Friday, 5 March 2010

The death of academic lunch

Last night I went to the leaving party of Kamlesh Patel, the head of the school (the International School of Communities, Rights and Inclusion, or ISCRI) in which I work. Given his personal role in setting up first his original department and then later the School, it was unsurprisingly rather a melancholy affair and I decided not to linger very long. In part, I left because, although I’ve been at UCLan nearly 5 years I have always felt that I arrived too late: that I wasn’t involved in the early and no doubt revolutionary days. But perhaps that’s always the way with institutions. At Warwick University, I missed (by 20 years!) the days of university and department (cf nation) building, of, for example, alcoholic work-free Friday afternoons: an idea now utterly alien and weird to modern university culture.

Today, by chance, was a ‘quarterly staff meeting’ (nee ‘staff away day’) and an opportunity too get a feel for how things will change with a new Head of School (the very sound Chris Heginbotham, the man who persuaded me to come to UCLan in the first place) but also the deteriorating financial environment for UK universities. Details of the latter make very depressing reading.

Now I am not a huge fan of such days: a whole day out with no progress on email and the ‘to do’ list, let alone research, and with only a nebulous immediate aim (the real aims are, I think, longer term). But, on the other hand, there’s a very welcome chance to talk to other members of the school working in different disciplines. And it’s funny that that remains an issue. Again back at Warwick, I got to meet colleagues from other departments when accompanying my Head of Department, Greg Hunt, for his lunchtime beer. The culture of academics meeting for lunch was just coming to an end. I had,eg., the final pint of beer pulled from the closing Staff Club on my first such visit. Thereafter Greg and colleagues would lean awkwardly against the main commercial bar.

Four years earlier, I began an administrative job at the LSE with, as a key role, taking a substantial lunch and talking to academics in their exclusive Senior Common Room (the irony that an institution started by the Fabians policed its SCR by pay grade was clear to all). This not unenjoyable task, aside from the fact I’m a stranger to a much by way of lunch, was premised on the fact that academics would take the time off to be there. I rather doubt it would work now.

I mention this because one of the clear ongoing tasks of the School is to learn to be more collective or perhaps corporate in its research, even whilst its undergraduate programmes remain discipline specific. The harsher economic climate drives that need. At the same time it is no doubt because of the increasingly financially orientated higher education system that the kind of social practices that sustained happy interdisciplinary alliances disappeared.