The Real World


September 2013  The Psychologist, 26 (9), 620.

It may be a little late to give recommendations for summer reading. But if it isn't, you could do worse than reading John Williams' recently reissued novel Stoner.  It is the tale of the rich interiority of what seems to be a small life on the outside — that of an obscure academic.  It isn't a campus novel in the narrow sense, but it does have trenchant things to say about academic life.

At one point, the characters discuss the nature of the University. One of the characters declares that: "it is an asylum or — what do they call them now? — a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent". While this may seem harsh and critical, as the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that the vision is affectionate and indeed inspirational.

Stoner is certainly an unworldly character. But that is because he has a sense of how the world should and could be rather than simply adapting to the world as it is. He has a sense of values and sticks to them, even if ultimately that is the cause of his worldly failure. And that, writ large, is how Universities should be.

Our role is to challenge students and to challenge received wisdom. It is to create new ways of being which might seem absurd in the short term but which endure in the long term. It is to take intellectual risks, to explore alleys that might be blind and which are to the benefit of all rather than the commercial advantage of a few.  It is about doing what the market cannot.

Yet the impact of austerity is to endanger all this. Although it hasn't always been acknowledged as such, Universities have been subject to the most dramatic privatisation of recent years. Soon the State will only contribute 15% of our funding and students will pay some 50%.  And the inevitable consequence of such privatisation is that we are increasingly ruled by short-term market forces and short-term market logic.

We are led to be wary of challenging students and making life difficult for them because we depend for our survival on their short-term ratings of us in student surveys. We are led to be wary of challenging received wisdoms in ways that might be ignored at the point of the next research 'excellence' exercise. We are led to be wary of producing outputs whose impact will only be knowable in decades rather than months.

But even more profoundly, perhaps, we are led to see our own work in market terms. It is of value, not in itself but as a currency to purchase something else — career, fame or fortune.  And so we are increasingly tempted to publish things even when we don't believe in them.  We are seduced down the slippery slope from selective reporting to outright fraud — all those things over which we have been agonising in recent times. Things which make no sense if one's concerns are with the intrinsic value of Universities and University research. Things which are unthinkable if one privileges unwordly values like curiosity and truth over market success.

In a world that is mad, we need more asylums.