July 4, 2013

Professorial position: Liverpool, think again

We recently heard that the University of Liverpool intends to issue dismissal notices to 2,803 “non-academic” staff – 54 per cent of the institution’s workforce (“Mersey motion rejects revised contract terms”, News, 20 June). After breaking off negotiations with the recognised trade unions, Liverpool’s management is attempting to force these workers on to inferior contracts, expecting them to work extra hours in the evenings, weekends and on bank holidays without appropriate compensation. Management action of this type on such a scale is unprecedented in the UK academy.

The fair treatment of all staff is vital to any university. Clerical, technical, manual, administrative, library, computing and other specialist staff are the people who provide the high-quality teaching and research environments that make scholarly work possible. Academics could not do their jobs without them.

We are shocked that Liverpool, with its proud reputation for international excellence in a range of disciplines as well as its tradition of civic and regional service, is resorting to such disreputable industrial relations practices. The management’s approach can only be disastrous for its relationship with staff.

We call upon Liverpool’s management and council to step back from the course of action upon which they have embarked and re-enter meaningful negotiations with the trade unions to reach a mutual and amicable agreement on the matters at hand.

Sir Iain Chalmers, professor, University of Liverpool;
Steven Rose, emeritus professor, The Open University;
Alan Sokal, professor, University College London;
Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor, University of Oxford;
and 600 other professors at UK universities

Tap here to read the full list of signatories.

‘Crown jewels’ are flawed

Universities and science minister David Willetts has persuaded the coalition to spend millions of pounds on a new national birth cohort study, and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee – although “unaccustomed to praising this government” – has welcomed the project, saying that such studies are “the crown jewels…in the long and distinguished history of British social science” (“Evidence first, judgement later”, News, 20 June).

But contrary to Toynbee’s endorsement, national birth cohort studies are a poor way to collect social science data. They identify all babies born in the UK on a particular few days, record certain data, then follow them up at intervals and record information such as IQ, educational attainment, earnings, health and so on.

This sounds fine, but the problem is that it has never been possible to find all of the original cohort during the follow-ups. For instance, the second national birth cohort study of those born during the week of 3-9 March 1958 began with 17,419 babies. At the latest follow-up in 2008-09, when the sample was aged 50-51, only 9,790 could be found.

Those who are identified at later stages of the studies are no longer representative samples of the population but tend to be white, middle class and better educated. These unrepresentative samples provide some valid rough-and-ready information, but are not much use for accurate social science research.

Richard Lynn
Professor emeritus of psychology
University of Ulster

Contact lenses

However you cost student contact time, it is very expensive. A crude estimate can be made by dividing tuition fees by contact hours – £9,000 for 300 hours’ contact comes to £30 an hour, which is probably on the conservative side.

At that price, a one-hour lecture to 100 students collectively costs £3,000 and a two-hour lecture for 200 grosses £12,000. To illustrate the absurdity of this, imagine if the students were charged £30 at the door: in most cases they would begrudge parting with a fiver. A seminar should be better value as you would expect to pay more for a more personal service. But even this is questionable if there are 20 students and they are asked to more or less run it themselves. Small group seminars or one-to-one tutorials offer better value for money.

Services and events that are similar to higher education offer interesting price comparisons. At literary and science festivals, I have attended talks by ex-Cabinet ministers, famous authors, Nobel prizewinners, heads of international companies, top-class sportspeople and so on. The presentations last an hour or so and the audience is seldom less than spellbound. The speakers get standing ovations and the events generally cost under a tenner.

In general, plays, operas, football matches, films and concerts cost under £30 an hour. The only time I have had to pay such a price was to see legends such as Bob Dylan, and that seemed steep!

Comparisons for small-group tutorials are less jarring: you would expect to pay a lot for a consultation with a top doctor or lawyer, so you could say the same for top academics. But you would expect them to treat you with the attention that the fee warranted, and you would not be pleased if the consultation turned out to involve a lower-paid trainee. Universities need to think about this in relation to their use of postgraduate teachers.

With the advent of higher fees, it is likely that student contact will come under greater scrutiny. Academia should look to match the standards and prices of similar services. Professional-level oratory should be expected. There may be openings for external speakers, perhaps even for groups to offer high-quality academic presentations and tour universities on the lines of theatre companies. At £30 a ticket, this would be good business.

John Linfoot
Additional learning support
Bournemouth University

Tours of booty

Last week the real University of Oxford held open days as part of its widening-access initiative. Fantasy Oxford has open days for tourists every day, with the Mad Hatter Tour and the Harry Potter Tour loudly touting for business along Broad Street. No trouble getting in the punters there – you have to force your way along the street with a rolled umbrella and in seven languages.

The schoolchildren who come to the university open days are taken to see the Bodleian Library alongside the ordinary tours. It is hard to know what impression they get of what it is like to study in the great historic research library these days. Tour parties trample through several of the reading rooms asking questions in loud voices, with groups being addressed by guides telling them about Morse, Lewis, Endeavour plus some miscellaneous and not very accurate history.

Outside in the Quad, where the management says it cannot afford to provide supervision, the prospective undergraduates will see hundreds of “summer school” students from all over the world sitting about in chattering crowds against the soft stone and eating forbidden crisps to the benefit of the pigeons. There will be hordes of noisy polyglot parties ignoring the small “Silence please” notices (written only in English). No one stops climbers on the statue of the Earl of Pembroke swinging from his arms, or scrambling up the 15th-century mouldings to try to get a look at the Divinity School through the windows without paying. (The university is having to spend a lot of money repairing the stonework on the Radcliffe Camera this summer.)

Historic rooms are hired out for weddings and events. Hirers may bring in their own caterers, dance floors, amplified music and filming equipment in self-drive vans. This is supposed to happen only outside library opening hours, but the rehearsals often resound through the Bodleian while it is open. The events may continue to the small hours, with broken glass and revellers’ vomit to be cleared up the next day.

Of course, universities must raise money in straitened times. But the balance between the needs of the library and the sometimes tasteless uses to which its beautiful medieval rooms are put to make them pay needs to be rethought. Tourist noise and numbers on university property should be restricted. Open day students might then be able to see the real Oxford, not the commercial activities that are becoming the libraries’ public face.

G. R. Evans

Too short a seasoning

I am worried about the “‘oven-ready chickens’ for business” that City of Bath College lecturer John Curry thinks the UK needs (“Cut the arts, share the pain or scrap the REF: reader panel thoughts on paying for the science ring-fence”, News, 20 June).

Curry seems ignorant of the fact that the creative sector is the fastest-growing part of the UK economy and that demand for arts entertainment is booming (strangely, it always does in a recession). Furthermore, employers have frequently been quoted as saying that they want to employ collaborative, articulate, flexible problem-solvers – people they know are more likely to emerge from music or theatre degree programmes than ones in computer studies.

Far from the notion that spending on the arts is an unaffordable luxury, we must ensure that we are preparing “oven-ready chickens” flavoured with design, literature and production as well as finance and computing.

And don’t get me started on the idea that the arts would be undamaged by their funding being turned on and off. They are not ovens, you know.

Judith Ackroyd
Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Regent’s University London

Memory lapse

In her generous review of Permanent Present Tense: The Man with No Memory and What He Taught the World, Suzanne Corkin’s enthralling study of the amnesiac Henry Molaison, Morgan Barense highlights the text’s “comprehensive and engaging review of how the field of neuroscience came to learn what we know about memory” (Books,  June).

Corkin indeed rightly covers the major contributions to the field from North America, but completely ignores the pioneering and influential work of Soviet scientist A. R. Luria (1902-77). He also investigated and treated a brain-damaged patient, known as “Zasetsky”, over an extended period. Luria opposed the view that memory is localised in specific areas of the brain and instead proposed a comprehensive functional system that extends into the cultural-historical world.

R. E. Rawles
Honorary research fellow in psychology
University College London

Old, familiar stain

Regarding “Barefaced cheating in China’s bull market for student fraud” (News, 13 June): this phenomenon is not new, as I found similar problems in the early 1990s when I was an academic. The easiest way to spot a cheat is to start a discussion with the suspect, provided you have the requisite expertise in the topic. One will soon find that the culprit will trip themselves up with incoherent and bemusing answers. Unfortunately, far too many Western universities are turning a blind eye to the situation and are putting money before education, thus undermining the quality of degrees.

John Kelmar
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

Give and take

Chris Higgins reflects on university funding against the backdrop of the coalition’s continuing cuts to education spending (“(Almost) all donations gratefully received”,  June). He focuses on distinguishing between ethical and unethical funding by private individuals and institutions – fair enough to the extent that the cash is needed to fund universities now, some might say. However, at least as much effort should be put into campaigning for a fully publicly funded academy. A tax on corporate banking transactions might be a start.

Keith Flett

Lofty ideals

In the 1960s, the University of Stirling’s first principal, the late Tom Cottrell, entertained us students at his new home on the beautiful campus. Perhaps his present-day successor Gerry McCormac will continue this civilised practice in his “Himalayan crag garden” (The week in higher education,  June).

Neil Macfarlane
Lowdham, Nottinghamshire

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