The Death of the Modern University in the COVID Era (but it has been going on for a while)

(The grammar and style might seem a little strange in this article as I have strained to avoid using the masculine and feminine pronouns to keep things as anonymous as possible)

I have just had a supervision session with my PhD supervisor.  I had not managed to touch base other than the odd email this year and was always waiting for a reply.  I had a feeling something not good was happening to them,  I am studying part-time and virtually all undergraduate and graduate tuition has been online this year so it has been no surprise it has been difficult to get quality time to talk about life and then for me to pick their philosophical brain.  Now things are in a bad way generally for a lot of Universities in the UK and I should imagine further afield to because of the COVID restrictions meaning people either could not travel (so Universities lost their fees and accomodation charge income) or provision of learning employed the euphemism “blended” meaning you went to the University town, then sat in your room and did your studies “online”.  Hardly a great University experience for either staff or students.  People are not doing exams or being awarded estimated grades without completing work.  In a word, serious dysfunction reflecting the cultural dysfunction of the COVID-era.

The real news was, after six years as the senior philosophy lecturer in the University, they are being made redundant.  They were specifically brought into the University to revive philosophy within the University which had been jettisoned a decade earlier when the then Vice Chancellor of the University got rid of any subject area they deemed did not have a “commerical potential”, i.e. the research could not be monetised.  It was a wonderful example of utilitarianism – we judge the worth of something by its practical usefulness or “utility” – philosophy was deemed to train people to do nothing that had any direct financial value and so the entire department dissolved taking with it the theology department which of course was even more “useless”, what possible relevance could the study of God, that evolutuonary artefact, have for us here and now?  For the first time since the University was founded in 1886 as a Liberal Arts institution for working people to access the new world of learning (it was started by a group of stone quarrymen in what was then an Inn), there was to be no philosophy or theology.

Quite remarkable that stone quarrymen in 1886 had more sense, I believe, than a Vice Chancellor at a modern university.

In 2010 or roundabouts, a new Vice Chancellor took over and publicly announced that a University without the “Liberal Arts” of Philosophy and Theology could not really be called a University at all.  Knowledge had intrinsic value just because it was knowledge or science about nature and a philosophy was necessary as underpinning for all subjects – why do you do Physics say, the way Physics is done, i.e. what is the philosophy of Physics. Some people have a philosophy of science that believes all the “true” sciences ultimately reduce to Physics; it should be of no surprise this is called Reductionism.  Thus, in this view, anything that cannot be expressed in terms of Physics cannot be conceived of as truly “scientific”.  In most cultural marketplaces, “scientific” and “evidence based” are the conditions of entry in order that your view is considered worthy of serious consideration when there is a problem that needs to be solved.  If you cannot show you are “scientific”, you are at best tolerated as “fringe” and marginalised from the main debate, if you were somehow allowed access.  Reductionism presents one dogmatic answer to the complex philosophical question “what is science” and you can see that is enormously important for any subject that demands autonomy from Physics but wants to assert that it is still “scientfic”.    Philosophy asks those important questions, and you need to be especially aware as a student of where your teacher is coming from and the presuppositions or philosophy they are bringing to the table or you will just end up being trained in one version of dogmatism, rather than being capable or free and original thinking.

This is even more plain in a subject such as Psychology, a so-called “soft” science, where different conceptions, i.e. philosophies, of the subject are mutually exclusive and your data can be fitted by sheer force of presupposition (aka equal empirical adequacy) to your preference – a behaviourist denies human freedom is possible, we are just the products of conditioning by our environment, if we know enough about the conditioned responses, we can predict your behaviour (cue the “Reality-TV” genre, most of these programmes employ professional psychologists, sometimes from the top universities, to manipulate the participants into behaving in a particular way in response to stimuli in a contrived environment).  In contrast, a voluntarist might assert that human freedom is absolute, it is the only explanation of the indeterminancy in human relationships.  The ethical consequences of believing one or the other model of psychology is thus a philosophical subject – if someone is just a product of evolutionary pressures and environmental factors, they cannot be blamed for their behaviour, it was “inevitable”.  You then inform your philosophy of law, for how you could possibly “punish” someone for simply living out their evolutionary programming, “Hey Baby, I was born this way!”.  Some senior evolutionists, for example, have argued that “rape” should not be a criminal offence – it is the “natural response” to the lack of availability of the female and essential for the maintenance of the population.  If philosophies such as this go unchallenged, you can see what a terrible place our society would be.

It is not that there is a necessarily a single “right” answer to these questions, though some answers definitely are more right and more objective than others, “all opinions are not created equal and some are certainly more equal than others”, but it demonstrates what someone once said about philosophy was that is was “valueless” in terms of its cash equivalent, especially if you just want “answers to problems” but “priceless” in terms of it cultural value to humanity as a whole, which rather seeks to fully understand the nature of those problems.  This was why it was so significant that the new Vice Chancellor recognised this and reintroduced Philosophy and Theology (to a degree) –  I even had the unique and slightly peculiar honour of being the first to graduate on the new Masters Philosophy programme in 2012 – even got a personal mention in the graduation ceremony as “demonstrating the University’s committment to the subject”.  Amen, brothers of the Light!

It was also true that in order for the University to be formally recognised or “accredited” as being able to operate a Philosophy degree, they had to demonstrate the ability to deliver the different aspects of the subject, Ancient Philosophy, Medieval, Modern, Ethics, Metaphysics, Epistemology and so on.  Thus, my supervisor was hired and has worked with the Head of Department, now a full philosophy Professor, to create a core which could meet the strictest criteria to be recognised as a bona-fide Philosophy school.  They also had an excellent staff to student ratio and were a profitable unit within the wider faculty, a healthy quota of PhD students and postgraduates – however, he is being fired and the subject downgraded so it can be taught as just “modules” within other degrees rather than as a subject in its own right by “professors” of other subjects as diverse as media studies and history.

The obvious question to ask is “why would a University jettison a subject as important as philosophy when the school itself is also making a profit?”  Well, in my supervisor’s words, it was “it is not making enough profit”.  Even though the student to staff ratio is excellent, the finances sound, the department is not growing, the return is static.  The logic of the decision maker in the University, actually a single individual in this case delivering the “strategy for growth and sustainability”, is that philosophy has reached the limit of its growth – or at least, other subjects with glorious titles such as “Fashion and Design”, “Nutrition and Well-Being” or “Media Studies” have potential to grow much faster and are to be preferred.

Again, this is also within my experience at a different University way back in 1996 when I was training to be a teacher (I have a Masters in a Science subject too and taught Physics), the entire Mechanical/Electronic Engineering Department was being moved to old buildings in the extremities of the University and their purpose built lab-blocks were being “re-purposed” for “Fashion and Media” which was going to make the University a world beating institution and attract investment.  Incidentally, that strategy failed and they have since dramatically expanded their “foreign student” (outside of the EU) provision in line with many other British Universities (more about this below) which, until the COVID-era, proved a far more lucrative and successful proposition. We as trainee teachers in the sciences were having to move being hit in the face by the swinging doors of the exiting researchers.  Clearly, the University felt these subjects more “profitable” than Engineering – I cannot see them being culturally more valuable, fashion can help me look good and be confident but it cannot build me a bridge, though in a world “where the image is the message”, a post-modern given, my position might be framed as some as a bigotted, neo-modern view.  Guilty as charged!

This refactoring of the University is even the case when the members of the department are world-recognised, world-renowned scholars in their fields.  In my supervisor’s words, and he admitted he might be feeling particularly jaded by the experience of the last 6 months and his subsequent redundancy, Universities are now a “business” and business must deliver a profit – universities are not about producing the best research or supporting the best researchers to organisations or industries external to the University but about running a healthy balance sheet and a good “return” on any investment.

Any professor that dares resist this “new normal” finds themselves at the front of the queue for redundancy when the next round of “reorganisations” takes place because someone wasted a vast quantity of funds on a trophy building that exists for no other reason than to show how “cutting edge” the University is in the lucrative business of attracting high fee-paying foreign students (x3 times more valuable in terms of fees than a domestic student), typically servicing the elites of China and elsewhere who foolishly believe the “British” University is still the world-beating institution it once was.

So, if the University is not about research anymore – except for particularly marketable and lucrative research.  What are they about then?  Well in the case of this Institution it is blatantly obvious from the publicity produced by the Marketing Department in the University, it is “number one for student satisfaction”.  That is, everything is done, and I mean everything is done to keep students happy :

A.  Students do not like exams, they are “stressful” – so in the last five years, end of semester exams have gone from being included in 90% of courses to 10% of courses, replaced by some kind of “coursework” assessment.

Perhaps here is not the place to argue about the merits of “coursework” other than they have the same problems as postal voting – you can not guarantee, unless you have particularly stringent, forensic vetting processes, that the work was actually completed by the student.  There is now a whole internet industry where students can “buy” essays online – believe it or not, you can even “buy” a PhD!  I saw an interview with someone who sticks his adverts around the underground stations near the London Universities, he is busy all year and has a few PhDs under his belt!  If that was an option available to my 17-year old self, I too would have considered it a worthwhile investment – someone else does my work, I spend my money in the bar, me happy, faker happy, University happy.

As my supervisor also said, and I find myself in agreement, there is something valuable about someone being able to come into an examination room and being able to answer two or three questions on a specific area of knowledge in which they have now studied, to explicate and defend their particular position or to demonstrate technical sufficiency.  It might certainly be “stressful” but it is also extremely valuable.  I must admit, my last set of exams I sat, which were technical Microsoft ones, were seriously demanding and stressful for about 3 months preparing for those in my holy-evenings whilst working full-time , but it was so satisfying to see that “You Have Passed” flash up on the screen after 90% of the students had already “quit” and left the room because it was too hard.  We had all just spent £3000 ($4500) for an on-site intense, 7:30am-10:30pm 10-day certification course, the ones who passed were those who had paid for it themselves or who had to as a condition of continuing employment, not those who had training as a “perk” of their job.

Sure, it was extremely stressful and demanding but you could be confident that those of us who succeeded would be safe and competent as programmers and software engineers.  That was what an exam used to indicate, competence.  Of course, for people with recognised disabilities or syndromes, there is the need for accomodation but you still need to have confidence that when someone says they are “qualified” because they have a degree, with or without a “disability”, you can be confident that degree means something – that is, they actually are qualified.  As someone who has had to mentor University students on induction into an industrial environment, you find yourselves dealing with people who, although qualified on paper, seem to lack basic technical skills and almost non-existent social skills, i.e. “work” means turning up on time, on a regular (daily) basis and not smelling like you have been partying all night long.

My supervisor also helped me out in understanding why people seem woefully and increasingly unqualified:

B. Students do not like receiving grades less than “C” (‘A’ being highest, C pass, D-F fails) so they never receive a grade less than ‘C’ even though you would disdain to wipe your behind on what they have submitted to you (my paraphrase).

Any lecturer (US might call these ‘professors’, in the UK a ‘Professor’ is an honorary title, what might be tenured professor or ‘distinguished professor’ in the US) who dares to “fail” a student will find themselves in great difficulty, “it is just not worth the aggravation”.  Just give them a ‘C’ for a quiet life, they happy, the University happy, we get the money, everyone happy.

C. Universities receive an element of their funding (now an important element) for how many students “complete” their courses.

Students will only complete courses if they pass them, so all things are permissible and possible to ensure they “complete” their courses.  A little bit of context is required here, there once was a situation, during an egalitarian, anti-elitist drive to “expand” Higher Education to improve the quantity of graduates to improve UK-industry and culture generally, such that Colleges and Universities got paid purely on how many people registered for courses.

This was wide open to abuse for it was based on the logical fallacies that students who registered for a course were actually interested in completing it (some of my peers came to party, others came to climb mountains) and the Universities were interested in encouraging them to complete it or transfer onto something they might complete;  ethics might imply they should be but there was no incentive for the University to actually ensure the student completed their course, they had already got paid.  Government realised they needed to modify this approach and so the condition was changed to “complete” their courses.  Thus, for a student to “fail” a course means you do not get paid.

As an Examination Officer, there were many times during the ratification process for individuals where they were required to pass all their Year 1 modules in order to proceed to Year 2 but got a mark of say 35% instead of the pass of 40%.  The Course Leader would then make a request to the Examination Officer, “can we not just find an extra 5% so this person can proceed?”  Owing to the wider financial imperative, it would be looked on as seriously politically incorrect for the Examination Officer ever to turn down that kind of request.

One music lecturer at a college I knew very well put it this way:

“We used to require students to write an accurate transposition of their favourite pop song as an assignment.  Too many failed that assignment so we dropped the “accurate”.  That was still too difficult so we then gave them a transposition and asked for comments.  That was too difficult so we gave them the transposition, the comments and asked which of them would those be appropriate for a particular piece?  No one was allowed to fail as we did not get paid for failure.”

Now this lecturer still managed to “upset” some students and received an unfounded accusation of “harassment” from some of them, i.e. they were being harassed to complete an assignment and to hand it in on time.  To appease the students, they were dismissed by the college.  Now I know that lecturer was an exceptional and recognised musician, that was why students used to want to come to that college, so they could learn from the best and be challenged by the best.  No longer, students seem to think they deserve to pass simply because they turn-up every now and then, not because of any work they may or may not choose to complete.

D.  Over 50% of “students” now have some sort of Personalised Learning Plan

Of course, this sounds inclusive and helpful, sound educational theory to individuate the content to cope with the different learning styles of your students.  A good teacher will consider how students can be helped.  However, this is rather different.  Once a student is recognised as requiring a PLP after assessment by a unit within the University, they are entitled to all sorts of privileges, e.g. late submission of assignments, additional time with the lecturer, individualised content etc.  In line with the guiding principle of “keep students happy”, the assessment process is very much “does the student think, or rather feel they are disadvantaged in some way and therefore will be happier if they had a PLP”?  If the answer is “Yes”, they get a PLP – the idea we should objectively assess a student and have some standard we used to decide is an absolute anathema, that would be “stressful” for the student in an already stressful situation.  Thus, in my supervisor’s class of undergraduates, over 50% of the students now have PLPs, 5 years ago it was the exception.

A further twist to the PLP saga has an analogue in what were once called “Special Needs Assessments” in the sectors I used to teach in.  Such a term is considered pejorative now as the “Special” Needs were normally to do with behavioural dysfunction, setting the teacher’s clothes on fire during a practical experiment, assaulting staff (sometimes with the help of parents) etc.  I have personal experience of these happening in the “inner city” schools I taught in, so I do not say that without first hand knowledge.  Some of my colleagues were suspended pending investigations when they dared to “restrain” pupils intent on harming badly other pupils, e.g. stabbing or head-butting them, in their class if they were classified as “SEN” (Special Educational Needs).

Of course, some had physical “Special” needs such as assistive technology or for wheelchair access, but the massive majority were these “psychological” and “sociological” categories of dysfunction which the school had to deal with.  At one time, such “students” would have been removed from mainstream schools and put into dedicated and specialised small schools or units, but this was considered “discriminatory” (a euphemism for we can no longer afford to maintain these units) so mainstream schools had to find a way to accomodate extreme anti-social behaviour and psychological dysfunction.  With the subsequent exodus of teachers when there was already a shortage of teachers (especially in my subject area, the sciences) after false accusations and physical assaults, such a policy is asserted less dogmatically these days.  The great “gain” for the schools though was they got extra “resources” for each SEN student in a class.

Thus, there was a great financial incentive to have as many SEN students in your class as you could.  It used to be, in a population of say 50 students, you might expect 1 SEN student.  However, in many schools, especially primary schools (5-10 yrs), you can find 50% of a class of 30 students now have SEN statements and probably 90% of these will be behavioural or psychological, not physical.  Now we might be tempted to say, this is indicative of a total social collapse in the Western world caused by “too much stress” on our young and vulnerable children (or students) but, in my experience, the real reason is just this financial incentive.

For example, another personal testimony, this time I had some graduate friends, he Forestry, she Psychology who had a young family.  The young boy in particular needed some firm discipline to keep him on the straight and narrow but his parent’s dealt with it effectively.  He is now a grown, stable, sane and successful young adult with his own family.  But he went to primary school and before the first term was up, they were informed the boy had been seen by the school psychologist and had been diagnosed with XXX-Syndrome, had a statement of Special Educational Needs, along with 50% of the children in the class, and his teaching would be adjusted (perhaps read ‘downgraded’, ‘simplified’ or ‘socially isolated’) accordingly.  Now the Mum, being a working-psychologist herself, took offence at this, knowing in detail the particular syndrome he had been labelled with, knowing their son did not have it and took it up with the school psychologist who blustered and embarrasingly admitted he had been tasked with labelling as many children as possible with various “syndromes” so that the hard-pressed school could access additional funds.

Whatever we might think then of Universities being viable businesses, it is clear that if that is all they are, we cannot criticise them for this extreme approach to “keeping their students happy” if it keeps them solvent.  In principle, I am not opposing monetising research, it is indeed pleasing when new businesses spin off from academic units in a University to apply some research or even better, that academics work with industry and solve society’s “problems”.  It is beneficial that the brightest PhDs have a route into industrial work, rather than writing articles for journals quickly forgotten.  However, some of the Arts subjects, particularly philosophical ones, are dealing at a much more fundamental level at what it means to be human (that is one of the reasons we call them “Humanities”) and Universities supported them because they wanted to positively impact culture as a whole and the culture valued those disciplines.

The tragedy of our time is if this value is now not conceived of in cultural or ethical imperatives but in purely financial terms.  Someone one said that the death of the Liberal Arts University occured when the Universities started receiving, quickly becoming dependent on, a “block grant” (US = federal funds) and that meant the government insisted they “broaden” their appeal, meaning they downgraded their entrance requirements, assessment processes and the quality of their courses.  People, like me, in industry (though I now work in a different sector than the heavy industrial I spent much of my working life in), then complained about ill-prepared students and were quite happy to look elsewhere than the University and train up our own apprentices.  We are not going to partner with institutions that fail to deliver for us and that then increases their dependence on the government grant.  They then have even more pressure to broaden their appeal, we are even less interested in their products….

Thus, it is difficult under the current, centralised funding model to see Universities recover both competence and the moral imperative to support “Arts” subjects such as Philosophy and Religion.  Put simply, Philosophy and Religion need to pay their way, if they cannot, no loss to the modern University.  I certainly believe in equality, but it must be an equality of opportunity not an equality of outcome.  The latter is the socialist staple of the post Second World War world, and it should be seen as a monumental failure, no amount of money will deal with world-poverty until the people themselves are free of the spirit of poverty in their thinking.

The great human beings have normally risen because they were great human beings and refused to accept their “disadvantage”, not because someone gave them a grant.  If you can get a grant, wonderful, but if you need that grant before you can do anything, you are probably doing or going to do the wrong thing.  That sounds harsh but when I was writing a business plan many years ago for a business I was setting up and applying for government funding to support it, a condition of receiving the funding was that the business was viable without the funding.  That condition was the smart addition after a decade of “failed” government New Business creation initiatives that had just poured government grants into “supporting” new businesses.

If there is any hope for saving the modern university, it will be when they once more become financially independent and autonomous institutions that attract industrial and cultural philanthropy because of the excellence of their research outcomes and the impressiveness of their thinking; they attract students on the basis of their academic excellence, their research rating and not on the basis of promising them a “happy” student life.


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