Photo by Guy Smallman

Battle of the leftists

Which group of non-teachers run the universities: Vice-chancellors or UCU leaders?

Artillery Row

Much of the noise and fury of political rhetoric in recent years arises from conflict within the Left. Looking back in some cases to Stalinists fighting Trotskyites, we have struggles between old-fashioned Marxisante class conflict crews and identity warriors, and also battles between rival identity warriors. We have charges of racism flung at all whites, including Jews, who understandably do not see themselves in this light. We have “trans” supporters criticizing radical feminists.

The universities now add yet another iteration of this warfare. We have the “soft left”, in the case of university leaderships, fighting it out with the “hard left” in the shape of the University and College Union and its zeal for “industrial” inaction, while the National Union of Students provides backing for the latter in the face of a lack of support from many students.

The UCU is ready to cause chaos for demands that cannot be readily afforded

Jho Grady, the UCU General Secretary, has threatened strikes “unless employers get round the table and take staff concerns over pension cuts, pay and working conditions seriously”, which, in practice, means giving in over a national pay round that has already been concluded. In the ballot, strike action over changes to pensions was supported by 76 per cent of voters, while in the separate ballot over pay and conditions, the percentage was 70. Staff at 58 universities are due to strike from 1 December.

This is a longstanding dispute in its specifics, notably over pensions, pay and conditions, particularly for postgraduates who do teaching, a group now allowed to join the union. In fact the conflict arises from a deeper tension over “ownership” and “identity”, or, more crudely, which group of non-teachers run the universities: Vice-chancellors or UCU leaders? The latter are hard-left, the former soft-left, each group showing a woeful level of leadership. The UCU is clearly ready to cause chaos at every step and for a range of demands that cannot be readily afforded by most universities and that are not supported by many staff because a large number are not members of the union.

The latter point highlights the incompetence of most university management. Far from seeking to circumvent or make redundant the UCU, which has already engaged in strike action over this issue in 2018, 2019 and 2020, with more threatened in 2021-2, the universities have failed to introduce and enforce a workable order. This matches a series of abject failures in managerial processes, including ceding interlocutory rights and roles to lobby groups and other activists, varying from Athena Swann to the National Union of Students (NUS). As a sidebar, in many cases, there are somewhat questionable conflicts of interest, with members of university Senior Management Groups also having membership in lobby groups that sell services and the resulting accreditation to universities, while NUS officials benefit from public funds as they advance their radical CVs.

As the press makes clear on an almost daily basis, the universities are a mess. Well, no. Let us be accurate: a total mess. The somewhat cosy relationship between (some) VCs and government bodies may or may not have been fit for purpose in the Blair, Brown and Cameron years; it was certainly an aspect of the pronounced corporatism of those years. The relationship has developed into a system that is definitely not fit for purpose, one that is highly costly but not delivering the results that Vice Chancellors have promised to a variety of constituents from students to the Treasury. The Durham furore over “normalising” student prostitution is not some outlier, but all-too-typical of a sense of false values. In that particular case, the university is backed by the local Labour MP, who also has views on the voting age and age of consent that allows speculation as to whether this new code will be rolled out for school sixth formers.

Paying universities for uncertain degrees is a fraud on both students and taxpayers

At a time when the government faces a host of problems, it is easy to see why there is only a limited wish to rethink the governance of Higher Education, but, as in the separate but related case of the BBC, there is the need for action, rather than the continuance of the current situation of costly mismanagement. First, this may be the first occasion for a long while in which a relevant parliamentary majority exists. Secondly, the situation really is dire, and the multiple failures are an aspect of a steady deterioration in both provision and standards. Paying universities for degrees that are rendered uncertain by persistent strike action is a fraud on both students and the taxpayers. If university managements will not deal with the problem, they should also become redundant. The irony of academics dismissed, shunned or disciplined for liberal dissent, but others kept in place who will not work and prefer the terror of intimidation, deserves the pen of an Orwell although any modern equivalent would doubtless be de-platformed.

Government should withdraw funds and loans for universities that cannot provide the university education contracted. As with local government, the NHS, or the Treasury, other spheres that must be placed in “special measures” should be made to show value-for-money for both students and state, and to reform poor practice. For example, limits could be placed on the pay, perks and privileges of Vice-Chancellors and their coteries in Senior Management Groups. Universities will argue that they are independent, but that is scarcely the case given the range of benefits they receive from the state.

There should be encouragement for students who are intimidated by the wokish policies and preferences of many universities, including the anti-white racism explicit or implicit in so much of their diversity indoctrination. There is a public interest in supporting legal action against universities in this field. Next, senior university figures should be banned from holding posts in bodies that sell services to their own universities. Finally, the responsibility of university Councils for university management should be driven home, with government urging Chairs of Council to act against poor practice.

These are a few starting measures. There is room for a debate as to what should follow, but it would be a serious failure of responsibility to do nothing when faced with such an abject failure of a system.

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