27 February 2006
'Truth: lies open to all'
All editorial correspondence to: subtext-editors [at] lancaster.ac.uk
Please download and print or delete as soon as possible after receipt. Back issues and subscription details can be found at http://www.lancs.ac.uk/subtext. The editors welcome letters, comments, suggestions, and opinions from readers. subtext reserves the right to edit submissions.
CONTENTS: editorial, team subtext, george fox 6 appeal, league tables, revamping university house, senate report, wallups' world, competition
It's a mixed picture at Lancaster, the sort to which we are, unfortunately, becoming accustomed. The University leaps up the league table of vice-chancellors' salaries and building contractors' revenues at a time when anger among staff over pay escalates, as indicated by the AUT's announcement of industrial action over this issue, commencing with a strike on March 7th. At the same time, we slide precipitously down academic rankings that will likely play an important part in application decisions as students and their parents seek value for money under the new fee regime. There are things that the University could do to arrest this decline because among the key factors hurting the University are staff-student ratios, spend per student, and library resourcing. Unfortunately, University managers appear to have placed their priorities elsewhere.
One of those priorities has been, apparently, damaging the University's reputation as an institution that encourages critical thought and permits dissent. As the George Fox 6 case heads for appeal, we, as members of the University, ready ourselves for more damage to the institution's reputation of the sort that occurred last autumn when the first trial was heard.
This issue of subtext examines such matters. It includes an analysis of the current position in the league tables – and the sort of steps that the University might take to safeguard Lancaster's academic reputation. Also in this issue is a suggestion for extricating the University from further embarrassment over the George Fox 6 case.
We acknowledge that it is unlikely that the current University management will heed this advice. Macho management style these days seems to mean appearing 'tough,' no matter what it costs the institution. What better way to justify a ballooning salary than to show grit while managing a crisis? So the future offers the prospect of ever shinier buildings, a more corporate-friendly environment, a campus bristling with cranes, parsimony in academic investments, and an ever-intensifying crisis . . . until perhaps one day we wake up and remember what a university is for.
Should we just passively accept what is going on and adjust to the new environment? In this issue we attempt to do just that, by announcing an important new step forward for subtext, in the following item.
TEAM SUBTEXT – MEETING THE CHALLENGES OF TOMORROW, TODAY!
Recently subtext came into possession of a glossy new coloured brochure from the University, called The Trading Pulse, which aims to provide a focus for those working in the university's commercial branches. The difference between this sleek, shiny and colourful production, and our own humble, colourless and decidedly drab subtext was all too obvious to us. It has provoked a crisis of confidence in the collective and, naturally, our response has been to expend the entire subtext budget by calling in consultants.
They noticed that at no stage during our meetings and discussions did we mention bonding or working as a 'team'. Nor did anyone exercise leadership and 'point the way forward'. It was also noted that we spoke and even wrote in long sentences (using verbs!). Shockingly, the consultants observed, we have not been incentivised. All of this has produced a disturbing negativity, even cynicism, in our publications thus far.
Clearly subtext is out of step with the modern university environment. In an era of teams and leadership, we have been calling ourselves an 'editorial collective', none of us gets paid far more than the rest for working on subtext, and we have not undergone restructuring. We need to move with the times. Meet the Challenges. Forward to the twenty-first century (hope we aren't too late...).
As a first step in this process, the subtext editorial collective is
being dissolved (temporarily, as an experiment) and is being re-branded
as Team Subtext. We scheduled a bonding exercise (cancelled due to the
inconvenient timing) and are seeking proper leadership. While Team Subtext
has no money, we are willing to allocate the chosen person with a symbolic
63% of this amount, and keep only 37% for the rest of us. Team Subtext
welcomes your comments on these innovative moves and invites suggestions
as to how we can meet the challenges of tomorrow while remaining flexibly
committed to the innovations of today.
THE GEORGE FOX SIX APPEAL
If you're in a hole, do you keep digging, especially when there's a handy ladder standing right next to you? This is the sort of conundrum we at subtext like to grapple with. Take, for example, the upcoming appeal brought by the George Fox Six against their conviction for aggravated trespass last September (due to be heard at Lancaster Crown Court on 13 March). When criticised for what many perceive as an appallingly excessive reaction to a student protest at a corporate venturing event, a reaction that continues to damage Lancaster's reputation, the Vice-Chancellor has mainly relied on two arguments in his defence. The first is that this was an extraordinary, violent, intimidatory protest, one that overstepped a limit of 'acceptable' behaviour on campus. The second is that, once the University had done its duty by informing the police, the matter was anyway out of its hands.
We do not want to go in to the details of the first argument here. At the moment, we can only wait to see whether the new Judge agrees with District Judge Peter Ward, who threw out the specific charges of intimidation, convicting the Six only for 'disrupting' a lawful event while trespassing. And certainly Lancaster's behaviour seems in stark contrast to that of the University of Cambridge, which formally apologized to anti-war protesters who in February 2004 were manhandled out of a lecture by Air Marshall G. L. Torpy after conducting a similar protest. But the second argument needs some examination – and we first want to say why we think this is worth thinking about.
Many commentators have raised concerns that this case is part of a wider trend towards the closing down of protest, especially in further and higher education institutions. The Ruth Kelly speech (quoted in subtext 3) which seemed to link together a rather crude vision of companies 'feeding' off university research, and the need for HEIs to clamp down on 'unacceptable behaviour on their premises' (http://tinyurl.com/9j7vp), certainly seemed to give succour to those who feel that a vibrant knowledge economy and democratic debate are incompatible. And indeed reports of the intimidation of students who engage in protest do seem to be on the increase. For example, on 6 December two students at Matthew Boulton College in Birmingham, Assed Baig and Darrell Williams, were challenged by security guards while distributing a student-run newsletter that was critical of the college's governance and record on free speech. Three days later they received a letter informing them of their indefinite suspension; despite support from the NUS and NATFHE, the suspension still remains in place (see http://www.nusonline.co.uk/news/271887.aspx). Against this background, the GF6 verdict, if upheld, is likely to set a worrying precedent, amounting to a creeping criminalisation of legitimate political protest. The iconic status of this case will mean that Lancaster's name will be further besmirched by such an outcome.
However, there is a way that the University can escape from this hole gracefully, without antagonizing the Crown Prosecution Service – even gaining kudos in the process. The setting up of three working parties in order to learn from the GF6 affair (on commercialisation, freedom of speech, and protest) can be used to demonstrate that this is a University that recognises when reflection is necessary. We would not wish to pre-empt the deliberations of the Working Party on Protest, which has been looking at the history of protests at Lancaster and the way they have been handled. However, the University might choose to say that through this process of reflection it has come to change its opinion about the exceptionality of this specific protest – or simply about whether the Six were trespassing at all – and that it will thus not oppose the appeal. The convictions and the sentence would then almost certainly be quashed.
Thus things are not really out of the University's hands. The VC helped initiate this sorry affair and he could still bring it to an end. Such a move would not only minimise further harm to the careers of these six individuals, but would also send a signal that one accolade that Lancaster is not seeking is the Ruth Kelly Award for Crushing Debate about Values in the Knowledge Economy.
subtext has recently been perusing the various university league tables that have taken on increased significance among parents and prospective students -- and they don't make great reading. Last year in The Sunday Times University Guide Lancaster fell to 28th in the country -- down from 25th in 2004. In The Guardian the position is worse -- down to 51st (below such institutions as Bournemouth University). Colleagues concerned with recruitment and admissions mutter darkly about descent in other tables -- and point to a worrying decrease in UCAS applications, down across the University by 13% (from 13422 to 10851) between 2003 and 2006.
Now we all know there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, and that we could add university league tables to this list. Every table has its oddities and factors that impact badly on different institutions. (And, of course, every institution values the particular table that places it highest.) The Sunday Times, for example, gives weight to Head Teachers' ratings for each university (and here Lancaster scores a measly 8 out of 50 compared to Oxford's 46), while The Guardian places great weight upon 'spend per student' (in which they include library spending, information services and computer spending on students).
Yet some of the signs within the tables are disturbing. In the Sunday Times table, for instance, Lancaster scores well for 'teaching satisfaction' and 'research quality', and poorly in 'employment', recognition by head teachers and, most worryingly, 'staff-student ratio'. Indeed, only Durham in the Top 30 has a worse ratio: Lancaster is equal with Loughborough and below every other of the Top 30 in this respect. The Guardian's overall table does not provide breakdowns for the University as a whole, but does so for each department -- and here one can see in detail how Lancaster manages to finish so low down its table. It generally gets just 2 out of 10 for spend per student -- a rate far lower than most of the institutions that we see as 'equals' in research terms -- and scores poorly in staff-student ratios. Such figures hardly help departments in the increasingly competitive UCAS market, especially when parents and prospective students pay attention to such tables as they engage in the search for university places.
The Guardian's findings are replicated elsewhere. The THES places Lancaster 23rd in its 2005 table of spending per student (libraries and computers) but this is down from 17th in 2004. In terms of Staff-Student Ratio (SSR) the THES figures are even worse. In 2005 Lancaster was 81st out of 111, beneath Brighton and De Montfort Universities, with a SSR of 19.7 students per staff member. No other university that comes in the so-called 'Top 10' in Research (see below) comes anywhere near as low in SSR. This position represents a significant fall from 68th out of 109 in 2004, when we had a SSR of 18.0. Should management congratulate itself that staff are teaching more or that -- in 'management-speak' -- we increased our student numbers whilst making 'efficiency savings' on staffing? Should we just congratulate De Montfort, Brighton and the others that have leaped above us (and perhaps even hope that they have done so because their admission numbers have fallen)? Or should we worry about Lancaster's seeming downward trend and the implication that we are having to do much more (in terms of teaching, administration, pastoral work, etc.) even while needing to maintain our position in one of the very few areas where we really do appear high in the 'charts', namely the RAE tables.
For we do rate highly there: in the last RAE, according to the THES tables, Lancaster ranked ninth, and in research income (measured in sheer volume) it ranked 34. One should note that most of those above it were much larger universities, mostly large metropolitans plus the usual favoured suspects in the Golden Triangle.
The University has punched above its weight in the areas that the academic staff have real control over (i.e., their performance as assessed in such tables at teaching assessment and research performance) but it is on the ropes in criteria that managers, not academics, control -- such as spending per student, staff-student ratios, numbers on permanent contracts and the like. This means that the University of Lancaster is overburdening its staff even as it depends on such staff to maintain its position in the research tables. By redoubling our efforts in the areas we control, academics have compensated for management's failure to invest in hiring lecturers and buying library books and journals, but we cannot keep the university buoyant indefinitely with the management's millstone around our necks.
Should there be more discussion about priorities at the university in terms of spending? We return here to expenditures that may be small in the wider context of the university annual budget, but which may be symbolically weighted (e.g., the recently reported dramatic rise in the V-C's pay; the money spent on gutting the Senate chamber, thereby eradicating a major symbol of university democracy and consigning Senate to a wandering existence, in order to produce nice new offices for senior management; the reported plans -- see below -- to refurbish A Floor of University House). Then there is the money spent on consultancy -- another tidy sum that might help our overall position if it were spent, instead, on staff, library facilities and the like.
Are refurbishments and consultants' reports really going to be worthwhile if the university continues to fall in the tables? We also suggest that, if these are matters for concern, university management does NOT call in a firm of consultants to 'tackle' the problem.
References: The Sunday Times league table can be found at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/section/0,,8403,00.html
The THES assessment of RAE rankings can be found at http://www.thes.co.uk/statistics/university_performance/league_tables/2005/research.aspx
The THES figures on staff-student ratios are found at http://www.thes.co.uk/statistics/university_performance/league_tables/2005/ratios.aspx
REVAMPING UNIVERSITY HOUSE: RUMOURS, REALITIES AND WORRIES
Why, in a year when the University budget is apparently the tightest it has been for a long time, is the University planning yet another expensive and disruptive building project? In subtext 2 we published an item about the contentious North Campus project and its plans to relocate large numbers of academic staff in smaller offices. Staff members shown the office designs were shocked to see that each contained only three small shelves; apparently the architect believed that in the Brave New World of information networks, books will be obsolete.
Now subtext hears of concerns about a planned refurbishment of A Floor of University House -- a project whose aims have clearly not been disseminated widely enough to stop all sorts of rumours spreading around campus. One rumour passed to subtext by a reader was that some business leaders were so put off by the sight of students milling about in the hallway of University House, that the University decided to redesign it all so as to create a 'tradesman's entrance' for students, and a flashy reception 'atrium' for businesspeople who could enter without having to gaze upon lowly scholars.
That such a rumour can develop may say something about the current climate of suspicion and the concerns over commercialisation that exist on campus. However, subtext can inform readers that this rumour appears to be off the mark. Unfortunately, the reality may not be much better. There are, we understand, plans to redevelop A Floor of University House, which will include making the entrance hall into an atrium (which we sincerely hope will not be furnished in the same manner as D Floor has been -- a style which might be described as '1980s retro-tart'). The atrium will incorporate into its glass-walled glory, the grubby and less than charming passageway that now connects Alexandra Square to the car park area between University House and the Chaplaincy. We are not sure as yet what plans there are for access between the car park and Alexandra Square.
In the refurbishment, the Careers Service will gain a direct entrance fronting onto the Square, thereby making it more 'up front and visible' for students. This improved visibility may help make the Careers Service more attractive to students, although this may not provide the whole solution to the office's effectiveness (see Senate report).
Although the wish to raise the profile of Careers is one driving force
behind the plans, others seem to be that the rest of the area around the
entrance might as well be spruced up at the same time, coupled with the
current obsession with Open Plan offices. We are informed that the Director
of Estates is very keen on such these things. In the redesign, most (if
not all) all individual offices will go, as everyone is moved into Open
Plan office spaces. subtext forgot to enquire whether the grand individual
offices on D Floor would also be transformed into Open Plan ones, but
suspects that this sort of thing only happens at lower levels of the building.
The scheme has many drawbacks. Turning yet another part of the campus into a building site -- especially one that sees much student activity during recruitment periods and Introductory Week –- is going to cause further disruption and may put off potential recruits. Staff working in the lower floors of University House are going to face months of disruption to their work, and, because of Open Plan offices, revised working conditions -- a prospect, we understand, that has not exactly been greeted with delight. And the project looks bound to cost a lot of money, although subtext does not know how much, or what other activities might have been sidelined to accomplish it. We welcome any information on such fronts. We wonder whether refurbishing buildings and disrupting the campus and upsetting administrative staff is the best use that could be made of scarce funds, and whether this is just another step in the superficial transformation of the University, as areas that cry out for more money are ignored.
And so another Senate which, after the excitement and controversy of recent Senates, followed its immediate predecessor in being dull but worthy with no significant disagreement, and which was finished by 3.20 with barely time to finish the free tea and coffee...
The opening section of announcements was full of self-congratulatory items ('Whatever you do don't mention the application numbers!'): our Management School is now ranked 30th in the world (and 1st in Europe for value for money); our recent ESRC recognition exercise places us ahead of York, Sheffield, etc., and only just behind Manchester and the LSE; the new Centre for Medical Education will welcome the first batch of 50 students next year, and the way is clear somewhere down the line for a Medical School.
A brief note of controversy entered discussion of fund raising through alumni (or 'alums' as the V-C termed them), with attention drawn to their 'poor treatment' and a failure of the University to tailor its funding approaches to a recognition of what was valuable in their Lancaster experience, namely the Colleges.
More significant was the expression by the LUSU Student Welfare Officer
– in response to a discussion of our graduate employability indicators
– of her 'frustration and disappointment' at a failure to take on
board suggestions from the students as to how to improve the Careers Service.
It is to be hoped that this concern is properly noted and acted on.
Senate approved a revised job description of the Director of Undergraduate Studies, pausing only to consider the proper weighting of the job (40% or 42%) and the difference between 'overseeing' and 'contributing to'.
There was then some substantive discussion of a proposal to revise the regulations to allow postgraduate research students to initially register as 'probationary PhD' rather than M. Phil students. This is a pragmatic and understandable response to a problem facing overseas students who, if given visas for only 24 months, must now pay significant amounts beyond this period. There was a brief but interesting debate on the merits of the M. Phil/Ph. D distinction and transfer procedures and on their impact upon completion rates. In the event the proposal was passed with only a few opposing it.
The next Senate in May promises to be a longer and perhaps more engaging one.
TO: Nigel Wallups
I enclose our latest report on meeting tomorrow's challenges, today. The problem: Lune Valley Enterprise University's slide down the league tables, the fall-off in student recruitment and the demoralisation of overworked staff.
One solution would be to spend more of the University's budget on teaching and learning – on hiring teachers and buying library books. This solution has the superficial attractiveness of addressing all the above problems at once: the University would climb back up the league tables if it improved its staff-student ratio and spend per student; pressure on overworked staff would be relieved and their morale would improve; the University would become more attractive to students.
However, Lune Valley Enterprise University did not spend thousands of pounds bringing in AP Consulting for us merely to state the obvious. There is another, more innovative and radical answer to the same problems: re-branding.
Lune Valley Enterprise University must reposition itself not as an educational institution but as an embodied idea, and here it is: We love our customers. We love our corporate sponsors. We love our leaders. We love our third mission challenges. We love tomorrow, today. All of this is captured by a new acronym: LUVE-U (LUne Valley Enterprise University!). This can be used as a new logo conveying a positive message of warmth and attractiveness to our customers, and can go on all the university's redesigned stationery and signage.
Another blue-skies idea is to get lecturers to wear sponsored garments, all with the LUVE-U logo. Surely your customers are tired of seeing their lecturers turning up in all manner of garb! Why allow lecturers to stand up in front of customers for 50 minutes while the several square feet of advertising space below their necklines goes unused? Corporate sponsors can rent the space alongside the logo on the LUVE-U kit, transferring positive LUVE-U connotations to their advertising logo and producing new symbolic synergies going forward.
We anticipate initial resistance from hide-bound traditionalists, but, Nigel, your track record indicates that you have the persuasive power to overcome such obstacles. If wearing a corporate advertising logo is good enough for the millionaires of the Premier League, then lowly lecturers and unglamorous professors should be honoured to improve LUVE-U's fortunes by renting out their torsos. Sponsored kit will improve esprit de corps, introduce a pleasing uniformity of sartorial style, and show support for the LUVE-U corporate image and mission.
Of course, there are also the tie-ins we have discussed. Lectures and seminars provide unique opportunities for product placement. What if, as well as wearing a soft drink company's logo, the lecturer held up a can during key moments in the lecture? Why should an experiment in fluid dynamics not use the same soft drink to make its points? Why shouldn't a lecturer gain an extra increment in return for wearing a discreet tattoo? Think of the number of lecturers who wear glasses – and now the lenses are simply wasted space! The opportunities to extend brand identity through every facet of LUVE-U corporate activity are endless.
I think you will agree that this is free of outmoded ideas and of any sentimental attachment to archaic thoughts about the university's 'core mission.' AP Consulting has more than repaid our fee and brought tomorrow that little bit closer, today. The bill is in the post.
This week we announce a brand new Competition that will point the way forward to whichever century is coming next. We ask you to send in the best and most fatuous examples of management speak that you come across, from managerial pamphlets and consultants' reports to University missives to phrases used in meetings. From these submissions, subtext will create a handy subtext check-list of University of Lancaster jargon phrases and buzzwords that will be the basis for a new game, called, of course, 'Synergy!'. Following the advice of its own consultants, subtext will allocate a points score for each phrase and buzzword. Subscribers can then take the list to meetings, check off the phrases as they are intoned or used in documents, and count their points as they mount up. The first to reach 100 points in a meeting is entitled to shout out 'Synergy!'
We also offer a prize (of the usual unspecified, value-free subtext variety) for anyone who sends in to us a claim for the highest points tallied at a meeting, coupled with details of the said meeting.