On time, work, leisure and learning in universities

Andy Pitchford reflects on time and the ways in which we spend it, both during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.

A widely felt consequence of the Covid-19 crisis has been the rapid redistribution of time and work.

In an alarmingly short period, many of us have had to take on greater responsibilities at work while simultaneously committing to more caring and oversight of dependents. At the same moment, many whose lives were organised to a great extent by their employer or educational institution have stumbled into new temporal structures, with days suddenly feeling much longer and harder to fill.

Aligning the hopes and expectations of these disparate groups will be causing anxiety up and down the country, with the guns of “lazy” and “stressy” fully loaded on both sides of family arguments.

These experiences are likely to encourage us to value the ways in which institutions carry us all through life, shaping our daily activities and keeping us out of mischief. Thank goodness for schools and universities – they keep young people busy, occupied and off the unemployment register.

At a deeper level, these institutions also deal with our underlying anxieties about what idle hands will do if they are given the opportunity, with the Devil rubbing his own paws in anticipation in the background. Surely, protecting great swathes of the population from indolence and sloth is a major benefit of contemporary education systems.

In Praise of Idleness?

But there might be alternative view for us to consider. Nearly one hundred years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote In Praise of Idleness, which argued that a measure of any civilisation should be the extent to which its citizens are able to enjoy the diminution of work and the richness of leisure. He observed the many advances that industrialisation had achieved in the early part of the C20th and implored us to consider how we might, in the future, distribute work more equitably, and ensure that we make the most of the time that would open up for us all beyond the realm of necessity.

He was railing against asceticism and Puritanism, and of the valorisation of paid work and employment. Surely, he argued, rational people in the future will chose a light-hearted, cultivated life over one dominated by routine and drudgery. Mechanisation and automation would provide these opportunities for us, the challenge was to create the conditions that enable us to choose wisely.

It is safe to say that Russell would not have been impressed by the direction taken by most Western societies in the first decades of the C21st. We continually choose money over time, individuality over the communal, consumption over craft. But these choices will surface again. In the UK, the 2019 General Election brought to the fore proposals for a four-day week, universal income, lifelong learning policies and, for the first time, open debate over the implications of our commitment to continued economic growth.

In responding to the Covid-19 crisis, the UK Government has temporarily suspended long-held convictions about public spending, particularly in relation to state funding for income and welfare needs. Of course, politics may play out in a way that a return to austerity is justified in order to pay for these temporary appeasements. But equally, the crisis may prove to be so monumental that voters become willing to contemplate more radical solutions to public policy dilemmas.

Gone for good

We can be sure that the advances of automation will continue. Vast swathes of paid work, in all sectors and at all levels, are likely to be eliminated in the coming years. We have known for some time that graduates will not enjoy a career in the established sense, and that they will be joining flatter, less hierarchical organisations. Paid work will remain a central life interest for some, but not for all. Highly skilled individuals will remain in demand, but this group may look with some jealousy at those who are not chained to the corporation. There will be choices to make, for nation states, for communities and for individuals.

So how will a university education be judged in this context? To what extent are we supporting students as they contemplate and negotiate these seismic changes? Are we helping them to understand the challenges and potential of post-work futures?

For what it’s worth, Russell wasn’t confident that universities would be able to make a positive contribution even at the time that he was writing. He feared that they were too removed from every-day life to understand the challenges facing ordinary working people. It’s likely that he would be horrified today to see the extent to which universities are in thrall to work, through their positioning, their selectivity, their subject choices, their curriculum – both formal and hidden.

Any alien visitor to a UK university would be left in no doubt about what it is that we worship, what kinds of lives we want for our graduates, and the extent to which we value culture, art and leisure in their many forms. The holy grail of our education is a well-paid and conventional career, all other activities are subordinate to this. Of course universities are pressured to operate in this way as they scratch around for the business that will help them survive, but these sobering times might offer us a few moments to reflect on the nature of the education we currently promote.

What happens after work?

Academic and professional staff in universities are certainly already very busy and rarely time-rich. But on closer inspection it is clear that many are already making choices about their practice that will help students negotiate their futures and come to terms with “post-work” possibilities. Through focused content, new forms of delivery and innovation in student support, it seems that universities can play a role, opening up the imaginations of students to future possibilities.

Many disciplines already consider the politics of work and time in some depth. The Social Sciences, particularly Sociology, will do this overtly, but so too will Schools of Management and Business. Architecture students will be encouraged to contemplate trends and futures in work and lifestyles in a variety of ways, while students of Media Studies and English Literature are also likely to engage with these utopian and dystopian themes. There is content that could, therefore, be shared more widely.

What do we mean by “career”?

The turn towards mindfulness and meditation in student support services indicates some willingness in the sector to contemplate the utility of alternative bodies of knowledge, where the benefits of work, employment or a career may not dominate thinking. The entry into the formal curriculum of notions of wellbeing generally, and mindfulness in particular, will encourage students to more openly question the instrumentality of their education. More nuanced is the response from some leading career advisors, notably Tristram Hooley, Ronald Sultana and Rie Thomsen, who argue for a broadening and radical vision of the ‘career’ which takes into account these possibilities.

All of these examples demonstrate that there is potential for a university education to address these issues, and to draw students into debates about the nature of their future working and non-working lives. Rather than monopolise the construction and dissemination of knowledge about post-work futures, we can share this with the people who will shoulder the burden of the decisions we make at a societal level.

Empowering students, enabling them to imagine solutions and discuss alternative futures, will help them as individuals and as citizens. Sharing the work in these ways would be a proactive response to societal dilemmas, one that enriches the curriculum and is not subservient to the dominant order. When we have the time, perhaps we should consider it.

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