Unitary authority

June 13, 1997

In a recent conversation about progress with the new campus development at the University of Nottingham, it emerged that one of the senior planners for the project had commented that "we should be able to put about a thousand units in here". My correspondent initially wondered what such "units" might be - new offices? new overhead projectors? new PC terminals?

Asking for clarification, it turned out that the planner was referring to the number of students that would be accommodated on the new site. This interestingly raises the question of whether a further transition is taking place even beyond seeing students as "clients" or "customers", to seeing them simply as entirely dehumanised "units". Perhaps a new terminology will emerge: we could have undergraduate units and postgraduate units. Admissions tutors might discuss the characteristics of neo- or proto-units, and examiners of post-units. Student progress could be described in terms of unit-modular development, and syllabus planning in terms of fast-track and slow-track unit-modular trajectories.

Having applied the calculator and theodolite, and having assessed the economic inputs and outputs in the "brave new world" of higher education, one wonders where this leaves the academic staff. In taking care - or should that be in "servicing" the units - should we abandon jacket and tie and take up overalls and steel helmets, should we relieve ourselves of any pastoral role and take up the new "operators manual for undergraduate units", should we forget our notions of progress and development in favour of ideas about efficiency and functionality? Time for a tutorial: could you pass me that Krypton tuning sensor please?

Paul Ransome

Lecturer in sociology Department of sociology and anthropology University of Wales Swansea

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