“There can be no debate with someone who denies the principles.”
My colleagues in philosophy will be better placed to discuss the origins of this age-old maxim – known in Latin as “Contra principia negantem non est disputandum” – but the basic idea is clear enough: one cannot have a discussion without a shared premise. There is no disputing the facts.
The maxim has come to mind with ever-increasing regularity – and clarity – from the moment news of the mooted university pension reforms broke, like the nightmare or vision at the beginning of a horror film, whose truth is gradually revealed.
My colleagues and I in the higher education sector have been bombarded with facts over the past few months.
My own vice-chancellor at Cardiff University first raised the spectre of pension reform in an all-staff email in November, an email that explained that the Universities Superannuation Scheme was a defined benefit scheme and that its trustee has to ensure that universities could afford their liabilities under rules laid down by the Pensions Regulator.
Some facts are better than others, and none are better than actual numbers. In a subsequent all-staff email in January, our vice-chancellor reported that the pension scheme was in deficit by about £7 billion, and employer contributions would have to rise by 4 per cent, costing Cardiff more than £10 million annually.
Facts are facts. These ones are, of course, regrettable. “It is understandable that members of the scheme feel strongly about this issue,” read the email. “The strength of feeling amongst USS members is palpable and understandable, and nobody would want to be in the position we find ourselves,” it added. So who can disagree with facts? Do they not represent a fait accompli?
This has been the position of almost all vice-chancellors: combining facts with profound expressions of regret.
Vice-chancellors were wellsprings of understanding and compassion. We really wish it wasn’t so, but the facts leave us no choice. Staff have every right to feel emotional, but we need to be reasonable and eventually we will have to move on.
The origins of this strategy can be debated. (I am a historian, but of the 16th century – I don’t think roots go back quite that far.) Certainly, it was successful for a time. Not only did it foreclose the possibility of debate – facts are facts – it made any response seem overtly emotional, an unwillingness to see reason.
Yet, facts are never just facts, and numbers even less so. Facts, we teach first-year history undergraduates, are made. Facts are nothing without interpretation. It is historians that identify turning points, they are not there waiting to be found. As E.H. Carr noted in 1961, in a chapter entitled “The Historian and His [sic] Facts”, “those historians who today pretend to dispense with a philosophy of history are merely trying, vainly and self-consciously, like members of a nudist colony, to recreate the Garden of Eden in their garden suburb.” (Carr was a Marxist, as students are always surprised to learn, but his point about facts and their interpretation still stands.)
In this pension dispute, staff were presented with the polished end product of a protracted process of interpretation and – dare I say it – manipulation, intended to occlude the possibility of debate.
This process intended to hide from view legitimate areas of discussion. Forecasts based on assumptions (some of them highly dubious, which involved the bankruptcy of the higher education sector) were transformed into cold, hard facts, whose veracity only the most hot-blooded would refuse to accept.
This gambit which once looked so successful has run into trouble. Even if employers still prevail (and I hope not), their leaders are weakened. Their strategy has been exposed and can never again be resurrected. Their facts have become factoids. You are in trouble when your pension calculations are challenged by the Financial Times.
The desperation with which vice-chancellors have clung to their reasonableness has also become apparent. Oxford’s vice-chancellor expressed her understanding for “the depth of feeling on [the pension] issue but I have to say that I have been disheartened these past few days by the tenor of some of the debate”, but then endorsed a strategy that frustrated debate in the university’s main decision-making body. She, too, has now changed course.
Reasonableness such as this is the embodiment of passive-aggressive behaviour. It can be diagnosed and pointed out, but those who engage in it are impossible to dislodge from their stance.
Yet, at least, passive-aggressive behaviour is almost necessarily time-limited.
Vice-chancellors are finding that, stripped of their facts, the mask of “I-am-sorry-you-feel-so-strongly” can hold only for so long.
Let’s hope that they will soon abandon this posture altogether. Employees have been waiting for an honest debate for far too long already.
Jan Machielsen is a lecturer in early modern history at Cardiff University.