The ‘compassion gap’ in higher education and the role of contemplative pedagogy

This blog has been inspired by a paper by Kathryn Waddington called ‘The compassion gap in UK universities’ which was sent to me by my colleague Mary Kennedy. The paper was written in response to the author’s unexpected experience of anger when she publicly drew attention to the disjuncture between the focus on compassion in health professions training and the lack of compassion in the culture of the institutions that carry out that training. Having spent much time of the last few months organising our one day compassion conference the issue of compassion in HE has been very much on my mind too.

Waddington’s paper (2016: 5) identifies ‘a dissonance, discord and a dark side to life inside universities’ and highlights the features of higher education which inhibit the development  of a compassionate culture. For those of us engaged in the training of future health professionals this is particularly worrying  – are we asking students to model a way of being that is not embedded in their training? However, that we think this is  more relevant for health professions courses than others, is itself reflective of the increasingly instrumental and individualistic aims of modern education. Why is compassion and the idea of service to others in society not considered important throughout our education, in all that we are taught? Einstein stated (Cited in Shernoff 2013: 25):

“…The aim (of education) must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.”

Wendell Berry (1987: 77 cited in Palmer and Zajonc (2010)) raised a similar point:

“The thing being made in a university is humanity…[W]hat universities…are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words – not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture”

If we are to take these aims seriously, creating a culture of compassion in higher education is imperative. We need to create a space for learning and teaching in which our responsibilities to ourselves, to each other and the world around us are central to our teaching, and more importantly, are central to how we teach and interact in HE institutions.

Waddington makes several suggestions in the paper about how to create more compassionate institutions. Like her, I too see other academics and colleagues who are incredibly compassionate in their work and this often comes through in the feedback from students about the teaching on our courses. I see colleagues supporting each other, rallying around in the face of difficult personal circumstances, offering to help out when it is not in their job description to do so. But then too I find myself in what I experience as the uncompassionate world of deadlines, work load, student numbers, performance, REF, TEF, publication etc.

And yet, paradoxically, despite my fear that compassion could be considered a pink and fluffy educational extra, I  believe that without the opportunity to explore compassion and our inherent interconnectivity, whether as a nurse or a physicist, there is something fundamentally missing from our ‘education’. Contemplative pedagogy has much to say about this in terms of how we teach this to students but equally emphasises the importance of embodying what it is that we wish to teach.

Whilst, as Waddington suggests,  we do need leaders who value compassion and are able to act compassionately we also need to recognise that everyday we individually contribute to the culture that we work in. Waddington describes how we need new stories and I would add that we need to make those new stories manifest in change. I have noticed how some of the stories I tell myself about work can omit the positive aspects of my experience. This is not to say we should all sit with our heads buried in the sand pretending we love our jobs and we love everyone we work with. But actually stories of how awful everything is can become habit,  neither accurately reflecting the challenges and difficulties of our work or portraying the positive aspects of our institutions either. This means that not only do we not see compassion and kindness but neither can we effectively challenge the status quo or respond skillfully and with compassion when challenges arise. We are rendered impotent (and often miserable too).

One of the dangers around some of the dialogue I have seen about positive psychology, that we have explored before  on this blog, is that of excessively individualising people’s experience of distress leading to failure to look at the contextual factors which contribute to it. Clearly there are contextual factors which contribute to the ‘compassion gap’ in UK universities that need to be addressed. But we can also take steps to explore how we relate to ourselves, our students and colleagues and identify the opportunities for new stories.

Warm wishes Caroline


Shernoff, D.J. (2013) Aims of Education Revisited (Einstein’s E = MC2 of Education). In Optimal Learning Environments to Promote Student Engagement. Advancing Responsible Adolescent Development. [Online]. Springer New York. pp. 25–45.
Berry, W. (1987) The Loss of the University. In Home Economics. [Online]. North Point Press. p.

One thought on “The ‘compassion gap’ in higher education and the role of contemplative pedagogy

  1. HI Caroline, I love this post, thanks very much. Yes I think you have put your finger right on the challenge of being balanced about our judgements, both in relation to ourselves and the context in which we work. While I believe it is very important to try and see the positive aspects of our work and life, as a trained ‘critic’ my mind often defaults to identifying everything that ‘should be better’ and it would very much like to ask why ‘they don’t do something about it’, thereby externalising any perceived problem or shortcoming and expecting the solution to come from somewhere or someone else. The challenge always is to then come back to thinking what can I do to cope with the situation, work constructively with it, or even to change it and this may include change both to the external situation, the relationships or myself. Deciding which if these to work on and then knowing how to do that is often not easy, but that a compassionate approach can and should underpin all of this may not be obvious. It’s hard enough to incorporate small changes in institutional practices, not to speak of making changes to one’s own habits, both of behaviour and thought. We often do this while locked into a negative judgement pattern. How different is the experience when doing it all with compassion. The world definitely becomes a more gentle place to live in, with more, not less clarity about who we are and how we stand in the world as fully human beings. Thanks for bringing all this to the surface.


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