Keith Hart on Wed, 6 Feb 2002 23:27:04 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The British Universities

In response to the exchange between Tiziana and Brian

Fifteen new universities were added to Britain's collection in the 60s by
government fiat. By the time I got my PhD in 1969, the academic labour
market was most favourable to the supply side. There were 23 lecturing
jobs I could have applied for, at least one of which had no applicants.
This was because the new universities were still expanding and their
graduate students had not yet reached the market. The situation turned
very fast around 1970, with the end of expansion and a large supply of new
would-be professionals. The Tory government of Heath chose this moment to
announce a pay review for higher education which included the polytechnics
and teachers training colleges as well as the universities. The
Association of University Teachers (AUT, the lecturers' union) chose to
stay out of this review on the grounds that we were part of the ruling
class, the Civil List, and should not be mixed with the others.

The Civil List dealt separately with the pay of admirals, judges,
professors and so on. It obviously expressed the idea of a small circle of
ruling insiders, most of them brought up in Oxbridge or aspiring to go
there. Now, although the university expansion of the 60s was significant,
the proportion of the population entering as undergraduates was still much
lower than in the leading European countries, about 1 in 8. Even so the
mass recruitment of first-generation lower class provincials into the
profession (a delayed consequence of the Butler Education Act of 1944, you
might say, the Beatles effect in higher education) posed a problem for the
idea of university teachers as part of the charmed circle of ruling
insiders. The Polytechnics were given a pay rise of 25% and the
universities nothing.

At the same the government was negotiating with the AUT over conditions of
work in the universities. A series of concessions were made in exchange
for small pay rises. Many of my activist colleagues at this time were
Trots, entryists in various organizations. I used to argue with them. Why
are we selling the work privileges of university life for pay increases
that could be obliterated at any time (we were entering the peak period of
70s inflation)? They replied that the bulk of the punters out there were
scientists and everyone knows that they can only be stirred by trade union
economism of th ebasest sort. I asked again why we were placing our faith
in the state. Shouldn't we try to build a broiad educational alliance with
the schoolteachers unions (the NUT was very powerful). They might even
accept our leadership. But we have to find a popular constituency
somewhere. As it was, most people thought university teachers were snobs
and had too many holidays. No politician would lose any credibility by
shafting us. And indeed Wilson's Labour government a couple of years later
froze out pay in a year of 25% inflation, thereby wiping out the small
increments laboriously negotiated by the AUT.

When I look back at my generation, what strikes me most forcibly is our
inability to handle reproduction. We thought of ourselves as orphans (an
idea I got from Luisa Passerini's Autobigography of a Generation on the
students of Turin 1968), cut off from our parents' generation and
consequently without a clue what to to do with our own children, students
and the others who depended on us. The sheer task of upward social
mobility many of us faced absorbed all our energies. We had no time to
reflect on how to conserve the free profession we had joined, how to
repoduce ourselves. And of course, it was never the intention of our
masters, those on whom most of my peers were so touchingly reliant, to
allow us all into the ruling class. Instead the university teachwers had
to be pushed down the class system. It started as niggling about pay and
status in the 70s. The die of our collective proletarianization was cast
then. But it took Margaret Thatcher to work out how to put the boot in
with a vengeance.

Let me not exaggerate. Intellectual and social life in the British
universities in the 70s (and even more in the 60s) was relatively
generous. We still didn't have too many students. We were able to sustain
an ethos of moral responsibility towards our colleagues and those we
taught that compared favourably with France, Germany and Italy, where mass
enrolments had gone further and sooner. The Cold War kept a steady flow of
capital-intensive research projects coming in, which on the whole was good
for morale. Certainly we social sceintists emulated the mantra, Research
is King, without being as directly useful to the powers as the real

My story is mainly about that early turning point. the gruesome finale is
better known. Thatcher decided that she would pick off all interest groups
who might use the old corporate state to obstruct her programme of market
liberalisation. Chief among these were the unions (especially the
coalminers) and the big cities (both London and the provinces). She
cleansed her own party of the old Tory gentry who nourished some humane
fantasies.  But she also took on the civil servants, the judges, the
doctors and, of course, the universities, which represented a form of
cultural resistance to the subsumption of local powers by the central
government. The only institution she left unharmed, for obvious reasons,
was the City of London.

The English ruling class has always been ambivalent about education,
especially about higher education. What would they all do with it, if not
undermine the status quo? Thus in the 80s, the Tories pursued a policy of
dumbing down in which they genuinely aspired to convert Ukania into an
offshore facility for international corporations, supplying cheap
semi-skilled assembly labour in competition with the East Asian Tigers and
from a postion of being inside the European Community. What could be
better suited to banishing subversive thoughts from subjects' minds than
the tedium of the assembly line? By now the university teachers had lost
whatever radicalism was a spillover from the 60s and they settled in for
trench warfare with the bureaucracy, a war which inevitably they lost.

At a time when most people think that the communications revolution and
market liberalisation have had a decentralizing effect on society, the
British state has been cranking up its programme of centralization
remorselessly. Tocqueville once argued that the British had a striong
state and a decentralized administration, while the French had a weak
state and a centralized administration. Since 1945, the trend has been in
the opposite direction for both countries. Because of the decentralized
powers of the shires and the municipalities, as well as the composition of
the Establishment with its focus on Oxbridge, Britian largely missed out
on the chance to go for a modernist centralized university syllabus when
the chance arose, in the 1920s. The result was a kind of amateur
flexibility which was the strength as well as the weakness of the British,
when compared with Europe and, even more, America. This tradition was
brutally demolished in the 90s, the culmination of a process begun in the
late 80s.

A sort of bureaucratic revolution has descended on the universities. One
with a decidedly neoliberal side to it. Tiziana evoked it all very well
from the perspective of someone in the trenches today. With a fiscal
squeeze inevitable, the government wanted to concentrate its spending in
the best places, without increasing the amount. This meant breaking up the
myth that all British universities were alike and equal. It also meant
completing the proletarianization of university teachers by reducing their
autonomy and putting them into fierce competition with all and sundry,
even their most immediate colleagues. The method of assessing research,
teaching and the rest has been well publicised. It is now like painting
the Forth Bridge. It never ends. As soon as one exercise is completed,
another is on its way. Slowly the victims master the system, upgrade their
scores and then get told that the money isn't available after all because
there were too many winners. At a time when the internet is
revolutionising information, academics are subjected to a baroque
escalation of publishing standards. Every ISBN or page number has to be
documented, when two words will find it for most of us.

The number of universities in Britain was doubled in the 90s by the simple
expedient of adding the polytechnics to the list. This made it easier to
discriminate between them. Everyone was forced to expand recruitment
(Oxbridge resisted), up to three times. So that the proportion of an age
cohort going to university was tripled. No more money or other resources
were coming, however. The combination of mad bureaucratic directives and
expanded enrolment has eroded to breaking point the moral consensus that
British university teachers once supported. A radical differentiation of
the personnel has taken place, with the more established, better known
individuals enjoying enhanced rewards and freedom, while the upcoming
generation of scholars has been reduced to a casualized, underpaid labour
force with no long-term prospects. The same lower-class provincials, like
me, who struggled to keep their heads above water at the start of their
careers now callously ignore their responsibilities to the next generation
(for a change!), while they take unpaid leave (replaced from any number of
sources) and the university saves money by hiring a postdoc for a

How the Blair regime fits into all this would take another essay. Perhaps
what I have described is a Third Way (only joking). I would say that the
universities as a significant national institution hardly existed before
the twentieth century. In the 1890s, the middle classes in search of
higher education would be more likely to go to a theological seminary.
There is probably no institution more closely wedded to the fortunes of
state capitalism, the attempt to control markets and accumulation through
national bureaucracy. Certainly there is no class more reactiuonary and
backwardlooking than the university teachers, who, after all that has
happened, still cling to their tattered intellectual standards, but don't
ask searching questions about the need for change.There is no reason why
people seeking higher education in the 21st century should look to the
universities for it. They have passed their sell-by date. And it was us,
the lucky beneficiaries of our parents' war and its aftermath, who threw
it all away.

Keith Hart

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