Academia then and now

Christopher Bigsby reflects on an age of innocence, sherry and tenure

October 9, 2014

There was a time when universities had no natural predators. They roamed the intellectual savannah, their fight-or-flight response mechanism permanently turned off. Higher education ministers were another benign species doing what species have always done: consuming, reproducing and passing on. This was paradise before the snake; chicken before Colonel Sanders.

Higher degrees for faculty were seen as a self-regarding extravagance. Students never challenged grades, still grateful that they had not been relegated to a secondary modern, that bourn from which no traveller returned. First-class degrees were reserved for the Second Coming, with no guarantee that the Redeemer would make more than a 2:2 without a viva. Administrators were so many Jeeveses quietly concealing the ignorance of those they served, expecting nothing in return but benign neglect and an appointment to the wine committee.

Faculty had filing cabinets then, although there was seldom anything in them except a bottle of sherry and mislaid student essays. They – mostly men – wore sports jackets or, if radical, motorcycle leathers, from the pockets of which would arise smoke from a forgotten pipe or suspect substance. Several of them would have spent the war parachuting into Greece and garrotting Gestapo officers before finding themselves discussing the gerund in Catullus and writing B+?+ in red ink on the one essay they hadn’t lost, seeing B+ as miserly and B++ as wildly extravagant.

Faculty had filing cabinets then, although there was seldom anything in them except a bottle of sherry and mislaid student essays

The government was like Santa Claus, leaving cheques for new residences under a perpetual Christmas tree while students received grants that were alchemically converted into alcohol, the occasional abortion and, if absolutely necessary, books on the Albigensian Crusade taught by a professor who had actually been there.

There was something called tenure, which was a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, sometimes literally so, even for the spectacularly incompetent. Faculty could only lose their jobs for offences of remarkable inventiveness such as would stain the soul or require referral to the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.

Going to university was like joining the Masons. It was a ceremony you went through so you could meet people to sell double glazing to when you left.

Students who had studied English at O level and then at A level proceeded to read English at university before spending a lifetime teaching it, thus completing an Escher-like circle before dying of an excess of Jane Austen, as BBC commissioning editors transmitted yet another version of Pride and Prejudice while feeling resentful that she had written only six novels with no thought towards being recommissioned for another series.

Departments were nominally run by the professor, but actually by his (not her) secretary who was the only person who could decode his writing. The Senate had power and was dominated by professors of Classics for whom raising points of order was absolutely more satisfying than the ablative.

Universities then (those not built by stone masons in the 12th century) were described as red brick or, when the government recklessly decided to allow the riff-raff in, plate glass, before they proliferated, now being made of coloured plastic, recycled beer cans and sustainably sourced wood, even as reinforcing rods have forced their way through those made of concrete like an alien exiting John Hurt’s chest.

In those days there were no compulsory courses for faculty on how to chair a committee, who JANET might be, how to find a blackboard (evidently and confusingly no longer on a wall), disability law (while not actually using the word disability, for fear of offence), the need to interview the manifestly unqualified (for fear of offence) and the bewildering distinction between formative and summative work.

But innocence invites corruption, paradise its spoliation. So where did it all go wrong or, if you prefer, right, although that is not the direction port is passed at Oxbridge? (Incidentally, if the port stalls, one is required to enquire whether the person holding it “knows the Bishop of Norwich”. However, since I live in that fine city and have met him, this can be the cause of confusion.) Today there are no secretaries. “Support staff” are gathered into “open plan” offices that are a cross between a call centre and an intensive farming shed. Heads of department are paid while teaching relief is distributed like Smarties at a children’s party because administrative jobs have metastasised. Students challenge any grade below 70 per cent and actually resent lost essays. Nobody drinks sherry. The Senate has no power, rubber stamps having more latitude, while professors of Classics have been shot.

There is a joke, popular in Turkey. A man goes into a tobacconist and is confronted with cigarette packets, one of which says “SMOKING KILLS” and the other “SMOKING CAUSES IMPOTENCE”. “I’ll have the kind that kills,” he says. Universities have been confronted with a similar choice. Like the wasp that injects its eggs into another creature so that its young can eat it from the inside, so the government injected the research excellence framework, which last time involved 50,000 submissions and cost about £60 million, while asking whether universities, from which it has withdrawn money, would like to charge high fees or compete for business on the street corner (“Want a good time, dearie?”). Faculty whose outreach exceeds their grasp die of impact.

When Lord Townshend was approached to be part of the group bidding for the Anglia Television franchise he didn’t own a television but explained that his butler did. I feel that has some bearing on the government’s approach to state education and universities beyond Oxbridge. It is not something they have experienced themselves but perhaps their Portuguese nannies will.

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