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An Interview with Thomas Docherty

Kristin Grogan


Thomas Docherty is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick. He is an outspoken critic of the corporatisation and marketisation of Higher Education. His book For the University was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest book, Universities at War (Sage, 2014) written while Professor Docherty was suspended from his post at Warwick University, is a polemical study of the present crisis of higher education and a critique of authoritarianism within the University. Professor Docherty has written widely on English and comparative literature from the Renaissance to now. His books include Reading (Absent) Character (Oxford University Press, 1983); Criticism and Modernity (Oxford University Press, 1999); Aesthetic Democracy (Stanford University Press, 2006); and Confessions: The Philosophy of Transparency (Bloomsbury, 2012). Thomas Docherty took his MA in English and French at Glasgow before reading for a DPhil in Oxford.

This is the first instalment of a two-part interview with Professor Docherty.

Higher education in Britain has changed enormously over the past decades, since Thatcher’s initial cuts. What changes in the university sector have you witnessed and experienced throughout your career?

There have been many changes over this period. Since you refer here to Thatcher’s programme in the 1980s, that might be a useful place to start thinking about the nature of the changes. One thing that Thatcherism did was to ensure the delegitimsation of any sources of cultural or social authority that might rival and question the power of government itself. Thus it was that her governments systematically attacked the professions, encouraging us to doubt teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists and the like (witness the continuation of that in Nigel Lawson’s stubborn insistence that we should doubt the science of global warming, say). The biggest political manifestation of this, though, was the attack on the fundamentals of freedom of association and of assembly, especially as envisaged in the idea of a trade union. 1984 saw the carefully panned wrecking of the most powerful trade union in the land, the union that had essentially brought down her Conservative predecessor, Ted Heath, a decade earlier: the National Union of Mineworkers.

At the heart of all this was a language question: the political right appropriated the language of the left, and transfigured it. So, in the case of the attack on professions, we were encouraged to critique privilege, as seen in the institutional authority of the teaching profession, say (and which continues in Michael Gove’s reference to teachers as ‘the Blob’). In the case of the miners, Thatcherism assumed the language of rights, speaking endlessly of “the right of managers to manage.” It is this – the supposed ‘right’ of management to manage – that is at the heart of the biggest changes across the patch since the 1980s; and it eventuates in the rise of an entire managerial class.

This is not the usual whine about increased bureaucracy, though that is indeed a major issue; rather, it is a realization that we are now in a culture where everything is subject to management or to ‘being managed’: we manage research budgets, we manage research itself, we manage teaching (we no longer teach, rather we ‘deliver’ something called ‘teaching and learning’ precisely as a managed package); students manage their time, they manage themselves, and are encouraged to consider their very ‘selfhood’ or identity as an entrepreneurial project, and one that is to be managed. This is disastrous for the sector.

In addition to that, there is also the seemingly inexorable drive towards the privatization of all human activity, which goes together with the attack on freedom of assembly. Now, teaching and learning are seen as private goods; and are vaunted as such. The very idea that the University exists in and for a wider society, that students themselves might have concerns beyond their own personal financial standing, is endangered. The current crisis over student debt is indeed structural in that it ensures that a student must focus on her or his private financial position, to the detriment of public service.

The result is a focus on something called ‘the student experience,’ which exists in order to manage, contain and even negate the very possibility of students having experiences. The student experience encourages us to think only of what goes on inside the University, such that our research and teaching and learning are divorced from the real material conditions of existence. So the greatest change is that we have developed the University precisely as an ivory tower, divorced from the real world. Our great ‘modernisation’ has driven us steadily backwards historically; and it is little surprise to me that the University or higher education more generally has no political purchase, especially among a general electorate, given this return to structural elitist privilege.

The worst of this is that we have a sector leadership that has been entirely and shamelessly complicit with this. We have VCs who engage in grade inflation, inflating their titles and becoming Presidents, CEOs and the like; and what they preside over is a massive disconnection between their managerial world and the reality of what happens in classrooms and in society.

In your book Universities at War, you interrogate the relation “of the university as a privileged site of thought to the world in which it finds itself,” and your analysis “places the student at the central axis of our contemporary turbulence.” How have the recent changes in the university sector affected student life, and the political agency and responsibility of the university student?

I think that the most recent changes – let the betrayal over tuition fees stand as the fundamental symbol of this – have changed what goes on in the classroom and laboratory first of all. These changes have ensured an essential inwardness of spirit, and determination to close the university off from the world, while all the time suggesting that we are engaging productively with it. We have a politics that has shrunk economics to the question of how we run our own household, as it were. It is Voltaire’s Candide, in that moment of giving up on large-scale change in favour of cultivating one’s own garden. Yet it is also a perversion of this: Voltaire’s satire had no intention of reducing the political to the merely personal, no intention of suggesting that a political economy works like a domestic economy (which was also the legerdemain of Thatcherism that persists today, of course).

Students, through the tuition fee and debt crisis, have been structurally required to be in debt, and therefore to attend in most pressing fashion to their own personal life chances. Increasingly, we are in a world of ‘self-reliance’, but one whose good aspects (energy, dynamism and so on) have been perverted by a language of competition, which has translated self-reliance into a culture that dignifies ‘devil-take-the-hindmost’ by suggesting that those who are winners ‘deserve’ their wins. But this also trashes the idea of politics as care; care for others is now an optional extra, a matter of philanthropy or charity. It is like taxation for some of the wealthy: a voluntary choice rather than a political commitment.

Tuition fees, in our present dispensation, make teaching and learning into a transaction of sorts. The consequence is that we attend to something called ‘the student experience’: that is, we ask what happens solely within classroom and laboratory. We have turned our eyes away from how the work that goes on in laboratory and classroom affects the wider political or public sphere. To compensate for that, we have in turn to invent something called ‘impact’ in research, and ‘employability agenda’ in teaching and learning. Its is as if the whole of our work is a mere apprenticeship for a world in which there are in fact no jobs. It is a recipe for guaranteed structural failure; and students are expected to comply with this failure through the NSS – which brings us back to the 1980s and the right of managers to manage again.

What is it about the humanities in particular that means its value so often comes under fire? Why are arts courses—which cost relatively little to run, still attract large numbers of students, and produce many of our leaders and politicians—always the first to go?

That’s a real conundrum. It is probably precisely because they cost little to run that they can be so easily be placed up against the wall. They are seen as luxury items, of course: it is difficult to reduce them to mere transactional and instrumental purposes. How does our talking about prosody lead to a ¬£40k job; how does an understanding of Beckett add to the economy or GDP? So, as in all puritanical approaches to wealth creation, luxury goes first. Yet the important thing is what this reveals about the precise economic structures in which we operate: they are fundamentally rooted in a puritanical past, a world in which we should be ashamed of having Falstaffian ‘cakes and ale.’ There is a link established between fun or pleasure on one hand and waste or disreputable profligacy on the other; and the arts and humanities are seen as profligate in this. It is as if what is worthy is only what causes pain. That’s a very modern phenomenon. It is only in recent times that we have come to use pain as a measure of value: think of how we must all accommodate ourselves to ‘harsh truths,’ to the ‘hard facts,’ to a gritty ‘reality.’ It’s the story of a particular version of realism that emerged in the eighteenth century, that only that which is hard is what is real. At the same time, there are plenty who are living a life of wasteful profligacy who get away with it. This economy does not question them; it questions only the fact that more want to be like them; and this related to what your question addresses in the issue of the sheer numbers of people doing arts and humanities. If there is to be wealth, fun and pleasure, it will be maintained for the few.

The University of Warwick have announced their intention to begin using ‘Teach Higher,’ a company that will effectively outsource hourly paid academic staff, which means that casual academic staff will no longer be employed directly by the university. How do you think this will affect academic research and teaching, as well as workplace rights and union membership?

This is an extremely worrying development. It looks as if Warwick is doing all sorts of back-tracking on it, though it will almost certainly go ahead in one form or another. It is part of a structural casualization of all academic work. It operates on the HR principle that teaching is just a transaction, with no organic structures. The fundamental principle is that of supply and demand of resources. You need someone to teach French Symbolism? Teach Higher will provide that, using CVs that have been uploaded into a database of available resources. So someone from HR will feed your requirement in, and a name will pop out; she or he will then work on a zero-hours basis to provide the teaching, wherever and whenever it is called for. The proposed contracts in Teach Higher also deprive participants of any kind of employability and/or standard union rights: they explicitly indicate that those teaching can be dismissed at no notice and without redress, for example.

Once this is in place, however, it will lead to further negative developments. If it works like this for an emergency situation – and efficiently saves money thereby – then why not apply it more generally? So, let’s say that a department now needs a replacement lecturer, say, in French Symbolism, after a celebrated professor retires. Why not replace the professor instead with hourly-paid staff from Teach Higher (no doubt as a preliminary and ‘temporary’ measure that will, in due course, become permanently temporary? That will be cheaper. The longer-term consequence is disastrous. While it may take some time to go all the way and make the whole of our teaching done this way, it will meanwhile lead to a de-professionalization of all teaching.

The end result – the logic and trajectory of travel – spells disaster for the sector as a whole. Universities – like other institutions – will ‘diversify’ to survive in these harsh economic times, such that teaching will eventually be only one small element of what they do, one piece of their ‘suite of services’, which will grow the conference and hospitality and consultancy aspects of ‘the business’. We will become second-order versions of organizations like Capita, Serco and the like. There will eventually be no union rights, no basic employment rights; and after that, no academic freedom either.
The second instalment of our interview with Thomas Docherty will appear in ORbits on Thursday, May 28. Professor Docherty will speak at the Oxford English Graduate Conference on Value on Friday, June 5. More information can be found here.

Kristin Grogan is reading for a DPhil in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford. Her dissertation, on the relationship of labour and poetry in modernist poetry and poetics, is supported by the Clarendon Fund.