Many people will be aware that the Vice Chancellor has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Higher Education Inspiring Leader Award, due to be announced on 24th April.
Whilst we recognise that there has been change and a new direction of leadership since Debra’s arrival a few years ago, we think you’d struggle to find many workers or students at the University who would regard the architect of those changes as inspirational.
We’ve seen the closure of Hastings campus, resulting in the avoidable destruction of jobs, livelihoods and real educational opportunities for the town. For the first time ever, the University offered voluntary severance to members of staff whilst simultaneously trying to force compulsory redundancy on selected people. Reorganisations have taken place, which may have made improvements, but stress levels have risen and some people have been made visibly ill as a result of having no clear direction, management or reasonable accommodation in which to work.
Our attempts to get the University to carry out a stress survey have been documented elsewhere, but we’re not convinced that a failure to identity and deal with workplace stress is the actions of an inspirational leadership.
In short, the VC has taken steps to turn the University of Brighton into a higher education business with an emphasis on the paying student-customer always being right and the culture of Brighton – being prepared to be a bit different, forgotten, because we need to do what other universities are doing, because someone senior says so.
Whilst we don’t accept that league tables have anything to do with educational quality, by the standards set by the government, it’s fair to say that the University has not exactly improved.
If transforming the public service of higher education into degree-factories, openly competing with each other is the goal, then the VC has partially achieved the first steps, but for many people working here, this transformation is not inspired. It is the worst thing that could happen to a public service, as we’ve seen with NHS privatisation and outsourcing, linked to an obsession with big business being the solution to all our problems.
To be fair, it is true that Debra has made a real effort to promote the ideas of equality and diversity across the University and many people at Brighton are, quite correctly, pleased about that. However, genuine equality for all, means committing resources to making life easier for those with long-term illnesses, disabilities or caring responsibilities and we’re constantly being told that whilst the University will be sympathetic, when it comes to finances, there is nothing available to make life easier and consequently address inequality properly.
The VC has taken steps to address environmental issues, but as we’ve pointed out before, successive People and Planet Awards have shown the University to be hopelessly lacking in workers’ rights, scoring a derisory 10%, in part, as a result of the outright refusal to consider becoming a Living Wage Employer. In fact many lower grade staff, mostly women, have dropped below the real living wage of £8.75/hour.
So, we think that for the VC to be a truly inspirational leader, we’d like to see genuine change at the University. As a start…
- Reducing the 37 hour working week
- Equalising the annual leave – 35 days pro rata for all staff
- Transferring casual staff (academic and support) to permanent jobs
- Restoring Winter Holiday celebrations
- Making moves to implement genuinely gold standard equalities policies
- Introducing realistic wage restraint at the top to fund living wages at the bottom and becoming a Living Wage Employer
A happier, less stressed and valued workforce would undoubtably see a Vice Chancellor which committed to those things as inspirational.