Tuesday, 30 November 2010

How the Humanities -- a talk given a Birkbeck, November 2011

I feel that in addressing this meeting I am preaching to the converted. I doubt there are many people here who do not believe already that the arts and humanities are worthwhile, and that they deserve their place in British Higher Education. Many other people here have spoken and given their reasons. I would like in my alloted time to speak from the standpoint of someone who spent many years analysing corporations, and a fair amount of time in the last few months looking at universities and their often strange ways. Then I wish to put all of that into the context of what is going on all around at government level. Not Why the humanities then, but how the humanities.

The first point to bear in mind is that there is a certain futility in talking about education when discussing Higher Education policy, as that has long been of only minor importance. Politics and power have, for the last 30 years, been of much greater significance. It was not out of a desire to improve universities but to discipline them that the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s chipped away at tenure and university autonomy. John Major’s decision to double the number of students without funding them in the early 1990’s had more to do with massaging down youth unemployment figures than producing an educated population. The abolition of the binary divide was more concerned with driving down costs and exploiting the opportunity to corporatise the polytechnics than to give university degrees to all. The Lambert report under Labour was primarily occupied with making universities more useful to business. And the creation of the likes of hefce had as much to do with strengthening central control as it had with ensuring that the best research was funded well.

Now universities are to be hit by another tsunami of reform, and all the signs are that it is a worthy successor to past initiatives in the sense that it is ill-conceived, will be badly executed, and has little to do with the question of educating the population. This is perhaps inevitable for a review conceived by Labour as a means of securing more funding for universities without paying for it, modified by the Conservatives to be a means of facilitating cuts, and modified again by the Liberal Democrats to appease their backbenchers. In such a scramble, educational priorities slipped down the rankings, and the question of precisely how English universities are to maintain their remarkably high level of achievement has been largely forgotten. The result seems to be an actual cut in universities’ income instead of an increase, delivered in a complex and inefficient fashion, and laden down with so many conditions that any benefits will be more than offset by new burdens and obligations. One thing seems clear, and that is that although the government might not be willing to pay for the humanities, it will not, as a result, be surrendering any of the power it has over them.

The general incoherence is, this time, on an epic scale. For the last few years, we have been told that our great problem is that we have individually taken on too much debt, so the government is adopting a policy which will make a larger proportion of the population take on higher debts than ever before; this is known as choice. We are told the country’s future depends on a well-educated workforce, and then the government takes measures to reduce the appeal of that education by tripling its cost.

And above all, we are told that market disciplines will be introduced, but the result is to be a system of such tangled complexity that market forces are the very last thing which will apply.

In the grand scheme of things, a overall cut of 10 per cent or so to the total budget might not be so bad. Most companies, after a decade or so of interrupted growth could deal with such a thing relatively easily. Costs invariably can be reduced; it is in the nature of organisations to become a little flabby over time. It is where those cuts fall which is crucial. A well-run company will go after unnecessary overheads first of all. Management structures are simplified, expenses squeezed, all to protect the core activities which are the essential engines of growth and profit when the economy turns.

With the universities, much could be done here. Vince Cable could do more than issue limp begging letters asking vice-chancellors’ nicely if they wouldn’t mind being a little bit more restrained on the pay they give themselves. His department could ban daft schemes which divert funds into Ozymandias-like ventures into the sands of Araby. It could insist that all peripheral activities, like sponsoring rugby teams, building sports centres, acquiring palaces, stop immediately. Universities could do away not only with the fatuous mission statements and glossy strategy documents, but also with the people who write them. They could accept that employing about a thousand people in public relations departments might be a misuse of funds. The government could demand that the central administration budget be cut down drastically and immediately. It has instead been notably silent on the issue.

Not to be too polemical, King’s College London this week launched an appeal for £500 million. If treated as endowment at the usual yields, this would produce about 16 million a year, not even enough to cover the increase in central administration costs since 2002. Whether prospective donors will be told what they will be in effect paying for remains to be seen.

At the same time as revenue will drop, even with the rise of student fees, costs will also be driven up inexorably. Universities are charities, and do not pay tax, but they do pay VAT, and this is going up to 20 per cent next year, enough on its own to blow a hole in the budget. There is talk of a compulsary employers’ levy to make up a deficit in the pension fund, which will also be expensive, and possibly very expensive. Many universities are going to be forced into spending more on fund-raising, but with no change to the tax regime for donations, they will all be competing for the same pot of money, spending more in an expensive beggar-thy-neighbour policy. Nor is sending alumni out into the world laden with debt going to increase their generosity in later years. Equally, costs will be driven up by the business of administering a complex fee structure, and complying with whatever directives come from the new super-quango the government sets up. Best of all, perhaps, it seems as though the government is going to cut the teaching grant before the increased revenue from fees starts flowing, risking a quite unnecessary short term funding crisis that could well doom many courses, and even institutions, that might otherwise be viable.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of British Higher Education policy.

Why is this happening? One reason is that, if you commission a report, the answer you get depends on the question asked, and the person you ask. The question was limited to that of student fees, and so the answer did not touch on the greater structure of university funding, much of which comes from research monies. The remit of the committee was carefully designed so that it did not look at why it was reasonable to stop subsiding students, while continuing with much larger subsidies to businesses by allowing them to get a great deal of research on the cheap. It did not ask whether, if it is fair for students who benefit to pay for their education, it might not be reasonable to ask companies, who benefit from an educated workforce, to pay more as well. It did not deal with the question of why, if bankers can threaten to leave when their finances are threatened, the best and brightest students might not adopt the same reasoning, and go abroad if their education can be had under better circumstances elsewhere. Nor did it deal with the consequences for the much-vaunted “knowledge economy” if these students don’t come back again.

And the question was asked of Lord Browne, whose successor carried the can for the Gulf of Mexico disaster while trying at the same time to strip out “the unacceptably high overhead costs” “arteriosclerosis and bureaucracy” which weighed BP down during the period Browne was in charge of it. Lord Browne was a highly successful businessman, but he came to the task of reviewing fees with predictable ideas, attitudes and responses. Putting a question to a man wedded to “flash and fluff,” as the Economist phrased it, guaranteed that the one thing that would not be part of the answer would be a critique of the hugely expensive bureaucratic structure that has grown up over the past few decades. Indeed, he ended up recommending a system which will require much higher administrative costs.

All this will happen under a programme billed as introducing market forces into higher education. It would have been preferable if it had done so. I am, in general, quite keen on market forces in their proper context, and have a high regard for well-managed companies. But I do not believe that market forces have much of a role in situations where the market has to be artificially created, and is then interfered with before it even starts operating. With markets, it is all or nothing, and in the case of universities under the current arrangements, it is not going to be all, so would be better if it were nothing.

In a completely free market, the humanities would clean up. Faced with a choice between an arts degree costing £8,000 a year, and one in science costing upwards of £30,000 a year, then history and philosophy would suddenly become very popular for everyone except those determined to work as scientists. But it is not to be. The natural cost advantages that the humanities enjoy will be erased by continued subsidy to the sciences, while the natural disavantages of the humanities – their lack of access to research money – will continue unchanged.

Charging for what used to be free is not going to be balanced by an ability to become more flexible. Universities will be exposed to some of the pressures of a market system, but their responses will be limited by government directives. To put it simply, many departments may well close not because there is no demand for places, and not because students would not pay higher fees, but because the government will not let supply and demand meet up in a market driven fashion. This would be fine if it was prepared to pay to make up the difference, but it won’t do that either. It is after all possible that greater access and stability could be achieved by increasing fees still further. Personally I would disapprove strongly, but if a university could charge £15000, and divert a large portion of this into a needs-blind admissions policy in the Harvard manner, this might work for some institutions. But we will never know. Rather, universities are to be forced into an ill-fitting straitjacket designed purely to triangulate the political needs of the governing parties.

The market to be introduced is so rigged that, were it to be implemented in the City, the fraud office would soon enough be fingering the collars of the perpetrators. Every reference to market forces is disingenuous in the extreme. Universities will not compete against each other, but will rather operate as a cartel, or a series of cartels targetting different market segments. The normal market disciplines on managements will not apply, as there is no means left of effectively challenging or criticising their decisions. The choice available to students will be converted solely into what level of debt to incur. Internal costing of departments will remain opaque, random and arbitrary.

One thing that those in the arts must beware of is being bamboozled by arguments that their subjects are non economic, loss-making, sub-critical or whatever term may be in fashion. People in the humanities are not generally very good at reading balance sheets and financial statements, but they really should get into practice. As pieces of creative writing, the average university accounts are marvels. For exercises in the analysis of texts, they offer perfect study material. What they say, what they do not say, what they emphasise, what they hide away in dank little corners on page 23 are wonders of obscurantism. They should be read carefully, not least because of the pleasure that can be derived from sending in Freedom of Information requests to get the information left out.

The most important thing to remember is that however many numbers and statistics are deployed to give an impression of precision and rigour, these are all fiction at departmental level. A decent accountant could make any faculty show a profit or a loss simply by juggling the figures to get the result desired. All the highly complex and sophisticated accounting techniques brought in over the past decade or so are essentially fraudulent, because they are based on entirely subjective assumptions. To take an example, the philosophy department at Middlesex was closed because it made a loss, and this fact was dutifully reported in the newspapers. But it only made a loss because the university creamed off more than 50 percent of its revenue in central charges, and those charges were not only set more or less at random, they were beyond the control of the department to influence. An entirely independent faculty, which could negotiate a fair price for use of rooms and libraries, and which had some control over other outgoings – like a say in the vice-chancellor’s magnificent salary – could easily have managed to show a profit. The sin of Middlesex philosophy was a failure to meet an arbitrary internal benchmark determined by the needs of the administration for funds, not being a financial basket case.

Another thing to note is the extraordinary nature of the loans system being proposed, which is that students will be charged at 3 per cent plus inflation for a very long period of time once they hit a certain level of income. This is sheer profiteering disguised as fairness. Essentially, the government will be requiring individuals to issue 30-year index-linked bonds on their own balance sheets, rather than do it itself. A few sums shows what this might mean. For the government will raise the money to advance the loans on a flat rate basis. It will, in other words, borrow the money at about 2.5 per cent, and lend it out at 6.1 per cent, more if inflation increases. While it will enjoy the benefit of seeing its real debt eroded by inflation, the student will not be permitted the same escape route. If only half the total number of students take out a loan of £7000 every year, then that would amount to a transfer from the state’s balance sheet to those of individuals which stabilises over 30 years at about £110 billion. The government would pay a peak £2.75 billion a year in interest for this, and receive peak income of £6.75 billion back, as wage inflation will ensure within 12 years that most graduates earn over the £41,000 benchmark which triggers the maximum levy, and there seems to be no provision for this to be index-linked.

Even Barclaycard would applaud such audacity, not least because there are measures to guarantee this income stream by imposing financial penalties on anyone who wishes to pay off their debts early – a unique and almost feudal arrangement, where individuals are going to be forced to remain in debt, effectively to provide the government with cash flow, for most of their working lives. I know of no other case of a government requiring its citizens to be in permanent debt. The argument that this is just like a mortgage is specious, as mortgages are not index-linked, there are a wide variety of different time periods available, individuals have a choice of which ones to take, and they are secured on hard assets which have traditionally risen in value over time. None of these conditions apply to student loans.

It should be noted that this does nothing for total debt levels; it merely shuffles them around, massaging down the government portion by increasing the private portion. It is financial jiggery-pokery similar to that of the Private Finance Initiative. And already there have been suggestions that this be taken one stage further, that the government might try to raise money by selling off the student loan book -- George Osborne mentioned this as a long-term aim in his last budget (Guardian 22 June 2010).

If such a thing happens, then we will at least be able to console ourselves with having witnessed a stupendous feat of financial wizardry. Having transferred liabilities from banks’ balance sheets onto the public accounts because of the financial crisis, student loans will progressively transfer public debt onto individuals. If the loan book is then sold to financial institutions, the banks will have successfully transmuted their liabilities into assets in a way which makes turning dross into gold seem almost commonplace.

For all that, the changes that are coming need not be bad for the arts and humanities, although the dangers are so clear and considerable that they need little elaboration from me. All crises present opportunities, but the ultimate outcome depends on who siezes those opportunities. The rise in student fees is a devious manoeuvre which is fundamentally unfair and profoundly inefficient. But it will inevitably switch more attention back to teaching and away from research, which will play to the humanities’ strengths. For the past 30 years, the desire to squeeze the arts into a scientific research-heavy model of funding has forced them to compete on a field where they cannot win. There is no way that they can raise the sorts of money in research grants that the sciences can collar, no way that they can justify themselves in terms of direct and measurable contribution to economic growth. Nonetheless they have been required to try, and have been all too easily depicted as a redundant indulgence as a result.

Training the minds of the young effectively and efficiently is another matter, and the area where the humanities excel. With luck, the whole system may begin to be rebalanced, and teaching may come back to enjoy equal status once more. In this, the students are natural allies, quite likely to join any protest against the idea of their fees being diverted to other things. They may be willing to stump up for their own education, they may not be quite so keen to fund a vice-chancellor’s pay rises. They may want to know where their money is going, and how it is spent. As most humanities departments operate on a shoestring, this natural curiosity in the young is a characteristic which should be encouraged.

Many years ago, the historian Alfred Cobban gave an interview in which he talked about getting his Professorship at UCL. He was taken aside by the head of the college and told that, while UCL would be quite happy if he wanted to do any research, he must realise it would be in his own time. He was being paid to teach, and nothing else, and would he please remember that. This did not prevent him from producing a large number of high quality books and articles, and indeed his entire generation produced vast amounts of research without having to be bullied or bribed into doing so. Very few people now can even imagine how such a system could work, so used have we become to managerial insistence that without incentives and penalties, league tables and assessments, nothing would ever get done. But it did, and I suspect it would work just as well now. When academics have something to say, they rarely have to be forced or cajoled to say it.

But they can only do so if they have time, and in the humanities time is often more precious than money. Many research grants in fact are used up literally to buy time. A proper response to the changes coming down the line would be to begin the process of stripping out the vast amounts of busy work that have accumulated over the past few decades. It would abolish the RAE for the humanities, dispose of the constant internal assessments, cancel huge numbers of committees, get rid of professional heads of departments and return them to the ranks where they could pull their weight as teachers – in short, dispose of everything which was not immediately and directly related to teaching, leaving more space for doing research at other times. Linked to an administration that was genuinely committed to stripping out other unnecessary expenses, then the humanities could live under the new regime and even prosper in a world that was simpler and less subject to random manipulation. It will never be easy to deliver a high quality education on a quarter of the income per head that a major American university gets, or a third of the amount that Eton charges, but it would then be do-able, just about. At least there would be the possibility of surviving until some future government comes along and launches yet another review to unravel the mess made by the last one, as will inevitably happen. But my concern is that unless a very real amount of genuine soul-searching is undertaken by everyone from government down – a reexamination far more substantial that the superficial tampering of the Browne report – then by that stage irreparable damage may have been done.

-- Iain Pears

Monday, 9 August 2010

On the Workings of Groups

The supporters of the management of King’s College have been advancing the line that setting up a working group on Palaeography – which recommended a new post in “palaeography and manuscript studies” demonstrates the purity of the college’s motives over the eviction of the current incumbent, Professor David Ganz.

Under this reasoning, the removal of Professor Ganz is compensated for by the fact that King’s is willing to give house-room to a replacement as long as someone else picks up the tab. King’s commitment to palaeography is on the condition that it cost the college not a penny.

Left unexamined are the questions of how much time the College will devote to the matter of fund-raising, considering it already has some £200 million in debt that needs to be dealt with; why anyone would want to give money to a college that has acted in such an unusual way; and why palaeography cannot be subsidised while managers, sports facilities and palaces next door can be.

The argument in favour of King’s – most cogently and reasonably advanced by Mr Steven Rhodes, a former member of the King’s council, in comments to the THES – is that the question of Professor Ganz, and the question of Palaeography, are two entirely different matters. That is, getting rid of Professor Ganz has nothing to do with the issue of replacing him.

From an outsider’s point of view, it is difficult to see how anyone can think that Professor and Professorship can be separated, but that seems to be the line of argument. So let us look at the working group -- composed mainly of senior academics of some considerable distinction -- which accomplished this separation. It was set up by management after the storm of protest caused by the College’s announcement that the subject was going to be axed.

One of the most striking things about the report it produced is that, in 11 pages devoted to the subject of palaeography at King’s, Professor Ganz is mentioned by name only once, and then only in passing. The state and nature of palaeography as it currently exists at the College is scarcely mentioned; indeed the committee writes almost as though there were a blank slate, and that the subject was being called into existence for the first time. There is much on what courses might be offered; all but nothing on what courses currently are offered. There is no sense that they would be building on the efforts of the Professor – who, after 13 years in the post, must have had some impact on the subject.

The report (published on June 30th) says that "members agreed to serve on the understanding that the Group's work could proceed only when issues surrounding the current post-holder had been negotiated and resolved" – which presumably means when the fate of Professor Ganz was decided one way or another. This makes perfect sense, as there would have been no point worrying about his successor if the current Professor was, after all, going to stay put.

However, it then goes on to state that it proceeded -- with the first meeting of the group -- on 31 March 2010, (page 2 of the report) which suggests that at this point, presumably, the members considered that the issue of Professor Ganz had indeed been “negotiated and resolved.”

Except that it hadn't. Professor Ganz only signed his voluntary severance agreement shortly before June 7, two months later, and his letter of April 17, posted on Facebook, clearly suggests that he, at least, thought there was a possibility of keeping his job – the letter refers to axeing palaeography being still a proposal, albeit management policy. Even had he known that was how it was going to end, up until the moment he signed he could have decided to put up a fight and dig in his heels.

He may, as I am told, have been presented with a severance contract on March 31 -- coincidentally, no doubt, the same day as the first meeting -- but he had not signed or agreed to sign it: his position had been neither negotiated nor resolved, except, perhaps in the collective mind of management, which seems to have developed a sort of idee fixe on the subject of getting rid of him. But an argument that an issue is resolved when one side of a discussion decides it has been is scarcely tenable, not least because it would cast doubt over the nature of the consultation process which lasted until May 18th.

Even more strangely, the statement put out on May 18th to mark the end of the consultation said:

“The working group made its initial report to the Head of School on 31 March 2010 (my emphasis) and confirmed the continuing need for the study of Palaeography at King’s. The working group indicated that it would be recommending a re-defined Chair of Palaeography, incorporating Manuscript Studies, with a wide remit…”

Which is to say that -- if you compare report and press release -- the committee not only began work before the fate of Professor Ganz had been resolved, it effectively finished it the day it started -- for that was the major recommendation and everything else was merely filling in the details. March 31, it appears, was a busy day all round. This suggests -- the press release presumably means what it says -- either that the recommendations weren’t very deeply thought through, or that the groundwork had already been done elsewhere and in advance.

The final report defines the new post in a way which fits Professor Ganz’s skills to a tee (p.4) – languages, with latin as a core; a remit covering documentary and archival material (an odd distinction: what do archives contain except documents?) and medieval vernacular; meeting demands from a range of constituencies and “engaging with the digital environment” – (a rare lapse into gobblydegook) all of which Professor Ganz has been doing with great distinction, if little ostentatious fanfare.

The report never even considers the possibility that the current Professor might be the ideal person to do the job, even though he was actually doing it while the working party's meetings were taking place. Equally, the statement that palaeography cannot pay its way and must be endowed omits any discussion of why, in that case, the college needs to found a new chair at all, and could not merely seek an endowment for the existing one.

The periodic excursions into managerialese suggests two hands at work: when talking about Palaeography, the report appears to have been written by academics, as it is for the most part clear and straightforward. Elsewhere it lapses into puffery, unable to resist a boosterish adjective or two: thus scholarly traditions are of the highest, administrative departments are energetic. (p.6) And Vision makes its usual cameo appearance.

While the report finds space to praise managerial energy, it does not, however, trouble to define what “manuscript studies” actually are, although the implication on page 5 is that it is palaeography for people with no language skills and who cannot, therefore, read the manuscripts they are studying. Another hint comes from the mention of ivy league summer school students, which suggests that the new requirement will be for someone who can entertain high-paying preppies, a group university administrators in the UK now regard as the ultimate cash-cows. (p.5) If this is th case, then it may well be that Professor's Ganz's real sin was to be too serious a scholar, and the fact that there was no palaeographer on the committee would not have helped.

A further hint of the purpose behind all of this comes from the frequent references to computing – another area where the managerial style becomes dominant (“London offers a robust infrastructure …connections to Super JaNET…” and so on p.7). This connects to the current main squeeze of management, which is the idea that by changing from using computers as a tool, to seeing information processing as an end in itself (the digital humanities) King’s can not only seem cool, but also lay claim to the sort of hefty grants that normally go only to scientific subjects.

So how does leave this working party? Its achievements should properly be assessed by the choices it made; by what it did not do, as well as by what it did. Its schedule implied the assumption that Professor Ganz would leave long before he agreed to do so. It could have said – hey, why not keep Ganz? it’ll be cheaper – but didn’t. Individual members could have refused to serve unless they could shape the remit, but didn’t.

They could have protested at the treatment of a colleague, but chose not to do so. They could have acknowledged the Professor's contribution to college and discipline, but did not. They could have tried to link the cost of palaeography to other areas of expense at King's, but didn’t.

They advanced the notion that there is some difference between manuscript studies and palaeography without explaining the distinction between the two. They defined a new job, but skated over the task of saying where it differed from the old one. They turned their back on the fate of an individual to concentrate on the preservation of a position.

They dutifully answered the questions set by management, but chose not to wonder whether different questions should be posed. The course of events illustrates the thesis I have advanced over the past couple of months, which is that control of universities in effect lies the ability of managements to set the agenda, and the unwillingness of academics themselves to challenge it. This is a perfect example of the process in operation.

Either way, the working party allowed itself to be put in the position of providing a distraction – by concentrating attention on the resurrection of palaeography in the future, it served to divert attention away from its untimely death in the present. Its report permitted the "palaeography saved" headlines which obscured the fact of Professor Ganz's eviction. It separated professor and professorship in a way that the management on its own could not have achieved.

And it allowed King’s to pass in lofty silence over the question of why it cannot find £25,000 a year to fund the shortfall in palaeography, but can find the £62,000 required to fund the Principal’s pay rises over the last couple of years.

It is, after all, a question of priorities within the university: and this is something which, it appears, is now much too important to be the concern of academics, however senior or distingushed.

-- Iain Pears

Note -- This account derives from reading the report of the working party side-by-side with the various press releases put out by management in the past few months. That is to say, if there are any errors of dates, then these lie in the documents themselves. If there are any mistakes, however, then I will gladly correct them, as usual.

Dissident academics requiring anonymity, by the way, generally go via Facebook. So, indeed, do recalcitrant managers.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

A few numbers

One of the curious aspects of the Palaeography Affair is that it all began because of the management of King's College's insistence that it had to make cuts, and that axeing Professor Ganz's job was the way to do it. Necessary, inevitable and vital.

Now, of course, they have changed direction and decided that Palaeography is indeed essential, and have produced a report on the matter. (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/content/1/c6/07/64/51/ThePalaeographyWorkingGrouppaper.pdf)

This report suggests (p.5) that employing Professor Ganz cost around £79,000 a year. However, this was partly paid for by interest from a sum set aside for Palaeography, which produced £29,015 in the year to July 2009. Of the remaining sum half was covered by research income from Hefce. The net cost to the college of the Professorship was thus about £25,000.

Axeing the post would presumably involve losing the Hefce grant, and there is a question mark over what might happen to the endowment fund, although I imagine the management will not be writing to the original donors to see if they want their money back.

Be that as it may, King's had a Professor of international reputation for a bargain basement price.

So they got rid of him, and now want another one so much they are prepared to pay more to to get pretty much the same. Page nine of the report says that getting a suitable person -- that is, one with the same level of reputation as the last one -- would cost £119,912 a year. This increases the shortfall to be made up from £25,000 to £65,000. That is a lot of money just to add a few bells and whistles to a job description.

In addition there will be £20,000 hiring costs. Added to this will be the unknown sums paid out to fund Professor Ganz's redundancy -- compensation payments, legal fees and so on. On top of that, there is a question of wasted time, and reputational damage to the college.

I would be surprised if the total cost of evicting Professor Ganz was less than £150,000, possibly more, based on his salary and length of service. If this guess is correct, it represents six years of the shortfall under the current arrangements. But Professor Ganz would have retired in six years' time anyway -- so the cost to the college, in excess of the endowment income and the hefce grants, would have been exactly the same. No savings there, in other words, unless the College intends to collar the endowment and transfer it to other things.

The solution proposed -- renaming a professorship from "palaeography" to "palaeography and manuscript studies" -- will however cost an additional £40,000 a year, plus the one-off costs of £170,000 already mentioned. The annual recurring cost (assuming a long-term average yield of 3.5 pct, which is reasonable) will require an endowment of £3.4 million; Professor Ganz required an endowment of £2.2 million, nearly a million of which was already in place.

(Assuming the Hefce grant continues, the figures would be 2.7 million and £1.5 million; that is to say a need to find £1.7 million under the new arrangements, and £0.6 million under the old arrangements if the current endowment transfers to the new post).

Did no-one in the accountancy department ever wonder whether keeping Professor Ganz, asking him to do a few different things, and launching a fund-raising campaign to raise the extra £0.6 million to complete the existing endowment in the years up to his retirement, might not be a cheaper solution, and one more likely to be successful than trying to raise £1.7 million quickly?

If the college indeed thinks that Palaeography is so vital, then such a procedure would have ensured continuity. It would also have lowered the long-term costs, as the risk premium it will have to pay to attract a suitable replacement would be lessened. I think it highly unlikely that any senior academic would risk his career by working at King's for the sums outlined in the report. Not ones with any sense of self-preservation.

Throughout this whole business I have done my best to understand both sides of this affair; on many occasions I have written critically of the management but with, I hope, some understanding of its predicament, even though it has tried very hard to make itself seem as unsympathetic as possible.

Most of the time I have been able to understand where they were coming from, even though I have often disagreed profoundly.

But this one foxes me completely. Given that the stated object was to save money, I can find no rational explanation why King's was prepared to spend so much to oust the Professor of Palaeography, when keeping him would not only have been a cheaper option, it would also have been much more effective in restoring the college's reputation -- for these latest shenanigans merely do more damage.

-- Iain Pears

Thursday, 8 July 2010

On Statements

The statement put out today by King’s college on the future of Palaeography at the college requires one more contribution on the subject.

The statement is remarkable in that the uninitiated would never know that King's actually has a Professorship of Palaeography already. With a true nod to historical example, the current post has been totally airbrushed out of the story. On the surface, it is as though Professor Ganz never existed.

Look more closely, though, and his ghost is everywhere. The college management states the need for the new and improved Professor of Palaeography to “work closely with teachers and researchers in mediaeval vernaculars.”

As no other reason is given for the replacement of the current incumbent, the clear insinuation is that he does not do this, once you rule out the possibility that the management of King's does not consider Professor Ganz's speciality of Carolingian scripts to be mediaeval. Why specialising in Latin rules out any possibility of working closely with a teacher of medieval French is not explained.

It goes on to state that the changes are required to provide “visionary intellectual leadership that takes full advantage of opportunities to develop teaching and research.” Again, the implication is that, at present, Professor Ganz does not provide such leadership.

Even by the standards of poor behaviour set in the past few months, such a statement is petty and churlish in tone, and amateurish in execution. It is also, as has been the habit of King's management actions lately, undisciplined and unnecessary: Professor Ganz has already signed his voluntary termination agreement. To allow insinuations of this sort to appear in a statement now carries a whiff of self-indulgent spite.

It might be pure carelessness, of course, but King's has a large and experienced PR department, and PR people are supposed to be good at making sure that public statements say exactly what is meant, and are not subject to misinterpretation. It would have been perfectly easy to write a gung-ho statement about the new arrangements without implying any criticism of others.

I assume that Professor Ganz, like the 100 or so others who have been pushed into voluntary redundancy, has signed a gagging deal, linking silence about the conduct of management to his redundancy payments. Personally, I find it appalling that a publicly-funded body should use tax-payers' money to stamp out dissent, but it seems now to be standard practice amongst managements who do not acknowledge that anyone has the right to criticise them in any way.

If this is of the standard variety, the wording will be something along the lines of both sides agreeing not to authorise the making or publishing of any derogatory or disparaging statement intended to or which might be expected to damage or lower the reputation of the other. This, at least, is the standard boilerplate wording offered on legal websites.

It would be interesting to get a legal opinion on whether this statement breaches that agreement, and what the consequences of any breach by King’s might be. Would King's, for example, be liable for loss of earnings if it was judged that the statement "might be expected" to cause damage by making it more difficult to get another job?

Professor Ganz, in contrast, has lived up to his side of the bargain; there has not been a peep out of him, either to me or (as far as I know) to anyone else. Many other people at King’s have a great deal to say on the subject of their managers, but have not done so.

It is a pity that some in the senior management of King’s lack this self-discipline and sense of decorum.

But if the management of King’s is voluntarily rendering this part of the redundancy agreements null and void, and effectively confirms this by not withdrawing the statement, then presumably everyone else will also be free to speak as they wish.

Finally, the statement says that it will look for philanthropic funding for the chair, although presumably it has occurred to someone that finding a donor ready to hand over the large amount for an endowment is a hefty task in current circumstances, not least because of recent history.

Equally problematic is the task of attracting suitable applicants when all will know full well about what happened to their predecessor. Few with a tenured job will be tempted, and most of the best practitioners do have that sort of security. Nor will it be that appealing to anyone who currently enjoys pleasant working conditions, or is free to follow the research of their choice without interference. Clearly someone specialising in mediaeval latin will be leery of the idea as well, and that is most of them.

Which raises an intriguing possibility: what if King's finds the money, advertises the job, and the only senior academic with an international reputation who applies is Professor D. Ganz?

-- Iain Pears

the statement can be found at


Friday, 25 June 2010

Symbols and Scholars

My last post seems to have caused annoyance in some quarters, with people thinking I was unfair to those who had worked to oppose the cuts being imposed by the management of King’s College London. If so, then my profound apologies; I do not wish to undermine those who have gone into battle, nor do I want to minimise their achievements.

My concern, however, was a deep worry that an essential point was being missed – or at least it has not been aired in any forum I know of. That is that the effective expulsion of the Professor of Palaeography was not merely one sad defeat in an otherwise on-going campaign, but the symbolic heart of the matter. It was, after all, the issue which came to represent the crisis to the outside world.

It is, of course, good that threats of compulsary redundancies have been lifted. But it would be unwise to conclude that their removal is consequently permanent. You do not need to be an economist or an avid reader of the Financial Times to realise that the cuts imposed so far have only been an aperitif. Force Majeure is a powerfully useful concept in business; changed circumstances can be invoked to justify all sorts of things, and circumstances are on the brink of changing radically.

The entire public sector is going to be cut; universities will be cut harder and the humanities will be hit harder still. This much is clear. The numbers are uncertain, but the outlines can be estimated. If Higher Education as a whole is cut by 25 per cent (which seems to be a minimum figure) this will mean a real cut to universities of about 12 per cent, as much of their income currently comes from non-governmental sources.

But the sciences get the lion’s share of external grants and, in addition, the government is busily skewing the funding structure to put more public money into the STEM subjects, and less into the humanities.

This could very easily translate into an overall cut for the humanities of more than 30 per cent over the next five years, with the only help on the horizon (assuming government disdain for the humanities is not reversed) being higher tuition fees – which coalition politics means may be less useful than they might have been. Having given away VAT increases, it is quite possible that the Liberal Democrats will decide to take a stand on the issue, even though doing so would devastate university finances. Conservative cuts plus Liberal distaste for fees would be a potent combination.

It is unnecessary for me to spell out quite how nasty such an outcome would be. But such circumstances would give any management the justification needed to reintroduce forced redundancies – and to postpone indefinitely (or simply forget) any plans to, say, appoint a new chair of palaeography. Indeed, they may have no choice.

Nor is there much chance of building an effective coalition to oppose the cuts; the outcome of the last election was irrelevant, as all parties in effect have the same policies.

The cuts were formulated under the Labour government, the Conservatives have intensified them and the Liberals have gone along with it. There is a general consensus at the moment that they will happen and must happen. That will take several years to shift. And a public faced with falling benefits, increasing taxes and declining services is not going to be easily roused about universities.

You cannot easily reverse direction once you have started sliding down a mountain. All you can do is try to control the descent, and try to ensure you are in one piece when you come to the bottom. And this is where the fate of palaeography becomes important, because I fear it has tightened the hold of management on the implementation of future cuts.

At one level, it is a question of symbolism, which is as critical in management as it is in literature or art, even though its power is generally ignored. Public relations delivers the message; underlying symbolism shapes what that message is and how it is received. Many of the travails of the Chief Executive of BP come because he failed to grasp the symbolic aspect of the oil spill, his company and of his responses to the disaster. Bankers’ bonuses and the pay of Vice Chancellors have a significance far beyond the actual financial cost: it is a major reason why they get people so agitated.

The departure of David Ganz only makes sense when linked to the fact that none of the people responsible for the cock ups of the past few months has left their job. The management of King’s employed methods that were inappropriate and counter-productive. It made their institution into an international short-hand for a crisis of the British University. It alienated its own faculty members when unity was essential, and brought savage criticism from across the scholarly community. In many areas it then rolled back to a policy it could easily have adopted to begin with. None of this was necessary.

Had King’s truly wanted to repair the damage, then one of those responsible could have been invited to go. It would have saved more money than getting rid of palaeography and drawn a line under the matter. If that was unfair, then it would have been no more so than getting rid of faculty members. Managements are, after all, supposed to be quite enthusiastic about rewarding success and failure appropriately.

Instead, the situation evolved in a way which in essence protected those who had made the mistakes, by focussing attention on those who had made none. A committee was set up to “explore the future of Palaeography at King’s.” Broader issues were excluded from discussion and, although King’s management leaks like a sieve, I have heard no whisper that such an enquiry is under way elsewhere.

Cutting administrative costs, getting rid of inadequate managers and transferring the resources to scholarship seem not to have been on the table; the technique concentrated attention on palaeography alone as the urgent issue which needed to be resolved. The resolution was to redefine the incumbent out of the job, promise a new position at some unspecified date in the future and present this as the subject being saved.

Thus constituted, this solution tackled a very real need to repair the college’s reputation, but tried to do so by focussing on the symptom of the crisis, not the cause. It was not allowed to deal with the central reason why such repair work was necessary. It had a remit which excluded the one thing that urgently needed examining, the way in which the College management came to make such a series of mistakes. Palaeography was not, in fact, such an urgent question: whether or not it should go or stay or be redefined could have been postponed for some considerable time; the costs were fairly marginal. The urgency about settling the matter was essentially political, not academic or financial.

The methods used, of course, are common practice, one of the most fundamental of administrative techniques. In the long term, real power in any institution lies in controlling the agenda, in deciding what is discussed and how it is discussed – and in determining what is not discussed.

The matter of palaeography and its eventual resolution reified the administration’s grip on that agenda. It became an object lesson in who is still truly in control, and those who opposed the management never found a way of either challenging or changing the terms of the debate.

Which brings back the subject of future cuts. Bitter experience in the private sector long ago taught me that assurances count for little in a crisis, however genuinely they may have been given, and how solid they seem. Managements will, and must, operate within the realm of the possible, and a return to draconian methods will remain an option as long as they are not absolutely impossible.

The only way to ensure that any future job losses come in an orderly, agreed and constructive fashion will come if the management has no other choice but to proceed in such a way. That will only happen if the academics insert themselves into a truly meaningful and determining role in the design and implementation or any changes. The fate of palaeography suggests it is a battle that has yet to be won.

-- Iain Pears

Monday, 14 June 2010

Strange Defeat

So, it is over, more or less. King’s College has issued a few statements, backtracked on a few trivialities, and everyone is happy, judging by the posts. The union seems pleased, and all is at peace.

Except, of course that it isn’t. The management of King’s has got its way in all essentials. It has won the right to reshape departments at its pleasure. It has adopted the shoddy tactic of forcing people out of their jobs at will and got away with it. The only difference now is that it operates through a committee with helpful academics who are prepared to “redefine” a post in order to force incumbents out. So much for academic solidarity.

So the stage is now set for the next round, for the real cuts, the ones that really hurt. The next time a head of department wishes to transfer resources from mainstream subjects into modish and unproven initiatives like the “digital humanities,” there will be a precedent and a model.

The next time a colleague of distinction doesn't quite fit in, the way will be open for his job to be redefined -- History of France changed, perhaps, to History of the French. That is all that is required, and then the job can be readvertised in a way which forces the offending clerk into voluntary redundancy.

Or perhaps, rather like Sussex, the management will decide that all of European history is of no importance and axe it. Or like Middlesex get rid of philosophy in its entirety. They can do so, now, whenever they want. And there won’t be an international outcry next time. Such a chance comes only once.

It is a pity. The Academics of King’s had a opportunity to defend more than themselves, more than their own jobs. Not enough wanted to. Some saw advantage for themselves. Some did not care. Some senior academics whose opinion counted preferred to make life easy for the management. Others felt that there was no point in carrying on, and gave up.

I fear they will regret it, senior and junior, not least because the management now has the measure of them, and knows how to get its way.

But all is well. No-one responsible for making King’s a laughing stock has been fired; indeed they will probably be rewarded for taking tough decisions.

The last Professor of Palaeography in Britain will lose his job.

Professor Trainor gets a knighthood for services to higher education.

No further comment is necessary.

-- Iain Pears

Thursday, 6 May 2010

A Kingly word or two

A short time ago I was most kindly invited to deliver a brief talk at King's London about the current circumstances there. As portions of it have popped up in the press, and inevitably give a slightly lop-sided account, I thought I might as well post the entire caboodle.


It is normal when you begin a talk to say how pleased you are to be here. But in this case I am not at all pleased; I find the whole business of what has been going on at King’s in the past couple of months dispiriting. Only the reaction of those under threat is cheering; the fact that they have had to defend themselves is very much less so.

I am sure you are aware that the initial document which began all this – the Palmowski plan – sent shockwaves through the entire university system extraordinarily quickly. I live in Oxford, and people heard about it the evening of the initial meeting; in a business as densely networked as academia that was inevitable. The reaction was not; it was unanimous – people were appalled by the way this was being done and that it was happening at a place like King’s, which is one of that handful of institutions which set the tone and the standards which others follow. The way the letters and signatures have flooded in from all over the world suggests that this was a common response.

I became involved not simply because I shared that alarm, which other people could express better than I could, but because I was struck by the extraordinarily clumsy methods which caused the protest to erupt. My little side interest for many years has been how managements work, and this seemed a fine example of one that was malfunctioning. Indeed, it seems clear that, when this is all over, some of those involved should really consider how well suited they are to a managerial role.

I am a great admirer of managers, oddly enough. I spent years reporting on them, watched good ones succeed, and poor ones fail. I saw inspirational ones rescue basket cases, and bad ones bring large companies to ruin. Out of that I noticed one fundamental principle, which is that good management, if it wants to achieve its goals, must tailor style and method to the institution it is running, to the circumstances in which it operates. To try and mould either a company or a university in your own image, make it conform to abstract rules and generalised methods, wastes energy, and sets off disputes which are both unnecessary and distracting. It is inefficient, and leads to blunders.

The perfect example of this in the universities, of course, is Oxford a few years ago, where the now-departed vice-chancellor tried to impose a managerial structure completely at odds with the character and nature of the place. John Hood’s total failure in his one and only real policy is easily understood: he had no feel for the university, surrounded himself with a close coterie who also knew little about it, and in many cases had never even taught or done any research. The atmosphere of them and us was quickly established; from that point it was an easy step to seeing the body of the university as an enemy which had to be overcome, and an even easier step for many people then actually to become an enemy. The result was public brawl, a large amount of negative and damaging publicity, and a poisonous atmosphere which took a long time to clear.

At King’s now much of this dispute also seems to be because administration and institution have become detached, and the basic rule of management has been breached. More and more seem to have been drafted in from outside, or from outside academia as a whole; their pay mechanisms only increase that distance. Administration has become unnecessarily bloated because there are no external controls on its expansion. Worse still, there no longer seem to be any working structures within the college to channel dissatisfaction and facilitate a free argument about policy.

If you have an organisation which announces a plan drawn up in secret by people who often know little of the disciplines they are judging, which makes everyone reapply for their own jobs and so creates an atmosphere of threat, which has an emasculated Senate, an appeals procedure which cannot discuss matters of substance, departmental heads who function as line managers rather than intermediaries and if, as now seems to be the case, gagging orders are used to silence criticism, then an agreed policy which both works and is acceptable to all parties cannot possibly take shape.

Inevitably people are, in those circumstances, going to seek help from outside: it is the only option which remains if they do not wish simply to roll over in submission. An organisation which causes such a thing to happen is structurally unstable; in the quest for faster decision taking and fewer limits on management authority, it has sacrificed resilience, and its ability withstand stress effectively. Because of the pressures that are undoubtedly coming, this is a very serious weakness that needs to be corrected as a matter of urgency.

To put it simply, you cannot use the style and methods employed in something like an oil company on a small, fairly coherent group of people who must count amongst the most educated and articulate in the world, and who have a strongly developed corporate identity of their own. You certainly should not risk doing so in a sector like higher education, where reputation is of such importance and is so easily damaged. Nor should you do so in an organisation whose standing relies so heavily on the talents of its inmates: banks have to pay vast sums in bonuses to buy the loyalties of the best and the brightest; universities get that loyalty for free, and are foolish in the extreme to threaten it, because once it is gone it can only be bought back, and they could not possibly afford to do so.

This is not a moral issue, but simply a question of what will, or will not work, and how best to ensure the long-term health of the institution. In places like King’s – however annoying it must be to those in charge – the long slog of persuasion to win genuine consent is the only technique which can deliver stability. Rail-roading policies through is fast, sounds good, but is ultimately, and is always, counter-productive.

As far as I can see, the management of King’s can fire the whole lot of you if it wishes. But the methods being employed will inflict permanent damage if there is no change, and I retain my belief that all sides fervently wish to avoid such a thing. The desire to look after the College is a common factor, even if the definition of what that means, and how it is to be achieved, currently differs radically. If I am wrong in this, of course, then there is nothing to be done about it.

This brings me to my main point: sooner or later this dispute will come to an end, probably in some sort of messy compromise. My concern as an outsider who has a profound debt to the university system, and who has seen all of this before in the private sector, is that King’s will emerge weakened in terms of reputation, internal coherence and its ability to attract the best academics and students. This is important because, while I have no great opinion of the methods of your managers, I have no doubt that their fundamental analysis is correct. These are just the first stages of a long and unpleasant period which, if you are lucky, will last a decade but could easily go on very much longer.

The current funding cuts will be followed by more, and more on top of that. The bond markets and the government between them have decided it will be so. Public spending is going to fall, and in comparison to schools and hospitals, universities are a politically easy target, and are likely to be hit disproportionately hard. They have been expanding with only a few hiccups for more than half a century; most have forgotten, if they ever knew, that any other conditions can exist, and still seem to be assuming that happier days will soon return. I don’t think they will. The next few years at least will be ones of contraction, and may not be followed by renewed expansion for many years to come.

It may very well be that there will have to be job cuts, and a lot of them. That remains to be seen, but if enough money is withdrawn, sooner or later you will run out of room to manoeuvre. Cuts, as you already know all too well, easily become corrosive, eating away at an institution from within through fear, bitterness and in-fighting. This is why the question of how they are implemented is so important, why it is so crucial that the excess baggage of unnecessary expenditure is jettisoned first, why it has to be accepted that compulsary job losses are a last, not a first resort, and why those in charge are under an obligation to convince people through word and deed that they will do their damnedest to defend the essential freedom of expression in teaching and research that any decent university must have. None of this would cost a penny: that is why it is so disturbing that it has not been done, and that it does not seem to have occurred to your management that it might be necessary.

Now is really not a good time for a fight. Universities cannot afford to be divided and have no need to be, given a bit of sense. Certainly all interested parties have much common ground. Academics in the humanities have endured years of having their efforts belittled and ridiculed by people from government ministers down who think only in terms of economic growth. Many in the sciences are on short-term contracts which are little short of a disgrace. Students are being required to pay more and accept less, and sometimes seem to be regarded by government as an annoying distraction from research. And administrators have been overwhelmed by a tsunami of government interference which has burdened them with futile tasks and petty-fogging requirements for reasons which have nothing to do with education.

It is time to argue back, and with one voice, because all of these issues are aspects of the same problem. Above all, it is time to start changing the terms of the debate. Universities are not businesses, they are better if they are not, and it is time to say so more forcefully. The hierarchical management style advocated in things like the 2004 Lambert report is unstable and inefficient in comparison to more consensual methods. Universities serve society as a whole in many different ways and must not be defined solely or even primarily by their economic function. They cannot be burdened with the responsibility of stimulating the economic growth which businesses and governments themselves have failed to deliver. Ever dafter regulations from hefce achieve nothing and get in the way. Overbearing interference and contradictory requirements suck money and time away from teaching and research and are an unaffordable luxury in the straitened circumstances which are now upon us.

The next few years will be of fundamental importance, one way or the other: universities will either begin to free themselves from the straitjacket which constricts them or they will be subsumed as a virtual nationalised industry. The assault on academic freedom, the whittling away of universities’ autonomy has been going on for a long time now, underpinned by a sloppy version of free-market ideology which insisted on the need to see everything in financial terms. The basis of all that exploded spectacularly a couple of years ago, and there is now an opportunity to begin a different argument using different language. But only if people make that argument coherently and loudly, otherwise the process will continue.

You will not be able to do that if the stresses you face mean that your energies are dissipated fighting internal battles. From my perspective, that of an outsider looking in, the solution is not only obvious, it is easy and vital. Whether you are an academic, a student, or an administrator, you hang together, or you hang separately. And hanging together depends absolutely on an honest search for agreement amongst equals, not for a victory in an unnecessary trial of strength.

-- Iain Pears

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

On sulks and silence

While there has been a great deal of comment about the extent and nature of forthcoming cuts in universities in the UK, the one perspective that is noticeably missing is that of the management doing the cutting. Whether it is at King’s London, Sussex, Hull, and now Middlesex, protestors protest, and managers respond – by not responding. Perfectly reasonable alarm goes unanswered, and managers seem to go out of their way to be aloof, Olympian, severe.

Not all are like this. The head of Dublin City University, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, keeps up an on-line blog which puts his point of view in a way which is witty, informed and civilised. His comments, many of which touch on the subject of university governance, the relationship between public and private, funding and research, are at http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/.

A similar openness and engagement from his British peers would help a great deal: the more they sit closested in their offices pretending not to notice, and the more they communicate only through bland public statements, then the more they create the impression that they truly are cold and uncaring of the institutions they run. I do not believe that is the case; I have no doubt that, from their point of view, they are engaging, as best they can, with difficult circumstances and are properly cheesed that their efforts are going unappreciated.

But it would be nice to know what that perspective is. There must be someone in the massed ranks of administrators who does not regard the world outside with horror, and thinks that explaining clearly not only policies, but the underlying reasons for policies, might be more than a show of weakness.

The problem is a difference of style. Academics discuss: it is the fundamental quality of their occupation. Nothing is of worth unless it is capable of withstanding counter-arguments; this applies in science as much as in the humanities. Any action or policy which is not justified by words is at best suspect, at worst fraudulent.

The world of managers is different; there justification is by deed. Effective and efficient action is all important; managers are (quite rightly) suspicious of smooth talkers as this is often a cover for inept performance. Compromise is also suspect as always producing second best policies which are neither one thing nor another.

The divide is best seen in the businessmen who are adopted by politicians, another class of humanity which trades in words. Generally speaking these are the ones who are good at talking, and at selling themselves. Time and again – going back to the 1970s – the businessmen who have been taken on as government advisors have been the ones able to talk a line; they have generally proven to be disappointingly mediocre at actually running things.

There is no better sell sign for a share than when the Chairman gets a peerage: that's when you know the company has fallen into the hands of a vainglorious egotist.(Another is when they build themselves a new corporate headquarters designed by a famous architect).

In business the most effective managers – and the ones who are often most admired – are the ones who keep quiet and get on with it, who demonstrate by what they do, not by what they say they are going to do.

This, of course creates problems when the two worldviews collide, as they do in universities. When one side values accountability over efficiency, and the other sees things the other way around, there will always be a clash, sooner or later, unless some accomodation is reached to promote mutual understanding.

The attempts by managers to show competence in their particular fashion generates suspicion; the desire of academics to be kept informed and be consulted, generates contempt. The academics think of managers as arrogant hit-men, managers think of the academics as vacuous wind-bags. The two sides understand each other less and less, just at the moment when a rigid and unbreakable unity of purpose is required.

A pity, really.

-- Iain Pears

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Lessons of History

In 2006, the university of Oxford defeated proposals by its vice-chancellor, John Hood, to centralise control and weaken the university’s democratic structure. As it is the one substantial example in recent times of academics turning back the tide of managerialism, (if perhaps only temporarily) it is worth looking at how it was done, to see if there are any lessons to be learned for other institutions now.

The reforms Hood proposed were a classic managerial putsch. An outsider who knew little of the institution he was brought in to head, he scarcely took the time to find out much about it before putting forward his proposals. Oxford’s – admittedly peculiar – structure did not conform to managerial best practice, so would have to change: the precise nature of that existing structure was largely irrelevant.

The crucial proposal was to separate financial and academic functions, and put the financial side of things into the hands of a committee dominated by outsiders, mainly businessmen and likely to be the allies of the administration. Academics would be left with the rest, the assumption being that they wouldn’t realise in time that the body which controls the money controls the organisation. In addition, an internal assessment programme would be set up, giving the administration the tools to reward those in favour, and punish those who were troublesome.

Another orthodox step was to bring in reliable outsiders to fill key posts in the administration. Back through history, it has been a standard procedure for monarchs to bolster their position by creating a breed of “new men” whose power and fortunes were largely dependent on them. Henry VIII did it effectively by parcelling out monastic land to his supporters, while retaining the power to take it away again if their support wavered. University vice-chancellors hand out lucrative offices in the same way; there may be appointments committees and the like, but these rarely deny a powerful head what he wants.

In some ways it is standard bureaucratic power politics; in other ways the rise of the managers has been more like Trotskyite entryism – disguised ambitions, patient accumulation of power and chipping away at the edifice of accountability until only a shell remains. It would be interesting to do a prosopography of university administrators and see how many dabbled in student politics in their youth. Certainly I suspect that few on the left ever suspected that the tools they invented would be used in such an effective fashion for such purposes.

The Oxford proposals for reform were accompanied by the full blast of propaganda; change was presented as inevitable – not if or when, but what. The university was castigated as antiquated, self-indulgent, a joke. It was time for it to receive the full benefits of efficient management, otherwise its status would be threatened, and it would be harder to raise money. In the background there was a rumble of threat from government and the likes of hefce of dire punishment if the reforms were not implemented. Oxford at the time was under heavy fire from the Labour government, and its ability to resist seemed low.

The strategy was to split scientists and those in the humanities apart, and sweep the changes through by mobilising the massed ranks of researchers. There were tales (I never found out if they were true) of professors in medicine dragooning their contract workers onto minibuses and threatening them with dismissal if they did not vote in the right way.

Hood’s trouble was that the changes had to be approved by the university parliament, congregation, which had to vote itself out of existence as an effective body. It refused; the internal assessment was voted down first of all and later, after a debate that went on for hours, the proposals were comprehensively defeated. The administration then tried again, going for a postal vote which it hoped would bring out the discontented scientists more effectively; this was again defeated.

The attempted coup was over, and Hood acknowledged defeat: no more reforms were proposed, several of the leading campaigners against the changes were elected to the governing council, an important ally, Victor Blank, chairman of Lloyds-TSB (which later gave concrete evidence of the effectiveness of modern management) was effectively forced out, and Hood himself left in 2009.

Curiously, despite blistering attacks in newspapers, letters from businessmen denouncing Oxford and all its ways and predictions of dire reprisals from hefce, there were no negative consequences of any importance.

So, how was it done? The academics had the advantage, of course, that the congregation was still in existence and capable of stopping the proposals: had it voted the reforms through, then managerial power would instantly have become near absolute. But congregation voted the way it did because of hard work by the opponents; at Oxford, as elsewhere, the natural tendency is not to be bothered, and assume everyone is really terribly well-meaning. Administration is a tedious business, and there is always an inclination to hand it over to those who, for some unfathomable reason, want to do it. Even getting people interested, let alone getting them to focus on a coherent campaign, was not easily done.

Moreover, the proposals were presented in a deliberately bland way so that their implications were not easily discernable: technical changes, a new committee here, devolved power there, a large amount of incomprehensible reorganisation of reporting structures all over the place, all of which seemed harmless in isolation, and which, indeed, were presented as enhancing accountability, not eliminating it.

The big mistake was to underestimate the opposition: until very late on it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the administration that it would face any serious challenge at all. It missed two vital factors. Firstly, it did not succeed in splitting the disciplines apart; the strategy of divide and rule failed and the opponents were a genuinely interdisciplinary force of lawyers, historians, physicists, chemists and geologists, amongst others. Many of the most impassioned speeches at the final debate were delivered by scientists, not by people from the humanities. For some reason a physicist or a chemist pleading for accountability carries more weight than when a philosopher does. Don’t know why.

Secondly, it failed to grasp that the peculiarities of the Oxford system generate a large number of people who are expert in the ways of bureaucracy: nearly all of them are on the governing bodies of their colleges, and so are well-versed in the business of motions and amendments and committees and reports and minutes. Rather than being given a headache by the barrage of technicalities, it was a language in which they were entirely fluent. Moreover, they knew their institution in ways that the administration – increasingly staffed by outsiders – did not. The result was a procedural guerrilla warfare in which the administration was outclassed and outmanoeuvred by a motley band fighting on its home turf.

Clearly this little bit of history does not apply to many universities in Britain today – for the most part it is no longer a question of stopping the inroads of managerialism, but of finding some way of reversing it. And, although the academics at Oxford won that battle, the war is far from over even there: it is in the nature of administrations never to give up. Rather like governments and terminators, they do not stop, ever. If defeated, they wait, then come back for another try, and then again. As with a European treaty, you get to vote until you get it right.

Nonetheless, there are some pointers at least for giving managements a rather harder time than they have had up to now. As they are paid quite a lot of money, there is no reason why every effort should not be made to make them earn it.

Firstly, connections and communication across the disciplines are vital: it is standard managerial procedure to pick their targets one by one, and to proceed in secret so that one part of the institution does not know what is happening elsewhere. The best way of countering this is simply to make it impossible by finding and then focussing on concerns which apply equally to all disciplines. Some sort of interdisciplinary network to monitor the overall picture is crucial, as is a means of internally publicising what is going on – a newsletter which is unaffiliated, trusted and can command a wide readership – especially in what remains of the senate or other representative bodies.

Secondly, there is a need for expertise: people who know the institution’s statutes, charters and regulations off by heart, who can pick up procedural errors and opportunities for challenge. Lawyers and accountants come into their own here. In many cases senates have been largely stripped of their powers; but some retain influence and could be used more effectively; the same goes for the way that committees are run and lesser administrators – like department heads -- are chosen. Academics have a reputation for being picky and pedantic: properly used these characteristics can become potent weapons.

Thirdly, there needs to be a willingness to put in the hours. Scrutinising management is laborious, time-consuming and frustrating. It means sitting through long committee meetings and actually reading the minutes. It means firing off barrages of memos querying this, objecting to that, and proposing alternatives. It is a total pain. But, if it is not done then there is no accountability, and no possibility of catching measures before they are implemented. A never-ending persistence can also be a powerful tool.

Fourthly, simply reacting is insufficient: rather than waiting for the management to do something and then objecting, it is important to act as early as possible and respond with counter-proposals. This, of course is a weakness of relying primarily on unions, which naturally operate in a largely defensive mode, and have few skills or opportunities for more interventionist methods.

Fifthly, public campaigns are of limited use: the Oxford campaigners largely lost the public relations battle. Unless something changes radically in the near future, the public discourse will always be about spoiled academics, long holidays, not in the real world, need a dose of strong medicine – Peter Mandelson’s aspic comment sums it up perfectly. Arguments about academic freedom will fall on deaf ears. Few people really care. In contrast, management will be the people taking tough, necessary decisions, ensuring value for taxpayers’ money. Public support will be limited to the Times Higher Education Supplement (which scarcely reaches a broad audience) and the Guardian, although this latter has a spotty record.

For the most part, academics should regard the outside world as largely hostile territory and proceed on the assumption that they may manage to blunt managerial arguments in the public sphere, but are unlikely to defeat them. The real work will have to be done in-house, battling through committee by committee. Strikes and all the rest can only go on for a short while: bureaucracies can, and do, hunker down and just wait for them to peter out. Such tactics are for a short sharp campaign for specific goals; they can tackle symptoms, but not the underlying causes. The only way of shifting entrenched management power is through attrition.

That said, there may be now a possibility of changing the discourse, or at least modifying it: discontent at the salaries of managers in the public sector is likely to accelerate in the next few years, and the managerial model – the idea of transferable skills which can run any institution regardless of its nature, purpose or character -- has taken a beating in the financial crisis and recession.

But that will be hard to translate into change as long as there are no inroads into the institution itself. Unless academics can re-insert themselves into the administrative structure and make looking after their institution (as distinct from the low-level administrative function they routinely perform) a part of their job alongside teaching and research, they will never have the influence they need to keep management under control.

-- Iain Pears

Friday, 30 April 2010

On to Middlesex

The wave of cuts which began in places like Sussex, King’s London and Hull has now hit Middlesex, which has announced it is going to close its philosophy department despite the fact that it is one of the highest rated departments in the university.

The pattern in all cases has been pretty much the same – an announcement of a decision taken in secret and presented with no alternatives; taking aim at the humanities (philosophy in particular seems to be a favourite target) and a refusal to explain the basis of the decision except for vague comments about financial sustainability which cannot be tested against any available evidence.

The result is a great deal of confusion, to put it mildly, about what is happening, not least because the assaults seem on the surface to be so arbitrary, random and irrational.

But I do not think these similarities are an accident; in fact the actions of managements show all the signs of at the very least following an understood pattern – it would be too paranoid (and too optimistic about the coherence of government) to conclude that there is an actual plan. But it is worth looking at what it all means.

The public starting gun, of course, was the letter the minister for business, Peter Mandelson, wrote to introduce his first round of cost cuts just before Christmas 2009. These cuts, it must be remembered, were fairly mild, so much so that the severity of the reaction inside the universities themselves seems out of proportion. Managements have reacted with quite remarkable speed, with several producing their response – job cuts centred on the humanities -- within a few weeks of the announcement.

The response was far too quick, in fact; at the very least they must have been working on them for months in advance and all the signs are that they are also planning for the next cuts, and those after that. It would seem reasonable to conclude that messages have been flowing to and fro for some time, and that management knows much more about the direction of future funding than it is telling. King’s put out a forecast of what might happen, which it presented as a sort of guess. It may well be that it was a little more than that.

If the cutbacks being announced are not simply individual responses by university managements but are, in fact, aspects of an almost coherent policy, that what might that policy be? In the last few years reading the entrails of gnomic government utterance has become something of a necessity, as more and more policies – especially ones that are likely to prove unpopular -- have been introduced piecemeal, so that what exactly they are cannot easily be discerned until they are fully in place.

But there are, at least, enough hints to go around, and to understand the possible direction of government thinking, it is important to remember a little history.

In the beginning was the binary divide. Until 1992 higher education was split in two, the universities and the polytechnics, which worked a little like grammar schools and secondary moderns in the secondary sector. The task of comprehensivisation, so to speak, fell to the Conservatives, not out of a desire to improve education (a minor question for generations of politicians), but more to teach the universities a lesson.

By levelling the playing field -- funding was previously tilted to universities' advantage -- they aimed to drive costs down as the polys produced degrees much more cheaply than the universities did. The scheme was given an extra twist in the 1990’s when universities were used as a dumping ground to soak up excess youth unemployment, the basis of the Major government’s drive to increase student numbers.

This worked well: the universities were cowed, found no way of fighting back effectively, and ended up compromising their integrity in the search for grants and foreign students to fill the coffers. Although they had more money, the sources of that money were much more unstable, and that made the universities more malleable.

What the government did not foresee was the effect this would have on the polys. At the time a much larger portion of income came from student fees paid by government, and it was a lot cheaper to produce arts graduates (who need little more than a few books and a room or two) than ones in science, who need all manner of expensive toys and knick-knacks. The polys expanded into the humanities to tap that source of revenue, and also for reasons of prestige: real universities had philosophers and stuff, so they wanted some too.

The problem was that the same reform which abolished the binary divide also began to shift the whole basis for funding to concentrate more on research, an area in which the humanities find it very difficult to compete. The amount of money a philosopher can bring in through grants is very small, in comparison to the vast sums that a chemist or engineer can attract.

As universities developed the habit of creaming off ever larger sums from departments for their own purposes, they began to think of the humanities as a waste of time. The ever more complex accounting methods used slowly began to flash up the conclusion that the humanities, instead of being cheap and cheerful ways of attracting revenue, were becoming liabilities because they could not attract enough.

Which brings us to the present, and all the signs seem to point to the idea that the government intends by stealth to re-establish a form of binary divide. The humanities will shrink across the board, but will be particularly hard hit in the group that lies outside the Russell Group and perhaps a dozen or so others.

Outside this sector, the arts might be even wiped out altogether, with a large portion – possibly a majority -- of the “new” universities returning to their old function as institutes of vocational training – still universities, but only in name. They, in particular, will be the ones which will find it hard to resist government pressure to institute two year degrees – fast-track courses which will make it impossible for those who teach them to do any research at all.

This outline coincides nicely with government statements on emphasising “stem” subjects, the concentration of research money in the Russell group, which gives these universities much more flexibility, the way that managements have been behaving, and with the forthcoming review of student fees. A place like King’s is drastically pruning the humanities, but is clearly aiming to keep them going. Others might not have the option.

The problem that will come from this is how to manage demand. If a large number of places the humanities disappear, how will government steer future students into the largely vocational subjects they wish them to study? The probable answer here is fees. If humanities subjects are overwhelmingly confined to about 30 or 40 institutions, then these are likely to be the ones – because of the higher ranking which greater access to research money will give -- that will be in a position to charge much higher fees if – or rather when – the current cap comes off.

I would not be at all surprised if, in 10 years time, a degree at a Russell Group university costs £15,000 a year, a level which the new universities would not be able to match. The binary divide will have been recreated not by differential government grants, but by differential student fees. And, of course, if most arts degrees are concentrated in this group, then the number of people from poorer backgrounds able to study for one will shrink dramatically.

Do even university managements want this? Probably not; but they are reacting to circumstance at the moment and too busy fighting their own academics to think about lobbying together for a change in policy. Would they be able to do anything about it even if they tried? Probably not again. They are, after all, up against people who can manipulate the funding structure to get the outcome they want: arts degrees can be profitable or loss-making depending on the funding milieu that government sets.

Even going private – and only Oxford and Cambridge could realistically contemplate such a thing – would not help much. Nor is there much chance of bursaries or hardship grants being anything more than cosmetic. 50,000 students each year receiving bursaries of only £5,000 for their three years study would require an endowment of £25 billion – more than the combined endowment of all the universities put together at present. There is absolutely no chance of raising such sums.

Universities will have little choice but to do as they are told, shrink their arts faculties and concentrate on producing the human fodder the government fashion currently thinks that the knowledge economy requires.

The combination of artificially-induced market forces and government disdain for the humanities as economically non-productive will shrink arts subjects into a ghetto where they will become increasingly studied by those who can afford to pay, at institutions which can afford to charge. On current showing this will, probably, include few of the new universities.

-- Iain Pears

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Empire Strikes Back

After several weeks' silence and (I gather) frenzied activity below the surface, the nature of the King’s College management response to its self-imposed debacle is finally becoming clear.

It had two obvious choices: either to press ahead with redundancies in the humanities and elsewhere, brushing aside the hit to its international reputation, or to roll them back and start over from first principles. It could go for a furtive fix, or a genuinely open consultation.

In essence, it appears to have chosen the first option, in the belief that a public relations fix will repair the damage. It seems that it will countenance no alternative to its desire to get rid of people, and the fundamental assault on academic freedom – the new principle that academic research is to be the plaything of managerial whim -- looks as though it will remain in place. It is, after all, a prize worth fighting for.

The only change is that, rather than the compulsary redundancies, it picks off its targets one by one, in a way that will allow it to present departures as a voluntary decision.

Forcing people to re-apply for their own jobs – one of the more contentious issues --appears to have been ditched, which will have the effect of driving a wedge between those targetted for removal and those now safe, who may be so relieved that they will be disinclined to mount further protests. With luck, this will neutralise the union.

This will, no doubt, cost more with all the assorted sweeties that will need to be loaded on, but saving money has long since become a secondary (although no doubt still important) motive.

Since the protests erupted, the important thing has been to save the plan – not because it is a good one, but because the most vital concern is to preserve the aura of management authority. Better a dreadful scheme that comes from management and is imposed, than a superior one that originates elsewhere.

So, despite the formation of semi-secret committees to review the options, despite public display of the Principal being booed and heckled, despite the protests from across the world, it appears that there will be no meaningful new options to review.

There will be no option to cut administrative costs, no discussion of across-the-board pay cuts, no slowing of development spending to save money, no real consultation, no cast-iron guarantees about academic freedom. Nor will there be any openness in the way the policy is pursued: everything is to be confidential.

The often eminent and well-meaning academics drafted in to fill the working parties trying to triangulate a solution risk being used like Lenin’s useful idiots, accomplishing little more than putting a civilised and urbane face on a continued management drive forward.

So, no changes. Instead the original proposals will be repackaged; the only thing that will alter will be the style.

In that sense, all the protests from the UK and abroad have so far been to no avail. Even though they were primarily designed to save the reputation of one of the world’s great academic institutions, it appears that the management has decided to interpret the protests as impudent trouble-making by people whose opinions must be neutralised, rather than as a useful warning of errors being made.

With such an outlook, it was inevitable that the question of cuts would become a trial of strength, with the administration interpreting victory not as the emergence of a workable, effective and agreed policy, but rather as salvaging as much of their original scheme as possible. As is often the case, macho effectiveness at getting your own way is being confused with good management.

The desire will be to get the job done speedily; the longer the protests last, the worse it gets. The object will be to close the issue down before term starts and more protests attract attention.

So the people targetted will be subject to intense pressure – a standard technique of interrogators and managers alike. Entirely arbitrary deadlines will be set up with unspecified, but unpleasant consequences if they are not met. Individuals will be told their colleagues will suffer if the timetable is derailed, so that any hesitation becomes selfishness. All the high-pressure tactics of the encyclopaedia salesman will be brought to bear to get a decision fast. Sign now, or the opportunity will be lost forever; look, here’s a pen….

Following on from that, the accompanying public relations fix is consequently predictable: pay-offs will be linked to gagging orders preventing any criticism of anything that management has said or done, and there will be a blizzard of press releases announcing the College’s commitment to whatever they think necessary to get the protestors to back off.

In all probability, these will be so full of get-outs and vagueness that it will commit it to nothing whatsoever. When the protests do die down – and the management knows it will be hard for supporters to defend people who go voluntarily, even if they have little real choice -- it will have the room to do as it pleases.

It will be prepared to put up with a few “King’s forced to retreat…” headlines, as long as it gets its way in all essentials.

From a managerial point of view all of this is standard practice; as with politicians, when you make a mistake the last thing you should do is admit it. It is, generally, much better to proceed, however disastrous the result, than to risk undermining your own position by admitting the possibility of error.

What can be said? Not much; the distribution of power in British universities is now so heftily tilted in favour of management that there is little that can be done if it digs its heels in.

But it will be a pyrrhic victory; managers may end up toasting each other’s adroitness and skill, but I suspect they will convince no-one but themselves. A manipulative fix will be seen for what it is; only in management circles is such a device regarded with anything but contempt.

The damage to academic freedom, King’s reputation, its ability to attract high-level foreign scholars, the British University system as a whole, will remain – possibly in more muted form, but it will not be reversed and will not go away.

Those in charge of King’s had an opportunity to repair the damage they so gratuitously inflicted on the organisation they are supposed to serve.

It is increasingly clear that they do not have the slightest real desire to do so; their horizons are limited solely to the problem of getting themselves out of a mess.

It will be up to the academic world in general to decide how much respect an institution deserves when it is under the control of such people.

-- Iain Pears

Note: I see from David Ganz's post this afternoon that the management of King's is still going on about orchestrated campaigns to vilify the College. I have discussed this before and suggested that they are doing such a good job of it themselves they hardly need help from outsiders.

But in view of the seriousness of matters now it is worth revisiting. I have not talked about this article, or any others I have written, with either Professor Ganz, or any of the other people targetted for removal. They have quite enough on their plates already.

I have, however, talked to several people at King's, inside and outside the administration, to get information. I even asked for half an hour with Professor Trainor, so I might better understand management thinking -- answer, alas, came there none.

If King's does want to continue with this tired musical metaphor, then I suggest myself a lone busker, banging away on the pavement outside in the hope that someone will listen...