Money talks, but don't let it dictate our future

September 10, 2004

If we fail to take collective action now, only the rich will be able to afford to join the profession, argues Bob Brecher.

How can we reconcile the legitimate demands of a mass higher education system -which is supposed to offer a critical education to everyone who can benefit from it - with more traditional and equally legitimate demands? In particular, what is to be done about postgraduate education?

This has to be one of the most pressing issues facing any academic who cares about the future of our profession. For without an effective means of renewal -which is what academic postgraduate work is about - there will be no academic profession in a couple of generations' time. More cynical colleagues might, of course, think that that's exactly what Labour has in mind. After all, if the minister for schools can argue that a 25 per cent A/AS-level pass rate at grade A is evidence of ever-improving academic achievement, he must be either lying or unbelievably stupid - clearly something he has in common with his colleagues.

Either way, things look grim. As tuition fees kick in to discourage anyone without rich parents from adding to their already enormous undergraduate debt by staying on for postgraduate study, so the profession looks set to become the province of the rich, as it used to be before the "aberration" of the welfare state (Tim Brown, Soapbox, Times Higher , August 13).

So what can we do? The bureaucracy of the impossibly underresourced and nightmarishly Soviet-style anti-education "delivered" to undergraduates already makes vast demands on time, energy and patience. As does the research assessment exercise. Then, of course, there are all the other impositions of everyday managerialism. One solution might be to get out of undergraduate teaching. But that shifts the problem to colleagues for whom that get-out isn't an option. Nor does it address the issues of who goes in for postgraduate work and what sort of academic standards we can retain in a system where students buy an "education".

It won't stop postgraduates coming to "be made up of a select group from Britain's privileged classes and an increasing number of international students, brought in to bridge the gap resulting from years of underfunding" (Tim Brown). Worse, passing the buck is morally irresponsible. It would return us to some of the profession's least endearing egoisms and the old elitism that made us so vulnerable to the neoliberals' onslaught in the first place. So, if you find yourself tempted, don't forget that this sort of two-tier system of control is exactly what Labour is promoting, redrawing the old binary divide further up the pecking order.

If we are to do better than that, we'll need to be more imaginative, but at the same time entirely traditional. The tradition I have in mind is trade unionism. Recent calls for elite academics to swap union membership for professional agents would leave most of us in a position rather like that of footballers outside the Premiership. We need to make our unions our own and make them get a grip on political issues such as the future of postgraduate education. The only realistic way of stopping the profession degenerating into a closed shop for moneyed ladies and gentlemen of leisure is by doing something about it collectively. It's also the only way to resist the other pressures of neoliberal philistinism.

So the first step seems obvious. Stick to properly agreed maximum teaching hours across the board. Make sure undergraduate tutorials count. Make sure your postgraduate teaching and supervision hours are properly recognised.

In short, don't do unpaid work and, through your union, make sure your managers can't force you to. You owe at least that to the future.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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