Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Trouble at t' uni

Marina Warner, Alex Preston and Terry Eagleton have mounted the barricades on the streets of higher education to repel the barbarians storming the ivory towers.

The worst and most hyperbolic defence is mounted by Eagleton. High on rhetoric and low on fire-power, he doesn't stand a chance. But the other two have something more substantial to say and Marina Warner's contribution, a follow up to an earlier piece, is particularly thoughtful. But even so, some of their aim is awry. It is clear that something has gone wrong in higher education. I agree; I have lived through it. The question is, what?

First, let's get this straight, being an academic is a privileged job. Even given the difficulties and pressures, being an academic is still a privileged job. For a variety of reasons I took an early retirement. There isn't a day when I don't miss it. There isn't a day when I don't wonder about my decision and think about whether I could or should have held on. Here, in a Greek spring, I can see the attractions of a pension more clearly than I can on a wet day in Manchester, but being an academic is most definitely a privileged job and I was lucky to have been one.

Now, let's look at some of their targets.

1. The war on the humanities.
The main evidence for this is that teaching grant was removed from all humanities subjects and they are now funded through fees alone. However, STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) still get some grant. Sounds suspiciously like bias, but it isn't really. Under the new funding regime, with most universities charging top-level fees, humanities subjects got more money per student than before. The problem was that STEM subjects are more expensive to teach and the humanities are more popular. They were in danger of getting less funding. The conclusion was obvious. STEM subjects were at risk. The logic for any university was to pack it with cheaper humanities students. The market had to be modified. Maintaining some teaching grant was a way of ensuring that STEM subjects were not lost, not an act of anti-humanities prejudice.

2. Marketisation.
Because of fees, university teaching is now funded on the basis of the number of students universities recruit. Before the new system, it was funded on the basis of the number of students universities recruited.

3. Privatisation.
All that the new funding system has done is to transfer some funding from the state to the student through higher fees and loans. But the fees are still funded up front by the state and it is likely that many of the loans will be unpaid. There is no sign of the state withdrawing and it is still determined to try and use the tools at its disposal to shape university provision, often for the worse.

4. Bureaucracy.
Yes, it has increased and how. But, part of this increase was necessary. If you want to understand why, read the classic essay, The Tyranny of Structurelessness. For example, when I was a student in the late 70s and early 80s I had no idea why a particular mark was applied to my work. Now we have assessment criteria that can be used to explain why and to challenge judgements if necessary. Clear regulations and information benefits students, but does increase administration. The cosy informal arrangements of an elite system were convenient but exclusive. A mass system needs structure.

5. The rising number of administrators.
This is certainly an indicator of increasing bureaucracy. But what would happen if the number weren't going up? Academics would have to do it all! Administrators should enable academics to be academics by handling much of the paperwork. That is what they are there for. My main complaint was that I didn't have enough administrative support, not too much.

6. Instrumental education and vocationalism.
I actually don't mind if students get a job as a result of their studies.

7. The neo-liberal university.
I am not sure what that means. Neo-liberalism is a theory of economics, not education. If it means that universities are shaped by the dominant political and economic paradigm, what's new about that?

Many complaints consist of ill-defined "boo words" or of things that don't stand up to much scrutiny. But something is still wrong. Very wrong. Crass and poorly thought out policies can be worked around creatively, the real problem is implementation.

Clearer regulation was needed, but this much? An emphasis on helping students to get work and some vocational content isn't a bad idea, but it has translated to a sneering attitude to the arts and humanities and a mad rush to build prestigious business schools and overseas campuses that can sometimes lose money. The various research assessment exercises have been poorly conceived, mitigate against good quality work, are stupidly bureaucratic and have led to the under-valuing of teaching. And there has been a real victim, whether by design or by neglect. Part-time study and adult education have been decimated by the new funding regime.

I have overstated the case for the defence because I wanted to say that there was a rational basis to policy, however poorly designed it turned out to be. I have also brushed away a genuine complaint about the failure to think about the purpose of higher education, other than making a simplistic and dubious causal link between numbers of graduates and economic prosperity. There has been a real external pressure to turn centres of learning and community resources into diploma factories. But the main complaints from academics are about impossible workloads, stress, bullying, exhaustion, casualisation and the erosion of employment rights. This is the result of practice, not policy. And so we have to go back to looking at the old culprit of managerialism.

The exaltation of the manager is one aspect of the ideology, as is the cult of leadership (though I thought that rather fell out of fashion after the nineteen thirties). Both have led a trend away from democratic governance of institutions. However, of prime importance is bureaucracy. Rather than seeing it as either irrational, a manufacturer of "bullshit jobs," or as the product of an excess of zeal, it is important to grasp that bureaucracy is an instrument of power. It doesn't impose structure, but control. Structure needs administration, not bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a weapon in the battle against autonomy and it is the restriction of autonomy and independent judgement in favour of institutional control that is hurting.

Stalin understood it well. Controlling the bureaucracy rather than commanding the support of the people is the way to power. We are not building neo-liberal institutions, which, after all, would be liberal, but proto-Stalinist ones camouflaged with a veneer of consultations and meetings, endless meetings, giving an illusion of democracy. And there is an irony here. Getting to a position of power does not require competence or even eloquence, all you need is a certain amount of self-regard and cunning. Once there, managers are protected by closed circles of self-interest and the decline of accountability in a managerial institution. At its worst, the results are not impressive. You get a lemming-like following of fashionable policies, from chasing after dodgy money to the current cowardice in defending free speech, whilst the most consistent effect is the rocketing of Vice Chancellor's pay, mirroring the cash grab in the corporate sector.

I know of good managers in good institutions. I understand the pressures that institutions face and the uncertainties that go with funding changes. These can lead to unpalatable choices. But the working lives of academics are outside their control in a way that they used not to be, whilst their managers are less constrained and better paid. It is not a formula for happiness.

Even so, even in these difficult times, never forget that being an academic is a privileged job, that university teaching can be a joy and that the intangible rewards are immense. I miss being one. I miss it intensely.


Ann ODyne said...

Australian TV program #4corners similar to your Panorama recently covered the mess that our tertiary system has collapsed into.
And they didn't even around get to the bit where my daughter and her friends financed their studentship by writing essays for rich foreign students at $150 a throw.

looby said...

What a breath of fresh air to read number 6 there. It never occurred to me that there was any necessary link between my degree and what I might do for a job later. I went to University to understand my own culture better and to become a more active and informed participant in it. If anything, in our department, we rather looked down on Accounting and Finance (as it was known then) for its perceived simplicity and lack of interest in deeper questions.

Eagleton's now (titular) Chair of English at my alma mater. He gave a public lecture a couple of years ago in our biggest lecture theatre. "How pleasant it is," he began, "to be able to deliver a lecture in the heart of any modern University: the Management School." :) said...

I am also university student and I think that you are absolutely right about higher education
thanks and Great post
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Gracie Edison