A version of this post was originally published on May 13, 2015.
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.
Academic Freedom in Crisis: The Series
Introduction: Academic Freedom in Crisis | By Daniel Nehring and Dylan Kerrigan
The Transformation of UK Higher Education Since 1968 | Hugo Radice
The Soviet System, Neoliberalism and British Universities | Craig Brandist
The Financialisation of Academic Knowledge Production | Dylan Kerrigan
The Never-Ending Audit®: Questioning the Lecturer Experience | Daniel Nehring
Take Away Tenure, and Professors Become Sheep | Alice Dreger
In Australia, Academic Contracts Threaten Freed Speech | Katharine Gelber
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 colonised by the logic of the marketplace. At the same time, scholarship has been de-legitimised 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.
I wrote the original version of this post more than a year ago. At the time, I did not imagine just how far the Men in Grey might go in their efforts to remake Britain’s universities. Where Michael Ende’s Men in Grey are sinister but subtle, their real life counterparts among Britain’s government and academic management are rather more brutal. Recently, a new higher education passed another major hurdle in the House of Commons. One highlight of the bill is the re-regulation of higher education to increase competition between ‘providers’ and allow private and commercial ‘universities’ to compete with established academic institutions. The second highlight is the new teaching excellence framework, a comprehensive audit of teaching quality at British universities on the basis of a set of questionable metrics. As usual, widespread criticism of the bill among academics has made no discernible impact, and organised campaigns to stop the bill seem to have achieved nothing (1, 2).
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 precarisation of academic labour.
In the USA, 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 labour even more precarious and poorly paid by outsourcing it altogether. In the age of the teaching excellence framework, expect employment contracts tied to minimum scores in student satisfaction surveys, as well as yet more urgent demands from managers and students to make your classes entertaining and easy. In Britain’s new academic dystopia, the limits of academic freedom are clearly defined by the requirements of the next audit and the end date of your temporary employment contract. 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 seems 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 British public life. Academics do not have a lobby. Even left-leaning newspapers such as The Guardian have failed to report prominently and systematically on the new higher education bill and the TEF, and they happily buy into the rhetoric of competitive league tables and the ‘student experience’ that underpins the commercialisation and de-intellectualisation of British academic life. As far as the steady worsening of the ‘lecturer experience’ is discussed at all, it is presented in the form of anonymous gripes whose structural context is not readily apparent. While junior doctors’ recent strikes against the prospective worsening of their working conditions received much public attention, the strike called a little later by academics’ union received little public attention at all. As a distinct class of workers, academics are invisible in British 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. Does academic freedom really matter so little in Britain in 2016?
Daniel Nehring is senior lecturer in sociology at the Institute of Humanities and Creative Arts at the University of Worcester and previously worked at Pusan National University in South Korea. Over the past decade, he has done extensive research on transnational self-help cultures, as reflected in his new book (with Emmanuel Alvarado, Eric C. Hendriks and Dylan Kerrigan, Transnational Popular Psychology and the Global Self-Help Industry (Palgrave Macmillan). Over the last few years, he has explored the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony, which he covers in his blog for Social Science Space.