Thursday, 2 February 2017

Tim Farron on University Compromise Agreements: some reflections on my experiences at the University of Bolton

The Times Higher Educational Supplement has become strangely less attractive since it stopped printing its institutional index on the back page. I rarely opened the plastic cover, but always checked to see the nice things said about my current institution (Liverpool), and any scandalous stories that emanated from my previous institution (Bolton).  Bolton was hardly in there unfortunately - something I found a little weird since it seemed that almost every week there was some new crazy 'WTF??' moment which caused consternation in corridors, and would have brought some colour and excitement onto the THES pages. This week I noticed a short entry about Tim Farron's appeal for the banning of "compromise agreements" in academia which reminded me of my experience in Bolton.

I left Bolton in 2015 when my department was closed. It was a bitter and hurtful experience. The department had been very good and successful for many years with an international reputation for educational technology research. I find that the injustice and hurt of the closure stays with me - even though I am very happy where I am now and appreciate that I might have been done a huge favour. I loved Bolton, and believed passionately in "widening participation" - although this became a corrupted ideal in the world of marketised education, and particularly so in the hands of Bolton's management. Injustice hurts, and the closure of my department was a period (a week!) of the most appalling abuse of power I have ever experienced (Trump looks very familiar to me, as he will to anyone who has had experience of Bolton's VC).

In the same week that my department was closed, the Vice Chancellor summarily sacked his Pro-VC, the UCU rep. and his wife (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3013860/Lecturer-wife-sacked-failing-University-Bolton-blowing-whistle-100-000-jolly.html). He blamed the UCU rep for a Daily Mail story about the purchase of his new house in Bolton (for which the University lent him £960,000) and a staff awayday which cost £100,000 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2981860/Struggling-university-sends-700-staff-100-000-Lakes-breaks-hear-controversial-vice-chancellor-s-pep-talks.html) at the Lake District hotel where the VC kept his yacht (a moment of excellent journalistic manipulation as everyone exclaims: "he's got a fucking yacht!"). Also in the same week, we were all invited to congratulate the VC on becoming a "Deputy Lieutenant" for the Queen - which apparently allows him to dress up like this: http://www.thisislancashire.co.uk/resources/images/4998895/?type=responsive-gallery-fullscreen - that's him on the left)

When I left, I signed a "compromise agreement" - making me fearful of repeating anything negative even if it was already in the public domain. Fear is powerful - even when everything is in the public domain!

The period of unemployment that followed was very frightening. I would be overcome with waves of anger and physical pain. It felt like I'd been physically assaulted. There were moments when I wanted to die. This was obviously very distressing for my wife and daughter too, in a year when my daughter had also had a very serious accident.

Now Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has been getting fired-up about "compromise agreements" and the prevention of people speaking-out against the abuse of power by management (see https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/dec/30/universities-gagging-former-employees-lib-dems-compromise-agreements). All I can say is "About bloody time!". Farron said:
“Universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech and forthright opinions, yet our research has shown that confidentiality clauses may have been used not only to avoid dirty laundry being aired in public but now are just common practice in higher education,[...] This is simply outrageous. These gagging orders have a deterrent effect, employers seem to think that employees will just sign away the right to whistleblow. [...] The cold wind of gagging staff and stifled debate, much in the public interest, is going through the halls of our bastions of enlightenment and tolerance. This must end, these practices must be stopped.”
Despite massive protests and the involvement of local MPs, Bolton remains under the same regime. The VC covers himself with the blessings of establishment figures: baronesses, earls, judges, Prince Edward (FFS), the former Bishop of Manchester. It's a sickening charade. The University is in the process of negotiating a merger with two neighbouring FE institutions which together will become responsible for the educational futures of many thousands of young people in the region and beyond. It all begins to look "too big to fail". What government minister will challenge him? To cap it all, he awarded himself a 10% pay rise this year.

"Too big to fail" seems to have been the plan for Bolton's VC in his previous job at Doncaster College. It was a very similar plan to the one unfolding now. It ended like this: http://www.thestar.co.uk/lifestyle/features/town-s-college-boss-found-dead-1-289136.

This passage is interesting:
"Earlier this year principal Rowland Foote and finance director Tony Myers were suspended amid a probe into the college's financial management, and the college abandoned a restructuring plan that would have seen 140 lecturing jobs axed. Mr Foote later resigned and was replaced by interim principal John Taylor, while Bill Webster - one of two deputy principals at the college - left the institution."
Fast-forward 10 years, and we find the same Bill Webster formerly of the University and now as principal of Bolton College!

We have to talk about this. We have to talk about these people. We are all custodians of educational institutions, but some senior managers (not just in Bolton) behave like pirates, grabbing things for themselves. In the week when Parliament has decided to discuss how we deal with the pirate who's just taken over the US, we must turn our attention to the pirates who (unlike Trump as president) have had the luxury of being protected by the neo-liberal establishment. In the end, it's about heading-off a disaster before things really get out of control. 

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I entirely agree with the sentiments and feelings in this post. Your bravery in saying it, is to be applauded and hopefully supported by those who know what you say and report [ with the media and facts behind it] to be true. Honesty and integrity,and care for others in society, including employees should be paramount if we humans are to survive!

Well done, peace be with you.
R

Joe Whittaker said...

Excellent articulation of a very serious set of issue at The University of Bolton.
If the corrupting approach of The VC at the University was not so damaging of staff and students it would be laughable. George Holmes is a Trump Character, he uses alternative truths, he bullies, he has an ego that allows him to dress up in Queen's servant outfit, and believe it makes him honourable!

What is more disturbing to me is that the official bodies and external professionals changed with holding to account such organisations are weak in doing what they should be doing, critically questing corrupt practice. In particular my experience with the Information Commission, n relation to the University of Bolton has left me disturbed.

I submitted Freedom of Information Requests to University of Bolton, the university ignored them, the Information commissioner eventually agreed with The University that my questions were vexatious. I took both the University and the Information Commission to court and won the case. The University was ordered to answer my questions. The University have continued to offer "alternative truths" and the Information Commissioner has continued to support the position of the University of Bolton.

I do believe that the VC and his cronies will collapse in the toxic pool of corruption, they have created - what is of serious concern, to me and many others, is the damage that has already been done to many staff like Mark , and the many others who continue to work and study at the University of Bolton.

If compromise agreements protect the George Holmes's of the University Sector, then clearly they have to be significantly revised.

Joe Whittaker - member of staff University of Bolton 1987-2010.

Anonymous said...

Problem is its become custom and practice for these people in positions of high responsibility within these HE establishments to feather their nests, financially, psychologically, egotistically or all three at the expense of good, experienced and honest staff. Often forcing them out usually with gagging clauses involved. Effectively holding them ransom against the fear of job, financial, social and personal loss of their employment. These "Powers that be" are so bloody ruthless you would not believe it possible. One question - Who, What, When is responsible for bringing them to task as failure to do this is to let the whole of the HE fabric in the UK very badly down.

Mark Johnson said...

It's a bad time in education generally. But we must beware of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) formulations so beloved by the Tories. Not all institutions are badly run. I'm fortunate to be working in a lovely and supportive institution now - of which I'm very proud. I used to be proud of Bolton.