Harold Hillman is the Director of the Unity Laboratory at Guildford and was formerly the Reader in Physiology at the University of Surrey.

Academia, like Caesar’s wife, should always be above suspicion. The desire of the last Government to make public life more honourable was expressed by the Nolan Committee, and public revulsion against ‘sleaze’ was probably one cause for the defeat of the last [British] Government. Unfortunately, there are still large areas of university life, which lack probity to the point of corruption. They are not usually talked about, and therefore little attempt has been made to put them right. Yet, it is probably true that the public appetite for honesty and transparency in all fields has probably never been greater, and it would be highly desirable for the universities to live up to the standards, which the public which pays for them, has a right to expect.
      Bad teaching is probably the commonest misdemeanour. One must prepare a lecture, read one’s notes, update them, and prepare good clear slides. Some colleagues, especially those who teach subjects whose undergraduate material changes slowly, such as mathematics, English language, Latin, and gross anatomy, simply do not bother, especially in tutorials. In addition, much information is lost by failure to speak loudly and clearly, to address the audience, or to exhibit enthusiasm. Indeed, a student was once heard to say, after Groucho Marx, that “I’ve slept through better lectures than this.” Poor lectures represent, in the modern jargon, failure to satisfy the ‘customers’. A student discouraged by bad lectures often loses interest in a course, and become demoralised, or truants.
      A second doubtful area is the degree to which lecturers inform students beforehand of the likely questions in examinations. One sees a very wide variation of practices: some lecturers give no hint whatsoever in lectures or tutorials of forthcoming questions; others give road hints, usually in tutorials; others still actually tell the students precisely what the questions will be. These different practices are likely to result in different grades for students of the same ability in different courses and colleges. Yet the grades students achieve in their degrees often influence the whole of their careers.
      The marking of some degrees is even more astonishing. Overall examination marks are computed by taking the average of say, 6-12 papers, plus some continuous assessment of practical and class work. However, some examiners mark papers from 0% to 100% linearly; others cluster the marks around a pass of, say, 50%, so that a very good mark is 60% and a very poor one is 40%; it is almost impossible to obtain a 90% or 10% mark for a question. Both the linear and the non-linear systems are legitimate, but clearly one should not take the average values of added linear and non-linear marks to arrive at an overall mark. Nevertheless, this practice is fairly common. When this anomaly has been brought to the attention of senates and examining boards, the answer has been that it would be a threat to academic freedom to coerce all the examiners in a course to adopt the same marking system.
      Even today, the majority of lecturers in this country can find Ph.D. students. Some give the students excellent supervision, some very little. My supervisor required me to see him every week with my data book, and we discussed the results, methods, errors and hypotheses in detail. Other supervisors give the students problems, tell them to go to the library and rarely see them; some of them become angry when asked proper fundamental questions. A good project comes naturally from a rolling research programme. The supervisor should know the literature, and be able to give the students key references. the student should not have to do a computer literature search, which is likely to yield 2,500 references, many in Chinese, Russian, German or Italian, which would have to be translated before one knew their value.
      Big problems arise when the research project is based on wrong assumptions, is poorly conceived, produces results which the supervisor does not like, or the student loses belief in the value of the research for any reason. A student withdrawing from a Ph.D. for any of these reasons is very unlikely to find a job, just as the supervisors are very unlikely to admit the poor quality of research programmes they have suggested. So most students in this situation soldier on, long after they believe that they are doing meaningful research.
      External examiners do not always take their task seriously enough. Often they read undergraduate, M.Sc. or Ph.D. theses rapidly. Several examiners read the theses—which may represent 3 months to 3 years of research—on a train or an aeroplane on the way to the viva voce; some even read them for the first time while they are talking to the candidates. I have also known internal examiners choosing external examiners from a different field, who could not ask or persist with fundamental or penetrating questions. The truth is that the viva is as much a test of the lecturer who conceived and supervised the thesis, as it is of the candidate. The lecturer/ supervisor had previously told the student that the thesis was in a fit state to be submitted, and had a vested interest in it being passed—whatever the quality.
      Some applications for grants contain a sum of money for ‘consultation’ by the applicants. Is this ethical? Is the project not carried out as part of the full-time employment of the university or institute? This process obviously enhances the income of the grant holder. A grant, nowadays, usually contains overheads which go to the institution; these overheads are for secretarial assistance, telephones, faxes, post, etc. However, when an academic ‘consults’ for an outside firm,—without granting funds to the university,—such ‘consultation’ uses the same overheads, but these are ‘carried’ by the university. Some academics who consult for commercial companies, for example, in mechanical engineering, pharmacology, material science, nutrition or hotel management, enhance their salaries considerably. Nowadays, many of them run companies from the Universities or institutes.
      In addition, some heads of departments, and vice chancellors or principals are directors of outside commercial companies. Vice chancellors and principals are paid about £100,000 per year and they often have generous expense allowances, despite the financial difficulties of their universities. Do these senior academics also have enough spare time to devote to the directorships of outside companies? Whereas senior academic staff are meant to inform their heads of departments, or vice chancellors or principals, of outside and money-making activities and commitments, to whom do the vice-chancellors and principals report? How much monitoring of these activities is there? How often are they stopped? How often do their academic responsibilities take precedence over the commercial requirements? For how much of these activities—when reported—do the universities and institutes require compensation for the facilities being used?
      I have previously written about ‘parafraud’ (THES [Times Higher Education Supplement] 20th October, 1995). This term covers a wide variety of practices, such as: not publishing results which do not support ones hypothesis; not refereeing applications for grants or manuscripts for publication fairly; not being prepared to enter into dialogue about one’s publications or views; not doing control experiments; inviting only one’s allies to speak at learned society meetings; putting names on papers to which they have made no contributions. Such questionable practices are widespread and are regarded as every day and acceptable by most senior academics, but they are rarely talked about or stopped.
      Promotion is another problematic area. Heads of departments have the power to provide particular colleagues with more technical or secretarial help; they can put them on powerful university and outside committees; they can have them appointed to editorial boards of journals; they can assign them several research students. They can then recommend them for increments or promotion. On the other hand, heads of departments can do all they can to make life difficult for their colleagues. The normal assumption is that a head of department acts in the interests of scholarship, their departments and their universities,—rather than themselves. Furthermore, ‘whistle blowers’ have usually suffered from exposure of misdemeanour more than the miscreants themselves.
      There is usually a selection committee to consider appointments to academic posts. However, heads of departments often draw up short lists, and these are the only candidates interviewed. They may do this in consultation with a dean, but not usually with all the members of the selection committee. Among the practices I have seen are:
    (i) writing up the further particulars using the curriculum of a favoured candidate;
    (ii) not advertising a situation widely;
    (iii) short-listing clever candidates, who were not, however, in the specialised field;
    (iv) preventing members of selection committees seeing all the applications, either before or at the time of the interviews;
    (v) making disparaging remarks about good candidates, or laudatory remarks about favoured candidates, before they are interviewed;
    (vi) promising candidates facilities if they accept appointments, and then being unable or unwilling to provide them subsequently. Many of these cynical practices were regarded as acceptable, or necessary for heads of departments to carry out their ‘managerial’ functions. It was also argued that heads of departments had a duty to appoint staff with whom they themselves could get on well.
      During an academic career of nearly 40 years, I have seen all of these practices, and most colleagues with whom I have spoken have also seen them. One does not know how widespread they are, but being aware of them is the first stage to eliminating them.

HTML Rae West. First uploaded 99-08-04. This article appeared in the New Humanist in 1997.