12 November 2009
'Truth: lies open to all'
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CONTENTS: editorial, news in brief, employment policies, strategic planning again, Ascentis, catering, 1966 and all that again, graduology, letters
In Alexandra Square a brightly coloured and well-labelled campus map shows areas of the university as under construction and others as inaccessible. The forthcoming LICA barn, the hill-hugging Sports Centre, and the Waterside complex are all indicated, as is the area between Bowland North and South that is shuttered off for a third period in succession. However, Lancaster's mission singlehandedly to shore up all the building trades in the region is not confined to these projects, for impromptu additional building sites spring up like mushrooms on wet pasture. The thoroughfare from south to north, past Pendle, is obstructed by a swathe of churned earth stretching from the Waterside development to the very doors of the George Fox building, and the area to the north of Bowland North is similarly cordoned off, as is the space between Engineering and the Whewell Building. A lane of the Underpass was closed for weeks, and the first roundabout is not secure against having its turf stripped off. Few warnings are given about these and other ancillary works, and no notices are displayed to explain why staff and students must work their way around the edges of yet another obstruction. What visitors, parents or prospective students make of a university so heavily clad in thick orange netting is also not revealed.
Yes, it is difficult working around people while updating the campus, and yes, each refurbishment reveals how much more there is to be done to improve the university's building stock, but subtext persists in the view that more can be done to keep whole areas contractor-free, to reduce noise to teaching and research workshops, and to keep people better informed.
NEWS IN BRIEF
Graduate Student Association
subtext notes with regret the problems the Graduate Students Association is having to find candidates for president and other officers in the forthcoming student elections. Because twelve-month masters degree students are so hard-pressed, the load of graduate student representation falls mainly on research students, whose careers may suffer if they are conscientious about their officer responsibilities. LUSU has successfully reformed its sabbatical officer posts, but postgraduate concerns - a student group around a third of the total - do not fit neatly into the same mould as undergraduates. In fact, so intent are they on survival that they may not have the time or energy to make their distinctive needs known. This is the kind of submerged problem that is easy to overlook, and the university and LUSU could profitably re-examine how the pressures in this area might be eased. The current lack of candidates seems to subtext like a symptom of a deeper issue.
Students at the University of Leicester held a rally on Friday 30 October in protest at proposals to raise the cap on top-up fees to as much as £10,000. Students (and a number of academic staff) began their march on campus and proceeded to the city, where they occupied the main square. In a press release issued prior to the rally by the University of Leicester Student's Union, Owen Jones, Campaigns and Involvement Officer for ULSU, described support for the proposed increase in the cap as 'shocking'. Lancaster Vice-Chancellor, Professor Paul Wellings, was also cited as leading the 1994 group of universities into agreement with what were described as 'monstrous proposals'.
Earlier this week also saw the launch of the review group on the top-up system. It's chaired by Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP. Among its members are two Vice-Chancellors (from Birmingham and Aston Universities) and a single student representative. It has cross-party support in Parliament and is not due to report until after next year's general election. Given its remit and membership few expect it to do other than recommend an increase in fees, an outcome which many University Vice-Chancellors, including our own, appear to support.
The rise and fall of senior managers
It is rumoured that the new Director of Marketing and External Linkages is already flexing his institutional muscle. subtext understands that he seems to believe that someone of his status, if not stature, needs a bigger office and that his sights have become set on that currently occupied by the University Secretary. Perhaps more surprising is that she seems to have acquiesced in his demand - sorry, request - without too much fuss, and will be moving along to join her colleagues in the space occupied by what used to be the OAI on C floor of University House. Schadenfreude seems much in evidence at her fate. It doesn't seem to stop there, of course. There is now much talk of further expensive refurbishment of this part of C floor to make what was the University Secretary's office even bigger and to enhance the corporate image of Marketing and External Linkages. Now, how long ago was it that C floor was refurbished at considerable expense? Ah yes, it was last year that staff moved back in. That the refurbished open plan space is still criticised as not fit for purpose, because noise remains a major problem for staff trying to work there, may be behind proposals for further changes. However, staff views were discounted first time round so few believe they will be taken into account now. subtext predicts the pecking order will be revealed by checking out who will possess a door to their large office at the end of any revamp. The smart money is on one person only.
The long and winding roads
Work continues on the path which runs from Alexandra Park, crossing Green Lane to Bigforth Barn. It seems to be a splendid route and presumably one which might be extended to the new Sports Centre but are we alone in wondering what plans there are to light it. Surely it requires illumination if it is to be safe for pedestrians and joggers after dark? If not will it get used? Enquiries have revealed that power cabling has not been installed which seems surprising, not to say likely to prove costly in the future. Doubtless much thought has been given to such aspects.
And while we're on the subject of routes around campus, subtext drones have watched with curiosity as the new path down the hill towards the yet-to-be-built Sports Centre has now twisted behind Bigforth Barn and seems to be ending in a mini turning circle. Why pedestrians might need this is not clear but rumour has it that it might be turned into a pay and display car park to provide an overflow for the said Sports Centre or (more sensibly) a cycle park. We wait to see. Other suggestions are welcome.
It's only public funds: more on the 'El Zee'
The projected cost of this magnificent supplement to Lancaster's learning facilities is some £3 million, though few seem prepared to admit this will be the final figure. Keeping within budget cannot have been helped by the late addition of the airport security doors (whose decision was this?) at a rumoured cost of some £25k each, and still not working properly when we last checked. Nor can the use of the ever-changing light features at a reputed cost of £1,300 each. If these figures are anywhere near accurate it's hard to justify them but at least someone could try. Some time ago we enlisted the help of readers to identify examples of university spending which should be examined and challenged and brought to the attention of a wider audience. Our thanks to those who offered suggestions. The information is being collated for submission to the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Expenditure. Only joking - but as with the above instances one wonders just how detailed any scrutiny of project spending is and where it occurs. For example, it should be a concern that a recent bar refurbishment (not Grizedale) incurred two sets of design and associated fees. Apparent unhappiness with the original design proposals meant they were jettisoned, at an estimated cost to the University of some £50k. At the very least an explanation and justification is required. Did it happen? Can someone tell us?
Readers will recall that the University senior management has been hoping to introduce a new suite of employment procedures to cover all categories of staff, (see subtexts passim). The negotiations have been protracted and in recent months implementation has been called into question, not least because of national developments involving the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) and its refusal to discuss a national framework for job security within universities. Enter the new Director of Human Resources, Chris Thrush. Although an individual with wide experience within the private sector, most recently as Group Director of HR for Corporate Express NV in the Netherlands, until made redundant, he has no experience of HR within the education sector, which is quite possibly why he was recruited. In a development some might describe as brash he is alleged to have described the new employment procedures as being 'unfit for purpose' and redolent of management-employee relations of the 1970s. These, by the way, are the same new employment procedures that staff in his own department drafted and that have been pored over for the last eighteen months by three high-ranking managers,(Deputy Vice Chancellor Bob McKinlay, University Secretary Fiona Aiken, and Thrush's predecessor Val Walshe) as well as union negotiators. In a very real and practical sense, these senior managers share responsibility for policies that Thrush now condemns as out of date. What they made of his remarks is not known but he seems to have persuaded UMAG, in the first instance. It might be a case of management rejecting its own proposals but a face-saving device is at hand. Thrush has also begun repeating to anyone who will listen that the campus unions have rejected the new policies. This is inaccurate but why let the truth get in the way of a much needed excuse to cover up the apparent disarray on the management side? Undeterred, the new Director of HR is now looking to initiate new discussions on a completely new draft set of policies and has invited the campus unions to join him in this exciting venture.
Whether they do or not, it raises the question of whether Thrush is likely to ever come to terms with the culture of higher education and the significance of academic values for an institution such as Lancaster. subtext did some Dan Brown-type research, and found some clues hidden in plain sight in the scripts of the 1960s television series 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'. Older readers may recall that the series saw the fictional international law-enforcement agency U.N.C.L.E. waging constant battle against a sinister organisation also known as THRUSH. As U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo put it at the time, 'THRUSH believes in the two-party system: the masters and the slaves.' The TV series never explained what the acronym THRUSH stood for, but in several of the U.N.C.L.E. novels it was expanded helpfully as 'the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity'. You read it here first.
STRATEGIC PLANNING: PART 2 - READING IS BELIEVING
As promised, in our commentary on the University's new Strategic Plan (http://bit.ly/strplan), we now move on to 'The Mission', which is presented on the same page as sections on 'Beliefs and Values' and 'Our Graduates'. We may assume that this juxtaposition is deliberate, and that each of the three sections should be seen as explaining and contextualising the others. So.
Our Mission, apparently, is '... to pursue research at the highest international level, creating new knowledge, and expertly transmitting the benefits of this of our students, partners and users of our research'. An interesting idea; we'll do some research, we'll find stuff out, and then we'll tell the people who we like all about it. The University has long trumpeted its commitment to research, and insists that this commitment benefits students' learning. It doesn't. Research and teaching are two largely separate activities except perhaps at PhD level. The more distinguished and successful the researcher, the less likely s/he is to do much actual teaching. There's nothing wrong with being committed to research, but how many students come here because of that commitment? We asked a random and unscientific sample. Seems that they come here because they think they can get taught well and so get a good degree. Perhaps our commitment to research should include looking further at this question?
The 'Beliefs and Values' section is a brave attempt to tell us what the University believes in. We believe in 'meeting needs', 'diversity', 'maximising potential'. Righto. Staff must have 'accountability, integrity and professionalism'. Yup, we can go for that too. We also, apparently, believe that 'our enduring relationships with alumni and our collaborators make a difference to their communities.' A harder one to prove, that, and actually quite difficult to work out what it might mean in practice. And one might idly wonder why we have recently decided to reduce our impact on the community locally and increase it in places like India - perhaps their communities can make a difference to our balance sheet.
Anyhow. These beliefs and values are, we gather, underpinned by 'equality of opportunity', yes, 'scholarship', certainly, 'academic freedom' ... ah. Some have suggested that the University's idea of exactly what constitutes academic freedom differs radically from that held by many academics who work in it. (See Senate reports on attempts to change the University Statute on exactly this matter, passim.) Next, we believe in 'Turning ideas into action', which is a good illustration of the principle that every maxim should be held up against its opposite to see if it actually means anything. 'We must never turn our ideas into action!' is not a slogan we're likely to hear very often, so to assert the contrary isn't really very potent. We also, apparently, believe in an 'atmosphere of collegiality', which is a fine example of Humpty Dumpty's assertion in Alice in Wonderland, that 'Words mean what I say they mean, no more and no less'. A definition of collegiality might be something like 'power and authority that is shared among peers with the aim of maintaining a social environment promoting cooperation and trust'. Do we feel that power in the University is shared? And, if not, what exactly does this mean? If 'peers' in this context means 'other members of UMAG', then fair enough, but if anyone can think of an occasion when power and authority were devolved down to them (as distinct from an unpleasant duty being dumped on them) then we'd like to hear about it. Is the University run really co-operatively? Does management trust those who work here, and vice-versa?
Phew. Next issue: 'Planning'. Bet you can't wait.
Over the summer the University bade farewell to another of its important, if often unacknowledged, access activities, when what used to be known as the Open College of the North West (OCNW) was encouraged to leave and re-launch itself under the new name of Ascentis. Lancaster University played a key role in the establishment of OCNW, in 1975, as a cooperative scheme between North West universities and colleges, aiming at encouragement of increased access into higher and further education. It was the first 'Open College' in the UK and further evidence of Lancaster's innovative approach to welcoming non-standard students. Notwithstanding its regional-sounding name, it grew into a national awarding body, approved by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and, as an access validating agency to higher education, licensed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. The importance of its work to Lancaster was symbolised by the fact that successive Vice-Chancellors, such as Harry Hanham and Bill Ritchie, were prepared to chair meetings of its Council. OCNW is 'owned' by and accountable to its member organisations, which by July 2009 numbered six universities, including Lancaster, as well as over 50 institutions in the Further and Adult Education and Sixth Form College sector. They constitute an important access network.
Over the years Lancaster provided strong support to OCNW, through the provision of space, educational advice and financial, personnel and estates services. Its staff were employees of the University. In return we benefited from its growing reputation for excellence and, more tangibly, in terms of students coming to Lancaster after taking OCNW-validated courses. Its outreach work complemented that offered by the Department of Continuing Education. The reasons behind it becoming independent are complex. They involve shifts in Government policy and perceptions of financial risk for Lancaster, particularly given OCNW's somewhat ambiguous position within the University as an unincorporated association; part of and yet in various ways independent of Lancaster. Regrettably (to subtext, at least), it's equally clear that Lancaster no longer sees its regional role and access activities as strategically important. As the new Strategic Plan demonstrates, international collaborations are the order of the day(see Senate report, subtext 57), despite growing concerns about their quality and long-term viability. So, subtext acknowledges OCNW's contribution over the years, and wishes it a successful future in its new guise of Ascentis. The loss is Lancaster's and we may well come to regret it.
SOME THOUGHTS WHILE WAITING AT THE VENUE
Contrast that situation with today. Much of the food-provision has been contracted out. All the refectories are now closed. To get a plated meal you need to go to the Sultan, Wibbly Wobbly, Pizzetta/Cafe Republic, the Venue, IAS or Infolab. Call that maybe 450 seats all together. Include the snack bar in County South, that pushes it up to around 550. The Hub in the Management School has pretensions to more than a snack bar, so let's add that, call it 700 if we're generous. Additional coffee bar space ... well, a few JCR's still have spaces, mostly in the southern colleges, call it 200 maximum. Add 50 for the Chaplaincy Centre, again being generous, that's 250 snack bar seats.
So. Thirty years ago there were around 500 'meal' seats and 400 snack seats. Today there are around 700 meal seats if we count generously, none of them aimed at the cheap end of the market, and maybe 250 snack seats. An increase of 40% in meal seats, a decrease of about 40% in snack bar seats. The major increase is in takeaway opportunities, which have increased significantly. The chip shop and Greggs have been augmented by Spar, the LUSU shop, Pizzetta/Cafe Republic and Diggles.
Now, here's the rub. Thirty years ago there were around 3,500 students. Today that number has nearly trebled. Staffing has similarly increased, from about 700 to about 2,000 in the same period.
So, if you've ever wondered why the line at Greggs stretches across the Square for much of the day, and why you spend much of your lunch hour queuing for food, and why Open Days are such an embarrassing and shameful catering nightmare, (why have admissions officers not risen as one to demand an improvement?), as the Americans say, Do The Math.
1966 AND ALL THAT - CHAPTER THREE
David O'Dell was amongst the first students to study at the newly-founded University of Lancaster. Here we continue his story - as he remembers it.
Chapter 3: Year 1, Term 1, Week 1 and the journey of a thousand miles
* I have nine hours teaching a week: two hours of lectures and one one-hour seminar for each subject.
* Lectures are in Centenary House, a converted church in Lancaster, and are in blocks of two hours. Two hours spent sitting on the polished wooden church pews taking notes on Aristotle's teleology. Seminars are at Bailrigg. Painters continue their work on the outside of the window frames as steam rises from our damp duffle coats and we desperately try to work out what Mill meant by 'self-regarding conduct'.
* The Economics Department sets the first piece of work. A few hundred words on normative economics. I understand the economics bit.
* My Politics group contains an interesting range of individuals - three Lancashire policemen in their 40s, a trades' union official, the Chairman of the Conservative Association and an ex-monk. First seminar is Political Theory with Russell Price. Apparently we are supposed to have read Plato's The Republic in preparation. Head for Student Bookshop to find the cheapest edition and start to read. Fast. 'I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess; and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing.' Eh? Have I missed something or is this just some ancient Greek's diary I have bought by mistake?
* The History course is broad to say the least. The British and US bit runs from 1780 to 1940, but Europe and the Wider World Since 1870 includes Italy, the USSR, France. Egypt, India, South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia at a rate of a country a week. I didn't know some of these places had history.
* Teams for the first hockey match of the season go up. I am not there, but A. N. Other is. What has he got that I haven't? However, on Tuesday afternoon my name miraculously appears as left-back on the 2nd IX team sheet for the game against Durham tomorrow.
* Wake up the next day with a cold but make the three-hour trip to Durham for my first game in the university's colours. As soon as the coach leaves the Underpass, the singing begins. It is obscene. The netball team seems either unimpressed or oblivious.
* Reach Durham and spend 70 minutes losing 5-0. The hardest game of the year we are told. The first of many. We leave Durham at 10.30 p.m. and at 10.45 p.m. our coach is hit by a drunk in a Morris Minor. We wait for two hours while the police are called and he is taken to hospital. Get home at 4 a.m. Reflect that after a week I am now calling Morecambe 'home'.
* At end of the first week. I treat myself to a jam doughnut and a coffee in the St Leonardsgate JCR and write my second letter home. The JCR itself is cavernous and arranged like an airport departure lounge. Apart from lunch and dinner (southern terminology, I discover) the serving hatch is open between 10.45 and 11.15 in the morning and 3.30 and 4.15 in the afternoon.
* Get back to Dallam Avenue to find the four of us have become three. Jim has gone back to Leeds because he says he was promised a new physics lab and it hasn't been built it yet. Still, 'board' includes an evening snack, and at 10.30 p.m. each night for the next year we are offered a cup of tea and a slice of malt loaf.
* We are gradually getting to know the area. The Broadway is just round the corner from our digs and an early favourite. Mick puts 'This is dedicated to the one I love' by The Mamas and the Papas on the juke box while we try and fail to apply Newtonian laws of physics to the snooker table. Where is Jim when you need him? Discover Boddingtons.
* In a week of momentous and tragic happenings elsewhere, The Daily Mail reports that students' mini skirts are distracting the building site workers at Bailrigg.
GRADUOLOGY LATEST NEWS
The new discipline of graduology made major new advances over the summer, as once again an interdisciplinary team of researchers coordinated by subtext's research wing turned July's undergraduate degree ceremonies into a laboratory for the scientific investigation of degree conferral.
This year a major funder of our research was the Higher Education Funding Council for the United Kingdom, which recently called for a drastic overhaul in the degree classification scheme after a study found that final degree class was a less accurate measure of students' attainment than their porn star name (name of first pet times mother's maiden name divided by postcode, or something). In the face of an implosion of confidence in degree classification, Higher Education Minister David Lammy has praised HEFCUK's long-sightedness in rejecting the safer route of a mere reformist tinkering with class boundaries, and for backing subtext's graduological approach in order to effect a root and branch overhaul of the way we think about degree results.
As readers will know, the practice of degree classification has never really attained the status of a proper, Kuhnian 'normal' science, with agreed and reproducible criteria for distinguishing between the phenomena it purports to describe. Instead it has languished as a highly subjective pseudo-science with little more claim to objectivity than astrology, economics or the Galenic theory of the four humours. subtext, as the founders of scientific graduology, were the obvious choice for carrying out this long-overdue Copernican revolution.
We first set ourselves the task of subjecting the existing archaic classification scheme to robust scrutiny, using our usual methods (tireless iconoclasm; recruiting specialists from a range of disciplines; and the creative use of hopeless category mistakes). In this case, the gerundival status of graduands (inhabiting as they do an ambiguous zone between not having and having a degree) had led us to surmise that awards were fundamentally topological in character. We thus recruited mathematicians specialising in knot theory (and a group of girl guides) to help us to identify whether different degree classes are natural kinds, as claimed, or can in fact be easily transformed into each other through a simple set of permissible manipulations.
Our first finding was that a third and a first are in fact the same thing. For example, if you take a first-class exam answer, slip the twist in the last paragraph over the change of tack in the third, and pull the canonical list of references through the resulting loophole, it is utterly indistinguishable from a third-class answer. This finding could cause a complete reassessment of past degree awards; the University is busy consulting its lawyers to indemnify itself against potential lawsuits from existing third-class degree holders.
From their bench in another corner of the Great Hall, a team of particle physicists announced the discovery that what we call a mid-upper-second is in fact the natural state of a degree: all other degree classes are basically deviations from that natural condition. Other degree classes are obtained by adding or subtracting material either from the degree's nucleus of subject-specific knowledge (creating an isotopic degree, which as we know can be highly unstable) or from the cloud of transferable skills that orbit the degree's nucleus in concentric shells (producing an ionic degree, which is better at attracting offers of employment). However, feminist molecular biologists from LEC then added a gender dimension to the whole debate, arguing that it is in fact the 2:2 degree that is the natural state of a degree, since it is homogametic (containing two identical '2' chromosomes) and therefore female; by contrast, the 2:1 is heterogametic (containing a '2' chromosome and a '1' chromosome) and clearly simply a deformed 2:2 that thinks too much of itself.
We then turned to the constructive task of making some kind of order out of the 128 new degree classes discovered through our empirical methods (each written on scraps of paper, backs of matchbooks, dolls heads etc, and pinned to a board like a scene from Flashforward). Lancaster's physicists were of great assistance in ordering them into a nice periodic table of single majors, but we had to bus in a team of chemists from the University of Liverpool to help us with the more complex task of classifying joint majors. Apparently, different combinations of disciplines form bonds in radically different ways, according to the way they swap essays between their outer shells (against the laws of nature, we know, but you just can't stop it). Some combinations of subjects form strong alloys with new and useful properties that were not possessed by either subject in isolation; others crumble into dust and blow away soon after the new graduate leaves the Great Hall complex. This surprising finding led us to wonder what subjects would make a stable joint major with graduology. We tried to confer on a volunteer various combined degrees that included our new discipline, but found that there was in fact no other subject that formed a stable compound with graduology. Our conclusion was that as a discipline graduology is so stable and complete unto itself that it should be henceforth be known as the 'noble gas' of disciplines (though there is some dispute as to whether it is more noble or more gaseous).
In the editorial of issue 58 you mention that 'the REF Impact Pilot Exercise Steering Group is composed of 14 members, only three of whom are from higher education institutions. The others are apparently drawn from private sector companies and government departments.'
This is indeed the case and the particular private sector organisations represented are QinetiQ (ex MoD, nanotechnology, weapons - http://www.qinetiq.com/global.html), AstraZeneca (biotech, pharmaceutical - http://www.astrazeneca.com) and ARUP (designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists e.g. 2008 Olympics in Beijing, security management, cars, oil and gas engineering - http://www.arup.com/). I think it's important to highlight which corporations are involved in the reform process.
You go on to suggest that this development 'can only betoken a lack of trust of academics on the part of government'. I would say rather that this development is part of a long process of corporatising education so that it better suits the market. A recent Guardian article (http://bit.ly/HEReview) laid out clearly the government's strategy to make higher education purely about careers, and particularly business careers. The introduction of tuition fees was the start of the process of turning students into consumers, which then apparently justifies the changes to education that make it about competition between institutions rather than about the provision and experience of education as a social good.
As you suggest, these changes are not surprising in the slightest; the question is what should be done about it. The UCU petition is a useful first step, but in Europe and elsewhere there have also been student protests, including mass occupations, against the corporatisation of education, which is mainly focused on the Bologna process (see for example http://tinyurl.com/yjjygyr; http://tinyurl.com/ykaj5vu).
We must continue to resist these reforms.
Helen Jackson, Corporate Watch (and ex-Lancaster student)
I just read the 'City of Jams' article in subtext and I felt that _its_ subtext was an expectation that in a time of change, a university might be expected to come up with the novel solutions to lead the way in avoiding the traffic chaos that seems likely to become a problem, rather than just being part of the problem.
But no. I think that everyone just expects Lancaster University to put the price of parking up, to try and put people off bringing their cars onto campus. There might be one or two token efforts amounting to a few percent of the total, but in essence it will consist of penalising the less well-off who have few other options. The only mechanism for real action will occur when the traffic jams occur frequently, and the management become stuck in them. Only at this point will they realise that not only can they not buy their way out of this one, but also that just punishing their subordinates for using cars won't fix it either.
I really hope that I'm wrong about this, and that the University has something really unexpectedly clever up its sleeve. Still plenty of time before next Autumn!
The editorial collective of subtext currently consists (in alphabetical order) of: George Green, Gavin Hyman, Bronislaw Szerszynski and Alan Whitaker.