All Roll Over and None Fall Out

By Ansgar Allen

The academy is beset by a survival ethos. Convinced of its value and importance, the university perpetuates itself before all else: accumulating reserves, wooing government and business, securing its market share.

For its workforce mere compliance no longer suffices. Employees must remain outwardly positive, pushing themselves to exceed expectations, even as the latter change from year to year. They must fall in step, adopting the mixed ethos – of opportunistic expansion, ruthless pragmatism and outward-facing optimism – that makes the university a university today.

Amid so much forced positivity, there is an undercurrent of cynicism. A little grumbling about work is permissible, if it remains under wraps. Whatever happens, the academy will make the best of a bad situation, and so must we, knowing the university will do all it can to sustain itself through these ‘dark times’.

Embattled as it may feel – facing ill-thought immigration policy one moment, a new teaching excellence framework the next – there are battles that can be won, and battles that should never be attempted. These, so it goes, are fights we would inevitably lose. The prudent academic, like the prudent institution calculates in this way, only ‘championing’ causes that stand a chance of success.

Otherwise we adapt, taking the initiative on initiatives we would rather not be faced with in the first pace. Having influence so as to attenuate the influence of things we would rather not impose. These are the benefits of determined positivity, of turning away from flat refusal or pursuit of alternative. To have a voice, to participate in events: play the game, and do so well.

Effectively, if all roll over, none fall out. This, to adapt a childhood song, becomes the ideal of contemporary academia. It underpins the ‘kindest’ of institutions. It is the logic of places that define themselves against the nastiness of academic life, always more prevalent on some campus elsewhere. “You think things are bad here? Just look what’s happening to them, over there.”

If we roll over, we have some sway over events, perhaps not setting the agenda, but carrying it out with a little more humanity. None fall out, or at least none ought fall out in places such as these, where collegiality holds us together through fractious times. Admittedly some academics fall through the cracks. Some are even driven out by conditions of work or otherwise. That is unfortunate. But friendship – as our vice chancellor recently told us – is our best hope. We must adjust, but remain as one.

Recent, and ongoing strike action may struggle to escape this way of thinking. It mobilises a similar belief in the value of the contemporary university, one that is unflagging in its commitments. However gloomy we may become, however militant our opposition to certain university practices may be, we cannot abandon our commitment to it. We are bound to our employer by our belief in education.

Academics may fail to ‘roll over’ on this particular campaign – we shall see. But whatever happens they will still believe the academy can sustain itself largely through compliance. Its members will keep rolling over on numerous other day-to-day issues judged ‘unwinnable’. The university must not be seen to fall out with its constituency – its fee-paying students, business partners, and research beneficiaries. Production must continue, as co-production if necessary. Few escape this relentless will to production, where the primary mission of the university is to produce itself.

Yet falling out happens, and failure too. Our challenge, it strikes me, is to become better at falling out, failing, and fighting lost causes. We become more resistant thereby, to an institution that functions by mobilising our positivity.

Ansgar Allen is Lecturer in Education at the University of Sheffield. He tweets @AnsgarAllen.

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