Critical faculty

Has change has been good for university English studies?

A Cambridge student
A student walks past St John's College, Cambridge (Photograph: Getty Images)

One of the few consolations in coming to the end of a full career of 40 years is that one can look back to perceive long rhythms in one’s profession. What has happened to what used to be one of the “core” disciplines, English studies, in British universities? Change, certainly. But in what direction and has it been, looking back, change for the better?

Centrality is the principal issue. Departments of English now occupy a position in the university constellation comparable to Uranus in the solar system: far from the centre and dim. How did that happen? The current administrators love league tables, so call the following a league table of whinge.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was a matter of political, social and media alarm that the universities had become centres of protest. One way to bring them to heel was to use funding as a short leash drawn throttlingly tight, less for frugality than to show who was in charge. During this period, quinquennial funding (via the university grants committee) in effect approached the universities every five years, threw a sack of gold over the wall and let the intramural body get on with it.

After the Thatcherite victory in 1979, universities were subjected to the twin disciplinary pressures of “cut and freeze”, imposed by
brutal financial constriction from outside. No more sacks of gold. The aim was to take the fight out of the universities. It worked.

It was followed by extra-curricular management of the now cowed system. The two instruments by which this was achieved were the RAE (research assessment exercise) and the TQA (teaching quality assessment). The assessments were eventually laid out as hateful league tables and gradings were financially “consequential”. Funding followed excellence – “backing winners”, they called it. Scraps for losers. The effect was to introduce that idolised thing at the time, “competition”. Has the RAE or its successor, the REF (research excellence framework), improved the quality of English studies research? If it has (dubious in my view), it has been at a very great cost to collegiality.

The 1960s and early 1970s were a period when trade unions enjoyed unprecedented power in British society. After the expansion of the university workforce in the 1960s, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) proposed that “lecturer” should henceforth be the “career grade”. Hierarchy should be, if not entirely abolished, flattened out, abolishing the pernicious selfishness of “careerism” in the interest of the university system as a whole.

It was a high-minded aspiration. Whitehall went along with it for low-minded reasons. A rank-depressed workforce promised useful savings over the long term. The AUT’s egalitarian utopianism foundered, predictably, on the intrinsic competitiveness of human beings in an academic environment. Hierarchy duly reasserted itself in the 1980s but very awkwardly. There was a bottleneck problem, left over from the “everyone-a-lecturer” system. Uneasy widenings of the aperture were eventually achieved. However, it came at a cost:
departmental autonomy was whittled away to virtual non-existence. The criteria by which promotion could be gained were now strenuously “objective” – that is, validated outside the department on the quantity and quality of publications and “letters” from outside referees.

The objective criteria forestalled nepotism and inside-track appointments. Yet it further showed that departments no longer had
full confidence in their own judgements, however captious or whimsical those judgements might look to outsiders. Nor did departments have the right to chance their arm or back hunches.

University-based English, ever since its inception in the 19th century, has laboured under the debilitating fear that it is not entirely serious. Over the past 30 years, the subject has been progressively dominated by hierophants with a hieratic, in-group jargon incomprehensible to the non-initiated. It cer­tifies high seriousness. The forge in which the new forms and linguistics of the subject were hammered out was the academic conference (immortalised in David Lodge’s 1984 novel, Small World).

In their purest, American form, conferences are held in high-end hotels in remote locations, recruiting speakers and attendees from as many disparate places as possible. Cost and remoteness ensure there is no walk-in public – or undergraduates. At these events, conferees
and colloquists confer in terms understandable, often, only between themselves.

The specialist thinking in a language that became current after the 1970s – loosely gathered under the meaningless term “theory” – was established as the subject’s common tongue. It went in many different research directions but, in virtually all, it was testingly difficult to master. That, one sometimes suspected, was its point. And it’s related to another important phenomenon: doctorisation and field specialism.

Until the 1960s, there was no prejudice against the PhD, although it was sometimes thought to be, in a Podsnappian way, “not English”. There was certainly no notion that it was, or ever could be, the sine qua non for an academic career. The universal requirement, operating today, that entry-level academics in English studies must have a PhD was, one assumes, initially introduced to ease pressure on the entry-level bottleneck into the profession. It kept likely candidates out of play for five years until, it was hoped (wrongly, as it turned out), things got easier.

The longer-term effect of making the PhD mandatory has been manifold and, arguably, malign. It encouraged, most malignantly, the current malaise of English studies: field specialism. If you spent five years researching a subject, until you knew more about it than anyone living, that is what you wanted to teach once you landed the first job. A subject that had hitherto fostered the undoctored jack of all trades gradually fragmented into a mosaic of doctored specialists.

The final thing making for a deterioration of university English studies is the introduction of heavy undergraduate fees. When higher
education was free (“a right, not a privilege”, as we liked to murmur), one did, educationally, as one was told. Yet the kind of authority required for disciplinary prescription is eroded when the undergraduate is paying a small fortune for their education. The student, in that topsy-turvy situation, is in a position to call the shots. And increasingly the curriculum has been option-driven. The department lays the table according to the known taste of the customer. Unsurprisingly, the feet go towards what most takes the customer’s fancy.

It is perhaps an overstatement to suggest that the English department has been buggered. But no one, I think, would claim that profound changes have not taken place. And, speaking for myself, I would take a lot of convincing that it has been for the better.

John Sutherland is emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. His department,
he loyally believes, is less buggered than most