Is the university sector at risk of becoming a split self?

Words by Lydia Dye-Stonebridge, joint runner up in the CDBU Essay Prize Competition 2022.

I once worked for a large corporate, and they saw it fit to test my personality. The assessment plotted me against the Randian axes of dominance and compliance, influence and steadiness. My line of best fit demonstrated that while in work, I was “devoid of emotion”. Outside of work, the data indicated that I was generally more palatable, “seemingly confident” even.

In this disjointed state, it concluded that I was “currently frustrated”.

As imbalanced as my id and ego might be, the contextual factors shaping my behaviour were conveniently precluded from this analytical report. In the space of two years, my role had changed, but not advanced, six times. I was frustrated. My reality was frustrating. My personality wasn’t what I’d call frustrated, though – it was fractured into a warped work- vassal and the bit that inwardly railed in horror.

Are you nodding your head in empathetic relation? Do you perhaps work in the academic sector, as I once did? Even if you are lucky enough to be absolved of precarity or a ‘let’s try this’ approach to organisational management, there might be periods where you too might feel devoid of emotion. In an age of TEF, REF and rubrics of minimum outcomes, you may even feel a bit fractured.

There is a psychological mechanism called “splitting” which arises out of insecure situations. To risk oversimplifying a complex concept, people who split begin to see the world in binary terms; valuable/worthless, safe/dangerous, good/bad. This helps them cope, but they lose their rootedness in the muddled, nuanced thing that is reality. It also begins to frustrate their relationships with others, leading to conflict.

These are unsettled times in the academy, times of extremes. Polarising dichotomies – particularly excellence/insufficiency and groupthink/radical individualism – are new experiential proxies, new encampments. They are no longer endpoints of a messy and long- standing continuum. They are our binary reality. Unless universities themselves reorient around nuance and cohesion, the split-self will only deepen, perhaps irreparably.

So, why is this all happening? Let’s start with context.

You are great. You could be better.

“What we as a small island have managed to achieve in higher education is nothing short of extraordinary. But we cannot expect to be able to sit back and quietly polish our world-class reputation in a globalised higher education market. A defensive game when it comes to quality will not do. We have to be bold enough to identify where quality is slipping in our system and stamp out complacency.” Michelle Donelan, speaking as Universities Minister in February 2022.

As you already know, barring some regulatory and legal obligations, British universities are autonomous entities. The Government, in contrast, is a democratic entity. This gives the Government the mandate to represent public sentiment about – and funding of – universities. Universities, being much their own things, have the right to either conform or dissent at their peril – or so goes ministerial logic.

Again, as you know, there are three main mechanisms by which the Government adulates or flagellates universities: the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the Office for Students Conditions of Registration. This triumvirate superintends Governmental funding decisions and student interest, with these streams of revenue forming the bulk of university budgets.

This is the strange form of autonomy in British higher education.

These assessment criteria form the shoreline between the dry land of academic autonomy and deep water of governmental decisions. Sentiment is the tide; culture wars, marketisation and geopolitical upheaval the storms churning out at sea. At the moment, we’re in a bit of a policy El Nino: the Conditions of Registration changed in May of this year; the 2021 Research Excellence Framework had substantive revisions from the 2014 version; and the Teaching Excellence Framework will change next year. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement is likely to precipitate further change.

The net result of this is insecurity and a near-neurotic, survivalist orientation towards affirming oneself through ruling the waves; a rational response but still, one beset with some abnormality. For example, in a recent article for the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Professor Peter Mandler, historian and author of The Crisis of the Meritocracy, expresses concern that the REF has shifted from a peer-led measure of genuine research excellence into something that is “liberally reinterpreted to suit managerial prerogatives… a massive headache, insinuating itself in places where it doesn’t belong, dampening initiative and originality.”

The insecurity persists. If you were to stick your finger in the Whitehall air, it would be difficult to ascertain whether higher education sentiment was coming from the north or the south. In the REF 2021, the Government celebrated that over the past six years, 80% of British university-led research was either world leading or internationally excellent. During the same period, ministers threatened universities with fines over 50 times for getting things wrong. More people than ever obtained a First, but a common lament was a weakening of standards, not an elevation of delivery and capability.

The temptation would be to just draw inland, but it would be hard to survive without the fish. Another would be to build harbour walls to calm things a bit, but it’s hard to do that when everything’s thrashing about.

So, you let the tumult shape you; whatever thrives must be excellent, and what is washed away, insufficient – the first split.

It’s worth what I say it is.

“I think all courses, given the high payment, the cost, the loan you take, should be about high-skilled employability.” Robert Halfon, speaking as Chair of the Education Committee in January 2018.

Sitting neatly within the dichotomy of excellent and insufficient is the notion of ‘high-value’ and ‘low-value’. A quick search of Hansard of “degree+value+university” unsurprisingly reveals an uptick in mentions in 2010, the year of the Browne Review of higher education funding, and a peak in July 2019, just after the Augar Review of the same subject. ‘Degree value’ clearly commands greater attention when there are spend decisions involved, rather than in response to other societal needs.

In current Governmental parlance, a high-value course is one in which: 1) confers a high salary shortly after typically undergraduate-level completion, thereby a high rate of loan repayment and tax returns 2) addresses an immediate labour shortage or 3) accelerates economic development, primarily through scientific and technological means. This neatly shuffles graduates of most long-standing academic subjects into a ‘low-value’ column, even though when in work, their lifetime outcomes are often stronger.

It was once that universities would politely and confidently advance an alternate vision of ‘high-value’; that they are there to help us understand ourselves and the world around us, they’ve been working on this endeavour for a long time, their graduates thrive and other adult training options are out there. This isn’t to say that universities held an anti-vocational outlook – medicine, law, divinity and, rather obviously, education forming historically popular courses and ‘exit pathways’ – but philosophically woolly concepts like truth and as part of that, excellence in critical thought, always served as some form of ultimate purpose.

A recent report from the UPP Foundation shows the public has adopted some version of both viewpoints, so we are where we now are: a new era where more people are undertaking degrees but the majority in courses oriented to specific careers, and universities themselves following this trajectory to be ‘valuable’. We have moved past the era of ‘traditional’ and ‘careers’ universities; all universities are now some form of careers-hybrid, even if the promise is just in that having ‘a degree from here’ will confer an earnings premium.

And because this social power-up holy grail is out there, it all becomes high stakes – very winner/loser. The Times recently published a maternal lamentation of a son failing to secure an interview at Oxford. Yes, the world gives Oxford graduates a disproportionate earnings boost and yes, her son really did all that he could, but I suspect the quality of undergraduate education where he did go was, you know, fine.

Who wants to be a loser, though? So you refine yourself to be a winner and make winners – you close your under-ranked humanities programmes, because History? Low uptake leading to strange roles in Heritage on public sector pay. Permanent contracts? Let’s put the money instead towards transformational management strategies.

Or you just gloat about what you have, casting a pallor over other programmes that are more emergent or serve a different kind of need. It works both ways.

To the left, to the right

“Just imagine, if you will, their shock. Their outrage. Their incomprehension. Britain’s most famous, achingly right-on, liberal lefties being blackballed from university campuses because they are insufficiently achingly right-on and liberal.” – Rod Liddle, Journalist

The last split I’ll briefly mention has to do with the political polarisation of free speech. On the left, you have groupthink and cancel culture, and on the right, you have radical individuals pushing free speech to ethical limits because – who knows – it maybe makes them feel purposeful. This is another facet of the ‘winner/loser’ schism, but interlinks with the character, and not just the outcomes, of university education.

The issue is far too complex to discuss in a short essay, but it perhaps is indicative of an internalised culture of binary side-taking rather than co-operative exchange (although there is a legitimate question on how widespread explicit free speech issues may be). Unlike the issues discussed earlier, it’s hard to contextualise this as a direct result of Governmental policy, not to say that some of the drivers aren’t deeply political. This is why this split is perhaps of greatest concern.

With Free Speech in Higher Education legislation on the table, the Government is clear they want to win against the ‘woke’. It’s a chilling moment for autonomy, but the ensuing conflict and relational damage are clear symptoms of a split somewhere. Institution/students? Management/other? Whatever it may be, reconciliation is needed as all form the body of the university.

Becoming whole again

According to Aristotle, the very purpose of education is to bring happiness to life. Dialectic exchange, foundational to Aristotelian thought, forms not only an important process of unearthing the very truths worthy of passing on, but evolving things towards a happier ideal. It also acts to add nuance, thereby guiding people towards the middle route where cohesion happens. This is in contrast to Sophistic eristics, which only seeks to win.

There is a correlation between borderline personality disorder and splitting. Borderline personality disorder arises when people struggle to make sense of who they are and how they relate to others. The form of therapy most commonly recommended for personality disorders is Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which helps a person not only realise that two things can be simultaneously true, but also rediscover their identity.

One prudent step, therefore, would be for universities as a whole to commit to a cohesive and confident articulation of their personality. As part of this, there must be an authenticity of purpose rooted in education, not unduly in an employer-led desire for staff who pay for their own training and development, nor in the aggrandisement of one specific institution or discipline.

Universities must also meaningfully model and develop a culture of dialectical exchange. One simple way is to preserve the disciplines that do this, such as the humanities and pure sciences. But there are other ways too – develop strong school partnerships so the old converse with the young, and the young learn how to challenge ideas with civility and an open mind. Engage in dialectical debate with the Government, who again, do have a democratic mandate to represent a public view and direct funding accordingly. Engage with the public, so they understand why academic study matters.

Most importantly, back away from a frustrating binary split between winners and losers, and validation against dysfunctional frameworks that frustrate, rather than facilitate, the academic pursuit of truth. Advocate for nuance, celebrate difference, and most importantly, seek cohesion.

Lydia Dye-Stonebridge has worked in publishing, local government and higher education policy. She holds a BA Hons in English Literature from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is currently pursuing an MA in Philosophy of Education at UCL.