Stuart Ritchie & the University of Glasgow: rotten all the way down

Published

Tom Coles
PhD student

Mr Ritchie’s main problem has not been his sub-Machiavellian backdoor dealings, but his incompetence. While we have come to expect SRC presidents to be either inconsequential or complicit, we hope that, at the very least, they can be subtle about furthering their own interests. As GUU president Chris Sibbald noted recently, three Sabbaticals from the last five years have taken or been offered jobs within the University. It is not the capitulation or corruption itself but the cravenness shown in the tranche of emails that did for Ritchie’s term as president.

Ritchie was not an especially corrupt SRC president, because the SRC is an institution designed to invite corruption. Its relationship to the University seems to be to make ‘representations’ rather than represent in any traditional or meaningful way. It has no political power, no desire to make demands, and no decision making status except a single full seat on the Court (there are five seats for unelected ‘co-opted members’). The result of this powerlessness is that polishing the unpalatable leavings of management is the nearest student politicians can come to making a difference. His resignation is a wake up call, a demand that we look at the state of our institutions.

We are at the end of a process of democratic shutdown that has been going on for 30 years. Before a slow liberalisation of access took place during the middle of the last century, universities were dominated by the interests of the government, industry, state and church; a stable group which self-confidently described itself as “the Establishment”. The postwar social democratic trend and the student movements of the 60s and 70s led to a brief opening up of educational institutions. That window has now closed – and has been closed for some time – and the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands has returned. The universities, as the places where our leaders, bureaucrats and professionals are trained and reconciled to the world they are entering is still today the same world of hierarchy and inequality in issues of class, gender and race. While the popular imagination is that universities are filled with dissenters and revolutionaries, anyone who has engaged with them will realise that within their systems of governance remain some of the most opaque relationships between power and patronage that have ever existed. It seems to suggest that a lack of democracy or accountability is fine, as long as different social groups are allowed.

Warwick University, founded in 1965, was the model for what all universities in this country have become. Dubbed ‘Warwick University Limited’ by E P Thompson in his 1970 essay, it showed the way forward for partnership between academia and business. This partnership has turned, as predicted, into a subservient relationship. Just as the financial industry was pulled out of its chummy, paternal, safe, conservative role by the liberalisations of the seventies and eighties – and in particular, the ‘Big Bang’ of deregulation in 1986 – universities have been ‘put to work’. They had to change; the universities of the past were undemocratic, elitist and inaccessible. However that elitism hasn’t ended, and where it had the opportunity to align itself to the needs of society the academy has instead chosen to align itself to the needs of commerce and wealth. The focus on patents, ‘transmission’, higher and higher demands for researchers to publish, increasing class sizes, corporate firms designing courses, PhDs sold to dubious sons of tyrants: all of this adds up to an education system that increasingly looks like a con. Allister Heath’s supposedly “truly radical, revolutionary and subversive system” of free market economics has finally found its way into the carpetbags of university academics, and especially administrators, across the world. Ritchie’s view, outlined in one email, that people judge value based on cost (and therefore the more we charge the better the education!), would be laughable if it wasn’t so prevalent.

What has this to do with student politics? Simply this: our generation has the opportunity to fight back. At the University of Glasgow we have a tripartite system, the Court run by administrators, the Senate run by academics, and the SRC run by students. In any democratic system there are checks and balances, and the structure of our university allows for this. However the Senate, despite repeated attempts to claw back power, has been systematically eviscerated. The switch from a Faculty to a Collegiate system did away with the ability of staff to call their Heads to account. Elections by staff of their departmental heads ended years ago, and today staff are judged not on the merit of their research, but on the funding they can draw to the university. Staff meetings have been transformed from opportunities to discuss and debate the future of the institution (and even vote!) into briefings where policy is handed out from above and expected to be implemented. A small group of managers within the Court have filled it with business people who are considered responsible enough to make decisions and who have shut out the Senate. From the recent debacle at the SRC, the botched ‘consultation exercise’ around course closures last year, the violence meted out to the occupiers of the ‘Free Hetherington’, and this year’s MyCampus fiasco we have learned that in the end those who control the purse are unaccountable.

What we need is a debate at this university. We need a public debate about the control we wish to have over the institution. The four years of our lives we students spend here are some of the most formative of our lives, and for staff how the institution is run can affect their careers for decades. Our principal, Anton Muscatelli, was appointed in 2009 and it is now common knowledge that recently, barely two years later, he applied for the top job at the London School of Economics. This man has spent half as much time at the University of Glasgow as your average undergraduate student, yet he is seemingly in complete control of its budget and, if a court challenge goes in his favour concerning the closure of Slavonic studies, he is also in control of decisions on academic matters. He is part of a well-paid cabal of technocratic administrators who turn up, increase ‘efficiency’, and leave before they have to deal with the consequences.

When those making decisions on our behalf are not accountable to us; when as in Mr. Ritchie’s case they choose to act in ‘in our best interest’ rather than defending us on the mandate for which they were elected, something has gone seriously wrong. This is not just a problem of our democracy here at Glasgow, it is a failure repeated at all levels, from Holyrood, to Westminster, to the European Union. Everywhere the interests of ‘efficiency’, ‘responsible governance’ and always ‘the markets’ are being placed above that unfashionable concept, democracy. Just this week we see how the spectre of popular democracy in Greece has been branded ‘irresponsible’ as indexes across the world wretched at the idea of a referrendum. The leaderships of beleaguered Greece and now, Italy, are to be placed quite openly in the safe hands of economists. All pretence at trying to represent those at the ground-level of our society has been abandoned in the name of crisis. Concurrently and against this, there is a debate opening, growing, and a movement to push back. If the 30s taught us anything it is that this will result, for better or worse, in a complete reconfiguration of our society.

Hannah Arendt said in 1969: “In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.” (Arendt, Hannah, On Violence (NY: Harcourt, 1969) p.81)
Principal Muscatelli and others will say that democracy is unstable and inefficient. The only answer we can give is this: we must have it. If we cannot come to a collective decision about how we are to learn, the processes by which we become useful to our society, then how are we to make a decision on anything, especially that most important question – how are we to live our lives? The SRC must be reformed, we should have a by-election if that is the way to give some person a mandate to begin this process of reformation, and most of all we have to bring politics back to our campus. The Executive and Council have a stark choice to make. They must choose whether they want to:
1. Run a caretaker SRC that will ineffectually see out the year, or
2. Start the debate. Move towards a reform of the the decision making processes at the University of Glasgow in such a manner that there is real representation of the interests of those who are involved in its key function: education.

The shady world of consensus, consultation and capitulation has to be over, we don’t want a pallid ‘choice’ within a market. We don’t want rigged power structures. We must have the ambition to look to the value of our degrees and how they are provided, not just the cost. We must demand a democracy in our education institutions. Compared to the great problems of the Western world this might not seem much, but it is something we can start to do, right here, right now.

For a response by Amy Johnson of the SRC, see here.