The student protests: part 3


The students missed their chance to bring down the crumbling house

by Kenneth Roy

Most Scots who are no longer young have a story about the reverence with which higher education was once regarded. Here is mine. It concerns a chance encounter at Bonnybridge Toll – yes, we ran to a toll in our village; you once had to pay to get out of the place – between my parents and a teacher at the local primary school.

The teacher, a woman in late middle-age, was animated by undisguised pride. She wanted it to be known that one of her former pupils, a boy in the village, had been accepted for Glasgow University. At the age of 10, I had only dimly heard of this establishment. My parents listened to the story of the scholar’s progress – we talked of scholars then – with the greatest respect. I learned from the short conversation that it was an unusual achievement for a boy or girl from our working-class village to be given a place at Glasgow University; and that it bestowed honour on the community.

Where was the boy from Bonnybridge going? What was so special about it? I came to understand that it was a scholarly institution for the brighest and best from the towns and villages of Scotland and that, after four years, if you worked hard, you acquired letters after your name. These letters were prized for being granted to few. We did not think of this as elitist. On the contrary, people in Bonnybridge believed they were part of a new egalitarian society.

The memory of the encounter at Bonnybridge Toll and the satisfaction of that teacher has never left me. I thought of it with some poignancy earlier this week as I watched on student television a recording of the dismal meeting in Bute Hall to discuss the student eviction at the same Glasgow University. It occurred to me that the meeting was not that of a scholarly institution. The boy from Bonnybridge, who must now be an old man if he is still alive, would not have recognised it.

Instead, the proceedings had the flavour of an extraordinary general meeting of some fading PLC, whose disgruntled shareholders were calling the directors to account for a crisis precipitated by an unexpectedly shocking set of figures. Several demanded the chief executive’s resignation, while the hapless chairman, bumbling on about rules, affected an air of weary compromise. Few doubted that the company would pull through somehow, but not without pain. Many loss-making divisions would have to be sacrificed. The glory days were over.

You have to wonder what went wrong. I do so myself, although I am not a member of the distinguished alumni and have no letters after my name.

As soon as the taps began to be turned off, it was inevitable that cracks in the structure would appear.  In Glasgow, they have been brutally exposed by the events of the last fortnight.

In the search for an answer, I came across a 10-year-old article in the Times Higher Education Supplement which attempted to define the principles of the ‘new managerialism’ in higher education. This flourishing culture (the article noted) was characterised by ‘practices commonplace in the private sector, particularly the importance of a powerful management body that overrides professional skills and knowledge … It keeps discipline under tight control and is driven by efficiency’.

Around the same time – the spring of 2001 – a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council found that academic life under the new managerialism ‘tended to revolve around long hours packed with meetings, a mountain of paper and emails, and the search for additional resources … research was marginalised, teaching devalued, and there was little time for reflection’. The study also found that the former collegiate approach to the government of universities had been replaced by centralised management. Something could have been done to arrest these unhappy changes. Nothing was.

When there was still money sloshing around to finance the ludicrous idea that a scholarly institution should be run as a corporation, the illusion of efficiency could be sustained. But as soon as the taps began to be turned off, it was inevitable that cracks in the structure would appear. In Glasgow, they have been brutally exposed by the events of the last fortnight.

The management’s desire to evict the students from a building for which there was no clear alternative purpose is easily understood. The new managerialism, obsessed by the need for discipline and order, was unnerved by the cheerful anarchy inherent in the occupation of a building, any building, and became increasingly agitated by its threat to corporatist control. Panic succeeded agitation. The mess had to be cleared up somehow, control restored. Call the cops.

But what is revealed by this impulsive act (which has been called ‘opportunistic’) and its terrible consequences? In Bute Hall, what we see is not Hector Hetherington but Anton Muscatelli. What we hear is not the practical eloquence of Jimmy Reid but the accommodating charm of Charles Kennedy. What we detect is not an earned respect for the people running the show, but utter contempt for them. The students have become angry customers, while the gifted staff, fearful for their livelihoods, have been cowed into submission. This is where the new managerialism has taken Glasgow University.

The student eviction was merely a symptom of a more profound malaise. The malaise infects even the student body, which has meekly accepted – indeed to some extent invited – the so-called ‘independent inquiry’ (which is not independent, but internal) and its relatively leisurely progress, so convenient to the interests of the management. Jimmy Reid, had he still been rector, would have seized the moment and inspired the students to bring the crumbling house down and the new managerialism with it. There might have been some hope of a scholarly institution being restored. But, having been presented with such a wonderful opportunity, they let it slip. A very Scottish outcome.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.