Don's Diary

November 7, 1997


Yerevan, capital of the former Soviet Republic of Armenia, and another Council of Europe seminar on "transition democracies", how pluralist democracies are supposed to work in practice rather than theory. I and my colleagues, parliamentarians from Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and Greece, are "sharing our experiences of democracy" with an audience of Armenian politicians and journalists. My role is to try and persuade the politicians that democratic politics involves allowing journalists the freedom to report things you do not like and persuading journalists that publishing every unconfirmed rumour that's floating around the dusty streets of Yerevan is not necessarily the best way of encouraging a democratic culture. (Note to self: must send P. Mandelson and A. Campbell copy of my speech). The audience listens politely. They have to - Armenia is seeking membership of the Council of Europe. They entertain us and then, no doubt, return to business as usual.


Time for a bit of tourism. There are impressive churches, monasteries and ruins to be seen. One massive cathedral, started in the third century, lies in spectacular ruins, destroyed twice by earthquakes. Our guide says Armenia's nuclear power station also lies on this same fault-line. Our guide is one of the leaders of the opposition party. He tells us without rancour of his 17 years in Soviet prison camps. But to find himself still in opposition must be, to say the least, a trifle galling.


Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) begins tomorrow but there is time for a quick trip to Sheffield for a spot of external examining on their MA in political journalism. After the meeting, lunch with the department and the other externals gives me a chance to lobby in support of the campaign to increase the academic profile of media practitioners in higher education. Then it is back to London for a meeting with my independent radio production company.


We wait nervously for our TQA panel to arrive. It is doubly twitchy because we've been through all this before - well almost. We were within days of being "done" last year when we obeyed the instruction from the Association of University Teachers (AUT) to down our metaphorical tools and not participate in quality assurance procedures. This time the assessors clearly know what they are about and we seek to undertake maximum brown-nosing consistent with minimum dignity. But will it be my classes they inspect? It is the academic version of the national lottery, except in this case the person not chosen earns the big prize.


No inspection for me today so it is business as usual - ha! We have told our students that we will be doing nothing unusual while the TQA team is with us. "But why," they ask, "are you all wearing suits?" I am due to make a presentation to the assessors about "student progression" and I am about to launch into my well-prepared spiel about the organic growth in knowledge, experience and skills when one of the assessors says: "I wonder if we could start with one or two questions?" An hour later the questions have concluded but so, too, has the session and my beautifully prepared presentation lies unpresented. And still I await the assessors' visitation.


Good reports come back from the assessors' meeting with our former students. The assessors were probing the relevance of our theory courses to our many students who end up working in the media industries. "Laurence", now a film distributor, tells them that his knowledge of semiotics has proved invaluable in helping him make commercial decisions about film distribution. This evening we have our head-to-head with the assessors to discuss any issues of concern. The highlight is when they tell us that our senior tutor has been described as a "shining beacon". Serious preening breaks out. The meeting ends with the assessors mentioning that because they have got so much student work to look at they have finished their formal inspection of classes. I am not sure if I'm relieved at not being judged or disappointed at losing the chance to show off.


Thank goodness I am not being assessed this morning. I was due to start teaching video editing, using tapes shot the previous week. But one of my students, "Zora", still has the tape. She is the lone absentee this morning. After I mumble incoherently for 20 minutes about the principles of editing, Zora strolls in with the tape. I am about to go ballistic but remember that an assessor could still be lurking. I shall have words later. But I do not because "later" is when we hear the verdict and I join my colleagues in a plastic cup of celebratory plonk - 22 out of 24 and no more TQA. It was worth it in the end, but I still intend having words with "Zora".

Ivor Gaber, Professor of broadcast journalism in the department of media and communications at Goldsmiths College, University of London and an independent radio and television producer.

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