Darren O’Byrne – Notes on the Current Crisis of Higher Education in the UK

COVID seems to be bringing out all the contradictions of neo-liberalism. Even in higher education.

Darren O’Byrne is Reader in Sociology and Human Rights at the Department of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

UK universities fine students £170,000 for Covid rule breaches |  Universities | The Guardian

Notes on the Current Crisis of Higher Education in the UK

There is a strong belief that British universities are in a state of crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the extent to which universities are unsustainably reliant on student income, not only in terms of fees but in respect of accommodation costs, and are in some cases so fearful of the wrath of the angry student-as-consumer that they are willing to place their most precious resource, their academic staff members, at risk and under considerable stress as they adapt to new teaching and learning conditions. Brexit had already presented universities with sizeable challenges concerning international student recruitment and participation in lucrative European research-funding schemes.

Of course, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic are not the cause of the crisis, though university managers may try to convince us otherwise. They have merely exposed the failings and contradictions already present in the system. The real disease is neoliberalism, and its two associated, actually incompatible ideologies, managerialism and consumerism.

The fundamental premise of neoliberalism is, of course, that the market reigns supreme. Services are at the mercy of the consumer. As Marx understood, this is the necessary outcome of commodification. Commodification presents the illusion of empowerment for both participants in a transaction: the provider is entitled to payment for her product or service, and the consumer is bestowed with rights articulated in the form of reasonable demands for a satisfactory product or service. In the case of the university, we are informed, incorrectly, that the consumer is the student. I will return to why this is actually not accurate shortly. First, let us consider the question, who is the provider?

In an article published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management in 2014, Christopher Bond and I addressed this very question. We suggested that the modern U.K. university is a contested space in which three ideologies, or paradigms, compete for influence: the intellectual, managerial, and consumerist models. The first of these, the intellectual model, is that adhered to by the majority of academics, and sees the university not as a business or simply a feeder into the wider economy but as a space for intellectual engagement and free, critical thinking driven by a belief in the fundamental value of knowledge itself. The second, the managerial model, is adhered to by a coalition of influential figures in government, policy-making, funding, sector regulation, and also by many university managers. It is driven by a neo-Taylorist obsession with metrics and performance indicators, and by the need for seemingly perpetual restructuring. The third, the consumerist model, is the one bought into by students and parents, among others. It is the discourse in which the rhetoric of employability is most commonly heard, alongside those of ‘value for money’ and ‘student satisfaction’ measured in terms of immediate results rather than quality of delivery.

Bond and I claim that these three models exist in specific relationships to each other. The relationship between the intellectual and managerial models is fought out in the politics of the institution itself, in the relationship between workers and managers. That between the intellectual and consumerist models is fought out in the classroom, as lecturers increasingly struggle to manage student expectations and consumerist demands. Meanwhile, the managerialist and consumerist models interact in the more general politics of the higher education sector itself. This has become the dominant dynamic – the logic of neoliberalism assumes that the managerial and consumerist models are compatible, and in doing so, squeezes out the intellectual model and thus the academic voice.

The provider, then, is the university management. Just as the intellectual voice is marginalised, so are those who speak with it relegated to subordinate roles. The commodification process exists within the dynamic between the student and the managers, between the consumerist and managerial models. The management structures of the modern university sell the product, and profit from that sale. The students purchase the product and demand satisfaction. Those who deliver the service are employed by their managers to do so. They do not exist in any kind of commodified relationship with their students, because they do not benefit directly from the price tag that has been placed on the product. Their relationship with the university managers is one of worker and employer, in so far as the worker sells her skills and her time in return for a wage. She has little formal power or influence on decision-making. She appeals to her union and to whatever nominal representation she and her colleagues have on the university Senate to speak on her behalf. She is managed directly by department or faculty heads who are first and foremost middle managers.

This is not a picture of higher education recognisable to many in government, or in the media, even the liberal media. Oxbridge-educated government spokespersons frequently speak of the university as a singular entity, incorporating managers and academics, and of the dynamic as being two- rather than three-way. The archaic assumption that academics run their universities (and thus benefit from the commodification process), based on the model of the Oxbridge dons, is as naïve as thinking that directors of NHS trusts belong to the same interest group as front-line nurses. The failure by government and, to restate, even potential allies in the liberal media, to recognise and foreground the conflicting dynamic between managers and academics within the university, shaped as it is by elitism, is one of the reasons why British universities are in the state of crisis in the first place.

Let us consider what this means in practice. For too long, academic staff in higher education institutions have been grossly mistreated in respect of pay, workload, and working conditions. The University and College Union (UCU) estimates that in real terms, the value of academic staff salaries has reduced by over 20% since 2009. In many institutions, academic staff are aggrieved by the obvious contrasts that can be made with senior management salaries. It is difficult to argue that ‘front-line’ staff (academics or administrators) have enjoyed any direct benefits from the commodification process.

And what benefits are there to students? Commodification may empower the consumer with certain rights to demand a particular quality of service, but how is this demand articulated in the higher education context? The question that managers and policy-makers seem quick to avoid is, what is the product being consumed? Is it the degree itself, or the opportunity to earn it? Surely it cannot be the former – the patient who pays for medical advice cannot demand to be told she is healthy! Like the patient, the student is not a consumer but a client who pays for a service rather than an outcome. But the logic and the language of consumerism present the student with a false sense of empowerment. Academics frequently complain of being devalued, of being expected to be on call twenty-four hours a day, of being little more than a go-to person for any query or demand the student might have. Managing student expectations has not only become near-impossible for many front-line academics, it has also become increasingly individualised, as the responsibility is put back on the academic to set appropriate boundaries.

So why are so many academics complicit in this? Obviously, the vast majority retain a strong professional and moral commitment to student support, in spite of the pressures imposed upon them. But there is another reason which is often ignored. The managerialist model, in its obsession with metrics, has for too long pandered to the myth of consumerism by using student evaluations, both locally at module level and nationally, as instruments of performance management. The consumerist demand for immediate responses and quick solutions, and indeed for good grades, whether earned or not, necessarily distorts these evaluations and thus these metrics. This is one clear illustration of the contradiction between managerialism, which seeks to measure for the sake of efficiency, and consumerism, which seeks to measure for the sake of personal gratification.

Not that one can rely on a great deal of help from colleagues in auxiliary service-providing departments within the university. One noticeable trend in the metrics-driven university has been the extent to which all such departments have been set their own targets and have thus become driven by the desire to achieve those targets at the expense of some kind of conscience collective, in the Durkheimian sense. Rather, these departments have become autopoietic systems, in Niklas Luhmann’s use of the term, driven by internal goals in isolation from wider structural ones until contradictory goals come into direct conflict with one another. Academics charged with convening programmes frequently find themselves approached by such departments and expected to prioritise issues that are, of course, priorities for the department in question but rarely for the academic, or for that matter the student. Rarely do these departments talk to each other. The modern metrics-driven university operates in a perpetual state of chaos.

The modern university may, indeed will, present the “student experience” as its top priority, but until such contradictions are recognised, this will remain little more than empty rhetoric. Take, as just one example, the issue of employability, which universities are increasingly told should be one of their top priorities. The neoliberal ideological drive towards increasingly vocational degrees is conveniently justified by a claim, entirely unsubstantiated, that students actually want such degrees at the expense of more traditional subjects. Of course, employability remains a priority within all subjects, traditional as well as vocational, as academics are increasingly under pressure to make their content “relevant”, a further example of the devaluing of the intellectual model. Not that academics are opposed to this per se: of course they want their students to get good jobs and no doubt they welcome the chance to show the world how “relevant” their subjects are! But employability is about skills and experiences as much as it is about relevance. How can the university be truly committed to employability when it lives in such perpetual fear of the wrath of the consumer to cave in to the slenderest of student demands within an increasing, and unchallenged, culture of appeals that emerges from the consumerist mentality? This is hardly ideal preparation for work.

Of course, the university has never been, and should never be, all about the teaching of students. Research is of equal importance, even if, in real terms, the income generated by research for the majority of universities is miniscule compared to that generated by student income. Left to its own devices, the market would dispense with research entirely, or else permit it only for those who can bring in sizeable external grants to fund it. The value of research thus becomes dependent on the extent to which it generates “technically-exploitable knowledge”, to borrow from Habermas. Who decides which knowledge is more valuable? Sadly, another set of metrics come into play here – those associated with the appalling Research Excellence Framework. According to this framework, the highest level of “excellence”, that of international standing, is more easily achieved by large-scale empirical projects than by outputs of a more theoretical nature, and research allowances allocated locally to staff often reflect this. It is conveniently forgotten that social research without a strong conceptual framework is little more than market research, and conceptual frameworks are developed by theorists.

Those who seek to defend the intellectual model, and the inherent value of knowledge in and for itself, are easily dismissed as out of touch idealists and even elitists by the advocates of neoliberalism. Conveniently, such apologists entirely miss the point. From Christian romantics such as Cardinal Newman to neo-Marxist critical theorists such as Habermas and beyond, what such commentators are saying is not that there is a contradiction between the idealist and vocational models of the university, but rather than these are inseparable. So, when someone refers to the crisis of British universities, it is worth considering that the crisis emerges precisely from an inability to recognise this, and this is the fundamental problem: the neoliberal approach to higher education by its very definition cannot recognise this. Neoliberalism is the crisis.

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