The strikes have finished, for now, and this gives us some time to reflect on what has happened, what it means and how it will affect various aspects of university life. Upon reflection, the strikes have exposed the poor culture of the senior management across the university system and how ineffective they are when dealing with actual challenges.
At the University of Edinburgh, we have been treated to the weekly updates from our Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Peter Mathieson. These updates were good, in the sense that they allowed staff and students to see that he was aware of what was happening, but otherwise broadly pointless in that precisely nothing of any value was said. This may not be his fault, but the length of the statements felt as if he was trying to disguise a lack of information. The statements were as much an exercise in PR as they were in telling people what was going on.
To give an example, in a recent statement, Professor Mathieson wrote in response to the requests about possible refunds of tuition fees: “The reality is that we do not yet know the full extent to which the implications of cancelled lectures and classes can be mitigated. We are focusing on mitigation as an absolute priority.” This can be viewed as PR speak for “no (unless you make it really, really hard for us)”. There is a reason why the general public gets annoyed at Theresa May for saying “strong and stable” for the 151st time, or Labour for clarifying their Brexit position by saying “we’ve been very clear about our position”. This reason is that we are tired of them trotting out the same worn clichés and jargon. The same problem applies to the communications we have had from our Principal.
This is not a problem unique to the Principal of the University of Edinburgh. The weekly statements were made up of the same tedious management twaddle that virtually every Principal was sending out: same wording, same ideas, same lack of actual information. This is what makes this such a big deal. The whole of the senior management across all universities is virtually identical and there is no diversity of ideas across the senior management teams of universities.
Our Principal is possibly one of the most unique as he can say “I’m new, listen to me”, or words to that effect. In fact, in his letter to UUK, Professor Mathieson said just this. Rather than listing solutions, the letter was 90% a justification for writing the letter and 10% asking UUK to come up with solutions and to “think outside the box”. This, quite frankly, is pathetic. No solutions are offered. Professor Mathieson has admitted that he was aware of this before he left Hong Kong for Edinburgh, so has had plenty of time to come up with some (even basic) ideas. Moreover, thinking outside the box is exactly what is not possible due to the current lack of diversity. The system means that each senior university figure shuffles around to a new institution every few years, the only change being the biography on the university website and the pay package.
The strikes have demonstrated that, when faced with a real and substantial challenge that requires them to act quickly, university management cannot. There is no diversity of ideas, so no new ideas are formed. This creates an inability to take action, and the establishment becomes paralysed while we are left with the nauseating spectacle of each Principal making a speech where they declare “Today, I call on UUK to come up with a solution”. What do they think UUK have been doing for the past few months? Most likely a series of meetings where each member takes it in turns to use various superlatives about how important it is to solve the issue. That is not action and it is not progress. That is utterly pointless.
Action is, for example, donating 14 days-worth of salary to charity to show that you are personally invested in this, do care about the effect of the strikes, and don’t want to see them continue. It would certainly mean so much more than some vague and long-winded recognition of concerns about the effects of strikes on students’ degrees. What the current university system really needs is new Principals with new principles, not a re-hash of the same ideas put into a new body.
This is not just a criticism of our Principal, it is a criticism of the system that we now exist in. A system which has been shown to be unable to function when faced with a challenge. We need new leaders with new ideas, rather than the same old pile of nothing, neatly polished and packaged up as if it was big and important.
Image: Andrew Perry