Higher education is going through a turbulent phase in many countries in these days. Faculty members, potential job seekers, administrative staffs, and students, all are facing the heat of the situation. The modern university system is coping with severe challenges ranging from funding cut from state-owned institutions, private and philanthropic organizations to the legitimacy crisis in the wake of populist politics and the rise of authoritarian regimes in several countries. The future of higher academia may be perceived as bleak. In such an atmosphere, Professor Les Back has contributed a significant piece of academic work, in which he shares his reflections and deep thoughts on the major challenges the higher academia is facing. The book covers a broad range of issues. It is the outcome of his more than three decades of engagement with academia in the UK and the wider world. The book is written in an unusual format of a diary. Nevertheless, it is more than a personal reflection. Some issues addressed in the book are mundane and context specific (to the UK) and others have broader significance for higher academia in various national contexts. The book introduces the idea of academic time and starts with entries dated from early September and goes till the August year end. The book is divided into three parts. Part One describes the Autumn term, Part Two deals with Spring term and Part Three with the Summers. Les Back gives a vivid account of University life, of students and faculty members, in the UK. Even though the majority of the episodes are directly related to Goldsmiths, University of London, a public university located in metropolitan London, one can observe a lot of similarities to their own experiences in universities with different characteristics and located in other national and cultural contexts. Part One starts with a description of a graduation ceremony and deals with various issues of university life, some of which pertain to student’s life and others are more specific to faculty members. The part also deals with teaching and academia in general and engages themes such as the changing meanings and value of teaching, use of new digital tools and technologies for teaching, the value of academic writing, and increasing research expenses. It also addresses broader issues, such as the role of education in promoting class mobility and the role of academia in bringing social changes. Part Two is about the Spring term; it is more focused on an academic’s life, changing priorities of academicians over the years and transforming institutional structures, how academicians engage with their profession, a bit of the campus life and then again on teacher–student relationship and how it has evolved over the years. These notes are full of reflections, provocations, and personal memories. For instance, on the issue of increasing tuition fees and widening access to university education for students from lower socio-economic background in the UK he states that, A three-year degree will leave them with a debt of tens of thousands of pounds….If I had been faced with the same choice as these students would I have taken the financial gamble and applied to the university? (p. 80)It hints at the helplessness of an academician working within the existing university system, but I think this also reflects the broad weaknesses of systems, which talk about overcoming the access gap in higher education. This problem is much more complicated and dreadful in developing countries. Until societies and governments come up with wiser ways to cover this gap the fruits of higher education cannot be equitably distributed, and the consequence will be further inequalities. Part Three describes Summer term, the period in the UK when examinations and evaluations are conducted, and it also recounts PhD defence; a critical part of any PhD student’s life in any university, which they cherish long after. The part also engages with issues like the workplace of writers i.e. the writer’s desk, library as a transformative space, and the changes occurring in the public library system in London during the last few decades, writing and scholarly style, academics as a vocation for sustaining life and, finally, how the general public perceive academia and academicians in the UK. The book is a great source for learning the tacit dimensions of academia. The practical and ethical questions that both the students and teachers confront at different stages of their life in universities. It has lots of useful advice for the beginners, or those who are new to the vocation. For instance, on supervision, Back talks about the dilemmas of supervisions; he sketches the qualities of a good supervisor and a good PhD student. In his own words, … supervisors should enable students to explore ideas but not let them drift too much. In this sense supervisors need to remind the student of the stages of the thesis as a whole and the larger time frame. (Back, 2016, p. 162)The book also depicts the personal journey of Les Back as a student to a respectable academician, and it narrates the stories of people and episodes which left remarkable impressions on his academic and personal life. His to and fro dealing with the same issues as a student and as a faculty member makes these reflections more revelling and meaningful. Incidentally, this is also the institutional story of the rise and growth of the Goldsmiths, University of London as an institution over the last four decades. It recounts the major transformation that has taken place at the University, as well as society and academia in the UK. One of the significant strength of the book is the concluding section, titled ‘Tips, Leads and Follow-Ups’ with a list of references. Les Back has aptly used these references to situate his arguments in the broader debate but at the same time has not written the diary in an ‘academic manner’ suited mainly for an academic audience. It captures the interest of a general reader, but at the same time, the tips, leads, and follow-ups are extremely relevant for those who want to go deeper into these issues. It also has a section on music and musicians, which convey his deep interest in his life outside academia. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in higher education in general. The book is written in a lucid style that motivates readers to think critically on the issues that higher academia is facing these days. Often the suggestions and reflections are radical and unorthodox. They provoke the reader. If the reader is prompted to challenge his/her own assumptions or positions, then the book meets its goal. On occasion, one gets the feeling that the book is too much situated in the UK context and does not engage with issues faced by academia in other parts of the world. Readers from other regions will occasionally feel lost. But I think this is more or less because of the specific nature of the book, i.e. the diary format. Yet, I would say that this makes it a compelling book that should be widely read. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Science and Public Policy – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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