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Critical faculty

Has change has been good for university English studies?

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

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.