Friday, 25 September 2020

End of the line for universities?

When the bough breaks, it breaks big, and the fall of the limb exposes all the weakness and the rot within. That’s what’s happening in Britain’s universities at the moment, as they look on at the situation in Scottish Higher Education in a state that hovers somewhere between worry and panic.

Thousands of students are now isolating, a small number are sick, and both undergraduates and postgraduates in both Scotland and areas experiencing chronic coronavirus outbreaks – in Manchester, for instance – are now subject to draconian measures not previously known in peacetime.

In Scotland, students can’t socialise outside their household, can’t go to the pub or a bar, can’t go back and visit their parents, have very little face-to-face contact with their lecturers, and are being threatened with harsh penalties if they dare to step out of line. There’s even swivel-eyed talk that students might not be allowed to go back to the parental home at Christmas. This despite everyone on Planet Earth (as opposed to Planet University) could see this crisis coming a mile off, and said so.

But, in truth, some sort of reckoning has been coming for a very, very long time. Britain’s Higher Education system is experiencing something close to an existential crisis, perhaps even a moral or spiritual meltdown, because it no longer knows what it is for or where it should go. It’s not that it can’t locate itself. It no longer even has a map.

You only have to listen to actual academics who work within the system to hear the warning sirens that something has gone extremely awry. You could read this piece by British-German academic Ulf Schmidt, in which he deploys quite bitter and emotional language to describe his disenchantment with Britain’s universities, and indeed his move ‘back’ to Germany. Just actually walk in someone else’s shoes for a moment:

Britain’s cherished higher education sector, once the envy of the world, is on the brink of collapse. The humanities were world leading – and still are in many areas. Scholars in English literature, creative writing, the arts, languages, history and philosophy were acclaimed across the globe. But now the sector as a whole is bankrupt, not just financially, but morally. It has lost its integrity and seems unwilling to engage in critical reflection about the causes of this unprecedented malaise.

Or you could open the pages of the London Review of Books, and peruse Malcolm Gaskill’s long farewell to the academy he’s worked in for most of his life. He’s recently taken early retirement, partly because of the severance deal on offer, but he was worried about how his colleagues would see his retreat from higher learning.

But what did they say? We all wish we could go too, but we feel we can’t – either because our professional identity is bound up with the world of books and papers and conferences, or because we can’t afford it, or because we just don’t know what else we’d do. The constant refrain? That was predictable: ‘it’s no fun any more’. And indeed, a great deal of light seems to have gone out of our Higher Education system.

There are many reasons why such a toxic situation has developed, and some of them are hugely under-written. We talk a lot about ‘commercialisation’ and the ‘neo-liberal university’, rightly in some ways, but also in very general terms that don’t help us really use the argumentative scalpel rather than the sledgehammer.

The effect of high fees on universities has for instance been far less than lifting the cap off the numbers they can all take. The quasi-Graduate Tax brought in by the Coalition government in 2010 made much less difference to the way universities operated than the crazed scramble to grab hold of ever more students since the cap was lifted for the 2014/15 academic year. So if you’re blaming the ‘neoliberal university’, it depends what you mean.

It won’t have escaped your notice, either, that it’s the Scottish system that the coronavirus debacle has hit first and hardest: a sector without undergraduate fees, and with far less competition than in England, but also afflicted with that strange mix of conservatism and commercialism which actually characterises Britain’s flagging universities.

There are plenty of culprits. The increased rent and fees that universities can bring in, in a highly financialised property market, has turned their heads. Datafication and the reduction of students to single pages of interrelated numbers is another silence we don’t address much.

Pretty random selection and promotion criteria for management, inherited from a previously planned system and not made up under ‘neoliberalism’, are also highly corrosive. Some university managers are superb: some of them, well, they are as crass as they are unheeding.

This stuff matters, as it filters down or spreads out from the university’s centre. One thing it does it raise the principal-agent problem: the cracks and faultlines and perverse incentives that spring up in the space between one set of actors (the ‘agents’, in this case heads of universities and Ministers) and another (‘principals’, for our purposes here the teaching infantry on the front line).

After a series of long and bitter strikes, many lecturers have come to see the agent class as a problem: as a very highly paid caste of individuals who are out for themselves, either in terms of hopping to a ‘better’ institution in a deeply hierarchical profession, or while topping up their pension pots while the sector’s scheme is in crisis, or just in bashing the staff for apparently no reason.

Coronavirus has made this worse, too, because many lecturers deeply resent – and some are extremely anxious about – a return to face-to-face teaching with the single biggest infected age group in the country by far. This is especially the case when universities have a completely viable, and indeed in an age of social distancing easily the most practicable, alternative open to them: online teaching.  

Another hard-to-negotiate maze looms into view here, and it’s again familiar from game theory: the hard puzzles of co-operation. It has not escaped anyone in the sector’s notice that, faced with instructions to go in and teach – even when people are in their sixties, or have chronic conditions, or are rightly or wrongly petrified – many lecturers are voting with their feet.

It’s easy: you just say you’ve got a cough and you can’t get a test. Who’s going to check? Indeed, who can check, or has the time to check? It’s easy: you just say you’re teaching the module online, and you challenge Head of Teaching or Head of Department to say different, now it’s started. It’s easy: you get your union rep or doctor or friendly lawyer to write you a letter and watch your line manager fold.

Except, of course, that the more powerful you are, the more likely those techniques are to be successful: another calculus that challenges lecturers’ self-image that they work in a sector that has more moral heft and normative grasp than the private sector. Reader, they don’t, and the realisation that they don’t is administering hidden damage as it runs through the concealed wiring between feeling and performance.

It is furthermore not a good place to be when institutions that rely on social capital and goodwill need every ounce of those qualities now. Still, after the push has come the pull. After being told to put on a smile and welcome students back, the game theoretical defection of the agent is now being followed by the class defection of the principal. What goes around… comes around.

None of this is actually most managers’ fault. Just as they have been abandoned to coronavirus by a government that firstly couldn’t care less whether most universities shut or expanded, and in fact might welcome a tussle with unpopular educators, they have been put in an impossible position. Without more money to navigate the crisis in front of us right now, they had to open back up as best they could, or lose students to competitors willing to tell better stories than they can.

As in the microscope, so the macroscope. Managers can’t help it that Ministers have told them to get in the barrel and fight it out for student numbers. They can’t change a world in which they are the punchbag for populist campaigns against the ‘woke campus’ – whatever that is. They can’t walk back the revolution in Public Relations or data or the New Public Management. They’re stuck too.

Even so, what all this means is that the inside of a university now looks like a particularly arcane M.C. Escher lithograph. They are deeply unhappy places. Many academics are now experiencing a slow-motion run into the sands which is very familiar to students of clinical depression, and there’s an article to be written about that all on its own.

Academics tend to be rule-governed achievers. They’ve jumped over hurdle after hurdle after hurdle. They can’t stop doing it, so when a government or a manager asks them to leap yet another high jump, they say ‘how high?’ and ‘how many?’ But that’s a wasting asset: there’s only so many years you can do that before it degrades your mental health. Academics also tend to prize order and security over reward. Now they can’t control coronavirus, or their own workload, they blame their employer, the system – but most of all, they blame themselves.

‘Look after yourself’, says the faceless employer over email: ‘take a break’, ‘do some cooking’, ‘go for a walk’. Then, just after that vanilla-scented parcel of joy has been received, another twenty or thirty messages arrive and another couple of overlapping Zoom meetings start. Many colleagues wonder: when am I supposed to look after myself, and when am I meant to take all these breaks? As they look out of the window and realise it’s already dark. A tiny and unaccustomed voice starts up again, in the whisper that accompanied the withdrawal of face-to-face co-operation: stop. Just stop.

Continuously, they just get a bland stream of emails as if everything is fine – cheery missives about online seminars and conferences, exciting initiatives, new hires and future plans. That makes everything worse again. Because everything is not fine, it can’t be made to be fine, and it isn’t going to be fine for some time to come. Being advised to do some yoga and some breathing exercises won’t make it fine either. The tiny voice continues: you’re not actually valued at all.

For many academics, and we’re talking impressionistically and anecdotally here, the present crisis only brings the multiple facets of the kaleidoscope together into one single picture. That picture says, in an ever-louder tone: somewhere, somehow, the joy of teaching and learning and finding out got lost.

Watching the sector treat students like the spread of coronavirus is somehow their fault is for many the last straw. Two or three decades of increasing bureaucratisation, managerialism and jargonisation, all of it inculcated and internalised via hierarchies, isolation, hoop-jumping and a simply unsupportable culture of overwork are now coming home to roost. It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes moment: the second that university staff and students realise that the stage of empathy is empty.

Maybe the coronavirus situation on campus will be brought under control. It’s certainly not too late to do that, and large swathes of the country are still fairly Covid-free. Maybe students who are locked down can be protected and encouraged the way they would be in a ‘normal’ year.

But the gamble looks to be going really wrong, and it’s exposing what everyone knew and has been trying to raise big red flags about for years: something within the state of Higher Education is deeply, deeply rotten. That is bruising lecturers, hurting students, and harming the country itself. It’s probably too far gone now to be salvaged for what it might have been and what it still could be, but we could at least try.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog will be coming to an end in October. The very first entry was published on 25 October 2010, and exactly ten years later seems like the right time to bring down the curtain. There is so much to do, and other people are very kindly asking me to write for them. The blog will therefore cease, although it will stay up as a reference point - for its hyperlinks, if nothing else. So there is now only more monthly blog to come. Hopefully it will be a good one...