Book of the week: The Question of Morale

How can the academy get over its gloom? Just grow up, Gail Kinman hears

November 5, 2009

In this book, Sir David Watson paints a vivid picture of the modern university as a deeply unhappy place with a pervasive culture of disappointment, pessimism and "moral panic". Building on observations from a long, varied and distinguished career in the sector and his own research, he considers why so much popular discourse about contemporary higher education focuses on unhappiness, both real and imagined. Accounts of staff, student and stakeholder discontent are provided, and the final chapter suggests what might be done to improve morale.

Much of the discourse on the unhappiness of academic staff, Watson observes, is communicated through claims of workplace stress, popularly considered to be endemic in the sector. Survey findings typically conclude that academics are beset by poor pay and career prospects, incompetent management, excessive and unwarranted scrutiny of teaching and research, and intimidatory management practices. Their work-life balance is invariably described as poor, compounding their dissatisfaction.

Moreover, Watson asserts, academics also experience role confusion, uncertain whether they are "employees, co-creators or guardians of values under threat". There is, he says, a similar confusion about the identity of students: are they consumers, members of the academy or "soft citizens"?

So who or what is to blame for the current malaise? One of the causes proposed is the unrealistic expectations of various stakeholders, including politicians, employers, the media and society. Academics are required to be honest, well-mannered, self-motivated and disciplined. Many contradictions are inherent in the demands they face: universities and their employees are expected to be conservative and radical; traditional and innovative; business-facing and unworldly; competitive and collegial; elitist and inclusive; critical and supportive; autonomous and accountable.

Watson argues, however, that academics are at least partially responsible for their own distress. They have unrealistic expectations of their employers and are notoriously difficult to manage. Trained to be hypercritical, they use this expertise to "dissect and unravel" new initiatives, often responding with suspicion and negativity.

Much unhappiness is thought to be due to selective memory - "elegiac nostalgia" for a mythical golden age when working conditions were idyllic and students were bright and motivated. Watson argues that current debates about students are often dominated by an ideologically loaded "discourse of condescension and disappointment" about their ability, behaviour and motivation. He observes academics' sense of bewilderment about the perceived failings of today's students, as well as their apparent lack of embarrassment about their shortcomings. We are reminded, however, that every generation laments that the skills and knowledge it has acquired at great cost will not be valued by the next.

Watson further suggests that misery is used as a rhetorical device to build solidarity in the sector and preserve standards, as well as a way of putting pressure on management. While this position may be useful, Watson warns that it can promote a culture of victimhood that ignores the positive aspects of academic life. He also considers an allied issue, the increase in formal grievance and litigation, and argues that this "culture of complaint" undermines individual responsibility and freedom.

One of Watson's most important targets for blame for disquiet in the sector is the so-called happiness industry. He argues that the new discipline of positive psychology has not only invaded the university curriculum but now also underpins the philosophy and practice of education.

The current obsession with happiness is discussed with reference to the "economics of happiness" (whose proponents suggest that wellbeing is a more effective way to gauge a nation's wealth than gross domestic product, inflation and unemployment). Watson rejects the growing tendency to see happiness as a fundamental right, arguing that this may be counterproductive and even dangerous; within this paradigm there is no room for complexity or contradiction.

Students are also thought to be victims of the happiness industry. The author suggests that rather than enhancing wellbeing, the preoccupation with student satisfaction, value for money and support for special needs may, in fact, breed unhappiness. Surveys of student satisfaction are singled out for blame: Watson highlights a "reverse Hawthorne effect" based on their findings, where "the more they are encouraged to assert their consumer rights, the more inclined they will be to be grumpy".

In conclusion, Watson provides no firm advice on how to enhance the morale of the academy. The lecturer who expects this book to offer counsel on how to be happier at work, or the senior manager who wishes to learn how to improve institutional wellbeing, may be disappointed. However, Watson offers some hints that may help.

Most importantly, he argues, the sector needs to "grow up". He suggests some behaviours that may foster the necessary cultural shift: emotionally intelligent interactions at all institutional levels; "pragmatically responsible" decision-making; and recognition by employees that effort and output will be fairly rewarded.

Watson strongly advocates that academics resist the temptation to wallow in nostalgia about their working conditions - there will be no return to the (possibly mythical) "good old days". Rather than seeing themselves as guardians of threatened standards that many students will not achieve or even value, scholars must learn to appreciate their students' many and varied abilities. Modern students are just as committed and energetic as their counterparts in the 1960s and 1970s, he says, arguing that they must be allowed to play a constructive role in reinventing the modern university, as they may be better equipped to deal with the modern world than the academy's ageing workforce.

The author clearly feels that the "science" of happiness and the pursuit of individual wellbeing cannot provide us with feasible solutions. Indeed, he says, happiness is not only an unrealistic goal, it is also an undesirable one. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, he appears to suggest that we seek only to turn human misery into common unhappiness. A more pragmatic aim is to enhance morale through a "sense of efficacy, of purposive engagement, of satisfaction and of feeling valued". We should endeavour to establish "the quantum of happiness", he argues, sufficient for universities to survive as successful bodies but not so much that they become too comfortable. The aim is to engender a sense of corporate commitment that engages both altruism and self-interest.

Watson believes that this may not be too onerous a task: despite being frequently cynical about university life in general, academics are usually enthusiastic about their own work and are generally satisfied at the team level.

These are the reflections of a man who has worked through enormous changes in the sector, and accordingly this book is of considerable interest. The text is erudite, persuasive and entertaining, as Watson draws on a breathtaking range of sources from fields including history, economics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, classic and contemporary literature and popular culture to illustrate his arguments. The "digressions" in each chapter will resonate with most readers (notably the final one, where some of the "fundamental laws of academic life" are proposed). Nonetheless, aspects of his message may be unpalatable to those who feel they have good reason to be pessimistic about the state of British higher education.


THE AUTHOR

Sir David Watson has been professor of higher education management at the University of London's Institute of Education since 2005 and was formerly vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton.

He is currently president of the Society for Research into Higher Education, a Nuffield Foundation trustee, a board member for both the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and chair of the Commission of Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning.

At the recent Times Higher Education Awards, he was awarded the inaugural Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award for his services to higher education.

Of Sir David, the late Lord Dearing said: "I have taken on a number of difficult tasks in higher education over the years.

"I did so because I was confident that David Watson was there."

The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life

By David Watson

Open University Press 192pp, £65.00 and £26.99

ISBN 9780335235599 and 35605

Published 1 November 2009

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