The ivory towers are still there, but what is happening inside them?
Universities in the UK have been heading in an increasingly corporate direction for the last decade or so. The introduction of student fees has demoralised everyone participating in higher education. Attracting funding for research has become an extremely competitive activity, consuming the time and energy of academics who might otherwise be focusing on their teaching. Educational institutions all over the country are now run by managers following highly technocratised business models. Surveillance of academics and their research outputs is virulent, stifling the creativity of individuals and communities. I retired early from my Tutorial Fellowship at St Edmund Hall because I was dismayed by the increasingly gloomy prognosis for Oxford, which has suffered just as much as other universities in these respects.
What follows is a mock-epic satire in three cantos, inspired by Pope's The Dunciad. Its target is technocracy. The villain in it (who goes by the name of 'Someone') is a generic portrait, and will be recognisable as a typical figurehead by anyone who is teaching or studying in a university in the current climate. My poem was originally published in the Oxford Magazine (Hilary Term, 2018) with its authorship concealed.
Someone was appointed Head
Of Something Big in Higher Ed.
With links to VIPs he would
Sort Something out, if Someone could.
“Management”, “Impact” were the Mottos
Muttered in Technocratic Grottos:
All Policies he’d oversee
And reinforce Technocracy.
An Action Man so bold and keen
Would, like a New Broom, sweep all clean
And introduce a Bright New Era –
Stronger, richer, smarter, clearer.
At Interview he wowed all those
Who knew what every Fresher knows:
That Fundraising is sunk without
Someone who has Heft and Clout.
Securing Funds for Something Big
He’d be a Corporate Bigwig.
Someone preened and looked ahead
To brisker Business, Someone-led.
The first Meeting (cold and grim):
No-one thought that much of him;
They found he was a Crashing Bore –
With Verbiage that made them snore
He spewed his “Fit for Purpose” Creed,
Lauding Efficiency and Speed
In Blather wasting several Hours.
Scholars snug in Ivory Towers
Sat stunned and silent, fazed by Words
That spilled and spilled like runny Turds –
Jargon Words from Jargon Star,
Words that grate and Sounds that jar;
Clauses long and Phrases muddled,
Fit to make all Sense befuddled;
Sentences that mystified
The lot of them. They heaved and sighed,
Keen to resume Research and Teaching,
Free of this wordy-turdy Preaching.
On Someone hectored – on and on,
And on and on and on and on…
Till, all their Patience spent and gone
(Smothering resentful Laughter,
Dreading what would follow after)
They shut their Minds off and withdrew
Someone now strutted in each Quad,
Laying the Law down with his Rod.
Someone’s Toes in every Pie;
Someone always asking why.
Raising Funds required his Clout;
Due Process he could do without.
Why rely on Consultation?
Only Cash saves Education,
Starved of its Old Resources and
Bowing to Finance, Cap in Hand.
Fees now charged by Higher Ed;
Protests raised but little said
In GHQ where Pundits knew
The Methods that would see them through.
Free Trade’s Object, Competition,
Must be Someone’s Bold New Mission:
Money for each Scholar’s Writing –
Get competing, get all fighting
For Something Solid, Something Big;
Establish Who’s the Biggest Wig!
Research attracted ready Money
But Refs were never fun, or funny.
Every Word now filed and ranked
By Someone, to be saved and banked:
“Clink” went the Till as Funds rolled in;
Out went the Papers – Which would win?
New Cost-effective Targets set,
To reach them, Others must be met:
E-mails, Meetings, Hoops to jump through,
Appraisal-Forms filled-in and seen to;
Accounts drawn up and Tallies made;
Each Minute spent on feeding Trade
With Tangible Research Output
Which rushed like Wind from a swollen Gut.
When Someone says “Produce, Produce!”
All are Objects of Abuse –
Victims both, Teacher and Taught,
Trapped in the Net of Someone Thought
And packaged to be sold and bought.
Termly Reports like Nuclear Fission
Emerged as Someone’s Special Mission:
Here, like a Missile neat and clean,
He made his Impact swift and mean.
Summoned by him, Victims cowered
As he sat Throned and Plaudit-powered
Lauding with bland clichéd Praises,
Running down with sneering Phrases.
He pigeonholed All into Types,
Ignoring those with whingeing Gripes
About a System that they hated.
He mortified, humiliated
Those who struggled, fell behind:
“They’re Robots, they don’t have a Mind.
They’re here to hear their Someone speak.”
All they could do was shiver, squeak,
And murmur Passive Thanks to him
Whose System kept them neat and trim.
Hour by hour the Victims watched him,
Wishing they could fox or scotch him –
Every nervous Victim stuttered,
Every clever Victim muttered
Oaths at Someone who thus dared
To interfere. He glared and glared –
Victims sat there shocked and dazed,
Their Protests dumb, their Tired Eyes glazed.
In Pairs they volunteered to see him,
Cajole, implore him, and entreat him
To mend his ways, be good and kind,
Appealing to his Better Mind,
But little long-term Change appeared:
Day after day he ranted, sneered,
Threw his Weight about the Place,
Seeking to save his Someone Face.
In Secret Meetings with Cabal
He’d plot and scheme and sneak and snarl.
Picture him perched on high, a Vulture
Preying on every Counterculture,
Taking Credit for each Success,
Never to blame for any Mess;
Destroying the Humanities
With Policies that made them freeze;
Appointing Technocratic Chums
To eat Big Lunches, sit on Bums,
Beating their Bureau-Bluster Drums
While needy Students looked around
For all Support that could be found.
“Stack all the Rooms with those who’ll pay!
Let the Privileged have their Way!”
Cash will deluge Coffers with Rain
When Higher Ed goes down the Drain
And Money Matters are put first,
No matter if the Drain might burst.
“This is the Gradgrind Age, don’t mock it!
Invest, invest! All Victims, stock it!
It’s good for Grades and Reputation;
It guarantees an Education.
The Nay-Sayers should zip their Lips
And listen hard to Someone’s Tips.
He knows the System inside out.
This gives him Rights to bully, shout
And quash all Reasonable Doubt.”
Someone, up in his Watchtower,
Was isolated by his Power –
No Friends to trust; he’d lost them All
By hiring Henchmen who’d not stall
In propping up the Business Model.
How he’d praise and molly-coddle
Those on the higher Business Wages
Who briskly, in their Several Stages,
Reformed H.E. with a single Rule:
Efficiency. “We’re a Corporate School.
We must force New Regulations,
Keep our Victims in lowly Stations,
Optimise Income, make Success
Our one Concern; clear up the Mess
Of Quaint Traditions, replace what’s old
With Someone System – streamlined, bold –
Fit for Purpose, built to last:
This will make Production fast."
Values of Fellowship, relegated
Like fading Clothes, became outdated.
Libraries, once Peaceful Places
Where Scholars could leave learned Traces
Were Factories for churning out
Papers that would measure Clout
And make sure Something Big grew stout.
Books were Goods in Production Lines,
Polished to make them gleam and shine.
Paying Cash, Students in return
Were handed Scripts that they could learn:
This would increase their Right to earn
Higher Wages, molly-coddled
In a World that was Business-Modelled.
Fearing Technocrats, Something gave in
To Someone’s Might. He’d always win:
His was the Type that always wins.
Friends among Equals – Trash in Bins;
Victims split up in Divisions,
Output monitored, neat Excisions;
Arts and Science pushed into Sides,
Obeying the Law of Rule by Divide;
Labour cheapened by Market Forces,
Teachers turned into Slave Workhorses;
Researchers and Teachers driven apart,
No longer pulling the same Horse-cart;
Staff misused, berated, slighted,
Mocked, belittled, scorned and blighted;
Victims ill, demoralised –
All sunk in a Boat which had capsized.
Pushing on in Valiant Struggle
On and on through Techno-Muddle,
Rebels met. “Let’s wait and see
If we can save Democracy
And Learning. Let’s use Reason –
Save our Powder for next Season”
Caution said. But some fought hard –
In private Confrontations scarred.
A few with Voices wise yet sere
And genial in the Public Sphere
Cajoled and guided Timid Folk
Who sniggered at the Someone Joke
But laboured on beneath his Yoke.
Their Old Ideals were all now broken
By the Zeitgeist which had spoken,
Booming in Libraries, Labs and Rooms,
Waking the Dead in their quiet Tombs.
The Henchmen were a Motley Crew:
In their own Offal let them stew.
They rallied round to Someone’s Aid,
Sneaks in all but Name and Trade,
Fighting as Rats do when they see
Who’s Top Rat – bent on Victory
And keen to back the Winning Side.
Just watch them scuttle, watch them hide
In little Holes to squeal their Plans,
Knead his Ego, stay his Fans.
With twitchy Noses, scratchy Claws,
They scampered, smelling Victim Flaws:
Finding a tasty little Treat –
A crumb of Bread, a chunk of Meat.
They plotted and connived with him
To keep the Chances very slim
Of all who joined the Rebel Gang.
They mimicked Someone’s Techno-Slang,
Protected Someone's Might, Hell-bent
On seeing all the Funding spent
On Experts who would supervise
And modernise and monetise.
Just listen to the Someone Sound
As New Rats gather all around;
Picture their bashful flattered Faces:
Someone’s Mates in Someone’s Places,
Spattered by his Techno-Babble
Like servile Robot Rats, a Rabble
Smeared with Techno-Babble Faeces:
Higher Ed in Bits and Pieces.
Raising Funds for Something Big
Flustered Something’s Biggest Wig.
More and more he went away:
Protests clogged his vast In-Tray
But still he Micromanaged all.
He’d hesitate and stall and stall
To make quite sure that each Decision
(Reached in Style, with his Incision)
Matched his Technocratic Vision.
Henchmen learned what Top Rats do
To their own Mates, the Special Few,
And suffered just as much as those
Who fought to save what they should lose.
From Termly Meetings (timid, squealing)
Out they scuttled, Brains still reeling,
Numb to the World and Human Feeling.
Protected by his Rodent Pests
With Plaudits bearing Something Crests,
Someone was distant but still loud
In managing the Rebel Crowd
Who tried to save Democracy
In brave Attacks which all could see.
One Hero never once grew tired;
But visionary, keen and wired
Fought on with all his Might and Main
To vanquish Someone and keep sane.
The Years caught up with him at last;
He left. His Fight was in the Past.
Deserted of their Hero now
The Rebels often wondered how
They could go on. By Long Attrition
Someone withered their Ambition
To save H.E. from its Sorry Fate
And rid itself of Fear and Hate.
The Years passed. Day by Day they grew
More weary, sick of the Life they knew.
Month after Month their Numbers dwindled:
Strength-sapped, weakened, angry, swindled –
Scrutinised, looked down upon
By Someone the Panopticon.
In Ones and Twos and Threes they fled
From Mighty Someone, Something Head,
All Public Spirit drained and dead.
For years it went on thus and thus,
Most Victims silent, scared of Fuss.
H.E. succumbed: to Power it bowed.
Something survived on Meekness and
Buried its Spirit in the Sand.
But then at last, the End in Sight,
The Rebels rallied all their Might
To edge out Someone, set all right.
In his Last Quarter Someone lost
His Iron Grip – at what a Cost!
Wobbling, petulant and unstable
He still did all that he was able
To defend his Tower of Babel:
Lashed and bashed and thrashed about,
Chucking Scholar Victims out
In one last Bid to impose his Will,
Maintain his Dwindling Power still.
But now most Victims looked ahead,
Thought of a Future Life instead.
They gathered and appointed One
Who shone, eyes bright as any Sun.
Their Battle now was almost done:
Soon Glad Dawn would re-appear,
End the Night of Someone Fear.
Quiet Scholars would resume
Their work without the Thunder Boom
Of Someone’s Voice in every Room.
A new Voice could be clearly heard,
Fresh and fearless, free as a bird:
“Equal Rights for all the Scholars –
Learning for Learning’s sake, not Dollars!”
But firstly they must close the Door
On Someone Bully, Someone Bore.
The Time has come, No-one is late
Arriving on this Special Date.
Bring out the Bouncy Castle and
Loudly clap with Grateful Hands!
A Full Day of Appreciation
To mark this Glad Precipitation!
A Joyful Day to celebrate
Someone's Achievements, small and great:
A Party thrown to thank the Head –
For when all's done and all is said
He did what he was paid to do
And Loyal Henchmen keen and true
Feel much Relief to see him go
Although Departure comes so slow.
Watch them gather, met to praise
Someone's New Progressive Ways
And laud him to the Skies above
For Fundraising with so much Love.
See him crowned in the Grand Marquee,
Stuffing his Face with Cake and Tea.
Picture him quaffing Pink Champagne
And taking a Walk down Memory Lane.
Raise your Glasses, drink a Toast!
Hear Someone preen his Plumes and boast
Of Good Things done for One and All:
Not once does he hesitate or stall.
Imagine the Banquet – flowing Wine,
Guests in Multitudes, met to dine.
See them linger in Torch-lit Grottos,
Sporting their Crests and Something Mottos.
Hear the Viols tune up and sound,
Their gladsome Echoes dancing round.
Light the Fireworks, send the Rockets
Soaring for Pennies in jingling Pockets!
And when all’s over, see them huddle
To slight their Phase of Jargon-Muddle.
Good-bye, Good Riddance to Top Rat,
You beaming scheming Technocrat.
Heaving a sigh they said "That's that".
A Brave New World before them lay.
Someone slunk off. He slipped away.
It was the Dawn of Another Day.