“The detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life”: Academia in, against and beyond the University

David Kernohan –

For all the extras that a modern institution can offer prospective students, the unique proposition of university life is regular interaction with academics and para-academics. It is the one thing that cannot be offered elsewhere, and the one thing that now seems too expensive to offer in universities.

This, obviously, is just one aspect of a larger socio-political issue, linking to wider contemporary workplace trends like deskilling and casualisation. But here is not my place to make these links. Instead I simply want to ask why universities, in turning away from Newman’s famous “idea”, are systematically undermining themselves both as intellectual enterprises and as businesses.

The modern university began in medieval times as groups of independent tutors banded together to support and defend their interests in an education marketplace that was expanding and diversifying. There was much in common with a guild, or a trade union. As these groupings solidified, then came the roots of early institutional management – one tutor would spend time supporting and promoting the work of the guild, focusing on administration rather than scholarship.

He might buy or arrange services from others. Perhaps he would start with arranging accommodation for students and tutors. He might attempt to secure the patronage of royals or other wealthy or powerful families. He would be visible within ecclesiastical circles – as the main employer of educated men was initially the church. He might purchase or commission books. And he would ensure that students paid regularly, and that tutors got paid.

All this was done by academic staff, for academic staff. Academic leadership was a way of ensuring that the interests of staff were protected. But it also preserved the uniqueness of what was offered, and the university became a by-word for academic quality and an attractive proposition for those seeking to learn. At the time the “degree” had comparatively little cachet, and students would often leave when they felt their education was complete.

The blunt logic of the market determined what was taught, and how. Students would travel across Europe for particular approaches that only certain institutions could offer. The market, of course, also distorted academic practice – creating essentially two parallel systems… one for the children of the super-rich, who would carouse and eat well and pay academic wages, and one for the “scholars” (itself, once a term of abuse) who would be the bright but poor – there to learn as much as they could. Again, the academic management of this system allowed what we would now call cross-subsidy.

As a growing industrial base and global civil service cried out for people with “trained minds”, new British institutions like Manchester and Birmingham sprung up to meet these new employer needs. Government funding – systemised as late as 1919 in the UK – brought with it a pressure to prove that public money was being spent wisely. And this, on balance, was useful to academia – the old benefactors (and the church) were far less conducive to academic freedom than the aggressively even hand of the government.

But, in terms of access to education, we have moved only from Jude the Obscure to Brideshead Revisited – existing money and status was still a huge determiner of access, no matter how equitable conditions were inside the cloisters. The 20th century was characterised by a huge ongoing expansion of the system – the much-loved Robbins Report of 1963 making this growth exponential and offering for the first time access to higher education for all that could benefit.

But, in terms of the actual practice of academic instruction, little had changed since the introduction of a key “disruptive technology” – the printed book. Students still sought entry to university to become a part of a scholarly community, and it was the contact with and support of academic staff that characterised this. The institutional offer was situated in the quality and commitment of these staff – who still managed institutions, though with a growing army of supportive administrators who ensured that requirements attached to state funding were met.

In the last thirty years, the pendulum has begun to swing back to a market-regulated system of higher education. But with one key change – the managers of universities now have more in common with commercial CEOs than academics, and use administration as a tool for financial rather than collegiate benefit. State funding, now following student rather than societal needs, still supports the majority of the sector – but commercial logic controls the way this funding is allocated and spent.

Students (or at least the aggregated marks of the National Student Survey) are now at the heart of the system, and institutional managers are the leaders of huge export businesses. The employer voice is demanded in the design of every course, with professional bodies and, often, legal requirements adding further to the curriculum. Huge systems of quality assurance, documentation, and measurement pass through layers of administrators to reassure – who? – that everything is just as it should be, and to direct increasingly shrinking pots of funding.

Meanwhile, the challengers to the dominant institutional model – I’m thinking here of MOOCs and private HE – do so by omitting a major cost-base. Every other part of the higher education system appears to be rounding on the terms and conditions of academic staff.

It is now normal for the academic staff that undergraduates face to be paid an hourly rate on a seasonal contract. It is now expected that undergraduate marking and pastoral care is carried out by someone who is not a permanent part of the community of scholars that an institution still claims to be. It is now required that the shrinking number of staff who do have long-term employment spend at least as much time on preparing materials for administrators than they do at teaching or research. And all the while, terms and conditions are under attack, burn-out and mental illness is common, pay is frozen and the threat of redundancy and closure looms over all.

The 2014 “offer” for students is focused on a smooth transition to employment, and some beautiful new buildings. But the university as it is currently constituted is not the smoothest or most efficient way of achieving this – and with oncoming rapid changes to wider society the current needs of employers are probably the least useful barometer of what needs to be taught.

Academics are again banding together and taking action to look after the interests of wider collegiate society, and are increasingly seeking the support of students in doing so. The years since the latest shift to a commercialised higher education have been marked with industrial unrest, occupation and the rise of alternate models of learning. But it is increasingly clear that the modern university is no longer the centre of collegiate life, and it is doubtful whether we can say it supports the interests of academia.

Further reading/listening

“In Our Time: The Medieval Universities” (BBC R4, Broadcast 17 March 2011) (http://goo.gl/jj79lT)

Wright, Thomas, “Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea”, (Chatto & Windus, 2012) (the earlier chapters on Harvey’s educational experience are particularly germane here)

Newman, Cardinal John Henry, “The Idea of the University”, (http://goo.gl/ZKIYa7 )

Anderson, Robert, “British Universities Past Present and Future: Convergence and Divergence” in “Pearson Blue Skies” (Pearson, 2011): (http://goo.gl/rCCr03)

Thompson, EP, “Warwick University Ltd”, (reprinted by Spokesman, 2013)

David Kernohan is a blogger and commentator on higher education and technology, writing at “Followers of the Apocalypse” (http://followersoftheapocalyp.se/) and “Wonkhe” (http://www.wonkhe.com/). He writes here, by invitation, in a personal capacity.

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