The deep, deep anguish of higher education

Yesterday I was having a conversation with an old friend who has spent an entire career in higher education and who is now close to retirement. Having always expected that he would end his time at his university on a note of satisfaction and with a sense of confidence in what those coming after him would achieve, he has found instead that he is preparing to leave a profession that feels unappreciated and unloved and unsure about what it should be doing to preserve the best of its values. He told me that in his nearly 40 years in academic life he had never seen the university community so dejected and fatalistic.

It is probably not a unique experience. The journal Times Higher Education in its most recent edition carries an anonymous letter from a university employee describing how the institution’s retiring vice-chancellor became emotional in his farewell speech when discussing the personal worries and fears of his staff; the writer refers to the ‘genocide of academe’.

The experience of higher education now is one of disorientation. People have no certainties beyond challenge and change, and there are perhaps not enough leaders who are able to steady nerves and chart a course of action. So the academy is in full and rather ineffective reactive mode. Over the past few weeks I have spoken with a good few academics who assure me that militant resistance is the answer, both to government initiatives and to their implementation by university management teams. But there is very little sign that such resistance, assuming for a moment that its objectives are reasonable, actually works, and to outside (and potentially sympathetic) observers it can come across as nothing much more than an ultra-consevative rejection of change.

Not all of the change that we face as a profession is the product of the reckless or even malicious policies of governments and officials. We do need to recognise that the world in which universities operate is different from the one in which people of my generation started our careers. Universities are now much larger and organisationally complex. For example, the academic staff body would thirty years ago have consisted overwhelmingly of full-time lecturers. Now these are in a minority, with part-timers, casual staff and others making up a substantial proportion of the teaching profession; but also, just look at the small army of contract researchers, again with very different interests and needs.

Universities were always important icons in their local and regional landscape. But in the past they could fulfill that role just by being. Not so today: now universities are expected to be economic, social and cultural regenerators, creating and nurturing complex partnerships with business and the voluntary sector while responding to the often ill-informed expectations of government. Governments in turn want them to solve problems of unemployment and the need for re-training, but often not because they have a new labour force vision, but simply because it’s a convenient way of mitigating the impact of unemployment. While tackling all this, universities are often simply overwhelmed by the assault of bureaucracy that some public figures so easily confuse with accountability.

All in all, what is mostly done is response to this is reactive. Students march and occupy, academics write public letters and hurl a few personal insults at their management hierarchy. The wider body of academics get on with their work, but do so increasingly without confidence or job satisfaction, now often also denied the opportunity of career progression for financial reasons. University leaders are divided, in a complex game of balancing institutional self-interest with internal and external politics. There is lots of talk of strategy, but much of the action is short-term tactical.

It is time for universities to stop being victims. This cannot be done without a proper sense of strategy and an ability to launch it pro-actively. Government policies are often so damaging because governments simply don’t understand higher education; and why should they, when so many academics no longer do, either? Politicians must be engaged in proper and constructive discussion, which must include assurances of how universities can and will help them meet their wider objectives. Universities must stop being divided, both amongst themselves and internally; it is easy to face down institutions that clearly cannot speak with one voice. University leaders must be better at community building within their institutions, and injecting into them a sense of autonomy and confidence. University heads are not industry CEOs, but they are leaders, and they need to exercise leadership in the best sense of the term. As a class, they need to be better prepared and trained for this.

Times have changed, and we may not always have liked the change. But we need to get better at coping with it, and harnessing it, and re-establishing a sense of direction and purpose for the academy.

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10 Comments on “The deep, deep anguish of higher education”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I cannot help but feel that what’s going on inside is simply a reflection of the outside.
    For ask the question, what would help. The answer is stability. A stability where within it people are allowed to be unstable.
    In an earlier age, and with smaller institutions, the amount of cash entering caused stability. Or to put it another way. UCD and TCD could afford to live in that strip between the N11 and the coast. Nowadays, they would be lucky, even with the current conditions to exist within the City.
    However it’s the stability that’s the issue, not the cash.


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  3. Al Says:

    One of the nettles that needs to be grasped is the realisation that academia along with quality management also needs virtue.
    The implication, in my opinion, is that ticking the quality boxes isn’t enough. There also needs to be the quest for virtue within the system, that allows freedom to improve and innovate.
    Have the management got in the way of this or shown tolerance to allow it?

  4. Caelen King Says:

    In my opinion whatever change has happened to Universities over the last decade is nothing compared to the change that going to happen over the next decade. I often even wonder if lectures as we know them will even have a main stage presence in universities of the future or will the bulk of them be presented in video format.

    The advent of new form of media and media distribution is fundamentally changing the way people learn and I think there is going to have to be a lot more pain before societies needs and University services are aligned.

    • anna notaro Says:

      I would argue that society’s needs and university’s services do not need to be ‘perfectly’ aligned, there must be communication and permeability of course but not alignment, critical discourse flourishes unexpectedly in the interstices… new media will have an impact on learning and teaching of course, already has, but it would be a mistake to consider it a panacea..

      • Caelen King Says:

        Thanks for the reply. I think your point of not perfectly aligning is a good one and certainly Universities should be part of society – shaping and contributing to society in equal measure. Not subservient to the rest of society.


      • The problem is in part that there isn’t any very reliable way to identify ‘society’s needs’. Governments tend to believe that they have the right to determine what these needs are, but we don’t need to look very far to see that this is at the very best an imperfect way of doing it.

        I might suggest that universities *do* need to align with society’s needs, but that they also need to be proactive in formulating *their* vision of what these needs are in so far as they relate to HE.

        • Caelen King Says:

          I think the problem is in identifying needs sufficiently far in advance that you can attempt to align things. What frustrate me currently is the wholesale skills mis-match that we have in Ireland. 450K on the dole and 4K open vacancies in tech companies that they cannot fill.

  5. Tim Conner Says:

    I agree, what keeps me going through the pain and frustration of dealing with uni. systems/layers/departments/outdated IT dept. etc. (all of which seem to clash with one another) is the students. They increasingly have the ability and understanding to teach themsleves, and they do understand that HE is flawed – but manage to work around it.
    Also small steps such as mobile learning keep me thinking that it is still possible to keep HE looking forward. Big changes are happening and in many ways think it is about time. Great to see groups like http://purposed.org.uk/ forming as well

  6. Peter Forster Says:

    I too have spent almost 40 years working in HE as leacturer, researcher and consultant, in the UK and elsewhere (currently in Australia). I’ve noticed that when the money is flowing into the country and into HE, not many people do this kind of soul searching about HE. And I’m not knocking it or being snotty about it either. But if it takes a financial crisis to question what HE is about then it is not all bad.

    For my part I have been a psychologist for all these years and I just try to stick to my personal goal of making the lives of students, colleagues and public more satisfying and meaningful, whatever may be happening more widely. HE is one of the better ways that I can do that. It gets harder to do when universities put more focus on short term, commercial aims and it gets easier when universities have a wider vision that embraces some of the old fashioned virtues such as learning, beauty, creativity and wisdom.

    And during those times when I wonder if I will ever hear an education minister say anything that makes sense I remind myself that this too will pass…


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