Silent academics and the decline of (higher) education

Yesterday alone, about three articles about manifest maltreatment of university staff came my way: The SOAS University of London “sacked all of its casualised academic staff in one go”; the University and College Union published a report about “dehumanisation” of casualised staff, and a group of researchers on higher education published a paper revealing “an acute situation of endemic bullying and harassment, chronic overwork, high levels of mental health problems, general health and wellbeing problems, and catastrophically high levels of demoralisation and dissatisfaction”. Academics read such news a lot, but three articles of that sort in one day are a bit much. Now there are many good analyses of the situation, but I’m increasingly convinced that many of the problems come down to one simple issue: silence. By and large, academics seem to remain silent about these issues. And the silence signals or translates into a lack of solidarity with those under threat. Given the articles above, you might think that the community is rather vocal. But my impression is that this is the tip of the iceberg. Only, the iceberg has become quite huge by now.

Looking at the situations worldwide, it is clear that universities are under threat in many places: Hungary and Brasil look particularly bad, but Turkey, Romania, the US and many other places seem to fare no better, when it comes to systematic attacks on higher education practices.* The articles mentioned above are about the UK. I am writing from the Netherlands. While our system struck me as fairly good on arrival in 2012, I now begin to see rather worrying signs. Whenever I say that the attacks on the education system are systematic, I get a number of frowns: “Surely, it’s bad, but no one wants to harm universities”, is what people want to say. – I’m not so sure. Education is a pillar of democratic participation, and that makes it a nuisance for those who just would like to have things their way. Anyway, what strikes me as systematic is the following ubiquitous chain of events: (a) The government reduces the education budget and incentivises research competition among universities (via grant agencies). (b) Universities compete by setting up staff to fulfil incentives; neglect of teaching follows. (c) Fulfilment entails increase of incentives and casualisation of teaching-oriented tasks. (d) Research grows while the outsourced teaching is pushed to the fringes so much that the field of study might be perceived as irrelevant for students and thus for other stakeholders. (e) Finally, people note the irrelevance, close the pertinent departments and repeat from (a). The upshot is: the business model of universities feeds on research and casualises teaching. Rather than forming a unity, teaching and research (or rather the pertinent performance indicators) are played off against one another.

Wherever the chain sketched above or some variation is seen as the proper business model of universities, the silence among staff members follows almost automatically. Of course, no one really seems to want the outcome (e) or even the decline of teaching. Thus, it will get portrayed as an undesired result of focus on research. At this point, however, we have already forgotten that what is being measured most of the time is not really research but performance indicators, in other words: jumping through hoops. Jumping through hoops and worries about failing to do so ultimately block collective action and promote silence instead. Mariya Ivancheva describes this as follows:

“It is quite difficult to unite and organize resistance around a common cause while higher education has a huge reserve army of workers on precarious fixed term and fractional contracts, unsure if they will have secure employment and bread on their table in a few months. And this while even permanent academics feel ever more vulnerable and threatened …”

Dutch academia is currently addressing this issue in the guise of overwork. While overwork was already a topic a while ago, the government recently intervened by reallocating (and effectively cutting) money for universities. Thus, gone are all the measures thought out for balancing the situation. Ingrid Robeyns explains the situation as follows:

“Colleagues report negative effects on their mental and physical health, sleep deprivation, constant worrying, deterioration of their friendships and other social relations, insufficient time for self-care including doing exercise, and so forth. The main problem is that the notional hours that are given to teach a course or do supervision … are inadequate, and hence a 70% teaching load leads to a more-than-fulltime workload. And since everyone also wants to, needs to, and/or is expected to do research, that also still needs to be done. Add some administration and/or leadership tasks, and societal outreach, and we easily make 55 hours a week. For colleagues who only teach, and who are on the lowest pay scales, this also means they have troubles buying a house or starting a family, since those contracts are almost always part-time, and hence also create financial stress. … [T]he Minister of Higher Education has acknowledged that the universities need a structural increase of their yearly budgets with 1.000.000.000 Euro (one billion!) but she claims she doesn’t have that money available.”

Too bad, isn’t it? You would think that this would create some momentum, but it doesn’t. But why not? I have no clear idea, but my first hunch is that it has something to do with the way criticism is portrayed. You would assume that criticism is mainly seen as a means to spot problems or weaknesses in a system. But in a competitive system, spotting weaknesses is likely turned against the critic. If you spot a weakness in the system, then you are too weak for the system. Arguably, academia is therefore often driven by the pretence that everything is just fine. A second reason might be that political criticism in universities is currently framed as an indication of left-leaning biases or even what is called “Cultural Marxism”. Accordingly, criticising the system can be framed as a political attitude that is deemed unfit for academics, who are taken to be sworn to dubious standards of neutrality. If you want a whiff of this just listen in on Trump likening climate scientists to “foolish fortune tellers”.

It seems, then, that there are three mechanisms that govern the silence in academia: (1) The competitive set-up incentivises pertinent priorities among staff members. This is not per se an incentive to remain silent; it just directs the focus on performance rather than cooperation. However, the following two points might reinforce adherence to the status quo more strongly: (2) In a competitive set-up, criticism can be portrayed as the display of a weakness (“oh, this is too much for you?”). (3) The ‘external world’ frames criticism as “left-leaning politicisation” of academia.

How can this be countered? Given the well-founded worries, it should be on the tenured staff members to speak up first. But contrary to common opinion we should also be reminded that university administrators are not enemies by default. It is clear that such framing helps dividing different university staff groups, but it is by no means a given that people involved in administration are enemies of researchers and teachers. In fact, many people in higher administration have condemned the policies of the government in the clearest terms. (Here is an example from the president of Groningen University.) So a second measure would be to doubt the common construal of academics against administrators, not least because administrators often are academics. We should return to seeing ourselves as a community with quite a number of shared goals and interests. In this spirit, criticism should not be construed as putting blame on someone else or oneself, but as a normal way of detecting problems. Reinstating vocal criticism with this aim would hopefully reinstate some trust between different status groups and stakeholders. But, yes, as Ingrid Robeyns pointed out already, one of the first things one should do is: join a union.

____

* Just over the last two days there were a lot more reports. Let me just name France, where a new research law is under way: “France’s new research law is yet to be made public. But judging from preliminary discussions, Professor Huneman feared it could make the previously permanent positions of assistant professor and CNRS junior researcher temporary.”

In the meantime, protests in the UK include a growing number of academics refusing to act as external referees: “29 professors said they were resigning as external examiners and refusing to take on new contracts because of pension cuts and insecure contracts throughout the sector, as well as gender and ethnicity pay gaps, heavy workloads and stress.”

 

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