Academics: The Belaboured Profession

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A movie, a musical and now the reality for many British academics?

The comprehensive de-differentiation of intellectual and economic activity is one of the signal features of British higher education today. At British universities, intellectual activity is now largely indistinguishable from economic activity. The purpose of studying for a degree is for students to acquire marketable and economically useful skills. Meanwhile, the purpose of professional scholarship is for lecturers to procure research grants at least equivalent to their salaries, to enhance national economic productivity through their work, and to enhance the prestige and competitiveness of their universities in a competitive international market for higher education.

Thus, it becomes difficult to recognize intellectuals as intellectuals. Moreover, when lecturers are recognized as intellectuals, their activity is often met with suspicion. Last year, colleagues at a university in the Midlands told me at length about efforts on the part of their human resource department to measure and control the working hours of academic staff, in response to academic bureaucrats’ perception that lecturers were prone to taking “duvet days” off work and being lazy and unproductive. As a result, these bureaucrats attempted to force academics’ working days into the same 9-to-5 pattern of office work that they themselves were accustomed to. Proudly proclaimed efforts to make academics work in open-plan offices and to share desks (1, 2) reveal the same mixture of ignorance about the patterns of intellectual labor and zeal to subject academics to systems of surveillance and control.

The work that British academics do is poorly understood. To a large extent, this is due to the highly specialised nature of their work, and it is therefore not just a recent issue.

Nehring Corporate bugWhat has changed, though, is the ways in which academics are publicly recognized. With the exception of star academics and leading figures of the academic establishment, who are able to command a certain respect through their affiliation with elite universities, their frequent media appearances, their celebrity status, and so on, lecturers today are held in little regard. In recent public debates about issues such as vice chancellors’ salaries, free speech on campus, sexual harassment in universities, or the institution of the Teaching Excellence Framework, it has been striking that government ministers, other policy makers, higher education consultants, academic managers, journalists and a range of other public figures were able to comment at length, while lecturers’ views and experiences were barely sought or heard.

Likewise, the steady decline in many academics’ working conditions, through the casualization of employment, the increase in administrative duties, and pressure to produce measurable short-term results in terms of publications and research grants, is poorly understood, barely debated, and hardly recognised as a significant political issue. When British society debates higher education, lecturers barely have a voice.

This is significant in two ways. First, it points to the decline of a profession that was once held in high regard. Second, it has significant detrimental consequences for higher education policy and practice. Academic labor in Britain today is organized around an array of audits that purport to measure, assess and rank the work that lecturers do, from university league tables to the TEF and the REF to the National Student Survey to a plethora of internal audits that universities carry out. The design and uses of these audits is frequently questionable. It is methodologically highly problematic to read student satisfaction surveys as a literal indication of teaching quality and to make the performance evaluation of individual academics and academic departments depend on their results. It is highly questionable to judge intellectual labour through a range of quantitative metrics, such as impact factors, citation frequencies and grant income.

The fact that these practices are nonetheless now generally accepted common sense says much about the way in which power relations are configured in British universities. It also says much about the extent to which intellectual considerations have taken a backseat to political objectives and the intent to subject academics to an institutional regime that priorities economic output over intellectual achievement.

There is little to indicate that this will change in the year that is just beginning. It remains to be seen whether recent public criticism of vice chancellors’ salaries is anything more than a short-lived moral panic. In any case, it is notable that it has not resulted in a wider public conversation about the pitfalls of academic capitalism. On the contrary, as the consequences of the TEF become apparent, universities are likely to further expand their surveillance of teaching through internal audits, resulting in yet more admin and even less freedom for lecturers. On the whole, there may be little room for intellectual labor in British higher education in 2018.

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Daniel Nehring

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.

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