Free up academics to solve UK higher education problems

Toby Miller on the lessons that other countries could teach universities in the UK

February 15, 2017
Puppet, control, strings, freedom
Source: iStock

I’m a relative newcomer to UK academia, having moved here after 20 years teaching at New York University and the University of California. I had a very interesting conversation the other day with a senior academic who recently travelled in the reverse direction, from the UK to the US. 

He’s astonished by what he is experiencing. After a quarter of a century socialised into the English academic world, he keeps asking people in his new job the following question: “Can I do this?” 

Their answer? “Why are you asking us? Just do it.” 

He can’t believe this after the extraordinarily hierarchical nature of English academic life, where departmental meeting agendas are set by management and monitored by bureaucrats; where faculty participation in search committees and mentoring is subject to scrutiny and “training”; where curricula are established by bureaucrats and imposed on faculty; where there is uncritical adoration of student evaluations, despite the spuriousness of such alleged “science“; oh – and where even supervisors’ interactions with graduate students are under scrutiny

The history of excellent research universities around the world can be seen as a complex, contradictory, but nevertheless distinctive struggle over many centuries for autonomy from church, state and capital. That struggle is entering a new phase – where governmental control and commercial imperatives are generating a mimetic managerial fallacy: the imagined efficiencies of companies (or the military) are meant to indicate how universities should operate. 

I’d like to suggest an alternative to these anti-democratic, anti-professional, anti-intellectual tendencies. It may well be that what I propose already happens in some UK schools. If so, great. 

One model is the University of California, where senior bureaucrats have control over budgets. Faculty run most other things (for example, establishing or closing departments). I’d like to see something like that here, and an additional change derived from parts of the Hispanic world, where rectors – the equivalent of vice-chancellors are (wait for it) often elected by faculty

We need that sort of democracy, from the apex of power down. Deans, who are often apparatchiks serving at the pleasure of vice-chancellors, should be voted into office by faculty, administrators and graduate students. Departmental chairs should be elected by the same groups, and decisions on admissions should be taken by faculty, not target-driven, unqualified people.

That way lies, ironically, greater efficiency and effectiveness, but more importantly, a model of workplace relations characterised by employee participation. 

This should help us overturn the baleful norms that are coming to characterise higher education in the UK, including the lack of diversity among senior management, unrepresentative decision-making and a lack of faculty authority over admissions, research and curriculum. Is this so difficult?

Toby Miller is a professor and director of the Institute for Media and Creative Industries at Loughborough University.

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Reader's comments (1)

Supervisors interactions with grad students should, if anything, be under even more scrutiny. There are far too many cases of bad supervision and ensuing mental health and stress issues as it is.

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