Don's Diary

January 11, 2002

First job as a new lecturer in Aberdeen. Such is the availability of posts that this one has remained unfilled for months. The interview consists of lunch with the professor. I am offered the job and can teach my polar course in any way I wish. I am advised to think ahead to what research I would like to be doing in ten years' time. To help there are expenses for any conference so long as I give a paper. Life focuses on the flat hierarchy of the department. With minimal outside demands, we lecturers feel encouraged to think boldly and experiment with new courses and ideas.

New insights as our three young children experiment with Popperian falsification: "Dad, why does a stone come back when I throw it up but not when I throw it at a window?" In the department we discover the students are asking equally penetrating questions about our course curriculum and teaching practices. The result is that they now sit on and have livened up all our departmental committees and their input improves courses. They even manage to improve research productivity by cutting off all communications with the central administrative building in a temporary occupation. All this activity is set against a backdrop of the remorseless decline of strikebound British industry, beset by a fatal mix of inflexible line management and a lack of vision and innovation.

The application of the British industrial line-management model to universities. I experience my first financial crisis with the department asked to shed a quarter of its staff. Ensuing publicity has the interesting upshot of increasing student applications. So much for students understanding what they read. The decade sees the emergence of top-down accountability. The first research assessment exercise stimulates a discussion over coffee about why universities should be doing research. When asked to be a panel member on the second RAE, my doubts as to the value of such exercises are overcome by the argument that if academics do not do it, it will be done by British industrialists.

I move south to Edinburgh.

Further increases in efficiency (less investment, more students) and accountability via teaching quality assessment. Apparently the quality of ideas taught is affected by the infrastructure of the building. Our splendid Victorian toilets turn out to be incompatible with the highest teaching standards, but order returns once they are replaced with plastic ones. Research is in the grip of top-down initiatives and programmes driven by the innovation of centralised groups of established researchers.

During several fieldwork seasons in Antarctica, I have time to reflect on the pervasive characteristic of line management: each tier is busy dreaming up initiatives to impress the layer above. The result for the academics at the bottom is an avalanche of initiatives that divert time and energy from teaching and research. I experience the role of head of department and find it resembles that of a goalkeeper whose aim is to block as many bureaucratic balls as possible and kick some of them back.

The longstanding British industrial model is still in vogue as the university system explores the efficiency to be gained from restructuring, even separating teaching and research (consumers and production). Somehow it is hoped that this separation will help overcome the public's loss of faith in researchers, following the debacles of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease.

Meanwhile, successful modern industry is discovering the advantages of flat hierarchical structures where management provides headroom for gifted individuals to explore ideas. I realise they are adopting the successful structures of the universities of the 1960s and 1970s.

Uprising as students (now 50 per cent of their peer group) ask to be educated rather than trained. The universities revert to the flat hierarchies of the 1960s and 1970s. As for British industry, who knows?

David Sugden is professor of geography at the University of Edinburgh.

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