I was not surprised to read of Boris Johnson’s recent comments about IQs and the importance of greed. In a very frank manner, they document the prevalent spirit of the times and the mind-set that has led to the transformation of key institutions in British society. They are simply a vivid illustration of the elitism that is remaking the social fabric so as the favour the well-to-do and well-connected. Notions of solidarity and collective responsibility certainly matter little in Boris Johnson’s Britain.
In academia, this elitism seems to be taking root, and privilege seems to matter more and more. In response to policy changes begun under New Labour and pursued with vigour by the Conservative-led government, a stratification of the academic system is taking place. The academic system in the UK has taken the shape of a commercialised marketplace, in which universities pursue profit by competing for student-customers, research funds and other sources of money. Within this marketplace, some universities are branding themselves as elite research universities, while others are fashioning themselves as particularly student-friendly teaching institutions. This hierarchical differentiation of universities is reinforced by the obsessive attention given to league tables, student satisfaction surveys, international university rankings, and so on. An academic degree awarded at Oxford or Cambridge has certainly always carried connotations of privilege. However, the current zeal for brand and image-driven competition is magnifying hierarchical distinctions between universities to an unprecedented degree. Scholars and academic managers have begun to pursue market-based competition as an end in itself – a new ultima ratio of academic life that cannot and does not need to be questioned anymore.
At the same time, employment situations within universities are becoming highly stratified. The academic department in which I read for my degrees in the early 2000s was characterised by fairly flat hierarchies and the predominance of permanent employment. Since then, an ‘adjunctification’ of academic labour seems to have taken place, in which a permanent lectureship has become a rare privilege, the short-term contract has become the norm, and stable, predictable career paths will remain elusive for most young scholars with PhDs. This is made very clear through the way in which job advertisements for lectureships are worded nowadays, requiring a level of achievement that most recent PhD graduates cannot possibly have reached without substantial mentoring, help, and recruitment into the right kinds of professional networks at the right moment.
In the context of this adjunctification, many young scholars will therefore find themselves systematically deskilled and marginalised in their jobs – good enough to teach a few courses or assist with someone else’s research, but certainly not welcome as full members of the scholarly dialogues and intellectual exchanges that take place in their host departments. Conversely, those few who, by virtue of their talent, their access to the right networks, and their scholarly achievements (enabled by access to the right networks and sources of support), have managed to secure long-term employment will find their opportunities magnified and multiplied, making it even harder for their untenured peers to catch up. Talent matters, but status assigned through job titles may matter a great lot more.
These trends are recent, and it is astonishing that they now seem to be widely accepted without question or complaint. There is no serious public debate about the new elitism, and few seem to be willing to engage with the crisis of academic labour. Some sectors of the media occasionally do publish critical commentaries on these issues, but the views expressed there clearly remain marginal. The recent and ongoing student protests have shown that there is an urgent need for such debate. At the same time, the aggressive response of the University of London, the University of Susses and others has demonstrated that the academic establishment is not willing to entertain such a debate or permit open dissent.
I do wonder: Academics, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities, must surely be aware of the critical role which universities, scholarship and academic education play in the democratic process. Academics must surely be aware of the inherently political nature of the ways in which knowledge is gathered and communicated in academia. Academics must surely be aware of the consequences of creating an academic system that subordinates scholarship and free debate to the pursuit of economic profit and that, in so doing, actively represses dissenting voices. If these assumptions are true, then why has the pervasive response to the outlined changes been one of acquiescence? Why have dissenting voices and campaigns remained so isolated? What was the purpose of all the thoughtful debates about education, democracy and authoritarianism that took place after World War II if their insights are now so readily discarded? Do any of these questions still matter?