Last month my social media feeds were flooded with the tale of Mackenzie Fierceton, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who lost her Rhodes scholarship to Oxford after allegations she had misrepresented her background. Fierceton had apparently made much of her status as a ‘first generation, low income’ student, an abuse survivor who aged out of foster care. As an anonymous letter writer revealed, however, she was also the privately educated child of a radiologist, brought up in an affluent suburb. Did she lie? Or was she merely ‘canny’, as the Rhodes Trust put it, in emphasising certain aspects of her personal history over others?
On 10 October, the Sunday Times ran a story about Murray Edwards College, one of the two remaining women-only colleges at Cambridge University, offering ‘fertility seminars’ for its students. The college’s new president, Dorothy Byrne, was quoted as saying that fertility was a ‘forbidden subject’, and implying that the classes would be a kind of aide-mémoire: young women, she said, might ‘forget to have a baby’. The piece was widely shared, and the backlash was swift.
On 1 October, David Miller was fired by the University of Bristol for his controversial statements about Israel. The reason for terminating his employment, the university said, was that ‘Professor Miller did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff.’ The behaviour in question consisted of words: contentious words with which many would disagree, but words nonetheless, words not directed against any specific individual and not conforming to any conventional definition of harassment, though respected colleagues have argued otherwise.
It’s now a commonplace that a ‘woke’ mob of ‘snowflakes’ are ruining campus life in the US. In the past month, the Times has covered the story of an American academic who claims he was forced from his job by ‘wokeism’; the Economist has fretted over ‘wokeness’ at ‘elite schools’; and the Netflix show The Chair has dramatised the story of a bumbling professor whose hypersensitive students destroy his life. In Iowa, where I’m a bumbling professor, state legislators tried to pass a ‘Suck it up, buttercup’ bill taking aim at anti-Trump and BLM protests. But the most easily triggered students on campus this year are the ones who think we’re violating their rights by asking them to wear masks or get vaccinated, even as the Delta variant has overwhelmed local hospitals.
‘A change in the name of the US War Department to “Defense Department” in 1947,’ Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote in After the Cataclysm, ‘signalled that henceforth the state would be shifting from defence to aggressive war.’ I was reminded of this a few days ago, when the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, proposed the appointment of a ‘free speech and academic freedom champion’ for universities, tasked with investigating breaches and issuing fines. The move comes despite a 2018 parliamentary committee report that ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested’, and a review of ten thousand student union events which found that only six had been cancelled (four missed deadlines for paperwork, one was a scam, and the other was a Jeremy Corbyn rally arranged without sufficient notice). Williamson is not reacting to a problem; he is reifying the illusion of one. The government is reaching for the fig leaf of a ‘free speech champion’ after a year of escalating authoritarianism in education and culture.
It might seem bizarre to blame the murder of the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty on a nebulous conspiracy of leftist academics, given that the perpetrator, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, was an 18-year-old who had never been to university. But earlier this month in Le Monde, 100 French academics gave their backing to Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, when he responded to the murder with a flood of invective against universities. ‘Islamo-leftism is wreaking havoc,’ he said. Paty’s murderer had been ‘conditioned by people who encourage’ a type of ‘intellectual radicalism’ and promote ‘ideas that often come from elsewhere’, i.e. from across the Atlantic. ‘The fish rots from the head,’ he added darkly. Blanquer was following the example of the president of the republic.
Last Wednesday, at a time when I would have been delivering an undergraduate lecture on feminism, my students organised a teach-out on some of the themes of the course: capitalism, work and reproduction. I sat at the back of a crowded seminar room in Balliol College – the Oxford colleges don’t recognise the UCU, which means that when we strike it is only with respect to our university, not college, contracts – and listened as students spoke about wages for housework and sex work, marketisation and commodification, Rosa Luxemburg and Silvia Federici.
Like most of my colleagues, I was until recently unaware of the changes the University of Essex is planning to make to its provision of support for students suffering from mental illness. In general, we hear about such changes only once they are a fait accompli, and are told that it is too late to do anything about them. If we pick up rumours earlier in the process, we are told that it is too early: the idea is still just an idea, still at the ‘consultation’ stage, nothing has been decided yet. Even now, after the story has hit the national press, I have so far been unable to get a full and clear account of the planned changes from university administrators. The outlines, however, are plain enough.
Dear Sir Alan [Langlands]: a decade ago, when my late husband, Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill, was assembling his Collected Critical Writings, he decided to dedicate the work not to any single person, but ‘To the University of Leeds, in memory of Edward Boyle’. There was a reason for this. It was the Department of English at the University of Leeds, under the headship of Professor Bonamy Dobrée, that had appointed Geoffrey to a post as lecturer while he was still in his early twenties. It was at the University of Leeds that, for twenty-five years, he established himself as a poet, teacher and scholar of literature. It was at Leeds that he found the security to let his mind range, and to think and write. He was in the English Faculty at Leeds when he published his first four books of poetry; the first essay in the Collected Critical Writings was his inaugural lecture as a professor there, and the Geoffrey Hill archive now resides at the Brotherton Library. Geoffrey knew how much he owed the University of Leeds, and, reciprocally, the University recognised the degree to which he adorned it. It was Leeds that first awarded Geoffrey an honorary D.Litt. and it was at Leeds that I had the pleasure of meeting you at the memorial event that the English faculty held for him a year ago this month. All this is in my mind now as I write to urge you to consider changing your mind and your stance on the collective action by the staff of the University of Leeds.
This morning the vice chancellor sent a message to all staff of the University of Oxford: Dear Colleagues, I am writing to follow up on yesterday’s meeting in the Sheldonian which my colleagues have told me about. I was very sorry not to be there myself but I had scheduled a trip to New York on university business before the meeting of Congregation was called. In light of the depth of feeling of so many colleagues we will convene a special meeting of Council today at noon and will be recommending that Council reverse its response to the UUK survey in line with Congregation’s resolution.
As feared, 21 people stood up in Congregation today to block a debate and vote on revising Oxford's position on pension reform. At least some of the 21 were university administrators, and included the pro-vice chancellor for diversity, as well as other members of Council (the university's executive body). The vice chancellor was not there.
At 2 p.m. today the University of Oxford's legislative body, Congregation, will meet in the Sheldonian Theatre. All academic staff are members of Congregation, and any twenty of them can propose a resolution for debate. For consideration today is a resolution that would revise the university's submission to Universities UK's September consultation on staff pensions. Oxford, along with Cambridge, was among the 42 per cent of employers who called for the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) to take 'less risk', which in practice means a shift from a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension. It now appears that one-third of the employers calling for 'less risk' were constituent colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.
Next Thursday, staff at UK universities will begin a wave of strike action in defence of our pensions. Fourteen days of strikes will roll across 61 of the ‘pre-92’ universities; the other seven are being reballoted by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) as they didn’t meet the 50 per cent turnout threshold imposed by the 2016 Trade Union Act. On days not covered by the strike, we will work to contract.
It was announced this week that Toby Young will serve on the board of the newly formed Office for Students (OfS), the body that is to help regulate the higher education 'market' in England. Critics have been quick to point out Young's unsuitability for the post. A prominent champion of free schools, Young has little to no experience of the university sector. He does, however, have a record of sneering at the kind of 'ghastly inclusivity' that leads to wheelchair ramps in schools. Ideal, then. But Young's unsuitability for the post is beside the point.
One-third of Oxford colleges admitted no black British students in 2015. Oriel admitted one black British student over a five-year period. What explains these numbers? The Labour MP David Lammy believes that Oxford and Cambridge are engaging in social apartheid; others have blamed the admissions system, suggesting that the early application deadline and the interview process discourage many students from applying. Still others note that black and minority ethnic candidates tend to apply to newer universities in Britain’s big cities – a view that holds black British students responsible for their absence at Oxford and Cambridge.
Earlier this year I was teaching an evening class for part-time degree students in Bristol. A woman in her late twenties approached me, to check that I knew she would be breastfeeding. She introduced her classmates to her son, a few weeks old. The university does not have a policy for student parents, although it has one for staff. One of the slides I had prepared for our discussion showed a page from a 1972 essay by Adrienne Rich, 'Towards a Woman-Centred University'. Rich argued that childcare should be central in a higher education system remade for the demands of women's lives.
It is a rare moment when critics of exercises such as the Research Excellence Framework feel vindicated by a government-commissioned review. Nicholas Stern’s review of the REF, though broadly in favour of it, includes some important criticisms. It acknowledges that the REF has functioned to the disadvantage of women, Black and Minority Ethnic academics, and academics with disabilities; that it devalues interdisciplinary research; and that its narrow conception of ‘impact’ has been geared towards policy changes and the commercialisation of academic work.
In the brave new world of know-biz, universities now issue ‘tone of voice’ marketing-correctness drills to staff charged with handling the ‘brand’. The comms and marketing wonks who write them face a tough challenge: to pander to their institution’s special-snowflake syndrome, while spouting the same commercial cobblers as everyone else.
More than half the academic staff at London Metropolitan University – around 840 people – are on zero-hours contracts. Their hours of employment vary from term to term or year to year. Most earn nothing during the university holidays. They do the same work as permanent staff but have no job security, minimal prospect of advancement and inferior benefits. Many are teaching courses that they designed: their work is not incidental or unskilled. They can be fired at a month's notice. Many have been in this position for years.
When it was announced that two-thirds of Cambridge colleges would include mandatory sexual consent workshops in their Freshers' Week schedules, one boy complained that it was ‘just an excuse to further emasculate male students’. The Spectator worried that explicitly stated consent in sexual encounters would ‘kill off seduction’.
Three years ago I wrote a blog post hailing the New College for the Humanities as a parodically bad response to the ongoing marketisation of UK higher education, which prompted me to quit the system at that time. The NCH offers tuition at £18,000, and presumably more for its overseas intake (the college keeps its foreign students’ rates secret). That’s double the rate that was then being introduced as the sector norm in public universities, for which the jeunesse dorée get to camp in Bloomsbury, drawn by the roster of telly dons that the college had on board, at least for publicity purposes. At the end of the post, without much hope that it would happen, I sketched an alternative to the NCH:
On 4 December, the University of London was granted an injunction from the High Court that prohibits ‘persons unknown (including students of the University of London) from ‘entering or remaining upon the campus and buildings of University of London for the purpose of occupational protest action’ for the next six months. Many such injunctions have been granted to universities across the country over the past four years, with increasing frequency and ever wider restrictions on student protest. In this case, the University of London argued that the occupation of Senate House threatened the liberty and freedom of senior university personnel, and presented a risk of damage to property, despite assurances from the occupiers that staff were free to come and go from the building and no such damage would occur. The eventual eviction of the occupiers was rough and violent. On 5 December, 35 students were arrested and several of them detained overnight. Some were assaulted by the police.
As well as tripling fees and changing the repayment structure of student loans in 2010, the government has been looking into ways of ridding itself of loans that predate 2012, currently worth around £40 billion. They asked Rothschild to produce a report on the possibility of selling off the loan book to private investors. The report was delivered in November 2011, but only made public in June this year after a Freedom of Information request and a botched attempt at redaction.
In his recent piece for the LRB on university privatisation, Stefan Collini mentioned that the UK Border Agency sees 'universities and colleges as an easy target in its efforts to cut immigration'. The ancient historian Josephine Quinn describes on her blog this week some of the often insurmountable hurdles facing academics from other countries invited to conferences in the UK. To get a visa, they have to 'demonstrate' they are not going to stay in the country, which means providing: full bank statements for the last six months with explanations of any unusual deposits; a letter from their bank confirming the balance and the date the account was opened; documentation of the origin of any money paid into the account; payslips for the last six months; recent tax returns; and evidence of income from any property or land, including property deeds, mortgage statements, tenancy agreements, land registration documents and crop receipts.
It’s the season of the sere and yellow leaf, the fig hangs heavy on the bough, and here in Belgium it’s the rentrée académique. Down at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the bright yellow waffle van on the corner fills the air with the smell of ‘chocolate’ waffle additive, and makeshift blue canvas booths line the main campus boulevard. Student societies are offering newcomers various inducements to sign up. A free Bic seems a dubious swap for being spammed for ever by the Zombie Society, though it’s better than the carrot I remember one club offering when I was a student, a raffle ticket with a 1/nth (for n≈∞) chance of splitting a yet‐to‐be‐built cabaña in the Canaries for 37 minutes every February. It didn’t take long for some joker to add a large M at the end of the society’s ‘Win a Timeshare Condo’ slugline.
Newcastle University has made a deal with Adidas. The sportswear giant is giving the Students’ Union £30,000 and promising them visits from celebrity athletes. In return, Adidas will be the union’s preferred sportswear provider, with advertising space in the student newspaper and the union building, where it may also get to have a shop. The suggestion of an Adidas-sponsored degree was turned down over concerns for the university’s reputation, but the corporation will give scholarships to two students. Students have already received spam on their academic email addresses from email@example.com, and Adidas will be able to recruit ‘brand ambassadors’ to ‘spread the word’ about their products on campus.
One result of marketising UK universities is that they now act like private corporations. Campus high-ups make policy by fiat; university senates have little more power than shareholders’ AGMs. Vice chancellors defer to the latest government ukaz, kissing up and kicking down. Like banks and supermarkets, they fret over their public image, and whack employees thought to tarnish the brand, as Nottingham did during the Rod Thornton affair. Now London Metropolitan has suspended three members of staff in its Working Lives Research Institute – Jawad Botmeh, Steve Jefferys and Max Watson – for ‘potential gross misconduct’.
It emerged last month that the GP surgery on University College London’s Bloomsbury campus is to be closed. ‘UCL has informed us that it has no plans to renew our lease when it expires in 2014,’ Dr Clare Elliot, a partner at the Gower Place Practice, told me. ‘It does not wish to provide a space for the NHS practice on the UCL campus.’ The closure is part of the £500m ‘Bloomsbury Masterplan’, approved by UCL Council in July 2011, which will transform the central London campus over the next decade. (There's an abridged version online.) The provost of UCL, Malcolm Grant, describes the plan as a ‘coherent vision’ to ‘enable institutional growth’.
The formation of the Council for the Defence of British Universities is a welcome response to their present and future plight, and both Howard Hotson and Keith Thomas have made powerful defences in the LRB of the indispensable moral and intellectual values which the universities represent. A problem, however, is that the people who now determine the universities’ funding seem largely impervious to these defences. They hold the view that such values somehow come at the expense of the universities’ place in the real world: in other words they conflict with the universities’ ability to make money for themselves and for the economy. They take their stand on the ‘common-sense’ argument that the universities must justify their existence to the tax-payer and they must do so now. The criterion, they argue, by which we measure such justification is the contribution the universities do or do not make to the economy and to business; and, above all, to the market. This argument, if expressed properly, is not unfair. It is entirely reasonable to expect the universities to play their part in the country’s economic well-being and to wonder how that part might best be played. We should, therefore, be prepared to meet those who today make funding policy on their own ground. What we find, alas, is that the ‘evidence’ they employ is rarely evidence at all. On the contrary, it is often ideological assertion and wishful thinking.
On last Wednesday’s demo, I and three other PhD students marched as the UCL Historians' Bloc. Our placards summoned the spirits of E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. It can seem as if raising a smile is the most to hope for from a protest when its manner, timing and location are subject to police permission (last year when the police threatened to use rubber bullets demonstrators responded with: 'If I wanted to get shot I’d play Call of Duty’). Coming down the Embankment I bumped into an undergraduate from the course I teach on the revolutions of 1848. I'd been marking their essays the evening before for approximately £7 an hour. He told me he was one of UCL's delegates to this year's NUS conference. The slogan they chose for the demonstration was: 'Tax the rich to fund education.'
What is the point of academic journals? The main one, surely, is to disseminate new findings and ideas, but this doesn’t go far in explaining the current publications set-up. Journal articles loom large in government monitoring exercises like the Research Excellence Framework, a Standard & Poor’s-type academic credit-rating. REF figures shape departments’ public research funding and individual researchers’ career prospects.
But the ghost of G.E. Moore haunts the exercise: quality can’t be boiled down to component merits that are then tick-boxed into a ‘metric’.
I took early retirement from my last university job about a dozen years ago. One of my reasons was the way in which my post as head of the history department had become ‘managerialised’. I had mercifully forgotten the horrors of this until I recently stumbled on a copy of one of my memos to my colleagues. Here it is. (I’m not sure of the date.)
About six years ago I started teaching creative writing to undergraduates. When I took the job at Royal Holloway, I had never taught creative writing, and when I was younger and struggling to get published, I never took creative writing classes either. I was pretty suspicious of them, for the usual reasons. They always made me think of Woody Allen’s joke about the kid who cheats on his metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the boy sitting next to him.
In the bad old days, neoliberals bemoaned state meddling in the economy with a mobile army of mixed metaphors. Public corporations like the state-owned car giant British Leyland were ‘lame ducks’ that would ‘go to the wall’ were they not ‘featherbedded’ and ‘bloated’ by public subsidy. In the 1980s privatisation bonanza, state assets were stripped and sold back to the public at a discount, on the plea of serving the consumer, rather than producer interests. Now, fuddled by talk of ‘stakeholding’, we have got to the point where public policy defers to private producers instead. David Willetts’s open access policy on publishing research offers a case in point.