Leaving an academic institution after nearly 30 years provides an almost irresistible temptation for one to reflect on how good the old days were, how the new professors look so young and how generally everything is going to the dogs, and will do so even more rapidly after September 30 2005.
Nevertheless, even though all those things are true, I shall resist the temptation!
During my stint here I have noticed that each new director has thoroughly changed the structure of the Institute – that presumably is a major raison d’etre, and in this spirit I thought it would be interesting to consider what changes are likely to occur in the years to come – so here are my speculations on the future of the Institute, and the delights that the rest of you will come to enjoy.
Let me start with what is obviously on everyone’s mind – the RAE, and my message is a positive one. We all know how inefficient and costly this is and how it distracts from the real business of universities (namely making money) – and I predict that this will be its downfall. I suggest that in future we shall dispense with this dinosaur and instead, every 4 years there will be a review by a small panel. Each department will be asked if it wishes to make out a case to have its grading revised. If it wishes to make a case for an upward revision of, say, 1 grade then it will be able to do so for a fee, set initially I would guess at about £2000 per member of staff; for an upward revision of 2 grades this will cost, say, £3,500 etc. A small team of elite professors (i.e. the top earners) will be recruited to evaluate the applications. The really nice thing about this idea is that if too many departments start to apply you can just up the cost next time so as to dissuade them!
Of course, the top rated departments need not apply. The savings on workload will be enormous; HEFCE will save lots of money and the best departments can get on with their work, freed of bureaucratic meddling. Of course, some cynics might want to suggest that this would be just a way of making the poor pay for the rich – but then that is a feature of so many other current government policies as to be quite acceptable and even attractive. Others might argue that it will just lead to grade inflation since the number of top rated departments will keep increasing – but then again grade inflation is a cornerstone of existing government policies on education standards, so nothing new there!
Thus, having I hope reassured you about your future research, let me turn to the exciting role that choice (in New Labour-speak) is about to enjoy in universities.
Since officially choice is now paramount, universities are bound to be ‘modernised’ out of their quaint old ways and opened up to the consumer marketplace. Of course this is already beginning to happen, but we still have a long way to go before we can really compare our efficiency to TESCO. What must we do?
Well, we shall have to offer what our customers want (let’s please stop calling them students) and stack our shelves with well packaged, freshly produced, preferably organic, merchandise. To do that we are going to need well trained shelf stackers of course, and many present staff will need to be retrained. We shall need more accountants, more managers and, above all, really good marketing people. We shall also need to introduce proper quality controls to maintain the standards of our products – no more idiosyncratic powerpoints with any old design; what is needed is a dominant brand image visible everywhere, with every new presentation vetted for acceptability. ‘Pursuing excellence in education’ is pretty feeble – we need to feel that we are ‘pursued by excellence’. Some of you may not like this, and may even continue to think that universities are really about the pursuit of scholarly ideals by independently minded, even curmudgeonly, souls, but I can assure you that there is no other way to survive in a competitive environment. The fees that we can charge will be directly related to how we present ourselves and how easy it is for our students to get good degrees. Of course, quality will still be maintained, but remember that quality itself can be defined by us, and we shall need to be in there setting up task forces to do just this - and making sure that our competitors don’t get there first.
Now I can’t do without a few words about privatisation – or PFI as it is now known in the public sector. I suspect that there will be much in-built resistance to fully fledged partnerships with the private sector – even though there are some splendid prototype schemes already in existence – for example in the exciting area of leadership studies. But we need much more. For example, why are we not involving elements of the press such as the Sun, Mirror and Mail in citizenship education – I have no doubt that they would happily cough up a few million to have their brand name attached to courses or to chairs. A Daily Mail chair in social responsibility or a Sun readership in peace studies would show how much we are in touch with current trends. Then there are the new internet businesses such as www.onlinepoker.com who would be delighted, I’m sure, to sponsor a post in maths education. It just needs a bit of lateral thinking and some quick footwork before our rivals get there!
So, as you can see I am really sorry to be leaving at such an exciting historical moment. I’ll be watching how it all goes and wishing you the best of luck, and I’m sure you will all rise splendidly to these challenges!
So finally, and with some regret, a great thank you to everybody who has made my time here so rewarding, some of whom sadly are no longer alive. I do have regrets that there are still many here whom I have never properly got to know nor worked with. Those whom I have known well and worked with are many and I owe them great debts, personal and intellectual; and especially all those who have worked with me to develop and disseminate multilevel modelling, and of course who will continue to do so in other institutions. I have no time to go into details nor time to name them, but they know who they are and thank you.
I suppose my abiding debt to the Institute is that it has allowed me the academic freedom to pursue my research agenda and to express views which at times, I am glad to say, may have been uncomfortable not only for those chosen to rule us but for some of my colleagues too. We have often disagreed among ourselves, but that is the lifeblood of the institution – long may it live.