rendered not as a collective problem with structural causes that could be addressed through collective action, but as purely individual concerns. It is up to the individual scholar to fashion strategies that might allow her to get by, and her failure might be attributed to her individual errors, rather than to social forces above and beyond her control. After all, with “the right support, postdoctoral and early career researchers are likely to have the flexibility to keep pace with the changes and progress to dean or vice-chancellor”. If they don’t make it, they must have done something wrong.
I believe that these kinds of accounts of higher education represent both dominant common sense and the dominant tone of The Guardian’s coverage. There are numerous alternative accounts that challenge the hegemonic perspective and outline alternative pathways for the development of higher education. Even a cursory literature search will reveal a substantial body of both academic and popular sources. I wonder whether the fact that these alternative accounts receive so little space in newspapers such as The Guardian is due to an unwillingness to let them be heard or a lack of awareness about their existence. As to The Guardian itself, a newspaper that styles itself as left-of-centre and progressive might wish to do better.