Higher Education Matters: A Personal Reflection

Eton wall game, 1921. Orwell is on the back row, first on left. University College London George Orwell Archive – Special Collections
Eton wall game, 1921. Orwell is on the back row, first on left. University College London George Orwell Archive – Special Collections


“It is difficult for a child to realize that a school is primarily a commercial venture.”

-George Orwell, 1952


These have been tough days in UK Higher Education. You can read about what’s been going on here. If you would like to know more about how University strikes work in the UK, this FAQ has useful information. The latest information about the dispute should be available here.

Yesterday the British TV broadcaster Channel 4 aired a 30-minute episode of ‘Dispatches’ that exposed the “lavish spending by university chiefs“. I thought the programme failed at contextualising the reasons why what was exposed is scandalous, presenting a world of Higher Education composed of white posh older men claiming thousands in extravagant expenses, dissatisfied undergraduate students struggling to make ends meet and an articulate Union leader in the middle.

Unless I missed it, the programme did not interview any junior, senior, visiting or retired lecturers, PhD students, research assistants nor any administrators, library straff or other university employees. No other stakeholder was featured. Apart from a final scene where a recent UCU demonstration was shown, there was no description (let alone thorough discussion) of the pensions dispute, or what the actual role (apart from travelling and claiming expenses) of VCs is, funding cuts, the organisational challenges that Universities face or the role that Higher Education plays within society, etc.

This worried me because, had I been a member of the public not working at a British university, I suspect I would have struggled to feel empathetic towards Universities. To me it would have looked like University staff (solely represented in the programme by VCs) is having a lush great time, well outside the everyday circumstances of the rest of British society, at the expense of students and the taxpayer.

In my conversations with friends outside academia last weekend, it’s been apparent that the strikes have not had  major nor thorough media coverage. Even more worryingly, even if one explains the situation carefully our current situation is still perceived as an extravagance, as a ‘first-world problem’ within the ‘first world’, a privilege of the already-privileged. Folks I’ve talked to are educated people, many of them with postgraduate degrees, but, having graduated and moved on into the private, non-academic sector, did not immediately empathise with the urgency of the demands.

On Monday, the Guardian print edition did not mention the university strikes at all, apart from a photo on page 35 illustrating an article about something else in the financial section. BBC Breaking News, on TV and radio, have not featured the strike prominently after the first mentions last Wednesday.

I was an undergraduate student at UNAM in Mexico at the time of the 1999 student strike (protesting the university fee hike that was eventually detracted). That strike was a very complex affair which lasted for a whole year (here’s the Wikipedia entry shared as-is; it needs significant editing; for a selection of media coverage and a photographic archive, see this). This means that the university was closed. To all. Unlike here, where picket lines do not impede (should not impede) anyone access to buildings, the strike in Mexico did close all/most of the doors of the university campus to all.  In Mexico, even before the strike started, in the early days and throughout the conflict, the university’s strike was a situation known and discussed by everyone: bus drivers, shop-keepers, politicians and academics alike. (I had a student research grant at the time, and in retrospect it seems the stuff of fantasy that we were still punctually paid– our cheques were issued from alternative administrative locations).

Having this perspective, what stands out to me is that the British universities’ strike does not seem to be part of mainstream society’s concerns, at least not as represented by its media coverage and the conversations one may have in public out and about. It looks like, at least in terms of the public discourse triggered by mainstream media coverage, the UK only has capacity for one or two important issues at a time. If one reads the newspaper headlines, listens to the radio or turns on the TV news, the university strikes are clearly not of great importance (i.e., public interest).

The huge popularity of British Higher Education amongst international students from so-called developing nations is not only a consequence of colonialism, legacy reputation, British cultural soft power, a privileged geographical location in relation to continental Europe, Africa and Asia, and the fact that English remains the lingua franca of commerce and research. In general, developing nations perceive higher education as a crucial step towards the achievement of individual professional development, individual and collective social mobility and national sustainable development.

This is not merely an expression of the idealised romanticism of the have-nots: the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals include Quality Education as it’s 4th goal. This goal has 10 targets encompassing many different aspects of education, target 4.3 reads:

4.3 Equal access to technical/vocational and higher education
By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary  education, including university

It seems clear that this target can only be achieved by a concerted effort involving everyone in society. It is therefore disappointing to realise that while many of us with backgrounds in developing nations learned that Higher Education was absolutely essential for development, developed nations do not really seem to give it the same societal importance. It is all of course highly paradoxical when the UK government, via the UK Research Councils, have made “Impact” a key, if not the key performance indicator of the Higher Education sector.

In May 1947, George Orwell wrote an autobiographical account of his school days, which he published as ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ in the Partisan Review, September-October 1952, and popularised in the Books V. Cigarettes ‘Great Ideas’ Penguin edition. Any international student and/or academic could do worse than revising it to understand the history of attitudes to education in the UK. Orwell’s account of his school days experience before 1914 describes the foundations of an educational system and therefore a society whose values clearly “cancelled each other out”:

[on the one hand]…insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for ‘braininess’, and worship of games, contempt for foreginers and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty, and above all, the assumption no only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit than to have to work for them. […] For people like me, the ambitious middle class, the examination-passers, only a bleak, laborious kind of success was possible.”

We need to ask ourselves how much things have changed since Orwell’s school days. The University sector’s KPIs and the wider culture within and without universities tend to cancel each other out just like St Cyprian’s disapproval for self-indulgence cancelled its de-facto encouragement and rewarding of inherited privilege. All of us working in Higher Education labour within a complex network of contradictions, balancing the need for robust and thorough specialised focus and public engagement, the demands of ‘delivering’ a ‘service’ of quality often without the required resourcing to do so.

It seems to me that beyond the ‘Impact’ of research and the survey data British Higher Education needs to reconsider its role within society and interrogate the reasons why for so many years the sector has been (apparently) largely unable to gain the solidarity and empathy of the wider public. The role of Higher Education in entrenching social hierarchies and in protecting an untouchable elite may have a something to do with that.

For Orwell, “the pattern of school life” was

a continous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people- in dominating them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way.  Life was hierachical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.”

If this was the pattern of life learned at school, no wonder so many would not feel an inch of empathy for those working within that system– and indeed, at the same time this lack of empathy is the result of such ‘education’. The aggressive marketisation of Higher Education, one could argue, has brought things full circle in the 21st century.

For all the talk of ‘value for money’, it is perhaps crucial we continue arguing for a kind of social value that cannot be fully monetised nor transformed into a numerical value. How do you measure social relevance? (If funding has been allocated to researching this question and it has been explored in academic papers, are they paywalled?) How do you quantify solidarity between workers from different sectors? How to reintegrate Higher Education into the British social tissue and gain the solidarity of students and the public when most feel excluded from it?

This is an urgent discussion to be had.

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