A Taxonomy of Unpleasant Pressures: why it’s getting harder in higher education


Terran Lane, a tenured associate professor in the US, recently moved from academia to industry.
His move caused consternation amongst his friends and colleagues: “voluntarily giving up tenure is roughly akin to voluntarily giving up a lung”. On his blog – which went viral – he made a list of the “forces that are making it increasingly unpleasant to be an academic in the US right now”. Here’s that list: it sounds remarkably familiar:– the difficulty of making a tangible, positive difference in the world;
– struggles with workload and life balance;
– increasing centralisation of power into university administrations and decreasing autonomy for academic staff;
– a strained funding climate that is trapping academics between dwindling central funding and intensifying university pressure-to-be-funded (generate income);
– specialisation, narrowness of vision and risk aversion within academic disciplines;
– poor incentive structures;
– moves towareds mass production and automation of education;
– salary disparities between the academy and industry;
– the rise of anti-intellectualism and anti-education sentiment.The creation of that list “turned into not just a dissection of dissatisfactions with the system, but a cry for loss for a beautiful institution that I have loved and outrage at the forces that are eroding it”.

Those of us who work in higher education in the UK may well nod our head in agreement with most if not all of that list, and may regard it with a sort of ‘If not now, when?’ attitude. Meanwhile, as the juggernaut of centralised conformity rolls seemingly inexorably towards us, many of us – on a day-to-day-basis – are creating, planning and delivering wonderful, creative, innovative, exciting, relevant learning experiences that defy the forces of ‘command and control’ and the stultifying blanket of conformity.

About ten years ago, at a European conference on the future of arts education, I happened to be standing in the coffee queue next to the German Federal Minister of Education who had just given a keynote address. After an exchange of introductions, and having established I was from the UK, he went on – in a light-hearted way – to list some of our structural problems (transport, health, etc….it was a time, admittedly, when nothing seemed to be working properly).

He then went on to say that he had a serious question: “For the last 30 years or so, until reunification, our economy was good and many good things both promoted and flowed from that. Yet, culturally and artistically we produced relatively little of world class. Over the same period, in the UK your economy has never been strong, yet you have consistently led the world in music, design, fashion, theatre, etc. My question is what is it that you are doing, or maybe NOT doing in your education system that has allowed you to achieve that?”

I didn’t – standing in that coffee queue – have a coherent, evidence-based answer. But I did say that perhaps it was to do with the fact that we have a long and honourable tradition of non-conformity in the UK combined with a high tolerance of eccentricity.

Is that true…and if so, does it still hold true? Or, in our education systems, have we lost – or are we losing and/or having taken away from us – the very attributes that enable us to lead the field in creative and cultural endeavour and achievement?

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Terran Lane article in Times Higher Education