Wednesday 15 August 2012

Democratising Academic Administration

There are many tales of woe in UK universities at the moment. Despite the considerable pressures of government spending cuts, some university misery (although not all) appears to be the result of poor management. When this is the case, it becomes difficult for academics to speak out about the direction of decisions in their institutions: they don't speak out when they are employed for fear of losing their jobs; they don't speak out if they take severance because they have signed non-disclosure agreements. The scale of problems nationally can be seen here:

Given this, it is not inconceivable that a senior management team may implement policy against the will of the majority of academics, silencing critics of their plans, and leading inevitably to disaster for individual institutions and ultimately fundamentally damaging the educational infrastructure of the society they are meant to serve. The only check and balance is the 'board of governors', although boards of governors rarely intervene to criticise the policy of incumbent administrations, possibly for fear of damaging the reputation of the institution. Given such conditions, the probability that decision-making will be unregulated is very high.

This, I believe, is the biggest challenge that the University system faces as it goes through it's current phase of industrialisation. The safeguarding of spaces for intellectual discourse and the safeguarding of equitable access to employment are functions the university performs for society, not for themselves. There is no reason why an industrialised education system should not perform these functions (and indeed many reasons why industrialisation might be a good thing), but in order for it to work, we need to rethink the relationship between the way institutions are governed and regulated in the light of the social function that they serve.

In Universities, the pursuit of knowledge and the transmission of culture depend on freedom of speech and of the ability to ask difficult questions. There should be no question that cannot be asked. Alasdair Macintyre has recently stated that there are plenty  of questions that cannot be asked in modern research universities. He says:
"...the contemporary research university is, therefore, by an large a place in which certain questions go unasked or rather, if they are asked, it is only by individuals and in settings such that as few as possible hear them being asked." (see
This, for Macintyre, is partly the way academic specialism has led Universities as 'knowledge engines'. But more fundamental, I believe, is the importance of asking questions about how the institution itself is run. This is particularly important in a Widening Participation University, because the remit of inclusion necessitates broader definitions of knowledge which incorporate social responsibility and care, both of which can be severely damaged by managerial intervention. The separation between governance and knowledge is a myth peddled by managers who see the University as nothing more than a degree factory.

Universities bear stronger resemblances to religious institutions than to businesses and much can be learnt from the history of religious institutions - particularly in their various moments of pathology and self-correction. The events leading up to the Reformation are important not least because the 'business model' of the Catholic Church of the time was of 'selling salvation'. This is not a million miles away from the business models of our current universities whose 'indulgences' carry the word 'degree' but the reliability of which in a complex employment market is only marginally easier to demonstrate. Luther's reformation in response to this was a democratising movement (one which of course carried its own pathologies, but was nevertheless a necessary corrective). The Catholic Church's response in the Council of Trent was a fundamental realignment of the organisation of the church.

Will history repeat itself with Universities? I think as Universities swallow up thousands of pounds that haven't yet been earned by their students, as they behave with little accountability to their staff, as the value of the degrees they sell are questioned, as they only pay lip-service to their fundamental social mission... we are heading for trouble. What should we do? What sort of institutions do we want?

I have a simple recommendation. I propose that University Vice-Chancellors and their senior management teams should be elected by the staff and students of the University on fixed terms of office. Only by democratising the governance of the University can the separation between administration and knowledge, between social function and business viability be addressed. We've seen too many VCs on huge salaries; we've seen too much bullying of good staff by philistine managers; we've seen too many circumventions of employment law; we've seen too many harebrained schemes for "global domination" which serve nobody's interests other than those in charge; and we've seen too much protectionism of managerial position.

Democratising Universities will make the fundamental connection between the politics of institutional life and deep knowledge of the social mechanisms which University is meant to serve. It will protect against managerial excess. It will provide ways in which the academics - who make up the university and whose service is dedicated to the transmission of culture - can act if they don't like what they see.

With the private sector taking an ever-larger role in the provision of degrees (rather like the printers who made a killing printing indulgences! - see ) there is a need for societal (which means government) regulation. There is a laissez-faire attitude within government currently that believes that financial regulation through the provision of the funding councils and student loans will suffice. It won't. Deeper regulatory change in the form of democratisation of the way that institutions are actually governed is what is really needed. I believe there should be a campaign!

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