God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
(The Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr)
Whether you believe in that god or not, the sentiment of this prayer is just good advice. You can always just cut out the first word.
I was reminded of the importance of this advice for those of us working in and around higher education.
What we cannot change (easily)
The political sea we are swimming in right now is neoliberalism. That means that while most governments are trying to increase student numbers in higher education, the funding of those students is shifting. (Go read that link. It’s by Stuart Hall and is a very good description of the current political climate.)
Governments are reducing funding to universities. And what government funding remains is more precisely targeted to particular activities with universities themselves have less say over how to spend that money.
Infrastructure spending is a prime example here: money is available to build buildings and buy equipment. The operating costs for the activities that will happen in those buildings are not funded.
Recent changes to higher education funding in the UK have been notable for specifying which degree courses will receive government funding and which will not.
At the same time, higher education is presented as a private good that students should pay for as an investment in their career development; an investment that it is frequently argued will pay off.
As a corollary, universities are framed as providers of that private good in a competitive marketplace. The shift in funding from broad-based government support to private forms of support, through fees for services (tuition fees, research contracts with industry, etc) and private fundraising, combines with the ideological pressures to improve efficiency.
I don’t mean to be fatalistic. Rage against these policies. But recognize that that kind of change will be slow. Remember that higher education is not being treated differently than anyone else. Do what you can.
(Some of) The things you can change
As academics you still have a lot of autonomy and power to change things within your university. It doesn’t always feel like that but it’s true.
The university you work for does need to act in the face of financial constraints. But the direction of that action is not a given.
If you need to teach larger classes what are you doing to ensure that the discussion focuses on how best to achieve the learning objectives you desire in those circumstances? Is your department making conscious compromises or just fatalistically going forward?
What are the core elements of your scholarly values that you want to protect in curriculum and teaching changes? Are you making a discussion of those scholarly values explicit? Is anyone even trying to figure out if they can be delivered in this funding climate?
If most of your colleagues teaching experience (and skill) is in small groups, is anyone offering to provide training and support to help you learn techniques for teaching larger groups? Are you being provided with support to deal with the administrative burden of those groups? Training in how to manage large teams of Teaching Assistants?
If the workforce in higher education is shifting, how are you, as a member of your faculty association or union, contributing to the determination of pay and conditions for those who are in contingent positions?
Change is hard
Most people don’t like it. Some of the people you work with will be very resistant. They will dig their heels in and say it cannot be done, that no good can come of it.
Sometimes that resistance is useful. Sometimes it means that you lose any control you might have had over how the changes happen.
You are not responsible for the whole thing. You can let go of some of it and focus on the pieces that are particularly important to you.
Compromise will be necessary. Fight for conscious compromise. Fight against variations on throwing your hands in the air and saying “we have no choice”. Your choices may be limited but you can push those limits.
It’s hard figuring out what you want to fight for. It’s hard going into that meeting strong yet flexible.
I can be a sounding board for figuring out what you are willing to do, and how to make your arguments better. And I can stand behind you cheering and holding you up.
I’ve been in those difficult situations myself. There may be a way for you to be the academic you want to be despite all of this, or at least to preserve the most important parts of that vision.
I offer coaching services that can support you.