Last night a Master’s student (whom I have never taught) phoned me to vent her justified frustration with one of her lecturers’ chronic incompetence. This keen and bright individual had done everything she could and should about the situation and complained through the correct channels. As usual in these situations she wasn’t the only member of her cohort suffering from one individual’s inability to do the job she is paid to do, and the failing teacher’s shortcomings were well known to those responsible for running the course. Also, as usual, bugger all is being done about it.

Norm cites a piece in the US Chronicle of Higher Education about candidates for posts at an American community college being tested for their teaching ability. I wonder how many candidates for a university lectureship in the UK are required to give a practical demonstration like this.

Also as usual, it’s all about incentives. As a UK higher education institution you are funded on the basis of your publication output, not according to the quality of your student supervision. As an academic you have nothing to gain from devoting valuable research time and effort to teaching. (It’s worse than that: once you acquire a reputation for being conscientious you will end up sorting out your colleagues’ students’ problems too.) As a graduate you will be better off in the jobs market with a degree from a university with a good reputation for research than you will with a degree from one with a good reputation for teaching. Most importantly, as a home student you are rarely handing over your own money in return for the service you are supposed to be getting, but money from other people who work for a living and pay tax. You can bet that once that changes in this country—and it will—there’ll be a lot more teaching tests at British academic job interviews.

Yesterday I was in Tesco, stocking up with food, and I wanted a microwave oven. So I bought one. They had a choice! Unprompted, the (Eastern European-sounding) woman on the till asked an (Asian-looking) woman to help me take my other items in a separate trolley into the car park where it was cold and raining. Despite being completely unsuitably dressed for the conditions, she wouldn’t leave me until I told her that I’d be fine loading up my car.

When I had my own MPhil viva a couple of years ago, the academic registry responsible asked me in advance to tell them what equipment I required to make my presentation. They failed to provide a single one of the specified items. They failed to remind the external examiner of the time and place of the exam. Despite being a full professor and having a secretary, the examiner himself failed to check with her when he was supposed to be there. He failed to turn up. He did at least do me the courtesy of critically reading my dissertation.

Sitting at a desk with the other examiners and pointing to the screen of my notebook PC with my own laser pointer (which I had brought because I didn’t trust the registry) and writing on a hastily located flipchart with pens I had brought myself (because I didn’t trust the registry), I passed.

For this level of uselessness—plus sending me an ethnic monitoring form every year, presumably to check that I hadn’t done a Michael Jackson—I think the registry charged the Medical Research Council something like £400 a year. This didn’t come out of my pocket of course.

My Tesco microwave oven cost me about fifty quid. It has a 900W output and a built-in grill.