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Bringing down the ivory tower

Stop all the clocks. Cut off the telephone. Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone. For the UK’s University lecturers are going on strike. On Wednesday. Put it in your diary. It’s a catastrophe.

If anybody notices, of course.

“We’ve got the support of the students,” said one earnest lecturer, on the radio this morning. From what I remember of my own ear-ringed, combat-trousered, drunken oblivion, in academia, I used to just love lecturers going on strike. It was simply great for extending hangover recovery times. And with Wednesday being a traditional sports day, within British Universities, the lecturers, I presume, will only be sacrificing about three hours pay, from their 10am coffee break, which starts the morning, to the 1pm finish time, which ends their arduous half-working day.

So brave of them. Don’t ya think? Now if I was a betting man, and had to guess the contingent of British society which still possessed the highest percentage of Marxoid buffoons, after the disastrous collapse of Marxism in Eastern Europe, I’m sure you wouldn’t give me tremendous odds against it being University lecturers.

But what’s really amusing is that they still think anyone at all, outside the ivory tower, cares enough about them to quake in their boots, at their threat of a three hour strike. Well, I’ve got some news for you dear Marxoid professors. The nation ain’t going to be paralysed. Indeed, it’s barely going to register at 0.001 on the Richter Scale. Worse than that, it’s barely going to register at 0.001 on the Newcastle Brown Ale Scale, on your own campuses. Mine’s a large one, and a deep-fried Pizza, please, stout yeoman of the bar.

Oh dear, you say, but we work so hard doing the Guardian Quick Crossword every morning, and with double the number of students not handing in their essays, and not turning up at lectures, while they’re sleeping off hangovers, the stress levels have become simply unbearable, almost enough to raise a pulse. We’re not here to work for a living, you know! And if you take into account increasing pay levels in the private sector, and inflation, and the price of fish, we’ve taken a ninety per cent pay cut, in the last ten minutes.

Tell you what, then. Go to the politics department, if you can find anyone there this early in the week. Ask them whether we live, yet, in a Marxist police state, where it is compulsory for you to do the job assigned to you by the current Fat Controller, a land most of you Marxoids would like us to live in, or whether you’re free to permanently withdraw your labour from your current employer to seek alternative employment elsewhere?

You don’t like your job? Good. Leave it. Go and get a job somewhere else. Try to get the same money and the same conditions in the private sector, if you think you can. If you can’t, then enjoy the long holidays, the funded trips to the conferences on astronomy, in places like Hawaii, be grateful that you’re allowed to do something you love, rather than doing something you don’t like to pay the taxes necessary to fund academic ingrates, and get on with your job.

Oh no, you might say, I really want to be an academic in the UK, and I can’t think of anything else I could do, never mind would like to do. But there’s only employer, the government, and only one rate of pay, nationwide. We’re simply forced to go on strike.

No. You’re not. You, the Marxoids, are the ones who wanted higher education nationalised. You’re the ones who wanted national pay rates, and you’re the ones who wanted to be treated collectively, rather than get paid according to your individual merits. And if you can’t do anything else, that’s your problem, not mine.

Alternatively, campaign for Universities to be privatised. Campaign for University lecturers to be paid according to their worth, as determined by student numbers wishing to attend lectures, rather than incremental Buggin’s Turn payscales, and campaign for the complete separation of state and education.

Then, and only then, ask me to put back in my earring, pull back on my combat trousers, and re-lace my Dr Marten boots. For then I will be all too glad to share a barricade with you. Until that glorious futuristic day, don’t phone me up. I’m washing my hair.

And if you must keep taking my coerced tax shilling, in the meantime, please take it with a bit more humility. Otherwise, one day I and all the other taxpayers are going to wake up and rumble your game.

No, actually. Can I reverse my appeal? Please go on strike indefinitely. If and when the rest of us notice, we’ll be able to abstract you much more easily from the state-free education system of the future. Yes, go on strike. Permanently. I’m sure there’s an outdoor gardening centre somewhere near you, today, with a gainful employment task you’re capable of carrying out, without subsidy, even if you’re a Marxoid sociology lecturer. Think of it as a test that the true free market can make use of anybody, no matter how intrinsically useless they were in their previous state-subsidised position.

9 comments to Bringing down the ivory tower

  • The Wobbly Guy

    I wish my university lecturers here would go on strike! We’re being deluged by massive amounts of homework, and the paper chase is getting so heated we’re going to be set on fire…

    If they would just go on strike, that’ll make all of us very happy, as we can finally get a break from projects, assignments, tutorials, and even online quizzes that are designed such that more than 50% of the class will fail. A bit of breathing space before we’re treading water again.

    But we won’t ever get a break, because for some strange reason, the administration is intent on making us slog like dogs for every point of merit. I remember the seond half of last year when I spent every day, even some Sundays, in the lab for my project. There were even research groups and academics with tenure who stayed back on Sundays to WORK, and woe betide any of their students who do not turn up. Jeez.

    Makes me wish I had gone overseas for my studies. Several foreign students I knew, did just that. They were sick of getting Cs and Ds while their peers who went to Aussie or UK institutions were getting As and Bs with minimal effort; they were pleased at the move, as getting As and Bs were so encouraging to their shattered psyches after the abuse they had suffered.

    BTW, privatising universities sounds good, but it won’t work, unless the standards are going to be stringently maintained by close cooperation with industrial standards set by the companies. Otherwise, all you’ll get is simply more grade inflation. People pay, they expect to get what they paid for. Education, sadly, does not work that way. There has to be a controlling standard, and most often, it’ll be the government in the role.

    Also, students, if given a choice, tend to take easier modules which they can score in. It’s no coincidence that my statistical thermodynamics class only has FOUR students(including me) listening to an excellent professor when the honours year cohort for chemistry has 50 people. Is it fair to lecturers if they are paid according to the number of students attending their classes? After all, some classes are obviously much easier than others.

    The reason why people want to take easier modules: They want, and need to score well, in order to get that better honours degree.

    Me? I wish I can say I’m so good that it doesn’t matter, but it’s simply because I’m interested in learning more about the subject. Gee, what a novel concept…

    The Wobbly Guy

  • zmollusc

    Yippee! I have been down to Oxfam for a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows and I picked up a copy of the Grauniad while I was out. Where do I go to be signed up as scab labour?

  • Jamieson Christie

    There seem to be a couple of misconceptions in Mr Duncan’s article that I would like to correct, based on my own experiences. I should say that I am not a lecturer, just a humble science graduate student, but I hope I have had enough exposure to the academic world to offer another perspective.

    His picture of workshy lecturers enjoying long holidays and halfdays seems to have been cribbed from a 1960s campus novel. Certainly it is not familiar to me – my department is open eighteen hours a day, and large enough never to be empty.

    Try to get the same money and the same conditions in the private sector, if you think you can.

    I don’t think I would have to try very hard to persuade a private employer to take someone with seven years’ university education, willing to work fifty hours a week plus, for eighteen thousand a year.

    …enjoy the long holidays…

    Umm… if you’ve ever been round a university outside of term, you would know that the production rate goes up. Freed from teaching obligations, the lecturer can get on with what he wants to do – his research.

    …the funded trips to the conferences on astronomy…

    These are hardly extra perks that only lecturers have. Many of my friends in scientific or engineering jobs seem to spend half their lives jetting around the world. The only paid conference I’ve been to in my 18 months on a government grant (there, I’ve admitted it :) ) was two weeks in the Lake District. Four lectures a day, plus two problem classes, and seminars in the evening, in case you think it was an easy ride.

    And if you must keep taking my coerced tax shilling, in the meantime, please take it with a bit more humility.

    Some of us are grateful, Mr Duncan, that the government sees fit to pay us for what we do. I have always justified it to myself by saying that the money which goes to my research grant is at least not being spent on diversity development facilitation officers or the like.

  • Andy Duncan

    Jamieson Christie writes:

    His picture of workshy lecturers enjoying long holidays and halfdays seems to have been cribbed from a 1960s campus novel.

    I must say, I did enjoy the BBC series, the History Man, and Lucky Jim is a favorite novel, but, alas, I’m going on what I know from three months doing Chemical Engineering, at Leeds University, four years at Sheffield University Medical School, and two years studying Psychology, in Sheffield, which all ended, all 7 blissful taxpayer-funded years of enjoying myself, in 1991. Thirteen years out, I’m afraid, from today.

    But I was reading the Guardian, till about 1998, including all of its weekly education nonsense, with a view to doing a phD in artificial intelligence, so given a fair wind, that puts me about six years out of touch.

    Sorry. I forget, not actually being involved any more, I shouldn’t dare comment on something Gordon Brown makes me pay for, especially for all those useless humanities lecturers. But I think seven years in the eighties and nineties is a bit removed from some dusty novel in the 1960s.

    I don’t think I would have to try very hard to persuade a private employer to take someone with seven years’ university education, willing to work fifty hours a week plus, for eighteen thousand a year.

    I’m sure you wouldn’t. And I’m also pretty sure you won’t be going ‘on strike’ on Wednesday. I’m also sure that many academics, including you, would do FAR better for yourselves under a state-free higher education system. Which is why it’s almost a mystery to me why you don’t push for it, and chuck all those useless Marxist Humanities lecturers overboard. I think the basic point still stands though. If you don’t like what you’re doing, get out, and go and do something else, like the rest of us have to. Don’t expect me to be happy being forced to fork out yet more, so that you can continue doing a job you love, merely because you love it, and especially in the face of you being able to command a better income elsewhere. That really is rubbing salt into an over-community charged wound.

    Freed from teaching obligations, the lecturer can get on with what he wants to do – his research.

    Damn those pesky students! :-)

    Reminds me of an old friend of mine, a busdriver. He used to love bus driving. He just couldn’t stand the passengers.

    I must say, the temptation of doing something all day I would do anyway in my spare time if I was a multi-millionaire, ie. researching the breeding habits of the lesser spotted dingo, is something that still appeals. It’s a pity hell will have to freeze over first though, before I ever prostrate myself in a government sector monopoly again, begging for my political masters to raise taxes even higher to give me more money.

    I wonder if Britain’s only private Universtity, the University of Buckingham, has any posts available for IT and IT Management lecturers?

    Hey, you know, thanks for the comment Jamieson, to push me on a bit. I may investigate these courses:

    Psychology

    Information Systems

    Management

    I spend about 25 weeks a year teaching adults in the private sector, in classes of up to 26, mixing incidentally with many ‘moonlighting’ University lecturers, so perhaps I could squeeze a few weeks in, in Buckingham teaching no more than 10, covering up for said moonlighters. It’s not far from here.

    But maybe if they’ve got enough lecturers, they might need an odd-job man about the place, to throw anyone off the campus clutching the Guardian? ;-)

    Many of my friends in scientific or engineering jobs seem to spend half their lives jetting around the world.

    Yes, but I’m not being forced to fund them, am I, whether I like it or not. And they don’t go on strike, either. If they don’t like their jobs, they move on, and find something better for themselves. Instead of wishing for and receiving the chains of state supplication most of the UK academic establishment willingly received, over the past half century, your friends chose the path of freedom, instead, and a willingness not to burden the taxpayer with their personal interests.

    18 months on a government grant

    Arrrgggghhhhh!!!! Runs screaming to the hills….

    Well, not exactly. After poncing off Joe Taxpayer for 7 years, I’m not one to talk. I am a perfect living example of government educational waste in action. Four years at medical school! What did the taxpayer get for that? Well, I had a great time, and my knowledge of neuroanatomy is, or was, almost second to none. And my pharmacology knowledge wasn’t bad, either. But as for the rest, they may as well have spent it all on a government initiative for all the good it’s done.

    But I’m glad you’re grateful for what you get, knowing that although you could earn five times as much in the private sector, you’d have to do what the private sector wanted you to do, rather than what you wanted to do.

    I just wish you could persuade a few of your humanities colleagues of the luckiness of their position. And once again, if they don’t like it, they should move on. They should show us how much they’re needed, by depriving us of their wonderful academic input to the nation’s spiritual health.

    They could write novels like The History Man, instead. Now that I’m all in favour of.

  • BTW, privatising universities sounds good, but it won’t work, unless the standards are going to be stringently maintained by close cooperation with industrial standards set by the companies. Otherwise, all you’ll get is simply more grade inflation. People pay, they expect to get what they paid for. Education, sadly, does not work that way. There has to be a controlling standard, and most often, it’ll be the government in the role.

    Wobbly guy, your evident pride in braving the slog that is Singapore’s universities, while misplaced, is most amusing.

    If, as you say, “privatising universities . . . won’t work”, why is it that the largest and best research universities in the US – and indeed, the world – are privately run? And why are state-run universities in Germany, the UK and France in comparative decline? Given the obvious workability and rigour of a system that is NUS’s (oh we overseas students wouldn’t _presume_ to be quite as up to the mark), how many Nobel laureates have you churned out thus far? Say, in comparison to that “unworkable” mess of a private university UPenn? But hey, NUS is a research university of superior distinction, no? I mean, when people speak of UChicago with it’s 70 prize winners, I’d naturally think of NUS in the same breath. All we have elsewhere is grade-inflation and the relative lack of academic rigour. Yeah, give NUS or NTU a few years and I’d imagine them to be the equivalent of Harvard or Yale, buddy.

    Oh, and a minor quibble this. You mention the lack of rigour in UK universities. You then suggest that, apparently, state-run universities like NUS “work” better (i.e. are academically more rigourous, distinguished, whatever) given the steep grading curve back home. Interesting argument, that. Just a slight problem though. Because if you crawled out of that well of yours for a moment, you’d realize that UK universities are not “private” entities.

    Ah, ain’t it a sport to have the enginer / hoist by his owne petar.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    [quote]why is it that the largest and best research universities in the US – and indeed, the world – are privately run? And why are state-run universities in Germany, the UK and France in comparative decline? Given the obvious workability and rigour of a system that is NUS’s (oh we overseas students wouldn’t _presume_ to be quite as up to the mark), how many Nobel laureates have you churned out thus far?[/quote]

    Because we’re trying to get there after several years of a cookie cutter educational system and a talent pool of about a few million, most of which are only educated in the last, oh, 30 years? Lack of tradition, lack of prestige due to said lack of tradition, etc.

    Give us another 30 years. Some of the staff are doing excellent work, and being funded by money thrown at them by the government and companies set up by the government. Of course, the population constraints we suffer, and the difficulty in attracting top students to come here are points that many people seem to neglect. How many islands of 4 million people have this quality of education?

    Things are changing now, with floods of PRC students coming in(they’re sickening good in math). Getting there is just a matter of time. Nobel prize? Hmmmm…

    [quote]Say, in comparison to that “unworkable” mess of a private university UPenn?[/quote]

    What’s the population pool? Quite a bit more than 4 million, wouldn’t you say? And say, how about grade inflation?

    [quote]But hey, NUS is a research university of superior distinction, no? I mean, when people speak of UChicago with it’s 70 prize winners, I’d naturally think of NUS in the same breath. All we have elsewhere is grade-inflation and the relative lack of academic rigour. Yeah, give NUS or NTU a few years and I’d imagine them to be the equivalent of Harvard or Yale, buddy.
    [/quote]

    Not yet, but as I’ve said, we’re getting there, slowly if not surely. :) The academic rigor is supposed to push us there too, though I sometimes wish I’m already at an institute where the prestige is already a taken and rigor can be thrown out the window.

    Lack of academic rigor and grade inflation is one problem that people in the US and UK have commented before about their universities, and even the elite ones aren’t always immune. There was that scuffle over at Harvard a few years back, remember? Also, it’s also a well known cliche(I have no idea if it’s really true) that a significant proportion of US graduates can’t really perform up to the standards required of graduates. Some of them will come from public schools, some from private.

    Let’s not even think about affirmative action and its ilk.

    The top of the US is still tops(eg. MIT), but notice that their talent pool is practically the entire world, with the best students from Asia, Europe, and America going. The administration doesn’t really need to worry about students complaining(they expect it, after all), and hence, the tests and exams can still be quite rigorous. Hence, no grade inflation. Most other institutions will not enjoy the same talent pool.

    [quote]You then suggest that, apparently, state-run universities like NUS “work” better (i.e. are academically more rigourous, distinguished, whatever) given the steep grading curve back home. Interesting argument, that. Just a slight problem though. Because if you crawled out of that well of yours for a moment, you’d realize that UK universities are not “private” entities.[/quote]

    Why yes, I did know that(my sister studied in the UK). And nowhere did I mention that all UK universities were privately run(Duncan sez only one?!?). Please read a bit more carefully.

    I was pointing out that when governments are in control, there is every chance they’ll actively impose stringent standards instead of a more ‘slack’ attitude. It’s not a given that governments will mess up the whole thing. They might make things easier; they might not. The hypothesis I was arguing against was that governments will almost always lower standards, which was the gist of Duncan’s argument.

    However, it’s not a given that private institutions will be more rigorous either. The evidence is not conclusive enough to support either governmental or corporate(privatised) running of universities, as positive and negative examples exist for both sides.

    One reason why students in public universities tend to slack off could be because they were being funded by taxpayer money. After all, it isn’t their gambling chips on the table. But what if they’re only subsidised a certain percentage? Say, 50%? Would that be enough impetus for them to work harder? Perhaps that’s enough to get them and the academics slack less and work more.

    BTW, I’m partly a scientist, and partly humanities. Chemistry and english language double major, honours in chemistry, not engineering in any form. Nice to see that people can still pigeonhole me… wrongly!

    And I’d also have to come clean about the nature of my education. It’s paid for by the government… with the caveat that I’d have to work 4 years for it after I graduate. If I’m dismissed for poor performance(either in school or when working), I’d have to pay the money for my education back.

    Which means there’s uhhh… rather a lot of pressure.

    The Wobbly Guy

  • Andy,

    Your piece grossly exaggerated the situation. At the university that I attend, in the Faculty of Engineering, of which I am an undergraduate member, I estimate that only 50 percent of teaching staff have elected to strike – the other half have insisted that, bar the threat of force at a picket line, they will be at work, giving lectures and performing their other duties as normal. They were at work today and I’m sure they’ll be doing their jobs as usual tomorrow.

    Admittedly, the situation varies significantly from one university to the next and from one university department to another. Staff in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities are much more enthusiastic about striking and have notified their students that they will not be giving any lectures during the period of the strike (Tuesday and Wednesday in England).

    I haven’t successfully identified any ‘Marxist buffoons’ in my department nor staff choosing to behave like disgruntled civil servants. Today’s university system is, I imagine, much closer to being driven by market forces than that which you have direct experience of, Andy – because of the scrapping of government grants for students and the introduction of tuition fees for some students (even if they are capped at £1,125). A lot of students do demand ‘value for money’ from their universities. For example, students do not necessarily appreciate having numerous lectures cancelled in a week when they feel they have paid for those lectures in advance and when they are interested in learning, or at least passing the exams.

    The Wobby Guy,

    State-operated universities are not a way of maintaining academic standards and rigour, as the British system is clearly testament to. The UK’s university system is in the grip of Stalinist target-setting, like any other industry the government gets its hands on. Only a couple of years ago Tony Blair talked about target figures for the number of graduates in the UK – he insisted that 50 percent of school-leavers should go to university. That was a central government target like any other: The government will find ways of appearing to meet that target at any cost to demonstrate how its benevolent grip on the economy is making us all so much better off and to justify its endless interference.

    The effects of government target-setting in the education system are ‘dumbing-down’ and ‘grade inflation’, often through state promotion of courses like ‘History of Yoghurt’, as Samizdatista David Carr would probably have it. The explosion in the number of ‘Media Studies’ graduates in the UK is in no small way directly attributable to government interference in the university education system so I advise you against being so quick to defend government regulation of education as a useful way to defend certain standards. Governments should not define the ‘standards’ of university education, the standards should be determined by students, or more meaningfully, firms who recruit graduates – in other words, standards should be set by the free market.

  • enthymeme

    Why yes, I did know that(my sister studied in the UK). And nowhere did I mention that all UK universities were privately run(Duncan sez only one?!?). Please read a bit more carefully.

    No, _you_ read what you wrote. Why talk about UK universities when they are not germane to your argument? When indeed, they, like the dismal state of state-funded universities elsewhere, undercut your argument?

    And yes, there’s grade inflation at Harvard. So what? Is NUS going to overtake Harvard anytime soon? Dream on. You then mention that US grads don’t perform well at work. Wow golly gee wobbly one, as if many Singaporean grads can cut it! Equally damning assessments are legion. Too soft, too straight-laced, too unaccustomed to the realities of the workplace. Even polytechnic grads fare better at problem solving, blah blah blah. As such, your barely suppressed feelings of superiority are uhm, rather embarrassing.

    The hypothesis I was arguing against was that governments will almost always lower standards, which was the gist of Duncan’s argument.

    Apparently, you can’t seem to recall what you wrote either.

    You said: “BTW, privatising universities sounds good, but it won’t work, unless the standards are going to be stringently maintained by close cooperation with industrial standards set by the companies.”

    This sounds to me like arguing that privatisation won’t work, _unless_ industry-maintained standards are set. This is different from arguing against the proposition that “governments will always lower standards”. These are two distinct arguments. Indeed, they have nothing to do with each other. One doesn’t preclude the other. So what are you talking about? Do you know what you are talking about?

    However, it’s not a given that private institutions will be more rigorous either. The evidence is not conclusive enough to support either governmental or corporate(privatised) running of universities, as positive and negative examples exist for both sides.

    Yet the evidence strongly suggests that privatised universities are better off. Contrast Germany, France, UK or indeed any system with a large number of state-run universities in the EU with the US. The “population pool” scruples do not apply there. These systems have had plenty of time to mature. Yet the US is ahead in the higher education stakes _by far_. On aggregate, the funding, research, endowment, quality of faculty, etc., of privately run US universities are far in excess to that of the UK. Why the disparity? Why the generally acknowledged decrepit state of UK and German universities?

    All this talk about slacking or working harder is besides the point. You can work till you turn blue in the face – but that’s not the prime determinant of the quality of research output. Rather, it is creativity that determines quality of research output. Indeed, it is essential. No amount of purported straight-jacketed rigour is going to foist that creativity on a university.

    BTW, I’m partly a scientist, and partly humanities. Chemistry and english language double major, honours in chemistry, not engineering in any form. Nice to see that people can still pigeonhole me… wrongly!

    BTW, for an English language major, you’re pretty slow on the uptake when it comes to groking literary allusions. The hoist by your owne petar quote is vintage Shakespeare. It means, as in Hamlet, to be blown up by your own bomb. “Enginer” of course, refers to a sapper. The whole phrase means that it is amusing to see the sapper blown up by his own explosive device, just like you did when you cited the example of UK universities – which was stupid since they actually _undercut_ your argument for state-funded universities. But of course you’re not a sapper, let alone an engineer in the modern sense. Duh. So, do spare me your trite oh-so-smart responses. Because you sound like a halfwit trying to act clever. No offence. And do pardon me if I get the impression that you’re . . . trying too hard to impress. Nice try, though.

    And I’d also have to come clean about the nature of my education. It’s paid for by the government… with the caveat that I’d have to work 4 years for it after I graduate. If I’m dismissed for poor performance(either in school or when working), I’d have to pay the money for my education back. Which means there’s uhhh… rather a lot of pressure.

    Whoa, I’m sure we’re all _so_ impressed by the fact that you’re on a scholarship. You must be an _amazing_ student. Like, thanks for informing all and sundry. We really wanted to know. We’re all suitably impressed by your attempt at gaining cred. Very transparent, but well done nonetheless.

    But hey, in your world, NUS will likely surpass Harvard given 30 years or so. Very good, Nostradamus. Any other hubris-fueled crackpot predictions?

  • Andy Duncan

    Hi Stephen,

    In the best traditions of all Doctor Who fans, everywhere, you might be interested in a reply I made to your comment, which I made 24 hours earlier, during a bout of time travel, on Mr Micklethwait’s site, here, as the first reply to his trackback piece.

    Roll on the full privatisation of UK Universities. May bone-headed strikes bring it on even quicker! :-)

    Oh, and bring back Davros! ;-)

    Rgds,
    AndyD