Britain’s recent general election has been the first step towards a long-overdue public debate on the social consequences of austerity and growing socio-economic inequality. Social attitudes in the country appear to have shifted, and the longstanding dominance of the Conservative Party, in politics and public discourse, might be slowly coming to an end.
What does this sea change mean for British academia? Surprisingly, some commentators have recently begun to suggest that one of its foundational elements – tuition fees – might need to be lowered or abandoned (1, 2). Predictable resistance to this idea notwithstanding, it is remarkable that the political consensus in favor of fees may now be over. However, looking beyond the incipient debate on tuition fees, it is difficult to see how universities might change – and change for the better – in the foreseeable future.
To begin with, academia continues to be largely invisible in public life. Public attention and media debates are largely limited to discussions of various rankings and league tables and ways in which the ‘student experience’ could be improved. A brief look at, say, the education section of The Guardian should be enough to confirm this pattern. There seems to be little public understanding of or interest in how academics do their work, be it teaching or research, and how universities operate as workplaces. It is therefore not surprising that prominent politicians would see fit to devote greater attention and funds to secondary education instead. And it is not surprising either that even obviously well-intentioned public commentary would reveal a deep lack of understanding of what universities actually do, how academics actually work, and what problems they face in this context. Consider, for instance, Andrew Rawnsley’s opinion piece on tuition fees in The Guardian. Rawnsley writes:
“Not so long ago, I was in conversation with the head of a humanities faculty at a Russell Group university. I said to her that every time I spoke to students, I heard a lot of complaints. It wasn’t just how much they were paying – it was how little they thought they were receiving in exchange for being saddled with so much debt. “It’s our fault,” she sighed. “We’ve not been good at making the students understand that teaching is not what we’re really here for.” I know academics who are enthused by teaching and brilliant at it. There are also academics who regard interaction with their students as, at best, a tiresome diversion from their research. The quality of teaching in schools has been rising over the past 20 years, which makes students the more discontented when they find it isn’t up to scratch at university.”
He then goes on to call for a national conversation that should be “intelligent and wide-ranging” and “involve robust thinking about how to change the behavior of those universities that are underperforming and overcharging”. An intelligent and wide-ranging debate would indeed be welcome, but it would have to involve a robust challenge to the value-for-money reasoning that is implicit in Rawnsley’s argument.
“Quality,” in Rawnsley’s account, seems to be synonymous with something along the lines of “appropriately extensive classroom and tutorial time in exchange for the considerable amount of money students pay in fees.” This value-for-money reasoning highlights profound misunderstandings about scholarship, teaching at degree level, and students’ intellectual development. Rawnsley’s reasoning is fundamentally the same that has legitimized the TEF and the countless other audits that have become part and parcel of academics’ working lives: Teaching in higher education must offer value for money. Academics cannot be trusted to deliver value for money, as they often regard teaching as a sideshow. Therefore, they must be monitored, audited and performance-managed, to ensure their compliance.
The fact that this narrative is offered by a particularly thoughtful and well-informed journalist highlights the fundamental problem which British academia may face in turning the post-electoral sea change into a significant improvement of institutional conditions and academics’ work lives. The misunderstandings that inform Andrew Rawnsley’s commentary should be obvious to anyone who has ever taught at a university for more than a few weeks: Learning cannot be sold and bought. More contact time between lecturers and students does not necessarily improve students’ intellectual development. Learning at degree level involves intellectual engagement with issues that are so complex that time alone with a book or a journal article may be more productive than time spent in a tutor’s office. The long contact times that are customary in schools are therefore not suited to universities. Academic knowledge is specialist knowledge, and academics also need time to engage in research to truly become specialists in their field, rather than teachers of second-hand knowledge gleaned from other people’s books and articles.
However, none of these insights currently form part of public debate in significant ways. Even where academics have made sustained attempts to insert them into public conversations, as in the recent challenge to the implementation of the TEF by various groups of scholars, they have failed to gain traction. In order to effect change, there must be a sustained and highly visible challenge to instrumentalist understandings of education that measure its success in terms of grades scores, graduate employment records, graduate incomes and similar criteria. As no such challenge is on the horizon at present, little change is to be expected for British academia.