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University Challenged
January/February 2011

Students protest. Sometimes they have far-distant events in mind, but this time it's on home ground and they have a point. Why pay more for what may turn out to be less? The universities, squeezed from above and below, must find their way between the Scylla of government cuts and a Charybdic whirlpool of sliding standards should the teaching staff be squeezed too far. What's the solution?

In America, a good state university charges residents of its own state less than the new English limit of £9,000 a year. They charge more for students from elsewhere in the US, but each state supports its own, some at little more than £3,000 a year. British universities need to keep costs down without letting standards slip, but that requires cutting bureaucracy and red tape.

Here's an example. Having retired from American academia, and being an honorary professor in Britain, I suggested teaching a course. The department head was delighted. The pay is low, so it would save money and be a refreshing change for the students. My proposal went through a departmental committee in autumn 2009 and the course was scheduled for January to March 2011. Then, two months before it began, the university's personnel department advertised the job, and I had to apply to teach the course I had proposed. This involved completing an online form that brooked no scribbles: one question demanded to know my religion and "decline to answer" was not an option, though it was fine for questions on gender and race. I mounted the fences one by one. It was a competition with no competition — I was the only applicant. 

But then — good Lord — I had to be interviewed by three colleagues, one from another department. "How long have you been teaching? Have you taught similar courses before?" It was all very amicable, and one colleague even reminded me I'd taught a course for them several years ago, and the students liked it very much. All's well that ends well — except, isn't it a waste of time? Three highly-qualified teaching staff each had to spend half-an-hour interviewing a senior colleague whose course had already been approved. The procedure was devised by bureaucrats who, despite having better things to do, compel academic staff to spend time filling in forms and justifying foregone conclusions. Academic staff should be teaching and questioning foregone conclusions. A university is a learning environment, not a place where the arthritic hand of formality squeezes innovation and inspiration.

If government cuts make universities meaner, they must also become leaner. Administrators should step aside so that those working in the laboratory, seminar room and lecture hall can simply get on with the job.


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