Are Universities Doomed to Repeat the Same Mistakes?

David Duncan, Chief Operating Officer and University Secretary at the University of Glasgow, reflects on the recurring nightmares that the higher education sector faces.

Are you susceptible to anxiety dreams? Nightmares, even? I occasionally experience the former and they tend to be the same three or four experiences, endlessly repeated.

In one, I am driving a car which is moving at speed, usually downhill. I am under the influence of alcohol and struggling to keep control. Sometimes, I can’t reach the pedals because I am sitting in the back. I try to squeeze between the front seats while holding onto the steering wheel at the same time.

In a second dream, I am asked to deliver a speech to a large and prestigious audience without any prior warning. What on earth to say? I try to string a few lines together, feeling like Jim Dixon in Amis’s Lucky Jim, as the listeners mutter and shift in their seats.

Even less appealing, but probably born from a similar nervous condition, is the one where I am naked at a meeting of Senatus Academicus. This is exceptionally troubling, as there is no way you can act or talk your way out of a situation like that. Of course, dress habits have changed since I first went to University, in an age when the more conservative lecturers routinely wore black gowns to class. But even so, complete nudity at Senate is guaranteed to induce anxiety and is not to be recommended.

The last example is my most frequent source of night-time anxiety: the dream where I haven’t done enough work for my finals. It always starts the same way. I look back over the previous two years and can’t remember having attended a single lecture; I have no notes whatsoever to revise from. This fills me with an indescribable panic. In a recent variation – so vivid that I recounted it blow-by-blow to my other half over breakfast – it occurred to me that as well as being an undergraduate, I was also university secretary. I presented a case that, due to pressure of administrative work, I should be given a second chance at my junior honours year. The stony-faced authorities were unsympathetic.

So, to sum up, the same anxiety-inducing experiences recur regularly when I am horizontal. But is the higher education sector so very different? Again and again, we seem to have the same debates, repeat the same mistakes, read the same nonsense about UK universities in the press, and experience the same old treatment at the hands of government.

The recent industrial dispute with the UCU over USS pension benefits is a case in point. The employers set out a collective position which was highly unlikely to be acceptable to the other side. Even experienced vice chancellors and senior management teams apparently failed to appreciate the strength of feeling among staff about the retention of defined benefits, and the impact that industrial action aimed squarely at teaching activities would have. Then, when the strike began to bite, many universities which had started out crying ‘No pasarán!’ pivoted 180 degrees on their earlier stance.

Not unrelated to this, the ability of the sector to communicate articulately with the wider public has scarcely advanced in decades. In the UK, universities are one of the few industries in which we really excel. Yet in a world of fast-changing technologies and social media, universities seem incapable of stringing a consistent line. Individual institutions show what can be done. This is especially true on social media, which is, after all, the main means of communication for our students. But more generally as a sector, when it comes to comms, we suck. Worse than that, as far as the general public is concerned we are going backwards. They find themselves bewildered by a series of narratives which point up our supposed failings, the venality of senior university officers, the worthlessness of our products and the bad experience offered to students.

While we lead the world in ground-breaking research, achieve high student satisfaction rates and offer life-changing educational experiences, we have allowed a perception to take hold that we are motivated more by self-interest than the good of humanity. And despite the fact that 98% of the UK’s leaders were educated in UK HEIs, we struggle to find credible spokespeople who will stand up for the sector in the face of what is often unfair criticism. It would be generous to say that we are repeating old mistakes in this area; in many ways, our inability to communicate effectively with the wider public has been getting progressively worse for years.

Alongside this, the sector’s relationship with government is stuck in a time warp. This is hard to believe given the changes that have been wrought in the sector – at least in England – since the Coalition came to power in 2010. English universities benefited from a very significant increase in home undergraduate tuition fees and then saw the complete removal of numbers controls.

While this might have signalled a welcome retreat by the state from higher education (HE), in fact, the tendency for governments across the UK to regulate has increased. Ministers see the sector as an essential tool to achieve social re-engineering. They rarely resist the temptation to comment on what is happening in universities, whether the topic is assessment standards, mental health issues, freedom of speech on campus, the range of courses offered, the worth of a degree or standards of research integrity. At a recent AHUA conference, a senior appointee of government asserted without challenge that greater and more rigorous regulation was essential because without it, universities would simply not pursue goals such as widening access.

The granularity of political scrutiny is arguably even greater in the devolved administrations, where politicians often chip in on the minutest of issues. In response, the sector is paralysed, apparently unable to make the case that the independence of the sector is its greatest strength and the reason UK HE is stronger than its counterparts in almost any other country. We have to get the message across that while governmental goals on widening participation, high standards, economic relevance and international competitiveness are all valid, they are best achieved if the sector is left to direct its own affairs.

In all three areas – pensions, communications and government intervention – it seems we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. As in my recurring dream sequences, we give the impression of being powerless to set a clear, consistent course, to communicate effectively and to stand up for the sector in public discourse.

But it doesn’t need to be like that. We are, after all, among the most successful institutions in the world and we have enormous resources at our disposal. Registrars, secretaries and chief operating officers have an important role to play in ensuring that lessons from past mistakes are learned and consistent positions adopted. There should be no need for anxiety if we put our best forward with confidence and clarity; and hopefully I will sleep better at nights knowing the sector is in safe hands.