The THES - don't leave home without it

October 18, 1996

Despite his years of exile, years of eternal opposition promises and everlasting government cuts, one thing has remained a constantin Ged Martin's academic life...

The scene is the staff common room in an Irish university and the year is 1981. It is mid-morning on a Friday, with classes in full swing. So it is odd to find two lecturers being awkwardly casual as they peer out of the mullioned windows. A third is scanning a magazine with obvious lack of engagement. By unlikely coincidence, all three are exiles from Britain.

The door opens and a porter delivers The Times Higher Education Supplement. A curiously English ritual ensues as the precious paper is subjected to two simultaneous grabs. "No, after you." "Not at all, I was just going to glance...".

The third breaks the illusion. "Look, lads, we're all looking for a job back home. Right? Give it here and I'll read you the adverts."

Friends, this story is true. I was that British academic. The THES was already a decade old, and it had followed me about the world. I remember being slightly disapproving about its birth. I was a young don at Cambridge then and as a former primary school teacher (unqualified) in Dagenham, I believed in education as a seamless web. In any case, universities were places apart, oases of excellence in research and teaching, not fit subjects for mere journalism. Ah, that was a long time ago.

I suspect that the founders of The Times Higher Education Supplement were not too sure about its durability either. Surely, if this one was going to run and run, it would have been given a less awkwardly derivative title, like Dreaming Spires.

But The THES gradually won its place in the groves of academe. I was in Australia in the mid-1970s, and recall it rapidly slipping into the role of one of those links with "Home", like recycled episodes of Callan on television.

To me, it would be as unthinkable to change the title of The Times Higher as it would be to rename the Home Service or the North Thames Gas Board.

1981 was the year when I stopped grabbing The THES in the common room and started to buy my own copy. But if I ever got a job interview in England, how would I answer questions about higher education policy? Most of my ideas for university reform involved the round-the-clock use of firing squads. I began to save my THES. Lord help me, I still do.

Looking back to my early files, I can see patterns in the stories over the years. Oddly matched institutions are always considering mergers. The next Labour government promises free chalk or eternal life. A new research centre has been opened to study enzymes in the four-legged parrot. ("This will put us at the forefront," says vice chancellor.) Staff over the age of 28 are being offered early retirement. The government is always planning to cut funding and disimprove conditions of employment.

It is curious to see the continuity of political spite over so many years. I can understand them paying off old scores from their undergraduate days, but did all the Tories really have such a rotten time at university? Abroad, there will always be countries where universities have been shut by student riots, mad dictators or deathwatch beetle.

What has changed is computerisation. In 1981, it was news when Sheffield Poly installed a mainframe that could be used by over 100 people at once. Since 1994, even The THES has been "on line", so they tell me - a far cry from those happy days when the paper rolled innocently off the presses without even mentioning its own telephone number.

THES journalists are intensely serious people. No rat pack they. Some even move on to slum it as mere professors. They earnestly ask your opinion about their latest scoop, and it is tactful to check their bylines before you telephone, so that you can comment with solemnity. Yes, indeed, it was unethical of that deputy dean to accept those luncheon vouchers, an issue well worth your four-column expose.

Once or twice I have clambered on to the lower slopes of a THES editorial, but I should need oxygen cylinders and a team of Sherpas to get to the top. Has anyone ever made it to the summit?

The reviews section no longer hides in a layout that pretended it was really the TLS. However, the big change is the frequency with which the reviewed hit back, often explaining the excellence of their work in prose that would be ideal for the blurb in the unlikely event of a second edition. "My brilliant study is the first succinct overview of the subject in 20 years and its comprehensive insights have been praised by all discerning critics," (The Author). "Discerning critics" usually means "other Marxists".

Cynical I may be, but I cannot agree with those who claim that the front end of The THES is merely there to stop the jobs section from toppling over. Last year, a friend returned from a conference in Berlin to report, in high good humour, that an Egyptian professor had quoted a THES article that I had written. Alas, my friend let slip that the obvious seriousness of the publication did not extend to all of its contributors. A pity really. In academic journals, people only ever quote me to say I am wrong.

You can always tell an academic who has appeared in The THES for the first time. He or she spends Friday walking solemnly around the campus, expecting that colleagues will nudge each other admiringly and whisper synopses of the contribution.

It does not work like that. What happens is that two or three years later, a letter from South Africa or a chance meeting in Canada reveals that somebody had seen the piece, and was amused or annoyed or stimulated by it.

I note three main changes in the jobs section over the years. It used to be arranged on a gentlemen and players basis - first came the universities, from professors right down to lecturers, and only then were the polytechnics allowed to advertise for Swiss admirals down to teaching serfs. Colleges of higher education and those mysterious aliens called "overseas" had to knock at the tradesmen's entrance. I am glad that this form of apartheid has vanished.

The job adverts used to be typeset in dirty raincoat format: university seeks lecturer, object sincere friendship. Nowadays everybody has a silly logo and column inches of wavy black ink with kindergarten squiggles enliven the back end of the paper.

The oddest development has been the adoption of Lord Kitchener's style of recruiting, hectoringly addressed to the trembling applicant.

"You will have a doctorate in semiotics, teach four courses on semolina and come in on Saturdays to clean out the bogs. This is a non-renewable 0.4 post until Thursday fortnight". This was the characteristic polytechnic-pyrotechnic form, but lately it has been adopted by pre-1990s universities as well. Will it spread to Oxbridge? "You will give an annual lecture but not every year, pour glasses of port right up to the meniscus and pepper your conversation with Latin tags."

By and large, The THES has kept a straight face and resisted the temptation to send up its subject matter. Even abominations like Teaching Quisling Assessment are reported as if they were intended seriously. A tabloid THES might be less squeamish. I yearn to read SNOOPER PESTS BRING MISERY TO CAMPUS.

The exception, of course, has been Laurie Taylor and the wonderful world of the University of Poppleton. Taylor characters have come and gone over the years: what happened to Dr Prolicks?

Two of Taylor's characters have passed into academic folklore - the ruthlessly workshy Piercemuller and heroic and indispensable Maureen. Why those two, I wonder? Probably because they epitomise the deeper truth that there are common issues in higher education and general themes that stretch from All Souls to Abertay, from Lady Margaret Hall to Queen Margaret College.

So let us wish success to The THES as it marches onward, and hope that in its next quarter century we shall see such headlines as GOVERNMENT SAYS SORRY FOR BEING NUISANCE.

Happy birthday, old friend!

Ged Martin is professor of Canadian studies and deputy director of the International Social Sciences Institute at the University of Edinburgh. He often comes in on Saturdays to carry out supplementary duties.

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