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Selling Scottish universities.

I never imagined that a Ph.D., two books and nine years teaching would land me a job as a salesman. But every autumn I join eleven St. Andrews colleagues on a sales trip to the United States. We divide into pairs, each pair takes a region and for three or four weeks we sell the university.

Pro-active student recruitment--excuse the jargon--has been a boon to the university. Ten years ago, when the govemment hiked overseas student fees, St. Andrews realised that there was money in Americans. Since the Scottish system of education (in contrast to the English) is roughly similar to that in the States, Americans can be admitted directry from high school. A friendly colleague from one of the bigger Scottish universities once ridiculed the St. Andrews approach, implying that it was indicative of our declining standards. Now his university has begun to imitate us. Reality seems to have dawned.

In a good year, we attract 70-80 American first year students and another 100 third years. The revenue they generate pays for about 20 academic posts. But before anyone concludes that this is easy money, let me emphasise that the market is fiercely competitive. American universities have been in the recruitment game for a long time. They employ professional marketers and full time recruiters. In contrast, our recruiters are all lecturers or administrators with no marketing training. Despite our neophyte approach, we've done remarkably well. This year, I was frequently complimented on our professionalism. |You must have a very good marketing officer', one college counsellor commented. I didn't let on that the marketing is done by an ex-biochemist who doubles as admissions officer.

The work is very hard. This year I covered the entire west coast from Scattle to San Diego--eighty schools in 20 days. I woke up one morning at the Portland Best Western Hotel and had to remind myself where I was. Out in the parking lot there were seven white mid-size cars in a row--all the same, all rental cars, all rented by salesmen.

We're welcomed wherever we go. The counsellor feels special--we've come 6,000 miles to see her. And Americans have a soft spot for things ancient; tell them we started teaching before Columbus was born and they melt. But our biggest asset is that we offer a type of education which has virtually disappeared in America. The competition falls into two categories: inexpensive state universities with impressive faculties but huge classes, and small private colleges with quality teaching but no research profile. We offer the best of both worlds: small classes taught by lecturers who are experts in their fields. And the cost is competitive. (It was an enormous blessing on |Black Wednesday' when our fees went down by $1,200 overnight).

American education is also in a difficult situation. The good liberal arts colleges now charge over $20,000 for tuition, room and board. Students are consequently flocking to the quality state universities. But those places are suffering under massive cuts and expanding enrolments. The result is |impacted' courses-essential to a major but heavily oversubscribed. The University of California now admits that it takes five years to complete a degree. In contrast, St. Andrews seems an educational Elysium. So, theoretically, recruitment should be easy, but for the fact that Americans are never too keen to leave their country.

This yearly exposure to American education always makes me happy to return home, where tutorials still exist, lecturers remain approachable and students are treated like individuals. But this time the university I returned to in October seemed radically different from the one I left in September.

At St. Andrews this has been the winter of our discontent. I suspect that our profound unease is shared by colleagues on campuses around Britain. We are frightened, exhausted and irascible. Our disquiet has arisen because the universities we cherished have quite suddenly disappeared. So much now seems unfamiliar and so little remains sacred.

How come this bewildering upheaval? This is the first new academic year after the abolition of the binary line which used to divide universities from polytechnics. Now, we all compete for the same money and the same students. Since funding is determined largely by the number of bodies a university can pack into its lecture halls, every institution is going for growth. The consequent disruption is enormous.

This is also the first post-election academic year. Many of us within the university sector used to entertain a fantasy that at the eleventh hour Labour's cavalry would ride over the ridge and rescue us from the Tory siege. Whereas we once fought the encroachments of Messrs. Baker, Clarke and MacGregor, since the election our spirit of resistance has evaporated. We now fatalistically abide our conquerors.

This is also the first academic year in which the effects of recession are palpable. The malaise which descended on |Black Wednesday' has not lifted. Things were bad before, but are so much worse now. Witness the recent pay settlement. Last April, union and management agreed to a 6.5 per cent rise for lecturers. The government then refused to fund the settlement and imposed a 4.2 per cent rise. All summer we protested--admittedly rather ineffectually. Now, in the new mood of austerity, we've accepted the deal with hardly a whimper. There was almost a sense of relief that at least we got something.

The recession and the climate of competition have combined to inspire an obsession with productivity. Departments have been amalgamated into schools' in an effort to create efficient economies of scale. These schools have, in the official jargon, become |cost centres' and their |heads |line managers'. Productivity also means more students are taught by fewer staff. Seminars which were once pegged at 12 students have edged past 20. We choose between larger or less frequent tutorials. There is an understandable temptation to respond to the increased workload by making oneself a little bit less accessible to the passing student. And meanwhile the secretaries are run ragged; no one seems to have calculated the effect expansion would have upon them.

More students means more marking. Do we ask for fewer essays or do we devise less time-consuming methods of assessment? Recently a colleague proposed introducing American-style multiple choice tests. Last year the idea would have been shot down in flames. This time it was actually discussed. Next time, who knows, it might be adopted.

Meanwhile, we sail between the Scylla of selectivity and the Charybdis of audit. The nationally-administered selectivity exercise measures the quality of our research; audit does the same for teaching. Audit used to be taken only mildly seriously; now it has suddenly dawned that these mysterious auditors will have a profound effect upon our lives. But since no one has yet devised a way to measure something as unquantifiable as good teaching, quality tends to be determined by the volume of paper which passes from lecturer to student. It is often the student who wins by getting more work done for him.

Since every lecturer has become a unit of production, the logical extension of the audit exercise is that colleagues who teach unpopular courses will be deemed inefficient. Since universities have found it well nigh impossible to make lecturers redundant, re-training might be the only option. Thus, the Beowulf expert might be forced to transfer himself into a specialist on the twentieth century detective novel. But will the aesthetic value of a subject be respected in this frenzied desire to cater to the faddish tastes of the student/consumer?

The selectivity exercise seems equally ill-conceived. A few months ago colleagues were asked to supply information on what they had written over the past five years. This data will soon be collated and departments will be rated by outside |experts'. The superficiality of the exercise defies belief. Those doing the rating will not read the research in question; they will not even see it. As with audit, much will depend on the volume of the submission--the sheer number of titles--rather than upon its quality. And one fears that even the most diligent arbiters will not be able to discard the baggage of their preconceptions: Oxford and Cambridge will score well because they are Oxford and Cambridge. Dundee will struggle because it is Dundee.

Management wants us to be better teachers and better researchers. This is a noble goal, but there comes a point when improvement in one area can come only at the expense of the other. The productive researcher may not have sufficient time to devote to teaching and the diligent teacher will be hard pressed to find the opportunity to research. One recent solution to this dilemma has been the creation of teaching fellows who are under no contractual obligation to research. But, unless this change is handled carefully, it will lead to bad blood between colleagues. The teaching fellows seem destined to become the poor cousins of the bona fide lecturers.

A good selectivity rating will bring in more money, which can be used to fund more research. Thus, a department which suffers the ignominy of a poor rating will find it even more difficult to rescue itself during the next five year cycle. The link between rating and finance is crucial, since never in my memory has money been so scarce. The government has boasted that it will increase funding of higher education by 8 per cent next year, but given that student numbers will increase proportionately faster, the result will be an actual cut in funding of around 3 per cent per student. In fact, the money will concentrate in those institutions who score highly in selectivity, while the others will be forced to teach ever more students with ever fewer resources.

Eighteen months ago, the White Paper on higher education called for a doubling in the number of university students by the year 2000. By the very simple (some would say simplistic) tactic of turning polytechnics into universities, the government took a long step in that direction. But expansion on the cheap has meant a levelling down, not up. Universities are being transformed into polytechnics. And now, in last autumn's statement, the government suggested that expansion has already gone too far and too fast. But since the financial health of any university is still dependent upon it establishing economies of scale by increasing admissions, there is little to suggest that John Patten will be able to apply the brakes to a car which is careering out of control.

There's a delightful irony in my experience of the past few months. In America I touted good old-fashioned British education, only to return home and find that we are drawing ever closer to the American model. Students don't expect small classes, approachable professors or careful assessment. Professors carry on their well-funded research protected by a Praetorian Guard of teacher assistants, graders and graduate students. The physical plant and technical facilities are geared toward teaching large numbers. We, on the other hand, burdened by our elitist past, find ourselves overwhelmed by this ill-considered and poorly funded transition to mass education.

Only the most stubborn traditionalist would deny that reform of universities was essential. Our system of elitist higher education was leaving an enormous amount of young talent undiscovered and undeveloped. Furthermore, the privileged autonomy of |job for life' lecturers was open to severe abuse. But the changes which have been instituted have done little to address the real problems in our universities. Audit and selectivity have not rooted out the bad teachers but they have made life infinitely more difficult for the good ones. It seems a cruel irony that the government has finally decided to measure quality at the very time when its policies of expansion make real quality a pipe dream.

Successive Education Secretaries have confused reform with mere agitation. Perhaps this is the customary fault of legislators who never bother to understand the institutions they administer. My colleagues around the country can undoubtedly understand the frustration of the Roman Consul Caius Petronius who, in AD66, complained that:

We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.

[Dr. Gerard J. De Groot is a lecturer in history at the University of St. Andrews.]


Editor's note:

The results for Winter (December 1992 to February 1993) from the quarterly Labour Force Survey for Great Britain are given below. Comparisons are made with results from the previous annual surveys for Spring 1984 (the first year in which internationally agreed definitions of employment and unemployment were fully incorporated into the survey) and for Autumn 1992 (the most recent). All comparisons are made on a seasonally adjusted basis except for redundancies for which no seasonal factors are available.

* 27.6 million people were economically active; this was a fall of 1.0 million (3.7 per cent) since spring 1984, but a fall of 0.1 million (0.2 per cent) since autumn 1992.

* 24.7 million people were in employment (people aged 16 or over); this was a fall of 1.2 million (4.9 per cent) since spring 1984, and a fall of 0.2 million (0.6 per cent) since autumn 1992.

* 21.2 million people were employees; this was a rise of 0.6 million (2.9 per cent) since spring 1984, but a fall of 0.1 million (0.4 per cent) since autumn 1992.

* 3.0 million people were self-employed; this was a rise of 0.4 million (15.9 per cent) since spring 1984, but a fall of 0.03 million (1.0 per cent) since autumn 1992.

* 2.9 million people were unemployed on the International Labour Office (ILO) definition; this was a fall of 0.2 million (5.6 per cent) since spring 1984, and a rise of 0.1 million (3.3 per cent) since autumn 1992.

* 63,000 more people were unemployed on the ILO definition than the average monthly number of claimants of unemployment-related benefits in Great Britain during the period December 1992 to February 1993.

* 2.8 million employees of working age received job-related training in the four weeks prior to interview; this was a rise of 1.1 million (70 per cent) compared with spring 1984, and a fall of 0.02 million (0.6 per cent) compared with autumn 1992.

* 344 thousand people were made redundant in the three months prior to interview (seasonally unadjusted); this was a rise of 34,000 (11 per cent) compared with autumn 1992.
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Title Annotation:personal narrative
Author:Groot, Gerard De
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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