Blow away oligarchies

November 4, 1994

Two weeks ago (THES October 21), we had John Rear (approved by your leader) attacking critics of the new university managements; last week we had Christina Townsend of BTEC attacking, in a Maggie Thatcher-style, the "unsubstantiated claims" of "a handful of malcontents" in further education colleges who dare to suggest that financial desperation and "output funding" are forcing colleges in difficulty to cut corners.

Like most of the Tory right, its appointees and mimics, she reserves particular venom for what she calls the "self-styled" Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards, presumably because it was not set up by the Government (like BTEC) and is therefore not legitimate.

Complacent oligarchs hate to have their "cover" blown: Rear provides the general theory; Townsend illustrates the typical reaction of "chief executives" when they cannot ensure the complete blocking of information flow.

Roll on the Freedom of Information Act and the development of a civic rather than a servile culture.

Not all old universities were self-governing communities of scholars and students; not all universities are content to be the fiefs of the new managerialism. Middlesex University, for example, has developed a mission and values statement which identifies the following vision: "all staff are respected and empowered and participate in the decision-making process. They work in an atmosphere of openness, mutual support and confidence". Spelled out into, among others, the following values: "development of a caring organisation that emphasises openness and co-operation."

As the university chair of Natfhe, I should stress that these are visions and values that represent the opposite of what most staff felt occurred prior to the arrival of a new management team, and are still a long way from being fully implemented.

At its last annual meeting, Middlesex Natfhe proposed to management a medium-term plan for developing "performance indicators" for "staff's participation; empowerment; feeling respected; and sense of being in a caring and open organisation and of being consulted" . . . all concepts taken from university policy documents.

The result was very positive. There is now a joint working party (PISCES: Performance Indicators for Staff being Consulted and Empowered Study group) of management and the two unions involved (Natfhe and Unison). The joint working party is sponsoring research to generate such indicators and monitor a pilot implementation. Putting its money where its mouth is, the university will be providing research funding to ensure that the work can be done properly.

We had experience of a non-listening, self-insulating oligarchy at Middlesex for some 20 years: its capacity for managerial blocking and frustration would no doubt be a tribute to John Rear's curiously old-fashioned "management must manage: trust us" ideology.

Eventually, the peculiar demand for deference towards oligarchic self-serving managements so characteristic of decadence may fade away, and the old-fashioned 19th-century mediocre managerialism of Rear and Townsend be placed in the museum where it (and they) belongs. At least at Middlesex, we are trying.

TOM WENGRAF

Natfhe chair

Middlesex University

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