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...

The Once-Great British University

A book by the American academic Jonathan R. Cole sets out with commendable clarity the 12 commandments that any university needs to flourish. His concern is the American system, and as he charts its rise, its extraordinary achievements, and the threats it faces, he distils the essential characteristics required.

Many of his current concerns apply in spades to the UK situation as British higher Education is currently structured, and if Professor Cole is worried about the United States, he would be utterly despondent by what is going on here.

In brief, his commandments are as follows:

Universities should

1. promote universalism so that merit prevails and only impersonal criteria are used in establishing scientific facts;
2. favour organised scepticism and question anything that resembles dogma;
3. create new knowledge through the provision of a decent infrastructure including laboratories and research libraries;
4. guarantee free and open communication of ideas and allow for criticism through open and public exchange;
5. advocate genuine disinterestedness so that individuals do not profit financially from their research;
6. promote free inquiry and academic freedom so that orthodoxies are constantly questioned;
7. base research on international communities that communicate openly with each other;
8. use peer-review systems so that arguments are tested by the best in the field;
9. work for the common good so that a more enlightened public can emerge;
10. ensure that governance involves the "company of equals", making sure that academics have a significant voice in running the institution they are part of;
11. promote intellectual progeny so that the next academic generation can emerge;
12. maintain the intellectual vitality of the community by attracting the best minds.

At the moment, many of these are either under threat or have disappeared. Universities increasingly discourage organised scepticism and criticism through open and public exchange through the use of gagging orders on academics to stifle criticism of management;

Peer-review systems become irrelevant if management takes over and decides what is, or is not, useful research;

The spread of corporate interests(especially in medicine) has given far too many academics a very clear financial interest is research which prejudices objective judgment;

Governance no longer has anything to do with the “company of equals” but has fallen into the hands of a self-appointed band of managers detached from the institutions they control;

and the intellectual vitality of any institution cannot survive, nor will the best minds be attracted, as long as managements attempt to control their academics through threat and coercion.

All of the positive conditions did apply in Britain a few decades ago. They do so no longer.

-- Iain Pears

-- The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected.
By Jonathan R. Cole. Public Affairs, 640pp, £20.99. ISBN 9781586484088.
Reviewed in THES, 8 april, 2010:§ioncode=26