Surrey shows how ‘voice’ can change the neoliberal tide

Popular action can still make a difference, as the U-turn on the fate of a university politics department shows, says John Holford

June 25, 2015
Michael Parkin illustration 25 June 2015
Source: Michael Parkin

We’ve all got used to the idea that the market rules in higher education, and to hearing the concomitant mantras that challenging key decisions will do more harm than good, and that “going public” with criticism will only “damage the brand”.

The recent fracas over the University of Surrey’s politics department proves how wrong this can be. Back in March, you may recall, the university proposed – apparently on the back of a disappointing performance in the research excellence framework – to slash its headcount. This meant that 14 academic posts would have been reduced to just six, several of which would be teaching-only. In effect, it would have meant the end of politics as a research-led discipline at Surrey.

Political theory teaches that three options are available to discontented members of an organisation: “exit”, “voice” and “loyalty”. Among Surrey’s loyalists was an academic in the English department who commented on an online petition: “Future student recruitment to politics at Surrey will fail because of petitions like this. The impact will be to damage the value of the current students’ degrees.” Protest would “diminish” the department “even more than…the university plans”. Clearly, resistance was useless!

I am sure that this academic was not alone in doubting the wisdom of protest: few may fawn, but many keep mum. Of course, loyalists have their rationales. Money is tight, and universities must be “financially sustainable”. And there is guilt. Departments that do poorly in the REF have only themselves to blame. They should hang their heads in shame and go quietly. Don’t damage the brand!

At Surrey, however, enough saw “voice” as the way forward. And remarkably, they have – to a quite considerable degree – carried the day. The department argued its case. It had some good stories to tell about its teaching excellence (it was fourth for student satisfaction in the 2014 National Student Survey) and about its “employability” outcomes (all its 2013 graduates had jobs within six months). Students launched an online campaign and petition, supported by graduates and academic staff across the country. With redundancies in other departments also afoot, the University and College Union called a strike ballot. And politics staff “went public”. That takes courage: selection for redundancy may formally be fair, but few who have been through such exercises believe that personality plays no part, or consider raising their heads above the parapet to be the most prudent course.

In response to the campaign, Surrey’s vice-chancellor, Sir Christopher Snowden – who was about to announce his own departure to Russell Group neighbour the University of Southampton – said in a joint statement with Matthew Flinders, chair of the Political Studies Association, that he would “welcome” a new plan, provided that it “embraces the need for change”. Then, in mid-May, it was revealed by the PSA that politics would not close after all. Some staff would go, but there would be no compulsory redundancies and 9.2 full-time equivalent research-active staff would remain – an increase of more than 50 per cent on the number the university had proposed.

So what happened? Formally, of course, all went according to plan. In a statutory redundancy consultation period, employers consult, employees respond, and the final outcome is meant to be better all round. But it’s worth digging a little deeper. The Surrey experience shows that politics in today’s universities need not be all top-down. It’s not quite been “people power”, but it does suggest that even in neoliberal universities, popular pressure can make a difference.

“Voice” has been systematically discouraged in UK universities. We have, of course, highly distorted forms of “feedback”, such as the NSS and staff satisfaction surveys, but genuine, unfettered discussion of policy is rare. Surrey has, historically, been particularly reticent: it is one of the least “political” of the pre‑92 universities, with none of the traditions of student and staff unrest that some 1960s universities have. I sat on its senate for seven years. I well recall the meeting when a major restructuring proposal (replacing faculties with schools) was endorsed on the nod while a suggestion to move postgraduate students’ graduation from December to March prompted extended debate. (Supine senates are, of course, by no means confined to Surrey.)

As a Surrey graduate and as the first head of its politics department, I rejoice that “voice” has triumphed. When we set up the department in 2004, we asked how we could attract students given that we were competing with many long-established and prestigious departments in the South East. The university was keen to drive up its rankings, so taking applicants with relatively low A‑level grades was not an option. We hit upon a slogan: we wanted students who would “make a difference”.

Perhaps it wasn’t very original, but, 10 years on, politics at Surrey has made a difference. Other threatened departments at Surrey kept mum and seem to have fared worse. Politics students and staff saved their department – and showed the whole sector that well‑planned and well-supported resistance makes a difference.

Of course, triumphalism is hardly in order. “Voice” may have prevailed over fatalistic “loyalism”, but good and loyal colleagues have been shown the exit – and none is leaving as voluntarily as the vice‑chancellor.

John Holford is Robert Peers professor of adult education at the University of Nottingham. He was a professor at Surrey until 2007, and was the first head of its politics department.


Article originally published as: The power of ‘voice’ (25 June 2015)

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