‘University management should be on tap, not on top’, complained the trouble-making lecturer, irked by the overbearing attitude of the people running the institution where he worked.
It has a contemporary ring, but this was Alan Watts commenting on his university on the west coast of the US nearly fifty years ago.
I was reminded of his words last week, when the looming threat of strike action prompted HR departments at a number of universities around the UK to try a tactic that any history undergrad worth his or her salt would have recognised in a flash: divide and rule.
As unions urged students to back their lecturers, the message came down from university management that striking lecturers risked harming the student experience.
A smart move, in a way – the Coalition have had a fair bit of luck claiming that public sector workers trying to maintain their pension rights are basically being greedy, so why not try suggesting that lecturers are too busy bolstering their bank balances to care about whether their students are learning anything?
Ultimately, though, it’s preposterous, disgusting, and a sign of a direction of travel that needs to change…
‘Preposterous’ because if lecturers were interested in trousering lots of cash, they’d be mad to have gone anywhere near academia in the first place. If they’re not paying enough attention to their students, it’s because they have noses in books (or possibly in pint glasses) rather than their snouts in troughs: student complaints revolve around the perceived prioritizing of research over teaching, not a worry that in their eagerness to exchange corduroy for some finer material lecturers are out chasing down exorbitant pensions and pay rises.
‘Disgusting’ because even if some lecturers do fail to strike a good balance between teaching and research – and I think most of us do, now and again – the vast majority are deeply committed to students and to their intellectual development, so to have that slandered by university management is pretty low. Students, too, ought to find the attempt to split them from their teachers rather insidious.
So what’s the direction of travel? I think it’s close to the warning Alan Watts gave half a century ago: we’re in danger of forgetting what universities are for, and as a result using the wrong model when it comes to running them.
It would be stupid to suggest that universities, any more than charities, should be prevented by idealism from seeking to use resources carefully and to avoid haemorrhaging cash through naive management. But unless we can find a way of distinguishing between using money wisely and building the entire system around money, universities are rapidly going to become very unattractive places to be and to work.
Part of the solution might be to return to a more modest concept of facilitation. Teachers and students facilitate one another’s learning in one sense – and if you think this is mere rhetoric then spend some time in a classroom or take a look at how many academics thank their students when they write their Acknowledgements – and management facilitates this process in another. Good management underpins, rather than drives, the whole process – and where it is noticed the least, it is very possibly working the best.
The question you’re all asking at this point, of course, is ‘What if St Paul had run his own University? What would have been his management philosophy?’ Well…
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud;
It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs;
University management does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth;
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Amen to that.
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