Re-discovering confidence in higher education

I recently had a drink with a man who works for a think tank. I have known him for some time, as I gave him his first job, some years ago, in the university where I then worked. He enjoyed a promising academic career, and was promoted twice. But then he left university life. Why? Because, as he told me, it had become too depressing. The institutional culture had become toxic (to use his word), resources were never forthcoming to support the things he wanted to do, and the world outside had become increasingly critical of what universities did. Why, he asked, would anyone want to stay in that? Why be part of a system that was increasingly ill-at-ease with itself and the world it was in?

It is, you may think, the kind of message we hear all too often these days. And yet, his diagnosis of what was wrong was a little different. When he outlined his problems with ‘institutional culture’, he was not thinking of what people normally complain about: creeping managerialism or the excessive commercialisation of the academy. He was complaining about, well, the culture of non-stop complaining. Meetings, he said, were too often battlegrounds on which aggressive combatants targeted their enemies, both in the room and somewhere outside. External pressures were met with trench-warfare resistance rather than imagination and insight.

My friend’s key concern about higher education was that, in his view, it is a system that has lost confidence in itself; perversely, because actually it is doing rather well. But the drumroll of criticism has overpowered all the obvious signals of progress and innovation. It’s not that universities were failing, he suggested; it just wasn’t much fun any more to be there. And on top of that, he suggested, it had become increasingly difficult to voice your opinions.

The latter issue, that of free speech, has been raised in this blog on several occasions before. An anonymous academic writing recently for the Guardian‘s Higher Education Network blog, commented as follows:

‘For me, university is not a place where I can speak my mind. It is a place where I teach facts, present evidence and introduce a diverse range of other people’s attitudes. I seldom, if ever, make my personal opinions known, fearing accusations of bias and – ironically – of stifling free speech. It’s dehumanising to feel that I cannot be honest with my students.’

This, again – if the complaint is at all well founded – signals a culture in which intellectual creativity is stifled, sometimes by the system, sometimes by managers no doubt, sometimes even by students.

The common feature of all of this is a failure of confidence in the objectives and values of higher education, a reluctance to believe that what we do still matters and that academic idealism still has a place. It is no doubt hard to hold on to that when you feel under pressure and when you don’t recognise your values in the system in which you work. It is easy to slip into profound negativity; easy, but not good.

Now that it has become popular for populist commentators to criticise universities, it is the more important that the university community responds with a robust restatement of the importance of knowledge and learning; and that, internally, it behaves like a community with a common purpose and, externally, it presents an optimistic message for society.

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8 Comments on “Re-discovering confidence in higher education”

  1. Vince Says:

    Hard to address this directly without being an insider. But I’ll try looking at it obliquely.
    What your friend seems to be missing it that a college is a managed environment and not one thing going on there that isn’t. And it was even thus. The only difference these days is the outside paymasters are impinging upon and insisting upon greater and greater oversight, a word that hides hands-on control. The instructions to universities are not like the general orders handed to the RN captains in the days of sail, but they need to be. Progress hither and engage. But far closer to old computer programmes.
    You may have realised over these last years that I have absolutely no belief in the good faith of the civil services or the political classes where education is concerned. And being a taker of largesse from the exchequer places the college in an untenable position.
    Note, it’s not that long ago that a person in Parliament decided to sent out a questionnaire about thought purity. That he even thought he could is shocking.

  2. Dominic Martella Says:

    Insightful and important post. HigherEd community should take heed.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    “The common feature of all of this is a failure of confidence in the objectives and values of higher education, a reluctance to believe that what we do still matters and that academic idealism still has a place. It is no doubt hard to hold on to that when you feel under pressure and when you don’t recognise your values in the system in which you work. It is easy to slip into profound negativity; easy, but not good.”

    I have a slightly different take on this, to my mind it is not so much
    “a reluctance to believe that what we do still matters”, I dare to say that is an unshakable belief, what most of us experience is a deep sense of frustration at the fact that we “don’t recognise our values in the system in which we work”, unfortunately what the post seems to propose is that instead of changing the system we put up with it, and we “behaves like a community with a common purpose and, externally, it presents an optimistic message for society”.

    It would take quite a performance to present such optimism, (or some cognitive dissonance!) in light of the fact that we cannot behave like a community with a common purpose unless we are truly one. As an example one should consider the Equality in higher education: statistical report 2017 only to realise that there is plenty to get furious about.
    Here are some of the headlines:

    – the attainment gap between white and black students
    qualifying with a First/2:1 degree was 25.3%
    – the majority of academics on fixed-term contracts were
    aged 40 and under (64.6%)
    – 6% of UK professors were black
    – only 1 in 5 female academics earned over £50,000 (22.2%
    of female academics, compared to 35.6% of male
    academics)
    https://www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/equality-in-higher-education-statistical-report-2017/

    Until we put our own house in order, presenting “an optimistic message for society” it is bit unfair to ask.


    • I understand your point, and of course you are right that much needs to be corrected. But what I was trying to argue is that we won’t do much of that if we have lost faith in our mission. It’s not that we need to be or should be defensive about what we are, we should be optimistic and confident about what we need to be.

      Not easy, of course.


  4. I really enjoyed reading this piece. Being in my fourth year of university, I can really relate to this. It’s interesting to hear the perspective of someone who worked in the university that views it as “toxic”.

    I like the quote from the guardian that “university is not a place where I can speak my mind” from the professor. I can see how this would be true as of a professor were to truly speak his mind there is a massive chance of having negative backlash. I think this is something that needs to be addressed because university should be a place to learn and grow. Learning has more to do with facts and memorizing quotes, it’s about learning about what other people think and why. It should be about discovering other cultures and states of mind. After writing a political science midterm, I forget the information I “learned” after about a week. If I am learning about what people think about different topics and why they think the way they do, I won’t forget it. That’s what learning really is and what will help students grow.


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