The Times Higher held an event in London this afternoon. Billed as THE Live it seemed designed to be a convivial and informative warm up event for the real thing – a gala evening of THE Awards to be presented by Sandy Toksvig. An array of vice chancellors – I believe the collective noun is a wedge – volunteered themselves to be grilled by John Gill, Editor of the Times Higher in a VC Question Time format. They were Chris Day, Newcastle University; Anthony Forster, University of Essex; Pamela Gillies, Glasgow Caledonian University; and Edward Peck, Nottingham Trent University.
THE Live #VCquestiontime was, in sad contradiction, rather lifeless. For one thing, there was no live stream, so I’m not sure what was supposed to be ‘live’ about it. The tweeting was hardly prolific, but there was enough to get a sense of the tenor of the session. My thanks go Mary Curnock Cook, HEPI and Sarah Custer for their live tweeting.
The Times Higher had been actively inviting questions on Twitter from the UK higher education community for a few days. And academics and administrators supplied plenty of tough ones, commenting that they never usually had the occasion to interrogate their leaders.
So it was disappointing to see how searching and sometimes acerbic questions had been tamed towards the inoffensive. For instance, “How do you sleep at night knowing that your grotesquely inflated salary is directly related to the rise of precarious labour?” was reiterated as “What keeps you awake at night?” And “how could you have responded differently to the VCs’ pay furore” framed the issue as one of PR, not one of attempting to justify large pay rises while requiring restraint of ordinary staff. Questions about the adverse conditions of academic careers and workplaces, and poor incentives for the next generation to become academics, appeared to be domesticated into “would you tell your children to become an academic?” This vision of academic life from University of Essex VC, Anthony Forster, stands in rather stark contrast to the experience conveyed by some questioners: “noble work, should get us out of bed every day of the week, with a spring in our step, transmission of knowledge, creation of new research that will make the world a better place.”
One or two highlights, though. I laughed out loud at Pamela Gillies comment: “Politicians are not going to let universities go under, not in the real world.” That won’t age well, I predict. And I warmed slightly to Anthony Forster who offered an unvarnished opinion about Universities UK saying, ” Sector leadership is not fit for purpose”, calling for reform of @UniversitiesUK to become voice of Universities rather than voice of vice-chancellors. Nice one.
But all in all my impression was that the questions posed in the VC Question Time session failed to capture the intent of those which had been posted on Twitter. Instead, questions were posed which allowed the panel members to construct a rosy and optimistic narrative. Little which implied criticism of VCs’ own behaviour was asked, including my personal favourite: “How destructive and immoral would a government proposal for HE have to be before you’d risk your chance of a gong to oppose it”. From what I could discern, nothing was asked in several areas which had predominated on Twitter: casualization of the workforce, pensions and the recent strike, staff pay, and academic workloads. For all their talk about staff needing to be pushed beyond their comfort zone, university leaders appear reluctant to step outside of theirs.