In my teens, I had an idealised view of university life, knowing, as did most of my peers, that we would be lucky ever to experience it at first hand. That said, some of us managed to get to the newer redbrick universities while most went to the then polytechnics or, in my case, to technical college and thence to art school. It was not until many years later that I came to realise how much had changed: my daughters and their friends talked quite naturally about going to “uni” as if it were the norm which indeed it was for them. And so, in due course, off they went to study for degrees and did satisfyingly well in their chosen subjects. I was torn between pride at their achievement and jealousy at their opportunity.
I worked at a polytechnic until it became a university. Then I carried on working and puzzled that nothing appeared to have changed except for the letterhead. Some of the new universities adopted practices and standards that were appropriate to their new status but, sadly, others – mine included – did not. We still had much the same staff and the same courses but suddenly we had become something different, something greater and, remembering the exclusivity of my teens, I was proud of my new status as a university employee. When my own children went to university, I was equally proud of their achievements at “proper” universities and it so was not until some years later that a worm of doubt began to gnaw away at my certainties. I don’t have a degree myself and I was astonished when the university for which I worked appointed me as a senior lecturer and course leader. To a certain extent, this was disingenous since I had long argued for the recognition of experiential qualification as the equal of academic certification. Finally it seemed that my battle for recognition had been won and I had a career as a university lecturer, something I had never thought possible in even my wildest imaginings.
My employer was not a good one and we had a number of conflicts over the years but it was only in the last years before my retirement that I came to realise that I had grounded my career in an illusion: what I had accepted as being a university was, in truth, no such thing. The very fact of my own appointment served to confirm the absence of sufficient academic gravitas and, as the recession of the so-called “noughties” began to bite, from the casual way in which management allowed successive disciplines to be hung out to dry and allowed to wither and die, it became increasingly apparent that my university had no real committment to scholarship or to anything that the teenage me would have recognised as the qualities or standards of a real university.
Philosophy as a study has always eluded me: abstract cognition is not my forte and I struggle with obscure terminology. One thing I knew with certainty however was that real universities did philosophy and that it informed the entire process by which students acquired, consolidated and applied their learning. Consciously or not, it was a key part of undergraduate life and no subject could be studied at degree level without it. So when my university abruptly closed its philosophy department, I realised that the game was up: it had abandoned a key component that gave it its academic qualification and, in so doing, had ceased to be a university in anything but name.
And of course that was it for my academic career: while it may have been real and have felt substantial for a time (by now I had a commissioned book and other scholarly works to my name), all of this had been bestowed upon me under false pretences by a charlatan organisation that had no intellectual or academic right to do so. I was de facto exposed as a fraud, an imposter and, in due course, as my university retreated headlong from any semblance of academic integrity, I could continue the charade no longer. As managers twisted the truth and denied the reality of the situation by refusing to listen to anything not glowingly positive and confirmatory, it became increasingly apparent to me that things were no longer (to use a hated piece of management-speak) sustainable.
As luck would have it, I was just old enough to retire so that’s what I did. The good news is that my conscience is now clear and that I no longer have to lie to prospective students about their academic future. I sat here earlier today and watched the riots outside Parliament over the latest increase in tutition fees and reflected to myself that, if those rioters knew the half of it, the mounted police that charged them wouldn’t stand a chance against their fury.