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Published on March 2nd, 2012 | by William Dahlgreen
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="567" caption="Undergraduates: backs turned to the Academy © DG Jones"][/caption]

“I’m no one’s boss, no one’s my boss”: the often cited reason why academia is (or, was) the perfect occupation. But this has all changed, and it’s not just scholars who are moaning. While the towers of intellect are distracted by targets and stringent publishing regulations, down below undergraduates are abandoned. And there’s certainly no funding for would-be brightstars to make amends.

Understandably, any talk of trouble for lecturers or postgraduates was swept away in the Browne report hurricane. And, of course, when people are struggling to eat, fewer care about struggling to learn. But social problems are all bound up with each other and some can be bad in their own right, despite not being on the breadline.

Let’s start at the bottom. Now that prospective undergraduate’s face extortionate fees, they’d be right to want an outstanding education. They’d be wrong, however, to expect one. Parents and students increasingly complain of a shoddy lack of attention. Tutorial hours are miniscule and feedback on assignments consists of numbers marked in categories, not comments. The average humanities students are taught for just six hours a week, so let’s do the sums. In a £9,000 academic year with 11 taught weeks in first semester and 9 in second, a humanities student pays £75 a lecture. Only half of these will be hosted by professional lecturers, the rest by PhD students.

The real problem is at the top. Of course, lecturers don’t grow on trees and undergraduate numbers are (well, were) increasing. This isn’t the only issue, though. A generation or more ago, lecturers were widely read and avidly kept up with scholarship, but they weren’t perpetual publishing machines. Inspiring students was the goal, whereas now rewards are with research. Teaching has become a real drag. Lecturers have ‘better stuff to get on with’ than listening to excited, broad young questions.

A reason: The Research Excellence Framework, the assessment scheme that “provides accountability for public investment in research and produces evidence of the benefits of this investment”. Really, the REF just encourages institutions to churn out paper after paper in the vain, silly hope of discovering the illusive, golden ‘money + time = quantifiable knowledge’ equation. The universities that rank high get more funding, but undergraduates see none of it. Lecturers’ time is gulped back up in the search for the winning formula and students are left with ‘online resources’ to battle through themselves.

In the middle, graduates, or soon-to-be, are forgotten by the Academy. There simply is no funding for MA’s and next to none for PhD’s. For students, the effects are awful. If you thought the fee-hike for undergraduates would disadvantage poorer students, the lack of funding for postgraduates knocks them completely off the deck. While student loans, though expensive, are easily available for the former, short of a bank loan there is simply no way to continue in education for the latter. Bizarrely, the US is well ahead of us here, with a federal loan scheme for postgraduates, much like our scheme for first-degrees. And rightly so; the prudential reasons to care are great too. The measurement of an economy’s strength now includes intellectual output, and with brilliant graduates being attracted by lower prices overseas, we’re missing out on a trick.

If there’s one place incentives are less necessary, it’s got to be the Academy. Not long ago, the pursuit of knowledge was of far greater value than the wage of a grad-scheme. Try cutting some ‘superstar lecturers’ wages, then, and use the money for more ordinary priced teachers. Deregulate the publication schedule so that attention trickles down to undergraduates. Who knows, free market principles might (unusually) work here. As for funding further study, that’s for the government to decide. But it’s not just a concern for advocates of fairness, it’s in the national interest too.

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The Academy: Trouble in Paradise

Undergraduates: backs turned to the Academy © DG Jones

“I’m no one’s boss, no one’s my boss”: the often cited reason why academia is (or, was) the perfect occupation. But this has all changed, and it’s not just scholars who are moaning. While the towers of intellect are distracted by targets and stringent publishing regulations, down below undergraduates are abandoned. And there’s certainly no funding for would-be brightstars to make amends.

Understandably, any talk of trouble for lecturers or postgraduates was swept away in the Browne report hurricane. And, of course, when people are struggling to eat, fewer care about struggling to learn. But social problems are all bound up with each other and some can be bad in their own right, despite not being on the breadline.

Let’s start at the bottom. Now that prospective undergraduate’s face extortionate fees, they’d be right to want an outstanding education. They’d be wrong, however, to expect one. Parents and students increasingly complain of a shoddy lack of attention. Tutorial hours are miniscule and feedback on assignments consists of numbers marked in categories, not comments. The average humanities students are taught for just six hours a week, so let’s do the sums. In a £9,000 academic year with 11 taught weeks in first semester and 9 in second, a humanities student pays £75 a lecture. Only half of these will be hosted by professional lecturers, the rest by PhD students.

The real problem is at the top. Of course, lecturers don’t grow on trees and undergraduate numbers are (well, were) increasing. This isn’t the only issue, though. A generation or more ago, lecturers were widely read and avidly kept up with scholarship, but they weren’t perpetual publishing machines. Inspiring students was the goal, whereas now rewards are with research. Teaching has become a real drag. Lecturers have ‘better stuff to get on with’ than listening to excited, broad young questions.

A reason: The Research Excellence Framework, the assessment scheme that “provides accountability for public investment in research and produces evidence of the benefits of this investment”. Really, the REF just encourages institutions to churn out paper after paper in the vain, silly hope of discovering the illusive, golden ‘money + time = quantifiable knowledge’ equation. The universities that rank high get more funding, but undergraduates see none of it. Lecturers’ time is gulped back up in the search for the winning formula and students are left with ‘online resources’ to battle through themselves.

In the middle, graduates, or soon-to-be, are forgotten by the Academy. There simply is no funding for MA’s and next to none for PhD’s. For students, the effects are awful. If you thought the fee-hike for undergraduates would disadvantage poorer students, the lack of funding for postgraduates knocks them completely off the deck. While student loans, though expensive, are easily available for the former, short of a bank loan there is simply no way to continue in education for the latter. Bizarrely, the US is well ahead of us here, with a federal loan scheme for postgraduates, much like our scheme for first-degrees. And rightly so; the prudential reasons to care are great too. The measurement of an economy’s strength now includes intellectual output, and with brilliant graduates being attracted by lower prices overseas, we’re missing out on a trick.

If there’s one place incentives are less necessary, it’s got to be the Academy. Not long ago, the pursuit of knowledge was of far greater value than the wage of a grad-scheme. Try cutting some ‘superstar lecturers’ wages, then, and use the money for more ordinary priced teachers. Deregulate the publication schedule so that attention trickles down to undergraduates. Who knows, free market principles might (unusually) work here. As for funding further study, that’s for the government to decide. But it’s not just a concern for advocates of fairness, it’s in the national interest too.

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About the Author

William Dahlgreen

Will is a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester, reading for a Master’s degree in Political Theory. A paper he wrote last year was accepted by the Manchester Centre for Political Theory, for a presentation at their conference of world-leading philosophers. He was the youngest and only pre-PhD contributor. During the university funding crisis he ran a Social Sciences Forum where 300 students, staff and members of the public debated and celebrated their subjects with a panel of renowned professors. Will wants to relate the ‘big questions’ of political philosophy to real-world issues. He believes philosophy gets too abstract because it’s isolated from the public, and real-world issues get muddled and full of rhetoric when they’re isolated from philosophy. He feels they ought to be combined and that this is the best way to engage the younger generation – everyone cares about their freedom; too few know that’s what politics is about.



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