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


  1. Excellent analysis as always.

  2. What is really shameful is that Timothy Garton Ash (who should know better) wrote a scoyphantic defence of Hood in the Guardian, full of questionable and simplistic assumptions about the links between great scholarship and hard cash. I wrote several rude replies in the lively Cif disucussion which followed. If I recall correctly, I said that this was not what I expected from the author of 'The File'.