Case of survival of the sceptical

December 29, 1995

If you enjoy a challenge, Santa Clarke's budget decisions for higher education must have been good news. A 12 per cent cut in income over three years, cuts in equipment and student grants, less public money for research, increased reliance on Private Finance Initiatives, and student participation frozen at 30 per cent until the end of the century.

We expected to be clobbered, but not on all fronts. If, like me, you are suffering from being "excessively challenged", it becomes increasingly difficult to rise to the occasion. The effects of the cuts are predictably ghastly, the proposed solutions are even worse.

Over the Christmas holidays floods of "management initiatives", and thrusting development plans entitled Facing the Challenge - Feeling the Quality will hatch like the robins on our Christmas cards. Any administrator worth their salt will have asked Santa for books by Sir John Harvey-Jones or videos by Edward de Bono in their Christmas stocking.

The New Year will see a plethora of pathologically cheerful circulars from vice chancellors referring to the exciting opportunities and fresh challenges open to us all. One yearns for just one utterly miserable letter saying "Isn't it awful?" I am sure it would cheer everyone up.

It reminds me of a comment made by Brendan O'Friel of the prison governors about a recent spate of outward bound or dying prisoners, when he said that prisons were suffering from an excess of management initiatives. While I would not dream of comparing universities with prisons, Mr O'Friel's statement certainly had a resonance.

In university social gatherings senior and middle managers suffering from initiative exhaustion talk out of the sides of their mouths like Russians during the purges. "How long have you got?" "Another four years, then I might be able to afford to go. How about you?" "Oh, I have done a deal, I am escaping in March. Coming back two days a week to help old Smithy finish his departmental re-organisation. After that I am off. Then the bastards will see who did all the real work around here."

"Heard about Quigley?He has been humanely resourced." "No! And him with a young second family to raise."

Maybe we all have that condition known as "survivor syndrome" which apparently affects workers who have remained in their jobs while others have fallen by the wayside through redundancics, early retirement or ill-health. The symptoms are similar to bereavement - disbelief, guilt, anger and sadness.

Shaun Tyson, in a recent study, said: "Survivors, far from embracing the opportunity to innovate . . . often revert instead to the safest, narrowest and most conservative modes of behaviour available to them."

As survivors perhaps we could be accused of being narrow and conservative. Or perhaps we are sceptical about initiatives which are really reinventions of the wheel, or development plans which end up by costing more money not less.

It may be a figment of my imagination that people who started their careers as personnel officers and who have survived into the world of human resource management find aspects of their work thoroughly distasteful. Registrars have become globe-trotting salespeople and finance officers are now units of resource police.

We must all be prepared to reinvent ourselves. My New Year initiative will be to study for the newly established NVQ entitled "Alternative Research Funding and Private Finance Initiatives". My project involves turning the whole of Bloomsbury into a conference centre through PFI funding. Lectures will be held in the open air, walking groups of students round the various London squares and I have raised millions for research projects - "A cure for BSE" funded by a consortium of farmers, "Towards Sensible Alcohol Consumption" funded by the Portman Group, two chairs in peace studies and industrial relations funded by the French government, "Monitoring the use of Plain English" funded by the Higher Education Funding Council and "Achieving a National Minimum Wage" funded by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals.

Individuals can in this way do much to ensure the survival of higher education. What we cannot be sure about is how to protect academic autonomy and independent research; or how to protect the living standards of employees and students in universities or ensure their safety and security. Let us hope that Santa delivered the solution to guide us into 1996. Enjoy the rest of the break.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary to the Institute of Education Students' Union and a member of the National Executive of Unison and the Trade Union Congress general council.

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