Interviewer: So, Liam, what do you think of the current situation regarding the University’s proposal to stop supporting adult and continuing education, in order to save money?
LK: Well, first of all, I actually sympathise with the University management in that they’re faced with financial problems not of their own making or choosing. I’m sure they’d rather not have to deal with that. I’d have even more sympathy, mind you, if they used their public position to speak out against the injustices leading to this situation in the first place. But I recognise that it would be irresponsible of the management group not address the financial issue.
However, we have to be clear that the current exercise is about much more than finance. They are proposing to reshape what is commonly meant by a University, treating it a as a business and not a public service, and losing areas, like modern languages, which you would think would be an essential and necessary part of any higher education institution. In proposing to cut the continuing education contribution, for example, they seem to be dispensing with the idea that the University has a duty to feed back its expertise into the wider community. The adult and continuing education programme attracts around 5000 students – an enormous achievement – and I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that its disappearance would have a significant impact on the cultural life of the west of Scotland. I don’t think the University management should have the power to make that happen without wider democratic debate, outside its walls.
That apart, it is not clear how much money, if any, the University would save by discontinuing the programme. It also brings in a lot of money. In my capacity as union rep, I have twice already seen the University attempt to close units on financial arguments which have been faulty. Finances can be interpreted in many different ways. Our fear is that a conclusion has been reached first and then the financial interpretation which supports that conclusion is being sought.
Interviewer: There has been a lot in the press recently about the University’s ‘top-down’ approach to management. What is your view on that?
LK: Well, there is undoubtedly widespread resentment at this. In the last two years I have seen the most humane, understanding and mildest mannered of my colleagues turn into advocates of oppositional tactics and campaigning because they feel discussions with management are a waste of time. The top-down approach to management is responsible for a large part of the frustration felt by staff but I also believe it leads to poor and potentially disastrous decision-making.
For example, at no point prior to the current proposals has any of the current senior management group come to talk to those of us working in continuing education to find out what we do. How can that be good management? Where do they get their information from on which to base their decisions? The announcements of senior management suggest they are either completely unaware of or only have a partial view of what our work in continuing education entails. On separate occasions senior union officials and journalists have told me that when University managers talk of continuing education they predominantly see DACE as dealing with trivial pursuits like ‘photography’ (of the hundreds of courses we run, 4 half-courses are on photography) and for well-off people who could afford to pay the cost-price of their courses (some could pay easily, some with a struggle, many can’t). I don’t know if that really is senior management’s image of continuing education: some of their comments suggest it is, though I’m hopeful not everyone sees it like that. In any case, it’s worrying they’re prepared to make major decisions based on what appears to be very little research – ironic, when the whole thrust of these changes is supposedly about making Glasgow one of the great research-led universities of the world! So, while senior management would be irresponsible in ignoring financial realities, we think it is equally irresponsible of them to propose removing areas of work from the University without first fully understanding what they stand to lose.
Another example is that last year, just before the programme of continuing education classes was due to go to press, out of the blue we were told to increase our fees by 50%, with no discussion about what the consequences might be (our protests got this reduced to 25%). Had senior management come to us, discussed the problem and sought to explore with us ways of increasing revenue while protecting the programme, and hopefully bringing students with us, staff would have been perfectly happy to engage in that. Having said that, at the time we were a bit confused about exactly which level of management was making these decisions: middle management said it was senior management, and vice-versa.
Interviewer: So staff aren’t happy at the way senior management talk about continuing education?
LK: No. They feel that senior management hasn’t bothered to consult with them at any stage prior to putting our potential disappearance on the agenda (the present ‘consultation’ exercise does not inspire much confidence) and that they may be about to make strategic decisions of long-term impact based on a superficial understanding of what happens on the ground. Staff are particularly incensed at the way in which, in order to make a case to close us down, senior management downgrade or dismiss continuing education as merely ‘recreational’. It’s as if the University is saying that all serious learning stops when you complete your degree and that after that a University has no further role to play in the frivolous matter of trying to continue your education. Surely a good undergraduate university education – one that might aspire to be called ‘world class’ – would seek to inspire an unquenchable thirst for learning in its students from the outset? In that one word, ‘recreation’, the whole concept of ‘lifelong learning’ is dismissed out of hand. I am shocked that the leadership of any learning institution could take that view.
Interviewer: So are staff pessimistic about the chances of survival of the continuing education programme?
LK: Not at all. Fortunately, neither ourselves nor, more importantly, yourselves, our students, are prepared to take this lying down. In the space of 10 days, from the announcement of these proposals, the Principal and head of College of Social Sciences will have received in the region of 1000 – 1200 letters from students enrolled in adult and continuing education classes. I’m still trying to read them all! Not a prepared text for students to sign up to, but a series of individual testimonies explaining in great depth how much these classes mean to them. They have copied these to MSPs who have also thrown their weight behind adult and continuing education and raised the issue in parliament. Then there has been the development of facebook and a website run by students and the correspondence in the newspapers. This has all been brilliant and a great help to staff morale in campaigning against this from within.
It’s hard to imagine that such an upsurge of public support can be ignored. Hopefully, you have all gone some way to educating our management group about what continuing education means to people and at the end of the day good sense will prevail. Spurred on by your help, we’ll certainly be doing our best to ensure that it does.
Interviewer: Thank you very much, Liam
LK: You’re welcome and thank you, too, for all your effort and that of your many fellow students.