University teachers: an endangered species?

Opinion Piece by Marina Warner

Current policies are imposing business practices on education, and the consequences are blighting the profession, and will continue to inflict ever deeper blight on the people engaged in it – at all levels. The relinquishing of financial support by the state is not accompanied by diminution of authority: indeed the huge expansion of management follows from direct state interference in education as well as other essential elements of a thriving society.

Last September I wrote an article for the London Review of Books about my departure from the University of Essex, followed by another piece in March reflecting on the perversion of UK Higher Education. The responses I had to these articles came from people at every stage of the profession. I had feared that I was a nostalgic humanist, but if I am, the ideals of my generation have not died. Access to education to high standards fits very ill with business models – as the strong drift towards removing the cap on fees shows. The result of the market will be an ever-deepening divide between elite universities at one end and ‘sink’ institutions at the other.

I am going to focus on those who fulfil the prime purpose of the whole endeavour; that is those who pass on their knowledge and foster the spirit of inquiry and understanding in their students: the teachers.

First, the policies that are now being discussed, changing the rules regarding Further Education in particular, will need more and more teachers. Yet throughout the profession there is a shortage, and the toll taken on those who do teach in higher education is heavy and growing heavier – economically, psychologically, socially.

Student debt, already heavy after a first degree, is preventing individuals from carrying on, sometimes to an MA, and very frequently to a PhD. The numbers of graduate students from abroad conceals a yawning gap in educating the next generation here, and the one after that. I would like to see a graph of the rise in EU, US and graduates from Asia studying here: they are making it possible for our places of higher education to flourish, but their numbers – most welcome numbers – mask a significant and widening hole in the country’s intellectual ozone layer. Current anti-European feeling as well as rising xenophobia deepen this danger.

The intense promotion of mass lectures in digital classrooms belongs to the business model for education, and such methods might work for passing on basic data, but won’t work to develop independent thinking or test skills of reading and interpretation. Besides, personal contact hours are already a live issue with students.

Secondly, the current form of the REF – and the promised TEF – exacerbates the stress on young academics – who are indented into the precariat – the new underclass. One effect among many has been the flight of many in the profession from teaching into administration: this lies at the root of the current disastrous disequilibrium in the universities. As an administrator, you get to give orders and you get paid twice, three, four times as much. The invasiveness of government and its shifting and endless demands for measurements – many of them, including the REF itself, entirely ill-suited to represent the objects of its inquiry – places power in the hands of people many of whom have realized they are never going to be REFable themselves and don’t want to teach. It also clears a space for bullies, as surely as the playground of a failing school. Several of the letters and messages I received recalled appalling scenes of this kind, which will be directly familiar to many of us, unfortunately: the historic autonomy of departments and their elected heads has come to an end.

One highly distinguished correspondent – who has to remain anonymous – wrote to me to say the mistake academics made was to allow our salaries to fall so far behind business and civil service standards. This happened because the teachers were doing it for love…we thought it was a vocation, not a business.

Thirdly, a particular business model has been chosen. It does not follow the example of Germany, one of the most successful capital industrial powerhouses in the world, and where, by the way, fees have been abolished altogether. Does Germany, which as we know is hardly a friend to wild utopianism, see something we don’t see about the importance of higher education for all? By contrast, the economic model dominating many if not most universities in England is also intensely hierarchical, and ideologically committed to competition as the spur to productivity. Colleagues in the humanities are under ukases, sometimes written into contracts, to win grants. Several individuals in the same dept. will be ordered to pursue the same funding at the same time … The harvest is meagre, the winnowing ruthless. But quite apart from the losses we are suffering as a result – the gifted people who are driven down and out, the atmosphere of the workplace is poisoned by the rivalry and the success of the few.

I am not saying everything was hunky-dory before between colleagues. Of course not, but the profession is not a happy one today – except for the very few stars, who mostly now no longer teach at all, as these elusive and desirable grants are intended to buy out that time.

So what can be done? A few things are critical and must be looked at immediately:

– Graduate support – this applies to the FE sector as well as to HE if those students get new degrees and would flourish if they continued to study

– The ratio of managers to teachers

– The differential between salaries across an institution

– Regarding the Humanities, the REF should be set aside altogether, in my opinion, but, as that is probably not going to happen, then any department should be represented in its totality, while dates of appointment in relation to publication need to be taken into account, and there should be no advantage in opportune transfers and sales of star players.

– Finally, academic contracts need to be secure and our pay higher in order to ensure status and influence – unfortunately.

There is a huge amount of good will as well as talent and knowledge out there among the actual and potential teaching professionals, and it needs to be cared for, fostered, recognized as vital, valuable, and essential, the main catalyst of future national well-being.

Note: This blogpost is based on a talk given at a meeting on Perspectives on Education at the British Academy, on Friday 24th July 2015.