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Letters

Vol. 32 No. 6 · 25 March 2010

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The End of Research

Ross McKibbin’s excellent article on the inane proposals of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) for the future regulation of research misses one point: the degree to which the universities themselves – or rather the manageriat controlling them – have connived in the subordination of academics to centrally generated goals (LRB, 25 February). Hefce, after all, is not some corporate Trojan horse; it is largely made up of former academics who have made the transition into university management, and have in so doing vastly increased their salaries and their power.

Eight out of 15 of the Hefce board are university managers, the rest coming from business; nine out of 11 members of the research committee, ten out of 14 on the skills committee and 15 out of 18 on the access committee are senior university administrators. Working academics – teachers and researchers – are conspicuously absent. Hefce is, in reality, little more than a managerial oligarchy, and its power is extraordinary: no other country in the world hands out so much money (some £7 billion a year) to such a small group with so little external supervision over what it does. It answers to no one except the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, and in effect is the means by which the government stranglehold over universities is maintained. This is spelled out specifically in the document detailing the role of the chairman, which is ‘to support the wider strategic policies of the secretary of state’. This represents a complete change of focus from the old University Grants Committee, which Hefce replaced in 1992. The UGC was set up in 1919 as a buffer, to prevent direct government interference in the universities. Hefce was set up to facilitate precisely that interference.

The board is not elected, but appointed in a manner that is far from transparent. It may consult on proposals but can, and does, disregard objections: as long as it does the minister’s bidding, its powers are near absolute. Not that there are many objections, as many of its proposals, like the current ones on impact and assessment, are sent out to precisely the same sort of people who generate them in the first place. Senior administrators appointed to Hefce propose changes, senior administrators in universities approve them; the academics themselves are rarely consulted. The most prominent demonstration of this system of mutual support and reinforcement came a few years ago at Oxford when academics revolted against the vice-chancellor’s attempts to dissolve the university’s democratic structure and impose centralised management. Hefce intervened, somewhat shabbily, on the side of the vice-chancellor. I know of no case in which it has urged greater accountability on the part of management. Indeed, when there are complaints against the management of a university, Hefce frequently finds that there is no case to answer, or only raps the offender lightly on the knuckles.

Thus when it was censured by Parliament in 2002 for ‘failing in every respect’ to follow the code of practice on access to government information, Hefce shrugged it off. It took no action when it was revealed that London Metropolitan University had inflated its submission for the Research Assessment Exercise in 1992 and 1996, and misplaced the dossier detailing the charges for 18 months. It ignored London Met’s massaging of its data on student numbers for years; only at the end of last year, when it was revealed that the university had claimed £36 million of funds for students who had dropped out, did Hefce urge London Met’s governors to ‘consider their position’. Here it was building on an old track record: it did nothing when Luton submitted false student data in 2003, and whitewashed complaints against Middlesex in 2002 by asking the university to respond to charges rather than investigating them fully (it then kept the report secret).

Hefce’s style is mirrored inside the universities, which have been slowly converted into hierarchical, authoritarian organisations in which the last vestiges of accountability (e.g. senates with real supervisory power) have been degraded, and guarantees of academic freedom (tenure in particular) abolished. It goes without saying that this undermines researchers’ freedom. It is hardly conducive to fearless innovation if, as is currently happening at King’s College London, a head of department can decide which aspects of historical research are worthwhile (including his own, as it turns out) and close down others (King’s has proposed to get rid of the UK’s only chair in palaeography); or if administrators, using figures whose analysis they control, can denounce certain subjects as ‘sub-critical’ and axe them.

Such administrators identify themselves as the masters of the institution, not its servants, and come to regard academics who were once colleagues as employees to be managed. Pay levels are a good indicator of how power is concentrated. To give some examples, at University College London, while spending on academic departments rose 79 per cent between 1999/2000 and 2008/9, administrative costs rose 119.6 per cent, and the vice-chancellor’s remuneration rose 168.4 per cent. At Bristol, spending on departments rose 84.6 per cent, administration was up 261.2 per cent, and the vice-chancellor’s reward was up 113 per cent. The average pay package of a vice-chancellor is now more than £190,000 (higher than the prime minister’s), and for the Russell Group it is around £250,000. The head of UCL gets a total of £404,000, Nottingham £333,000, Oxford £327,000 and Birmingham £332,000. In many cases these salaries are presented as recompense for increased responsibility, for which read more power.

While lecturers are assessed endlessly by students, administrators and Hefce itself, the managers answer in practice only to the board that appointed them in the first place. In the case of King’s, the senior administrators’ salaries in 2008/09 were determined by a remuneration committee of three people: a marquess, a hotel designer and a banker. The reasoning behind their decisions is not made public, and if there is any performance review it is kept secret.

All this suggests an explanation for Hefce’s periodic bursts of regulatory frenzy. Academics know, as I suspect Hefce knows, that the imbecilic methods of assessment under proposal will do nothing at all to improve output. But I fear that the quality of research is not the point. Control is. Leaving people to do their jobs without monitoring their every step is almost literally incomprehensible to a body specifically set up to wield power.

The humanities are an example of this self-defeating desire to dictate: for many years now, the need to produce RAE fodder to satisfy arbitrary and largely pointless benchmarks has detracted from real and substantial research. The same goes for the fatuous new ideas for assessing impact. At best these will tie academics up trying to find some way of finessing the system; at worst they will produce populist nonsense aimed not at refining the way the public thinks about issues but merely at filling a hole in the market. ‘Impact’ will make the humanities less about education, more about entertainment.

Iain Pears
Oxford

After Orpheus

Orpheus, as voiced by Anne Carson, is wrong to think that Frank O’Hara was ‘the second person in the history of the world’ – after him – to be spoken to personally by the Sun (LRB, 25 February). The Sun had had a similar chat with Vladimir Mayakovsky back in June 1920 (‘An Extraordinary Adventure which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage’).

Bill Manhire
Victoria University, Wellington

Beauvoir Misrepresented?

In January 2008, I participated in a symposium in Paris celebrating the 100th anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir’s birth, at which Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, the translators of the new English version of The Second Sex reviewed by Toril Moi, discussed their strategy for rendering Beauvoir’s prose (LRB, 11 February). I was alarmed to hear them claim with pride that their intention was to translate the book as literally as possible. As any seasoned translator will tell you, faithfulness to the original is not a matter of literality. If it were, then anyone with a good dictionary and boundless patience would be ready to go.

After their talk, I conversed with the translators and found them to be sincerely – even desperately – interested in doing the best possible job. They listened attentively to my goings-on about the difficulty of recognising the philosophical moments in The Second Sex. (For example: in French, Heidegger’s signature concept Dasein is rendered ‘la réalité humaine’. Someone who didn’t know this – someone like the original translator or Borde and Malovany-Chevallier before I talked with them – would simply use ‘human reality’ and thereby bury the Heidegger connection.) They wrote to me after the fact and asked me for help with a sentence they were translating.

But, like many other people who were in a position to help them, I felt that I had to demur. The blame for this, and for the unfortunate translation itself, rests squarely with the publishers, not the translators, who were simply not the right people for this difficult job. Another philosopher and I had a long conversation at the Paris symposium with Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign rights director at Gallimard, who found the translators – her ESL teachers – and got an editor at Jonathan Cape/Knopf to take on the project. Noble upbraided us academics for being be so arrogant as to imagine that our participation in the project would be welcome, let alone necessary. She said that if the translators were to ask us for our help, we should be grateful for the opportunity and should expect neither compensation nor the right to review the way that our contributions were put to use.

Toril Moi’s review of the new translation is not ‘sour grapes’, as Michelle Sommers suggests (Letters, 11 March). Had the translators been able to pull off the impossible, Moi – and many others who care deeply about Beauvoir’s work – would have rejoiced. Moi fully acknowledges that the new translation has the advantage of being complete and, at times, philosophically more accurate than Parshley. But, in addition to lacking the annotations that would allow the interested reader fully to understand Beauvoir’s argument, it suffers from endless problems with diction and syntax and is clunky through and through. The awkwardness is not a function of ‘a few mistakes’ that ‘got past’ the translators, as they claim in their letter. It’s so pervasive that it makes reading the text painful on pretty much every page.

There is reason to be very unhappy with this new translation, not only because it is seriously flawed, but also because at every stage Gallimard and Knopf were uninterested in giving this project the care and due diligence it deserved.

Nancy Bauer
Tufts University, Massachusetts

Not Our Concern

As a former resident of Braintree, Massachusetts and editor of the local newspaper, I would like to offer the LRB a reality check. Adam Shatz implies that Amy Bishop’s mother was an ‘influential member of the town committee’, suggests that the Bishops were well off and states that the death by shooting of Amy’s brother in 1986 was ‘judged an accident by the local police’ (LRB, 11 March). Judith Bishop was a member of the Braintree Town Meeting, an elected body of 240 citizens. She was no more ‘influential’ than the other 239 members. The ‘Victorian mansion’ Shatz describes was a large house, not a mansion, at least not by American standards. Bishop’s father was a college professor, not a high-powered business executive. The Braintree police did not make the final judgment that the death by shooting of Bishop’s brother was accidental. That determination was made by the state police and the district attorney based on information supplied by the local police. The Bishops were well liked and highly regarded in Braintree, a tight-knit community at the time, so it is no surprise nor is it suspicious that the police and neighbours were kind to them. I have to wonder what relevance the Amy Bishop criminal case has to readers of a British literary and political publication.

Pamela Blevins
Brevard, North Carolina

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