Tuesday 10 June 2014

Oxford University in the 1970s and 80s


From Oxford Magazine,  No. 349 - 2014;
excerpted from the lead article
by the Editor Dr Timothy J Horder

In those days you could park. You were not charged for every paperclip. Undergraduates could spell and write legibly in longhand: and they did not address you by your Christian name. We were very busy indeed, and willingly so, because we were ambitious for our subjects: but we were not pressurised by others to perform. Those who started their academic careers in the 1970s will remember, above all, a very different atmosphere in Oxford. We felt, perhaps naively, that we were trusted to be entirely our own masters...

In the 70s it was still possible for a distinguished head of a science department and Fellow of the Royal Society to say, proudly, that he had never received an outside grant for his research. His research group varied from 2-3; his equipment requirements had changed only gradually and were met by the departmental workshops; his life-long technician was paid by the University Chest.

His research costs were funded with minimal form-filling out of the block grant to the University as part of the dual support system. Now this is all inconceivable in any area of science and the humanities are following suit. Even where your research entails trivial costs (e.g. in theoretical sciences, or working in the Bodleian to prepare a magnum opus) you are judged by your ability to bring in outside grants, and the more people you can employ on your grant the greater the kudos.

Thirty years ago departments and colleges were typically managed by one “administrator” or one “college secretary”  often awesomely capable individuals  and perhaps 2-3 persons then known as secretaries. Now, as all sorts of new managerial requirements have accumulated, the numbers of administrative staff have increased many fold. The roles of Tutor for Admissions, Senior Tutor, Bursar – previously held by college fellows, who thereby became educated in the underlying plumbing of University workings – are now performed by academic-related professionals.

Thirty years ago secretaries would type your letters, papers, reviews and references, and even the occasional grant application. When IT came in we were told that their posts could be shed and staff costs (and paper usage) reduced. Now academics hire a PA on their grant: but they do all the typing themselves and indeed most of the publishing work preparatory to printing of the paper or book. Now hours are taken out of every day in dealing with the e-mails and texts – communication routes that make us so easily accessible to so many demands – a few of which we simply cannot afford to ignore or put on hold.

What you taught and how you taught it was traditionally a matter for the individual don to decide. Oxford history is rich in tales of inspiring, as well as eccentric, tutors. Particularly in the humanities lecturers could decide on the topic for their next lecture series, on the basis perhaps of the burning intellectual issue of the day or because it might help write their next book. Now syllabuses are laid down by faculty boards and lecturers assigned to cover the ground. The introduction of the RAE in 1985 has meant that research needs to be chosen and planned to be completed within 5 years and to fit the criteria of the RAE/REF panels.

The RAE has entrenched the self-fulfilling advantages of big grants and large research groupings, thereby prioritising the types of research that this betokens. Failure to conform has serious consequences; in the mock RAE exercise of 2005 the 10% poorest performing academics in the medical division were sent the notorious letters that meant the end of their careers. Now we are judged according to how well we fit into a research initiative set by the prescriptive – and frequently changing – politically correct priorities of Wellcome and the Research Councils.

Change has been remorseless so that along the way we hardly noticed the cumulative effects. To be aware of the historical trends is key to becoming conscious of the arbitrariness of the present condition. The scale and causes of change need to be remembered and recorded because this reveals how things can be quite different. True, the clock cannot be turned back but this does not mean that alternatives that worked in the past may not work again.


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