How our universities were "liberated" & why New Labour’s structural reforms have failed
Having been expelled from all university committees as VPE for a protest against the university’s controversial ban on protests, I have started a series of posts on the university based on its private papers to deliver in pamphlets to the university community. This is the third of these posts, the second & first can be found here & here.
This post is less specific to the University of Birmingham and is more generally aimed at the on-going assaults on democracy in universities, particularity the pre-1992 universities. The university’s papers and letters from the archives between MPs and the Vice Chancellor offer an interesting insight into how university managements became, in the government’s words, “liberated regimes”.
A democratic university is a vision that the most recent generation of students and young academics have very little conception of. It’s a proposition that to many may even seem radical in formulation, however this is far from the case; the idea is as old as universities themselves and up until recently was a reality that was practised in our universities. In fact, many universities still have real vestiges of democracy in their communities. University democracy was not some twee practice designed to make everyone feel like they had a part in decisions; university democracy was a solid and tangible process at the heart of the academy, it was based on sound principles and provided tangible benefits that made UK universities the best in the world.
Why should a university be democratic?
In principle the case for democratic universities is clear. Universities play an important role in society as they teach skills for the workforce of the future, produce research and cater for the needs of the decades ahead, so they need to be reflective of and responsive to society’s needs. Therefore universities must be democratic to reflect the needs of wider society. Furthermore, universities are bastions and guardians of discourse and culture – this requires them to be democratic – for how can we have a dynamic and democratic society if the keys to knowledge, culture, and debate are kept in the hands of the few?
However the case for a democratic university is not simply one of principle it is about the real and tangible benefits it provides. Universities are workplaces based on creativity & innovation, there needs to be recognition in governance that these processes are driven by the grassroots in the university and that creativity cannot be enforced from the top down. As such the features of self-governance, autonomy, and participation in a democratic decision-making process are important to allow that creativity and innovation to flourish. The idea that universities need to act quickly to respond to changes is fundamentally flawed – building up real academic expertise and making real progress takes years and requires a stable base.
What happened to university democracy?
The erosion of democracy in universities is a process that has been slowly continuing since the 80s. However in recent years the defeat of democracy in the university has become more of a rout. With the publication of the Committee of University Chairmen governance code of practice in November 2004, governance in higher education came under serious attention. The emphasis the report placed on governance included the need for improved “speed of decision making”, “delegation of authority to the appropriate level” and to “allow for flexibility”. Universities’ democracy was always strongest in the oldest UK universities, and the most recent wave of assault on university democracy includes a marked move against Chartered Higher Education institutions (the universities established by royal charter, the Redbrick universities).
In February 2006 the Privy Council announced a new policy with regard to regulation of English Chartered HEIs, which deregulate a number of aspects for charted HEI’s to have constitutionally in their Charter or Statues. The Privy Council deemed this deregulation would only cover “non-core areas” however it was eventually expanded to include “teaching”, “Research”, “Assessment”, “Affiliation”, “recognition”, “contracts” and “matriculation of students” – basically everything that is core. Even more worryingly, it also included the “non-core areas” of governance such as “detailed role of officers”, “powers composition & meetings of the senate” and “powers composition & meetings of the court” – essentially all the main governing mechanisms for a charted HEI’s.
This announcement from the Privy Council was quickly pushed to university Vice Chancellors by the then minster of state for lifelong learning, further & higher education, Bill Rammel MP. I have dug up a copy of his letter to the Vice Chancellor dated February 6th 2006 encouraging de-democratisation from the universities archives and put it online here. Universities were soon to act on this and not with gradual and small changes, but rather with dramatic sweeping changes. In June of 2006 for example the Registrar and Secretary of the University of Birmingham submitted a paper to University Senate with the opener “rather than trying to make improvements within the strait jacket of the current structures, it is felt that now is the right time to consider making more fundamental revisions, taking advantage of the Privy Council’s relaxations of its control.” In short he was proposing nothing less than a full revolutionary change.
But what were these changes?
Shortly before the Privy Council made its announcement of deregulation, a report from the government’s Better Regulation Task Force published its March 2005 report entitled “regulation; less is more” (this was nominated for a Orwell prize for naming). This report proposed three things for university governance.
1. Deregulation – greater liberation of previously regulated regimes
2. Consolidation – bringing together regulations into a more manageable form; improving transparency and understanding, thereby reducing the cost of compliance
3. Rationalisation – using general rather than local sector specific regulation and resolving overlapping or inconsistent regulations
At the University of Birmingham, consolidation has effectively resulted in the removal of the elected deans & the disempowerment of the elected boards like Senate. It has also meant the end of the 27 schools in a meaningful governance sense, replacing it with 5 “consolidated” colleges, with undemocratically appointed heads of the five colleges being given immense powers. The rationalisation has meant the creation of truly university wide policies created at the top and delivered by college rather than tailored to area specific best practice. The deregulation has left the “consolidated” university management more able to deliver “rationalised” one size fits all ruling structures that have been “liberated” of any meaningful internal or external control.
What has happened?
Firstly at the University Birmingham it was not simply a regime being “liberated” but also a “regime change,” with much of the senior management team that introduced the reforms being removed. In a paper to Senate on the changes and management, the university states:
We already know that our Vice-Chancellor will retire at the end of April 2009. Our Vice-Principal will retire at the end of August 2008 and a significant number of Pro-Vice-Chancellors, Deans and Heads of School are also due to end their current terms of office… A further powerful argument for not delaying is that, if our proposals go forward, they will shape the role of the Vice Chancellor and what kind of person to seek.
David Eastwood, then Chair of HEFCE, and responsible for much of the same deregulation, was then head hunted for the position of Vice Chancellor. As one the first Vice Chancellors at the head of pre-1992 liberated regime, he has been forthright in pursing change.
It was grassroots democracy that allowed for innovation, it made UK science and UK universities the best in the world. Research by Professor Howard Hotson shows that on half the budget of American universities, UK universities have provided double the value by most measurements. However, we are now seeing US style governance and “liberated” university regimes that are attempting to make fundamental changes, and what has happened? Let’s look at the university which implemented the changes instantly and whose management have been appointed to attempt to use these powers to create a model new vision of the university.
The latest National Student Survey results for the University of Birmingham have demonstrated a collapse in performance. For teaching, the university has fallen from 4th to 9th, assessment and feedback from 4th to 10th, academic support from 9th to 17th, organisation and management 9th to 16th, learning resources from 15th to 20th, personal development from 8th to 9th, and now place in all three learning resources questions. Further than that the university has effectively fallen out of the elite cohort overall on the NSS – we have fallen from 20th last year to 38th this year.
Academic FOI requests show that the liberated regime at the University of Birmingham has treated its staff terribly, coming at the top of the table with the most tribunal claims against it and further the most gagging orders on the results of these tribunals
As Vice Chancellor David Eastwood has abused his position as an unaccountable spokesperson of the university to repeatedly lobby for further deregulation, more privatisation, marketisation, cuts and closures in support of David Willets. He has abused his new undemocratic powers to prevent his students and academics from stopping him. When a motion was put to Senate by students and academics for the university to express no confidence in David Willets for the Education White Paper, with his new powers he vetoed the item even being put on the agenda.
Why on earth would anyone want to inflict what has happened in Birmingham to the rest of the pre 1992 group sector? If anything this experiment has effectively proven that the undemocratic vision of universities driven from top simply doesn’t work. Universities are workplaces exploding with vision and expertise which need the structures that allow it to grow and develop. Top down leadership has led to a wave of inadequacy, frustration and in many case nonsensical decisions. The students & academic of those universities need to cherish and work to protect their autonomy and democracy for the sake their welfare, work and education.
Though “democracy” is not fully defined in the article, the meaning of the word does come through via highlighting the issues (e.g. “the removal of the elected deans & the disempowerment of the elected boards like Senate”).
I have been working in a pre-1992 uni for 7 years now and I agree things are getting worse, whichever way one defines democracy. This is a good time for us to sit up and take notice of what the senior management are doing to our universities, which might be summed up in one word: corporatisation. This is the justification for the VC and Principals to pay themselves more than the Prime Minister!
We should not let them do that! But going back the old way to have more regulations from the Privy Council or to have more elected deans etc is clearly not enough.
No one will want to have every university decision to be put to a vote. But university principal/VC as the top decision maker in a uni should be directly elected by university staff. Any objections???!!!
“Why is this? Because its income is dependent on being a good university….”
No, its income is dependent on..simply getting an income. Degrees or selling frozen chickens: it matters not one jot to the raison d’etre of a profit-making enterprise.
Now you might say, well, market logic will mean that there’s someone selling frozen chickens more competitively and thus the university wouldn’t/can’t go there and vice versa with the frozen chicken seller.
But what’s and who’s to say it can’t?
Furthermore, having read the rest of your article now, this doesn’t provide any evidence of anything.
You point out some correlations which you clearly find compelling. I don’t. You don’t establish any causality between the changes at UoB and the subsequent fall in NSS scores. In fact you don’t even establish that NSS is the best metric by which to judge a university.
Haven’t you thought about the perfectly reasonable explanation for the NSS falls being that student numbers have risen over the last decade, a sign of the increased quality education Birmingham offers? Increasing student numbers, then requiring everyone to democratically vote in every new member of staff (heck, even decide more staff should be put in particular places of high demand) means that the staff levels won’t react to meet the new demand. So more students, same numbers of staff, it’s inevitable that NSS scores fall.
What about the other explanation, which is that other universities are just getting better than we are? Perhaps they are the ones making all the non-democratic decisions better than we are? You’re far, far too simplistic on this to be even slightly convincing.
How about, for example, the quality of research it is producing? We aren’t student factories, recall.
Stop picking and choosing correlations that you think support your story and get thinking about how and why the kinds of changes you think are so detrimental actually are detrimental?
There is nothing wrong, in principle, with having decision making made at the appropriate level, for example.
And not appointing staff by a democratic process – yes please! Why should we all have to vote on every member of staff? What do I know, as a very junior lecturer, about the best way to run a department? Very little is the answer, so why should I get as much say as much more experienced people than myself?
You don’t establish in this article why this democratic decision process is going to provide better results, mainly because the NSS isn’t the be all and end all – and moreover all the other things you mention (tribunals etc) are all circumstantial – it’s a large institution, these things are bound to happen.
Ok, I’m not at all convinced about your definition of “democracy”. I’ll read the rest later, but for now I’ve just read through your part about why universities need to be “democratic”.
The problem is you haven’t defined what you mean by democratic. Should every decision be made by majority vote or something? I don’t mean to sound cynical in that, I just want a definition.
Because if you say something must be democratic because it has what economists (I have to assume you didn’t study economics during your time at UoB) call externalities (benefits conferred or costs imposed on someone without payment/compensation in return), then you’re saying almost every form of production and activity must be “democratic”.
This isn’t necessary. It is often the case there is a justification for government intervention, and there undoubtedly is in education, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have universities operating in a market-based system despite the externalities you’ve mentioned.
A university operating in a market-based system, even (shock horror) for profit, will seek to provide all that you describe as good about universities, given the chance.
Why is this? Because its income is dependent on being a good university, producing excellent graduates (note: not necessarily for the workforce – university isnt a factory for future workers).
So it’s in the interests to offer scholarships to those excellent students that cannot afford to pay the fees since by doing that (and charging fees for those that can afford), it produces the best graduates possible. It certainly doesn’t do so by just admitting on the basis of money!
I really think you need to be more precise in how you’re defining things, and be aware that the market, and your ideals about what universities should be, are not mutually exclusive of each other.