For weddings and inaugural lectures

February 10, 1995

Universities may have changed a lot since I became an administrator in the 1960s but at least that grand institution - the inaugural lecture - has survived. I am an unashamed sentimentalist about them. They are the equivalent of a christening and wedding combined, with nervous, smiling relatives, proud, jealous friends and post-ceremony celebrations.

I attended a colleague's inaugural lecture just before Christmas, the first for a long time. It was all there - a packed hall, the air of excitement and anticipation, a feeling of pride in achievement. I was conscious of the enormous amount of work which must go into preparing the lecture but the collective will to make it succeed meant the quality was incidental.

My thoughts turned to an inaugural when I was a student in Durham in the early 1960s. John Rex concluded his presentation: "Philosophers try to interpret the world. The point is to change it." I always thought this was rather unfair to philosophers. And here was my colleague - a philosopher - justifying my faith. He talked about our duty to educate all our children, that moral education encourages attachment to people and the importance of a personal sense of well-being to achieve a successful society.

The inaugural lecture is a sign of hope in the rather gloomy, over-complicated, world of higher education; a genuine pleasure in an era when we are forced to latch on to the affirmative when we are actually feeling a bit wretched. Inaugural lectures also stretch my brain, normally stuffed with memos, quotations (the maintenance kind), and trading accounts.

We must protect the inaugurals of the future. One of the ways will be to provide a climate where solid continuous research and scholarship is a possibility; secure jobs and decent pay and conditions a reality. The Warwick research fellowship scheme is an exciting example. Just think how many potential inaugurals could come from 50 scholars. But we know that money attracts money. How does one raise the money for scholarships in subject areas which are non profit-making, unconnected with industry or do not lead to highly-paid careers?

How do we protect academic objectivity or the "inconvenient" research project? Only last week the national newspapers reported on the Economic and Social Research Council's new research initiative on ageing - replacing the phrase "health and inequality" of the elderly with "differential ageing among social sub-groups".

The political demands made on universities to "prove themselves" to a sceptical Parliament by means of units of resource, and quality control packaging has meant that many have had to participate in the systematic torture of English.

The genteel rivalry that has always existed in higher education has now been replaced by an unhealthy competition wherecarpet-baggers can flourish. Everyone seems to work harder than ever to less effect, has less security, a lower standard of living, and far, far less job satisfaction. Will this affect the inaugural lecture of the future? At christenings and weddings the video is standard fare. We could survive that. But commercial sponsorship? Top-flight guests live from California? Someone should write a book - Inaugurals I Have Known. It could be funny, sad, brilliant, disastrous - a blockbuster, or rather the maximum developmental initiative.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the student union at the Institute of Education and a member of the TUC general council.

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