Book Review: Universities Under Fire: Hostile Discourses and Integrity Deficits in Higher Education

From identifying and analysing issues to offering ways to improve situations in HEIs, Ester Ruskuc, Vice-Principal (Strategy, Policy and Planning) at University of St Andrews, reviews ‘Universities Under Fire...' by Professor Steven Jones.

Following the Palgrave Critical University Studies series, the eighteenth installment  ‘Universities Under Fire…’ is a useful overview of areas to critique in English universities today and the contradictions of the policy environment they operate in. The comprehensive set of references throughout the book is hugely valuable.

This book is particularly for colleagues who are entering English HE from another sector into a position of high responsibility – as Jones would put it, into a managerial role. The voice and positions expressed in the book translate into universities beyond England as well even if the policy environment is somewhat different.

Two expert reviews of this book have been published already by Nick Hillman at HEPI and Dr Liz Morrish. I very much recommend these and will not repeat their content.

The integrity deficits for Jones arise from the marketisation of universities; associated positioning, competition, and language; the consequences of students as customers; the divide between managers and university staff; and loss of public trust. He notes that there is also a negative reinforcing role played by the right-wing press, responding to the views of right-leaning politicians who feel threatened by universities.

Despite its rigorous approach to evidencing and analysing, the book itself contains multiple inconsistencies, as described by Hillman. Which is not surprising given that the position Jones takes in the book is not neutral. Although it states that it speaks for all university staff not just academics, this is not evidenced within the book itself. Managers are presented as on the wrong side of virtually everything, deliberately driving a wedge between academic and non-academic staff and not speaking truth to power loudly and regularly enough.

Some key issues are not connected. For example, the book acknowledges that for many years England only had two universities and that these were not keen on the introduction of others for fear of reduced availability of resources. With the growth in the number of institutions and their size, the call on overall resources has also grown, which makes a certain competition for resources inherent in the system.

It also acknowledges that academic staff have in part been complicit in the fracturing and the developing integrity deficits. This has in part been due to ‘trading management time for fulfilling activities of research and teaching’ and not engaging sufficiently. This is perceived to encourage managers to fill the spaces with business-minded individuals who perpetuate the described deficits. The book completely ignores the profound sense of personal responsibility that top level managers in every institution feel as part of their role, as AHUA members know all too well.

While most of the book focuses on identifying and analysing issues, it also offers ways to improve the situation and thoughts on universities ‘firing back’ through:

·         Encouraging and growing academic citizenship;

·         Removing competition, positioning, and acting beyond the common good of the sector, while embracing public accountability;

·         Reclaiming higher education as a public good, through firmly sticking to their core purpose to help people learn to think differently and better, and scrutinising policies and initiatives that are flawed with the same rigour as they apply in their discipline;

·         Stopping being elitist – striving to be ‘exemplars of tolerance and a microcosm of inclusive society’;

·         As a sector ‘collaborating more sincerely and selflessly and extending this to other preceding education levels’;

·         Resisting being co-opted into a system that the universities’ primary role is to critique.

While for those of us who have worked in HE for a longer period of time, there is very little new in the book, it is a useful quick read and an enduring reference.

Universities Under Fire: Hostile Discourses and Integrity Deficits in Higher Education by Professor Steven Jones, Palgrave McMillan, ISBN: 978-3-030-96107-7.