My Ten-Year Undercover Assignment at one of Britain’s “Top” Universities

Secret Agent

I’ll never forget the day I was invited, at my convenience, to meet my work sponsor and discuss an undercover assignment. It was my third year at Soliton – by common consent the world’s best employer, and I’d never felt so useful or emboldened in my working life.

Jonty didn’t have an office to visit, because the notion of a “boss” – a person to whom one showed deference, was antithetical to the company’s self-effacing, egalitarian ethos. Consequently, he would not claim any space that supported a hierarchical structure.

Soliton had built its reputation on a series of philosophical experiments that had sought to upend centuries of conventional wisdom. That day I’d worked hard for the four hours I’d identified as my optimal period of productivity. I’d started the day with pool and porn, in keeping with the research that showed a rested brain fired harder when primed. I’d set my fair pay salary level for the month ahead – linked to ambition and personal living costs. I’d added to the online work repository – the innovation that eliminated 95% of meetings. Indeed, virtual working was the norm not the exception, allowing Soliton employees to live anywhere in the world, maximising our purchasing power. My afternoon had ended with a submission to the brain trust database. If my ideas were adopted, and they frequently were (a real confidence booster), my live C.V was automatically updated and I received an employee premium – the bonus for furthering the intellectual life of the organisation. I was fulfilled but tired, and I had no idea what Jonty was about to propose.

‘Ed, we’re commissioning a major piece of research on Higher Education. I’m sure you’ve read the whistleblower pieces in the broadsheets. These institutions are allegedly ridden with elitism, bullying, sexism, corruption, virtue signalling initiatives, and cronyism.’ I said I was aware of it, and was thankful I’d never have to work in such a place. I valued my mental health. ‘Well, that’s what I wanted to talk you to about,’ he said.

His proposal, which was extraordinary, was that in return for a generous stipend from the company and perks – including free travel to, and accommodation at Las Vegas casinos, I’d work for one of London’s “top” universities for ten years. My skill level would be downgraded, in line with the values that informed the pay scales and opportunities in less enlightened organisations, and I’d be passed around low ranking roles in this so-called intellectual powerhouse’s departments and divisions. ‘It will be a culture shock,’ he said, ‘but your experiences will allow us to remain vigilant in our practices and ensure we remain the world’s most loved employer. We’ve commissioned parallel studies in public sector organisations that profess to be serving the greater good. Melissa’s starting police training this week, and Sanjiv’s joining Camden Council.’

The company’s ethos had inculcated a strong sense of public duty, so I was prepared to suffer for this landmark study of a degenerate work environment. ‘I warn you,’ said Jonty, stuffing a £250 John Lewis voucher into my top pocket, ‘our intelligence suggests you’ll have a tough time there. We’ve had reports of lazy and self-serving management, people promoted way beyond their abilities, the conspicuous and shameless protection of privilege in working practices and seniority at the expense of the low paid and unconnected, rank hypocrisy, incompetence, systemic corruption, illegality, sexual impropriety, social stratification – that is, an apartheid between academics and the people that work for them, an incomprehensible set of internal strategies and initiatives designed to vouchsafe non-jobs and create promotion opportunities for the management class – that’s materially motivated people with personality disorders, the Kafkaesque treatment of kind and rational people who challenge said class, shameless racism – you’ll find all the cleaning staff are black but none of the academics are, and last, but by no means least, the systemic repression and annihilation of an individual’s personality in the name of sterile, deadening conformity; euphemistically labelled as professionalism. In short, if rumour’s to be believed, this is bleaktown – screenplay by Jimmy McGovern, okay?’

‘Shit,’ I said, for free expression was very much encouraged at Soliton, ‘that sounds arse fuckingly awful. Are you sure I’m the right man for the job?’ Jonty laughed. ‘Listen, you’d be incredibly unlucky to experience everything I’ve just mentioned. You’re resilient, to use a word they’ll corrupt to indicate how much ill-treatment you can take without complaining, and very secure in your identity – so I can’t see you losing it, though you’ll be under incredible pressure to subsume yourself into a non-descript, homogenous pool of identikit functionaries. And remember, unlike the caste you’ll be sampling in this anthropological nightmare, you’ll have the safety net of being affiliated to us. It’ll be like volunteering to help irrigate a poor African village. If you become ill, or it gets too much, you can “fly home” – though we’ll keep topping up your money if you don’t.’

I’d heeded the warnings but couldn’t believe, perhaps because I’d benefited from such a benign and stimulating work environment, divested of archaic ideas around market value linked to human potential, that any place could be that bad. A university was a place of learning, of the enlightenment. Surely it couldn’t be a magnet for the dysfunctional and damned? How could such an engine of misery sustain itself? Besides, according to their website, the institution’s founding values were “equality, openness, and fairness”. These weren’t words to toss off – they meant something; they were a promise to those that contributed to the life of the organisation. The night before I joined I went to bed early, confident the next decade would be a breeze.

The First Three Years

I was used to being paid a fair wage, so it was a shock to begin with less than two thirds of what my predecessor had been paid for the same job. I wasn’t obliged to be paid the right amount – the law hadn’t yet changed to compel them to give me a rate commensurate with a contacted employee (though it soon would). Yet in my naivety, I was still surprised not to get the full amount. I was also surprised that the job I’d gone for – a web editor, was not the job I’d been given. In the years to come, I’d learn my new employer had a resource-centric approach to low-level functionaries. You’d be recruited under one guise, with the knob-shaped carrot of a skilled or semi-skilled job, but once installed you’d learn your real purpose was to perform that role plus all the work considered menial by those higher up the rankings. The stick was behind the door, and once closed, you’d be beaten with it until you brains oozed from your ears.

In a strict hierarchal system, the incentive was not to do meaningful or satisfying work. It was to seek patronage and create management products that headlined your efforts, without giving any insight into how they’d been achieved or at whose expense (or by whom). The singular focus of many, was to get promoted out of the stuff reserved for the lowest paid, so you could make more money doing less. The higher up you went, the less you were scrutinised.

Soliton would not allow me apply for management positions, as my mission was to experience life on the shop floor, so I remained in my cul de sac, watching as identikit chieftain after chieftain – all self-serving, all impostors, all clueless, and all ruthlessly ambitious, inveigled their way in via an easy to circumvent interview process. By contrast, at Soliton employees were selected via a month long bootcamp in which you worked with the real staff at full pay. Once hired, the university’s managers made needless and senseless changes designed to signal activity and authority, then left – unloved, their lifelong thirst for respect unquenched.

Some came and went with the minimum of damage – perhaps restricting themselves to a demoralising re-organisation, whereas others were sociopathic to the point of mental illness. They’d bang their own staff, creating a cabal of middle managers to insulate themselves from bottom-up criticism, work less than their contracted hours, and shamelessly manipulate internal bureaucracy to neuter and get rid of any drones who saw through their paper-thin veneer; shrewd underlings who’d noted their incompetence and hypocrisy.

In my report to Jonty, I noted they got away with it, because of the pomposity and self-importance of the academic fraternity. Once upon a time, autistic brains had managed their own departmental affairs, but now they considered such managerialism an affront to their higher purpose – a shackle on their creativity.

Consequently, the university was divided into pigs and sheep. Some of the sheep thought themselves important because they had the patronage of the porkers, but these Napoleons saw their office managers as supine dead-heads, keeping the other sheep in line with talk of values, goals, and the threat of redundancy. This was an environment devoid of values, with the only goal being to keep the brains from the broom handles. The result was a place where the head sheep could get away with just about anything, as the aloof and disinterested academic class had no more idea what their day-to-day work entailed and what it meant to be them, any more than a spider understands the inner-life of a pack horse.

Jonty, sympathetic, but keen to remind me, in a bid to lift my spirits, that I had a Vegas trip lined up – and Monica and Crystal mentioned me often, did his best to be upbeat as I told him how I’d been singled out by one particular manager. I’d questioned what I read as abuses of her authority and power and she reacted the way any threatened animal does – by lashing out.

I was consciously deskilled – the parts of the job I liked syphoned off to more pliant supplicants. When I didn’t quit, as she hoped, I was singled out for being ineffectual, despite being given nothing to do. I decided, on Jonty’s advice, to experiment by writing a report that highlighted just how little work I’d be given, even suggesting things I could do to bolster my job – something I was certain no underemployed member of the university had ever done.

When the response came – that I should be doing these things anyway, though no one had tasked or enabled me to do any of it, I gave up. If I was invisible to these people and they had no idea how to ultilise me, I’d take their money and do real work on their dime.

With my fifteen month period of temporary working, plus a nine month probationary period for the permanent role, which they refused to waive, my quest for a permanent role (at Jonty’s behest) was now entering its third year. I’d been on probation longer than some category A prisoners, but my head sheep, sensing this was an issue for me, contrived to bump this up by a further two months.

My error had been to question her competence when took the side of an employee who’d already logged a complaint against her, after I was subjected to an unprovoked tirade. For alleging she had a dog in the fight – in other words, didn’t dare discipline the offending staffer, lest she be fingered for vengeful victimisation, I was forced to endure more probation on the basis I needed to be more professional, i.e. more pliant and less critical. How would this new objective be measured? As it was abstract, no one had any idea. Still, an objective that can’t be met also can’t be failed, and I was subsequently given full-employee rights (to Jonty’s delight), a mere twenty six months after I’d started. Later, after this fraud had departed, I learned she’d also known her behaviour modifying measure had been a nonsense. The additional probation hadn’t been logged. It was unenforceable bullshit – theatre for my benefit. I now had a job paying £34,000 a year, but nothing whatsoever to do. No one cared. Least of all me.

The office environment, I noted, was toxic. Soliton assessed my mental health and found I was at risk of depression. They kindly fed me real work and suggested I move to a place of isolation where I could complete it encumbered. My chance came when my old departmental office was marked for destruction to make way for research space – a symbolic displacement. Taking advantage of the disconnect between academic and manager, I lobbied the former for a small office of my own, and so began my next period in which I was sectioned off and largely forgotten.

The Next Three Years

My tiny room, behind two layers of security, was a dream, if that dream was to be paid for doing nothing. I could effectively arrive when I wanted and leave when I wanted. It occurred to me that my experience mirrored that of the managers, who also enjoyed a level of seclusion and unaccountability, that allowed them to play fast and loose with inflexible working arrangements.

I reported to Jonty the pluses and minuses. On the plus side, as home working was not permitted, I could avoid the morning cattle drive – no delays in sardined trains and virulent hothouses for me. In the minus column – social isolation, a structural inability to take part in the life and culture of the wider-institution, a deadening sense of drift and emptiness.

My old nemesis tried to get at me by downgrading my skills yet further – foisting on me tasks like sorting mail and minuting the dullest of committee meetings. A row about the former took up an incredible amount of time, over a year. I reported, with wry amusement to Soliton HQ, that this naked attempt at catalysing my resignation, was based on vices projected onto me like pride and snobbery. I tried to play the institution at its own game – suggesting that roles had boundaries and that such boundaries must remain integral, else the structure was meaningless, yet the targeted deskilling continued. ‘Don’t despair,’ said Jonty, ‘while you’re doing that shit, you can think about the play you’ll contribute to the Soliton Summer Festival.’ Ah, the festival – how I loved the annual tugging off of war.

The university had a work shadow and appraisal system, arcane and limited those these concepts were, and long after my idiotic forewoman had left, I tried to use it to improve my lot. No one, it turned out, was interested in work shadowing, and the staffing office – stocked with generic HR types, i.e. jaded people whose humanity had largely ebbed away, weren’t interesting in administering it.

The new office manager, having decided she had too many people to manage, though that was her job, put the staffing honcho in charge of me. We had nothing to do with one another, but it underscored the thinking that all low-level functionaries were simply appropriable resources that could be allocated as required. You don’t ask a printer if it minds being moved to another room, so no one asked me if I had a problem with being managed by a humourless, hard-faced technocrat who didn’t eat and consequently had a temperament antithetical to managing others.

Her overseers were blind and deaf to these failings – they even put her in charge of staff wellbeing, having not bothered to find out whether or not she believed in it. As she’d defensively asserted that anyone who brought a complaint against a manager, or accused them of harassment, was a mendacious liar trying to cover their own incompetence, my guess was no. But nobody asked me. When I suggested, during an appraisal, that I’d been deskilled and no one in charge had the will or imagination to make my working day worthwhile, she responded with six words that neatly encapsulated the attitude and philosophy of the institution’s feckless management class – “if you don’t like it, leave.”

I didn’t of course – I couldn’t, and she left as it turned out, so it hardly mattered. But worse was to come. When her head sheep was slaughtered, the university appointed a librarian and alleged socialist to take over. He had no direct experience of a comparable organisation, for to recruiting academics all management jobs are the same. His values would turn out to be junk – lifestyle dressing for a deeply unpleasant man.

He took an instant dislike to me, perhaps because he sensed I thought he was another clueless stooge appointed by one of the pigs, and found a willing ally in an ambitious sheep who’d greedily accepted the non-role of supervisor in exchange for no promotion and no credit. Such a moron, one felt, should not be trusted, and this turned out to be the right instinct. Pleasant at first, vying only, she said, for transferable status, the apparatchik turned nasty, sensing an opportunity to impress, when she realised her new boss had singled me out as dead wood – proof that in addition to being intellectually wanting, he couldn’t spell.

A six-month old argument with a retired, pompous blowhard – an honorary academic with fascist proclivities, was resurrected to assassinate my character and question my professionalism. Ironically, the row was about asserting policy on bullying, and was now used to bully me out of a job. The bellicose boss and his fawning brownnoser rounded on me without shame or conscience. This was intolerable, I told Jonty – I was having to answer for telling a bigot, in the wake of xenophobic comments on campus following the EU referendum, that we didn’t tolerate bigotry.

Should I quit? I could, I was told, but I’d have to come back as a temporary worker. Ten years of data was required. So, following a Kafkaesque ordeal, in which I was singled out for having broken some rule or other, though no one could say which, and worse (and the real reason) – endangering a philanthropic donation from a man who referred to non-academic staff – people like my accusers, people that included an alleged egalitarian, as “the lower orders”, I resigned. No one asked me why. I wasn’t even asked to pass on what I’d learned – a tacit acknowledgement that thanks to the regime in question, I hadn’t accrued a single bit of working knowledge worth passing on.

Temporarily Embarrassed

I begged Jonty to be released from the study at this point but he urged me to continue. There was a new opportunity, he said, to get further data on how the university treated temporary staff. The portents weren’t good – they typically paid them at the bottom end of a lower grade than I’d been on, for a start, but I wasn’t to worry – I’d still get an M&S hamper from Soliton every week

So began a trawl through the world of disposable labour and naked exploitation. The agency, which had initially offered me my old job, saying I’d be “perfect”, finally parachuted me into a thankless role in the Graduate School. There, I’d run around after the Head – a man who wanted a lackey to dab the end of his cock after each urinary event, and supply him with a never-ending stream of documents that he could have printed himself, except to push the button would be a symbolic diminution of status; the equivalent of having a driver and turning the ignition key yourself.

This was tedious stuff, yet, despite it being embarrassing for all concerned, I was invited to apply for the permanent role. I couldn’t understand why, but I did it – on Jonty’s advice, on the strict understanding I didn’t get it. The point was to find out just what kind of person did get taken on under such circumstances. Following my gut, I made noises about wanting to rethink the master and servant dynamic, getting more involved in the running of internal affairs. I was therefore unsurprised when the job was given to someone meek, whose non-threatening character and embrace of his servile status, made him ripe for plucking.

Next was a stint with the team that managed the thorny issue of research ethics. I was initially encouraged. Surely, only those invested with a strong sense of morality would be involved in such a process? But I’d forgotten that there was no correlation between character and role in an institution that didn’t screen for the former.

The Head of Integrity – a ludicrous title, was an immature sociopath who’d read that if you smile a lot and joke a lot, and remember people’s birthdays, some will believe you care about those you work with. Jonty fed me a few ethical dilemmas to test the water. I’d have housing problems, money worries. Would this lead to a firm offer of employment? A pay rise, based on recognition of good work? No. It lead to an assertion that I could leave if I needed to be better paid, and a palsied expression at the audacious suggestion of an extra couple of quid an hour.

Others members of the team – each an ethical stronghold in their own right, included an intellectually insecure woman with a doctorate who mystifyingly thought her patron was a woman of principle and professionalism, despite the lack of supporting evidence, and a cynical put-upon administrator, who consulted the institution’s bible, and used me as a dumping ground for all the work she didn’t want to do herself. To underline the point, she renamed herself as “Ethics Officer” to create a scale that didn’t officially exist, with me at the bottom. Underpaid and overworked, I rang Jonty and begged to be released. Permission was granted.

All bad things must come to an end, so I finished my mission ensconced within an office, close to the centre of power. It sent the university’s staff abroad to extend its brand and undermine its status as an autonomous institution guided solely by higher principles. This branch of the university didn’t care where we pitched up. They’d have gone to Iran, Russia – fucking anywhere, if there was a commercial incentive. The people who worked there, befitting the remit, were more corporate types than I’d seen elsewhere. They were vacuous but organised, hardworking but robotic. Yet, whatever the self-important mission statement, or imagined value of strategies and initiatives that would soon be forgotten, amounting as they did to nothing but monuments to non-entities, these were members of the institution I’d come to know. Consequently, they couldn’t help but internalise some time-honoured practices.

Once again I was in a place where I was asked to be enthused and inspired by nothing – rote tasks, management jargon, office wank. I told Jonty that I’d been living this double life so long I was starting to forget what job satisfaction felt like – that I needed to be free to once again feel the wind on my back and the sun on my face.

Reader, this was the worst of times. Taken in by the promise of challenging project work, without anyone actually checking whether such a person was needed given a contractor was already on the payroll, hoarding the challenging stuff, I ended up with nothing to fill my days. When the new Director noticed – an insecure former military man who thought the problem with society was that government was too generous, he requisitioned me to help him – imparting the usual platitudes about me being the best person for the job, apparently oblivious to the idea that even the suggestion was insulting.

‘Jonty,’ I protested, ‘this is beyond a chore now – I’m being moved around and used like the office laptop, and no one has any interest in me at all. I’m now doing work I didn’t sign up to do, and I no longer have the energy or impetus to pretend I like doing it.’ Yes, it was only a matter of time before they noticed, and when they did, I was told it wasn’t working and I’d be released to do bigger and better things. What were they? I’d have plenty of time to reflect during the worst public health crisis in a century and an unprecedented freeze on employment.

My last days at the university were humiliating and empty, befitting all that had come before. The dunce that had got my name wrong when she introduced me, did the same as she waved me goodbye. In a year, the correct name hadn’t registered on her consciousness. My final day was brought forward, without anyone remembering to tell me. I was grateful not to be so jaded that I could still be surprised by such things.

In a period where I’d advanced several grades at Soliton and had enjoyed the warmth and flexibility afforded by human and encouraging colleagues, I’d ended my undercover university experiment paid less than when I’d started ten years previously, and with nothing whatsoever to show for the time, bar the extra cash that had been spent on burlesque evenings and bratwurst buffets. And no, that isn’t an euphemism.

Post-mortem, I reflected how lucky I’d been to have the safety net of Soliton’s wages and care. I contemplated what life would have been like if my true employer had been a utopian fantasy, and this university, with its chancers, bigots, frauds, and entitled cheerleaders, had been a real force in my life – underpaying, underemploying, understanding nothing about the people it conflated with resources like printers and phones. What a waking nightmare that would have been, and how lucky I was to have been so cushioned.

Published in: on April 2, 2020 at 16:01  Comments Off on My Ten-Year Undercover Assignment at one of Britain’s “Top” Universities  
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