Is university leaders’ optimism justified?

Amid a recognition of numerous threats, leaders remain convinced that their institutions will be OK

十月 28, 2021
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Humans are often divided up into optimists and pessimists, but there is a certain sense in which all humans fall into the former category.

It appears to be perfectly possible to take a gloomy view about the general future while also believing that, in your own case, things will be just fine. No doubt American writer William Saroyan’s most famous line – “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case” – was partly meant as a joke. But there is also a kernel of psychological truth in it.

That same sense of personal exceptionalism is part of what allows those who dismiss the prospects of world leaders agreeing – never mind implementing – meaningful measures to halt climate change nevertheless to plan to bring children into the world. And it is what allows institutional leaders to express pessimism about their sectors while still foreseeing bright futures for their own organisations.

The latter point is borne out by Times Higher Education’s latest university leaders survey, carried out this summer. Asked to what extent they agree that science and research budgets, from public and/or charitable sources, will rise over the next five years, only 36 per cent of respondents agree; 38 per cent are unsure and 25 per cent disagree. And while 38 per cent disagree that their government's willingness to invest in higher education (teaching) will decline over the next five years, 37 per cent agree.

These results indicate mounting pessimism about the funding future as the pandemic digs ever deeper holes in public finances. In THE’s previous leaders survey, carried out in May 2020, when the longevity of the pandemic was still unclear, 61 per cent of respondents expected research budgets to rise and only 28 per cent expected higher education funding to decline.

Among UK vice-chancellors, the change has been even more stark. Last year, 33 per cent expected higher education funding to decline and 43 per cent expected a research budget rise. In the latest survey, those figures were 55 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively. That is no doubt because the earlier survey came close on the heels of the March 2020 budget, in which Rishi Sunak, newly promoted to chancellor of the Exchequer, went beyond the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge to double the science budget to £18 billion a year, pledging to increase it instead to £22 billion. Subsequently, as the calls on depleted public finances became ever louder and more numerous, doubt mounted about whether the pledge would be confirmed.

By the time you read this article, the extent to which pessimism was justified will have become clear. But what is striking is that even in its midst, 86 per cent of UK respondents to THE’s survey felt positive about their institution's future over the next five years, more than half of them strongly so. Globally, that figure rises to 91 per cent.

Another striking aspect of the survey is leaders’ lack of concern about digitisation. While the vast majority expect to offer more blended learning post-pandemic and most (53 per cent) expect to offer more fully online degrees, almost no one expects physical lectures to have disappeared even by 2030.

What is particularly noteworthy is that the proportion of respondents agreeing with the proposition – 13 per cent – has fallen since THE’s first leaders survey, carried out in 2018. In that pre-pandemic era, before universities had leapt en masse into digital provision, 19 per cent of respondents expected physical lectures to have disappeared by 2030.

One commentator suggests to THE that part of the explanation is a change in the definition of “lecture”, with universities now regarding them as akin to tutorials. Either way, it is certainly true that students have been clamouring for a return to campus. But part of their frustration in countries that charge tuition fees relates to the fact that those fees were not reduced for the online “experience”.

Very few leaders mention digital issues among the biggest threats or opportunities they foresee in the next 10 years. But can they really be so sure that students would continue to flock to their campuses if a big tech firm perfected a much cheaper online alternative – particularly if it began to take off and students who chose to stay at home no longer saw all their school friends leave town? And particularly in a world in which whole careers were being swallowed up by artificial intelligence?

Universities’ “Napster moment” has been predicted for years, of course, and remains conspicuous by its absence. But it is worth recalling that Saroyan’s quote was given to the Associated Press in 1981 as his final public statement. And it was succeeded by an admission of its absurd fallacy: “Now what?”

Saroyan died five days later.

No doubt a level of self-directed optimism is necessary to preserve the will to get out of bed. But, equally, the assumption that there are no lions behind you contains the inherent risk that it comes back to bite you.


Print headline: Is optimism justified?



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