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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Terry Eagleton and the New College of the Humanities: a trope too far?

Back in June, in The Guardian, Terry Eagleton had a go at A.C.Grayling's New College of the Humanities. One of Eagleton's main rhetorical moves is to liken Grayling and his chums to a bunch of surgeons in the public health service downing scalpels to set up a lucrative private practice. In the popular UK consciousness, in case you are unaware, that is a clunking stereotype for Greedy and Unprincipled.

Three thoughts occur to me.

First, when I looked at the NCH website, many or most of Grayling's chums appear to be professors who have reached the age of 65 or 67 and who, as a result, have been pushed out of their chairs - like Eagleton himself when he reached 65 (Wikipedia). They just want to go on working and if their public employers will no longer have them, at the salaries they have come to expect, they will go private. No great harm there and possibly some good.

Second, it's nearly always going to be self-serving and implausible to liken yourself to a surgeon who saves lives. Most of us don't save lives; literary critics don't. In consequence, most of us have fewer and easier moral dilemmas than the person who has dedicated themselves to the scalpel. Our lives are almost certainly less meritorious - and public as opposed to private service does not automatically push us up the moral scale.

Third, most public sector surgeons also have private practices. They don't have to quit to do this. Likewise, though they generally don't realise it, successsful UK academics in public institutions also have a private practice which yields a private income additional to their salary but largely enabled by their public employment.

It works like this. As a university teacher, and according to how good you are, you are allowed time away from teaching to do research, publicly funded at your regular rate. When I was a full-time university teacher, I had about a third of my working time available for research.

If you publish your research in an academic journal, traditionally you gain no financial benefit - publisher takes all (it's a lucrative scam). But if you publish a book, you take the royalties. For most academics, these will be derisory. For a successful academic like Terry Eagleton they will be substantial. And you keep them.

This private income flow enabled by public employment does not have to be declared in the public domain and I have never seen an academic CV or website on which Royalty income is declared.

I am sure the very idea sounds tasteless and mainly because the private gain is based on public expenditure. Unlike the public surgeon who moonlights in a private practice, the academic does not even have to work extra hours, just use their allocated research time to become an effective researcher or (like Eagleton) popular writer.

Moral? There's usually a hole somewhere in a bit of worn-out rhetoric.

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