Should the head of a top UK university be overseeing NHS privatisation on the side?

The track record and ideology which won Malcolm Grant the chair of the Health Minster's NHS Commissioning Board are the very same reasons students have rejected his leadership of University College London.
Ben Towse
14 December 2011

Students at University College London (UCL) have passed a vote of no confidence in their Provost, Malcolm Grant. This was triggered, most immediately, by students’ objection to his intention to continue running UCL while accepting Andrew Lansley’s invitation to chair the new NHS Commissioning Board. Though he doesn’t even use the NHS himself, Grant will be put in charge of a £100 billion health budget and the implementation of the coalition government’s NHS reforms, while also running a university of 24,000 students and 8000 staff. We don’t think either of these are part-time commitments.



Moreover, we reject any association of our university with Lansley’s plan to demolish the values that define our universal health service, and replace them with profit and competition. Our vote against Lansley’s appointee echoes nurses’ vote of no confidence in the Secretary himself and doctors’ condemnation of his plans.

But our opposition to Grant has deeper roots than this. His tenure at UCL has been marked by a series of conflicts between students and staff - who believe that a university is a community with an academic mission and ethical obligations - and Grant’s administration, which uses UCL’s radical egalitarian heritage for marketing purposes while imposing a vision based on business models. The no confidence vote represents our final rejection of that ideology – the same ideology which must have appealed to a government with similar ideas for both higher education and healthcare.

Grant’s record indeed makes him fitting for Lansley’s plans, and should worry anyone who cares about academia, healthcare or both. As a faithful cheerleader for fee increases, he presumably won points with ministers, for ignoring calls to publicly oppose last year’s staggering funding cuts and attacks on the arts and humanities too. As a result, UCL undergraduates will soon pay the £9,000 maximum and masters students fees exceeding £12,000. Grant has embarked on an explicit mission to reduce our excellent staff-student ratio. As a result we have seen a series of attempts to cut academically successful departments and support services, and an increasing shift of teaching responsibilities at our supposedly elite university onto  under-trained, underpaid PhD candidates. Despite his insistence that these were financially necessary cuts, he has splurged cash on one of the highest paid university management teams in the country as well as major building, expansion, and re-branding projects.

Grant’s private-sector-style university is one of outsourced services, poverty pay and internal marketization. He has lined private contractors’ pockets with our money while claiming that the Living Wage – the minimum necessary to survive in London – was an unaffordable “luxury”, until he was publicly embarrassed into promising to pay it. Over a year later, that promise remains unfulfilled and looks increasingly empty as hours are cut. Meanwhile an expensive IT support restructuring threatens to exchange frontline staff for more managers, and to transform a support department into something like a business that will sell its services to the rest of us – no longer colleagues but customers.

We have been left with little choice but to go on the offensive. Democratic structures, already thin on the ground, are being dismantled. Dissent through formal “feedback” channels is easily ignored or dismissed. Non-violent protest has been met with punitive disciplinary punishments, threats of legal action, and even arrests. We are tired of fighting defensive battles one by one, for the occasional partial or temporary reprieve.

We will not be satisfied with Grant’s resignation and his replacement with a similar managerial appointee, and we know that he is not some cartoonish lone villain whose departure would liberate UCL. That’s why the student union is also calling for a top-to-bottom democratisation of our university, including an elected Provost. We are joining the growing wave of students and education workers who are explicitly rejecting the ideology imposed on us by successive governments and their complicit managers, and demanding democratic public universities true to our core academic and ethical values.

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