Gary Day

March 28, 2003

'What if you don't fancy "servicing the local economy", a phrase that makes what's probably a respectable activity sound like an arrestable offence?'

The government wants academics to quit what they do best and help business. Not everyone buys that argument

According to a recent survey, more than a quarter of academics are thinking about leaving the profession. Is that all? I would have thought that the majority, fed up with pay, paperwork and now the latest government proposals, would be considering a change of career.

As "learning deliverers", we're already halfway to being motorcycle couriers. Why bother to initiate students into the mysteries of the signifier when we could be bombing around town - and in leather, too?

Unless you're a postmodernist, the facts speak for themselves. While average wages have risen 45 per cent in the past 20 years, academic pay has increased by only 4 per cent. But, of course, we don't do it for the money, do we? Idealists that we are, we do it to make a difference. Nor are we the sort to be swayed by the faddishness that affects City types. Remember how they used to go round on silver mini-scooters? You might get a postmodernist on one, but not a Leavisite like me. Besides, my eight-year-old doesn't like me borrowing her things.

No, we don't do it for money, we do it for love. Unfortunately, that does not impress the bank, the council or the credit-card company. They would much rather we did it for filthy lucre, and lots of it.

But the argument that we read and write and teach for love is beginning to look distinctly shaky after the white paper, which may well result in up to 12,000 of us not being allowed to research any more. Instead, we have to concentrate on what we do best. As the 2001 research assessment exercise showed, what we do best is research, but there is no accounting for the logic of new Labour. Remember, we have a prime minister who thinks George W. Bush talks sense.

So now, instead of doing what we do best, we have to help business. Well, I think we've helped them enough already. How much public money that could have gone to universities has been used to rescue private companies, whose ways we are urged to adopt?

Still, there are those who will argue that business has done a lot for us.

For a start, it's given us a whole new vocabulary to help us do our job better. As a literary critic, I once gave a moment's thought to this invasive idiom. What to make of the preoccupation with performance? And why this obsession with outcomes? It's obvious, isn't it? Managers can't manage in the bedroom. Don't get me wrong, I'm no expert, but even I know that quality enhancement in that department is not best served by thinking solely about the end product. It's the same with learning. The process is exciting because you never know what's going to happen. The tyranny of outcomes is that they prevent us from experiencing anything new, condemning us to repetition.

What if you don't fancy "servicing the local economy", a phrase that makes what is probably quite a respectable activity sound like an arrestable offence? Are there any alternative careers open to those such as myself who believe that, say, Augustan critical writing is valuable precisely to the extent that politicians and corporate executives cannot see the point of it?

I always fancied being a footballer but - Jhandicapped by a total lack of talent and, lately, age - I won't ever run out for Leeds now.

Acting is a possibility. Most of us now accept that we are there to entertain students, not to educate them - try doing that and they'll probably leave. The true test of whether you can make it as an actor is if you can look amazed when an evangelical from teaching and learning brings you the good news that teaching and learning are very important.

Can't do that? OK, how about a career in sales? If you can persuade your students that buying the set book might possibly be of benefit to them and then, on top of that, convince them to read it as well, you could be earning a six-figure salary within weeks. Not only that, but as a real business person, you get to annoy people on trains by bellowing into your mobile details of your holiday in Sweden to Malcolm in accounts.

Or how about being a pundit? I am sure Jeremy Paxman would find it refreshing to interview a few people who knew what they were talking about.

As for me, I'll stay where I am. Despite the pay and conditions, there are few things more uplifting than imparting a desire for truth, a delight in discovery, a joy in thinking, a feeling for value, a respect for difference, and a care for what we have in common. In this dark time, it is worth remembering that there are some things worth fighting for.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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