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.