Thursday, 5 March 2015

The market-place university

No, this isn't about privatisation or student fees or neo-liberal economic models! It's a revelation I had about academic careers.

From as long as I can remember having views on the subject, I've been accustomed to think that getting a post as a lecturer was a bit like getting a job in a department store. (The metaphor is intentional - bear with me!). They advertised a vacancy, and if you convinced them that you would be an asset to their company and would sell their goods, they offered you a job and you became part of the team. You would teach students, you would publish work, do lots of administrative work, and that would be your career in the company. 

But recently, rather than conceiving of academia like a company that employs people, I think of it a bit more like a market where each academic is like a stallholder and the university is like the market superintendant who offers you a pitch. You have to convince the people who run the market that you have something to appropriate to sell (no good selling premium cheese in a clothes market, for example) and something which meets their standards. If they offer you a pitch it more or less guarantees you an income, but if your goods fail to sell then they can boot you off.   

Harold Gilman, Leeds Market, c.1913, oil on canvas, 51 x 61 cm, © Tate 2015
Why does this matter so much?
Well, the difference between the two models is that the second model obliges the academic to think of themselves as someone with something to sell, ie. an intellectual product. The university itself, like a market, doesn't have much to sell of its own, at least when it comes to the humanities.

If you want a career as an art historian I think you need to show you have a product and that there's a demand for it. (Yes, there are exceptions, as anyone who tutors with the Open University will be quick to point out - but I think these simply tend to prove the rule). If you're a student it helps you see that what you're getting is unique to that market and that what the stallholder sells is their own work: it's not some impersonal thing manufactured by a big corporation. A really good market will have lots of banter between stallholders, and with customers - and that's what university should be like. Stallholders will never say 'the customer is always right', whereas department stores often do - but they can afford to, since in fact there's very little to be 'right' about (ever tried negotiating the price, or asking to talk to the person who made the thing you want to buy?). The market is a louder, (usually) dirtier, more disorientating, less structured, potentially richer, and infinitely more personable experience. 

Maybe I've stretched the imagery too far. Someone may not like all the talk of 'selling', but in this case I think the metaphor holds true for art history and related subjects, and that it has always done so. 

This leads me to ask (and here I'll end) whether measures designed to stoke competition (such as the REF) alter the fundamental picture? I think not - but they certainly raise the stakes for the market superintendant and stall holders, and perhaps begin to push the market towards becoming a department stall, since they introduce the language of standardisation at the same time as claiming to increase choice, and you can't do both, surely?           

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