Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Compulsory redundancies, Attachments and Forms of life in Education and Industry

Clearly, with at least a year-on-year reduction in funding of 8%, universities are having to shed staff. In the main, this is being achieved through the euphemistically-labelled "natural wastage": those close to retirement are being presented with "offers they can't refuse". However, there are a number of cases emerging nationally of compulsory redundancies achieved through the game of 'musical chairs' which I talked about in a previous post (see There are real human tragedies emerging from this, responsibility for which the managerialism within institutions is wishing (understandably!) to distance itself. In the process of distancing, the metaphor of "University as Business" is employed: Universities are businesses; businesses hire and fire regularly; Universities cannot afford to  be any different.

There are serious problems with this position, and they underpin the human tragedies that are currently emerging. However, it is a grey moral area and getting close to some clarity on the issue which goes beyond belly-aching is challenging. I think a possible way of examining it is to take a closer look at those individuals who are on the receiving end of losing their jobs.

Academic jobs have never been, to this point, short-term. The form of life of being in an educational institution has been one of accomodating the range of personal skills and attributes which make up the university with a forgiving and compassionate sense of community. This contributes to a prevailing atmosphere which is supportive to students, and (importantly) conveys values which are to be aspired to (although rarely achieved) in the outside world of industry.

The form of life in industry, on the other hand, often is high-risk and short-term. I remember my time working for a range of companies from small family businesses to large international corporations. The smaller the business (particularly if it was a family firm which often was characterised by an authoritarian structure) the higher the risk. Everybody knew that, so everybody was prepared for the moment when it was pulled away (and perhaps secretly hoped for that moment to come!). I personally remember being permanently terrified as a young software developer of losing my job (I didn't think I was very good at it!!).

So the difference is between a form of life which is generous and accommodating, and a form of life which is threatening and risky. What happens to individuals in each form of life is drastically different when compulsory redundancy follows. To understand how they are different, it is useful to appreciate how personal identities form in tandem with the form of life that is lived.

Bowlby's work on attachment and care is useful here and can help go deeper in the understanding of these different forms of life. Bowlby documents the reticence of children to attach who have had attachments rejected or withdrawn in the past: they acquire strategies for not letting themselves get hurt and become more reliant for their identity on other resources which they find they can control more effectively (for example, objects). In adulthood, it is reasonable to expect this to manifest as various types of fetishism, and an emphasis on strategic action as a means of protection. Is it too far fetched to suggest that such behaviours are characterised by those who work in industries which are high-risk and insecure?

Most people who work in education have had good educations themselves, and often their educational success has depended on strong family relationships and attachments in their upbringing. University traditionally has continued an environment of strong attachments, and its forgiving and compassionate nature has been very similar to the family environment. This is the environment that academics go to work in, and aspiring students aim for. It is attachment that nurtures knowledge.

On the other side of Bowlby's equation, however, is loss. All individuals experience loss in the form of bereavement at some point in their lives. Some losses are expected; some not - and those can have particularly devastating consequences. This is because when an object of attachment is lost, so is part of the identity of the person who was attached to it. The damage is often irreperable.

Now perhaps its easier to see the impact of compulsory redundancies in Universities in comparison to those in industry. The compulsory redundancy in a university is more like an unexpected bereavement. It is the loss of something which had become part of an individual's identity, and which always gave reassurance to the individual that the attachment was compassionate, forgiving, and likely to be always there. Were the university a business, the attachment wouldn't have formed so strongly in the beginning, because the individual would have sought to protect themselves from the risk of loss.

Managerialism wants to make the university more like a business. But there is an inherent contradiction here. This is because of the relationship between knowledge and love, and means of giving love is through the provision of an environment where strong attachments can form. I cannot see how the environment of the future 'corporate universities' can possibly do this: unable to provide attachments either for staff or students, they will instead fall back on anonymised "processes", which themselves will present enough risks and pitfalls for both staff and students to inspire the most inauthentic and strategic learning practices. In the corporate university with its business efficiencies and unfavourable working conditions, who would ever dare to attach?

1 comment:

Astrid Johnson said...

You are describing why people camp in front of St Pauls Cathedral. #occupy