Why I ... believe we must fight to defend democracy on campus

April 1, 2005

Deputy general secretary of the Association of University Teachers

It is a wet winter's night somewhere in London. Sixty academics are about to be sacked and most are protesting at the opening of a new building at the university in question. The talk on the picket line is of senior managers riding roughshod over unions and individuals.

The guest of honour comes over to chat but we see nothing of the university's great and good. On the outside, face against the window peering in, even I can recognise a metaphor for how staff feel about the way their institution is governed.

At this university, management have decided that many staff are not suited to be part of their research-intensive future. Apparently they "over-teach". Selection for redundancy seems, to many members of the Association of University Teachers, arbitrary and unfair. Yet the strategy was backed by the university's council, despite the efforts of a few dissenting members.

During the protest, I thought about academics across the country who increasingly question the legitimacy of their representative bodies. Many feel that all too often senates and councils simply act as a rubber stamp for senior managers' decisions.

They wonder why their governing bodies seem unable to protect the interests of staff and students in the current round of job cuts, and wonder who will defend them as those in charge act like football managers, selling off the team just to recruit one star striker for the research assessment exercise.

In many institutions, junior academics, researchers, those working on fixed contracts and academic-related and support staff are disenfranchised. Lay representatives are sometimes not much help either.

Too often, independent voices are drowned out by the silent nodding majorities. Packages of job cuts, decisions about staff pay, reorganisations and the dreaded "vice-chancellors' strategic vision statements" are pushed through under the cloak of democratic governance.

Yet some want even these inadequate checks and balances diluted further.

For example, one influential vice-chancellor has said he believes that having staff and students on a university's governing body can create "conflicts of interest". He has claimed that better governance requires "small boards of non-executive directors predominantly recruited from outside the organisation".

Creating bodies of this type will encourage an even less inclusive approach, leading to more decisions being made in the shadows by those at the top. We have to challenge our institutions to be more democratic. Let's start with some things I hope that most readers can agree with.

First, we should argue that decisions that impact on staff and students cannot be taken in isolation from those most affected. Second, governing bodies must become more representative, both of the university itself (from porter to professor) and of our local communities. Third, any attempt to further undermine university democracy must be resisted, wherever it takes place. Fourth, let us recognise that while vice-chancellors and management fads come and go, students and staff are the only permanent stake-holders in our sector, and we need to work closely together to champion democratic governance.

Low pay, poor morale and job cuts are bad for students too, so why, when we share the same agenda, do we sometimes allow ourselves to be divided in the council chamber? Finally, we need strong unions - able to stand up for staff, argue for proper accountability and promote democratic representation. When universities get it wrong, we must be prepared to bring them to account. So wrap up warm, bring your thermal underwear and I'll see you on the next picket line.


Sense About Science is properly referred to not as a campaigning organisation, as stated in Soapbox on March 18, but as a charity.

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