The action is over and we are back from the brink

June 9, 2006

Sally Feldman tends to her frayed nerves and rejoices that a particularly bitter chapter in university history is closed

So it's over. And we're all breathing a collective sigh of relief that the judging of ceramics won't be shattered, the fashion show can catwalk ahead, photographers and artists can mount their installations without panic, music won't fall on deaf ears, piles of scripts need no longer flutter unattended in the breeze, and that anxious tension is slowly, gently evaporating.

This has been a particularly prolonged, pointed and unusually bitter wrangle. This time, the students might not have graduated. And as we got closer to that point the atmosphere began to get frayed.

My colleagues - artists and designers, journalists and musicians - pride themselves on their close relationship with their students. There's still a sense that they're on an adventure together, a mission of creativity and discovery. To be obliged to withhold the very activity that binds them is painful. Some have been quietly marking all this time, but I'm not supposed to know that. So I haven't asked, not directly. I've relied on secret intelligence, coded exchanges. It's been a huge trial of trust and tact and the holding of nerves.

At one point I tried e-mailing my staff to establish who was taking the damned action short of a strike. I suggested that if they didn't reply, I'd take it as a confirmation. But nothing is that simple in academic life.

Some people don't pick up their e-mail. Some merely ignore e-mails that come from me. Others were just plain baffled. "What strike?" asked a bemused professor. He wasn't sure who Wayne Rooney was either, let alone what was wrong with his toe.

No one has been quite sure what they're allowed to do. Somebody agreed to have tea with an external examiner, but only if they didn't talk about the coursework. Someone else put up the instructions for the next day's exam on the Blackboard information system,, but in his haste managed to publish the questions - Jand the answers. The campus is full of strange faces. At first we thought they were a new set of cleaners, but they turned out to be the army of brothers-in-law, local artists, used-car salesmen and estate agents roped in to be extra invigilators in case anyone obeyed the instruction to walk out of examinations after ten minutes.

It's strange to be a dean in times of conflict. Being a manager is incompatible with being in a union, so I'm not a member. But many others see no difficulty straddling both roles, though they do so with varying degrees of enthusiasm. A common view is that it's very useful for managers to be members because it gives them access to all kinds of pertinent information. They just mustn't take action.

It's a typical higher education position, really. You can do what you want as long as you don't do anything. You can withdraw your labour and still be paid. You can require people to have a PhD, teach 550 hours, publish international research, sit on the ethics committee, the scholarship committee, the information strategy committee and the mitigating circumstances committee, while also generating external income and launching widening participation projects. For which you will pay them something less than the contractors who see to the toilets and far, far less than the headhunters who help to land them these plum jobs.

No wonder academics want and deserve more money. No wonder they've grabbed the opportunity to demand it, since this year there's a once-only windfall of top-up fees. No wonder the universities were wary of overstretching their budgets, and maybe also of being crushed by a brand new super-union.

Or maybe the brand new super-union was equally anxious not to be crushed.

Whatever the weird confluence of rivalries and events that has led us so dangerously to the brink, we all think we could have handled it better than this lot. That's what academics are paid to think, really. It's our job.

Meanwhile, the work is being mounted and as we return to normal once again our real concerns are taking over. Is it OK for a student to drill that hole in the floor without filling in a risk-hazard assessment form? Should we really display that photo of a pierced penis quite so prominently? Why did the piece concerning class values in Colombia have to involve a real coca plant? And what should we do about the nipples?

Back to the dilemmas I can sort out. Next time there's a dispute, call in a dean.

Sally Feldman is dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design at Westminster University.

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