Mixed messages and Pedofiles


In the university where I work there’s some discontent over promotions and how staff are rated. The uni has been putting much greater emphasis on research, in particular research that con contribute to the REF and revenue raising by bringing in money via grants. Its a trend that is all too familiar across UK universities these days.

Now if your working in a Russell group, research led university, then okay, this is kind of the primary role of such institutions and they are heavily dependant on research funding (hence why they are so worried about this EU referendum, given how much funding comes from the EU). But the vast majority of the UK’s universities don’t fall into this category. Their primary means of funding (and I mean +90%) is through teaching.

And its worth remembering that good research takes time. Most Russell group uni’s have a significantly higher staffing levels to cope with this, as well as more PhD research students, well equipped labs and of course, the technical support staff to keep everything running smoothly. By contrast a number of universities I’ve taught at have been cutting back on support staff…because as they see it, the best way to encourage research, it would seem, is to make it much harder to do!

While research is an important part of being an academic, life is about priorities, and in the absence of new staff to take over the teaching load, its inevitable that any time spent on research is time not being spend focusing on teaching and looking after students, which undermines one of the key selling points for most of the UK’s universities . You can after all get a free university education in several other countries such as Holland, Ireland (we have “fees”, but a fraction of those in the UK) or Germany.

Anyone watching the university rankings recently will have perhaps noted a trend whereby research led university’s are slipping down the rankings and a number of the ex-polytechnic’s are gradually creeping up. This, I would argue, is because Russell group uni’s are crap at teaching undergrad’s. If I had a kid and he/she wanted to go to uni I would sit them down and ask them, what do you want out of it? If you want to become an academic or a professional researcher, go to a Russell group uni. If you want to get a good degree and then get a job, then stay away from them, go to a well ranked non-research led uni instead.

For the reality is that in most research led uni’s the bulk of the day to day teaching is handled by overworked teaching assistants and PhD students, with the professors too busy jetting off to conferences or chasing research grants to have any time for undergrads. The only way an undergrad gets to see a professor in those places is if they bump into them in the lift. I’ve even heard stories of some Russell group uni’s getting their professors to make a video tape of their lecture’s, which they then play each year….so you’re basically paying 9 grand a year to watch a couple of videos! The university’s minster himself recently bemoaned this drop in teaching standards, although he sidestepped the issue of what’s driving it.

That said, for a research led uni, the primary degree is really just a taster session, the really serious learning starts with the Masters or PhD…..or indeed the post-doc that follows. It should also be remembered that those who follow a more academic, research led career, tend to be good self-learners, a trait that isn’t shared by the bulk of students (that’s the whole point of lectures! Do you think I do them for fun or something?).

But like I said, any uni trying to copy this model without the resources of a research led uni is going to just piss off its students, develop a really bad reputation and see student numbers, and thus overall revenue, plummet. And its worth remembering that to many UK university’s the bulk of what research they do generally comes to them via ex-students and industrial contacts. So long term, such a policy will reduce the levels of research, not aid them.

The Pedofiles
Given these facts you may question why so many university managers are pursuing such a crazy policy. Well some form of an answer become apparent when you learn that they have also begun to place particular emphasis on research into Pedagogy (the theory of learning and education). All of us academics are now expected to gain qualifications in Pedagogy as well as undertake research into it. Or put it another way, we’re all expected to maintain a folder somewhere on our PC where we record all our Pedagogy…..or a Pedofile ;0

If you think about it, this is silly. Humans have been teaching each other since the first cave man showed someone how to light a fire. By contrast technologies such as Graphene, computers or electronics have only been around for a few years or decades. Unless you are working in a particular discipline such as IT (where computers have brought about changes to teaching methods) or psychology, Pedagogy is a dead research area. You’re wasting your time conducting research that is of very little value to anyone.

And of course, such emphasis on “Pedofiles” directly contradicts the pressure on us academics to produce “REF worthy” research (which has to be of a certain standard to count), as very little if anything in this field is going to count as high impact. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that for many of the senior staff in many UK uni’s the only original research they’ve done recently is in Pedagogy. Hence they are emphasising its importance purely to justify their own position and bloated salary.

And of course the emphasis on REF related research is driven by the fact that setting and meeting research “targets” is a good way for these mangers to justify a future salary increase or bonus. The fact that they are setting in place policies that are likely to infuriate both staff and students, lower academic standards and probably in the long term undermine research, does not matter, as they’ll have changed jobs by then.

In short, UK universities are becoming a perfect proof of the so-called “Dilbert Principlewhereby those who are the least technically competent in any organisation are swiftly moved into the position where they can do the least damage and be kept out of the way of the competent staff – management. Unfortunately, like many privatised public services, we have the problem that while the private sector has various means to “cull” the numbers of management goons from time to time (via the occasional merger, restructuring or proxy blood bath), university’s, and other ex-public sector bodies, don’t.

So if Osborne is keen to save the Treasury some cash, here’s a piece of advice. Sack every member of staff in every UK uni above the grade of head of department (along with all their minions, PA’s and other hanger’s on). You’ll eliminate the main obstacle to progress and the efficient running of universities, while saving a lot of money in the process.



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