Saturday, 10 March 2018

Good, Bad and Ugly Universities

Today I've encountered the best and the worst of Universities. The best I found in my own institution: a lovely moment of serendipity which is what these places ought to be about. The worst I heard from my former institution - hardly a surprise given the regime there, but very sad nonetheless.

I started working in Higher Education at the age of 33, having previously been a rather unhappy computer programmer for a few years, and a teacher in Further Education colleges and schools. In the years since graduating from my music degree in Manchester, I always stayed close to the library. I always felt that my job was to read and to think - even if I had to do something else to earn money. It was only when I became a computer science lecturer at the University of Bolton that I could legitimately read and think for a living.

There are many thinkers and readers out there who remain in the position I was in before being employed by Bolton: committed to staying close to the library, but having to do other things to stay alive. Nowadays, some of these people find adjunct positions in Universities on pauper wages - but having no money is no good either, particularly if you've got a pile of mentally exhausting marking: they'd be better off working in Sainsbury's or driving cars for Uber.

I was very lucky with Bolton in 2002, because it led me to cybernetics which, it turned out, I had been deeply interested in in all my academic wanderings, but didn't know what it was (I wish someone had introduced me to it when I was 18). I wouldn't get the job now without a PhD, which I would never have been able to afford. Those who get such jobs in the future will come from more monied backgrounds than I did. I was paid quite well, the work was relaxed and I had time to be creative, making new pieces of software, doing cool things with local schools, accompanying a violinist colleague in local concerts, and getting involved in educational technology projects.

Yesterday I learnt that the department I joined was being restructured. All but a couple of the staff have effectively lost their jobs as senior lecturers, and will be invited to apply for (fewer) lecturer grade positions. This coincides with a merger with the local FE college, and no doubt there is an agenda to transfer much of the undergraduate teaching to FE (cheaper) staff. I feel very sad for my former colleagues, particularly as I was also the victim of the dreadful regime that has ruined Bolton. They will be better off out of it.

What happens when this kind of restructuring takes place is that conversation is destroyed. Universities are all about conversation. That's what happens in the classroom, and it is what happens in science. Those who destroy conversation do not really believe it matters. All they believe in is the reproduction of knowledge which can be assessed, certified and (most importantly) charged for. This is pretty much what they do in the FE college over the road from Bolton University. It's not higher learning; it is schooling.

One of the great giants of Liverpool University, where I now am, was Charles Sherrington (my office is just below where his labs were). After seminal work on neurophysiology at Liverpool in the early 20th century, Sherrington moved to Oxford, where he had this to say about education:
"after some hundreds of years of experience we think that we have learned here in Oxford how to teach what is known. But now with the undeniable upsurge of scientific research, we cannot continue to rely on the mere fact that we have learned how to teach what is known. We must learn to teach the best attitude to what is not yet known. This also may take centuries to acquire but we cannot escape this new challenge, nor do we want to."
The strange thing about this kind of statement is that you could ask any of the great academics of the past or present, and they would say pretty much the same thing. What Sherrington means by "the best attitude" has a lot to do with conversation. What is not yet known is what is not yet codified: it exists in many descriptions in many peoples' heads, and our job as academics is to coordinate these many descriptions by talking and listening to each other.

The kind of management that Bolton currently has clearly does not understand this.

In Liverpool, meanwhile, I received an email from an eminent friend in the physics department. He's the best thing in Liverpool, although he's also struggled with modern academia. It was a forwarded email from another colleague in the architecture department who was previously unknown to my physicist friend. It said something along the lines of "Professor x from the University of Illinois sends his regards". Now, my friendship with my physicist friend stemmed from the fact that we both know Professor x (who is something of a giant in cybernetics). Suddenly, I find someone in architecture also knowing Professor x. Moreover, I have recently been talking to other people in the architecture department about cybernetics. So a few more emails later, and the world starts to look different: how many more possibilities for doing exciting things we all have!

This is what Universities are about. They are about conversation. Liverpool hasn't been spared the madness of managerialism (although it's not as bad as Manchester!), but it hasn't damaged the deep structure which remains pregnant with possibilities. Loet Leydesdorff (who is also responsible for the friendship with the physicist) calls this "redundant options". Universities need to maintain redundancy: the most destructive thing is to make redundancy redundant!

Unfortunately, the money-God leads us to do precisely the wrong thing. If Bolton's management had more insight they would realise their mistake. Instead, they have created a machine for eating the university.

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