Higher Education Reform

The New Realism in Academic Life Higher Education Reform
Did the current generation change the station when the idealism of their peers gave them too much static?

The New Realism in Academic Life

February 17, 2015 1409

Did the current generation change the station when the idealism of their peers gave them too much static?

Did the current generation change the station when the idealism of their peers gave them too much static?

In my previous post, I commented on the controversy surrounding Marina Warner’s departure from the University of Essex. Similar controversies between, on one side, academics or students and, on the other, academic managers occasionally make the news.

On the whole, though, there has been surprisingly little overt conflict and disagreement in the context of the transformations that have remodelled British universities in recent years. While large-scale public protests have occasionally taken place, particularly in response to the higher education policies of the Conservative-led government, they have remained clearly limited in terms of their length and achievements. This strikes me as surprising as universities have changed – or perhaps been made to change – so profoundly in terms of their organisational structures, institutional objectives, and even in terms of the language that is now commonly used to discuss academic labor. A wholesale remaking of the university in terms of the model of the business corporation is well underway, and the language, modes of interaction and organisational structures of the corporate world have colonized the language and values of scholarship in all their diversity. Marina Warner’s comparison of the founding values of the University of Essex with the university’s contemporary corporate identity illustrates just how far apart the corporate world and the scholarly world may be. In the London Review of Books, she describes the vision on which Essex was founded as follows:

The University of Essex opened to its first students in September 1964. They were part of a utopian experiment in modern education, a big university – the plan was eventually to take as many as twenty thousand students, a huge number at the time – purpose-built, as Albert Sloman, the first vice-chancellor, declared in his Reith Lectures of 1963, to sustain ‘the pressures not only of expanding numbers but also of rapidly expanding knowledge’. The challenge could be met, he believed, ‘only by radical innovation’. Essex was organised co-operatively between students and teachers: no more dons, high table, senior common room, colleges or houses, gowns. An end to deference. The walls between subjects were to be taken down: Sloman was a Hispanist, and an advocate of comparative studies; English literature would be read alongside Russian and American, North and South, all in their original languages (he hoped to extend to the Far East, too). He insisted on the importance and independence of academia: ‘A professor can speak out on national issues of science and scholarship,’ Sloman said, ‘as a scientist in a government research centre cannot. So universities must go on being places of scholarly investigation.’

Much of the remainder of the text then describes contemporary interactions at the university that are governed by the pursuit of profit and prestige in competition with other universities and organised in terms of the top-down chains of command that are typical of the corporate world. The starkness of this contrast does not require further explanation.

Marina Warner is clear in her endorsement of the scholarly values that originally characterised the University of Essex. She is eloquently explicit about her inability to reconcile these values with the university’s contemporary corporate structure, which ultimately led her to resign. Essex is hardly unique as a university that has taken the corporate turn; ‘unremarkable’ might be a better characterisation. Assuming that other universities have undergone equally sharp transformations of their values, objectives and organisational structures – why do so few academics speak out about this?

Generational differences in British academia might be an important issue here. Older scholars had the opportunity to witness first-hand the egalitarian, intellectually and politically motivated approach to academic life that defined places such as Essex in their early years.

When I was an undergraduate at Essex myself in the early 2000s, some older professors would speak about the intense debates that would take place in their classes in the 1970s and 1980s – and they would be express surprise about the comparative lack of political and intellectual intensity among many contemporary students. These professors are now being replaced with a younger generation of scholars, who have been socialized into a very different academic world. This academic world is characterised by a scarcity of stable employment opportunities, intense competition, equally intense pressure to meet the conflicting demands of quality teaching, publication schedules and administrative workloads, and the fear that they might fall foul of the next audit of their work.

Among these younger scholars, there is what might be called a kind of ‘realism,’ which often manifests itself in the view that universities all over the world are like this and that there is little prospect for change. This is a statement which I hear surprisingly often and with surprisingly little variation when I speak to colleagues, and it equally resonates frequently in public debates about academic life. Under conditions of this new realism, engagement with the corporate transformation of academic life must seem either insignificant or doomed to fail. Perhaps this is why Marina Warner’s vocal opposition has remained an exception.


My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline. Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

View all posts by Daniel Nehring

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