The Crisis of Legitimation in Higher Education

You can tell that University administration has become dysfunctional when it becomes normal for everyone to refer to senior managers from the VC downwards by their first names. After all, properly functional, responsible bureaucracies are supposed to be anonymous and depersonalised – yet Universities in the UK increasingly organise themselves internally as if the effective operations and achievements of the whole institution can be accounted for by the forms of authority projected through the charisma of their ‘leaders’ (This is a just warped expression of a more basic and much cherished principle of University governance, whereby Vice-Chancellors are selected from ‘the ranks’ as it were, moving from practicing academics to senior management positions). Of course, the relationships that really matter in Universities are those structured by conventions of pastoral care between students and teachers, and by respect between professionals, not those structured by weirdly personified hierarchies of cascading “strategy”. In the UK, the consequences of the topsy-turvy distribution of personal relations of trust and suspicion in cultures of higher education management (see also my previous comments on the systematic distrust towards academic professionalism embedded in the TEF) have been fully realised in the current dispute about the future of the pension system in pre-1992 Universities. And whatever the outcome of the dispute, it seems to me that there at least two certainties upon which one can count about what life is going to be like in the future for people working in this part of the UK higher education sector.

1). Large numbers of academic and non-academic staff working in British Universities now know that senior management have, to varying degrees and with some notable and honourable exceptions, been actively seeking to systematically diminish the pay and conditions of those working in the sector – we know this because we have all been reading about this for at least a couple of weeks now, a bit late perhaps but better late than never (you can read the position of your own institution here, and more generally follow up on this issue by following the commentary by Michael Otsuka). If the UUK position on the future of the USS pension system prevails, then there will be an awful lot of University staff who will find themselves significantly less materially well off and secure in the future. I’m not aware of any plan by any University to think about compensating their staff for the financial losses which will follow from proposed changes to the USS system. Basically, we’re all expected to do the same amount of work (that is, “more and more” of it all) for less money. This is worth saying out loud to underscore the brazen quality of the collective position publicly endorsed by Universities which provoked the current strike action by University staff. Even if the UUK position does not prevail, even if in some unlikely outcome the UCU’s position wins the day (I’m not that optimistic), then what now exists is an open awareness across the sector, amongst everyone working in a University (with a few notable exceptions), that the particular institution they work for was more or less happy to try to force through this sort of restructuring as quietly as possible, without admitting it, and by attempting to ‘naturalise‘ the economics of pensions by way of justification when called out. The sheer mendacity of Universities in allowing the dispute over pensions to get to the current point (leaving aside deeper questions about longer term mismanagement of the pensions system) is not something that will just be erased from memories – it’s now a known fact about institutions that are often enough happy to circulate platitudinous congratulations to their staff when League Table results go well or REF outcomes are positive or NSS scores go up, that they were and are keen to steal money from those same staff members in order to sustain what seem like increasingly thoughtless and unsustainable strategies of institutional growth and ‘global’ competitiveness (the visible, measurable success of which we all suspect directly benefits senior management through ill-considered performance related pay schemes).

2). The irreparable damage to morale and trust that follows from the betrayal revealed by the UUK position and the way it has been meekly supported by individual institutions is only further worsened by the ways in which the more routine forms of higher education administration have been almost automatically applied to the micro-management of the current dispute. This extends from explicitly punitive and provocative efforts to bully staff into giving up on strike action through to more ordinary, often rather clumsy, but I have no doubt widespread efforts such as those at my own institution to require individual academics to provide detailed information about the impact of their strike action on teaching (somehow they never ask that question about impacts on research), as well as explicit efforts to force colleagues to make-up classes not held because of strike action (i.e. to provide teaching after the strike for which salary has been withheld because of being on strike). These sorts of heedless attempts to manage the effects of the strike action extend to the making of blanket promises to students, strongly implying to them that any missed classes will indeed be caught-up by striking academics, a promise which amounts to central University managers seeking to leverage the expectations of students in order to expose often relatively junior staff members to further stress, harassment and pressure. In one respect, this is business as usual, in so far as all of these forms of response reflect what is now an almost taken-for-granted model of top-down micro-control in which University management seeks to monopolise the right to speak in the interests of students in order to impose from above changes to teaching practices that are wholly insensitive to either sound pedagogy or well-established good practice at ‘the chalkface’. In short, if one certainty going forward is that senior University managers will not be able to put their own Humptiness back together again, the other seems to be that they will nonetheless continue for a while yet to operate with the same centralised models of internal micro-management as before, thereby only compounding the effects of demotivation, demoralization and lack of trust that follow from 1). above.

The predictable outcome of the current dispute, then, is that University senior managements are likely to be widely held in contempt by significant proportions of the staff working for their own institutions, and with complete justification. Again, with some exceptions of differing degrees (and those exceptions just underscore the degree to which the standard line taken by many Universities is an intentional decision to act in a particular manner), a large number of individual Universities and the umbrella organisation UUK have been revealed to be dishonest, out of touch, ill-informed, and manipulative (did I forget to mention incompetent?); and the embedded systems of institutional micro-management that have been rolled-out over the last decade or so have been revealed to be entirely unsuited to the cultivation and maintenance of a spirit of collegiality upon which any University community crucially depends.

Properly speaking, that all amounts to a real live crisis of legitimation – Universities no longer have the means to secure the identification of those over whom they presume to exert authority.

It should be said that this is far from an unambiguous state of affairs. University management in the UK is already suffering from a very serious PR problem thanks to scandals about vice-chancellor pay and expenses. The cultural politics of that issue are far from obviously aligned with the interests being defended by the UCU in its campaign for secure pensions (remember, the same person who thinks that levels of VC pay is a scandal also thinks that academics’ spend half their time on holiday, which is another way of saying we are underworked and overpaid). This dispute, however enlivening and affirming for all of those involved in it, is taking place in a context in which a decadent and decaying Tory government is intent on forcing through a series of ill-considered structural changes to higher education, including revisions to student fee systems, intrusive regulatory regimes (TEF, again), heightened competition by allowing ‘new entrants’, and further compromising the autonomy and integrity of research at the altar of ‘innovation’ and ‘regional growth’ and ‘impact’ and ‘global challenges’. For an entire culture of higher education senior management and leadership to have been so thoroughly delegitimized in the eyes of those who, remember, do all the teaching and deliver all that research excellence, is in this wider context a far from unambiguous process. There is, after all, nothing about ‘crisis’ situations that tends naturally to encourage progressive outcomes. This is a moment for heightened vigilance not only towards the unfolding of this particular dispute but also of the ways in which this dispute might be spun and appropriated by various interested on-lookers.

The ‘crisis’ that the current dispute over pensions represents is, one might suggest, in no small part an effect of a systematic form of hubris shared across a whole stratum of University managers, a stratum which has for more than two decades happily embraced and promoted the idea that Universities can do everything – deliver social mobility, help drive national economic growth and technological innovation and revive productivity, generate cultural diversity and creativity, anchor local and regional dynamism, and various other functions too. Taking on these undeniably public responsibilities has, however, been associated not only with the adoption of particular models of University financing but also with the consolidation of ill-starred systems of centralised and hierarchical management that are, in practice, at odds with the fundamentally pluralistic qualities of the modern University. There is behind all of these issues a series of questions about the opacity and unaccountability of University governance, beyond and above questions about the management of Universities, that too often remain hidden from view – time for the co-operative University, anyone?

 

 

The Politics of Knowing in the Modern University

Source: Ian Cook et alOne of the peculiar things about working in Higher Education in the UK these days, as Universities become increasingly assertive about declaring their own public significance – in terms of their contributions to students’ employability and thereby national productivity, to regional and national economic regeneration, and to local diversity and creativity – is the sense of dissonance that arises from the use made by those institutions of various sorts of ‘data’ and ‘evidence’ and even ‘concepts’ to support those justificatory claims, on the one hand, and on the other what seems increasingly to be the systematic elision of social science expertise in the public performance of the importance of any single University, or of Universities in general (as a colleague of mine has helpfully pointed out, this process is one symptom of the institutionalised stupidity of audit-led higher education governance in the UK).

The current dispute between the University staff union, the UCU, and Universities UK (UUK) over the sustainability of USS pension system (or, if your prefer, over the attempt by the latter to basically allow Universities to steal money from their employees) is one example of this disconnect, and an illustration of the politics of knowing internal to the operations of contemporary HE institutions. The position of the UUK, parroted by many (though not all) VCs of Universities, rests on the claim to have access to  a singularly authoritative interpretation of complex financial information (including the putting beyond question of certain ‘facts’, as if actuarial knowledge is, and even presumes to be, an exact predictive science). But lo and behold, it turns out that Universities are full of people who not only read the papers and know about how institutions work and what really motivates people, but also a whole bunch of experts who turn out to be perfectly adept at questioning the authority of those singular interpretations of the facts.

The know-it-all style of communication displayed by some Universities in the current dispute is one part of a more general, increasingly taken-for-granted model adopted by Universities in which they loudly project their achievements and ambitions, in the interests of securing student recruitment, public and private funding, and not least, hoped-for alumni support. I sometimes wonder, only half seriously, whether Universities shouldn’t be obliged to append a message to their external communications stating that the viewpoints of ‘the University of X’ do not necessarily represent those of individuals working for that University. The same model of communications has become a feature of internal management cultures too – so that internal management is increasingly shaped by the self-congratulatory register that assumes that everyone is meant to buy into the corporatised mission of ‘the University’ – as if academics work for the the Universities that employ them, rather than simply working at those institutions: we derive our sense of vocation from and owe our loyalty to wider “invisible colleges”. (Whisper it, but really, nobody cares where the University they happen to work at stands in international league tables; that’s not something worth taking any pride in at all, and if you think it is, you don’t understand the complex ecology of modern scientific knowledge). And that’s simply a way of saying that ‘a’ University is more than one thing. Of course, people who manage Universities obviously know that; but increasingly this type of knowing has to be systematically effaced in practices of internal management – another version of stupidity, no doubt.

This style of univocal management is not unrelated to the habit of central HE administrations to assertively seek to represent “student voice” in internal management systems. Student voice is captured by various internal and external metric-based, not-very-robust survey methods (that’s you, NSS), one part of a broader audit culture in HE of course, and then wielded against academic staff to impose centrally determined, pedagogically dodgy programme changes. The purest expression of this form of management is the TEF, an insidious expression of out-of-date Principal-Agent theories of public management, in which students are understood to stand exposed to having their interests as recipients of services usurped by the temptations to self-interest of those supposed to provide those services. (There is a larger story to be told here about quite why British Universities remain beholden to models of top-down, hierarchical management that are, indeed, so dated). As a more or less eagerly embraced  system of mismanagement, the TEF involves a doubling of this set of understandings: externally, Government appointed agencies are meant to provide the monitoring function that will keep the Agents (Universities) from mistreating the Principals (students); internally, the logic is just cascaded downwards, so that the central management of the University takes on the role of guaranteeing that untrustworthy Agents (academics) don’t short-change the Principals (those same students). You’ll notice how, in this logic, ‘students’ are doubly displaced into chains of representation in which their ‘voice’ is only ever ventriloquised by those claiming to have their best interests in mind. In this model, students are always and only seen as Pawns; University senior management are treated by their external Government overlords as defensive elitists, but are tempted to think of themselves internally within their own institutions as altruistic Knights; and so, one way or the other, academic staff are only ever treated as Knaves.

One perhaps unexpected effect of the current dispute in UK higher education is the disclosure, revealed by quite robust survey methods, that lots of students’ seem quite sympathetic to the sorts of grievances behind the UCU-led dispute. At the very least, the presumption that students speak with one “voice”, one that aligns perfectly with the perspective represented by central University management strategies, evidently lies in ruins. Herein perhaps lies the longer term significance of this dispute, whatever its outcome (there’s certainly no need to be that optimistic that the employees’ position will win the day). What has been rather shamelessly revealed by the UUK position in general, and in varying degrees by different Universities in their somewhat insensitive repetitions of that position, is a fairly brazen lack of respect not only for their staff in terms of the material issues at stake (pay, pensions and conditions), but also for the basic professional competencies upon which Universities’ day-to-day roles of education, research, scholarly and pastoral care depend. That’s something very difficult to row back (I’m sure that from a management perspective it might well be a difficult task to motivate academics; but once they have been systematically de-motivated, it becomes impossible – all you are left with is systems to “incentivise” them, which are really just a way of systematising the de-motivation). I suspect that part of the reason why some VCs have recently distanced themselves, in different ways, from the UUK party line was an appreciation of the need to publicly maintain some modicum of professional respect towards their staff through the course of this dispute. Other Universities have simply doubled down on the “we know better than you do” model of management and communication, at the same time as thoughtlessly seeking to talk to students as if only they had their best interests at heart in contrast to short sightedness   academic staff.

Did someone say ‘stupid‘?