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The Professorial Class

My involvement in universities goes back well over half a century and I think it’s safe to say that the changes in universities during that time vastly exceed those in the half century before that. They have increased enormously in scale, shifted to much more vocational emphases, are much more international in nature and are far more bureaucratic. The disparity in salaries between university employees has also magnified. Subjectively, but still massively, they seem to me less happy, less free and less eccentric institutions than they were. It is almost impossible to avoid adverbs like “enormously” and “massively” in describing what has happened. Of course, I don’t really like any of these changes, but that’s not really the point. The interesting questions concern concern whether one can synthesise them into an overview and, if so, whether it can be said that universities have changed their nature.

I think the answer is yes to both of these questions and the key to answering them lies in the idea of class. I don’t mean here class as a reference to people’s origins and nor do I mean anything which involves stratification in any obvious sense. Put crudely this means I’m not interested in the question of which classes are thought of as “higher” or “lower” than other classes, but only in class as a set of people who share to some degree senses of purpose, of meaning and of place in society.

My first experience of academic life was as a teenage student in a fairly traditional, even reactionary, Oxford college, albeit one that was in the throes of modernisation. There were three elements to understanding class in the college. The first was that it was formerly a clerisy and in some respects retained the attitudes and beliefs of one. That is it was a single sex institution often studiously eschewing any form of worldliness and it was common to joke or remark about characters in the college that it was impossible to imagine them surviving – let alone thriving – in a different context. Then there was the obvious reflection that the life of the college was the life of members of a professional class. But it would be all too easy to exaggerate the extent to which this was the case. Individual subjects such as medicine clearly had a typical professional structure with all the trappings of qualifications, gatekeepers, professional norms enforced by tribunals and so on. But most subjects did not and nor did academic life per se. Most dons in most subjects did not have a Ph.D. and the idea that they should have a teaching qualification or some training in teaching would not have crossed their minds. For that matter pastoral care was never thought to require any kind of training; it was the natural relationship between older and younger men in a community.

I think that the third class element was actually the most important: dons and many undergraduates were an adjunct or a version of the gentry. According to Adam Nicolson’s excellent historical survey, The Gentry (2011), this is a class typified by the combination of a strong sense of place and property with a strong sense of duty. Although not a ruling class there is also a strong sense of connection to the ruling class. Thus both dons and many undergraduates looked on the college as their own thing, their interests entirely intertwined with those of the institution, the sorts of conflict inherent in normal places of work being inconceivable to most people. The college was the location of one’s principal rights and duties in life. I am willing to assert that this is not the normal relation between universities and either their employees and their students in most institutions in the twenty first century. There was even an hereditary element: many undergraduates were the sons of “Old Members”. I have a fond memory of Lord Redcliffe-Maud, the reforming master of the college, describing his conversation with an uncomprehending Old Member whose son had received a rejection letter from the college. With all the legendary smoothness of a former diplomat the Master had to explain that such things were out of his control and that many of the younger dons had become quite fanatical and that being fifth generation wasn’t enough any more – you had to pass some exams. Meanwhile many other people in the college were insisting that “all other things being equal” one should choose the sons of old members.

To say it is all different now is wonderfully banal, but undeniable. Contemporary academics are part of a vast and complex managerial class which dominates society. To understand what this means I think it is probably best to return to the classic text, James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World (1941). This put together many observations about the “divorce between ownership and control” that was taking place within capitalism and, for that matter, within Communism. This generated a further thesis, that of “convergence” between apparently disparate political and economic systems. It implied that irrespective of the ideology you were living under the people actually running the place would be more or less the same. That thesis went on to offer some hope and consolation during the Cold War, but it also explains how China could develop into a country that appears to be simultaneously capitalist and Communist, something that didn’t really happen until after Burnham died (in 1987).

The essential insight of the book is massively important, but that should not be developed into anything called Burnhamism. The author was the chairman of the philosophy department at NYU, originally a rather sectarian “Trotskyite” who morphed, like several of his generation, into an ardent conservative. Critics have suggested that he retained at least two bad habits from his marxist days. One is the equation of a social type with an historical period so that “capitalism” and “managerialism”, actually present to different degrees in all societies, are discrete historical phenomena. But the more important error – and not one that real conservatives make – is the absorption of moral approval into the understanding of the forces of history. Thus the Marxist and Whig belief in progress – that whatever constitutes “the future” is thereby good. I have always been shocked by how many people assume this view and Burnham was an extreme case, even demonstrating Nazi sympathies when he thought Germany was winning the war. George Orwell wrote two hostile essays on him and described him as a “power worshiper”. This was a charge that could hardly be denied as Burnham’s book The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943) envisages a dominant managerial class manipulating an apparent social democracy through a Schumpeterian competition between elite factions.

But the core insight remains powerful: managerialism is now everywhere. Whereas the convergence thesis was widely discussed the extension thesis was less widely recognised. Organisations resemble each other and adopt the same styles of operation. Thus charities, churches, sports organisations and governments now look like businesses. You can also include aristocratic estates: note that the current Duchess of Northumberland describes herself as a “business manager”. And, of course, nothing exemplifies this pattern more than universities. In my dreams they would have retained large elements of the gentry and the clerisy, but actually they have gone over to every aspect of managerial structures. Performance management and assessment? Extreme versions. Increasingly formal and recorded procedures? In spades. Rank inflation? Just as more than half the employees in American banks are now some kind of vice-president everyone in universities is now some kind of professor. Income differentiation?: those at the top are paid ten times what those at the bottom get.

The language of universities is the language of management: careers, plans, aims, objectives, customers and so on. Earlier in my career if a policeman, a doctor, a teacher and an academic sat down for a drink together they would have complained about different things. Now it is the same things: bureaucracy, hierarchy and the stress that comes from endless assessments and performance management. Academics even smell like managers. When I first knew them (pretty well all male, of course) the odour was a mixture of tweed, sweat, tobacco and alcohol. Now it’s the same weak cologne as the rest of the management class. I’m sure most people will recognise my description, but only the older generation will realise that it wasn’t always like that.

Compared with previous ruling and prevailing classes the managerial class is vast and pervasive. It stretches down in a complex hierarchy which seems to absorb a majority of the population and which allows highly misleading concepts such as “social democracy” and “the end of history” to prevail. It’s sub-categories suggest a scribbled Venn diagram: meritocracy, technocracy, salariat, chattering classes, metrosexuals, the liberal elite . . . It seems amusing in retrospect that so many people in universities in my generation were still talking about “the bourgeoisie” and “the proletariat” while they were in the process of being absorbed into a new dominant class. The problem with this dominance is that it’s ideology is so unchallenged that most people are incapable of questioning it. In my youth, for example, one could write a balanced essay about the advantages of free trade and protectionism in different contexts. For the higher echelons of managerialism, who make nothing, free trade, globalisation and internationalism are so obviously beneficial as to be unquestioned.

For the first time, possibly ever, universities exist as not something apart from the social order but as an adjunct to the dominant class. In many ways this is the worst of all possible worlds because it is a class which favours neither liberty nor equality. Yes, they sometimes seem almost obsessively zealous about aspects of inequality such as the ethnic and gender dimensions, but they also positively foster increasing inequalities of income and power. In terms of liberty I have to compare what went on in my first ten years in universities with their condition now. Then I could have summoned up a Jacobite, a couple of nihilists, a Manichean and even an apartheid apologist with a clap of the hands or a provocative remark – or, for that matter, many varieties of Tory or revolutionary. There is still the odd eccentric – usually fairly old – but you can’t really expect much variety from the pathetic, terrified lower echelon wannabees who lack both the tenure and the arrogance that people like me had. By contrast with my early experiences in 2016 when a debate was held about Brexit at the University of Warwick the lady organising it claimed that she could not find anyone internally to speak in favour of it; in the event Dave Nellist (socialist former Labour MP) and I did it – an odd couple if ever there was one. I offer the thought that the immensely complex, hierarchical managerial class is history’s most miserable class, self-bullying and self-exploiting.

I think Orwell would exonerate me from the charge of power-worship. I generally see the forces of history as going in the wrong direction. I would want universities to be ivory towers offering society alternatives to the prevailing ideology. How that might possibly be achieved, at least in part, requires another set of considerations.

Lincoln Allison November 2020

( In a way this article was a victim of Covid because Times Higher Education, for whom it was intended, had become much more preoccupied with the practical problems of universities surviving the Covid era and interest in broad overviews had declined by the time I came to write it. I would also admit that I have covered these themes elsewhere though not quite in the same way.)