Accentuating the positive in private

Scholars' institutional pessimism is undercut by their personal optimism. Hannah Fearn reports

July 16, 2009

Academics are often unremittingly gloomy about university life, yet extraordinarily upbeat about their own work at the same time.

Research by Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, has identified a contradiction in academia that results in staff insisting that morale is low despite being personally satisfied with their own careers.

He said the study reveals that although people working in universities have "systemic worries about their institutions", their negative feelings do not extend to their own department or immediate working environment.

"You do get in higher education a 'schizophrenic' dialogue. If you ask academics what their morale is like, they say rock bottom. If you ask them what they're working on, you get a very positive and enthusiastic response," he said.

"People feel if they don't say their morale is bad they're somehow letting the side down, they're letting managers off the hook. It comes from quite a principled feeling that we should be fighting for the sector and its interests."

Sir David's findings, to be presented in full in his book The Question of Morale, came about during research into how universities deal with unhappiness among staff and students.

"Morale is a term that's used a lot in university life. People talk about their morale being rock bottom or sky high. Because it's more often the former than the latter, I thought I would try to pursue it in more detail," he said.

Students, the book will say, could be made unhappy by debates over such issues as student satisfaction, value for money, extremism on campus and special-needs support.

Academics, however, are disgruntled by issues such as their career prospects, pay and pensions, performance management, bullying and harassment, and work-life balance.

The conclusions of the book were presented to the Institutional Research Conference at Sheffield Hallam University last week.

The book will also contain a revealing conversation with the senior management team of a top-ranked university, who explained the low morale at their institution.

They said: "We don't have enough money to do our jobs properly, but we are really good at them; we are severely oppressed, but we are also happy in our work; the Government should support higher education better ... by giving us (our university) more than them (that other university)."

Sir David said the conclusion of his research was "that the institutions that do well do have a grown-up culture where they can ride with misfortunes and the constituent members continue to treat each other properly. If you don't have enough of that basic level of happiness, then it's very hard to manage or be managed," he said.

Happily, more institutions are hitting this target than missing it, he said, but he cautioned that universities should aim for "the amount of happiness to be comfortable, but not too comfortable".

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