Posted tagged ‘disaffection’

Re-discovering confidence in higher education

November 6, 2017

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.