The man who sighed too much

Opinion piece by Howard Hotson, October 29th 2014

docherty photo JS49180226 Professor Thomas Docherty

‘Professor suspended from top university for giving off “negative vibes”.’ Thus read the headline in The Telegraph on Friday 24 October.  ‘Professor at top university was suspended for nine months after he was accused of sighing and being sarcastic during job interviews’: this was the Daily Mail’s take on the same story. Other charges against the culprit, Warwick’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Thomas Docherty, The Mirror revealed, included ‘making ironic comments’ and ‘projecting negative body language’. By Monday, London commuters could read about the ‘Professor suspended for nine months for “inappropriate sighing”’ in Metro, the free newspaper ubiquitous on the Underground. Readers of the Birmingham Mail had been informed of the story on Thursday the 23rd, two days after it broke in the Times Higher Education magazine. Together these stories have provoked hundreds of comments, thousands of ‘shares’, and innumerable tweets.

Over the weekend, news of the grounds for Docherty’s nine-month suspension began to go global. Inside Higher Education picked up the story under the headline, ‘Suspended for Irony and Sighing’. So did Higher Education Faculty News, an organ of the American Association of University Professors, together with academic blogs like Education Watch International, The Research Whisperer, and College Misery. University blogs in Oregon and Michigan are beginning to relay the tale, as are news outlets as far afield as Kansas, Zimbabwe and Singapore.

Even the risk of suspension cannot disguise the irony of the situation. In late September, Warwick was trumpeting its selection as ‘University of the Year’, in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide for 2015. One month later, this national publicity bonanza has been overtaken by an international publicity disaster of its own making.

Warwick officials took on one of the most outspoken critics of the new authoritarianism of UK university management; yet they did so on a trumped-up charge of ‘insubordination’. In doing so they have made themselves a textbook case of precisely the kind of autocratic managerialism Docherty has been describing.

While refusing to discuss the grounds of the suspension, the University insisted that Docherty was not suspended in order to silence his outspoken criticism; yet it turns out that the issue of free expression – verbal and non-verbal – was part of the case against him.  In a genuinely liberal intellectual environment, the attitude any individual takes with regard to a speaker – whether a student in tutorial, a seminar speaker, or a candidate – is a matter for individual judgment, and so (within broad limits) is the question of how they choose to express that attitude. If others find a colleague’s behaviour discourteous, they are free to tell him so. Instead, Warwick’s senior management hired corporate lawyers to argue that behaviour of this kind was grounds for dismissal.

Moreover, Warwick’s management showed their hand even more clearly when they forbade Docherty from attending a conference devoted to the republication of E.P. Thompson’s Warwick University Ltd., or to address the conference by Skype, or initially even to have a letter from him read out to the gathering – although on this point the University eventually relented. Given that Thompson’s book was a prescient discussion of the legal battles waged by Warwick in 1970 to prevent the publication of evidence that it was spying on its own staff and students and curbing academic freedom on behalf of business interests, these proceedings were bound to be interpreted by many as thinly disguised censorship, plain and simple.

Justice for Thomas Docherty is good news for higher education in general. Reputation managers in other universities might have been tempted to emulate these tactics if Warwick had been successful. Now they will  think twice. But serious damage has also been done – how much remains to be seen.

We now know, for starters, that the ban on Docherty inflicted considerable damage on his students. As well as being banned from campus, from the library, and from email contact with his colleagues, Docherty was prohibited from supervising his graduate students and from writing references. Indiscriminate, disproportionate, and unjust measures against the professor were also deeply unfair to his students.

At one further remove, how much will the mishandling of this situation damage the reputation of an entire institution, its staff, its students, its alumni? And how much collateral damage will be inflicted on UK universities generally in the court of international opinion? If the UK’s ‘University of the Year’ in 2015 becomes an international by-word for authoritarianism and censorship, then foreign readers are entitled to ask what goes on in less celebrated institutions. One reader of Inside Higher Education has already articulated the question as follows: ‘Is it just me, or do British universities just not treat their faculty so well these days? Low pay in an expensive country, no more tenure, and now junk like this.’

Reputational damage cashes out directly in international rankings. Yet when UK universities, individually or collectively, slide in the rankings, will policymakers conclude that they are being badly managed? Or will they respond by prescribing another wave of still more radical ‘reform’?

This brings us to a final irony: although academics are liable to read the Docherty case as a parable of academic mismanagement, at least some of the readers of the newspaper articles listed above clearly read it as a parable about academia itself. For one thing, the censorship even of non-verbal communication strikes some readers as a paradigmatic example of politically-correct thought police running amok. ‘Only academics could be so pea-brained as this,’ one Telegraph reader colourfully opines. ‘They deserve the rough edge of nanny’s tongue and early to bed without supper for behaving in such an infantile way.’ ‘Remind me again’, another comments: ‘Why are we, the British public, still being made to fund these dictatorial Marxist cabals, and why has the government not taken a hint from the private sector and outsourced all higher education abroad?’ So when university governance is wrested from academic control and remodelled along corporate lines, the resulting authoritarianism is to be explained by reference to the perennial Marxism of academics generally? And once the funding burden has been removed from the shoulders of current taxpayers and loaded squarely onto future graduates and taxpayers, current taxpayers should nevertheless insist that privatization be followed by outsourcing?

It would be easier to dismiss this kind of thing as puerile polemic, were it not for the fact that similar logic is evident in the recent opinion piece by Jamie Martin, advisor to former educational secretary Michael Gove, on how UK universities ‘Must Do Better’.  ‘[U]niversities and government,’ he argues, for instance, ‘are engaging in sub-prime lending, encouraging students to borrow about £40,000 for a degree that will not return that investment …. Taxpayers, the majority of whom have not been to university, pick up the tab when this cruel lie is exposed.’

So when it turns out that student-customers are not the perfectly well-informed and purely rational agents whose collective decisions can ‘drive up standards’ and ‘drive down prices’ across the university sector, when it turns out instead that they are vulnerable to being duped by the new breed of corporate university which regards them essentially as units of income and output, who is to take the blame? Evidently, anyone but the policymakers who imposed the marketized conception on the university in the first place.

It appears that we are entering a new phase in the debate over British higher education, in which the failures of the botched ‘reforms’ of 2010-12 are recycled as justification for a further round of even more radical measures.  For further analysis along these lines, the reader can turn with profit to Dorothy Bishop’s recent comments on Martin’s piece.


Howard Hotson will deliver the CDBU lecture at Royal Holloway on Tuesday 25 November 2014 on ‘Big Business at the Heart of the System:  Understanding the Global University Crisis’.  It will be at 6 p.m. on 25 November, in room MX001 in the Management Building Annexe at Royal Holloway.  For further details contact:

Tuition fees must be high on the agenda before the election

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop, 22nd October 2014

Suppose that the government were to announce that post-16 years education were no longer free. If you wanted to stay on to do A-levels, your parents would have to pay a fee, which could vary with the popularity of the school. One can just imagine the arguments from an outraged public: the policy would be unfair to poorer families, would deter children from continuing their education, would damage the nation’s businesses – who would have to look abroad for qualified workers – and would ultimately increase the gulf between rich and poor, because the less well-educated children from poorer families would have reduced earning potential. Suppose, further, that expensive schools started recruiting sixth-formers from abroad to make up the numbers of fee-paying students in their classrooms. The idea seems so absurd that it’s hard to imagine any government proposing it, yet it has much in common with the move to charge university students increasing levels of tuition fees.

The introduction of fees started gently enough in 1998, when the undergraduate rate was set at £1,000 per annum. By 2004, this had trebled, but after the Browne review, universities were able to charge up to £9,000 per annum. Last year, the vice-chancellor of University of Oxford was quoted as saying that the top universities should be able to charge up to £16,000 per annum.  Despite initial protests, many people seem to have lost the will to resist, and come to believe that the world economic situation demands that education should be paid for by those who benefit from it, rather than by the state.

The counter-evidence, however, comes from international comparisons. Last February, Howard Hotson analyzed the situation in Germany, where local governments had done a U-turn, and instead of increasing tuition fees had decided to end them. Lower Saxony, which had been the last German state to retain tuition fees, abolished them in early October, leading commentators to ask, if Germany can do it, why can’t we?

You may wonder if Germany is an exception, and will come to regret its decision, but, as shown in this map of fees in the EU, it’s actually England who is the outlier, with substantially higher fees than other countries. euromap


The country we are emulating, of course, is the USA, where one report in 2012 estimated the average cost of studying at a four-year private (non-profit) university was  $28,500 per year.

A notable point about the fees debate is that both sides defend their argument in terms of fairness. Those who want to deregulate fees and create a free market claim that it is fair to make the cost of higher education the responsibility of those who benefit from it, rather than expecting taxpayers to shoulder the burden. Nobody, though, has suggested that this concept should extend to older generations such as mine, who benefited from free university education. Why is the burden of debt placed squarely on the shoulders of the younger generation and not shared with those who could better afford to contribute? Furthermore, many graduates fail to get the anticipated good jobs, creating problems for the loan companies, who don’t get repaid, and enduring debt for themselves. This is especially notable in the US, where graduate poverty is a growing problem.

An alternative position on fairness – advanced in Germany –  is that that fees are unfair because they deter poorer students from engaging in higher education, and so increase the gulf between rich and poor. My own university, Oxford, already recruits a disproportionate number of students from private schools: putting the fees up to £16,000 p.a. is hardly likely to improve the situation. Yes, it’s possible to have bursaries for the poorest, but there will be many whose parental incomes are above the cut-off for such assistance, but still not adequate to cover the costs. And in those from wealthy families, it’s the parents who pay the fees, not the students. Thus the poor who do not go to university remain as poor as ever. The rich who go to university have their fees paid by parents and so start adult life with an educational advantage and no debt. Those between these extremes may benefit from education, but will be saddled with debt.

The problem is exacerbated at the postgraduate level. The prospect of further study will be daunting to those who end a first degree with thousands of pounds worth of debt. It is already difficult even for an exceptionally bright UK graduate to get a funded PhD place: there are few grants and stiff competition for them. Increasingly, those studying for doctorates are self-funded, with a high proportion of overseas students.  I’d be the first to argue that an international mix in a student body is a thoroughly good thing: everyone benefits from interacting with people from other cultures and our overseas postgraduates contribute greatly to academic life. But where do we draw the line? Is it satisfactory if our great universities, largely paid for by the state, are accessible for postgraduate study only to those whose parents can afford to support them, and are off-limits to bright English students of more modest means? This issue forces questions about what the point of a state-funded university is. Is it to educate our citizens, or to sell education to those who will pay the most, so as to make as much money as possible?

If we really want fairness, it would be better to create a system of higher education that gave everyone a bursary for further education, which could cover less academic options such as apprenticeships. This could be used to pay for a university education, or deferred until later in life for those who preferred to leave formal education immediately after school. To help pay for this we could increase taxation on those members of the older generation who have already benefited from a free university education.

There is no democratic mandate for increased tuition fees: quite the contrary. Just as in Germany, we had large-scale public protests at the prospect of fees, but governments pressed on with the changes regardless, aided and abetted by vice-chancellors who seemed totally sold on the idea. As one of the commentators on this Guardian piece noted: “…those who should be the guardians of Universities as institutions of public good, and higher education as a tool of enlightenment, i.e. the vice-chancellors, have been captured either through choice or circumstances into playing the market game…..It makes me very angry, but I feel utterly impotent to do anything about it as the most major electoral party promising change is the Greens. I did vote LD last time solely on their fees policy. That turned out well.”

There is a danger that a new government will simply continue with the marketization of universities, regardless of political persuasion. It is vital that we put this issue on the agenda and emphasize to political candidates that if they want our votes they need realistic and costed plans to reverse the marketization of our universities.

P.S. 25th October 2014. For further thoughts on marketization of our universities, see this blogpost by Dorothy Bishop