Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Update on attempt by MMU to suspend Ian Parker (1)

I was recently sent an update by a friend on the attempt, by Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, to dismiss renowned critical psychologist, Ian Parker, under the heading: “Neoliberalism at Manchester Metropolitan University, and an alternative”. The valuable account, by someone who obviously has access to all the relevant information, and who knows how to conduct a discourse analysis, is as follows:

“A significant victory has been won by a campaign against management victimisation of trade union members at Manchester Metropolitan University. The campaign mobilised the UCU branch alongside a well-organised group of postgraduate students and academic visitors to defend Ian Parker as UCU campus representative following his suspension from the psychology department at the beginning of October. The activities also reenergised the campaign in support of Christine Vié, UCU branch vice-chair who had been made redundant following the closure of the combined honours course where she was based. The events leading up to the suspension, the campaign, and the attempt by MMU now to turn things back to their own advantage provide lessons for activists about management practice in a neoliberal university and what must be done to combat it.

MMU has seen an intensification of a business ethos under the present Vice Chancellor John Brooks who, shortly after his appointment in 2005, pressed senior staff to adopt what he called a ‘change agenda’. Obedience to economic ‘givens’ (as Brooks put it in staff meetings) was combined with penalties for those who refused to comply. The change agenda restructured management and put pressure on faculty and department heads to deal with those who opposed it. (At one meeting Brooks told UCU branch officers that he had been a member of a union once but had left on a point of principle; when asked what the point of principle was, he said he could not remember.) The next turn of the screw on staff came with the introduction of the National Student Survey (NSS). Competition between universities for undergraduate students forced to pay £9,000 a year from autumn 2012 led to an obsession with raising NSS scores and other public ‘Key Performance Indicators’ (KPIs) for each course. Incessant nauseating babbling about ‘KPIs’ was to become staple management-speak in departmental meetings.

These economic drivers have entailed a divide and rule strategy applied by management not only between universities but also between departments who had high NSS scores and those who were ‘red-lighted’ and threatened with closure. Ian’s department at MMU was one of those under threat in autumn 2011, and the task of the newly appointed head of department was to shake things up, whip staff into line and cut economically unproductive courses (and staff). This meant breaking with the legacy of psychology at MMU which had built up a reputation for alternative forms of feminist, community and critical psychology and for disability studies, psychoanalysis and discourse analysis that challenged mainstream models, power and ideology. It also meant either clearing out researchers involved in those approaches (and a number of those staff have left the department in the last academic year) or undermining the work of those who remained.

“Change agenda”

Attempts to raise questions about increases in workload in May 2012 were quashed with an order that Ian should not send emails that might mobilise members of the department to resist this version of the ‘change agenda’. This order was later referred to as the ‘reasonable management instruction’ when he was suspended. Secretive setting of workload in a one-to-one ‘professional development review’ with the head of department rather than in open meetings then provided the model for decision-making in general. Unprecedentedly for this annual review, Ian was made to have his staff review in July with both the head of department and the dean of faculty; Ian was told that that he should join the management team, take decisions and ‘ensure that everyone else complies’. He was also told that he should cease his trade union activities.

Secrecy and control was the key problem Ian drew attention to at the end of September when Ian questioned appointment procedures for new staff. With that he was immediately suspended and barred from MMU buildings and from his email account. The charge was ‘gross professional misconduct’, though in the disciplinary hearing at the beginning of November the panel suggested that it might be looking at ‘insubordination’ instead.
The first letter to Ian about the disciplinary investigation contained a significant warning, that this was ‘a private and confidential matter and with the exception of your nominated representative, you should not discuss this with anyone.’ Had he obeyed that instruction it is certain he would have been finished. But as a UCU representative he immediately informed his union branch officers at MMU, and as he was due to chair a seminar given by one of his research group’s PhD students that afternoon, a message about the suspension was sent to be read out there. This message was summoned as part of the evidence against him in his disciplinary hearing (for causing ‘anxiety’ among the students), along with the hundreds of pages of letters of protest and calls to sign the petition supporting him. Why, he was asked, had he done nothing to stop the protests.

International campaign

The campaign was international, but at the core of it was a group of students working with international visitors to the department to publicise the suspension and demand open information. As well as the UCU branch protests the students distributed newspaper articles about the case in the campus where psychology was based, and they mobilised their own press contacts to get the story out to other staff and students. In place of compliant questionnaire fodder for good NSS scores that the department wanted, we saw the emergence of an active independent voice complaining about secrecy and control (and so about the very things that he had drawn attention to). Very soon connections were made with the case of Christine Vié (and she was then UCU representative championing Ian’s case at his disciplinary hearing).”

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