As international mobility increases, competition for the best academic and professional staff will also intensify. This is why we’re unleashing our staff’s performance, reducing complexity and optimising professional achievements.

This week the university that employs me released its new Strategic Plan with accompanying changes to our brand identity, vocabulary and collateral. Tucked into this bundle is a video that I can’t stop watching. There are images and sounds I genuinely don’t understand, and a faintly audible sigh about halfway through. (What is that?)

And then suddenly there it is: the context and strategic approach to staffing in graphic form. There’s a crowded screen of huddled moving white dots among which a smaller number of apparently superior red dots start to vibrate, and then the scene implodes into a giant red superdot: human complexity agitated, reduced and finally upsized to a single ball of unleashed performativity.

I’m not making this up.

The video is here to tell us who we are and what we stand for, and it kicks off with a cliche we’d plead with all student writers to rethink:

In this time of unprecedented change …

The conceit of epochal change is a reliable headline. Here’s the Australian Prime Minister late last year on becoming the leader that unprecedented times demand:

There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.

OK, but saying it’s so doesn’t make it so. And even the claim to unprecedentedness itself isn’t unprecedented. It’s a normal, regularly appearing way of romancing what we’re going through. It’s a strategic move, that demands that we abandon modest efforts and incremental, careful practices; it mobilises us to the barricades of whatever—innovation, disruption, competition—trampling each other as we go.

And it’s more or less a cliche in return to point out that history’s filled with times just as unprecedented as this one, dressed up as both novelty and emergency in order to muscle forward someone’s agenda. Things are new. Action is demanded. We are living in a way that no one has lived before, and we need extraordinary, heroic measures to respond. Resistance is not only futile, but in itself—like a protest against the existence of God that only proves believers have a point—sceptical thinking sustains the case that this is exactly why we need to act quickly and without question. Didn’t we tell you academics are resistant to change? Q.E.D.

Sometimes we don’t really understand what was happening until later. Here’s Wordsworth, famously, on the French revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
          But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
          In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
          Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
          The attraction of a country in romance!

The problem with a country—or a sector—in romance is that we lose sight of something important: change is a wide, muddy current, and some parts move slowly while others appear to race. Catastrophes at the level of epidemic, global war, and climate disaster somehow share time with artisanal breadmaking and notes written on the backs of beer mats and the sun rising steadfastly every day. We don’t live in any one time, but many times, all happening together, all amounting to something.

And in each life lived in these unprecedented times we have to figure out what is enough for us, and enough to give, so that we can get on and survive the encroachments of big claims on our attention, our action, our loyalties to each other’s care. Figuring out what is enough is how we each hold on to the clover of our own values, and protect the thing we’re trying to protect, the small and hopeful thing we came here to do.

So after a day of thinking about what I find exasperatingly cruel about the vision for higher education exposed in this video, I’m stuck with the problem of how to speak about it without collapsing into a sort of snark. It’s easy to get cranky with cliche, and to feel righteous about what’s absolutely wrong with this representation of a university. But the video isn’t intended to be watched closely or pulled apart, and from its opening words it’s making no pretence at all to be in the deep end of anyone’s pool. So it’s fair game at one level, and yet truly it should be left alone if we are all to stand for any kind of generosity in these times.

This is a focus for me at the moment. In a couple of weeks I’m off to attend an event that’s bringing together about a hundred people who have an interest in building a healthcare system in Australia based on valuing kindness to both patients and staff. I’m there because I’m following a research line of thought about how patients and staff in long term treatment relationships (in chemotherapy, for example) ease the stress and anxiety in the encounter by telling each other small stories about themselves. In taking the time to greet each other by name, to ask after family, or even how the day is going, people make hospitals and clinics better to be in for everyone. Humane gestures make humane workplaces.

I’m working on this project with a radiation technologist who treated me, and a narrative professional working at the same hospital, who interviewed me as part of a review of cancer services. Together we’re examining very closely an everyday treatment incident and its aftermath, and on this basis we’re learning how to use critical incident reflection techniques to help both staff and patients respond to one another in stressful situations.

So with this commitment in mind, I’m trying to shift my response to this video. The culture of higher education staffing is desperate for many at the moment, and is often directly implicated in serious illness (to read more about this see here and here and here and here and anything to do with casualisation). Richard Hall has just pulled together many notes on academic overwork here, and he writes this:

I see the recounting of how the ongoing pain of academic reproduction, the constant reinvention of the academic Self in Student Satisfaction scores, relentless research publication and scholarship, entrepreneurial activity and knowledge transfer, workload management, performance management, is obliterating a meaningful life. This is overwork that obliterates the possibility that the academic might reproduce herself socially, because there is no time for care of the Self. That time is academically unproductive; unproductive for a life that is for work. And yet it also demands a level of productivity that is never enough. That can never be good enough.

In the climate of harm that Richard and many of us are now calling out, I do think that it matters that videos like this get scripted, and funded, and produced, and launched, and slapped onto university webpages. Real human damage is done when we describe employment as if it’s a sporting contest that only the best can win. It’s not even terrific business sense given that we actually need to unleash quite a few more people than this stellar minority for the shop to open at all. And this talk that ranks humans doing beautiful, capable, ethically committed work as “best” or not? It’s shaming and demoralising, and it completely underestimates the irreducible complexity of universities as harbours of human thought.

But it’s no good just complaining, even to sympathetic audiences. To change this culture, we need to do as the healthcare system is doing, and advocate for an alternative. We need to hear from one another, including from the people who think videos like this are helpful. Simply saying competition is divisive won’t raise standards for collaboration, and won’t create the grounds for hope. To do this, we urgently need to start collecting new stories and evidence of a different culture forged in kindness, that we know we can build together.

Then maybe we need to start making our own videos.

12 Responses

  • Laura

    Kate you write beautifully.
    You created hope for me when I was young. I’m now trying to do that for others.

    Don’t stop fighting the good fight for a balanced life and healthy collaboration in university settings. I think there has to be room and time to listen. Encourage strength in those you lead, strengths that maybe someone doesn’t really see in themselves yet. You certainly did that for me back in the day.

    I was slightly disheartened of late when a 4 hour work commitment drew less statistical results than a 1/2 hr presentation. A lovely colleague looked at my photos, of part of the team having fun and bonding. She said ‘you can’t quantify that’. She was right.

    In line with your article, I’m going to keep listening to people’s stories, encouraging imagination and inspiration, and keep fostering kindness in the workplace. That’s what leads to fun, happy, productive environments. Or maybe that’s the only way I know how to do things.

    Now if only I could work out a way to leave before 6.30pm and remember to swim…work life balance. Never been my strong point.


    • Laura! Hello. Email and let me know how are. So good to read of your continued work.

  • Good posting. Creating a system that works better without having to destroy people makes sense. And doing it on our means it will get done. Found out a couple of days ago that the cancer institute sub-clinic where all but one of my chemo infusions took place has a long-standing reputation within the patient community of indifferent to cruel treatment. Yet, because the patient relations network “respects” the confidentiality of patient / doctor relationships none of the abuse reaches anyone’s ears who MIGHT have a desire to correct the problem.

    Now that I know there is no actual means of influencing better care (and no awareness within the system) I’ve decided to withdraw from “care” myself and concentrate on getting better care for my wife. Too bad people need to be hammered into listening.

    This is interesting:

    • Scott, as a fellow patient I really do appreciate what you have gone through. I’ve been comparatively fortunate in all my healthcare experiences, and it so frustrates me that there is just so much work to do to create real safety in health. Thanks for reading and commenting, your presence is always so good to see.

  • When that gathering for education takes place, could I please be there? Richard Hall and Joss Winn should be there too. If not in lovely ‘Gong, we might be able to do it here in Melbourne.. bring us together Kate.

    • Thinking, thinking. This is a conversation so many wish to have.

  • marksmithers

    Lovely post. We do need a conference in Australia for higher ed like the one you’re going to about healthcare.

    All we seem to get are the commercial highered conferences that just seem to be a racket to me.

    • Mark, welcome, it’s always lovely to see you here. I’m thinking: why don’t we hold this event? What permission is needed? None.

  • Laura

    I agree!

  • Aside from my current focus on management in health care, I’d like to relate a recent experience my wife had in her job as an Instructional Designer at a small college here in Alberta. Within her department that includes Professional Development she had created a job aid for the initial steps needed to create an online course. Simple, useful and filed away unused.

    Being interested in sharing this she signed herself up to an appropriate conference and paid her own expenses. By avoiding her PD account and representing herself FROM such-and-such college displaying work she had done on her own, her work actually got out there into the community resulting in a number of requests for more information.

    Just because you work for a broken organization, you are not condemned to a career wasted. Anyway, institutions seem to have lost the ability to know what to do with people motivated by community (if they ever had it) so why not leave them behind?

    • becalbury

      Hi Scott, I agree with you and your wife. The big ‘but’ for many who also agree is that their work position is so precarious that they dare not take an eye off the apparent main game, even for necessary and welcomed work that lifts the heart.

      I really worry that the constant shifting from one promotional package to another undermines the things that higher education should do – allow researchers to explore and stick to an area, issue, concept until they exhaust it or become equally interested in a different one; encourage students to think deeply, make mistakes, discover other answers to questions they previously didn’t know existed; enable cross disciplinary conversation that need not result in a publishable ‘outcome’ but rather be a part of continuing professional development of the conversationalists; accept that there are not enough places in the ‘top rank’ of any particular time for all to enter it, and that those people make valuable (well invaluable) contributions to the institution. I don’t mean this list in any particular order, so have used long clauses, not a dot point list.

      It’s a good time to be retired.

  • Of course, my wife’s small victory is embedded the larger story of a dying college. Her timing landed her inside a vacuum of distraction where due to an edict from the province to reduce the cluster of positions at the top. The executive deck was awash with the blood of redundancy most unexpected while the lower decks, long used to this nonsense, went about their actual jobs temporarily unimpeded by management wackiness.

    This semester’s reorganization is incomplete but I think it’s safe to say the moment of operational functionality went unnoticed at the (reduced) top. The usual next step is to assign twice as much work to half as many staff who will gladly work for less pay doing the work formerly unaccomplished by those sent packing who never did find out what exactly they were expected to do.

    There was just a moment where things were right and I wonder if that could happen again?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.