Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Brave New World of Corporate HE

Here's a piece which will no doubt be twisted by the local paper. But no matter.

Who are the new Vice-Chancellors? In the old days, those at the 'old' universities were like to be posh white males with a strong academic background and a history of long service. Conservative but committed to their institutions, they took their rewards as respect, a gong and access to a network of influence. The 'new' universities often had 'Directors' or 'Principals' and were more likely to be local and have an academic background in supposedly more practical subjects. Frequently answerable to local government, they had fewer titles but more commitment to the region and what we'd now call 'widening participation'. They might not get a knighthood afterwards but an OBE was likely.

Neither group featured many businessmen or women, and the discourse of the City was largely absent. 'Human Resources' departments were rare, students weren't described as 'customers', 'stakeholders' or 'business partners'. The staff might have been a royal pain in the collective Vice-Chancellorian bottom, but they tended to be personally known to the senior management and it was generally assumed that both staff and management had the students' and institutions' best interests at heart. Money was always tight, but state funding seemed reliable and uncontentious. Other local institutions weren't rivals in the way industrial competitors see each other. Salaries, even at a senior level, weren't outrageous – a VC might earn 4 times what a lecturer did.

All that's gone now. Universities are largely forced to behave like corporations. We compete for students through a process of bribery, advertising (the scoundrel's art) and marketing. We sit in meetings and talk about our 'offer', rather than the academic quality of what we do. It's a buyer's market, I guess, and the students have a lot of debt to distribute. They're customers and we're 'providers'. Despite being 'non-profit' and usually set up as charities, the neoliberal discourse of business has infected us like a particularly itchy STD. It's hard to tell VCs apart from football managers and the myriad Alan Sugar-groupies infesting the nation's boardrooms.

There are two areas in which this is particularly apparent. The first is in senior management's salaries. Negotiated individually, Vice-Chancellors' salaries have rocketed. The argument is that there's fierce competition for 'talent', which requires higher salaries. This is, of course, nonsense. It's the same argument bankers make while explaining to shareholders that bonuses have to increase even though profits have slumped. There's a new breed of Vice-Chancellor, one which looks to the corporate boardroom as his/her peer-group and demands to be paid on the same level. As this article notes, it ends up with people like Birmingham University's Eastwood getting £400,000 for taking out injunctions against his own students and getting rid of dissenters from key committees. They have a career path laid out and it isn't one of public service: it won't be long before VCs and people from the corporate world pop in and out of these previously separate spheres because universities have become just another business, providing 'educational services'.

Just like the bankers, these salaries have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is the salaries of staff lower down, library stocks, decent buildings, SU funds and all the other things a university needs, despite the disingenuous bleating of management:
A 1% pay increase for all staff is valued at circa £850,000. Every additional 1% added to the University payroll is £850,000 that cannot be spent elsewhere. 
At my own institution senior management are paid on the lower end of the scale (the VC 'only' gets about £210,000) but it's noticeable that lucrative promotions are available to them much more readily than they are to the rest of us. Since 2008 our pay has decreased in real terms: rises of 0.5% and 1% when inflation has reached 3.7% at times. These effective pay cuts are planned for another 4 years, so I and my colleagues will have undertaken an entire decade of getting poorer while the Directors of HR, Estates, Marketing etc – people who haven't had to spend a decade of their lives merely qualifying for a job before starting – head off into the stratosphere, whether they 'perform' or not. Who are their managers? Each other, all keen to maintain differentials. Perhaps the governors: but half of them are hand-picked by senior management and inconvenient people like me are excluded from finance and employment discussions despite being told that once in place, all governors are equal.

I'm sorry to say that staff now are treated as the enemy. Where once we were treated as partners in a joint enterprise, we're now the hired help, a cost centre to be stripped down. Any attempt to improve conditions for us and for students (smaller class sizes, or better library stocks, let alone stable salaries) are treated as outrageous special pleading by the greedy. Remember the argument about paying to attract talent? Well apparently it stops at the Executive level. Here's a charming quote from a letter sent to me and my colleagues when our latest strike was announced:
The Vice Chancellor, in his letter to staff in December 2013, indicated that a 1% salary uplift for staff on nationally agreed pay scales was both fair and consistent with what many other large public and private sector organisations were awarding. In fact, many organisations have not awarded a pay increase for several years and local authorities in our region are having to look at making posts redundant.
Many of our staff realise that the trade unions’ demands for higher pay increases are neither affordable nor sustainable. We believe that our staff, both academic and non-academic receive better pay than many non-HE employees (source: Annual Survey of HE Earnings April 2012, ONS), along with enjoying the benefits of excellent sick pay and pension schemes.
So while we have to offer enormous salaries to attract and retain senior management (not people who ever have to demonstrate their skills to a peer-group through ongoing cutting-edge research and teaching', we should be grateful that a) we get to keep our jobs and b) count ourselves lucky because people in the corporate sector are treated even worse. Essentially, senior management is endorsing a race to the bottom - but only for the rest of us. Clearly we are just disposable drones. And as for the 'excellent…pension schemes' and job security: perhaps the VC and his friends have forgotten that we lost 150 colleagues to plug a gap in government funding caused by management incompetence on reporting student numbers for which not a single person resigned (the previous VC said she took 'full responsibility', which meant precisely nothing). Perhaps they've forgotten too that these apparently 'excellent' pensions have been downgraded and now require much longer periods of service before we qualify, as well as higher contributions – and all on top of a working life which sees many academics achieve permanent employment only when they're in their 30s (I was 34).

I see this as part of the proletarianisation of previously professional jobs. Our responsibilities to education as a public good, to Higher Education as an ideal, to our institutions as drivers of critical thinking are being stripped away. Instead we're here simply to deliver a business-friendly curriculum as cheaply as possible. The atmosphere has changed for the worse round here to the point where goodwill no longer exists: docking us a full day's pay for every two hour strike is just the kind of petty spitefulness you get when a bunch of people decide that they are the bosses and we are the masses. They know they've cut our salaries, reduced our numbers, increased class sizes, cut module and degree choices, that the opportunities to conduct research and to disseminate it have recently been withdrawn even while they demand higher REF performance: I've just come to the conclusion that they just no longer care or at best don't want to think about it. I've lost good faith in senior management's commitment to the ideals of education, which saddens me immensely.

We're no longer considered partners, contributors or colleagues: we're just the workforce and we should do as we're told, shut up and accept whatever a bunch of very well-paid executives can spare from their expense accounts. If they cut pay and the institutions 'costs' (i.e. what's needed to provide a well-rounded education), they've achieved 'efficiency'. Which is all that matters.

Update: of course it doesn't have to be this way. One of the most interesting Vice-Chancellors of recent times is Ferdinand von Pronzynski, formerly of Ireland, now in Scotland:
One of the most galling experiences of any university leader (or at least of this one) is to be told that academics lead an easy life and are under no pressure to work hard. It is a miserably resilient piece of horse shit, that is spread around society like manure, but of the kind that clogs the system rather than nourish it.
Like Kate Bowles, whose cancer diagnosis has sharpened her already-acute sense of the changing nature of academia,  Ferdinand knows what really happens in the ivory tower:
Those who work in universities, on the whole still, enjoy more flexible terms, meaning that they have some discretion as to how to organise their working lives. That just about still exists. But mostly, this discretion is exercised by academics (and also other university staff) in taking on far more than they should. It is a job in which you will find yourself working at any hour of the day or night.
That's certainly true of me: despite supposedly working to rule, I repeatedly find myself locked in, having lost track of time. I'm not special. Many of my colleagues work harder (and definitely more productively) than I do: but we have a sense of duty which outweighs other demands on our time. I know one colleague who tells her partner she's in the pub when actually she's sneaked back into the office to do more work. Another delays emails automatically so it doesn't betray the fact that he's working at 4. a.m.
But honestly, in what other profession would you find anyone reading their work mail after midnight? How many people in other jobs accept assignments and tasks that they know when they accept them they will only be able to perform at weekends or at night or during their annual leave? And how many professionals elsewhere have to take on the chin ‘witty’ suggestions that they have five months annual holidays when they know that, if they are lucky, they’ll take three weeks?
Check, check and check.

Will UCEA and my institution listen? No - but they will put on the occasional seminar on 'coping with stress'. I don't want to cope with it: I want to end it. But that's too much to ask.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hear hear. I'm absolutely with you on this.

Kate said...

This is an astonishing bit of head-above-the-parapet action that should give us all great hope. Thank you.

I have been increasingly astonished that the people on the highest salaries in our universities seem to need some extra coin to persuade them to show up, whereas those on the lowest, zero hours contracts are expected increasingly to do it for love. The logic is that we need to pay senior executives competitively or they'll race off to industry. So I find myself wondering how long it will take our very talented and skills colleagues in the precariat to recognise that they can do likewise. Because then it's going to be hard to justify the upper stratosphere of salary reward, with no actual shop to manage.

And as for workplace wellness programs, don't get me started.