Universities Are Not…: A Series of Strike Posts

As mentioned the other day, when we went on strike again this time, somewhat despairing, I thought I would try and write down what I think is going wrong in the university sector in the UK. Now that we reach the end of those strikes, with nothing achieved and more strikes therefore announced, I feel that I should do something with the results. I don’t pretend to be the first, or probably even the hundredth, to do this, and I haven’t read most of the others to be honest, so this is probably nothing new; but some of the places it got me were new to me, so I thought it was worth an audience.1 I wrote these all offline as one piece, then broke them into a sequence, making six posts including this one. They’re short, honest, or at least shorter than my regular posts. I intend to run them one a day starting today, and then, I promise, get back to medieval content that is safely in the past. But the present is weighing on me just now…

So. I’ve been working in the university sector for just under twenty years now, one way or another. I probably began with a fairly idealised view of what that world was, because of being a post-graduate working in the Golden Triangle of Cambridge-London-Oxford, and because of being the very last intake to be able to come through undergraduate study on grants all the way; even if I was on the breadline, I was mostly debt-free and living among and working with some of the best academic facilities in the world on a project of my own conceiving. I also started teaching in an institution like no other, where adult learners with world experience had signed up because they genuinely wanted to know about our subjects. So I had a long way down for disillusion to carry me. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’m alone in seeing a change in the sector since 2003, when I taught my first classes, and numerous opinion pieces and even some peer-reviewed literature seem to back me up.2 Now I’ve been on strike again, for the umpteenth time since I got the job at Leeds five-and-a-bit years ago, over the same unresolved issues as the last three times, which remain unresolved, and consequently have been wondering quite hard what it is that I am fighting to do on better terms, and whether it is actually possible. I find I struggle to articulate what I think the 21st-century university is for, and while I might argue that a big part of its problem is that neither can the people who run or who fund it, I do at least have some fairly clear ideas about what it isn’t.

So, what follows may not be the only or even the most widely-read vision of the 21st-century university, even among those emanating from my organisation, at the moment; but what, indeed, is a university that does not speak in diverse voices? That said, it’s probably more important than usual to emphasise that these are my views only and do not represent the views or position of my employers in any way. I should also say that the series relates only to universities in the UK; I don’t know any other system from the inside and our funding regime is so peculiar that the economics that drive our system probably don’t apply anywhere else in the same way. I’m very happy to hear comparisons though! But let me see if I can put my case…

1. A decade or so back, my default cite for this would have been Stefan Collini, What are universities for? (London 2012), but firstly I see that even then he was reviewing all the other people doing the same thing – see Stefan Collini, ‘Sold Out’ in London Review of Books Vol. 35 no. 20 (London 2013), pp. 3–12 – and secondly, sadly, it obviously didn’t convince anyone in a position to do so to change anything. Since then, of course, even the person Collini was then fighting has weighed in against what is happening, partly of course as a result of his policies, to the sector, in the form of David Willetts, A University Education (Oxford 2017), but that is hardly the point of view of a practitioner! The most recent academic thing I have in my folder of cites of this kind of thing is Resourcing Higher Education: Challenges, Choices and Consequences by Margarita Kalamova, by Simon Roy, by Cláudia Sarrico and by Thomas Weko (Paris 2020), DOI: 10.1787/735e1f44-en, but it cannot be said that I have surveyed the sector. On the other hand, when I already have a folder containing a thousand cites of woe, perhaps I shouldn’t…

2. Some significant examples: Adrian Barnett, Inger Mewburn and Sara Schroter, “Working 9 to 5, not the way to make an academic living: observational analysis of manuscript and peer review submissions over time” in British Medical Journal Vol. 367 no. 8227 (London 2019), l6460; Mark Erickson, Paul Hanna and Carl Walker, “The UK higher education senior management survey: a statactivist response to managerialist governance” in Studies in Higher Education Vol. 46 no. 11 (Abingdon 2020), pp 2134–2151; Troy A. Heffernan, “Reporting on vice-chancellor salaries in Australia’s and the United Kingdom’s media in the wake of strikes, cuts and ‘falling performance'” in International Journal of Leadership in Education Vol. 24 no. 5 (Abingdon 2021), pp. 571–587.

8 responses to “Universities Are Not…: A Series of Strike Posts

  1. If I may I shall tease your readers. A British government minister recommended the following actions. You are invited to suggest who, or at least of which party, and when. No googling now!

    a reduction or removal of student grant-aid, coupled with a system of loans;

    a similar policy at the postgraduate level only;

    a more restrictive policy as regards the admission of overseas students;

    the requirement that grant-aided students should enter specified kinds of employment for a period after graduation, which might have the effect of reducing applications;

    the greater use of part-time and correspondence courses as alternatives to full-time courses;

    the possibility that the most able should have the opportunity to complete a degree course in two years;

    the possibility of some students not proceeding to the customary three-year course, but to a different course lasting only two years and leading to a different qualification;

    the possible insertion of a period between school and university, which would give school-leavers a better opportunity to formulate their views as to whether or not they wished to proceed to some form of higher education;
    the more intensive use of buildings and equipment, including the possibility of reorganisation of the academic year;

    more sharing of facilities between adjacent institutions;

    more home-based students;

    the development of student housing associations, and other forms of loan-financed provision for student residence;

    some further increase in student/staff ratios.

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  3. “I struggle to articulate what I think the … university is for”.

    According to a late friend of mine that has been a problem for Arts men since at least the 50s. I suppose part of the problem now is that to suggest that the universities are partly for giving a liberal education will stimulate only a Bronx cheer from the peanut gallery. I write in subAmerican English because I suspect that it is particularly obvious in the US that universities are now unable even to contemplate giving a liberal education. It would only trigger the snowflakes, denying them their safe spaces.

    If the universities’ new purpose is to give an anti-intellectual indoctrination in the higher drivel then it’s hard to make a case for their continued existence. Awfully sad but there we are. The trahison des clercs has won.

    • Well, as will be seen, I’m pretty clear what the powers-that-be, whatever their political colour is, think the university is; I just don’t want to agree. Of course, it seems that the colours no longer agree as to whether its (declining) ability to produce social mobility is a good thing or not…

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