Blog confidential

May 13, 2010

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: A sociological sermon

I don't usually comment on articles in Times Higher Education, but after last week's Blog Confidential, "Things have to change" (a title right out of David Cameron's back pocket), I wanted to say a few things.

First, who is this manager who checks up on who is in or out of the office? Such an approach is indicative of an emerging culture that counts academics' hours at the conveyor belt. These Gradgrindian types want a production line that leads straight into the free market. Yes, we live in a globalised world; yes, we need to think about our place in it. But let's not run like rabbits into the headlights of disaster: the banking crisis has lessons for us here.

I'm not surprised this manager was seen as "too visionary" - ha! I look around at staff who are overworked and stressed out, so where exactly is the indolence he mentions? It sounds like an alternative reality to the one my colleagues and I experience.

At this point, I want to come clean - I'm a sociologist of moderate fame and run a course on globalisation. When I set it up years ago, the formula for success was simple - I needed to cover my own costs plus one-third "on-costs" for administrative support. Until recently, I met all my targets.

The course has been very successful. It's been evaluated to death and students have always given it glowing feedback. However, a sparkling new dean was recently appointed to our department, who wants to introduce new assessment criteria.

Student feedback provides only a third of the equation: then there is "added value" (which I am yet to fully comprehend), and the third and most sinister facet - "A proportionate return on investment where business-to-business compliance is part of the conceptual linkage to service proposition development with industry and business."

This third aspect is a subjective and bizarre analysis of where qualifications fit in a market-driven economy, not teaching and learning that is important in its own right.

Times are going to get hard, just wait and see - the sort of manager who wrote in last week's blog will explore what the "market" (students) will take. This will lead to rising tuition fees and higher interest rates on student loans as part of a slide into a free-market abyss where there is little concern for learning. The autonomy of academics will be enveloped by fashionably "accessorised" degrees that compel students to embrace the market. Managers will have cameras positioned in every corridor to count you in and out of your dynamic and enterprising plc.

I think this week's contributor has hit the nail on the head. I too recently experienced a "re-evaluation" of the economic worth of a course I have been running for years. It has fallen victim to "integration" with several other degrees - "blended learning" in 500-seater lecture theatres.

There is a storm coming and we need to prepare. Where is the scrutiny of those managers who want to take over? Let's get the debate started.

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