Best form of defence

January 17, 2013

Regarding the Council for the Defence of British Universities: what a splendid project!

I write as a member of the anthropology department at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where I still teach part-time (although I retired years ago). Like most academics, I have been concerned and depressed by the decline of academic values in universities today. To give an example, there was a time before the awarding of degrees was devolved to the University of London's individual colleges when the MA system was run at Senate House by two splendid middle-aged women. An application from an academic for special treatment of an individual student always met with the same response: "Tell us what you want to do and we will find a rule under which you can do it. If we cannot find a rule, we will apply for suspension of regulations." This was a recognition that academic decisions should be made by academics on academic grounds. It is not the spirit I find abroad today.

Particularly unwelcome has been the rise of the bureaucracy, once housed in a small room in the basement but now proliferating everywhere.

The academics I talk to are all unhappy and morale is low, but I have not been successful in persuading my departmental colleagues to refuse to implement measures they consider anti-educational. They grumble but do nothing. In the end, the government and its supporters among university leaders are dependent on our cooperation. Resolute action is essential. Academics under attack should be replaced by academics on the attack.

I was therefore surprised and delighted by the launch of the CDBU. Its famous names will add gravitas to the project.

I have been meaning for some time to launch a group of a more modest kind but with similar aims. Called Veritas, it was to take the form of a cell of academic staff in every university (plus a student arm), with members paying a small annual subscription.

The research assessment exercise and its successor the research excellence framework have also had the effect of subordinating scholarship to administration. We are drowning in a sea of our own texts, mostly unread and unreadable. In my view, members of staff should not be allowed to publish more than two articles a year and one book every two years. (The occasional genius could apply for an exemption.) I do not expect this sensible proposal will be implemented, but if at least funding were not linked to poorly assessed published research, it would lead to an immediate improvement not only in the quality of research but also in the standard of teaching.

If we do not show some capacity to put things right, how can we expect our students to think for themselves and develop new and original ideas?

I commend these provisional suggestions to the council for its consideration.

A. Cantlie, School of Oriental and African Studies

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