29 October 2007

Three bees or not three bees...

I was disappointed, on striding into the Students' Union building this afternoon, to see empty desks where there would normally be great stacks of our student newspaper. One of the repercussions of 'reading week', I suppose. Still, I missed being able to peruse a fresh issues, especially since this year Student Direct has finally set itself up as a fairly credible representative of the fourth estate.

A bit late, you might think, but while there's an old adage about how there's little point in parrying a blow when the axe has fallen, for every saying to the effect that a stitch in time saves nine, there's another that says better late than never.

It's interesting, then, to see how Student Direct seem to have woken up to the - shall we say questionable? - nature of certain policies being pursued by the new University. Perhaps this isn't really surprising, though, in the light of stories in the national media back in the spring about the University being in a state of financial crisis, even if that crisis has now been alleviated somewhat. Apparently.

I mentioned recently how one student, already doubting whether he'd chosen the right course and University, found that he was sharing his room with thousands of wasps, perhaps ironically considering that their more industrious cousins on the University's emblem. That in itself wouldn't have been so bad: more serious, if reports can be trusted, are how the University's porter, security, and cleaning services dealt with the problem: I would say that the issue seems to have been swept under the carpet, but it seems that there was a dearth of cleaning staff to do the sweeping.

It's a telling anecdote, not least because of how it's part of a trend in recent issues of Student Direct to highlight unsatisfactory service on the part of the University. I know, that's customer-speak, but the University seems to want to think of itself as a business nowadays. Fair enough. But if it's to be a business, then please God let it be a well-run business, and let it keep the interests of its stakeholders in mind at all times. Who are its stakeholders, anyway? The students? The taxpayers?

Seriously, though, look at the pattern this year. It starts with the University dropping in national league tables, falling to just 29th in Britain according to The Times. I'm not sure what caused the absurd queues of Freshers' Week, but it surely smacks of logistical incompetence. We hear of a residential tutor being wrongfully dismissed and the University being chastised for the handling of this by a national adjudicator. It seems people aren't happy about the way the academics are segregated from the students in the new social science building; presumably this is to enable them to work in peace on their research with a view to the 2015 agenda, but it's not really a policy designed to keep students happy, evidently. But then, it seems the students are restless anyway, judging by a recent poll on how dissatisfied they are with the feedback they receive - mind you, there's no hint in the article about the methodology used in this poll.

Then we have reports of ropey security in University accommodation, which is particularly troubling for all sorts of reasons. Add to that reports of huge cutbacks in the IT services across the University, and it's not really surprising that the establishment of a new cafe in the library should be greeted with disdain and comments about the pressure on space in the library anyway, especially at a time when departmental universities are dropping like, well, wasps.

It's not good, and assuming all this is true, it rather explains the recent protests at one of the University's prestigious events. I think the protesters stepped over the line with some of the things they said, although there was a certain charm to their chants, but it's easy to understand why they're so frustrated.

IF things are as bad as they seem to be, then the University can recruit all the Nobel laureates it wants and its students won't care. But then, does the University care what they think? At times I wonder whether the University is more interested in recruiting the students it wants than educating the students it's got. I hope not.

In any case, I'm impressed by the new vigilance of Student Direct, which is getting increasingly close to asking the crucial question of whether it is right to sacrifice the interests of the students of today in order to benefit the hoped-for students of tomorrow.

Watch this space, I guess.

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