Caught in the Middle
Academics these days are caught between a rock and a hard place.
On one side we have a government which seems not only malevolent but also utterly incompetent. I cite the recent example of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, which has completely lost control of its budget, meaning that further cuts are likely to a higher education sector already struggling to cope with the instability generated by constant meddling from successive governments.
On the other we have our students, who are definitely getting a very raw deal compared with those of my generation. Most are justifiably unhappy with the high level of fees they have to pay. Many also feel generally alienated by the way the country is run, for the benefit of the rich at the expense of the young and the poor. Recent campus protests across the country are clearly a manifestation of this groundswell of resentment, although in some cases they have clearly been hijacked by extremist elements who will protest about anything at the drop of a hat just for the sake of it.
In between we have us academics, the vast majority of whom agree with the students that UK higher education is in a complete mess and that the UK government is responsible. However, most of us also believe in the importance of universities as places of research, scholarship and teaching and want to carry out those activities as best we can for the benefit not only of our current students but for society as a whole.
So what should we academics who find ourselves caught in the middle do?
Unsurprisingly, opinions differ and I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself when I state mine. I think it’s the responsibility of academic staff to recognize the burden placed on our students by government and in the light of that do absolutely everything in our power to give them the best education we can. That means ensuring that as much of the money coming into universities from tuition fees goes directly towards improving the education of students – better teaching facilities, more and better trained staff and a better all-round experience of campus life. That is the reason that I did not participate in the recent strikes over pay: I absolutely refuse to take any action that would be in any way detrimental to the education of students in my School. Call me a scab if you wish. My conscience is clear. For me it’s not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of responsibility.
So what about the recent wave of student protests? Again, all I can do is give my own opinion (not that of my employer or anyone else) which is that I believe in the right to protest – as long as it’s peaceful – but targeting universities is short-sighted and counterproductive. I’m sure that all the government is delighted that none of the latest protests have been in Whitehall, which is where the focus of complaint should be, but instead dissipated at arms length in a series of futile and divisive campus demonstrations.
And if one of these protests causes enough disruption that it succeeds in closing down a university for good – and don’t tell me that this government won’t allow that to happen – what good will that have done?Follow @telescoper