Monday, May 14, 2012

The Authors’ Show: Chris Rhodes being interviewed by Danielle Hampson about his novel, “University Shambles”, 10.00 PDT (6.00 PM, UK Summer Time) May 10th, 2012.

The following is a transcript of an interview with Danielle Hampson on The Author's Show, about my novel, University Shambles.

There will be a link available shortly.

DH: In just a few sentences, how would you summarize your book?

CR: It’s about one man’s naked ambition and hunger for recognition. This is probably not an uncommon scenario in many walks of life, but the hero of this book, Charles Rae, happens to be a lecturer working at a mid-ranking university whose boss refuses to promote him on grounds of his youth. He’s 32. Almost as an answer to some silent prayer, one day his phone rings and he is head-hunted with the offer of a full-professorship at the Evergreen Epstein University, a former polytechnic. So, in a spirit of elation, he moves up to the city of Evergreen to take the post, but this proves to be a poisoned chalice and his life steadily and completely unravels.

DH: How true to life is the plot of University Shambles?

CR: Oddly enough, someone who had read the book said to me: “I didn’t know you were at “X” University.” I said, “I wasn’t.” “Oh,” she said, “it’s just that some of the events and characters remind me of...” And this is the reaction I have had from people working at universities across the spectrum – from the very top, down to somewhere near the bottom of the league - so I guess it’s pretty true to life across the board of modern universities.

DH: How have universities changed over the years?

CR: The major change is that in 1992, the British government decided to re-label the polytechnics as universities and quadruple the number of students going to somewhere called a “university”. So, when I went in the late 1970s the proportion was about 10% going into higher education, now it’s around 45%.

DH: Was the expansion of the British university system, in 1992, a good thing?

CR: No, it wasn’t. The only reason the government did it was to cover-up the true level of youth unemployment. So, many of those who would have been classified as unemployed, instead ended up in education and training, which is far less embarrassing for a government that wants to get re-elected.

DH: 20 years on from then, how has the scheme unfolded?

CR: 20 years on, good polytechnics, which dealt more with practical training, local industry etc. have been destroyed and turned into “bottom league” universities. But simultaneously, the more established universities have been infected by the bureaucracy that did indeed beset the polytechnics, so both systems have suffered.

DH: You have written the novel in the style of a black comedy, but are you trying to make some more serious points about higher education and where it is/should be going?

CR: Yes, it is a black comedy, or satire, but I am intending to reveal the university system, to the unaware and the unwary, for what it has become, and to show that it urgently needs overhauling to be of any use.

DH: What is your opinion about the introduction of "tuition fees" for British students?

CR: Well, this was all part of the huge expansion in student numbers. Essentially the system became so big that the government couldn’t afford to fund it, so the costs of the expansion had to be borne by its “customers”, as students are now called. So, now they all pay tuition fees, or at least bear the debt of them, until they earn above... I think it’s about £23,000 a year. Now universities are fined if they recruit too many students, in an effort to keep the government’s own costs down.

DH: You refer to "bums on seats" funding for universities - can you explain what this means in practice?

CR: “Bums on seats”. Well, in British slang a bum is a bottom – a posterior, rather than the American term for a vagrant - and so the term refers to the number of students sitting in lecture rooms in universities. The funding is given to universities per student, and so the more bums on seats the more money they get. A corollary to this is that little consideration is given to what subjects are being studied. Clearly, with a majority studying subjects that are deemed trendy or sexy, but of limited value in getting a job afterwards, like media studies, forensics, sports science and so on, there will be many unemployed graduates in the future.

DH: You are a little scathing about science funding, almost implying that some very expensive research is perhaps frivolous. Do you think that some of it is?

CR: A massive proportion of the science budget is spent on things like particle physics and astronomy. Now, while this is all cutting-edge stuff in terms of the acquisition of human knowledge, the world is facing some considerable and unprecedented challenges. For example, how we are to provide energy in the future with a decline in fossil fuels; how are we going to feed a population growing from 7 billion, and indeed to address a need to teach more practical skills to the young, as civilization becomes necessarily less global and more local, as cheap oil supplies decline? I think resources should be targeted toward these matters. The rest is a luxury that we won’t have for much longer if we don’t get our house in order to face the future in a sustainable way.

DH: What do you feel are the main differences, if any, between British and American universities?

CR: In a way the two are becoming more similar. Traditionally in the U.S., more students went to college – i.e. into higher education – and it was quite normal to “work your way through college”, if your parents weren’t well off, to pay tuition fees and to live. Maybe this is still the case. It also took longer, and a BS is worth less than a British B.Sc. An American MS is closer in standard to a U.K. degree. As I noted earlier, in 1992 the British university system was vastly expanded so that around 45% of the young now go to a “university” of some kind, and they pay tuition fees. When I went to university, I got funding – a grant – from the local authority, but at that time only around 10% went, so the system was affordable. Now it isn’t. So, we have moved from an elitist system of higher education to a mass higher education system, like the U.S. has.

DH: There are now record numbers of unemployed university graduates. Do you think it might have been better if some of them had not gone to university?

CR: The level of graduate unemployment in Britain is a real scandal, and a consequence of this poorly thought through bums on seats expansion of the higher education sector. Put it this way, if you do a degree in something sensible like chemistry, engineering, modern languages and so on, and study at a good university, you will be in a much better position to get a job than if you study something undemanding, but unmarketable, at somewhere like the Evergreen Epstein University - the fictitious university described in my novel. And the terrible thing is that these students will carry a debt of around £30,000 ($50,000) for the privilege, at the end of it.

Indeed, it would be far better if many young people, rather than going to “uni” as they call it, went out and learned a trade, like being a plumber, carpenter, electrician etc. Much better to be a trained plumber, in demand and earning a good living, than an unemployed media studies graduate.

DH: Do you think that in their present form, universities meet the needs of society?

CR: No, I don’t. It’s a complex problem, because the needs of society will change profoundly, especially so in a world whose resources – particularly those of crude oil - are unable to maintain a global economy as we know it now. As we move back to more locally-based communities, because we won’t have cheap transportation on the scale to which we’ve become accustomed, we’ll need far fewer “universities”, and “academic” education, but much more in the way of practical skills.

DH: Do you think that we have seen the last of the major changes to universities, or can you envisage a further overhaul of the system?

CR: Not by a long chalk! The major driver for change - in British universities, anyway - is the proposed cuts in their funding under the government’s “austerity measures”, to try and cut the debt incurred through them having to bail-out the banks, after the 2008 crash. In a nutshell, universities, and consequently, individual courses and departments, will have to be financially viable, or quite simply they will go to the wall. Now this may well tie-in with the former polytechnics to some extent going back to their roots, and delivering more practical skills and providing training for local industry. Since it is teaching that is set to be cut hardest, and these are predominantly teaching-institutions rather than research-based universities, this is the only way real-life versions of the Evergreen Epstein University, of my novel, formerly the Evergreen Polytechnic, will be able to survive.

DH: What is the message or moral that you are trying to disseminate to the reader?

CR: Well, the book is a work of fiction, but not really. I believe the term is a roman a clef, a novel with a key. So, beyond giving a reader a good laugh - if a slightly hollow one because the kind of things that happen in it are common to any badly managed corporate organisation, not only universities - my intention is to point out that the university system is largely not fit for purpose and that rather than continuing on this bums on seats path, where “graduates” are produced in great number, irrespective of whether they are going to be of any use or not, the government needs to act to say, “OK, how many media studies graduates do we need, how many pharmacists, psychologists and so on, in terms of the future that we envisage for the nation?”

DH: Other than of course selling your book, what do you hope to accomplish with it?

CR: To illustrate the need for a complete overhaul of higher education - certainly in Britain - to a properly functioning system that meets the needs of the nation, rather than maintaining the pretence that every young person should be a "graduate" and every academic a "full-professor" irrespective of their talent or actual level of scholarship. There are plenty of “professors” – that’s full-professor in US parlance – mostly in the ex-polytechnics, with practically no published work. Sadly, this appears to be all part of the same trend, leading to a high level of graduate unemployment, low standards and a generation of young people with neither sufficient practical nor academic skills to earn a living, and bearing a huge debt for the "privilege". Rather than the government target of 50% of our young becoming "graduates", we need more electricians, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, farmers, gardeners and bricklayers. Many of our "universities" should become technical colleges again, to provide practical training of exactly this kind.

DH: How have readers responded so far to your book?

CR: Actually, it’s been very well received. It has some excellent reviews on Amazon. It seems to be the case that anyone working in, or familiar with, universities enjoys the book as a black comedy, but its message of “be careful what you wish for” and “those whom the gods wish to destroy they first grant their wishes” applies equally to all ill-managed corporate organisations. The perilous "greasy pole" is everywhere.

DH: You’re an experienced writer, so is it safe to assume there will be a next one? 

CR: Well, yes, you can assume that. I am working on a couple of themes, for example what becomes of the hero of University Shambles, Charles Rae, and we find him 10 years later, in quite a different setting. In fact the Evergreen Epstein University did Charles a favour by destroying his former career, and he is doing well in a quite different sphere of life. So there’s no need for the reader to worry about him! But I’m also working on another, more factual, book about how we might adapt as a civilization in response to resources shortages, and devolve back to a globe of local communities, from the present global village. I have also published my first children’s picture book, Hippy the Happy Hippopotamus, which aims to get environmental ideas over to kids – not in any kind of preachy way, but to be a lot of fun! I’ve also written some poetry.

DH: How can readers find your book?

CR: The book “University Shambles” is available as a hard print copy (what we call hardback in the UK) and also as an eBook/Kindle version. If you go to my website, there are links to get either printed or Kindle versions, and you can even get a copy with a dedication and signed by the author, if you so wish.