Problems with the universities, number 1241: ‘The Senior Management Group’

Debt-ridden universities are demonstrating consistently poor prioritisation in decision-making

Artillery Row

Announcing the departure of its mediocre but oh-so-politically correct Vice-Chancellor, to spend more time with his family, as if there was no awareness of the habitual meaning of that phrase, Cambridge declared that he had the full confidence of his Senior Management Group. That is a giveaway for one of the major faults with the universities. A sensible, well-run university evaluates options within the context of a free-and-open exchange of opinions in which there is debate. Well not so with a modern university, and there are uneasy parallels between the suppression of debate within the administration, among staff, and among students.

In part, this process involves the imposition of a doctrinaire ideology and the use of coercion accordingly. The loyalty-to-asserted-opinion tests now imposed have aroused controversy, and can be seen as a clear sequel to the decolonisation of the syllabus that has already been imposed. These issues and means have aroused considerable controversy in Britain and America over the last two months, although less so than they deserve given their very clearly totalitarian character.

The priorities are astonishing. Kent is in serious financial problems but has time to seek to enforce a loyalty oath. St Andrews should be assessing what Scottish independence might mean for it (a new loyalty oath? “decolonising” it of English students), but is the same. Exeter has fallen badly in the league tables, but appears to  regard decolonising the syllabus, the staff and the students, as more significant. And so on.

These are not simply the priorities and actions of a few individuals, but, rather, a product of a system of group thought and clan patronage. With very rare exceptions, you do not get to be a Vice Chancellor unless you come through a system pledged to certain goals and one that draws on a homogeneity among “Senior Management Groups” that does not encourage debate other than over the pace of enforcement, a choice of term that is deliberate.

It was very striking when I researched the history of my university to note the degree to which, in the late 1990s, there had been active debate, including votes against by Deputy Vice-Chancellors, over the plan to establish a campus in Cornwall. There appears to be nothing similar about the attempt today in many, many universities, to install Critical Race Theory with its racism and hostility both to whites and to the nation’s history, traditions, and culture. It is as if the Corbynistas won the last election and are inflicting a new order. The pace of change is far beyond any delaying tactics offered by other, notably but not only, Conservative, circles, however worthy they may be.

It is unclear how best to respond. As a result of the new processes, students might well complain about being intimidated and staff about being discriminated against, and the safeguards of the law should be assessed in order to protect both.

Universities are vulnerable to fines, in part because, mostly using borrowed money, they have been physically expanding their sites with new buildings

The questions for government are harder. Leaving well-alone, in the hope that a level playing-field might arise, threatens to consolidate the possibilities for noxious practices. It might simply be best to construct a process under which universities could be fined large sums for such thought-policing, and the money, instead, reallocated to Colleges for Further Education and other aspects of non-university tertiary education.

That should appeal to the universities as being more socially progressive than spending the money on them. There is a duty of care on government as it is loaning large sums of money on behalf of students, and is best-placed not only to see that there is due value, for both students and state, but also that students are treated well and without intimidation or the harassment that some universities are clearly now practising as policy. Moreover, the restrictions to the syllabus that “decolonisation” in practice entails constitutes another form of denying students options and opportunities.

Universities are vulnerable to fines, in part because, mostly using borrowed money, they have been physically expanding their sites with new buildings. Moreover, for many, their balance sheets are precariously dependent on bringing in Chinese students, while they have displayed poor practice in failing to prepare adequately for pension shortfalls and in making a mess of labour relations: instead of dealing with an intransigent union that only represents a portion of the staff, often a small one, they should have moved to individual contracts.

In this context, we have a heavily-subsidised area of life, one that is profligate in its opinions and in spending the money of others, an area that is incurring heavy debts for others, and serving both students and country badly. Rooting out a few Vice Chancellors will not bring the necessary reform.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover