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Marina Warner compares UK university managers to 'Chinese communist enforcers'

Novelist and former professor in the Department of Literature, Film & Theatre Studies at the University of Essex launches a scathing attack

The chair of judges for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize has delivered a blistering broadside against her former university employers comparing higher education managers to unquestioningly obedient Chinese communist officials.

Writing in the London Review of Books, Marina Warner said she felt “pushed” into resigning her role earlier this summer as a professor in the department of literature, film and theatre studies at the University of Essex where she had taught for the past decade.

The acclaimed author and academic accused institutions of being forced into competing against each like high street supermarkets in the search for profits.

She said changes to the higher education sector had resulted in “one-size-fits-all contracts, inflexible timetables, overflowing workloads, overcrowded classes” which were harming teachers and students whilst benefiting the growing armies of administrators.

“Among the scores of novels I am reading for the Man Booker International are many Chinese novels, and the world of Chinese communist corporatism, as ferociously depicted by their authors, keeps reminding me of higher education here, where enforcers rush to carry out the latest orders from their chiefs in an ecstasy of obedience to ideological principles which they do not seem to have examined, let alone discussed with the people they order to follow them, whom they cashier when they won’t knuckle under,” she wrote.

Ms Warner, who is also a fellow of All Souls Oxford, accused Essex of becoming a “for-profit” enterprise and betraying its radical founding principles which saw it become a hotbed of counter cultural protest in the 1960s and 70s.

She said that research was no longer a guarantor of external funding and that the emphasis had been put on increasing student numbers.

“So the tactics to bring in money are changing. Students, especially foreign students who pay higher fees, offer a glittering solution,” she wrote.

Ms Warner said she eventually decided to resign after being asked to take a year’s unpaid leave when her “workload allocation” became impossible to reconcile with her outside roles, which she said she had been encouraged to accept.

“The model for higher education mimics supermarkets’ competition on the high street; the need for external funding pits one institution against another – and even one colleague against another, and young scholars waste their best energies writing grant proposals.

“Eventually, after a protracted rigmarole, I resigned. I felt I had been pushed,” she added.

“What is happening at Essex reflects on the one hand the general distortions required to turn a university into a for-profit business – one advantageous to administrators and punitive to teachers and scholars – and on the other reveals a particular, local interpretation of the national policy. The senate and councils of a university like Essex, and most of the academics who are elected by colleagues to govern, have been caught unawares by their new masters, their methods and their assertion of power,” she wrote.

A spokesman for the university said: “At the University of Essex, students are our priority and we are committed to delivering a transformational educational experience, where students are taught by the leading thinkers in their field and have the opportunity to undertake research. Excellence in education and research are our two priorities and they enjoy equal esteem.”