Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Then and now

Hello. My name is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

When I joined Gus Johns and Bob Bunn in the cafeteria this morning they were reminiscing about old times at USE. Bob had commented about how the university had changed since they both arrived in the 1970s. Then all the staff were from the British Isles (except of course Ted Engel, the Head of Department, who had come to Britain as a refugee from Poland). And the students were mainly British too, although there were a few Greek Cypriots and students from Hong Kong and Malaysia. Now things are very international on both the student and staff side. Gus said that he had recently worked out that over the years he has taught students at USE from over fifty different countries. The turning point had been in the late 1980s when the department had expanded its Masters programme and been more proactive in recruiting PhD students. There was a big influx of students from China and Africa at that time. Gus said he remembered some wonderful international food evenings that we used to have in the nineties, before we moved to the new building. The postgraduate students were allowed to take over the refectory kitchen for the night and cook dishes from their own countries' cuisine. It was a shame that we didn't do that kind of thing any more.

On the staff side things have changed quite a bit too. First we had appointed a couple of Greeks, then a Pakistani and now we had Italian, French, German, Latvian and Australian colleagues. In fact only one of the last six appointments had been a Brit. Gus reminded Bob that we did have an Indian guy in the department back in the 1970s, Dilip Rao, who sadly died far too young at the age of only 30 after he had a knee operation. Yes, Bob had said, but although he was born in India he had been to school and university over here.

Gus commented that we did have quite a few visiting lecturers here from overseas before we started appointing them to permanent posts. There was Yoko from Japan, not to mention others from Norway, Canada and Sierra Leone whose names he had forgotten.

Returning to the student mix, Gus said that as well as becoming more international, with a large number of exchange students from Spain and Germany, in terms of the British students things had become more localised. Where once we recruited students from all over England, and particularly South Wales, nowadays most of our British students tended to be from London and the South East. More students were living at home and coming to their local university, probably an inevitable consequence of the changes to the fee regime. But today's British students do come from more varied ethnic backgrounds with British born Asian, African and West Indian family histories.

Gus remembered the teenage Italian students that we used to get during the summer vacations. In the old building the teaching rooms were along the same corridor as the staff offices and it was so noisy that you could hardly hear yourself think. Bob recalled the time when a couple of amorous Italian students had been snogging up against Martin's office door. He went outside and said "Would you like to come in here and make yourselves more comfortable?" No wonder they ran off!

Bob then took the conversation back to the 1970s, asking Gus if he remembered the long all day meetings they had had revamping the degree programme. Ted Engel never left the room, not even for a comfort break, and they had wondered if he had a specially adapted chair! But good old Dermot, who liked his Guinness, had to excuse himself on a number of occasions. We had to cover for him and tell Ted that he wasn't very well and that something he had consumed at lunch had disagreed with him!

Talking of degree revamps, Gus recalled the incisive comments of Meghnad Desai when he had been brought in as an adviser in the 1980s. He had immediately spotted that the four undergraduate programmes that we had planned, Business Economics, Natural Resource Economics, Political Economy and "straight" Economics could be labelled as the Blue, Green, Red and White pathways.

Thinking of Dermot, Gus remembered that, through Dermot's connections, we used to hold Staff-Student Socials at the local Irish Club. He remembered the band that used to play with the old woman on the drums and her little dog that had peed up against the base drum. Bob then reminded Gus of a later social event at the end of the eighties when he and Tom Roberts had done their Hale and Pace type act. Gus laughed and said that it was intended only to be a short semi-scripted act but, responding to the student heckling, they had just gong on a roll for nearly an hour. I asked who Hale and Pace were - a popular comedy double act of the time I was told - look them up on Wikipedia.

Gus and Bob remembered chatting about the jobs they had all done as students in the vacation. Gus had been a gravedigger, Bob a bus conductor, and other colleagues had been taxi drivers, sold donuts on the beach, or worked as an ice-cream delivery driver. Nowadays students would look for jobs that would give them work experience and help them build up their CVs. In the old days you just wanted to earn some money and get away from studying for a while.

Gus and Bob then talked about how in the eighties they all used to play table-tennis at lunchtime. In the new building there was no room for that kind of leisure activity. It was a pity really as all they did now was sit in the cafeteria and drink too much coffee.

Gus said that in many ways things had been better in the old days. He still enjoyed the teaching and the research but these days there was too much form filling and, with the big class sizes, massive amounts of marking with a requirement for very detailed feedback for each student (even if quite a few of them never even collected their marked coursework). Once we had lecture groups of 40 to 50, now the group sizes are usually 150 or more.

Bob asked Gus why he didn't retire. He could always come back and do a bit of part-time teaching to keep up his contact with students and to maintain the social links with the university. He might even become eligible for the Last of the Summer Wine ex-staff dining club! Gus said he would think about it. With the VC himself going next year that might be the time to go - and leave the brave new world to younger people, he said, looking at me.

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