In a recent blog I touched on the acquisitive and unseemly behaviour of many University Vice Chancellors and their senior colleagues. This group, ostensibly managing the Higher Education sector, had been perceived as directing far too much of their collective energy to looting the public purse and far too little of their collective energies to improving the various institutions in their care.
On the plus side, the tireless hacks were on the job and the hapless, albeit affluent, Vice Chancellors were being flushed out, excoriated and advised to mend their ways.
Since my blog appeared – it concluded with the VCs defiant but beleaguered – other contentious issues in the H.E. sector have emerged, giving rise for concern about the well being of the sector.
Sadly, there seemed to be no end to the media coverage about the sins of the Senior Management of our Universities. It was reported that some Vice Chancellors are members of the remuneration committees that determine their pay – a most agreeable arrangement for those on the receiving end. No figures were available but it has been whispered that very few VCs were in favour of an austerity era in which their pay might be cut.
On February 26, 2018, the Channel 4 Dispatches Team broadcast a documentary:- “ Britain’s University Spending Scandal”. Given that various media investigators had spent much of the past few years exposing precisely these scandals I would award the members of the Dispatches Team a bare pass for zeal but zero marks for topicality. I now look forward to the next Dispatches report – “Is there an end in sight to the Boer War?”
The other Higher Education issues to emerge included:
- The growing anger about the loan arrangements whereby today’s students incur huge debts to fund their tuition costs. This resentment also extends to the arrangements for maintenance costs and especially maintenance costs for those from poorer backgrounds.
- Resentment among the lower ranks of academia about plans to erode their retirement pensions.
- A more muted debate about the steady rise in the number of first class and upper second class degrees awarded – clear evidence here of an H.E. sector in good shape.
- A lively debate about the stifling of free speech in our Universities.
- The personal intervention of Mrs May – don’t we have enough trouble already?
Before we move on to the other issues – yet another word about our Vice Chancellors. As a group our VCs were notably silent on the various contentious issues. This reticence should surprise no one. Stealing money from the public purse is not as easy as it looks and careful thought and lots of tireless dedication are required to ensure that the Vice Chancellors and their senior colleagues end up with the absolute maximum that they can get away with- this leaves them with little or no time to spare for the traditional duties of our senior HE administrators.
In my day – I am speaking here about the late 1950s – all tuition fees were paid for out of public funds. The responsibly of the student was to meet the specified academic requirements for admission to the courses of their choice.
Maintenance support was based on parental income and the full amount was more than sufficient to live in comfort with some left over to enjoy the social opportunities available in public houses.
My father’s income as a plate layer with British Rail was an the low side – this was before the days of tough negotiators like the late Bob Crowe – and the outcome was that I received the full amount of maintenance support. For the only time in my life I was more affluent than most of my peers because substantial numbers of middle class parents were reluctant to pay the amount stipulated.
My memory may be faulty but my recollection is that we Higher Education boys and girls – mostly boys in those days – lived off the fat of the land.
To return to the subject: the idea behind the introduction of variable tuition fees was there would be competition between the various colleges and the outcome would be that market forces would keep tuition fees down.
That was the theory. Things did not quite work out according to the theory. Our Vice Chancellors – mostly recruited from the Arthur Daley School of Business Studies – were quick to spot the opportunity to set up a cartel and set their fees at the top of the scale – and this is exactly what happened.
Who was responsible for the original absurd view that there would be competition and why is he/she still employed by the state?
Just to rub salt in the wounds of the next generation of graduates, the interest rates applied to student loans are in some cases above the rate that would be expected to apply given the interest rates set by the Bank of England.
So – to sum up the situation at this stage – our students are collectively pissed because of:
- The looting of funds by the senior managers of the H.E sector.
- The further looting of public funds entailed in the cartel arrangements for the setting of tuition fees.
- The piling of debt on debt triggered by unfavourable interest rates on the loans taken out.
Is that it? No it isn’t. Not quite.
The planned erosion of the pension arrangements for academics
On February 27, 2018, The Times published a letter written by a Dr Rupert Reid from the Department of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. In his letter Dr Rupert Read sets out persuasively both the case to retain the existing pension arrangements for academics and the justification to retain these arrangements by whatever measures are available.
I have some – not much – sympathy for the predicament of the academics mainly because, as a British Steel pensioner, I have recently seen my pension arrangements reduced and I do not take kindly to the thought that part of the tax paid on this reduced retirement income will be used to maintain the life styles of aged academics.
So much for the appeal to the heart strings: what about the strike tactics?
Predictably the tactics employed by the leaders of the striking academics have been shrewdly, if controversially, deployed against those least able to defend themselves – the customers or as we ought to refer to them – the students. The strike leaders appear on camera, after applying onions to eye lids, to lament that the students will suffer but sadly they have no alternative if right is to triumph.
The strike tactics have been carefully planned to inflict the maximum pain on the students – no details to be given out in advance as to which lectures will not be given, and rather more painful, which exams will not be held.
The bolshies appear to have moved in – the transparently clear aim of the strike is to secure the retention of the existing arrangements using the simple but effective technique of causing as much disruption as possible.
Regular train travellers – the suffering public – will have seen similar scenes down the years as rail union leaders deplore that the innocent will suffer because of the sins of the management.
‘Lecturers can’t expect us to pay their pensions’
Headline above the Daniel Finkelstein column in The Times, February 28, 2018.
In his weekly column Lord Finkelstein looks at what is going on and ruefully, but with just a hint of malice, notes that “the younger lecturers are, therefore, literally striking against themselves.”
As usual Lord F is infuriatingly persuasive, rational and transparent. A most valuable asset for The Times but a massive challenge to his would be imitators.
The weakness of his case lies in the headline above his column – “Lecturers can’t expect us to pay for their pensions”.
But my dear Lord F – that is precisely what they do expect.
Finally, Holdenforth cannot leave the HE pensions issue without a word about Mr Bill Galvin.
‘University pension chief got pay rise despite £6bn deficit’
Headline in The Times, February 23, 2018
In the report which accompanied the above startling headline, Rosemary Bennett noted that “The Chief Executive of the vast university pension scheme at the centre of the nationwide strike was given an £82k pay rise this year despite claims that there is a £6bn hole in the Fund… however he is not the best paid member of the board. Two staff earn more than £1m …”
Note that this report appeared not in The Bolshevist Times, but in The Times.
As Mr Littlejohn might say – indeed he would say – you couldn’t make it up.
We aged manager johnnies might suspect that there is some scope for reduction in the administrative costs of managing the HE pension scheme – seemingly run by graduates of the Arthur Daley business school.
A word about free speech
It has long been a hallowed tradition within our institutions of higher education that there should be – indeed must be – no attempt to suppress the voicing of opinions, however controversial, on University premises.
This tradition has come under strain recently and University managers have been criticised for allowing the Sons and Daughters of the Red Dawn to deny free speech to those with opinions at variance with their own.
Predictably the Senior Managers had other things to worry about – principally how to hang onto their loot – and the raucous element prevailed.
A confession on this issue. Back in 1961 I recall attending a meeting in King’s College in Newcastle addressed by Mr George Brown, then deputy leader of the Labour Party.
There was a great deal of raucous heckling – in which I joined – but Mr Brown pressed on and made his points.
Where does heckling end and the suppression of free speech begin?
You tell me.
Is the Higher Education sector in good shape?
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper
All would appear to be well if we consult the all important criterion of results. I gather that there has been a huge rise in the number of First Class Degrees and Upper Second Class degrees awarded in recent years. – clear evidence of a massive improvement in standards.
Could it be that I – with my scraped pass degree – am in no position to cavil and that all is well in this best of all possible worlds?
It is just possible that standards may have fallen but that is an unworthy suspicion.
A stroll down memory lane
Back in 2002 I wrote a book in which I examined the cushiness or otherwise of a range of professional jobs. In a blog published a few weeks I updated what I had written in the book about lawyers.
In the following notes I will revisit what I wrote about academics and assess what has changed and why in the intervening years. Specifically I will look a few of my points from 2002 to be able to say that “I told you so” and “I saw it coming”.
All the quotes are taken from A Cushy Number.
“The aspect of job of job security is the one that has probably seen the most drastic change in recent years. Time was when the job of an academic was synonymous with security of tenure. It was the original job for life. This is no longer so and temporary contracts are very much in evidence. The startling rise in the phenomenon of temporary employment contracts, and, in particular, their spreading into previously sacred professional areas has already been noted. We will, in line with our previous practice, exclude this class of untouchables from our analysis.
“Suffice it to say that temporary jobs and cushy numbers are mutually exclusive categories. A key career priority therefore of all new entrants to the academic profession is to obtain a permanent position, and there can be no relaxing until this is secured. Once obtained, the degree of job security is total.”
(Update – My sources tell me that the use of temporary contracts to serve as system shock absorbers has continued unabated to the consternation of those desperately seeking a permanent job. This desperation would be unlikely to soften the hearts of the University Admin boys and girls.)
“At an early point in his tenure as Prime Minister – on a temporary contract – Mr Blair said: – ‘Let there be an increase in the number of students in higher education” ‘nd there was an increase in the number of students in higher education.
“The reasons behind this doctrine were not entirely clear. Some cynics (not me ) suspected that this expansion was cheaper than two possible alternatives, the dole and, even worse, descent into crime. After all, the argument runs, they must be learning something, and whilst thus engaged, they are off the streets.”
( Update – the percentage of the population opting to enter the H.E. sector has increased steadily with predictable increases in the costs of the policy and an anxious search for funds to sustain the upward trend. As noted earlier the students found themselves in the unhappy position of funding themselves – not an agreeable prospect.)
“One branch of the academic profession has grown at a bewildering rate, namely that of business schools. This growth has been in inverse proportion to the performance of British business. We do not argue for a cause and effect relationship between the two, although we certainly suspect it.”
(Update – As the size of the business – academia sector maintains its steady growth so the productivity performance of the UK economy declines! A Cushy Number got this spot on. )
“The job of an academic is said to offer extensive opportunities for sexual networking. We hope that most academics and our readers will indignantly reject this as a benefit, but the possibilities are there should you so wish. It may be that we have got this side of academia out of proportion, but it has to be said that it looms large in all fictional portrayals of academic life, both in print and on screen.
“It may well be the case that novel writing academics, usually from the humanities, write about affairs with students on the simple basis that they have no other subject matter available to them. Nevertheless, we must raise the matter, if only to dismiss it. The profession does tend to promote more opportunities in this area than most. It is up to the job holder to exploit or to ignore these opportunities according to personal preference.”
(Update – As an aged manufacturing manager I have no idea what the situation in this area is in 2018 and Holdenforth would appreciate feedback on the subject.)
“UK Politicians of all colours are mindful of the fact that the economy is under-performing relative to our main global competitors and that one priority is to raise the skill level in the community. To this end a new Quango, The Education and Learning Initiative, was launched to ensure that the required skills were made available via a comprehensive training program. The plan got off to a slightly inauspicious start when it emerged that the Quango had been defrauded on a large scale by various enterprising individuals and groups throughout the UK. Accordingly the scheme was scrapped.”
(Update – the innovative spirit displayed by those who exploited the Quango has been a notable feature of many projects launched and then jettisoned at huge cost to the public purse.)
“It would be appropriate here to put in a word about the management methods employed by University and College administrators. This group saw what was going on in the privatised utilities sector and they saw that it was good. They followed suit by pushing up staff productivity by the simple expedient of pushing up student numbers whilst holding staff numbers constant. They directed significant fractions of the cost per head savings into their own reward packages, and who shall blame them? The academic admin boys have hit the jackpot. Their jobs are much less demanding than those of the staff they employ, and their reward packages much better.
“Well done, Vice Chancellors.”
(Update – Excellent foresight shown by A Cushy Number. Spot on.)
Drafting revisions to A Cushy Number in 2015, I added that:
“A letter appeared in today’s Times ( February 2, 2015) written collectively by the English members of the Universities UK Board. The anxious admin boys were worried that any proposals to reduce university tuition fees would ‘affect the quality of students education’. This commendable altruism did not appear to have been a consideration back in 2014 when a number of reports appeared in The Times deploring the acquisitiveness of this group. Headlines at the time included ‘Stop university fat cats lining their pockets’ (March 12, 2014), and ‘Salaries still soaring for university chiefs’ (April 4, 2014). The reports took on a woebegone aspect a little later, including ‘University heads roll in drive to justify salaries’ . Behind the headlines it turned out that a few heads, deeply concerned at their portrayal as greedy parasites – a fair description – opted for the safety and tranquillity of early retirement on their enhanced pensions. Small wonder that a sense of disillusion may have been discerned in the lower ranks.”
(Update – don’t say that you didn’t know what was going – it was all in the papers.)
A gloomy conclusion to A Cushy Number
“Are you a little nervous about the longer term prospects in this sector? Can we go on like this with the numbers expanding remorselessly and the academic standards going who knows where and the top brass getting richer, much richer, between the sporadic episodes of exposure in the media. Difficult questions to answer.
“Are standards in tertiary education rising inexorably like those in secondary education? Or are they in decline? Who knows?
“Sadly we suspect that the latter is the case and, in gloomy mode, we see the prospect at some not-too-distant time of a decision being taken at the highest level – say the European Court of Human Rights – to award every UK citizen a starred first from Oxbridge in the subject of his choice from the college of his choice. At the end of the exercise all our Universities and Colleges of Further Education could then be shut down, and, at a later date, a modest percentage of them re-opened, possibly after fumigation, under more time honoured disciplines and arrangements.”
(Update – my modest proposal at the time may in retrospect have verged on the extreme and yet – why not? Radical solutions are said to be all the rage.)
Holdenforth readers will expect a few suggestions to improve the creaking crumbling shaky flaky H.E. sector – so here goes.
- The greed and dishonesty of the top management beggars belief – nothing will be achieved without large scale dismissals and huge salary cuts. Accordingly – a ruthless cull of the worst of the offending and offensive Vice Chancellors – there can be improvement until they have been handed their P 45s and given – let’s be generous – 30 minutes to clear their desks.
- For those allowed to remain in post – given that Vice Chancellors favour cartels – set an upper annual salary limit of £99k until a sense of purpose and respect for old fashioned University values has been restored. While on the subject – abolish all bonuses – the bonus here is that you get to keep your job if your performance is good enough.
- The enthusiasm of senior managers for global travel to be discouraged. I understand that modern technology is now available via SKYPE and Video conferencing to facilitate face to face discussions and thus avoid the high costs incurred by unnecessary travel jaunts. The recent Dispatches documentary highlighted the propensity of senior managers to opt for jetting off to warmer climes whilst neglecting the more prosaic but time honoured tasks normally associated with the job.
In short – Senior managers to manage and to be seen to manage – those who can’t or won’t to walk the plank.
My last point concerns the Vice Chancellor of my alma mater – The University Of Bolton. Many years ago I was a student at what was then Bolton Technical College – said by those in the know to be a fine example of the excellent institutions set up after the Industrial Revolution to maintain and develop the local demonstrable technical excellence.
The current VC of Bolton University George Holmes figured prominently in the list of Academic Fat Cats. The fuss over his ludicrous justification of his reward package had barely died down when it emerged that he had attended the unseemly Presidents’ Dinner held at the Dorchester Hotel ostensibly to raise cash for good causes – nice timing George.
A symbolic act by an all too representative Vice Chancellor.
Image courtesy of BBC