Bureaucracy has killed the spirit of academics

August 27, 1999

In the fourth of our summer series on education at the century's end, David Triesman exploers the causes if dissaffection among staff.

Academic colleagues from abroad generally ask the same question. Given the evident success of UK higher education, why is the academic community so damned miserable? Before the question is dismissed as a convenient hook for a union doom-merchant representing a community of habitual whingers, it is worth analysing the outlook of university staff if we would prefer them to celebrate and enhance success.

An analysis may be as inconvenient for unions as for government or vice chancellors.

All are misled by an inaccurate picture of contemporary universities.

Much gloominess stems, of course, from obvious causes.

Impressive growth in student numbers between 1 980 and 1 995 was accompanied by a 40 per cent cut in spending per student. On current pay with increasingly casual employment, few would wish a career in the profession on their own children.

Researchers are only now replacing antique experimental equipment. Yet beyond the sense that it is hard to do a really professional job, or earn a wage that matches those of your graduates, lies a deeper malaise.

It flows from the unrealistic requirement to accept that all higher education institutions are or should be in essence the same and serve the same economic and intellectual function. To describe differentiation as having a purpose is treated as an elitist heresy.

Modern societies generate competing demands. The art lies in reconciling rather than denying them. In the UK, we demand a leading-edge economy, a larger general pool of knowledgeable workers and democratic access to that pool.

The university/economy relationship dismays many academics, but it is inevitable.

New knowledge and techniques shape the prosperity of advanced economics. The fabric of compassionate and civilised societies, as Harvard economics professor Robert Reich has observed, depends on economies showing the highest quality intelligence and invention. That is what universities create, especially those heavy in science and medicine. They inevitably absorb most research funds; they cherry-pick their students. In due course, leading-edge employers cherry-pick their graduates.

They combine formidable traditions with a capacity to adapt.

They are a necessary condition for a competitive economy and the civil society it supports.

But they were never capable of supplying the full range of intellectual roles in sufficient quantities or meeting democratic demands for access to higher education.

The demand responds in no small way to the requirement for tertiary qualifications to get decent jobs. Recent governments have widened the variety of institutions awarding these qualifications, arguing that further education is a friendly, local point of access. It is clear that it is cheaper delivery rather than convenient geography that determined this expansion.

Within all these layers, higher education provides for these growing national requirements. The provision is variable. It is not all of the same quality, but it is all needed. In the US these real differences would be readily understood Leading-edge, state and community institutions are all accepted as different.

None is thought less valuable.

That is where the dual consequence of the UK deceit about "sameness" casts its shadow. To make good the claim that all degrees are of equal quality, all institutions equivalent, we have imposed on institutions the most leaden control apparatus possible. Teaching quality assessment is understood throughout the profession as the Academic colleagues from abroad generally ask the same question. Given the evident success of UK higher education, why is the academic community so damned miserable? Before the question is dismissed as a convenient hook for a union doom-merchant representing a community of habitual whingers, it is worth analysing the outlook of university staff if we would prefer them to celebrate and enhance success.

An analysis may be as inconvenient for unions as for government or vice chancellors.

All are misled by an inaccurate picture of contemporary universities.

Much gloominess stems, of course, from obvious causes.

Impressive growth in student numbers between 1 980 and 1 995 was accompanied by a 40 per cent cut in spending per student. On current pay with increasingly casual employment, few would wish a career in the profession on their own children.

Researchers are only now replacing antique experimental equipment. Yet beyond the sense that it is hard to do a really professional job, or earn a wage that matches those of your graduates, lies a deeper malaise.

It flows from the unrealistic requirement to accept that all higher education institutions are or should be in essence the same and serve the same economic and intellectual function. To describe differentiation as having a purpose is treated as an elitist heresy.

Modern societies generate competing demands. The art lies in reconciling rather than denying them. In the UK, we demand a leading-edge economy, a larger general pool of knowledgeable workers and democratic access to that pool.

The university/economy relationship dismays many academics, but it is inevitable.

New knowledge and techniques shape the prosperity of advanced economics. The fabric of compassionate and civilised societies, as Harvard economics professor Robert Reich has observed, depends on economies showing the highest quality intelligence and invention. That is what universities create, especially those heavy in science and medicine. They inevitably absorb most research funds; they cherry-pick their students. In due course, leading-edge employers cherry-pick their graduates.

They combine formidable traditions with a capacity to adapt.

They are a necessary condition for a competitive economy and the civil society it supports.

But they were never capable of supplying the full range of intellectual roles in sufficient quantities or meeting democratic demands for access to higher education.

The demand responds in no small way to the requirement for tertiary qualifications to get decent jobs. Recent governments have widened the variety of institutions awarding these qualifications, arguing that further education is a friendly, local point of access. It is clear that it is cheaper delivery rather than convenient geography that determined this expansion.

Within all these layers, higher education provides for these growing national requirements. The provision is variable. It is not all of the same quality, but it is all needed. In the US these real differences would be readily understood. Leading-edge, state and community institutions are all accepted as different.

None is thought less valuable.

That is where the dual consequence of the UK deceit about "sameness" casts its shadow. To make good the claim that all degrees are of equal quality, all institutions equivalent, we have imposed on institutions the most leaden control apparatus possible. Teaching quality assessment is understood throughout the profession as the capacity to assemble great weights of Identikit documentation.

The Quality Assurance Agency seems likely to add more grey tones to a monochrome process. It is widely expected to try to impose standard curricula.

The engine propelling bureaucratic control is the belief that wider access will be disparaged if all institutions cannot be "proved" to be equally good.

Sadly, it is only access, among the different objectives of higher education, that merits serious attention. You can sit on committees of inquiry for a year and hear of little else, as though the requirement for world-class research institutions was of small significance. Democratic access is vital, but it is only one element.

The research assessment exercise, unlike the well-accepted continuous, if less formal, peer-review system in the US, induces bizarre behaviour. Obscure texts are prepared for obscure journals. Coherent long pieces are split into parts just for the publications count. Academics report heavy direction to go down lines of inquiry more likely to lead to early publication.

And the secretary of state for education and employment, in the annual letter of instruction to funding councils, adds ever more specific duties and requirements.

Funding councils, under detailed direction of this kind, and responsible for teaching quality and research funding, have been converted into powerful regulatory bodies.

For the academic community, few of whom are hostile to serious quality maintenance, these overwhelming and dirigiste regimes have become spirit breaking.

The restrictions imposed are not felt to secure better value, often interfere with academic freedom, and always generate bureaucratic duties of Sisyphean proportions.

People who would settle for a US variety of higher education, who have little need to maintain the fiction that everywhere they work is the same, are disgruntled as more than a third of their time goes into bureaucracy.

It is when you strip professionals of self-regard, when quality judgements of their work assume a ritual character, that they become the perpetually miserable figures recognised by overseas friends. They and their unions will have to recognise that the pretence of uniformity, even the ambition for it, does them no favours. But without the pretence, the machinery is hardly necessary. With fundamental change to the current machinery, the burden of over-supervision of institutions and people and the gloom of reduced academic freedom can be lifted.

David Triesman is general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

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