Friday, 12 February 2010

Throwin’ Out The Trash #3

Late Friday afternoons are traditionally the time that politicians, businesses, celebrities, etc, release bad news to the public in the hope that they won’t see it.  Season 1, episode 13, of The West Wing calls this “Take Out The Trash Day”.  Each week, there are so many fucked up stories and newsy bits and pieces that cross my path in this 24/7 media blitzkrieg that we’re living in, and I simply do not have the time or inclination to write a full-on commentary piece about all of them.  Throwin’ Out The Trash is my chance each week to clear the decks of all these niggling odds and sods without ignoring them completely…


First of all – I take it all back about how other countries can deal with snow and we can’t.  No sooner had Charlie Brooker jokingly called the UK’s cold-snap “Snowmageddon” this past January, then US President, Barack Obama, used the exact same word in relation to Washington’s recent snow-storm at a DNC meeting.

That said, the US “snowmageddon” actually looks pretty, you know, “snowmageddony”…not just like the local council didn’t properly grit the roads.


The awfulness of the current academic scene continues, with announcements made this week that universities across the country are planning to slash jobs, close campuses and shut-down courses in a bid to deal with expected cuts in public funding.

Yes, as students themselves continue to pay higher and higher fees, the quality of their education and the service they are receiving from universities continues to get ever worse.  The more money they pay, the less choice they are getting, the bigger their class-sizes are, and the more unconcerned their lecturers are, as the major emphasis in a university lecturer’s professional life these days is not on teaching, but on “research”.  By “research”, I mean excessive publication and funding acquisition – the two major concerns of university philosophy departments looking to score well in their assessments.

By a bizarre twist of logic, already limited funding is dictated on performance, performance is dictated on how well departments do in assessment, assessment is determined by the amount of “impact” a department has, arrived at via analysis of the number of publications produced by the department, and amount of money brought into the department through funding, and nowhere in this is much concern for the quality of education received by the fee-paying students.  Indeed, as I still keep my eye on academic jobs in order to possibly one day put to use my cumbersome Ph.D., I have noticed an increasing tendency in academic job ads for the teaching component of the job to be literally the very last thing mentioned!  They want to make sure new staff have vast publication records, proof of having acquired independent grants and funding, the ability to contribute to the research life of the university…and then, at the bottom of the page, they will also be required to teach both undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Meanwhile, right-wing think-tank, Policy Exchange, have decided that university tuition fees must be raised even further – to a rate of at least £5,000 a year – if university degree-schemes are to remain viable.

So to get this straight – universities have less money than ever before, but are getting more money in tuition fees than ever before.  In a bid to get more public funding, they are putting all of their efforts into gaining high marks in RAE/REF assessment exercises, which places little to no emphasis on quality of teaching, and thus are placing a primacy within their departments on research “impact” over quality of teaching, and yet the neglected students are paying much more money to the institutions than they ever have.  Indeed, one of the ways in which universities hope to cut costs and free up full-time academic staff for more important “research”, is to leave the majority of the teaching to post-graduates – so now our students are paying more money for less qualified teachers, to subsidize the career-driven, assessment-obsessed research of pressured academics, increasingly concerned with publication for publication’s sake, rather than because they have anything worthwhile to say.

And speaking as someone who has been a postgraduate tutor, there are two things that come to mind.

1) We were constantly told not to spend too much effort on teaching our classes because our real focus must be on our dissertations/theses; nor were we paid appropriately to compensate for much more than a few hour’s preparation time a week.  So postgraduate teachers are not only less qualified, they are less motivated to provide quality education.

2)We were cheap, and essentially exploited labour.  Wages continued to be tweaked downwards during my two years of teaching, with pennies pinched here and pennies pinched there, and when we tried to talk about fair compensation in the Research Committee Meetings, the Head of School essentially told us we were lucky to be being paid at all.  “The experience is so great,” he told us, “that many would be willing to do the work for free.” 

This was true – and I loved the teaching enough that I would have worked for free, and repeatedly worked many more hours at my seminars/essay marking/student’s concerns than I was paid for – but to rely on this exploitative system of internship as the primary mode of education for all fee-paying undergrads at the same time as we are raising their fees is a disgrace.


For more proof that I am constantly out of step with the mainstream – it appears that I proposed to my girlfriend at a time when marriage was at its biggest low in Britain since 1895.  So for all you guys who thought my decision to get married was pretty conventional for a usually non-conformist anarchist like myself – well, now you know :-)


Isn’t the bigger scandal here that the US government are paying BLACKWATER at all, rather than that, as part of their payments to these hired mercenary killers, they are also occasionally paying for prostitutes?


It should be noted that, whilst Barack Obama did make a pledge to cut the US nuclear weapons arsenal and seek a nuclear-weapons free world, he also asked Congress to increase spending on US nuclear weapons by more than seven billion dollars in his last budget proposal.


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