The more things change, the more Universities try to stay the same

It’s been an interesting week regarding working in universities. First Mark Smithers wrote, what I can only assume, a cathartic post on leaving academia. Then David Jones joined in providing another perspective on a theme that seems to be gaining some notoriety. In the comments below was the voice of Sarah Thorneycroft who provided another perspective and posed some interesting question. These are really poignant, thought-provoking posts and they resonate because, to be frank and honest, I’ve been tossing up my career options of late and wondering whether this is where I need to be and where I should be investing my energy.

My Story

To start – I don’t work in academia – I work for the university in a divisional role. I’m what are often get referred to as ‘general staff’, although apparently that’s being upgraded to ‘professional staff’ now (oow fancy!). My experience and background never really prepared me for working in a university as there is a culture embedded in the sector that is quite foreign to what I usually refer to as, “the real world”. There are structures, processes, methodology and practices embedded and engrained in higher education that would get you fired and blacklisted in the “real world” but they seem expected, nigh on encouraged here. Promotions often only seem to be granted if you’ve checked all the items on that list!

That said universities are a good place to work. They often provide creative and well paid opportunities for a range of talented and intelligent people, and it’s because of this that Academia does have real appeal. Richard Hall, from Wackademia fame, portrays the ideal of the profession as one where you’re paid to think and write – which makes it seem quite romantic, attractive and worthwhile. That unfortunately doesn’t tend to be the reality, nor does it reflect the heavy toll required to ‘buy in’ to the system. First there’s the qualifications – years of practice, knowledge and experience count for squat unless you have a piece of paper and a thesis in something so obscure you seem to live your life recovering from it rather than building on top of it. Then there’s the work load, the dilemma of teaching or research – as it’s nigh on impossible to do both well without any serious ethical or health implications (and there are many exceptions that prove this assumption). A career path that is driven by metrics of no value, checkboxes and accumulation of statistics with no worth. There is a stark difference in what the life of an academic could be and what in reality it is.

So while I’m not academic I don’t operate in a vacuum, I see what’s happening and feel it’s effect just in a more indirect, but no less challenging way. The policies and processes implemented at universities and by governments inevitably effect me and my work too. The academic’s dilemma affects my ability to perform – I can only help those willing to be helped, and those that want my help are in effect putting their careers on hold so they can put some effort into their teaching! I can only work on projects that get allocated funding, things that are deemed necessary by those far above my status, yet lacking my skill and knowledge of the field. I can only watch as management just adds more and more dumb technology with unrealistic expectations of what staff across the organisation can do with it. There is no realistic sense of what we are creating or impacting on, students are barely represented in any of these decisions. Universities operate in piecemeal silos completely unaware of the accumulative affect they have on the whole. They act and behave like independent fiefdoms – battling each other and internally for some sense of control or influence – and in this environment my job has become a battle between what the organisation says and what the fiefdoms do. Strategy and direction is confused, scattered and often contradictory – seeming to come from central management and from the fiefdoms. Yet for all the talk and the words put into the myriad of strategy and planning documentation, any actual funds or resources to progress and facilitate change seem to be missing. It’s a system of competing priorities that takes us in a thousand different directions all at once.

At the moment it feels like I am at the centre of all of this and despite wanting to make a difference I lack any real influence or ability to do so. There are hooks and roots that are trying to pull me in different directions but rather than any forward movement they just cancel each other out, holding everything in place. Two steps forward, three back. It’s a stalemate and coming to work seems entail another round of justification or explanation to the various fiefdoms as to why I’m actually employed here. I’m starting to really wonder if it would be better to just opt out and take myself and my career down another path.

Systemic Thoughts

I think deep down I want to – but goddamn – universities make themselves so hard to love! Like Mark, Sarah & David I believe in higher education, just not the current flawed system that it inhabits.

After hearing endlessly that “education is broken” I have to finally admit that it is. Not education the idea, but the system itself – and no where can this dysfunction be so readily visible than in higher education at the moment.

Systemically universities are sick and rather than seeking to cure the cause of their sickness they are stuck treating the symptoms. The fetishistic treatment and adoption of educational technology is perhaps the most obvious case in point. The FOMO (fear of missing out) attitude that haunts the decision-making brains of Vice Chancellors and Presidents of universities around the globe shows a distinct lack of leadership and vision of what higher education should be! The reliance on numbers, analytics and “big data’ to tell us the “truth” of whats happening seems telling when perhaps what is needed is a dialogue, a conversation with those actually being affected.

Universities are sick because of the way they are structured, the way they function and what they do is becoming increasingly disconnected from reality and the world they inhabit.

So here’s my take:

  1. Whats wrong with Academia is that the system has deteriorated into individualistic hand-to-hand combat that tends to only foster an ego driven psychopathy rather that the collective, collaborative and collegial environment needed for quality research to occur. Universities don’t tend to generate the knowledge that will world or make it a better place to live from the majority of their research – instead they feed into a self aggrandising system based on closed journals, paid access, prestige, egos and a baseless “points” system.
  2. What’s wrong with the function of universities is that teaching has devolved into a hobby for many academics because the job security, promotional path, organisational strategy, structure and funding is all aligned with research. The elite Universities have let business and government dictate the terms over decades because it was in the best interests of their bottom line. Meanwhile this has left society and the rest of the higher education sector uncoupled from their communities, the professions and the economy. Despite sharing of knowledge being the great benefit to society, it seems to have become the underfunded secondary component of the organisation.
  3. What’s wrong with the structure of universities is that they are modelled on industrial businesses, as are the metrics they use. Universities must start to see, manage and organise themselves as knowledge organisations which are distinct, if not diametrically opposed, to industrial mechanical ideals. Knowledge organisations are based around people, they are organic, they behave, they grow and they change – that is the natural state. They don’t respond to mechanical management methods to improve efficiency, performance, timelines and standardisation. They don’t want conformity – they want diversity. They don’t want efficiency – that want effectiveness. They don’t want control – they want autonomy. They don’t need overbearing governance – they need trust and faith in their ability and their talent. You can tell a machine what to do, shape them and manipulate them directly – you can do none of those things to a human without taking away the essential humanity your organisation runs on.

To this extent, as Taleb would describe,

Higher Education has developed into a fragile system, so that when changes comes it will be catastrophic.

Despite universities being the most suitable environments to cope with volatility, randomness, disorder, risk, and uncertainty – given their wealth of expertise, intelligence and knowledge – they have over-structured themselves to be sensitive to change.This is why MOOCs and every new trend will scare the living shit out university leaders around the world – because it really could signal the end. Anything new could possibly be the beginning of the end, the straw that broke the camel’s back, because things have decayed so much that there is very little of the foundations supporting the institution left.

Brighter Future

Like Mark I would say that deep down I am an optimist. I do tend to be deeply critical about some things, but only in the sense that I believe in them and am trying to make them better. I am trying to contribute to the cause and not be a bystander – but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to engage and need something to give me some hope!

If there is something that can get us onto a different path its leadership. Universities are full of the smartest people on the planet – the ideas are here, we just need someone to start the conversation. Universities have to take charge of their destiny or face oblivion. I really believe what is needed is to start a conversation around education in a truly in-depth and holistic way – what does it mean, how does it matter and what should it look like.

This is about more than an opinion piece from Vice Chancellors in the New York Times, The Conversation or any of the press/blogs/journals/conferences – because they are just more examples of a tired, repetitive monologue. No, we need a dialogue, a dialogue with our communities – with the people and places we inhabit, and for once, not the lofty ideals of big business or government. Leadership is required to get us there but also to guide us through the process – because what higher education should look like is not what it is today.

Personally the frustrations of working in higher ed are taking their toll. I need a break and I’m looking forward to the end of the year and a chance to relax and take some deserved time out and away.

At the same time I am starting to think about alternatives and opportunities – ways of affecting change myself and different circumstances to operate in. Some inside the university, some outside. I can relate to Sarah’s investment in the permanency of the job – the security and the wage are difficult things to look past when you have a small family. I’m not quite at Mark’s Sisyphian level of frustration yet – but given time I know it would be achievable.

So here’s to change, for all out sakes!

5 thoughts on “The more things change, the more Universities try to stay the same

    1. Thanks Mark! Glad you shared your experiences as I think that they’re important in understanding the issues many people face – also helps spur on a range of other posts and starts a much needed conversation.

  1. Hi Tim,

    Your words really hit home, especailly the need for leadership. In my experience, the reason we often lack leadership is that a) the Peter Principle reigns and b) the hiring policies at universities support the status quo, i.e., the safest bet, which in turn feeds the Peter Principle. Leaders are rarely (if ever) rewarded for implementing paradigm-shifting changes. They can all to easily be removed for doing exactly this. They are instead rewarded for bringing in funds (research grants, more student tuition dollars, donations), and maintaining the status quo. They act moe like middle managers than leaders, and who can blame them? Leadership of the kind you speak, the kind we need, in the academic sphere is all-too risky. So, like you, as support staff mandated to assist in implementing change, I get frustrated.

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