Many long-standing colleagues of mine, like myself, jumped at the chance to leave their employment at UK universities. A number of long-running factors influenced these decisions, and many have come to the fore in recent weeks. They have been on public display in the strike action that affected many courses recently. Low pay, insecure working, managerialism, a fractured relationship with learners. All are contributing to the defenestration of learning. Along with the commodification of the so-called learning experience, which is turning learners into consumers and not thinkers who can build a better world.
Now, with COVID-19 ripping apart our social infrastructure, universities are faced with the challenge of how they can change and adapt. Especially if they are going to be fit for purpose for an uncertain and potentially polarising world. As we pause, reflect and reconsider the basis on which we must address the problems of the future, we must remember that after the deconstruction, assays, must come the reconstruction. A number of obvious cultural and structural things are going to have to be addressed, along with some not so obvious things.
First, the independence of universities, and their requirement to operate as autonomous business units is gong to have to end. The post-Covid-19 reconstruction is going to be an essential project of national importance, so there is going to have to be a return to some control and management by the state of all education institutions. Not just universities, but schools and colleges, adult education centrers as well. Ensuring that resources aren’t being wasted, duplicated or withheld in key areas because of anxiety, a lack of certainty, or the prejudices of the institutions themselves. This is going to be a major challenge. This control by the state, however, need not be totalised and top-down, as part of some National Education Service. Instead, the state’s role is the coordination of priorities and the breaking down of barriers to achievement and attainment.
We’ve seen in stark relief how the National Health Service is lacking key workers, not just doctors and nurses, but well-trained ancillary staff who are educated to a high degree, and who can use their knowledge to enact change autonomously. The role of universities is to promote professional, knowledge-led, empirically grounded personal autonomy and capability. The most valuable people we need to support in the next few months, are not those that tell us that things can’t change, or that change can only be wrought destructively. Instead, we need people with flexibility of thinking. People who are drawn from all walks of life, to ask ‘what if?’ questions. What if we do things in a different way? What if we approach problems from a different angle? What if we think about our assets and our resources from an alternative view point? A sustainable, social and shared point of view?
This then means, secondly, that the marketisation of higher education is going to have to be halted and eradicated from, not only the higher education system, but from the school and college systems as well. It is wrong, and many people have warned about the consequences of this process for some time, that universities are forced to compete against one another for student numbers. The spending on marketing, branding and promotional material by universities is obscene. Yes, universities need to communicate, but the gimmicks, the tricks, the over-projection of branding based on nebulous and fanciful marketing strategies, has to be curtailed immediately.
Higher education has to be seen anew, not as an elite good for a few people, but as a broad-based social good, that can benefit everyone throughout their lives. Not just as a narrow rite of passage and a self-justifying social experience. The feeling that our many of higher-deucation institutions have become places of fun, like a holiday-camp experience, has to end. They are not. They are dedicated to learning, testing, questioning and critical thinking, above all else. The fun can happen elsewhere, and the joy of learning can be given its rightful place again.
This means getting rid of loans and returning to grants for both learners and institutions. The dalliance with the free market has irreparably damaged the relationship between the learner and the teacher. The commercial archetypal mindset has taken over from the nurturing and guardianship archetypal mindset. We have pushed aside the values that matter, and have promoted a narrow model of market-led self-interest. UK Universities are no longer run by educators and researchers. They are run by accountants, process managers and marketing consultants. This marketisation has destroyed the essential bond between those who want to transform their understanding of the world, and their place within it, and the teachers who can facilitate that difficult process of change and fulfilment.
Market expectations of learning, generate rigid and fixed expectations about outcomes. The government has talked about measuring universities on the basis of the economic value of employment. Well, that has now been blown out of the water. Rather than counting and assessing the earning potential of graduates, we must find a way to appraise their contribution to the greater good, by investing in their capacity to bring about cultural, community, interpersonal and ecological well-being. It’s no longer sufficient to think in terms of the money that a person earns, we have to think in terms of the contribution those people make to the greater good.
The myth of heroic individualism that drives the market model has to be replaced with forms of sustainable collaboration, mutual engagement and social solidarity. After all, on the hero’s journey the hero meets many helpers and goes to many places that people have built and nurtured as a community. They just don’t get the same recognition for their efforts.
As Robert Kegan said, we aren’t really individuals, instead we are embeduals. We live together in shared networks of families and communities. We are all facing the same challenges of adapting to, caring for, and managing a fragile world. This means that we have to change the learning model from one that focusses on results and outcomes, that we endlessly obsess about measuring and assessing. Instead, we need to focus on what our values are, and what we seek to understand that is mysterious now, but which, with some work, can be made concrete and real. We can’t any longer promote the idea that social advantage comes from using our superior knowledge over others as a weapon for personal gain. Instead, we have to put that knowledge and wisdom into action and in service to what we wish to protect, what we wish to nurture, and who we care for.
Academics can spend time endlessly discussing what they care about, but as Nell Noddings argues, at some point we have to put that knowledge into a plan for engagement, development and learning. We have to be pragmatic, and look at how and in what way we can make a practical difference. As John Dewey alsway said, if it isn’t making a difference, then why are we doing it. The endless publication of unread research papers has to stop. We need to completely reappraise where we think that graduates will be expected to belong. We live in a complex and interconnected world, and we should never think about returning to an insular, chauvinistic or nationalistic point of view. But we need, also, to rediscover that belonging, and having a local footing in a strong community, is essential to public well-being, and thus the development of expertise and knowledge.
Universities have been forced to compete in a globalised marketplace, and while there are many benefits arising from that, there are also many pitfalls. How many of our institutions are truly interconnected with their local neighbourhoods and communities? How many university-level projects have been internationalised and have crowded out emerging localised research projects and emerging local academics? Where is the sense of local civic pride that we should feel when we mention the name of any university near to us? At worst, universities are viewed as operating as a self-serving and insular racket. They effectively function as a market cartel because few checks and balances exist to counter the managerialist and quasi-commercial obsession that now dominates. The answer is not more market reforms, though. It is to bring universities back into our networks of civic and community accountability, and make them an essential part of our local democratic processes.
If universities are reintegrated back into local community networks and civic structures, with locally embedded democratic accountability, then they will return to the key task of serving the public good, rather than appealing to the vanity of a globalised managerial class, who want to run universities like a commercial corporation because it they are seduced by the power this brings. Universities are not Coca Cola.
To avoid a statist takeover, however, why not turn all of our universities into mutuals. Every student and every member of staff becomes a member of a cooperative, and has a legitimate say in the running, management and the priorities that universities work towards? They can offer life-long membership, local membership, and can develop independent services that serve local needs, bacuse they are owned and democratically controlled by those who contribute to them.
One of the most important things that we are going to have to change, is the way that we prepare people for actively taking responsibility. Of running things for themselves, and dealing with the problems that inievitably come along. The service-culture mindset, in which we can absolve ourselves of the responsibility of ensuring that our social infrastructure is sustainable, is being broken and destroyed by the Coronavirus. The government is having to step in to provide lender and purcheser of last resort support. We therefore need to build new structures of accountability within universities. Structures that are co-developmental and collaborative. As a mutual organisation, with a co-operative membership, every contribution should be valued and respected, and the personal vanity of a few can be counterbalaned by the needs of the many.
Learning to take responsibility for how things work, and what to do when they go wrong, will be the core essential social skill of the future. We need to preparer people, young and old, with the knowledge, the experience, and the confidence to take responsibility of things for themselves. There is nothing new in this idea. The practice of bildung has been a vital part of north European life for some time. We need to learn from our Nordic friends that pretending to people that life can be easy and convenient is a category misdjuement. Life is tough, and we need to ensure that people have the skills, resiliance and shared capacity to meet the challenges that life presents.
The old world order, where learners are expected to do as they are told, to just play the game, is over. Simply stiving to get the social advantage that you can, that suits your own ends, has been exposed as a folley. Instead, we need to ensure that collaboration, community development, peer learning, social engagement, listening, critical thinking, questioning of authority, and empirical testing, are all at the heart of higher education. As Carl Jung says, teaching is difficult, which is why most people resort to being judges. It is also why they resort to nudging, but the days of behaviourist social policy have also come to an end.
We need, then, to put the teachers and the researchers back in charge of higher education in the UK. If we do that, based on the values of inquisitiveness, of shared joy in knowledge, in recognition of the hard work of learning, then the social autonomy of individuals that this fosters will have far more economic and social value than the failing market and instrumentalist approaches could ever provide. We are running out of time, and we need to act swiftly to ensure these changes come about, but they will take imagination and solidarity of purpose to ensure that they happen.