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Keith Hart on the British university system

4 May 2018

Keith Hart wrote in his Letter from Europe, December 2004 in Anthropology Today about how much the university system in England had changed from 1969 when he received his doctorate and the present day.

Drawing a line through the labour upheavals off the Thatcher regime, Hart traces the course of how neoliberal economics affected universities.

A revolution from above, combining artificial markets and bureaucratic interference, has descended on the universities. Successive governments, faced with a cash shortage, wanted to concentrate spending in the best places. This meant destroying the myth that all British universities were alike and equal. The autonomy of university lecturers, who now earned less than schoolteachers, was further reduced by setting them in fierce competition with each other. The method used to audit academic performance is like painting the Forth Bridge: as soon as one exercise is completed, another is on its way.

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The combination of mad bureaucratic directives and expanded enrolments has broken the moral commitment of university teachers to their calling. A radical differentiation has taken place, with established individuals enjoying enhanced rewards and freedom, while upcoming scholars have been reduced to performing casual labour with no long-term prospects.