Thursday, July 16, 2009

We Need Good Polytechnics - not Bad Universities.

"University Shambles" is the title of my recent novel ( which is a black comedy but it does satire some of the worst developments in the vastly expanded and rejigged university system, as noted by a recent reviewer:

“A highly amusing insight into the university sector as it has recently expanded relentlessly under government edict. It presents a devastating picture of the extent to which the notion of scholarship has been betrayed by a culture of managerialism, where the mediocre is airbrushed into ‘excellence’, and achievement in research is subordinated to the spurious concept of‘ ‘academic leadership’ to engineer bogus professorships for the unworthy. One’s heart bleeds for the unfortunate hero lured by an unscrupulous vice-chancellor to throw in his lot with an institution where academic subjects are forced into an endless cycle of mergers with business-orientated units and his research belittled by envious superiors. One wishes only that we are given here a parody of life in some institutions – no such luck. A thoroughly good read, but best taken with a large scotch at hand to dull the pain as Charles’ life unravels.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself, and it’s all really rather sad. In principle, the idea of expanding access to higher education seems like a move of great social progress, but when thousands of graduates leave somewhere now called a university with a degree that does not fit them for the “world of work” (WoW), and having inherited a massive debt to boot, it is dubious that the opportunities of the young have been enhanced at all, and probably the reverse is the case. One vice chancellor is noted recently as saying that the university system is “no longer fit for purpose” and his university has now introduced a WoW course which teaches fledgling graduates among other things the importance of setting an alarm clock to get out of bed on time in the morning. Good for him in tackling the situation, but it does rather make an indictment of what the system has become.

Prior to 1992, there were polytechnics and universities and the two brands of institution had not been forged for a single purpose. The polys were excellent at their job and more practically based than the universities, and tended, having arisen from agglomerations of local colleges of technology, teacher training, agriculture and maybe business and the arts, to train their students to work in industry, and indeed had good connexions with local industry. The universities were autonomous institutions, with a strong commitment to academic freedom, but sadly in recent years more than one professor has been evicted by one means or another for voicing their opinion not only on what has happened to higher education but other matters too, which had been taken as a breach of confidence especially if the “university” they worked for had some vested interests in them.

The title “professor” is an issue in its own right, and indeed the right of entitlement to it. In the vastly expanded university system, there are professors with little or no credibly published work and yet they are supposed to be professor of a material subject such as “chemical education”, "evolutionary biology" or the like. This sounds good until someone looks into the credentials of such people and if an investigative journalist were to do that it would look highly embarrassing both for the individual and the university. However, many former polytechnics, in their attempt to become universities as they were urged to do in 1992, seem to have handed out the title and also the second in line to it - Reader - to members of staff for academic leadership (i.e. being head of department) or other more vague reasons, so that the accepted meaning of these titles is becoming devalued or lost entirely in some cases.

On inspection of the “criteria for promotion to reader and professor” at some universities, indeed research as measured by publications in internationally renowned journals is subordinated to perhaps fourth on the list below administration, academic leadership, course-design and so on. All are an essential part of a professor’s job but prior to 1992, without serious scholarship in evidence such an elevation would have been unthinkable; now it is commonplace. There are subjects too, such as Pharmacy Practice, where in order to attract someone from the profession - i.e. who has practised as a pharmacist - the only way that this kind of salary can be matched is to award them a professorship, even though they may have very weak scholastic accomplishments indeed. This sadly is the case even in some of the older and more established universities, not just ex-polys. The latter must appear particularly galling to members of staff in other subjects like physics and chemistry who despite excellent publication records and other internationally recognised measures of academic worth, are held-back on the reader scale for years and denied a professorship.

There has never been a time when Britain needs its higher education more than now. We are in the gravest economic peril, and probably the world is now at the end of capitalism with relentless growth no longer possible. As both oil and gas become rapidly more expensive and more scarce, revamping our farms to run on sustainable agriculture rather than oil-based fuels and fertilizers made from natural gas, providing as much energy as is possible from renewables, and most importantly developing the means for living which use far less energy are key to the survival of the nation. Bringing all of this about will take a great volume of such practical skills as were dispensed excellently by the polytechnics and their forerunner colleges, and we need a return to down to earth establishments like this, rather than “new universities” who are awarding degrees in media, psychology, football studies and so on, due to the government’s bums on seats funding policies.

The polytechnics should be fully reinstated with pride, and funded accordingly: we need good polys, not bad universities.

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