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October 06, 2008

44 Years of Academic Life: So what changed?

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison says good bye to 44 years of academic life - and reflects on what has got worse, and what has got better in those years.

It's a long way from the cavalry twill trousers and sports jackets of University College Oxford in 1964 to the huge lean mean academic machine which is the University of Warwick in 2008.

The journey took me through a completely different stage of Warwick's history, when it was a building site swarming with wannabe revolutionaries who wanted to claim the campus as a first step to taking over the world. Also, more briefly, to dozens of universities around the world, ranging from sleek Stanford to desperate Tbilisi.

All across this time and space some things never really changed at all: the earnestness of two bearded academics discussing their research, the exuberance and relief as students burst out of a lecture theatre, the overstuffed look of the average noticeboard . . . . all of these things tell me that I am where I belong, willy nilly and however reluctantly . . . in a university.

But the purpose of this essay is not to record the consistencies of university life, it is to assess the changes that have happened in British Universities in my time.

The bad news first.
The second worst thing that happened was the expansion of the proportion of the "age cohort" going to university from not much more than 5% to an aspiration to 50%. I can't claim to have suffered personally from this - generally it enhanced career prospects and options for academics - but I am convinced it is a bad thing.

Many a report has been commissioned claiming that investment in higher education offers great returns, often the best returns of any investment, in terms of GDP. They would say that, wouldn't they? Such arguments ignore the macroscopic evidence that (for instance) Switzerland has managed pretty well economically while having fewer graduates than anywhere in Eastern Europe.

It does depend on what you mean by education: you can't have been involved in universities as long as I have without becoming aware that, though serious studying is a great source of joy to some people, to most it is an irksome and unnatural activity - this includes the gentry who were still numerous in Oxford when I was an undergraduate.

But a purely economic argument takes no account of the appalling glass ceilings created by a large university sector. I have a long list of people who were very successful in the twentieth century without having much formal education: it includes two of the last four Prime Ministers of the century in Jim Callaghan and John Major.

But it will never happen again because you have to be a graduate to have any sort of career now. In my generation, for instance, you generally did have to get a degree if you wanted to be a barrister, but that wasn't true for solicitors. University law degrees teach you how to make the fine conceptual distinctions needed for a High Court judgement. They do not tell you how to talk to a woman who thinks her husband is committing adultery or how to do conveyancing - and nor should they. As Fred Hirsch argued in Social Limits to Growth in 1976 when 5% of the population go to university there are considerable benefits and very few disadvantages for the other 95%, but when 50% go there are huge costs and restrictions for the remaining 50%.

The worst thing about the "50% Uni" world is not the "dumbing down" it is the "dumbing across". A huge university sector is expected to "meet the needs of society" by training people in management and social administration etc. These unintellectual activities become the norms of the university. In my ideal world, universities would be eccentric backwaters whose theoretical output changed the needs of society in the long term.

But the worst thing that happened started life, like so many bad things, as a good idea. Back in the 1980s the Thatcher Government, wanting to maintain the existence of state-of-the-art science in the country, set up a Research Selectivity Exercise to decide which (say) four physics departments should get the money for advanced research.

Good idea, but it soon morphed viciously into the Research Assessment Exercise which applied to absolutely everybody in the entire university sector, including those in former polytechnics and law schools and business schools who had always seen themselves as teachers rather than researchers. And those subjects, like philosophy and literary criticism in which it is not clear what "research" means, though it is clear that you don't need any massive "funding" to do it.

I thought that the RAE was rubbish when it was introduced twenty years ago and now I think it was and is evil rubbish, a piece of Soviet-style planning, state-manipulated competition in the tradition of Evsei Liberman, who introduced league tables and naming and shaming for Soviet factories. What could be more Soviet than setting production targets for goods nobody wants and which the producers are ill-equipped to produce? Is there any gain to compensate us for the sheer waste of life that goes into the unread article?

There are 73 recognised journals in politics alone. Such is the effect of status and competition that that the mentality of the RAE seeped into every corner of academic life. Ordinary, tolerable people became like drooling beasts, prepared to sack and bully to get a "5" (the system was essentially the same as that used in Thank Your Lucky Stars). It became a shyster's charter. Have you heard of "citation cartels" in which institutions rig up a system to reference and review favourably each other's work?

But my sticking point was the way in which the RAE legitimised the devaluing of teaching and allowed, for example, the doubling of class sizes to leave more time for "research". That hurt, because I used to think that the emphasis on small-group discussion was one of the practices we could be most proud of in British universities. I feel about those who actively cooperated with the RAE more or less as most Frenchmen felt in 1945 about those who actively cooperated between 1940 and 1945.

And now the good news.
The minor theme is a triumph of head over heart and instinct because it is the enhancement of communication. When a colleague first emailed me from a few yards away I went immediately to her and remonstrated. Why had she not come to see me? I think I may have rambled on about dehumanisation because I was conscious of Lewis Mumford's argument about technological addiction and Tibor Scitovsky's analysis of the profound and hidden cultural costs of convenience.

But, reluctantly, I now concede that that email, certainly, and the mobile phone more dubiously did actually make life better. A student's puzzlement about an argument could be dealt with by an immediate exchange of emails - particularly useful for a semi-retired teacher as I have been for the last three years. There were no longer any excuses for unexplained absences or the lack of an essay. Field trips could be more relaxed because a lost soul could be easily traced.

All in all I concluded that this was great provided that you used the technology in such a way as to complement human contact rather than to replace it. But you have to be careful: never put your lectures on the web, for instance.

Better even than this, was globalisation. Purely selfishly, it meant opportunities to travel beyond my wildest dreams when I started. Academic life has paid for me to go to the Alps, the Himalayas, the Caucasus, mountains, the Rockies, the Great Dividing Range . . . . and that's just a small selection of the mountains.

But the wider effects are also good. In recent times most classes I have taught have had a minority of non-English students. It is good for the English to meet people who are more earnest and ambitious than themselves. It is good for the Chinese (of whom there are about 2000 at Warwick) to be exposed to a culture which, whatever its faults, remains resolutely liberal. Some of the most moving moments of my academic life were when Japanese students (especially) explained how sad they were to leave and how much they had learned from their English university experience.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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It's a small (and gushing) thing, but - Lincoln Allison's students were evidently very lucky to have him as a *teacher*.

Posted by: SAU fan at October 13, 2008 11:25 PM
never put your lectures on the web, for instance.

Pourquoi? I would give an example from the one subject I teach (my escape from research) which is history of maths. I find 35 minutes is not enough time for the students to copy the diagrams and arguments from Archimedes that I present. (The rest of the lecture is parallel developments in China.)

Any advice most welcome.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 14, 2008 07:17 PM
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