17 Jan 2010

The cautionary tale of a university axeman

From my Morning Star column

The cautionary tale of a university axeman
Friday 15 January 2010 Derek Wall
Sir Howard Newby is an interesting character. He is perhaps best know for his pioneering and impressive work as a sociologist in the 1980s, when he published classics such as Green and Pleasant Land?: Social Change In Rural England.

More recently he has been employed as vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol, and the University of Liverpool.

There is a lot of material on the internet about Sir Howard.

A blog entitled SirHowardNewbywatch might catch your eye, but if you clicked on the link you may be disappointed to be met with the message, "This blog has been archived or suspended for a violation of our terms of service." Intriguing.

If you search a little further, you can find entries relating: "Howard Newby, higher education's Dr Beeching, has been stopped... Howard Newby is to higher education in the early 21st century what Richard Beeching was to our country's railways in the 1960s." Again you may be disappointed if you click and are confronted by the message, "Error 404 - Not Found."

An entry which describes him as "the David Brent of the academic world" has also been removed from the internet.

I must admit I hadn't thought much about Sir Howard Newby, even though I completed my PhD at the University of the West of England and used to teach economics there.

I was alerted to Sir Howard by the news that the Bristol Blogger had been shut down by host Wordpress. As a former Bristolian, I look at the Bristol Blogger every now and then. It's a fine piece of work that investigates tales of corruption and scandal in the city.

When the blog was closed down there was much speculation as to why. It turned out that Wordpress had been approached by Kevan Ryan, director of legal services at the University of Liverpool, who insisted that blog entries about Sir Howard were defamatory.

Wordpress swiftly closed the Bristol Blogger and a second blogger Ecologics for writing about Sir Howard. Both were restored after they had removed several posts about Sir Howard. SirHowardNewbywatch remains closed.

The posts which were said to be defamatory were based on previously published stories in the Guardian, Times Higher and Private Eye about Sir Howard's - to say the least - controversial tenure at UWE.

Sir Howard was heavily criticised by the University and College Union while at Bristol for advancing privatisation policies that saw contracts going to a private consultancy firm allegedly linked to him and his wife.

Essentially he tried to initiate a capitalist revolution at UWE, cutting back, streamlining and transforming for goals of profit.

Sir Howard left UWE after just 16 months and his appointment at the University of Liverpool also proved controversial.

The legal department of Liverpool University was foolish to put pressure on bloggers. The allegations made seem to be based almost exclusively on press reports that have been in the public domain for several years. Equally most of them are cached on the web and can be read with a little trouble. The closure of the Bristol Blogger merely alerted people who had known nothing about the controversies surrounding Sir Howard to a very interesting set of circumstances.

This episode flags up two wider concerns. The first is the continuing battle for the enclosure of the internet. Those with wealth and power would dearly love to control the net - knowledge, after all, is power. Those of us who blog face a potential battle and it is worrying that Wordpress took action on behalf of Liverpool University so swiftly.

It also reminds us that universities are not neutral. Profit is the holy grail of the post-Thatcher Britain we now inhabit. And universities are increasingly seen as businesses designed to make money.

The days of Tolkien, when academics had time and space to write literary masterpieces, are long gone. Perhaps academics had it too easy at one time, but recent decades have seen a slump in the pay and conditions of university staff.

University workers, academic and non-academic, as well as students know that they are going to have a fight on their hands over cuts. Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems are all committed to cutting public spending. Higher education will be a major target.

Vice-chancellors come in various guises, but in general their pay and conditions have improved drastically as universities have become more corporate.

In 2007-8 the highest-paid vice-chancellor, at the University of Nottingham, was paid £585,000 - an 89.9 per cent increase on the year before. Out of 156 vice-chancellors in the UK, over 50 were paid over £200,000 and none were paid less than £100,000 during the same period. If cuts need to be made, I think I can see an obvious saving.

Public scrutiny made the scandal of MPs' expenses visible. It would be good news if heavy-handed action against bloggers made the public aware of the way higher education is changing - and that students, workers and wider society are paying the price.

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