Changing the story will require changing the university

It appears I share a concern with John Gill of Times Higher about the mainstream media’s negative portrayal of universities, and I blogged about this a couple of years ago. In that piece I complained that academics always seem to be the objects of wonkery, rarely the wonkers. Happily, there has been some rapid turnaround there. Sisters, and brothers, are doing it for themselves these days, on Twitter, Facebook, Medium and on blogs. Check out the #WeAreTheUniversity hashtag. There will be other HE networking initiatives launching shortly.

Hardly a month goes by without waking up to Justin Webb of the BBC Radio 4Today programme interrogating a spluttering vice chancellor in an echoey Great Hall about his favourite trinity of imaginary HE curses:  freedom of speech, grade inflation and vice chancellors’ pay. We all groan at the endless perseveration on these themes, wishing that the BBC would find some more positive stories to report. 

But in an article on the Times Higher website, Gill charges university staff and managers with doing essentially the same thing and he finds a fair few miserabilists and Cassandras on his Twitter timeline.

He thinks the secret of recovering universities’ standing is for us to all stop throwing digital molotovs, and instead tell positive, and factual, stories about the sector. Stop the civil war, he inveighs, renounce ‘us and them’ divisiveness and ‘replace it with a sense of collegiality and mutual endeavour’.

That’s where I come adrift. There is an implicit assumption that the sides bear equal responsibility for the breakdown in collegiality between staff and managers in universities. There is no imbalance of power, both sides have caused the gender pay gap, career precarity, the assault on staff pay, conditions and pensions, and both sides have inexplicably decided to bully each other. Furthermore, the sniping on Twitter, which we all know can descend into abusive and personal attacks, is undignified.  And nothing erodes our credibility like anonymous accounts, apparently. I know from academic Twitter that these are scorned by Times Higher, but they cannot seriously pretend not to know why so many academics seek protection from beneath the cloak of anonymity.  Several academic and professional Twitter users have explained any number of times why they feel public dissent is unsafe. Indeed, Times Higher has reported instances, including my own case, where universities have censured precisely those critics who have expressed oppositional views openly. Times Higher journalists know this happens, and they risk alienating sections of the readership if they suddenly act as if it doesn’t.

Additionally, in the last few years, some universities have become ‘sector leading’ at social media surveillance. Read this post and you might understand why some academics have retreated underground. /

In case anyone needs reminding about the tendency of some universities to blunt criticism, there is this poem by Grace Krause. It is as brutal as the bureaucratic insincerity she exposes. Just a few excerpts below:

Appropriate Channels
It has come to our attention that
Some of you have been commenting
On working conditions
And other matters best left private
On social media and other channels
Clearly inappropriate

Please refrain from crying in an open-plan office
Unless you are confident in your ability to weep silently

The Appropriate Channel is to package your grief
To divide it into parcels of a size
Suitable for swift processing
Please do not deliver your grief
In portions unsuitable
For handling

We should thank Times Higher for bringing some welcome scrutiny to university management recently. In recent months, we have seen VCs leave under a cloud at Bath, Kent, De Montfort, Bangor, Reading, Swansea and Open universities.

Other reports have covered excessive executive pay and severance packages. But, frankly, there are enough allegations against university managers to account for an ‘us and them’ divide: removal of meaningful democratic governance, colluding in obfuscation over the USS pensions dispute, silencing quitting employees with NDAs, placing excessive workload demands on staff, overlooking staff mental health breakdown, bullying by metrics, nepotism, victimising trade union leaders, financial mismanagement – is it any wonder there are a few angry anonymous accounts out there? Taking grievances onto social media is a sign of exasperation when no amount of evidence presented to ‘the appropriate channels’ seems to bring about change. In some institutions, there is a need for a truth-and-reconciliation process before a civil dialogue can even start.

Gill wonders why staff can’t just tell great stories of new discovery and benefit to society, and he mentions one terrific example of a team of heart surgeons who benefitted from working with university researchers who scanned a patient’s heart and printed a 3D replica. Impact, suggests Gill. No, says the REF which has colonised the word and circumscribed its meaning. And so unless this triumph of joint expertise and  cooperation can be tied to published research  ‘outputs’ from the researchers’ own institution, they would feel unable to proclaim impact. This is sad evidence that UK universities have been hobbled when it comes to conveying their enormous contribution to society.

As the article accumulated judgements like ‘inane’ and ‘abject’, Andrew McRae of Exeter tweeted supportively, “I think we trash the @JG_THE at our peril. As for social media criticism being ‘nothing more than angry tweets…critiquing unis’: no, honestly, there’s more than this. I’ve copped it myself when I’ve stuck my neck out; it’s no wonder most VCs avoid this space, & that’s our loss”. Andrew, whom I have followed on Twitter for a few years, is one of those rare university managers who maintains a presence on Twitter. If we want insights from that position, however much we might occasionally disagree, we need to think twice before throwing around abuse and ad hominem imprecations. However, the suggestion that we should not enrage the editor of the Times Higher would be to afford him exemption from criticism, which seems undesirable. Nevertheless, in homage to McRae’s plea, I acknowledge that the article casts plenty of shade towards university managers for prioritising buildings over people and appearing to be avaricious when it comes to their own pay and perks.

But both McRae and Gill will have noticed, as I have, that some on academic Twitter have renounced Times Higher for a number of reasons, more recently because of a suspicion that there is a damaging alliance between the business model of rankings, vice chancellors and data, branding and consultancy services that will be on offer since its acquisition by Inflexion, a private equity firm. I have no wish to irritate any one person, but when Times Higher wonders why academics are so angry and yet refuses to contemplate the role that its rankings product might play in the deteriorating experience of academics worldwide, I think we are justified in making that point emphatically.

Never mind. Perhaps the recipe for reconciliation is a feelgood event ‘where some of the sector’s brightest communicators and thinkers will gather to find a way forward’. 

I expect it will cost a VC’s bonus to attend, which will rule me out, but anyway, I have indicated my interest in speaking at the event. I can guess at half the lineup for THE Live. I’m willing to have a conversation with the Polyannas and institutional ra-ra types. But for now, I’m off to a wonderful seminar series critiquing Toxic Positivity in HE.  Catch you later.


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