Knowledge Workers of the World, Unite!


Yesterday morning was not an usual morning for me. Usually, I feel excited to meet the new day and grateful that I can feel that excitement.

Yesterday I felt anxious.

I have never crossed a picket line in my whole working life!

Over the last thirty years I’ve had my revolution(s) and I’ve been on many picket lines. Yesterday I had to cross one because I’d decided to do my classes.

It was a hard decision; it was made entirely because I believe that:

  • Students are not responsible for the downfall of the UK universities; we engineered this one very well ourselves.
  • Many students fit paid work around their studies; rescheduling will cause much inconvenience and disruption in their lives.
  • Many PhD researchers not only have their jobs but they also travel quite a distance; this makes it even harder to accommodate changes to schedule.

Even more importantly, though I’ve become cynical and disillusioned in British Higher Education, I truly believe that our students deserve better; that they deserve not only our competence but also the respect we give our partners in adventure.

Yes, I still see education as a wonderful adventure; every time I stand in front of a class I feel alive with anticipation. Most times I am disappointed: my attempts to light a spark are often met with vacant stares and it is hard to compete with the lure of FaceBook and Twitter.

I still try!

This is why I decided to do my classes, this is why I crossed a picket line.

Do I support the strike? You bet I do!

Yesterday’s strike was simply about pay! I know, this doesn’t sound right, does it? After all, we academics are above material things and, let’s face it, we are still earning rather well.

But here is the deal:

  • Some university employees (mainly porters, cleaners and catering staff) earn below the living wage of £7.75 (£8.80) per hour. I believe this to be the worst form of exploitation and social injustice. In my book, poverty because of unemployment is bad enough but working poverty is a disgrace that belongs to another era.
  • Universities employ people on ‘zero hours’ contracts. This employment arrangement is objectionable when other employers use it: keeping someone on a contract without guarantee of work, income or benefits is a higher form of exploitation. Universities are supposed to be a civilising force, they are supposed to stand against such demeaning practices not use them!
  • You may think that academics earn a decent wage; after all we are custodians of the future both as producing professional elites and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Then again, when you account for the exceptionally long hours we put in, a senior academic can expect to earn slightly over three times the living wage. A junior academic (a ‘Lecturer’) can expect to make roughly what I pay my cleaner, which is £12 per hour.
  • In the past four years, pay in universities has fallen in real terms by about 15%.
  • The gender pay gap persists and female professors still earn on average about 14% less than their male counterparts.
  • Generally the inequality is very high. Suffices to mention that while some university employees earn below living wage, half of the Vice Chancellors of UK universities earn over £242,000 per year.

This is why the strike was about pay; and this is why I think that taking action regarding these issues is right and, possibly, overdue.

It is an entirely different matter whether I believe that walking out is the most effective and efficient way to remedy the situation.

I have doubts! These are mainly related to the following:

  • When we walk out and go on strike, the only disadvantaged group are our students who actually have none of the blame.
  • By walking out we inconvenience our students and irritate their parents who in many cases foot the expenses around their offspring education.
  • Academics on strike is a bit like imagining a crowd of angry and aggressive Buddhists: difficult to comprehend.
  • Last but not least, we should remember that we are dealing with neo-liberal universities. I very much doubt that neo-liberal universities notice whether we go on strike and inconvenience our students – they make sure that they deduct a day’s pay from our salaries.

What neo-liberal universities care about is performance and rankings. So, Knowledge Workers of the World, let’s hit where it really hurts.

Has it occurred to you that we as academics have enormous power in the neo-liberal realities of university life. But not by walking out and putting pickets. We have power by the fact that the fruits of our labour are counted to make the university rankings.

A major component to this is counting publications and, in more refined cases, counting publications in particular journals. Attribution of these articles to particular universities is only by officially recognising the organisation (and making sure that the name is exactly right).

What will happen I wonder, if we academics agree to stop recognising our organisations on our articles?

My guess is that when British universities start sliding off the World rankings, the university leaders and the government will not only listen, they will hear.

Of course, organising this will be rather difficult – it rare that academics agree on much.

What we have to decide though is whether this fight is worth fighting. And I believe it is: for the sake of our support stuff, for the sake of our students and for our own sakes.

Knowledge Workers of the World, Unite!

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.

Entrepreneurship is no rocket science!

After the key-note!

After the key-note!

Recently my colleague Kate Barker and I visited the Sultanate of Oman: an Arab state on the Arabian Peninsula the economy of which strongly, if not exclusively depends on oil. Sunshine, great mostly middle-eastern cuisine and impressive souks aside, we were to take part in a high level policy workshop on ‘Entrepreneurial Higher Education for Sustainable Development’.

More specifically, our tasks were to review a policy report on developing entrepreneurial universities in Oman (sponsored by The Research Council of Oman), to present at the workshop and generally enable a discussion on these issues. Our key note was one of several and many interesting messages – about the situation in the Asian countries in general and in Oman in particular – emerged. A key message was delivered by Ms. Sharifa Al Harthy, a PhD researcher supervised by Kate and me.

Oil is finished – it will either literally run out or it will end like the stone age; the stone age ended not because we run out of stone!

Sharifa Al Harthy

Sharifa Al Harthy

Under this circumstances, developing entrepreneurial environments and encouraging creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship seems to be an obvious path for development.

Where is the problem?

Well, it seems to me that there are at least three problems.

  • The first of these lies in the complex and difficult to manage, govern and predict nature of entrepreneurship and creativity. By their very nature, these are highly unpredictable, risky and uncertain events.
  • Second, and related to the previous issue, there is a problem of selection and efficiency. Most current policy making is about achieving high efficiency which is ensured through selection, evaluation and accountability and financial control. Because of the highly uncertain and unpredictable nature of entrepreneurship and creativity early selection is problematic, evaluation is likely to be in-effective and strict financial control can stifle rather than encourage developments.
  • Last but not least, the issue of enabling entrepreneurship and creativity in Oman (and many other countries around the world) is not one of analysis (which academics have made into a research field and career choice) but one of transformation (for which consultants have not the tools).

This made me consider what will happen were we to forget about the 700,000 or so hits on Google Scholar when searching for ‘entrepreneurship’ and try some old fashioned thinking from ‘first principles’. And this is what I came up with.

Entrepreneurship can be defines as

The ability to see opportunities and act on these.

Working from this ‘definition’ it is possible to distinguish between two part to entrepreneurship:

  • Being entrepreneurial as a personal attribute; and
  • Creating the organisational and institutional conditions for ‘entrepreneurship’ as personal characteristic to be enacted.

There are many aspect in which the two are linked; but the important thing to remember is that policy can’t do much about the personal apart from creating the different conditions for it to blossom.

These conditions are likely to be different depending on context – national, organisational, cultural and personal. Working from the first two issues with entrepreneurship mentioned above I would venture that the two key characteristics of entrepreneurial environments are:

  • Variety; and
  • Flexibility.

Variety refers to organisations, knowledge, funding sources and other kinds of opportunity. Combined with flexibility of governance, structure and management,  this is likely to have the following effects:

  1. Provide the environment for organic selection of ideas thus dealing away with the need for early selection (which in the case of entrepreneurship and creativity is problematic);
  2. Send a message that entrepreneurship is actively encouraged and creativity sought.
  3. Provide the ‘play-ground’ for risk taking – an essential ingredient of both entrepreneurial cultures and entrepreneurial spirit.
  4. Help raise entrepreneurs.

For entrepreneurship to blossom, however, variety and flexibility ought to pervade all areas and aspects of society. There is little point, for instance, to aspire to develop entrepreneurial university in a social, political and funding environments lacking variety of opportunities and flexibility of structures. Similarly, a university cannot be entrepreneurial – neither can be its lecturers and students – if it is riddled with hierarchical and centralised governance structure, inflexible rules, promotion structures that take close to a year, accounting arrangements where processing a claim for £5 costs the organisation £75, and where student assignments are rigidly specified and approved.

At the level of the individual things are also not that difficult: just open your mind so you can learn and spot opportunities, and be flexible enough to be able to ‘take it as it comes’. Oh, and do, don’t only think!

Do you see now why I believe entrepreneurship is no rocket science? Because to enable it one needs only two things at many levels: variety and flexibility.

What do you think?

Last lecture in Lund

Me delivering the lecture

Me delivering the lecture

For slightly over two years now I’ve been International Fellow at the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Lund; this position is hosted by Prof. Merle Jacob at the Research Policy Institute (RPI). I would mention some of the opportunities that this position has afforded, but the only formal duty associated with it is that once a year I (and my fellows on the programme) had to come to Lund, give a lecture on what has been done and have dinner with the sponsor and members of staff.

This event – the public lectures – took place last night. Topics and quality were varied but overall it wasn’t a bad night. I am taking away the message from research on ‘work-life balance’ – integration is not necessarily a great thing. Apparently, high managers in South Korea have integrated approach to the work-life balance which simply put means that ‘work has become their life’ – these people have dinner with their families ten times a year. Can you imagine living like that? My contribution to this debate would be: one should distinguish between their ‘job’ and work; and be very strict about distinguishing between job and life. Work is a different matter and this can spill over.

What did I do?

Well, I started with a reminder of how I saw the key issues in my research field three years ago (I haven’t changed my mind; since then I have just refined my understanding of these issues and the possible ways to approach them).

The main issue (as I perceived it) was, and still is, out limited understanding of how governance (policy measures and funding instruments) affects science; in a language more aligned to this of policy, this is the overarching issue of impact in all its manifestations. Within this, four issues attract my attention, and concentrate my effort and energy, namely that

  • Analysis, to the extent to which this exists, is fragmented. This means that neighbouring research fields have made great advances in understanding specific subdomains but there is little understanding of the ‘causal’ mechanisms linking change of different aspects of science and specific policy measures.
  • Problems with attribution. Identifying and measuring the effects of policy is a daring task; attributing this change to specific policy action is a challenge of epic proportions.
  • Lack of frameworks for analytical comparison. Methodologically, the research fields of Science and Innovation Policy Studies (SIPS), STS and Higher Education Research (HER) are in a purgatory between the macro and the micro (individual cases) when what can afford the opportunity to link governance and change is the meso-level; this gap can be overcome by developing a number of frameworks for analytical comparison.

After that, I expanded on the ways in which with support from and in collaboration with, colleagues from universities and research centres in many European countries I have been advancing knowledge and shaping the research agenda around these clusters of issues. Only looking at the last two years I would say that the time of the Fellowship has been productive. A fascination grew out to become a progressive research line combining publications, attracting resources, training PhD students, enlarging my research network, deepening my collaboration with colleagues at the University of Lund and starting a, for the time being small, research group at MIoIR.

What I can say, is that my time as Fellow of Lund University has been very productive so far. Only the colleagues at the RPI – my host department – can say whether I have contributed anything to their research agenda and the life of the unit.

What makes me jump with joy, though, is not the output that I have managed to generate during these last couple of years and that is likely to continue. What this fellowship did for me was to afford me a bit of time and to bring the excitement of what I do back into my life. And, of course, it also allowed me not simply to generate output but to hope that one day this will have considerable impact.