Questions that UK universities would rather not answer

Below I repost an article in Times Higher Education today. (the long quote) Reading this while sitting in the Free University in Berlin, having done about 25 interviews with young academics here in the past 2 months, is a surreal experience. UK discourse is so much more about money, plain and simple. Wage. Fair pay. The magical figure of 9,000 fees (which supposedly pay for the university’s expense for each student). In Germany, education is public and essentially free (bar a small administrative fee of a couple hundred Euros per semester). Interestingly, quite a few of the postdocs and PhD students who teach here didn’t really talk about how much they are paid. They aren’t paid for each class they teach – instead teaching is part of their general research contract, and is seen as an important part of, so to say, a community service, and part of the life of a young researcher. I think – though I must check the figures – German PhD students and postdocs who teach get less money for teaching, than we do in the UK. But in the UK teaching is decoupled from your life as research student, because it is paid separately. A couple of my interviewees in Germany said that they teach because they enjoy doing it and that you can ask to teach, but not everyone does. I haven’t met anyone who hates teaching yet. Whereas in the UK, teaching seems to be more of a chore.

In a nutshell, my impression is that teaching is more integrated into the life of a researcher in Germany, than it is in the UK. And that academia is less marketised/neoliberal/reduced to money, while at the same time the idea of a “public university” is more alive in Germany than in the UK.  And that – provided this is true – the reason for this is partly in the different organisation of teaching, research and university finances.

I really want to know whether this impression I have is true or just because I’ve spoken to a small number of people. Any thoughts?

So here it is:

“Last week, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne refused to answer when a seven-year-old boy asked him “what’s seven times eight?”

He was widely ridiculed, but are there any tricky questions that you dread potential students asking when they pay you a visit on open day? Well, you should get your answers ready, because prospective university students are being encouraged to ask difficult questions as part of a University and College Union campaign for greater transparency in higher education, launched today.

The union has produced a list of 10 questions it wants would-be undergraduates to ask. UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said that students were “bombarded by information these days”, but that so much of it was “just advertising bumf”.

“We are encouraging students to ask the questions that universities would rather they didn’t,” she said. “We need far greater transparency in the higher education sector and prospective students should exercise their critical capacities even before they join a university.”

The 10 questions universities don’t want to be asked

  1. How much of my teaching will be given by staff employed on zero-hours and temporary contracts?

  2. What is the student:staff ratio at the university?

  3. Does the university pay the living wage to all staff it employs, including staff on casual contracts?

  4. If I take a job working at the university while I am a student will I be paid the living wage?

  5. Are the open day guides who show me around paid the living wage?

  6. What is the ratio of the vice-chancellor’s salary to the pay of the lowest paid member of staff?

  7. What will the university do if proposed cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowance are implemented in 2015?

  8. Does the university want to see tuition fees rise above their current maximum of £9,000 a year?

  9. Does the university believe that student loans should be sold to a private company?

  10. What would this university do if the terms of their students’ loans changed for the worse after they had started their course?”


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