Open Letter to Professor Shane O’Neill, PVC and Executive Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences
21 May 2018
Thank you for the exposition of a vision for the role of universities as instruments of social freedom presented during your inaugural lecture. The concept of social freedom as a stronger alternative to negative freedom and reflective freedom is certainly more conducive to achieving justice and equality. Furthermore, the transformation of the University from a perceived elitist institution to an instrumental factor in the achievement of social freedom resonates with the hopes and prospects of young generations who find themselves caught in a rapidly changing uncertain world.
The importance of this issue deserves further debate within a wider and more inclusive scope than the short time allocated to the questions by those who attended the inaugural lecture. Indeed, it quickly became obvious during the latter that many of the questions had common tropes that reflected the preoccupation shared by those present and, no doubt, many other colleagues and students: given their complexity, they could not be addressed thoroughly in the context of a one hour lecture. Clearly, the questions and comments reflected a critical view of universities that are failing to act as instruments of social freedom: the move away from being elitist institutions and the proclamation of inclusive values seem to have resulted in a new set of problems. When answering questions during the lecture, you used a ‘half empty glass-half full glass’ metaphor, implying some balance between positive and negative outcomes. However, too many undesirable outcomes have overwhelmed the progress achieved. For instance, Britain’s total investment in higher education, even before the cuts since 2011, was 1.3 percent of the GDP, which is behind the OECD average of 1.5 percent. Despite the student numbers rising by approximately 25 percent in the last 15 years, the UK has slipped from third to fifteenth position in numbers graduating among industrial countries because investment in higher education has risen much more rapidly elsewhere. Within Europe, the UK is already falling behind France, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Portugal and Netherlands, among others. Other Western governments, most notably the United States and Germany, have viewed the global financial and economic crisis as a sign not to retrench but to invest in their higher education systems as a necessary part of investing in the skills that will be needed for recovery in near future. In the UK, however, it was education that was first in line for cuts in spending: the cutting of the Future Jobs Fund, the cancellation of school building and refurbishment, the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, and now funding cuts in university teaching budgets, fewer university places and a massive increase in university tuition fees.
I am therefore writing this open letter to initiate a wider debate on how to reconcile the social freedom model you presented with the actual functioning of higher education institutions, and Keele in particular: a debate that considers carefully the political and economic context we live in (which you began to address towards the end of the lecture), as well as realistic ways of achieving true palpable impact on society. Hopefully, this will transcend the usual rhetoric used to blur – and sometimes even justify – deeply entrenched contradictions between our aspirations and reality, such as ‘challenging times’, ‘ever-shifting economic/political environment’, etc., and engage with imaginative and courageous ways of achieving the aim of becoming a worthy instrument of social freedom. In order to initiate discussions, I will cover a limited selection of specific issues as a starting point for others to build upon. These will be framed within the three main spheres presented in your lecture.
A clear example mentioned in the lecture concerns tuition fees: not only we failed to influence the political establishment and prevent the introduction of top-up and tuition fees through our muted words and insignificant actions (if any), but we are now complaining that these are not increasing fast enough; embracing the status quo with little concern for increasing student debt. Furthermore, while the argument of giving back to society for being enabled to have an education makes reasonable moral sense, this has been limited to typical neo-liberal economic values; i.e. the assumed prospects of higher salaries thanks to public investment in someone’s education. However, this view ignores many fundamental issues: first, 9000 pound fees have a serious impact on students, especially in terms of the conditions needed in order to achieve social freedom and equality: the poorer the students are the more scared they are by the prospect of tens of thousands of pounds of debt and the lesser support they are likely to obtain from banks and financial institutions. The trebling of tuition fees exposes an intentional move by the government to keep education for the rich and privileged, backed by universities’ complicit silence. This is why tens of thousands of students have been protesting since 2011. Second, it disregards the non-financial added value to society by well-educated individuals; from doctors who otherwise would not be able to preserve and save lives, to creators who would not be able to sustain, keep alive and enrich local/global culture. Third, as someone pointed out during the lecture, financial returns are covered (albeit insufficiently by the current system) through progressive taxation: in short, students are made liable to double debt through both the loan and higher taxes resulting from higher salaries. Fourth, interest on loans is not returned to society but paid to private companies, inflating student debt: in practice, loan companies also benefit from public funding but, unlike students, only return earnings through taxation. Fifth, following the logic of the need to repay public investment granted to a particular sector in society can lead to a dangerous path that would render the whole idea of public funding, and thus social freedom, null and void. For instance, if people with more than average medical problems were required to repay public investment in health. Even if we followed such logic in moderation: where would we draw the line? Sixth and most important, we have shown little imagination by failing to propose more productive and less harming alternatives for giving back to society in a direct and holistic manner: for instance, through expertise-based civil – rather than military – national service, which has been already piloted in other parts of the world. If we want British universities to be instruments of social freedom, and to recover and take their place in a much more competitive world, if we want Britain to be ‘open for business’, we should make higher education available for everyone, regardless of their social class and economic means. Claiming social freedom and justice and supporting high tuition fees are a contradiction in terms.
Most significantly, despite their critique of narrow freedom values, universities have embraced in their midst the very tools and control mechanisms of neo-liberal dominance and its fetish with the measurable: with very few exceptions – e.g. Collini (2016), Keene (Reisz 2017) – REF, TEF, NSS and other such mechanisms have been barely examined from a critical theory perspective; let alone rigorous investigations of their effect on actual quality and excellence. And this is despite ex-Education Secretary David Willets being cited for admitting that funding reforms by the 2010-2015 coalition government resulted in ‘the decline in part-time and mature study’ and that REF2014 exclusive 3*/4* funding ‘narrowed the type of research that was rewarded’ (Morris 2017) – both these consequences being seriously hazardous to social freedom.
Indeed, our devotion to questionable indicators has led to serious contradictions within the very advances in social freedom we purport to have achieved: an example of this dichotomy is embodied in the amount of time and financial resources universities waste in the organisation of submissions, related salaried posts, meetings, dry runs, reports, self-assessments, etc. that could be used to carry out actual research and teaching. Recently, the consequences of devotion to indicators have begun to acquire more sinister consequences, such as endemic casualisation and draconian approaches to staff contracts sprouting in various institutions (e.g. forcing teaching only contracts). Another instance that is closer to home is found in the unsolicited nuisance communications received by students urging them to fill the NSS (I have recently had a conversation with a student who ‘gave up’ and filled the NSS in order to stop the wave of mobile phone nuisance ‘reminders’).
Yes, we are forced to play these games, but why is there no vigorous, consistent and open resistance from universities? We are complicit by our silence and it appears that the only group that has been willing to take on any of these issues is students; e.g. through protests against tuition fees, as well as the National Union of Students’ boycott of the NSS and local Student Union boycotts in some key institutions. We certainly have something to learn from students here.
A final but by no means exhaustive example concerns the lack of engagement with the critical challenge of an ideologically motivated valuation of the USS pension scheme: with very few exceptions institutional management across pre-92 institutions accepted last year’s USS valuation methodology despite the ample evidence from experts in their own and other institutions pointing to its lack of rigour and robustness.
As you pointed out during the lecture, it is important that students get the most of a currently expensive education system. However, efforts by universities (Keele included) seem to focus increasingly on the recently defined ‘student experience’; not least when making financial decisions. Ironically, this is in tune with the very market forces and a-social individuality promoted by the same neoliberal thinking that institutions promoting social freedom are supposed to overcome. Significantly, by diverting efforts into ‘experience’ buildings instead of educational infrastructure and, most poignantly, prioritising staff replacement freezes and voluntary redundancy schemes to balance any shortfalls, we are willing to sacrifice our students’ actual education. Surely, diversity reduction in available knowledge and expertise, and overworked staff are unhealthy contributors to the experience of a student. And the prospect of those students who wish to give back by contributing to social freedom as academics in a university are not aided by reductions in available job opportunities combined with poor retirement prospects for young academics.
This concerns one of the core missions of a university; especially one that seeks to contribute to social freedom. In this respect, we need to maintain a balanced curriculum and be willing to withstand the fluctuation of a ‘constantly changing environment’ (another well-known statement used to justify ideological actions). Universities’ perceived pursuit of marketable alternatives has often resulted in significant short-termism with serious future consequences. As you rightly pointed out in your lecture, it is not possible to discuss social phenomena without referring to history and, in this respect, Keele has a valuable example to offer: less than 20 years ago we used to have a large and successful Physics department that fully occupied the Dorothy Hodgkin building, and a budding yet dynamic engineering group. Alas, the market for science and engineering students was in decline at the time and there was relatively little funding for STEM subjects; little enough to prompt the reduction of Physics to a much smaller specialised group and prevent the development of engineering. It is easy to imagine the difference to the university’s portfolio (and finances) if such short-term market-based decision had been avoided. Yet today, the tables have turned, and non-STEM subjects have become fair game. How will things change in 20 years from now? Will we regret not having cared sufficiently for humanities and social sciences? Are we failing our present and future students by offering an ever-narrowing set of career choices?
These are not rhetorical questions: the effects of automation on employment that at present we consider secure is looming. In a not distant future, professions in engineering, software and hardware design, psychology, medicine and other higher education careers may be gradually replaced by robotic artificial intelligence, becoming obsolete as human prospective employment (for instance, as discussed in Noah-Harari 2015). Significantly, serious discussion on issues such as automation and decolonisation are hardly present in teaching and learning meetings at discipline, school, faculty and university level, which favour QA procedural matters (another effect of neoliberal thinking).
Most of us agree that we aim to prepare our students towards a productive and satisfying life as social individuals, and that this extends far beyond their expertise on a particular field of knowledge. Indeed, although it was not mentioned specifically in the lecture, it is reasonable to assume that developing a wide critical attitude was tacitly embedded in the discussion, as an obvious necessity without which it would not be possible to achieve our educational mission. Yet, are we achieving this by treating students as customers who come to ‘acquire’ an education, have to fulfil a set diet of packaged knowledge, are assessed by rigid criteria and marked within a framework that perpetuates a class system (e.g. being a first, second or third class student as reflected in their marks and degree)? You rightly mentioned the opportunities that universities endeavour to provide to allow students time for personal reflection and development. But are we providing them with the same reflective space and time for individual academic development? In short, are we really preparing them for social freedom?
Significantly, there are other instances in which the system seems to be failing – too many to cover in this already extensive letter. I hope that the examples discussed above help to explain why some of us see a ‘less than half-full glass’ that must be replenished again: not necessarily with previous content, there is no attempt here to advocate a return to a golden past. Far from it, we need the integrity to admit shortcomings, the critical attitude to recognise the good ideas and mechanisms of past and present, the creativity to propose truly liberating imaginative ideas, and the courage to follow all this through; especially during ‘challenging times’ in an ‘ever-shifting economic/political environment’.
In the context of the discussion above, perhaps the following straightforward but all-important question might provide a reasonable starting point: What should we do to lead the way by making our institution a true instrument of social freedom?
Your views, colleagues’ views and students’ views can provide a way to fill the glass.
School of Humanities – Music