Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Circle... square... square... circle...



On the tenth reading, it still left me feeling a little befuddled. It definitely said at the top of the webpage "Against the Cuts". Which cuts was he referring to I wondered? Could it be that he supports the job cuts at the University of Salford - Manchester yet doesn't support the job cuts? I could only liken the emergent paradox to that experienced by a dysphasic transporter operative on the USS Enterprise who's trying to explain to a justifiably pissed off Captain Picard, that a dodgy Romulan cloaking device is responsible for the disappearance of Geordie La Forge and Ensign Ro, not his sweaty business finger.

Textual analysis

I like Martin Hall's blog. It's always fascinating and full of interesting detail. But this week it seemed to be missing something. I'd concentrated my efforts on distilling from the text a single reference to the UCU Salford's ballot for industrial action against mass job losses. I couldn't find it but I put that down to the antiquated pince-nez perched forlornly on the end of my nose. A thought crossed my mind. Was he attempting to square a circle, which I find has the potential to be quite a dangerous manoeuvre, especially if one is prone to inguinal hernias. The evidence would suggest that he's publicly supportive of students in their 'Carnival Against Cuts'  protest last week against the cuts he's imposing. Will he, I wondered, support the trade union initiated anti-cuts strike action as publicly? I also wondered would he show his support by refusing to cross staff picket lines? Moreover, would he and Adrian Graves jog that extra mile and make a small sizeable contribution to the UCU hardship fund? Would he then join the pickets outside the Maxwell Building with acoustic guitar in hand for a few rousing choruses of Kumbaya? If so, can I film it?

Guff and nonsense

Like the Salford UCU, I also thought it apposite to try and de-link some of Hall's discourse from the guff that's doing the rounds on the BBC news and among the pro-market politicians of all hues about the inevitability of cuts. I'm quite interested in political economy which makes me interested in the global economic crisis that's engulfed most of the major Western economies since 2007-08. It's worth bearing in mind that a softening-up process has been going on for years in the press and media with all the talk of a 'rapidly ageing population', 'unaffordable gold-plated public sector pensions' etc.

The establishment would have us believe that our excessive demands for publicly funded health and welfare systems are the cause of this crisis and not the financial and banking system that encouraged personal debt levels to climb to the historically high levels in order to provide demand for consumer goods. The seeds of this process were sown in the 1980s under the Thatcher and Reagan governments. The shift towards debt as a means of financing the expansion of capitalism (based upon mass consumption of consumer goods), was hung on a large coat hook of depressed wage levels in the US and the UK. In the eyes of the new paradigmatics, credit (including mortgages) was the preferred mechanism in providing workers with an almost perpetual advance against future earnings. Since then, capitalism has in effect tried to have it both ways: to keep wage levels low to claim a larger share of the surplus workers produce, and to create a dependency on debt among workers to supplement low wages and provide a consumer base for this section of capitalism to expand and make massive profits. But like my monthly credit card bill, at some stage debt has to be repaid. Capitalism had made no provision for this, placing its faith in climbing property prices/values to provide a cushion for any immediate economic crisis in this sector. It hasn't worked.

An historical crisis with deep roots

Karpo Marx reciting Kapital
by karmonica to friends
The crisis we're experiencing today is not new but a continuation of the original 2007 crisis which in itself is far more deeply rooted in what Karl Marx saw as the tendency over time, of the rate of profit to fall over the entire system which we'll save for another blog. Capitalism cannot create a new bubble of consumer frenzy driven by debt as this is what brought this current prolonged crisis to a head. It's response is rather of a traditionalist hue: to depress wages, working conditions, protective legislation, create a 'reserve army of unemployed' and in the process depress wages further. Another way of guaranteeing profitability is to hive off public sector services to the private sector. More usually this is achieved through outsourcing where public taxes are used to provide guaranteed profits for middle-men type companies who act as intermediaries. These companies provide no direct services but take a large slice of public monies, bringing in third parties to supply services undercutting the public sector. It's what's known in the trade as a 'race to the bottom' as workers rights are trampled on. It's a veritable feeding frenzy for those successful 'bidders'.

Forward the cutters of cloth

So even if for a moment, a chap accepted (and he doesn't) the notion put forward by such paragons of humanity: including the IMF, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, bankers, the CBI, Ed Miliband, Angela Merkel and the other neo-liberealists; that in times of hardship, cuts are necessary due to the global economic crisis , it's worth remembering that it's a crisis of someone else's making; a capitalist class and their friendly bankers who don't claim benefits or use public services. A chap's of a mind to suggest as they made it, let them pay for it.

However, there seems to be a bit of an anomaly when it comes to cutting one's cloth at University of Salford - Manchester. Professor Hall says that '[m]any universities in Britain have less money. Since late 2010, we have had a range of funding sources removed...' Given the hundreds of jobs at risk, I thought this worth some exploration.

Project Headroom

Clear evidence if any were needed to show that there's many a job
still to be had by the BBC at Salford Quays
As any historian will tell you, it's always worth going back a bit. If a chap's memory serves him correctly, in 2008-09, Salford UCU and the campaign group SUDE among others, persistently warned as the West stood on the crest of the financial turmoil sweeping the globe, that common sense should dictate that the University could not afford its MediaCity presence. We argued publicly that the University should not sign the agreements that would bind them into huge levels of expenditure during an economic downturn. Given the global turmoil, sound advice one might posit? The trouble is that even though this chap 'common sense' has a loudish voice, it seems senior managers including the then Registrar, now Deputy Vice Chancellor, Registrar and Secretary, Freedom of Information 'Champion' Adrian Graves, as well as the then Vice Chancellor Michael Harloe, either didn't hear it, or chose to ignore it and sign on the dotted line anyway.

Payment by results or payment by peanuts?

It's unlikely that Peel Media would accept payment for the weekly rental costs in peanuts so the University pay them in non-peanut currency - £40,867 of this currency every week until 2020 which according to the fine, investigative Salford Star will cost in the region of £20 million. That's about the cost of the salary of one academic every week for the next eight years or so. And that's excluding the costs of fitting out the four floor building which are reported to have cost in the region of £30 million or 666 academics (at an average of say £45,000 per annum). Now that's a ruddy lot of scholars and money by anyone's standards. Or is it?

A ruddy lot of money (Part II)

Much has been made by angry members of the UCU (in the opinion of this writer justifiably so) threatened with unemployment, of the manner in which senior managers are pushing ahead with the 'Estates Master Plan' which in peanut-speak means the spending of even vaster-er sums on new buildings and refurbishments. The plan was published sometime 2008-09 and judging by the activity of construction workers on or around campus, it would seem to be moving ahead with some gusto.  I decided that as the holidays are approaching, a little currency conversion might help readers put this Master Plan into some perspective. For Phase One of the plan, if one peanut = one pound, in currency conversion terms the University would be looking at spending around 107 million of these tasty blighters. I did a further calculation and extrapolated from the results that that would give any reasonable person wind. The importance of spending these vast sums of money on 'excellent buildings' was emphasised by DVCRSFoI'C' Graves to the University Council recorded in the October 2010 minutes:

'The Registrar and Secretary and Deputy Vice-Chancellor emphasised the importance of the Master Plan to the University’s strategic aspirations; the ability to attract and retain high calibre staff and students was predicated on the ability to develop a high quality, welcoming environment. Given that MediaCity UK would place the University at the leading edge of media programme delivery, it was imperative that excellent buildings were designed and constructed elsewhere on the University campus.'(1)

Strategic aspirations

The almost inevitable consequence of either; a) being publicly 
excoriated in Morrisons by a penurous 
unemployed academic, b) self-fornication,
c) rising wheat prices
There's nothing wrong with aspirations, particularly aspirations of a strategic variety. My own strategic aspiration is premised upon being able to complete my daily shop in Morrisons without having recourse to publicly excoriate the manager in front of some pensioners, over the skyrocketing price of breadstuffs, which according to my calculations, is rising faster than a methane emissions in a Ukranian fart-catchery. But I was worried that Graves' words were being misinterpreted. The chap doing the 'consulting' over the current job losses was one Keith Watkinson who is a resourceful human all of which you can read about here. Watkinson of HR reports directly to Graves. And all the evidence at the moment seemed to suggest that Watkinson was doing the opposite of retaining high calibre staff. Would he be rigorously disciplined by Dr Graves I wondered, for deviating from the Master Plan? If so, can I film it?

Der Masterplan

This Master Plan interested me. Why? Well it's predicated upon a '24.5% continued growth in student numbers over ten years' according to the online blurb. Yet blogger Hall has stated for the record, that 'from this September onwards, we will be a smaller university with fewer students to teach...' And as we mentioned earlier he's also stated that since 2010, that 'a range of funding sources' have been 'removed'. Yet the refurbishments and plans for new buildings continues apace. I wondered why? With the relevant information to hand, I decided to let one go... another question that is. So I asked, given the evidence that the UK economy is in a recession and that the Tory government are convinced that even deeper and broader cuts to public expenditure is the solution to the crisis, surely prudence and pragmatism would dictate a hold on all major projects involving large capital expenditures? 

Pounds and pennies

I often find such talk of hundreds of millions of peanuts pounds overwhelming. So large are they that they can become difficult to grasp. There's an old saying that speaks of the focusing of one's attention on one's peripheral pocket currencies of diminutive denominations in order to secure financial stability in the medium and long term. We've already seen how prior to the imposition of Project Headroom in 2007-08, senior managers gave the green light to expenditure on consultants of £3,961,109. I decided to cast a figurative eyeglass over the finer detail of some more recent expenditures on consultants and other things, which readers can find ensconced on the Whatdotheyknow freedom of information website:
I did some more sums. It came to a total of £170,248.79. I then perused the University of Salford - Manchester's evidence to a recent Justice Committee report into the Freedom of Information Act


Yes... this 'particular case is me
Was this a good use of public money in a time of mass job cuts and tightening of budgets?

Pennies from heaven

I then mulled over the £402,000 spent recently refurbishing the Ol' Fire Station, and the £50,000 Hall and Graves have already 'invested in the libel proceedings against me with more to come. I considered the above in light of Hall's recent communication with staff:

'While we will do all we can to avoid compulsory redundancies, I have an obligation to ensure that the University remains financially sound, continues to achieve its objectives, and continues to improve provision of learning and teaching opportunities for our students. We cannot do that if our academic staffing bill exceeds the income we have available from student fees.'(2)

I wondered just how such expenditure would ensure 'that the University would remain financially sound' or how it would 'improve provision of learning and teaching opportunities for our students'. How would it save jobs? 

From fire stations to panic stations?

If anything, the sense I get from reading Hall's latest online missive, is one of panic. Clearly, the threat of industrial action and student anger from below is provoking a response from above. I'm firmly of the opinion that these job cuts - in fact all future proposed job cuts as there will be more if Hall's words are to be taken literally (see below) - can be successfully resisted. But this will involve rejecting the 'common sense' arguments that cuts to our services are necessary as well as strike action. As we should oppose the closure of every school, hospital, old peoples' home, or the cut of a single benefit to pay for a crisis not of our making, Salford UCU should oppose not just compulsory redundancies but every job cut and course closure at Salford. It is our University after all.

When all is said and done, students prefer lots of teaching and academic staff. First and foremost, a university is its academic staff and its front-line administrative staff. If you're in any doubt, ask the students. It's the academics that produce cutting edge research, advance knowledge and truth and in the process, produce the next generation of innovators. The front-line staff ensure this happens. I've yet to find a nice new shiny building that can achieve this.

Besides their logic doesn't convince me. If these jobs and courses were of value to the institution, students and society last year and the year before, they are of intrinsic value to the institution, students and society today.


 Notes and References


(2) The text of Martin Hall's communication to staff sent on the 25th May at 09:34


'UCU ballot for industrial action.

The UCU is asking staff to take industrial action in opposition to compulsory redundancies at our University. Whilst it is not yet confirmed that there will be any compulsory redundancies, I’m writing to give you the background and to explain why we cannot give this assurance. If you have not been notified that you are impacted by the current organisational change proposals, you are not part of the current process. Secondly, it is not yet clear that there will be any compulsory redundancies. We are doing everything we can to prevent this. I would, of course, prefer to give a guarantee that compulsory redundancies will be avoided. But we have had more than 400 funded student places removed by HEFCE and 100 more places will be removed in 2013. This is further compounded by the inclusion of international students in immigration controls. Because we will have fewer students to teach, and reduced fee income, we are forced to reduce the numbers of our academic staff. We are not alone in this situation. A significant number of universities are being forced to reduce their levels of academic staffing. More generally, more than 300,000 publicly funded jobs have been lost in Britain. There is no real prospect of things improving over the next few years. We have been exemplary in our consultation with the unions, sharing information about allocated student numbers as soon as we could, in early February. We have followed the full requirements, and spirit, of labour legislation and processes in consultation and mitigation, and have entered into discussions which have resulted in the mitigation of a significant number of the proposed redundancies. We will continue to consult with UCU over our proposals with a view to achieving them through voluntary means wherever possible, but also to discuss how we may resolve the dispute they have registered with us in balloting for industrial action. Our primary concern is, and remains, the future of our staff who are caught up in this process. While we will do all we can to avoid compulsory redundancies, I have an obligation to ensure that the University remains financially sound, continues to achieve its objectives, and continues to improve provision of learning and teaching opportunities for our students. We cannot do that if our academic staffing bill exceeds the income we have available from student fees. You will of course make up your own mind whether or not to support industrial action. However, were the UCU to succeed in moving from negotiation to confrontation, its actions may have a direct and damaging impact on the quality of teaching and the student experience. I cannot see how this will help anyone, or affect our circumstances favourably. You have, of course, the right to industrial action. I have the responsibility of ensuring that you are aware of the implications for you personally. I’ve asked HR to prepare a Q&A factsheet which you can access by clicking here. This highlights the key issues you need to consider. I had hoped that the UCU would continue to work with us in defending the principles of equity, access and the improvement of quality of learning and teaching, and I still hope that we can re-establish this common purpose. Yours sincerely

Martin Hall,

Vice-Chancellor

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