Leicester and the battle for universities

This is an off-topic post, but it concerns something very important. More graphical linear algebra is coming next week.

The short story is this: the University of Leicester is going through a top-down restructuring. The management have decided to force a large number of academics to reapply for their jobs. Of course, following this charade, there will be fewer jobs than academics, so the whole thing is a depraved game of musical chairs. In particular, in the excellent mathematics department, around six academics will be made redundant.

It’s very important that we come together and fight, so please sign this petition. In the grand scheme of things, the very concept of the university as an institution is under threat, and this is just the latest battle. Leicester is a reputable British university, but other countries are increasingly heading in the same direction: turning world-leading universities into failing businesses.

If you’re interested in my views on this topic, see the rant below.


Over the last twenty years, British universities have slowly transitioned away from being institutions that deliver learning and research as a public good. Universities were once seen as advancing human knowledge, and this was considered to be a positive contribution, a raison d’etre in its own right. Higher education meant that people could pursue their interests, fulfil their calling, have access to state-of-the-art research and knowledge in the field of their choosing, and perhaps even contribute to its further development.

At some point in the 1980s–coinciding with Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US–universities were infected by neoliberal thinking. Abstracts concepts like “advancing human knowledge” were considered suspicious and retrograde; it’s difficult to assign a monetary value to something abstract. Instead, universities were now seen as a engines of future economic growth. This led to investment in fields deemed as economically beneficial, e.g. applied STEM, law, economics, and savage cuts to fields deemed as less useful to the economy, typically meaning the arts, “less marketable” social science, fundamental scientific research, pure mathematics, and so on.

Stefan Collini, writing in the LRB, put it succinctly:

… gradually, what we still call universities are coming to be reshaped as centres of applied expertise and vocational training that are subordinate to a society’s ‘economic strategy’.

Moreover, universities themselves are increasingly being seen as businesses in their own right. The income comes from ever growing student fees, some government support for research and grant income. Academic career progression is now, in reality, often based on how much cash an academic generates. Non-performing (read, non profit-generating) academics are often bullied and threatened, sometimes with tragic consequences.

At the same time, management depressingly talks about “vision”, “strategy”, “stakeholders”, etc. Their emails are often peppered with meaningless middle-management business speak (think David Brent, or if you’re in the US, Michael Scott). Many British universities are expanding and investing millions to build campuses around the world. My own university has built a campus in Malaysia and the jury is still out on whether this was a sound investment. In Sold Out, another excellent LRB article by Stefan Collini, we find an indicative anecdote:

 In June 2012 the University of East London in Cyprus promised to offer ‘high quality British degree programmes in one of Europe’s most popular study destinations’ at a ‘stunning new campus’, but in April 2013 it was announced that after recruiting just 17 students UEL Cyprus would be closed. A spokesman for the university, the Times Higher Education reported, ‘would not disclose how much money the university will lose’.

Senior management, of course, keep giving themselves enormous pay rises and bonuses, regardless of performance: this is justified because they think themselves the equivalent of CEOs of large companies, deserving to be paid at “market value”. For example, the vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester takes home a salary of more that £300k a year. This makes the currently proposed redundancies even more perverse.

Even if you’re not based in the UK, if you care about universities, you should still get involved. Here’s Collini again:

Other countries are looking on with a mixture of regret and apprehension: regret because the university system in this country has been widely admired for so long, apprehension because they fear similar policies may soon be coming their way. In many parts of the world English higher education is, to change the metaphor, seen less as a useful pilot experiment and more as the canary in the mine.

So please, go ahead and sign the petition. As Collini writes in the last paragraph of his essay, we must stop first-rate British universities from turning into third-rate companies.



2 thoughts on “Leicester and the battle for universities

    • Yes it will — I’ve been much busier than usual recently, but I have a bunch of half-finished articles that I will post asap. Thanks for the motivation boost 🙂


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