Mrs Thatcher’s Universities

Peter Pulzer

For most of this year some of my colleagues have been taking ‘industrial action’, either refusing to mark scripts and examine theses, or to disclose the marks they have awarded. They have now abandoned this, but that does not invalidate the question: what on earth is going on? What are academics doing, taking industrial action?

We live in revolutionary times, and much that would have seemed unimaginable ten years ago has come to pass. Who would have prophesied in 1979, with some prospect of being taken seriously, that not merely Rolls-Royce and British Leyland and the National Freight Corporation would be privatised ten years later, but that the telephones and the gas industry would be too, with water and electricity on the Parliamentary agenda and even coal, the railways and the Post Office in the Government’s sights? That one million council houses would have been sold off? That doctors’ surgeries would be anti-Conservative committee-rooms, as happened in the Vale of Glamorgan by-election in May; that Arthur Scargill would be seeking to become a fully-owned subsidiary of Ron Todd? Yet all this has come to pass, and so has industrial action by academics.

That is, for me, the saddest development of all. Fashions may change in how best to run an industry or public service; opinions differ on the best way to satisfy the housing market; and relations between trade unions are probably a matter for consenting adults in private. But once a profession has changed its character, it is difficult to reverse the process. I have never belonged to the Association of University Teachers, because it seemed to me the wrong kind of organisation to represent academics. Of course we need proper salaries and tolerable conditions, but we are not hired labourers contributing to an entrepreneur’s profits; no one is depriving us of surplus value. The shop-floor style of collective bargaining and the mentalities it engenders do not fit our individualistic inclinations and highly divergent ways of defining our obligations.

All trade-union leaderships run the risk of degenerating into self-serving oligarchies, more concerned with defending their empires than with considering the long-term interests of their members. In the present dispute the AUT, like all unions, insists on the sanctity of national bargaining and uniform salary scales. But this serves the power and autonomy of union professionals more obviously than the interests of universities and those who work in them.

There is, as we know and as I shall elaborate, much to criticise in the way the Government is treating the universities. It must bear a major share of the blame for the recent impasse. But the exam boycott was wrong in principle and wrong in practice, and wrong in practice because wrong in principle. The Vice-Chancellors, whatever tactical errors they may have committed, are not 19th-century mill-owners, grasping pennies that are rightfully ours. Most universities are running a deficit and yet the AUT persisted in asking for money it knew was not there. The only money that universities can disburse is tomorrow’s seed-corn. The possibility that some universities may make improved offers does not alter this fact. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, one of those contemplating this step, confirmed that truth by saying: ‘I just hope we can pick it up nationally.’ There is only one source from which extra cash can come in the short term: the Government. Yet the AUT insist that its quarrel was with ‘the employers’, because that is the way union leaders’ one-track minds work.

The boycott was wrong in principle because the people we were harming are not the people who are harming us. We are, or were when I first became an academic, a profession with an ethos. The ethos was one of its attractions. Not everyone lived up to it all the time, but on the whole, if extra time or work were needed to help a student or a colleague, one put it in. We are all quite accustomed to working until midnight or at weekends, despite the widespread popular assumption that we have an 18-hour week and ‘all those holidays’. Until quite recently Oxford dons did not even have contracts of employment. There was simply an assumption that most of us most of the time could be relied on to be good citizens. That is how the place kept going and indeed keeps going. Now, for the first time in the history of British universities, we were being urged to adopt a different principle – that of taking the clients hostage.

The boycott was wrong in practice because nobody would benefit from it. It ought to be blindingly clear by now that it will do us as much good as the Winter of Discontent did to NUPE. In the end the AUT itself said it would settle for an additional £285 lump sum. But if the erosion of academic salaries and the general misery of the universities is as serious as most of us believe it to be, £285 is neither here nor there. The AUT was looking for a way out of a position it should never have got into. It had ignored the ancient Iranian proverb that one should not lead a camel to the top of a minaret without first ascertaining how to get it down.

To critics of the boycott the AUT had two answers. It did not like harming students, especially a generation of students that had already been through the mill of school strikes, but theirs was a necessary sacrifice in order to save higher education. Moreover, whatever the boycott’s shortcomings, there was no alternative. To the first, my answer, and that of the non-boycotting majority, was that it would worsen, not improve our position. It is our professional ethos that gains us such support and sympathy as we have. It is not an asset to be lightly destroyed.

There is, in any case, no evidence that our action was unwelcome to the Government. Did it not show us up as another bunch of bolshie proles who needed to be brought to heel? It gave a lifeline to the Minister of Higher Education to retrieve a little of the credit he lost when the House of Lords amended the Education Reform Bill out of recognition last spring. He could now pretend to be Ian MacGregor to Diana Warwick’s Arthur Scargill. What he did was to withhold £67m earmarked for our last salary increase, even though all the conditions attached to that have been met. The mere triviality of the sum illustrates where universities stand in the Government’s list of priorities: it is 4 per cent of the cost of trying to stop the publication of Spycatcher and 5 per cent of the cost of distributing a misleading Poll Tax pamphlet.

Was the dispute only about money, or was it really about something else? Money certainly matters both substantively and symbolically. In terms of their purchasing power academic salaries are more or less where they were ten years ago; in relative terms they are 20-25 per cent lower. This matters symbolically in illustrating the contempt in which the Government holds us. It matters substantively because it makes it increasingly difficult to attract and hold staff of top calibre. To this misery the Government offers only two remedies: money from private sources and greater differentials in salaries within and between universities. Yet these remedies risk adding to our miseries.

Money from private sources falls into two categories. All Oxford and Cambridge colleges, many ‘redbrick’ universities and most of the celebrated North American universities began with private endowments. Many of our professorships, laboratories and libraries owe a similar debt to private benefaction. There is nothing new in a diversity of sources for a university’s central fund. It is certainly not an idea imposed on unwilling institutions in 1979. More ambiguous in its impact is the pressure to secure private funding for current research costs. This, too, is hardly a new notion and much of it has, in the past, been beneficial. But it can cumulatively give the short term precedence over the long, and divert intellectual endeavour, however unwittingly, into the direction that gives the best commercial return. It also risks putting the researcher into a subordinate position: for instance, research commissioned by government departments now belongs to them, with no right of publication by the researcher.

Salary differentials are proposed as a prophylactic against the brain drain – a nonexistent brain drain, incidentally, according to the ‘research’ of the Department of Education and Science. My university, for instance, is proposing to pay up to 30 per cent more to some professors and to increase the number of personal, as opposed to established, professorships. Quite probably that will make a difference at the margin: some individual beneficiaries may now think twice before responding to yet another $100,000-a-year offer. Some kind of mid-career recognition in an otherwise very un-hierarchical university may help to relieve the frustrations of many conscientious individuals. It could, in other words, deal with one of the symptoms.

What it leaves untouched is the much larger problem posed by the fact that the number of philosophy posts has dropped by 30 per cent in ten years, or that fewer than one-fifth of the historians in British universities are under forty years old. It leaves untouched the even larger problem that anyone familiar with any British university can recite in his sleep: fewer of the best students stay on to do postgraduate work; fewer of those who complete postgraduate work stay on in academic positions; of those who do stay an increasing proportion go abroad. In other words, the really serious brain drain, the one that simply does not appear in the DES’s ‘research’, begins at 27, when the bright young scholar with a PhD under his belt decides, after the tenth or fifteenth rejection for one of the few vacancies that there are, to pack his bags for Berkeley or Austin, Texas or Geneva. And that is the last you have seen of him. Or her.

Instead, the postgraduate students in British universities, at least in the humanities and social sciences, are drawn increasingly from abroad. In the courses that I am most familiar with, the two-year master’s courses in Politics and International Relations at Oxford, highly regarded and competed for, fewer than one-fifth of the annual intake of about thirty-five are British. Now it is undeniably stimulating to teach all those bright and keen people from America and India and Japan and Mexico. An all-British graduate seminar would lack an important dimension. But some time in the Nineties a lot of the academics appointed in the expansion of the Sixties will retire. Where will their replacements come from? Not to mention those who are to teach the extra students whom Mr Baker wants to have access to higher education. No doubt the DES is researching that one.

Yet even if the number of graduate scholarships for UK students were to be increased, or if more jobs were created or unfrozen, and even if salaries were restored to their relative position of 1980, I doubt whether there would be a rush back into British academia without other fundamental changes. And this is where we are back to money as a symbol.

Few people become dons in order to become rich, though one or two in each generation succeed in doing so. What attracts is job satisfaction: teaching, for those – the majority, I think – who enjoy teaching; research, for the many who think they have something to add to our understanding of some corner of the world; the ambience, the chance of talking to other intelligent people and sitting in well-stocked libraries. A way of life that is in most essentials the exact opposite of a David Lodge novel, so that few of us care that the rest of the world smiles condescendingly at our shabby clothes, battered bicycles and collapsing brief-cases.

And it is the job satisfaction that has gone. An increasing proportion of our time is devoted to saving our jobs, as opposed to doing them. To sitting on committees that decide which post is to be abolished and which merely frozen. To evaluating ourselves, each other, our own departments, everybody else’s departments. To puffing ourselves, advertising ourselves, inventing new ways of praising ourselves, in the hope that our ‘resource unit’ will get a few more pennies next time. To answering endless, mindless, meaningless questionnaires, with no idea of who will evaluate the answers or how. The result is easily summarised. We spend an increasing proportion of our time on chores that are secondary to the main purpose of our existence.

On present trends this disproportion will increase rather than diminish. Moreover, in what we do teach, we are under increasing pressure to adapt to the wishes of grant-givers, or second-guess the presumed wishes of grant-givers and to revise our teaching and research accordingly. In other words, a growing proportion of our non-chore time is devoted to things we don’t actually believe in.

Accountability, a perfectly acceptable principle if applied with understanding for the purposes of a university, means in the present context the need to present a favourable ‘research profile’. It puts a premium on activity over contemplation, on speed over reflection, on publication over oral communication. A department of six brilliant philosophers who believe, with Socrates, that it is better to ask questions than to scribble answers risks inviting the bailiffs. There is little room in the evaluation procedure for the scholar who takes twenty years to write the book that will be a standard work for the next fifty. As my colleague John Lucas of Merton College has put it, ‘instead of writing books, I shall write articles; instead of writing articles, I shall write CVs.’

If you are a student contemplating an academic career, you do not have to be outstandingly perceptive to see that this is not an enicing prospect. You do not need to be indoctrinated by your alienated tutor or supervisor to appreciate what happens when universities are under instructions to turn themselves into businesses, professors into managers and departments into firms. There may be a market in student places, though students – understandably – chose a university as much for its accommodation, its drama and sports facilities or the nearby pop scene as for its intellectual reputation. But is there a market in ideas? Can people be original on contract? And if you constantly tell academics that they need the ethos of the Nibelungs, is it surprising if they react like shop stewards and make for the picket line?

Nothing of what the present government is asking us to do is impossible. If balancing the books is the criterion of efficiency, we can balance them – by starving libraries, leaving posts empty and cramming more students into seminars. If word goes out that accountancy courses are in and archaeology out, we can comply. If the orders are that doctoral theses completed in three years and 11 months are good and those completed in four years and one month are bad, we shall bully our students accordingly. You can do all that, just as you can turn the Victoria and Albert Museum into an ace caff. Whingers and cultural pessimists will say that if that is how things go, then goodbye to Nobel Prizes and staying in the world league. But then they would, wouldn’t they?

What the observant student will also note is that the universities’ fate is not isolated. All the intermediate institutions of civil society, all autonomous sources of ideas and opinions, are equally under attack – BBC and ITV, the Churches, the Civil Service, local government. Some of the threats are explicit, as in the new Official Secrets Act. But the general effect is one of creeping self-censorship: a Finlandisation of thought. Readers will find a useful summary of how far the freedom of the word has been eroded in Glasnost in Britain?, edited by Norman Buchan and Tricia Sumner.[*] Though the editors are close to the Labour Party and might therefore be thought to have an axe to grind, their accounts are balanced and factual. Contributors include the Conservative MP Richard Shepherd, whose alternative Protection of Official Information Bill failed last year. Sir Kenneth Alexander’s chapter on academic freedom is all the more impressive for its restraint.

The observant student will further note that the Government’s neglect of national assets, its denial that there are public goods, is systematic and universal. There is scarcely a museum or gallery that is not in desperate straits, hardly a subsidised theatre that is not under intensifying commerical pressure. If he wants to know whether public goods can be delivered with a little imagination and good will and without ruinously inflationary consequences, he has only to visit the newly refurbished Louvre or Musée d’Orsay, or any of a dozen French provincial cities, or Stuttgart or even mammonistic Frankfurt. On the Continent it seems not to matter whether the local administration is left-wing or right-wing. There is a consensus about public goods. Given all that, he can be for given for thinking that he would be better-off as a management consultant.

But back to the exam boycott. Granted it is an imperfect weapon, was there an alternative? What else could a predominantly non-materialistic, profession do to give vent to its frustrations? I can offer two answers. The first is that frustration is a bad guide to rational action. The second is that we shall survive only if we can demonstrate that what is good for us is also good for others, and antisocial tantrums will not achieve that. Some where out there, among politicians, businessmen and ordinary citizens, there is a constituency potentially favourable to us. To reach them we need a campaign of powerful, rational persuasion. The modest successes of the Save British Science campaign show that it is possible. It is a long haul, but in the end it may pay off. And if it does not, nothing else will.

Meanwhile, at the coal face, I can report a new experience. An increasing number of the posts we can offer are limited-term. We advertise, we meet, we appoint. And then, a week later, the lucky candidate rings up, confessing to agonies and sleepless nights. ‘Thank you very much,’ is the message, ‘but should I really take it?’ More often than not I reply: ‘Take it. Things may get better.’ But what if I am wrong?

[*] Macmillan, 190 pp., £29.50 and £12.99, 11 May, 0 333 49058 4.