Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Beyond the USS Pension Fund Collapse

There is a certain air of relief in UK universities that they have students - albeit a much reduced intake from overseas. However, nobody is relaxed about the future. The UK higher education system is oscillating like Tacoma Bridge: it is experiencing violent shocks both internally and externally (this has been happening since before the pandemic), and it is reacting to each of these shocks in a way that reveals that both our institutional structures and our compass are broken. 

The latest shock is the unsurprising revelation that the USS pension scheme - already in trouble - is now in such trouble that anyone looking at it might reach the conclusion "is it worth it? do we quit and invest money elsewhere?" That's very dangerous for a pension scheme. It's difficult to know the larger-scale effects of this, but it is almost certain to make working in HE in the UK unattractive.

There is no question that the marketised universities have exploited labour - particularly of temporary/hourly-paid staff. The union response to this, compacted by the pension issue, may be come to be seen as a warning for what is about to come. Although I had very mixed feelings about the strikes, when we stop listening to each other (which was one of the factors that led to it), serious trouble is always around the corner.

In the  final analysis, the question to ask when things seem to be shaking themselves to bits, is What's it all about?, Why do send our kids to university? The conventional wisdom (if you can call it that) among many management teams has been "we're businesses - it's about making money". This attitude, promoted by government, is directly responsible for the extent to which things risk falling apart now. It will be seen to be a classic case of the dangers of having a poorly inspected ontology. More importantly, it will be seen to be a warning that no senior manager of Higher Education can afford not to understand the importance of a grasp of the deep reality of education (how many managers even understand what "ontology" means?). Unfortunately, both sides in the industrial action suffered the same problem. 

A grasp of the deep realities of education requires thought and reflection. It requires a university to think about what a university is. This task is exactly the same as finding (or refinding) one's compass. Having said this, the lack of reflection has resulted from deeply embedded political interference in universities which has pushed them towards a market model. It has also jeopardised the personal security that all of us hope for towards the later stages of life.

A deep reflection on the realities of education cannot now exclude technology. Technology, in many ways, occupies much of the same territory as education: communication, collaboration, coordination of intellectual activity, construction, etc. Like universities, its ontology is poorly understood, but tech firms are not universities. Because they really are businesses, they have been seduced by marketised universities as opportunities to make large sums of cash. But at its root, technology is simple and (to a large extent) free. What has been missing are the dispositions to engage with it creatively and intellectually. While the pandemic has brought much crashing down, this creative and intellectual engagement with technology has been transformed, and things will not be the same again. It is noticeable that much of that creative technological engagement has featured retired professors, who - thanks to their generous pensions - can afford to make valuable contributions.

In many ways - although it certainly doesn't feel like it - our present crisis is caused by an embarrassment of  riches.  Our problem is not only deciding which way to go when there are so many options, but in remembering why we are travelling. To make universities rich? No. To pass on sufficient wisdom, memory, foresight and capability to the next generation so that they can negotiate the future? That must be it, mustn't it? So the possible collapse of the pension fund doesn't just indicate an immediate (or impending) loss of cash. It indicates that our values were misplaced. 

Universities must be viable and effective. To do so, their members - students, teachers, managers, must feel secure and able to think creatively, believing what they do is meaningful and makes the most of their intellectual talents. Right now, nobody feels secure in universities - partly because we are all - of whatever political persuasion, influenced by the illusions of market capitalism. This risks causing a debilitating intellectual malaise which will exacerbate the crisis. That is most likely to manifest in more industrial action. 

This is the point where intellectual authority is required - so desperately lacking from the present government. Only "health and quiet breathing" can create the unity between a deep understanding of the social necessity for higher education, the nature of technology, and the viable institutional model which can nurture and sustain it.

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