Jan 13, 2009

Columnists - Bill Kirkman;UK - Higher Education - Changing priorities

If changes in higher education in the 1960s in the U.K. made academics an attractive career, today a more managerial attitude in the universities has made it less obviously compelling…

In the next few years, many academics and administrative staff of United Kingdom universities will be retiring. They are members of the group of students from the mid-1960s, for whom the prospects of university careers changed dramatically.

The change occurred because this was the beginning of the era of major expansion in universities. Ten years earlier, those of us attending universities were a small minority of the school-leaver population: around six per cent. University education was, clearly, a privilege, and it certainly stood us in good stead in employment terms, but for most of my contemporaries, undertaking research and embarking on an academic career was a hardly considered option.

Period of expansion

Then came the Robbins Report into higher education, which recommended expansion. The recommendation was accepted and very soon the older universities began to grow, Colleges of Advanced Technology acquired university status, and already established new universities, such as Sussex, Essex and East Anglia, began to produce young graduates. Following a first degree with a doctorate became not only a possibility, but one which opened the door to new and enticing career prospects; more universities needed more staff.

This was only the beginning. Polytechnics came into being, and they, too, obviously needed staff. Move forward a few years, to the 1990s, and the polytechnics were given university status. By the mid-1990s, over 30 per cent of the school-leaving population entered higher education. The growth has continued.

Few people at the time of the Robbins Report would have got anywhere near envisaging either the extent, or the nature, of the changes that were to come. What was obvious was the increased demand for academic staff. What was not obvious to most people was that the expansion would bring with it fundamental changes in the nature of higher education — and fundamental changes in the type of career that academic staff could expect.

There are, inevitably, people who see the great increase in numbers in higher education as an indication that standards have fallen; things are not as they used to be, and change inevitably means change for the worse. That view, to my mind, is both narrow and irrational. Clearly, the growth in the number and variety of higher education institutions has changed the nature of higher education, and the nature, as well as the number, of graduates. They are no longer an elite by virtue of rarity (as my contemporaries were), but the very able have not become less able. Nor have they sunk without trace as the higher education pool has grown.

The growth has obviously been accompanied by a continuing growth in the number of people employed in higher education, and, inevitably, a change in the nature of that employment. The Robbins changes presented graduates with job opportunities inconceivable a few years earlier, but most of those seizing these opportunities almost certainly saw them as a bonus offering “more of the same”. Working in a university, like studying in one, was an elite activity. Pay was quite good. Conditions were excellent. After three years people could be appointed to tenured positions — and many were.

The concept of tenure ended 20 years ago. Although the number of academic staff is vastly larger than at the time when those now retiring embarked on their careers, the career path is harder. Short-term contracts are common. Much of the energy of the young academics has to be devoted to preparing for the next appointment.

The idea of selecting able people and letting them get on with it has gone, probably inevitably, since the kind of laissez faire freedom that can work in small institutions where peer pressure ensures standards would not be acceptable in a vast, expensive, publicly funded “industry”. Assessment, ticking the right boxes, a more managerial approach, have changed the nature of academic life. The possibility of an academic career, so compelling and exciting in the 1960s, will now be assessed against a range of alternatives.

Full circle

In a sense the wheel has come full circle. For most of the 1950s generation an academic career was simply not a realistic possibility. For the “Robbins group”, now coming to retirement, that suddenly and excitingly changed. Their successors have more openings available to them — but the factors they have to consider are more mundane, less obviously compelling.

Things are certainly different from what they were, but if you believe, as I do, that the expansion in higher education is essentially good, you will accept, once again, that change does not always mean change for the worse.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com

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