Winners, winners everywhere, or so it appears

An artificial winning mindset has permeated UK higher education, says Peter Larcombe 

October 27, 2018
Young girl celebrating boxing victory

A short story   

As programme leader for mathematics not so long ago, I held responsibility for our noticeboard. One day, short of wall space, I decided to appropriate an adjacent one that was neglected, very sparsely populated, and looked as if it needed sprucing up. A  business school manager happened to pass by and questioned what I was doing, remarking that  the newly acquired board was used by subject X (one under his control). Instinctively, I suggested that since subject X wasn’t, in my opinion, a proper subject, the space would be better used for programmes in mathematics. He looked askance, shuffled off down the corridor, and nothing more was said – the knock on the door didn’t come, and that was that. It was a bit naughty of me, I admit, but no harm done.  

Footfall trumps authenticity?  

I  mentioned the episode to a few colleagues who thought it was hilarious, and we started to identify those disciplines that counted as “non-subjects”. We had quite a list after a short while, but it begged bigger and more serious  questions: which branches of study are more authentic than others, have naturally higher standards, ask more intellectually, and are in keeping with what universities traditionally stand for? Do such things matter any longer?

We abandoned the discussion, quickly realising how foolish we were because this line of thinking was almost as redundant then as it is today – “importance” is linked directly to “popularity”, and the heritage of one’s area of expertise counts for virtually nothing within university hierarchies that decide what programmes work best and why; staff often don’t get much say.

For anyone who has spent years teaching and researching in a field with a long and rich genealogy, the number of new courses popping up is at times bewildering – all launched to win for their hosts through carefully designed attractiveness, purported relevance, and the student income that follows; little else matters other than footfall, the standout metric for success.

Professors aplenty!

Have we got to the point where job titles themselves are part of the presentation of success, and no longer necessarily reflect the depth of academic contribution made by an individual? For supporting evidence, we need look no further than the way that the denomination “professor” has been Americanised in its usage, so that the well-established lines between senior/principal lecturer and  reader are beginning to fall under the favoured assistant/associate professor categories.

This, I contend, is not helpful, as the very word “professor” – which used to be crystal clear in what it stood for – has become confusing for the general populace. Still, the majority of staff will become professors eventually, so that's good, although the designation is undoubtedly compromised somewhat in the process (particularly as there seems to be an unhelpful appetite in the media to drop the prefixes) – lots of professors to showcase and universities full of winners, in other words.    

He who shouts loudest… 

With the expansion of the HE sector in the 1990s came the inevitable neoliberal mantra of competition and the need for houses of learning to sell themselves. A striking instance of this is the public declarations of quality.  Describing itself as “An Applied University of Today and for Tomorrow” in its recent  two-minute strategic framework (2018-2030) launch video, the University of  Derby and our own marketeers have been busy. 

For a few months, anyone encountering the institution’s homepage will have seen that it announces itself to be the “University of Anything is Possible” or the “University of Let’s Do This”. I’m not singling out anyone here because the whole tertiary sector is at it and this aspect of education has in fact become the norm at all levels.

The phenomenon is yet another one visited upon us from across the Big Pond (or, perhaps more accurately, merrily embraced by us in the UK) where US colleges descend into such gibberish as “Invent Yourself” and “When You Get Here You Understand”, or else they bow to the Western gods of individuality and entitlement with “Education on Your Terms”, and “The Education You Want. The Attention You Deserve”. We’ve bought into it here, big time.

Overstatement knows no bounds  

Even in the current climate – where catchphrases flourish and proliferate keenly within the minds of PR groups – these are exceptionally cringy slogans and platitudinous clichés. This sort of rhetoric amounts to no more than different shades of embarrassingly grandiloquent  vieux jeu that have become part of a predictable genre of HE publicity machines. Throw in the fuss made about TEF gold awards, prompting stage-managed celebrations up and down the land, and the collective message sent out is unambiguous – universities are all winners out there, and students, by mere association, are too, especially as they may well arrive with an unconditional offer as a personal reminder.

Peter J. Larcombe is professor of discrete and applied mathematics at the University of Derby.

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Reader's comments (1)

Well said, Sir.