I recently commented on the Australian Anthropological Society mailing list that universities seem to be fast becoming the worst places to produce academic scholarship as the trend towards metrics takes over. I received responses adding up to "It's not just you that thinks this... but where else do we go?"

Academic jobs are increasingly won and defended by playing into a system of metrics that measures scholarly output by ranking journals and so on. But, as we all know, this increases pressure to publish prematurely and decreases overall quality of what's in print. As a result, the production of rigorous scholarship within universities appears to be more of a luxury than a default practice. 

Many academics are campaigning hard to change this, especially by working on issues such as job security and teaching workloads. There are debates about university business models, journal business models, and how these may be changed to accommodate a slower, more reflective production of scholarly work. However, by most accounts, the metric trend looks set to continue into the foreseeable future.

If universities aren't listening to academics or their unions, what can we do? Are there ways to side-step universities? After all, not everyone depends upon tertiary institutional channels to get work done.

Alternatives for individuals could include:

  • Staying in the university system, but resisting the metric turn (difficult for many)
  • Staying in the university system, but seeing corporate funding to buy time (can result in problems of bias)
  • Creating a hybrid position, connected to academia but with an alternative salary source such as through consulting, journalism, etc (problems of instability, time management)
  • Working for a company, NGO or other, but staying involved in independent scholarship (severe time restrictions)

The problem with individual strategies is that they all require compromise and do little, if anything, to improve academia's position. We need to convince funding institutions that the independent and rigorous production of academic scholarship matters. Sciences such as biology and physics have cemented their position by producing tangible discoveries and engaging the public imagination. How important is it for the social sciences and humanities to do something similar? Will this increase our bargaining power within universities? And if we can't, where should we go?  

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Replies to This Discussion

Ha, I like flippancy.  We need more of it.

Keith, that's a good point about reasons for doing a thesis.  And a good reminder.  Since I definitely don't see writing up my diss as a ticket to a job, I might as well enjoy it.  I am actually looking forward to it--although I am not really looking forward to doing it under the rules and guidelines of university bureaucracy.  When I wrote my MA thesis I tried to get a little creative with my writing, and the university approved formatting person was not happy.  This results were not fantastic.

I also like the point about keeping the alternatives open.  My basic mantra right now is that I am not counting on the university system for anything.  And I will be looking into as many options as possible.  I am not going to bend over backwards just to keep myself in academia.

This is a fascinating piece; especially to someone who has been recently pondering on why it is that since Thatcher replied to Indira Ghandi back in 1979 (?) that there were no intellectuals here in the UK (and so 'no' to her request to meet them) - there seems to have been no volte face in this state of affairs. Obv that is not fair to those that do reside here, but American friends have recently been urging me to leave the UK not on the grounds that I can, but on the grounds that all the thinkers are now in the US...Obv the arrival of Craig Calhoun @ the LSE will hopefully alter this rather gloomy landscape predicated on a hitherto downward spiral, but  this piece goes someway to explaining the inner sanctum micro-situation that would not be apparent to anyone outside of academia...

I love the phrase about individuality/social absence and this being linked to 'writing a paper' ; my late husband was a writer and was often to be found ducking social events because he was writing...I think we all deserve a bit of that asociality - if that is what it is - and solace is an under-rated more in this over-cluttered socially-hyperactive world we live in these days...

Thank you; wonderful to be able to read all this debate.

Anita Sandall



Keith Hart said:

In 1973, the British universities were invited to be part of a review of higher education that would include polytechnics, futher education colleges etc. The Association of University Teachers refused to join in on the grounds that professors were on the elite civil list which included the royal family, judges, admirals, senior civil servants etc. The others got a 25% pay rise and we got nothing. The next year University salaries were frozen at a time of 25% inflation -- a half cut in two years. It should be said that the academics then treated administrators like servants with contempt. In Manchester during February 1974 in freezing weather the maximum temperature allowed for our offices was 58F. The typists were working with gloves on. I had the occasion to go to the main administration building and the temperature inside was 74F. I knew then that we were in for a war that we would lose. The administrative class did not win all by themselves. The neoliberal turn of 1979/80 lent the power of the state to the corporatization of universities and we have been losing ever since. In Thatcher's case, taking out the universities was similar to her emasculation of city finances, the judiciary and other sources of decentralized power.

I want to insist, however, that the academics have themselves to blame for the situation described by Erin, Fran, Ryan and others. It is not just an issue of overweening bureaucrats supported by neoliberal govenrments and corporations. It's our fault too. And I have spent several decades trying to work out why. I have long observed that the most dehumanised, impersonal and exploitive labour markets are in universities, not in government or business. In the latter, you are more likely to be treated with consideration. The barbaric hiring practices of academia are legion. Why?

One hypothesis is that academics think of themselves as being detached from money and power, a sort of Brahminical residue in the caste structure. They therefore see no reason to moderate their treatment of vulnerable human beings, because they are not in a market or politics. Another way of putting this is that academics feel able to indulge their inhumanity because there is nothing really at stake, whereas the others inhabit institutions where it is known that there is. I realise that this is winging it, but the question is rarely if ever asked.

Another possible explanation is the private nature of intellectual work. There are few other walks of life where anti-social behaviour can be excused by saying "I have to write a paper". This individualism was once moderated by an informal culture of sharing which has been eroded by our swallowing the logic of intellectual property in the rat race for competitive personal advancement. Like Paul Stoller I have watched the last shreds of cooperation and communal life evaporate in the last few decades.

Finally, when I taught in Cambridge in the 80s and 90s, we had a rule that only 2 out of 11 department members could be on leave at any one time, so that the burden of administration and teaching would be fairly shared. Now the established professoriate take leave whenever they can be bought out and the administration happily replaces them with poorly paid and precarious adjuncts. In one department I know personally, three junior lecturers, all women, left in quick succession (not to other academic jobs) because they carried an unfair burden of teaching and administration and did not share in the power of decision-making enjoyed by the senior faculty.

We will not solve this problem until we take a critical look at our own behaviour over the years. This is something newcomers will find it hard to do and the old lags prefer to gloss over their own culpability, choosing rather to blame a class struggle with the powers that leaves us free from guilt over how the universities arrived at this sorry pass.

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