“Students were all fairly politically involved. Politics was much more important then. Most students, I think it’s fair to say, had pretty strident views and they were pretty anti-establishment. It was almost what you had to do – if you were a student, you were anti-establishment.”
In the second instalment of this series I spoke to Professor of Microbiology Alan McCarthy. Having been recommended to me by a friend, who referred to him as his ‘favourite’, I can see why Alan is as popular with student as it seems. Both jovial and warm, Alan provided me with new insights into how the life of a student has changed from his era (70s) while also illuminating how his role at the University of Liverpool has changed over the thirty years he has been here.
Where did you go to university?
A: I’m from Belfast and I left to go to university in Bath when I was 18. In the 70s Northern Ireland was pretty bad.
Was that decision more about leaving Northern Ireland or was Bath a university that you really wanted to go to?
A: When I left Northern Ireland in 1973 it was at the height of unrest, life was pretty miserable actually, so everyone wanted to get out (Laughs). I have three younger sisters who all left when they were 18 and going to university in England was the escape route.
What did you do at university and why?
Applied Biology. I went to Bath rather bizarrely, I knew nothing about Bath really. Having lived in Belfast for 18 years, I wasn’t going to go to Liverpool, Glasgow or Newcastle because they were just like Belfast. Bath sounded like something very English and posh, so I thought ‘I’ll go there’. I landed in Bath thinking ‘wow, this is bizarre’.
How do you see the student experience having changed from when you were a student, in regards to how students live now?
Well, first of all, Bath was an expensive city to live in, particularly then, especially if you had no money, which students didn’t have. There was no McDonalds in those days, if you wanted to eat out, you had to go to a restaurant or you got some chips from a chip shop. Sundays were completely dead, it was a real struggle to eat on a Sunday because there was nothing open and you couldn’t afford to go to a hotel. You became a bit more dependent on the university because the university refectory was where you could get good, cheap food. There was no competition. Whereas now, you can go anywhere to get cheap food. The other thing that was different about students, in those days, was that students were identified as a group of people. Now, I think students are just young people. You can’t look at somebody now and say ‘they’re a student’, but you could in those days because students were generally fairly scruffy – they didn’t have jobs so they often wore second-hand clothes. There was a sort of a look of a student which you don’t have now.
How did you socialise as a student? Did you socialise with your course-mates or did you stick around with the people you met in halls?
Both really. I think that’s probably the same as students now. I mean I know a little bit about students because I’ve got four children. You have the two cohorts of friends – friends that you met on your course and friends that you lived with. I guess, particularly friends that you lived with, remain your friends for the rest of your life. I hear prospective students say ‘I don’t want to live in halls of residence, I want to get a little flat’ and I tell them ‘you don’t want to do that because you will go to halls of residence and you will meet people who will be your friends for the rest of your life’.
It’s comforting to hear that you’re still friends with the people you met back then.
I see it with my children now, who are grown up. It’s very positive. If you were 18 in the 70s, and you wanted to leave home and go live on your own, that was actually quite difficult to do. Going to university made it easy. I think it still makes it easy, even if you’re not interested in academia or university, as a way of leaving home when you’re 18.
Did you decide at around 16 or 17 that Applied Biology was something you were going to do or was it something you were good at?
I wanted to do biology – I’m a microbiologist, I’ve always been a microbiologist. I actually wanted to do microbiology but you did virtually no microbiology at school. Rather bizarrely, I liked biology, but I wasn’t really interested in plants and animals so that only left microorganisms. That’s what I wanted to do, but it’s quite silly really because as a 17 year old I knew absolutely nothing about bacteria. I guess life is just a series of accidents really. Going to Bath, I knew nothing about Bath – I never went to an open day because I lived in Northern Ireland – so it was a real shot in the dark. I think that’s another difference now in that students, and their families, do enormous amounts of research when they’re deciding where they want to go to university. The thing that strikes me about Liverpool now, that’s different to some years ago, is that most people come twice. They’ll come to an open day and then they’ll come again! That was pretty unheard of when I was young – as was bringing your parents to a university visit.
So you’d say the influence of parents has increased?
Could you say that’s somewhat because a lot more of the parents of prospective students now will have gone to university?
I couldn’t say. Parents seem to manage their children’s lives more than they used to, and I’m as guilty as anyone of that. My parents, and I think this is probably true of most of my friends of my age, had no idea what homework I did, what I studied or whether an A was better than a B. Now it’s totally different.
Could you give us an idea of what Alan McCarthy was like at university? Was he a sporty person?
I wasn’t a sporty person, I played football, but not regularly. I suppose in those days I just used to hang out with my mates in bars. I did a little bit of society stuff but not an enormous amount. The biology undergraduates had a society and we were all involved in that, but that just involved going out. Students were all fairly politically involved. Politics was much more important then. Most students, I think it’s fair to say, had pretty strident views and they were pretty anti-establishment. It was almost what you had to – if you were a student, you were anti-establishment – you hated the Vice-Chancellor. ‘The university’s exploiting you, yet again they’re putting the fees up in the halls of residence – right, we’ll go on a demonstration, we’ll occupy the Vice-Chancellor’s office’. That used to be quite a common business back in those days. The Vice-Chancellor would just shrug his shoulders. There was that situation in Lancaster a couple of years ago where the students were arrested. Reading it online I saw there were comments from people who were students in the 70s, like me, who were saying how much of a massive overreaction it was. It was just another day at the office in the 70s (Laughs).
You started as a lecturer in ’85, how have you seen your job change?
The structure is different. In those days, we were in much smaller groups – departments were much smaller things – and the head of the department was the professor. He was the sort of Grand Vizier really and we were his boys and girls. It was mostly boys but things began to improve in the 80s thankfully. You were pretty much left to your own devices, teaching now is pretty highly regulated, which you can see, I’ve got to fill in more forms than you could imagine (Indicating the paperwork strewn all over his desk). There’s also the fear of litigation. When I started, if there was a suggestion that a student was going to make a formal complaint about an academic, and that it might get legal, that would have been quite laughable really. Now there’s great sensitivity about having a paper trail for everything. When I arrived at Liverpool, I went to my first meeting on my first day, and the head of department was talking to me and the others about how the term was going to be divvied up, and on my first day he said to me ‘you’ve got all the final year students for a week in November, I don’t care what you do with them, but keep them busy.’ That was it! (Laughs) Now you’ve got modules and a complete structure planned out.
Has your relationship with the students changed?
It may be unusual here because in the final year we have a group of microbiology students of about twenty. With there being only twenty, you do get to know them quite well. In the first and second year, we have a tutorial system, so I have six first-year tutees and four second-year tutees. I see them once a fortnight and I get to know them very well. I was in America, at the University of Georgia, a couple of weeks ago, and it’s quite interesting because a head of department there was American but had worked in two UK universities as a head of department for a number of years. He had been a manager and an academic in both the British and American system, which is unique, and gave him a beautiful overview of both their strengths and weaknesses. He said that the great strength of the British universities is that undergraduate access to academic staff is fantastic compared to the States where an undergraduate getting to spend face-to-face time with an academic is almost unheard of. It’s not until students become postgraduates that they then start to have that interaction and he said that it was a greatest asset of the British system and wasn’t sure why we were determined to throw it away. (Laughs)
Well I’ve heard that there’s a lot less job security for academic staff than before.
It’s changed, yeah. I think it’s a shame really. The Americans always had what was called a ‘tenure track’ system where people would be kicking around for years, feeling vulnerable if they didn’t perform. If they didn’t perform they wouldn’t get to stay. In the UK we didn’t have that – you were appointed to an academic position, you were on probation, and after three years you were confirmed in appointment. To not be confirmed in appointment after three years, you would really have had to screw up fairly monumentally. That changed not that long ago, relatively recently. There are now more cases of people not being kept on and many of the appointments around here, in the last few years, at other universities in the UK like this as well, are in accordance with the ‘tenure track’ system. After three or four years, if you’re not performing it’s not good. ‘Not performing’ usually mean not generating research income and/or output.
Research income is an aspect of the monetization of universities. Is that a gradual process you’ve seen developing overtime or has it accelerated in recent years?
I think it’s been quite gradual. The research assessment exercise (RAE) which became the research excellence framework (REF) has had a lot to do with that, as has allowing that to be a driver. Before my generation, but not long before my generation, there were professors here that told me that government used to look to professors in the university system to tell them how to run the country. Certainly, if they wanted advice in a particular area of expertise they would do that. Now it’s a complete reversal in that now we do what we’re told. The government will decide, in any field – let’s say biological sciences – which are the areas of biological sciences which should be supported and which shouldn’t. I think, thirty or forty years ago, they would ask biological sciences experts which areas they thought the government should be supporting – what’s interesting and what’s not. We’re all employees now. I don’t necessarily mind it actually. The other thing that’s different is students failing exams, and then doing resits and failing them again. They used to be shown the door pretty rapidly.
Well I’ve heard my Dad tell me that when he went to university, around the same time as you, that you had to work very hard to get a 2:1.
That’s true, there were forty of us who graduated from Bath in 1977 – there were no firsts. The firsts used to be the special people. A first then became the upper end of a distribution. I suppose the argument now is that you’re taking in students with straight As, and if you take a student in with straight As and they emerge with a 2:2 you’ve done something wrong. So I suppose there’s something in that. But yes, firsts are more like pebbles on the beach now.
Thanks Alan for taking the time out to speak with me.