Collegiality

Mary Gallagher

What is academic collegiality? And what happens to it when Higher Education is subordinated to business principles? And why would it matter?

Collegiality does matter in itself; but in addition, like the canary in the mine, its presence is a good indicator of the state of other essentials and unquantifiables of a healthy Higher Education system: factors such as morale, motivation, positivity, dedication, etc.  In my experience, where there is the merest sniff of academics being re-formatted as salespersons, where academic authority is confused with mere transmission belt maintenance or with the budgetary ability to slash and burn, constructive collegiality is not just under threat; it has, most probably, long since vamoosed. And with it the ideal of Higher Education as a public good, rather than as a business.

Collegiality is probably best defined as an ethos based on mutual recognition and support amongst colleagues. It cuts across institutional hierarchies and so isn’t associated with heavily bureaucratized institutions or with hierarchical organizations like armies. And because it can’t be measured or managed, imposed or manufactured, bought or sold, it is not usually a feature of highly engineered, highly competitive corporations either. Certainly, along with the relation of trust between teacher and student, constructive, collegial solidarity is the glue that holds the academic workplace together.

Unfortunately, collegiality is a more precarious ethos in academe than in many other professional or work contexts. This is because academics are – probably to a woman and a man –  some of life’s most competitive individualists. They are the high achievers of their peer-groups at school and in college; they are well used to imposing the highest academic standards on themselves and they spend much of their working life reviewing, refereeing and grading the academic work of their students and peers. And like all intellectual workers they are – as the French thinker Paul Valéry famously lamented –  themselves doomed to be eternal candidates.  They are only as secure as their most recent book, article, promotion, grant award, lecture, review or distinction allows them to feel.  They are, as a result, in constant competition with themselves and with each other.

And yet, despite the ongoing tenure wars in the US, the promotion wars in the UK and Ireland and the feudal pedigree of a system that even lately in parts of continental Europe saw senior academics having their bags carried and their doors opened for them by assorted hopefuls and vassals, collegiality is, supremely paradoxically, an idea that academe gave to language. It comes from the word ‘collegium’, meaning college.

Why does ‘collegiality’ have the same etymology  as ‘college’? Is it because, when faced with the challenges of chasing new knowledge, all scholars are, fundamentally, in the same boat? Some of us may have more experience, some of us may be older, some of us should be wiser, but all of us know best of all how much still remains to be understood, and how magically the quest infinitely recedes beyond our grasp. Real academics are eternal seekers. They have never outgrown the ‘collegium’, this community of searchers. That should be enough to keep all academics without exception – if not actually humble – then at least aware of our parity. And it should therefore be enough to guarantee academic collegiality.

Academic collegiality probably requires, then, that we take the contemporary ranking frenzy with a grain of salt. That we willingly suspend a certain amount of disbelief as we engage in ritual promotion or grant applications and as we submit to various accounting exercises such as quality assessment, full economic costing, performance management, research excellence assessment, etc. It probably also requires that we accept that, in an overheating research industry, truly original work is still very, very rare and truly stellar minds are few and far between. And that we recognise, therefore, that the true measure of even our best work is possibly quite far removed from what passes for globally objective metrics.

Above all, the realisation of our parity as searchers should make us stop and ponder two very basic questions before we continue to dismiss or dismantle collegiality as a factor of academic life. One: if corporate governance is more suited than academic collegiality to managing Higher Education, to keeping educational standards, academic morale, intellectual motivation, and vocational dedication alive, not to say ‘high’ or ‘Higher’, and to keeping costs down, then how do we explain the fact that the two systems (US and UK) that have most energetically pushed the corporate business model are charging students the most unsustainably astronomic prices? Two:  what exactly is the evidence that the research productivity, the research excellence, and even the Teaching & Learning industries across the water both East and West, as they spin out of control into unrestrained intra- and inter-institutional competitiveness, have really produced higher educational standards and more fulfilled academics instead of the exact opposite?

Ranking fever created for a time a certain aura around the term ‘world class’ until it became clear that, globally speaking, most academics are probably ‘world class’ by today’s standards and that the term seems, therefore, somewhat pointless as a yardstick. And yet, when the tiresome bureaucratic circus recedes into the background, when academics are working alone against the limits of their own minds, when the teacher is stretching students out to the edge of their understanding, when the vanity leagues fade out, the value of the academic vocation does still shine out.

However, for a whole university to be driven by the kind of truthful and trustworthy, creative and critical thinking that is the basis of real academic authority, there must be a safe environment for pure and extreme academic endeavour. But there must also be an understanding that this sort of endeavour can develop into something monstrous if it is systematically and institutionally subjected to Kindergarden-level marketing and managerial gimmickry. Or if it is treated as an end in itself and not as a public good that is nurtured in the service of universal, public enlightenment. For example, it simply isn’t and never was possible for truly creative and critical thinking to flourish, or for real academic authority to prevail for long either in a Soviet-style command and control environment or in a context where saleability is the main criterion for the survival of disciplines or where untenured academics are exploited and expended in order to allow securely tenured mandarins to live the dream.  This is why the rampant and blatant casualisation of labour in the US university system is now coming home to roost in a widely-recognised systems crisis. Meanwhile in the UK, academics are struggling to cope with the distortions and imbalances imposed on their system by the fungal growth of the business branding and reformatting that has landed England and Wales with annual college fees that are just shy of 5 figures sterling. And this when, at the other end of the Eurotunnel,  a year of doctoral studies under the guidance of academics at least as world class as their Globish-speaking brethern, perhaps even of Fields medallists, will cost the student annual fees shy of 500 euros (social security cover included). Undergraduate tuition fees are of course far more modest than these, as one might expect in a country with a history of rather radical belief in such quaint values as equality, or liberty, or fraternity….

It is most instructive to watch the Irish Higher Education Titanic run aground on exactly the same icebergs that are being blamed for having brought other Anglo systems close to ruin. Between full economic costing exercises and performance management missions, the second-hand experiment imported into Ireland has proved to be an abject failure. The more tangible signs of the foretold disaster are a veritable academic brain-drain of both students and staff, either into brands perceived to be globally stronger or into premature retirement; a proliferation of precarious and/or unenforceable academic contracts; and the steep collapse of any recognisable alignment between the embarrassing and extortionate sales blather on the one hand, and the realities of falling academic standards and grade inflation on the other.

Against the background of a widespread culture of denial (that anything is wrong), and in the context of the systematic, infantilising demeaning of academic work and erosion of academic morale, the collapse of academic collegiality might seem to be a trivial matter. But like the death of the canary, it shows that the oxygen of belief is running very low. How is that confidence and that credibility going to be regained?

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