The academics' life of 'grunge' is a threat to future

May 12, 2000

Among the first 23 fellowships awarded by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts are a handful to academics (pages 20-21). These have gone not to young people with talent and a reputation still to make but to people who are well known but who do not have the time within their academic committments to do their thing. They are buying the time of talented people of established reputation.

When the scheme was first announced, it was seen as a way of supporting talented individuals so that they could realise their potential. Nesta's money would make up for vanishing discretionary grants - and for tighter control of the unemployment benefit that illicitly supported many talented young artists in laxer days. As the scheme develops it will need to make sure the main emphasis is on young people at the start of their careers. More rather smaller fellowships might do more to liberate potential.

That apart, what Nesta has indirectly drawn attention to is the overwhelming burden of what one successful fellow describes as the "grunge" that now deflects academics (whether in arts or sciences) from their core creative work. The awards also highlight the difficulty of getting support for work outside neat research assessment categories.

One small part of the engulfing grunge is the government-ordered, funding council-administered transparency review. The aim is to separate spending on teaching from spending on research to check whether universities are being so independent-minded as to vire money between the two. Dislike in Whitehall of what a previous Tory higher education minister described as the "black hole" into which universities' block grants apparently disappear is of long standing. Now eight universities have made pilot studies and at least two, as we report on the front page, have been doing their own to try to separate the funding. From September, all will be required to follow suit.

But the results may come back to haunt those who ordered the scrutiny. Unofficial reports from the pilots confirm the findings emerging from the go-it-alone studies: research is being subsidised from other sources. And this is putting a strain on universities' ability to do other things. But the subsidy is not coming from already inadequate teaching allocations. It is coming from "o" - other resources. These resources include revenue from fundraising, from commercial contracts, from fees and all the entreprenurial activities in which universities are now involved. This may be a very right and proper use of such earnings. But what is also emerging is that the largest subsidy of all is coming from unpaid overtime worked by university staff.

People engaged in research have always been willing to work all the hours God gave. But now on top of their research, and cutting into the time spent on it, are not only greatly increased teaching responsibilities thanks to increased student numbers, but all the grunge of grant applications, teaching assessments, diary exercises, as well as the activities that earn those other revenues. The pilots are likely to show how far academics are now part of the over-work culture; how far their working conditions diverge from the European working time directive; how cheaply government and industry are getting their research; and the damage that may be done through disaffection among researchers (page 4) - evident even among relatively privileged Medical Research Council staff - both to the flow of research and to education at university level if this over-burdening and exploitation carries on unchecked.

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