I’m at the start of a six-week stay in Bielefeld as a Gast-Professur, and I suspect that I’m going to spend much of this time being struck by the differences between German and UK academic life; of course I’ve given papers and attended conferences over here, and had long conversations with German colleagues about the state of higher education in our respective countries, but (i) on reflection, I’ve probably spent too much of that time trying to persuade them that my account of the REF really isn’t a joke, rather than listening to substantive accounts of their experiences, and (ii) in any case it’s in the day-to-day things rather than the big structural matters that the differences become manifest. Yesterday being a case in point: Where’s the photocopier so I can sort out some course materials? Just ask the Studentenhilfkraft in their room down the corridor. Yup, there’s a room full of students just waiting to do my bidding at any hour of the working day.
Okay, it’s not a completely alien concept; in the last year or so in Bristol, we have had the right to claim a few hours’ worth of student time in the course of a year, most often for the unspeakably tedious job of photocopying essay cover sheets (roll on electronic marking as far as I’m concerned). However, that needs to be booked in advance, and the rationing of time means that one constantly hesitates to use one’s quota for something for fear that an even more tedious task might suddenly turn up. The idea of having such assistance constantly on call… No, not even professors get that, as I had to explain gently to my colleague; British professors don’t really get the god-like status and absolute power that they do here, or not by virtue simply of being a professor.
The students in question get paid (not sure how much), and they get a decent-sized room with computers, bookshelves and desks in which to work while being available for any member of staff who wants them to do something. I suspect that many of our PG students would gladly pay to have the use of such a room, given the level of overcrowding in the library and everywhere else, and would certainly be happy to do the odd bit of photocopying in return for it. The reason that the use of such student assistance is tightly rationed in Bristol is of course financial, as there’s only so much leeway in the budget, but it would be worth exploring whether we could manage this through more of a barter system – how much would it cost to kit out a study room in return for some menial office tasks? I’m really not advocating the exploitation of PG students here, trying to avoid paying them for work; rather, I wonder whether they’d be happy to do more than we can actually afford to pay them to do, and whether the use of a room would be worth more to them than anything that we’d be able to afford to pay. Plus the bureaucratic elements of claiming reimbursement would be lifted from all of us.
It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion, however, that there is something else going on here besides simple financial calculations – and not just the greater authority of German professors, who do sometimes (with all due respect to my wonderful colleagues) seem more inclined to regard things like photocopying as beneath their dignity, where I’d now take it for granted that I have to do such things (and actually felt rather uncomfortable asking a student, however willing he was to do it – it feels like barely a step above sending someone off to get me a coffee…). PG students in Germany seem to be more genuinely part of the department, very junior colleagues, rather than – as in the UK today – an awkward mixture of proto-colleagues and customers. I suspect – on the basis of much less knowledge – that it’s similar in the US, where TAs seem to do lots of the dogsbody work – and again, lots of our PG students would jump at the chance of having that sort of role, but we don’t have the money to do it properly. For us – not individual academics, but for the system – PGs, especially MAs, are primarily a source of income, some of which we may then use to buy a bit of their time, but most of which goes to support the rest of the enterprise; hence there’s a limit to what can be asked of them, and hence there are all sorts of tensions in the supervisor-supervisee relationship.
I am doing my utmost not to get sucked completely into ‘grass is always greener’ syndrome; it’s not that one system is necessarily and inevitably better (or at any rate not for everyone), it’s that they are organised on different principles, with different aims and imperatives, and it’s not just about the increasing dominance of market forces in the UK. My guess is that German departments don’t have vastly more income than UK ones, it’s how they choose to spend it. Our approach, generally speaking, has been to take every opportunity to increase the number of academics, and to resent all the money that disappears into the coffers of the centre; I’ve seen plenty of discussion over the last decade of the idea that we should spend more on admin and support to make our lives easier, rather than automatically appointing another lecturer, but when it comes down to it the majority of UK academics still seem to regard that as undermining rather than enhancing their activities, and would always rather have another lectureship (especially when the hypothetical administrator would ‘belong’ to the collective, the school or faculty, rather than to them). In Germany, on the other hand, they prefer to employ a lot fewer permanent staff, but support them much better (and they still resent the money that disappears into the coffers of the centre).
We have a lot more permanent jobs (even if it doesn’t seem like that to unemployed postdocs), whose working conditions are inferior; they have far fewer but better supported permanent jobs. Still trying to decide whether the more limited number of academics means they have to work harder as well; the fact that 6-8pm is considered a perfectly reasonable timetable slot for a Masters seminar could be taken as evidence for that…