(‘My God, that’s no way to run a university. What are these creatures?’
Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare, c. 1790-1791 version. )
It’s getting on for ten years now since the Times Higher Education’s ‘The Poppletonian’, Laurie Taylor’s weekly bulletin from that hotbed of learning and stringent academic standards, featured as the ‘Thought for the Week’, the famous contribution by Jennifer Doubleday, Head of Personal Development: ‘What if the hokey-cokey is really what it’s all about?’
I wondered then – and I wonder now. On the home front, even taking precedence over the Punch and Judy Brexit show at the moment is the ongoing strike in defence of university pensions. Have there been surprises? Not really. The major news outlets, for the most part, refer to ‘the lecturers’ strike’: perhaps they genuinely don’t realise that it’s other professionals—librarians, clerical and technical staff—too. Lazy journalism, anyway, as is the consistent presentation of the £6.1 billion pension fund ‘deficit’ as an established fact rather than a projection based on disputed figures. There may have been surprise at the degree of contempt with which university employers evidently view their staff, who are, after all, the people who keep running the campuses from which those employers derive their astronomical salaries. But perhaps nobody’s surprised at all, given the violent changes inflicted on the higher education system in recent years and some of the people that have been put in charge of what used to be endearingly called ‘centres of learning’. I suppose the term is ‘profit centres’ now.
Things are beginning to liven up, anyway. After the Minister for Universities called on Universities UK and the University and College Union, to ‘get back to the negotiating table, without pre-conditions’, UUK agreed to resume talks – but they would not ‘re-open the Joint Negotiating Committee decision made on 23 January’. It was precisely because of that decision, of course, that university staff went on strike in the first place.
Then, too, articles and documentaries are appearing now which suggest a strong family resemblance between the revelations about expenses claimed by vice-chancellors (and their senior colleagues) and the MP expenses scandal of glorious memory. And more people seem to be querying the very odd arrangements whereby some vice-chancellors are pulling in up to £90,000—on top of those teeteringly high salaries—for sitting on that very committee which proposes slashing the pensions of university staff.
So much of this stuff is what we call in this country ‘how things are done’ or, if we’re feeling bold, ‘conflict of interest’—if it occurs in other countries, we seem to know precisely what to call it.