The UWE Experiment–And Why it Matters to Higher Education in the UK and Beyond

Note: This post has ended up being one of the most widely read in the EcoLogics blog. It tells the story of how UWE, one of Britain’s ‘new’ universities, became the site for an experiment in what eventually became known as the marketisation of higher education. The experiment took place between early 2006 and the middle of 2007, after the university appointed Sir Howard Newby as its vice-chancellor.

At the time, few people beyond the university seemed concerned. I suspect that many academics in the older universities were quite sure that the marketisation of higher education would never come to their own dreamy spires. They were in for a rude shock; not only did the Newbys repeat the ‘knowledge exchange’ experiment at Liverpool, but from 2009 onwards, the whole of Britain’s Higher Education was transformed into something akin to a knowledge exchanged UWE.

The following post, along with a handful of others, clearly got up the noses of the people whose actions and ideology it analyses. In January 2010, lawyers acting on behalf of the University of Liverpool – and presumably, Howard Newby, its vice-chancellor – tried to get WordPress to remove the posts, alleging that aspects of the text were untrue. Alas, what I regard as a blatant attempt to censor this and other blogs backfired spectacularly; not only did the posts remain in place, but news of the attempted censorship spread like wildfire and made it clear just how far the managers in question were willing to go in what may well have been an attempt to scrub the internet of uncomfortable information. If you want to see what information the lawyers claimed was untrue, then visit this website’s digitized image of an article in Private Eye issue 1185. See also the article in the Guardian, Will the Newby Broom Sweep Clean?, and George Monbiot’s ‘These men would’ve stopped Darwin’, also in The Guardian.

This post should be read in conjunction with the rest of the posts on knowledge exchange. I list these at the end of the article.

Update 15 July 2013 : Sir Howard Newby continues to court controversy. His latest managerial policies have generated a letter of censure from 600 (600!) professors in the UK. See ‘Disreputable’ Liverpool tactics provoke professors’ ire, and Professorial position: Liverpool, think again.

*  *  *

What makes a university, a university? Or, to put it somewhat differently, when does a university stop being a university?

Since 2006, an experiment has been taking place in a university in Bristol, UK that may provide some answers to these questions, and which may have wide-ranging consequences for students and lecturers who value higher education as a place for independent teaching, learning, and research. The experiment involves the University of the West of England (UWE), one of the UK’s largest so-called ‘new’ universities. And the experiment is, at least in the first instance, the brainchild of Sir Howard and Sheila Newby. Howard Newby was the Vice-Chancellor (1) of UWE from 2006 to mid 2007, and his wife Sheila was made the Assistant Vice-Chancellor at more or less the same time. This article provides an introductory account of the Newbys’ experiment; EcoLogics will publish additional posts about this subject in the future.

* * *

We should perhaps begin with a brief history of what was arguably a failed recruitment process. In 2004/2005, UWE announced that it would be recruiting a new VC. After a first round of advertisements and interviews, staff at UWE were informed that the university had failed to find a suitable candidate. Several months later, the university announced with great fanfare that it had finally identified the new head, and that it would be Howard Newby. The first UWE press release described him as a progressive vice-chancellor: ‘Sir Howard has unparalleled experience of the University sector. Since October 2001, he has been the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and at the forefront of progress in the University sector(2)’. In the same press release, Newby himself was quoted as saying that he was ‘looking forward to taking up this exciting new challenge. Bristol UWE is well positioned to become a distinctive new kind of university for the twenty-first century, one which constantly strives for excellence in learning and teaching, knowledge transfer and the extension of educational opportunities to all who can benefit from it.’

It was thus surprising to hear that, less than 16 months after Newby took up his post, he would be leaving to become the VC at Liverpool University. Some staff at the university have speculated that this was always the Newbys’ plan. But many wondered if their sudden departure had something to do with the controversy that had begun to envelop Howard Newby. The GuardianEducation (3) reported that the Liverpool position was advertised in the first week of June 2007 with an application deadline two weeks later on June 15; apparently, UWE officially announced that Sir Howard would go to Liverpool less than a month later on July 6, the day after he informed the board of governors of his resignation. The same piece included sharply critical views by staff and former staff at UWE. A week or so before, the other major higher educational supplement in the UK, the THES, noted that the local branch of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) took the unprecedented step of issuing a damning statement: Newby’s tenure had been ‘disruptive for students and staff, disastrous for the morale of staff and damaging to the reputation of the university’(4). The shortest piece pointed to what was possibly the most embarrassing revelation, and the one that provoked a full-blown financial scandal: Private Eye, the magazine with the highest circulation in the UK, noted [THIS ASPECT OF THE POST HAS BEEN CENSORED; CLICK HERE TO READ THE PRIVATE EYE PIECE] a provider of vocational training for which Newby is a non-executive director. It concluded by saying, with its characteristically acerbic humour, that ‘Life for Sir Howard at UWE just gets cosier and cosier. His Assistant Vice-Chancellor is none other than his wife, Sheila Newby’ (5).

EcoLogics will be publishing a separate piece about the Carter & Carter saga in due course (update: see this post on Carter & Carter, published later in this blog). In this post it is more pertinent to analyse an aspect of the Newbys’ brief stay at UWE that seems to have eluded critical scrutiny in the media. The aspect involves the Newbys’ experiment with what they described as ‘knowledge exchange’ (KE). According to the UWE website, knowledge exchange is ‘the two-way flow of innovation or best practice, often involving an exchange of ideas and experience’. This glib definition is fleshed out a bit with references to ‘user-led’ research and consultancy, ‘effective and long-lasting relationships with businesses, public services and communities’, teaching and learning ‘for employability’, and ‘continuing professional development for lifelong learning’(6). These are arguably code words for a drastic vocationalization of teaching and learning at UWE—one that involves the kind of management ethos normally found in large private corporations. In effect, Howard and Sheila were attempting to turn UWE into a kind of meta-business (a business about business)(7). One that would, in Howard Newby’s terms, be demand led by ‘UK Plc’.

The THES article reported that a UCU survey suggested the possibility of a UWE staff exodus, and there can be little doubt that KE was at least as important a factor for many staff as were concerns about the Newbys’ management style. I myself resigned last spring after UWE attempted to muscle in on the copyright of my research about science and environmental education. UWE’s corporate business department sent word that, as principal investigator, I no longer had control over the copyright of a database generated by way of ESRC-funded research on environmental education (significantly, the department in question was formerly called the Centre for Research, Innovation and Graduate Studies, and then Newby renamed it as RBI—Research, Business and Innovation). I was thereby bestowed the rather unfortunate honour of being one of the first people in the faculty of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences to be on the receiving end of what was for all practical purposes a new private corporate IP policy at UWE.

At the time, and in the context of the humanities and social sciences at UWE, losing the copyright over one’s research was almost unheard of, so I assumed that there was some mistake. My efforts to contact first the dean of the faculty and then the new head of RBI (a Newby appointee) over a period of five or six weeks proved unsuccessful. The matter was clearly such a ‘hot potato’ that there was dead silence until I approached Newby himself. His polite reply upheld the RBI’s ‘ruling’, but promised a review of the policy.

Eventually a worried colleague circulated a draft of the review. The review extended the university’s claims over IP, and, crucially, proposed that, when undertaking work from which IP, IPR might emerge on any materials covered by the new policy, all staff would have to notify the university immediately and in writing to inform it ‘about any innovation, invention, IP, IPR, exploitable technology or material created’. To do so staff should use a new UWE ‘Invention and Material Disclosure Form’.

The proposed policy may or may not have been implemented; those of us who could do so left before it could be put into action. To colleagues familiar with my work, my own resignation seemed particularly paradoxical insofar as my research more than fulfilled the apparent ideals of KE. In fact, there is good reason to believe that, insofar as the research remained critical and independent, it went very much against the grain of KE.

* * *

A brief account of the political background of KE may help to explain how and why this is the case. The July 20, 2007 THES also included an article (‘Embrace Leitch or lose out to FE, sector warned’) which begins to provide a sense of the ideas which informed the Newbys’ UWE experiment. The article reported on the government’s plans to impose a ‘cultural revolution in higher education’. In it John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, said that he wanted a ‘skills revolution’ and that employers would be given the ‘purchasing power to shape what our country supplies by way of skills and qualifications’. Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, was also quoted as saying that if universities didn’t embrace this ‘revolution’, ‘then the private sector will continue to take this market. Universities have to decide how much of a loss that would be’[8]. The Council of Industry and Higher Education is funded by what reads like a who’s-who of the UK’s largest private corporations—the list includes BAE Systems, Corus, Rio Tinto, the Bank of Scotland, Tesco and BUPA(9). Interestingly, one of its council members is Drummond Bone, the VC of Liverpool University which Howard Newby will replace (10).

While the invocation of a ‘cultural revolution’ in higher education may sound Maoist (11), the revolution is to be rather more prosaic in its aims, even if its politics do seem rather totalitarian. The aims are spelled out in Sandy Leitch’s grandly titled Review of Skills: Prosperity for all in the global economy-world class skills(12). An interim version of the report was published in December 2005, and the final version was published in December 2006. Sandy (Lord) Leitch is a New Labour peer, and at the time of the review was chairman of BUPA as well as a non-executive director of Lloyds TSB, United Business Media and Paternoster. Before that he was Chairman and Chief Executive of Zurich Financial Services (UK, Ireland, Southern Africa and Asia Pacific) and Chairman of the Association of British Insurers (13). According to the Guardian (‘Brown’s £113,000 war chest for the leadership contest that never was’) he was a donor for Gordon Brown’s virtual leadership contest (14), and indeed it was Brown that commissioned him to produce what became known as the Leitch Review in 2004. [Update: Leitch went on to become one of the leading directors of the part-nationalised Lloyds Banking Group, which at the height of the banking crisis was allowed to takeover HBOS despite the manifest issues regarding competition law.]

Despite—or perhaps thanks to—its social engineerism, the Review’s main argument is cutting edge KE: there is a ‘direct correlation between skills, productivity, and employment’ and ‘[u]nless the UK can build on reforms to schools, colleges and universities and make its skills base one of its strengths, UK businesses will find it increasingly difficult to compete.’ ‘Skills’, the review suggests, ‘were once a key lever for prosperity and fairness.’ But they ‘are now increasingly the lever’ and so ‘A radical step-change is necessary’. The Review concludes that the ‘prize for the country’ of unlocking the country’s ‘skills potential’ will be ‘enormous’: ‘higher productivity, the creation of wealth and social justice’(15).

This article is not the place for a critique of poor common sense. The management of higher education would be easy—and terrifying—if New Labour grandees like Leitch could pull, metaphorically or otherwise, on a single ‘lever’ to achieve whatever they want to achieve. Things acquire such a reifying simplicity when people reduce vastly complex and difficult matters to one single thing. In the case of the Leitch review, there is, however, a very clear motivation for representing things in this manner, and indeed one quote in the Review goes a long way in revealing the Review’s underlying ideology. After explaining that the UK’s ‘skills base’ lags behind that of many ‘advanced countries’ (sic), the Leitch Review suggests that this is ‘the product of historic failures in the education and training system’. It notes that ‘[e]ven back in 1776, Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” suggested that “the greater part of what is taught in schools and universities… does not seem to be the proper preparation for that of business”’(16).

This is where the Newbys come into the picture. New Labour appointed Howard as head of HEFCE in 2001, and the UWE post that followed provided Sheila and him with a guinea pig on which to conduct a grand KE experiment—UWE has some 30,000 students and 3,000 staff members. Along with vocationalization, the Newbys began to impose a root-and-branch ‘rationalization’. In less than two years, they decided to reduce the number of UWE faculties from nine to five. The Faculty of Humanities, Languages, and Social Sciences—itself the result of a recent and grossly mismanaged amalgamation of the three named fields—was to be merged with Business, Law, and Education. Few if any were keen on this rest-of-the-world merger; but, significantly, in the early planning stages it was only Business that was allowed to opt out of it.

The Newbys and their associates would have liked staff to believe that such changes constituted a ‘do or die’ ‘third way’. They would also have had staff believe that, despite the reductive nature of their aims, the new UWE would preserve an element of catholicity. It may well be that the sheer size of the organisation, and the impossibility of changing it overnight will preserve that ‘element’, if only for the time being. However, during a meeting this blogger had with John Rushforth, a Newby appointee entrusted with setting up what many staff mistakenly assumed would be new ‘research institutes’, it was made abundantly clear that Newby’s UWE was prepared to be inclusive so long as its staff were willing to be knowledge exchanged. Rushforth himself honestly admitted he had no experience of academic research.

* * *

The Newby (or post-Newby) management may well claim that it does value methodological pluralism. But its spin doctors will not be able to conceal a number of contradictions and risks that are inherent to KE.

First, and as Newby ruefully admitted in one of the talks he gave at my former faculty, UK corporate bosses do not seem to know what they actually need in the way of skills or ‘human resources’ – so much for being ‘demand led’ by ‘UK Plc’. This is actually unsurprising because as Leitch himself explains in his review, ‘No one can accurately predict future demand for particular skill types’(17) .

Second, one has to ask why the vocationalization of universities like UWE is necessary if a) there is already a very substantial further education (FE) sector in the UK; and b) if universities have in any case always included at least some professional disciplines such as law, engineering, and medicine. Will UWE really be charging higher education fees for an FE-like education? Or is there a plan to get the government off the expensive hook of fulfilling its pledges on the radical expansion of higher education by engaging in a de facto privatization of this emerging sector (further education as higher education, or vice-versa)?

But the most fundamental problem involves the independence of teaching, learning and research at UWE. The consequences of the KE experiment for this aspect of higher education are quite clear: the Newbys’ KE eliminates the crucially important boundary that has long provided some insulation for teaching, learning and research in universities. In principle if not always in practice, this boundary is what has allowed academics to engage in ‘blue skies’ thinking, and to invent things that initially may not have seemed to have any practical application. It is also what has long provided lecturers and researchers with some protection from the possibility of grossly distorting interventions by the Church, Government, and now, ‘UK Plc’.

Anyone doubting the wisdom of this approach may wish to consider what has happened to science, and science education in the United States over the past years [18]. While we have to hope that KE is not the thin end of a wedge of a similarly neoconservative politics, this is one possible outcome of the changes. Such a politics could not come at a worse time for the UK, and for Europe: we face the prospect of an environmental cataclysm that is arguably a consequence of economic fundamentalism, and in this context it must be an own-goal of epic proportions to downgrade or even suppress what Adam Smith might today welcome as ‘a preparation for that of the limits of big business’.

Newby and his associates would doubtless insist that KE is actually the solution to environmental problems, and might well wheel out a few choice examples of KE do-goodism. But that is a bit like saying that supporting Macdonald’s Hamburger University is the best way to help society to develop a new approach to obesity. Institutions like the Hamburger University or the Disney Institute are, no doubt, very useful to their corporate sponsors. They may well help their graduates to acquire ‘economically valuable skills’, and in so doing, to get jobs at least in their own industry. That is no mean feat, and certainly not one that should be taken for granted by any educator on any level. The problem is that they also render utterly disposable the ideal of university as a space for independent and critical thinking, a place for learning to question, as opposed to learning to obey.

But obedience is arguably what the changes are really about: for many years now, higher education has been one of the few mainstream spaces that has not been entirely determined by the political economy that both drives, and is sponsored by gigantic corporations such as the ones that fund the Council for Industry and Higher Education. The Newbys’ experiment at UWE marks a UK milestone insofar as it constitutes the first time that a major university, still organised as a public, and charitable entity, begins to be transformed into a private or quasi-private corporation devoted to providing services mainly for big business. That is why EcoLogics is including this and other posts on the vocationalisation, or ‘skillification’ of higher education under the category of ‘weapons of mass silencing’.

A piece in the THES on 24 August 2007 noted that post-92 universities in the UK were investigating the possibility of giving up their charitable status in order ‘to give themselves more freedom to hire and fire staff and to expand their commercial activities’(19). The article quoted a lawyer specializing in providing advice on such changes as suggesting that ‘”The private sector has a much more flexible workforce.”’ If the Newbys and the rest of the private corporate proxies in the UK’s higher education have their way, perhaps that flexibility will extend to teaching, learning and research.

List of later posts on this, or related subjects:

Lord Leitch’s Levers (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

Unlocking the Business of Higher Education: New Labour’s ‘University Challenge’

Carter & Carter Goes Into Administration

The Leitch Review of Skills: The Corporate HR Sector Bites the New Labour Hand?

A ‘Revolution’ in the UK’s Higher Education? We’ve Heard That Before…

Howard Newby at Liverpool University

Peter Mandelson, New Labour, and Knowledge Exchange

New Labour’s Assault on Higher Education: the end of ‘universitas’ and ‘educere’

THIS POST HAS BEEN CENSORED

Peter Mandelson in Higher Education (or when New Labour’s Amazonia came to Britain’s universities)

New Labour’s Skills Policy: R.I.P.

When the Exchange of Knowledge is Threatened

Financial Scandal, Corruption, and Censorship: Part 1:Introduction, Part 2:Knowledge Exchanged, Part 3:Case Study A: The Beeching ‘Axe’, Part 4:Case Study B: The Newby-Mandelson ‘Axes’ , Part 5:Scandal in the Times of the Internet, Part 6: Financial Scandal and Neoliberalism

David Willetts’ Tax on Higher Education

Big Society, Big Oil, Muzzled Universities (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

The First of the New Private Universities: how the Tories have come full circle

BPP, Apollo Global, and the Private Universities (or the Lib Con Part 2)

The Shame of the Lib Dems – the End of the Commons

If You Ever Wondered How Britain’s Politicians are Rationalising the Privatisation of Higher Education…

How Many Millionaires Does it Take to Privatise Britain’s Universities?

The Strike at the University of the West of England

BP, ‘Knowledge Exchange’, and the Corporate Control Over Research

References

(1) In the UK, this is the name given to a university’s president or CEO (the Chancellor is a ceremonial role awarded to a prestigious figure).
(2) UWE press release, ‘Sir Howard Newby to head the West’s Largest University’, 8 September 2005. http://info.uwe.ac.uk/news/UWENews/article.asp?item=689&year=2005, accessed 13 August 2007.
(3) Anthea Lipsett, ‘Will the Newby Broom Sweep Clean?’, in http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/careers/story/0,,2132912,00.html?87%3A+Education+news, accessed July 24, 2007.
(4) Melanie Newman, ‘Mixed View’s on Howard’s End’, July 20, 2007. http://www.thes.co.uk/search/story.aspx?story_id=2037551
(5) Private Eye 1185, 25 May 7 June 2007.
(6) see UWE’s page on ‘knowledge exchange’ at http://www.uwe.ac.uk/aboutUWE/knowledgeTransfer.shtml, accessed August 24, 2007.
(7) The interim post-Newby UWE senior management, which will be led by Ray Burton, the chairman of UWE’s Board of Governors, have vowed to build on the Newbys’ legacy.
[8] All quotes taken from Tony Tysome, ‘Embrace Leitch or lose out to FE, sector warned’, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=209662&sectioncode=26, accessed May 14, 2009.
(9) see http://www.cihe-uk.com/fundingorganisations.php, accessed August 24, 2007.
(10) see http://www.cihe-uk.com/members.php, accessed August 24, 2007.
(11) see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_Revolution, accessed August 24, 2007.
(12) The UK’s Treasury website has put this document on-line. See http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/leitch_review/review_leitch_index.cfm, accessed August 24, 2007.
(13) This information provided by the Treasury’s press notice on the day that the Leitch Review was published. See http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/newsroom_and_speeches/press/2006/press_leitch.cfm, accessed August 24, 2007.
(14) David Hencke, ‘Brown’s £113,000 war chest for the leadership contest that never was’, May 31, 2007, http://politics.guardian.co.uk/labourleadership/story/0,,2091743,00.html, accessed August 24, 2007.
(15) Leitch Review, p. 3.
(16) Leitch Review, p. 10-11.
(17) Leitch Review, p. 17
[18] See for example Donald Kennedy, ‘An epidemic of politics’, in Science, 31 January 2003, Vol. 299, No. 5607, p. 625. Article available at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/299/5607/625, accessed August 24, 2007.
(19) M. Newman, ‘Charity status may be traded for legal gains’ in THES, http://www.thes.co.uk/current_edition/story.aspx?story_id=2037987, accessed August 25, 2007.