Monday 25 November 2019

What’s in a word?

In English, it’s a university. In Welsh, it’s prifysgol. (Pronounced something like preeve-us-goll.) A bit of digging into those two different words can tell us a lot, I think, about the underlying reasons for the industrial action taking place in many UK universities today and for the coming days.

The industrial action (I think technically it looks like two different but overlapping actions) has a number of immediate causes. One is pensions – a dispute about USS contributions, the nature of the scheme and sustainability. The other is pay and conditions, including equality. (nb I’m not trying to provide a detailed account of the issues, just giving the context. The UCU website sets out the issues as they see them.)

The two words help us to understand the underlying issues.

Let’s go English language first. University comes from universitas – a Latin word meaning, roughly, a single body. A university is, in the medieval concept, a single corporate body, staff and students alike being subject to specific laws and rules, distinct from the laws which apply to others outside the community. And although the legal framework has changed in the last 800 years or so, universities do (claim to) hold values of collegiality. Members of university Senates and Academic Boards – at least those who aren’t on the university executive – behave in ways consistent with universities being a single corporate community.

Now the Welsh language word. Prifysgol is a compound word: Prif – meaning something like ‘main’, or ‘chief’, and Ysgol, meaning ‘school’. So a Prifysgol is the main school. Universities are the most advanced teaching organisations we have. And in the last twenty years or so (perhaps longer if you go back to the Jarrett report in the mid 1980’s) there has been an emphasis on value for the student and the transactional nature of the student contract. This is most pronounced in England – where there is now a regulator in the student interest, rather than a steward looking out for the sector as a whole – but the change can be seen across the UK in, for instance, the rise in the number of complaints made by students. There’s a correlation with the introduction of tuition fees for full-time undergraduate study, but I suspect you’ll also find a correlation with the increasing size of universities and the increasing proportion of people within an age cohort who go to university.

On these understandings, the strikes speak to two things. Firstly, as satisfying the students becomes more explicitly important, and university managers seek to identify what is wrong in a given situation and how to improve it, the autonomy of individual members of staff – academic and professional service – is diminished. The desires for consistency of approach to students, and for economy of action and cost, mean that universities increasingly try to agree standard approaches. This, coupled with increasing numbers of students, means that the job of teaching can become more routinized, and more subject to scrutiny. Greater micromanagement clever people is rarely a recipe for organisational happiness.

Secondly, the reality that universities are not really single communities. They are complex organisations, closely regulated, which require management. The sense that academic staff can control their work, and that they are working within a system which is fair, is diminishing. Let’s look, for example, at tweets from one academic - @sstroschein2 - to understand a perspective on strike action (I’m going to paraphrase rather than quote directly):

  • Incremental changes over 15 years which make the job increasingly unmanageable
  • High turnover of staff
  • More students, larger classes
  • Increasingly active but inapt management of teaching 
  • More automation
  • Research ranking which harms organisational dynamics and adds no value
  • More pressure to compete in research
  • Casualisation of junior academic staff roles and exploitation, leading to morale problems

Without trying to get into the rights and wrongs of these concerns (although from my observations there is a lot of truth in there), it is clear that there isn’t a broadly shared vision within many universities of what the university is for and how it should be run in the world of mass, student-focused higher education. This contrasts with the apparent culture of collegiality, and leads to discontented staff. In the long run this can’t hold.

What’s to be done? At some point the industrial action will end, with some sorts of compromises. Who knows what and when.

In the longer run, there’s a need for universities to find a stable way to work, which provides for sustainable and fulfilling academic and professional service careers, and which recognises that students are the raison d’être for most universities. Maybe this is a single sector-wide question; maybe it’s a question which each university needs to answer in its own way. (It’s probably a bit of both!)

A precursor, though, will be good leadership, and that means listening not fighting. If we like the notion of the university as a single community, and if we recognise that the students in the main school matter, it would be best to start the sitting round the table now.

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