Reviews, restructures and slogans: what exactly is going on at UWE?  A PHD student voices his opinion on a confused climate, a pertubed staff union and the air of uneasiness…

Every person who comes to UWE, and even more so you and I – readers of WesternEye – who study or work here, are bombarded by University marketing: mottoes such as ‘U+WE’ and ‘Better together’, the use of ‘+’ to connect two words (‘hello+welcome’, ‘helping+hands’, ‘real+dynamic’, ‘future+focus’, ‘people+planet’, ‘uwe+bristol’, ‘power+ideas’, ‘Bert+Jules’, etc.) or the omnipresent splashes of bright red.

Such signs are increasingly sprinkled and spread everywhere and on everything: on UWE’s walls, at receptions where newcomers inevitably end up, on official prints, newsletters and email signatures, on UWE’s website, buses, presentations, in speeches by UWE managers, behind official pictures and invideos of UWE employees, on t-shirts of student ambassadors and student guides, on our badges, or on the desktop and screensaver of University computers. “Better together” is the title of the University’s own awards, and the name of a charitable fund to help UWE students facing financial hardships. In order to clear space for this new brand, UWE’s marketing has requested faculties, departments and centres to stop using their existing promotion and communication tools. This uniform is part of what Steve West – UWE’s Vice-Chancellor – refers to as the ‘One University’ ethos/spirit. But what does ‘U+WE’, ‘Better together’ or ‘One University’ mean for him and for his small and closed group of advisors who make the decisions, and are currently rolling out a broad and deep restructure? And what does UWE’s current shift mean for the lecturers, workers and students who actually make up the University’s community? How do unfolding changes at UWE relate to larger political trends? And are we prepared to just wait and see what happens, as our University and the world spins along its current trajectory?

 

UWE’s ‘Better Together’ webpage gives a sense of what is officially meant by this expression. Accordingly, U+WE primarily means making partnerships between UWE (‘we’) and employers (‘you’). The most recently celebrated of such partnerships binds UWE and the multinational Hewlett-Packard (HP), a relationship that has recently been brought to a new level. On this occasion, Nick Wilson, Managing Director of HP UK&I said: “this ground breaking initiative moves our relationship (…) to a deep and intimate partnership with the potential to deliver real outcomes for both HP, the University and, most importantly, for graduates so that we can ultimately offer them better prospects”. We may smile at Nick’s romanticism, but this corporation and our university are literally cohabiting at Frenchay and the couple are long passed the flirting stage. In the same news, UWE reports that “HP has also been appointed as the University’s strategic ICT partner to help develop a program of ICT transformation that will enhance both the student experience and teaching excellence at UWE”. What is going on seems quite clear, at least in this specific case. On the one hand, HP make deals with UWE and grow even larger markets of ready-to-use graduates to pick from for its ‘consumption’. On the other hand, our Vice-Chancellor (also a self-declared CEO) can be pictured shaking hands with another ‘real’ CEO, the message being: UWE is proactive at upholding its relatively good graduates’ employability scores. UWE=VC+employers…

The other side of the employability story has to do with students as potential employees. Employability is already the primary aim of the Graduate Development Programme and UWE is now being streamlined to further intensify this orientation. But here is where the first source of anxiety appears from a student perspective. Should UWE management shakeup its employability scores (relatively better than other UK universities but not that great in absolute terms) when unemployment is expected to rise massively as a result of governmental cuts? Indeed, it is not only analysts who expect that the spending review will directly destroy half a million public jobs, slow down the country’s economy and have ‘indirectly’ a dire impact on employment in the private sector. Veronica Siobhan O’Hara, a third year student in psychology, has taken part in UWE’s ‘Aim higher’ partnership whereby students visit disadvantaged schools to encourage their pupils to aim for University. Referring to such trends, as well as the prospects of doubled tuition fees, she worries for not just for herself but also the kids she meets through this outreach programme: “Am I giving them a sense of false hope? Is this almost cruel?”

Veronica points to another broadly shared concern of students. On the 13th of October, one day after the publication of the Browne review, Mr. West’s only comment on ITV was to welcome a recommendation to double the cap on tuition fees. He described management’s plans in mechanical terms: tuition fees need to increase as much as public funding decreases. Never mind the students. Since UK universities could not accommodate 180,000 applicants this year, demand for Higher Education is so much greater than capacity that UWE, like other universities, can almost do anything they want. As far as Mr. West is concerned, if this recommendation is adopted, he confirmed in the same interview that UWE will double its tuition fees. While this may soon impact current UWE students, this is even more worrying in the long run. If those plans are enforced, only students able to pay or willing to contract massive debts will get higher education. Gail Wilson, Vice-President of UWE’s Student Union (UWESU), notes the blatant injustice of that: “It’s ridiculous that those people who went to uni for free now decide that we pay out!”

The last main source of uneasiness for students arises from a diffuse sense that things have already gotten worse at UWE since last year, and that they are likely to get even worse! Yazan Abu Jbara, a student of English as a Foreign Language and Spanish, links this to lecturers’ anxieties resulting from the ongoing restructuring process passing on to students. According to him, “even though [lecturers] are professional and they are doing their best, the fear [of losing their job] is affecting their performance in the classroom”. Both Veronica and Yazan noticed that face-to-face contact time with lecturers has declined and that interactions now increasingly take place through Blackboard. “That’s not very consistent with a university that prides itself on ‘Better Together’!”, says Veronica. The impressions of those two students are more broadly shared. Two weeks ago, founders of the group “UWE students against the cuts” mobilised for a first student anti-cut rally with posters entitled: “No to UWEworsity”. This is not anecdotal. UWESU is still compiling a comprehensive analysis of students’ overall satisfaction but Gail Wilson says that there are “many more issues” than last year. She adds: “I don’t see how the University can guarantee or maintain the current student experience with the changes that are happening”. According to her, the restructure “will affect different students differently”, thus also directly contradicting Mr. West’s ‘One University’ ethos.

Students are given little information to make sense of what is going on and to put UWE’s restructure in perspective. On such crucial questions, as of today, most students can only rely on vague individual feelings. To understand what may happen to UWE, we must turn to people who have been observing such trends and who have a more comprehensive analysis of how UWE works. Peter Broks, Senior Lecturer in Popular Science at UWE and Vice-chair of UWE’s branch of the University and College Union (UCU) (representing university and college staff) points out that, according to the latest Guardian league tables, UWE is the 2nd university in the UK when it comes to “value added” even though it is 88th in terms of expenditure per student and 81st in terms of student/staff ratio. “Value added” is the difference that a university makes in terms of students doing better than would be expected from their A level grades. Simply put, it means that UWE is the place to be if you want to learn a lot, and since classes sizes are already big and the university spends little per student, it is seemingly because lecturers do relatively a much better job than at other universities. According to UCU that will no longer be possible if, as an outcome of the restructure, class sizes increase, contact time between lecturers and students is reduced, communication is shifted from face-to-face to digital interactions through (HP) computers and Blackboard webpages. The situation will also worsen through further staff demotivation if lecturers are forced into lower grades, if time and money allocated for the research they are passionate about is drastically shrunk, or if they are given no other alternative than to take a position inadequate with their qualifications, expertise or interests. For the time being, the situation will also keep decaying as long as all lecturers and staff fear for their job.

To summarise the situation from students’ standpoint: UWE is turning from a university into a job-training centre; quality of education has already worsened and that’s only the opening of what’s to come, while the cost of studies is going to double! UWE=VC+employers-students…

Meanwhile, lecturers are stressed out, overworked and often forced into what they perceive to be much less interesting jobs. UWE=VC+employers-students-lecturers…

But what is the restructure about in the first place? There are currently two main changes taking place. On the one hand, there is the restructure of management roles, including the amalgamation of five faculties into four. That is the process that requires the ‘firing and re-hiring’ of Professor and Readers, as well as the entire layer of lower management teams. That is what, understandingly, has stressed out UWE’s workers; threatening their livelihoods and their careers. The second major change process is the so-called “workload model”, increasing employees’ workload and leading UWE not to re-employ many Hourly Paid Lecturers (HPLs). This is what increases our lecturers’ work pressure, and this is noticed by students.

It is difficult to have an accurate idea of the extent of the damage. In fact, UCU has apparently had some difficulty making estimations; even staff have been left relatively in the dark about what’s going on. Mr. Broks says: “The only figures we have show that the model systematically underestimates the amount of work that academic staff do across the University by about 8 to 9%. Management have reassured us that the figure is closer to 5%, but even a 5% error would be unacceptable. If the model has a built-in 5% inaccuracy then that is roughly the equivalent of trying to add up all the departments and missing out all the work done in a whole department. Systematically underestimating work by 5% is the same as asking every member of staff to do an extra two weeks unpaid work. Of course, that’s unacceptable.”

More interestingly, the restructure started early in 2009, way before the cuts and the doubling of tuition fees were hot on the national political agenda. The restructure is now justified with a rhetoric assuming that such changes are necessary to make savings, to be more cost-efficient so that ultimately the country’s debt and deficits can be reduced. However, UCU has kept asking management for an analysis of the restructure’s costs but management doesn’t produce anything more than a figure corresponding to the cost of the change management project. Mr. Broks says that this figure largely underestimates the real cost of the restructure: it is “incomplete because it only gives management costs from August/September this year, it does not include other staff costs, nor indeed any other costs at all. For example, the staff time spent on having to re-apply for your own job is not included. Nearly 300 senior academic staff each spending at least a week to prepare applications to keep their jobs, that’s not cheap, but this is regarded as “business as usual” by management and so has not been included in the costings.”

So what is going on? Mr. West is restructuring, but the Browne report (tuition fees) or the Spending Review (cuts) do not seem to be the reason for that. He has said he wants to prepare UWE for big changes in higher education funding, but he doesn’t seem to be saving any money. He says UWE needs to be more efficient but he increased the number of managers from 63 to 72. What is going on?

UWE marketers think that the slogan ‘U+WE / Better Together’ works as ‘internal rallying call’. However, based on the conversations I’ve had with students and staff, my impression is that such sentences have an insipid and increasingly bitter taste for people actually making up the UWE community. A bit like a shiny lollipop; red, attractive and synthetic, with a nasty aftertaste, just like UWE’s logo. The thing is that it’s not just about what management restructures but also how it does it. For example, early in August, 332 I and J grade academics received a letter announcing that their current job was gone and that they would have to re-apply for a new job and role in the (still largely unknown) structure. This must have put a dampener on their summer break! No wonder why they are increasingly getting cynical about management’s ‘better together’ rhetoric when they still know next to nothing about the details of the new structure, whether they have a chance to be part of it, how it will affect their career, or whether they should just abandon the wrecking ship and just focus on finding a job elsewhere. And guess what? Management also claims that the restructure will increase transparency and accountability!

UWE’s increased focus on employability is part of a much older story, and follows the recommendations of another report that was published in 2007 (Burgess Group Final Report). The Spending Review and the Browne Review are part of a much older story of privatisation of universities in the UK and in the world. But what is the common thread of that story? Guardian columnist and author George Monbiot argues that the financial crisis has been used as an opportunity to push through massive and understandingly unpopular neoliberal reforms while shrinking or simply killing funding for much needed social or ecological efforts. He thinks that this is a case of what Naomi Klein refers to as “disaster capitalism”: a case when governments use a disaster to advance capitalism even further. There is a lot of substantial evidence that this is happening. The plan to double tuition fees means, if it goes through, that capitalism will have conquered twice the amount of a graduates’ life, since students will have to work twice longer to refund their studies. The increased focus on employers (who already consume graduates and contribute financially next to nothing to their training, except what they can benefit from) is another example. The way UWE’s workers are treated as interchangeable or expandable commodities is yet another. And our university itself already looks even more like a business, since it shifted from a more faculty-based power structure to a more business-like single pyramidal hierarchy. In fact, as I previously said, Steve West even added ‘CEO’ to his title!

Our Vice-Chancellor and his clique of change managers are only pawns on a much larger political chessboard. But if we think of them as pawns, we may ask: what game are they playing and for whom? Vice-Chancellors and Universities across the UK are all concerned about the changes that are taking place at national level, but at university level, they react differently and adopt different strategies. For example, Professor Michael Arthur, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds publicly spoke out against the cuts. Southampton Solent University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dr Mike Wilkinson publicly criticised the recommendation to increase tuition fees and said it would have an adverse effect on social justice. At UWE, though, Mr. West is proud to say that he anticipated the cuts and states to journalists that he welcomes increased tuition fees! What this shows is that UWE management does not conceive education as a public good but as a private benefit that students need to pay for.

Moreover, even though management repeats that we are all in this together, and that we are “better together”, it is worth noting again that there are some contradictions between speeches and acts. Even though all the ‘most expensive’ workers at UWE have to reapply for new jobs that are likely to be lower, thus cheaper for UWE, there have been no talks of cutting UWE’s highest salary (Mr. West’s was £224,583 in 2008/2009 not including incomes from his Clinical Consultancy). Mr. West likes to talk of equity but he’s paid several times more than Professors on average, and he doesn’t subject himself to the same “firing and re-hiring” procedures he imposes on his staff. Management talks about increased transparency but neither UCU, nor most faculties and even less so UWESU and we students have information about what is happening. There is definitely thus a university-level dimension to the forthcoming struggle, even though there is also the need for a cross-sectorial and national resistance to the government’s attack on the public sector and on people living in the UK. The Spending Review’s damage to Higher Education is £4bn: next to nothing compared to the overall £81bn cuts planned for this shock therapy.

There is one last enormous contradiction between UWE’s rhetoric and reality I think is important to point out. In UWE’s ‘better together’ videoclip, Mr. West opens the show by saying: “One of the things that makes us very different as a university is the way in which we work in partnership with a whole variety of different organisations. That allows us to work very closely with employers, to really understand what it is they are looking for from graduates, and what it is they are looking for in terms of research answers to real world questions. Together, we begin to change how people think and how people work.” Immediately after him, professors and lecturers talk about sustainability and these “really big issues” that UWE is contributing to solve. Indeed, as most natural scientists whose research relates to ecological issues warn us, the Earth’s climate and her ecosystems are in a dire and rapidly worsening state. However, as social scientists who have focused on such big issues have also long shown, the ecological crisis, like all the other major problems we are facing, are not so much technological and economical as a political, sociological and cultural.

To get a grasp of this, it is really worth taking a moment to read some relevant contemporary social science. How, then, can UWE graduates and researchers tackle effectively such broad and complex problems if, as Mr. West says, UWE “begin[s] to change how [we] think and how [we] work” in a manner that focuses everybody on employability, if humanities and social sciences teaching and research are slashed so that Universities hardly value anything else than what serves the economy, and if Universities become driven by competition and consumer-students?

No wonder why there is a sense of misunderstanding, confusion, panic, anger or even rage building up at UWE, in universities, in the public sector, in the country and beyond. No wonder also why many people start connecting the dots, increasingly organising and taking action on these issues. At UWE, people generally still seem to feel isolated and disempowered but some also start to be more explicit about their views, students and lecturers talk to each other about this, information starts flowing, and networks slowly link-up. Outside UWE, within and beyond university-based and anti-cuts struggles, many new people are also getting involved and active. So if you don’t want this gloomy future to happen, now is the time to give whatever you’ve got! Join the Facebook group: “UWE students against the cuts” or, if you aren’t a student or don’t have Facebook, email (uwe.better.together@gmail.com) to be informed of, and get involved with, future activities. And hurry up to book your £5 bus ticket for the anti-cut Demo in London on the 10th of November (both UCU and UWESU have organised buses). Better in this together!

Benoit Dutilleul