The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1641  Monday, 15 July 2002

From:           Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Monday, July 15, 2002
Subject:        Cultural Studies and the Battle for British Higher Education

  Monday, July 15, 2002
  Cultural Studies and the Battle for British Higher Education

This month the University of Birmingham announced that it was closing,
or restructuring, three of its departments. Given the chaotic state of
higher education in Britain, that was not surprising. But the closures
have attracted comment and opposition, particularly because one of the
units was the original program brave enough to use the term "cultural
studies" to describe its innovations in the interdisciplinary study of
media and culture. The program had played a major role in transforming
scholarship around the world, and the Birmingham brand name has remained
strong, despite increasingly virulent attacks on the academic probity
and intellectual value of studying the media and popular culture.

The decision to close the department of sociology and cultural studies
indeed reflects the sorry state of education in Britain; it is also,
however, a sign of the strength of cultural studies both there and

Founded in 1964 as the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies,
Birmingham's program was the birthplace of distinctive and pioneering
interdisciplinary approaches to the study of class, culture, and
communication. It built upon the intellectual strengths of the New Left
-- particularly in the field of history -- and drew powerful critical
energy from the social and political insurgency of the late 1960s. At
first meant exclusively for graduate students, it was started by Richard
Hoggart, whose pathbreaking 1957 study, The Uses of Literacy, focused on
the social impact on post-World War II everyday life of nascent consumer
culture, restructured gender relations, and the changing shape of
households. As those inquiries became more systematic, an emerging field
grew between the porous boundaries of the humanities and the fortified
walls of the social sciences.

This cultural studies was committed to, but not defined by, ethnographic
methods. It was engaged with, but not dominated by, structuralist and
poststructuralist approaches to language and meaning. Its innovative,
critical analyses -- particularly of deviance, youth, and broadcasting
-- helped to emancipate a desperate intellectual generation from a host
of moribund and stultifying paradigms.

Under the stewardship of Hoggart's Jamaican-born successor, Stuart Hall,
the Birmingham center became known worldwide, its work circulated in a
journal, a blizzard of stenciled working papers, and, eventually, a
series of collectively written books. At its best, such work was not
only political, committed to a nonsectarian leftist agenda, but also
grounded in educational and administrative practices that were usually
democratic. Arriving to start my own graduate work at Birmingham in the
1970s, I found the conventional university hierarchy between students
and teachers to have been deliberately recast; the privatized monastic
rules of research had been enthusiastically erased by people intent on
intellectual discovery rather than an academic career.

The original cultural-studies program created a global network of
readers and interlocutors who, no matter how far from Britain, sensed
and appreciated the unusual pedagogic circumstances in which the
center's vibrant studies were being produced. Of course, it helped that
the best work was theoretical without being theoreticist, and that it
directed scholarly attention toward areas hardly taken seriously
elsewhere as objects of sustained academic interest.

The program was merged with sociology during the 1980s, amid an earlier
phase of restructuring. The new department was required to accommodate
substantial numbers of undergraduate students, altering its orientation
accordingly. Rather than be imprisoned by the center's history, which
had oddly begun to acquire its own mythological value at that time, a
new generation of faculty members struck out into new areas: technology,
citizenship, and the environment.

Conspiracy theorists may present the Birmingham closure as a matter of
settling scores by colleagues envious of the reputation of its
cultural-studies brand; or it may be seen as belated punishment for
radicalism. Indeed, earlier incarnations of the unit had a history of
conflict with administrators who found its innovations hard to accept
and its political positions unpalatable. However, this month's
announcement has less to do with the specifically political character of
cultural studies, either in the institution or beyond, and everything to
do with immediate pressures on higher education in Britain.

It is far more accurate -- and indeed, more worrisome -- to understand
the university's actions within the current crisis of British higher
education. The symptoms are everywhere. The same week Birmingham
unveiled its decision, a prime minister who had made "education,
education, education" the clarion call of his incoming administration
was discovered to be employing private tutors to supplement the
education his teenage children were receiving at an elite state school,
thereby bolstering their prospects for Oxbridge admission. The Labor
minister for higher education, Margaret Hodge, was pressing hard for 50
percent of British schoolchildren to go on to higher education, to
produce an intellectual rather than a social elite; at the same time,
many grants have been abolished and levels of student debt are climbing

The country's older, richer, and better-established universities are
loudly pursuing a campaign to finance their operations by substantial
increases in tuition. The newer, poorer, and less-respected ones, which
have done most to widen access and make admissions more diverse,
complain that requiring them to compete for research money to finance
many of their operations is unjust and self-defeating. In the
background, damaging disputes about the whole sector's apparent
inability to address issues of institutional racism and sexism raised by
faculty members are rumbling on. Morale among the professoriate is very
low, pay and working conditions continue to decline, and higher
education faces the prospect of huge job loses in the immediate future.
The use of adjuncts and fixed-term contracts is becoming the new norm.

Despite this volatile atmosphere, the closing of the Birmingham
department seemed unlikely because it came after the unit had been
awarded maximum marks in the government's assessment of teaching. The
sociology program had also been judged, as seen in data drawn from
government tables, to be providing the best undergraduate training
available nationally. According to the market-based thinking that has
recently predominated among university managers, the department, with
student recruitment buoyant and a steady flow of graduate students and
visiting faculty members from all over the world, was clearly a success.

But the closures of well-known departments at Birmingham, the University
of Leicester, where the respected Centre for Mass Communication Research
is also being shut, and elsewhere signal the start of a concerted
attempt to reorganize higher education in Britain, in the biggest
shake-up since the transformation of the old polytechnics into new
universities a few years ago. The goal is an institutional pattern in
which a small, well-financed group of research institutions will compete
in global markets, while the task of fulfilling the government's target
of greater participation in higher education will fall upon everybody

Academic tenure was abolished in Britain during Margaret Thatcher's
early years, but there has been reluctance to sack faculty members --
well-organized and enjoying widespread student loyalty -- as part of
institutional reforms. The hand of university managers has now been
forced by the government's reluctance to finance higher education
adequately.  Restructuring, with extensive redundancies among faculty
members, is presented as the only alternative.

The rationale for closing the Birmingham department was provided by its
performance in the government's controversial Research Assessment
Exercise. Disciplinary panels read the work of faculty members in each
department. The resulting data are then used to allocate money.
Excellence in teaching does not bring equivalent financial benefits. The
overall quality of research conducted in the Birmingham department was
not felt to have been up to the level of excellence demanded by
university management. To consolidate the institution's position among
the emergent elite, administrators have decided that none of their
departments will in future be ranked at less than level 4, the benchmark
of national excellence.  Cultural studies was ranked just below, at 3a,
in 2001.

Apart from the financial inequalities of the evaluation system, other
problems with it exist. There has been, for example, inflation in the
number of institutions considered excellent, partly because some have
become adept at manipulating the procedures of assessment. The political
battle is shifting toward the principle of peer review, until now
considered fundamental. Panelists assigned to evaluate their colleagues'
work may not be willing to discharge that thankless, Herculean task if
closures and job losses are the inevitable result. Whether the unsavory
process will pass out of the hands of faculty members altogether, and
into the talons of managers, remains to be seen. The procedures for the
next round of evaluations will be available in the fall. A review of the
entire system is now under way.

As for cultural studies, far from being a symbol of the exhaustion of a
project that has run its course, the termination of the Birmingham
department might be reinterpreted as another measure of the impact of
cultural studies as a project. It's not just that the "restructuring"
proposed by the university will be easier because it is able to say that
faculty members in many other Birmingham departments and disciplines are
all now "doing cultural studies." Cultural studies, for good or ill, is
everywhere.  Its worldwide popularity marks out a deeper realignment in
the constellation of disciplines and scholarly interests. The mythic
wellspring amid Birmingham's red brick is no longer needed. The current
closures will be fought, but what is at stake in that confrontation is
the future of British higher education, not the future of cultural

Paul Gilroy is a professor of sociology and chair of African-American
studies at Yale University, and a visiting professorial fellow at
Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the author of, among
other books, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness
(Harvard University Press, 1993).


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 Copyright 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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