Salon debate: What are Universities for?
Just been speaking in the Brighton Salon debate against two University (Derby and Sussex) academics. This was ‘Election TV Debate’ night, so the people who turned up were almost all hardcore academics and students. So I opened with a question, “Does anyone know the names of the two shadow ministers for Universities?” Not one person in the audience could answer (David Willetts, Stephen Williams). In a way that’s a bit symptomatic of the problem - few care that much to do the deep thinking and refection. I've often noted a sort of 'tunnel vision' in debates on HE, as if the sector existed in splendid isolation, with values different from the rest of us unwashed and intellectually inferior beings, as if it is beyond criticism. There’s often a dearth of real facts in debates like these. Everything is discussed at an abstract level, ignoring the political context, economic realities and often the uncomfortable facts of the matter.
Coming back to politics, five years ago Universities were a big part of the election debate, Tuition fees were seen as the new poll tax and getting more and more kids to university was the aspiration. This time round the mood is of complete indifference. Universities are the invisible policy of this election. Loan-loaded students with low job prospects, the shambles that is the student loan system and an increasingly inward looking sector, over-reacting to any attempts at change, had led to it being totally ignored.
Professor Dennis Hayes, from the University of Derby, kicked off on a philosophical riff about ‘not liking the question’, questioning the question being a standard philosophers’ reply to any question. He gave a defence of the University system as the protector of intellectual endeavour and values “without fear or favour”. I liked this definition, but can’t for the life of me see that fear or favour is any way the norm, now or in the near future, in universities. The only 'crisis' of values is in the heads of some academics.
The second speaker, Dr Blay Whitby, again defended the “eternal values” of the system. Both saw ‘managerialism’ as the Trojan horse that was eating away at these values from within. I’m not convinced by this image of the Universities as having a set of enlightenment values that have and will outlast political and cultural change. Academe is often well behind actual changes in society. I made the point that it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that they dropped religious affiliation as a condition for study, women couldn’t get degrees in some universities until well into the 20th century and their track record in terms of the meritocratic principle of entry has been appalling. The modern British University is largely based on the German (Humboltian) model and is largely a 20th century construct, not an enlightenment model.
‘Managerialism’ and ‘Managerial capitalism’ are the sort of pejorative terms you often hear from academics who need to blame something or someone -they're bogeyman terms, and were thrown about like rocks in riot tonight. The tone of was - we university bods are very smart you know – we don’t need this managerial malarkey. This is, of course, fatuous and hollow. First, Universities are large and complex institutions with large budgets and they NEED to be managed. Well managed institutions will provide better research opportunities and better teaching. Academics, who have rarely managed anything, assume that things just sort of coalesce into an organised structure - they don't. Secondly, the people they brand as ‘managers’ are often academics and ex-academics. There is this illusion of a Machiavellian, managerial class that is out to stymie the poor lecturers, kill freedom of speech and close down all the universities. It’s nonsense, of course, but when you’ve got loads of time on your hands you can constantly flame the blame. The abstract concept of ‘management’ is their bete noir, no better than paedophiles, grooming their way into positions of power, then pouncing when least expected. Being a Finance Director in a university must be one of the worst jobs on the planet. Thirdly, since most prestigious universities have lucrative Management and business schools, shouldn’t they be good at this? If not, why don’t they close them down?
Senates, Courts and Councils
Fewer still understand the way in which UK universities are run and managed. After the debate one person attacked, what she called the 'managers' at Sussex, but clearly had no idea who these 'managers' were. There was no knowledge of Senate, Court and Council structures and their very different roles or how they are elected.
Senates are dominated by academics as they are responsible for teaching and research and far from being loaded with private sector types or managers, normally have the head of libraries, trade unionists, student union rep and so on. Similarly with Councils, that have some external bods but are constrained by statutes. The Court is a sort of check and balance mechanism that normally meets once a year. It's all very driven by charters and statutes and really isn't a culture of managerial capitalism. Some Universities have a more streamlined structure, especially those that did not arise out of Royal Charters, these, in my opinion, tend to better run.
I’m a fan of the University system, and see them as institutions that are worth preserving and fighting for, but I despair at the idea that Universities are beyond criticism. Academics who defend freedom of speech and intellectual debate are very uncomfortable when it comes to criticism of their own methods and institutions, and often make outrageous claims about how decisions are made without any real knowledge of how their university is actually managed.
Sussex cuts or retailoring?
Many in the audience (they mostly taught or studied there) had strong views on the current attempts at Sussex to re-orientate the University for the future, with some job cuts. So here’s my first challenge. Some universities are well managed, others are not. The University of Cumbria has a £30 million deficit and is badly managed. Others have modest surpluses to build for the future and are well managed. Attempts to clear up bad management, by clearing up departmental deficits, poor research performance and overruns on spending, are seen as an attack on academic values. In fact, these are managerial devices designed to support academic activity. Let me illustrate this by example.
Sussex University want to do something about their crèche (I got hisses in the audience at even mentioning the word ‘creche’). Here’s the facts. The crèche had an OVERRUN of £350,000. I put that word in bold as it is usually deliberately ignored in the debate. The OVERSPEND is £5,600 on each child. This is public sector money and no way can you spend this sort of extra money without some fallout. What they’re trying to do is get the thing in line with other publically funded creches in the region. The University is not a bunch of childcatchers. They simply want to get the thing aligned with normal spending. Academics are not some special race who need special treatment, they’re people who deserve support at the same level as others.
Then there’s the supposed job cuts. I was accused of being ‘patronising’ for even putting a case here. It’s weird how even putting an alternative case is seen as morally evil. What’s worrying is the fact that academics and students have such narrow views of open debate. One attendee, who announced herself as a Professor of History, the head of the department no less, described the University of having ‘fingered’ certain staff (unfortunate use of language) in her department. Now I’ve been told by several people that Sussex plan to “stop teaching all pre-1600 history” (to be fair she didn’t make that claim). This is, of course, nonsense. Undergraduate teaching of pre-1600 will continue, however, there has been specialisation in the department around research and post-grad modern history (her speciality in fact). Without this sort of specialisation, most Universities would be in real trouble. It’s good for the system, good for students and good for researchers.
Sure there are job cuts, in the life sciences, engineering and history. But when you have dropping student numbers and declining research activity and performance you are duty bound to readjust for other future courses and research agendas. You can’t just add new courses and research topics at the top end without looking at poorer performance at the bottom. You must weed and feed to have a healthy, academic ecosystem. In fact, most of those job cuts will be handled through redundancy and adjustments to requested part-time work. What is ignored are the jobs that will be created and the research funds that are likely to flow, when these new research leaders (in cancer) bring their teams and fuel newer and better research.
Agricultural calendar and emptiness
The recent brouhaha over the general cuts in HE by Mandelson led to some hysterical exaggerations by the HE community and Mandelson found it easy to counter the hyperbole. What the critics conveniently ignored was the fact that the cuts were largely to the capital expenditure budget (zero on research). Now I’m in and out of Universities all of the time, and it is astonishing how underused and empty most University buildings are in practice. Some are like ghost towns. This is confirmed by HEFCE’s tracking of occupancy rates.
One major problem here is the agricultural calendar. Universities are empty for huge stretches at a time, as their timetable is based on the pre-industrial, go home for the harvest, timetable. If you want to do a course in October, you’ve got to wait eleven months to start. A simple adjustment to a Summer Semester, like many US universities, will increase occupancy and get more students through the system. This, I suspect, will be forced on the system.
The current University model is based on the 18 year old undergraduate. The whole university experience, for many a drunken meander through a three year degree, where you attend as few boring lectures as you can get away with, crib from your mates, then cram for finals, is as embedded today as it was thirty five years ago, when I attended. Yet more and more older students and part-time students, with a more focussed agenda, are doing degrees. The drunken meander is perhaps a luxury we can no longer afford.
Another solution to the clearly inefficient system is the use of technology. The Open University has nearly 200,000 students, nearly 20 times more than Sussex, yet none are on the campus. Learning, has to a degree, freed itself from the tyranny of time and location. I’m not saying we should abandon all face-to-face activity, but we can at least introduce a better blend of delivery.
Don’t lecture me
I’m no fan of the lecture, as there’s nothing in the psychology of learning that supports it as an efficient method for the transfer of knowledge. But what really annoys me is the refusal to record the damn things. The advantages are clear – students get a second bite at the cherry, with time to review, reflect and take notes. It’s an anachronism that needs to be addressed. What's so galling is that despite clear evidence that this increase student performance and attainment, the teachers won't do it. Research evidence, it would appear, counts for nothing when it comes to their own profession.
The failure of Universities to share has also led to huge duplication of effort and inefficiencies. It drives politicians to distraction. Clearly, IT and a host of other services could be shared. It worked with Janet and Superjanet, why stop there? Even at the level of teaching, why not re-use lectures and content from other institutions. In fact, students do, with textbooks and the millions who look at lectures online, when their own lecturers fail them. Look at the stats for MIT's Professor Levin in physics.
Teaching versus research
At one point the second university guy said that “teaching is incidental to a university”. This really annoyed me. For him a University is quite simply a body for research, with students as a sort of adjunct activity. Sorry, teaching is a core activity. He was disparaging about Open University students who he described as “not able to talk much” and many other students who he clearly saw as time wasters. This is a very common view among academics, that the quality of students is to blame, and that bad teaching has nothing to do with it. Their view is that 'I lecture, and no matter how bad I am, they should turn up and listen!' In the real world, students desert the lecture room, often after hearing a very poor first lecture. They retreat to the library and the comfort of their own room to study because they quickly learn that they’ll get their degree anyway.
One also has to wonder at the explosion in the quantity of research in the system, especially after the 1992 reforms. My suspicion is that we’ve had a flood of second and third rate research that does little to advance humanity and knowledge. One of the best questions from the audience was around the changing nature of knowledge and knowledge transfer. It got a little lost in the heat of the debate, but the academic speakers clearly were of the view that they had the knowledge and that people had to turn up to their lectures to get it. Sorry, it's about a thousand times more complicated than that. The lecture is a throwback to a time when there were no books. One need not attend any live lectures if they were recorded. There is room for lectures, but only if they're of sufficient quality in terms of content and delivery. Most, especially at undergraduate level, could be shared from the best lecturers in the world through recording and distribution.
Making the future
John Fulton, the founding Vice Chancellor at Sussex got it right when he described universities as 'Making the future’. All too often they get drawn back into defending the past. In any case, if this election delivers a Tory victory, the cuts will be savage and got help those Universities that Tory MPs did not attend. My guess is that fees will rise, deep cuts implemented and certain Universities left to merge or go bankrupt. Rather than let this happen, I’d like to see academics go for a ‘more for less’ agenda by being as bold in their institutions as they are in their own research. Here’s a shortlist of seven for starters:
- Loosen up the agricultural calendar – fast track and two year degrees
- Summer semester to increase capacity and reduce low occupancy
- More sharing of resources between universities
- Record lectures and use of pre-recorded, world-class lectures
- Weeding and feeding of departments for future health
- Cull of third and second rate research
- Every University mandated to adopt distance learning
Next months Brighton Salon talk will be by our Professor of History; on ‘Burlesque’. She is, apparently, an expert on glamour. Good to see that academia is holding fast onto those ideals of intellectual rigour and endeavour. I wouldn’t like to finger anybody, but…………