Saturday, 27 February 2010

The palaeographer and the managers: a tale of modern times

Proposals for draconian cuts of academic staff at King’s College London – including the dismissal of David Ganz, Britain’s last professor of Palaeography -- have justly aroused condemnation from the world of academia and beyond, not only for their savagery, but for the way they are being implemented.

The cuts themselves do not offer much room for manoeuvre. Protesting too much would be counter-productive, as it could too easily be characterised as the special pleading of the ivory tower brigade, unwilling to live in the real world. Universities in general are going to have to put up with hard times over the next few years.

But how those cuts are made and where they fall is another matter entirely. In this area not only is a fight justifiable, it is vital. King’s is among the first, and is certainly the most prominent, to wield the axe. It may become the model for others if it proceeds unchallenged.

The powers that be there seem to taking their cues from a chapter on bullying in the Modern Manager’s Handbook. Staff are being required to reapply for their own jobs – the unspoken (but obvious) concern being that any who protest unduly may find that their reapplication is viewed with disfavour.

They will be reappointed not because of the importance of their subject, but more because of how much money they earn for King’s and according to their “confirmed future output” and “esteem indicators.” At no stage so far has anyone outside a narrow band of managers and the most senior academics been consulted; decisions were presented with no alternatives and little real chance of serious amendment.

These are the distasteful tactics normally associated with the call centre or sweat-shop. They are surprising, to say the least, when they come from an institution which is supposed to be a bastion of free and independent critical thought.

Why does it matter? Because it represents a surrender at the highest level (and you don’t get much higher than King’s) to the powers of management in a sector once known for its reliance on co-operation, goodwill and institutional accountability.

This transformation of Higher Education has been going on for some while, beginning with the reforms of Margaret Thatcher (taking away of tenure, institution of assessment exercises that stressed quantity rather than quality, the erosion of the powers of university senates). These changes, and the target-based culture of Labour, resulted in the emergence of a new and powerful managerial elite whose success at moving into the universities and taking them over has been extraordinary.

Certainly the managers have been as efficient as MPs and BBC Talent (and much more discreet) at finding ways of diverting public money into their own hands.

Whereas academic salaries have risen slowly in the last couple of decades (although much less than the number of students), pay at the top has rocketed.

The average vice-chancellor now earns nearly three times as much as a professor, much more than the prime minister and more than the average private sector chief executive. The Principal of King’s, Rick Trainor, had a pay package which rose to £312,000 in 2008/9 from £292,000 the year before and £250,000 in 2006/7. His predecessor made do on £186,000 in 2002. While one person at King’s earned more than £150,000 in 2001/2, this had risen to 79 in 2009.

Keeping palaeography alive by cutting back on the generosity to senior staff does not appear to be an option for discussion, although reducing Professor Trainor’s package to a mere quarter of a million would help out, and a 5 per cent cut in take-home pay for the top 79 earners would produce more than a million pounds, enough for several departments of palaeographers.

Equally, there has also been a massive increase in the resources consumed by the administration.

While King’s is proposing to cut 22 jobs from the Humanities, it is simultaneously advertising for senior management positions paid up to £85,000.” And an applications analyst (“results oriented”) to support the College’s “enterprise business applications.” And a Distance Learning Administrator. And a head of Principal Gift Development who must also, of course, be “target-driven and ambitious.”

Professor Trainor has an executive team with all the managerial bling of a fully-fledged multi-national, complete with two executive officers and a Chief information officer. There is also a public relations department, an external relations directorate, a marketing department, a quality assurance unit, a corporate design unit (which “protects the brand”), a corporate services section… and on, and on.

According to the College’s own accounts, administrative costs rose to £33.5 million in 2009 from £28.5 million the year before – a rise of 17.5 per cent and more than twice as fast as the rise in cost of academic departments. In 2003, administration cost £16.5 million – making a 103 per cent rise over the six years.

To give a comparison, King’s is now proposing to decimate the Humanities to save £2.4 million. This will claw back less than half of the increase in administrative expenses for 2009 alone.

Anyone who finds it surprising that King’s should be getting rid of teachers while simultaneously recruiting administrators does not understand that universities (in the eyes of both vice-chancellors and ministers) are no longer institutions of learning. They are part of a nationalised industry, and increasingly behave like one.

They have, moreover, become vehicles for a bureaucratic technocracy to advance its own interests, in the way described by Milovan Djilas in 1957 when he analysed the rise of the “New Class” in communist states.

In this new set-up, everything -- and particularly the idea of the university, a place where all knowledge should be promoted in a place of mutual esteem, and where association of differing disciplines can stimulate fruitful new ideas, where knowledge is to be protected as well as advanced -- can be jettisoned whenever necessary.

In its place comes the short-term vision of the speculator. Along with palaeography, all the humanities (and even subjects like theoretical physics) are now being nationally targetted as unproductive; indeed anything which does not have a measurable pay-off in the short-term is under threat.

Curiously, this is not something which necessarily meets great approval in the business community. The best businessman are those who can think widely and critically, who value independence of thought.

The senior managers of universities often do not possess such breadth or imagination. Rather, they have rushed to adopt the horizons and language of the mediocre manager. Take this extract from the 2006 King’s Strategy: “As part of the new performance culture within King’s, the administration has been re-badged Professional Services... we understand the importance of professionally delivered enabling services in realising our vision...”

Many of the people writing this nonsense are ex-academics, who often behave with the zeal of the converted, using ever more inpenetrable jargon to signal their new allegiance.

But the jargon has its own meaning. The internal paper on the cuts states its wish to “create financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are at sub-critical level.”

Although it seems to have been written by a semi-literate, the sentence is telling in that it revals a total absence of desire to protect areas of expertise which might be vulnerable. Instead, that vulnerability is the justification for destruction.

If academics accept such premises, and try to argue back in terms of economic relevance, they are doomed. There is no way to demonstrate that the study of Voltaire or Milton or palaeography is of any use whatsoever once the argument is defined by such language, any more than you can justify curiosity or imagination or the ability to think and argue.

In the past couple of decades many have learnt to parrot out the language of efficiency and transparency, of output and relevance, of competitive bidding and market share, of metrics and impact, without seeming to realise that it meant accepting also the assumptions underlying these terms.

Modern managerial practice, after all, was developed in the US army in the Second World War, then adapted by think-tanks for civilian life. What its wholesale adoption amounted to was a militarisation of the organisations it invaded – with its hierarchies, chains of command and line managers.

It was by definition incompatible with non-hierarchical institutions like universities, (and has been generally rejected by companies like Google, which value a more egalitarian ethos). So the universities had to be forced to change. They were reshaped to fit management doctrine, not the other way around.

This process is now well-advanced. But if these proposed cuts are challenged – if palaeographers are defended by social scientists, scientists, as well as teachers in the humanities; if lecturers from other institutions protest as well – if, in sum, academics rally to defend the integrity of their profession as a whole, rather than looking only to their own position and advantage – then some good might come out of it all.

They might even remember that once the administrators were there to serve the institution, not to be its masters, and insist on taking that responsibility back into their own hands.

But if they do not – if they keep their heads down, sacrifice other people’s jobs in the hope of keeping their own, if senior professors identify with the managers rather than with their colleagues -- then the game will be over for good.

King’s, certainly, will be badly damaged, for such institutions depend above all on the unquantifiable factors of co-operation and camaraderie to prosper. The “brand” which it so zealously tries to commercialise will be tarnished for a very long time.

But British academics in general will end up as mere drudge workers in the knowledge economy, doomed to follow every fad and command which comes down from on high.

Iain Pears
Is a novelist, historian and has studied the rise of management since his days as a financial correspondent for Reuters.

King’s paper on proposed cuts:

King’s Strategy plan, 2006-16:

King’s accounts, 2003-2009:


  1. Dear Iain Pears,
    May I, as a fellow admirer of Macrobius, thank you for your concern about my obscure discipline.

  2. I'm afraid that the situation so clearly described here is that of most British universities.

  3. Nice article. You are spot on lots of useless overpaid managers in Universities on higher wages than the professors !!! Crazy!!! These managers just pump out lots of useless strategy and ridiculous documents...

  4. Unfortunately we've seen this happen in so many different walks of life in Britain, and not just Britain, either. Look at the government and public services in general, and you'll see that what could be (for example) one of the best health services in the world bleeds away its money to managers and management consultants. I suppose that it was only a matter of time before universities were hit too.

    I was an undergraduate at Oxford until I finished last year, and I recall the Dons' battle against Vice-Chancellor John Hood's plans to introduce a new ruling council, the majority of whom were to be appointed businessmen with little or no background in academia. The Dons managed to win that one (just), so perhaps there is some hope for civilisation yet, even if it looks bleak.

  5. very well put, thank you!

  6. This is from Eisenhower's Farewell Address as a prophecy concerning the universities' share in the military-industrial complex:

    'Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.'

  7. Spot on. Substitute any Australian university's name for Kings, and it describes the situation exactly.

  8. david makinson4 March 2010 at 04:02

    The problem does not lie in the personality of this or that manager, for it is structural, growing over the decades. At bottom, it appears to be a problem of the absence of any real separation of powers, and of checks and balances to monitor and enforce the separation. In the political sphere, fortunately, we have for several centuries now become accustomed to the importance of this principle, in the form of a clean distinction between the legislative, executive and judicicial components of government. But no such system has been developed - or even widely articulated - for the growing sphere of management of large non-governmental institutions, be they commercial companies or universities. Separation of powers is required there too, in order to prevent the uncontrolled and hence inevitable growth of self-serving, self-appraising, self-perpetuating, and self-expanding directorates. The form that such a separation should take is open to debate and may perhaps vary from case to case, but in principle it should at the least include bulkheads between those who set remuneration levels and that who are remunerated under those levels, as well as between those who manage and those who review the successes and failures of management. Such functions should be as well separated as those between internal accountant and external auditor, and need to be protected from erosion as much as the latter.

  9. I work as an academic support staff member of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds; this is so accurate and identical to our situation that it's all too depressing to comment on other than to say, "ditto" and good luck.

  10. We've syndicated this piece on the Defend UCL Modern Languages blog, pending your permission. It would be great if you could confirm that it's okay for us to use it.

    You can find us here:

  11. Well, you know, one plus side to this swelling of administrative roles is that there will be greater room for making efficiency savings by getting rid of them all again. Tongue firmly in cheek here.

  12. While most of what you say is true, the School of Humanities did make a loss of over £3m last year, which is clearly unsustainable. Meanwhile, cuts in admin staff across the College have actually been made, though it may not appear so because obviously the College does not want to advertise the fact. So it isn't necessarily the case that the administration is swelling while the academics are squeezed, at least over the next few years. I'm sure the College would tell us that the increase in Admin costs that you mention was necessary to bring IT systems, in particular, up to scratch. These issues are never clear-cut.
    What is also interesting is that while there has been a huge focus on the potential redundancies in Humanities, Physical Sciences had already gone through the same process, which resulted in the closure of the entire Division of Engineering, which had been ever-present at the College since 1829. The reason? Relatively poor performance in the RAE which it would 'cost too much' to rectify.
    But what is King's to do? Stand alone against the might and muscle of Hefce and the government? It cannot. Until there is a change of heart in government and universities are allowed to focus once again on quality, on blue-skies research, and on not being subserviant to 'business', universities will have to play the game otherwise they will not survive.

  13. Catherine Crawford31 March 2010 at 09:56

    Dear Iain Pears,
    Nice one, mate!
    Cathy Crawford

  14. 23 MARCH 2010 04:55 - The IT Systems at King's are a joke. The computers are the same as they have been for years, so that can't be the case. The IT spending would be less if they hadn't sold two contracts to two separate contractors, which is why the system is so inefficient also.

  15. Rick Trainor has risen without trace and is without shame, it seems. The VC of Bristol has returned part of his salary to the University but Trainor sees no reason to do so at KCL. David Ganz has reluctantly taken the package, on his lawyer's advice, although there remains a legal dilemma regarding the subject, as Palaeography at KCL was awarded a large external grant, onto which KCl wishes to hang, while ditching the subject.

  16. post some more!

  17. Thank you for sharing this insightful and morally persuasive article.

    I suspect your wise words empowered many to stand up for their position and beliefs.


  18. I think I miss this insightful article the first time round. Now King's is at it again, this time axing scientists, though (they did also last time round, but in a slightly gentler manner). The price to pay for not speaking out is high, and in the end I think the entire HE sector will suffer