It's time for us all to do the maths

July 7, 2006

Militant lecturers' stubborn ignorance of the realities of university finance appals Susan Bassnett

This academic year has ended somewhat unhappily. The strike action badly affected students, although to what extent remains to be seen; relations between academics and university management hit rock bottom; and nobody is satisfied with the outcome. Many feel the settlement is inadequate, and there has been talk of sellouts and betrayal, while some universities have already said there will have to be cuts if they are to avoid financial hardship. The damage in terms of public relations remains to be seen, but, anecdotally, nobody I encountered outside universities had any sympathy at all.

I opposed strike action and said so, and had a lot of e-mails in consequence. Roughly 50 per cent agreed with me and 50 per cent were opposed. What was different was the language. Those against the strike wrote about their consciences and their concern about damaged working relations. Those in favour quoted figures telling me how badly academic salaries had fallen behind, how low starting salaries were, how much money universities were going to receive and how there was no excuse for not offering a decent increase. Several said that they had been lied to by management. There was a great deal of aggrieved feeling.

While I can't discount those feelings, many of the "facts" quoted were simply wrong. A friend who is a university finance director told me she had been stunned by the level of ignorance about university funding that emerged in meetings. She had spoken to one deputation that accused her of concealing figures that had been available on the university website for months. I sat in meetings where colleagues appeared not to know how universities are funded, and seem to have assumed that the system is about to become awash with money once the increased fees come into effect - when this is so obviously not the case, as any cursory glance at any university's public financial statements shows. Coming from an arts background, I feel I have a weaker grasp of finance than my colleagues in the sciences, but even I know that books have to balance. Moreover, the voice of vice-chancellors is a feeble one so far as the Treasury is concerned, and pleas for better funding have been ignored for decades.

There is not enough money to improve conditions in universities unless other funding sources can be found. In the midst of the action, Chancellor Gordon Brown hinted that the cap on fees would be raised after the next election. How unfortunate it would be if students who supported lecturers'

bids for better salaries have paved the way for their younger siblings to be priced out of higher education altogether.

What this period has shown me is how important it is for all academics to understand how their institutions' finances work. The days when we could all bury our heads in our research and lectures are long gone. Maybe universities should provide better training; maybe there should be regular briefings via schools or departments so that everyone feels they understand the situation better. Universities are complex organisations, but if numbers of academics do not feel they have a stake in the future of their institution, then something needs to be done. Hopefully one positive outcome of the action will be for managers to get out more and talk to academics, and for academics to start learning more about how the system that employs them actually works.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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