Voltaire once wrote “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize”. Professor of Organisation and Culture Martin Parker recently found out precisely what he meant.
I had fundamental differences of opinion with the managers of the place I used to work. After having left “University Ltd.”, I decided to outline the nature of these grievances – for whoever wanted to hear about them – by drawing upon research which I had previously conducted into the development of the UK Higher Education. The outcome of this outlining – ‘University Ltd.’ – has recently been published. You can read it, if you like, but be warned that it doesn’t really say as much as I would have liked it to have said, for reasons elaborated upon below. A much more significant story can be told about what happened behind the scenes. These, unfortunately, are precisely the sorts of things which I’ve been told I simply cannot write about. Or even mention. So much, it seems, for academic freedom!
The article in question was to have been aimed at an academic audience. By setting out to write it I wanted to contribute toward an established tradition of evaluating the sort of managerialism which has become increasingly evident within the UK education sector. For those that like their muck well raked, the piece might have come across as relatively benign. It followed established scholarly protocols, it engaged with the relevant literature on the area of concern, it provided evidence to support its central claims, it adopted full anonymity, it minded its ps and qs, and so on. The editors, for their part, liked and ultimately accepted the piece, thereby providing it with the traditional stamp of academic legitimacy: peer approval. Subsequently, however, the article was referred on to the publishers for special scrutiny, something which my three decades as a published researcher had not yet prepared me for. The publishers, in turn, referred the article onto a libel lawyer, and it was then that I started to experience the very clear yet often concealed limits of contemporary academic freedom.
I went three rounds with the lawyer and engaged in an awful lot of email discussions with the publishers. The editors of the journal were eventually told, however, that they could not publish the article. Resignations were threatened and outraged positions were taken. All of this bickering and posturing ultimately proved futile, however. Libel lawyers, instructed by Routledge, itself a division of Taylor and Francis, which is in turn a part of the publishing conglomerate Informa, were, in this instance, effectively granted the power to delineate the contours of academic freedom. I’ve come out of the episode relatively unscathed but the broader implications of it are very worrying indeed. If you seek to understand the powerful – as many social scientists do – it stands to reason that you would model your investigations less on the figure of the sycophant and more on that of the investigative journalist. Why, then, should a critical account of university managers not have seen the light of day?
The piece, as I’ve already said, eventually did come to see the light of day. It was accepted by Organization, a journal which I myself used to be the editor of. It now takes the form of a heavily anonymised piece about ‘Euro Business School’. Even here, however, there were lawyers involved and a variety of legally informed amendments were made, including a consultation with the university concerned. Read it if you want, like I said, just don’t expect too much. Colleagues still based at University Ltd., for their part, aren’t allowed to say anything at all because they have signed ‘compromise agreements’ (read: gagging clauses). Others who wanted to say something have been threatened with legal action. That I could say anything at all, it seems, marks me out as one of the lucky ones, because many others are simply not allowed to criticise at all. And this means we need to think hard about what ‘academic freedom’ means.