Thursday, March 4, 2010

The paleographer and the managers: a tale of modern times

by Iain Pears

Is a novelist, historian and has studied the rise of management since his days as a financial correspondent for Reuters.

Proposals for draconian cuts of academic staff at King's College London -- including the dismissal of David Ganz, Britain's last professor of Palaeography --  have justly aroused condemnation from the world of academia and beyond, not only for their savagery, but for the way they are being implemented.

The cuts themselves do not offer much room for manoeuvre. Protesting too much would be counter-productive, as it could too easily be characterised as the special pleading of the ivory tower brigade, unwilling to live in the real world. Universities in general are going to have to put up with hard times over the next few years.

But how those cuts are made and where they fall is another matter entirely. In this area not only is a fight justifiable, it is vital. King's is among the first, and is certainly the most prominent, to wield the axe. It may become the model for others if it proceeds unchallenged.

The powers that be there seem to taking their cues from a chapter on bullying in the Modern Manager's Handbook. Staff are being required to reapply for their own jobs -- the unspoken (but obvious) concern being that any who protest unduly may find that their reapplication is viewed with disfavour.

They will be reappointed not because of the importance of their subject, but more because of how much money they earn for King's and according to their "confirmed future output" and "esteem indicators."  At no stage so far has anyone outside a narrow band of managers and the most senior academics been consulted; decisions were presented with no alternatives and little real chance of serious amendment.

These are the distasteful tactics normally associated with the call centre or sweat-shop. They are surprising, to say the least, when they come from an institution which is supposed to be a bastion of free and independent critical thought.

Why does it matter? Because it represents a surrender at the highest level (and you don't get much higher than King's) to the powers of management in a sector once known for its reliance on co-operation, goodwill and institutional accountability. 

This transformation of Higher Education has been going on for some while, beginning with the reforms of Margaret Thatcher (taking away of tenure, institution of assessment exercises  that stressed quantity rather than quality, the erosion of the powers of university senates). These changes, and the target-based culture of Labour, resulted in the emergence of a new and powerful managerial elite whose success at moving into the universities and taking them over has been extraordinary.

Certainly the managers have been as efficient as MPs and BBC Talent (and much more discreet) at finding ways of diverting public money into their own hands.

Whereas academic salaries have risen slowly in the last couple of decades (although much less than the number of students), pay at the top has rocketed.

The average vice-chancellor now earns nearly three times as much as a professor, much more than the prime minister and more than the average private sector chief executive. The Principal of King's, Rick Trainor, had a pay package which rose to £312,000 in 2008/9 from £292,000 the year before and £250,000 in 2006/7. His predecessor made do on £186,000 in 2002. While one person at King's earned more than £150,000 in 2001/2, this had risen to 79 in 2009.

Keeping palaeography alive by cutting back on the generosity to senior staff does not appear to be an option for discussion, although reducing Professor Trainor's package to a mere quarter of a million would help out, and a 5 per cent cut in take-home pay for the top 79 earners would produce more than a million pounds, enough for several departments of palaeographers.

Equally, there has also been a massive increase in the resources consumed by the administration.

While King's is proposing to cut 22 jobs from the Humanities, it is simultaneously advertising for two senior management positions (salary up to £85,000) to administer a "strategic plan to deliver a world class Asset Management Programme of Campus based services." And an applications analyst ("results oriented") to support the College's "enterprise business applications." And a Distance Learning Administrator. And a head of Principal Gift Development who must also, of course, be "target-driven and ambitious."

Professor Trainor has an executive team with all the managerial bling of a fully-fledged multi-national, complete with two executive officers and a Chief information officer.  There is also a public relations department, an external relations directorate, a marketing department, a quality assurance unit, a corporate design unit (which "protects the brand"), a corporate services section, and on, and on.

According to the College's own accounts, administrative costs rose to £33.5 million in 2009 from £28.5 million the year before -- a rise of 17.5 per cent and more than twice as fast as the rise in cost of academic departments. In 2003, administration cost £16.5 million -- making a 103 per cent rise over the six years.

To give a comparison, King's is now proposing to decimate the Humanities to save £2.4 million. This will claw back less than half of the increase in administrative expenses for 2009 alone.

Anyone who finds it surprising that King's should be getting rid of teachers while simultaneously recruiting administrators does not understand that universities (in the eyes of both vice-chancellors and ministers) are no longer institutions of learning. They are part of a nationalised industry, and increasingly behave like one.

They have, moreover, become vehicles for a bureaucratic technocracy to advance its own interests, in the way described by Milovan Djilas in 1957 when he analysed the rise of the "New Class" in communist states.

In this new set-up, everything -- and particularly the idea of the university, a place where all knowledge should be promoted in a place of mutual esteem, and where association of differing disciplines can stimulate fruitful new ideas, where knowledge is to be protected as well as advanced --  can be jettisoned whenever necessary.

In its place comes the short-term vision of the speculator. Along with palaeography, all the humanities (and even subjects like theoretical physics) are now being nationally targetted as unproductive; indeed anything which does not have a measurable pay-off in the short-term is under threat.

Curiously, this is not something which necessarily meets great approval in the business community. The best businessman are those who can think widely and critically, who value independence of thought.

The senior managers of universities often do not possess such breadth or imagination. Rather, they have rushed to adopt the horizons and language of the mediocre manager. Take this extract from the 2006 King's Strategy: "As part of the new performance culture within King's, the administration has been re-badged Professional Services... we understand the importance of professionally delivered enabling services in realising our vision..."

Many of the people writing this nonsense are ex-academics, who often behave with the zeal of the converted, using ever more inpenentrable jargon to signal their new allegiance.

But the jargon has its own meaning. The internal paper on the cuts states its wish to "create financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are at sub-critical level."

Although it seems to have been written by a semi-literate, the sentence is telling in that it reveals a total absence of desire to protect areas of expertise which might be vulnerable. Instead, that vulnerability is the justification for destruction.

If academics accept such premises, and try to argue back in terms of economic relevance, they are doomed. There is no way to demonstrate that the study of Voltaire or Milton or palaeography is of any use whatsoever once the argument is defined by such language, any more than you can justify curiosity or imagination or the ability to think and argue.

In the past couple of decades many have learnt to parrot out the language of efficiency and transparency, of output and relevance, of competitive bidding and market share, of metrics and impact, without seeming to realise that it meant accepting also the assumptions underlying these terms.

Modern managerial practice, after all, was developed in the US army in the Second World War, then adapted by think-tanks for civilian life.  What its wholesale adoption amounted to was a militarisation of the organisations it invaded -- with its hierarchies, chains of command and line managers.

It was by definition incompatible with non-hierarchical institutions like universities, (and has been generally rejected by companies like Google, which value a more egalitarian ethos). So the universities had to be forced to change. They were reshaped to fit management doctrine, not the other way around.

This process is now well-advanced. But if these proposed cuts are challenged -- if palaeographers are defended by social scientists, scientists, as well as teachers in the humanities; if lecturers from other institutions protest as well -- if, in sum, academics rally to defend the integrity of their profession as a whole, rather than looking only to their own position and advantage -- then some good might come out of it all.

They might even remember that once the administrators were there to serve the institution, not to be its masters, and insist on taking that responsibility back into their own hands.

But if they do not-- if they keep their heads down, sacrifice other people's jobs in the hope of keeping their own, if senior professors identify with the managers rather than with their colleagues -- then the game will be over for good.

King's, certainly, will be badly damaged, for such institutions depend above all on the unquantifiable factors of co-operation and cameraderie to prosper. The "brand" which it so zealously tries to commercialise will be tarnished for a very long time.

But British academics in general will end up as mere drudge workers in the knowledge economy, doomed to follow every fad and command which comes down from on high.

King's paper on proposed cuts

King's Strategy plan, 2006-16

King's accounts, 2003-2009


evision said...

Anonymous said...

Well said! I agree completely. I am a professor of engineering at the University of California, which faces cuts also. We have similar issues of administrative bloat and growth. Fortunately we still have a stronger culture of academic freedom and leadership by academics, and shared recognition that the humanities are important.

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