Reclaiming the University of Aberdeen

Guest Post by Professor Timothy Ingold, University of Aberdeen

We, staff and students of the University of Aberdeen, are angry. We are angry about the way our academic community and our commitment to education and scholarship have been eaten away by a corrosive regime of management that works by bullying and intimidation. We have watched in anger and dismay as fundamental principles of trust, professionalism and freedom of expression on which academic life depends have been crushed under an avalanche of mindless bullet points, dehumanising and dysfunctional IT systems, arbitrary directives and sham consultations. During the spring and summer of last year, amidst cuts to academic programmes, threats of redundancy and collapsing morale, this anger turned to outrage. In response, we mounted a campaign to claim our University back from the regime.

We launched the campaign, under the banner ‘Reclaiming our University’, on 15th October 2015. The off-campus hall we had hired for the occasion was packed with staff and students, and the atmosphere in the hall was electric. Our aim was not so much to protest – though there was plenty of that – as to think about how things could and should be done differently: about the kind of University we want, how it should be run, and how to achieve it. The idea was to use our anger to energise a programme of reconstruction: to turn the crisis into an opportunity to rebuild the University into the kind of institution that, in the present climate, we could only dream of.

Over the following months we convened a series of open seminars on what we felt to be the four pillars of the University: freedom, trust, education and community. What a change this was from the bogus ‘consultations’ that led up to the University’s grotesquely mind-numbing ‘Strategic Plan’! These invitation-only consultations, stage-managed by highly paid facilitators, had scarcely progressed beyond the banal level of slogans on post-it stickers, and the resulting document was an insult to our collective intelligence. Our seminars were altogether different. They were open to all, and gave everyone the opportunity to debate the principles of the university with the sort of depth and intelligence that one would expect of colleagues and students.

On March 22nd 2016 we called another big meeting to review the results of our discussions, and as a prelude for our next step: to write a manifesto. By June 4th we had a draft of the manifesto ready for distribution. We have set up a website, https://reclaimingouruniversity.wordpress.com/, on which anyone can comment. The site has so far attracted more than 3600 visitors from around the world. We are keeping the call for comments open until September 30th; then we’ll convene another meeting in early October to debate any matters arising. We plan to launch the manifesto – appropriately revised in the light of comments and discussion – in mid-November. Our objective is to persuade members of the University Senate to endorse the principles set out therein. If, as we hope, the vote goes our way, it would not only represent a milestone in the history of our University; it would also send a clear signal for other institutions to follow.

No-one is under any illusion about the scale of the task involved in putting these principles into effect. It will take many years to repair the damage done by a generation of complacent and incompetent leadership. We know that our manifesto flies in the face of current managerial and political orthodoxy. Burt we are also convinced that our universities can only be saved from destruction by seizing the initiative ourselves. It is no good waiting for our so-called ‘leaders’ to do it for us. They have done nothing apart from line their own pockets. We hope that staff and students in other institutions will follow our example. Alone we may not succeed. But if we can all work together, and truly fight for the principles we believe in, there is still hope.

That’s why, in our manifesto, we have endeavoured to do two things. The first is to speak not just to ourselves, in the University of Aberdeen, but to colleagues everywhere.  And the second is to go beyond condemning the existing regime by setting out a positive programme for what can be put in its place: a programme for what a university of our time can and should be. Can we turn things around? Together, with your support, yes we can!

16 thoughts on “Reclaiming the University of Aberdeen

  1. I received my PhD at the University of Aberdeen in 2014. This movement and the manifesto it has produced makes me so proud and hopeful that it brings a tear to my eye. Best of luck and sincere thanks to all involved. I hope a long-term objective will be restoring the independence of the geology department, which at present is little better than a cheap consultancy for the oil industry. I’m afraid this has all the consequences for undergraduate teaching (e.g. about how Earth’s climate works) that you would expect.

  2. This is so wonderful. You havd my whole hearted support, and I wish you success in all your efforts. I also hope that your efforts are looked upon as a model for other institutions to respond to the shortcomings of past and current initiatives in order to evolve and meet a better future.

    Best wishes, Cecilea

  3. How refreshing your path to come back to the essencial mission of the University: the “academic freedom” for creativity and questioning, and the pursuit of a collective collegial ruling of one’s institution! You have all my solidarity! M.P. Dos Santos, Full Professor of Physics, University of Évora, Portugal

  4. I have particularly the treatment of the Department of History.

    I have also noticed the preoccupation with questions of style (Harvard, Chicago, etc.) and precise length in undergraduate work, rather than content and argument, stylistic questions only relevant at higher levels and in publication.

  5. We face the same things in my University in Australia. I am heartened that so many people on the other side of the world have been brave enough to mount this action. In Australia we are constrained by protest and public gathering laws, and are instead working through our Union to make the changes you describe. It is disturbing that the trend is global. I cannot understand how “Western” governments can promote education for all in so many other places, but make it so difficult to provide good and reasonable education in their own back yards. Good luck Aberdeen. We will be thinking of you and hoping for you, here in the South.

  6. I love it! Higher education has been almost crushed by the “everything is a business” philosophy – it’s so greedy, so shallow, so much about marketing, making money and having absolute control over those who are the real center, who do all the work – students, faculty, staff. It’s so wrong in so many ways! I will share this – thanks so much for raising hell, and then moving on to rebuild from there!

  7. I chair a master’s program at Bezalel Academy, Israel. Most academics here are as much troubled by the neo-liberal academic policy that manages universities, as you have succinctly put. The Council of Higher Education views the situation as a crisis in the humanities. I think it is an active annihilation of the humanities. Your action and manifest is inspiring. And so would like your permission to pass it around and join forces internationally as well. Best, Lyat

  8. This is a very important initiative, especially for Europe, where the idea of the university was born, where it has been respected and cultivated, and where it has been a fortress of progress, democracy and peace. I hope this protest can avoid the pitfall of being seen as a defensive struggle of privileged intellectuals and appear as what it is: an outcry for the European values that are now being crushed by standardisation, competition for profit, and authoritarian management and leadership practices. -Pekka Sulkunen, former President of the European Sociological Association

  9. I stumbled on this through checking on UvA. And I’m so glad to see that you have moved the energy of protest into dynamic and sustained action. At UAL (University of the Arts London) we are making small steps on the same journey. We have a symposium lined up for 14 January, 2017 – we would love you to be present. And we are also planning an event in November at Chelsea College of Arts – if you could come to talk to us about Aberdeen then, that would be fantastically welcome. And we have funding for travel.

    Please keep me in the loop – In solidarity, Kyran Joughin, Sec, UCU-UAL, Academic Staff Governor, UAL

  10. Your response to the educational crisis at your university is inspiring–here in the US the UK failed neoliberal educational model is also operative everywhere–although no consideration for the contextual differences –college education is NOT free here– has our students pay $38,000 per year at our college for a BFA in 4 years and now are suffering misguided “deskilling” and far fewer faculty–just for starters—- even at our small arts college- the results have been disasterous–in all the same ways–economically it may bring down our 100 year old small regional arts college–we are losing enrollment, a major exodus of staff and faculty, furloughs, and senior administrators, the architects of the crisis are fleeing the ship they sank. Even though we are a unionized faculty (AFT) many faculty are passive or hopeless, afraid, we have no solidarity or coherence –it is every person for themselves now–perhaps a mass meeting come Fall using your approach as a model may become a last stand.

  11. We should hope and expect nothing innovative from our politicians…and the bureaucrates waiting in administrative offices. We need to get up…staff and students..of the academic community and any other thinking person who has gone through these institutions…or not….to bring back universities to the people as places of learning, innovation, experimentation, freedom of expression….and should bring back the factor of time which both academics and students need to develop those activities. Everything is so rushed now at universities in the name of ‘modernity’ ….but ideas need time to mature and these should be provided.

  12. Hello, I applaud your initiative. However I find your posts to be much too vague. It’s all very well to focus on high-minded principles, but probably so do the people you are concerned about. I think you need to be much more specific about what the problems are, and why, precisely, you are concerned. Otherwise, your movement will only get support from scholars within your own university, who may be familiar with the conditions you are concerned about. I teach Anthropology at a University in Canada; I am one of the vast army of underpaid, and overworked part-time teachers. I see serious problems escalating as a result of this approach to teaching. For example, our contracts now require even third-year courses be evaluated with one written piece of work, and the rest is multiple choice exams. I now take the risk of explaining to students that this is not my preferred strategy but is mandated by the university through its contracts. Students dislike it, and third year students consider multiple-choice exams Mickey Mouse. I sweat over them. Have you ever tried to evaluate student understanding of Geertz using multiple choice! It’s absurd for all of us. The university does this because, according to our contract, it can make class sizes much larger without paying the professors extra if the classes use computer-marked exams. It is not a decision made for good pedagogy, but for business reasons. I must decide whether to support the contract (won through hard bargaining) or ignore the contract, assign more written work, and mark the many papers from a large class while being paid for a maximum of 200 hours of work for everything I do in a course (lecture, student meetings, preparation, research and marking). I describe this to be specific about what a problem is, and what its consequences are. I would like to see more specifics like this if people are really to understand what you are concerned about. Best of luck with your movement — it is much needed.

  13. I did a masters, a PhD and worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at Aberdeen. Over the past 8 years, I have seen with my own eyes the sudden eruption of these absurd neoliberal policies not just in Aberdeen but the whole of the UK. This manifesto is extremely inspirational. My wholehearted support!!!

  14. Hope, I understand your point, but the issue here is larger: it is less a question of specific issues (although certainly we have many, redundancies being only the most publicly troublesome), and more the larger issue of who owns universities. For the last thirty years, administrators have gradually turned the tables, rewriting the rules such that it is they, not the academics and students, that “are” the university, a rhetoric which then allows them to make contract changes like yours by fiat. While there are many small and medium battles to be fought here over details (fought by individual staff, senate, unions, and students), the larger goal is to “reclaim” the university as a whole, both in thought and in practice.

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