Dr Nicola Rivers and Dr Dave Webster

What do Universities do for students to help them secure a thriving future? They offer them mindfulness; sign them up to resilience programmes; advocate that they cultivate grit, and encourage them to promote themselves as personal brands, ready to do battle in the brutal arena of the precarious, broken gig economy. This seems benign, to be readying students for a harsh, world where individuals will need every advantage in competing with each other. But isn’t this hugely pessimistic and to undersell the goal of Higher Education?

It isn’t aspirational or transformative to try and make University like ‘the real world’, or an imagined reality TV version of it. What might be truly worthy of the term ‘education’, rather than ‘training’, would be to cultivate a space that transmits its values in its practices: an institution that walked the walk, rather than just talked the talk in value statements.

What then if the University could furnish the future with graduates ready to do more than merely tolerate the world, who instead had an appetite for transforming it. Universities, however,  won’t do this by hectoring students about the attributes they’ll need. If they want students to work out ways to improve the world, they’ll need to start providing a model of such a world. They need to look closer to home than they might want to. They may even need to look at themselves. Universities need to start trying to address misogyny and take sexual harassment claims beyond dealing with just individuals. The academy needs to model actual gender equality. For example, they might want to think about limiting pay multipliers; and whether they need all the assessment stress they currently pile on students. This should mean being impeccably transparent in hiring processes – everything advertised, with no odd social events that may or may not be part of the process (like the ’smoker’ events in philosophy job hiring in the US). It surely requires that student assessment processes are consistent across a course, or programme, or institution, with clear rules about submission dates, extensions, appeals and grade alterations – with limited role for tutors to ‘make exceptions’.

What may have resonance with many in Higher Education is the University habit of professing commitment to noble values, while modelling behaviours leading to hardship, stress and frustrated ambition. In the US University this is often referred to as ‘the rise of the adjuncts’, but could easily be characterised as the graveyard of talented ambition. The trend noted in The Atlantic in 2013 shows no sign of stopping:

Since 1975, tenure and tenure-track professors have gone from roughly 45 percent of all teaching staff to less than a quarter. Meanwhile, part-time faculty are now more than 40 percent of college instructors…*

While University mission statements are stacked full of commitments to integrity, valuing staff and caring; the USA’s adjunct workforce is one of low pay stress, limited health insurance, and contract precarity. The situation is mirrored in much of the UK, as the number of PhD graduates compete for limited work, with a shrinking pool of permeant posts. Amidst this situation, staff, as well as students, are pointed towards the ever growing portfolio of well-being and resilience programmes, when one might suggest that the source of the stresses causing the need for such interventions also lie within the ability of Universities to fix. Adjuncts don’t need wellbeing courses, they need proper contracts and pay.

To return to our opening concerns, we want to take seriously the future prospects of our students. It is life-changing work that educators are engaged in, work where many of our students have made sacrifices, and overcome many hurdles, just to be in the classroom, and we think that we should take this on board. We want to take it so seriously that we actually use data, rather than being swayed by fads and neologisms. A recent, detailed, report** by the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), revealed that the despite all the skills training, employability workshops and interventions, the factor that seems most effective in determining young people’s earning power is not having done an internship, or a sandwich year, but privilege. As one of the report authors summarises in a BBC piece:***

Male graduates from households with incomes above £50,000 earn about 20% more than their university peer from lower income households, by the time they are in their early 30s.

 Among women there is a 16% (£4000) gap between these households.

Remarkably though, even when comparing students who did the same subject at the same university, those from the richest households still earn around 10% more than their peers from less affluent backgrounds. ^

Yes, there are cases of people who attain despite not having the advantages of cultural capital, wealth and privilege, but these are precisely notable because they are expectations. If we really want to equalise outcomes, have students thrive irrespective of who they are born to, and where they first go to school, we can only have a minute, incremental impact through ‘fixing’ our students, and better equipping them. We will have at least a chance of making a greater impact, however, if we nurture in them, and model for them, the idea that tackling entrenched inequality; that making better, fairer spaces in the bit of the world they find themselves, is not beyond human wit and ingenuity. We can offer them the other self-amendment projects if we choose, but if we want education to be transformational, to change their chances in the world, we need to transform education, and model a world in which they could thrive. What then if we thought of our task as helping students really make a fairer, better world? Can we imagine the classroom as the place to make this happen?

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom. ^^


*The Atlantic, The Ever-Shrinking Role of Tenured College Professors, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-ever-shrinking-role-of-tenured-college-professors-in-1-chart/274849/

** How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. Jack Britton , Lorraine Dearden , Neil Shephard and Anna Vignoles IFS 2016 https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/8233

***Entitled The degrees that make you rich… and those that don’t. Notably Dr Jack Britton’s piece leaves the impact of student background till very late in the article, which foregrounds the ROI (return on investment) element of different courses and Higher Education institutions. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/education-41693230

^It may seem remarkable to the author of the piece, but might be exactly what you would expect, in a society where privilege functions to ease the way of those with the cultural capital, background, accent, and confidence of their entitlement and class.

^^bell hooks. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, 1994.

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[Utopian image is section of Robert McCall’s “The Prologue and the Promise” mural, that was part of Disney’s EPCOT Horizon pavilion]