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


  1. This is how king's college treats its students

    Re: fewer staff affecting student experience
    Dear Prof. Leinonen,

    We are writing to highlight our concerns about an email headed 'Update for students from Vice-Principal (Education)' that you sent to all students on the 25th March 2010, which stated that:

    "In my meetings with students I have been heartened by their engagement and understanding of the issues underpinning the actions the College is currently taking, and particularly by the appreciation that having potentially fewer staff does not equate to an inferior learning experience. "

    We, as student representatives of our respective Departments, do not share the sentiment expressed in this passage. In fact, having fewer staff whilst retaining current quality of learning seems to be a contradiction in terms. Views expressed by King's College students in the recent months, in the forms of protests and petitions, voiced during meeting with Student Union and College authorities provide a strong basis for this claim.

    We would like:
    a) to be shown how it is possible for the student experience not to deteriorate should we have fewer staff;
    b) either to be given evidence that this is indeed the view of the student body at large, or for the claim to be retracted, similarly in an email sent to all students.

    We are aware that these are difficult times for the College, but believe that the quality of learning at any academic institution is crucial to its survival, making the staff the key asset of the College.

    Yours sincerely,
    [names of 37 student representatives]

  2. "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."

    Where did George Osborne say that? This is a very interesting and important piece of information.

  3. 12.51pm: Osborne says there will be no further cuts in capital spending.

    He says the government will look to sell some assets, like the student loan book.

    -- guardian, 22 June 2010

  4. You said right about the handful of institutions and the things you share about the University and about your self,so this is great to see and the main thing is that the purpose is to promote the creative use of new technologies by funding artwork, education and exhibitions,and the work there represents artists, programmers, hackers, activists, youth,which is a good and positive thing.