Methinks they protest too much

May 3, 1996

There is ill-disguised contempt within the higher education establishment for the to-ings and fro-ings which are supposed to have added up to a Government policy on higher education in recent years. However, it is difficult not to have sympathy for those charged with responsibility for higher education.

They are faced with the cushy academic world, peopled by overpaid, underworked academics who moan constantly about under-resourcing, and the majority of whom quite clearly espouse dubious political viewpoints. Yet there is also the state of the economy. Declining unemployment, low inflation and respectable economic growth have only been brought about by the rigorous implementation of policies designed to eradicate the subversive desire for a never-ending free lunch that plagued the United Kingdom in the 1970s.

The people who create real wealth, the entrepreneurs and industrialists, must be allowed to pursue the incentives of the market place unfettered by high taxation and red tape. If state spending is to be controlled, then how high a priority is higher education? University lecturers spend a third of the year on holiday, and only a few hours a week with their students during term time. Even if salaries are not up there with bankers and accountants, they have plenty of time to augment their earnings.

There are not many votes in spending more on the universities. Look at some other public services, and you see the scale of the public relations problem. Nurses are highly qualified, hard-working lifesavers who are paid a pittance. The police, no matter what some Trots might say, are in the frontline of our battle against the tidal wave of crime. The fire service put their lives on the line for us every day. The armed forces can point to the Falklands, to the Gulf and to the substantial "peace dividend" savings which have already been made. Even schoolteachers seem to have had some success in persuading the public that not quite all society's ills can be attributed to pupil-centred learning and the real books approach to reading. Recent tragic events have rubbed in the message that teaching may not be quite the cushy number of yesteryear.

What is the reaction of the higher education establishment? The standard academic folly of presenting the facts and imagining that they alone will win the argument has been one. "There has been a 29 per cent reduction in the unit of resource within the university system over the last five years". . . so what? and what is a unit of resource, anyway? If one or two lecturers are finding out what an honest day's work is, so much the better! In all likelihood there has been hectic lobbying, with Oxbridge-educated vice chancellors ringing up Oxbridge-educated ministers and senior civil servants, and explaining just how terrible it all is. But if your starting point is a vision of higher education as a tutor in an oak-clad study sipping sherry and discussing the finer points of Kant with an articulate, begowned undergraduate, then a few percentage points of efficiency gain do not seem terribly unreasonable. After all, would not two students at a time represent an efficiency gain of 100 per cent?

These may seem like the embittered ravings of someone who became unhinged on realising what a mistake he had made leaving a well-paid executive career for the impoverished life of a polytechnic lecturer some five and a half years ago. This is a reasonable diagnosis. I estimate the cost so far of my transfer into academia as about Pounds 80,000 gross. For each further year of folly, add Pounds 15,000.

1990 was not exactly the brightest year in which to enter the academic profession. Many of the aspects of a lecturer's life which have made up for the lack of income have been eroded. Nevertheless, and despite the encroachment of the "managerial culture", lecturers retain more independence of thought, and have more time and opportunity for creative reflection, than the managers I encounter in the course of my work.

"Efficiency gains" have probably gone far enough. I fear for the quality of students' education, and the safety and hygiene of buildings, should even more "efficiency" be demanded. But, given the many equally or more pressing demands on the public purse, I would feel reassured if there were evidence of a reasonably coherent and well thought-out approach to the public presentation of the case for investing more. Internal squabbles - between the "old" and the "new" universities, "research" and "teaching" institutions, "academics" and "administrators", and the inability of the two lecturers' unions to arrive at any kind of understanding - seem to render this impossible. Faced with a considerable external threat, the response seems to have been to prosecute internal factional disputes with ever greater vigour. Understandable, perhaps, but far from reassuring.

Ross Brennan is a senior lecturer at Middlesex University Business School.

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