Monday, 18 June 2012

What are we actually here for?

One of the key themes in higher education over the past twenty years has been its increasing corporatization. For the students, this means larger classes, fewer choices, glossier marketing, more emphasis on being 'shovel-ready' (i.e. perfectly equipped to slot into unchallenging jobs they'll accept because they'll already owe tens of thousands of pounds). There's a word for this, and it's Ritzer's 'McDonaldization'.

For academic staff, this means more managers who've learned their skills in corporate life. More pressure, less attention to the unprofitable and inefficient aspects of academia. A sobbing, drifting student discombobulated by the demands of family, economic and academic responsibilities is - to them - a 'retention liability'. To us, that student isn't a cost centre, or a liability: s/he is our purpose. A lecturer who researches medieval French troubadours, or teaches an obscure language, is to a profit-and-loss manager simply red ink where a class full of £30k per year MBA students could be.

In case you can't comprehend what's wrong with any of this, think about this statement:
What is maddening is the terrible notion that a person's value depends on how important and financially successful they are, and that this is measured in terms of money… Core in my upbringing was a value system that put monetary gain well in its place.
That was Tim Berners-Lee. He made it possible for you to read my blog (and of course to access the world's cultural and scientific advances, and debate them). He invented the Web, and he did it for free.

This institution is largely uncursed by these thrusting Captains of Academic Industry, though we've had our share. Indeed recently, the new regime seems to believe it can balance the demands of the market with the higher demands of academic and intellectual labour. I wish it luck. But I don't hold out much hope: we're assailed by a government which intends to reserve the arts for its own children, ushered into élite institutions via exclusive private schooling and a tidal wave of cash. For the rest, you'll get the conveyor belt model, designed to restrict your ambitions and your critical skills. We'll do our best, and I genuinely believe that our current leadership supports us, but the structural pressures are designed to crush this kind of thinking.

It's not just us: an open letter from David Dudley of Georgia Southern University to his colleagues has - inevitably - reached the internet and been received with sighs of recognition from his peers across the world. Some highlights:
"Deans, provosts, and presidents come and go. Many such individuals are building their careers and are often looking to go on to the next, better job. That’s their prerogative.... But faculty members tend to stay put. Given today’s job market in academia, that is understandable. We’ve worked hard for small pay. We’ve taught our thousands of students, and we’ve celebrated the successes of hundreds of them. Let me say this as plainly as I can: Georgia Southern belongs to its faculty and staff every bit as much as it belongs to any administrator. In fact, it belongs more to us, because when the current deans and higher administrators are long gone, we will still be here, striving to maintain what this place stands for: individual attention to our students."
There is a nasty cut-throat market in education. It's worse in the US, where teaching is often done by indebted grunts doing PhDs and hourly-paid lecturers known as Freeway Professors, always on the road searching for an evening's remedial literacy teaching in the hope of jam tomorrow in the form of a permanent job, and conferences resemble cattle markets, but it's at work here, and it's getting worse. The Research Excellence Framework is mean to reward innovative research. In fact, it's designed to funnel even more of the state's cash to a very small group of élite universities. Woe betide the teacher who wants - as I and my colleagues do - to teach the unprivileged and provide them with the fruits of original research. When a star emerges, they're rapidly poached just in time to contribute to an ambitious, rich university's REF output, and the merry-go-round starts again.

Little of this touches the gilded world of the Vice-Chancellors and their acolytes, many of whom haven't been in a classroom or lab for decades, if ever. Their salaries are now calculated according to a new set of peers: corporate CEOs, leading to average Russell Group salaries of £333,000 - yet without the concomitant theoretical risk of competition, shareholder revolt or failure. That's a lot of books, or teachers' salaries. With the salaries come a new set of attitudes: Business Leadership. The language of Vision and Mission starts to appear. The institution becomes a machine for sustaining its leadership and administrative departments rather than a place of learning supported by managers.

The traditional strength of the university - a bunch of spiky geniuses used to being listened to - comes to be seen as a drawback. Instead, corporate structures and a proletarianised workforce appears. Insecurity keeps the peons quiet and unprofitable cost-centres are excised. Staff turnover increases while shiny buildings (sometimes) appear, on the basis that what impresses business and 'customers' is appearance rather than genuine intellectual distinction. Who suffers? Staff, of course, but most importantly, the students. They don't always realise what's missing, but they should. Then again, they're so conditioned by consumerism that many do think that having a Costa outlet and brushed concrete is what makes an institution great (or wood panelling and a coat of arms if they opt to buy the 'heritage university' education). As customers, they're always right - the notion that university is a place in which they test and refine their ideas through debate is replaced by a linear transmission.

Pretty soon, the university becomes not an imaginary confection of like-minded souls arguing and agreeing, but a power structure. The posh ones are slightly more insulated, of course - they have Senates which employ their Vice-Chancellors, whereas here we're the employees of a VC brought in on the strength of a 'vision' and problem-solving initiatives (and we and the students aren't problems to be solved). It's a benevolent dictatorship, but it's still a dictatorship. We're currently lucky - but the staff and students of the private universities now being founded (and the rather unpleasant 'public' establishments which ape them) will rapidly find that they are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to consideration. Struggling students will be dumped, opinionated academics will be dispensed with (one of the scandals of the recession is the academic economists' utter failure to critique what was going on: funded by the industries they purported to analyse, they had no incentive to think originally) and money will go to boardroom salaries rather than research, teaching or student support.

Dave Dudley knows something which often gets forgotten in the offices of the Minister for Universities and some colleges' council chambers:

"The most important person on our campus is the young woman from a small southeast Georgia town who will enter here as a freshman in August. She will be nervous but excited. She might not know what she wants to study, but will find her interest sparked in a biology course, or a sociology class, or in a philosophy class. A certain professor will ask a certain question, present a certain problem, discuss a certain topic that this student has never heard of or thought of before. And then her education begins," Dudley wrote. "The most important person on our campus is the young man from Atlanta who could have gone to UGA but chose us because he was impressed by our personal regard for him as a student and as a person. He already knows he wants to study business, but he, too, will be surprised at how his intellectual field is enlarged by what he hears in an American history class, or in a geology lab, or at a construction site."
What are we for?

We're here to inspire, to shock, to challenge, to support and to improve the lives of our students and our public. A student who graduates with her beliefs reinforced, or who finds the world just fine as it is, is a student who has failed and has been failed, whatever her certificate says.

On these terms, we fail students and society all the time but we always fail again and hopefully fail better. But it's something to which to aspire. All we need is a policy and leadership framework which enables us to carry on.

Now back to writing those learning outcomes…


Rohan Maitzen said...

"The traditional strength of the university - a bunch of spiky geniuses used to being listened to - comes to be seen as a drawback."

I know: I find the constant rhetoric of innovation annoying, as if we aren't doing (and never have done) anything right. Were previous generations of students (ourselves included) so poorly educated by these old-fashioned methods? I was relieved in a committee session today that when I queried focusing on "innovation" for an upcoming forum on undergraduate education everyone seemed enthusiastic about emphasizing "excellence" instead. We'll see how that goes.

Ms E-Mentor said...

Well said, PV.