“Hierarchism” at University and in Politics–and How we Really Learn

When I started my master’s degree in Democracy and Comparative Politics at UCL I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  Would I be leaning about Plato and Aristotle, or Hobbes and Marx?  In fact, it’s Weber and Rawls where our studies seem to begin.  However, I find that many of my political lessons do not come from books written by any of the great theorists, but rather in observing how universities operate and how that mirrors government treatment of citizens.  Let me explain.

As I sit here today on 28 February, I am awaiting the results of an exam handed in on 11 January. I have had a steady stream of apologetic emails assuring me that the grades are to be available imminently–hmmmmm.  I recollect this also occurred with the mid-terms for the same class.  In fact, we did not receive the results until after the end of term!  Thus, one had no chance to learn from the exam, or to gain an understanding of concepts one failed to absorb in preparation for the mid-term exam.

It is also infuriating that the final exam was handed out in the middle of the Christmas break on 3 January (classes resumed on the 9th), and we were expected to hand in our exam papers by 14:00 on the 11th. Hopes that exams be handed out at the end of term were thwarted as it would have meant that professors would be marking over their Christmas break, which was understandably unacceptable. However, the idea that students should be expected to do an exam during their Christmas break seemed perfectly reasonable.

Another example, in another class, were the repeated promises that an important lecture would be made available through the online portal by a specific time. Of course this did not appear much later. I fully understand that shit happens, and that university professors are massively overworked (and underpaid), but what I find galling is the hard-assed insistence on students meeting firm deadlines at the same time as the university persistently fails to meet nearly every deadline it establishes for itself.  We are told that if we hand in exams even just one minute late there will be penalties. 

It is not only professors that continually miss deadlines, but the university itself.  Lectures, course outlines and necessary material are often not available until after the first classes of term begin, which is patently ridiculous.  I suspect this attitude of strict deadlines for those further down in the hierarchical system, and disregard for them at the top permeates downwards—as they say, “a fish rots from the head”.  I could go on and provide more examples, but I am sure you get the picture.

I have been reflecting on the question of “where else have I seen this behaviour in the world we inhabit?” I wonder……………   As many will recall, the Conservative government under Boris Johnson was strict with regard to COVID restrictions. Citizens who had the audacity to sit on a park bench as they took their daily walk at the height of the restrictions were quickly moved along by police and those found to have had group gatherings were punished. It is a matter of public record that while we were adhering to these restrictions those who governed over us were flaunting them with abandon. I presume that they believed it was important that restrictions were put in place in order to keep us healthy and to prevent hospitals overflowing with patients, but clearly they did not seem to worry about this for themselves.  Were they not worried?  Did not care?  In any event, the rules were only applicable to us but not to them!  I have decided to call this behaviour “hierarchism”, whereby those in power strictly enforce rules and regulations on those over which they have power without feeling any obligation to abide by these rules themselves.

This feels an important political lesson, but one I suspect the university has taught unintentionally. It’s about people in power using this power to procure benefits for themselves or make their lives easier  without any regard to those over whom they have power, further down the hierarchy. The irony in both cases is that it is actually students and citizens who are theoretically in charge. As students we are the customers of universities and are paying them to provide us with a service.  They work for us—it rarely feels that way. As citizens, politicians are nominally meant to be public servants, acting in our interest under authority delegated to them. Yet this theoretical model does not seem to work in practise.  Even if it did operate in Athens many centuries ago it certainly fails in the modern era.

Students exert pretty much zero power over the universities, despite being the customer.  Frankly even the professors seem relatively powerless and are often forced to undertake inane tasks for wages that are far too low.  But this is the nature of hierarchism—each tier dumps on the tier below.

My time as a student is limited, and this is true for most of us.  However, we are (unless you are Shamima Begum) forever citizens of our countries.  Democracy cannot operate effectively in an environment where citizens feel—and arguably are—powerless.  Yes, we have elections, but……….. Until we seriously address this, a vibrant healthy democracy cannot exist.  Perhaps in future blog posts I can explore this issue and analyse those governments which are at least taking a few steps in that direction.  In the meantime, I will just keep on learning, grateful to the university for the many lessons it is teaching me 😊

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—28 February 2023

I started my career in mainstream finance and shifted into impact investing before returning to my lifelong passion of politics in early 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from “proper jobs” in the investment world back into education to study politics after four decades. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here. I welcome any comments.

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