Benign dictators need academics

October 27, 1994

I have read John Rear's well-crafted apology for the new university managements (THES, October 21). It is a fine piece of rhetoric. I also attended Friday's meeting of the Council for Academic Autonomy where John Rear repeated his arguments. I did not think he persuaded the majority of people present. It is disappointing to find your editorial falling for the sophistry of his arguments.

Basically John Rear is wrong and Fergus Millar is right. We are faced with the emergence of managerial elites (to which Rear belongs) which amount in most cases to closed oligarchies. While they wield great powers, they are unelected and imposed from above by methods which are not open to scrutiny. Worst of all they are subject to very few checks on their power, and they cannot readily be called to book or sacked.

Externally, provided they balance their books, they are unlikely to be challenged. Internally, in the name of "effective management", senates and academic boards are being stripped of any worthwhile powers, and greatly reduced in their breadth of representation. Governing councils provide little effective check. Appointed members owe too much to the patronage of the elite who put them there, while elected representation is reduced.

There are two fundamental errors. One is the analogy with commercial companies. Universities are not commercial companies, and the shibboleths of production and consumerism have no application. A good university is a community of scholars and students, and its governing constitution should proceed from that. The imposition of the unidimensional ideology of commerce is barbarism.

Second, the greater priorities should be academic and social. Finance is not a priority just a necessary parameter, like buildings or sewers. While all institutions should live within their financial means, the superordinate weight which is given to the accountant is both mistaken and potentially vicious. We all know that financial arguments can be manipulated to achieve political aims. I am not persuaded that most managements have the high-minded commitment of which John Rear speaks. I do not deny the possibility of benign oligarchies and dictators. I would prefer not to be forced to rely on it.

John Wilkins Head of the departments of classics, and mediterranean studies, 1984-93, Queen Mary and Westfield College, London

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