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Richard Valentine
Careers and professional development, Education, Teaching and learning

Jacob’s Ladder: facing the academic system

Richard Valentine assesses why a reform of today's academic system is needed.

03 January 2023

Children who enter the school system bring with them a naivety about the educational process: they meet its arbitrary demands with a blend of rebellion, compliance and – most subversive – a stubborn persistence in following their natural development. The very young, those of certain temperaments or those with specific challenges are harder to mould than the majority. They provide a critique of the system: it must either reject them, or adapt to their demands.

An employee who enters an organisation offers the same fresh pair of eyes to its systems and traditions: whether a young apprentice or a more experienced inductee. A wise manager listens carefully to fresh input, monitoring feedback from inductions and appraisals, which can offer a critique as valuable as that of a management consultant - and at no extra cost. The higher up the pole you climb, the more immersed you are, so it can become impossible to discern the wood from the trees.

The beginning researcher is also “up against” a larger system - not yet at home in it or taking it for granted, not yet inured to its arbitrary traditions. As with a child in a school, or a new employee in an organisation, the relative innocence of the Early Career Researcher (ECR) is a potential gift to the academy. This has often proven a fruitful encounter: in a range of disciplines, those who have come to an “insider” problem with the eyes of an outsider have come up with the most innovative solutions. As often, this potential is wasted by institutional inertia.

It is perhaps worth considering the background of these academic systems and their limits, to put the plight of the early career researcher into proper context, and to encourage the longer maintenance of that fertile “outsider perspective”. As a step towards regaining that perspective, let us reconsider the origins of the system, its circumstances and dynamics, using scholarship in the Humanities.

Adam Smith on the universities

An unlikely source of insight is the great eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith, in his account of the historical origins of the university system in which he worked. In his wide-ranging classic The Wealth of Nations, Smith narrates how European universities emerged from the medieval guilds (which he calls “corporations” and “incorporations”) and their apprenticeship system:

“All such incorporations were anciently called universities; which indeed is the proper Latin name for any incorporation whatever. The university of smiths, the university of tailors, etc., are expressions which we commonly meet in the old charters of ancient town… When those particular corporations which are now peculiarly called universities were first established, the term of years which it was necessary to study, in order to attain the degree of master of arts, appears evidently to have been copied from the term of apprenticeship in common trades, of which the incorporations were much more ancient. It was necessary to have studied seven years under a master properly qualified for him to become a master, teacher, or doctor (words anciently synonymous) in the liberal arts, and to have scholars or apprentices (words originally synonymous) to study under him.” (Smith, 1903).

The term universitas, therefore, began as an equivalent of our “union”: a legally recognised self-governing association, uniting masters and students in a “body” (corporation). Despite its misleading usage ever since, universitas had no connotation of “universality” in the object of study – such as studying “the [whole] universe”, “universal knowledge”, and so on - but had only the sense of bringing together masters and apprentices into a single organisation. A narrowing of meaning of universitas came later simply because these guilds outlasted all of the others (Curtis, 1950).

More important for our purposes, the stages of the cursus honorum or “ladder of offices”, the basic terminology of academic progression, was borrowed from this guild context. One becomes a master in the same way that a craftsman was accepted on the basis of his “masterpiece”, as one stage in the apprenticeship, after the initiation rank of bachelor and before those of doctor and professor.

What is fascinating is the extent to which the medieval guild system survived in Western universities, changing its curriculum but not altering its structures nor the vocabulary used to describe them. An eminent American scholar, a century ago, listed the “machinery of instruction represented by faculties and colleges and courses of study, examinations and commencements and academic degrees…. bachelor, as a stage toward the master-ship, master, doctors… deans… chancellors… rectors” (Haskins, 1957); and went on to comment that “The essentials of university organisation are clear and unmistakable, and they have been handed down in unbroken continuity. They have lasted more than seven hundred years - what form of government has lasted so long?”

This model was so successful that it was reproduced from its original centres at Bologna, Paris and Oxford at 1200 to become seventy European universities by 1500, with perhaps three quarters of a million total graduates by that date. It survived the revolution in information technology represented by the printing press, and enormous changes in the number and priority of the faculties and the content of curricula, to become the modern academic system of the West and through it, much of the world today (Bacon, 1973; Haskins, 1957). As European culture was exported globally, its academic system was globalised, with this medieval core preserved remarkably intact. Our global academic community, the “republic of learning” (Shaffer, 1990) that we recognise, exhibits many of the characteristics noted by Smith - including its apprenticeship model, derived from the guilds in medieval European towns.

Smith (1903) notes the very particular circumstances in which this occurred: a Europe just beginning to recover from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and developing counter-intuitively, in “unnatural and retrograde order”, economic recovery led by the towns and cities rather than by agriculture. In many ways it was a unique, unrepeatable setting which gave rise to the university model - as the guild system from which it emerged had no obvious classical precedent.

The “free-burghers or free-traders” had control of the towns or burghs, which became the bases of many future universities: Strasburg, Edinburgh, Freiburg, Marburg. Their purpose was to gain at the expense of the countryside: “break down the natural equality which would otherwise take place in the commerce which is carried on between them”, through regulated monopolies of trade (Smith, 1903). Combined with innovations in agriculture, this was so successful that most of Europe had recovered economically to a level above that enjoyed under the Empire by the year 1200, when the first recognisable universities were appearing (Haskins, 1957).

Smith’s introduction of the universities is in the context of his scathing attack on the monopolistic tendencies of the guilds, which extended the lengths of unpaid apprenticeships in order to raise the price of education, reducing the number of trained workers, and thus reducing competition - in the interest of the providers, not that of the public. His argument is that higher education, at its origin, continued this monopolistic practice, just another example of “the corporation spirit, the jealousy of strangers, the aversion to take apprentices, or to communicate the secret of their trade… they engross the employment but reduce the whole manufacture into a sort of slavery to themselves”. And as he has implied in our first quotation, the universities were in fact the most lasting and successful example of such guild monopolies down to his own day.

Smith’s text is especially valuable as an insight into this development, because it comes just before a major rethink and reform of the system, provoked by the Enlightenment of which he was a part. Smith gives an insightful analysis and an insider’s voice - a cross-section of the system just before it entered modernity.

Yet Smith’s insights have more than a historical interest: he presented them in true Enlightenment fashion as revealing “original principles of human nature” and indeed independent historical data supports his institutional analysis. The scientific historian G.E.R. Lloyd (2009), in a summative study of global institutions of higher education and training, reaches exactly the same conclusions as Smith, noting “the observed tendency to form closed shops, to resist change, to block innovation”, often using “long apprenticeships”.  Smith’s diagnosis of the universities in his day is one example of a general tendency: “The effect of elite influence may sometimes be not to stimulate and to provide a framework for further development, but rather to restrict it, not to encourage innovation, but to block it.” Especially relevant are the implications of Lloyd’s findings for trainees and apprentices:

“But the key question for the way the elite operates is this. Once accepted, will the new recruits be allowed their heads, and encouraged to innovate in their turn, or will they be expected to conform to the existing rules, and practise the subject in the ways already laid down?... Again, when an elite feels the need to control access to its membership to preserve its monopoly status and indeed its economic position, it may be reluctant to accept that its knowledge claims are subject to revision.” (Lloyd, 2009)

This is not dissimilar to ancient accounts of the rise and fall of kingdoms and republics: a heroic stage, in which human collaboration is fruitful, in an arc that ends with decadence and decline (Aristotle, 1981). This is a familiar observation; why should this not also apply to the universities? What Smith shows us, then, is the fixed tendency within all institutions to monopoly and stagnation, in the interests of a self-defining elite. He focuses on businesses and their manipulation of law, moving from the guilds in the medieval towns to multinational companies in world trade; but his narrative has included a telling account of the origins of the European higher education system as a corporation like any other, and he argues that its labour market is subject to the laws of supply and demand.

By Smith’s own day, what had begun as a policy of monopoly to sustain prices and maintain revenue in higher education, had mixed with a policy of glutting the labour market. This was an accidental and unforeseen consequence of “the piety of private founders”, creating an unnecessary number of trained clergy: “the church being crowded with people who, in order to gain employment, are willing to accept of a much lower recompense than what such an education would otherwise have entitled them to” (Smith, 1903). This oversupply depressed wages, but also spilled over into creating a scholarly class: “that unprosperous race of men commonly called men of letters… their numbers are everywhere so great as commonly to reduce the price of their labour to a very paltry recompense… Before the invention of the art of printing, a scholar and a beggar seem to have been terms nearly synonymous.” Some of our ECRs can relate to that! While faculty and staff continued to benefit from the old economics of monopoly and accumulation, those without tenure lived the economics of market saturation.

The logic of saturation is export, and many emigrated to shape the new USA, including Thomas Paine, James Wilson, John Witherspoon and Robert Morris. Others stayed in Europe to live by their pens as philosophes or “men of letters”: in this sense, the Enlightenment was staffed by unemployed clergymen. Such “philosophers, or men of speculation” Smith considers a legitimate division of labour within an advanced society and one form of fixed national capital. In one sense, just as unproductive as “players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers,” they also have a unique social role “to observe everything… combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects”, and Smith of course demonstrates the value of this expert role with his text.

His Prussian contemporary Immanuel Kant, a great fan and a careful reader of Smith’s work, considered philosophers to have a natural legislative role in a society, advising the government on policy and calling it to account; and like Smith, he demonstrated this essential role in practice with his publications (Kant, 1992; 1996).

These scholars were both tenured professors, but Kant allows for the class of “scholars at large… living, so to speak, in a state of nature so far as learning is concerned, each working by himself, as an amateur and without public precepts or rules, at extending and propagating [his field of] learning” (Kant, 1992). This group outside the university system had of course been hugely influential in the eighteenth century: Smith’s friend David Hume, living from his pen, had influenced both Smith and Kant profoundly, as had the Swiss J-J. Rousseau, a composer and writer, never employed by any university yet discussed by them endlessly. We will return to this category of “wild scholars” in our final section.

Voices from the ladder

Armed with this framework – historical, economic, sociological – let us listen to the voices of ECRs and those climbing the ladder in that direction. To this end, I interviewed a group of postgraduates and postdocs, at various stages on the ladder and in a variety of disciplines, in whose trajectories I had been involved as a mentor and occupational profiler. These were studying at MA, MPhil, PhD and postdoctoral levels in UK institutions, mostly in the Humanities. I used a semi-structured interview format - and here, with their permission, I use their exact quotations.

There was a clear sense of increasing difficulties as they ascended the ladder: “The transitions get harder and harder, and self-doubt increases.” The crucial transition is of course from PhD to postdoctoral status. All testified that universities encourage recruitment at a Masters level to increase revenue, and that they recruit almost as enthusiastically, but with more consistent warnings about future career prospects, to PhD programmes; but that most do not give sufficient cautions beyond this about the difficulties of postdoctoral existence, partly because the labour market is changing rapidly.

One PhD student, looking ahead to postdoctoral status, noted: “I hear a lot of academic complaints through Twitter… They are always complaining about the lack of permanent positions, and how they never know where the next source of funding is coming from or where the next position will be. This is probably a legitimate grievance.” One postdoc confirmed this strongly: “But as for next steps (my job finishes in October), it is always an uphill struggle. You can’t really talk about ECRs without mentioning the word ‘precarity’. Many of us feel that we’re not even invited into a genuine apprenticeship, because we are not guaranteed a definite outcome.” The sharp historic division in the economics of academia which we have traced above, between the security of faculty and insecurity of the rest, appears to persist; the latter still due to supply exceeding demand.

As one interviewee explained, “universities really need PhD students. You can't have a thriving research culture from salaried academics alone: you need a graduate school, and specifically research students. This is why, whenever in the Humanities someone wants to start a new field or sub-discipline, you start by founding a new MA, from which you hope to attract a few PhD students.” As one young academic ruefully admits: “It is often noted that universities are very good at creating new programs and very bad at closing old ones… faculties and university administrations…tolerate lesser academic quality or mediocrity, squandering institutional resources that could usefully be applied elsewhere.” A postdoc observed: “few PhDs will get permanent academic jobs and careers. The ‘arc’ is therefore changing, and people who enrol on a PhD now mostly do so in the dark, not knowing where they will land at the end of it… A very few are lucky enough to jump straight into permanent academic jobs…The newly qualified PhD student is up against existing postdocs who may have been out of their PhD for up to 10 years and still haven't got a permanent job… temporary, fractional contracts are often taken by more established postdocs, meaning that getting your foot on the first rung of the ladder is the hardest.” Here we have a recognisable similarity to Smith’s “unprosperous race of men… their numbers are everywhere so great as commonly to reduce the price of their labour to a very paltry recompense.” Rather than low wages, the effect of the recruitment dynamics is job insecurity, an academic gig economy.

It seems that in order to guarantee and increase their revenue, universities are recruiting more Postgraduate students than they could possibly accommodate - using Masters programmes to create PhD programmes, if our postdoctoral ECR above is correct. This is fine if the majority are content to take their doctorates out into industry and services; and there are warnings of limited prospects in the academic job market beyond the PhD.

For those who desire to proceed, however, this disparity can be discouraging: “By the time they are an ECR they are very much an insider, although they can still feel on the margins, which is why it can be so frustrating and painful. Precarity is the key word here – short-term, part-time contracts. No security.”, as remarked by the young academic.  On the one hand, “no one told them academia was a cushy path – in my opinion you get to study the thing you love for a living, and the downside is that the Government isn’t thrilled about paying you to do this at tax-payers expense.” On the other hand, there are “More snakes than ladders, and far too many of us turn into crabs, scuttling sideways through the university rather than on an upward trajectory.” (I used this image in the poem.) One postdoc agreed strongly with the proposition: “When you need the system, it is not as friendly as when the system needs you”.

The university system has often been tough with regard to the transition to permanent employment: it is nothing new. It may be cold comfort for our struggling ECRs, but in the biographies of many German academics there is a grim, often long-lasting stage as a Privatdozent, an unpaid lecturer, awaiting a secure appointment. The same dynamics are at work, because the same foundations persist. The sharp division in economics of the academy we have traced, from earliest origins to the eighteenth century in Smith’s analysis, seems to be a fixed feature: security is only for the faculty.

Turning to the faculty - the rung of the ladder above the temporary ECR level – we reach the central interest group, whose agenda shapes the whole system. “In many ways the university is still a privileged and cushioned world, immune to some external pressures and worries.” This quotation from a struggling ECR could be put down to the politics of envy, were it not that academics agree (Turner, 1996): “Faculties for their part criticise the operational side of the university… but rarely their own educational activities… they expect the non-university world and outside donors to pay for educational inefficiency.” The undergraduate courses often become distorted by the research interests of faculty members - effectively kicking away the lowest rung of the ladder they themselves have climbed, by failing to offer the coherent general overviews younger students need (Turner, 1996). I certainly found, when mentoring undergraduates at both Oxford and Cambridge, that I often had to supplement their syllabus with such narrative overviews - and they came to me for just this. We have already noted similar dynamics with postgraduate programmes. As an academic confesses, this problem “is led not by the weakest educational institutions but by the allegedly most outstanding.” UK and US elite provision has converged in these respects.

Another theme which emerged was the acknowledgement that the system favours some over others. One doctoral student acknowledged his advantage: “private school is the perfect preparation for university… Not only is the teaching excellent, but there is a social expectation that many (though not 100%) will go on to Russell Group universities, with Oxbridge being the top prize.” This student, in fact, had significant mental health struggles at Oxford, but did not attribute these to either his schooling or his university setting: he also had the advantages of fundamentally fitting in, matching his environment closely: “straight, white, privileged males (and females too) like me abounded.”

Others may feel the challenges of the ECR more keenly: “I was also educated in a public school, but have never had the kind of confidence I see in straight, white, independently educated males. To go through such a system virtually unchallenged or unphased in your sense of self must mean you have a wall of self-confidence that perhaps makes you unaware that life can be different for others, even inside the same system… I have written as someone who feels very much on the margins of the system - intellectually, politically, spiritually, and financially. If these shift, I may start to feel a greater sense of belonging.” The point is that economic insecurity can be easier to bear in the absence of other, independent experiences of exclusion.

More encouragingly, there is a vital role for those traditionally disadvantaged by the system as role-models for others. A Psychology Masters student wrote: “It flew in the face of everything I'd been told to expect - here he was, this reassuringly normal good-natured gay man who would perch on the edge of a desk to tell us some scandalous story or other about what he'd been up to, in a broad northern accent… To come across him when I was a new student, thinking that I was too young and too undereducated and too queer to ever succeed in academia or my profession, it was a life-changing experience. To have that support that he offered the whole class, and the most warm, generous, understanding one-to-one support and attention that he gave me, it changed my whole view of what I could be. It's because of him that I'm now working on my own research, in my free time, and see a place in that world for me.” Will such optimism survive further up the ladder?

Every interviewee who addressed the issue noted that those “one step up the ladder” were (normally) the best role-models, the most relatable and most sympathetic.

Quo Vadis?

Given the historical framework and contemporary testimony gathered here, it is pertinent – if daunting - to ask ourselves what conclusions can be drawn. At what point are we in the cycle of growth, decadence and decline in our current system of higher education? Is this cyclical pattern a reliable premise? Is there sufficient continuity in the system of higher education to apply such a premise? Given the current revolution in information technologies, can we draw lessons from a previous revolution in information technologies, for universities today?

Let us attempt to answer these connected questions by starting from the last.

Half way between the first development of the universities and today, Francis Bacon (1973) offered a stirring and influential critique of the state of higher education at England’s only two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, mainly in terms of the curriculum: “For why should a few authors stand up like Hercules’ columns, beyond which there should be no sailing or discovering?” This favourite trope of the recent breakthroughs in navigation, which were opening Europe to East and West, he placed alongside the recent invention of the printing press, as a revolution in information technology, as twin invitations to “a third visitation” of learning which “will far surpass that of the Grecian and Roman learning.” In Smith’s analysis (1903) “the invention of the art of printing” had boosted the fortunes of scholars, given the glut of labour he describes and the lack of access to a foreign labour market. As it was, a new source of home income and a gate to foreign expression both opened at once, with press and travel respectively.

It is not difficult to argue that we are in a comparable situation today, with our current revolution in communication technology through online learning and a global labour market – although these are, in practice, almost the same thing.  Our own glut of scholars, attained through different means, can spill over into an army of online tutors, for example, or move into new international labour markets. The options for the struggling ECR are considerably increased by these factors.

In terms of online learning, our backstory reminds us that universities started not as places, but as teams: teams of instructors united with teams of learners, universitas magistrorum et scholarium, associations of masters and students. They can get back to basics, stripping away the college and campus. Once, the “faculty” meant simply the capacity to teach a subject or a group of subjects in a functional sense, before it denoted the collegium of teachers as persons (Curtis, 1950). It was also primarily defined by this function of teaching, not that of research (Turner, 1996).

The internet, like the printing press, is having a harrowing effect upon the academic system. The ladder upon which the ECR stands, having ascended the cursus honorum (“ladder of offices”) of BA, MA, MPhil and PhD which goes back to the universitas of the thirteenth century, and looking up towards reader, professor, dean and rector or vice-chancellor, is looking unsteady, its foundations less firm than in previous centuries, its structure less rigid and its physical setting less assured. Yet the very fact that this system has passed through information technology revolutions before and adapted successfully, suggests that it can once again (Turner, 1996).

The transition which the cursus honorum represents, from student to teacher, listener to speaker, reader to writer, is affected significantly by the internet. In terms of access to information and access to “the tradition”, learning resources have developed in terms of proliferation and sophistication in such a way that the role of the teacher has shifted closer to that of a research supervisor. The distinction of reader and writer, learner and teacher, becomes more fluid, as both roles are magnified: the reader’s level of activity and control increases as does the virtual presence of the writer. The rungs of the ladder become less distinct with this technology, as a taught course blurs into a research project (Turner, 1996). Today’s ECR, therefore, inherits a new context as exciting as it is bewildering.

At the last such juncture, Bacon (1973) called for “more intelligence mutual between the universities of Europe than there now is” as a shared learning enterprise. His call was heard, and his project snowballed to become the Enlightenment. The obvious globalising tendency of the internet takes this to a new level with “a new kind of collegiality” more like a voluntary association (Turner, 1996). The advent of the open access online conference resembles the public disputations of the thirteenth century universitas, which anyone could attend (Grant, 1996). Faculty mingles with students at all levels and the interested public: the only qualification is a sufficient knowledge of the subject matter and of its literature to contribute.

An effect of this is an enormous boost to interdisciplinarity. The technology is not only pooling people: it is pooling subjects, blurring institutional partitions. The ECR, accustomed to the narrowing ladder of specialisation imposed from the top, can step from one ladder to another, or precariously straddle several. If “the university as a place is disappearing”, so are the department and the faculty, losing their monopolistic grip which so distorts teaching and learning. Modern universities - “which have become holding companies” for disparate elements - can less fully inhibit that “connected view or grasp of things” that all advocate in principle and undermine in practice (Turner, 1996). This can only help ECRs.

In terms of authority to teach, you have to start somewhere: a new bishop is not consecrated for a new denomination but someone has to assume the role; similarly, the first professors could not, by definition, be formally qualified; and in fact, there have always been amateur appointments by merit, and honorary professorships, within the complexity of the university system. Losing control of book publication, following the invention of the printing press, unsettled the structure of authority in a similar way. Moving learning online already involves a similar ambiguity: as many were indignant at unqualified authors, without an official authority, following the invention of the printing press, so now we face a comparable crisis, destabilising the assumptions of the established system (Turner, 1996).

This is precisely what happened in the early modern period, when universities were dominated by one classical school: that of Aristotle. They had been born as part of the “twelfth century Renaissance” when these texts were brought to Western and Northern Europeans from the Arab world: therefore, the schools which became the early universities were dominated by the great Aristotle’s system (Haskins, 1957). By the seventeenth century this long marriage of the universities as institutions to a particular “school” had become stifling - despite attempts at internal renewal - and modern science was born of the rebellion against this, inspired by Bacon’s (1973) judicious assessment of its strengths and weaknesses.

The two English universities did not heed his call, and remained in a decadent and declining state, fertilised from outside by fresh foundations: by the Royal Society and its imitators, the Royal Society of Arts, various regional societies, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the Scottish universities and foundations which became the colleges of the University of London (Turner, 1996). We have seen that Kant (1992) allowed for a category of “scholars at large, who do not belong to the university but simply work on part of the content of learning… forming independent organisations, like various workshops (called academies or scientific societies)”. It is likely - given his passion for all things British - that Kant partly had in mind British scientists and “men of letters”.

The university system endured not only the invention of the printing press, but this more recent assault. The internet is reviving this Enlightenment culture of the amateur scholar, so important to the renewal of higher education. Just as the early Enlightenment was driven by the Royal Society and its imitators, in France the coffee houses and salons formed the “common rooms” of such non-university research. The profusion of journals then reflects the websites of today.

Here we return to Kant’s wild scholars, the second category of scholars at large “in a state of nature so far as learning is concerned, each working by himself, as an amateur and without public precepts or rules, at extending and propagating [his field of] learning” (Kant, 1992). We have noted that university life, in the age of Bacon and his followers, as well as Smith and Kant, was fertilised, energised and transformed by such scholars. Kant (1992) called them zunftfreie Gelehrte, guild- free scholars, recognising their status with respect to the university system; his successor J.G. Fichte saw the vocation of des Gelehrten as “the educator of mankind” (Fichte, 1997). The Latin for such learned folk, clericus became Klerisei in Kant and “clerisy” in Coleridge (Shaffer, 1990), inheriting the mantle of the philosophes and Aufklärer (enlighteners) as secular equivalent of the clergy. ECRs, with other academics, have the advantage of knowledge which qualifies them as informed teachers.

Two centuries ago there was a major re-examination of the model, inspired by Kant’s writings about the university, by the revolution in France and the birth of the USA, which slowly affected British and American universities (Shaffer, 1990). The new model in Berlin - the origin of the modern PhD - was particularly important for the faculties of arts, just as the French reforms following the Revolution had deep effects on the new faculties in the natural sciences (Turner, 1996). Eventually Oxford and Cambridge responded, though not until well into the twentieth century.

A genuinely competitive online market can circumvent the restrictions of the guild: the qualifications can become knowledge and availability, “knowing one’s stuff” and teaching skills, rather than formal qualifications. This is, of course, a precarious situation, and so it was when the press was invented. Ignorance and crank theories can be spread as easily as understanding – perhaps more easily. The universities, as then, can act as depositories of reliable canons of learning and criteria of judgement; but they can also, as then, filter and slowly respond to the changing world outside their walls. They are powerless to hold it back.

The “decreased institutional loyalty” (Turner, 1996) of today’s online learning communities provides the increased competition which Adam Smith saw as the antidote to the spirit of monopoly, and the new market which is the natural antidote for a glut of labour. This is the context for today’s ECRs. As in the ‘state of nature’ to which Kant alludes, there is a relative anarchy. But if the university system is as my interviews suggest, this is also a form of anarchy – perhaps even a worse one, in that it is coupled with the illusion of government. A reform is needed and this will include listening to those who are newest to the system - ECRs. A model which has survived the invention of printing, the end of feudalism and democracy is surely capable of adapting again. We can repair the ladder.

Around a 25-year career in school-teaching, Richard Valentine has continued to publish articles, essays and policy pieces, profiling and mentoring young professionals using psychometrics, and developing online education. He is now working with publishers on several book-length projects, while running online seminars in a variety of disciplines. He lives in Cumbria.

‘My poem is intended as equivalent to the article, saying the same thing but directed to functions of metaphor and suggestion, rather than more prosaic processing with literalism, models and sequences. Thus, it deliberately overlays three sequences: the academic cursus honorum (the ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ of the article), the ages of the university from its foundations to today, and the metaphor of cosmic ascent, central to the Western poetic tradition. There is an irony in this proposal, matching the disenchanted spirit of the last poetic stage. The prose quotations mark out the historical periods and the stages of the psychological journey – the macrocosm and the microcosm – but these also create a simple visual effect as ‘rungs’ of the ladder. I have attempted to imitate the style of each poet and period, from Dante’s terza rima and obsessive visualisation to Coleridge’s queasy existential questioning, and early Eliot’s resigned bathos.’


‘According to Ptolemy and Christian truth, there are nine moving heavens, and according to received astrological wisdom, those heavens affect us here below in proportion to their workings among themselves.’       Dante, La Vita Nuova

I saw a stair, and from its lowest tread

Counted upon it creatures of my own kind

Like a murmuration, on each level spread;


And all were dancing upward, intertwined,

Iridescent, as cross-embroidered hems are hooked

Or sides on a trout with shimmering scales are lined.


Each stair shone bright; it struck me as I looked

From rung to rung, this shining ladder seemed

To overleap a chasm – to have brooked


Wide cataracts, up to where the sky is beamed.

The voices of the ever-murmuring throng

Redounded, as if a sunrise over a still ocean gleamed.


And over all this bustle I heard a song

Leaping down each stage to rinse the ear:

Each phrase, caught briefly, in my ear lingered long


Like a spring dew; I could not but shed a diamond tear,

Overwhelmed at all my ear and eye absorbed.

Yet in my heart was peace; I knew no fear.


‘The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. When Jacob waked out of his dream, he said, ‘God is here, and I wist it not. How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and the Gate of Heaven.’’

Thomas Traherne, Centuries

I sought to tread upon the stair

With trembling step – I stood on air!

I found the steps were forged of gold

From melted trinkets, dearly sold,

Yet gold of such an aerial quality

It barely grip’d, nor jarred the knee.

So high I step’d upon this course

I rose from bare wish, not from force.

To mount by thought! A thought so strange

As it appeared I did exchange

My Spanish boots for wingéd heels.

And thus, perhaps, the salmon feels

When he the nimble angler reels.


‘…for this is proof of the essential vitality of nature, that she does not ascend as links in a suspended chain, but as the steps in a ladder…and expands as the concentric circles on the lake from the point at which the stone in its fall had given the first impulse.’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Towards a Theory of Life


I kicked away the ladder; I had gained

A purchase, while others upward toiled.

To rest upon the level I had attained

Seemed best; but gnawing heat my heart embroiled.

I kicked away the ladder; I had lost

All purchase: kicking out, my foot found air!

I’d purchased height, but had not seen the cost.

I grasped above me: and would I tumble there?

‘But here upon the earth you have the reward of the good and ill that was done by those who have gone before you. / And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in humble repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers.’

T.S. Eliot, Chorus from ‘The Rock’

There is no curse that lights on those

Without breath, without light, embalmed

Secure in aspic.           Will they cry for me?


A crab that scuttles in the interleaving light

Beneath the waves, knowing its enemies,

Hoarding its treasure. Is there none for me?


This is the fate: there is a magnetic strengthening

Behind the veil of Aurora, lengthening

The rainbow, brightening.      There is some for me.

‘Jacob the patriarch saw the ladder highest rungs / attain that height when, teeming with / a throng of angels, it appeared to him. / But no one bothers now to raise his foot / up from the earth to climb those rungs’   Dante, Paradiso

Key Resources

Aristotle (1981). The Politics. Penguin.

Bacon, F. (1973). The advancement of learning. Everyman.

Curtis, S. J. (1950). A Short History of Western Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Macdonald.

Fichte, J. G. (1997). Some lectures concerning the scholar’s vocation (4th Lecture). In: R. Bubner (Ed.), German Idealist Philosophy (pp. 121-168). Penguin.

Grant, E. (1996). The foundations of modern science in the Middle Ages: their religious, institutional and intellectual contexts. Cambridge University Press.

Haskins, C. H. (1957). The rise of universities. Cornell University Press.

Kant, I. (1992). The conflict of the faculties (M. Gregor, Trans.). University of Nebraska Press.

Kant, I. (1996). Practical philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Kuehn, M. (2001). Kant: a biography. Cambridge University Press.

Lloyd, G. E. R. (2009). Disciplines in the making: cross-cultural perspectives on elites, learning, and Innovation. Oxford University Press.

Shaffer, E. S. (1990). Romantic philosophy and the organization of the disciplines: the founding of the Humboldt University of Berlin. In: A. Cunningham & N. Jardine (Eds.), Romanticism and the sciences (pp. 38-54). Cambridge University Press.

Smith, A. (1903). An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Routledge.

Turner, F. M. (1996). The idea of a university. Yale University Press.*

*Newman’s text, but I have referenced Turner and his team’s articles in commentary, almost exclusively.