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.