Three-D Issue 18: Even more bad news from London Met

Gholam Khiabany
University of Sussex

The impact of the government’s devastating attacks on universities and the corporatizing of education under the banner of “choice” are more visible in post 92 universities and nowhere more so than the beleaguered  London Metropolitan University.  The marketplace test, which according to government will allow students to choose freely from a range of “products” on offer, has already eroded the choice for a large number of prospective students. In January UCAS reported that the total applications from the UK fell by 8.7 per cent for entry in autumn 2012. This total number is indicative of what is in store, but also hides a more brutal set of details and realities.

Matt Robb, head of the education practice at Parthenon, an education-focused management consultancy, told the FT that the figures showed a clear shift towards subjects that “from a return on investment perspective simply make more sense”. According to UCAS applications for the arts, humanities and social sciences (the not “high returning subjects”) were down by 14 percent, much higher than the average. Applications to elite universities remained flat, but by contrast some other institutions witnessed a 30 percent drop in applications for their courses. According to UCAS there was also 11 percent drop in applications from mature students. Government’s decision to reduce the number of funded places in universities by 15,000, combined with high fees, recession and rising unemployment, will hit the universities that recruit mature students and students from marginalized backgrounds. London Metropolitan University is high in the league table of universities which recruit mature students, students from state schools and lower social economic groups and so will be faced with a greater loss of income than other universities, which, in a downward spiral, will impact on its ability to cater to the needs of working class students.

As if the pressure from marketization of higher education wasn’t enough, LMU students and dedicated staff are also confronted by a management that have turned the university, by accident and design, into a guinea pig for testing the government proposals and policies with devastating effect. LMU’s management response to the “marketplace test” shows that the current management, despite promising and pretending to break from the disastrous management practices of earlier years,  continues with the old policies.

Recently the university was fined £5.9m by for over-recruiting more than 1,500 students than it was allowed to. This comes on top of the £38 million that HEFCE imposed on LMU for failing to report student numbers correctly. Back in 2009 the mistakes in accounting left the university £56m in the red. Brian Roper, the then VC, was forced to resign, albeit with a good payout and a sizable pension. LMU’s immediate response was to announce 550 redundancies.  This time round Malcolm Gillies was quoted as saying: ‘I take responsibility for this – as I take responsibility for everything I do at London Met.’  Gillies taking responsibility for this latest calamity, someone commented on THES, was a reminder of a Gordon Brown’s quote: “I take full responsibility for what happened. That’s why the person who was responsible went immediately.”

Earlier, on January 13th, Gillies had announced another round of huge job cuts, 229 FT posts, to be precise. Gilles’s strategy for financial stability has actually involved  destabilizing LMU and rapidly undermining the proud record of the university in widening participation. Last year  as part of his plan to adjust to government’s plan for higher education, LMU embarked on cutting 70 percent of its courses. The university’s portfolio of courses was cut from 557 to 160, and in that process many of the successful courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences were “deleted”.  One needs not to be a mathematician to calculate the real consequences of over recruitment (by over 1500) and the new round of redundancies. Gilles’s strategy of “affordable quality”, in the light of the latest disasters, begs the questions of what quality and affordable for whom?

The departure of Roper in 2009 has not resulted in a new beginning and a fresh start. Since then the management has continued as before. Alfred Morris (as interim VC) and Malcolm Gilles (the current VC) have overseen further cuts in staff and courses. Their strategy to tackle the mess (which they have been keen to insist were not of their own making) and to stabilize the ship, has been to throw staff and courses overboard. In this process their role reminds one of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air), travelling around, interviewing staff and sacking them. Hundreds of staff (academic and admin) are currently facing the same prospect. They have to justify, in writing and in interview, their place in a university which they have worked for  for many years and made a significant contribution.  Malcolm Gilles may say that he accepts full responsibility, but it is the staff  who are being forced to  compete with one another in order to survive.

This level of attack, however, would not have been possible without the rapid erosion of collective and individual rights of staff . The policy of pitting a member of staff against another, and forcing them to choose between their own job security against another, is part of an increased attacks against the collective will of all staff in LMU. The intention has been to turn staff into scattered individual without a collective voice. Prior to every industrial action staff are asked to fill a form indicating whether they intend to participate in an action which is their legal right. This policy has been pursued more aggressively in recent times by constant reminders from HR and the head of faculties; these forms have even been left in faculties’ offices and distributed in meetings. In addition to this, wage deductions  have been deployed as a measure to stop staff participating in collective action. The university has also made sure that even academic leaders are put under pressure by reminding them that participating in industrial action is in breach of their contract.  In a further attempt to stop staff raising their concerns about what happens in the university, the management has asked staff who have taken redundancy to sign a ‘compromise contract’. Redundancy payment will only be made if they agree to remain silent about LMU.  What is effectively being compromised here is the most basic of democratic rights: freedom of expression. The assault on universities and privatization of higher education goes hand in hand with the assault on democracy. There is nothing free or democratic about the free marketplace of education.

On February 14 of this year five lecturers and union officers of LMU in a letter to the Guardian reported that the university “is about to embark on quality assurance and related training programmes at the University of World Economy and Development in Tashkent.” They reminded that this collaboration with a repressive regime stands in direct opposition to the mission of LMU which includes promotion of social justice. Gilles’s reply, which appeared in the next edition of the paper argued: “There are more ways, however, of addressing injustices in Uzbekistan or elsewhere than by severance of all communications. Iran shows where that approach has not worked.”  I’m not sure what Gilles thinks of my country Iran and the root of its isolation. Yet his “humanitarian concerns” about Uzbakistan and his worry over isolation of that country seems rather odd considering that the same concerns are not extended to the staff and students of LMU. Government and management are tearing the heart out of this most public of public universities. They cannot pose as hapless bystanders to policies and events that continue to limit the choice of students and to destroy the future of staff and students’.

Posted by Einar Thorsen