Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Recently I had a discussion on Twitter about the trend towards referring to students as "customers" in universities. I noted that there was a strong reaction from the academic community (lecturers, postdocs, ECRs, and PhD students) against the terminology. I thought it was an interesting dynamic with universities tending more and more towards the word "customers" but the academic community being against it. 

Now, this post isn't about this issue. Rather, it focuses on the question of binaries as one Twitter user noted the intellectual reaction against "customers" and the administrative trend towards it. I took umbrage at this from a personal standpoint, although the comment was not meant in that way at all. It was a general statement which reflects a binary which exists in Higher Education but which I believe is unfair and actually unproductive.

I've experience lots of binaries in my experience as a PhD student:
  • There is the binary between funded v self-funded students
  • There is the binary between science v humanities, and which is more "worthy" of funding...(don't go down that rabbit hole, not worth it)
  • At Oxford, there was the binary (and snobbery) between being at an ancient college v a modern one
None of these binaries served any good.The newest one that I am encountering is a binary between academics and administrators. Working now in alt-ac in Higher Education, I am more sensitive to this, without a doubt. But the very idea that there is an absolute binary between intellectual and administrative bothers me because it ignores the duality of university governance. For example, Vice-Chancellors act as the CEO of the university, yet are majority former academics in a leadership and management role. There are a huge number of people with doctorates who work in university  professional services. Having such a binary between academic v administrative or intellectual v administrative does a disservice to a huge number of people who work in professional services.

I have said it before, but we need to challenge our perceptions of who or what an academic or an intellectual is? And we should probably also challenge our preconceptions of who/what an administrator is...

The pervasive suggestion that university administrative is actively anti-intellectual in its bureaucracy is very demeaning to me. I am an academic and I am on a training scheme in leadership and management in Higher Education. The binary insinuates that I cannot relate to academic pursuits (teaching and learning) when I wear my "professional services" hat, or that I resent administration and bureaucracy when I wear my "academic" hat. The truth is that I am both person all the time.

And many others are. Oxford for example is a self-governing institution. Decisions are made by academics but implemented by professional services. Many other institutions are the same, So it's unfair and narrow-sighted to blame "administration" for all ills. And yes, university administration is ballooning in many institutions, much to the disdain of the "intellectuals", but an understanding of the HE sector should make it clear that this increase is more often than not a reaction to increased government intervention (i.e. more regulation, more staff need to implement it) and reduced govenment funding (i.e. more fundraising staff needed).

Yes, perhaps some in professional services may go too far, too corporate, too bureaucratic. But there are many who wear both hats and are sensitive to the needs and demands of both sides.

The more of this "us and them rhetoric" the further the divide and forced binaries will grow. In an age where universities are put under more and more pressure from government funding and regulation, surely more collaboration and respect would be beneficial.

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