Friday, 27 April 2018

Prizes, professionalism and…something completely different

Good Friday!
You catch me in a mood of unaccustomed indeterminacy. On the one hand, my wonderful students voted to give me an award yesterday, so I'm now the proud holder of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence.

I'm always ambivalent about prizes, knowing that anything any individual does is the expression of wider culture, context and structure and also because I'm deeply bitter and unfulfilled, but it's lovely and very humbling to know that I've made sufficient difference to people's lives that they want me to know about it. The other hand is the continued bullying and unprofessionalism emanating from our Human Resources department, which is now reaching back to the 18th-century to employ cant to defend their various assaults on our professionalism. Get this: Faculty union reps cannot be allowed to represent colleagues because it might be upsetting and the university which wants to sack them has a duty to care about their feelings. 

The previous argument was that union reps potentially impacted by the restructure would be conflicted. They've kept that one and added this utter nonsense about sparing our snowflaky feelings. Then they told a blatant lie to prevent a union rep from another faculty getting into a meeting (failed).  And they wonder why when an HR manager asked 'who do you trust? Your union or your employer?', colleagues just laughed.

It's a very odd thing to go from shaking hands with the VC at 9.00 p.m. to explaining to him the shortcomings of his Faculty managers at 9.00 a.m.!

Academia is a very strange life. As a profession and an institution, it's way older than the corporate and financial structures within which it now exists: it emerged from religious and communal models with a set of values relating to the communal good, but now has to justify its existence in a much more hostile environment: one of the good things the VC did this morning was to give a clear, analytical assessment of British HE's political and social environment. Institutions have to balance values, a coherent understanding of what constitutes the public good, commitment to the local community and economy, an increasingly competitive prestige market, a sales-oriented approach to students, its own financial sustainability, and a regulatory environment which is both chaotic and relentlessly opposed to autonomy, challenges to its own underlying assumptions, and to any values beyond 'value for money'. HE leaders want to simultaneously preserve the special nature of universities while also behaving like CEOs. They like the gowns, title and towers but they also like to individualise and hierarchise decision-making and policy-setting (they call this 'modernisation') because they think Elon Musk and Alan Sugar are cool rather than exploitative, sociopathic, greedy nineteenth-century style sweatshop merchants, and because they believe that survival is a matter of speaking the language of marketisation rather than transcending it - understandable but in my view conceding the field. We see these tensions in play all the time: the shenanigans around REF eligibility, executive pay (constantly increasing), academic pay (no increase since 2008), recruitment struggles, battles over union recognition and a host of issues.

Although some of my good friends have been bullied out of higher education and feel much the better for it, life is worthwhile despite it all for me because all I want to do is talk and write about creative work with people who are equally enthused by the curious thrill of encountering a cultural artefact, however, weird, scary, offensive, mainstream, obscure, boring, sexy, cerebral or incomprehensible that particular book, play, sonata or doodle might be. I have my off days and no student could ever be completely engaged all the time, but my teaching model has always assumed that the other people in the room are as curious and open-minded as I am. If not, we cope with it and sometimes we fall out, but on the whole I find that enthusiasm is contagious despite the ever-widening cultural and age gaps between us. I can shut the classroom door, be isolated from the tide of metrics, survey, quality enhancement strategy documents, course journals, directives and threats that fill the inbox and just converse about interesting things.

The same thing goes for my colleagues and managers: none of us do this for the huge cash jackpot (which is just as well) and goodwill abounds. I always hope that when I cross swords with executives and senior management figures, they understand that it's mostly out of a genuine and deeply-held commitment to the open, democratic ideals of academia, though I'm first to admit that I find it very easy to rub people up the wrong way and I have on occasion contacted people to say so or to apologise for letting my mouth get the better of me. Nobody likes a smartarse (which I know I can be) and relentless hostility doesn't often produce results, so I'm trying to reserve my deepest ire for the most serious situations. Sadly this is one of those times, and I've had to publicly call for the replacement of my Faculty management because its actions, plans and methods will retard the provision of good teaching and research to the community even when the current difficult HE climate is taken into account. The outrageous behaviour of our HR department is really testing me though - currently they're saying union representatives in a Faculty facing redundancy can't attend meetings to protect them from stress, and they're claiming that any expression of no-confidence in management is 'personal' criticism and a breach of the university's values. I look forward to deploying the same arguments when I next represent a colleague accused of unprofessional behaviour…Meanwhile, threatening all 700+ members of the academic staff with disciplinary action at the same time is apparently perfectly acceptable.

Anyway, sermon over. If any of my students and colleagues at any level are still reading: thank you - you keep me going and I hope I help you too.

As for the rest of my week: it's been busy. My drama class had a second week on Jennifer Haley's disturbing, brilliant play The Nether, and a visit from dramatist and comics author Matt Beames, which provided students with insights into the creative life. I went fencing and for the second week running didn't lose any fights because, having been away injured, people had forgotten how useless I am and mistook my graceless flailing for cunning second- and third-intention attacks. I bought a mop. I went to the SU Awards which involved good company and an excellent dinner in the stadium restaurant of the football team that is about to replace my beloved Stoke City in the Premiership but I'm absolutely fine with that completely fine no bother at all honestly. I read the lightest of light books: The Clue Bible, a history of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Despite everything (the rather reactionary, boys-only, posh, Cambridge-common room culture and the refusal to engage with the real world), I have an enduring love of the silly, weightless word-play and gentle anarchy of radio comedy. I have the complete Round the Horne on my phone and I'm Sorry… will often leave me helpless with laughter and I'll confess to a love of Paul Temple and Steve, George Formby and Gracie Fields too. Here's a taste - dive into a different mood.

1 comment:

Nell said...

Read with disgust the refusal of accompanying union rep to meeting on redundancy. You probably know all this, but just in case. Hull UCU Branch have had some success in using our uni's own policies and the law, against them. Pretty sure any member of staff can take a union rep to any meeting with management or HR - it is standard practice in all kinds of meetings. Check policies on redundancy, HR rarely read policies. If there is no provision in policy, then ACAS advises individuals are given the opportunity to bring a union rep as this is good practice.
Denying individuals union representation would be dim viewed by an employment tribunal.
HR should have to explain in writing (they hate writing as well) why they are not adopting best practice. Also include reference to Health and Safety Act 1974 Management of health and safety at work regulations 1999. Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a stress risk assessment and acting on it. Tell them that your branch H&S officer will be performing a stress risk assessment and no meetings will take place until this risk assessment has been conducted. The employer is legally obliged to act on the outcome of the risk assessment. If they refuse to obey the law they risk having the redundancies challenged in at an employment tribunal. H&S Officer, Hull UCU Branch.