Photo: Studious Day 436 from Bruce Guenter Flickr photostream

“My senior management seems to live in a governance free zone. One in particular who joined with the new VC has developed a reputation for turning disagreements into sacking”. UK University Employee

Anyone who takes more than a passing interest in Higher Education in the UK would find it quite difficult to avoid the conclusion that it’s best to avoid studying or working in a UK University if you value your mental health. In this post I am going to suggest that we can dream up as many exciting staff and student resilience programmes and mental health hygiene workshops as we like but it may be accountability innovations which are going to be needed to make the big health gains in the near future.

This year, students across the country staged a rejection of rising tuition fees by refusing to take part in the National Student Survey, the metric which contributes to the University league tables. It turns out that students don’t want to be the tools used by the government to allow ‘higher-performing’ universities to hike their already debilitating fees north of £9,000.

The NUS reported that, in the year from March 2015, 78 per cent of students experienced a mental health problem, while a third experienced suicidal thoughts and students suicides are at the highest level since 2007. More than 43,000 students at Russell Group institutions had counselling in the last academic year, a rise of 28% in three years and this increase is believed to be partly due to the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000.

Student fees and living costs are not the only issues that students have to contend with in UK universities. Recent research also shows that a third of female students in Britain have endured a sexual assault or unwanted advances at university and gender violence campaign groups have warned that academic authorities are creating an “environment of impunity” on campus by declining to step in to protect women from assault.

In terms of staff experience, universities now increasingly stand accused of ‘importing a Sports Direct model’ for lecturers’ pay, with many institutions charging higher student fees while more than half of lecturers are on non-permanent or hourly-paid contracts and with many staff unable to progress in their careers and not given time to do the job properly. Our own research, to be published early next year with 6,000 academics across the UK, tells a harrowing and sorry story of incredibly stressful working environments, leading to serious psychological illness, increased job-related stress and cultures that wilfully punish whistleblowing.

However not all are suffering in our increasingly toxic university sector. Average pay among UK vice-chancellors has now reached £280,000 per year, while tuition fees for undergraduate students are now £9,000+ per year and cuts to university funding continue. And in this context we can take a moment to celebrate the bravery of yacht-owning, Bentley-driving University vice-chancellors who are prepared to hit back at claims of being overpaid and the insidious pressures that force these marginalised millionaires to hide their wealth. And despite seemingly being on a one-man mission to show that he doesn’t remotely understand UK Universities, Andrew Adonis has got one thing right. Recently he suggested that either the vice-chancellors will have to lead reform themselves, or it will be done to them. Indeed it is the latter of these two options which has inspired a recent piece of work across the sector.

One of the most interesting issues that emerges through the increasing marketization of the sector, the staff and student mental health issues and the increased staff workload and precarity, is that the metrics which make the sector knowable to the public and other stakeholders, the National Student Survey, the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Research Excellence Framework function to largely background or make invisible many of these key issues above. These metrics are instead the instrumental social accounting tools of the neoliberal state where numbers are mobilised to facilitate a semblance of competition and choice while in reality failing to measure very much at all.

However numbers and metrics can also be used to roughen up the ideological logics of quantification and the largely benign realities that they produce. The National Senior Management Survey was designed by a group of UK academics to (accidentally) take Adonis up on his challenge and mobilise collective action that uses numbers, measurements and indicators as means of denunciation and criticism. The grandiose idea was to use statistics not as tools for subjection, but as weapons to analyse, negotiate and limit dominant players in a field.

The Survey was launched as a tool for academic staff around the UK to complete on the practices of their senior management team. It was designed to move the gaze away from the narrow metrics of measuring staff performance back to the senior management teams who set the conditions through which the measurement of individual staff performance becomes possible.

In doing so, we hoped to ask questions about the current trajectory of higher education in the UK and to broaden the debate about what universities should and could be for our students. The survey mirrors the NSS focus on satisfaction but it also asked about the perception of how senior management actions impact upon students, university values and financial exploitation, senior management performance, work pressure and wellbeing and treatment of staff. The key element concerned the fact that the data be used to produce a national league table of senior management teams such that the more regressive and progressive higher education regimes can be identified and made publicly available.

The results of the survey have been published online and early results suggest that, on average, 1 in 10 University staff are satisfied with their senior management teams and reveals just how moribund the marketization frenzy has become. The ‘add a comment box’ filled with 2,000 genuinely moving stories, which were replete with truly staggering accounts of  employment brutality, crushed dreams and utter disregard by so many senior management teams, who are ultimately responsible for the health and wellbeing of their staff and students. So much so that any outsider reading the comments could be forgiven for assuming that the principle service universities are commissioned to deliver is staff burnout.

The project is replete with limitations but what it seeks to do is to begin to sketch new ways of generating accountability in a sector in which, despite the plethora of metrics, evidences some howling accountability gaps. Staff hold students to account via their grades, students hold staff to account via the NSS but nobody holds senior management to account as they drive their Bentley’s and yachts through the new wild west that is the UK University sector.

Accountability is not the only answer to the toxicity of the modern university but it is a big part and seeking to make accountable the institutions that control UK Higher education is far from beyond the will of man or woman. It seems to me that we have two choices. We wait around in the hope that the government will get this right or we get out and do it ourselves. To the barricades, my friends.