Sussex must change to better serve the needs of business, the Vice-Chancellor has said. The remarks at an open staff forum last week drew criticism from academics who said Sussex should maintain its tradition of critical thought.
As part of a wide-ranging speech on the future of the university, one of the reasons Prof Farthing said Sussex needed to change was to address complaints from employers that graduates were “useless” in the workplace. Citing social science students as a typical source of dissatisfaction, he said: “The employer might say, ‘They’ve got lots of good ideas, they’re very good at writing essays, they’re very good at analysis but they’re not actually doing what we want them to do.’ We are going to address that.”
One academic said Prof Farthing was “reading from a script” set down by the government.
She said, “There is not one original idea in his comments. He merely repeats the mantra of government and the private sector that universities have to be geared up to work according to their agenda.
“Even from a purely market-driven perspective, it makes little sense to shove Sussex down the same road as countless other universities. It would be much better to promote Sussex for a niche market – for example, shaping critically-minded, engaged students.”
Another academic said, “Universities used to be places where humans pushed the limits of what can be known and done – not what can be sold.”
The forum came as the Vice-Chancellor prepares to launch ‘Making the Future’, the university’s newly re-branded restructuring plan, which provoked strong opposition from students and staff when first announced last year. Earlier this month the Students’ Union AGM indicatively voted to oppose the proposed changes. According to a motion, the Vice-Chancellor “has shown he would rather listen to neoliberal government policy makers than the express wishes of the university community.”
Sketch: VC’s open staff forum
“We are looking in a futuristic way to our future.” It was a lapse in clarity reminiscent of another infamous premier. But at other moments the Vice-Chancellor was unambiguous to the point of bluntness.
Perhaps Farthing was trying to console support staff, who took him to pieces over the university’s plan to close the final salary pension scheme, when he informed them that the employees of 2040 are predicted not to retire until the age of 89. It was a fact he had enlightened his audience with before. This time, he went further. “In fact, I would actually predict that continuing in work will be the norm –
retirement will be unusual,” he mused. “Probably the norm will be that you only stop work when you’re not well enough or not physically able to go to work.” For his audience it was a horrifying, dystopian vision of the future, but Farthing spoke as if it was mere statistical curiosity.
Farthing, now appearing not a little ascetic, had no sympathy either for staff whose research work was deemed insufficiently groundbreaking and voluminous to be submitted to the government’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). “For the future, for me, that is unacceptable,” he warned. The RAE is a scheme widely loathed by academics which the government uses to encourage research appearing in what it decides are ‘high impact factor’ journals. A senior lecturer told me, “Attaching numeric values to publications based on a journal’s impact factor is ridiculous. The most prestigious journal in my field is enormously difficult to get published in, but it doesn’t have a high impact factor.” She thought Farthing’s warning was “simply frightening.” She explained, “It is part of what I believe is the management’s long-term plan to have a two-tier faculty – some of whom do research alone and some of whom only do teaching. This would create enormous disparities and would lead to teaching no longer being research-driven – definitely a loss for students.”
At the end of the meeting, one staff member put it to the Vice-Chancellor that nobody seemed to be particularly happy with him. His answer did not indicate that was likely to change any time soon. “We all have the right to express views. It would be impossible to expect everyone to support 100% every decision,” Farthing said. “Like it or not, some of us are paid to make those judgments.”