I have agency; give me back the light switch!

This is what I am talking about!

This is what I am talking about!

It is clear even to the less systematic observer that British universities have been going down the Leninist way and administration and leadership have come to believe that

Control is the highest level of trust!

Symptoms are many and varied; the gradual erosion of trust has been spreading like a cancer to suffocate many opportunities for innovation and make working life in academe rather cumbersome, unpleasant and let’s face it, plainly unpleasant. Some of the control and accountability practices plainly don’t make much sense either.

What I’m talking about? I am talking about the fact that:

  • In many British universities academics constitute less than half of the employees (in the University of Manchester academics, when I last checked, were 48%);
  • Probably because of perceived financial threats, accountants (and equivalent) have far too great influence; have you tried recently to convince the accountant in your research office that a grant from a prestigious research funder is not a loss to the university despite not paying overheads? I tried and my advice would be: don’t even go there; this is easier to explain to a five year old.
  • All financial and purchase decision are being taken at higher and higher levels of the organisation. Only yesterday a colleague informed me that the IT Director of Manchester University (just in case you don’t know this it is a monster of an organisation) will be personally approving all purchases of equipment on the basis of a made business case. Is this really good way to justify his/her salary and to create an entrepreneurial organisation?
  • By the time it’s been through all the Committees and levels of control, changing anything beyond the document font of your course (well, I am exaggerating but only slightly) takes anything up to eighteen months. Starting a new course can take even longer.
  • Academics are evaluated most of the time: we have annual teaching evaluations, research evaluations, starts being attached to our names etc. In fact, evaluating each other’s work is becoming most of what we do; performing for the evaluations is what we have started seeing as our jobs. Forget about learning and these students; let’s get the teaching review right.
  • Academics need to apply for permission for almost anything. Some places stop supplying their academics with laptops because they may decided to work from home. I suppose, a next step would be to chain us to our desks and we need to ask for permission to go to the bathroom (melodramatic, I know, but just imagine).

I’ll probably discuss the costs – including the hidden ones – of this very Leninist erosion of trust some other time. Here, it suffices to mention that this is how universities end up with:

  • Disgruntled academics ignoring and disrespecting their organisations;
  • Academics who become employees and, as we all know, the university business model works only when academics self-exploit;
  • Situations where to process am expense claim can cost much more than the claim itself (I am told that to process a claim in Manchester costs about £75 and people could claim £5);
  • Cases where we spend days writing a business case for the purchase of a computer key-board (well, slightly over-stating the case but you get my drift).

This lack of control stretches even further. Just before the summer, in the building where my office is the light switches were taken away and movement sensors were installed: after all, you can’t trust academics to put the lights off!

Unfortunately, light sensors were not installed; as a result all through the exceptionally bright and light summer months the electricity thirsty lights in the building were on all day longs. Yes, this was completely unnecessary. More importantly, what I presume was meant as a cost saving move ended up costing us so much more in:

  • direct costs since the lights were on much longer than they were when the people in the building had the agency to switch them off; even when we forgot on occasion.
  • indirect costs as in: a) the irritation this meant for us, conscious of the environment and bills people; b) the hours we spent discussing the silliness of this move; c) the time spent by some very helpful administrators trying to sort it out; and d) the growing mistrust and disrespect everyone in this building started feeling towards our organisation.

Here is where I draw a line and say:

I have agency! Give me my light-switch back!

Oh, and I have always disliked Lenin.