Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Master a Subject That Matters to Us All: The Future of the Academy: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Master a Subject That Matters to Us All: The Future of the Academy: Opinion

Article excerpt

Scholars are reluctant to do the spadework needed to defend the sector, argues G.R. Evans: this must change, for everyone's sake.

Years ago, the PA to the University of Cambridge's registrary put her finger on it: "The difference between us is that I can just change my job. You academics are what you do."

That fact goes a long way in explaining academic behaviour so characteristically peculiar that my sister, a psychiatrist, is wont to comment that it is just as well we have a "protected community" to live in where we can indulge our interests.

Real life now knocks insistently at our door. Governments say the taxpayer no longer has a duty to support traditional academic life on the off chance that unsupervised cerebral activity may give rise to something of financial value. Teaching must concentrate on turning out employable graduates. Research will not be rewarded with high marks and future funding unless it demonstrates "impact". A university is no longer a community in which the clever but eccentric may choose to spend a lifetime finishing a book with no guarantee that it will be great or even good. Academics lost security of tenure in 1988. They have since increasingly come under line management. The proportion of short-term contracts has risen, and insecurity with it.

All this has been well rehearsed, of course. We do not like it. We object. But what particularly frustrates me is that we do not seem to object very effectively. Call me disloyal, but sometimes my colleagues make me despair. To be fair, part of the problemis that the concerns expressed in Parliament before the passing of the 1988 Education Reform Act have been partly realised: academics who express controversial or unpopular opinions can place themselves "in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges". But academics are still in a particularly good position to have their say by virtue of being more articulate and more experienced in getting published than those in other professions who also resent seeing their worlds invaded according to the changing whims of government ministers.

When the tripling of tuition fees and the removal of the teaching part of the block grant was proposed in 2011, agitated groups formed in several universities to protest about it. I went to a good few meetings in Oxford and Cambridge. They displayed features I have come to recognise after decades of sitting in university committee meetings. For some reason, academics - even those who deal professionally in the grandest theories of Life, the Universe and Everything - seem to find it hard to get to grips with the large scale. …

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