The Society for Research into Higher Education

In the duck house

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By Paul Temple

Last autumn, David Palfreyman and I completed our book Universities and Colleges in the OUP “Very Short Introduction” series by compiling the index. It’s a sign of how fast things have changed that if we were preparing the index now, just a few months later, I think that one entry would have to be on the lines of “Greed, vice-chancellors, accusations of.” How on earth have we got to this?

Our late and much-missed friend and colleague, David Watson, would, I am certain, be incandescent with fury at how some of his fellow vice-chancellors have allowed Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, plausibly to compare some vice-chancellors’ expenses claims with episodes from the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal. Halfon picked out the £1600 that Surrey University had paid to relocate its new VC’s dog from Australia, comparing it to the notorious “floating duck island” which, as it happens, cost the same. As with the duck-house, it’s the pettiness, the bathos – not to mention the comedic potential – that catch the attention. Was there nobody at Surrey able to say, “Vice-Chancellor, this really won’t be a good look if (when) it comes out”? And if not, shouldn’t there have been? Perhaps the duck-house and the Surrey dog will share a footnote in a future study of institutional ethics. When I worked with David, he took it for granted that our train journeys would be in standard class, using the cheapest possible advance-purchase tickets. The Channel 4 Dispatches investigation showed that UWE’s VC had charged £10,000 for chauffeur-driven cars.

Our SRHE colleague Roger Brown has been quoted as saying that all this is the result of marketization and corporatisation in higher education and while – naturally – I don’t disagree with Roger, I think that there’s another aspect, which is the leadership thing. If you’re appointed as a VC (or to any other senior university post) today, it will be substantially on the basis of your claims to excellence in leadership, rather than in medieval French or particle physics. A leader should, the argument goes, be better in lots of ways compared with those she or he leads (or the appointment process hasn’t worked): a better vision of the future of the organisation; better skills in presenting the organisation externally; better analysis of internal problems (sorry, challenges); and better ways of putting them right. (But not of course necessarily better at academic work – the purpose for which the university actually exists.)

It’s a short step from here to the leader seeing themselves as different to everyone else in the organisation, because they’ve been told that they are fundamental to the organisation’s success, perhaps even to its survival, in a way that others aren’t. If that’s the case, it’s an even shorter step to believing that they should be paid, not just a little more, but on a completely different basis to everyone else. And expenses claims, which for the little people in the organisation mean arguments with Accounts over the paperwork for reclaiming bus fares, are for them, with their business-class flights and five-star hotels, a signifier of their difference, of their importance – an actual demonstration, in fact, of their leadership role.

In October 1915, the Endurance, the ship carrying the Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton and his party to the Antarctic continent, was trapped and then crushed by pack-ice in the Weddell Sea. Shackleton and his men abandoned their sinking ship and made temporary camp on the ice. The sleeping-bags available were either made of warm reindeer fur, or were woollen blankets stitched together. They were allocated by drawing lots, with Shackleton overseeing the process. The result, somehow, was that the ordinary crew-members got the reindeer fur and Shackleton and his officers got the blankets. And he led them all safely home.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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