Blogs > Cliopatria > A Vote of No Confidence

Jul 2, 2011

A Vote of No Confidence

I have been meaning to write something about a strategy for the humanities in the days that we seem universally to accept are pretty damn dark, and in which the perpetual crisis of the humanities is now hunting extra hard in England. Events, however, have caught up with me and in fact involved me and I want to record that. You might have heard of the new-ish UK government setting out (having already cut the money) policies that remove all public funding for the teaching of arts and humanities in English and Welsh universities. You may have heard about their setting in place higher tuition fees, to compensate universities for the lost funding, though not over the year that that measure will take to come into operation, and you may have heard a number of voices forecasting that every single university would feel obliged to charge top legal dollar to cover their losses. This seems to have caught the government by surprise, and they have since started talking about fining universities that charge the full amount because otherwise the government is going to wind up 100 million pounds poorer than they had expected covering the scheme with graduation-payable loans. You might think that a responsible government would have seen that coming, and you might wonder how on earth an institution can plan for its future and its students' futures when the rules keep changing. You might also be confused by the fact that the White Paper policy document that is supposed to form the basis of government action in this sphere is yet to emerge, even though the policy has already been made, changed and changed again. If there's one thing that seems clear and justifiable in this farrago, it's that everyone involved is confused. Of course, we (as in, academics) had told the government what would happen with the fees rise, but it has been clear for a while that the government isn't listening to us. Just lately there has grown determination to change that. There is a group called noconfidence.org.uk which has set up a nationwide petition stating their lack of confidence in the government's policies. It's not doing much of a job of suggesting alternatives, it's just anger, basically, and conviction that nothing coming out of the coalition on the subject has been worth anything. It's negative, but that doesn't mean it can be ignored: English and Welsh academia is hurting, and it is crying out. Flyer from the Oxford No-Confidence campaign On the 7th June the shout came from Oxford, when the University's democratic body of governance, Congregation, met to discuss and vote on such a motion of no confidence. It was, simply, phrased as: "Congregation instructs Council to communicate to government that the University of Oxford has no confidence in the policies of the Minister for Higher Education." It was passed by 283 votes to 5 and the debate is now online in slightly-rushed PDF transcript, if you want to read it. It wasn't much of a debate in one sense, as there was no opposition; the motion didn't even constitutionally have to go to a vote, since no-one had demanded it do be opposed, but the University Council thought it would be good to let Oxford express itself like this. However, despite the lack of actual dispute, the speeches were from all over the map, some arguing for a return to a two-tier university system, some arguing for less public money as a price for less public control in the university and some for more money for the sake of the nation, many reporting personal experience of the dependence of their career's development from unpromising backgrounds on money from the state that was now to be removed, and so on. They spoke while students shouted and cheered outside; for once, we were all on the same side. Some of the speeches were by scientists, some by linguists, literature scholars, and some by historians. One was by an old friend of Willetts, indeed. But all argued for the motion. Whatever might be wrong with it as phrased, they said, the point has come to speak out and this is how to do it. I will probably surprise none of you by admitting that I was among the 283. I thought that two people I know and one I don't said especially good things, among a host of them.1 Charlie Louth, who works just down the staircase from me, had a sharp but fair point when he began, quietly and determinedly:

"I am speaking today because, as will also be the case for most people here, I have sat through too many meetings at Oxford and elsewhere for which the general tenor has been: we don't like this, we wish it wasn't happening, but it's going to happen and we should just make the best job of it that we can. Whether it has been the so-called benchmarking, QAA, RAE, tuition fees, the REF, or more recently "impact‟, universities collectively have gone along with things they never should have and have contributed to a general decline it is in fact their duty to resist. To put it another way, too many of us have a bad conscience. It is proper that the government should have a role in deciding what its universities should be like, but the universities should not be a sub-function of the state and if the government starts pursuing ideas that are damaging to higher education, forcing it to comply with an ill-credited business model which has little relevance to education, then we should not kowtow and hope for the best. It is actually amazing how far things have gone already; the idea that the business way of doing things applies to all domains of life is now so widely accepted that we scarcely notice it. To adapt a line from a Wim Wenders film: the managers have colonised our unconscious."

We're a long way from evicting the managers, and of course somewhere an argument has to be made for the money which is how we let them in, but quite a lot of people were willing to stand up and roll up their sleeves to start. Professor David Norbrook had a series of quotable quotes which I aim to keep ready:

"There has been a steady erosion of the Haldane principle of keeping academic research at a distance from government. We have had increased pressure to study strategic areas of research, now pressure to prove social and economic benefits beyond academia. As Gordon Finlayson has put it, `Incentivising academics to do high-impact research is like Arsène Wenger's instructing his players to go out and deliver increased revenue to shareholders. The economic success of the club depends on footballers focusing on playing well on the pitch, not on making money off it'....

"This language of `impact', evoking an asteroid calamitously colliding with an alien planet, brutally reduces the very complex ways in which academic work interacts with the public, above all through teaching, but also through a range of publicly funded institutions from the BBC to public libraries. The impact agenda enforces a notion of academic research in its own right as somehow outside society, lacking intrinsic benefit....

"The customer that is being invoked is really a ventriloquist's dummy speaking the government's agenda. The Secretary of State offers a new funding system as giving students what they want, but his proposals unleashed the largest wave of civil unrest this country has seen for many years. Students clearly indicated they want to be citizens, not consumers. As for the customers of academic research, if you compare the universities with the banks, can we really say it is the former the customers are angry with? Is David Willetts really doorstepped by furious taxpayers complaining that Oxford scientists' papers on quantum mechanics make a dull read, to the extent that would justify the huge amount of bureaucracy and time-wasting the impact agenda would create? But better attack them than question so recently after the banking crash that we should refound our higher education system on debts."

Many, however, were concerned about the naming of the actual minister, since it was the government they wished to oppose. But David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science (the very phrasing of which tells you what the government is actually interested in) has like it or not been the figurehead of this, and furthermore Oxford has a reason to get personal. Willetts was here; his degree was awarded in the same theatre we were sitting in. This means, among other things (like that some of this is Oxford's fault) that he took, long ago, an oath in Latin to the University, that he would be faithful to it. No-one expects such a pledge to be legally binding in the world after university, but in the same building where he had taken that oath as we listened, it was on many people's minds; Willetts knows the best we can do, knows why and how we do it and he has decided it must go. We think he is wrong, incoherent, misguided and dangerous. This, the point of the Latin, and the oath itself, were the centrepieces of one of the historians' speeches, which I want to give in toto, that by Dr Conrad Leyser, a medievalist as you will see from his beginning:

"`Lest the poor, who have no family wealth to help them, be deprived of the opportunity of studying and making progress, a benefice of suitable size in each cathedral church is to be assigned to be a master, so that he can teach the poor for nothing. The teacher will thus be protected from want and the road to learning lie open to his pupils.' So the decree of the third Lateran council in 1179, a congregation of some 200 bishops from all over Latin Christendom. One could regard this as a very precocious submission to OFFA, or as a mature response to a question under debate since the fifth century BC: what price learning? Can wisdom be exchanged for money like other commodities – or is it beyond price? It is indeed, argued Plato. His master Socrates received no money for his teaching: this was the key thing that distinguished him from the Sophists, the teachers of philosophy, who in Plato's view, were no better than verbal tricksters driven by avarice. Socrates' love of wisdom was not for profit. There were others, however, who disagreed with Plato. From the ninth century, we have a report of two Irish scholars who appeared at the court of the Emperor Charlemagne, highly learned men offering to sell their knowledge. The Emperor decided to extend to them his patronage; he found that while the sons of the nobility squandered the opportunity, the children of the poor were brilliant pupils of these teachers on the imperial payroll. Charlemagne's findings were taken up by the high medieval Church. The decree of the third Lateran council squared the circle about the price of wisdom and institutionalised a link – no doubt not disinterested – between education and social justice. Teachers would be paid, but not by their pupils, and the poor would pay nothing. On this basis, cathedral schools and universities, including this one, were established by patrons across Latin Europe.

"This is the charter which current government policy would rewrite. The cut to the teaching of humanities and social sciences combined with the explicit expectation that new private providers will come onto the higher education market, subverts the basis on which wisdom has been exchanged for centuries, if not millennia. As these providers start indeed to appear and the mechanics of franchising out the right to grant degrees are thought out, or not thought out, the very rationale for universities is undermined by the minister responsible for them.

"Is the resolution too personal? What we do is personal. We have insisted that it be so. When we give out degrees in this building, the students process forward and we ask them in Latin whether they agree to abide by the statutes of this University. They answer, `Do fidem': I give my word, I pledge my troth, my allegiance. Mr Vice-Chancellor, you explain very clearly to all present why we should continue to conduct this ceremony in Latin: it sends a public signal about the active participation of students and teachers in the community of learning in this place extending back eight centuries. This is a social memory worth jealously guarding, not least because of the clarity with which medieval educators formulated the social ethics of learning. So now the question of allegiance is on us. Do we have con-fid-ence in the policies of the minister responsible for higher education, a graduate of this University? There is only one answer we can honorably and accurately give. Do fidem? No, no fides. I ask you to vote for the resolution."

And, we did.2 It's not that I even expect it to achieve that much, although Prime Minister David Cameron has at least scheduled a meeting of university heads to discuss things. Even that's a success, because it means they noticed us. Other universities have also noticed us: Cambridge's similar motion is mired in red tape,3 but others have come from Bradford and King's College London (which knows all about trouble in this line) or are going through process at Warwick and at Goldsmith's College, London. The sector may yet stand up together. This is why it has hopefully been worth Oxford doing this thing that may seem petty and arrogant. Why should we presume to speak for the nation, when we are so often told that we are a self-reproducing élite with no wider social understanding? Three reasons. Firstly, that other voices we would have looked to have been silent: Universities UK, the sector's spokesgroup, have no comment at all about either the funding cuts or, now, the votes of no confidence; the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which administers almost all UK state research funding in those areas, has infamously not just not spoken out but has revised its core priorities to fit in with the government's excuse for a social agenda. (Even the currently quiescent and timorous Labour party have spotted that this might be a political point.) Not only do they not speak for us, unlike organisations like the Royal Society they haven't spoken at all. Secondly, that if we said nothing, we would join the silent in complicity; this is a time to be counted, and that's just what we did. Thirdly, because others have been able to stand up and join in. Oxford might have weathered the cuts better than anywhere else; it might even have profited from other smaller places going to the wall. But it isn't playing the faction game that has for so long riven academic politics, not this time anyway. We might yet all speak together, but someone has to be first, Oxford was well-positioned and some of its members are personally connected. And we have, in a proportion not unlike 283 to 5, had enough of being quiet. Who knows what comes next? But when a call like that comes round, who could justify not being part of it? There is, as I say, a petition. If you would also like to join in, that would be a way. A better way might be to try and get your colleagues, too, to express their support and solidarity, whether via a union or just a vote or internal petition, but if you feel that you can't, there is still this, and it doesn't take much to do.

1. "Report of proceedings in Congregation, 7 June 2011: Debate on a resolution", Oxford Gazette Vol. 141, Supplement no. 1 to no. 4956, pp. 707-722 (Oxford 2011), online here. All following quotation comes from this document.
2. It must in all fairness be said that if a student of mine used Notker the Stammerer as evidence for Charlemagne's policy like that they would get pulled up on it. But, then, the good student would say no doubt that even if it's not evidence for Charlemagne it's evidence that such a moral could be thought worth pointing even in the 880s, and that would be fair enough. Dr Leyser also suggests that people who would like to disagree with him could find matter to do so in Alexander Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford 1978), pp. 218-219, which uses the same Lateran III quote (canon 18) and is less sanguine about its actual effect.
3. Or so, anyway, reports Nick Gay, in "Notes from Cambridge", Oxford Magazine no. 313 (Oxford 2011), pp. 16-17. I know no more than that.

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