Lack of support

September 2, 2005

The problems highlighted in the article "MA tutors refuse to supervise critics" (August 26), which include cancelled modules, delays in feedback and lack of availability of supervisors, are probably not uncommon in UK higher education, in particular on courses with increasing numbers of overseas students. I have experience of running postgraduate courses with overseas students and would suggest that the underlying problem usually rests with the failure of universities to provide adequate support. Such failure is partly due to financial constraints but also to a lack of management understanding of the implications of the structures and initiatives that they have implemented.

The centralisation of administration support systems has separated academics, both physically and psychologically, from their trusted administrators. Inevitably, administrators gradually cease to feel a sense of ownership of their work and academics become overwhelmed by additional administrative duties. Course leaders also have to find ways of managing their courses with large numbers of part-time teaching staff. Many of these staff are very good teachers but they frequently earn their living by working in a number of institutions and their availability and commitment are limited. Communicating with and managing such staff can be problematic and this leads to more pressure on course leaders.

Other demands include numerous, and often ill-conceived, management initiatives. In my experience, few of these initiatives have any beneficial impact on the student learning experience yet most of them require time and energy. The time academics spend "conforming" to such initiatives can be extremely demoralising.

To cope with an increasing set of job demands, academics work excessive hours, become stressed and sometimes depressed. There comes a point where even the most committed will break. All of the research into staff morale and motivation in the higher education sector indicates that the situation is getting worse. Unless universities face up to these problems there will be many more situations similar to that found at Sheffield.

Wes Haydock Bolton University

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