I woke up in the early hours of the morning with an only-too-familiar sick feeling in my stomach. This stemmed, I soon realised, from a fear that I have thought and written myself into a place where what I was writing would simply not be believed by the people, either artists or academics, with whom I have professional interaction.
Then, this morning, I picked up a copy of the Guardian with it’s front-page headline: ‘Students failed by rip-off fees, says watchdog’. This prompted by a statement from the Head of the National Audit Office that if, universities were subject to the same controls as banks, they’d be under investigation for mis-selling. (Although not, sadly, for the excessive salaries they are paying their Chief Executives). Within minutes of my reading this, my wife had sent me a link to the academic and investigative journalist David Tuller’s most recent post: Trial by Error: My One-sided correspondence with Professor Crawley. This brilliantly summarises an exchange that, among other things, highlights Bristol University’s attempts to stifle legitimate criticism of the (pseudo)-science on which one of its professors has built her reputation as a researcher. A situation that, as I’ve commented on in a recent post, is also an attempt to protect the University’s own income stream from research.
Of course the situation is more complicated than Tuller’s excellent posts can really cover. As he has shown in the past, Bristol is by no means alone in trying to stifle legitimate criticism of its researchers’ poor science. These attempts at bullying critics into silence, along with false claims about attempts to ‘intimidate’ researchers, now seem a common strategy among the elite Russell Group of universities, no doubt desperate to maintain both their income stream and their cosy relationship as providers of ‘official’ advise to Ministers, etc. At one level, however, this is undoubtedly the result of universities having been bullied into following Government agendas by the REF audit. This does not, of course, excuse universities, in turn, adopted almost totalitarian tactics to ensure that staff come up with the necessary ‘quality research’. (The research necessary to ensure that the 16% rack-off for ‘overheads’ continues to flow into the university’s coffers).
I do think the situation, for all its complexities, supports my claim that universities are increasingly becoming unfit for purpose. A situation that makes alternative ways of sharing genuinely innovative forms of knowledge and understanding, almost by definition troubling to the status quo, necessary. This can only reinforce the case for starting to develop some kind of hedge school.
PPS. Anyone who feels that my take on the ‘art world’ is unreasonably jaundiced might want to read Nicholas Penny’s Top Brands Today (London Review of Books Vol. 39, no. 24 14th., December 2017 pp. 31-34). This is not, of course, a reflection on the many artists who are committed to working in the space-between described in my last post. It does, however, demonstrate, in uncomfortable detail, the (in my view) malign relationships between the commercial, academic and arts worlds.