A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Things academical.....

During the last couple of weeks, while wandering the pavements of London and Oxford, I have chanced upon an odd assortment of former academic colleagues. Without exception, all have been deeply downcast about the current state of British universities and they would clearly wish to escape from their follies and frustrations as soon as possible, if the opportunity arose. While this re-inforces my own rampant joy at being free from the shackles of blindlingly boring administration, mounds of marking and mindless monitoring, I also thought that I might be slightly self-indulgent one windy Sunday morning, when environmental issues in the media were reduced to sett (sic) topics like badgers invading towns, and blog instead on 'things academical'. Today is such a Sunday - and, thus, before turning to truly important matters like the garden and Sunday lunch, here are some random jottings on.....

Academics: educated beyond rational action

In the words of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), "universities incline wits to sophistry and affectation", and an affectation of academics is not an edifying sight. As a group, we academics can whinge with the best of British farmers, there are more prima donnas among us than at the Royal Opera House, and our stubborn ability to declare that we are unable to change anything is worthy of a 1970's shop floor steward. I recall with wry amusement the despair of one embattled head of college who quoted General de Gaulle on his alleged impotence in trying to manage so many different cheeses.

The Association of University Teachers (AUT) constantly warns us that up to one third of academic staff are seriously considering quitting the profession, because of a growing workload and poor pay. This is indeed bad news because it is the genuinely employable who are likely to leave or to scuttle off to America for research money; those, and there are too many, especially in the humanities and social sciences, who are educated beyond rational action, will remain as a self-flattering rump, largely unemployable outside academia.

Of course, universities have been treated badly by successive governments. The Tories hated hairy, protesting students nearly as much as they did striking miners, while Old Labour was sceptical about featherbedding the often upper class and middle class dons, who appeared to live a life of wining and dining beneath old master paintings. New Labour, by contrast, wants to swamp universities with neglected fee-paying students to fund the research for which it is otherwise unable and unwilling to find the money.

Yet, it is sad to have to report, we academics have been as much a cause of our own downfall as unsympathetic governments. We are totally anarchic by nature and we have been unable to organize any semblance of a common front, policy, or concept of what 'a university' is. Moreover, the scorn and contempt in which we hold one another is a deep problem, one surely only paralleled within the orchestral and art history professions. There are even academics within departments who do not speak to each other. On one occasion, as an external examiner, I had to read the riot act just to get two senior markers to confer in order to reconcile their examination marks. It was like working in a kindergarten.

But this is mild when one considers the hatred between departments and between academic subjects, which must rank in maliciousness with the legendary competition between Whitehall departments and civil servants. One former colleague was greeted in the Common Room with the following: "I haven't seen you before, my young man. What are you researching?" "Economic and industrial policy," the young man unwittingly replied. "Oh! Another bloody journalist then!" (Deep apologies to my reptilian friends out there.) Every institution has its whispered pecking order, from the lowest of the low (subjects with 'Studies' in their titles) to the 'high-and-mighty', such as history (the good Dr. Stott herself!), law and medicine. And then, of course, there are the research and teaching rankings of the universities, from the ever-pompous and self-important Russell Group to poor, concrete-cracking colleges that wouldn't know a large research grant if it hit them.

This all means that governments, past and present, have had the simplest of tasks in dividing and conquering the universities and their staff. Cardinal John Henry Newman would be horrified. Academics and universities have no common 'idea' of 'a university' and what it should be in the modern/non-modern world. Education and training are inexorably confused and conflated. Moreover, we older academics are spectacularly clever at explaining why something cannot be done, such as staff appraisal, or this or that essential merger between petty academic domains, or a new way of student assessment. If only all the energy went positively into what might be achieved.

And the losers in all this are young academic staff, especially young women staff, and, inevitably, of course, the increasingly perfunctorily-treated fee-paying students. Misogyny and anti-undergraduate snobbishness remain deeply rooted in academe. "Oh, yes, she might be a good teacher, but she can't cut the research mustard, of course." It is no wonder that so many academics want to abandon ship; after all, they could often earn more as ... teachers!

Philip, now this is going to make me popular! Time for the garden to see the daffodils blow. Then that lunch - and a rounded toast to retirement!

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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