Heart of academia continues to beat

August 3, 2001

During the past 12 months I have been appraised, assessed, monitored and examined; evaluated, validated, scrutinised and observed. I have been appraised by my head of school while my research performance has been assessed by the deputy vice-chancellor. My teaching has been "peer group" assessed and my course booklets checked to see if they comply with "regulations". At the end of each semester, students have evaluated my performance and my module assignments and exam papers have been scrutinised by the external examiner. My marking has been reviewed by colleagues inside and outside of the university, and even as I write, my research performance is under the microscope of a research assessment exercise panel. My teaching-and-learning outcomes have been questioned by the appropriate boards and my assessment methods checked to see if they connect with my outcomes.

The new degree in criminology that I will begin to teach in autumn has lurched through countless meetings and boards, slowly dissected along the way before being born in front of members of other schools, other universities and the police. Each process involved the filling in of forms, reports, conclusions and recommendations; meetings and discussions; the production of documents; and arrangement of module boards, programme boards, quality and assessment boards and innovation and development boards.

I cannot begin to imagine the cost in monetary or labour terms, or simply in human terms. The worry, the nightmares, the scream inside your head as your professional life is opened on the dissecting table. And soon the transparency team of time-and-motion experts will be available at an institution near you.

This nightmare is, of course, part of the ongoing McDonaldisation of higher education, so beloved of new Labour that I am afraid it will continue to be part of all our professional lives for some time to come.

But resistance, as always, lurks in the cracks and crevices created by the hasty sticking together of structures of dominance.

When working for higher education becomes like working for a multinational car manufacturer, then we can expect the same responses to ensue. We can expect toilets to be continually occupied and experience a continuing procession of workers descending to smoking rooms deep in the bowels of our buildings where resistance ferments.

Humour strikes back as academic clowns corrupt the purity of the new order. We have all had those almost daily satirical emails that block the intranet as more dissidents add their own comments and the message gets longer, cascaded down to all. These messages have a life of their own and spill out to other universities to be forever forwarded.

Our everyday working lives are now about negotiating the web of rules and regulations that have been spun around us as the academic year slowly changes to accommodate corporate life. We are asked to work evenings and weekends, while the summer break slowly disintegrates to accommodate new ways of working and the demands of "flexible delivery". Vice-chancellors lie awake at night troubled by the continuing conundrum of empty staff car parks during the summer, as non-academic staff continue to send emails all summer long to absent academics so that by the beginning of September computer systems are clogged with thousands of emails about secretarial vacancies available in early July.

In times of change and struggle it is often difficult to experience anything positive going on as colleagues fall by the wayside suffering breakdowns or disappearing as a result of continuing rounds of redundancies. And yet teaching and research still goes on. Books get written and students still get excited and succeed, improve and leave as mature citizens. They keep in contact showing how important their experiences of university life has been to them. I recently received a letter from an ex-student who had started yet another girl band, sending me her new CD and at the same time reminding me of our many discussions on the meaning of modern music.

Now I am receiving requests to give references for my latest graduating students as they write about their plans for the future, asking if they can call on me for help at any time. They have changed and I have been privileged to be part of that change, to be part of their development.

In spite of all the pressure, much publishing still goes on. I gained great personal satisfaction, to be honest a real high, when my own book came out. I could still do it, I could still write, I could still think. My colleagues could criticise it, rip it to shreds, jump all over it, but it was there in the public domain. It is what I am paid to do - teach and write. From my privileged position in the university, I have a duty to be critical, be brave and say something. The heart of academic life is still beating and beating strongly.

We will all continue to work in the space between the dichotomies of old Labour and new Labour; old academe and new academe; pedagogy or products; collegiate life or corporate life; cooperation or competition; knowledge or skills; students or consumers; research or contract research. We will continue to worry about the managerial language that resonates every day through the corridors of our colleges. Teaching-and-learning speak, best practice, quality audits, customer charters and customer relations. The times they are a-changing. All may appear to be "cheerless, dark and dismal" but nevertheless we live in interesting times, which for us academics is always the spawning ground for creativity and ideas. And, anyway, I would not work anywhere else.

Mike Presdee is reader in Sunderland University's sociology and social policy department.

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