Tuesday, 23 March 2010

What is King’s to do?

A thoughtful commentator has replied to one of my earlier posts putting up courteous objections to some of the things I have said recently, and as some of the points he (or she) makes are perfectly good ones, I thought it would be useful to reply.

The first point is that humanities is making a loss, which is unsustainable, so something must be done. But does such an argument make much sense? Certainly more figures need to be made available – what exactly does a loss mean here? Is it just teaching plus research income minus the cost of academics? How are the costs of libraries, buildings factored in? How, indeed, are the costs of administration and other general functions divided up? I suspect that, given all the accounts, I could quite easily make any department make a loss, or a profit, as required, simply by juggling costs until the right result came out at the end.

A bigger question is why such accounting is being used at all. This technique of slicing and dicing departmental costs is, after all, fairly new. Universities used, once upon a time, to have a general commitment to fields of knowledge and tried to maintain them. They attributed funds according to scholarly need and balance, not according to notional profit-making capabilities. They would find the money for areas they wanted to support or which they felt were important. Some subjects have never been profitable and never can be. They were once valued for other reasons.

The current line – we know this is important but it makes a loss so it’s out – sounds rigorous but in fact is lazy, as it abandons academic judgement – an assessment of what is important, and a willingness to defend it -- in favour of allowing a print-out from a spreadsheet to dictate policy. Such an approach means that no subject has any importance beyond the financial – is this truly what a place like King’s believes?

So why should a institution of learning with income of near half a billion pounds a year not support the country’s only Professor of Palaeography? The expense is chicken-feed, after all, and that miniscule cost would turn King’s to be a haven of scholarly values in an increasingly hostile climate.

More than that, divisional costing gives those in charge of the figures an opportunity to divide and rule – the figures can be, and are, used to stir resentment amongst medics, for example, that “their” money is being used to “subsidise” historians. It breaks down collegiality and a sense of institutional identity which is, ultimately, corrosive in its effects.

My friendly commentator also goes on to suggest that admin costs might be caused by bringing IT systems up to scratch. This I doubt, or if it is the case, then it suggests the programme wasn’t done very well. Firstly, staff costs have risen rapidly as well in the admin sector, which cannot be attributed to IT; secondly the costs have risen steadily over a decade, so cannot be written off as a short-term blip caused by a particular programme. Besides, aren’t IT programmes meant to lower costs, not increase them? I know they never do and always end up making administration far more complex and expensive, but I still retain the fond idea that computers were meant to make things better, cheaper and more efficient, not the opposite.

His next point is that “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.” This, if true, is just plain weird. Or at least it suggests that management’s grip on reality is bizarre. What sort of people would advertise killing off palaeography, but try to hide the fact that they are cutting unnecessary administrative costs? It is not at all obvious to me why anyone should behave in a way which is guaranteed to maximise criticism.

Finally, he asks, what is King’s to do? Stand alone against the might and muscle of Hefce?

Well, yes. That is exactly what it should do. How would Hefce respond, after all? Cut King’s off without a penny? It wouldn’t make much difference, I have no doubt, although I suspect many elsewhere would rally to the standard if it were to be unfurled. But unless people like those at the head of King’s start raising their voices against the way universities have been brutalised by heavy-handed government in recent years, then nothing will ever change.

Someone like Professor Trainor calling for a better, more rational, less onerous system would make a difference, if only he would speak out. And even if his protest fell on deaf ears, it would place him at the head of his college as its leader and protector, not merely as its master and a government enforcer. That would make a very big difference indeed.

-- Iain Pears


  1. Finally, he asks, what is King’s to do?  Stand alone against the might and muscle of Hefce?  Well, yes.  That is exactly what it should do.

    Forgive the pedantry, but not exactly: it should take such a stand together with Britain's other top universities.  For me, one of the most heartening episodes of the KCL affair has been the unanimous response from the philosophy faculties at UCL and Birkbeck; it would have been nice if other institutions had made similar efforts, instead of allowing their collective voices to be dissipated.  The response in any such case (whether to an action like KCL's or to another ill-considered diktat from HEFCE) needs to be loud and clear: there are some things up with which none of us will put.

  2. Dear Iain,

    Liked the deconstruction of the Principal's response but it would be helpful for bloggers to read the actual response; I posted this as a comment for you a few days ago together with our union's reply, possibly provoking your piece.

    Keep up the good work

    Dr A.