Vice-chancellors should start planning their climb-down strategies

Vice-chancellors should start planning their climb-down strategies

David Bartram

The UCU is well on its way to winning the pensions dispute. The flaws in the “deficit” story are clear (e.g. the £6b figure has meaning only if we imagine all the universities going bust all at once — and there are ugly perverse incentives for fund managers to shift USS towards defined-contribution). So too is the defective nature of UUK’s “consultation” process (the disproportionate weight of Oxbridge colleges). And the VCs are splintering.

Above all, it’s hard to imagine that they can agree to mediation and yet end up sticking to the disastrous plan they had in mind for us.

The VCs who have nonetheless remained intransigent surely have some forward planning to do. When a revised plan is ultimately accepted, it will be clear to everyone that the entire dispute (and above all the disruption to students’ programmes) was completely unnecessary. Our pensions are not unaffordable, and it will be obvious where the blame lies for any impression to the contrary. A good many vice-chancellors have made public statements (mainly via university websites and mass emails) that are factually incorrect and deeply misleading.

That’s a big problem for leaders of institutions whose fundamental mission depends on the credibility and quality of knowledge. Staff and students will want to know: how did institutional leaders get it so wrong?

I know of a vice-chancellor who said publicly, several days into the strike, that he couldn’t change his position because he “believed” the evidence presented by UUK. (Apparently it would be impolite to use real names for observations of this sort. Oh well…) That was a shocking statement to have made. It probably wasn’t deliberately deceptive; so, at best it shows a lack of engagement that is difficult to fathom, given what was already knowable about the flaws in this “evidence”. And in this respect the person I’m describing probably has much in common with his/her peers.

The main question now is: how will these individuals account for their actions and utterances when the strike is over? Their options seem limited – and unattractive, to say the least: 1) “I didn’t really look very closely – I just followed the party line.” 2) “I knew the information was dodgy, but I thought we could get away with it.” 3) “I still don’t really understand how these things work.”  Is there another explanation I am missing??

Most vice-chancellors will no doubt try to dodge the question with face-saving ambiguities. One hopes that their councils will not let them off the hook so easily; even if they do, university senate meetings will likely be much more uncomfortable. It’s the sort of question for which planning an answer will take some real time and effort.

The longer they stick to their guns, the harder it will get.

David Bartram is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Leicester