Don's Diary

June 19, 1998


Bliss. While colleagues slave away over a mountain of exam scripts, I indulge in uninterrupted research. The British Academy has given me a research readership for two years to work on the history of laws and markets in 19th-century Britain.

Am spending this time reading in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, an effective ploy to distance myself from colleagues and students, and a return to the dreaming spires of my youth.

Currently reading about the waning of "old corruption" - the system of 200 years ago in which appointment, promotion and pay in all aspects of public life was determined by influence, chicanery and personal connections rather than merit or fitness of purpose. Our quality assessors would have none of that today. Swim in the open-air pool.

Return home feeling virtuous but knackered.


Back to the library. Limbs ache. Over a coffee break hear about some new appointments to be made to one of the university's faculties. Always interested to learn how other institutions go about selecting new staff.

None of this is in the public domain, of course, but my offer of another cup of coffee brings forth names of candidates and views of their relative merits.

Will the committee go for the established scholar with the half-hundredweight of publications, or the newly doctored "bright young thing"? How might Glenn Hoddle view this selection dilemma - would he go for youth or experience? I guess it might partly depend on fitness and dining habits.

On way home look carefully at the people queuing up at the kebab van in the high street: is there a fellowship candidate among them jeopardising his or her job prospects?


More books to read on Victorian fraud and corruption.

News about one of the new faculty appointments. Was it the senior scholar? No, perhaps not flexible enough.

So it was the "bright young thing"? No, not quite the optimal balance of skills. So who? Ah well, the not-yet doctored (rushing through a thesis in less than a decade is so careerist), not-yet published temporary lecturer who has been teaching for the college for some years.

I express a hint of surprise. Is not more weight in this five-star university supposed to be given to proven research excellence?

I am given a brief tutorial on the arcane subject of university procedure. The university pays half the salary for these fellowships, but the college determines who is appointed, and the college is the beneficiary of the great bulk of the fellow's teaching output.

Now, all is clear. It is not the newest of our universities, but the most ancient, that has practically invented the teaching-only contract. Yet curiously, rather than leading to the "efficiency savings" sought elsewhere, this emphasis on undergraduate teaching requires additional finance, the college fee, to keep it going.

Dine in a college this evening. First-class food, excellent wine. How do they afford it?


Cannot face the ever-growing mound of books - the wine really was too good last night. Take a necessary caffeine break - realise part of the art of being a fellow is to dine and drink with discretion. My tongue must have been looser than I thought - questioning appointment procedures is not the done thing at dessert.

Another tutorial follows: receive instruction from the college head that what is good for the college is good for the university and vice versa. Twelve hours of undergraduate tutoring apparently limbers up the mind for all those five-star articles. Worry that with no teaching to do over the next two years my research will never get done.

Perhaps I should offer Oxford my services? I hear a college is looking for a temporary lecturer for a year - but laws and markets work differently here, so instead of advertising they are just "asking around" the faculty.

I suppose the problem with outsiders is that they do not know how to behave (mea culpa).

Get home to find Newsnight has been chasing me to do a spot on pensions. Cannot get down to the studio in time, so forsake the opportunity of being grilled by Jeremy Paxman. Reflect that this is surely a lucky escape.


A sultry day. Splutter as I walk to library; think I may be slightly asthmatic. A foul air hangs over the city - a problem, apparently, of topography.

Some people blame the smell on traffic pollution (when will the council sort out the bus chaos in the city centre?), others say it comes from the brewery. Smells to me like the stench of "old corruption".

Paul Johnson. Reader in economic history at the London School of Economics.

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