“Simple liars, damned liars and experts”
We can debate motive. But it feels like it's possible that we've allowed residential students to move to uni towns and cities not so much for the teaching or in-person experience, but for the fact they'll pay their rent.— Jim Dickinson (@jim_dickinson) November 30, 2020
We cannot ‘fix’ everything and that should be ok, but it increasingly is not. As a colleague said to me earlier this term: there is a violence to bringing students back to campus. Universities need money so we brought students back to campuses. Yes, there is lots of hand wash, one-way systems etc., but we continue to be unable to deal with the complex & significant mental health issues made worse by COVID. Lots of individual students told me me they wanted/needed the contact but I still got very variable attendance. We have bullish communications from above, almost all about reputation cloaked in soft soap about welfare. There are appeals to ‘evidence’, or ‘evidence-based’ decisions, drawing on differing data sources (PHE, ONS, local track & trace, 1st hand) and different emphases (e.g. COVID risk vs. student satisfaction). As we limp to the end of the final week of term and are invited to fill in yet another form by our employers to confirm for themselves that, in fact, there is ‘no problem’ with staff wellbeing we might very well reflect upon bullshit.
Like many other employees across a number of sectors, throughout this term, many academics have been on the receiving end of emails from senior managers telling us that: we are doing ever so well (“hooray for us”); the COVID case statistics are nowhere near the levels feared; our students are all happy (but you MUST do more); we have a ‘moral imperative’ to conduct face to face teaching for the sake of the wellbeing of students.
The problem with many of these emails is that they appear to be prime examples of what Frankfurt identifies as bullshit. The assertions, pleas and statements from university senior managers are deliberate deceptive misrepresentations that stop slightly short of outright lying. They are sort of like bluffs. Sprinkled with allusions to ‘government advice’, selectively citing cherry-picked statistics and drawing upon (frankly laughable and shoddily designed) student surveys, the bullshit serves to both attempt to reassure and put us firmly in our place.
UK Higher Education Institutions wilfully, knowingly, deliberately invited students to take up residence in Autumn in environments which were, quite predictably, from a health perspective, not safe. In part this is because of funding. Universities UK asked for a ‘bailout’, the government said ‘no’. Universities draw most of their revenue from fees and rent, so it became imperative for students to return. Staff know this. An increasing number of students know this. Yet, instead of face up to this, senior university managers and the systems in which they operate ignore this, ignore that we know and continue to treat staff and students with mistrust and distain. We are all being treated as fools; some might argue by fools. Give stupidity a chance seems to be the connotation. I’d prefer not to…
With the patronising and self-congratulatory missives resounding like Dickensian church bells as we collectively stagger into our ‘break’, there is a degree of good will between staff and students. Nevertheless, the corrosive ‘us and them’ produced by the state of affairs described above is eating away at that bonhomie. This is emotionally challenging for everyone.
What is to be done? The unlikely but nonetheless brave and honest course of action would be to cast aside the bullshit. There would be a lot of hard work to do in order to repair trust between staff and managers in UK higher education but, as my colleague Clive argues, a good start would be for those senior managers to say sorry.