It all adds up to a pretty Brum do

September 20, 2002

The closure of a top department is a wake-up call to academics, argue Rebecca Boden and Debbie Epstein

In theory, things couldn't look brighter for higher education: a government commitment to increase student numbers by 2010; superb research assessment exercise scores in 2001; a "demonstrable improvement" in teaching quality; and an acknowledgement by the Higher Education Funding Council for England that there will have to be a net rise of between 15,000 and 17,000 academic staff in universities by 2010.

But a harsh reality belies this picture. Of late, there have been wholesale departmental closures, cost-cutting regimes, widespread redundancies and bottom lines slipping badly into the red.

Academics need to pay attention to what is happening in their own backyards before it is too late. The closure of the department of cultural studies and sociology at Birmingham University is a perfect case study.

Cultural studies at Birmingham has been the single most internationally influential academic group in the creation and development of the discipline. It achieved a perfect 24 in its last teaching quality assessment, student demand was buoyant and it was financially sound.

In the 2001 RAE, its entry was changed, without consultation, by senior managers with no expertise in the discipline. The head of department protested, predicting that this would damage the score. The result was a grading of 3a. Management decided that no score of less than 4 could be tolerated and moved to "restructure" the department. All staff have taken what is technically voluntary severance, under conditions they maintain amount to duress.

This story tells us four things. First, it demonstrates a massive divergence between the world of academics and the management elite. The work of academics achieves and sustains the reputation of an institution, while managers, driven by different norms and values, have the power of life or death. Thus, the global academic outcry against the closure has fallen on the cloth ears of managers dedicated to the crudest forms of "rational management".

Second, it shows the power of pseudo-objective exercises such as the RAE. Staff were judged on the basis of a submission not of their own writing, under a research assessment regime not of their making, and were deemed to have "failed". The objectivity of the RAE gave management's judgements apparently greater legitimacy and authority than the outcry of academics worldwide.

Third, it demonstrates the extent to which managers fail to think strategically or in a business-like way. The next RAE will take place in 2008 (not 2006 as Birmingham anticipated) under a scheme yet to be determined by Sir Gareth Roberts's review. Birmingham's managers have made short-term decisions based on the expectation of the continued application of a research assessment system that they already know to be defunct.

Further, the department represented an important "brand", crucial to attracting students, especially foreign ones, and staff. That brand has now been destroyed.

Fourth, the plight of the former staff exemplifies the disciplinary nature of the relationship between management and academics. Academics are subject to many different performance audit regimes, and management can choose arbitrarily which to act on. In this case, management used a "failure" when it suited them, while ignoring concurrent audit "successes". Research and pedagogic success, in academics' terms and those of management, continues to go unrewarded while failure, as determined by management, is brutally punished.

Such an analysis will have little comfort for those who have lost their jobs and for Birmingham's academic community. The rest of us ignore the lessons at our peril.

Rebecca Boden is a professor at the Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, and Debbie Epstein is professor of educational studies at Goldsmiths College, London.

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