Monday, 30 May 2011

Great Expectorations

I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Something was definitely missing. I'd like to say that when the realisation dawned, that it hit between the eyes like an inspirational thunderbolt. But that would be a lie. It reminded me more of the soporific torpor which accompanied that evening in Blackpool I spent trailing a fora of inspired hemlock-fuelled gasconades in togas clutching their ninety pence return tickets for a one-way rodomontade along the seafront. You know the feeling... it's a growing panic and it's nothing short of corporeal dissolution. And it's being played out merrily at some amplitude along the full length of your pyloric canal by a Gdansk shipyard full of militant Venusian gondoliers on reduced pay over the bank holiday. You make a mental note to avoid any further eventful evenings on the local park bench with several comrades of the road and several three litre bottles of White Lightning. The alcohol-fuelled paranoia inevitably accompanied the delirium tremens which together belied the voluminous evidence that suggested I'd taken positive measures to improve my skills in mathematics which at this juncture was of no real utility. With a profound sense of sorrow I decided to put integer-related logic and sum-based-certainties to one side and pour all my available energies into a study of the text. 

The strange death of postmodernism

Now I'm no postmodernist. Indeed I have a well known loathing of the basic tenets of postmodernism. Why? For a conceptual movement that made bold claims in its rejection of meta-narratives as a mechanism for the emancipation of the subject, it did a thoroughly good job in providing a theoretical underpinning for consumerism and liberal individualism. It also provided many an illustrious career for quite a few former lefties now solidly superannuated armchair academics of no fixed principles. Apart from a few diehard neo-conservatives sympathisers, since a little event in Seattle 1999 and the emergence of global movements in opposition to something called capitalism, postmodernism has been largely consigned to the ashheap of history, more recently aided to its final resting place by the efforts of vast numbers of ordinary people in a series of revolutions from below against Western backed dictatorships in the Middle East.

From dogma to dog bottoms

Besides it was proving entirely wanting in removing dog shit from an afflicted shoe. I sought the help of a postmodernist friend. All she could offer was a series of discourses about the nature of each atom of the turd instead of dealing with the totality. And I needed to get the rectal toffee off my shoe quickly. So I believed I had good reason to reject postmodernism and as if to cement this notional non-relationship, self-important philosophical types within informed circles outside my own had pre-posited the proposition in a pre-paid envelope not to be opened until after my death. It stated clearly that I was cut from a far Tweedier moth-ridden cloth. This undermined to a large extent those who suggested publicly that of late I've started to exhibit a strong tendency towards infantile histrionical pre-modernism. But like Wittgenstein, I felt that in concentrating my energies on the text, there could arise problems from interpretations or misunderstandings of the logic in specific published statements. Given recent events I felt that this could quite easily resolve itself into a second libel action. Unlike Wittgenstein, I had to factor into the equation a rogue element - a maverick insomniacal rear upper molar - which after a cup of piping hot fresh coffee, took on an almost supernatural ability to imbue within the individual a lurid taste for the liberal use of ancient etymonical Celto-Latin profanities. I was lucky no one was around to record them.

Is it safe...? Is it fuck
Not one for adhering to the notion that this could have been some form of base conspiracy drawing on a diabolical accommodation between an allegedly defamed rogue ex-manager with a penchant for grudge-bearing and a lacklustre local dental surgeon with a marked resemblance to Martin Bormann, I persevered. It was official. I was formally determined to eschew any attempt by outsiders to derail my dismal attempts at textual analysis and I had the certificate to prove it.

The benefits of textual analysis

Through a pair of all-in eyes I perused the statements. Apart from the difference in absolute terms, they appeared at a surface level to largely infer the same meaning. This was quite expected as Professor Hall is an academic of some reknown. As we've noted before, academics gravitate towards precision in the use of language and are therefore apt to choose their words carefully.

'The University aspires to be in the top quartile of UK Universities by 2017 measured by ranking in the standard league tables. This will require that we transform our performance in the core business of the University, by achieving standing in the first quartile of UK Universities in both teaching quality (currently the fourth quartile) and our research and innovation (currently the second quartile).'(1

I drew deeply from the hot woody infusion within the vilely stained enamel mug and winced. I compared this statement to:

'... our objective of being in the top quartile of universities for teaching by 2017.' (2)

Yes they were unambiguously similar in their tone. But they weren't the same. The first emphasised the aspiration to achieve top quartile status in 'teaching quality', 'research and innovation' and was highly elucidatory. The second referred to 'teaching' and wasn't. I rubbed my face trying to soothe the ache which had spread like a venomous wildfire up through my right temple. I spent much time mulling this one over. If 'teaching quality' could be construed as a largely qualitative issue did this mean that 'teaching' could be construed as a largely quantitative issue? I was enveloped in a duvet of wordy confusion akin to that imposed from above by the remaining five seconds of the tyrannical Countdown clock. I also wondered where the 'research and innovation' bit had gotten to.

Forsaking a reliance on the dark arts

It's often said by me that I'm a firm believer in research and innovation. Like all good beliefs, it's based on fear. Where would the dental industry be without research and innovation? Mahogany teeth? I laughed out loud. Clearly only the most undistinguished farceur on auto-pilot would make the suggestion to me that it would be in the interest of any Higher Education establishment to finger the 'eject' button and relegate to the consideration of our old friend the shitter, the research aspect or indeed that of innovation within any university. After all, both play an important role in ensuring industries remain dynamic. More generally, universities play a central role globally acting as the agar upon which industries and future industries grow, flourish and compete effectively against other national capitals. Well that was the theory anyways... I shivered as I imagined the future of British dentistry as a series of outtakes from Saw IV.* Without research and innovation we'd be back to the bad old days of bread and mustard facial poultices. Any university that adopted and enacted any strategic decision based upon a policy of abandoning research and innovation might run the very real risk of transforming an Higher Education establishment into a Further Education establishment. The consequences of such actions were clear. No Vice Chancellor of any university plate glass or otherwise would like to have the word 'magician' emblazoned upon their curriculum vitae would they? They'd be widely viewed among their peers as some sort of reverse alchemist hell-bent on turning the gold of deepening the knowledge of humanity into the base lead of sciolism. It's just plain silly. To those churls who've already contacted me about this matter, please, it's a fool's errand. Do not read anything into this. Just accept that it's easy to write things and to forget to include words. I do it all the time.

When I reach terra firma, I'll finish by doing that mimey thing where I pretend 
there's a plate glass wall with pretend engraved plate glass door in it...

Student retention -v- Staff retention

The Vice Chancellor's latest analysis on the lack of upward mobility in the Guardian League Tables is quite singular:

'Dear Colleague,

You may have seen the Guardian’s University Guide 2012 league table which was published last week. Whilst it is disappointing to see that we have dropped in the rankings, it is important to understand the context of this drop, which we had expected. The Guardian league table, unlike the other national league tables, does not use student retention as one of its key performance indicators. This is one of the areas in which we have made significant progress in the past 12 months. Rather, the Guardian relies more on the staff student ratio; something that has had an impact on us this year because the increase in student numbers through improved retention coincided with the period, through the 2009/10 academic year, when we were recruiting for some 60 new academic posts and therefore had an unusually low level of academic staffing in several Schools. In addition, because many newly-recruited academic staff were not in post at the time that the data used for the league tables was collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, this artificially decreased our average spending per student. This is a further, significant, component in the formula that lies behind the Guardian’s league table. We have already made progress in a number of areas which – whilst not reflecting well in the short term through this particular league table’s methodology – will contribute to our objective of being in the top quartile of universities for teaching by 2017.

Kind regards

Martin Hall Vice-Chancellor.'

Professor Hall is right. It is disappointing. Disappointing but not entirely without precedent. He's also correct when he states that the Guardian do not directly use student retention in compiling their tables. Yet in a roundabout sort of way, they do use staff retention. It's called the student/staff ratio. One might suppose that the powers that be within the Strategic Leadership Team (SLT) are breathing a metaphorical collective sigh of relief that staff retention plays little if any role in the compilation of the other national university league tables. It would be interesting to see where Salford would be placed on any such table in light of the further 337 'role transformations' announced recently.

What were those two friggin' words again..?

L'éléphant dans la salle d'eau

I thought about what he meant when he said we had to understand the 'context of this drop'. It was almost as an afterthought that I noticed that two very important words were missing from the VC's statement. I wondered if under the daily labour of steering the great liner SS Salford, he'd forgotten to include these two words as well. The words 'unusually low' with reference to academic staffing in 2009/2010 provided much inward mirth, a bout of mucous-related convulsions of the chestial region known colloquially as 'lung-ing' and sparked high levels of conjecture among amused former colleagues and ardent worriers. I felt the words were related and decided that a question needed asking as to why was it unusual that academic staffing levels were low at this specific moment in time? After some perusal I developed something much less than a theory... more of an opinion and it centred around two unmanifested words - PROJECT HEADROOM.

Rescanning the statement, I noted that there was no mention of the 148 odd teaching and academic posts lost through Project Headroom in 2009 which would likely have had an impact on the staff/student ratio in 2009/10. Now Vice Chancellor Hall didn't take up the reins until August 1st 2009 so he can't be held to account for this. But there's no mention of who was in post at the time and is ultimately responsible for implementing a policy whereby certain Schools had 'unusually low academic staffing' levels. No mention of why contingencies were not in place to ensure that the 'many newly recruited academic staff' who 'were not in post', were in post prior to any such job losses. Again no mention of which University Strategic Leadership Team member was corporately responsible for this state of affairs.

A second opinion

I've got another opinion and I might as well air it here. It concerns an issue that may have ramifications for the future.

Putting aside issues concerning civil matters being dealt with through the civil courts at the moment, I've been accused of some pretty serious stuff by figures of some authority within the University of Salford during my period of employment: bullying, harassment, victimisation and bringing the University into disrepute. I've also been accused of committing criminal acts by senior figures from within the SLT such as running a hate website, stalking (in a personal capacity) stalking (in an electronic capacity), harassment... it's quite a long list. If I still lived down South I'd probably be knocking around with Bill Sykes. Notwithstanding the making of these allegations to third parties, not one shred of evidence has been provided by the University to back such claims. Nor were any of these allegations of criminal behaviour put to me by the University or their representatives. Indeed, I only discovered such allegations had been made via a Subject Access Request or two courtesy of the Data Protection Act. Given the extensive levels of such low criminal behaviour I'm alleged to have been involved in, any reasonable person would have surmised that the police would have been informed. Apparently they haven't. I know this to be the case as Mr Matthew Stephenson who is an authority on issues related to information at UoS told me so by email.

An obvious attempt by the Israelis to damage a university

A less than clear example of damaging the reputation of a university

In light of some of the above allegations, the upshot was that through a process of applied textual lampooning I was deemed to have brought the 'University into disrepute'. It's a lovely little phrase. It's so manifestly general that it can mean almost anything. In the writing of one or two satirical and obviously comedic spoof newsletters, I was also accused by the old Vice Chancellor Michael Harloe to have been indulging in an 'obvious attempt to damage the reputation of the University...' (3) and suspended as a postgraduate student. Of course I disputed this and still do.

What has this to do with the above? Well it's quite obvious to even the most oaken-headed vulgarian that I no longer work at the University of Salford. Yet still the decline in the national league tables continues. So how then did I bring the University into disrepute? Well it appears I didn't. How do I know this to be the case? Well the chap who sacked me - the Chair of the Disciplinary Panel Phillip Hopwood - said so under recent cross examination. So did the Chair of the Appeal Panel Simon Attwell (who upheld the University's decision to dismiss me) when he gave evidence with Hopwood at the Employment Tribunal in March. Both were asked before the Tribunal by the persistent Mr Longley for such evidence of damage to the University. Neither could provide any. I shall leave it to the imagination of the reader to fathom how a person can be sacked for bringing the university into disrepute when no evidence of such can be provided by the University?

It's got something to do with numbers...

I'm gladdened that Hall suggests that the decline in the Guardian tables is directly correlated to the decline in academic staff numbers in 2009-10. You see I distinctly recall being involved with other staff and students (with the support of the campus trade unions) in a very vocal campaign referred to by Dr Graves in an email to Harloe and Watkinson 31st May 2009,(4) which we sought to save 150 teaching, academic and academic related jobs at risk under Project Headroom. Therefore my involvement in this campaign opposing such job cuts could be construed as an obvious attempt to halt any rise in the staff/student ratio and clearly an action designed to stop the University being damaged. I might include my satiric writings which were a personal endeavor. The Vice Consul's Newsletters highlighted the job losses and other important issues such as bullying of staff by managers. They also raised the issue of the appointments process in the Salford Business School. That Hall decided to ask an outside organisation in 2010 to scrutinise issues such as the appointments process in the SBS is in my view something of a vindication.

To recap: it appears that I'm not in the least responsible for the decline in the league tables through either damaging the reputation of the University or bringing the University into disrepute. Given this, like many other staff, I'd like to know who is?

They seek him here... they seek him there...

In my view, if some person or persons unknown implement a set of policies which drive a university up the national league tables, this clearly enhances its reputation. If a person or persons as yet unknown implement a set of policies that lead to a decline in the tables almost year on year surely this must be damaging the reputation of the university and bringing such university into disrepute? If this be the case, maybe it's at least time to change policies?

Notes and References

*Not to be confused with a sore foreskin

(1) University of Salford Strategic Plan 2009/10 to 2017/18, pg11, sourced at
(2) M Hall, message to staff, May 23rd 2011
(3) Student suspension letter sent to GPD by Vice Chancellor Michael Harloe 12 June 2009.
(4) Email A Graves to M Harloe, K Watkinson, 31 may 2009. One is to presume that the 'sustained campaign.. over six months' Dr Graves refers to in this email refers to my activities involving the SUDE staff/student campaign from December 2008 which opposed the 150 job losses asked for by Dr Graves and other Strategic Leadership Team members under Project Headroom. SUDE (Salford University Defend Education) was a staff/student led campaign group which held regular weekly meetings where strategies and tactics were debated, decided and implemented democratically. SUDE organised lobbies of Brendan Barber at a Salford Business School annual lecture, organised a series of high profile protests and a campaigned against course closures.

All the above is of course the opinion of the author. For corrections please email

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1 comment:

  1. It is impossible for there to be a sustained charge of harassment for posting a blog or website critical of a university or its officials. In the case of R v Fredrics, DJ Kreiman ruling from the bench of the Kingston Magistrates Court said that harassment laws were not intended to protect individual reputations. On this basis, DJ Kreiman found 'no case to answer.'

    Harassment requires an approach, either through a direct email, written or in person contact. Posting a blog/website requires that the individual(s) go out of their way to visit such a site in order to be "harassed." That goes counter to the very meaning of the term.