The Strange Death of the Liberal University


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by Michael Bailey

Published some 80 years ago, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England remains a compelling and pertinent read. The nub of Dangerfield’s thesis is that, contrary to the received wisdom of the times, the war of 1914-18 was not to blame for the breakdown of Victorian liberalism; rather the decline of Liberal England was the result of radical social forces that emerged in the early twentieth century. Additionally, whereas many of his middle-class contemporaries lamented the stability of high Victorianism (a cultural hegemony that lots of Edwardians took to be unassailable), Dangerfield cheerfully mocked the conventions and modes of conduct that were associated with a Liberal parliamentary democracy, not least its civilised pretensions and political conservatism.

Nowadays, it would seem that we are witnessing the strange death of the liberal university. Various commentators have noted how British universities, though still not-for-profit charities, are being hastily fashioned after private companies and the consequent narrowing of higher education’s raison d’être. The idea of the University as a place of civic education and critical enquiry has been put to a premature death by a raft of neo-capitalist political rationalities that promote inter alia divisive competition, false economies and philistine instrumentality. Academics are bound by ever multiplying forms of spurious measurement, misleading quantification and performance management. Students, in turn, are treated more like consumers than they are citizens, increasingly defrauded with a candyfloss world of university branding and marketing gimmickry. Grant capture, consultancy, citations, impact, quality assurance, unique selling points, student surveys and league tables, have become the new deities that all shall worship.

Whilst the above developments have gathered apace since the financial crisis of 2007/2008, and austerity cuts to public spending notwithstanding, recent criticisms of higher education marketisation have noted how UK academics (among whose number I include myself) are themselves partly to blame for the passing of academia as a liberal bastion: ‘striking absence of powerful and united collective dissent’, ‘consensual silence’, ‘docile polity’, ‘almost complete capitulation’, are just some of the charges that have been levelled at university lecturers and professors. And those academics that do attempt to retain their integrity by refusing to observe the ‘Gospel of Mammonism’ risk being inculpated (as with the inquisitions of the Counter-Reformation) of error, blasphemy, heresy even – censure, denunciation and excommunication soon follow if the accused declines penance and reconciliation.

Not surprisingly, academics have long failed to defend intellectual liberty or to confront inconvenient home truths. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, the Cambridge classicist-cum-satirist, F.M. Cornford, cautioned junior colleagues, especially the Young Man in a Hurry with a conscience, to heed the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent, which is to say:

that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.

Reflecting on his travels through the industrial heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire during the hungry thirties, George Orwell aimed much of his polemic, not at Westminster, but at the failings of self-styled metropolitan intellectuals who ‘get on’ by ‘kissing the bums of verminous little lions’, and whose left-wing opinions are ‘mainly spurious’. Elsewhere he famously likened the passivity of many of his liberal-left contemporaries to the biblical story of Jonah:

being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought… There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the complete indifference, no matter what happens … Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility.

It was in a similar fashion that Edward Thompson noted the reactionary and self-regarding nature of the species Academicus Superciliosus, ‘the most divisible and rulable creature in this country’, following the expose of the so-called ‘Warwick files’ controversy in the early 1970s. Living their lives as if ‘struck by a paralysis of will’ and ‘in a kind of Awe of Propriety’, Thompson opined that though talk of academic freedom ‘is for ever on their lips’, academics are in fact ‘the last people to whom it can be safely entrusted, since the present moment is never the opportune moment to stand and fight’. And just as Orwell was concerned for the future of ‘the autonomous individual’ in the face of totalitarianism, Thompson was equally troubled by the emerging ‘new methods of management’, their ‘insistence upon the subjugation of the individual to institutional loyalties’, and ‘attempts to enforce loyalties by moral or disciplinary means, by streaming procedures or by managing promotions and career prospects’. Finally, with his usual prophetic boldness, and with Julien Benda’s trahison des clercs in mind, Thompson predicted that most university teachers would retreat ‘within the limited area of manoeuvre allotted to him within the managerial structure’.

More recently, former Essex professor and literary critic, Marina Warner, has voiced several scathing criticisms about her own unfortunate experience of university managerialism, whilst simultaneously recognising that she herself may have been ‘culpable of doziness’, ‘naive, culpably unobservant as I went about my activities at Essex’. Putting aside the personal circumstances that caused her to quit Essex and the resulting commotion (which are widely known and do not need repeating here), much of what Warner has said hits its targets; moreover, her general observations throw further light on the sinister forces presently at play within British universities and their damaging effects: ‘the culture of obedience and deference’ that is cultivated through ‘fear, insecurity, precarious social conditions and shame’; ‘the silence of no comment which universities resort to when confronted with protests and complaints’; and if all else fails, constructive dismissal and the use of ‘gagging orders’. Warner’s most damning indictment, however, is her likening of UK higher education and its ‘rulers’ ideas’ to ‘the world of Chinese communist corporatism’:

… where enforcers rush to carry out the latest orders from their chiefs in an ecstasy of obedience to ideological principles which they do not seem to have examined, let alone discussed with the people they order to follow them, whom they cashier when they won’t knuckle under.

Not unlike the three wise monkeys who ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’, rather than face down the conditions of their present existence, too many workers in UK universities have chosen to turn a blind eye or to actively collaborate, yielding here, profiting there: the module leader who yields to pressures to raise his assessment marks because it will assist with bureaucratic rankings; the scientist who is coerced into doctoring his research to make it more palatable to external funders and corporate sponsors; the ardent feminist who barely reacts when a fellow female colleague is hounded out of her job because she raised (entirely legitimate) concerns about the predatory behaviour of a male colleague; the faculty dean who ‘champions’ privacy as an sacrosanct human right, yet cooperates with the security services to facilitate the (potentially criminal) surveillance of a ‘politically difficult’ colleague; the once radical Marxist who cares more about her professional entitlements than she does workplace democracy; the duplicitous colleague who smears another colleague in an effort to curry favor and advance her career; the research development manager who regularly commits false accounting (a serious statutory offence) when costing university funding applications; the failed journalist who ends up working as a communications officer and is tasked with using her media contacts to censor academics who are not on message; the head of department who uses departmental funds to surreptitiously employ a personal researcher to write his four REF articles; the dishonourable member of senior management who wheels and deals in backhanders and embezzlement; the human resources officer who fabricates trumped-up charges to force somebody out of the institution; above all, the ever more characteristic vice chancellor whose sole ambition is to climb the Establishment’s greasy pole (that peculiarly English system of patronage otherwise known as ‘Old Corruption’), and who readily abuses his office by victimising dissenting voices, whilst simulating a cynical facade of Arnoldian sweetness and light.

These are just some of the distortions and hidden injuries of the UK higher education sector. And though some of the above wrongdoings can be put down to everyday careerism, hypocrisy and cowardice, others are symptomatic of an increasingly marketised system that encourages and rewards unfettered commercialism, bullying and deceit. Such developments are furthered by a new cadre of university managers who have become a class apart, an oligarchical elite who, as was the case with the press barons of inter-war Britain, seek to exercise power without responsibility. Indeed, one could extend the historical analogy yet further: just as the British newspaper proprietor Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, supported the appeasement and militarisation of Nazi Germany, university technocrats have allowed the big battalions of capital to mass their tanks on academia’s borders. More worrying still, just as the Third Reich persecuted whole communities (and their structures of feeling) simply because they failed to conform to its Aryan vision, there is a clear and present danger that group after group of higher education employees (liberals, patricians, socialists, feminists, trade unionists, for example) could be similarly purged for refusing to quietly comply to the illiberal tenets of the neo-capitalist university.

Of course, the actual violence of university managerialism pales into insignificance when compared to the atrocities of wartime fascism. But the Lesson of Munich reminds us, to quote Noam Chomksy’s 1960s polemic that criticised US intellectuals who knowingly provided the ideological justifications for the Vietnam war,[that] a powerful and aggressive nation with a fanatic belief in its manifest destiny will regard each victory, each extension of its power and authority, as a prelude to the next step. The matter was very well put by Adlai Stevenson, when he spoke of ‘the old, old route whereby expansive powers push at more and more doors, believing they will open until, at the ultimate door, resistance is unavoidable and major war breaks out.’

It is for similar reasons that Thomas Docherty has argued that ‘we are perilously close to a position where the unquestioned power of management is declaring war on the academic community, the university, itself: civil war in academia’. Faced with such a situation, academics, administrators and students have a choice. We can continue to acquiesce to the whimsical demands of politicians and their stooges in the pessimistic belief that there is no alternative. Or, and to return to George Dangerfield and the decline of parliamentary liberalism in early twentieth-century Britain, colleagues could choose to bear witness to all that is happening in academia, warts and all, and thus bid farewell to that ‘fine old Liberal Hegelianism of at once believing in freedom and not believing in freedom’. Anything less risks universities being turned into enemies of truthfulness and intellectual honesty; indeed, it would be tantamount to the strange death of the liberal university by assisted suicide.

Piece originally posted at OpenDemocracyCreative Commons License

About the Author:

Michael Bailey teaches in the Sociology Department at Essex University. He is the co-author (with Ben Clarke and John Walton) of Understanding Richard Hoggart, and co-editor (with Mary Eagleton) of Richard Hoggart: Culture & Critique.