Sunday, 25 May 2014

Universities: After Independence

I generally do my very best to keep my referendum debating on an intellectual level, rather than giving in to the passions. But that's a very difficult thing to do when people use this debate to put their own vested interests before the greater good of Scotland and its people. I had a moment of animosity when I heard about the group of 14 medical academics who have written a letter repeating the scaremongering claims of Better Together who claim that Scottish universities would lose out on funding in an independent Scotland. I will say up front that what follows in this post is based on my experiences as a final year PhD student and some people might dispute those experiences - but the voices of postgraduate students and early career researchers should not be sidelined from this debate; after all, it is us more than any other group who will have to deal with new funding structures or the continuation of Westminster control of the universities.

University funding has been cut by Westminster over the last few years, and this is set to continue as every mainstream party is committed to the ideological imposition of austerity. In England this has been partly compensated through student fees, but the Scottish government's commitment to free higher education means that we don't have that cushion, and nor should we seek to subsidize universities by ransacking students' futures. With the powers of independence we can make sure that our universities are properly and publicly funded.

We can also reverse the marketisation of funding allocation itself. I don't think many people know this, but since 2009 universities have been controlled by the same Westminster department as businesses through the Department of Business and Innovation. Universities have been infected with a business-led mindset, with researchers required to prove the financial potential of their projects before they get their funding. This does not make any sense. All scientific discoveries begin life as theories with no practical applications. Projects with clear applications decided in advance benefit from this, but more innovative, explorative research does not. Even more ridiculously, the humanities are forced to follow this model. I heard of a poet working with a university whose poetry was displayed throughout the Chinese transport system. When this was included in the impact statement the board simply said it was worth nothing because the university couldn't prove that pounds and pence had been generated by the project.

The UK university sector is also crippled by the country's weakened manufacturing sector which leaves it unable to take advantage of innovative patents through research into applications. The coalition's immigration policies are damaging to further education as non-EU students find other places to study; they don't particularly wish to spend their postgrad years filling out endless visa forms, being persecuted because of their country of origin, and then being forced to leave as soon as they finish their studies. Scotland could benefit by inviting these young, talented, and well-educated people to stay on and contribute to our communities.

So an independent Scotland could bring benefits to the university sector. I've heard someone say that, even if the situation was better in the long term, there would still be some disruption during the 18 month negotiation period and this might bring some people towards a No vote. To me this is like saying that you won't bother going out for a delicious dinner because you might get rained on on the way to the car. We are making a decision that will last for hundreds of years and to throw away the opportunities on offer for the sake of an 18 month period of disruption beggars belief.

So this is why it makes me angry when I hear of senior academics throwing their weight behind the No camp. I went to a careers event recently for PhD students and early career researchers. We were told about the difficulty of getting full time posts. Jobs are being cut in universities thanks to the austerity of Westminster and the business-focused mindset of university managers. Voluntary redundancy will benefit those on permanent contracts nearing retirement age as they are offered favorable conditions - but what does this leave for the next generation as the posts are then deleted? Zero hours contracts are used and often mean that young teachers at universities are paid less than the minimum wage, as they are only paid for contact time, not for preparation. One woman at the careers event told us that she was currently on SIX zero hours contracts which means that she almost never gets a day off, but yet struggles to pay her rent due to the insecurity of her position. We were also told that we would have to decide how much work we are willing to do for free - how far we are willing to be exploited - in the hopes that our free work will result in paid work. Not a contract mind you, but payment alone is something we must now aspire to.

This is the environment faced by PhD students and early career researchers in the UK. And this is the model that senior academics think fit to defend? To me it's an absolute disgrace. They deny young researchers the chance to work, they deny future generations of students the chance to learn in a properly-staffed institution with an emphasis on intellectual environment. Students are already being treated as consumers, their learning is mere intellectual capital, only useful insofar as it directly benefits the economy. Critical thinking, imagination and intellectual creativity are no longer encouraged since they cannot be measured in pounds and pence. Academics speaking out for the status quo should take a good hard look at themselves - our training means that we should be ideally placed to be the architects of a new society. If you want to fight to change the system as part of the UK I can respect that. I personally see real change as achievable in an independent Scotland, but you're entitled to your view. But if you fight to maintain the status quo I cannot see your point of view, I can only imagine that you are acting out of the most base self interest.

Academics should have the imagination to see what Scotland can be, the creativity to make sure universities remain seats of learning, not conveyor belts spewing out more robots to maintain the system as it stands. If we are already too close-minded to see options beyond the status quo, then the marketization of our universities is already complete.

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