Commercializing UK Academia: What’s the Next Step?

And we’re going where exactly? (Photo: Nick Chalkiadakis/Unsplash)

Two months ago, I returned to the United Kingdom after an absence of five years. I spent this time in East Asia, in academic systems that are profoundly different from higher education in the UK. While away, I kept in touch with colleagues in the UK, and I followed the news about developments at British universities. I also had the opportunity to work with a great group of colleagues on a new book on academic capitalism, due to be published later this year. All this has allowed me to keep track of the most recent permutations of academic capitalism, both internationally and in the UK. Still, none of this can quite make up for immediate experiences of academic labor under conditions of progressive commercialization of academic life. My return has therefore given me the opportunity to experience first-hand what has changed, and to think about some of the consequences of these changes.

For more than a decade now, I have been writing about academic capitalism on these pages. I began with a blog post on what I termed then the ‘lecturer experience.’ With this term, I sought to characterize the marginalization of academics in academic organizations and the precarization of academic labor, against the backdrop of the conversion of scholarship into a commercial service. At the time, almost exactly 11 years ago, I wrote:

“Of all the PhD graduates in my commencement year and the adjacent years, only a bare handful managed to find lectureships and establish themselves through research and publications. This applies to both my department and acquaintances from other sociology departments around the country. The overwhelming majority have since drifted out of academia or barely subsist on the patchwork of unstable jobs outlined above. This lack of achievement cannot easily be explained by a shortage of scholarly talent – I have in mind prize winners, recipients of a variety of very competitive scholarships, and graduates who passed their vivas at leading universities with no corrections. The explanation rather is to be found among universities and sociology departments who recruit too many talented individuals to pursue doctorates without subsequently offering them opportunities to make meaningful contributions to the discipline. The ‘cuts’ are going to make this pattern worse, but they are unlikely to change it. What remains are questions: How much scholarly potential has, speculatively, been lost by driving talented graduates to the margins of academia, or beyond? How can this loss of potential be compensated for?”

Has this changed? It has, in that the pattern of precarization, endless pressure to perform, scarce rewards, and little regard for scholarship on its own terms has still more deeply entrenched in academic life. Returning to the UK, one of my most striking experiences has been the discovery that so many great scholars I used to know here have left academia. I am not thinking about academics who had to leave as short-term contracts expired and new employment was not in sight. I am thinking about colleagues on permanent contracts who had become so disillusioned with academia that they chose to retire or find work elsewhere. A great loss for academia – highly accomplished scholars who would have been in a position to contribute much to our understanding of the social world have faded from the scene.

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The reasons I have been given for this are always similar: unsustainable workloads, threats of being made redundant in spite of sustained academic achievement, and the meaninglessness of academic work that now seems to be entirely about the pursuit of ‘metrics,’ rather than intellectual debate.

Is it really that bad? Subjectively, not necessarily. Your mileage might vary. It probably depends on where you work. Structurally, probably. I do think that there is a pattern there.

At the same time that colleagues are heading for the exit, I am struck by how deeply entrenched the imaginary of academic capitalism has become in academia. The language by which you work is one indicator. There used to be much debate about ‘managerialism’ and the rise of ‘audit culture’ at British universities. By now, the language with which this managerialism is packaged seems to have become unquestioned common sense, from ‘line managers’ that used to be ‘heads of department,’ to the ‘student experience’ that seeks to sell students a commodified entertainment package for what used to be called ‘reading for a degree.’ The fact that academics used to play a central role in the governance of their universities, e.g. via their senates, also seems to be fading from memory, while top-down authoritarian structures have become the norm.

While those who can and think they must are heading for the exit, a new common sense may elide the potential for progressive transformation at universities. All this is not without conflict – the long-lasting wave of strikes about working conditions and pay speaks to that. But where is the way out from all this, without a clear progressive ideal of what universities can also be. To be sure, such an ideal has been articulated, over and over again, for many years, in the many critiques of academic capitalism in the UK and elsewhere. The problem is that none of these critiques have taken root, while commercial common sense has.

Where to from here? My – as almost always on these pages – pessimistic intuition suggests that universities will embrace the vocational, commercial side of higher education even more enthusiastically, faced with the consequences of Brexit, an escalating economic crisis, and the philistine demand, again long entrenched in higher education policy, to demonstrate ‘impact’ and good use of taxpayers money. For academics, this will mean more demands to focus on applied research, alongside more redundancies for those in disciplines, in the humanities and social sciences, not amenable to these demands.

The writing is on the wall, with mass redundancies in non-vocational disciplines a prominent feature of academic life this year (1, 2). The end result of all this might be a much-diminished academic landscape. New visions for academia are needed, alongside new strategies to contest entrenched ways of imagining scholarship and academic labor.

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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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