Showing you care

I recently did an interview with the David Hume Institute -- through a friend -- about how (or if) personal financial issues affect my work. I won't forensically document how that aspect went, except to say it was a fun chat and they are doing good things. But the thing that's stayed with me is how I involuntarily laughed at the suggestion that my employer would provide any sort of benefits in addition to pay.

The thought had never even occurred to me! I've used government-organised schemes through work, like Cycle Plus and Childcare Vouchers, but the employer is a pretty passive partner in those. It turns out that a bunch of companies do actually offer staff discounts -- as a loss-leader, of course, and not entirely enticing: I have yet to make use of my small discounts at Kilt Warehouse or Beauty Boutique -- and again this is zero-effort from the uni. Virtually nothing involving the uni actively working to provide better quality of life for its employees. Should it be?

This brought into relief the contrast I see via engineers I play with in a band: their employers shower them with subsidised meals, massages, music tuition, rewards for patents, you name it. It'd be enough to make jealous, except they also sound like brutal workplaces in other ways, and despite the overwork and underappreciation, academia's relative freedom and autonomy is something to be cherished. But the very idea of a work culture that tries to make employees feel valued is alien if you've always worked in universities.

This doesn't surprise me: the UK university sector is in a terrible bind. Outside Scotland, the switch to funding through student fees at just over £9000/year led to a pullback of previously index-linked government funding, and there has not been political courage to significantly increase the charges in line with inflation over the last 12 years. In Scotland, the situation is even worse as the government payment per student has not even kept pace with the rest-of-UK figure. The sector is chronically underfunded, full of people working several job's worth of tasks because they believe in the mission, at a time when increased expectations from students (on the teaching side) and for project-management diligence (on the research side) mean we need substantially more staff across the board. I could also add the intrinsic inefficiencies and perverse incentives of a system that's evolved to recruit staff primarily for their research expertise, then drowns them in teaching and departmental admin, while their research colleagues get used to them "not being useful anymore". And that genius governmental ideas like systematic 80% FTE funding of research projects (i.e. systematically making research financially unattractive) make it impossible to balance the books without rinsing international students for fee money.

There is no capacity in the university system to make meaningful change, and were I a VC I'd probably do the same: try to keep the locomotive on the tracks for as long as possible despite it being chronically overburdened, lobby government in the background, and hope not to be in charge when the crash comes. But that fatalism seems even to have propagated to cost-free indications of caring about the frontline staff. In 20+ years I have never once seen a VC or dean of college visit a Physics department or take staff Q&As. How hard would that be, once a year? I also happened to chat with a previous vice-chancellor last year during strikes, who enthused "sensible folk, physicists" at the news there weren't many Physics staff refusing to mark exams; he, of course, was a perfectly nice chap but never taught or researched in a university in his life. How would he know what it's like? Well, he might have asked...

In the big picture, senior management giving staff their time and attention would say a lot more than trinkets. Or the occasional lick of paint on our decaying buildings -- I should say that the culture in departments is generally good, with the infuriating obliqueness of central management a source of solidarity! But in UK academia, for now, the old mood music remains the same: keep heads down, be grateful, and for god's sake keep the paying students coming...


Comments powered by Disqus