Liz Morrish is an independent scholar and activist challenging the managerial appropriation of higher education. A visiting fellow at York St John University, she was principal lecturer and subject leader of linguistics at Nottingham Trent University until her resignation in 2016. Liz co-authored Academic Irregularities, a book on managerial discourse in the neoliberal academy, and also blogs under the same title. She spoke to CAUT members at a virtual event during Fair Employment Week 2020 on how the pandemic has created breach points for the future of labour, pedagogy and values in higher education.
How is the pandemic impacting post-secondary education in the United Kingdom (UK)?
Along with many other university systems across the world, we are contemplating emergency measures in the way we work and in teaching and learning conditions. We hope that these will be temporary. However, we also know that there's very unlikely to be a return to whatever we thought was normal. We know that management teams in universities very often seize on these occasions to nurture a sense of crisis and perhaps reorient the university according to a set of priorities, which might not be shared by all the rest of us who are the university. What we see right now in the UK is a system which is struggling under a number of persistent vulnerabilities, which COVID really has just brought into focus. They were always there, but they weigh particularly on conditions of labour and the students' experience. These are things which we will need to keep in our minds as we go forward.
You describe the UK higher education system as highly marketized. What impact is that having on higher education during the pandemic?
We need to take a look at the political economy of British universities and the vulnerabilities revealed by the pandemic. We have a marketized system of higher education in England. I'm excluding Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who have slightly different varieties of this system, but 80 per cent of our income for teaching comes from student fees, with 23 per cent of that coming from the overseas student contingent. If either of those two income streams is affected, we would find universities exposed to financial adversity. Then, in July, the government decreed that universities could only charge full fees if they were teaching face-to-face. The business model is anchored in income from halls of residence, food, and other services, like gyms. They were obviously going to need to bring students to campus. Halls of residence were crammed in the return to school in the fall, unlike some US universities, which had kept them under 50% capacity. The health of students, staff, and the wider community had to be sacrificed if universities were to survive.
In Canada, due to health and safety concerns, schools have largely rejected a full return to face-to-face teaching. How did the UK return to classes play out?
Disastrously. For example, in October 2020, my home base of Nottingham had the highest rate of COVID-19 spread in the UK. Sadly, the spike in figures coincided with the arrival in the city of 60,000 or more students. I'm certainly not blaming the students for this state of affairs. I am hoping that an eventual public inquiry will hold the government and university management teams to account. Opening campuses and residences was against the advice of the government's own scientific advisory committee, the trade unions, and public health academics. Nevertheless, the migration of students went ahead. Despite assurances of COVID-free campuses from university managers, incidences of infection in some areas of some university cities, particularly Nottingham, were running at eight times the incidence of New York City at peak COVID in April. This is a failure to protect public health at any scale.
What impact have you seen on the academic job?
Over the summer of 2020, universities in the UK became very cautious about finances and fearful of angering the government. Some sought to restructure course offerings towards the government's preferred STEM priority. Some have planned for mass redundancies in the face of what they anticipated would be falling enrollments this year. Shockingly, Coventry University has announced 100 redundancies at associate professor level and their labour is being replaced by additional hourly paid staff. In many places, the price is being paid by early career, precarious academics as graduate teaching assistantships and adjunct posts have been canceled. Their prospects may never recover. The result has been an unsustainable load placed on permanently employed staff, many of whom have seen their teaching loads triple and research time canceled. The most significant issue that's been brought into focus by the pandemic is that a higher education system controlled by the market is not as robust as market fundamentalists like to insist. The shedding of academic talent has not been so visible in less marketized systems.
Even prior to the pandemic, there has been a move towards academic fracking — the separation of teaching and research pathways for academics. It has become harder to subsidize research from tuition fees. Therefore, to be coded as research, your project has to be paid for by external income. So, no grant can mean no research component to your workload. This trend will be accelerated by the pandemic.
What do you predict the impact of the pandemic will be?
There may be a rapid return to business as usual with regard to reliance on casualized labour, as the pandemic has offered a new opportunity to exploit their expertise. This move can be predicted when we look at the opportunistic moves to capitalize on the pivot to online by the ed-tech industry. EdTech firms pursue a strategy of free now, sell later, while both looking to solve the short-term global disruption of education and paving the way for longer-term transformation to education systems, institutions, and practice. We see these companies really looking now to position themselves as the savior for education: companies like the Khan Academy are offering free software in response to donations from benefactors who expect to be able to recoup their spend in reduced teaching costs ultimately. We could be looking at a future in which the dominant education policy preoccupation globally is how to deliver schooling without schools and degrees without campuses. Meanwhile, we have reports that software enabling algorithmically proctored exams may compromise student privacy. There's also criticism that facial recognition and detection algorithms may fail to recognize black faces as easily as white and thus reinforce structural racism. Perhaps instead, we could look for a redesign of curriculum and assessment, which seeks to transform student learning and open possibilities.
What will emerge from this chaos is the post-pandemic university. We just hope that the university that emerges is one we recognise and one that works in the interests of students and academic enquiry. We need to be vigilant and ensure that the more pernicious patterns that hamper those interests now are not amplified in the new forms of pedagogy and management that will materialize.