UK Academia in the News

Ever feel like the news is getting at you?
Well recently it has been my turn. Two things have felt surprisingly personal this week; firstly the announcement that postgraduate study in the UK isn’t producing value for money and secondly a new government report on self-harm suggesting GPs are not sufficiently trained for the growing epidemic. I’ll save my thoughts on the 2nd item for a little later but as a proto-/pseudo- academic I have some pretty strong thoughts on the “University Business”.

For those you not in the UK or blissfully unaware of the commentary: a think-tank has declared that postgraduate studies at British universities are not producing home-grown graduates with useful skill-sets for the job market and that the UK is in danger of under-investing in research.
Now these are two separate claims and worth two separate comments.
The 1st claim is that postgraduate students and their study are not contributing enough to our economy and it is linked to the idea that the universities are spending too much money on foreign students. Now this riles me for 2 reasons: 1st- Universities do not exist to churn out people who are money-generators; 2nd- the implication that people leaving postgrad courses are useless. I whole-heartedly believe that universities and higher-level research (as done by PGs, post-docs, lecturers and dedicated research teams) should aim to benefit society. BUT I don’t believe benefit is easily measured by economic output, nor indeed by rankings and student satisfaction ratios.
It isn’t necessarily apparent what research is going to change the world, and a lot of research will only ever pave the way for someone else but the inability to instantly generate money shouldn’t be a show-stopper. Furthermore, I don’t think it is the responsibility of a university to ‘create/train’ individuals to be good citizens and good workers. No one can make someone a good worker nor should their efficacy as an educational institution be dependent on the amount of money their leavers make.
I truly believe that for most jobs the skills required should either be learnt by age 14 (basic numeracy & literacy; ability to research ideas, make judgements & demonstrate processes; manners, teamwork and self-motivation) or be trained on job (builders, plumbers, electricians &c all fall in this category no training can be a substitute for experience for so many things). Some jobs, of course, do require specialist studies: doctors, lawyers, nuclear weapons designers… but for most of us a degree is a luxury and doesn’t make us more employable. I say this as someone with a BA & an MA and who hopes to soon have a Phd. I didn’t do this to make more money for the government I did it to learn new things and to contribute to a field of knowledge but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t developed skill-sets that are relevant to the economy in the process. I have developed my own voice and an acute eye for patterns, I have a better idea of self-discipline and time-management than most and I’m ridiculously good at spotting bullshit but it remains to be seen whether I can get a job.

The purpose of universities and the contribution that they make to the development of students is obviously important to the amount that we as a society should fund them. If we truly believe that only those that create immediate wealth-generating research and/or individuals tailored to the job-market are worthwhile then money can only be directed to areas of interest to industry and vocational studies. On the other hand if we are to foster innovation and develop indviduals as critical entities we must fund the unexpected and the apparently irrelevant.
To me it seems obvious that as a nation we are failing to invest in research.. budgets at universities are so tight there isn’t enough money for lecturers to do photocopying, departments are axed for not being profitable enough and students are treated merely as consumers and not as individuals invested in their own lives. The fact remains if you are unwilling to put money into something the likelihood is that you will get very little out. So, if you want to create a platform for the underprivileged to better themselves provide money for it, if you want to use costly materials and machines to test new drugs provide money for it, if you want to identify the trends and faults of social and economic models of the past provide money for it…
I know it feels like people do research for the hell of it, and lets be honest those who care invest their own time and money into their research projects but don’t be surprised that people walk away when they can no longer feed their families or afford their commute, don’t be surprised that the gifted walk away from innovation in favour of a regular paycheck and don’t be surprised that universities court those who will bring them the most money regardless of nationality or novelty.

I don’t believe that universities and research centres don’t need to be accountable for their finances, I don’t believe in throwing money away but nor do I think that the profit of education and scholarship is financial


2 thoughts on “UK Academia in the News

  1. My husband is writing a fellowship at the moment, and if he gets it, the university aims to take (up to a 50%) cut of his grant, yearly. He has to build these fees into his grant costings.
    Essentially, they’re helping themselves to a few hundred thousand pounds, and providing in return….
    no free photocopying….
    not enough room….
    limited technical support…
    few scholarship positions to talented undergraduates in his department…
    Even in a productive, high-flying, brings-in-millions-of-pounds-of-research-money science department like his, the emphasis is on “how much cash you can bring in” and the resulting wealth is not exactly spread.

    • 50% Wow.. That is a lot to build in to your grant application
      Its not so much that I don’t respect the fact money is tight in the current economy and that it does cost a lot to pay staff a living wage and maintain buildings and equipment but that the money doesn’t seem to filter across from management to the people trying to do the research and the students trying to get a head start..
      It is reassuring (although disappointing) to hear that the sciences are struck with the same problems as us more ‘wishy-washy’ academicals.
      Good Luck

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