issue 32

25 January 2008


'Truth: lies open to all'


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CONTENTS: editorial; news in brief; pro-chancellor stepping down; appointment of new dean; senate report; moving with the times; alternative university publications; secrets (apparently) hidden in facebook; o tempora, o mores; urban myth of a sort; letters.



The philosopher David Wood recently observed that 'If you put a frog in water and raise the temperature slowly, the frog will eventually be boiled alive. It adapts to every minute change in temperature; at no point is there a significant enough change to justify jumping out. Invisible increments add up, and the frog fries' ( A singularly unpleasant image with which to open the first subtext of 2008, we hear you opine. But subtext has never recoiled from unpleasant truths, and Wood goes on to explain his analogy: 'Education has to "adapt" to changing times. But, the frog adapted! To adapt successfully, the frog should have noticed something wrong, got a thermometer, kept records, and jumped ... I argue that it is philosophical attitudes, habits and skills that can prevent our universities from being boiled alive.'

We hear a lot about adaptation, modernisation and the need for universities to change with the times. But the pertinent question here is what sort of adaptation is envisaged. Wood continues, 'Adaptation can be active and responsive or it can be reactive. Reactive adaptation responds to surface changes without grasping their shape and logic, allows the terms of the relationship to be dictated entirely by the other party. Active adaptation tries to grasp the law of change, not to be led by the nose, but to grasp and even create the opportunities that change brings. The shapes of change rarely stare us in the face. But critical reflection can draw them out and place even them in perspective.'

Universities are particularly well placed to engage in critical reflection. Which makes it all the more depressing that their means of adaptation are all too often of the reactive kind. That this is so can perhaps partly be explained by the incremental nature of the changes being imposed from without, like the slowly rising temperature of the frog's water. But this only means that we have to be all the more vigilant and critical. Morale too can be slowly and incrementally worn down. As one of our correspondents in this issue's letters section observes: 'I do worry about the long-term future of higher education in the UK. All is not yet lost - organisation does not determine ethos and it is hard to kill a spirit ... however it can be slowly worn down.' Yes, indeed. As we embark on 2008, we invite all readers to join us in the quest for active adaptation and in the battle against reactive adaptation. Only a university that does this is worthy of the name.



The new accommodation on the old County field was completed and handed to the college on 21st December. There are around 300 rooms, consisting of both townhouses and flats. Students have now moved in and are safely installed. Negotiations over County's social and administrative space continue. It is reported that their current offices and social areas in County Main are being turned over to commercial purposes, and the college is being offered what is felt to be inadequate rooms and space as replacements. Internal discussions continue within the college, and they are awaiting an Estates presentation to the colleges on the 15th February.


Plans for the new Sports Centre are clearly progressing. Regular users of the current centre will have been asked consultative questions on the proposed new swimming facilities by students employed for the task. It seems that unisex changing rooms with individual cubicles are on the agenda, although it would be interesting to know of the feedback on this.


We are sad to report on the death of Alec Ross, Emeritus Professor and first Head of the Department of Educational Research. He joined the university in 1967 and was instrumental in the amalgamation of Charlotte Mason College, Ambleside, with the university. He was a prominent university figure under the Vice-Chancellorships of Charles Carter and Philip Reynolds and played an active part in discussions on the university's examining and assessment procedures in the early years.


At its last meeting (see below), Senate approved the laying down of the Innovation and Enterprise Unit (originally the Department of Independent Studies) at Lancaster, a significant and, for many, a sad event, bringing to an end one of Lancaster's distinctive educational features. We intend to report in more detail on this in a future issue, together with a history of the department and personal reminiscences.



Bryan Gray, Pro-Chancellor, who has featured regularly in past issues of subtext, is stepping down. Not, we hasten to add, from his post at the University, but from his other post as chair of the North-West Development Agency (NWDA). Insider Weekly, which styles itself as the purveyor of 'Business News from the North West' reports on the appointment of a number of new members to the NWDA Board. The last sentence reads that 'The hunt will also be on in January for a successor to NWDA chairman Bryan Gray, who is stepping down next year.' We hope that this does not mean that he will have more time to devote to the University, given that his actions and contributions in the past have not met with unqualified support from the University community. Gray's appointment as Pro-Chancellor is due for renewal; there is an invitation on the Court agenda for members to accept the recommendation of the Council for his reappointment 'for a further period of up to five years from 1 August 2008'. The Court meeting is due to take place tomorrow (Saturday). It is interesting to speculate whether he will be perceived to be of such use to the university once his association with NWDA comes to an end.



Many readers will no doubt be aware that the process is underway for the appointment of a new Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. The vacancy has been created by Tony Gatrell's appointment as the Dean-Designate of the School of Health and Medicine, as previously reported in subtext. Two candidates are in the running: Corinne May-Chahal, currently the Faculty's Associate Dean for Research, and Tony McEnery, former Head of the Department of Linguistics. Corinne May-Chahal has been nominated by David Whitton and seconded by Bob Jessop, Paolo Palladino, Derek Sayer and Sue Wise. Tony McEnery has been nominated by Linda Woodhead and seconded by Rachel Cooper, Gordon Hands, Sylvia Walby and Angus Winchester.

Both candidates have issued statements of interest and relevant experience ( Readers can form their own judgements on these statements, but there does appear to be a striking contrast in strategies here. Corinne May-Chahal seems to be proposing one of consolidation and advance on the basis of past achievements, while Tony McEnery seems to be advocating the need for more radical change. This seemed to be reflected as well in their presentations to members of the Faculty, which took place last Thursday morning. All attendees were invited to submit any comments on the basis of these presentations to Lesley Waite, the Acting Faculty manager. It would be interesting to know how many Faculty members took advantage of this opportunity, just as it will also be interesting to know how big a part this feedback will play in the deliberations of the appointment committee.

The formal interviews are actually taking place today. The appointment committee is chaired by the Vice-Chancellor, and is comprised of Simon Bainbridge, Mary Hamilton, Maureen McNeil and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad (all elected by PRC), Mary Rose is the non-Cognate representative and, in addition, there appears to be a member of Council, Rick Turner, as an observer. As such, we assume that he will take no active role in the process of appointment.

Given the quite different strategies being advocated by the two candidates, we await the outcome with interest. The implications for the Faculty may well be far reaching.



A well-attended Senate meeting on 16 January began with a number of information items. It heard that about 92% of eligible staff had been returned in the RAE, the same proportion as in 2001, but a substantially higher number. Senate was also advised that the new China Summer School had been disappointingly low in applications; 15 Lancaster students are to participate. Despite the cost to students being only £100 subsistence for a three week (otherwise fully funded) stay in China, the number of applicants was significantly lower than expected. It received news of the successful outcome of the periodic quality review of Religious Studies. It noted the implications - few and manageable - for Lancaster of the final report of the Burgess Group on 'Beyond the Honours Degree Classification'. It approved changes to the Ruskin Centre, and noted that proposals for closer integration of the Ruskin Centre and Ruskin Library would be brought before it later in the academic year. It also approved the laying down of the Innovation and Enterprise Unit. While for years this was one of Lancaster's most distinctive features, without a forthright champion and alongside a move away from flexible and inter-disciplinary undergraduate offers, independent study slipped away with only two Senators commenting on the historical significance of this development. It approved a new constitution for the Management School (the markedly democratic constitution, lauded in a previous issue of subtext, thereby passed away, although it does seem to set good precedents about transparency and accountability, right up to the level of the Dean).

The item of business that most exercised Senators was a set of proposals making commitments on academic contact time with undergraduate students. Members objected that these had been presented at Faculty level as aspirations or guidelines and had metamorphosed into apparently binding, across-the-board, rigid commitments. Several Heads of Department argued that the proposed commitments on contact time and maximum size of seminar groups had implications for staff resources that had not been adequately recognised. There were complaints that the commitments were entirely concerned with quantity, not quality. The outgoing Dean of FASS intervened to say that as we now had more staff (see the RAE item, above), then an increase in staff time commitments to teaching did not seem out of line. Student members also argued that if anything the commitments did not go far enough, and that an increase in contact time was necessary if they were to get value for their fees. Some Senators evidently found it ironic that students were agitating for more contact hours when it seems difficult enough to get many of them to attend even the ones they already have. The contact time discussion ended with a question raised about data on student attendance; none was available except for the LUSU survey which claimed a rate of 80% student attendance.

Bob Sapey (Applied Social Science) moved an amendment to the effect that there should be a full impact assessment before the proposals were implemented, which should 'detail the additional resources required ... and how that will detract from other activities of the University'. When this was put to the vote there was a tie - 26 for and 26 against. On the whole, though not universally, heads of department voted for the amendment; student representatives voted against; and college principals split. The Vice-Chancellor used his authority as Chair to accept the amendment. Another amendment, proposed by Chris May (Politics and International Relations), clarifying that the commitments should apply to overall programmes rather than individual modules, was passed with a large majority.

Lastly, it is worth reporting that there were no questions on notice to the Vice-Chancellor. Having established a space for Senators to ask questions of the VC, in its second appearance no questions were advised prior to Senate. Given this innovation was seen as quite contentious and an opportunity for Senators themselves to have a space to exercise their concerns, it was disappointing that the Christmas holidays seemed to have distracted Senators from considering issues that could be discussed at Senate. One can only hope someone will ask one of the many ongoing questions that non-Senators might regard as important for the future of the University.



The Departments which have been relocated to the new facilities in Bowland North have now had time to settle in and report back on the new facilities.

First, it should be noted that the facilities are new, pleasant, clean and modern, and that the technical equipment is far superior to those in the old facilities. However, and in no particular order ...

Some of the teaching rooms don't have any outside light. Not too much of a problem perhaps for a student who is only in the room for an hour, but pretty deadening for any tutor who has to spend much time in them. This can easily be got be got around by sensible timetabling, of course, and it's good that there are plenty of rooms.

The offices are more problematic. Comment has centred around size and equipment. The offices are too small for more than 2 people to sit down without infringing each other's personal space. Thus, meetings that would normally have been conducted in offices now require booking a room. Not earth-shattering, but it makes a difference to quality of life and how time is spent. It formalises what was hitherto casual, and that makes a difference to the way things are seen and done. There is also disagreement over the space allocated for books. Most academics keep substantial amounts of books and papers in their offices. This is not just because they don't have room for them in their houses; rather the nature of their jobs make it necessary to have a large amount of reference material to hand. There has been some heated reaction to the idea that Estates can decide what space someone requires without consulting them first.

What also seems to have got a number of people's backs up is the way that Estates have been issuing instructions about how, what and where things can be done. Notices and paper of any description are not allowed on the doors and nearby walls. Filing cabinets must not be placed against windows, and so on. Readers will be aware that similar rules have been put in place in the new open-plan offices in University House. (No food at desks, no personal items on view, no cartoons or decorations, no unofficial papers displayed, no loud breathing, no moving the lips when you read, etc. Ok, we made two of those up.) Those who work in University House have Estates breathing down their necks, so it is difficult to disagree with their demands. Academics do not have that problem, and many have dealt with these demands by ignoring them.

The Departments presently housed in Bowland North didn't have a clear idea what they were going to get because they were the first tranche. The second group (due to go to County Main; we gather that this will probably comprise English and Politics) have an opportunity to consult with colleagues using the new facilities and to make their feelings known. Other departments should perhaps also get involved now. Relocation will happen to everyone eventually.



subtext is by no means unique. Alternative, non-official publications promoting internal discussion, debate and analysis exist in a number of universities and take many different forms. We suspect that quite a few are unknown to us, and if any readers come across examples of parallel publications, we'd be very glad to hear of them. It is interesting and helpful to see what colleagues are doing in a similar vein at other universities, and we hope to be able to report on other examples from time to time.

One impressive example that came to our attention recently is that of the 'Oxford Magazine'. It proclaims its alternative status prominently with a notice that reads: 'Not the Gazette: NB The Oxford Magazine is not an official publication of the University. It is a forum for the free expression of opinion within the University.' Unlike subtext, it is a hard copy publication that is professionally produced by Oxford University Press, and it normally appears four times a term. The last issue published before Christmas was numbered as issue 270, so it presumably dates back to the mid-1980s at the time of the Thatcher reforms in Higher Education.

It is edited by just two individuals: Tim Horder, a medic and Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and Gavin Williams, Lecturer in Politics and a Fellow of St Peter's College, Oxford. Given their own editing experience, subtext editors were astonished that such a high quality and extensive (each issue consists of 20-30 A4 pages) journal could be edited by just two individuals. That is, until they looked more carefully at the authorship of the various articles. Whereas subtext is written almost entirely by the editors, with contributed articles from readers being a rare treat, it seems that the Oxford Magazine is sustained primarily by thoughtful and intelligent contributions from a wide array of subscribers. To take just one example, issue 270 featured articles contributed by no fewer than twelve readers, including the Provost of Oriel College, lecturers in Economics, Physics and Ancient History, a college bursar and an Emeritus Professor of French. The subtext editors could only look enviously at this profusion of contributions from readers, and wonder why their own readers are not similarly prolific.

Needless to say, the magazine was a crucial forum in the recent battles with the (now) outgoing V-C over issues of corporate governance. Indeed, it is clear that in spite of the university's victory over the V-C, governance issues have not gone away. Recent editorials have been much concerned with ongoing discussions on governance, recommendations from HEFCE, the role and funding of colleges, freedom of opinion, degree classifications, among other things. Many of the articles are written in reply to previous ones, and there is healthy tradition of disagreement and debate. Judging from the content of the articles, there can be little doubt that readers and contributors are acutely aware of the importance and implications of constitutional questions for their academic freedoms. Quite apart from these contributed articles, there are also numerous book reviews as well as letters to the editor.

All in all, an impressive and inspiring counterpart. Any other examples out there?



Interesting item in the newspapers about the Cambridge don in charge of admissions who admitted checking candidates' applications against their Facebook entries. Some may, of course, see an objection to this in that, in principle, decisions should be made on the application (and interview) and nothing else. However, the grounds on which the don was hauled over the coals seem to have been that the Facebook entries were not in the public domain. Now, we don't know much about Facebook, but we do know that the reason people put their details on Facebook, (and we note that those details are entirely chosen by those doing it,) is exactly that; to put them in the public domain. So, should Admissions Tutors be doing this or not?



Readers may be familiar with the recently identified phenomenon of 'helicopter parents', who hover over their offspring throughout their university career. In this light, an overheard conversation at a recent Open Day may give pause for thought. While the offspring was getting coffee, Father was heard muttering grumpily to Mother: 'When I was her age, if anyone had brought their parents to an Open Day people would have wondered what was wrong with them. The parents would have felt unwanted and the kids would have been embarrassed to have them there. Now if the parents don't come it's neglect.'



Readers of a certain age may remember Malcolm Bradbury's novel 'The History Man', not least because parts of the 1981 TV adaptation were shot on location here at Lancaster. (Worth finding a copy of it if you can - both student and staff hair and trousers were something to behold, and the steps in the Square were an entirely different colour.) The hero of the book is Howard Kirk, a radical sociologist; energetic, egotistical and rampantly libidinous. Tutors at the time denied furiously that someone of Kirk's alley-cat morality could flourish so successfully at a modern university. Particularly loud in his condemnation was a certain academic based on Lonsdale B floor. Drinkers at the then Lonsdale Bar (now seminar rooms 2 and 3 in Bowland North) were therefore much delighted and intrigued one evening to look up and see the same academic chasing a young woman around the desk in his office exactly in the manner of Sid James chasing Barbara Windsor in a Carry On film. The entire bar decamped to the quad in silence, then, at a signal from the JCR President, yelled vigorous abuse at him from below. The student escaped, and the academic was so shaken by the experience that by all accounts he behaved himself thereafter.



Dear subtext,

I've just read issue 31 and the article about the changing role of Deans:

'Now, Deans are seen primarily as managers, responsible for management plans, human resources, budget setting and so on. They are placed on senior management contracts, expected to work as part of the wider University management team, and are selected in a more controlled way to ensure that they fit with the ethos of senior management.'

Some years ago I worked as an Associate Dean at Staffordshire University. There everyone from the equivalent of Department Heads up were on management contracts and this was then, and is now, common in the New University sector. Lancaster is not alone amongst the once traditional Universities to emulate increasingly the management and 'quality' systems of the New Universities. To be fair this is partly in response to external pressures - recall that most of the ex-polytechnics were once under local government control and so it is natural that as central government establishes tighter and tighter controls, the structures begin to look similar.

The New Universities have fulfilled a crucial role in expanding the base of higher education in the UK and offer opportunities to many. However, they have always looked towards the older Universities for standards of academic excellence. It seems perverse then that the sector is drifting in so many ways, seemingly inexorably, towards the pattern of polytechnic-hood - especially as this often involves management and HR models long rejected by business and certainly not appropriate in academia.

The trend to central (and non academic) control is perhaps particularly worrying. There are arguably advantages in a competitive and hostile external environment (although the bureaucratic viscosity of the rest of the 'business' hardly reflects an agile, lean, competitive beast!), and benevolent dictatorship is often seen as the ideal form of statehood. However, in the New Universities this has often led to fiefdoms, resulting in the occasional debacle (such as Kenneth Durrands at Huddersfield some years ago), but more commonly simply reflected in staff morale and long-term institutional decline.

I do worry about the long-term future of higher education in the UK.
All is not yet lost - organisation does not determine ethos and it is hard to kill a spirit ... however it can be slowly worn down.

Alan Dix


Dear subtext,

I am not sure at exactly what point my despair in academic life reached its nadir during today's Senate discussion of the 'Commitments' (used to be a film about Irish blues tribute rockers, thought at one time to be guidelines, now a Lancaster University mission statement).

Was it the moment when a toadying Dean suggested that the increase in numbers of staff returned in the RAE meant that there could be no resource implications of a policy that clearly has resource implications, while failing to mention that any staffing change has been more than matched by increases in student numbers? No, that kind of vacuous economics is par for the course these days.

Was it when the representatives of the student body suggested that value for money from an academic education should be measured via a ratio of hours-of-bums-on-seats to pounds-of-fees-paid? No, while one could argue that this is a daft and meaningless quality assurance metric, at least it has the advantage of clarity.

Was it the moment when an otherwise sound member of Senate claimed that quality (of academic delivery) is the same thing as consistency? ... So, as long as we all do it the same, then we are bound to be good ... and then everyone accepted this ridiculous statement as if it were inviolable? Close, but no cigar. (NB. Type in the words 'Emerson', 'Hobgoblin', 'tiny', mind' and 'consistency' into Google to remind yourselves as to why equating quality with consistency is so dumb).

For me, it was the moment when seemingly all of Senate voted in favour of deciding how we should deliver academic teaching on the basis of arbitrary quantities (contact hours per course, numbers per seminar group, weeks per feedback turnaround, smiles per tutorial, etc.), without a single reference in the policy document to meeting learning outcomes, enhancing the student experience or (though I imagine that the phrase won't mean much to many staff and students of Lancaster University, on today's showing) delivering academic values.

It was sad on so many levels. The ease with which senators gave up their right to determine the best way of delivering an academic syllabus in favour of tick-box consistency was pathetic. What was really sad, though, was how easily fooled senators were by the process of voting: The VC 'magnanimously' allowed an amendment, to have an impossible-to-carry-out-and-franky-meaninglesss-since-the-motion-was-carried-anyway audit of implementation costs. Then a small wording shift (replace 'module' with 'programme') was let through. At which point, bless 'em, all those rough and tough, hearty, thoughtful and strong senators who had raised so many damning and insightful arguments against the proposal, voted in favour of the proposal. Doh!!!!! Was it cowardice or stupidity? I hardly dare ask. I now know why the outcome of the Senate Effectiveness Working Party was negligible: Senate is working very effectively if this is the kind of outcome one seeks.

With love, affection, and a genuine sense of loss,

A senator (name supplied).


The editorial collective of subtext currently consists (in alphabetical order) of: Sarah Beresford, George Green, Gavin Hyman, Bronislaw Szerszynski and Alan Whitaker.