The Grim Threat to British Universities

A memorial service for Harold Macmillan, Oxford University, 1987

The British universities, Oxford and Cambridge included, are under siege from a system of state control that is undermining the one thing upon which their worldwide reputation depends: the caliber of their scholarship. The theories and practices that are driving this assault are mostly American in origin, conceived in American business schools and management consulting firms. They are frequently embedded in intensive management systems that make use of information technology (IT) marketed by corporations such as IBM, Oracle, and SAP. They are then sold to clients such as the UK government and its bureaucracies, including the universities. This alliance between the public and private sector has become a threat to academic freedom in the UK, and a warning to the American academy about how its own freedoms can be threatened.

In the UK this system has been gathering strength for over twenty years, which helps explain why Oxford and Cambridge dons, and the British academy in general, have never taken a clear stand against it. Like much that is dysfunctional in contemporary Britain, the imposition of bureaucratic control on the academy goes back to the Thatcher era and its heroine. A memorable event in this melancholy history took place in Oxford on January 29, 1985, when the university’s Congregation, its governing parliament, denied Mrs. Thatcher an honorary Oxford degree by a vote of 738–319. It did so on the grounds that “Mrs. Thatcher’s Government has done deep and systematic damage to the whole public education system in Britain, from the provision for the youngest child up to the most advanced research programmes.”1

Mrs. Thatcher, however, disliked Oxford and the academy as much as they disliked her. She saw “state-funded intellectuals” as an interest group whose practices required scrutiny. She attacked the “cloister and common room” for denigrating the creators of wealth in Britain.2 But whereas the academy could pass motions against Mrs. Thatcher and deny her an honorary degree, she could deploy the power of the state against the academy, and she did. One of her first moves in that direction was to beef up an obscure government bureaucracy, the Audit Commission, to exercise tighter financial control over the universities.

From this bureaucratic acorn a proliferating structure of state control has sprung, extending its reach from the purely financial to include teaching and research, and shaping a generation of British academics who have known no other system. From the late 1980s onward the system has been fostered by both Conservative and Labour governments, reflecting a consensus among the political parties that, to provide value for the taxpayer, the academy must deliver its research “output” with a speed and reliability resembling that of the corporate world and also deliver research that will somehow be useful to the British public and private sectors, strengthening the latter’s performance in…

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