Resisting the Neoliberal University?

by Ben Ralph

In 2014, I moved to Bath to study for a PhD at a university that was confident, growing and acclaimed. In both 2013 and 2014, the University of Bath topped the National Student Survey, an achievement flaunted all over the campus. Plans were already underway for a triumphant celebration of the institution’s 50th anniversary, which was marked in 2016. Bath consistently outperforms most of its fellow “plate-glass” universities founded in the 1960s, often competing with and even beating Russell Group universities across a wide variety of rankings.

Just over three years later, and I am finishing my thesis at a university that has since been embroiled in a series of scandals, leading to what some have described to me as the largest protest in Bath since the poll tax, constant embarrassing articles in the local and national press, and a series of demands addressed to the university management made by 82 professors. The Vice-Chancellor, Dame Glynis Breakwell, is to resign in disgrace at the end of the academic year after being in the post since 2001, but this isn’t soon enough for many at the university. What went wrong? What can the travails of the University of Bath tell us about the state of higher education in the UK, its future prospects and the possibility of change?

Signs of Discontent

On a Thursday lunchtime during the January exam period last month, a public meeting was convened by a group of professors calling themselves Profs4Change. Well over a hundred staff attended: from casual workers on the living wage, through non-academic support staff and junior academics at the start of their careers, to professors and emeritus professors who had been at the university for decades. The meeting was titled ‘Let’s Talk… About the Future’, a knowing nod to annual, stage-managed ‘Let’s Talk’ events that had been held with the outgoing Vice-Chancellor. “You don’t need to submit your questions in advance”, we were assured by the organisers. The reason we were gathered was common knowledge, but the details of the crisis were nevertheless sketched out by one of the speakers. He framed the crisis as a series of three crises, or one that had gone through three stages: a crisis of leadership, a crisis of governance, and a crisis of reputation.

The first of these was set in motion by a freedom of information request made by a local Labour councillor, Joe Rayment, also an ex-employee of the university. Like almost every subsequent development, the result of this request was published in the Bath Chronicle, by Sam Petherick. The request revealed that in 2016 the Vice-Chancellor received over £20,000 in home expenses for a flat in one of Bath’s Georgian crescents, on top of a salary exceeding £400,000. The lurid details, from housekeeping and laundry costs roughly equal to one year’s worth of student fees to the miserly claim of £2 for “Hospitality (biscuits)”, were soon contrasted to the experience of many staff at the university. Michael Carley, president of the local UCU branch, describes how "[t]he University of Bath leads the country in casual and zero hours contracts, subjecting many staff to conditions which would disgrace a fast food chain.” These precarious conditions, combined with the pressure of the seven-year public sector pay cap on salaries, meant sympathy for the Vice-Chancellor was in short supply.

Over the next few months, the pattern of co-operation between the Labour councillor, the local journalist, and the university union rep was continued: in December, when the Vice-Chancellor’s pay was revealed to have increased by £45k in one year; on January 12th when students held a “party” on the campus, celebrating the day on which the Vice-Chancellor had already earned what the lowest paid staff earned in a year. These stories sometimes trickled into the national press, and were a constant topic of conversation amongst academics at lunchtime, while the Vice-Chancellor became a perennial figure of fun on student facebook groups, often pictured with her treasured biscuits.

In July, what had previously been a local scandal elevated to the national stage. Andrew Adonis, after prodding on Twitter by Rayment and others, exploded in a pique of moral outrage at the high pay of senior figures at the university, and began incessantly tweeting about the issue, raising the story’s profile. The next day, he described the situation at the university at length in the House of Lords and soon after referred the issue to HEFCE, the universities regulator. Over the next few months the temperature began to rise: MPs quit honorary and advisory posts at the university, Ken Loach relocated a screening of his film I, Daniel Blake from the university in protest against pay inequality there, and, by the autumn, students and staff were openly calling for Breakwell’s resignation.

By this stage, although the headlines still centred around the Vice-Chancellor and her extortionate pay, more serious issues of governance were being stressed by Rayment and the UCU. Most egregious perhaps was the fact that the Vice-Chancellor sat on the remuneration committee that determined the levels of the highest paid staff at the university, “stepping out” when her own salary was being discussed. No minutes are taken at the remuneration committee, and no justification is ever given for the precipitous increases in pay to the senior management. For years, the unions had called for at least a bare minimum of accountability for the committee, only to be rebuffed or ignored by the University’s highest decision-making body, Council. The Council itself has also come under criticism: it is a body that appoints over ten of its own members (including the Chair of Council, Thomas Sheppard, a corporate law executive) via the appointments committee, which is in turn appointed by Council. In comparison, only six members are elected by various groups within the university and two places are reserved for student representatives.

The Council was not the only source of criticism, however. On the 23rd February a motion at the university Court to express concern “at the lack of transparency and accountability of the remuneration committee and the decisions the remuneration committee has made in the past year” was narrowly defeated 33-30. Of the 33 unconcerned votes, five had come from people whose salary was decided by the remuneration committee. This managerial merry-go-round was the main remit of the HEFCE report, since the salary level of senior staff was considered “beyond our statutory remit as laid down by Parliament”.

From Scandal to Crisis

In late November, the scandals escalated into a crisis. On the 20th, HEFCE released their critical report into “poor governance” at the university, focussing in particular on the unaccountable nature of the remuneration committee. They concluded, in the inimitable vernacular of quangos, that the university “has a significant distance to travel to open the work of its remuneration committee to legitimate scrutiny through enhancing its use of various measures of transparency and in order to meet the increasing demands for this from many stakeholder groups and society at large”. On the 22nd, the UCU called an emergency meeting at which over 300 staff unanimously resolved that the Vice-Chancellor should immediately resign, before a Senate meeting that afternoon, where the Vice-Chancellor narrowly survived a confidence vote 19-16. Meanwhile, Bath Students Against Fees and Cuts, a group of radical students, called for a protest on the 30th, the date of the next Council meeting.

In the end the resignation of Breakwell, on November 29th, felt like neither a beginning nor an end to anything. In a gesture of spite and defiance, she refused to leave not even at the end of the academic year, but after that taking a half-year sabbatical on full pay: over £225k for six months research. Naturally, her terms of parting did nothing to quell the protest the following day. On the 30th November, the University of Bath — a compact campus, with no more than a few minutes walk between buildings — erupted in protest: hundreds of students and staff took to the central parade, setting off flares, chanting slogans (“Students, and workers, unite and fight!”, “Hey ho, hey ho, Dame Glynis has got to go!”) and pelting the Council chamber with an inexhaustible supply of biscuits.

Rather than dampen the protests, the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor had in fact broadened the focus of the protestors to other sources of discontent: staff sick of below inflation pay increases, students already burdened with debt seeing rents rise year-on-year, academics frustrated with a top-down, managerial culture at the university that prioritises targets and rankings over the pursuit of education and research for their own good. The protest allowed people at the university to express publicly, for once, the things they hated about the university, gave them one day’s break from the monotonous narrative of a well-run and successful institution that emanated from the university marketing team. This counter-narrative of pessimism and dissatisfaction had certainly been present in the break-rooms and departmental kitchens of the university, but for the first time it had broken out into the world beyond the university: the University of Bath was no longer a position in the Times Higher Education rankings, an entry in the Guardian University Guide, it was a rabble of pissed-off students, over-pressured academics and underpaid workers, as pictured in all major newspapers and on the 6 o’clock news.

After the Crisis

The protest let the genie out of the bottle. Since November 30th, I’ve heard colleagues refer to a “culture of fear” at the university, but mostly in the past tense. UCU meetings have more than doubled in attendance in the short time I’ve been a member. Eighty-two professors felt confident enough to put their name to an open letter criticising the university management, and to convene public meetings that held the existing governing structures in contempt. The resignation of the Vice-Chancellor is no longer enough: the Chair of Council is under intense pressure to resign, and there are frequent calls for the remuneration committee, the nominations committee, even the university Council to undergo significant reform, or dissolution.

At the ‘Let’s Talk… About the Future’ event I attended, some of the demands were careful, technocratic suggestions of governance reform: increasing the number of truly independent and external members of Council, enacting the proposals suggested by the HEFCE for reform of the remuneration committee and the university Court. But others, especially representatives from the university branches of UCU and UNISON, spoke a different language: “What is a university, as a place of study, a place of work?”, “What would it look like to run a university democratically?” These questions were unfamiliar to many in attendance, who were unaccustomed to being asked to think of their institution in this way; thinking about what higher education provision could and should look like is usually the job of politicians, of intellectuals, not of junior lecturers and IT technicians.

Bath in Context

In a series of articles for the London Review of Books, Stefan Collini has documented and lamented the fate of universities in Britain. Often, the historical narrative begins with the Robbins report of 1963, advocating the immediate expansion of universities, under the principle that “courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”. This expansion was achieved in part by upgrading the Colleges of Advanced Technology to full university status: in 1966, Bristol CAT became the Bath University of Technology. A new campus was built on a hill a mile outside Bath, the design — a series of functional, concrete departmental buildings arrayed along a central spine — in tune with the progressive ideals of the age, with “academic and social life closely linked in a concentrated 'urban' setting... the University conceived as a single varied community”.

Collini goes on to describe how the Thatcher and Major governments launched a dual attack on universities: on the one hand exerting severe financial pressure, with the funding per student dropping 36% between 1989 and 1997 alone; on the other an ideological assault, for example the partial replacement of the hands-off block grant with a system of funding linked to Research Assessment Exercises and their ilk, technocratic exercises whose aim was to inject market values into an environment considered hostile to them. In many ways, the University of Bath would be seen as exemplary by the ideologues of those Conservative governments: it offers no courses in the humanities, with vast engineering departments and a burgeoning management school. The majority of mathematics and computer science undergraduates, to whom I enjoy teaching abstract algebra and set theory, spend the third year of their degree at an industry placement: the Faculty of Science webpage boasts of partnerships with GlaxoSmithKline, Morgan Stanley and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

By the time New Labour came to government in 1997, the university sector was considered to be in crisis. As with so many other parts of the public sector, New Labour alleviated the financial pressure while continuing down the ideological path laid down by the previous governments. The Dearing Report, commissioned by the Major government in 1996 but reporting to the Blair government in 1997, advocated the introduction of tuition fees to supplement the diminished block grant. When Breakwell became Vice-Chancellor in 2001, a halfway-house system was in place, with David Blunkett overseeing the introduction of an upfront charge, initially £1000 per year, while also reducing maintenance grants. By the time of her resignation, tuition fees, having jumped to £3k per year with the Higher Education Act of 2004, now exceeded £9k, having increased to that level in 2010, following the Browne Review. I’ve asked people in Bath if they remember protests in 2010 against the fees increase to mixed responses. The BBC reported protests in Bath at the time (the city is also home to Bath Spa University, specialising in creative subjects), but the fact that one person suggested there may have been a demonstration in favour of the increases belies the university’s reputation for quiescence and conformity.

In May 2016, less than six months before the news of the biscuits broke, the Higher Education White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy was presented to parliament by Jo Johnson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. As Will Davies noted, the report “offers lengthy passages that could easily have been copied and pasted from a review of, say, energy market regulation.” The White Paper introduced a link between the level of tuition fees and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), joining the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Universities in the UK now have a regulatory Scylla and Charybdis to sail through, their “excellence” in teaching and research schematised and quantified. As usual, the University of Bath excelled at this this hoop-jumping exercise, in June 2017, a month before Adonis began his campaign of shame, the university was awarded a “Gold Medal” in the TEF. Even now, the university bus stop boasts of this achievement: I walked past the poster on my way to the ‘Let’s Talk… About the Future’ meeting.

In his most recent piece on universities in the LRB, published in January 2016, Collini has lapsed into an almost defeatist tone, despairing that “what we still call universities are coming to be reshaped as centres of applied expertise and vocational training that are subordinate to a society’s ‘economic strategy’.” Under the dual monarchy of the REF and the TEF, the neoliberalisation of the higher education sector seems complete, nowhere more emphatically than in Bath. How then, is the managerial regime here cowed, and the downtrodden staff, for once, perhaps, even optimistic?

Collini’s series of essays, while thorough and incisive critiques of government higher education policy, understandably engage with the specificities of the sector. In doing so, however, there is the risk of neglecting universities as a place of work. To think of universities in this way isn’t a concession to market ideology in higher education, but to recognise that many of the same dynamics in other workplaces also apply in universities, when “conceived as… single varied communit[ies]”. There is the often forgotten fact that a university employs a large number of workers who are neither academics nor managers: foreign language teachers, cleaners, lab technicians and baristas all work here. Academics are workers too, and their tendency to deny this is often used against them by university managements keen on introducing and sustaining exploitative labour practices. Also neglected is the fact that universities often exist in, or near cities: the demands of student accommodation are often pitted against the needs of locals, and students often provide a pool of cheap casual labour for local businesses, while, especially in a small city like Bath, the universities are often one of the largest employers of local people.

Thinking back on the protests and meetings, it strikes me that, rather than being specific to academia, many of the demands (“Down with greedy bosses!” “The rent is too high!” “Protect our pensions!”) could be made by workers in a whole variety of sectors. This isn’t a call to ignore or downplay the specific and harmful “reforms” inflicted upon the higher education sector by reckless ideologues (“Why do you hate universities so much? What exactly is the problem?” Davies asks of the authors of the recent White Paper), but a suggestion that perhaps the modes of resistance may be all too familiar: join a union, join a political party; work with local politicians, press and campaign groups; go on a protest, go on strike. Admittedly, lucky breaks and exceptional circumstances have helped change along in Bath, but the whole point of organisation is to strengthen one’s hand in these situations, and it was organisation that made the difference in Bath. To consider what it might mean to run a university democratically requires not reducing the institution to its strictly academic and educational functions, but to consider it as a community of students and workers with a range of particular and ordinary needs and desires.

The renewed sense of optimism and solidarity - between students and their lecturers, and between professors soon to retire and casualised support staff - will be essential in the coming months, when the UCU in Bath and across the country plan to launch a 14-day strike, industrial action on a “scale [that] has not been seen before on UK campuses”. The Universities Superannuation Scheme (Breakwell is a member of their board, too) is proposing to end guaranteed pension benefits, “cost[ing] an average lecturer £200,000 over the course of their retirement”. If the strike goes ahead, it will be tough. 14 days of no pay is a serious matter for staff in a city with some of the highest rents in the country, and the frustration of disrupted students will not all be directed at management. But the links built up between the UCU and the Labour Party and radical student groups, and the respect they have earned from non-unionised staff will all be an invaluable resource in this struggle. Certainly, nobody here is under the illusion that management knows best.

After an hour of the ‘Let’s Talk… About the Future’ meeting, some attendees were becoming a little disgruntled. Some felt the meeting had a few too many speeches, some were disappointed by the lack of concrete plans going forward, some didn’t like the fact that the meeting was led by a group of professors rather than a more representative group of staff. The organisers promised to take on board people’s concerns, to try and improve future meetings. But, despite these worries, listening to the people there read out their Cahiers de doléances, their varied frustrations with the university, and their tentative ideas for improvement was exhilarating for me and, I suspect, for the others in attendance. The UCU strike is the next front in a wider fight for a better university and a better workplace. In Bath, the events of the past year have made the stakes of this conflict clear.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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