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What Happened to the Pursuit of Knowledge in Higher Education?

The pay dispute between academic staff working in higher education (HE) and their employers is in the news again. Those of us who have been in HE for the past few years wouldn't be blamed for experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Despite its cyclical nature, an important story is being told about the HE sector more broadly. The underlying reasons for this dispute highlight a phenomenon that sees universities adapt to a market that no longer values education for the sake of acquiring knowledge. The irony here is that, as universities compete for survival in a new market context, they undermine the aims of the government policies which helped bring us to this point.

The tuition fee cap in England and the tuition fee waiver in Scotland were intended to make universities more accessible, and to encourage a larger proportion of society to pursue an initial HE degree. Yet, not only have they made places for domestic students more competitive, but they also contributed to the diminishing profitability of educating students from domestic cohorts. For example, in Scotland, accepting Scottish undergraduate students at a stagnant rate of compensation creates a strong case to recruit more international undergraduate students (whose fees are not capped) and funnel more resources into the latter’s recruitment and experience.

Tony Blair's policy aim, which would see 50% of adults in England earn a HE degree, was met in 2019 and should be admired for its ambition. However, it led to unintended consequences in the HE sector. Simply put, the more people who have something, the less it is worth. It is no news to those in their 20s that a degree certificate is no longer a distinguishing factor in a job interview.

All three policies above presuppose that 1) the acquisition of knowledge is valuable and 2) a higher education qualification is an effective form of upskilling. However, neither appears relevant anymore. Prospective students are questioning why they should pursue HE degrees and what they expect to get from them. Student and society priorities are shifting. The pandemic turned the spotlight on academics in certain fields, but it also highlighted the value of those in our society who have not come through the HE route.

Universities have been quietly reconstructing themselves and the sector in order to meet the demands of an ever more complex consumer base which is realising that a traditional degree is not the only avenue to the contemporary definition of 'success'. Thus, this brings us back to the pay dispute. Academic staff are asking why they are undervalued in terms of pay, and the answer cannot be narrowed down to a single human resources department. Rather, it is reflected in the sector’s strategic choices and budget priorities every single day. If the sector no longer sees educators as the most valuable employees, they are refused their competitiveness. As they labour their points time and again, each time they approach the negotiating table they are in fact less competitive negotiators than before.

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