Origins of the present crisis: The strife of Bath

Over the summer, Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath has brought the university she leads to a hitherto unthinkable prominence. Her pay and perks, and the tin-eared response of the university to public concerns, have made Bath notorious for extravagance and gross inequity. Indeed, reporting on the story has made the Bath Chronicle the only local newspaper to be nominated for the Scoop of the Year Award. 

Like many such stories, however, this one goes back a long way, with a decade or more of mismanagement and poor governance to blame for the crisis in which the university now finds itself. Indeed, if the governing body had done its job properly, and not indulged the greed of the Vice-Chancellor, it might have been possible to save what she is pleased to call her soul. Can any of us say that we would behave any better if we spent our days surrounded by sycophants giving us hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, and telling us we’re worth every penny.

So, some highlights from the public record of the governance of the University of Bath. Today, how the University of Bath fired someone who had done nothing at all wrong on no grounds whatsoever and decided to back up the friend of the Vice-Chancellor who had done it, rather than the member of staff they had wronged.

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University of Bath: when did the rot start?

Robert McKie was a member of staff fired by the University of Bath in 2008. For reasons explained below, he sued Swindon College over his sacking, and won. The judge, in finding against Swindon College, had some hard words for the University of Bath. When these concerns were raised within the university, the response of the governing body was to ignore them.

The case of Robert McKie raised a number of serious questions about management processes at the University of Bath, and about the operation of disciplinary and grievance procedures. An account of the actions taken by University of Bath management follows. The questions which arise from these actions are at the end of this paper. These questions have not been satisfactorily answered and there is no reason to believe that appropriate action has been taken to ensure that no member of staff will ever be treated in this manner again.

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How might we run universities?

In the last week or so, there has been a lot of talk about universities, much of it, directly or indirectly, around governance. The high pay of Vice-Chancellors, and the obscure workings of university remuneration committees, have shocked people outside higher education, though they come as no surprise to those of us in the sector. Clearly, university governance has failed to run universities in a way which the public accepts as reasonable, and university “leaders” have failed to defend the autonomy and values of the sector. What might decent university governance look like?

  1. Universities to be run day-to-day by an executive committee with collective responsibility
  2. All executive posts to be held by staff on secondment from a substantive academic role, to which it is expected they will return
  3. Vice-Chancellors and Deans to be elected by appropriate constituencies
  4. Executive staff to be paid their normal academic pay, plus a supplement for increased responsibility
  5. Chairs of governing bodies to be elected
  6. Meetings of governing bodies to be public

The rationale for these suggestions comes from the idea of a university as a self-governing autonomous body of scholars (staff and students) where the governance arrangements should reflect the objective of disinterested inquiry.

At present authority for day-to-day running of a university lies with one person, the Vice-Chancellor, who is in principle accountable to a governing body, called Council in most universities. The Vice-Chancellor will then advised by people who form a de-facto executive committee, but who have no formal responsibility or accountability for what they say: this can lead to senior staff having little independence of action, especially in universities (such as Bath) where the Vice-Chancellor sits on the remuneration committee which decides the pay of those managers. Having the university run by a committee with explicit collective responsibility would change the system of governance from a highly centralized elective dictatorship (such as the French presidency) to a collective structure (such as the UK’s cabinet system).

The committee should be made up of people on secondment from academic roles, and some proportion of them should be elected. The first reason for secondment is that it sets the expectation that senior managers will return to the conditions they are creating, aligning their interests with the interests of the university community. It would also impose a social pressure if managers knew they would have return to working in a department where staff had cause to remember what they had done as managers. Secondly, it gives those managers an important measure of freedom if they can simply walk away from the executive committee (on the cabinet analogy, like a minister who steps down rather than support a particular measure) and return to teaching and research. The reason for electing Vice-Chancellors and Deans to the executive committee (though the elected members need not necessarily be a majority) is to give democratic legitimacy to the post-holders and, especially in the case of Deans, to give them the confidence to argue for their faculty at executive level, knowing that they have the support of their constituency.

Executive pay should also be based on the principle that managers’ interests should be aligned with the university’s. By linking managers’ pay to general staff pay, the managers remain “one of us” rather than being absorbed into a culture of high pay and higher demands.

The last two ideas come from the Scottish government’s review of higher education governance. If the governing body is to function properly, it must work transparently. This could most easily be done by holding meetings in public (i.e. with a live webcast) with any genuinely confidential issues dealt with separately, and by electing the chair of the body.


Some translations from Belli

Since somebody seems to think Belli is due a revival, I dragged up some translations of his work I did years ago. Somebody might like them.

The Lord’s Circumcision

About seven days later in the birthing room,

Wrapped up for warmth in a pile of old hay,

Lay Mary the virgin, undefiled ’til this day,

With the beasts of the field and her blessed son.

Joseph, who to her assistance had come,

When she’d found herself in the family way,

said “Chop, chop, now, we’re off. Today is the day

When we throw a small scrap to the synagogue doves.”

John the Baptist presided in thirty years time.

In the Jordan His soul was washed bright and clean.

Swept away were original sin and earth’s grime.

Some shout “Hosanna”—they make me quite sick—

That He became Christian. I can’t toe the line.

He was a turncoat. I rate Him a prick.

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What is to be done?

This is a response to Liz Morrish’s article on whether universities “are meaningful to the academics who work within them“. You should read the whole article, but the crux of it is here:

In the McCarthyite era it was the army and Hollywood which were in the front line of political persecution. This time it is scientists who are finding that their notions of working in an objective, apolitical enclosure have been disrupted by Donald Trump’s attacks on their right to report valid climate change research.  Scientists are now being drawn into political action committees to face down potential threats to funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and, perhaps, to the teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools.

While we stand with beleaguered scientists, I hope we can also defend experts in nuclear and apocalyptic literature in austerity Britain, and a new scholarship of authoritarianism  because we must all be vigilant to make sure universities continue to be sites of resistance to the rollback of the enlightenment.

This is a quick response, following the engineering practice that good enough today is better than perfect tomorrow.

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Casey on oaths

In the fuss over Sajid Javid’s support for an oath of loyalty to `British values’ to be taken by public servants, it is worth having a look at what the Casey Review actually proposes. It has recommendations for two oaths. One would be taken by public servants:

Recommendation 12:
We expect the highest standards in all civic leaders in selflessness and integrity, so too we should expect all in public office to uphold the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. The Government should work with the Committee for Standards in Public life to ensure these values are enshrined in the principles of public life, including a new oath for holders of public office.

Quite rightly, this has raised objections, though Diane Abbot is missing the point when she says that “I have nothing against it in principle, but it will not make a difference to the problems of radicalisation, or integration. I don’t think the oath will make any verifiable difference.” It is wrong in principle, and should be objected to on principle. Nothing more should be demanded of any office holder than that they do their job competently and honestly. Anything else is a matter for the law, and not for some performance of acquiescence to the state. Of course, such an oath will make a verifiable difference, like loyalty oaths everywhere: it will intimidate the dissident and produce a climate in which people will fear for their livelihoods if they say the wrong thing. Incidentally, given that members of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines do not swear an oath of allegiance, this would be setting a higher bar for “elected officials, civil servants, council workers, and BBC and NHS employees” than for an Admiral of the Fleet.

The second recommendation has been less-widely discussed but is equally disturbing. It would require newly arrived immigrants to swear an oath on arrival, merely in order to remain in the country.

Recommendation 6:
The Government should also review the route to full British Citizenship, which is of huge national, cultural and symbolic value. The Government should look at what is required for British citizenship, as opposed to leave to remain, and
separately consider an Oath of Integration with British Values and Society on arrival, rather than awaiting a final citizenship test.

A citizen of another country would be required to swear an oath merely to live in the United Kingdom. This goes beyond any undertaking to obey the laws of their country of residence, or to learn the language, or know something of the culture. It is a demand for a performance of loyalty and acquiescence which can only have the effect of insulting and demeaning people newly arrived in this country and intimidating them into renouncing the exercise of basic civil and human rights.

Frederick Douglass on “Irish slaves”

There is a long-running lie that the Irish were slaves and got over it, so African Americans should do too. The lie and its spread have been most thoroughly dissected by the historian Liam Hogan, but this is Frederick Douglass on the subject in the 1840s, via the Project Gutenberg edition of My Bondage and My Freedom. He does not refer to exactly the same lie, that of Irish slaves in the Americas, but clearly there was a similar lie flying around in the 1840s, and he had an answer to it.

It is often said, by the opponents of the anti-slavery cause, that the condition of the people of Ireland is more deplorable than that of the American slaves. Far be it from me to underrate the sufferings of the Irish people. They have been long oppressed; and the same heart that prompts me to plead the cause of the American bondman, makes it impossible for me not to sympathize with the oppressed of all lands. Yet I must say that there is no analogy between the two cases. The Irishman is poor, but he is not a slave. He may be in rags, but he is not a slave. He is still the master of his own body, and can say with the poet, “The hand of Douglass is his own.” “The world is all before him, where to choose;” and poor as may be my opinion of the British parliament, I cannot believe that it will ever sink to such a depth of infamy as to pass a law for the recapture of fugitive Irishmen! The shame and scandal of kidnapping will long remain wholly monopolized by the American congress. The Irishman has not only the liberty to emigrate from his country, but he has liberty at home. He can write, and speak, and cooperate for the attainment of his rights and the redress of his wrongs.

The multitude can assemble upon all the green hills and fertile plains of the Emerald Isle; they can pour out their grievances, and proclaim their wants without molestation; and the press, that “swift-winged messenger,” can bear the tidings of their doings to the extreme bounds of the civilized world. They have their “Conciliation Hall,” on the banks of the Liffey, their reform clubs, and their newspapers; they pass resolutions, send forth addresses, and enjoy the right of petition. But how is it with the American slave? Where may he assemble? Where is his Conciliation Hall? Where are his newspapers? Where is his right of petition? Where is his freedom of speech? his liberty of the press? and his right of locomotion? He is said to be happy; happy men can speak. But ask the slave what is his condition—what his state of mind—what he thinks of enslavement? and you had as well address your inquiries to the silent dead. There comes no voice from the enslaved. We are left to gather his feelings by imagining what ours would be, were our souls in his soul’s stead.

Incidentally, he also compares the singing of slaves in the United States to what he heard in Ireland during the Famine:

In the most boisterous outbursts of rapturous sentiment, there was ever a tinge of deep melancholy. I have never heard any songs like those anywhere since I left slavery, except when in Ireland. There I heard the same wailing notes, and was much affected by them. It was during the famine of 1845-6.