In Michael Ende’s novel Momo, the Men in Grey are on the loose. They wear grey clothes, their skin is grey, and their goal is to steal people’s time. Fortunately, Momo and her friends thwart the Men in Grey, and they have all disappeared by the time the novel ends. In another world, the story ends rather differently.
In that world, the Men in Grey appear out of nowhere, slowly work their way up the Ivory Tower, and, by story’s end, occupy the offices right at the tower’s top. They are in control of the tower, and they set out to radically reshape the day-to-day activities of the tower’s denizens. One of their best inventions is the never-ending audit. The never-ending audit requires the tower’s inhabitants to explain and justify everything they do in writing. If their explanations are not good enough, they may be thrown into the tower’s dungeon and get eaten by the dragon that lives there. Life in the tower is now very different from what it used to be like. The people in the tower now spend most of their time inventing rules, creating forms that document whether everyone has followed the rules, filling in the forms, and assessing the content of the forms. A very strange world indeed.
The never-ending audit and its consequences for academic labour have by now been well documented. Sometimes, they are questioned in public debates (1, 2, 3, 4), albeit with little positive impact. The origins of the never-ending audit are readily apparent, and they have been addressed in these debates. Universities have been thoroughly colonized by the logic of the marketplace. At the same time, scholarship has been de-legitimized as an end in itself; it now needs to be constantly justified in terms of its external outcomes – jobs for student-customers, high student-customer satisfaction scores that enhance universities’ brands, grant income for research projects, and so forth. All these outcomes need to be proven and documented, and a never-ending paper trail ensues. British universities are well on their way to losing their academic ethos and replacing it with a mixture of hyper-commercialism and bureaucratism.
More attention needs to be paid to the impact which the never-ending audit has on lecturers and their work. The never-ending audit makes a crucial point about the ways in which power structures have shifted within universities. In effect, it suggests the death of the ideal of the autonomous scholar-researcher-teacher. Academics are becoming subordinate figures within steeply hierarchical management structures. Their presence within these management structures is contingent and potentially redundant (particularly so in undesirable subjects in the humanities and social sciences). Incessant performance reports serve to remind academics that their presence is being monitored and that they need to work hard at justifying it.
The never-ending audit thus has come to be a key tool of social control in academia, alongside the precarization of academic labor. In the US, the proportion of stable employment in academia has declined from four in five jobs in the late 1960s to one in three jobs in the late 2000s. In a highly competitive race to the bottom, some British universities are working hard to make academic labor even more precarious and poorly paid by outsourcing it altogether. In such a context, it is very hard indeed to view oneself as an autonomous scholar. In one of my more recent posts, I considered the scandalous circumstances of Marina Warner’s departure from the University of Essex. I argued that these events illustrate the clash between a scholarly ethos and the bureaucratic ethos that has come to be prevalent among academic managers, and I suggested that a dialogue about the nature of academic labour is long overdue. I now wonder whether it is utterly naïve to imagine that such a dialogue might be possible within the academia’s new authoritarian mode of organisation.
All this also reveals much about the role which academics can play in public life. Academics do not have a lobby. Their concerns do not feature in election debates. As a distinct class of workers, they are invisible in public life, outside the specialist sections of certain newspapers which only they themselves read. In a society in which the remit of critical public debate is narrowing, in which protest and dissent are increasingly being criminalised, in which public space is being supplanted by private and commercial space, and in which the meaning of democracy is now altogether questionable, critically and politically engaged scholars may come to be figures of suspicion. Outright efforts at surveillance and political control (1, 2) are one manifestation of the suspicious nature of academic work in contemporary society. Another is the implementation of more indirect control mechanisms within universities, such as the never-ending audit.
A very strange world indeed.