Battling for the soul of a university

What has provoked the Association of University Teachers and Brunel University into taking out full-page advertisements attacking one another? Lucy Hodges investigates a bitter struggle between fiery opponents
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The Independent Online

That is what has happened at Brunel University in west London, where the colourful vice-chancellor, Steven Schwartz, has taken up the cudgels against the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in a bitter battle about redundancies. Both sides paid for advertisements in The Times Higher Education Supplement in the same week to trumpet their case.

The AUT had booked the advertising space weeks before, as part of its campaign to name and shame universities that were not making the kind of progress that it would like to see in talks on pay modernisation. But at the foot of the advert, in a separate box, it announced that it was "greylisting" Brunel University for refusing to withdraw the threat of compulsory redundancy for staff. "Greylisting" may sound like a weasel, politically correct word for blacklisting but it is a serious business. When Nottingham University was greylisted by the AUT for allegedly refusing to negotiate on the new pay structure, it suffered adverse publicity (the greylisting has now been lifted).

In the case of Brunel, the greylisting means that AUT members are being asked to boycott Brunel by refusing to be external examiners, to apply for jobs, to carry out joint research or to take part in conferences."We're trying to protect our members," says Matt Waddup, AUT assistant general secretary in charge of campaigns. "Some of the people whom the university has fired have excellent research records. Everyone wants to buy into Professor Schwartz's research vision."

He is referring to Schwartz's desire to ensure that Brunel performs better in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). In his advert headed, "An open letter from Brunel University to the academic community", the vice-chancellor explains what that entails. Changes to the RAE mean that research funding will be concentrated in fewer institutions, he explains. "If we are to continue to receive funding and to fulfil our goal of being a research-led university, we must respond to these changes."

That means reducing the number of staff who are not actively engaged in research, and increasing those who are. "The university's council is committed to replacing non-research active staff with research active staff, and has created an additional 30 research posts," the advert states.

"The redundancy exercise has never been about cutting jobs."In the advertisement, the vice-chancellor takes strong exception to being "greylisted", and complains that the union failed to carry out a full member ballot before taking the decision. About 50 people turned up at a meeting to vote on the greylisting out of an academic staff of 840. "It is clear that the majority of Brunel's academic community were given no opportunity to express their views on this issue," says the advert.

"It appears that the votes of the few have overriden the legitimate aspirations of the majority." But, in a key sentence, the advertisement adds that, out of the staff identified as not actively engaged in research, very few are likely to be made compulsorily redundant. So, what is going on here? Professor Schwartz refused to answer questions. "I don't want to talk about this subject," he said. "We have said all we want to say in that advertisement."

The union was cock-a-hoop that it had provoked Brunel into advertising. "Imagine our joy when we saw that they had wasted £4,000 of taxpayers' money on buying that space," said Waddup. "Ever since the advertisement appeared, we have been getting incredible support. We have won round new people at Brunel."

This is a story about a union in a state of flux, and a supremely self-confident, not to say feisty, vice-chancellor. The AUT branch at Brunel has a reputation for being difficult. The local branch president, Alan Harrison, is one of those who has been identified as non-research active, and this week he was made redundant. He was, however, not available for comment. After the redundancy notice was issued, Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary issued a strongly-worded press release in which she said: "The AUT will now redouble its efforts to ensure that this university remains a pariah in the international academic community, until such time as it changes its attitude to its staff."

The AUT's campaign against Schwartz has been intensifying over time. First, it passed a motion of no confidence in him. In February, AUT members protested in front of Lord Bragg, who had come to open a new building. In March this year, the union nominated Schwartz as Britain's "worst boss" for a new television show. In April, members went on strike for a day over the redundancies. Schwartz threatened union members with loss of pay, which Sally Hunt, the AUT's general secretary, described as a "macho bully-boy tactic".

The temperature has been increasing all the time. Behind the rhetoric lie some sober facts. Academics are notoriously badly paid, and the AUT is a small union with 48,000 members concentrated in the old universities. It has to cope with the fact that many lecturers belong to no union at all, which makes it less effective than it might be otherwise. Withdrawal of labour harms students, so the strike weapon can be used only sparingly. In recent years, to raise its profile, the union has become more hard-hitting. "They are gearing up to be a much more campaigning union," said one observer. "That may play better with their members and the press."

The recruitment of Matt Waddup from the hard-left RMT transport union is a sign of the AUT's new approach. But many in the universities regard these campaigns as hit-and-miss. Some have worked; others haven't. One feature of the campaigning is that it is personalised - on Schwartz, in the case of Brunel - which means that it hits the headlines and rallies members. "There is no substitute for demonising the boss," said another observer.

The Brunel campaign appears to have struck a chord, but some of the union's campaigning in the run up to the national agreement on pay modernisation backfired. And, of course, the Israeli boycott decision, now rescinded, damaged the AUT's reputation further. Another factor is the proposed merger with the other lecturers' union, Natfhe (National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education). Both unions want to show their muscle in the run-up to merger because it could affect the allocation of jobs to union officials afterwards.

When the AUT's provocative new stance is combined with the feisty Schwartz, the sparks begin to fly. Brunel's vice-chancellor is not known for his love of trade unions, or for suffering fools gladly.

"Other vice-chancellors have been getting rid of staff who were not useful in the research assessment, but they seemed to manage it with a bit more diplomacy," said one university boss. For Professor Alan Smithers, who used to work at Brunel is now at Buckingham University, the row suggests a failure of leadership. "To make changes, you have to get people to understand why you are making them," he says. "And on the union side, it is no good them digging their heels in because that is a recipe for fossilisation."

Professor Schwartz will shortly be leaving Brunel to return to Australia. There can be little doubt that he would rather not leave under this particular cloud.

The vice-chancellor with a reputation for antagonising his staff

Steven Schwartz is one of Tony Blair's favourite vice-chancellors. The pair are believed to be members of a mutual admiration society, and to share the same dislike of bureaucracy and stick-in-the-muds. When Schwartz got the top job at Brunel, his appointment was seen as a sign that British higher education institutions were becoming bolder and brasher and more internationally minded. His outgoing manner and love of the marketplace signalled a new broom in higher education.

The fact that Schwartz has decided to leave Brunel after only three years to return to Australia where his family live will be a big disappointment to ministers who enjoyed his clear mind and optimistic talk. This move is thought to have nothing to do with his local difficulties with the AUT. It is understood his wife was behind the decision.

Schwartz had bounded into Brunel from the vice-chancellorship of Murdoch University with ambitious plans to rebuild and landscape parts of the campus and send it shooting up the league tables. At Murdoch he had also set in motion an ambitious remodelling programme which had resulted in a vote of no-confidence by the staff just as his plans have at Brunel. Schwartz was put in charge of a national taskforce by Charles Clarke, the then Education Secretary, to produce guidelines on university admissions. He consulted widely with the university sector and was brilliant at promoting his report. The universities, however, complained that he promised more than he delivered.

In 2002 he said he wanted to finish Brunel's revamp by 2006, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Brunel, the great engineer and the university's namesake. He is unlikely to be here to keep that commitment. LH