Some dumb insolence might get their ear

March 24, 2006

Through co-operation, academics have the power to save higher education from the bureaucrats, writes Lewis Elton

When a soldier obeys an order in the letter but not the spirit, it is called dumb insolence. That same attitude of "strategic compliance"

is now to be found on campus as academics seek a suitable response to the stream of instructions and requests from senior management, the funding councils and the Government.

The evidence is growing that in many universities, despite supposedly rosy official statistics, chief executives are not getting their own way and perhaps some recognise this. As a research student of mine observed after investigating attitudes of top management and staff in a number of universities, both sides must realise that positive change can come only when they agree to co-operate. There is not much time left to reach such an agreement, as the current union action shows.

Dumb insolence can be used to good effect. There are wonderful precedents of effective strategic compliance in two novels of the two great wars - Jaroslav Hayšek's The Good Soldier Svejk and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 . It is beyond my powers to reach such heights. Yet the parlous state of British higher education and the afflictions that have been unleashed upon it beckon me on.

There is the research assessment exercise, which has diverted research from being excellent to being "RAEable". There is the Quality Assurance Agency, which regularly awards high grades but has consistently failed to recognise what all students know - namely that, within any given degree course, quality can vary from excellent to unacceptable. There are the various league tables that have only one thing in common - they are designed to set institutions against one another instead of getting them to co-operate against external threats. None of these malpractices could continue for another day without the active collaboration of academics, each episode constituting an instance of trahison des clercs .

In an echo of the last world war, academics have been transformed into "collaborators". But the insistent, time-wasting demand for ever-more meaningless statistics and an ever-more numbing bureaucracy could yet be defeated by dumb insolence. This would require three actions by academics: a quiet refusal to volunteer for the Rae panels and the QAA; a more vocal refusal to provide the kind of data used to construct league tables; and the writing of scholarly papers that show up the academic and ethical poverty of all of the malpractices that are damaging higher education.

Furthermore, dumb insolence can reinforce good purposes. For academics, especially the better ones, are said to "make employees from hell" - they did for Christopher Llewellyn Smith at University College London and for Lawrence Summers at Harvard University, and they are making life difficult for John Hood at Oxford University.

The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education complains that many lecturers turn down the opportunity to become managers, even at higher salaries, while their prime loyalty and motivation remains with their disciplines and not with their institutions. Are these not examples of very positive forms of academic dumb insolence, all legal ways of offending against internal and external management?

If universities are to achieve a healthy state, the future must be very different from a much overrated past. There are three necessary changes, each of which is likely to be resisted by traditional academics who look back to a mythical golden age.JThe first - and here there is a crucial difference from business - is to engender a split between leadership, which should be collegial, and day-to-day management, which was largely absent in the past and now seems to be simulated mostly by excessive bureaucracy.

Second, universities should present a united front against an often hostile outside world rather than act like the medieval Bavarian peasants who decorated the gables of their houses with the prayer "I pray to Thee, St Florian, protect my house, burn others down". Third, all change should be based on good research. Here there is a serious difficulty. It may be hard to believe but universities rarely, if ever, consider research into themselves an acceptable academic activity. I recently gave a paper at a university conference on leadership, where mine was the only one out of more than 50 that dealt with leadership in universities.

While academics have grown increasingly adept at using dumb insolence to act against the interference of outside authority including, regrettably at times, their own chief executives, in the three changes I propose here, it may well be the innovators within academe whoJhave to use this strategy to defeat the traditionalists. This kind of dumb insolence has a respectable pedigree - it requires being as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.

Lewis Elton is visiting professor of higher education at Manchester University.

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