Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Universities Today

Historiann has tagged me to engage in a discussion about how our universities work and the problems we see in them. I am currently in the unusual position having just moved across the world from one university system to another, so I am going to try to speak to both with the enormous caveat that I know the UK system a lot better than the one downunder. For a bit of perspective, I have only ever worked in the equivalent of R1 institutions in research contracts; I do minimal teaching (and most of that is just to keep my hand in and is mostly voluntary and low pain); and minimal admin. I am relatively well-paid and well-resourced. Reflecting the value placed on research money, I tend to have big offices, good access to inter-library loans, and books, and money for research. I do have to publish a lot, but hey that’s my job, so can’t complain. Most of my day is spent researching and writing in various forms. In short, I am among the most privileged of the privileged. The only meaningful complaint I can make is that the short term nature of the contracts has meant having to live separately from my spouse and also living under a lot of pressure to ‘get the next job’, which means working long hours, publishing like crazy and barely having a personal life.

I am going to begin by engaging with Dr Crazy’s response to this meme. In her post she argues that while universities have problems, discussing the ‘failure’ of the university system is unhelpful and probably inaccurate. And, from my perspective, this is true. In the UK, in the last twenty years, the number of universities has exploded and with it the number of people with degrees. Now, like in many places where this has happened, such expansion has led to a concern over the ‘value’ of a degree (if everyone has one, what’s it worth?) and whether we have enough skilled jobs for such a huge number of skilled workers. Are people just wasting time in higher education, when if they are going to work in the service industry anyway, they might as well just get straight on the career ladder? Now, these are all interesting questions, but as someone who came from a family that held no degrees before the late 1990s, and now has numerous spread out among various family members, and as importantly, different generations of family members, I think this has been a crucial advancement in democracy and equality. Perhaps, there is now more competition amongst graduates, but at least most of us now get to compete. For me, to move back from this position is a retrograde step in social equality – especially because the school system is not equitable. Children at state schools do not get an equal education to those privately educated. And, while it is true that children from disadvantaged areas tend to filter into lower-ranking institutions, we are at least starting to work towards a fairer system for social opportunities and advancement.

From both a research and teaching perspective, universities are now big business like never before, and with that their social and economic influence is unprecedented. Now, we might argue that universities that have always produced the political elite have always been influential, and that ‘ties with industry’ and other community engagement initiatives (an increasing pressure for all research projects) are just reflecting that ‘who is powerful’ is now much more broadly based than in the past, which required universities to adapt if they want to stay powerful. This may well be true, but a) an optimistic reading might see this as a win for democracy and b) a more cynical reading acknowledges that the universities have sold out to the megacorpocracy of capitalism, but also that they have remained major players in this game. Moreover, they now get to exercise power as institutions in ways that were not possible in the past, where political power was held by individuals and not large corporations. They might whinge that they now need to play harder and faster, but are they ‘failing’? This seems unlikely at the moment (at least at a group level; at an individual institutional level, this is more complex, especially for those who have difficulty accessing research money and servicing disadvantaged social groups).

Now, what about the problems? It seems to me, like for many other workers, the main issue here has been the increasing need for universities to compete in the global capitalist economy. Now, while I reckon they are doing alright here, like many industries, the way they have tried to remain competitive is by fucking over their staff and their students, and measuring everybody’s worth in monetary terms. This means that increasingly your value to an institution (and this is true in Oz and the UK), your value is literally measured by how much money you bring in to the institution. Projects with big money get to command big resources and make significant demands on the institution that those who do not bring in the money cannot. This can disadvantage different subject areas, as it literally costs less to do a literary analysis than to cure cancer. In an R1 context, this is to the detriment to teaching. While all the institutions I have worked in have emphasised the importance of teaching, offering prizes to the best teachers and placing an emphasis on student satisfaction scores, people who are good teachers get no extra benefits. You cannot use your teaching success to argue for a bigger office or an assistant. You cannot even use the fact that you are picking up the teaching, but especially the admin, slack of the bigwigs on research leave to argue for a pay raise or really any sort of benefit (perhaps apart from lower expectations on your research output, which tends to work against you as you then limit your ability to win those big research funds). This creates a cycle in many institutions where the same people win the research money and the same people concentrate on ensuring students get taught.

In the UK, this situation is also operating under a government that has no regard for the Humanities as a subject area. It will only fund teaching and research in areas where there is an obvious and applied outcome (preferably economic). This is despite the fact that much research needs to happen at an abstract level, before its applications can be worked out and that our most useful advances have often come from some very esoteric research. As a result, it has removed the teaching budget for students in the Humanities and other theoretical areas, requiring the introduction of tuition fees. It has also cut the funding for humanities research and, moreover, requires researchers to prove ‘the social and economic impact’ of the research, before granting the money. Now, as someone with huge faith in the Humanities, I tend to think that even the most seemingly blue skies thinking can be seen as valuable if sold in the correct way, but the need for such spin is reflective of the devaluing of the Humanities as a social asset. In the short term, this policy has also created some particular problems.

The main one is Humanities subjects are strapped for cash. This means absolutely no permanent jobs in the UK and it is unlikely there will be before tuition fees start to kick in, in 2012 (In Scotland where fees will not kick in, when this will end??? Who knows?). It also means that whereas when previously permanent staff took time off for research leave or maternity, they were covered by temporary staff hired on full time contracts with full benefits, now, their courses are increasingly covered either by people hired on part-time contracts, or by adjuncts, covering particular courses at an hourly rate. This has screwed with the nature of the university advancement system in the UK. In the last few decades, most PhDs worked in full time but temporary contracts for a number of years until they achieved the golden goose of the fulltime job. While temporary, these contracts allowed PhDs to be paid to work on their research and to gain experience of teaching and admin. Now, not only will many PhDs experience long periods of unemployment, when they work they will be poorly remunerated and in part-time positions. They will have no support for research (even in the form of a wage), despite the fact that they will not be employed on the next contract if they don’t have a research profile. Despite this, their research will be used by the said government in making policy and to the benefit of society, and by the universities in proving research outputs.

The alternative to this is the lucky few, like myself, who end up on research contracts, which are at least full time and well paid. There are different ways these contracts can work. Some invite you on to a project as a full partner, where you will get to write and be acknowledged on all publications. Others use you as a well paid research assistant, contractually limiting how much you can publish from the said research, and not giving you credit on other publications. The latter suck not only because of the lack of credit, but because you don’t get to count the research towards your own profile and so have to do your own research in your ‘spare time’. I have done both of these types of contracts. Very occasionally you can apply with your own project, which will form part of a bigger project, or as part of a career development postdoc (these however are the Holy Grail). I have also had this type of contract.

In Oz, much of the broader context is similar to the UK, with a few differences. One, the government supports the humanities, and boy does this make a difference. When you can be employed to work on not only a Humanities project, but an early modern one, that still got 8-digit funding, then you know you have a supportive government. This is not because there is less focus on money in Oz, but rather because they believe that Humanities has something to offer of value – at a very minimum this makes Oz a happier place to work. From the jobs I have seen advertised and the posts I know about, they also see research contractors as people who need to get some publications out of the projects they work in, and are structured around that, which is also a lot less stressful. At the same time, many of the other pressures, including a shortage of permanent jobs are much the same. There is also a sense that the pinch is coming, with increasing discussion of how to make our PhD graduates more marketable and what we need to do to make that happen.

This has been a very faculty-orientated, R1 perspective, but my sense is that universities are having to adapt to an new, harsher global economy. More depressingly, they are giving very little pushback to this process. Instead of taking the lead on what the relationship between research and the economy/ society should be, they are buying into the narrative that ‘growth’, ‘money’ and ‘the economy’ should be our social drivers. But, what is the point of the universities, if not to question these things? And what good the power of our institutions if we aren’t willing to, if not frame, then at least debate the terms in which we operate in the world? Perhaps if the Humanities hadn’t been so sidelined, there might be more of us able to ask and answer these questions?