Friday, 25 June 2010

Symbols and Scholars

My last post seems to have caused annoyance in some quarters, with people thinking I was unfair to those who had worked to oppose the cuts being imposed by the management of King’s College London. If so, then my profound apologies; I do not wish to undermine those who have gone into battle, nor do I want to minimise their achievements.

My concern, however, was a deep worry that an essential point was being missed – or at least it has not been aired in any forum I know of. That is that the effective expulsion of the Professor of Palaeography was not merely one sad defeat in an otherwise on-going campaign, but the symbolic heart of the matter. It was, after all, the issue which came to represent the crisis to the outside world.

It is, of course, good that threats of compulsary redundancies have been lifted. But it would be unwise to conclude that their removal is consequently permanent. You do not need to be an economist or an avid reader of the Financial Times to realise that the cuts imposed so far have only been an aperitif. Force Majeure is a powerfully useful concept in business; changed circumstances can be invoked to justify all sorts of things, and circumstances are on the brink of changing radically.

The entire public sector is going to be cut; universities will be cut harder and the humanities will be hit harder still. This much is clear. The numbers are uncertain, but the outlines can be estimated. If Higher Education as a whole is cut by 25 per cent (which seems to be a minimum figure) this will mean a real cut to universities of about 12 per cent, as much of their income currently comes from non-governmental sources.

But the sciences get the lion’s share of external grants and, in addition, the government is busily skewing the funding structure to put more public money into the STEM subjects, and less into the humanities.

This could very easily translate into an overall cut for the humanities of more than 30 per cent over the next five years, with the only help on the horizon (assuming government disdain for the humanities is not reversed) being higher tuition fees – which coalition politics means may be less useful than they might have been. Having given away VAT increases, it is quite possible that the Liberal Democrats will decide to take a stand on the issue, even though doing so would devastate university finances. Conservative cuts plus Liberal distaste for fees would be a potent combination.

It is unnecessary for me to spell out quite how nasty such an outcome would be. But such circumstances would give any management the justification needed to reintroduce forced redundancies – and to postpone indefinitely (or simply forget) any plans to, say, appoint a new chair of palaeography. Indeed, they may have no choice.

Nor is there much chance of building an effective coalition to oppose the cuts; the outcome of the last election was irrelevant, as all parties in effect have the same policies.

The cuts were formulated under the Labour government, the Conservatives have intensified them and the Liberals have gone along with it. There is a general consensus at the moment that they will happen and must happen. That will take several years to shift. And a public faced with falling benefits, increasing taxes and declining services is not going to be easily roused about universities.

You cannot easily reverse direction once you have started sliding down a mountain. All you can do is try to control the descent, and try to ensure you are in one piece when you come to the bottom. And this is where the fate of palaeography becomes important, because I fear it has tightened the hold of management on the implementation of future cuts.

At one level, it is a question of symbolism, which is as critical in management as it is in literature or art, even though its power is generally ignored. Public relations delivers the message; underlying symbolism shapes what that message is and how it is received. Many of the travails of the Chief Executive of BP come because he failed to grasp the symbolic aspect of the oil spill, his company and of his responses to the disaster. Bankers’ bonuses and the pay of Vice Chancellors have a significance far beyond the actual financial cost: it is a major reason why they get people so agitated.

The departure of David Ganz only makes sense when linked to the fact that none of the people responsible for the cock ups of the past few months has left their job. The management of King’s employed methods that were inappropriate and counter-productive. It made their institution into an international short-hand for a crisis of the British University. It alienated its own faculty members when unity was essential, and brought savage criticism from across the scholarly community. In many areas it then rolled back to a policy it could easily have adopted to begin with. None of this was necessary.

Had King’s truly wanted to repair the damage, then one of those responsible could have been invited to go. It would have saved more money than getting rid of palaeography and drawn a line under the matter. If that was unfair, then it would have been no more so than getting rid of faculty members. Managements are, after all, supposed to be quite enthusiastic about rewarding success and failure appropriately.

Instead, the situation evolved in a way which in essence protected those who had made the mistakes, by focussing attention on those who had made none. A committee was set up to “explore the future of Palaeography at King’s.” Broader issues were excluded from discussion and, although King’s management leaks like a sieve, I have heard no whisper that such an enquiry is under way elsewhere.

Cutting administrative costs, getting rid of inadequate managers and transferring the resources to scholarship seem not to have been on the table; the technique concentrated attention on palaeography alone as the urgent issue which needed to be resolved. The resolution was to redefine the incumbent out of the job, promise a new position at some unspecified date in the future and present this as the subject being saved.

Thus constituted, this solution tackled a very real need to repair the college’s reputation, but tried to do so by focussing on the symptom of the crisis, not the cause. It was not allowed to deal with the central reason why such repair work was necessary. It had a remit which excluded the one thing that urgently needed examining, the way in which the College management came to make such a series of mistakes. Palaeography was not, in fact, such an urgent question: whether or not it should go or stay or be redefined could have been postponed for some considerable time; the costs were fairly marginal. The urgency about settling the matter was essentially political, not academic or financial.

The methods used, of course, are common practice, one of the most fundamental of administrative techniques. In the long term, real power in any institution lies in controlling the agenda, in deciding what is discussed and how it is discussed – and in determining what is not discussed.

The matter of palaeography and its eventual resolution reified the administration’s grip on that agenda. It became an object lesson in who is still truly in control, and those who opposed the management never found a way of either challenging or changing the terms of the debate.

Which brings back the subject of future cuts. Bitter experience in the private sector long ago taught me that assurances count for little in a crisis, however genuinely they may have been given, and how solid they seem. Managements will, and must, operate within the realm of the possible, and a return to draconian methods will remain an option as long as they are not absolutely impossible.

The only way to ensure that any future job losses come in an orderly, agreed and constructive fashion will come if the management has no other choice but to proceed in such a way. That will only happen if the academics insert themselves into a truly meaningful and determining role in the design and implementation or any changes. The fate of palaeography suggests it is a battle that has yet to be won.

-- Iain Pears


  1. Just a few remarks from an outsider (who still thinks that KCL's behaviour concerning their palaeography chair are, well, rather unwise):

    1. Britain is not isolated, but exists in a world where Britain's competitors do not cut but do increase their spending on education (including higher education). Cuts in higher education would result in a shrinking ability to compete in a world where there are apparently just 3 types of key resources: minerals, cheap labour, a competent labour force. As Britain can't increase their minerals cuttings in higher education would necessarily result in less economic wealth p.c. (cheaper labour).

    2. Increasing tuition fees is not a good idea. It would result in a better education for a smaller percentage of the labour force.

    3. IMO the "sliding down a mountain" is a dangerous simile, as it might destroy part of the optimism and will needed to avoid "sliding down a mountain". The Bavarian universities have been hit by cuts and proposed cuts several years ago. Protests and negotiations resulted in a situation where at least some of our humanities departments are now better off than before.

    4. I doubt that military metaphors ("a battle that has yet to be won") are useful in the analysis of what I perceive as a civilians' problem: how to spend the citizens' money so that the citizens can live in the sort of a commonwealth they want to live in.

  2. Remarkable that at King's College neither Professor Trainor, Professor Hoggart or Professor Palmowski are prepared to comment on this. And equally remarkable that the King's College medieval historians, eager to appear on television and to explain the fall of the Roman empire, are as silent as the 3 monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil and certainly speak no evil. What deal have they cut? Are they happy to have Medieval Studies at their college run by an expert on postwar East Germany?

  3. King's College History MA Student30 June 2010 at 14:41

    Today the working group on Palaeography reports. No History Department members, except for the Department Chair, who knows nothing about Medieval History. No attempt to reply to the House of Commons Early Day Motion protesting this cut. Anonymous is right to quesion why Profesor Palmowski is allowed to run Medieval Studies. But he will remain arrogantly silent I guess. and his cronies will back him to the hilt.
    You could have explored the deal done with the IHR to glorify Sir Rick Tranor and the King's History Department, so long as they crush Palaeography. Strange that the king's website pretends that the courses will allrun normally, no doubt in order to attract and plunder rich overseas students. I am sorry I was silly enough to do an MA at a College so indifferent to Medieval History, as opposed to glorious grants for self promotion.

  4. Professor Palmowski' studies of the German Democratic Republic seems to have influenced his managerial techniques