Murder, Monolithic Values, and Education In A Democracy

The start to the New Year is not necessarily happy.

I am not inclined to turn down paid work these days, since my pension is not exactly large. However this morning I rather reluctantly told an MA award leader that, after much thought, I had decided I was not willing to be involved in the revalidation of the award for which she is responsible. My reasons are in part simply economic. £100 plus expenses for what, at the most conservative estimate, is three days hard work at that level would be frankly insulting, even if I were still in full-time employment as an academic.

Lets be clear. Being an external member of a validation panel is demanding and responsible work. It requires subject expertise in the sense of informed rigour about curriculum, supporting context, and modes of delivery. In addition it requires a real understanding of how the whole, often rather optic, process of academic audit works. Lastly, but by no means least, it requires one to balance a degree of empathy for the realities faced by the staff team with seeing that the regulatory requirements of the university are met.

These days any solicitor doing a routine piece of legal processing would expect more than £100 for an hour’s work, let alone for three days work. So my reasons also relate to a question of principle. University senior managers would laugh themselves silly if you asked them to take time out of their busy lives to spend three days working for what amounts to about £36 less than the minimum wage, yet regard that as appropriate compensation for those revalidating their courses! (Exactly the same ridiculous situation holds for the examination of doctoral students).

This simple example is, I think, indicative of the increasingly absurd situation by which academic management assumes that it has an automatic right to demand remuneration for its skills while shamelessly exploiting those who, at the end of the day, have to ensure there is an institution fit for purpose for them to manage. Since I first posted these observations yesterday an article entitled Senior administrative staff salary details kept secret  – written by Jack Grove and published in the THE (8 January 2015) – has drawn attention to the increasingly lack of financial transparency in the university sector.

Grove writes that, of the thirty seven institutions that the Times Higher Education requested “provide information about top-earning non-academic staff”, twenty “declined to give details of how much senior administrators were paid”. Grove puts this refusal in context by noting that only months ago King’s College London was required by a judge to provide the job titles and salary bands of administrative staff in its leadership team earning more than £100,000 a year. The Judge ruled that there was: “a legitimate public interest in knowing, for example, if a senior administrator had been paid £50,000 more than a department dean, as ‘what does that indicate about the college’s priorities?'[italics mine]” She added that senior staff in an organisation in receipt of large amounts of public funds should be expected to provide appropriate level of public accountability.

I don’t think I need to spell out that the university sector’s desire to hide the sums paid to top administrators can properly be taken as a tacit admission that education is now a monoculture in which all principles are expendable bar one – the monolithic principle by which all possible values are subject to one set of absolute values – in this case those of financial gain. But we should note that Grove’s article appeared just after the news was announced that Shell has finally agreed to pay fifty-five million pounds in compensation for two devastating oil spills in Bodo, in the Niger Delta, and on the same day that we received news of the murder of journalists and police by religious fundamentalists in connection with the Charlie Hebdo magazine.

What links these events is a profound failure of the empathetic imagination – necessary to our humanity in its most fundamental sense – that enables us to recognise and respond to the fact that we live in a puristic world (a polyverse) in which multiple, and often conflicting, goals and values exist and require our respect and attention, if not necessarily our personal approval. In the last analysis that failure that stems from what can only be described as the poverty of our thinking about the proper function of an education system in a democracy. A system that, in the UK and elsewhere, has been allowed to become increasingly unfit for purpose by being made subject to the same monolithic mindset that resulted in the murders connected to the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the judicial murder of Kenule Beeson Saro Wiwa on Nov 10th, 1995. (A Nigerian writer, television producer, environmental activist, and winner of the Right Livelihood Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize, Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, whose land in the Niger Delta has for over sixty-five years been the site of crude oil extraction by Shell and others, during which the environment has been subject to petroleum spills and waste dumping on a massive scale).

At the end of the day those who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders and those, senior Nigerian officials and Westerners alike, who have connived in and/or benefitted from the environmental destruction of Ogoni’s homeland, share one fundamental characteristic. They have not been taught, or have refused to learn, the empathetic understanding and praxis necessary to live in and sustain a pluralistic democracy. They share this, of course, with the majority of those who make up the current UK Government’s cabinet (who, ironically, received what is supposed to be the best education money can buy); people whose sense of entitlement allows them and their media allies to demonise the chronically sick, the very poor, and the foreign immigrant, all so as to avoid taking the social, economic, and environmental measures necessary to sustain any responsible democracy worthy of the name.