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6th May 2012

“I went to school and it went downhill from there…”

Meet the maverick lecturer who will head Manchester University’s new University College for Interdisciplinary Learning

Dr Peter Lawler is not your typical academic.

Having grown-up in Essex to Irish immigrant parents, he failed his A-levels in the late 1960s, and became a gardener for the local council.

“I went to school and it went downhill from there,” he smiles. “I did my A-levels and I bombed them. I think being stoned and tripping in school probably had something to do with it.”

Peter, who is now a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Manchester, then decided to go to teacher training college; but that didn’t work out.

“I went up with my best mate Terry for an interview [at what is now Nottingham Trent University] and I walked in and after about ten minutes a bunch of Rugby players walked by. I looked at Terry and thought ‘nah’ and we went home. My parents went mad.”

It wasn’t until Peter moved to a kibbutz in Israel in search of “sun and women” that he really became interested in politics.

“I used to go on demonstrations in 1973 and 1974 in the West Bank against the emerging settler movement,” he says. “Then my ex-wife [who he met on the kibbutz] said ‘you’re an under-educated smart-arse’. So I applied to do Hebrew and Politics at SOAS and got rejected. Then I applied to Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University) in 1977 and got in.”

At Lanchester, Lawler’s love of politics really blossomed. “I became a politics junkie,” he explains. “I got involved in student politics, and I regularly stayed up until 3am reading everything! I loved it.”

Peter then applied to do a Masters in International Relations at the London School of Economics and came top of his year, later writing a PhD in Australia; and then, more recently, taking up his position at Manchester.

I ask him if he thinks it’s possible for young people to follow his path into academia, in terms of leaving school with few qualifications and returning to education as a mature student. He seems doubtful.

“There’s no doubt that the world in which I’ve made my slightly unusual path is different to the world now. And I cannot say, nor would I have the arrogance to say: ‘why don’t you do what I did, take seven years off’; because economic circumstances are very different.”

A BBC report from January of last year found that the graduate unemployment rate was at its highest point in over a decade; while the number of 16-24 year-olds without a job passed the 1 million mark in 2011.

This is in stark contrast to the late 1960s and early 1970s when, such was the availability of work; Peter was able to turn down a job at a bakery because he didn’t want to cut his long hair.

Meanwhile, just a week ago a cross-party committee of MPs warned that British people’s employment chances are increasingly governed by their school days. Their report found that today’s 40-somethings have less chance of rising up the class-system than those who were born in the 1950s. Peter Lawler’s generation, in other words.

Lawler says that the move away from the traditional admissions process toward the Ucas style system used by the vast majority of English universities, has meant that bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds find it harder to differentiate themselves from other, less intelligent candidates who have better grades.

“You apply here [the University of Manchester] with your grades and you get in or you don’t get in. We don’t interview people anymore,” he says, before making a startling claim. “Paradoxically you’ve got a better shot, if you’ve got a rough story, at Oxford or Cambridge. I mean in terms of having your story heard at all. Because how is it going to be heard here?!”

Like most people involved in higher education, Lawler is also concerned about the impact of fee rises on the number of students attending university.

Taking into account changes in the British population, the number of applications to the University declined by 11 percent for 2012/13, when fees are set to go up £9,000 a year. Lawler envisages more students staying at home, and therefore missing out on what he sees as the “rite of passage” of going to a university away from your home town. He also worries that the quality of a degree will be increasingly determined by how much it costs.

“Manchester can’t discount its fees because what will that say?! We’ll either look desperate or cheap,” he argues. “And so you’re going to get this view that if it’s expensive, it’s probably good.”

But despite his fears over fee rises, Peter seems determined to look on the bright side; stating that rising fees should mean rising teaching standards.

He describes how in recent years, Manchester has become “obsessed” with the National Student Survey, which measures how satisfied students are with their course; with Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell recently sending out a recent message to academics: “if you think you’ve come to Manchester just to do research you should get a job elsewhere.” And he is clearly enthused by a new project he’s setting up with the university aimed at promoting interdisciplinary learning.

The University College for Interdisciplinary Learning, of which Peter is the Academic Director, will open this summer and starting from next year it will offer undergraduates the chance to take courses outside their degree programme.

Next year there will be around 10-15 level 2 courses on offer, and in the future the aim is for students to take up 30 credits worth of interdisciplinary courses during their time at university. The medical school have already decided to make it compulsory for their students to take an interdisciplinary in order to make them “more rounded intellectuals”.

Dr Lawler sees more and more universities starting interdisciplinary style courses in the future. Perhaps this is due to a growing realisation that, for most employers, a single degree isn’t enough; but also, as Lawler points out, because they offer students the chance to improve their skills in areas they aren’t comfortable in.

“In the social sciences and the humanities students generally have poor numeracy and don’t like numbers. And if you put up a course called ‘statistics’, your enrolment is going to be zero,” says Peter. “But the statisticians want to put on a course called ‘Figuring out the World’. So it’s a way of smuggling statistics in to get arts and humanities students to show them that numbers can say interesting things.

“The idea is that your choice of course is not determined by your programme, but simply by desire,” he adds. “So if you are doing biochemistry and you’ve always wanted to do something on international politics, there’s a course available and you can do it.”

Joe Sandler Clarke

Joe Sandler Clarke

Joe Sandler Clarke is the head of student media at the University of Manchester. He was longlisted for Amnesty International’s Student Human Rights Reporter of the Year in 2012. He was a News Editor at The Mancunion in the year 2011-12

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