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.

A close-up photograph of David Eastwood; a man with receding grey hair, and grey moustache and beard, wearing rimless glasses and a neutral facial expression.
Figure 1, University of Birmingham Vice-Chancellor, David Eastwood: "if our proposals go forward, they will shape the role of the Vice Chancellor and what kind of person to seek".

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.

Bar chart showing information on US and UK spending on higher education. Proportion of national income spent on tertiary education: US 3.1%, UK 1.4%. Proportion of people who attend an elite university: US 72 per 100,000, UK 132 per 100,000
Figure 2: from BBC website a graphic of Howard Hotson's research

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.