Saturday 5 November 2011

The Universities Today

Historiann has tagged me to engage in a discussion about how our universities work and the problems we see in them. I am currently in the unusual position having just moved across the world from one university system to another, so I am going to try to speak to both with the enormous caveat that I know the UK system a lot better than the one downunder. For a bit of perspective, I have only ever worked in the equivalent of R1 institutions in research contracts; I do minimal teaching (and most of that is just to keep my hand in and is mostly voluntary and low pain); and minimal admin. I am relatively well-paid and well-resourced. Reflecting the value placed on research money, I tend to have big offices, good access to inter-library loans, and books, and money for research. I do have to publish a lot, but hey that’s my job, so can’t complain. Most of my day is spent researching and writing in various forms. In short, I am among the most privileged of the privileged. The only meaningful complaint I can make is that the short term nature of the contracts has meant having to live separately from my spouse and also living under a lot of pressure to ‘get the next job’, which means working long hours, publishing like crazy and barely having a personal life.

I am going to begin by engaging with Dr Crazy’s response to this meme. In her post she argues that while universities have problems, discussing the ‘failure’ of the university system is unhelpful and probably inaccurate. And, from my perspective, this is true. In the UK, in the last twenty years, the number of universities has exploded and with it the number of people with degrees. Now, like in many places where this has happened, such expansion has led to a concern over the ‘value’ of a degree (if everyone has one, what’s it worth?) and whether we have enough skilled jobs for such a huge number of skilled workers. Are people just wasting time in higher education, when if they are going to work in the service industry anyway, they might as well just get straight on the career ladder? Now, these are all interesting questions, but as someone who came from a family that held no degrees before the late 1990s, and now has numerous spread out among various family members, and as importantly, different generations of family members, I think this has been a crucial advancement in democracy and equality. Perhaps, there is now more competition amongst graduates, but at least most of us now get to compete. For me, to move back from this position is a retrograde step in social equality – especially because the school system is not equitable. Children at state schools do not get an equal education to those privately educated. And, while it is true that children from disadvantaged areas tend to filter into lower-ranking institutions, we are at least starting to work towards a fairer system for social opportunities and advancement.

From both a research and teaching perspective, universities are now big business like never before, and with that their social and economic influence is unprecedented. Now, we might argue that universities that have always produced the political elite have always been influential, and that ‘ties with industry’ and other community engagement initiatives (an increasing pressure for all research projects) are just reflecting that ‘who is powerful’ is now much more broadly based than in the past, which required universities to adapt if they want to stay powerful. This may well be true, but a) an optimistic reading might see this as a win for democracy and b) a more cynical reading acknowledges that the universities have sold out to the megacorpocracy of capitalism, but also that they have remained major players in this game. Moreover, they now get to exercise power as institutions in ways that were not possible in the past, where political power was held by individuals and not large corporations. They might whinge that they now need to play harder and faster, but are they ‘failing’? This seems unlikely at the moment (at least at a group level; at an individual institutional level, this is more complex, especially for those who have difficulty accessing research money and servicing disadvantaged social groups).

Now, what about the problems? It seems to me, like for many other workers, the main issue here has been the increasing need for universities to compete in the global capitalist economy. Now, while I reckon they are doing alright here, like many industries, the way they have tried to remain competitive is by fucking over their staff and their students, and measuring everybody’s worth in monetary terms. This means that increasingly your value to an institution (and this is true in Oz and the UK), your value is literally measured by how much money you bring in to the institution. Projects with big money get to command big resources and make significant demands on the institution that those who do not bring in the money cannot. This can disadvantage different subject areas, as it literally costs less to do a literary analysis than to cure cancer. In an R1 context, this is to the detriment to teaching. While all the institutions I have worked in have emphasised the importance of teaching, offering prizes to the best teachers and placing an emphasis on student satisfaction scores, people who are good teachers get no extra benefits. You cannot use your teaching success to argue for a bigger office or an assistant. You cannot even use the fact that you are picking up the teaching, but especially the admin, slack of the bigwigs on research leave to argue for a pay raise or really any sort of benefit (perhaps apart from lower expectations on your research output, which tends to work against you as you then limit your ability to win those big research funds). This creates a cycle in many institutions where the same people win the research money and the same people concentrate on ensuring students get taught.

In the UK, this situation is also operating under a government that has no regard for the Humanities as a subject area. It will only fund teaching and research in areas where there is an obvious and applied outcome (preferably economic). This is despite the fact that much research needs to happen at an abstract level, before its applications can be worked out and that our most useful advances have often come from some very esoteric research. As a result, it has removed the teaching budget for students in the Humanities and other theoretical areas, requiring the introduction of tuition fees. It has also cut the funding for humanities research and, moreover, requires researchers to prove ‘the social and economic impact’ of the research, before granting the money. Now, as someone with huge faith in the Humanities, I tend to think that even the most seemingly blue skies thinking can be seen as valuable if sold in the correct way, but the need for such spin is reflective of the devaluing of the Humanities as a social asset. In the short term, this policy has also created some particular problems.

The main one is Humanities subjects are strapped for cash. This means absolutely no permanent jobs in the UK and it is unlikely there will be before tuition fees start to kick in, in 2012 (In Scotland where fees will not kick in, when this will end??? Who knows?). It also means that whereas when previously permanent staff took time off for research leave or maternity, they were covered by temporary staff hired on full time contracts with full benefits, now, their courses are increasingly covered either by people hired on part-time contracts, or by adjuncts, covering particular courses at an hourly rate. This has screwed with the nature of the university advancement system in the UK. In the last few decades, most PhDs worked in full time but temporary contracts for a number of years until they achieved the golden goose of the fulltime job. While temporary, these contracts allowed PhDs to be paid to work on their research and to gain experience of teaching and admin. Now, not only will many PhDs experience long periods of unemployment, when they work they will be poorly remunerated and in part-time positions. They will have no support for research (even in the form of a wage), despite the fact that they will not be employed on the next contract if they don’t have a research profile. Despite this, their research will be used by the said government in making policy and to the benefit of society, and by the universities in proving research outputs.

The alternative to this is the lucky few, like myself, who end up on research contracts, which are at least full time and well paid. There are different ways these contracts can work. Some invite you on to a project as a full partner, where you will get to write and be acknowledged on all publications. Others use you as a well paid research assistant, contractually limiting how much you can publish from the said research, and not giving you credit on other publications. The latter suck not only because of the lack of credit, but because you don’t get to count the research towards your own profile and so have to do your own research in your ‘spare time’. I have done both of these types of contracts. Very occasionally you can apply with your own project, which will form part of a bigger project, or as part of a career development postdoc (these however are the Holy Grail). I have also had this type of contract.

In Oz, much of the broader context is similar to the UK, with a few differences. One, the government supports the humanities, and boy does this make a difference. When you can be employed to work on not only a Humanities project, but an early modern one, that still got 8-digit funding, then you know you have a supportive government. This is not because there is less focus on money in Oz, but rather because they believe that Humanities has something to offer of value – at a very minimum this makes Oz a happier place to work. From the jobs I have seen advertised and the posts I know about, they also see research contractors as people who need to get some publications out of the projects they work in, and are structured around that, which is also a lot less stressful. At the same time, many of the other pressures, including a shortage of permanent jobs are much the same. There is also a sense that the pinch is coming, with increasing discussion of how to make our PhD graduates more marketable and what we need to do to make that happen.

This has been a very faculty-orientated, R1 perspective, but my sense is that universities are having to adapt to an new, harsher global economy. More depressingly, they are giving very little pushback to this process. Instead of taking the lead on what the relationship between research and the economy/ society should be, they are buying into the narrative that ‘growth’, ‘money’ and ‘the economy’ should be our social drivers. But, what is the point of the universities, if not to question these things? And what good the power of our institutions if we aren’t willing to, if not frame, then at least debate the terms in which we operate in the world? Perhaps if the Humanities hadn’t been so sidelined, there might be more of us able to ask and answer these questions?

Tuesday 31 May 2011

Scotland's City Councils are Clearly in a Competition for 'Feminist Fail'.

Last week, it was Edinburgh; this week Glasgow's city council is behaving as if they had never met a feminist, let alone employed one! In a letter to the parents of children at a local secondary school, GCC stated that children's shouldn't wear short skirts or tight trousers as it might attract paedophiles. Yes, you read that correctly - it's children's clothing that makes the vulnerable to paedophiles. Does this sound familiar?

Well, fortunately, the Chief Exec at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council had the sense to point out that this was very unhelpful advice as it blamed children for the activities of paedophiles. And, even more interestingly, directly compared this to discussions of adult women's dress and their 'responsibility' for rape.

Time for the local councils to send their peeps on some rape awareness/ gender sensitivity training, me thinks.

Thursday 19 May 2011


Edinburgh's Reclaim the Night Walk has been rescheduled by the council - get this - because it might be dangerous for the marchers!! The march, which is designed to reclaim the streets as safe spaces for women, will walk through an area full of pubs, during the Champions League football final, and the council is worried that the marchers will be in danger from drunken fans.

Instead of making the streets safe for the marchers, the council has asked the march to move their route and time. The organisers have rescheduled an hour earlier, but are refusing to change the route.

What would I have given to have been at that meeting! 'Er, we need you to defeat your own political aims and move the march, because, well, the streets aren't safe for women.' It would be be funny, if it wasn't so terrifyingly sad!

Sunday 8 May 2011

Jobs for Labour? Some Random Election Thoughts

So, if you have been watching, Scotland had an election at the end of last week, which saw dramatic changes to Scotland's political map. Traditionally, a Labour heartland, many long-held seats were lost to the SNP, raising questions about what happened and why? We might wonder whether Labour policies over the last decade, which promoted higher education, employment, house-purchasing, and other middle-class ideals in their own electoral areas, may have back-fired as a new (and in the current recession, now rather tenuous) middle-class's horizons changed. Can we say that the legacy of the death of the coal and steel industry (the heartbreak over which, no doubt, helped sustain Labour votes over the last few decades) is now finished in Scotland? Are Labour's traditional voters feeling the pinch of jobs losses, cuts in university places and in the public services, that will see them slide once more down the social mobility ladder, and buying into the blame placed on them by the Tories and LibDems? The questions are numerous?

Perhaps, less surprisingly, is the massive losses sustained by the LibDems- losses that even their own party recognises came from a coalition with a party that their supporters hated? I hate to say, I told you so- but I did, in a letter to them after they made this decision. The complete lack of regard, or awareness, of their party's new-won supporters values is quite breathtaking. Do we think we'll get through four more years at Westminster? Do we want to?

The new Scottish parliament has a historic majority for the SNP, but more disappointingly, the number of women sitting in it is still only 34%. Up 0.8% from 2007, but down from the all time high of 39.5% in 2003. Even more concerningly, the losses of several Labour seats held by women saw a reduction in female seats at the constituency level; we only got to 34% because Labour has gender balanced lists and they made it up at the regional level.

As the SNP stood together after their wins in Glasgow, Nicola Sturgeon, the only woman among them, commented that the SNP is more gender balanced than this- I am a wee bit sceptical (the list of 2011 MSPs' names are not yet compiled in one place, or I'd have counted!!), given that only 1/3 of their constituency candidates were women and their lists were not gender balanced (in fact heavily male)- but the very fact she noticed is why Nicola should be First Minister!!

Sunday 1 May 2011

Women's History in the Public Arena.

This is a response to a post by Female Science Professor on the way female academics are presented in public.

Recently, I was interviewed for radio on the topic of my research, as were a number of other academics. The focus of the radio was on my topic of expertise - let's call it the history of women in chocolate-making in fab country in x period. The other people interviewed weren't really experts in the field, but did have some overlapping interests. So, one female academic was interested in women in fab country in another context, while another male academic was interested in fab country in x period, but knew nowt about women (and if fact is slightly notorious for this). The reason for interviewing a range of academics appears mainly to be because listening to one person talk for 30 mins is a dry approach for public radio, and of course, when you dilute history for the general public, a good general knowledge of the field is all that is really needed - so I am not criticising this decision by the radio crew.

However, when the show was broadcast, the various interviews were edited together, so that different voices spoke at different points, interspersed with some readings of historical sources. And it went it bit like this Male Academic gave the legal context in speech form (ie no interviewer) (something, btw, which I am a leading expert on and which he is not); I give nice anecdotes about women in chocolate-making in conversation with female interviewer- lots of pleasant conversation and jokes; Male Academic gave more legal context in speech form; female academic gives nice anecdotes about women in fab country more broadly in conversation with female interviewer; Male Academic summarises the implications of this for women, etc etc. And, the overwhelming impression was that the ladies do the fun stuff with the pretty anecdotes, but the men do the serious business of history- providing the FACTS to back up the fun stories. The effect was really striking, as this was the only male voice on the entire show, and it was used in such a different way from the women's voices.

The interesting thing is that the production team was entirely female and, moreover, the underlying drive of the show was broadly 'feminist'- in that it was women's history created by women who held a belief in the importance of both broadcasting women's history and reflecting on the significance of women's past experiences for the present.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

In Solidarity

Over the last few days, university staff across the United Kingdom have been striking over cuts to our pensions, with a national strike to be held this Thursday. For more information, see here:

In addition, Glasgow Uni finally decided to evict it's long-standing student sit-in today. This has led to a mass protest and the occupation of the main building and the demand for the principal to resign (something that many of the staff would gladly get behind at this stage!).

If you want to follow this check out:!/glasgowoccupied and!/glasgowguardian

I especially enjoyed this tweet from the glasgowguardian: 'Head of campus security requests that occupiers keep to only two rooms to help continued running of Uni. Occupiers decline following vote'


I also appreciated reading that Martha Wardop (Green councillor and women's rights campaigner) phoned up GU's principal to tell him off! Got to love it!



Wednesday 8 December 2010

Dear Government, Please get a reality check.

Is anybody else sick fed up hearing about how if the poor don't play along they will 'lose their benefits'? Today, it is drug addicts who don't get help. Last week, it was the 'work-shy' i.e. those who refuse 'reasonable job opportunities' whatever that means. And before that it was those who don't want to participate in 'work-fare' type programmes. It's the government's new stick- do what we say or lose your benefits.

Well, today I'd like to ask the government- have you ever met a drug addict? Not a middle-class pothead that smokes a bit of weed at the weekend, but a heroin addict from a socially deprived community? Because I have. And, do you want to know when? When they were robbing me. Oh, I don't mean in some scary mugging in a dark alley- although that does happen to lots of people (indeed on the street that I used to live, there was once ten muggings in a week- but let's not go there). No, when I worked in my local co-op and eventually made it up the ladder to supervisor, I regularly had to kick the local drug addicts- or their young children- out of the shop I ran. I knew them by name- we used to chat as we did it. It was ritualistic, an almost everyday occurrence. Because everyday they came in to steal either food, or goods to sell. If we caught them, we called the police- who often never responded- but you have to see them put the goods in their bag or pocket to get that far. On one occasion after we caught someone red-handed, we waited three hours before my shoplifter exerted her legal right not to be restrained by me and left- the police showed up sometime later. But, after being continually being barred from the store, it was more usual for our local drug addicts to idle up an aisle and hope we didn't notice them, and for us to kick them out with a catch-up on the daily gossip, when we did. On one occasion, I even offered to call an ambulance for my most regular shop-lifter after he came in heavily-bleeding to steal bandages.

If you get anything from this story- I want it to be the extent to which this was something that happened EVERYDAY in my store- and it was something that was distressing (there was more than one occasion where we considered looking the other way when small children stole food to eat!), that could be dangerous (like the time a drug addict attacked me), and was just soul destroying for everybody- do you really think I want to throw poor people out of my store when they are just hungry (even if they are spending their benefits on drugs)? And, if you take away benefits not just from drug-addicts- but lots of other poor people as well-, this will just get worse. Because people have to eat- and to be quite frank, I'd rather you paid people their benefits than make the lives of hundreds of shopworkers miserable in having to face the consequences of social deprivation at work, every fucking day.

(And dudes, while we are at it- have you ever been to Dublin? And seen all the homeless people who sleep rough on the streets- do you really want that to be Britain?)