You can’t have missed in the press in the last day or so the Russell Group highlighting the scale of the cuts we face in HE over the next couple of years. If you were extra lucky you’ll have seen the letter from Peter Mandelson just before Christmas outlining the scale of the cutbacks, not to mention chiding the HEI sector for “over recruiting” – funny, I thought this government was pushing forward with its 50% of all school leavers in higher education agenda (just try and find a skilled tradesman in 10 years folks!).
So far the government’s response to the criticism has been to say that “Front line teaching will be protected”.
Universities do a whole lot more than “teach” – working as I have over the years for research focussed universities, in many regards at times the teaching has taken a second place to research and entrepreneurship. But that aside what about libraries and information services – are we truly part of “front line teaching”? I’d argue yes without the support of training librarians students (and some academic staff) wouldn’t have the information and evaluative skills they need to take their place in the knowledge economy (and pass their courses). Without cataloguers and acquisitions staff they wouldn’t be able to access the wonderous texts they need. Without all the specialist staff like document supply, coursepacks and periodicals they’d miss out on accessing a world of essential information.
But is this going to stop HEIs from looking towards libraries, with their myriad of staff and resources, as a cherry tree ripe for the efficiency saving pruning? I sadly doubt it, you only have to look towards places like Kings where already the cutbacks have hit the library services hard. The argument seems to run that “Everything’s online” – well yes, a lot is but not everything – and maintaining access in a systematic and cost effective way needs managing. Are “front line teachers” going to have time to handle this? Are they heck as like.
What about open access? Surely academics can now share over 60% of their articles easily, self-archiving them etc. Well yes, but they’ve been able to do this for a decade – and from what I’ve seen in most places, unless you beat them with a mandate or two and provide repository staff to do all the grunt work it just doesn’t happen. And if they don’t deposit then there isn’t the open access material for others to re-use.
Of course nothing is definite, it’s early days – but one thing is sure, for at least the next couple of years working in an HE library is going to become increasingly like being a panda on a motorway – a somewhat endangered lifestyle.