Friday, April 2, 2010

off with their heads

Eight out of 15 of the Hefce board are university managers, the rest coming from business; nine out of 11 members of the research committee, ten out of 14 on the skills committee and 15 out of 18 on the access committee are senior university administrators. Working academics – teachers and researchers – are conspicuously absent. Hefce is, in reality, little more than a managerial oligarchy, and its power is extraordinary: no other country in the world hands out so much money (some £7 billion a year) to such a small group with so little external supervision over what it does. It answers to no one except the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, and in effect is the means by which the government stranglehold over universities is maintained. This is spelled out specifically in the document detailing the role of the chairman, which is ‘to support the wider strategic policies of the secretary of state’. This represents a complete change of focus from the old University Grants Committee, which Hefce replaced in 1992. The UGC was set up in 1919 as a buffer, to prevent direct government interference in the universities. Hefce was set up to facilitate precisely that interference.


Hefce’s style is mirrored inside the universities, which have been slowly converted into hierarchical, authoritarian organisations in which the last vestiges of accountability (e.g. senates with real supervisory power) have been degraded, and guarantees of academic freedom (tenure in particular) abolished. It goes without saying that this undermines researchers’ freedom. It is hardly conducive to fearless innovation if, as is currently happening at King’s College London, a head of department can decide which aspects of historical research are worthwhile (including his own, as it turns out) and close down others (King’s has proposed to get rid of the UK’s only chair in palaeography); or if administrators, using figures whose analysis they control, can denounce certain subjects as ‘sub-critical’ and axe them.

Such administrators identify themselves as the masters of the institution, not its servants, and come to regard academics who were once colleagues as employees to be managed.

Iain Pears, Letter to LRB on Ross McKibbin's article in the LRB (Feb 25, 2010) on proposals by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) for regulating university research. The rest here.

(I read this at a demoralizing time: had dinner last night with Nancy Bauer, a philosopher at Tufts, who said Obama's Race to the Top initiative is making university accreditation depend on (among other things) the identification of 'learning outcomes'. 'Learning outcomes' were one of the many intellectually indefensible requirements imposed on British universities - one of the chief reasons, in fact, that British academics have taken to looking for jobs in the the US. )

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