Football has long since become an all-purpose symbol of the decadence and dysfunction of globalised late capitalist society and culture. Perhaps this is because it retains traces of its more virtuous and popular origins so we feel its transformation more keenly (plus of course there’s the Land of Cockayne where the stadiums have terraces and the lager is cheap, aka the Bundesliga, mocking us from across the Armelkanal), whereas we don’t honestly expect bankers and the like to be anything other than unscrupulous, avaricious tax evaders. So we despair over modern football because it makes us acutely aware of what has been lost in the transformation.
It’s scarcely surprising, therefore, that discussions of higher education regularly evoke modern football as their touchstone for the evils of marketisation. The publication of the latest research inquisition results (and yes, calling it the “Research Excellence Framework” is in the same class of mealy-mouthed rhetoric as calling the Third Division “League One”), with all the obsessing over positions in league tables, positively invites such comparisons. There’s even the suggestion (see for example Peter Scott’s recent article in the Grauniad) that football, or at least the idea of a games and competition, may underpin the whole enterprise: all the hype about UK research excellence in global terms echoes the ridiculous but oft-cited ideas about Britain having the Best League in the World (TM). Above all, we see the resultant competition for ‘talent’, the sums paid to poach star researchers as marquee signings for bottom of the table strugglers or to reinforce the dominance of the Big Three/Four/Six/Whatever; the advantages of the bigger enterprises and their bloated squads, since they’re not limited to just eleven players and can afford to leave a substantial percentage of the team back at the hotel and still win; the use of financial doping by mid-table departments in the hope of breaking into the champions league places and being able to pay it all back later, the decline of loyalty to departments in favour of the next pay-day while less glamorous donkeys (especially cheap younger players from abroad) do the hard work of actually teaching students, and so forth.
The usual response of academics to these developments is the university equivalent of Ron Manager’s lament for the good old days: chalk and blackboards, small tutorial groups, jumpers for goalposts and all. I think it’s more interesting to consider how much further we could go in this direction, embracing the full invigorating breeze of capitalism rather than clinging to the fusty atmosphere of a feudal mode of academic production. Take the role of agents, for example. I have the impression that a fair number of colleagues, at least of the ambitious and high-flying variety, have now acquired agents. I must admit that I’m fuzzy in the extreme as to what these people actually do – is this how one gets given a television series? – and whether it involves forced makeovers and dental work as well as a shift towards more popular and lucrative publishing opportunities. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve the sort of deal-making, contract negotiation, planting stories in the press about how unsettled their client is at their current position and so forth that seems to be so important in the world of football.
In this respect, at least, the Germans seem to be a fair way ahead of us, since it’s perfectly acceptable there to apply for other positions solely to strengthen one’s bargaining position in relation to the current contract – I do still find it remarkable that the cvs of senior academics often list the Rufs that they’ve turned down, but it’s very revealing. What’s astonishing is how much unnecessary effort then results from the pretence that this isn’t what’s really going on: a university that desperately wants to hire a replacement for a position nevertheless short-lists a load of people who have no actual intention of moving, and spends weeks or months negotiating with them until they extract the better deal from their current employer that they’ve been aiming for all along, whereupon negotiation moves on to the next person on the list, then the next, until a year or so later they finally find someone who genuinely wants the job.
The absence of agents from this set-up isn’t just a missed opportunity for extracting a bit of surplus value, it would actually make the whole thing quicker and more efficient: universities wouldn’t have to spend so much time dealing with non-serious expressions of interest, negotiations over pay and perks could be kept within bounds – and with a bit of luck, the need for publicity, for rumours and gossip to be advertised as loudly as possible (“Wantaway Prof X seen surfing the Geschichtswissenschaften section of academics.de! Is a move to Lokomotive Potsdam in prospect?”) would add to the National Fröhlichkeit. In Britain, meanwhile, the whole system is predictably founded on hypocrisy; we know that footballers are venal, vain and utterly self-interested, but want to believe that they’re really dedicated to their clubs until death or at least retirement and so get upset if they don’t play along with this illusion, let alone if they betray us by moving elsewhere for more research leave and a better library – while naturally we welcome with open arms the stars we manage to poach from others, whose dream (it turns out) has always been to participate in our research seminar. Putting the whole thing into the hands of professional deal-brokers and rumour-mongers at least can’t make things any worse…
Another area where we could learn some useful lessons from modern football is transfer fees. We know that research is a team game, in which the flashy striker with the weird hair gets to show off up front because of the hard work of everyone else – but they’re the one who gets the lucrative move just before the REF census date. Similarly, a department invests heavily in developing young talents at doctoral and ECR level, only to see it swan off elsewhere without any compensation. Departments who nurture and cosset their Nachwuchs get reputational benefit, of course – as suckers? – while those who buy in talent developed elsewhere on short-term contracts and extract as much value from it as possible, making their stars look good, can compensate for the occasional scowls and mutterings with the hard currency of success. Transfer fees, some compensation for training and investment put in by the original department, would make everyone think a bit more carefully; the usual suspects would still buy success, but they’d have to pay the feeder departments as well as the individual academics.
But why should this be confined to corporate/departmental compensation? I’m rather attracted by the idea of the acquisition of private economic rights in academics, as has become increasingly common with footballers from South America. What beleaguered fourth-year PGR or unemployed postdoc wouldn’t happily sell a stake in their entirely hypothetical future earnings, let alone a slice of their future transfer fees, for the price of next month’s electricity bill, or even an invitation to a prestigious conference? I can think of numerous cases in the twenty years of my career so far where a little investment in raw promise would already have paid off handsomely. And it’s a win-win situation; when I own 10% of Dr Y, I have every incentive to support their professional development and career path by pulling whatever strings are available. Want to guarantee that your referees are as positive and enthusiastic about you as possible, ECR people? Give them a proper stake in your future rather than relying on a vague sense of feudal or paternalistic obligation.
Mephistophles bought Faust’s soul in return for knowledge – a deal which I’m pretty sure most academics would still jump at. All I’m looking for is a small, regular contribution to help defray the costs of protection and support in the fierce, competitive world of the modern academic job market…