Higher education review of the decade? Hmm. The 2010s will be remembered by me as the age of the academic league table. Global, local, research, teaching, or knowledge exchange; official, unofficial, by newspaper or blogger. Give academics a new league table performance indicator, and we’ll go a-chasing, with all the dignity of a soap opera character at the Boxing Day sales.
And what is in store for the 2020s? Brexit planning suggests universities will be keener still to inch up every league table, thereby bolstering national and international student recruitment and easing their bank balances.
As year replaces year it is hard not to share the pessimism of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa:
“Now we have another Eternity
And always the one passed away was better.”
But need the 2020s be more of the same but worse? How could we make things better? It won’t be easy, but here is my wishlist.
First, student mental health, where ever more young people are reporting problems. True, it doesn’t follow that mental health problems are getting worse, for perhaps diagnosis and reporting have accelerated. Nevertheless, most universities accept the need for more and speedier action, if only we could find and pay for the therapists.
Yet there seems less interest in whether universities cause mental health problems, and what we might do better. Which courses or programmes have the best and worst records? What do they do differently? How can we change the way we, in universities and schools, teach or assess work to reduce stress and anxiety?
The second issue is interdisciplinary research. Problems such as climate change or global inequality cannot be solved from within a single discipline. Making a valuable contribution requires painstaking acquisition of a variety of complex skills and knowledge.
For a junior scholar this can be career suicide. Most universities are based on single-discipline departments and few jobs are advertised in interdisciplinary areas. We need to align university propaganda, favouring interdisciplinary work, with career incentives. Might we, perhaps, reform the undergraduate curriculum, or, heresy of heresies, rethink academic structures?
Next, early career opportunities. A particularly brutal form of competition takes place for permanent lectureships. It is not unusual to receive hundreds of applications for a starting post. Almost all will have PhDs, publications and teaching experience, and be qualified to do the job, but few will get a good position. The philosopher and historian RH Tawney referred to this situation as the tadpole conception of equality of opportunity. Almost any tadpole could grow into a frog but, as those of us who put frogspawn in jam jars as children will recall, hardly any will, and it is largely a matter of chance which few succeed. Some say we should reduce the number of PhDs; others that we should help provide good career opportunities outside academia. But we cannot continue to pretend the situation will sort itself out on its own.
Oversupply relative to demand creates the next problem: the opportunity to exploit highly qualified teaching and research staff. By this I mean the casualisation of the academic workforce by use of short-term and part-time contracts and, in the worst cases, appalling pay and conditions.Economic uncertainly has meant that universities feel the pinch and look to make savings wherever they can, so it’s understandable that it happens. This practice stinks and needs to change.
Finally, and perhaps most consequentially, the higher education sector needs to step up to accept and fulfil its role as a central pillar of civil society. As other countries know only too well, the truly significant threats to academic freedom come not from student societies protesting against a maverick speaker, but a deep chill from the top, making university leaders nervous about criticising those with actual power. UK universities need to be ready to defend not only themselves but the hard-won institutions that make a strong, relatively free university sector possible.
In sum: dear 2020s, please save us from nostalgia for the 2010s.
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