Walter Benjamin wrote his delightful talk ‘Unpacking my library’ when he recovered his books after two years in storage. I turn to re-read it as I prepare to pack up my own far less impressive library in readiness to move house. The reason for the move is that I’ve given up my job as a part-time professor, and the reason for that arises from the calamity of coronavirus, not directly on myself but on the university.
I’ve been at Roehampton for thirteen years, and have seen it become progressively more managerialist and marketised along with the rest of the sector. As well as contracting partnerships with private providers of off-campus teaching (the first of them as early as 2012), a splurge of new building over the last few years has left its finances in a parlous state. Originating in an amalgamation of four teacher training colleges of different denominations dating back to the nineteenth century, brought together in an Institute in 1975, Roehampton became a university in its own right following the Thatcherite reforms of higher education. One of several such campuses dotted around London’s suburbs, it built up a reputation in fields like education, dance and drama, and like every other, grew a department of film and media studies where filmmaking was integral. The most interesting part of the job was supervising several PhDs in documentary filmmaking, while the most challenging was how to bring undergraduates, most of them fresh from school, to a wider understanding of the art than the consumer culture they grew up in allowed them.
Now Roehampton became one of the first universities to announce ‘urgent measures’ to secure the institution’s future in the face of insolvency because of the expected fall in student numbers, especially from abroad. Although no-one really knows what to expect, but compounded by the effects of Brexit, the projected loss of fees is at least £31M, or more than 20% of its income. To avoid going bust, they came up with a 3-year plan (at least it isn’t a Five Year Plan any more), beginning with top-down salary cuts and voluntary severance – apparently they’re looking to lose 15% of jobs all told. People are being asked to take temporary cuts, workloads are being adjusted, and the prospects for those on short-term contracts is poor. There is talk of ‘hybrid delivery’ and more worryingly, of ‘restructuring’ the teaching offer, but little sense of purpose beyond survival. One of the problems is that creative practices like dance, drama and filmmaking, require students to work collectively and in close physical proximity – a problem yet to be solved – which disadvantages them in comparison with easier subjects to teach online like business and law (which also have the market benefit of promising greater graduate earnings). Other institutions are similarly affected, but with little unity across the sector, each is forced to act alone. All this was obvious months ago. Now comes another headache, as the fiasco of A-level grades adds to the pressure.
For myself, I had thought I would soldier on as long I was useful and productive, as they do in the States, but the situation changed my thinking, because I was pushing (and have now turned) 74, and I can’t see myself fitting in to the new dispensation. And since it’s my salary that’s been paying my exorbitant London rent, I’m leaving my home city and decamping to Windsor, where I used to live back in the 80s, a congenial town on the banks of the same river that flows past my current home, surrounded by parkland, and where in a couple of weeks time, I shall be unpacking my library and getting back to work on my next book and other projects. Including finishing a new film I’ve been making during lockdown, using exclusively ‘found material’, that is, footage from long ago, about family history.