Nottingham plan shortsighted

April 11, 1997

From Fergus Millar

YOUR REPORT about plans by Nottingham University to axe 50 academics (THES, March 28) illustrates the damaging consequences of the unthinking enforcement by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of Government instructions.

"Under-performing" means not having produced enough publications in the latest research assessment period. Every department in Nottingham is supposed to reach at least grade four next time round (if there is one - the Labour party document Lifelong Learning contains fundamental criticisms of RAEs). But even as regards research, is it in the public interest that academics should be under serious pressure to produce an even flow of publications-to-order, neatly spaced out into RAE periods? What about long-term research which may need the exploration of new areas of knowledge, or the acquisition of new skills, such as languages? Far from encouraging excellence, plans such as Nottingham's promote conformity, subservience and superficiality.

Beyond that, is it in the public interest that the pushing-out of more research should be given priority over the education of students? Could it not be argued that attention to teaching and pastoral care is more in the public interest, and has a more urgent claim on public funds? The priorities expressed by Nottingham can only tend to pressurise academics, against their own ideals, into cutting the time spent on teaching, and shutting the door on students with problems. Tax-paying parents should take note.

But there is a yet more sinister aspect. It is generally known in higher education that Nottingham is run in a conspicuously hierarchical and centralised fashion. Several aspects of its administration have attracted attention in recent years, as did the suicide of a professor who found the values expressed by the university unacceptable. There is an urgent need for openness, frank debate and accountability. But if the removal of tenure under the 1988 Act is going to be reinforced by threats to academics who do not keep to their studies or laboratories, and focus on their research, will not academic democracy be more undermined?

The Council for Academic Autonomy has proposed both to the Dearing committee and to the Labour party that it should in future be a condition of the public funding of any university that it has a constitution which allows its academic staff access to information and a right of representation on decision-making bodies.

Fergus Millar, Council for Academic Autonomy

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