Blog confidential: Course oblivion

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

April 15, 2010

This week: Course oblivion

I read with interest the Blog Confidential last week about the unofficial meeting to draw up a list of "expensive" academic staff deemed surplus to requirements ("Silent whispers", 8 April). At my institution, a cabal of unnamed senior managers is doing something similar, but here the axe is being aimed not at individual scholars, but rather at "uneconomic" courses.

This group has written a report, Guidelines for Dynamic Realignment, which features a "financial-viability" test to separate the saved from the damned. The test measures "ameliorating resonators" (pass me the sick bucket marked "jargon") on a scale of 1 to 10.

The first resonator is "contemporary resilience", which has a sub-menu of bullet points: "predictive functional agility" and "free-market convergent applicability". The second is based on a consultancy report sourced from "some of the most dynamic entrepreneurs we have available".

Is there too much mercury in the water? Last week, we saw "expensive" academics lined up for the chop, and now longstanding, economically viable degrees may be sacrificed on the altar of free-market ideology.

My academic team must be in danger. We have ambled along, doing good work; we are, for the most part, research-active scholars; but in terms of the bottom line, we are one of the less "dynamic" schools in our university.

I decided to tell my team about the danger and circulated the report. Most of them didn't take it seriously, mocking the terminology and pooh-poohing any suggestion that our work was under threat. Then they saw the anxiety on my face and attempted to reassure me - and themselves.

I have a good team, for the most part loyal and hard-working. Unfortunately, this is not what counts in the emerging consensus that wants universities to show that making money and the enhancement of profit is what counts above all else.

I understand your point about the baleful effect of the free market on the academy. From Lord Mandelson down, the talk is about short-term economic gain rather than higher education's wider remit and vital cultural role. Few courses would pass the "free-market convergent applicability" test, whatever that means.

I am disturbed by the notion of viability tests, and am struck by the irony that what landed the UK in the economic mess it is in - unfettered capitalism, as manifested by the greed of the banks - is now being used to decide the fate of priceless public institutions.

If what you say is accurate, warn the union. It must stand up for what is right. Inform the press, too: this injustice cannot go unchallenged. As we've seen throughout the academy, courses are under threat, but other scholars aren't taking it lying down, and neither should you.

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