I am on strike this week, like many of my colleagues around the country. We are striking because of the gross pension miscalculations, as well as the grotesque working conditions in (not just) the higher education sector. No pay for half a month, but at least a brief respite from the insanity that is work. I also feel that I am on strike for another reason that academics have been discussing on Twitter, and that I have experienced as well. With the current sexual and racial harrassment cases in academia, many academics have reflected on the practices and relations that actually enable academic success. In a piece by Sara Ahmed, entitled ‘How the Culture of the University Covers Up Abuse‘, she suggests that departments have a tendency to be composed of people who have some form of prior relation, not necessarily sexually intimate, but they may include friendship or people that are known through mutual acquaintances. It is through such networks that patterns become replicated, resulting in the current employment landscape, dominiated by White middle class academics. I have seen this process in action, for example, through ‘internal only’ hires that favour people who are already known, by removing external competition. This is usually justified through policies of ‘nurturing local talent’, supporting mothers in returning to work, or simply through economic rationales (we can hire them at a lower salary than competitive external candidates). The result, however, is still ‘more of the same’. Moreover, competence becomes irrelevant, because some postgrad, postdoc or junior colleague can probably step in if things become too problematic. When you call out this practice to your local Equality, Diversity and Inclusion department, the anwer is something along the lines of ‘the process must be correct, because the HoS attended EDI training.’ As a member of the RGS-IBG RACE Working Group, it is moments such as these that have started turning my university into my field of research, rather than merely my place of employment.
But intimacy this is not the whole story, I feel. After losing three members of the department, with at least another one leaving, most of our arguments for new hires have been met with ‘economic considerations’. These considerations not only delay hires (ironically forcing research active staff to only focus on covering teaching), but actively seek to determine the direction of our research (apparently there is more money in ‘health’ than anywhere else). Looking at what I have witnessed so far, I want to ask a perhaps different question in relation to academic White middle class replication: what happens when employment decisions are taken out of the department’s hands? When the committee has no apparent relation to the candidates and purely operates by ‘economic realities’? (Or, to rephrase this, what happens when managers at a cash-strapped university are forcing the hiring of ‘predicted better returns’ who the department has no interest, or little interest in hiring?)
At first, going by purely economic criteria this may seem like a more equitable process: we are talking about ‘pure merit’, right? The reality, though, looks different. Participating for the first time in a supposedly ‘departmental’ hiring process, the experience has been shocking. At first, everything was as expected: selection criteria are established at a joint staff meeting, senior members of staff meet, look through applications, and make a decision on who to shortlist. Everyone receives a date for the presentation, including our PhD students. We all then watched the presentations (online) and asked candidates questions. The first thing that seemed weird was that undergraduates were ‘involved’ in the hiring process. After the presentations, they got to chat with the candidates – we are still not sure why they got involved, who decided this, as the teaching staff felt that it was unethical to use them as free labour. We then had a meeting as a department to shortlist the candidates. It was a lively discussion, full of enthusiasm. This felt like a special, a bonding moment after losing well loved colleagues/supervisors/tutors who had resigned in protest over forced, politically motivated, redundancies in the Business School and other departments (aka ‘union breaking’ by indirect means). In this meeting, we had to produce an order of hiring preference, and easily agreed on the order. At the end, we were confident that we had found a great colleague and teacher, and we would also be happy with some of the other candidates, if our choices turned us down. We also knew that there were interviews the next day that might change the situation.
The interviews were, like at most institutions, a more closed affair. At Leicester, however, as well as some other universities, they take place with increasing participation from central management. We found out that only one (!) professor could represent our interests. I wasn’t the only one who was confused. I was told, that, during past hires, central management had imposed candidates on the department – usually professors of whom management expected greater financial and REF return. Apparently, management found our choice(s) too ‘risky’. But no one would tell us who ‘they’ had chosen. I was furious: only a couple of weeks ago, I had been told to take students on an international field trip during a pandemic ‘because of the NSS scores’. But if NSS scores are so important, might hiring an inspiring lecturer not be a key strategy, rather than just looking at figures? Looking at the way we cobbled together the teaching for the spring term – because replacement staff did not get recruited in time, and PGRs could not, or did not want to, fill the resulting holes – the NSS score justification felt like a massive irony. Yes, the term may turn out okay in the end, but it is at constant danger of combusting, or rather, the overworked staff is (I started getting sick last week, and am still in bed with something that isn’t Covid-19).
Who the did we hire? We still don’t know after two weeks. We only know that ‘an offer was made’, likely to someone else, because why stay silent otherwise? Are they fearing protest? Also, why are we pessimistic? So far, all the ‘parachuted’ people have been White, and some have been totally absent, only existing as names on doors. Here the results of ‘intimacies’ perhaps emerge again: White people face the least discrimination when it comes to grant income, they can feed off the established networks and perceptions. This is why our School remains, apart from one soon-retiring staff member, entirely White. The department had academics of colour on top of the list twice, and both times they were turned down by central management because of ‘economic considerations’ despite stellar CVs (it’s not that academics don’t look at this – they know the score in the HE austerity landscape). The inequalities thus perpetuate under the guise of ‘best economic decisions’, even as students of colour complain about feeling uncomfortable in the Whiteness of the department (where are your NSS concerns now?). For the new staff member, this situation can’t be comfortable either, unless they plan to be absent anyway. (Actually, their empty offices remind me of the empty luxury flats in London that solely exist for investment purposes.)
With every such ‘strategic’ intervention to produce ‘excellence’, it becomes more apparent how much my institution, and other universities, represent a microcosm of the disaster that is the quasi-privatised university under Brexit Britain. Seen against this background, these hiring practices make sense. The neoliberal university is responsible for managing its finances, and it has to do this in line with current government policies. (This includes border policies, in turn affecting international student recruitment, which is another interesting disaster happening at mine and other universities). Mirroring the current government strategy, not just desperate, but deliberately harmful measures are taken – shock doctrine style. There is money around, but it seems to go towards the wrong ends (e.g. marketing, prestige buildings, cosmetic student experience enhancements). The measures are also conveniently reproducing another aspect of government policy: like museums and arts institutions, universities become a site where culture wars are seeing direct socio-economic implementation. This includes the axing of ‘uneconomic’ departments and research strands, especially those that might produce ‘unproductive’ opposition to the current reforms. Instead of practices that might help build a healthy and collegial research and teaching environment, a wrecking ball approach is applied to futher turn universities into debt and anxiety machines. In this environment, academics who remain invested in a model that values teaching and knowledge, and opposed to a cut throat form of economics, become calculated collateral. Postgraduate students and undergraduate students, faced with lack of care for their studies and relations with mentors, are equally collateral. This is why we are not only losing staff, but PG and UG students, especially from ‘protected characteristics’ targeted in the culture wars.
This may sound like a defence of the ‘intimacy’ model, but it is not. I do see a problem where academic ideas of ‘trust’ (who can we trust to work with and with our students) and ‘merit’ become cronyism and discrimination. But trying to to ‘regulate’ this through blunt application of metrics is not a solution: it only disguises unequal structures, or supplants them with someone else’s networks. Moreover, it depresses departments to such a degree that everyone who can leave, will leave, adding more and more twists to the spiral. The HE move into the direction of government ideology is brutal: last week the Economics and Social Research Council, fraught from its inception, was pushed one step further towards becoming part of Dominic Cummings’s DARPA/ARIA fantasy. How will this affect CVs and hires? Writing this from the position of a German academic in particular, there is a pressing question of where academics and managers make a cut off point. How much is too much? I am haunted by echoes of a time where many academics did not manage to make this cut and chose to appease an ultimately genocidal regime. The current situation in the UK may feel less extreme, but I feel like we are already past the point of ‘too much’. If you follow the cumulative effect of ‘little things’ that are being set in motion, the picture that emerges is rather bleak, if it is not met with resistance.