The Secret Lecturer’s view of university life is almost wholly grim

A new book promises to lift the lid on the unvarnished realities of academic life. Debbie McVitty wonders if it really is as bad as all that

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

When King’s College London vice chancellor Shitij Kapur talks about the triangle of sadness in higher education he’s talking about a funding system that increasingly doesn’t work for students, government, or higher education staff.

The public debate has much to say about student experience and the public finances, but much less about the impact of financial pressures on university staff who are facing, in increasing numbers of institutions, redundancy and restructuring, and freezes on everything from meeting catering to conference attendance and CPD. They are also fronting out systemic issues with student engagement and wellbeing, and many are still carrying their own scars from the pressures of keeping the show on the road during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s generally understood, I think, that morale isn’t great among university staff right now and these are the most obvious reasons as to why this is. Yet the sense that there’s something not quite right about academic work has been around for a while now – certainly it was there in 2018 at the height of the disputes over the future of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, and it was there when students and lecturers in England demonstrated against the 2012 undergraduate fees settlement.

While both academic and professional staff are facing similar organisational challenges, it’s notable that the public narrative does tend to surface the woes of academic colleagues more readily than those of university professionals, whether that is about the structure of the roles themselves that mean professionals have a nicer work experience, or the availability of public channels or cultural capital to raise issues.

What’s always been tricky is deciphering the extent of the problem, when the trades union spokespeople for university staff have quite a lot of skin in the game in emphasising “areas for improvement” rather than positives. There’s no systematic public assessment of “university staff experience” though most universities presumably have some kind of internal formal survey as well as the usual mechanisms for staff to surface their views.

It’s also quite difficult to get to the bottom of the issues. We hear a lot about high volume of workload, about the pressures of external metrics, and about some toxic cultures especially on the research side. Ostensibly collegial departmental structures and cultures can obscure the intensely hierarchical nature of academia, which can be much harder to flourish in if you are a woman, working class, disabled, racially minoritised or otherwise an “outsider”.

Change programmes and restructures even in otherwise healthy institutions can be a really difficult experience for everyone involved and can contribute to a wider sense of disaffection. University leaders have been on a steep learning curve in the last decade as what organisations need from their leaders has changed – and leaders will readily recognise there is work to be done to build a community of courageous leaders across the organisation, and a pipeline of future leaders. Blame shifting, buck-passing, and fear of making decisions all can contribute to a difficult working environment.

Yet none of this is materially different from any other profession. Doctors are overworked. Lawyers are competitive. Journalists are facing a massively changed external environment. No industry has yet worked out how to manage the risks that those who end up in leadership turn out to be over-promoted ego trippers rather than compassionate servant leaders. By comparison, academics are relatively protected from external shocks. In theory at least they work on topics they are fascinated by, with people who share their values, and in an environment in which they are exposed to a perpetual flow of new ideas. It’s perplexing that a profession about which so many complain so bitterly remains hugely competitive – if universities were so horrible to work in you would expect that much fewer people would want to do it.

Fundamentally true

Everyone has their theories about what’s going on – all heavily extrapolated from their own experience. So when I received my review copy of The Secret Lecturer, a new look at university life through the eyes of an academic researching and teaching in a humanities subject which promises a “no-holds-barred account of life on campus” I was pretty motivated to dive in. The form the book takes, a daily diary of happenings over the course of an academic year, owes much to Adam Kay’s wildly successful This is going to hurt, an account of his experience as a junior doctor in the NHS, which sparked a spate of anonymised accounts of different professions. I found it an engaging read (though as Rob Cuthbert at SRHE has warned, it might make you angry).

The anonymous author confirms in the introduction that the incidents related are “fundamentally true” though they did not all happen in one year, and that incidents have been selected primarily to demonstrate the “mendacity, incompetence, and bigotry” that the author believes is systemic in universities. These qualities are not confined to the “managerial armies of darkness” but to everything from the petty ego trips, hypocrisy, and system-manipulations of academic peers who use “sick leave” to progress with their research or casually appropriate a colleague’s teaching resources, to the thoughtlessness of faceless administrators who fail to sort out air circulation on a sweaty open day, to the deluded students who argue they should pass their unit despite not attending a single class.

Beyond the often amusing accounts of interactions with difficult people, there are also numerous moments where the author offers a glimpse into what reads as more systemic issues such as grade inflation and student cheating, institutional relationships with the arms trade (an issue the author is especially morally outraged by) and the wider influence of corporate interests on academic research, the struggle for research time and pressure to produce, casual instances of prejudice that appear to go unremarked and unchecked, and a particularly poignant account of advising a disabled student who is struggling to get the support they are entitled to from their institution. Many of these issues are all too familiar to anyone working in or around the sector, and the effect of seeing them all in one account is, as the author intends, to push the reader towards the conclusion that higher education is on an “intellectual, moral, ideological and administrative precipice.”

The author (there’s an incident in the book that suggests that on the balance of probabilities the author is “he”) demonstrates a sharp observational eye, a moral compass, and a degree of self-awareness that leavens what might otherwise be read as relentless self-pity and gives the reader a reason to be on his side. The character that he presents is recognisable from genre fiction and situation comedy – he is put-upon, occasionally made ridiculous by his situation, rendered powerless by circumstances. He represents the parts of us that feel squashed and constrained by structures outside of our control and as a consequence we are both fascinated and repelled by him. One particular incident in which he describes in detail an encounter with an administrative jobsworth who refuses him access to the stationary cupboard is both funny and uncomfortable as he (unkindly) mocks both her speech impediment and his own impotence. The reader is disappointed, but not especially surprised, when a possible escape route – an academic role in a university abroad that seems to promise more time and funding for research – turns out to be ephemeral.

What a difference a frame makes

The book is an entertaining read, especially since it doesn’t make any attempt at critical distance or balance and just goes for the jugular. The broader intellectual framing for the position that the author holds is also familiar – marketistation, fees, and corporatisation driving student consumerism, management that somehow manages to be both spineless and ruthless, and academic disaffection. Given how often we’ve heard this complaint, it would be easy to dismiss as an ideological canard – an oversimplified grand narrative of institutional decline that fails to engage with political and economic realities, or the complicating effect of individuals’ perspectives and actions, or the historic weight of institutional and disciplinary culture, or the interaction of corporatisation with other large-scale social trends like youth anxiety.

The very fact that he’s got a framing analysis though, is perhaps what differentiates academia from other professions – and perhaps even from professional staff working in universities. Reading the book I hypothesise that some academics feel especially keenly the gap between what they imagined academia would be like when they were working so hard to get into it, and the humdrum reality of difficult colleagues and disengaged students. But they also feel the gap between their ideal of the university as an abstract idea and reality of the corporate buzzwords, the empty leadership nostrums, the grandiose claims of excellence, and the moral compromises that universities make because, well, they are made up of imperfect humans who are also trying to stay afloat in a world that doesn’t automatically wish them well, and who make good decisions and get it right probably about as frequently as they stuff it up.

The author highlights his awareness of the gap when he argues at the conclusion of the book that universities have “lost sight of what being a university means” ie “vital to a society that aspires to knowledge, freedom, and democracy.” For academics dealing with this double alienation, offering the sort of practical solution based on adapting, playing the game where you need to, finding workarounds to manage one’s general sanity, and just generally getting on with it that you might see elsewhere, is experienced as an affront to one’s core values.

So it boils down to whether those in positions of influence in universities are motivated to attempt to bridge those gaps between ideal and reality, or whether it is really possible to do so. I’d argue many leaders are themselves keenly aware of the issue, share that interior vision of what a university at its best can be for society, and are trying their best. Though perhaps understandably they might also be a little impatient at being lazily caricatured by those who have never themselves attempted to run a university, or a department, or a faculty, and who can be superior and dismissive about the actual degree of knowledge and skill involved.

The Secret Lecturer has some recommendations for improvements: optimally abolishing tuition fees but if that’s not an option then at the very least fewer managers, bans on overwork, zero-hours contracts, and the use of non-disclosure agreements for bullying and harassment, divestment from repressive regimes, arms dealers, and fossil fuel companies, and more democracy in general. There’s plenty to agree with in principle here, but it’s hardly a rounded out programme for change, and it wouldn’t tackle all the various issues that manifest in various forms in different parts of the sector. While we might agree to an extent with the author’s moral perspective it’s not necessarily an argument for the entire university sector to reshape itself around it.

Instead, there’s harder work to be done for both the managerial “armies of darkness” and the self-appointed virtuous bearers of academic standards not to throw in the towel but to find common ground and a basis for working together to find ways to fix or change the things that are broken. We could all wish to be braver about admitting that some things are less than ideal so that work can begin to fix them, and more compassionate about blaming less and empathising more. But there’s no mass market at all for a book that lifts the lid on all the small ways that work is already happening at universities up and down the country.

The Secret Lecturer is published by Canbury Press.

6 responses to “The Secret Lecturer’s view of university life is almost wholly grim

  1. “While both academic and professional staff are facing similar organisational challenges, it’s notable that the public narrative does tend to surface the woes of academic colleagues more readily than those of university professionals, whether that is about the structure of the roles themselves that mean professionals have a nicer work experience, or the availability of public channels or cultural capital to raise issues.”

    Academic’s, especially older established Academic’s, have the opportunity to speak out and (limited) protection from ‘Academic Freedom’ to do so, for now as many University ‘Professionals’ “managerial “armies of darkness”” have been constructing ever more restrictive contracts of employment to eliminate it.

    1. Well, that neatly sums up the gulf between academic and professional staff. Academics with a persecution complex, a superiority complex and a voice. Professionals with no voice.

      1. Exactly. I used to work at an institution that underwent a massive professional services restructure/redundancy process. I was very fortunate that my academic colleagues used their voices to condemn it, because neither I nor any of the other people directly impacted could say a word publicly about it.

  2. Just what I came here to say. ‘Faceless administrators’ and ‘armies of darkness’, and ‘professionals’ (note the ‘ ‘ ). Thankful to know some absolutely lovely academic staff, shame about the ones who seem to think that they are god’s gift.

    I’ll just leave this here…
    “Though perhaps understandably they might also be a little impatient at being lazily caricatured by those who have never themselves attempted to run [insert programme here], and who can be superior and dismissive about the actual degree of knowledge and skill involved.”

  3. The stories and behaviours I have heard about or witnessed are numerous and sometimes startling: the academic who (while on a trip overseas) informed a professional colleague that they were employee and not a true ‘member’ of the university; the science lab where academics insisted that the technicians called them by their formal academic titles at all times; the use of terms like ‘the gremlins at the centre’ to describe colleagues who are fundamental to keeping the place running; the insistence by some academic colleagues that they can’t attend meetings in the summer childcare reasons, while professional staff are expected to pay for holiday clubs or move onto term-time only contracts. I could go on…

    Similar to the other comments left above – I have worked with some absolutely lovely and collegial academics. But others sadly seem to wear their sense of superiority and entitlement on their sleeves and it never seems to be called out. Thanks Debbie for your candid comments. Appreciated.

  4. Those of us that entered Academia after a career in Industry understand how important support staff are. Those personal relationships and acknowledgement of professional can make the difference between swift resolution of the issue and your request being “lost”. Not to mention, being on the wrong side of an administrator can make an academic’s life a living hell.

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