Among HE’s dark academic mills


A recent anonymous long diatribe in the Guardian Higher Education from a “semi-employed thirtysomething on a zero-hours contract, sitting at home in pyjamas, staring at a hopeless pile of marking, as hopes of making it to the shops for a pint of milk today fade” complaining bitterly about the conditions under which they are forced to work, provoked a storm of comment – some supportive, some not – from other academics. At the same time the lecturers’ union, the UCU, has called a two-day strike about pay and conditions, after an overwhelming ‘Yes’ ballot. This just happened to coincide with the publication of Vice Chancellors’ salaries which showed an average increase of 6.1% (with one VC of a small specialist arts institution being awarded a 25% increase) against the lecturer’s offered pay rise of 1.1%. Other statistics showed that the overall pay of those same lectures has fallen by 14.5% in real terms since 2010.

The reference in the title of this piece to William Blake’s 1808 poem is deliberate. As  our HE system, in the course of a couple of generations, has shifted from an ‘elite’ to a ‘mass’system, the parallels with what happened two hundred years ago during the course of the Industrial Revolution, though by no means identical, are still striking (no pun intended).

Consider this:

Factories began to replace small “cottage” industries. Manufacturers realized that bulk production was cheaper, more efficient and provided the quantity of items needed. As a result more and more factories sprang up. Skilled workers, such as hand weavers, saw their talents and experience become useless because they could not compete with the efficiency of the new textile machines. In 1832, one observer saw how the skilled hand weavers had lost their way and were reduced to starvation. “It is truly lamentable to behold so many thousands of men who formerly earned 20 to 30 shillings per week, now compelled to live on 5, 4, or even less”. (from Social Studies: The Industrial Revolution)

Our universities have become education factories, and many skilled and experienced academics are the equivalent of the hand weavers, struggling to adapt to life in the Age of the Educational Machine. And it’s not just education. What is the junior doctors’ dispute if it isn’t a row about industrial efficiency being placed above genuine healthcare and family life?

The Vice Chancellors, on the other hand, resemble the early factory and mill owners, happy to exploit their positions of power (protected by the ersatz probity  of the ‘Remuneration Committee’) demonstrating scant regard for common sense and decency in the drive to ensure their educational-industrial complexes thrive in the ultra-competitive and expanding world market for educational goods and services.

Consider this from 1776:

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combination of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate…When workers combine, masters … never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers and journeymen.” (from Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations)

OK, I might be pushing the industrial revolution analogy and hyperbole a bit too far: Higher Education in the UK  was never a cottage industry and has its origins in a closeted and cosseted elite, unlike the craft based practices that were subsumed by the industrial revolution*. But the hand loom weavers, like academics, certainly saw themselves and were seen as elite workers, with high degrees of autonomy over how and when they worked – as long as their ‘pieces’ were delivered in time. That autonomy was rudely taken away by mill and factory work where, in some establishments, it was a sackable offence to bring a timepiece to work because the mill and factory owners literally owned and controlled one’s time.

It’s difficult to avoid the sense that we are – and have been for a while – in a very interesting, challenging and possibly paradigm shifting period. The words of another William, this time Yeats, come to mind: “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” (from The Second Coming). We are caught between two models and two conceptualisation of higher education. One is the industrial model that harks back to that earlier traditional model, and the other is the post-industrial model: digitised, customised, individualised, connected, fast-changing, non-linear, super-complex, occasionally chaotic.

It is not coincidental that the companies and organisations that are thriving tend to be those that have shifted away from the traditional model: creative, not risk-averse, with lean, flexible systems enabling them to move very fast when the opportunity arises.

There is, of course, no easy answer. The exploited self-employed lecturer on zero-hours and relatively low wages faced with an unmanageable pile of marking is the inevitable consequence (and victim) of the logic of that old industrial model. Many academics, like the hand weavers of old, are faced with a stark choice: accept the conditions of work or else someone else will. There is of course the recourse to collective industrial action by the trade union (another model that traces its roots to the early days of industrial revolution) which may or may not result in a positive result.

But in an Age of Uncertainty and Complexity (let alone Austerity) the question of whether the old model of higher education can still ‘hold’ is perhaps a moot point. What new forms may emerge from out of this transformative  moment are yet to be established. Meanwhile, the education factories increase the output from their academic machine-shops and production lines, and academics fight hard to maintain the values, discourses and practices of genuine, meaningful, life-enhancing education in the face of the obsession with industrial  effectiveness and efficiency that now permeates higher education’s mean unpleasant land.

* My thanks to Prof. Carole-Anne Upton for her comments.