Leader: Good luck, you'll really need it

The back-to-campus jitters will be more pronounced than ever because, in this year of tumult, no one knows what lies ahead

September 22, 2011

Look around the common room, if you're fortunate enough to still have one. What is the expression on your colleagues' faces: pleasure, anxiety, dread or just plain resignation?

The start of any academic year always brings trepidation, but in the UK it is heightened this time around by the fact that nobody knows what the hell is going to happen - least of all, it seems, the government. With less than a year before the new tuition-fee regime kicks in and with consultation having just closed on the White Paper, Putting Students at the Heart of Higher Education, we know there's a lot of change in store for universities. But that's about it. Everything else is up in the air. And it's anyone's guess how all the turmoil will affect staff, who warrant only scant mention in the government's published plans.

In the US, students are already very much at the heart of the system, and by God it shows: some academics report that the pressure from administrators to treat the customer as king makes them feel vulnerable, like mere service providers. "The notion of people coming to university because they really respect what the faculty has to offer has died," says one American academic in our cover story.

In the first few weeks of the North American semester, many lecturers feel that they must put on a show to attract notice as students shop around for classes, so it is perhaps not surprising that they experience anxieties not unlike those that grip actors before the curtain goes up. "As a professor, you are on stage every time you walk into a classroom," says Jane Buck, a former president of the American Association of University Professors. Academics worry, she continues: "Will I be found out, will the students like me, will they respect me?"

A vast administrative effort is focused on keeping students happy, but who looks after academic staff, especially in these stressful times? Few institutions appear to offer any support. As hard as it is for permanent staff, it's even worse for those in temporary posts, who are now the majority in the US and whose numbers are rising steadily in the UK - they feel budget cuts more sharply than most.

Here in the UK, the pressure on universities and academics is intensifying in the build-up to 2012-13. Each week, it seems, unforeseen problems or unexpected news reveal holes in higher education strategy. For example, we could witness a few upsets in the coming months over fee levels at some institutions.

A study by The Parthenon Group this week undermines common perceptions of which universities offer students the best "value" in terms of the prospects of landing well-paid jobs. Although the elite dominate the upper ranks, the top 20 contains some surprises: Middlesex University and London Metropolitan University rank eighth and 15th respectively. A focus on subjects with strong employment outcomes clearly benefits some. This finding could, however, have profound implications for disciplines without instantly obvious value in the jobs market - and the scholars who teach them.

So if the return to work is with a heavier heart than usual, it's no surprise that many take comfort from rituals. Some lecturers try to spot the "A" and "E" students before they submit an assignment. Others fortify themselves with charmed articles of clothing. What's the betting that there'll be more than one vice-chancellor wearing a pair of lucky pants?

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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