Open windows for job opportunities?

September 29, 1995

What is happening to equal opportunities in our academic community? A post- doctoral temporary lecturer, having carried the department's teaching load for a year, was not even shortlisted for the permanent post. The reason? Her teaching load had prevented her producing sufficient publications. In another case, an interviewee who had juggled five part-time jobs successfully was asked: "How do you cope with just one salary and one job?" She was not appointed. Finally ten people were invited for interview for two jobs to find that one had already gone; a newly-appointed chair had insisted that her husband should get the job as part of a "package".

If the criteria for successful appointment are either publications or patronage, it makes a nonsense of equal opportunities and good recruitment practice. Universities have extremely elaborate equal opportunities procedures. They are time-consuming, complex and bureaucratic. The last thing they actually achieve is equal opportunities. You only have to look at the number of women in senior academic or administrative positions in universities to see that the old boy network is alive and well.

One writer said: "The research selectivity exercise is making a mockery of equal opportunity policies and the basic ethics of interview procedure. Why waste people's time advertising and calling to interview candidates you are never going to employ?" Another talked of a "culture of demoralisation and cynicism".

Originality of research and excellence in teaching appear to be struggling for the light and publications are judged by their weight in kilos. There seem to be overwhelming reasons to review the whole basis of the research funding formula. The need for a system which is transparent and encourages equal opportunities is important. Even more vital is the need to ensure real quality in research. Mechanistic quality control exercises will not achieve this if the system itself is unfair and does not give some security to our brightest and best.

At this month's Trades Union Congress I heard more reference to further and higher education than for many years - the financial plight of students, the casualisation of the workforce, low pay, and the threat to quality research were all mentioned several times. Not just by so-called education unions but across the industrial spectrum from civil servants to engineers. It underlined to me how important higher education is to society.

What happens in universities affects all seven million trade unionists - whether it is as consumers or because the impact of research touches their lives at work. Health and safety at work, medical research, economic or sociological studies, education research, legal rights at work, telecommunications and engineering developments mould our society and influence the quality of life of its citizens. It is clear to me from the strength of feeling about the Higher Education Funding Council for England's current formula that competition is the driving force in universities.

The price we pay for this may not become apparent for decades - the virtual privatisation of research, a small coterie of wealthy universities, degree factories for the majority of undergraduates. The funding council cannot be blamed for all this. It is merely reflecting the political will of the Government. Perhaps the time is right for them to put their collective head above the parapet and express some doubts about managing a flawed system.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education students' union, and a member of the Unison national executive and the TUC general council.

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