By and large, the new rapprochement between business and our universities and colleges has been as helpful to the profit-makers as it has to the educators, and the much greater emphasis today on vocational courses and "training for a career" is serving the undergraduate population well. But cracks are beginning to show.
I belong to a growing band of guest lecturers in media and communications studies. My core business, built on a long career in broadcasting and corporate public relations, consists of providing business communications consultancy and media-handling advice to commercial and public service clients. Not surprisingly, the knowledge base I now sell is of considerable practical interest to establishments teaching these subjects.
If students are to be given the full benefit of a course that they hope will lead to a job in marketing, the media or public relations, the teaching timetable must contain some direct input from established practitioners like myself. This is something of which all course organisers are acutely aware, and it is a consideration that gives them cause for a great deal of agonising.
The agony is, however, a shared one. In my experience of five Scottish establishments, the cultural chasm between education providers and those from the media industries whose help is sought urgently needs to be closed by the introduction of more sympathetic administration. Departmental heads experience painful departmental headaches when the subject of fees for visiting lecturers is raised. As one said to me recently, "A number of my guest lecturers have said that they'll come back and do more lecturing, but they'd rather do it unpaid than go through the dreadful quagmire of getting paid."
He was dealing, at the same time, with the embarrassment that his personnel department was now into its fifth month of procrastination and bungling in making good a comparatively inconsequential financial obligation to me (a modest Pounds 250 for some five full days' work). Long discussions, countless postal exchanges and frayed tempers had still not conveyed the message that my tax schedule does not easily allow for deduction at source, and the VATman will insist on removing 17.5 per cent of what little I derive from the college.
Successful consultancy commands a minimum of Pounds 500 a day and it would be lunacy to suggest that tertiary education should meet that kind of honorarium. There is the quid pro quo of an immense enjoyment in passing knowledge on to those who will be the industry's future, and kudos is by no means an insignificant factor. But if universities and colleges are to "get into bed" with industry in more meaningful ways than being recipients of large sponsorship deals, then a considerable accommodation is going to be necessary. Stressed-out executives shriek with frustration as they leave a meeting in a university department that has dragged on for half a day, and wrestle with the problem of having just allowed another halfday meeting to be scheduled. Meeting time is lost earning time to the fee-based executive, but time profitably spent to the salaried academic. By the same token, I know of a number of university teachers who, when consulted informally by business folk, will part with chunks of valuable knowledge and advice on a friendly, gratis basis, perhaps unaware it will bring handsome profit to the recipients. Universities might derive unimagined financial benefits too in acting more formally and much more widely as business consultancies.
I habitually find that no allowance can be made by colleges and universities for preparation time. If I am spending an afternoon with a class of undergraduates, I do not feel I am giving value for the students' money unless I have spent one day at least organising the lecture content, sorting out support material and producing slides. On many occasions several days' preparation will be necessary. Once, and only once, my involvement extended to the marking of MSc examination papers which netted Pounds 3 an hour. Without a salary cheque to balance out the quieter periods with the more hectic, and unable to cater for my clients, I struggled with 36 examination papers for one and a half working days, during which my total earning capacity was Pounds 36, less tax.
So it is not surprising that many people in my line flatly refuse to become involved in higher education when university finance officers remain impervious to the idea that someone who has real teaching skills but is, far more importantly, selling years of unparalleled experience as a practitioner, is something rather more than a part-time lecturer.
Ian McLaren Thomson heads Glasgow-based communications consultancy Media Skills for Business and is a freelance journalist when time allows.