Academia: A choice between people and buildings or a trick in a hamster wheel?

Lisa Overton with Rebeca Cruz and Myhanh Ha

The Higher Education sector needs to change. This blog presents the initial analysis of 24 qualitative semi-structured interviews with women-identified academics about their experiences of the 2018 UCU-USS strikes focusing on ‘futures’ as a theme to examine what the ‘new’ University could look like. One vision reflects reality and suggests a further marketised future. The other plants education as a fundamental public good and suggests a humanised Higher Education.

The 2018 Strikes gave both mental and physical space to validate existing feelings about academia in a sector that could often feel “frantic”. These spaces allowed time to stop, reflect and “realise the world goes on anyway…it makes you realise how…academia is a kind of trick almost…into believing it’s…vital…that you’re working all the time and putting massive pressure on yourself but actually we stopped and very little changed.” This opened up a questioning of academia as a greater good and public service which means that academics “don’t see themselves as labour, and I think one thing the strike was good at was actually academics thinking ‘ok, maybe I am just a cog in a wheel” with another comparing it to “a hamster wheel…I look around me a lot of people who frantically chasing.”

This trick of academia came with a sting in its tail, further devaluing how participants felt about academia: “one of the things staff are resenting are the massive expansion programmes…for a lot of us, we see it, a very particular choice being made between people and what we’re talking about is not just a choice between people and buildings.” Building expansion programmes (some through significant borrowing) are seen through a marketization lens, couched in a language of ‘social mobility’ that suggests a ‘good’ degree is a ticket to a ‘better’ job (Bunce et al 2017; BIS 2016; Moleswork et al 2009).

This leads us on to the tricky situation where sector and provider identity is tied up with participants own identity as academics: “if you’re gonna work for a business, I think you should just work for a business…if you’re gonna be a service provider, I just want to be clear that I know who my clients are and how I work with my clients.” Our institutions are replacing our ivory towers with shiny new campuses (some through significant borrowing) to provide services that feel like we are turning our students into clients or customers but this is at odds with how participants felt about the purpose of academia suggesting an identity crisis in the sector: “everything hasn’t shifted yet, we’re stuck in the really awful stage where we’re still thinking we’re in the old system where we don’t have to pander to them, but with this new system where we’re actually providing a service to them.” The findings illustrate the contention between how academics feel about themselves on the one hand and what the neoliberal University model nudges us to be: ‘the entrepreneurial, corporate academic’ (Morrish and Saunston 2016).

Within our hamster wheels we are increasingly expected to discipline ourselves alongside jumping, successfully through a range of ‘cogways’ through the REF to the TEF to prove that we have been monitoring our own progress in a system that has turned institutions and even colleagues: “into competitorsthere’s a lot of resentment at my institution from people who have a heavy teaching load who feel like…highly research active colleagues are shirking their teaching load.”

So what needs to change? Echoing the calls of Morrish (2019) participants talked about the need for meaningful leadership and change which many felt they found at the Picket Lines of the 2018 Strikes, captured in the words of participants as “one of the best things I’ve ever done…and I felt like I was part of something” which made them feel “alive,” “worthwhile” and realising that: “I don’t think I have that feeling a lot of the time.” This is in stark contrast to the ‘corporate, entrepreneurial academic’ figure and created a more inclusive, invigorating environment to imagine a future for the university through kindness, support, listening, thinking, recognising that “we are all human beings.”

Starting points for change cluster around the bigger picture as well as smaller, ‘everyday’ change. It is also recognised that the issues are wider than HE providers. At the systemic level, research shows academia is particularly discriminatory to Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority colleagues, working class colleagues and women, with Black women faring worst of all (Ahmet 2020; Ahmet and Howarth 2020; Binns 2019; Wright et al 2007). This was evident at picket lines and throughout the 2018 Strikes where “the strikes reflected who the minority really are.” In fact some noted the “colour” of the picket lines could be “plainly clear all the academic staff are white.” Furthermore, the intersections of race with gender as well as a number of other axes such as sexualities, gender identity and dis/ability were linked to a range of barriers.

The sectoral level was widely recognised as problematic including publishers, funding bodies and the troubled notion of the-student-not-student PhD ‘Candidate’ entry point to academia as a career path. Through ‘grant chasing’ comes ‘opportunities’ for short, fixed term contract-jobs, but can often “lead onto nothing…that seem to just perpetuate casualisation.” This is linked to how academic careers begin where PhD ‘scholarships’ (if you can get one) are notoriously tight and so “getting everyone to be paid a living wage in academia and…PhD students should have rights to maternity leave that should be paid in one way or another” are just a few ways academic careers can embed value at the start. Value is also linked to paid, unpaid and hidden labour: “we’re providing our intellectual labour and intellectual products to these journal publications that are making millions off of our labour but then…we say if a student can’t pay their fees they’re out of the university.  So for the students we are not willing to give our intellectual labour for free.” This contention of who pays and who profits looms large with the fee structure for students in particular being a system that many feel places a wedge between students and staff and as the crucial cog to change “it would start with abolition of fees…it makes students believe that they pay for everything…nine thousand actually comes nowhere near the cost of an education but because it is very important sum students believe it is and it’s evil, completely evil” because education is commoditised and not seen as a right.

Management now needs to be replaced with meaningful leadership across the entire sector to create an environment of “distributed decision-making” that becomes a more devolved system inclusive of academics’ voices, knowledge and ideas: “what would make my life work immediately better is being trusted more, being…monitored less…being allowed to…decide on strategy and what it is that we do as an academic and as an expert rather than being put into a position in which we have to enforce or…translate strategies that are…thought up and decided somewhere else.” Doing this could create stronger links between all staff and students of the university where they feel not just listened to, but valued. A key element to rethink here are the measures and metrics that govern our universities’ directions, particularly the NSS, TEF, REF and: “whatever the hell else is going to come next.” This is going to require not only a shift, but a complete transformation in political discourse: “I’d like to see them put a lot more money into universities and to really celebrate universities and not to see them as some kind of massive drain that only exists in order to help people get better paying jobs afterwards because that’s not the point of university.” In fact, in the spirit of collegiality and something many of us in the sector know already, summed up here is that “all universities in the UK are very decent.” This echoes the chorus found at the 2018 Strikes for change through humanised higher education that doesn’t have to be a competitive wheel peddling the market cogs to ensure the customer gets what they paid for.

Since this research project, the issues that hung in the air unresolved sparked further strike action, moving from ‘just’ pensions to tackling pay, workload, equity and casualisation (UCU 2020). We are now in a global health pandemic, but standing at the same junction. We can stand together and continue the chorus, even politicians have praised Universities’ efforts in their response to COVID-19. Or we can fall back into competition, which with a lack of actual commitment in funds from the government, may become more fierce in the scramble over what to do with lost revenues. Change is coming: many predict a potential collapse of the model for some universities – will it force change or increase growth of neoliberal agenda?

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