Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Managerial Destruction of Universities... but what do we do about it?

As I arrived at the University of Highlands and Islands for a conference on the "porous university", there was a picket line outside the college. Lecturers were striking about a deal agreed with the Scottish Government to establish equal pay among teaching staff across Scotland which had been reneged on by management of colleges. The regional salary difference can be as much as £12,000, so this clearly matters to a lot of people. It was a good turnout for the picket line (always an indication of how much things matter) - similar to the one when the University of Bolton sacked their UCU rep and his wife which made the national press (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3013860/Lecturer-wife-sacked-failing-University-Bolton-blowing-whistle-100-000-jolly.html)

It is right to protest, and it is right to strike. But sadly, none of this seems to work very well. Managements seems to be indestructible, and pay and conditions continually seem to get worse.

At UHI, the porous university event was an opportunity to take the temperature of the effects of over 5 years of managerial pathology in universities across the country. The collective existential cry of pain by the group was alarming. The optimism, hope, passion and faith which is the hallmark of any vocation, and was certainly the hallmark of most who worked in education, has evaporated. It's been replaced with fear and dejection. Of course, an outside observer might remark "well, you've still got jobs!" - but that's to miss the point. People might still be being paid (some of them) but something has been broken in the covenant between education and society which has destroyed the fabric of a core part of the personal identities of those who work in education. It's the same kind of breaking of covenant and breaking of spirit that might be associated with a once healthy marriage which is destroyed by a breakdown of trust: indeed, one of my former Bolton colleagues described the spirit of those working for the institution as being like "the victims of an abusive relationship".

Lots of people have written about this. Stefan Collini has just published his latest collection of essays on Universities, "Speaking of Universities", which I was reading on the way up to Scotland. It's beautifully written. But what good does it do?

In the perverse monetised world of universities, the writing and publishing (in a high ranking journal) of a critique of the education system is absorbed and rewarded by the monetised education system. In its own way, it's "impact" (something Collini is very critical of). Weirdly, those who peddle the critique inadvertently support the managerial game. The university neutralises and sanitises criticism of itself and parades it as evidence of its 'inclusivity' and the embrace of opposing views, all the time continuing to screw lecturers and students into the ground.

A good example of this is provided by the University of Bolton who have established what they call a "centre for opposition studies" (http://www.bolton.ac.uk/OppositionStudies/Home.aspx). There are no Molotov cocktails on the front page - but a picture of the house of commons. This is sanitised opposition - neutralised, harmless. The message is "Opposition is about controlled debate" rather than genuine anger and struggle. Fuck off! This isn't a progressive way forwards: it is the result of a cynical and endemic conservatism.

I wouldn't want to condemn Collini of conservativism in the same way - and yet the symptoms of conservativism are there in the way that they exist in the kind of radical "history man" characters that pepper critical discourse. The main features of this?
  • A failure to grasp the potential of technology for changing the dimensions of the debate
  • A failure to reconcile deep scholarship with new possibilities for human organisation
  • A failure to suggest any constructive way of redesigning the system
If I was to be cynical, I would say that this is because of what Collini himself admits as the "comfortable chair in Cambridge" being a safe place to chuck bricks at the system. It is not really wishing to disrupt itself to the point that the chair is less comfortable. 

The disruption and transformation of the system will not come from within it. It will come from outside. There's quite a cocktail brewing outside the institution. One of the highlights of the UHI conference was the presentation by Alex Dunedin of https://www.raggeduniversity.co.uk/. Alex's scholarly contribution was powerful, but he himself is an inspiration. He exemplifies insightful scholarship without having set a "formal" foot inside a university ever. His life has been a far richer tapestry of chaos and redemption than any professor I know. Meeting Alex, you realise that "knowledge is everywhere" really means something if you want to think. You might then be tempted to think "University is redundant". But that might be going too far. However, the corporate managerialist "nasty university" I think will not hold sway for ever. People like Alex burn far brighter. 

Another bright note: Just look at our tools! The thing is, we have to use them differently and creatively. I did my bit for this effort. I suggested to one group I was chairing that instead of holding up their flipchart paper with incomprehensible scribbles on it, and talking quickly in a way that few take in, they instead passed the phone over the paper and made a video drawing attention to the different things on their paper. So paper became a video. And it's great!

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