When good­will goes…

Uni­ver­si­ties in­vite trou­ble if they con­vey an im­pres­sion that stu­dents and staff mat­ter only in trans­ac­tional terms and that di­ver­sity is not val­ued

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - John.gill@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

“Are aca­demics and uni staff the biggest suck­ers ever born?”

Don’t be of­fended

– this is a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion from Gary Fos­ter, a pro­fes­sor in the School of Bi­o­log­i­cal Sci­ences at the Uni­ver­sity of Bris­tol. He posed it on Twit­ter in re­sponse to a re­cent Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion story about the amount of un­paid over­time chalked up in UK uni­ver­si­ties.

The cal­cu­la­tion, if you missed it, is that uni­ver­sity staff vol­un­teer 40 mil­lion hours of their time ev­ery year (es­ti­mated by the con­sul­tants who did the anal­y­sis to be worth

£3.2 bil­lion in for­gone pay).

Fig­ures such as this are use­ful for gen­er­at­ing a head­line, but even if you take is­sue with the de­tail, the big pic­ture is un­de­ni­able: uni­ver­si­ties rely on a huge amount of good­will and in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion to keep the lights on and the cogs turn­ing.

This is a risky po­si­tion when the plea­sure of pur­su­ing an aca­demic call­ing seems to be erod­ing.

Will uni­ver­sity staff who feel over­worked and un­der­val­ued be will­ing to con­tinue in this way?

The bit­ter­ness and mis­trust that has char­ac­terised the de­bate over pro­posed pen­sion changes in the UK sug­gest that some­thing has bro­ken that may not be easy to re­pair or re­place.

Switch­ing to the trans­ac­tional cul­ture of some other pro­fes­sions (lawyers, for ex­am­ple, bill for ev­ery hour worked – ex­cept those proudly broad­cast as pro bono) would dam­age the fab­ric of ed­u­ca­tion. But in a mar­ke­tised sys­tem, where vice-chan­cel­lors’ pay is jus­ti­fied on the ba­sis that they are op­er­at­ing in a global mar­ket and stu­dents adopt in­creas­ingly con­sumerist at­ti­tudes, why should those do­ing the ed­u­ca­tion and re­search be ex­pected to sac­ri­fice their time and well-be­ing with­out re­ward?

This is the quid pro quo of mar­keti­sa­tion, and a di­rect con­se­quence of the shift to a per­for­mance man­age­ment cul­ture, with ex­ec­u­tive pay mir­ror­ing the pri­vate sec­tor and up­set­ting the equi­lib­rium.

It leaves those left be­hind feel­ing like “suck­ers” and is in­dica­tive of a wider break­down in trust, the im­pli­ca­tions of which are likely to go well beyond in­ter­nal dis­cord.

The scope of the po­ten­tial ram­i­fi­ca­tions is ad­dressed in a blog by Nick Hill­man, di­rec­tor of the UK’s Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute, in which he re­flects on what he sees as re­lent­less neg­a­tiv­ity about higher ed­u­ca­tion (in­clud- ing from aca­demics and stu­dents).

Hill­man, who has ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in gov­ern­ment, warns that end­less gloom gives the im­pres­sion that UK higher ed­u­ca­tion is in cri­sis, rather than the world-lead­ing sec­tor that it is.

This is not just bad for the uni­ver­sity sec­tor’s im­age, he warns, it may also be in­ter­preted as a sign that in­tru­sive and un­nec­es­sary ad­di­tional reg­u­la­tion is re­quired.

To re­turn to the ques­tion of un­paid over­time, it is worth re­flect­ing too on the im­pact that this has not just on work-life bal­ance and well-be­ing, but on the so­cial make-up of uni­ver­sity staff as a whole.

It seems ob­vi­ous that the academy needs as wide a so­cial mix as pos­si­ble to en­sure that uni­ver­si­ties re­flect the di­verse body of stu­dents that they must strive to at­tract and ed­u­cate.

But aca­demic di­ver­sity is also vi­tal if re­search is to be ef­fec­tive. To put it in the sim­plest terms, if only pri­vately ed­u­cated white men carry out re­search, their work will be prone to im­plicit bi­ases that leave other groups marginalised and miss­ing out on the ben­e­fits.

Other pro­fes­sions, such as law and jour­nal­ism, have had to face up to the fact that a ca­reer that re­lies on un­paid in­tern­ships and rock-bot­tom start­ing salaries freezes out work­ing-class tal­ent.

Academia must face up to the fact that it too could be set­ting up the less-ad­van­taged to fail – and that this, in turn, sets up uni­ver­si­ties to fail in their fun­da­men­tal mis­sions.

We ex­plore the is­sues at stake in our fea­tures pages this week, with tes­ti­mony from five work­ing-class schol­ars, and it is clear that the bar­ri­ers are par­tic­u­larly acute in the early ca­reer stage.

As one doc­toral stu­dent tells us: “In the world that I in­habit, the phrase ‘I’m skint’ means: ‘I lit­er­ally have no money in my bank ac­count’. In academia, though, it means:

‘I only have some money’.

“As I ap­proach the end of my PhD, it is clear to me that academia is not built with me in mind.”

Other pro­fes­sions have had to face up to the fact that a ca­reer that re­lies on un­paid in­tern­ships and rock-bot­tom start­ing salaries freezes out work­ing-class tal­ent

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