Neoliberalism at Manchester Metropolitan University, and an alternative
We have been sent this report by an activist who wishes to be known only as TP. The reasons for this are apparent from what follows.
A significant victory has been won by a campaign against management victimisation of trade union members at Manchester Metropolitan University. The campaign mobilised the UCU branch alongside a well-organised group of postgraduate students and academic visitors to defend Ian Parker as UCU campus representative following his suspension from the psychology department at the beginning of October. The activities also reenergised the campaign in support of Christine Vié, UCU branch vice-chair who had been made redundant following the closure of the combined honours course where she was based. The events leading up to the suspension, the campaign, and the attempt by MMU now to turn things back to their own advantage provide lessons for activists about management practice in a neoliberal university and what must be done to combat it.
MMU has seen an intensification of a business ethos under the present Vice Chancellor John Brooks who, shortly after his appointment in 2005, pressed senior staff to adopt what he called a ‘change agenda’. Obedience to economic ‘givens’ (as Brooks put it in staff meetings) was combined with penalties for those who refused to comply. The change agenda restructured management and put pressure on faculty and department heads to deal with those who opposed it. (At one meeting Brooks told UCU branch officers that he had been a member of a union once but had left on a point of principle; when asked what the point of principle was, he said he could not remember.) The next turn of the screw on staff came with the introduction of the National Student Survey (NSS). Competition between universities for undergraduate students forced to pay £9,000 a year from autumn 2012 led to an obsession with raising NSS scores and other public ‘Key Performance Indicators’ (KPIs) for each course. Incessant nauseating babbling about ‘KPIs’ was to become staple management-speak in departmental meetings.
These economic drivers have entailed a divide and rule strategy applied by management not only between universities but also between departments who had high NSS scores and those who were ‘red-lighted’ and threatened with closure. Ian’s department at MMU was one of those under threat in autumn 2011, and the task of the newly appointed head of department was to shake things up, whip staff into line and cut economically unproductive courses (and staff). This meant breaking with the legacy of psychology at MMU which had built up a reputation for alternative forms of feminist, community and critical psychology and for disability studies, psychoanalysis and discourse analysis that challenged mainstream models, power and ideology. It also meant either clearing out researchers involved in those approaches (and a number of those staff have left the department in the last academic year) or undermining the work of those who remained.
Attempts to raise questions about increases in workload in May 2012 were quashed with an order that Ian should not send emails that might mobilise members of the department to resist this version of the ‘change agenda’. This order was later referred to as the ‘reasonable management instruction’ when he was suspended. Secretive setting of workload in a one-to-one ‘professional development review’ with the head of department rather than in open meetings then provided the model for decision-making in general. Unprecedentedly for this annual review, Ian was made to have his staff review in July with both the head of department and the dean of faculty; Ian was told that that he should join the management team, take decisions and ‘ensure that everyone else complies’. He was also told that he should cease his trade union activities.
Secrecy and control was the key problem Ian drew attention to at the end of September when Ian questioned appointment procedures for new staff. With that he was immediately suspended and barred from MMU buildings and from his email account. The charge was ‘gross professional misconduct’, though in the disciplinary hearing at the beginning of November the panel suggested that it might be looking at ‘insubordination’ instead.
The first letter to Ian about the disciplinary investigation contained a significant warning, that this was ‘a private and confidential matter and with the exception of your nominated representative, you should not discuss this with anyone.’ Had he obeyed that instruction it is certain he would have been finished. But as a UCU representative he immediately informed his union branch officers at MMU, and as he was due to chair a seminar given by one of his research group’s PhD students that afternoon, a message about the suspension was sent to be read out there. This message was summoned as part of the evidence against him in his disciplinary hearing (for causing ‘anxiety’ among the students), along with the hundreds of pages of letters of protest and calls to sign the petition supporting him. Why, he was asked, had he done nothing to stop the protests.
The campaign was international, but at the core of it was a group of students working with international visitors to the department to publicise the suspension and demand open information. As well as the UCU branch protests the students distributed newspaper articles about the case in the campus where psychology was based, and they mobilised their own press contacts to get the story out to other staff and students. In place of compliant questionnaire fodder for good NSS scores that the department wanted, we saw the emergence of an active independent voice complaining about secrecy and control (and so about the very things that he had drawn attention to). Very soon connections were made with the case of Christine Vié (and she was then UCU representative championing Ian’s case at his disciplinary hearing).
The worst outcome for the neoliberal university is that it fails to persuade its staff that anyone who complains has a problem, and MMU has done its level best to make it seem that the problem here was that individuals had misbehaved. They insinuated in the charge of ‘gross professional misconduct’ that there were other misdemeanours that staff and students knew nothing about. Neoliberal capitalism calls on each individual to become economically self-sufficient, and it also requires that those who act collectively to defend their interests be pathologised and excluded. A common mistake is to see neoliberalism as a mere theory about how people sell themselves and their products on the open market, and this overlooks the necessity for strong disciplinary structures to enforce separation of individuals from each other and adaptation to the rules of the game. In this case, mass collective protest through the petition, the sharing of letters and meetings to discuss strategy were essential to success of the campaign.
The disciplinary panel tried to blame Ian for orchestrating the protests, for example, and it showed contempt for the self-activity of students and trade union members in MMU. But the panel had to reduce the charge to ‘serious misconduct’ and the penalty (which first looked set to be dismissal), was reduced to a ‘final written warning’ and a demand for a letter of apology as a condition for Ian’s return to work. It is an indication of the desperation of MMU management to get this ‘wretched affair’ over and done with (as an email from the head of department of psychology to staff put it), that his very limited and specific apology – a letter that did not concede an inch on the right of trade union members to challenge management – should have been accepted. He was then ordered with two days notice to ‘return to work’.
Ian was right to apologise for the wording of specific emails (and one naming another colleague who was looking particularly sick with stress was sent accidentally to the whole department – he felt he needed to apologise again for that), and to dispel the idea that the problem of management practices at MMU could be reduced to the nastiness of one particular manager – the head of department – who then felt undermined when challenged. In fact, this manager would even have good grounds for complaint against MMU for being made to carry out their bidding. This manager had told Ian when they crossed a picket line he was attending earlier in the year that they feared losing their job, and their crime during this year is largely no more than that they were willing to be an obedient servant of the university apparatus. It is not so much a case of good individual against bad, but of individualising forces of power against collective forces of resistance.
Ian is appealing against the ‘final written warning’ designed to muzzle his trade union work, and he is asking that he should be allowed to return to work in another faculty (not the one that he now has a formal grievance against MMU bullying and harassment for, and from which he is currently away from with a medical note for anxiety and stress). Ian is also demanding that the Vice Chancellor retract his comments about the case made to a group of students and international visitors delivering the petition on the morning his disciplinary hearing was taking place (where the VC claimed it was one of the most serious cases he had dealt with and that not all the facts will be made public, and he has now referred Ian’s complaint about that to the appeal panel). The appeal date is set for 30 January, a date for the grievance has not been set, and MMU are refusing to reply to the request for a transfer. For them to give way clearly risks sending a message to staff in the department that it is possible to protest and negotiate conditions of service with management.
Isolation or mobilisation
MMU had to acknowledge in their disciplinary panel report that Ian had the right to question management procedures as a UCU representative (and so for that questioning no apologies were needed), but now management is on the attack again; it is using a new charge of infraction of email etiquette as an excuse to threaten other union activists (in one case, would you believe it, a branch official has now been accused of being ‘passive-aggressive’ on email). A danger now is that the negotiation about his fate is conducted one-to-one, that an attempt to strike a deal will replace collective public debate about how UCU members should defend themselves in the university, and how those who are isolated and frightened by management should be encouraged to join the union and speak out together about what is being done to them.
In November, while the protest was at its height, another member of staff in the psychology department who is not a UCU member (the colleague specifically named by Ian in one of his May emails about workload stress) had enough, and resigned without another job to go to. Within a day his office was empty, there was no leaving event for him (and the head of department sent an email hypocritically announcing his departure with fulsome praise for all the good work he had done). The warning here is that a strong state instituted by the university will crush individuals acting alone, and instead we need to develop a strong united response.
So still now, and more than ever, we face a choice between covering up and speaking out, between strategies of isolation or collective mobilisation. The struggle against the discipline implemented as a necessary component of the neoliberal university is a trade union struggle, but it is clear that it needs to link with self-mobilisation by students and international solidarity. Something different was opened up during these events, and the lesson is that resistance is not futile. Some significant gains were made, but the activity that made possible an alternative now needs to built upon and extended. What happens to Ian now is one question. What happens next at MMU will set the terms for all our work.
16 December 2012