Sunday, 24 October 2010


I forgive people a lot if they can turn a good sentence. Conversely, if someone can’t write, I tend to lose respect, even if they’re on the same side.

This is from a piece on what’s happening to the universities, written by a British academic who teaches History at Berkeley UC: ‘Inevitably these auditing systems produced not only greatly increased the amount of time academics spent talking or writing about the research or teaching they would do if they only had the time to do it. It also catalyzed the staggering growth of management personnel. New Labour only made things worse. Faced with the systematic under-funding of the universities, the expansion of student numbers (funding per student fell 40% from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, and the decline in real terms of academic salaries they answered the call of the last official review of higher education funding . . .’

Would I be happy for my children’s essays to be marked by this man? Would I really want to borrow a heap of money in order to be taught by him?

A few months ago I was shown a university magazine dedicated to explaining the research undertaken by the staff. It was jargon-ridden, un-edited, illiterate.

I do have a prejudice against academics. It’s based on the experience of copy-editing their books: many of them can’t write an interesting sentence, many of them can’t even transcribe accurately from a printed text in front of them. (This prejudice is aggravated by their excuses for returning their page proofs late – they are on sabbatical, or they have exam papers to mark – and the fact that they get paid much more than me.)

The mess that the universities are in – students too: a 17-year-old about to enter college is likely to graduate ‘with debts of at least £50,000 and were he to study in London that could rise to £90,000’ (figures from the Berkeley UC academic) – hardly bears thinking about. By which I mean, of course, that it needs a lot of thinking about, and writing about too. But the kind of writing that many academics put out (there are, of course, wonderful exceptions) helps no one.

I’m guessing that, as third-level educational institutions start to fall apart, smaller, more informal centres of learning may emerge. (I’m holding back on the publishing analogy.) No reason why they shouldn’t have charitable status, and so not be just for the rich. Many of the English so-called public schools were originally founded for, as Wikipedia puts it, ‘scholars from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds’.

1 comment:

Tony said...

Yes indeed, to "smaller, more informal centres of learning". And maybe a split will develop between (big) vocationally-oriented degree factories and (small) centres of scholarship.
Incidentally, the current spending cuts may have a similar effect on the arts. I'd expect a renaissance of small, unfunded events in coffee bars, church halls, even people's flats and houses.