Tuesday, 22 July 2014

They can't mean me…

Now and then I get a slightly exhausted senior manager on the phone, asking me in for a little chat about whatever the local rag has stolen from my Twitter feed or blog. So far, they've been very kind and understanding, and always insisted that I would never be asked to remain silent on whatever subject has caught my eye that week. Nonetheless, it's pretty clear that they would rather I occasionally passed up the opportunity to offer my two cents. I do, too: despite some pretty childish attempts by local hacks to rile me, I've let some things drop and not raised others. I'm certainly a lot more circumspect about the things I learn in my role as union rep and university governor too: despite my reputation as a bigmouth, there are plenty of things that have either enthused me or depressed me that I've maintained a discreet silence about. I'm just one person and I'm not always the best qualified individual to judge what should and shouldn't be publicly aired, despite my strong feeling that a university is nothing if it isn't a series of loud, public arguments.

In the sector generally, silence is beginning to fall. Quiet words are being had, prominent individuals are being sidelined, suspended or retired for disagreeing with management in public. In the new university sector, the institution is no longer the ramshackle conglomeration of students, teachers, support staff, managers, local authorities and interested parties. The university is now a small collection of very highly-paid professional administrators at whose beck and call we exist. From cleaners to professors, 'we' are no longer the institution: we service it. (I prefer the original Italian model in which students would hire a room and a lecturer).

One of the many problems with this horrid corporate model is that suddenly we're all meant to obey the Word from on High. Corporate loyalty and obedience become paramount. In the old days, academics were meant to be unruly troublemakers. That's why we were hired: we have a loyalty to the ideals of education, not to the local and contingent structures in which we find ourselves. We challenged old nostrums, whether about the Great Vowel Shift or the catering menu. Now the job consists of two things: Teaching and Shutting Up. One manager recently proudly told me that his job is to ensure that nobody 'disruptive' gets a job here: I thought the point of higher education was to disrupt the status quo.

This hierarchical, top-down corporate structure is beginning to acquire a legal and managerial structure. Take David Browne's public (and hastily removed) musing on Luis Suarez's behaviour and what it means for universities:
‘high performing’ academics can damage their ‘university’s brand’ by their ‘outspoken opinions or general insubordination’.
In the probably non-existent Golden Age of higher education, it was accepted that academics would and could be a royal pain in the arse. There are even witty books about playing the academic game, and hundreds of tedious diaries and biographies of Senior Wranglers from Oxbridge colleges who spent their entire careers whispering poison about each other into influential ears. Campus novels teem with single-minded Vice-Chancellors worn down by academics who won't knuckle down and follow orders. Most of them are very boring.

It's different now. Universities, as Mr Browne observes, are brands and businesses which happen to produce education as their product. Some have been like that for years, such as Warwick. Once the end-result of a university education isn't critical thinkers, an oppressive apparatus of control appears (and in specific regard to Business Schools: the global economy collapses because nobody's being critical). Some elements are minor or silly: meaningless slogans, logos, email footers. Others are more heavy-handed. Out goes the legally-protected notion of academic freedom:
academic freedom is specified in the Education Reform Act 1988, Section 202 (2). The clause, setting out the role of a new body of University Commissioners, is quite specific: “to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions
and in comes the imposition of mission statements, pronunciamentos and a general air of disappointment and fury every time we who have found ourselves at the bottom of a hierarchical structure we naively thought was egalitarian resist the latest attack on principles we hold dear. Yes, we have a legal right to 'question and test received opinion', but I wouldn't mind betting that an industrial tribunal will see a university argue that this right refers only to scholarly concepts and not to corporate policy. 

If I suddenly go quiet, look for me teaching Business English on the midnight shift at our Siberian satellite campus.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well PV, your Academic Freedom Blog was a long time coming. Anthony Wilden, in System and Structure, is instructive on the illusion of Academic Freedom. I used to try and teach the stuff until a professor at an Institution not at all unlike yours, albeit a POLYtechnic, told a senior manager that I was unreliable and untrustworthy to be considered for a 'principal lecturing' post. THe propfessor researched 'thinking and reasoning' and was regarded as an 'eminence'. Heaven Help Us.