Occupying an intermediary position from which to view the workings of a polytechnic, H.B., a laboratory technician, reflects on the realities underlying the school’s constant expansion. Student-hours are more importamt than students, starting new courses sometimes more important than their successful completion. For a technician who is asked to serve and no more—on £14 a week— the discrepancy between reality and ideals is considerable.
The polytechnic I work in is a dump. During the war it shared some other building until that was bombed, then a condemned 19th centuryinfant-school was re-opened to accommodate it. It is there to this day. Originally the entire polytechnic occupied this building, but more recently the Arts and Business Studies departments have moved to another, described in the prospectus as a Victorian mansion, the home originally of some notable or other, in the hope that a little historical anecdote will distract readers from its inadequacies. Of the old infantschool which is now the Department of Science and Engineering, and where I work, it is silent. What could it say?
When I got a letter inviting me to an interview, so long a time had elapsed since my application that it was quite unexpected. I was pleased at the chance of getting a job at last and it did not cross my mind that the delay might be symptomatic, nor were my suspicions aroused by the haste they were in to employ me. I was told the job would involve working in the biology laboratories, which until then had been without a technician, and it was arranged I should start work the following Monday. There was only one other applicant so far as I could see, and he was Indian. As a teacher who prided himself on his impartiality was later to explain, they didn’t want some foreigner who would be unfamiliar with the syllabus. I was to feel that for the pay they gave they had no right to discriminate on any grounds, let alone these.
As the biology department had been without a technician before and was short of a lot of things, I started equipping the laboratories according to what I considered was necessary. The department gained a third room which was to be the store and preparation room, a room that had been the old children’s cloakroom in the original school. Four small windows looked out on the yard and beneath them was a row of a couple of dozen sinks, all at knee height, which opened into an open gutter running the length of the wall. At that time part of it formed a store for old television sets and unwanted equipment, while the other part was used as a cloakroom by the girl students. Apart from this room they had nowhere else but the lavatory to congregate between classes and many of those who brought sandwiches now had only the lavatory to eat them in. I thought little of this at the time but now see it as one example of how the teachers often promote their own interests at the students’ expense, as when on another occasion the students’ library was moved out into the hall, surrounded now by only a partition, in order that the teachers’ common room could be enlarged. Apparently the noise of billiards and darts distracted the others who had homework to correct, so it was decided a second room would have to be added, this time with fitted carpets. The suggestion that they might give up billiards and darts and concentrate on marking homework while leaving the students their library, students who surely had as much right to peace while actually doing their homework, was just a joke in bad taste. At all events, during the next vacation I set to work and with board and timber from the local yard in a matter of a few weeks had built what everybody agreed was a very passable preparation room, at least by the prevailing standards. All but two of the sinks had been covered to form a long bench under the windows and the space was filled with an old sink and draining board recovered from a refuse heap. Further benches, shelves and a few cupboards provided storage space for the new chemicals and equipment we had acquired. The senior biology teacher was something of an enthusiast and was obviously pleased. We could for a while at least delude ourselves that we saw eye to eye.
The college runs classes for both full and part-time students, and the biology classes are divided into general courses, though at different levels (from ordinary level biology to advanced level botany and zoology classes), and a few more specialized courses such as one for medical laboratory technicians recruited from the local hospitals, or short courses in public health and hygiene for domestic science students. My work is fundamentally of two kinds. On the one hand I have to maintain stocks of materials and equipment, on the other I am expected to prepare demonstrations for classes to illustrate certain basic biological phenomena.
In addition to courses during the day, the polytechnic runs evening classes, and to meet their needs the technicians arrange among themselves to come in some evenings until about nine-thirty and have a morning off to make up for the time. Now it has always struck me that the conditions of employment of the lecturers in technical colleges have many advantages over the conditions of teachers in secondary and grammar schools. They have none of the latters’ games and lunchtime duties and although they occasionally work in the evenings they rarely