Saturday 17 March 2018

Do Universities need Vice Chancellors? Some thoughts on the pension dispute...

One of the ironies of the pension dispute is that it centres around risk, which was the topic of expertise of the former University of Bath's overpaid Vice-Chancellor, Glynis Breakwell. Her book on risk is on my desk, which I got cheap in an Amsterdam bookstore. Earlier today I, along with other USS pension scheme members, received an email about USS's assessment of risk in their pension deficit calculations. Everyone agrees that risk is not an exact science, and the battle is about whose interpretation you believe. This is compounded by the fact that trust between the academics (for which read UCU) and the management (UUK) has broken down not just on the issue of the pension, but on a whole host of issues related to the running of the academy over the last 10 years, where we have seen the closure of departments, zero hours contracts, students as customers, compromise agreements, outrageous salaries, ridiculous expenses, VC globe trotting and a complete absence of humility.  In the view of many academics, it's all gone to shit.

All these problems are the fault of management, not teachers or researchers. So why do we need them? Is it an unthinkable thought that we rid ourselves of vice-chancellors and their management cronies, and that universities run as academic cooperatives? How could such a thing be possible?Martin Parker's point in his "Against Management" (see is absolutely right: we need to think about the organisation of education, not its management.

How have we ended up here? Like most crazy aspects of capitalism, it's the fault of the Americans. Even in the early 20th century, it was obvious that US universities were taking a more commercial path to higher education than their older European cousins. Veblen saw it first, commenting (in 1899) that:
"it may be remarked that there is some tendency latterly to substitute the captain of industry in place of the priest, as the head of seminaries of the higher learning. The substitution is by no means complete or unequivocal. Those heads of institutions are best accepted who combine the sacerdotal office with a high degree of pecuniary efficiency" (Theory of the Leisure class)
He could have been writing about today, where literal "captains of industry" (a term which Veblen coined) are making a mint out of universities. What do they do, exactly? What do they do which is worth the £200k - £400+ salary they are paid? Well, one thing they do is join a club called Universities UK...

What if they all went? Would universities fall down? No. But if students don't get taught, or can't sit their exams (particularly all those foreign students who pay a fortune for the privilege of sitting in classrooms in the UK rather than in their home countries), do things start to fall apart? Well, probably yes they do.

The people to blame for the current strike are the Vice-chancellors. I'm not surprised that some VCs are talking of the need for "compromise" from UUK. They know they are on a sticky wicket. The VC of Cambridge even blamed government policy for turning Universities into businesses ( Quite right. Except that such strong criticism of government proposals was not voiced at the time of when the government introduced the policy. The VCs then pushed for the highest fees, from which they ramped up their own salaries.

We have a moment of a reckoning. Something's gone badly wrong in Higher education. 

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