It's oh so quiet. The university during the summer holidays is like a museum. The students are gone, most of the teaching staff are gone. Research, admin staff and anxious PhD students rattle around like a few dry beans in a jar. Oh so quiet and oh so pleasant, for a bit. And then it starts to get oh so dull. Because a university is what it does and the people in it rather than just a set of buildings. By the middle of September the excitement of the coming term sets in. Then the students arrive and we're off. But what sort of an academic year are we looking forward to?
Last year was nothing short of tumultuous. We saw the Government outline their plans for Higher Education which turned out to be about slashing the teaching budget, hiking up fees and a further marketisation of education. The much maligned apolitical youth turned out to be not so apolitical after all. There were occupations and demonstrations. In my own life, it seemed no sooner had I moved from PhD student to Post-doctoral researcher than I was on Westminster Bridge facing a wall of riot police illuminated by rows of vans and watching fellow kettlees doing the hokey cokey towards the police line.
I was a mature student for nine years, and did a BA, MA and PhD in quick succession after spending my late teens and early twenties playing the bass in groups and having fun. My undergraduate fees were paid for and I received a loan that I can't imagine how I'll ever pay off, but that is far, far less than the intake of September 2012 are facing. I worked part-time throughout my education. Whether I would have ended up going to university under the proposed system, I am not sure.
In some ways we are facing a limbo year. The new students are not yet paying the new fees but have had it further drummed into them that they are consumers. Teaching is moving up the agenda (a good thing), yet budgets are being cut. The extra emphasis on teaching also comes at a time when staff are under pressure to deliver for the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF).
Talking to other people who work in universities, there is a pervading sense that no one knows what's going to happen. Who, for example, knows what will happen to Masters courses? How much are universities going to charge for them, and will there be a massive drop in numbers? What about the Government's clampdown on the foreign students who have been paying so much into the system for years and are now treated as suspects? Or how indeed will the best person for the job be recruited as immigration law gets tighter? How will the cuts to Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) impact on the student body? I for one did not want to work in Higher Education just to teach the rich. Will anger and opposition to AC Grayling's New College of the Humanities continue, or will there be a gradual acceptance of the private university in the UK?
A lot of questions hang over the next academic year. And while I can't say I'm feeling optimistic, there is also hope in the discussions that are taking place. There was hope in the occupations and on the marches. And while the corridors of the university might be oh so quiet, UCU members are being balloted on industrial action. The challenge of 2012 is to keep the energy levels going, because a university is what it does and the people that are in it and the fight isn't over yet.