From David Maughan Brown in York: Of Universities and Food-banks

2nd February

Over the course of the last many months of WordPress blog entries, I’ve noted on more than one occasion how pleased I am not still to be part of a senior team trying to manage a university during a global pandemic.  The arrival of a pandemic like Covid-19 might have been manageable for universities in the idealistic decades of their post-war expansion, when Higher Education was seen as a largely unquestioned social good and its roles both as a ‘critic and conscience’ in an increasingly secularized society, and as the provider of much of the intellectual leadership behind commercially beneficial research were recognized.    Before the days of the 1985 Jarratt Report’s study of efficiencies in Higher Education and the Boston Consulting Group’s ‘Cash Cows’ and ‘Dogs’, before the growth of populist anti-intellectualism, and long before Michael Gove told us we were ‘tired of experts’, many governments around the world recognized the intellectual, social and commercial value of university education and were prepared to pay for it via student grants and university subsidies. 

The very rapid expansion of Higher Education obviously posed challenges for a model based on an enthusiastic recognition by government of the extent of the benefits universities and their graduates bring to society.  From the 1980s onwards, with the Jarratt Report being a key moment, the weighting of the perceived benefits changed and the emphasis shifted to the benefits of Higher Education to the individual, rather than to society as a whole.  This has resulted in a steady decline in government subsidy to universities and grants to students; a rapid commodification of education; a reification of students as ‘products’; and an instrumentalist fetishisation of ‘impact’ as the measurable benefit of research.   The withdrawal of public funding for all but the most resource-intensive science-based subjects resulted in what amounted for many universities to privatization by stealth, which means that many now have to rely almost entirely on student fees to cover their costs.   Given that there is a ceiling to the fees universities are allowed to charge ‘home’ students, the mass recruitment of international students was an obvious recourse and, in a competitive market economy, many universities have been charging as much for their courses as the market will bear.   There may well be some additional cost to teaching international students who are often not English first- language speakers and often come to the UK with very different learning styles from ‘home’ students, but that additional cost is pretty marginal, and the ethics of charging international students significantly higher fees for exactly the same courses as are offered to ‘home’ students are highly questionable.

Our universities seem to me now to be finding themselves in an impossible position in times of Covid-19 crisis, and are coming in for increasingly virulent criticism from students, parents, the media and the wider public.  In this context it seemed important to explore very briefly how the universities reached this point – oversimplified and crude as the account I have given is – if only because it throws some light on the Pontius Pilate-like extent to which, regardless of universities’ major contribution to society, government now washes its hands of its responsibility for our universities and, through them, their students.  That responsibility would have been painfully obvious to everybody in the 1960s and 1970s.  The very poor university experience being offered to ‘home’ students has been the subject of quite extensive media coverage over the past year; the plight of international students has received much less coverage here, although one suspects that it has featured prominently enough in the media in the students’ home countries to act as a significant deterrent to future international recruitment.

The photograph above, published three days ago, is of an amorphous queue of destitute international students, many of them postgraduate students from India, waiting in line for handouts of food parcels from a food-bank.   The accompanying Channel 4 news report revealed that the food-bank in question, whose location remained discreetly undisclosed, now caters solely for students and succeeds in providing food for 1,700 of them every week.  As someone who spent his working life in universities I found the photograph and accompanying report deeply disturbing.   The students cannot afford to buy food, partly because the pandemic has resulted in the disappearance of the 20 hours per week part-times jobs many would have relied on.   The ones who were interviewed said that they didn’t want to let parents, who had in most cases made enormous sacrifices to enable them to come to the UK, know that they were struggling.  They were also very reluctant to make approaches to their university as they were worried, in the context of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’, that that could lead to their visas being withdrawn.  It is obviously common knowledge that the Home Office will have done its best to find reasons stop them coming to UK in the first place, and it is not an unreasonable assumption that it will be looking for reasons to deport them.   In the meantime, it was clear that the universities had proved themselves incapable of communicating with the students who were being interviewed to let them know what student welfare provisions, however limited, were available to them. 

The universities remain reliant on student fees.  Their overheads will remain largely the same.  There will not be many opportunities to furlough staff, as academic staff are having to come to terms with remote teaching, and marking loads will stay the same, while most support staff in roles that haven’t been outsourced will still be needed.  Some universities will have significant reserves to draw on, but many don’t.  As I have said, I do not envy university managers their role in current circumstances.  But they should, at least, be able to communicate with their students a great deal better than some of them appear to be doing, and they need to find some way of helping the very many international students who find themselves having to queue at the food-banks if they want to have something to eat.  It isn’t as if this situation is new.  The BBC was already reporting on 29th July last year that up to 600 international students a week were queuing round the block on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the Newham Community Projects base in East Ham to receive food from volunteers.  Charging international students very high fees for the privilege of registering, and then leaving them to be fed by food-banks is not a good look for our universities.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The naivety of hope.

5th November

One might have thought one had learnt by now.  It wasn’t, surely, possible that people in the UK could be so easily fooled, or perhaps so desperate, that they would think Brexit a good enough idea to vote for.  Wrong.   Donald Trump was so unspeakably awful that, however uninspiring Hilary Clinton might be, there couldn’t really be any serious chance that he might become President.  Wrong again.  Boris Johnson had made such a dog’s dinner of the Brexit negotiations and showed such overweening contempt for parliament that if he were to win the 2019 general election it had, surely, to be by a wafer-thin margin.  Wrong yet again.  Well, anyway, if anything was absolutely certain it had to be that, after four years of racism, misogyny, deranged tweets and 220,000 Covid-19 deaths, the predicted ‘blue wave’ of Biden-voting states must surely materialize as an eminently well deserved landslide come-uppance for Trump.  You didn’t need a vibrantly youthful and charismatic visionary to knock a grotesque caricature of a President out of the park; surely you just needed someone who was decent, intelligent and reasonably articulate? Wrong again – at least where anything remotely resembling a landslide is concerned.

So where does my seemingly irredeemable naivety in such matters come from? High on my list of suspects would be my 43 years spent working in Higher Education.  You can’t spend your working life in the company of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed university students, almost always intelligent and often very idealistic, without coming away with some hope for and belief in the future.   Higher education must, surely, imbue graduates with an ability to distinguish what has a good chance of being true from what is obviously untrue; with some degree of ethical sensibility; with some level of social conscience and environmental awareness?   Wrong again – or, at least, there seems to be a lot of evidence to the contrary. 

60% of the United States electorate is said to be ‘college educated’; 35% of them have bachelor’s degrees.  I haven’t seen a more recent statistic with regard to the number of USA adults who believe that the world really was created in seven days in 4004 BC, but in 2000, when George Bush was elected President via the infamous ‘hanging-chad’ election, the figures I saw indicated that precisely the same proportion of the electorate, marginally over 50%, were full-blooded creationists as had voted for him.  That may, or may not, have been a coincidence.  Sceptics might be inclined to ask: ‘What about the multi-million year-old fossils that would seem to belie this belief?’  The answer to that is obvious:  ‘God planted the fossils in 4004 BC to test our faith.’  If a context of wholly irrational religious belief, which must, statistically, be informing the lack of thinking of many voters in the USA who have been through Higher Education, provides any kind of clue, one can begin to understand some otherwise incomprehensible aspects of the wider intellectual climate behind what our televisions have been showing us over the past few days:  how can so many women be ardent supporters of a man who has such obvious contempt for women? How can any black American possibly support so blatantly obvious a racist?  How can anybody from any religious faith root for a man who has spent the last four years sowing division and hatred, and deliberately fomenting violence?  So, what price universal education, and higher education in particular?

This side of the Atlantic, significantly over 40% of UK voters between the ages of 25 and 65 have first degrees, but it won’t only be the remainder who are sufficiently undiscriminating to regard The Sun, and the Daily Mail as sources of wisdom, nor will it have been only those over 65, many of whom are also university-educated, who will have voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson. It is a commonplace that Trump and Johnson have a great deal in common.  When Johnson stands up and tells us that it is a “moral imperative” to impose a four-week lockdown, we don’t have any reason whatever to think he has any greater acquaintance with the morality he invokes than his grotesque American counterpart.  Trump spent two years at Fordham University and followed that with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.   Johnson, as everyone knows, has a degree from Oxford.   Whatever else they might have imbued these two eminences of the global political landscape with, the universities that Trump and Johnson attended have clearly not cultivated in them a sense of morality, or much in the way of common decency.  That will not have stopped the universities in question from regarding Johnson and Trump as a credit to them, or deterred the universities in any way from cynically trying to exploit their political eminence for recruiting and fund-raising purposes.  Such is the nature of the Higher Education marketplace.  But that won’t stop me, perhaps naively, from regarding higher education as being ultimately a force for good, in spite of individual examples to the contrary.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Universities

October 9th

It won’t be entirely coincidental that ‘the first of the new wave of alternative [Higher Education] poviders’, as the Guardian puts it, to be granted its own degree awarding powers is the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology founded by Sir James Dyson (note the honorific) and established as recently as 2017.  Dyson is a Tory donor who heads the UK ‘Rich list’ and was appointed to the Order of Merit in 2016.  An ardent Brexiteer who thinks the UK should just ‘walk away’ from negotiations with the EU (in spite of having called on the UK government in 1998 to join the Eurozone as soon as possible), Dyson is so confident of the UK’s future financial and commercial wellbeing outside the EU that he has moved his company’s ‘titular’ (Dyson’s word) headquarters to Singapore. 

In recognition of this momentous landmark for Higher Education – colleges of technology with 150 undergraduates, who are only expected to study a single discipline for two days a week, haven’t previously been granted degree awarding powers, particularly not after being in existence for a mere three years – Dyson was interviewed by Nick Robinson on the Today programme to mark the occasion.  Nick Robinson has the very big advantage of not being John Humphrys, whose role as the very conservative Today attack dog was presumably intended to demonstrate the political illiteracy of those who imagine the BBC to be left-wing – but there was no need for Robinson, even as a mere commoner, to be quite so deferential to this particular Knight of the Realm.  

In the course of the interview both Nick Robinson and Dyson referred to Dyson’s Institute as a ‘University’.  Although it would certainly help, one doesn’t need to go back to Cardinal Newman or Wilhelm von Humboldt these days to get a general idea of what a university is.   Were they to take the trouble to Google “What is a university?” it would take twenty seconds, literally, for Robinson and Dyson to discover that, according to www.dictionary.com, a university could reasonably be considered to be ‘an institution of learning of the highest level, having a college of liberal arts and a program of graduate studies together with several professional schools, as of theology, law, medicine, and engineering, and authorized to confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees.’   The same 20 seconds would inform them, were they to be interested, that the purpose of a university, this time according to www.pearson.com, is to be ‘the guardian of reason, inquiry and philosophical openness, preserving pure inquiry from dominant public opinions.’   However good it may well be at what it does, Dyson’s Institute is not a university.

All of which serves to remind me, if I needed any reminding, just how thankful I am that I am no longer involved in any way in the thankless task of trying to manage a university, and maintain the values remarkably well articulated in the fifteen-word quotation from Pearson, in 21st Century England.  The relentless passage of transient Ministers given responsibility for Higher Education since the turn of the century, most of whom seemed to think that having been an undergraduate qualified them to know how to run a university, and all of whom were anxious to leave their idiosyncratic mark on the sector before being moved on to something regarded as more important than Higher Education, has contributed towards universities being viewed as little more than soullessly utilitarian degree factories.  National league tables, incapable of recognising value-added, and self-evidently designed to perpetuate the elitism of the so-called “top” universities, have reinforced this.  Research metrics that focus on ‘impact’ and do anything but ‘preserve pure inquiry from dominant public opinions’ don’t help. So when one of said past Ministers, our esteemed Prime Minister’s brother Jo, asks James Dyson “Why don’t you start your own university?’’, as recounted by Nick Robinson, and Dyson sets up his Institute by way of a response, Dyson and Robinson are both able to think of it as, indeed, being a university.

I particularly don’t envy university Vice-Chancellors and their teams the quandary they have found themselves in as a result of the pandemic.   Having spent more than forty years of my life working with students, it always seemed certain to me that bringing students back onto campus at this juncture was bound to be asking for coronavirus trouble.  But most Vice-Chancellors will know that distance learning involves a whole lot more than simply asking their lecturers to put their lectures up on the web, and will be only too well aware that they are simply not equipped to do an adequate job of going fully digital, not even for one semester.   The creeping privatisation of the university sector has resulted in most of our universities being almost wholly dependent on fee income, and many will be facing bankruptcy if student numbers drop dramatically, or they have to discount their fees substantially.   Many universities are not coming out of the present government-induced shambles very well, but in the absence of anything resembling a coherent policy for higher education in present circumstances, it isn’t easy to see how, beyond making provision for quarantined students to have hot meals, they could have done very much better.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: The future of work

A difficult in writing these diary entries is that of generalising from a distinctly skewed perspective.  All of us are different, but some occupy more specialised slots than others.

This fact applies in particular to one of the major questions in the pandemic, the future of work.  Just about every office worker has been sent home.  Now Boris Johnson wants them back in their place of employment, if only to restore the income flows of sandwich shops and the vendors of the clothes people think they need to wear when outside the house.  So far, the indication is that many are declining the invitation, partly because it has been issued at just the moment when all schools are on holiday and child care problems are once more multiplying, and partly because of very real fears about a renewed threat of infection in a country which has far from conquered the coronavirus.

Beyond these relatively short-term issues is the question of whether the larger part of the workforce will want to resume their office lives.  On the upside is no more commuting, more time with a family, no need to dress up at the beginning of the day (see above on vendors).  On the down side there is mounting evidence that home-working reinforces inequalities (an office is an office; no one charges you rent for it, decides whether you can afford a desk), weakens already limited trade union protection (with some employers already exploring technologies that will monitor what happens in your home), and above all crowds out that part of your life which is not work.

I ought to be an expert on this topic.  I have at least partially home-worked since my first pay-packet.  Every word of every book and article I have published has been written in a room in whatever house we were living in.  On the wall in my current study is a photograph of my son, when a small baby, wrapped in a shawl, fast asleep in the open bottom drawer of my desk while I labour above him.  He did have a cot.  It was just that we had developed a very particular and privileged mix of work, child-rearing and domestic pleasures.

In my first university, where we raised our family, I had total discretion as to where, how and when I earned my living.  We lived during the week in campus accommodation, ranging from a starter flat to a family house.  My journey to work never exceeded an eight-minute walk.  I could transfer myself from study to office and back as and when the need arose, or I just felt like a change of company.  All the choices about where I was and what I was doing were mine.  Other than turning up for timetabled teaching commitments and departmental meetings, I was, like most academics of my generation, at least in the humanities and social sciences, under no instruction at any point about my labour.

At Keele, the sum total of advice I received on how to undertake my work during almost three decades was as follows:

Young lecturer, not yet completed probation, on meeting Head of Department in a corridor: ‘Paul, you might like to know that my PhD has been approved.’

HoD:  ‘That’s good.  You can take it easy now.’

Then I went to the Open University, the higher education institution where home-working has long been the norm rather than the exception.

So what do I know about the challenges facing the modern office worker?  Not much, except perhaps this one truth.  Bullying employers and inconsiderate colleagues will always be a problem.  The major challenge, however, is self-discipline.  This applies not just to the decision when to start in the morning rather than sit around in the kitchen with another cup of coffee and an unfinished newspaper, but far more importantly, when to stop.  There will be backsliding, but the real threat is self-exploitation, going back to emails in the evening or the weekend, never turning off to engage with the life of the home or with personal interests outside employment. 

Go out to work.  See more of your family. 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Beetles and Universities …

April 29. The future of universities is a microcosm of the larger debate about the aftermath of the pandemic.  Will the outcome be a couple of years of readjustment, then a continuation of life as before, with a few tweaks to work and leisure and some fading memories of bad times?  Or will there be a fundamental change in the way in which many organisations go about their activities, with new business models, new techniques, new roles for staff?

On April 22 I wrote about an attempt by the Durham Vice Chancellor to get ahead of change.  It has since been rejected by the University senate, as the Guardian reported:

‘The plans, which would also reduce the number of modules taught in person by a quarter in the next academic year, were condemned by the Department of English as “dangerous and damaging to the short- and long-term viability of the university”. The department’s submission to the senate, seen by the Guardian, criticised suggestions from a private education firm consulted on the plans that lecturers would only need six hours training in order to teach online. The document said Cambridge Education Digital’s estimation of the work required to shift learning online displayed no realistic sense of the realities the staffing and technological support required to develop and deliver it. “Training staff to teach effectively online will take far, far more than the six hours indicated,” it added. The submission also warned the plans posed a potential conflict of interest because CEG Digital is owned by private equity group Bridgepoint Capital, whose chief investment officer is a member of Durham’s ‘chancellor’s circle’ of donors.  The plans will now be returned to the university’s council, where they will be redrawn before being returned to the senate.’hig

A welcome dose of common sense by the English Department, and a reminder that universities still retain an element of democratic decision making.

But the problem has not gone away.  In the past week more universities have been projecting imminent deficits as room rents collapse and overseas students disappear.  The sector as a whole has been lobbying the Government for a subsidy, which has generated a hostile reaction in some quarters, not least because many of the most threatened institutions are also in possession of large reserves and extensive research income.  An op. ed. in the Times (27.4.20) welcomed the prospect of closures on the familiar grounds that Vice Chancellors were paid too much, the sector had over-extended, and Bath Spa University was running a degree in contemporary circus.

In fact, where higher education is largely in the public sector, as in Britain and much of Europe, universities are like beetles (allegedly) in a nuclear war, very hard to destroy.  It is said that three of Europe’s 20 universities were closed by the Black Death, but as that pandemic killed between a third and a half of the population, it may be said that the sector got off lightly.  Since then, outright closure has been almost unknown, despite the recent expansion.  It is otherwise in the United States where a large, sometimes corrupt, private sector suffered bankrupticies during the Great Depression and will do so again.

It may be that a few more staff will in future investigate what happens to their teaching when a computer is turned on, and that a few more students will tolerate less face-to-face contact.  Or it may be that the declining eighteen-year-old cohort, the lost overseas students, the accumulated deficits, will force universities to investigate radical change.  The fundamental things still apply.  High quality distance education is very expensive.  Academic staff like talking to students.  And the students go to bricks and mortar universities for a rich social experience and are unlikely to pay £9,000 a year just to sit in their rooms and be taught on their laptops.