Sunday, 8 February 2009

Mark Campbell: What is the real problem here?

There are a significant number of inter-related issues that have been raised, by staff, students, the media, and the general public, in relation to the financial crisis London Met now finds itself in:

1) Is ‘widening participation’ a good thing, and if so, how should it be defined?

2) Do students that fall within the agreed definition of ‘widening participation’ need additional support,guidance, training, etc, compared to more ‘traditional’ students?

3) If the answer to 2) is yes then to what extent should this be funded, by whom, and in what way?

4) Are students ‘customers’ of the university, and if so does that mean they have bought a particular service, or indeed, a particular result, and are therefore ‘always right’?

5) Is a university the same as a commercial business (aka a factory) and its product, in essence, no different to a can of beans to be processed as cheaply and efficiently as possible and for the vast majority of spend to go into product automation, branding and marketing?

6) Should the university management be accountable to staff and students, and if so how should such accountability be exercised/enforced?

7) Are academics the enemy, a necessary evil in this production process, or the lifeblood of the universitysystem whose expertise and opinions need to be valued?

8) How should our universities be governed and what control should we, as staff and students, have on theselection of those governors and on their decisions?

9) Are universities, in reality, if not in form, part of the ‘public sector’?

10) How should university education be funded and to what end?
This is an attempt to start to answer some of those questions.

To my mind we at London Met have a management that have acted in the same destructive manner as Rupert Murdock, Eddie Shah, and Ian McGregor during the worst excesses of the Thatcher era. They, and their fellow devotes of ‘new managerialism’, saw universities such as ours as a huge business opportunity. What was required was a ‘command structure’ that would relate each directionless wheeze and gimmick from the top as the next great ‘cultural imperative’. Any member of staff who questioned this, was, and is, condemned as
‘unreconstructed’, lacking in ambition, or simply troublesome and in need of either conditioning or removal.

It certainly appears that not one of those who have real power over our university have any real interest in education, or in providing genuine educational opportunity (i.e., real ‘widening participation’), other than in how it flatters their own egos to be seen to be at the helm of a large educational establishment (and to spend millions of pounds of funding on vanity projects such as the £30M Science Centre). In order to conceal their own muddle-headedness, they have crassly argued they were committed to ‘widening participation’ and ‘putting the student first’ and appeared/appealed to both HEFCE and the Government as such. However, what
they have presided over is not ‘widening participation’ it is much more a ‘pile-them-high-sell-them-cheap’ policy that is coated with a very thin veneer of WP varnish. Unfortunately, for us, their concept of ‘widening participation’ seems to, until recently at least, have quite nicely dovetailed that of the Government bean counters.

Now, given the crisis the university finds itself in, management are determined to make us, staff and students, pay for their educational vandalism while attempting to deflect all the blame for this at HEFCE’s door. It is undoubtedly true that genuine ‘widening participation’ has been chronically underfunded since its
inception and that the real additional costs in terms of staff time and resources has never been fully met by HEFCE/Government. We clearly therefore need to be demanding of the government that such funds, particularly in a recession, in which investment in education should be paramount, need to be made available. But we cannot do that whilst letting our management off the hock. Their recently discovered defence of education is no more than a flag of convenience whilst penalising staff and students alike for their own failings – and in so doing helping to destroy the very education they claim to want to defend.

What has our management’s response been to under-funding over the years?
• It certainly wasn’t to mount a political campaign that united with staff and students to demand of
Government the resources required to deliver on the promise of opening up real educational opportunities to
a far wider section of society;
• It wasn’t to actively oppose the introduction of fees and the scraping of mandatory grants – that had such a
negative effect on the vast majority of our student intake (i.e., look at the numbers of our students who are
forced to work 20-40 hours a week in order for themselves, and quite often, their families, to survive, whilst
they pursue a full-time (in name only) degree course);
• It wasn’t in loudly decrying, and actively campaigning against, the recent cuts to ELQ funding that will
reduce the university’s budget by £6M that prominently affects part-time students, women returners, and
those retraining in the midst of a major economic recession.
No, what our management has done throughout is to attempt to manage such underfunding by:
• Attacking staff terms and conditions, and cutting corners in terms of both student recruitment and student
record keeping whilst awarding themselves huge pay rises and bonuses for doing so;
• Reducing the acceptable quality of our educational provision by reinterpreting quality to mean little more
than achieving sufficient student recruitment quotas and percentage pass rates.
It is this management neglect that is now being publicly exposed. However, their response is not only to
continue with more of the same but to increase the tempo by:
• Demanding the sacking of hundreds of staff;
• The worsening of the conditions of those staff that are left;
• The closing of courses and the reduction of module choice;
• Attempting to minimise the amount of time students have with specialist staff.
Who is the real problem here?
Unfortunately, it is precisely that management culture of ‘filling quotas’ and overly-intrusive micromanagement
that has ended up atomising a small minority of both staff and students.
No doubt there are staff that: keep their heads down and tick the boxes while running from one module to the
next; who have had their research time (and staff development time to keep up to date with their specialist
subject matter) cut – only to be replaced by a huge increase in generally mindless administrative tasks dictated
to them from on high; who end up blaming the students in front of them rather than blaming the management
who are the ones turning the screw.
Equally, there will be some students who barely attend the university (quite possibly because they are having to
work flat out just to survive in the current economic climate – with no grants and hefty loans) but then expect to
do well by regurgitating half-memorised lecture slides downloaded from WebLearn. No doubt, some do pass –
not helped by the fact that lecturers now have percentage completion/pass rates to achieve imposed upon them
by that very same management in order not to lose funding. And, some of those students that don’t, because
their memory wasn’t so good on the exam day, or because their lecturer demanded and expected something
better of them than just regurgitation, may in turn blame the lecturer for their failure.
However, I don’t believe the real crime here is either the desperate coping mechanisms of such students or staff
– these are symptoms not causes. The real crime is the one that devalues what education should be about in the
first place. As someone said at the recent governors lobby – ‘They know the price of everything and the value
of nothing’. That crime was committed in the boardroom of the university not the lecture theatres – and until
that is put right nothing else will follow.
Reclaiming our university
So what do we do? Abandon hope and drift/run away – or fight to get our university back and start to put right
the mistakes. This is really a question of fighting the cuts now as the prelude to rescuing our university from
those that have stolen it from us. That, we can only do if we recognise that both staff and students need each
other – it is the management that is the impediment to radical change. Indeed, it will be in working together
against our common enemy that we will gain a far better insight and understanding of each others situation and
needs – and that will be a first step of putting a real education agenda back at the heart of London Met.
This means we absolutely need to demand that the Government provide the funds to secure the future of
the university, its staff, and students, whilst at the same time we sweep out those, that as somebody
recently remarked, ‘shouldn’t be running a whelk stall never mind a university’!

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