University Pressure Cooker

University pressure cookerFor 12 years, and as part of my role at VSL, I’ve been talking with and meeting academics. In total, I’ve phoned, ‘Skyped’, ‘Hungout’ with and/or met at least 10 different people each week for 47 weeks of every year.

When you do the maths, that’s over 5,500 conversations.

So what’s been learnt?

Rising Anxieties

Apart from the fact that people seem to like our work with simulations, I’ve become increasingly aware of rising stress levels and anxiety within the sector.

Job uncertainty, growing student numbers, Brexit, managers under pressure, people who refuse to be managed, lack of research funding, toxic politics, students’ increased sense of entitlement, quality dilution and repetitive departmental restructures are common problems. You can probably name more university pressure cooker issues.

Since I’m viewed as neutral, clients often share their concerns. It’s not uncommon to hear people fear their institution is the worst at X, Y or Z; only for me to reassure them that others who wear their shoes elsewhere say exactly the same.

In 2017, I even heard for the first time of an academic walking out of their lecture and straight out the door. They simply had had enough.

Risk averse cultures

University pressure cooker
Sir Ken Robinson presents ‘Bring on a Learning Revolution’. Image courtesy of TED

Sir Ken Robinson has argued for years that education needs a revolution, yet the traditional structures of the HE sector resist change, and decision makers within their hierarchical walls tend to fall in, rather than fall out, with the risk averse culture. Senior management teams charged with institutional responsibility have often climbed the academic ladder themselves and arrive in post with a self-interest in institutional survival.

University leaders (Find out whether VC average salaries top £325k) would naturally argue they do their job well in a market-led education world. But a quick word search of any such individual’s contract or job description is unlikely to find reference to being ‘entrepreneurial’.

Stress macro factors 

External macro factors over recent years have continuously ratcheted up the pressure on universities to deliver more in the short-term. But instead of fully reviewing how ‘more’ is best delivered in this digital age (so students are engaged, learning expectations are met and academic staff are able to manage the throughput on a sustained basis and complete meaningful research) the management emphasis seems to have been to simply ask more of the same ‘machine’. “Universities are the playthings of people who think they are businessmen,” claims one unhappy academic in this recent Guardian newspaper article.

Doubtless, if university senior management had a voice in this post they would argue that the historic slack in the system means academics have the capacity to do more. I’ve lost count of the occasions professionals within the sector have confided that academic preferences for traditional teaching styles and resistance to change are contributors to the current challenges.

Whatever your view, there’s only so much the old model can handle in the brave new world of market-led education, before the wheels start to come off. Some might argue that’s happening now. As a simple barometer, a quick flick through recent back copies of Times Higher Education and you’ll find several articles about increasing mental health problems within the academic community.

I don’t know whether the sector and the people within it are in imminent danger, but evidence suggests a relentless and unhealthy trajectory; which doesn’t bode well for academics nor the tens of thousands of students who now know the cost of their education. Unlike me, my son, Jack, who is in his first university year worries daily about his decision to give himself £30k+ of debt.

Reduce university pressure cooker steam

There is no single solution to the current problem. Scrapping tuition fees and moving away from a market-led system may ease many pressures. But without appropriate monitoring, would that be a green light for academics to return to traditional education methods that are out of kilter with digital native learning expectations?

university pressure cooker shift happensYou might expect me to say technology should thus be part of any solution. And I will because shift happens (click the link to watch the latest video to see how many false assumptions you may hold) in a fast-changing world.

Good technology that engages and challenges students to think whilst giving academics more time and head-space to do their job well (rather than spending endless hours planning, lecturing and marking) surely has to be part of the learning mix in every subject area? But such a situation is not going to occur unless appropriate space, time, encouragement and permission is writ large within every institution by senior management.

Critically, when adopting technology, people at all levels within an institution also need to have an entrepreneurial mindset and not be transfixed by student satisfaction results. New technology that works right first time, every time doesn’t exist. But when suppliers and customers accept ‘bugs in the system’ and work together to fix them, the seeds of progressive partnership are sewn. And in our experience with universities right across the UK, when this happens academics engage more with their work and students engage more with their learning.

Do you work in a university pressure cooker? Or is your experience completely different to what’s described in this post? Please leave your comments below or let me know your thoughts about university pressure cooker issues and what might be done to move the sector forward.

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