Magazine article The Spectator

Farewell to the Young Ones: It's Time for Universities to Grow Up

Magazine article The Spectator

Farewell to the Young Ones: It's Time for Universities to Grow Up

Article excerpt

Now if you were an average overworked overtaxed Spectatorreading parent of a university student, I think I know how you would feel about this lecturers' strike. I think you'd be fit to be tied. You would be chomping the carpet and firing off letters to the editor about the Spartist whingers who were prejudicing your daughter's future.

You would be ringing up Radio Five phone-ins after midnight, and raving about how these degrees were life-defining moments, and how unthinkable it was that papers should go unmarked. You would find it incredible that the Labour government has said nothing in defence of the students. Exams are being scrubbed! Vital academic credentials are melting away!

For months, years, students have been bringing themselves to the intellectual boil, and now all their efforts are going to waste.

The damage is becoming less and less reversible, and not a single Labour minister has had the guts to condemn the exam boycott, or to urge the markers to get on and mark. You might even agree that the vice-chancellors should dock the pay of the non-marking examiners, and you would certainly be right there. And yet when I made the same point, in an emollient way, on the radio the other morning, I was unprepared for the reaction.

It wasn't the hatred that rattled me. I didn't mind being enveloped in a scalding email blast of odium scholasticum. If you end up in politics, you must expect that politics lecturers will tell you to 'f*** off out of it, you f***ing f***', as one of them put it. I don't mind being called a 'prat', or being told by one distinguished lecturer that he wished he had kicked me harder on the rugby field many years ago. No, the communication that affected me the most was a long and anguished analysis by an academic whom I shall call 'Nutty', since that was his name at the age of 13, and who is one of the kindest, gentlest and cleverest people I know.

This man is 41, teaches politics at two universities, and delivers a full-time teaching timetable. Because he is only on a parttime contract, he is never employed for more than nine months at a time. The result is that for all his late-night marking, for all the hours he spends listening, with a tired smile, to the appalling confessions of the undergraduates, this saintly man earns -- wait for it -- a total of £9,000 per year.

There were plenty of other hard-luck stories, plenty of barbed comparisons with the wages of MPs. But it was Nutty's case that brought it all home; and when I understood that my old friend was being paid what some journalists receive for a couple of Daily Mail columns, I saw the full seriousness of the lecturers' position.

Yes, of course they should mark the damn papers, and yes, my friends, the vicechancellors should hold the knout over them until they do. But if this strike serves any purpose, it should convince the irritable, apathetic parents of Middle England of the chronic underpayment of British academics. Next to comparator professions such as lawyers, journalists, doctors and, yes, MPs, academic pay has fallen by 40 per cent in the last 30 years. Even if you were unmoved by this statistic; even if you felt it right that we should pay them peanuts; even if you thought that on the whole they were a bunch of lippy, leftie fact-grubbing beardos, you should recognise that the decline in lecturers' pay is both a symptom and a cause of the decay of the university experience -- the experience of your son or daughter at university. The academic pay gap is the direct arithmetical consequence of the British university boom which has seen, in my lifetime, the enrolment of 18- to 30year-olds rise from 4 per cent to 43 per cent of the cohort. We now have 2.3 million students, and yet the unit of resource -- government cash per student -- has halved in the last 20 years.

These lecturers are being asked to teach ever more students, in ever larger classes, and to accept the biological inevitability that -- with 400,000 graduates as opposed to 40,000 -- the average student will be less bright than in the past. …

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