What was it ever made me think I wanted to become an academic? Not the pay, for sure, nor the glamour. Outside universities, people conjure up an image of us all sitting in oak-panelled rooms conversing with students eager to hear what we have to say. You get that in films all the time – think about Michael Caine in Educating Rita, for a start. Oh, very glamorous, all those books, all that learning, all those glasses of sherry. The reality in our mass education system of 2008 is quite a bit different.
My office is in a death trap of a building that has lifts that break down all the time and that hasn’t been repainted since I first went in there donkey’s years ago. The place was designed by an architect who’d specialised in mental hospitals, all narrow corridors with little cells opening off in dismal rows and no social spaces at all in case the crazies start to fraternise. Common rooms? Figments of a film-maker’s Oxbridge imagination. In winter, when you open your door you stumble straight into crowds of evil-smelling students in wet hoodies and unwashed jeans. It’s no better in summer, as they either can’t afford deodorant or think it’s cooler to go without.
As for learning, half of them aren’t properly awake before noon, being either hung over or suffering from some form of stress-related malady; some of them live in a perpetual dope-induced fog, and the ones who do turn up on time bitch about whether what you’re saying is going to help them pass their exams. If it doesn’t seem relevant to them, they switch off at a stroke.
“In winter, when you open your door you stumble straight into crowds of evil-smelling students in wet hoodies and unwashed jeans”
They all seem to have bought into the myth that if they get a degree – regardless of what Mickey Mouse subject they do it in and what woefully inadequate penny-pinching institution is handing it out – they are going to be “successful” later in life. It boggles the mind that so many supposedly intelligent young people can still believe that old line, even when they are running up tens of thousands of pounds of debt and the latest figures show that by 2020 nobody under retirement age is going to be able to afford to buy even the smallest house in Britain.
No, I didn’t go into the hothouse world of universities either for the money or the glamour. I was one of those naive fools who thought it might be rewarding to help young minds develop an interest in the sort of things I enjoyed learning about – great poets of the past and present, the movement of ideas across time and space, revolutionary ideals and passionate individuals who pioneered social change. Read, read, I urged in my salad days, read and reflect and respond, perhaps one day some of you will become the great writers of your generation. Hard to remember those ideals as I shovel papers from our PVC for Quality and Learning Enhancement (God almighty!), who must have been trained on videos of the Waffen SS, into the recycling bin, after wasting an afternoon trying to send a report on an online form that refused to accept anything I typed in.
You can’t even lighten your days with a quick fag, as we’re smoke-free even outside the building now, and you can’t keep bottles in your office in case you offend someone’s religious sensibilities. Roll on retirement, I say. Though by the time I’m ready to call it a day, the universities pension scheme will probably have collapsed. O tempora! O mores!