Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

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Universities and the Big Society

Posted by Jock Coats on 21st May 2010

Whatever else happens under this new government, we can be sure that they will pursue the Conservative manifesto idea of the “Big Society”.  Even if it was only first unleashed on an unsuspecting electorate two months ago, and not terribly well explained at that, it was seen by the Conservative leadership at east as a key priority in their redistribution of power away from Westminster and other government institutions and into the hands of free acting groups in neighbourhoods and communities.

I have written elsewhere of how sceptical I am about both the “Big Society” as a political policy and of the “Big Society Network” mega-mutual that underpins the idea, and about the place of mutuals in delivering on state set policy priorities.  But whether we like it or not, it is likely to become increasingly prominent in both political discourse and in the ways they seek to deliver what are currently public services and build capacity in our communities to take on more home-grown projects.

So I have been thinking about what it might mean for universities in general and for Brookes in particular.  There’s an early Cabinet Office briefing paper on the Big Society (a .pdf file) idea available on their website:

We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.

This is all very motherhood and apple pie stuff.  Governments for decades have talked about giving away power.  One wonders whether the idea that what might turn out to be the “local busybody” is merely a way of doing what the state does through local amateurs whose job will effectively be as lay agents of the state in every street, “nudging” local people in the direction the great big network suggests they should.  And so it is surely incumbent on those of us who believe otherwise – believe that social action is about seizing power from the state, not about delivering state set policies – to try to ensure that the outcome is not a lot of petty local tyrannies of the “usual suspects”.

So why do I think universities have a part to play in all this.  Well, we are, after all, social enterprises in our own right.  Multi-disciplinary social enterprises both at an academic level and because we have support functions that could be of use to a plethora of little local social enterprises who may lack the capacity for running back office functions such as finance, human resources and IT and marketing services.  We are not government, but are usually prominent, leading economic actors in our communities.  And of course, in many cases, we actually teach many of the skills and disciplines community groups will need.  And we have often underused facilities, especially at times, such as evenings, when these community enterprises will want to use them.

We are, as with Brookes, sometimes seen as imposing ourselves in some way on the communities within which we operate, but are often essential to the economic success of those areas even if our neighbours do not always appreciate that.  So it is good “PR” to be offering our services and facilities to this new breed of community project.

If, as with Brookes, we are also in the business of teaching the professionals that are then engaged in public sector delivery, such as health and education professionals, we will be affected – how will our teacher training offer for example need to evolve to cater for the “free schools” where curriculum and pedagogical style may be set less by the whitehall department and more by local sentiment and the opinions of those parent groups running those schools?  And, on the other side of that same coin, how can our academic professionals assist in the running of these services when they are devolved, in a similar way to our sponsorship of the Oxford Academy.

Our 2020 strategy, quoting John Henry Brookes himself says we aim to “graduate students to lead lives of consequence” and as part of that we are developing a set of “graduate attributes” over and above the academic requirements of their courses that we hope will set them apart when approaching employers.  But a constant theme amongst some of our local detractors in particular is that they are not committed to the community they are a part of while they are at university, with such phrases as “temporary residents” used disparagingly about students, especially those living out in private accommodation.

From the day they arrive at university; no, perhaps even from the day they choose this university as their preferred university, our students become a part of our, and therefore our neighbouring, communities.  If the future of leadership and political action is to be through participation in locally devolved enterprises, then we should seek to get them involved in these form the start.  This means active community building in halls of residence both to impart community organising skills to them as soon as they arrive, but also as evidence that the university takes this aspect of its students’ commitment to Oxford seriously.

Some of you will know that I have long harboured the notion that as probably the biggest “social enterprise” is any one area, universities are the natural home for social enterprise hubs for their region/sub-region/county.  At a time of austerity in public sector budgets too this could help us keep our income up, especially in non-teaching services where we could perhaps develop a bureau service to assist these new ventures with management functions leaving them to get on with delivering their aims.  The biggest point of failure and the biggest gripe of both SMEs and social enterprise is the back office stuff, the compliance with regulations, tax and PAYE systems, HR requirements and so on.  We could operate such a bureau on a “break even” basis for members of a social enterprise hub and on a for profit basis for local SMEs.

Such involvement could also help to establish our “impact” – if our research and innovation and our academics conducting such are able to use their new knowledge directly to benefit community action, increasing perhaps the community competitiveness of Oxfordshire as against other areas centred on other universities our academic standing is enhanced too.

There are certainly lots of possible opportunities to be grasped in this new localisation agenda; things that I think are better focussed on non-governmental institutions, and to me, it seems a “no brainer” that the “local university” fits the bill admirably.

Just as a final thought though, here’s one of the bullet points from the Cabinet Office document that really interests me:

We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services.

Ten years ago, when we were developing our last university strategy I submitted a paper to the then Vice-Chancellor Graham Upton and to the Academic Board, entitled a “Manifesto for a Mutual University” which envisaged the university arranged as a series of primary and secondary co-operatives.  Maybe that idea was only a decade early!

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Brookes alumni in General Election successes

Posted by Jock Coats on 14th May 2010

Whether you think the outcome of the General Election was what you wished it to be or not, it has led to an increase in the number of Brookes alumni now in parliament, and one is now in government:

Chris Kelly was elected MP for Dudley South, Justin Tomlinson for Swindon North and Jonathan Djanogly, who took over John Major’s seat of Huntingdon in 2001 has been appointed a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice.  All are Conservatives, Chris and Justin were prominent Conservative Society members when they were here, and I think probably graduated in 1999.

UPDATE: On the Lib Dem side it looks as though another Brookes alumna has been appointed to the government, in the form of Lynne Featherstone at the Home Office in charge of Equalities.

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Brookes student completes transatlantic rowing challenge

Posted by Jock Coats on 29th March 2010

There not much to add to this – they set out on 4th January having had a series of frustrating delays owing to weather conditions in the Canary Islands, but on Thursday (I think – even though their arrival blog post was posted Sunday) Tom Heal, second year Business undergraduate here at Brookes, and his friend Will Smith arrives after eighty days and 19 hours at sea at the finishing line in Antigua.

Read all about it at their blog, which has been a fascinating record throughout the course of those nearly three months.  And the gallery contains some amazing pictures taken throughout, including one of the now infamous “Lenny”, a black and white striped fish (possibly a Pilot Fish) that has followed their boat since the end of the first month of the crossing right to the very end in Antigua!

In completing this immense challenge, Tom and Will actually enter the record books as the youngest ever crew to complete such an ocean rowing feat.

Tom Heal, Business and Management undergraduate

Tom Heal, Business and Management undergraduate

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Called in

Posted by Jock Coats on 3rd March 2010

Rumour reaches me that our big planning application for the new library and teaching building has been, as it is termed, “called in” so that the decision will be made once again by all 48 city councillors. So the decision of the Strategic Development Control Committee, whom council elect to make large planning decision on their behalf, is for the second time being challenged and could yet be overturned and the application refused permission.

I have to admit that my own record on this sort of thing is hardly blemish-free – it was I who arranged for the decision in 2000 to allow the Oxford International Centre for Islamic Studies the go ahead to build on Marston Road reopened in full council after even full council had approved it narrowly on the very tenuous grounds that because we had had council elections in between and the composition of the council had changed it was potentially a material difference since the decision had been made! My argument was rejected, thankfully, and although I would probably still have preferred for the Islamic Centre not to have marked the start of development encroaching down the green spaces on the Marston Rd that divide the city from the suburb, given the often rather bleak look of what we have built opposite, I do rather find the Islamic Centre architecture a welcome break from 21st century halls of residence!

However, having been involved in the other side of planning now, i.e. from the applicant’s point of view, both with Oxfordshire Community Land Trusts and more recently obviously with this Brookes application, I am a reformed character in that respect. As a memorandum put out by the city council’s head of planning Michael Crofton-Briggs a couple of years later stated (at the time trying to remind councillors that appeals could be expensive and losing an appeal even more so) the principle of British planning law is that by default property owners should be allowed to do what they want on their property, unless there are well grounded public policy reasons why not.

Planning officers – the professionals whom the council appoints to be the “expert witness” if you like applying the local plan and local development framework to test each application and to recommend decisions to councillors – have twice now recommended approval for the building. The Strategic Development Control Committee has twice now followed the officers’ recommendations and approved the application – the last time by the narrowest possible majority in a 12 person committee – 7 votes to 5 – and this time somewhat more convincingly at 9 votes to 3. And both applications it seems will now end up being decided by the whole council.

It seems to me that the way this process works actually turns on its head that fundamental planning principle of allowing property owners to do what they want with their property by default, and implies what is the reality, that councillors feel that they have a right to hold something up until the applicant satisfies them. But I know only too well now what this sort of politicking costs. We are strong enough to be able to bear such costs, but when the applicant is someone, say a small developer, engaged on his main business activity, putting everything on hold, sometimes for years if a protracted appeals process ensues, can be enough to break such a business, which is an appalling price to pay for lay-councillors deciding to play a little politics with that developer’s property.

Development control is supposed to be a “quasi-judicial” process. Whilst justice demands rightly that objectors have their opportunity to comment and campaign against something, I do wonder whether ultimately the correct people to make the end decision, to balance, for example, the essentially non-voting applicant – “Oxford Brookes University” per se, does not have a vote in local elections and a very large proportion of our students do not vote (as students tend not to anywhere) – whereas the objectors are people who do have a vote and whose votes councillors must gain or retain when they are up for election.

So the incentives, I’ll say no more than that, are for councillors to side with the voters, and the most vocal of them at that, and not with applicants. It should be borne in mind too that their obligation is to all their constituents and not just the most vocal and erudite and some of these councillors have a lot of students in their ward who may not have voted for anyone but are still entitled to their councillors’ consideration.

Maybe it’s time that all planning decisions were handled by some kind of dispassionate professional service rigourously applying law and policy in a properly judicial setting.

Let us just hope that this time, sense will win out, and those who understand the contribution that Brookes makes to the local economy (which our city council has endorsed previously as part of the South East Plan which is where they should have raised objections if they wanted to I’d suggest) and that jeopardising the redevelopment of our physical facilities to better reflect our academic reputation, will have a majority in full council and that we do not need to go through the tortuous process of an appeal.

Constructions costs are now back on the rise. The longer gaining permission takes the more expensive, potentially, the development becomes, and the more of a diversion of resources that will mean from front line teaching, learning, research and student experience activities.

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Discretion and valour

Posted by Jock Coats on 5th February 2010

The eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed that the post from a couple of days ago about some of the details of the reorganisation of schools has disappeared.  The relevant people for whom it was primarily intended – the heads of the departments in the School of the Built Environment – had seen it (I can tell from the server logs!) as had many colleagues in the School.

But I notice today, having received paperwork for next week’s governors meeting that the issue is still marked down as part of the confidential section of the agenda.  Personally I am no fan of “confidential agendas” – though I can see why in certain cases where some kind of commercial contract is involved that could jeopardise our position in a proposed deal if it got out may need to be confidential.  It happened at the city council as well – though I seem to recall that “confidential” there did not apply to staff of the council, only the public’s presence at the meeting.

Anyway, I have got into a bit of hot water previously about discussing confidential items, albeit more publicly than on this blog, so for the moment, and until I clarify the situation, I have taken the post down.  On 19th January I did ask the V-C whether I could now talk more openly about the reorganisation and she said at that time “give it another couple of weeks” in order for Executive Board and the Deans to have a chance to see the proposals first.  Two weeks was up on Tuesday of this week, but although I think I have covered myself, I want to get further clarification given its appearance on the confidential agenda for next week.

That said, if you want to discuss it, or read the piece for yourself (and it really does mostly apply to SBE rather than the whole university), mail me or call me and I’ll forward it to you: I just feel it might be best not in such a public arena as a blog that anyone on the planet can find!

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Musical chairs, or the great game of reorganisation, round 3 1/2

Posted by Jock Coats on 3rd February 2010

Ever since I’ve been at Brookes it has felt like there is constant reorganisation going on (thankfully, usually, around me rather than involving me directly).  And so there should be, in many respects.  A large organisation does not grow, breathe, develop, without change; without constantly re-evaluating itself and the ebb and flow of outside influences and how we react to them.  So, as most of you are probably now at least dimly aware, there is another round of reorganisations in the works.

I remember literally the very first day of being a governor, the day after the election count, was a “Governor’s Strategy Day” which is an opportunity, usually once a year, for governors to meet slightly less formally than in a “business meeting” to hear from a variety of people about plans for the university and to discuss, without having to make immediate decisions, various options for the future.  Working in a team that supports desktop computing need from directors to admin assistants in all non-academic areas of the university, and having a background in business analysis and so knowing how to pick up vibes and information about how people and departments work, as well as living onsite to boot, I always thought I was reasonably well “plugged in” to how Brookes worked.

But when in the first presentation on that Strategy Day it became clear that far from being the dominant manager class, SMT actually had to “ask” this panel of more or less independent experts whether their idea of the direction of travel seemed appropriate.  They had to ask what we thought of their ideas, effectively ask permission to develop them and so on, and that was the very first time that I really felt like I could see the direction of travel of the entire machine, rather than the sometimes confusing apparent changes in the arrangement of the cogs inside that machine.  And it was comforting in a strange way…

I don’t want to appear to have “sold my soul” to the managerial classes, because I haven’t.  I retain a very healthy scepticism about management in academia, and about academics who give up their life’s passion to become part of “management”.  But I do always feel reassured that management always act in what they feel are the best interests of the institution and its mission.  In the underbelly we often hear murmurings about, for example, everything becoming too “corporate” or “commercial”, but from the governance perspective, many of these real world pressures upon us do become clear.

Now, none of that is to say that there are not opportunities to argue with management.  One of the best things I have found, even when I was an unknown, junior techie, about working at Brookes is that, by comparison with my experience of “big business”, even the most senior management are much more approachable with ideas, much more willing to re-evaluate after feedback than often extremely dictatorial corporate management.

We all recognise that we are a quintessentially “social enterprise”.  This has implications not just for what the “ends” of the institution as a whole are (i.e. that “profit” is not the only, or even the predominant, consideration in the “bottom line” except where it allows us to do more of what we think will be a greater social benefit).  But that unlike the corporate world where the shareholders are ultimately the primary interest in a business, we recognise much more the place of all our “stakeholders” (to use one of the most overused but ill-defined neologisms of contemporary “market politics”).  Management are not the explicit, legal agents of a class of interests (the owners) that is often fundamentally opposed to other interests such as staff but much more obviously have to co-ordinate those varying interests.

Anyway, a lot of this is really by way of introduction to my next post – as we are at one of those points where a little bit of arguing back to management might well be appropriate.  The proposal to reorganise the university into four, instead of the current eight, academic “groupings” – call them “schools”, “faculties” or whatever you will, is probably pretty well public knowledge by now (I know, to some personal frustration at not being able to discuss it terribly openly, the rumour mill has been going for months now about it).  And I believe I have kept my word as a governor to keep my silence until Deans and Executive Board and so on had had an opportunity to hear the plans, so now I think I can address some of the issues more publicly and directly.

Whilst in many areas, the synergies are obvious, and indeed welcomed amongst some colleagues looking forward to working more closely with new “school mates”, there is one area in particular, the School of the Built Environment, where the current unit is not going to be a “partner” in a merger but split apart into several different new schools.  So this deserves a post of its own as Mitch and I grapple with some of the issues that you would like us to take up on your behalf over the next couple of weeks before the plans become completely set in concrete…

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See amid the winter snow…

Posted by Jock Coats on 6th January 2010

So the university has decided to be closed tomorrow, Thursday 7th January, except for “essential staff”.  This presents a nice little irony for those intent on evicting live-in warden staff from halls of residence.  Because of course, although it is not term time and we don’t have that many people about even in halls at the moment, what we do have are wardens, who, under the previous system of marketing the role primarily to university staff would, almost by definition, be stuck, tomorrow…in halls of residence.

Snow at Morrell Hall last night

Snow at Morrell Hall last night

What, one might ask, would have happened in halls if this snow had fallen on Friday night?  Would instant arrangements have been made to make lots of staff come in on an otherwise weekend day off to clear snow and so on?  No, wardens, coupled with security at night and on call back up where necessary would have had to have coped.

Indeed, today, just as soon as it was decided to close Gipsy Lane I made my way back to the hall and offered to take the warden bag and remain on site, on call, so that staff could be allowed to go home as staff on other sites had been allowed to do for their own safety.

But other problems will remain, indeed probably be exacerbated, by getting rid of wardens as proposed if this happens next year, even if this is repeated on a week night when the hall office and staff may have been around during the day.  For it is even less likely that concierge staff due to start at 10pm each night will be able to make it in (though to do justice to our current security staff, both of mine made their way in on time last night and even helped to clear snow during the night), and there will be no officially responsible person living on site to cope in such a situation, whereas wardens, well, assuming we’re not actually stuck somewhere else, we’d be stuck here, with nothing to do but help care for the security and welfare of our home community.

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Brookes student begins Atlantic rowing challenge today

Posted by Jock Coats on 4th January 2010

You may have noticed back in an OnStream article late last year that we had a Business School undergraduate, Tom Heal, entered into the Woodvale Challenge Atlantic rowing race with his friend Will Smith.  They will, if they complete the race, be the youngest ever two person team to row across an ocean.

Well owing to bad weather in the Canary Islands for much of the last month the race start has been delayed since December 6th originally.  But today they got underway.  You can follow Will and Tom’s progress on the race website from their radio beacon signal, and through their occasional blog from the boat.

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Office parties…

Posted by Jock Coats on 21st December 2009

…’Tis the season for office parties, and on Friday we welcomed the return of the Brookes staff Christmas “event” down at Morals Bar. The group I was with was somewhat late so missed the advertised carol singing (hint – don’t advertise such participatory things up front in future, just surprise us with them when we arrive!) but when we did get there there were a good few left, from Finance, Learning Resources and other departments.

Morals Bar (but not the staff party!)

Morals Bar (but not the staff party!)

The lack of anything remotely resembling beer was a bit of a disappointment, but then as it is my local at least I was expecting it and managed to bags the only four bottles of Old Speckled Hen at the knock down price of £2.50 a bottle (500ml) which are usually £3.50!

But I was thinking, perhaps, if we have another one, and if we have something like an SCR Association going, just perhaps, we could persuade Steve to get a little polypin of some decent ale in, just for Christmas? I’m sure if it had not all been drunk by staff that when they let the “customers” in later at 10pm, they would have polished it off for us – after all, they’ve been starved of beer all semester!).

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Locked out!

Posted by Jock Coats on 21st December 2009

Further to my moan about the new staff facilities, or lack of them, at Gipsy Lane the other day, I noticed that even the new staff dining area was today all locked up, and, or so it seems, there’s no prospect of it being opened again before the Christmas break, not even for us to get our food in the main food court and go an eat it in the staff area.

Funny thing – after the last exams today it is really just the staff who are about, and we have to stay here until 24th December. Still, the Waitrose desktop picnic will suffice for today and tomorrow, but such a shame I had to go on a foraging expedition to Headington to get it, and still missed wherever this fabulous new chocolatier is.

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