TeachHigher and Voice at Warwick

Miguel Costa Matos

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The Albert Hirschmann classic, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, has been used over the decades to explain how organisations can improve. In markets, there is exit. If you don’t like a product or producer, you stop buying from them. That will send them a signal, and if they still don’t listen, then they will eventually be out of business. Exit is also applicable to some organisations (say, our own activist group) or even to countries (you can emigrate!). However, political studies much prefer voice. It is inherently political. It is far less destructive.

Many organisations have opportunities for voice incorporated in their functioning. Even the University, with the Students’ Union, SSLC’s and module feedback, to name just a few. They do this to avoid exit and the destruction that’s naturally associated with it. If they can channel voice, then perhaps they can stay in business. In theory, Universities can experience exit too. Surrey recently laid off its Politics department and many other staff due to insufficient ‘student demand’ and research income. Similarly, academics can decide not to work at some Universities.

Or can they? In reality, the rate of exit is glacial. Institutions with firmer reputations may well be able to survive, especially in a world where access to higher education is hotly contested, and access to employment in higher education even more so. More PhDs graduate than get employed by Universities, leaving many with the freedom to work but not the freedom not to work. (Cf. G.A. Cohen on Proletarian Unfreedom) With students as consumers, the problem is that the vast majority don’t consume more than one qualification and also, the vast majority can’t change where they are consuming mid-qualification. In practice, Universities don’t work as businesses in a market. In practice, exit doesn’t work for Universities.

This is the reason why Universities have so many institutions designed to promote voice. It is baffling then that Warwick should be embarking on a project of mass casualization – or TeachHigher, as we know it. As an organization, it does not make sense to aggravate academic precarity, because of the loss to voice associated. Of course, while entirely non-sensical, it is completely unsurprising. Warwick does not value voice, despite its cleverly worded ‘tone of voice’ guidelines. Academics were taught not to disagree with management, by the infamous suspension of Thomas Docherty for sighs of insubordination. This was only the loudest expression of a latent culture of repression among staff. The events of last December only extended that to students.

TeachHigher further quashes opportunities for voice and institutional improvement. None of us want Warwick to suffer exit, nor do we want it to descend into a hodgepodge of frustrated academics and students, who can neither voice their concerns nor exit an increasingly troubled institution. Our affinity to Warwick should move us to stop TeachHigher before it injects malaise into our community. Let’s make this a positive campaign, of how Warwick can do better by listening and uniting, rather than dividing and instead of ruling, ruing.

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