What to cut in universities?
I went into work about 8.15 this morning, just when Michael Arthur, the chair of the Russell Group of universities, was on the Today programme, complaining about government cuts in higher education.
He was right, of course. Compare France and Germany, whose response to the recession has been to INCREASE university funding (even if that funding is more PR than real, it still says something that Sarkozy and Merkel think that more money into higher education will be a popular move). And he didnt do badly, but he didnt do that well either. You would have thought that he would have prepared some kind of answer to the obvious question: "So if we are not going to save money on universities, where SHOULD the savings come from?" I suppose it would have been hard for him to say what many of us think: ID cards, Trident, Afghanistan. But he might have had some clever riposte up his sleeve. In fact, he was floored.
And I didn't take too well to all that jargon about 'the knowledge economy' and 'the sector': the former is a bureaucrat's word for what I do (teaching and research), the latter a bureaucrat's word for universities. But overall for me Arthur was on the side of the angels, compared with many of the commenters on the Guardian's web site -- who posted in response to the paper's article on university cuts (the article which had prompted Today's interview).
OK some of them had some good words to say for us. But a large number were of the opinion that universities were a waste of time, that degrees could well be done in two years because we didnt bother to teach the kids anyway, and that Oxbridge dons were an especially lazy load of tossers. As one put it, there were 'plenty of people doing "useless" degrees, usually at Oxbridge with names like Classics and three 8 week terms with the final term dedicated to exams (yes that's 16 weeks per year for a degree level education and perhaps 3 tutorial hours per week)'.
I wish he (or she) could have seen my, pretty ordinary, term-time day -- which went something like this.
I was at work at home at 7.30 -- emailing students, about things that had come in over night. I went to the Faculty at 8.15, to get some essay and lecture bibliographies together. At 10.00 I had a meeting about promotions in another Faculty (I'm the internal 'external' rep)....I was back in Classics again at about 11.45 in time to see five graduate students in a row, and get to my College, my other place of work, by 2.30...(I chose its gate for the picture at the top of this post by the way, in case you are wondering about the metal work).
After 5 minutes with my assistant (yes I know I am very lucky on that score....), who had done some industrial quantities of xeroxing, I saw each of the Newnham Classics third years for 15 minutes, to discuss their work schedule for the term (cutting it fine, and I got behind, but they are all coming to my home on Sunday evening, when the loose ends can be picked up). After that I saw groups of first and second years, a second year historian from another college who will be taking ancient history with me this term, and a third year whose dissertation I'm supervising....then a graduate I hadn't met before, who is going to be doing some work on Jane Harrison.
I got home by about 7.00 .... husband had done supper, so that I could start going through draft exam papers. I'm an exam board chair and I needed to read over all the papers submitted for an examiners meeting tomorrow, looking for errors, duplications, typos etc. That took until 12.30... which I reckon is a 17 hour day, minus a half hour for supper.
The knowledge economy on overtime.
So where might we save money in 'the sector'? Well the husband had a bright idea during our brief supper. Given these times of stringency, shouldn't we be abolishing the REF? It isnt going to tell us anything we didn't know any way... and it must cost millions. At least enough to save a few hard-working academics and departments from the axe. In other walks of life, this would be called pruning the bureaucrats and channelling resources to the front line (ie the teachers...).