March 15, 2006

Self-Destruct Button

One of the bad aspects about my job is seeing students push the self-destruct button. Most of them have some sense, especially when you discuss with them the likely effects of the choices that they make, but some of them are just unbelievably irrational.

A small minority just refuse to take a realistic view of their studies, and view their choices entirely in terms of the most optimistic outcome that could possibly occur. When you point out to them that their study skills have not led to good results so far and taking on even more options this term is likely to result in exams being failed and them having to leave the University, so many just say things like "Oh I didn't work hard before, I'll work harder now" (exactly what they said last time) and other things that are entirely unsupported by the available evidence about their abilities.

I guess that they must be thinking something like "Oh my parents will be really mad if I fail the year, the only way I can avoid big trouble is by making these choices", but they don't see that they are increasing the chances that they will make an even bigger mess-up to a near certainty.

I had to put my foot down the other day. I had to say to a student that I could not ethically support his choices by signing the forms that would likely lead to the destruction of his university career. I hate doing that kind of thing, I believe in letting people make their own choices, and if they are going to choose stupid choices then so be it, but they should be very well-informed before making that choice. I have no wish to try and impose anything on a student, the whole point of my role is to show the students options for how they can achieve what they want to achieve without self-destructing in the process. But when you see one so clearly hell-bent on destroying his degree with irrationality and arrogance, how can I stand by when he did indeed want the degree?

I did point out that he could still make the choices he wanted to by getting someone else to sign the forms, but I hope the fact I couldn't ethically bring myself to sign them made him realise just how much I believed his preferred choices were likely to doom his short university career.

March 10, 2006

Guilty Conscience?

One of my colleagues send a stern email out to students on his course, reminding them about plagiarism and how they should always do their own work and not use work by other people, and any sources they do use should always be acknowledged in the documentation.

He got an emailed reply back:

Is this because of me?

He sent this reply back to the student:

Why? What have you done?

He hasn't heard from the student since...

March 07, 2006

Lecturers' Strike

I am in two minds about this strike. It is true that in real terms, lecturers' workloads have massively increased (I am informed that the number of students per staff member has more than doubled), and their pay has gone down over the past couple of decades or so, both in real terms and compared to pay for other highly-trained professionals. However, the unions are concentrating on the increase in pay, not the massive workloads.

I do firmly believe that

  • £36K as a average wage (though surely the median wage is nearer to £30K ?!) is not an ungenerous wage compared to the average full-time salary of UK workers in general. In all but the most expensive areas, it is enough to get a mortgage with, and still have enough to pay the bills each month.
  • Compared to other professionals, the academic salaries are very poor.

Academics are the professionals who are supposed to be the permanent research wing of the country's finest brains (as opposed to industry research which can fluctuate in size), and who are charged with educating young minds to high standards. How can the country possibly consider those people not valuable? Does it not want to have young people educated properly? Does it want to stagnate technologically? Is it not interested in new developments (e.g. protecting the human race from global warming/bird flu/cancer)? Why fund the expansion of higher education with ever increasing numbers of young people to teach, if you don't want them to be taught by the best minds in the country? Do they want academics to leave academia for industry, or abroad?

I fear that this will all become a lot more obvious in a few years time, when graduates saddled with large debts will only go into academia (more low-paid training, lower salaries in the end) if they really can't bear the thought of doing anything else. We are already seeing very low numbers of British students in doctoral studies (in many fields they are vastly outnumbered by overseas students), and within a few years British academics will be even rarer. UCEA is misguided when it says "whilst there are a small number of subject areas where recruitment can be difficult, universities do not face widespread problems in attracting and retaining academic staff, so pay cannot be that uncompetitive" - this problem will increase in the future.

Anyway that's why I'm in favour of higher pay in theory. In principle.

In practice, I have enough money to live on. I don't need more. What I need is my workload reduced. Expectations and pressures need to be lower. And the problem is, if the unions win higher pay, that is only going to reduce the capacity of universities to cut workloads. They may reduce staff; they certainly won't increase numbers. All of which means my workload will go up. How am I supposed to cope? I really don't know. And I'm one of the lucky ones.