Just as bad, in a different way

With radical changes causing discontent across Europe, Susan Bassnett wonders if UK scholars are justified in feeling so aggrieved about their lot

January 10, 2013

My field of research - world literature and translation studies - means that I have several languages. Over the years, therefore, I have become well acquainted with higher education systems outside the UK, through lecturing, attending conferences and, as I have become more senior, examining PhDs, serving on panels and attending funding council meetings. All this has helped to give me a sense of what is happening in different countries and provided me with a vantage point from which to make comparisons.

I have heard countless stories about the massive problems encountered by colleagues across Europe as the Bologna Process is implemented. This shift - from degree systems of four or five years to a universal three-year undergraduate degree, with a two-year master’s - has meant vast curriculum changes, combined with equally sweeping changes in assessment patterns. In some countries, doctoral programmes have been introduced for the first time, so here too the reorganisation of teaching has been immensely time-consuming and fraught with difficulties. British academics have barely felt ripples from the impact of those seismic shifts, nor have we been subjected to the large-scale university reforms that have followed that upheaval in some countries.

Here in the UK, although there is concern about pensions, we have not had our salaries slashed, as has been happening in Portugal, for example, where a friend of mine recently heard that his salary has gone down by 43 per cent overnight. Nor have retiring colleagues in the UK discovered that there is not enough money to cover their expected final lump sum payment, which will have to be doled out to them piecemeal, as colleagues in Italy report.

Such stories are commonplace, as are the complaints about the hours that colleagues are now required to teach. I say “required” rather than “expected” because teaching hours are written into contracts. One new professor, delighted at being appointed to one of the increasingly rare positions available in Italian universities, tells me that her contract stipulates a minimum of 10 contact hours a week, delivered in English. I don’t know any professor in the UK who teaches anything like that amount; I have heard bitter complaints from British professors about a five-hour load, on the grounds that this does not leave enough time for their research.

The big difference, of course, is that across Europe, academics are civil servants and so are directly in the firing line when governments start to impose changes. Salaries and teaching hours are non-negotiable, in contrast with the system here where there is much more flexibility.

All this was being discussed in Milan recently, when a colleague turned to me and asked why, given the contrast between the working conditions of many European academics and those of their British colleagues, the Brits seem so discontented. Around the table colleagues confirmed this: in their view, British academics have infinitely better working conditions and yet seem to feel more aggrieved. One man who had spent part of the past year in a leading UK university said he was amazed at the proliferation of round-robin emails circulating in that institution complaining of this and that. There is an atmosphere of paranoia in the UK, he claimed, unlike anywhere else.

I thought about this. I, too, receive endless round-robin emails from the academic equivalents of Outraged of Tunbridge Wells, usually about trivia, and yes, in comparison with what has been happening in universities in the rest of Europe, we in the UK do appear to be privileged.

We always have been. I remember the first job I had in a British university: I did not have to share an office nor act as secretary to the professor in charge; there were personal tutor systems and a fully functioning library from which I could borrow books to take home.

Yes, I thought, we have long been more privileged than most of our European colleagues, in all sorts of ways. But it is also true that today there is a massive sense of discontent and anxiety, sometimes so strong you can sense it in meeting rooms. Why should this be the case?

The answer lies not in changes to the structuring of degrees as in the rest of Europe but in the way in which British universities are managed. The huge changes brought about post-Bologna are apparent, as are the decrees that change salaries and working conditions; the changes in British higher education are less visible, and all the more insidious for that.

Over the past 15 years, great cumbersome systems have been put in place to manage the production of research, the quality of teaching, student applications and examinations. There are armies of administrators these days, where not that long ago there were just a few experienced and (usually) knowledgeable individuals working to assist the academic community, rather than - as so often appears to be the case today - to obstruct them. Managers managed, academics were academics, and the two coexisted in a symbiotic relationship.

But the new expanding cadre of administrators works quite separately from the academics - hence the endless complaints about “lack of consultation” in decisions. No one seems to know any more who actually makes the decisions, which is probably a useful managerial strategy when things go wrong, since then no one knows who to hold responsible for the failure.

Many universities have undergone huge restructuring, in the interests of “greater efficiency” - whatever that may mean - with a proliferation of newfangled titles and complex systems of upward reporting. Some academics view this as a shift towards greater corporatism; I view it as the worst of all worlds, where corporate management structures are often clumsily bolted on to more traditional academic structures, which makes everyone unhappy.

What drives all this, of course, is the relentless pressure brought about by chronic underfunding, exacerbated by the ubiquitous international league tables and by the deafness of successive governments.

I pointed out to my colleagues in Milan that although UK working conditions may appear good to them, the pressures now imposed on academics are greater than I can ever remember, hence the general sense of disquiet they had all noticed.

Once upon a time - in what now seems as remote as Wonderland - academics went into university life to teach a subject they enjoyed and to deepen their knowledge of that subject. These days, the rising tide of paperwork - demanding ever-greater accountability - combined with an increasingly opaque and seemingly dirigiste management have changed the face of both teaching and research, and not for the better either.

I understand why so many of my UK colleagues are so discontented. They may appear superficially to have less to moan about than their peers in some other countries, but over here, the changes that are leading to the discontent are happening covertly, rapidly and without adequate explanation. The result is a growing sense of powerlessness and a loss of goodwill all round.

EVERY COUNTRY HAS ITS PROBLEMS: CUTS AND STRIKES ACROSS EUROPE

In Spain, the heads of 49 public universities made a joint declaration of protest in December against plans to cut 18 per cent of university funding from central budgets in 2013.

Research budgets have also been reduced repeatedly in recent years, and the government announced a freeze on the recruitment of permanent university staff in April.

There have been protests countrywide in Spain against education cuts: strikes last year forced both schools and universities to shut down.

Meanwhile in Greece, the government has proposed a salary cut for academics of 17.5 per cent and controversy continues to rage over higher education reform. Law 4009, which was passed in 2011, includes provisions to shorten undergraduate degrees, reduce student influence over university governance and abolish the “asylum” policy, under which police were barred from entering university grounds except in instances of flagrant criminal activity. Many of the changes have been strongly opposed.

Academics in Greece have already suffered a 25 per cent cut in salaries over the past four years and, according to a recent survey published by the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, lecturers’ salaries are now far lower than anywhere else in the European Union except Hungary.

In Italy, there are continued concerns about nepotism and the concorsi entrance examinations for university teachers, while a new approach to research evaluation caused embarrassment when the agency involved published a list of “scientific” journals that included titles such as Suinicoltura (“intensive pig farming”) and Yacht Capital, a glossy monthly focusing on expensive boats.

Thousands of students and teachers marched through central Rome in the autumn to protest against austerity measures.

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