Blogconfidential: There are always alternatives

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: There are always alternatives

September 9, 2010

I am a union rep and have been one for several years. I know from the pages of Times Higher Education and the wider media that conditions for academics are worsening. The next five years are likely to be challenging, to say the least. I have seen many changes over the past two decades, but I cannot think of a worse time in my working life. I suspect that the government's ultimate aim is the privatisation of our universities.

I return to work next week knowing that my inbox will be full to bursting point with emails from a range of staff asking for advice about a number of issues. In an era of cuts, who will cover maternity leave or sudden staff illness? How will the work carried out by those on (now terminated) temporary contracts be covered?

These day-to-day dilemmas are microcosmic examples of macrocosmic debates: do we really need to cosy up to the private sector? Is privatisation inevitable? I cannot see a way out and I am not looking forward to the drive into work next week. Can you offer any advice, Margot? Now that would be an achievement.

Whenever I read these dilemmas, I look to other authors for the insights they can offer me, insights I can in turn pass on to those in need. I am reading Michael Foley's The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy, which strikes me as immensely relevant ... but naturally, reading such material is not enough.

Last week, I gave my delineation of the shape of things to come. This is a time of opportunity as well as threat, and those teachers, lecturers and researchers who remain indifferent to union involvement must re-evaluate their positions.

It is also a time when good managers need to protect their staff from today's harsh circumstances. A good manager is someone who values all staff, and who maintains values that will guide them through the difficult decisions ahead.

Good managers can mitigate matters: for example, by negotiating collective four-day contracts for staff rather than making a small number redundant, or helping those who have had enough to retire with dignity and acceptable settlements. Such managers have integrity and act accordingly.

On the macrocosmic issues, I believe we need radical solutions - a shake-up of the very notion of education is coming.

Some vice-chancellors will buy into the marketisation agenda; others will take the path of least resistance. Perhaps the future belongs to them.

However, there are still many who have a different conception of the academy, who want a different type of university to thrive. There are alternatives to the inevitable drift towards the "flotation" of our institutions. There are no easy answers, but there are different ways of doing things.

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