Little room left for discretion

August 19, 2005

Over-regulation is likely to damage our traditional university culture, argues Graham Everest

In recent months, I have sat on a committee whose aim was to agree a uniform system of penalties for late submission of course work. I was amazed by the technicalities. For example, the phrase "one day late" can be interpreted in several ways: should we refine the scale of penalties to take account of fractional days? Again, should Saturday and Sunday count as working days?

The context for discussions such as these is that my university, in common with others, seeks greater transparency in its definitions and codes of practice. This is laudable; quality assurance has ushered in a culture of reflection that has brought many gains.

Besides this, universities are more accountable than ever to students, who pay larger sums of money than ever. Inevitably, this promotes the fear that universities will need to protect themselves from a rising tide of complaints and litigation. What we are doing is prudent and, so it seems, inevitable. But is it wise?

Our goal as academics is to build and sustain a community of scholarship.

There are plenty of models of community, and I have the privilege to belong to several. Trust is central to the formation and sustainment of any community. Therefore, the trend towards greater formal processes and heavy regulatory frameworks in universities troubles me greatly. We are in danger of losing something very precious, perhaps unique to the world of higher education.

Over a long period, this world has grown thanks to a shared vision of knowledge as something worth attaining. Students learn from those who themselves learn, and in this there is an unspoken inherent integrity.

Students appreciate that academic judgment is often a fine and delicate thing, one that is not always easy to quantify and does not always bear close scrutiny. We don't simply teach our students, they become more like apprentices and we have the extraordinary privilege of gaining some insight into their struggles not just to study but to survive.

I am not alone in valuing graduation day as the most important of the academic year. Some of my students have to overcome extremely difficult circumstances; in times past, when they turned up stressed because they missed a deadline, I reserved the right to exercise the spirit of our university regulations rather than the letter. This will happen no more.

In the university cultures that are forming around the country, I fear that life will work according to principles different from those we have followed in the past. I wonder if the new watchword is really "suspicion", even if you will not see it written down in any regulations. Do we suspect that because students will pay more for their education (although still a fraction of the true cost), they will be more inclined to complain and more scrupulous in ensuring they receive what they think they deserve? Is there a danger too that our actions might promote what we seek to avoid?

Until recently, I have reserved deliberations of this kind for informal discussions with colleagues. Now I want to speak out in case others are having similar uneasy feelings about what we are doing. I had supposed that what was happening was inevitable and that any attempt to fight it was simply to admit to the charge of being unworldly or foolish.

But if we persist in creating heavily regulated and formalised cultures in universities, and in removing the role of trust in sustaining scholarly communities, we will have lost a precious stone indeed.

Graham Everest, School of Mathematics, University of East Anglia.

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