Thursday, 27 December 2012

Universities Compromised? The separation between form and function in Higher Education

Andrew McGettigan has been drawing attention to a worrying trend of disestablishing Higher Education Institutions recently. The first example of its kind was the effective dissolution of the City of Leeds College of Music (see, which was transformed into a private company called Leeds College of Music Ltd, a subsidiary of Leeds City College. [I have a personal interest in this because I used to work there]

Next up, it looks like UCLAN is pursuing a similar strategy. The request for a change in corporate form has been made to the Secretary of State, Vince Cable, to dissolve its current corporate form (a Higher Education Corporation) and transfer all assets and staff to a new company.

The speed and ease with which this is happening is frightening. Universities may have considered their corporate status protected - after all, whilst approval is required from the Privy Council to create a University, once the status has been granted, there is currently no mechanism for removing it. However, the current moves illustrate that other mechanisms seem to be effective in fundamentally redefining the nature of a University as an institution. McGettigan points out that 20 other institutions in UK are similarly 'primed' with their own private companies to make a similar move. Given that the move can be made so easily and quickly, we can expect a great deal of turbulence in the coming year.

In whose interests is this? One would worry that the principal beneficiaries will not be students or staff, but senior managers and the partners with whom they can cut investment deals. Does the replacement of a quasi-public organisation with a private one means a shift in emphasis in from public service to profitability? McGettigan clearly worries that it does:
Increasingly commercial orientation will push up against the question of equity investment (investors cannot buy shares in charities), by which point the difference between a company limited by guarantee and one limited by share may appear as academic as the difference between the former and a higher education corporation does now.
The problem with this is that Universities are about truth: "Universal knowledge", as Newman calls it. The corporate form, structures of governance, curriculum and working practices are all entwined in the pursuit of truth. One of the things that these structures and procedures guarantee is open critique and disputation. Such openness, and the way that openness feeds into governance structures and mechanisms, protects freedom of expression as a means of keeping open the path to truth. The wish within a University is that the institutional conditions that led to Galileo's persecution could not occur.

This doesn't always work. But in established universities, institutional committees like the Academic Senate, which represents the intellectual heart of the institution with the Vice-Chancellor as its head serve as a balance between the operational needs of the institution and its deeper mission and commitment to truth and knowledge. Senate is not like a corporate board. The senators represent the identity, purpose and focus of the institution. In being the representatives of the state of knowledge within their respective disciplines, their concern for upholding truth and making their voice heard in matters ranging from the curriculum to the adminstrative procedures is fundamental to the University working as a coherent, purposeful whole.

The deep worry then is that the transformation in corporate form invites a kind of gerrymandering of academic governance: consultants and cronies fill the chairs once occupied by the critics. The transformation of corporate form is not being done in the interests of scholarship. It is being done for political reasons (the personal ambitions of politicians), and no doubt in some cases, for reasons of personal ambition by institutional leaders. As McGettigan points out, academics have been squeazed out of the debate about these changes. In fact, there has been no debate.

What lies implicit in this process is a split between form and  function within the University. Where the traditional governance arrangements saw administration and the pursuit of truth as part of a whole, the transformation of corporate form suggests that governance arrangements are separable from academic activity. For institutions like UCLAN, such a separation seems less controversial than a similar attempt within more ancient institutions. With UCLAN being a 'new' university, the insinuation is that the academic voice does not merit an equal voice in the governance arrangements of the institution; it is therefore ok to let the 'professionals' take over the governance and the 'form' of the university, and ensure that they 'direct' the activities of the academics in performing the 'function' of the university.

The separation between form and function becomes more serious however when attempts are made to silence criticism of university governance - both within the institution (in the form of threats and sometimes bullying) and from ex-employees - in the form of compromise agreements forced on those who leave the institution under the terms of a "Voluntary Severance" agreement. Many of these people have been witness to the back-room scenes of the sometimes brutal transformation of their institutions. Staff are forbidden from speaking out about what they've witnessed. The website academicFOI has done a survey (see on the numbers of Compromise Agreements arranged by UK universities. The figures are alarming as they are - but it should be stressed that the survey was done a while ago, and in the intervening period, Universities have been shedding far more staff under similar terms.

The survey figures largely represent witnesses to the transformation of their institutions (apart possibly from those having signed Non-Disclosure Agreements for research purposes) who have a story to tell, but who cannot tell their story for fear of legal action.

The risks are clear:
  1. The risk of damage to the intellectual life of the institution through the separation of form and function;
  2. The moral hazards brought about through insufficient accountability by institutions;
  3. The risk to students through increasingly aggressive marketing practices by new private institutions;
  4. The risk to the pursuit of truth through an increasingly "corporatised" climate of fear where academics become second-class members of their institutions.
It is a toxic cocktail: radical institutional changes coupled with what amounts to suppression of dissent and potentially the compromise of governance and accountability.

If openness and debate is not to be built into the structure of institutions through academic committtees like Senate, it will become a requirement for government to regulate Universities in such a way as to avoid moral hazards and damage to intellectual life. The former will present a political risk at some point (it will only take one "Bernie Madoff" in charge of a University somewhere...); the latter will present a risk to the reputation to UK Education and national competitiveness.

As I have argued previously, there is a pressing question concerning the governance of Universities in this new climate: (see I suggest a crucial first step to towards this new regulatory framework is to ban the use of compromise agreements simply to gag staff taking voluntary severance or leaving institutions for other reasons (I have heard of the use of Compromise Agreements for staff who simply move to jobs elsewhere!). The argument for these pernicious instruments is usually that they are to "protect the institution's reputation", but in reality is appears that they serve to protect the reputations of senior managers rather than the institution, for which public money is being used (or rather money students haven't earned yet). Why is existing libel legislation not enough?

Senior managers of institutions will need to be held to account. If existing governance arrangements become compromised in the confusion to transform HE, then government will need to step-in. Compromised academics are bad enough; compromised University accountants, registrars, personnel officers, etc are big red flashing warning lights that something could well be amiss. Similar warnings were ignored when government failed to regulate the banks: a similar tale of lack of accountability whose consequences lie at the root of our present difficulties.

It may be inevitable that the University sector contracts significantly as an employer in the coming years; that the number of institutions falls; that technology drives efficiencies whereby the best professors can be more effectively amplified (but in more imaginative ways than simply 'online'). These changes could be in the interests of students who have been positioned with little option but to get degrees: we ought to expect the cost of education to fall. But it might not. Fewer institutions means more powerful institutions and certainly more influential managers of institutions. It means a few individuals will become very wealthy on the back of education. Accountability in education will be as paramount as accountability of banking. Damage to the essential function of the University in the pursuit of truth is in nobody's interests. At worst it opens the door to corruption. At best, a radical rethinking about the form of institutions is required, where the relation between form and function can be properly inspected.


Anonymous said...

This is bang on. It would be interesting to see what would happen if someone who had been bullied out of a University, and had signed a compromise agreement, spilled the beans regardless. It would certainly make for an interesting court case. Especially if other interesting information emerged.

Anonymous said...

Some of this reminds me of the drive towards "professional management" that happened in the NHS many years ago.

The idea of professionalisation in management is not inherently bad; the problem in its application was that we lost transparency, accountability, and culture, but didn't actually get any improved management competence as it (a) was the same people as before, just on more money, plus some of their more idiotic friends and (b) management was treated still as a position in a hierarchy, not as a set of skills and knowledge that needs to be applied, critiqued and developed.

I can see the same happening with HE taking this route. No wonder steps are being taken to hide future incompetence.

Mark Johnson said...

The NHS is very interesting as a comparison. It was never really entirely clear what the NHS was meant to do. A desire to "Heal the nation" lay behind the wish to address the evils identified in the 1942 Beveridge report (Squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease). This has evolved into today's corporate notion of service delivery, with its concomitant subversion by powerful interest groups like drug companies, doctors, health authorities, etc.

Ivan Illich identifies 'professionalisation' at the root of this pathology (see his 'Medical Nemesis'). Education is tied up with the concept of professionalisation and certification. Illich argues that professionalisation is also at the root of educational pathology itself.

A tangled web indeed.

If we were to write a Beveridge report for our own time, what would be the 'evils' we would now identify?

Anonymous said...

Looks also like a scam for senior managers to get their hands on the capital value of HEIs.

(Funny... the CAPTCHA for this post was GOVE :)