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What the Hell Are Britain's Universities For?

Are they there to enrich people's minds? Or just to turn learning into money for corporate fatcats?

Oscar Rickett

A police escort helps former universities minister David Willetts escape from angry students in London last year (Photo by Jake Lewis)

In Britain today, you don't have to look far to find people getting rich helping vampiric institutions feast on society. From the tax-dodging bankers at HSBC to the ever-available shills in Westminster, if there's a fast heap of pounds to be made at the expense of others, the modern British professional is your man.

"I do want to have the standard of living that my professional background would normally entitle me to have," was the former MP Malcolm Rifkind's justification for using his publicly funded job as a calling card for private enrichment. All he did was inadvertently sum up the staggeringly entitled and arrogant carelessness of a whole class of individual who have ceased to see anything more in work than the number of zeros on their bank statement.

This week (4th March), a survey published by UCU, the University and College Union, secured the place of corporate university executives in the pantheon of Great British Wealth Extractors. The survey reveals that university vice-chancellors, who recently voiced their opposition to Labour's proposed cutting of tuition fees, are paid an average salary of £260,000 a year. In the last five years, their salaries have increased by 26 percent, while the academics teaching students and doing research have seen their significantly lower pay drop 12 percent in real terms.

The top ten earners among the vice-chancellors received between £392,000 and £623,000 – that final salary being pulled in by the outgoing head of Nottingham Trent, Neil Gorman. To be fair, he probably earned it. After all, Nottingham Trent is definitely in the top three universities in Nottingham. A special shout out must also go to Exeter University's Sir Steve Smith, who last year somehow managed to spend £23,749 on flights (99 percent of them business or first class) and £20,329 on hotels. Even Vince Cable has called this level of pay "hard to swallow".

Why does this matter? Because these executives are implementing a corporate system that is turning universities from places of learning, designed to turn students on to the many wonders of the intellectual life, into businesses providing a service to paying customers. In doing this, vice-chancellors and their fellow administrators have become hated by the very people who, along with the students, are meant to be at the heart of any university: the academics.

While the debate about tuition fees is an ever-present in British political discourse, the effect that the corporatisation of our universities is having on the people who teach in them and how this process is destroying a higher education system that Britain could once take justifiable pride in is less talked about.

Since 1998, when Tony Blair's Labour government introduced fees of £1,000 a year for students, the "real world" benefits of an education – getting a job, earning more money – have become the only things university administrators push onto their students and professors. The idea that you might go to university in order to learn new things or for an "enlightening experience", as the dictionary defines "education", is an idea that is being crushed in favour of an anxiety-inducing corporate model that sees students saddled with debt and teachers angry and depressed. It is an educational model that perfectly fits the bland, soul-crushing, privatised world we live in, one that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

In this world, university education is all well and good for those who can afford it or for those who come from a class that expects it, but for the rest, a kind of monotonous training will simply have to do. The British government and its backers in business seem to favour a model laid out in 1909 by US president and then president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson:

"We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."

The mass, then, will toil for the elite. To bring that about, the introduction and hiking of fees that burdens students has been complemented by cuts in funding, the axing of courses, attacks on academics' pensions, demands to produce more work and the importing of managers from the private sector employed to control the direction of the university. "Lecturers and university teachers are becoming more like knowledge workers," Waseem Yaqoob, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge told me, "pumping out the hours to meet student expectations, which are in turn set, not by the students, but by the corporate university."

The managers being brought in because of their experience in the private sector are used to climbing the corporate ladder and moving from one job to the next, something that is anathema to the traditionally settled life of the university. They've got a hard-on for a model they imagine is American but which, while it may exist in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street, doesn't exist in the Ivy League universities whose success they long to emulate because at those universities, the academic faculty controls the direction of the institution.

Corporate university administrators are valued for taking the "tough decisions", which often means firing people. As Paul Gilroy, the author of a number of groundbreaking works of British scholarship, including There Ain't no Black in the Union Jack, put it to me:

"The neo-liberal churn means that a university is changed just for the sake of changing it. There's no thought that actually a university might need to be a quiet, still place, with a library that functions, a place for curiosity and contemplation and with access to books that may go unused for years."

Last October, at King's College London, the irony of the new reality of life in Britain's universities was on full display when David Willetts, a Conservative politician best known for implementing the rise in tuition fees, was appointed a visiting professor. King's College's president, Ed Byrne, trumpeted the arrival, though not by students, who took his car hostage when he turned up to give a speech.

Byrne then decided that the university, which was founded in 1829, needed to be renamed. In an internal email to staff, he explained that King's College London will now officially be known as "King's London": "I believe that in today's highly competitive global marketplace, King's needs to be bold about its ambitions and shout about its many achievements," Byrne wrote, as he prepped some ambitious hashtags.

To academics, all of this feels like a sick joke. With students increasingly anxious about debt and future employment, one senior professor told me that Willetts' appointment was a slap in the face of the students. Teachers everywhere have noted this increased anxiety among their ranks. "My students are lovely and very bright but they're very fearful of failure and they're wanting us to give them a template of what to do in the future," Andrew Warnes, a professor in the English department at Leeds University, told me.

Warnes and other professors at Leeds compared this to students from earlier years who, they said, hadn't been imprisoned by the need to make their education immediately service their debts. At a number of universities, teachers have been told they are no longer allowed to accept Christmas presents from their students. That would spoil the client relationship teachers are now supposed to have with their students.

Administrations will brook no dissent. Thomas Docherty, a professor of English at Warwick University, was suspended last year for making "ironic" comments during job interviews, for sighing and for using negative body language. Like a parent throwing a tantrum, the Warwick administration had sent Docherty to the naughty step because he dared to indicate his dissent.

As ridiculous as suspending someone for "irony" is, though, Docherty's protest also seems desperately futile. Like much of the workforce, Britain's academics are bereft of any real power and have been left wondering how to resist the changes being made to their work. They see their departments cut, their libraries meddled with and their time eroded but they struggle to find a way to stem the tide.

What is clear is that the disparity between what politicians and administrators think an education should be for and what students and academics think it should be for is becoming increasingly stark.

David Russell, a lecturer in English Literature at King's College London who has previously held fellowships at Harvard and Columbia universities, spoke to me about this philosophical divide. He feels as though there are too few conversations about a university's role in society:

"Are they institutions that everybody feels they have a stake in, whether they are students or not? Are they entrepreneurial businesses, hunting out new streams of profit? Are they training centres for employable skills? Are they places that train thinking, particularly the critical thinking required if we are to live in a healthy democracy? Do they introduce students, and so the wider culture, to resources of history and art and literature that could make them feel more alive... And if some of these descriptions have come to seem expendable, or luxuries, affordable only by the wealthy few, then I think that's a serious problem for all of us."

At Britain's oldest and most renowned seats of learning, Oxford and Cambridge, the college system gives academics much more power over their students' education and the wealth and prestige of the institutions protects them from some of the more desperate measures universities take to market themselves.

Away from these two elite institutions, Britain's universities, once places of radical learning and intellectual curiosity, are being turned into bland corporations designed to churn out workforce drones with safe middle-of-the-road opinions and harmless middle-of-the-road minds. This process leaves the institutions themselves neutered as vital voices of dissent in our society, something that is bad for our democracy.

A number of Britain's universities have long been regarded as some of the best in the world. This can't be said about Britain's big corporations and yet it is the corporate model being brought to the university, not the other way round.

At the end of my conversation with Andrew Warnes, I asked him if there was any hope. "My students have a passion for the books and I still have fantastic discussions with them, so there is some optimism," he said. "I'm waiting for common sense to prevail and for people to realise that treating a university like a business is not a good idea... I have a young family, I have to feel optimistic."

@oscarrickettnow