Education: Your Views

Unfair to academics

As academic staff at Queen's University of Belfast, we stand squarely behind management's recently publicised aspiration for raising the international research reputation of the university. At the same time, we are deeply concerned aboutthe mechanism which has been proposed to achieve this goal.

The majority of the pounds 25m set aside for "restructuring" has been assigned to fund a severance/early retirement scheme: a large number of academic staff have been invited to leave Queen's to be replaced by new staff. In compiling the list of targeted staff, the university focused on one criterion, namely projected activity in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise. Apparently, procedures considered germane to employment legislation drove the exercise, while respect for staff and their diverse contributions sadly was afforded less importance.

Activities which sustain the life of any university, including teaching, administrative responsibilities and external activities, were given little consideration and, consequently, many individuals who play a full and active role in the life of Queen's, and who have helped to sustain the university through difficult times over the last 25 years, have received a letter inviting them to leave.

An academic's employment contract normally makes mention not only of research but also of teaching and administration. Indeed, for those in the community it is those aspects of our work other than research which are often most visible and appreciated.

Unfortunately, by already having assessed our worth solely in terms of projected research activity, a loud and clear message has been sent out and received by staff. Over the years, many academic staff have been encouraged by management to take on additional teaching responsibilities and administrative roles. For the individuals who have shouldered these burdens now to be targeted, and thereby to have their professional reputation irrevocably damaged, appears to us to be unjust, unjustifiable and may be construed as reflecting a lack of understanding of how academic departments actually operate.

It is difficult to imagine how the hurt and damage which has been inflicted can be put right, and the impact of the policy on general morale, goodwill and trust is already palpable.

Many of the 103 co-signatories of this letter have long and distinguished associations with Queen's. Collectively, whether targeted or not, we are united in voicing our concern at the damage which this restructuring scheme has inflicted - and will inflict - on the university.

In the interests of Queen's, and the unique role it occupies within Northern Ireland, we urge those who have been charged with the management of the university's future to have the courage to reconsider these restructuring proposals before it is too late.

JOHN KREMER, reader in psychology, and 102 other lecturers and professors,

Queen's University of Belfast.

http://www.psych.qub.ac.uk

Part-time students

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has criticised the government for doing too little to assist part-time and mature students in the wake of tuition fees (The Independent, 10 August.) This important issue is not the only constraint on continuing education in universities.

The autonomy of British universities enabled them, over 100 years ago, to extend their teaching to people without the qualifications necessary to pursue a full degree course. This work was developed after 1945 as specialist extramural departments recruited staff who could identify the needs of mature and part-time students. Twenty years ago, these departments began to offer special access courses to adults without formal entry requirements who wanted to read for degrees. All this accumulated expertise is now under threat.

The innovative, locally relevant, initiatives pioneered by extramural (later renamed adult and continuing education) departments are often incompatible with the centralising policies being forced on universities. For example, the financing of access courses and other courses of general education by universities is no longer permitted. They are defined as below degree level and hence fall within the province of further education, rather than higher education, funding. Further, so-called quality control inspections and research league tables are leading universities to curtail continuing education courses and departments which do not fit bureaucratic structures.

The Government, and many universities have failed to realise that educational methods and practices appropriate for 18-year-olds are often inappropriate for mature and part-time students.

It is a pity that adult and continuing education is under threat when their experience could contribute to the necessary changes.

WILLIAM HAMPTON

Emeritus Professor, Division of Adult Continuing Education,

University of Sheffield

Summertime blues

Summer-born children definitely do lag behind those born in spring or autumn and sadly Nicole Veash (EDUCATION, 13 August) misses a couple of points in her otherwise valuable article.

The problem did not first emerge in the Sixties. It was around when I took the 11-plus in 1948 and that infamous examination is the only measurement system I have known in 36 years in education where the problem was remedied through a points differential built into raw scores.

Commercial tests have consistently recognised age on test as significant but the whole edifice of national testing and assessment has moved on mindless to it.

It was certain to emerge in our new Key Stage testing and makes assessment at seven, for example, distinctly hazardous, given all the other factors that can distort young performance. Researchers have now found the factor persists right up to A-level. The debate has barely begun. It is not a matter of starting age, nor time in school. It is to do with position in class and teacher attitude. It is a lot to do with organising by year group. It is very much to do with the well-documented persistence of early failure.

Meanwhile many of our summer and spring-born children endure a system of assessment that distorts true ability. The least we could do is build 11-plus-style weighting into raw scores.

Our whole approach to the examination business needs drastic overhaul.

MERVYN BENFORD

Managing Director

In Education

Banbury, Oxfordshire

Please send your letters to Wendy Berliner, Editor, EDUCATION, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Please include a daytime telephone number. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

Fax to EDUCATION on 0171-293 2451. E-mail: educ@ independent.co.uk

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