The professor​ from the West Coast stepped out of the taxi and looked around, head tilted back and swivelling from one looming grey tower to another as she assessed the flint-studded concrete ramparts of the library. ‘Oh, wowww!’ she cried, ecstasy lifting her voice above the wind whipping off the marshes. ‘New brutalism! Rarely seen any so pure. First pressing. Cold pressing. Purrrfect!’

That was last summer, and new brutalism in academia was taking on another meaning. I took my Californian friend inside, to get a feel of the hessian-clad walls; the cloth is a little frayed by now, but the décor still gave off aromas of patchouli, Nesquik, joss sticks, Players No. 6, beanbags, and this and that kind of grass. The University of Essex opened to its first students in September 1964. They were part of a utopian experiment in modern education, a big university – the plan was eventually to take as many as twenty thousand students, a huge number at the time – purpose-built, as Albert Sloman, the first vice-chancellor, declared in his Reith Lectures of 1963, to sustain ‘the pressures not only of expanding numbers but also of rapidly expanding knowledge’. The challenge could be met, he believed, ‘only by radical innovation’. Essex was organised co-operatively between students and teachers: no more dons, high table, senior common room, colleges or houses, gowns. An end to deference. The walls between subjects were to be taken down: Sloman was a Hispanist, and an advocate of comparative studies; English literature would be read alongside Russian and American, North and South, all in their original languages (he hoped to extend to the Far East, too). He insisted on the importance and independence of academia: ‘A professor can speak out on national issues of science and scholarship,’ Sloman said, ‘as a scientist in a government research centre cannot. So universities must go on being places of scholarly investigation.’

When Derek Walcott accepted an invitation to become professor of poetry in 2009, he had a trace memory of this experimental, cosmopolitan place, so surprisingly based in Essex. The political disturbances there in 1968 were notorious, but the novelty of the university’s ideas about teaching was known to him too, its innovations in comparative studies, its sympathy with poets, translators, excitable theorists, its egalitarianism. Robin Blackburn on slavery, Angela Livingstone on Tsvetaeva, Ernesto Laclau’s charismatic mystifications. Dawn Ades’s work on Latin America inspired artists from all over the continent to donate paintings and sculpture, so it has a collection unrivalled by any other UK institution. Sloman spurred on the building of a tremendous library (now named after him) and pictured a future that would bring students from all over the world to rural Essex, a place with a long history of boat-building and Dionysiac boho revels: Francis Bacon, John Deakin and ‘Dicky’ Chopping, who made a fortune designing the dust jackets for James Bond books, all drank in the Rose & Crown on the quayside at Wivenhoe. Constable condensed the dominant myth of the English countryside in his painting of a haywain standing in a cattle pond a little way to the north.

When I arrived at Essex ten years ago to teach in the department of literature, film and theatre studies, a wholly unexpected rise in the teaching of creative writing was just beginning, and it was led by students who, as ‘customers’, could dictate terms in the new market. (In some universities, such as Bath Spa, hundreds of undergraduates enrol on creative writing courses every year.) The trend was reinforced by the goals set for universities by government (‘outputs’, ‘impact’), which stirred up a brisk traffic in writers. Where previously we had scraped by on the odd payment from the BBC, we were suddenly valuable for our publications, and for our public activities: radio, telly, public appearances, newspapers, national and international influence.

Creative writing is a controversial subject, and many who teach it don’t defend it as a proper discipline. I am not one of them, but I can see the problems. How would you mark Wuthering Heights? (‘Emily, I think you need to reorganise the chronology.’) Or assess Gertrude Stein? (‘Have you heard of commas?’) I try to bring in Renaissance ideas of imitatio, and teach by example, of past masters and mistresses. Creative writing can be a way of reading, and it fires up students who, used to browsing Wikipedia, can be reluctant to read a whole book. It’s a direct, though unforeseen, consequence of those radical 1960s ideas of valuing individuals and encouraging self-expression and confidence. But, as Seamus Heaney put it, striving to write well helps tune the ear to the hum of a writer. It can illuminate how language works and how stories carry meaning. Digging into the archaeology of a story, into the structure of a passage, these students are like musicians being taught to listen to different ways of playing a piece. To re-read something entirely familiar in class refreshes it for me; a new reader is more sensitive to the shocks of recognition and alienation that a writer delivers, as well as to the violence, the spleen, the pain. Creative writing becomes more like a manual skill – tailoring, silversmithery. But like other such skills – playing the piano, dancing, lacemaking or mathematics – the teacher has to have done it, and be doing it still. Teachers of creative writing need to live in at least two worlds – at the university and in a room of their own. The situation is even more pronounced for dramatists or screenwriters or journalists: they have to practise their craft in order to pass it on.

In December 2012 I was asked to chair the Man Booker International Prize for 2015. I was torn. Did I want to swerve away from my own writing to read hundreds of books from all over the world? Was I really ‘interested in canon-formation’, as a friend put to me? At the same time I was invited to give a series of seminars at All Souls in Oxford. That was a different kind of thing: a chance to do some new research, which could lead to a book. Besides, when I was an undergraduate, the beautiful dramatic Hawksmoor buildings were a locked enclave of male power and privilege, and I’d never imagined that one day I would be invited in.

I went to my head of department, the playwright Jonathan Lichtenstein, to ask what to do, as both posts would disrupt my ordinary schedule. He was pleased. Word came back from on high: prestige, publicity, glory, impact – I must do it. My teaching – I had seven PhD students, and undergraduate and postgraduate classes – would be arranged to fit around the prize. A letter arrived from the vice-chancellor’s office congratulating me on the All Souls fellowship, and an interview about my role on the prize committee was filmed for the university website.

Then, last November, I attended an academic staffing committee meeting presided over by the vice-chancellor. Anthony Forster has a military background and retains the jutting bearing and combed-down hair of the profession, though he left the army aged 26 to do political and social science. Colchester is a garrison town and he must have seemed a friendly fit. (The joke on campus is that Forster was too tough for the army. His talents needed a boot camp: a university was just the thing.) Soon after he was appointed, Forster declared in an interview with the Times Higher: ‘I would struggle with the idea of vice-chancellors who descend from on high, impose their will on a university and set a character and direction. My own leadership style is very different to that – it’s one of galvanising, of partnership, of setting goals that are ambitious and then supporting people in delivering them.’

At the meeting, Forster was galvanising the deputy vice-chancellor, and his leadership style was making a colleague’s chin wobble in her eagerness to meet his requests. Others round the table hung their heads, staring sullenly at their laptops. The Senate had just approved new criteria for promotion. Most of the candidates under review had written their submissions before the new criteria were drawn up, yet these were invoked as reasons for rejection. As in Kafka’s famous fable, the rules were being (re‑)made just for you and me. I had been led to think we were convened to discuss cases for promotion, but it seemed to me we were being asked to restructure by the back door. Why these particular individuals should be for the chop wasn’t clear from their records. Cuts, no doubt, were the underlying cause, though they weren’t discussed as such. At one point Forster remarked aloud but to nobody in particular: ‘These REF stars – they don’t earn their keep.’

At that stage, everyone in the university was still obsessively focused on meeting the demands of this year’s REF. By the end of 2013, all the evidence had been gathered, and the inventory of our publications fought over, recast and finally sent off to be assessed by panels of peers. Everyone in academia had come to learn that the REF is the currency of value. A scholar whose works are left out of the tally is marked for assisted dying. So I thought Forster’s remark odd at the time, but let it go. It is now widely known – but I did not know it then – that the rankings of research, even if much improved, will bring universities less money this time round than last. So the tactics to bring in money are changing. Students, especially foreign students who pay higher fees, offer a glittering solution.

Suddenly, the watchword from management was ‘Teaching, Teaching, Teaching.’ We would all have to teach more. Personal arrangements, flexible and part-time contracts were no longer in force. My agreement with the university was for 70 per cent research, 30 per cent teaching. But that was the past. A Tariff of Expectations would be imposed across the university, with 17 targets to be met, and success in doing so assessed twice a year. I received mine from the executive dean for humanities. (I met her only once. She was appointed last year, a young lawyer specialising in housing. When I tried to talk to her about the history of the university, its hopes, its ‘radical innovation’, she didn’t want to know. I told her why I admired the place, why I felt in tune with Essex and its founding ideas. ‘That is all changing now,’ she said quickly. ‘That is over.’) My ‘workload allocation’, which she would ‘instruct’ my head of department to implement, was impossible to reconcile with the commitments which I had been encouraged – urged – to accept.

I was asked to take a year’s unpaid leave instead, so that my research could still be counted. I felt that would set a bad precedent: other colleagues, younger than me, with more financial responsibilities, could not possibly supervise PhD students, do research, write books, convene conferences, speak in public, accept positions on trusts or professional associations, and all for no pay.

Outside grants are becoming the only way to earn time off to write or to take on a piece of research. The model for higher education mimics supermarkets’ competition on the high street; the need for external funding pits one institution against another – and even one colleague against another, and young scholars waste their best energies writing grant proposals.

Eventually, after a protracted rigmarole, I resigned. I felt I had been pushed.

I am told that the tick of the deathwatch beetle is heard only when it is too late. I should have heard the tick tick ticking when plans for a splendid new building for an ‘international centre for democracy and conflict resolution’ were cancelled last autumn. Daniel Libeskind had been invited to design it – he had done a master’s degree at Essex in the early years, and the university’s Human Rights Centre has a worldwide reputation. But although Essex had kept its end up in the last Research Assessment Exercise in 2008 (the tagline at the bottom of every official email from Essex proclaims that it was ranked in the top ten research universities), the promised overflowing pot of porridge had turned out watered down and gritty. So no new human rights building, but a big new business school.

I heard the tick again when there was an attempt to close the history of art department and put the Latin American collection up for sale; that plan, thank god, has been staved off – for the time being. I heard it once more when Derek Walcott’s visiting post was not renewed, at the express insistence of the vice-chancellor, and against the wishes of Walcott and of the literature department. These Nobel Prize winners – they don’t earn their keep. And I heard it when, instead of inviting writers who had studied or taught at Essex to this September’s 50th anniversary celebrations (as well as Walcott and Livingstone, the list includes Ben Okri, Michèle Roberts, Elizabeth Cook, Iain Sinclair, Tom Raworth and Irvine Welsh), the administrators told me ‘family fun’ was to be the mood. So instead, would I give a talk about The Wobbly Tooth, a little children’s book I wrote thirty years ago when my son Conrad lost his first tooth? I was astonished – pleased – that the anniversary planning team knew about it at all, and I would have agreed if they had shown any interest in writing by anyone else, or even something else by me.

I could go on, about the cases of colleagues and their experience of managers’ ‘instructions’, arrogance and ignorance, and the devices they adopt to impose their will, but individuals like Anthony Forster and the executive dean for humanities are not single spies. They’re minor but willing operatives in a larger mechanics of power. Within this structure, they have been allowed to wrest authority for themselves, and neither literary scholars nor long-serving teachers have a say; individual students, once enrolled and committed, are not much attended to either.

What is happening at Essex reflects on the one hand the general distortions required to turn a university into a for-profit business – one advantageous to administrators and punitive to teachers and scholars – and on the other reveals a particular, local interpretation of the national policy. The Senate and councils of a university like Essex, and most of the academics who are elected by colleagues to govern, have been caught unawares by their new masters, their methods and their assertion of power. Perhaps they/we are culpable of doziness. But there is a central contradiction in the government’s business model for higher education: you can’t inspire the citizenry, open their eyes and ears, achieve international standing, fill the intellectual granary of the country and replenish it, attract students from this country and beyond, keep up the reputation of the universities, expect your educators and scholars to be public citizens and serve on all kinds of bodies, if you pin them down to one-size-fits-all contracts, inflexible timetables, overflowing workloads, overcrowded classes.

Among the scores of novels I am reading for the Man Booker International are many Chinese novels, and the world of Chinese communist corporatism, as ferociously depicted by their authors, keeps reminding me of higher education here, 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.

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Vol. 36 No. 18 · 25 September 2014

As the only colleague in Marina Warner’s department free of all obligation to our former employer, the University of Essex, I would like to share my recent experience (LRB, 11 September). After my three-year ‘probation’ as a part-time lecturer in creative writing came to an end this summer, I was offered a full-time (1.0) post. I hadn’t applied for one, can’t do one, and don’t want one. I asked the executive dean if I could continue in my 0.5 position and was told that I would have to reapply and re-interview, but that the post would for a short while be ring-fenced for me. An interview date was set six weeks in advance and I cleared my diary. Forty-eight hours before that date, the interview was switched to the following day – a date impossible for me as I had a long-standing engagement at a literary festival. When I made this clear to the administration I was told that if I didn’t attend on the altered date – i.e. dump the literary festival at 24 hours’ notice – my post would no longer be ring-fenced, but advertised nationally. I refused. When I complained about this situation, I was told that my reapplication had in any case been filled out incorrectly. So am I to believe that the interview was arranged so that the executive dean could kindly inform me that my application was filled out incorrectly? Perhaps she was going to help me with it. Stranger things have happened at Essex this year.

Glyn Maxwell
London N1

When I went up to Essex in the 1960s I hadn’t read Vice-Chancellor Sloman’s Reith Lectures, but by then they’d been absorbed into a popular vision of the ‘new university’. Essex was tiny, certainly smaller than the school I’d just left, with about 650 undergraduates – the size of a large Oxbridge college. Those 650 students saw Sloman wreck his own vision. First, there was the wilfully stupid suspension of three students (among them the future Lord Triesman) after the Porton Down protest in May 1968. Then there was the abolition of continuous assessment, the radical but unacceptable idea that we were not to be judged by a series of three-hour exams like 15-year-olds. The inauguration of the first senior common room not long afterwards was the last nail in the coffin of Sloman’s big idea, and his undermining by the very people he had hired. By the 1970s, and by this time I was fumbling with a PhD and teaching, most new undergraduates had never heard of Sloman’s lectures and spent their three years without setting eyes on him – he was just that bloke on the rostrum on graduation day. I don’t think I exchanged a word with him myself after 1972. He retreated from his creation when the Hulk tore off its shirt and turned green. He became the campus hermit, Mariana’d in his moated grange on one of the Wivenhoe Park lakes, and left the university to the ‘enforcers’: staff who clearly did not and never had shared his vision. I was approached – or was it merely mentioned in passing? – as a lit alumnus on the matter of the fiftieth anniversary. I passed on it. I am not the only writer who did. As E.J. Thribb (17½) once wrote,

So, Farewell then Albert,
Superslo we used to call you,
Your idea died
Long before you did.

John Lawton
Ashbourne, Derbyshire

I agree with almost everything Marina Warner says, but I would add that administrators are operating under similar conditions. The neat trick that senior management teams employ – and I should point out that these roles are usually filled by experienced academics – is to create a classic divide and rule line between academic and non-academic members of staff. As a result, each side views the other with suspicion while the ideologically driven managerialism that is propelling our institutions towards full marketisation is left unchecked. Higher education is a scary place to work right now: self-preservation seems to trump ethics in the actions of otherwise reasonable colleagues, both administrators and lecturers.

London W3

Two phrases stand out in Marina Warner’s Diary: ‘These REF stars – they don’t earn their keep’ and ‘an ecstasy of obedience’. The first illustrates the terrible damage inflicted on academia by successive assessments run by a funding authority (HEFCE) that changes the rules as it pleases with no thought as to long-term goals. Five years ago it was all ‘research, research and don’t teach too much’; now it would seem to be the opposite. How on earth are we supposed to live with such wayward paymasters? The second nicely skewers those university authorities (and that means all of them) who refuse to stand up to constant bullying, preferring to knuckle under and bully in turn. Colleagues in the US look on in disbelief at the way successive governments in this country have undermined our academic freedoms via the pay packet and constant petty assessment. I was fortunate enough to be able to take early retirement; my heart goes out to those who must continue to try and maintain one of this country’s greatest success stories against such appalling odds.

Richard Bowring

Vol. 36 No. 20 · 23 October 2014

My personal experience of present-day academia confirms the points that Marina Warner makes: an institutional anxiety about international reputation, to be achieved with no reference to academic judgment, combined with a bullying, indeed punitive, attitude towards any member of staff who dares to stick her neck out and disagree with the direction of university policy (LRB, 11 September). In my case I had concerns that doubling student numbers to ‘balance the books’ was morally questionable, since this could not be accompanied by an increase in the number of jobs available to our graduates. (Mine was a vocational MA which achieved over 90 per cent employment after graduation.) Like Warner I was engaged in a number of international projects and so unable to complete one of the REF outputs I had signed up for. That occasioned being hauled before a university star chamber and threatened with disciplinary action unless I agreed to resign. Other colleagues had similar encounters.

Of course there is a long history of academic disagreement with university administrators. In the present case neoliberal management policies are applied to a sector where it is almost by definition impossible to judge their effectiveness, and this is combined with a peculiarly British contempt on the part of management for the workforce, from security guards to the professoriat. But it also has to be said that there is far too often a weak response from the trade union (UCU) at college and regional levels. Individual staff affected often have to take expensive legal advice (which in my case was that no one wants to get bogged down in a two-year-long argument at an employment tribunal: best to sign a gagging order and get out). And students are reluctant to risk their prospects through supportive industrial action. ‘Who needs a dean,’ one of ours asked, ‘when we can have a CEO!’


Richard Bowring writes about the terrible damage inflicted on academia by ‘wayward paymasters’ and the funding councils (Letters, 25 September). I returned from teaching in US universities in 1996, eventually to become the ‘chief executive’ of the University for the Creative Arts.

I was expected to attend the Hefce annual conference. It didn’t take me long to realise that, as with the Regent Street Christmas decorations, something new had to be presented and explained every year to make such a regular gathering necessary and important. Furthermore I was, de facto, a department head in the University of England, whose vice-chancellor was the chief executive of Hefce. At the conference, some of the most powerful departmental heads (the Russell Group) would argue the toss; the CE or one of his officers would acknowledge that the particular colleague’s view was very interesting, would, of course, be taken away, considered … and then kicked into the long grass when nobody was looking. As for the former polytechnic heads, they tended to keep their heads down. Perhaps they were satisfied simply to have been invited, though they did tend to arrive in the most splendid cars complete with personal driver. As for the lowest form of life, the specialist college heads, of which I was one, we just sat at the back, bemused and, with luck, forgotten.

The absurd Hefce and its equivalents throughout the UK should be dismantled as soon as possible. That means the government trusting each British university and returning to something like the old UGC – the Universities Grants Committee, closed down by Margaret Thatcher in 1989. Until that time, what Marina Warner accurately describes as ‘an ecstasy of obedience’ will continue to infect every level and corner of university life.

Vaughan Grylls

Vol. 36 No. 21 · 6 November 2014

What your anonymous correspondent does not state is that the payment for unfair dismissal is capped in UK universities so that human resources departments know that if they offer more than the cap most people will accept, though the offer invariably comes with a gagging order (Letters, 23 October). And most university employees are far too spineless to protest at this treatment of their colleagues.

David Ganz

Vol. 37 No. 2 · 22 January 2015

In light of the correspondence following Marina Warner’s piece about why she resigned her position at Essex (LRB, 11 September 2014), I present a letter sent in 1965 by Arnaldo Momigliano, the Italian historian of late antiquity, to his head of department at UCL, Alfred Cobban, following a demand that he account for his use of his time.

Dear Cobban,

In my Continental timetable of 24 hours a day I divide my day as follows:

(I understand that dreaming is now equivalent to thinking.)

2 hours’ pure sleep
1 hour’s sleep cum dreams about administration
2 hours’ sleep cum dreams about research
1 hour’s sleep cum dreaming about teaching
½ hour of pure eating
1 hour of eating cum research = reading
1 hour of eating cum colleagues & talking about teaching and research
½ hour of pure walk
½ hour of walk cum research (= thinking)
12 ½ hours of research cum preparation
(= reading, writing, or even thinking)
1 formal hour teaching without thinking
1 formal hour administration without thinking

24 hours

Yours ever,

Arnaldo Momigliano

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
National University of Ireland, Galway

Vol. 37 No. 3 · 5 February 2015

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín quotes with admiration a letter from 1965 by Arnaldo Momigliano mocking Alfred Cobban’s request that he account for his use of time (Letters, 22 January). He does not note that from 1964 onwards Momigliano had added the chair in ancient history at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa to the one he continued to hold at UCL. In Cobban’s position I too would have felt justified in asking Momigliano to explain how this was compatible with the fulfilment of his professional responsibilities.

Matthew Leigh
St Anne’s College, Oxford

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