Dig deeper for victory

G. R. Evans’ rallying cry: scholars, do the spadework to defend the sector

May 30, 2013

Source: Paul Bateman

Academics - even those who deal in grand theories of Life, the Universe and Everything - seem to find it hard to get to grips with the large scale

Years ago, the PA to the University of Cambridge’s registrary put her finger on it: “The difference between us is that I can just change my job. You academics are what you do.”

That fact goes a long way in explaining academic behaviour so characteristically peculiar that my sister, a psychiatrist, is wont to comment that it is just as well we have a “protected community” to live in where we can indulge our interests.

Real life now knocks insistently at our door. Governments say the taxpayer no longer has a duty to support traditional academic life on the off chance that unsupervised cerebral activity may give rise to something of financial value. Teaching must concentrate on turning out employable graduates. Research will not be rewarded with high marks and future funding unless it demonstrates “impact”. A university is no longer a community in which the clever but eccentric may choose to spend a lifetime finishing a book with no guarantee that it will be great or even good. Academics lost security of tenure in 1988. They have since increasingly come under line management. The proportion of short-term contracts has risen, and insecurity with it.

All this has been well rehearsed, of course. We do not like it. We object. But what particularly frustrates me is that we do not seem to object very effectively. Call me disloyal, but sometimes my colleagues make me despair. To be fair, part of the problemis that the concerns expressed in Parliament before the passing of the 1988 Education Reform Act have been partly realised: academics who express controversial or unpopular opinions can place themselves “in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges”. But academics are still in a particularly good position to have their say by virtue of being more articulate and more experienced in getting published than those in other professions who also resent seeing their worlds invaded according to the changing whims of government ministers.

When the tripling of tuition fees and the removal of the teaching part of the block grant was proposed in 2011, agitated groups formed in several universities to protest about it. I went to a good few meetings in Oxford and Cambridge. They displayed features I have come to recognise after decades of sitting in university committee meetings. For some reason, academics - even those who deal professionally in the grandest theories of Life, the Universe and Everything - seem to find it hard to get to grips with the large scale. Let something arise that touches their own work and they are on the ball, worrying it like terriers. But quietly doing the research that would underpin an effective contribution to the national debate on the future of higher education seems to have little appeal.

Academics who would be rigorous in testing their evidence and checking their footnotes in their own research don’t seem keen to put in the groundwork when it comes to policy. Have they read the government’s “technical consultation”, which appeared in August 2011 soon after the Higher Education White Paper? Have they registered to receive the sector bodies’ email updates that would notify them of consultations and the progress of planning? Have they attended some of those conferences where you can meet the people doing their best to keep the sector running in the churning tides of government policy? No. They are “too busy”.

To sound off about public policy without being on top of the detail is usually a waste of time. And how long does it really take to check the higher education headlines each day to accumulate the body of knowledge necessary to acquire mastery of your subject - a mastery that is vital when that subject is the very future of the academic world?

Academics know about persistence. No piece of research, article or book ever got finished without it. Those of us who have been in universities for decades also know about the need for patience. When, as an Oxford undergraduate, I asked naively why the “modern” history syllabus ended at 1870, I was warned that changing it might take a while. It did.

The Association of Heads of University Administration “represents the collective views of members on key issues and policies to the higher education sector, government and other stakeholders”. In other words, it offers registrars and others vicarious lobbying opportunities. Meanwhile, the Association of University Administrators promises its mostly middle- management members that it will be “an authoritative advocate and champion for the sector”.

There is no equivalent professional body for academics (who are not natural “joiners” anyway). But, individually, we can still surely harness the transferable skills and characteristics of our tribe and have our say about the future of higher education. There can be no future without us, any more than there can be an NHS without doctors. But a better future will require doing the spadework and keeping up.

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