Controlling impulses

July 10, 2014

Like Christopher Beedham (“A vote to leave the market”, Letters, 3 July), I am an Englishman living in Scotland, but unlike him I will not be voting for independence in the referendum. There are legitimate reasons to support Scottish independence, particularly the desire to have greater control over one’s local affairs - albeit at a price that includes having rather less international influence than is currently exercised at multiple levels by the UK. But avoiding research evaluation and the “managerialism” and “marketisation” of universities that has developed over the past two decades cannot be part of the argument.

These changes, many of which I regret, are far from unique to the UK, and it is difficult to suppose that independence will restore the golden age. Indeed, some of the changes that have occurred in Scotland under the Scottish National Party government whose raison d’être is independence indicate a strong controlling tendency from which the universities are unlikely to be immune. Examples include the recent Children and Young People (Scotland) Act, which assigns everyone born in Scotland after August 2016 an official named person (“state guardian”) who will monitor reports (including medical ones) on “their children” and who can propose interventions; parents are not to be trusted. A further example is the creation of a single police force (Police Scotland), which has used stop and search powers, particularly of young people, at a rate that far exceeds that of the Metropolitan Police.

Independence is posited by its advocates as providing gains for Scotland, but it is likely to be disadvantageous to the university sector, which would be exposed to the serious risk of losing access to both UK-wide and European Union research funding, as well as having to operate within the inherent constraints of a small country.

Paul Trayhurn
Dean of research strategy
University of Buckingham

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Reader's comments (1)

Paul Trayhurn is right that control is the key issue. He picks out some SNP policies which he disagrees with, but they are as nothing compared to the control which the market system exercises over academics in the universities. The biggest controlling factor is not internal to the university sector but external, coming from the Government, viz. the fact that university funding now comes not only from the Government but also from student fees, the REF, and external grants. But the Universities themselves also introduced several layers of various new structures, procedures and devices in the early 1990s to control academics. The biggest change was to move from Departments answerable to a Dean towards Schools answerable directly to the Vice-Chancellor/Principal. In purely numerical terms the change meant that the Vice-Chancellor has to deal with fewer Heads of School than Heads of Department, which alone makes it easier for them to control them, but more significantly the Vice-Chancellors began to take on a far more active role in ensuring that any academic chosen to be Head of School is suitably in tune with the new market system. There is some consultation, but the change clearly brought with it a diminution of democracy. Notions such as ‘devolved budgets’, ‘financial transparency’, ‘business plans’ and ‘debtor Departments’ were introduced, to keep academics focussed on the microfinances of their work. Customer feedback questionnaires were enforced, with questions formulated and the results interpreted by managers, to keep academics focussed on customer satisfaction. Suddenly academics had to apply for internal research leave. Their applications are vetted to ensure that the proposed research will generate income. The new application procedure also ensured that academics behave themselves and don’t complain, or else you might be turned down for research leave. Some universities closed down their Staff Clubs or Senior Common Rooms, fearing – quite rightly – that academics would meet and talk and object to elements of the new system. This amounted to a curb on our freedom of assembly. This curb was continued in the Schools structure, in that academics tend now to meet up only with academics within their School, not with academics from other Schools. Thus the determination of managers to impose the market system is so intense that they even ride roughshod over one of the fundamental catalysts of scientific and scholarly progress, which is academics from different disciplines getting together formally or informally and exchanging ideas. Some universities closed their Staff Newsletters, because they didn’t want customers (students) and competitors (other universities) to read gripes and complaints in them. This is a curb on our freedom of expression (the freedom to set up outlets through which we can express our opinion). They use a carrot and stick approach. The carrot is that if you bring in money and generally do as you are told you will be rewarded, e.g. through promotion. The stick is that if you don’t bring in money your Department or School will be closed down. You not only have to comply with the new system but not criticise it either, if you do you are punished. This is a curb on our freedom of speech (the freedom to express a particular opinion). I know of one academic who sent a letter to his Staff Newsletter criticising the new system and he was punished the next time he applied for internal research leave by being turned down for it, whereby his university made no secret of why he was being turned down. He was allowed to appeal and his appeal was upheld, but the message was clear. A few years later the offending Staff Newsletter was made digital only, no longer a paper copy sent to all staff, rendering it ineffective, and a few years after that it was closed down completely. For academics a British university today under the market system is a place of fear and intimidation. The market system is everywhere, it is a spider’s web, from which we cannot escape. Successive governments and university managers since the early 1990s have worked hard to control our behaviour and have largely succeeded in doing so, but they cannot control our minds nor take away our humanity. They have tried to turn us into (corporate) businessmen and businesswomen, into good (corporate) capitalists, but in that respect they have failed. No academic or even manager in Britain today seriously believes that the market system in the university sector works. If you took away the market system tomorrow academics would immediately go back to pursuing truth, and the same individuals who today are managers/enforcers would go back to being senior administrators. So I will be voting to leave the UK on 18 September, in an attempt to give the people of Scotland the chance to elect a government which will replace the UK’s corporate profits-friendly policies with people-friendly policies and which will re-introduce academic freedom into the Scottish universities . If that happens the people of England and the academics of England will see that and will react accordingly. Christopher Beedham Department of German, University of St Andrews

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