More thoughts on UK LIS Higher Education

In response to my previous post The precarious position of LIS departments in UK Higher Education  Coppenheim, a former Head of the LIS Department at Loughborough, made a very affirmative response (thank you!) to my points, but he was not entirely in agreement with one of them. He said:

“Only point I don’t agree with 100% is the claim that other LIS Departments are showing Schadenfreude at the loss of LIS Departments. I suspect they are really concerned because they feel even more in the more firing line, and because colleagues and friends in other Departments are losing their jobs. “

I started to write a reply in the comments section but then realised I wanted to say other things that weave in and out of this vexed subject. Consequently I’m going to respond in a new post here.

I think Coppenheim is right about Schadenfreude – my point wasn’t very well expressed. While there is a small, pragmatic, undernote of thankfulness that you may pick up some extra students following the loss of a cognate LIS department, no one in the profession takes any real pleasure in such things happening. No one enjoys seeing cognate departments LIS go under.

I think, as he says,  the feeling has been “if they can do this to a department with as much esteem and status as LOUGHBOROUGH, then no one is really safe”. The steady advance of managerialist approaches to governing academic life means that senior managers may be ever more likely to think that “doing a Loughborough” on the LIS departments in their own institutions might be a really great idea.

We have been a small discipline at the best of times, and this is very far from the best of times. The more we see cuts and reduction in capacity in LIS departments to be able to perform research, teach and support students, the more precarious the viability of the whole academic LIS sector becomes.

There are multiple negative factors that are impacting the discipline at the moment, and these interact and amplify their effect.

We have an external environment in the UK library sector in which jobs, services and funding are being decimated. Most particularly in the public sector, but also in the academic sector. This is largely the result of what is the most vicious ideologically driven attack on state-funded services we have seen from government. There is no sign that there will be any let-up of the mindset and policies which drive this attack, whichever of the “main” political parties might gain power.

This highly volatile and aggressive situation obviously has an impact on the decisions made by potential students as to whether thinking about entering the LIS profession at this time is going to be a wise career choice. Jobs are disappearing, the market is consequently going to be flooded with highly qualified LIS workers who have lost their jobs and are looking for a new one – and most of the salaries aren’t great anyway. This translates into lower numbers of applicants (at least from the UK, and probably Republic or Ireland too) to study on H.E. LIS courses.

The incremental whittling away of staff and financial resources in H.E LIS departments over time means that it becomes ever more strained to be able to provide the quality of teaching and support that everyone wants to be able to deliver. Students (quite rightly) expect and DESERVE a high quality educational experience when it is costing them so much to attain it. If their experience is one that is less than fabulous then word gets around and things get dragged into a downward spiral of decay and despondency about H.E. LIS study.

With the huge emphasis on ‘Student Satisfaction’ ratings and protection of ‘brand and reputation’ that now exists ome very draconian measures are being applied by managers in certain institutions to try and stop anyone (staff and students) from expressing any negative or dissenting views publicly. Threats of formal misconduct procedures have been made to stop students from voicing grievances about the delivery of their course at one institution I am aware of. There are many and various ways to apply pressure to staff to keep them quiet, or just make things so difficult for them that they will leave of their own accord.

Perhaps the worst part of this growing culture of threats and intimidation is that staff internalise the oppression and become self-regulating. Putting your head above the parapet to complain, resist or publicise institutional abuses that occur is manifestly NOT SAFE in terms of the attention and actions that will likely follow to crush and suppress dissent and keep things from getting out into the public sphere. This, of course, is a symptom that afflicts swathes of the Higher Education sector now. I am not specifically talking about LIS as a discipline, merely noting that this is the environment within which many colleagues have to try to function. It all adds to the pressure and difficulty of trying to continually do more with less in increasingly hostile and stressful working cultures.

Given the lack of any apparent concern from central government about the dismantling of the UK library sector or the turbulence that is sweeping through the H.E sector, it seems unlikely that we can expect any real answers to come from there regarding how the LIS academia is meant to stay afloat and survive, never mind thrive. In the neoliberal marketised philosophy which prevails it would appear to be irrelevant if LIS were to disappear as a functional discipline – along with any other casualties of courses and disciplines that cannot “pay their way”. It is an indication of how deeply this mindset has taken hold that so many would just shrug and think that it would be appropriate to only offer courses in disciplines that can recruit large numbers of students. After all, it’s a business, isn’t it? Sadly, yes it is, now. But it needn’t be – there are other nations operating excellent Higher Education systems, sometimes with degree schemes that are free for students.

We are continually fed the lie that “There Is No Alternative” to the economic path that our political leaders are bent on taking us down, and No Alternative to the devastation that is being meted out to our libraries, universities and public services. This is not so. However, it will take creative and sustained resistance to produce real alternatives across all sectors that are currently being affected.

I think the thing that I would most like to see happen is for everyone who works in the LIS sector – whether as educators or practitioners – to take a critically reflective view of the forces that are at play in our current contexts. We need to understand the nature, origin and intentions of these forces in order (to use the terminology of Paulo Freire) be able to problematise the issues we are facing and look for real solutions, rather than merely being swept along – or away – by the ideological tide that is flowing so strongly against us.

Resistance is fertile.

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