Who is the priority?

October 23, 2014

As a student at the University of Essex, I’ve had the pleasure of being mentored by Marina Warner, Glyn Maxwell and Derek Walcott. Statements from the university that portray students’ education and experience as the university’s priority in response to Warner and Maxwell’s comments on leaving Essex (“Attempts to ‘gag and silence’ academics are commonplace”, News, 11 September; “Nobel laureates ‘lost on Essex’”, News, 9 October) have left me with no choice but to respond with a student’s perspective.

The university might not want students to get involved, but they’ve placed students at the centre with the promises they’ve made to them, and to those who teach them. For example, while the institution was aware of these “changing contracts”, the marketing department was still happy to promote Warner, Maxwell and Walcott to prospective students, alongside campaigns for “excellence in education and research”, beginning the new academic year with false promises.

Essex’s vice-chancellor Anthony Forster declined to speak to Times Higher Education. Instead, there was a generic statement from an anonymous university spokesperson, stating: “Students are our priority and we are committed to delivering a transformational educational experience, where students are taught by the leading thinkers in their field and have the opportunity to undertake research. Excellence in education and research are our two priorities and they enjoy equal esteem.”

Warner, Maxwell and Walcott were my transformational educational experience: they allowed me to undertake research and achieve excellence in education under their devoted guidance. If students are Essex’s priority then why were they not notified by management of this loss? Why was student opinion not consulted when the university decided they didn’t need “research stars”? Like me, students from all over the world have chosen Essex because of the likes of Warner.

There are many ways in which all three “research stars” have contributed to the lives and education of their students, but all their students got from the university’s senior management was another quote from another anonymous spokesperson: “While we cannot comment on individual contracts, we continue to work closely with academic colleagues in literature, film and theatre studies to ensure we place student benefit at the heart of all we do.”

In this statement the university comes across as concerned about students’ educational welfare, but this student finds that hard to believe. The only parties who care about the students are the department of literature, film and theatre studies, and the recently departed high-profile academics. The department was mentioned in the articles in both the London Review of Books and THE, but it is blameless. The department was responsible for ensuring that all those who lost their supervisors were taken care of, and for dealing with the mess caused by the management’s brutal approach, but not for the loss of these treasured academics, and not for the loss of their students’ transformational experience. It is because of this department and its more-than-dedicated staff and administrators that I didn’t follow my supervisors out of Essex.

Name and address withheld

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