Perestroika without glasnost

December 4, 1998

University restructuring has been accompanied by a crackdown on free speech, says Suzi Clark

Have you been "restructured" yet? There has been an epidemic of restructuring in campuses around the country in the name of efficiency gains and quality control. It is painful - a bit like resetting a fractured leg - although some may say that the leg was not broken in the first place. Well, they would say it, if they were "allowed" to say it.

In our universities, supposedly cradles of democratic debate, dissenting voices are dissuaded from singing out, particularly through internal newsletters. "Letters to the editor", when allowed, are frequently at the level of snivelling sycophancy, and opinion pieces are only tolerated if they are erudite, abstruse and bear no correlation, real or imagined, to events on campus, such as "restructuring" or staff dissatisfaction.

A review of British university in-house newspapers and magazines reveals that propaganda triumphs over critical comment everywhere. They suffer, across the board, from terminally boring "good news-itis". We are stuck with the perestroika, that is the "restructuring", without the "openness", or glasnost.

Academics, jealous of their traditional liberties, have failed to bridle at their loss. Apathy and low morale have taken their toll across the sector, with the notable exception of the Oxford Magazine, edited by Jim Reed, which continues with articles that manage to be gutsy as well as learned. Oxford and Cambridge are fortunate in that academic debate has to be reported verbatim to the university through established channels such as The Cambridge University Reporter. The right to the reporting of open debate is enshrined in their constitutions.

Elsewhere, free speech is a casualty in the face of an insidious culture of corporatism. At Hull, for example, the university newsletter editor, also an academic staff governor, was given a rough ride by management after publishing a report about academic concern regarding the training of Indonesian army students. The editor, Jim Dumsday, has been left in post but there has been a tightening of editorial control.

Very few corporate editors, without the protection of academic status, appear willing to take on the wrath of management by publishing critical debate. They say it is not their job to carry bad news, just information. Where the editorial offices of internal university newsletters are run cheek-by-jowl with the public or press relations specialists, the situation appears even more sensitive.

But even corporate editors have professional ethics. They are the first to admit that the problem with most bland in-house newsheets is getting anyone to read them. "People don't see it as theirs ... they see it as the voice of management. They don't feel ownership," admitted one disgruntled editor. "We don't invite feedback, because we wouldn't be able to publish it."

Should the sector appoint an ombudsman to look into the suppression of free speech on our university campuses? The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals was invited to investigate this possibility by the government. Maybe impending legislation to uphold freedom of speech for whistleblowers and dissidents alike might encourage them to speed up their deliberations.

In these days of email and intranets, if staff concerns cannot be raised in an internal newletter, then other channels should open. Like the "email president" of Ohio State University, for example, our own university chief executives might be available to electronic supplications from the service and academic staff and students. But name one email vice-chancellor, principal or rector who is accessible to staff complaints?

It is a pitiful sight to see formerly feisty academics cowed by corporate bullies with ready access to lawyers who will yelp "libel" on cue to prevent concerns being voiced. And if academic staff, who enjoy constitutional protection, fail to speak up then how will service staff and students ever find the courage to voice their concerns?

The suppression of dissident voices on the UK's university campuses in the name of corporatism is not only a national disgrace, it is also poor management. Without openness, restructuring is an inexact achievement, lacking the fine-tuning that only becomes possible when people are allowed to voice their concerns openly. And if you cannot express an honest opinion at a British university without fear of losing your job or failing your course, then what are we doing in the business of education?

Suzi Clark is taking a master's degreein press and public relations management at Middlesex University.

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