Don's diary

November 29, 1996


I am on sabbatical this semester, my first in more than 20 years, so I start the week revising the draft of a book I printed out on Sunday. I have lunch with a colleague at Westminster from the University of Tokyo, with whom we have a joint research project. We discuss the journal he is launching, modelled, he says, on our own. After lunch, I go to the graduation ceremony in the Barbican. Two things stick in my mind. One is when a child calls out from the balcony "Hello, Mummy", as an ex-student collects her degree. The other is that three out of the four doctorates in communication studies go to foreigners. The first illustrates the success universities have had in extending the range of people who benefit from higher education. There is still a long way to go, but students are much more representative of the population than when I was an undergraduate. The second is double-edged. The fact that we can still attract overseas graduate students despite competition from United States universities says a lot about the quality of our staff and the research opportunities. But only one of the recipients of a doctoral degree is from Britain because even the most talented young people find it hard to get funding.

After the ceremony, I talk with graduates from our MA in communication. They all have jobs and most seem to be earning more than my junior colleagues. I just have time to fit in a tutorial in the foyer with a part-time student about her MA dissertation before going off to celebrate with one of the new doctors. He is from Finland, and, despite their economic problems, he has already found a university post.


The weather is so bad I drive my daughter to school and my partner to the tube before heading off to the picket line. When I finally get there, late for my 9.30am shift, the Natfhe branch secretary is already soaked from more than two hours in the sleet. It soon starts snowing in earnest. The new campus looks even more like a bleak and desolate gulag than ever.

We are not miners, and our little one-day strike (against low pay and under-funding) is no epic struggle, but has remarkable effects. People who have never spoken to each other before find themselves chatting. Unlikely people turn out to be the most determined pickets. All the campus unions are out and the pickets are a very mixed group. The strike is pretty solid, so there is not a lot to do. Only the management and a handful of lecturers have gone in. We have mixed success stopping deliveries and the occasional confused student. The police are very attentive. They have obviously been instructed that they can forget burglaries and assaults to concentrate on a far more serious threat to society. It is hard to see six cold, wet people huddled in the shelter of the main gate as the enemy within. This strike is an example of people voting about what to do, not doing what they are told. We are acting on our own initiative, enjoying the experience and learning that it is us, and not the managers, who make the universities run. A little tiny strike, but a great big lesson. When I leave, after two freezing hours, the branch secretary is still there, wetter and colder than ever. He looks very happy. We all know we will have to do a lot more than this to win our claim.


A more normal day. I do the editorial chores on the journal, Media, Culture and Society. Despite the research assessment exercise, would-be contributors are mostly from the US. They must be under even more pressure than us. Later, I go to hear a distinguished visiting musicologist talk about the future of rock. At the end a student asks me whether I am a first year. I feel flattered, until a colleague says she was more likely misled by the naivety of my contribution than my youthful appearance.


At last, a whole day doing what I am supposed to. I spend hours trying to work out what I meant when I wrote a particularly opaque passage. A US colleague emails. She has heard about the strike. We are famous even in Champaign-Urbana.


Drive to Heathrow to meet someone from the University of Amsterdam who has agreed to act as an external examiner for a PhD. She is the leading European authority on feminism and the media, but there is another external as well, more familiar with the British system. Westminster is sensitive about the sneering and snobbish attacks by distinguished folk from ancient universities that get printed in the THES. No one is going to be able to say that our academic standards are inadequate. I cannot help feeling nervous, despite the fact that the student is brilliant and her work is outstanding. She looks calm and has prepared carefully. Her performance is impressive. We sit outside waiting while the examiners deliberate. The nerves and the worry were needless. The examiners loved the thesis and the defence. It is a clear pass. I open the celebratory champagne. In view of the pay claim, I must point out it is non-vintage.

Colin Sparks Works in the centre for communication and information studies, University of Westminster and is managing editor of the journal Media, Culture and Society.

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