Happy new year to higher education and three resolutions for 2014

by • 04/01/2014 • GeneralComments (0)625

Another year is over and a new one just begun.
I have found my inner thesis writer. Occasionally the church bells or the dog pierce the veil, but the washing stays in the washing machine and the kettle boils whistlelessly until a steamed, partially-clothed dog appears, howling at the bells. I can now see how novelists work in little coffee shops or on a balcony overlooking Lake Garda, not noticing the outside world. When it flows it’s great and when it doesn’t you work through it, no matter how long it takes. It has to be written before it is handed in.

Like many PhD students at this stage, I wish for it soon to be over. The empathetic half-smile and friendly gestures I receive in the corridors on campus reminds me that, unlike childbirth, I will remember this pain but that, with luck, my brain won’t shrink back into shape. I have my own plans, viva and a World Cup post-partum party in June, perfectly executed, a bit like England (probably).

Like others, I’m also juggling a couple of academic contracts and journal articles, in preparation for the academic equivalent of the Hunger Games. 2014 always loomed large as a deadline; the promise I made to myself at the start. Be done. Be employable. Enjoy the process. So I think I’ve earned the right to direct my wishes toward the higher education sector as a whole, in the style of some new year resolutions.

Waking from the overindulgence of Christmas, many of us start a detox regime. At best it’s a short-term cure for the consequence, not addressing the underlying cause: too much plenty at the expense of others. We have our equivalent of bloat at the top end of universities, too, built on the uncertainty and reduced employment rights that come with the casualisation of academic work and outsourcing of non-academic work.

I don’t expect better job security that anyone else starting out in a new profession and certainly expect to have to earn my stripes. However, I believe there should be light at the end of the tunnel. Researchers on fixed-term contracts and adjunct teaching staff need the real prospect of job security.

More than that, we should be part of a university that treats all of its staff equitably, including support services. The casualisation and agency work in catering, cleaning, security or anywhere else needs to be eradicated, and for good measure, a living wage introduced unilaterally. So that’s my first resolution: treat people who work for you equitably. We owe it to each other.

Our first dog walk of the new year is the countryside equivalent of Oxford Street on Boxing Day as our fellow new year resolvers take up exercise. There is an exercise I would like all universities to take up in earnest and to an Olympic standard. As the first in my family to go to university, I will always see the university as a very privileged place. I understand and acknowledge all the widening participation work that is done and the impact of our research. But it is not enough; it will never be enough.

We in the university need to keep checking our privilege in order to keep it; as well as everything else we do, we need to serve our local community. This is a community devastated by government cuts – in comparison, universities have enjoyed a relatively good crisis. If you don’t see it for looking, then I’d point you to the Life of Brian scene, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ So my second resolution: keep engaging in the local community for the public good (they need it) and do this as repetitively, committedly and successfully as Jessica Ennis-Hill.

That only leaves clearing out the clutter. I think we have a muddle at the heart of our higher education system that could do with treatment. University was the right place for me, for what I was interested in and for how I chose to learn, but it is not the right place for everybody. To pretend otherwise would be naïve. Everyone needs a chance to develop and to gain skills through educational means, be that online, in-house, on the job or in ongoing, lifelong learning.

So, in the spirit of the season, there is one Cinderella institution that needs its time at the ball: IPPR published a report in the summer that made a sensible proposal to convert futher education colleges into polytechnics. I would convert some universities into polytechnics too, to reinforce the creation of a powerful vocational sector, benefiting from the investment and infrastructure that has already been made in those instiutions and to tap into the powerful educational DNA that lies underneath the untidiness of the sector.

This must not be just about cost of provision but about purpose. We lost something post-1992 and we need to try to get it back, but back better. So my third resolution: open up the higher education debate and offer something worthwhile for young people not going to university and older people who find themselves out of work. But don’t take too long about it and don’t charge too much for it. Declutter the system, making it cleaner and fit for a purpose that serves more people. And now back to my thesis and that wet dog. And, yes, Happy New Year!

Jeannie C A Holstein is a doctoral researcher at Nottingham University Business School – follow her on Twitter @theinsightedge

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