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.


Shifting Sands

For resentful white folks in search of a struggle with which to express solidarity, there is a rich seam of oppression to be mined in Ireland. Violence in Ireland has long been assimilated to the violence of national liberation struggles in the developing, or post-colonial, world. At a distance, some of the ambiguities can be fudged: in 1998, I attended a gig which turned out to be in aid of the Committee for the Self-Determination of the People of Ireland, at a centro sociale in Rome. The headline act was the Modena City Ramblers, who sound something like the Pogues would have done if they had been a bunch of communists from Emilia-Romagna (but I repeat myself). Their songs have included misty-eyed laments about Irish rain, Bobby Sands’ friends, and Che Guevara’s motorcycle trip. Their last release but one was a concept album about a joint Allied-partisan operation in 1945; on the cover was an SAS dagger and `Who Dares Wins’.

The affection of the Italian left for Ireland, or at least for an image of Ireland, is no surprise: the discourse of `struggle’, armed or otherwise, is a good fit for `solidarity’ with `oppressed peoples’. The mythologization of Ireland on the right is another thing entirely.

Should you ever find yourself near a demonstration in Italy, or watching a football match involving an Italian club, you will inevitably see flags featuring a stylized Celtic cross. The cross is an icon, in the literal sense of venerated symbol, because of its use by French Waffen SS troops, wiped out in the defence of Berlin against the Bolshevik hordes in 1945, but also for its connection to Ireland and Irish mythology. Like Hitler, the neo-fascist movement in Italy has long drawn inspiration from Norse mythology: one legendary street-fighter had a taste for charging left-wing demonstrations swinging a hammer over his head, Odin-like, rather than using the standard issue 36mm spanner. Clearly, a warrior myth is useful for people who use `hierarchical’ and `anti-democratic’ as compliments, and see Tolkien’s books as models of a well-ordered society, so much so that the 1970s neophyte Nazi spent his summers at `Camp Hobbit’.

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Policing by consent (of the police)

In a BBC Radio 4 programme about the relationship between the Conservative Party and the UK police, the presenter, journalist Robin Aitken, discusses the breakdown in the previously amicable relationship between the Tories and the police, harking back to the golden age of upstanding beat coppers who were trusted by the public. Roger Scruton pops up to talk of how the law in Britain is felt as the property of the people, and how the police are servants of the public and not an arm of the state. One interviewee wants to go back to the standards which prevailed thirty or forty years ago.

These would be standards of torture (Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven), murder (Blair Peach, inter alia), political repression (Orgreave), and, more recently, in addition to established practice, the impregnation of political activists and the desertion of them and their children. All of the above has been covered up for by perjury.

Aitken mentions that for many years the only critics of the police were the `radical left’, where it would appear `radical left’ means `people who think the police should obey the law and not beat confessions out of people’. He is shocked, however, by the idea that a police officer would lie about a government minister saying `pleb’.

What does it cost to fire somebody in the UK?

Take-home message: firing people is very cheap.

It is claimed now and again that making it easier to fire people makes it easier to hire them. The logic is that employers do not hire staff because they are worried about the cost of laying them off if business does not go as well as they expect. So an employer’s reasoning is that they would like to expand their business by hiring more people, but the possible costs associated with `making them redundant’ (actually, `dismissing by reason of redundancy’) put them off.

It is easy enough to find out what it costs to dismiss someone by reason of redundancy in the UK. If someone has worked for an employer for less than two years, they have no right to a redundancy payment. After two years service, they have a right to a redundancy payment of one week’s pay per full year worked which is halved for each year worked under age 22. That `week’s pay’ is capped at £464.

So if business has not gone as well as expected and you have to fire someone less than two years after you hired them, it costs nothing.

If business has gone well for a bit, and you have to fire minimum wage staff who have worked for just over two years, it costs £495.20 for the adults, and £201.20 for the under twenties.

In other words, you can fire someone at no cost whatsoever in the first two years. After that, it can cost the same as filling the tank of a big car twice.

The grave of Giorgio Bassani,

The grave of Giorgio Bassani,

Giorgio Bassani’s grave, in the Jewish cemetery, Ferrara, supposedly just over the wall from the Garden of the Finzi-Contini