Learning My Lesson

Marina Warner on the disfiguring of higher education

In her 2015 Winter Lecture, Marina Warner shows how higher education in the UK has been betrayed.

The first time I suggested an exercise to a roomful of creative writing students, something on the lines of ‘We’ve been reading Elizabeth Bowen, now think of a house where you were happy, but you no longer live there. Write it!’, they all bent their heads down over their paper and began writing. I couldn’t believe it. When students are tackling a task like that, you can feel the whirr and hum of thought: it feels woven of reciprocity, willing, ambition, the impulse to translate fugitive thoughts into communication with others. The same can happen with an audience at a concert, with readers in a library, or with visitors looking at pictures in a gallery. In Fred Wiseman’s recent documentary about the National Gallery, the camera watched as people looked at the paintings on the walls: a mysterious communion. One especially eloquent sequence showed a session for the visually impaired, ‘seeing feelingly’. You can’t tell what these spectators are feeling or thinking. Only that they are attending, lost to themselves in the act of looking, with their eyes or with their fingers, and that this is something that doesn’t cause pain or anxiety, something that is the contrary of discontent.

I went to university in 1964, a different era, when very few of us, around 5 per cent of the population, had the chance. We were undoubtedly a lucky generation. Now, many many more of us, young and older, are studying for degrees – between 35 and 40 per cent. I approve wholly of this social change; I believe education at every age and level is an unqualified good, unassailably beneficial to the individual and to society and the world. I believe it is as important an indicator of a society’s state of health as nutrition and housing. I entered full employment as an academic late in life. What have I learned since I began teaching at the University of Essex more than ten years ago? That something has gone wrong with the way the universities are being run. Above all, I have learned that not everything that is valuable can be measured.

I was forced out of my professorship at Essex after being told, first, that I couldn’t retire because I was needed (for the next round of research assessment in 2020);[1] second, that I should accept the job of chairing the Man Booker International Prize in 2015; and finally, that I was to be congratulated on gaining a fellowship at All Souls, Oxford – non-stipendiary and part-time, but a chance to do some research – only subsequently to be informed that policy had now changed, and I would be required to teach full-time. There was more to what happened, to others as well as to me, but I won’t go over the details here. After I wrote a piece about the experience in the LRB, letters and emails poured in to me – and to the paper.[2] The correspondence reveals a deeper and more bitter scene in higher education than I had ever imagined. I had been naive, culpably unobservant as I went about my activities at Essex. Students, lecturers, professors from one institution after another were howling in sympathy and rage; not one of them dissented or tried to justify the situation. I had thought that Essex was a monstrous manifestation, but it turns out that its rulers’ ideas are ‘the new normal’, as the Chinese government calls its present economic plan. Cries also reached me from other countries, where the new methods have been taken even further: from New Zealand and Australia, above all; from Europe, especially the Netherlands, and from certain institutions in the US.

Here is an account from a professor who resigned from a Russell Group university:

Although the department was excellent, it was freighted to breaking point with imperious and ill-conceived demands from much higher up the food chain – from people who don’t teach or do research at all, or if they ever did, think humanities departments should work like science departments …

The incessant emphasis was on cash: write grant applications rather than books and articles in order to fund one’s research … accept anyone for study who could pay, unethical as that was especially at postgraduate level, where foreign applicants with very poor English were being invited to spend large sums on degrees … Huge administrative duties were often announced with deadlines for completion only a few days later. We had to spend hours filling in time-and-motion forms to prove we weren’t bunking off when we were supposed to be doing our research and writing during the summer ‘vacation’ … It was like working for a cross between IBM, with vertiginous hierarchies of command, and McDonald’s.

Others wrote to say that once they had contributed significantly to the REF, their posts were terminated: their usefulness was over. Some had obtained large grants, and found themselves pushed out when the funding ended. Some have agreed to contracts that require them to obtain x amount of grant money if they are to keep their jobs or look forward to any kind of promotion. Some had been told to change their research topic to something that lay outside their expertise entirely. Agreed contracts are being tossed aside. Two of my former colleagues litigated – at their own cost – and won against the university.

All this follows from the changing economics of state education policy. Cuts are the tools of the ideological decision to stop subsidising tuition and to start withdrawing from directly supporting research. What we are in effect moving towards is the privatisation of higher education. The effects are not yet clear: student numbers have grown by 40 per cent or more in some places; in others, they have dropped by a similar amount; the number of part-time students has dropped by a third over the last four years. Meanwhile, student debt is reaching crazy levels: since 1990 when the loans began, it has risen to £54.36 billion, and is currently increasing by £5 billion per year.[3] In these conditions, many university staff are looking for work elsewhere: we are not replacing teachers or scholars in the numbers we need.

A different kind of silence holds in its grip the many people who wrote to me in response to my piece in the LRB. With only two exceptions, every single one of the correspondents, terrified that their complaints would come to light and that they would be punished (the term used is ‘disciplined’), made me swear not to reveal their names. Gagging orders enforce the silence: one casualty has shown me the clause that sets out the conditions of her financial settlement:

You agree that you have not and undertake that you will not (either directly or indirectly) make, publish or otherwise communicate any disparaging or derogatory comments whether in writing or otherwise and whether or not they are considered by you to be true, concerning the University or any Associated Entity, or any of its or their present or former officers or employees.

This agreement is one of 5528 recorded cases of agreed non-disclosure in the three years before 2010 (the most recent figures available). The cost of these cases stood at £4.4 million in payouts to staff and £7.1 million in legal costs for universities. Why? Why, in a time of cuts and a war on waste? And with all the talk of transparency and accountability, why do the administrators need to enforce silence?[4]

Another kind of silence is the silence of no comment which universities resort to when confronted with protests and complaints, from inside or outside. As Stefan Collini says in his trenchant study What Are Universities For? (2012), ‘compelling and often devastating criticisms appear to have had little or no effect on policy-making. The arguments have not been answered; they have merely been ignored. Rather than blaming academics for not speaking out sufficiently strongly, the conclusion … is that those who make policy are just not listening.’

A university is a place where ideas are meant to be freely explored, where independence of thought and the Western ideals of democratic liberty are enshrined. Yet at the same time as we congratulate ourselves on our freedom of expression, we have a situation in which a lecturer cannot speak her mind, universities bring in the police to deal with campus protests, and graduate students cannot write publicly about what is happening (one of my students was told by management to take down the questions she raised on Facebook). Gagging orders may not even be necessary. Silence issues from different causes: from fear, insecurity, precarious social conditions and shame. It is the shame of the battered wife that allows her husband to count on her silence. I recognise, for example, the compunction in the words of Rosalind Gill in her fine article ‘Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of the Neo-Liberal University’.[5] She nearly didn’t write the piece, she says, because she felt that ‘pointing to some of the “injuries” of British academic life had a somewhat obscene quality to it given our enormous privileges relative to most people in most of the world’. She felt ashamed to be complaining about conditions at work because she was in it ‘for the satisfaction, not the money’. The managers count on that feeling – in others, not themselves. Gill recognises that the very sense of specialness that still attaches to the idea of being a teacher or a professor – especially for women, after our late acceptance into the profession and our erratic and precarious progress within it – has stood in our way; or rather, it predisposes us to be agreeable. ‘We therefore need,’ she writes, ‘urgently to think about how some of the pleasures of academic work (or at least a deep love for the “myth” of what we thought being an intellectual would be like …) bind us more tightly into a neoliberal regime.’

Gill is describing an instance of what the American scholar Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism’. People open themselves to exploitation when the sense of self-worth that derives from doing something they believe in comes up against a hierarchical authority that is secretive, arbitrary and ruthless. Cruel optimism afflicts the colleague who agrees to yet another change of policy in the hope that it will be the last one. The cruel optimism that motivates the colleagues who undertake examining for the REF has grown out of a long, deeply held belief in the value of knowledge and the wish to pass it on – from one person to another, from one generation to the next. Yet university life has depended on this willingness of colleagues to undertake all manner of tasks above and beyond the ordinary job, reading one another’s work, writing recommendations, making nominations, translating, assessing and examining and sitting on councils and external bodies, developing analyses and plans, arranging for this and that conference or lecture or seminar series, without every moment and every act being quantified and calculated. Not everything that is valuable can be measured. But I am talking as if the chief sufferers from cruel optimism are teachers. This is of course not the case; students are above all the victims. The new managers want to pack ’em in and pile ’em high – and then neglect their interests by maltreating their teachers.

Faith in the value of a humanist education is beginning to look like an antique romance. I flattered myself that by teaching I could perhaps make a difference, spark a young mind, foster an older, returning student’s aspirations, and act as the catalyst of that self-discovery described by Seamus Heaney in The Redress of Poetry when he writes, ‘we go to poetry to be forwarded within ourselves’; literature, Heaney says, gives ‘an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering’. I think we could say that we go to education, too, for these experiences, to be forwarded in ourselves and to recognise things we only glimpsed dimly before. Despite the warnings against cruel optimism, I still hold fast to the life of the mind – its beauty, its necessity.


As universities are beaten into the shapes dictated by business, so language is suborned to its ends. We have all heard the robotic idiom of management, as if a button had activated a digitally generated voice. Like Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, business-speak is an instance of magical naming, superimposing the imagery of the market on the idea of a university – through ‘targets’, ‘benchmarks’, time-charts, league tables, ‘vision statements’, ‘content providers’. We may laugh or groan, depending on the state of our mental health at the thickets of TLAs – three-letter acronyms, in the coinage of the writer Richard Hamblyn – that accumulate like dental plaque.

Such acronyms now pepper every document circulating in every institution, not just universities. Like the necromantic mirror of the Snow Queen, they swallow everything up and deaden it. The code conceals aggression: actions are undertaken in its name and justified by its rules; it pushes responsibility from persons to systems. It pushes individuals to one side and replaces them with columns, boxes, numbers, rubrics, often meaningless tautologies (a form will ask first for ‘aims’, and then for ‘objectives’). ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty says, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’ Alice is puzzled by this, but Humpty Dumpty explains: ‘The question is … which is to be master – that’s all.’ The term that is successfully imposed will occupy the field of meaning: calling the work of writing a book ‘generating an output’ or a university ‘a knowledge delivery solution’ has a cryokinetic effect: it freezes the infinite differences that writing and research make possible, and sets them hard in the mould of market ideology, as sales items.

Rowan Williams recently spoke with unqualified fury to members of the Council for the Defence of British Universities about ‘the barbarity and incoherence’ of current higher education policy documents. Learning, he said, uncovers the multiple meanings of a work – a text or any other artefact – not in order to find a solution but to open the way to further questions. ‘Difficulty is good for us,’ he said. It is ‘good for us to be reminded not to settle for the quick answer’: the ticked box and the league table close down minds and narrow the world for the individual and for all of us in our relations with one another. Williams called his way of learning ‘honestly difficult’.

For an example of an ‘honestly difficult’ lesson in the abuse of truth by power (in one thing being said and another meant), I want to suggest a more cryptic guide than Orwell or Lewis Carroll. Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid, which is in the National Gallery and can be glimpsed in Fred Wiseman’s film, is a work of immediately seductive voluptuousness that tantalises thought with its gorgeous mysteries. According to Panofsky, the young girl looking out at us from behind the gleeful little boy is Fraude, Fraud. She is holding out a honeycomb with one hand and with the other, which is behind her back, she grasps a small spurred and venomous beast. Her face is sweet, but doesn’t look quite right: it is unnaturally broad-browed, fixed and expressionless, a bit robotic, especially compared with the lively emotions of the other figures in this twisty knot of passion – despair, rage, dismay, merriment, tenderness, love. Fraud’s true nature is revealed chiefly by the muscular reptilian tail that twists down towards the masks at the bottom right of the painting. Look closely, says Panofsky, and you’ll see that her hands are the wrong way round: what should be her right hand is her left, and vice versa. Double-dealing is embodied as inversion, crookedness covered up by blandishment and blankness, a form of frozen beauty. The deceptions of Bronzino’s honeyed young beauty strike a terrible chord with me. The new masters in our places of learning hold the barbed poison behind their backs, ready to whip it out, while the honeycomb drips with promises of advancement on condition of compliance.

‘An Allegory with Venus and Cupid’ by Bronzino (c.1545).
‘An Allegory with Venus and Cupid’ by Bronzino (c.1545).

The business model for university research requires stock-taking, which is done through the Research Excellence Framework, the REF. The distortions the REF creates are various, so various I can’t give a full list. It has evolved no clear account of what academics do or why what they do is worth supporting. It is also gameable: a Shakespeare scholar, for example, might cut up what could be a book into four journal articles to make up the required tally. Some universities actually do better in the league tables because they support fewer people to do research. The data are presented according to so many different criteria that after the REF announced its findings last year, one university after another claimed to be in the top twenty – till around fifty had done so.

Devouring the time of people who could have been teaching, writing and studying, the REF has been quite hallucinatorily wasteful. It has also failed to redistribute research funding to any significant degree to smaller players outside the privileged Russell Group. The research councils have a limited pot and researchers in the humanities are all under orders to tap it, but every time one lucky petitioner wins another loses out. Not enough to go round, not when resources are short and austerity is the watchword. Success in the most recent round of applications for British Academy funding (2013-14) fell to 14 per cent (from 17 per cent in 2012-13), with humanities researchers (1648 of them) faring worse than social scientists even though more of them scored the highest mark. Everywhere, young academics are slicing off their heels and cutting off their toes to fit into the glass shoe.


At the same time, with tuition fees now at £9000 per student per year, and more from graduates, money is gushing into the universities. If the students are from abroad, they pay more, often a lot more. Where is all this money going? How is it being spent?

Universities vary in the way they are responding to government policy. Some are committed to maintaining standards of teaching and research. Others by contrast are determined to pursue profit, diversifying through a range of ‘joint ventures’ and commercial enterprises. Cranes are soaring over campuses, diggers boring into the mud: buildings of glass and steel and other more fanciful materials are rising the length and breadth of England and Wales. They will house departments of business studies, engineering, computing, government studies, life sciences – any subject with manifest economic applications.

I am no Luddite. I believe we should invest in learning and experiment in the applied sciences. The buildings are sometimes splendid – some of the world’s great architects are working on them – and their intended purposes are sometimes admirable. But the balance is becoming seriously skewed against education and research for their own sakes, and against independent thought and study. There is a serious danger that universities are consciously defining themselves as affiliates, even satellites, of corporations and government, using academics to carry out cut-price research in their interests. ‘What this means to industry,’ Coventry University boasts of its new building for Engineering and Computing, ‘is that they can access these technologies and facilities at a fraction of the cost of having those facilities themselves.’

Some of this research is bound by gagging orders, too, in this case for the purpose of protecting intellectual property. This seems to me a serious breach of the collective interest in research, and of our access to knowledge as it grows in our universities. It is bizarre that under the new Open Access rules which decree that all research done using public funds must be freely available online, university researchers funded by business are held to secrecy.

But the strongest trend is the drift away from academic activities, from scholarship and from the arts and humanities, altogether. It feels in some places as if the humanities are surviving on sufferance, because so many students for some reason still want to study subjects like English literature or history. These are not expensive subjects for universities to run, especially if the workforce can be degraded by casualisation. The fees of students in these cheaper subjects are then transferred to support the cost-heavy sciences. Yet the humanities are treated like Cinderellas because they attract less grant money than, say, a military-industrial project.

In 2013, Jane Rendell, then the vice-dean for research at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, resigned when the school accepted millions to build a brand-new Institute of Sustainable Research. The money came from BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company. ‘It was difficult for me to be absolutely sure if the research was actually independent,’ Rendell said. ‘The issue here is that by getting involved closely with a university, BHP Billiton can then be involved potentially in defining the very term sustainability.’

In June 2013, managers at the University of Essex scrapped the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution that Daniel Libeskind had been commissioned to design three years before. The cost of this change of direction has been well buried in the accounts, as happens in such matters. The new business studies centre houses a Big Data facility, and promises spaces for ‘student entrepreneurs’. Since 2005, the number of academics at Essex has risen by 27 per cent, while the number of ‘senior support’ staff – that is, administrators – has risen by 81 per cent. The general picture reveals rising numbers of administrators everywhere. Even at UCL, a colossal victor in the research Olympics, there has been a rise of 36.4 per cent in the number of administrators while the number of academics has risen by only a fifth, even though student numbers are growing strongly.

Universities are not businesses. Legally, they are charities, but the closer analogy would be a public coastal path or an urban park, a place created for the good of citizens. The current denaturing of the universities treats them less like a park than a shopping mall. In 2009 higher education passed into the control of the Department of Business, Innovations and Skills, and more recently into the Ministry of Universities, Sciences and Cities, which directly oversees the ‘managerial oligarchies’, as Iain Pears called them, who are appointed by government and are unaccountable to anyone other than government. Micro-managed performance reviews are relentlessly imposed on teachers on short contracts, yet the people in charge don’t have to undergo anything of the kind.

A new nomenklatura has arisen: the vice chancellors and their ever proliferating numbers of pro-vice chancellors and deputy vice chancellors along with a burgeoning army of fundraisers, whose fees are not easily discoverable in the accounts. As many of these apparatchiks are paid much, much more than most professors, let alone lecturers and contract teachers or other staff, these posts exert a powerful pull, especially on those who would not meet the academic criteria they impose on their underpaid underlings.

The average salary for vice chancellors, as discovered recently by the University and College Union through a Freedom of Information request, is now more than £250,000. Last year, King’s College London defended in court its refusal to divulge the six-figure salaries of its most highly paid staff. Again confidentiality was invoked: such disclosures would result in bad blood among the staff, the college’s lawyers pleaded. The high salaries are needed, it is forever argued, because making money to pay for education requires business pay scales. But even if this were the case – which I do not concede – the current arrangements reveal that education is becoming the mask plastered over another set of activities. Universities are turning into Potemkin villages where students are paying for the privilege of figuring themselves.


Isobel Armstrong has remarked that the best way to defend the humanities is to practise them. From my past studies, I would like to remember Dante the pilgrim, who, after climbing the mountain of Purgatory, reaches the Earthly Paradise. There he finds two rivers: Lethe, which brings forgetting – of his past sins – and is a mercy for him, though the principle in relation to history has been rightly challenged. The other river was Dante’s invention: Eünoè, which literally means ‘good mind’.

At the very end of Purgatorio, the poet drinks and tells us ‘lo dolce ber’ (‘the sweet draught’) defeats all his powers of expression, that he could never have enough of ‘la santissima onda’ (‘the most sacred waters’). I choose to understand this elixir, Eünoè, as good, active knowledge, not only retrospective memory; the kind of knowledge that education passes on and cultivates, that grounds further learning, develops the ability to do something well, to think clearly and freely. Doing something well requires attentiveness – the attention of others who are helping you, teaching you – from doing up your shoelaces when you first go to school to identifying and fostering your aptitudes later. Good knowledge requires inquiry on your part, your absorbed attention – and to be attentive to the point of self-forgetfulness also lightens discontents. So curiosity must be met by responsiveness – by listening, not silence. Good knowledge is also good enough knowledge: the endless insistence on excellence and competitiveness drives individual disappointment. Above all, Eünoè – good knowledge – flows from the heart of education, and will add to the sum of pleasure and mutual illumination in the world.

Creative writing is a fairly new degree subject, but has become one of the most popular. Its success is a consequence of the market model, of course, since client demand is determining the character and scope of the humanities. But what else does its popularity tell us? Once when I suggested a writing exercise to a group, one of the students began laughing nervously, her hand over her mouth: she had thought of a story, but felt she ought not to have, she said, and was frightened to write it. Ah, I said, but fiction gives you permission to do that: it isn’t you speaking but someone whose voice you are making up as you write, so you are free – or rather you can be more free there, in that space of imagination – to think around things, exploring possibilities. She was a young Emirati Arab, and the story she went on to write was a wild allegory about a matriarchy destroyed by men. It was fluent and heartfelt and funny and brave.

I have since thought that her response offers a glimpse into a reason for the popularity of creative writing. When students fall into that silence of concentrated thinking, they are learning to use language, developing articulacy – and with articulacy, they are defining questions, arguments and values that matter to them. Creative writing teaches attentiveness to the qualities of a text, to its structure and latent meanings. Such developed linguistic capacity can help us to counter the codes and systems and protocols that increasingly regiment our world. Education – of which creative writing is just one strand – gives its participants material to think with, and ways of reading, thinking and speaking. It helps fashion ‘the country of words’, as Mahmoud Darwish puts it, where we travel and dwell. Without such grounding, what students learn at university becomes no more than a catechism for robots.

The election is coming, and it is a good time to speak. What should we be calling for? A number of things spring immediately to mind. Since universities are charities their executives should be paid accordingly: yet the £110,000 salary of the director of Oxfam was recently criticised for being too high. The differential between the highest paid and the lowest paid in a university institution should be no greater than, say, 7 to 1; at present, the ratio is more like 14 to 1 (UCL student protesters calculate that the vice chancellor is paid a cleaner’s annual wage every 19 days). A university should not receive more than a limited proportion of its research funding from companies or individuals for whom it is working directly; and a significant proportion of the research should be entirely free of all economic and intellectual strings, so that the humanities and pure sciences can have a place. We academics have dug ourselves into the nuclear waste tip of the REF; we should green it over and move to another place where we might flourish a little less self-destructively.


Concerning the fate of higher education, the major parties have had almost nothing to say. The Labour Party is under attack for saying it might lower fees to £6000, but lowering fees would in any case only be tinkering with the situation. The Greens have the right ideas, but can’t do much. The new managerialist philistinism is spreading. Even as it claims to be keeping universities alive and well and inclusive, it is wrecking the ideal of emancipation through learning. If universities continue to go the way of the corporations, a fine system of public stewardship, evolved over the decades to educate citizens for their good and the good of society in the present and the future, will have been perverted and disfigured.

In Balzac’s Peau de chagrin (The Magic Skin) Valentin – a young man on the make – comes across an enchanted donkey’s hide inscribed with magical ciphers, which turns out to have the power to grant its owner’s wishes. But every time it does so it shrinks, and at the same time cuts shorter the number of days Valentin has left. He exults in the riches the skin procures for him, but loses sight of his real desire – his beloved Pauline. I don’t have to spell out why this puts me in mind of what is happening in our universities. At the lurid and hallucinatory close of the story, the hero on his deathbed has a vision of Pauline, his lost love – and the skin has shrunk to a scrap in her hand.

[1] Since 1986, universities have had to submit to a regular audit of their research output as a basis for the distribution of government research funding. The results of the latest version of the audit, the Research Excellence Framework or REF, were published in December last year.

[3] Andrew McGettigan wrote about student loan debt in the LRB of 5 March.

[4] It is not clear that silence can be legally enforced, as the law provides strong protection for individuals against employers’ misconduct. But for an individual, fighting against a university through the courts can be ruinously expensive, especially now that the government has begun charging people to have their cases heard at employment tribunals.

[5] Gill’s essay was included in Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections (2010), edited by Gill and Róisín Ryan-Flood.