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Wicked problems: is there a crisis of morale in higher education?

Of metrics and managerialism: is there a crisis of morale in the HE workforce? Debbie McVitty and David Kernohan consider what we know
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Of metrics and managerialism: is there a crisis of morale in higher education?

Debbie McVitty, Wonkhe

At the time of the 2018 industrial action over USS, the scale and intensity of the action led many to conclude that something bigger was going on than a pensions dispute. As the major actors worked to resolve the immediate issue of the future of USS, behind the scenes many were asking serious questions about the morale of the higher education workforce.

The critique of academic workload, fees and market competition encouraging student consumerist attitudes, and metrics-driven teaching and research cultures is well-established and has been frequently articulated in academic challenges to government policy over the last decade. During the 2018 industrial action, the pension issue appeared to combine with frustration over a belief that university leaders had not done enough to resist and combat these wider pressures and, perhaps, were complicit in some of them.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady who came to prominence during the industrial action of 2018 alluded to morale issues in her election speech to UCU congress in 2019:

we need time, freedom, safety, dignity at work, as well as remuneration. This means fighting against precarity, discrimination, the Hostile Environment, stress caused by intolerable workloads, associated overwork, and the metric-fuelled managerialism that enables all these things.

When engaged in industrial relations activism it makes a lot of sense to produce a critique that attributes specific workforce issues – casualisation, workload, discrimination and harassment, terms and conditions for outsourced staff – to a systemic phenomenon that produces a culture – managerialism – that sets itself against the true values of higher education. It is much more rhetorically impactful and gives people an ideological reason to get involved in activism.

But it’s also useful to disaggregate the particular aspects of different universities’ cultures that produce problems, and understand their differential impacts in specific circumstances. It’s highly plausible that insensitive implementation of policies like the TEF have resulted in some universities, or departments, in additional pressures on staff. But we’ve also heard of instances where piloting subject TEF has started new, and positive, conversations about learning and teaching.

Whether or not university leaders consider TEF to be bad policy – and many do – all are confronted with the necessity of implementing it in a way that as far as possible protects the interests of the university, both students and staff. Whether that has been achieved in different institutions will always be a matter of legitimate debate.

What is considered reasonable changes over time. In some areas – such as policies on flexible working, and a cultural acceptance of the value of part-time and remote working – some universities, departments, or professional service or research teams are certainly behind the curve. The long hours working culture that might have been considered acceptable twenty years ago is now being challenged – and rightly so.

Wellcome’s investigation of what academics think about research culture, as well as UCU’s own research on issues like the experiences of Black female professors are vital to informing the debate. What we don’t get to see is this sort of detailed investigation and serious attention to workforce lived experience inside universities; this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist but there could potentially be scope for more shared practice and insight in this space.

No workplace is immune from challenges – what can make the difference to morale is the sense that responsible people are taking those issues seriously and that there is scope to be part of changing the worst bits of the culture. If that’s not happening, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if university staff were fed up.

Measuring morale

David Kernohan, Wonkhe

Repeated industrial action (initially covering pensions, and latterly expanding to pay) is widely perceived as being about sector terms and conditions. Concerns about precarity and performance monitoring have united academic and support staff in disquiet about the state of the sector. And then we have last week’s research from Erickson, Hanna, and Walker which offers a far from rosy “statactivist” insight into prevailing opinions on senior university managers. I’m sure you can guess what they are.

None of this – of course – is new, as a glance through a mid-90s compilation of Lawrie Taylor columns will make abundantly clear. The putative golden age of academia, which most independent observers would put well before the early 80s cuts and the Jarrett review, is not within living memory of most academics.

Is what’s missing the putative instrument that Erickson et al hinted at – a staff equivalent of the national student survey? Though the NSS itself has methodological issues, it is widely taken to provide a reliable indicator on the (mediated) opinions of (responding, final year) students – statistically less reliable but pedagogically more useful at course level.

The ultimate expression of dissatisfaction is leaving the sector – and we do get data on that from HESA. Overall numbers concerning “outflow” from the UK HE sector (those who leave an academic role and do not take up another academic role in the UK) are static at around 30,000, with a concerning growth in under 40s leaving the sector. Last year also saw evidence of older staff – those over 50 – heading for the door. Evidence perhaps, of the impact of voluntary redundancy rounds.

But, tellingly, inflow to the sector almost exactly matches outflow, and – as you might expect – skews young, though there is a recent growth trend in new starters in UK academia over 40. Now, this data isn’t great – there’s a huge number of don’t knows, and it would be fascinating to see the effects of an increasingly hostile immigration environment on recruitment from overseas. But you’d expect signs of a growing exodus in a truly unhappy system, not stasis.

The issue here is the idea of vocation. There’s only a small group of people that want to do academic work, and they really want to do academic work – right down to writing and reviewing academic papers on an off-peak train commute between two short term hourly paid roles. We don’t see this as people leaving the sector because few people genuinely decide to leave the sector – in the main, for young academics, they are forced to by poor conditions. But they hang on as long as they can.

One response to “Wicked problems: is there a crisis of morale in higher education?

  1. An excellent and thought-provoking piece that will make it onto my office door. Alas, I take issue with the one of the concluding contentions: you absolutely would not expect signs of exodus in a truly unhappy system if that system was academia, because of the huge skew in work force numbers towards the early career. There is not only a small group of people who want to do academic work. There are huge numbers. Famously, there are far more postdocs and doctoral students than academic posts, and a large proportion of those begin with designs on an academic career. There is thus a huge and inexhaustible supply of labour at the bottom of the career structure; we call it the academic pyramid for good reason. In that kind of labour market, outflow is the most meaningful metric of unhappiness, and it seems that the findings of this article substantiate everything else going on in the sector. These are not happy times.

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