Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

At Your Convenience

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

At Your Convenience

Article excerpt

What do university lavatories reveal about the academy? Communal, high-tech or under lock and key, toilets tell us more than you might think, says John Sutherland

As the days and hours counted down before today's publication of the results of the research excellence framework, it is likely that university toilets were in particularly heavy use. But, for the more reflective among us, the jakes provide the perfect location to reflect on what has happened to anglophone higher education over the past few decades.

Just as a country's jails are reputedly a good place to look if you want to assess its true nature, lavatory provision, although not providing a perfect analogy, tells you a lot about the changing culture of universities.

My career of 40 years (four life sentences and eight doctorates, as I like to reckon it) has largely been passed in three institutions: the University of Edinburgh, University College London and the California Institute of Technology. I have deposited my bodily droppings at all three in quantities I tremble to visualise.

At Edinburgh, in the 1960s, traditional, Scottish, democratic traditions ran strong. The first question I was asked at my interview was, "John Andrew Sutherland - a Scottish name?" "Och aye!" I brogueishly answered (in my head). The building in which I was proudly installed was the spanking new David Hume Tower. It embodied, in its stark lines, scepticism: Humeian open-mindedness. The offices offered breathtaking picture-window views to the Pentland Hills on one side and Arthur's Seat on the other.

It was the era of post-Robbins expansiveness and boundless optimism about universities - particularly the humanities. There was a huge intake of new blood; the advertisement I answered was for five new junior positions in the English department. The average age of those in the "assistant lecturer" grade in Edinburgh's arts faculty was only a year or two ahead of the average graduation age. Consequently, staff and students partied together and urinated together.

I can remember being shoulder to shoulder in the communal facilities with the future Labour Party politician Robin Cook (my PhD student for a while). Who knows, perhaps a young Gordon Brown was also unzipping in the background. Staff joked about the nightmare (yes, it happened to me) of taking a dump while students, communing over the Shanks porcelain, did a verbal dump on the lecture you'd just given. Wretched.

When I moved onwards and upwards to UCL in the early 1970s, it was, as regards one's private functions, a different world. I was given a key. It locked my office door (unnecessary, because walk-in theft was then virtually non-existent). It also let me into the departmental office and the restroom.

That restroom was rank-exclusive. Staff only. One would quite likely find oneself in a comradely piddle with the head of department - male for the past 130 years. Students had to go outside the department to find a lavatory. But, what the hell, what did they know about benign prostate enlargement? And the lazy buggers hardly ever turned up in those days anyway. They were "reading" English, not clocking in like Cowley car workers.

The median age of the junior and middle ranks of the teaching force was creeping up. One was, horrible to think, in a "parental" rather than "older sibling" relationship with the keyless student body. …

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