For academics caught in that trap, doing the old things in a very different context didn’t work and resulted in exhaustion, stress and frustration at not being able to achieve their goals. These academics were trying to offer a bespoke higher education experience to individual students in newly massified contexts. And of course they largely failed because of the weight of student numbers, the new heterogeneity of the student body and because of the simultaneous suite of curricular ‘reforms’ somewhat modelled on the US HE setup (semesterisation, modularisation and the rest) which made it difficult to get to know individual students. Different practices and different values were required in this new situation, Trow claimed.
Things have moved on and academics as a group have largely adapted. The sector itself has settled down somewhat and in some places early enthusiasms for those ‘reforms’ have moderated or reversed. But, as another eminent American sociologist noted, most people feel their lives are in “a series of traps” (Mills, 1959), not just the one. For some the Robbins Trap has been replaced by another antagonistic relationship: between their longstanding values, priorities and practices on the one hand and a higher education context that has changed under their feet: the Commercialism Trap.
With the progressive withdrawal of state support from higher education in many countries, universities have been forced to chase funding and behave more like businesses. New managerialist practices have been a deployed in this, particularly in relation to target-setting and associated resource allocation and promotion policies. In many places universities have become much more commercialised, target-driven and financially focused. Frances Kelly’s heartfelt article A Day in the Life (and Death) of a Public University (2015) describes this, and its personal effects on her as Head of Department resigning from her job, in some detail:
"As I listen to the speakers talk about the ‘third mission’ I notice I am growing angry and upset, too upset to speak. I think about the idea of welfare and how it is now absent from university mission statements, although the template phrase student experience regularly appears".
Like Kelly, many academics continue to have a commitment to working for the public good and to being a responsible academic citizen, working pro bono and ‘doing their bit’. In a commercialised, competitive environment they continue to do external examining work, review articles, sit on external committees, offer talks to other universities, do public engagement work and so on, either for free or for ‘honorarium’ rates hovering around the minimum wage or below it.
And of course they are encouraged to continue by the representatives of interests which would be harmed if they stopped: the convenient fiction of collegiality and the public good is mobilized when necessary, and commercialism temporarily occluded. The results are the same as before: exhaustion, stress and frustration as academics attempt to both meet the targets set by the employers and to behave in ways they see as good citizenship.
Pertinent questions to be asked, though, are: ‘whose interests is this in?’ and ‘does doing this really achieve the goals I consider important?’ So, for example, when GlobalAcademyJobs encourages you to become a journal peer reviewer, how robust is the argument that your CV will be enhanced? Is this a target actually recognised by appointment and promotion panels? And whose interests does such an argument really serve?
There is a Polish proverb which translates as: “Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys.” I think it’s useful to reflect regularly on the nature of our personal circus, our own monkeys. And to look closely at the ones that trundle down the road towards us from time to time, asking “whose circus is that?” Understanding what the trap is and how it works is the first step to getting out of it.
Kelly, F. (2015) A day in the life (and death) of a public university. Higher Education Research and Development. Taylor and Francis Online http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07294360.2015.1024628
GlobalAcademyJobs (2015) How to Become a Peer Reviewer. http://globalacademyjobs.com/blog/91/How-to-become-a-peer-reviewer.
Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Trow M. (1989) The Robbins Trap: British Attitudes and the Limits of Expansion, Higher Education Quarterly, 43, 1, pp. 55-75. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2273.1989.tb01493.x/abstract
Trowler, P. (1997) Beyond the Robbins Trap: reconceptualising academic responses to change in higher education (or....Quiet Flows the Don?). Studies in Higher Education, 22, 3, 301-318. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075079712331380916
 I noted in an earlier blog ("Elsevier's Double Trouble") that the big academic publishers are facing a dire problem recruiting peer reviewers as they increase the number of journals and articles they publish year on year. Coincidentally, .....or perhaps not, that blog was also sparked by an article promoting doing peer review in the GlobalAcademyJobs bulletin.