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8 March 2023

Why universities are making us stupid

A managerial war is remaking and destroying our once-noble centres of higher education.

By Adrian Pabst

There is a war on universities. It’s not being waged by the ever-striking teaching unions, nor by the “woke warriors” who want to censor nonconformist views. No, the war on academia is waged by politicians and academic managers, aided by an army of accountants and auditors.

They view the university as an extension of the market state, micromanaged by central government while competing for staff and students in the global economy. This managerial class is transforming universities into soulless corporations disconnected from the rest of Britain. And their philistine mindset reduces learning to market utility, committed as it is to churning out graduates who will serve the interests of City firms and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) industry.

[See also: When teachers strike, the country stops working]

All this reflects an anti-intellectual outlook that undermines the purpose of universities as a self-governing guild, committed to pursuing truth, nurturing character and fostering the civic duties on which our democracy depends. The war on the traditional notion of a university has hollowed out the esprit de corps that once defined British higher education.

How did this happen? There was no golden age, but for much of the 20th century British universities were admired at home and abroad. As models of robust debate and rigorous scholarship, academe commanded respect and inspired imitation. Not just medieval universities such as Oxford and Cambridge (where I studied), but also 19th-century institutions like Nottingham and post-1960s creations such as Kent (where I went from being a lecturer to head of department). It was the privilege of receiving an unashamedly intellectual university education that made me want to become an academic in the first place. Were it written today, EM Forster’s The Longest Journey probably wouldn’t begin by describing Cambridge as idyllic.

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Universities were once distinguished as truly civic institutions, neither state-controlled nor market-driven, but rather a “college of colleges” with guild membership and a commitment to collegiality. They blended shared learning with social prestige. This civic ethos is still reflected in the legal status of the university as a registered charity with a mission to contribute to the public good.

Successive governments have wrecked the legacy of tertiary education. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher forced higher education institutions to compete for funds. Student grants were scrapped in 1990, replaced by loans. From then on students would be forced to contribute to the cost of their degrees.

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John Major’s government turned polytechnics into universities and oversaw the creation of what the Labour minister Margaret Hodge called “Mickey Mouse” degrees, from the “psychology of fashion” to “surf science”. Universities old and new were under pressure from the government to set up new courses. These gave neither a rigorous intellectual education nor proper vocational training.

[See also: Why universities are making us stupid]

Dumbing down coincided with the loss of the technical instruction given by polytechnics. Skills shortages in vital industries were the result. Construction, manufacturing, health and social care all suffered. Jobs requiring vocational qualifications have declined in status compared with jobs requiring academic degrees. And while the number of young people embarking on construction apprenticeships has risen from about 13,000 in 2020-21 to just over 20,000 in 2021-22, in London half of all building workers come from abroad.

New Labour’s introduction of tuition fees coincided with student numbers almost doubling between 1997 and 2010 to achieve Tony Blair’s arbitrary target of sending half of school-leavers to university. The target became a mantra: mass academic higher education for all. It blinded progressives across the political spectrum to the reality that this expansion was, in the words of Theresa May’s former aide Nick Timothy, a “Ponzi scheme”. More graduates did not increase economic productivity. Instead student debt grew, ramped up by the hike in tuition fees to £9,000 by the coalition government in 2012.

These fees were designed to make university funding more affordable for the taxpayer. Yet three-quarters of graduates will never pay back these loans. Plans to make graduates repay the loans over 40 years, rather than 30, from September 2023 will see many of them paying for their degrees until retirement.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be hit hardest. The supposed beneficiaries of “widening participation” will leave university with about £50,000 of debt – £28,000 of which will be student loans with an interest rate of 6.5 per cent.

Tuition fees are not the only area where left and right converged. Both New Labour and the coalition embraced the fusion of marketisation with bureaucracy. As with other areas of public policy, central government cut funding even as it expanded regulatory requirements and the micromanagement of standards in research and teaching.

The central imposition of these standards depresses academics, creates extra layers of bureaucracy and strengthens the managerial class’s hold over universities. Both the Research and the Teaching Excellence Framework (the REF and TEF) are exercises in top-down managerialist auditing, which determine how institutions rank in university league tables and what their share of government research funding, worth £2bn per year, will be.

Yet the rhetoric of academic excellence cannot mask the reality of what our universities actually produce. The claim that most articles published in top-ranked journals represent “world-leading” research (a REF term used as an evaluative criterion) is ludicrous. Such journals are usually owned by global publishers. They share a corporate outlook: excellence is measured by the number of downloads and citations work receives. The quality of the work itself is an afterthought. Excellence becomes little more than a popularity contest judged by managerial metrics.

The late Mark Fisher described such practices as the “valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement”. Work that challenges orthodoxies will often be dismissed as “eccentric” and rejected, even censored. Mediocrity and conventional ideas are perpetuated. The language of excellence is best viewed as academic newspeak. Like political newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is euphemistic and designed to enforce uniformity. The language of REF and TEF sounds truly Orwellian, just as treating students as freely choosing consumers mirrors Milton Friedman’s free-market fundamentalism.

[See also: Learning for its own sake is lovely, but that’s not all university is for]

The war did not stop there. New Labour in particular extended corporate control over universities through the use of management consultants and auditors to enforce targets, tests, quality assurance and key performance indicators. University senior management outsources all manner of analytical work – how to restructure universities or boost student recruitment – to consultancies even as it imposes cuts to staff pay and pensions.

Spreadsheets have replaced intellectual discernment. Academics are often penalised by university administrators for failing to meet targets. These metrics lead to absurd situations where academics have to explain why separate student cohorts perform differently when sitting the same exams.

Academic work is being routinised and degraded by managerialism, a phenomenon described as “digital Taylorism” by the academics Phillip Brown and Hugh Lauder, who highlight the routinisation of intellectual work that used to require judgement and thinking. All this helps remake higher education in the image of corporate capitalism.

In a speech to the Confederation of British Industry’s conference in 1998, Peter Mandelson vowed that New Labour would transform “the universities from ivory towers into business partners”. His government imposed the logic of commodification that underpins capitalism – equating knowledge, researchers and students with financially exchangeable commodities in the global “marketplace of ideas”. This logic rests on two flawed ideas. First, that the expanding “knowledge economy” requires ever-more university graduates. Second, that investment in human capital boosts growth and productivity per se without embedding markets in civic institutions or pursuing a national industrial policy.

Cover illustration by Brian Stauffer

New Labour believed that all this was inevitable. “The knowledge economy,” said Blair in 2000, would soon “become an indivisible part of the way all business works”. The destruction and outsourcing of Britain’s industrial capacity that began under Thatcher continued under Blair and Gordon Brown. Though that capacity was sorely lacking when the financial crash hit in 2008, the Tories have failed to change course. Manufacturing production has yet to return to pre-2008 levels.

The UK is more vulnerable than other advanced economies to shocks such as Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis. The fundamental reason is that we produce less food, energy and critical medical supplies than other major powers. Britain doesn’t need more graduates so much as engineers, machinists, builders, nurses and carers trained in this country.

Yet the managerial class clings to the idea that aspiration means going to university and into a service sector job. Unsurprising, given that this “overclass”, as the American essayist Michael Lind calls it, is itself a product of the global knowledge economy. Most of them work for large organisations – big businesses, government, quangos, NGOs and academia. More than 90 per cent of all British MPs are graduates. As Michael Young wrote in The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), our elite has less sense of obligation towards people with fewer cognitive skills and academic qualifications than the rich have typically felt towards the poor.

The managerial overclass refashioned the entire education system to overvalue all-round minimal competence and undervalue subject-specific excellence. For that reason British universities, and secondary schools, put an emphasis on transferable skills – problem-solving, working to deadlines, analysing data and delivering presentations.

Under bureaucratic pressure, rigorous research has been marginalised. Over-specialisation and the endless recycling of the same material make many papers unreadable even to academics in the same discipline. As many as 82 per cent of published articles in the humanities are not cited and half of all papers get read only by their authors, peer reviewers and editors. Pedagogy fares no better. Teaching involves the active suppression of personal character and creativity. Those have been replaced by sanitised curricula, transferable-skills testing and “learning outcomes” comprehensible only to functionaries.

Unread research and simplified teaching are what happens when universities are governed by instrumental considerations. The perpetual production of papers is a requirement for academics to prosper professionally, just as the pursuit of employability serves the short-term interests of the student consumer. The tragic paradox is that universities make us more competent but less educated.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s tuition fees U-turn ignores the real problem with the system]

Most British universities declare their values in “vision statements”. Nobly, they claim they are advancing education, creating knowledge, promoting diversity, building tolerant societies and so on. But the underlying philosophy of higher education is utilitarian and positivist. The purpose is to maximise value for the individual – aggregated into the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”. This calculus abstracts from the complexities of lived experience: people’s talents and vocations. By equating the worth of education with the market value of qualifications, it reduces human beings – social, political animals embedded in relationships and institutions – to “bare individuals”, stripped of dignity and agency.

The use of people for the ends of economic utility is a substitute for the care of their minds and souls. This leaves students and staff deeply unhappy. According to a survey by the Office for National Statistics in November 2022, 45 per cent of students reported that their mental health had become slightly or much worse since the start of the autumn term, and a large proportion reported a marked decline in their well-being and overall mental health. Similarly, more staff than before are experiencing burnout and other mental health problems. Salary cuts, casualisation and uncertainty about pensions have led to significant staff attrition in the UK, including a growing number of academics who move abroad. Utilitarianism shoots for happiness and lands in depression.

It also means too many leading universities expand student numbers even as they can’t teach or house them properly. At the start of the academic year, students at Manchester were housed in Liverpool, and Bristol students in Newport. Several members of the Russell Group have 30,000 or 40,000 students.

These universities resemble the overleveraged banks that were “too big to fail” during the financial crash. If sub-prime mortgages could only be seen as prudent inside the boardroom of Lehman Brothers, a paper such as “The Pedophile as a Human Being: An Autoethnography for the Recognition of a Marginalized Sexual Orientation”, published in the Journal of Controversial Ideas, could only be written, edited and published in the equally surreal world of British academia. Our universities have become disconnected from reality.

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A student demonstration in London, December 2002. Photo by Scott Barbour / Getty Images

British higher education has overreached. As the author David Goodhart has shown, five years after graduating more than one third of graduates are in non-graduate jobs. Meanwhile, the graduate pay premium is declining sharply at the same time as many jobs are shutting out those without academic qualifications.

Too many universities are failing both graduates and non-graduates alike. They have flooded the labour market with graduates who lack a command of basic English. “People do not know how to write,” the historian David Abulafia said a few years ago. “Command of grammar, punctuation and spelling is atrocious.” He was describing undergraduates at Cambridge.

To reverse the decay of the academy, we need to raise academic standards. That requires re-intellectualising academic subjects, especially by challenging the relativism that is corroding the humanities, but also the positivism pervading the natural and social sciences. There is work to be done to fill the shortage of graduates in Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. Over time universities should concentrate on excellence in certain core subjects rather than mediocrity across the board.

Academics will need to rediscover lost leadership qualities. As Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra has shown in The Quantified Scholar (2022), UK social sciences used to be “a world of many islets”, marked by local specialisms. Their intellectual traditions were world-leading. The Oxford School of Economics helped craft Germany’s postwar economic model. Industrial relations research at Warwick was key in designing minimum wage legislation in the Blair years. We have to reverse the effect of what Pardo-Guerra calls “structural homogeneity” – research and teaching that does a bit of everything and nothing in particular.

Of equal importance is strengthening vocational and technical training. Almost half of university degrees are hybrid – part academic and part vocational. Universities need to work with employers to improve vocational labour-market entry; higher degree apprenticeships are a step in this direction. Mixed higher/further education colleges in deprived parts of the UK need more resources and powers to design qualifications alongside local authorities, employers and unions.

Using their convening power and roles as anchor institutions, universities and colleges could help rebuild social partnerships to reconcile estranged interests in regions. It would also enable universities and colleges to renew their mission to educate students into social citizenship – the teaching of civic duties and working with disadvantaged communities.

[See also: Why is your teacher striking?]

This is a generational task that will require long-term thinking and significant commitment of resources. Both are currently absent from British politics and policy. But levelling up provides an opening, as universities and colleges can be the anchor institutions in parts of the UK devastated by the impact of global free trade. Higher and further education should be financed in part through a tax on graduates and those with qualifications, but until this is financially viable the government should commit more resources. A system that provides intellectual education and vocational training is an investment in the greatest assets of all – a country’s people and communities.

Universities were one of the achievements of Western civilisation as centres of learning that spoke truth to power, held political leaders to higher standards and expanded knowledge. Their corporate capture has engendered more than just institutional decline, it is a profound cultural loss. We are losing the sense that knowledge and learning are a shared inheritance, not a commodity. After nearly 30 years in academia I am not overly optimistic about the prospects for intellectual and institutional renewal, and yet remain hopeful. The war on the university is not lost for as long as the battle over its soul continues.

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid