The Blog

What Is Wrong With UK Higher Education?

UK higher education is again experiencing significant labour unrest with thousands of members of UCU, UNISON, and Unite having spent Halloween on strike. A sustained period of working to contract is now underway as employees are refusing to provide the uncompensated overtime that has become the norm in the sector.

UK higher education is again experiencing significant labour unrest with thousands of members of UCU, UNISON, and Unite having spent Halloween on strike. A sustained period of working to contract is now underway as employees are refusing to provide the uncompensated overtime that has become the norm in the sector. While these actions could be viewed as arising from a pay dispute, there is a broader set of grievances held by workers. But these are not the exclusive purview of estates, catering, administrative, or academic staff. Given that universities reflect the hopes and anxieties of the society in which they are located, the feelings of deep dissatisfaction are reflective of broader problems that are also found outside of higher education.

First, there is a sense that the sector lacks competent leadership within the coalition government. David Willetts has proven himself to be duplicitous in his attempts to 'improve' university provision. His real aim is to transform higher education into a leaner and meaner institutional form that is more susceptible to rapacious profiteering by the private sector. Most risible in this regard was his recent lament that not enough time is being spent on teaching in universities. His comparison to data on contact time in UK higher education in 1963 was at best spurious given that student numbers have increased several times over while relative levels of funding have precipitously decreased.

In sharp contrast to Willetts' perception of failure, the differences in contact time clearly showed publicly funded institutions operating with a resiliency and efficiency that would be the envy of any organization--what private provider could deliver ten times as much with funding cuts of up to 40% per unit produced? His unsubstantiated claim that research over-shadows teaching missed that research-led teaching is the bedrock of innovative pedagogy and promotes advances in the student-learning experience. Moreover, Willetts' memory is poor: if research has assumed a core role in the contemporary university, surely it was his party that catalyzed this focus with the imposition of national research assessment exercises beginning in 1986?

Second, the poor leadership at the ministerial level and the blasé attitudes towards inequality within the coalition government have created a feral managerial class in the higher education sector. What is good for the sector and for the student learning experience increasingly takes a back seat to personal aggrandizement in the pursuit of pet projects and the shameless courting of ministerial fancy. It is important to remember that few Vice Chancellors spoke out against tuition fee hikes or have taken a courageous line against the ongoing targeting of international students by the Home Office. Yet both policies are driven by craven ideological inclinations rather than what is best for students or higher education. These levels of capitulation and collaboration by managers in the dismantling of the social contract that binds universities to their core constituencies are globally unprecedented.

But rather than showing some humility in the collective failure to speak out in defense of students, the sector, or their hard-working employees, the response of management teams has been to award themselves massive salaries and yearly pay increments that soar above inflation as evidenced by trends in remuneration given to Vice Chancellors.

More damningly, there has also been recourse to more petty forms of ostentation that are enabled when a small cadre begins to believe in their own self-importance. For example, like members of Parliament before them, the Executive Board of Newcastle University was caught out by good investigative journalism --undertaken by students no less-- when a freedom of information request revealed the accumulation of massive expenses for first class travel, luxury hotels, IKEA flat-pack furniture, and even a metro ticket valued at £1.40. That many university management teams continue to gorge at the trough while lumping students with long-term debts, and demanding that front-line staff incur real wage cuts, signals that something is very rotten indeed.

Third, inequality in higher education remuneration is getting worse. Whether in the use of zero-hours contracts, the failure to pay living wages, large ratios between the highest and lowest paid, or the largest single decline in wages experienced by a profession since the end of the Second World War, front-line staff at universities are being asked to fund austerity to an extent that those responsible for the financial crisis have not. Pay in real terms has fallen by 13% and now UK academic staff find themselves well-behind levels of pay at comparable publicly-funded competitor institutions in places like the the United States and Canada. Moreover, gender disparities in pay still have not been addressed.

As pay packets shrink, the tasks that lecturers and other staff in higher education are being asked to undertake continue to increase exponentially. Whether it be serving as agents of the UK border agency, compiling evidence of research 'impact', or the constant filling out of paperwork for a government-mandated bureaucratic machinery that serves little purpose, the expectation is that staff will forever be able to more with less.

And yet, despite the ill-informed complaints of ministers that are then echoed by the right-wing press, the sector continues to perform at a high standard with considerable levels of accomplishment: research assessments show overwhelming that institutions--whether Oxbridge or post-1992s--are producing findings that are internationally recognized, if not world leading. At the same time, student satisfaction rates routinely reach levels that rail firms, energy providers, mobile phone companies, banks, and the coalition government could only dream of.

Under-appreciated, under-compensated, and over-worked. Most workers can manage one or two of these in their workplace before their patience runs out. With ineffective ministerial leadership, a feral management class, a deterioration in workplace conditions, and ongoing perceptions that nothing we do is ever good enough, university staff are being asked to accept all three. Like others outside of the ivory tower, many workers in the higher education sector have had enough of being forced to pony up for an ideological experiment in national governance that is clearly failing. This is why this dispute is more than just a disagreement over pay. It reflects profound divergences over what a university is, the social mission of higher education, and what kind of workplace environment best supports the pursuit of this mission to a world-class standard.