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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The State we’re in (with apologies to Will Hutton): Part 1

These thoughts (I don't promise anything very startling or profound) about the dynamics of the British higher education world, in which I live and work, are prompted by a number of things. I have been thinking about writing a piece (though it will have to come in several 'pieces') like this for some time but the immediate cause was ‘Anonymous’ asking me whose side I am on in the current discussion about the AHRC and The Big Society (I would say debate but debate would require two things that seem to me to be lacking at present: two sides willing to engage in a discussion, and something clearly established to be discussed). The issue of fees, of the impact agenda, and the current dispute between the UCU Union and the VCs, the employers, also come into the equation. So, too, do various other gripes that concern me, about admissions, about feedback-driven teaching, about the often-demoralising nature of students. Thus in one sense this piece, spread over several instalments rather than one long rant, is about ‘the state we’re in’ but is also a case study of how states work, as I see it, using the way in which governments, at least from Thatcher’s onwards, have got universities to bend to their will. In this the current AHRC saga is – if we have been correctly informed about it - only the latest and perhaps clearest symptom.

Regular readers will not be surprised to see that I trace the roots of the problems to the sorts of ‘values’ which I see as introduced during the Thatcher years; the culture of late free market capitalism, the pernicious myths of competition and choice, the triumph of the vapid, talentless New Labour middle management type and vacuous and insidious talk of ‘transparency’, ‘collegiality’, consensus and the rest’, and so on. Thus this sketchy critique of the situation within British universities will have to move beyond that to more general issues of late capitalist* economy and attitudes within it.

Ultimately, at least as I envisage it, the problems we find ourselves confronted by find a common origin in successive governments’ (Labour and Conservative) successful reduction of British universities to a series of competing cells. This takes a series of forms; it is not simply the conversion of researchers in HE from fellow seekers after knowledge into rival competitors for money and status, crucially important though that is.

Let’s take the issue of the introduction of fees. One of the most disappointing features of this (and I think that disappointment rather than anger is the Leitmotif of these thoughts) has been the absolute absence of any sort of opposition by ‘our leaders’, the vice chancellors of ‘Universities UK’. One must be forgiven for thinking that these people have actually been rubbing their hands with glee. Indeed, I can think of at least one who has described the introduction of fees as ‘an opportunity’. I find this – as I said – disappointing. I find it very disappointing indeed. My own institution recently won the Higher’s University of the Year (prizes and league tables are a huge part of the general problem as I will discuss in the next instalment), something which obviously we’re proud of as we think we do a good job. That said, I’d be uneasy about turning that into any sort of implied claim that we ‘do it better’ than anyone else, even if only on a ‘season by season’ basis (as though it was the FA Cup). It would have been nice for our VC to have taken the opportunity as something more than a photo-opportunity for some (mildly embarrassing) air-punching (as though it was the FA Cup), as an opportunity – perhaps? – to say something about the promotion of social inequality commensurate with the introduction of high fees. But no. Sadly all that has come from the VCs (with – to my knowledge – the exception of the VC of Christ Church Canterbury) is a deafening silence (repeatedly satirised by Laurie Taylor in his comments on the back of the Higher), broken perhaps only by the sound of the ker-ching made by the cash registers in their eyes ringing up new profits and perhaps a new pay-rise (more on VC pay-rises anon).

I don’t actually, as I’ll come on to say, think that our VCs necessarily do a bad job – in fact, as I will come on to discuss more fully, I genuinely think that the management of my own institution does a pretty good job. Part of the problem is simply that there is no body (or nobody), even in Universities UK, who can claim to speak for ‘the sector as a whole’. As well as the binary divide, renamed from the division between Universities and Polytechnics as the division into pre- and post-’92 institutions, there is ‘The Russell Group’, ‘the 1994 group’, Oxbridge will always have its distinct agendas (regardless of the Russell Group), and so on.

This is symptomatic of the general process: the reduction of the sector to individual cells – but notice too how some of this ‘cellularisation’ has come at the initiative of the universities themselves (e.g. the Russell Group), which is why the strategy is so effective and so very worrying. Essentially, if one can divide the ‘governed’ (in this case the HE sector) into small groups or cells and make the distribution of resources (patronage) a matter for competition then there will usually if not always be some group (at least) within each cell, perhaps the whole cell, that will see some advantage, vis-à-vis its competitors/rivals, in doing what the government (the ministry) wants. In other words, within each group it is likely that the argument of a sub-group, to the effect that the latest governmental ‘initiative’ can be made into an opportunity, a way of doing better than other cells or groups, will carry the day. Thus the various cells end up doing the government’s work for it.

This is an absolutely classic dynamic which one can see in all sorts of states through history. It is – fundamentally – the same dynamic as can be witnessed in the early Roman Empire, wherein within a couple of generations each conquered tribal group or civitas ended up governing itself for its imperial rulers. Minimal central bureaucracy was required. This was because a situation existed wherein social, political and cultural benefits, of crucial importance in competition within and between civitates, accrued from participation in such local government. Crisis occurred when these benefits no longer pertained, leading to the state having to intrude its own personnel into local societies to make up for the short-fall.** This crisis eventually led to the late imperial situation where (by ancient standards) a large bureaucracy governed the Empire. But this bureaucracy essentially performed the same sorts of function that municipal government had fulfilled in the early period. Within each local or regional society, people competed for posts and advancement within it because it brought (fundamentally) directly analogous forms of material, social, cultural and political advantage. Thus once again the cells of the empire ended up doing the work of government for the state.

You can see the same dynamic at work within the totalitarian governments of the last century and in any number of other states. In the Third Reich there was a dynamic referred to as ‘working to the Führer’ which has an obvious relevance to the current state of play with regard to the AHRC (without triggering Godwin’s Law!). Again, the management of state patronage meant that within the cells of the Reich people would do the government’s work even before any direct order was issued, because they knew it was what the Führer wanted and would bring his favour. If (and as far as I can still no satisfactory elucidation of the business has yet appeared) the AHRC did indeed decide to shift its existing priorities towards ‘the Big Society’, in order to make sure of funding, then this would look - pretty discreditably - like pretty much the same sort of thing in practice.  In some ways caving into direct pressure would be more honourable.

The fracturing of the sector into competing cells, sometimes at the initiative of cells within the sector, seems to me to be doing the same thing – actively participating in an agenda favoured by the government/s of the time, without a general order or policy initiative even being necessary. Why should it be that this was the case? How is it that Higher Education institutions themselves have produced a situation which is, in my view, fundamentally antithetical to the furtherance of any real educational ideal? An explanation is what I want to suggest in Part 2.


* Why do those of us on the Left call it 'Late Capitalism'?  Is it wishful thinking?  'Developed Capitalism' would seem to me to be a better appellation, without the implicit Marxist teleology, contained in the phrase 'Late Capitalism', that Developed Capitalism has within it the seeds of its own inevitable collapse.

** One could see (without, I must stress, claiming any prior right to funding by pointing this out!) one of many key problems for Cameron’s nonsensical Big Society project by considering this imperial Roman experience. You might be able to argue that what the early Roman Empire saw was something like Cameron’s notion of a ‘Big Society’ – insofar as this has ever had any precise delineation. People within local communities carried out the government for the state; the local aristocracy provided public amenities from their own pocket (fat chance of Philip Green, Fred Goodwin and the rest doing that…) looked after infrastructure, and so on without central governmental involvement. The early Empire was, you might say, a model of ‘small government’. And yet, in fact none of this would be possible without the state, its backing and its underpinning. Everything that legitimised such local authority was a formal position within the state. The legitimacy of raising every denarius that funded local infrastructure was based on it being an imperial tax or levy. Every time the local magnates built a bath-house, a forum, a temple, a circus at their own expense it was in order to move higher up the social and political ladders of the state and to get their grubby hands on their share of the proceeds of the state. Which leads to the ultimate point that this hypothetical ‘big society’, whilst simultaneously only being a front for a ‘Big Government’ and only being possible because of the legitimation provided by ‘Big Government’, was a situation of massive oppression, bribery and corruption. (In this, it’s difficult to see Cameron’s Big Society being very different.) Finally, as I have suggested, in practice the ‘small government’ of the early Empire was functionally much the same as the supposed ‘big government’ of the Late Empire.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Thought for the Day

... which today comes from ever-popular chirpy chappie, Berthold Brecht:

"What is robbing a bank compared to founding one?"

Or, as we might prefer it today, running one.

Friday, 15 April 2011


I somehow missed this piece by Peter Mandler in The Higher last week.  It's interesting, although I do sincerely hope that the title was not of Mandler's devising.  It would suggest a grasp of the English language unbecoming a Cambridge professor of modern cultural history.  I don't find much in this piece about why the Haldane principle is there.  It seems more to be asking where the Haldane principle has gone, suggesting the common misunderstanding of Juliet's impassioned cry.  Modern cultural, I suppose...

Be all that as it may, here is a less-than-entirely-convincing response to Mandler's piece, which still seems to dodge the key points made by Mandler and others.

Finally, here is Laurie Taylor's take on the situation (scroll down to 'There's no conspiracy'), which sums it all up...

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Tainted money (again)

The story that prompted this previous post has rumbled on with an exchange between Michael Pinto Duschinsky and Richard Evans in the letters page of the Higher (7 April and 14 April).  It seems to me that Pinto-Duschinsky is responding in the way that I feared he would, which highlights the weakness of the argument Evans chose to justify the committee's decision.   Consequently the argument seems (to me) to have veered off down a predictable but unprofitable avenue.  I am nevertheless amused by the irony of the fact that Pinto-Duschinsky's preferred outlet for venting his spleen on Oxford is Standpoint magazine, a right-wing rag established inter alia by the odious Michael Gove and which currently seems to be becoming a favoured place to publish amongst the late antique/medievalists of the Oxford University faculty of history (very disappointing but not, alas, very surprising).

The real issue (to my mind) about this is that if there is to be, as Pinto-Duschinsky says he wants, a 'truth and reconciliation' committee about these gifts, there should be one to examine the ethical 'cleanliness' of all money donated to universities.  And that, I suspect, would leave us all very hard up...

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Dumb-Ass TV-History Moment of the Week #2

The Snow Dynasty (and ship)
And while we're on the subject of the social elite reproducing itself - all the while remembering that we live in a nation currently being lectured to on social mobility by Nick Clegg, a prize example of over-privileged, public-school-educated, gutless tumbril-fodder - we move on to Dan Snow, son of Newsnight's Peter.  More specifically to his new series, Filthy Cities (BBC 2, Tuesday 5 April, 9.00 pm), surely the first TV History series to come with its own scratch-and-sniff card (I kid you not). 

This programme was, I thought, on the whole quite nicely done and, if I have to put up with TV pretend-historians, the sting is dulled by watching them at least have to wallow in shit to earn their ill-gotten dollar.  Indeed this might be an avenue worth developing to the mutual benefit of all.  For who, among us, would not think that Niall Ferguson's TV appearances would be immeasurably improved if he dribbled out his reactionary tosh whilst up to his neck in a cess-pool (perhaps one of his own making, but we could be flexible on this point)?  Anyway, Filthy Cities: it might have had nothing very remarkable or remotely cutting-edge to say (at all), it might have been little more than a succession of scatalogical gimmicks, but I have to say that I rather enjoyed it and admit that it probably did its job.  In fact, while it was on, my deeply-felt rage about TV-history as a whole (on which more anon) was temporarily suspended.
Shit (or poo)

For those who missed it (though it can still be caught on BBC i-player for a week or so), the general idea was that modern London was built on shit (or poo as Snow endearingly called it).  We learnt that medieval London was - amazingly - a pretty unsanitary place which eventually became something of a des res for rats (much like now, some might say) and thus a prime target for plague - the Black Death, gruesomely illustrated.  Dealing with the aftermath of that produced, selon Snow (or his researchers*), the municipal organisation and government that led to London becoming the capital of the greatest empire in the world (hurrah!).  [Now you might want to pause here to consider the fact that London was hardly the only city - or indeed settlement of any order of size - to be hit by the plague in 1348 and ponder to what extent that might need to be taken into account in considering this triumphalist grand narrative, but there you are.  Suffice it to say that this fly (or perhaps flea) in the ointment didn't feature.]

So, after this lengthy preamble, we come to the Dumb-Ass TV History Moment.  Here we move to the section of the programme where Snow, with due awe and reverence, goes to the metropolitan archives to look at the roll recording civic disputes in fourteenth-century London: The Assize of Nuisance to be exact, which, as medieval sources go, is a pretty good title.  We had the ostentatious putting on the gloves to consult the text (no matter that they then disappeared for other scenes, presumably in order to display Snow's manly rower's hands**), the pretending to be reading from the document itself, all the usual TV history 'look at me; I'm a real historian doing real history' performance.  That's all OK; it's part of the genre (although at least Our Lord Michael Wood, when he invented the genre, actually could read the documents and did admit to collating xeroxed extracts from printed versions).***  No, what got me was the reference to this being 'one of very few documents from the period', as well as being 'little-known'.  Why?  For heaven's sake, just ... why?  There are thousands upon thousands of 14th-century documents from the highly bureaucratic late medieval kingdom of England (also spared, unlike, say, France or Germany, repeated archive-burning revolutions, sieges and bombardments).  But I suppose that, because this was the (sorry, Ye Olde) 'Middle Ages', the poor benighted viewer has to be fed some crap about there being few documents.  Otherwise, I suppose, their whole idea of the world would implode.

Not only that, but the whole programme was peppered with references to court records, letters, wills, other documents which any intelligent viewer would surely have noted.  So not only was this misleading, it was quite unnecessary (although I suppose it might, just possibly, have been felt necessary to uphold the master narrative that it was only after the plague that civic government really got organised).  Indeed Snow seemed to be going out of his way to show that Ye Olde Medievalle Londonne was (and you might want to be sitting down for this bit) not some anarchic Darke Age free for all.  Unnecessary, incorrect, incoherent, poorly thought through: all the hallmarks of top-quality TV-history dumb-assery.

The 'little known' reference adds icing to the cake.  I am reliably informed that this rare document is in fact available on-line and has been in a printed edition for years.  Ahem.  For shame...

So (drum-roll) for all these reasons, I award you, BBC 2's Filthy Cities Part 1, this second of our irregular H.o.t.E. Dumb-Ass TV-History Moment of the Week Awards.  Congratulations.

And it was also a damn sight better than 'Campus' (Channel 4, Tuesday 5 April, 10.00 pm), which really was - well - shit.  Funnier too, probably.

* But not, I assume, Professor Caroline Barron, credited as consultant and who surely did all the actual history behind the programmme, for which I hope she was duly and appropriately remunerated.

** OK, here I admit I am jealous, as I have very small un-manly hands.

*** And here's another thing.  TV-History's self-defence is usually the democratising of the subject.  If so, why, then, do they always go in for this staged, unnecessary, misleading mystifying of the whole research process?

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Oxbridge 'Access' events: The Truth

Anyone who believes the claims that Oxbridge are seriously attempting to broaden the social basis of their intake should read this piece by David Lammy MP.  Disgusting stuff (to this ex-comprehensive boy at any rate) but not, alas, surprising.  A small bun for the first reactionary to use the term 'social engineering' in their comment.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

AHRC 'Big Society' Scandal Open Letter

Here is the latest development.  69 academics sign an open letter calling on AHRC chiefs to reconsider their positions.  Certainly it seems to me that as yet the AHRC statements on the issue haven't carried enormous conviction.