Friday, 23 March 2018

Reasons (not) to be cheerful

I imagine you are as bored of my anguished rants about the twists and turns of Higher Education as I am, and I fully planned to turn to lighter or at least more intellectual themes for today's blog post. Instead, it's yet another howl of primal fury.

That was before I attended a series of Faculty meetings this week and received one of the Vice-Chancellor's chatty circulars. The Faculty meetings gave us the cheery news that rather than expand to 4000 students as originally planned when it was formed, we were going to shrink and lose 24 colleagues, particularly targeting senior researchers. Departments would be merged and each expanded department would boast a single Reader and a Professor each. Of course, this is only a 'consultation', despite the Dean announcing that courses would be suspended 'at Easter', which made it feel like more of a coffin-measuring appointment than anything I think of as a consultation. It's also not particularly consultative to inform the whole university that post cut in my faculty will be replaced by new jobs in other faculties.

It's not all doom and gloom though: while many colleagues are being fired, we are being promised a cafe in another building. I'm reminded of The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy, which features a planetary economy destroyed by the proliferation of shoe-shops. I can't help feeling that the solution to declining recruitment and absolutely incompetent, hostile and clueless management really isn't a reduction in the number of seconds away from a latte a student should be.

It feels like a fever dream now, but it's only 3 months since my department acquired its first professor, a Chair no less, and less than that since I watched my boss spend the entire marking period wrestling with REF and TEF reports. In them we demonstrated at great length and in great detail how world-class our research is, how it feeds directly into teaching, how we nurture early-career research and how our work impacts the world around us.

All this may as well go straight into the bin. Pretty soon we're going to have to explain to students why popular modules won't run; why non-specialists are teaching the remaining modules; why their surviving teachers' workloads are even heavier; why good researchers will never be promoted, and why there's no more capacity for them to do a PhD with us, and why people who have fulfilled their side of the deal – more research outputs, fresh new modules, better student support – are paying the price for structural problems and executive failure.

I also look forward to explaining the Vice-Chancellor's gnomic assertion that for our 'footprint' to expand, it first has to contract. I might also fill in some of the gaps in his cheery assertion that everything's fine by pointing to the new campus on which construction has stopped and which is going to cost many extra millions of pounds which could be spent on improving teaching provision. (In other good news, Faculty managers will be keeping their jobs under the proposed plan).

This is of course the self-satirising university: we bought a (derelict, contaminated) brewery and now we are very publicly failing to host a piss-up in it.

We are of course not alone. While executive pay in Higher Education has increased way out of proportion to staff pay, library investment or anything else in the sector other than fee income, things are far from rosy. You're wearyingly familiar with the USS Pension strike, driven by HE executives' desire to divert cash from old age to plate-glass prestige projects and their bonuses, but jobs are being lost all over the place: the OU is being demolished, Liverpool is cutting 200+ posts, Manchester is firing a load of academics, as are Aberystwyth, Southampton and a number of others.

If you're bored with this, and you should be, imagine my depths of tedium. My whole so-called career has been one of permanent crisis. Governments and executives (since when did universities even have executives?) have abandoned any concept of education beyond Mammonisation and much as New Labour imagined the working classes as greedy racists rather than meeting any, the HE sector has decided to cater to imaginary students whom they think of as selfish, grasping, anti-intellectual and unprincipled. The things we measure, the things we're judged on and the ways we're encouraged to behave all point to this concept of Homo Studenticus as a figure waving a receipt, filling in a survey and demanding 'customer satisfaction'.

I recently heard about a university which required its executives to produce research and do a minimum amount of teaching. I bet it's a happier and saner place than most. Apart from a delightful trip to Swansea yesterday, my week has been spent being threatened – and in some cases lied to – by managers, being told that some of my colleagues will be fired, and consoling colleagues and students in distress, some of whom have been shouted at and belittled by management. In one case, an HR executive shouted 'Who are you going to trust? Your employer or your union?' at a bunch of people threatened with disciplinary action for refusing to accept prejudicial new job descriptions. The laughter, as you can probably imagine, was distinctly hollow.

Still, I'm sure there's an online 'resilience' course I can take.


Alan said...

WTF is going on, Dr Vole?

I graduated from the (fairly easily identified) Dark Place in 1998. Ph.D. supervised by Paul "Learning to Labour" Willis and with Huw "Working for Ford" Beynon as external. I was then 51. The Dark Place took some justified pride in its intake of "non-traditional " students.

Twenty years on, it looks as if rabid corporate culture has taken over. I wondered about the brewery - I go to the church just down the road - and hope dit might bring about some regeneration, but all I've seen so far are some improbable benches outside the butchers for the toung folk to lounge on.

Anonymous said...

No, not at all bored with the anguished fury about HE. Au contraire, similarly employed elsewhere, it's interesting to find out anout what seems to be everywhere. Where I work the shrink to grow rhetoric prevails. An imminent restructure is about to see course closures and job losses. The BS about 'resilience' looms large too.