Why is higher education SO bad?

park bench

This is NOT a Golden Age

I often wonder how commonly held the myth of a certain kind of higher education is—of tweed-jacketed dons in lifelong jobs, with iron-plated pensions, spending lots of time with happy, engaged students, teaching with passion, with space for slow, thoughtful scholarship. Whether this “Golden Age” of universities ever existed—and it almost certainly didn’t—it’s clear that (in the UK) we’re currently a very, very long way from this.

Huge amounts of positive energy in universities is directed towards understanding the world’s problems and devising solutions to them, but the very places where that work is done are seemingly unable to put it into practice.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, and I do have a tweed jacket—two in fact—although I’m trying to grow out of them (metaphorically speaking). I’m permanently employed and can work from home relatively easily, which at the current point in time I know is a massive luxury. I love teaching and research, there is endless scope for intellectual growth, and have some great friends and colleagues. If luck and elbow grease align, there is a long-term, upward career path for me. But it’s not all rosy, there are squeezes and frictions, and around me I see a university system which is terrible for a lot of people—both staff and students.

Social Mess, Financial Catastrophe

Socially, higher education is a mess. In the ‘West’, if you’re wealthy, straight, white, male, able, and did well enough at school, then life at uni—and probably at a so-called “top” uni—is probably a blast. There will be ups and downs, and the work will be challenging at times, but in the grand scheme of things, it’ll likely be fun. You’ll be safe in the knowledge that Ma and Pa will bail you out if things get fiscally wobbly, and you’ll be blissfully insulated from discrimination. You might find your privilege checked a few times, but that would be a knock to the ego rather than a genuine pain.

If, on the other hand, you’re a long way from wealthy-straight-white-able-male, it could be a lot less fun. Part time or even full time work in addition to your studies, alongside the sense of being an outsider, unwelcome, not clever enough (which won’t be true), would weigh heavy. There is mental health and other support, but it’s stretched thin and doesn’t counterbalance the fact that the system is stacked against you. The same goes for the progression into academia—less PhD places and far less doctoral funding outside the (predominantly white, middle class) higher status universities. Then the academic job market is rough (and particularly so now): most people will face years of precarious contracts, and some will carry the added burden of multiple discriminations along the way.

Financially, the system is a catastrophe. In the UK, as in many other countries, students are accumulating huge debts, much of which they won’t be able to pay off (so the state carries the can) but there’s nonetheless the weight of years of scary balance statements and wage slip subtractions. The present loans and fees system here costs more to the government than the previous system (lower fees, more state support) did, but much of the current situation is fudged in clever accounting and passed on to the never-never. Salaries, for those that can get full time and/or permanent positions, are good but dwindling against the rate of inflation, and even before Covid blitzed the financial markets, the pension situation was looking increasingly grim.

Why is so much SO bad in higher education?

It’s a constant source of frustration—and weariness—that huge amounts of positive energy in universities is directed towards understanding the world’s problems and devising solutions to them, but the very places where that work is done are seemingly unable to put it into practice. Yes, universities are large, slow-moving beasts, and there’s an appropriateness in not rushing through changes without deliberation and due process. And there is progress towards widening access, better support, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and so on. But it is desperately slow, far too slow. It could be a million times better.

You can’t change it from the outside, but in some ways you can’t change it from the inside, either.

Part of the problem (and the solution, of course) is people. Universities are located within, and not insulated from, societies in which burning injustices and abuses prevail. They are no ivory tower in that sense, or in any other. The idea that academics are separate from society ignores the fact that they live in the world, have and lose friends and loved ones, do “stuff”, read the papers, vote, eat, shop, and so on. The bigger issue seems to be that universities can’t change. People are crap, knowingly and/or unknowingly, and we’ve screwed it up. While the will for change does exist in many places, the thing simply won’t budge.

Needed: Time, Diversity, Cultural Change—and Cash

This inertia operates on several counts. The first is an issue of time: universities are wound up so tight, are so over-optimised in terms of workloads and the production of lessons, papers, grant applications, that there is simply too little slack in the system to amply address what are deep-rooted problems. To rewrite an individual ten-week course to be more inclusive in terms of broader content, more collaborative teaching styles, and variable assessments, would take weeks. The bureaucracy to then reapprove it would take longer so people are left, where they can, to making microchanges within existing course descriptions. People don’t have the time because universities can’t—won’t—give it to them.

Secondly, that universities are so homogeneous means that the people who highlight problems struggle to be listened to because colleagues can’t see it, and/or they don’t have the time or head space to think/do anything about it. There really is no area of higher education which is unproblematic: if you examine a university’s entire modus operandi, such as its admission and promotion systems, its teaching and support services, its physical infrastructure and management practices, there are gremlins throughout the system. The scale of the job is simply staggering. It’s probably a decade or more of work, and that’s without keeping the whole thing running while you’re making those changes.

That there is so much to do is, thirdly, a recurring cultural problem. How we do things is inherited. They’ve developed over time, they sort of work, and a great many problems we don’t notice. So much of a university’s life course is written into formal guidelines and processes or forms, and informal, internalised practices. We can’t simply stop, so we end up reproducing those problems. We also have to play the game to stay in our jobs, climb the ladder, teach, advise, present, get funding, publish, and this means that we benefit from and maintain those broken practices. You can’t change it from the outside, but in some ways you can’t change it from the inside, either.

The human cost of this system, even without Covid, is unfathomable.

Finally, universities can’t afford to change. Literally. Something the pandemic has exposed in the UK is that many universities, after decades of policies forcing them to compete for a limited pot of funding and status, are financially precarious. Many have borrowed deep and outsourced services to beautify their campuses and facilities to attract students and funding. This means that they couldn’t take on more staff to alleviate workload issues even if they wanted to. Staff work hundreds of hours over and above their contracts, ostensibly for free but the university model is an insatiable beast. It always wants more savings, better results, more funding, more students, but with the same—or preferably less—people. We can see how students were lured to campuses for face to face teaching because the universities needed the fees and accommodation money. The result is that students are stuck and suffering while staff are having to cope with the fallout, often at short notice.

It MUST be better

Universities will never be the promised land, but they should be decent places to be part of—as should all sectors; higher education is no more deserving of this than any other field. But that higher education is not far better is a cause of constant pain to me, and is a crushing agony to many. The human cost of this system, even without Covid, is unfathomable. For all of the staff who are exhausted, denigrated, and spat out of the system, there is a desperate army of freshly minted PhD graduates and post-docs who want to escape unstable working conditions for the relative safety of a permanent job. Fresh (cheaper) meat. Potential students have few or no other options, and they can’t afford to drop out because they have the debts to pay off anyway, so their best option appears to be to push through and hope that it all pans out.

I so wish it were different. It must become different.

This post was originally published on Stuff About Unis.

Richard Budd is a Lecturer in Higher Education in the Department of Educational Research at the University of Lancaster. He is mostly interested in how students’ experiences vary between universities and countries. His profile can be found here. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo by Zino Bang from Pexels

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