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

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

On sulks and silence

While there has been a great deal of comment about the extent and nature of forthcoming cuts in universities in the UK, the one perspective that is noticeably missing is that of the management doing the cutting. Whether it is at King’s London, Sussex, Hull, and now Middlesex, protestors protest, and managers respond – by not responding. Perfectly reasonable alarm goes unanswered, and managers seem to go out of their way to be aloof, Olympian, severe.

Not all are like this. The head of Dublin City University, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, keeps up an on-line blog which puts his point of view in a way which is witty, informed and civilised. His comments, many of which touch on the subject of university governance, the relationship between public and private, funding and research, are at

A similar openness and engagement from his British peers would help a great deal: the more they sit closested in their offices pretending not to notice, and the more they communicate only through bland public statements, then the more they create the impression that they truly are cold and uncaring of the institutions they run. I do not believe that is the case; I have no doubt that, from their point of view, they are engaging, as best they can, with difficult circumstances and are properly cheesed that their efforts are going unappreciated.

But it would be nice to know what that perspective is. There must be someone in the massed ranks of administrators who does not regard the world outside with horror, and thinks that explaining clearly not only policies, but the underlying reasons for policies, might be more than a show of weakness.

The problem is a difference of style. Academics discuss: it is the fundamental quality of their occupation. Nothing is of worth unless it is capable of withstanding counter-arguments; this applies in science as much as in the humanities. Any action or policy which is not justified by words is at best suspect, at worst fraudulent.

The world of managers is different; there justification is by deed. Effective and efficient action is all important; managers are (quite rightly) suspicious of smooth talkers as this is often a cover for inept performance. Compromise is also suspect as always producing second best policies which are neither one thing nor another.

The divide is best seen in the businessmen who are adopted by politicians, another class of humanity which trades in words. Generally speaking these are the ones who are good at talking, and at selling themselves. Time and again – going back to the 1970s – the businessmen who have been taken on as government advisors have been the ones able to talk a line; they have generally proven to be disappointingly mediocre at actually running things.

There is no better sell sign for a share than when the Chairman gets a peerage: that's when you know the company has fallen into the hands of a vainglorious egotist.(Another is when they build themselves a new corporate headquarters designed by a famous architect).

In business the most effective managers – and the ones who are often most admired – are the ones who keep quiet and get on with it, who demonstrate by what they do, not by what they say they are going to do.

This, of course creates problems when the two worldviews collide, as they do in universities. When one side values accountability over efficiency, and the other sees things the other way around, there will always be a clash, sooner or later, unless some accomodation is reached to promote mutual understanding.

The attempts by managers to show competence in their particular fashion generates suspicion; the desire of academics to be kept informed and be consulted, generates contempt. The academics think of managers as arrogant hit-men, managers think of the academics as vacuous wind-bags. The two sides understand each other less and less, just at the moment when a rigid and unbreakable unity of purpose is required.

A pity, really.

-- Iain Pears

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