Blogconfidential: Final reckoning

In the last in this series, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: Final reckoning

May 5, 2011

Our university is massively in debt. Even if we start charging the maximum fee permissible from 2012-13, we will still slide further into the abyss.

I'm a middle manager, or should I say a muddle manager: one of the poor souls whose thankless task it is to try to sort out the mess. The ineptitude of our vice-chancellor and his board beggars belief. We are constantly asked to do things we know are short-termist, ineffective or simply wrong.

The university is involved in a grandiose building programme that it simply cannot afford. Untroubled, the vice-chancellor is making our position worse by embarking on some clearly overambitious and risky ventures overseas. This incompetence has led to our inexcusable debt.

Recently I was emailed a confidential memo about privatisation. It identified several large companies with which the university, it was suggested, could "form alliances of mutual financial codependency". The contents are explosive and to my knowledge I am the only person outside the vice-chancellor's office to have seen them. The memo says that the university has commissioned consultants to explore the possibility of flotation on the financial markets. Is this legal?

I want to go public with what I know. I have little to lose - I can always return to practice. Should I leak the memo?

This is the final Blog Confidential and I have no intention to go out condoning such ineptitude. The absurd argument that universities should try to ape the market has gained a great deal of currency of late, if you will pardon the pun, so I would imagine that David Willetts and his ilk would be keen to support such a venture.

Higher education is in the most lamentable state. I am close to retirement myself and I relish the thought of leaving a profession that is failing to tackle the key ethical and moral dilemmas of the day. Aren't universities almost privatised already?

Full privatisation of the sector would lead to coercion and manipulation. It would force academics to undertake studies that yield greater profit rather than research that advances the common good.

Your desire to expose this errancy is admirable but someone with less courage has sent the email to you, so take care that you are not being set up. The safest option would be to pass the memo to your union and let it, with all its resources, spread the bad news. It can (or should) give it a national airing, but don't hold your breath: unions seem more preoccupied with pension rights than wider libertarian issues these days.

If the government is contemplating the privatisation of "failing" universities, it should also consider allowing the creation of more egalitarian centres of excellence, where those who teach and learn can develop free from bureaucracy and the corporate vision of the academy that so many of us view with repugnance. Of course, such centres were known as universities once.

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