Universities can’t afford to lose goodwill

UK higher education invites trouble if it conveys an impression that students and staff matter only in transactional terms and that diversity is not valued

October 25, 2018
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Source: Getty

“Are academics and uni staff the biggest suckers ever born?”

Don’t be offended – this is a rhetorical question from Gary Foster, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol. He posed it on Twitter in response to a recent

Times Higher Education story about the amount of unpaid overtime chalked up in UK universities.

The calculation, if you missed it, is that university staff volunteer 40 million hours of their time every year (estimated by the consultants who did the analysis to be worth £3.2 billion in forgone pay).

Figures such as this are useful for generating a headline, but even if you take issue with the detail, the big picture is undeniable: universities rely on a huge amount of goodwill and intrinsic motivation to keep the lights on and the cogs turning.

This is a risky position when the pleasure of pursuing an academic calling seems to be eroding.

Will university staff who feel overworked and undervalued be willing to continue in this way?

The bitterness and mistrust that has characterised the debate over proposed pension changes in the UK suggest that something has broken that may not be easy to repair or replace.

Switching to the transactional culture of some other professions (lawyers, for example, bill for every hour worked – except those proudly broadcast as pro bono) would damage the fabric of education. But in a marketised system, where vice-chancellors’ pay is justified on the basis that they are operating in a global market and students adopt increasingly consumerist attitudes, why should those doing the education and research be expected to sacrifice their time and well-being without reward?

This is the quid pro quo of marketisation, and a direct consequence of the shift to a performance management culture, with executive pay mirroring the private sector and upsetting the equilibrium.

It leaves those left behind feeling like “suckers” and is indicative of a wider breakdown in trust, the implications of which are likely to go well beyond internal discord.

The scope of the potential ramifications is addressed in a blog by Nick Hillman, director of the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute, in which he reflects on what he sees as relentless negativity about higher education (including from academics and students).

Hillman, who has extensive experience in government, warns that endless gloom gives the impression that UK higher education is in crisis, rather than the world-leading sector that it is.

This is not just bad for the university sector’s image, he warns, it may also be interpreted as a sign that intrusive and unnecessary additional regulation is required.

To return to the question of unpaid overtime, it is worth reflecting too on the impact that this has not just on work-life balance and well-being, but on the social make-up of university staff as a whole.

It seems obvious that the academy needs as wide a social mix as possible to ensure that universities reflect the diverse body of students that they must strive to attract and educate.

But academic diversity is also vital if research is to be effective. To put it in the simplest terms, if only privately educated white men carry out research, their work will be prone to implicit biases that leave other groups marginalised and missing out on the benefits.

Other professions, such as law and journalism, have had to face up to the fact that a career that relies on unpaid internships and rock-bottom starting salaries freezes out working-class talent.

Academia must face up to the fact that it too could be setting up the less-advantaged to fail – and that this, in turn, sets up universities to fail in their fundamental missions.

We explore the issues at stake in our features pages this week, with testimony from five working-class scholars, and it is clear that the barriers are particularly acute in the early career stage.

As one doctoral student tells us: “In the world that I inhabit, the phrase ‘I’m skint’ means: ‘I literally have no money in my bank account’. In academia, though, it means: ‘I only have some money’.

“As I approach the end of my PhD, it is clear to me that academia is not built with me in mind.”

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: When goodwill goes…

Reader's comments (2)

Gary Foster is one of those academics who goes full on at the job for the students and the research. His likes are becoming rarer as the market kicks in. Neither he or I are ‘suckers’ by caring. A message for the management.
Gary Foster is one of those academics who goes full on at the job for the students and the research. His likes are becoming rarer as the market kicks in. Neither he or I are ‘suckers’ by caring. A message for the management.

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