Published: 4th November, 2019
It was good to have the opportunity to meet with you a fortnight ago and briefly outline our priorities. We are writing to formally welcome you to Leicester and to our university. Here we – very briefly – reflect on the history of the University, explain what we believe to be its most pressing current problems, and suggest a way forward. (Please be aware that this is an open letter: we are writing on behalf of all members of Leicester UCU and so we will be sharing its content on our website.)
You probably know a little of the history already. Leicester University College was born out of adversity, established in 1921 as a living memorial to those who lost their lives in the First World War. From its very foundation, it has had strong connections to the local community in which it is located. Although Thomas Fielding Johnson was the university’s single largest benefactor, the bulk of the money raised came from individuals of much more modest means (many donating as a way of commemorating their fallen sons). Of course, this motivation is captured in the University’s motto Ut Vitam Habeant. In 1927 ties to the community were further strengthened when the University merged with Vaughan College, which had been founded in 1862 as an adult education and self-improvement centre for local men and women. We believe that this rootedness-in-the-community has remained a distinctive and valued characteristic of Leicester University through much of its subsequent history. The University is still held in high regard by many Leicester residents; many of its scholars – in an increasingly mobile and transient profession – are still proud to work here, they have chosen to devote much (or even all of their career) to this university and they have put down roots in the city.
In recent years, however, the University has lost its way and – we believe – a good deal of its esteem. A number of decisions have resulted in severe damage to its reputation, both in Leicestershire (the closure of Vaughan in 2016) and internationally (the sacking of several members of the Physics department and the attempt to make redundant members of the Maths department). More generally, staff morale has seeped away and the loyalty of longstanding scholars has been tested to – and, in many cases, beyond – breaking point. There are some specific issues of grave concern: a culture in some departments/schools in which bullying and sexual harassment go unchecked; high levels of job insecurity and ‘precarity’; low pay and inequality; opaque decision-making structures and a lack of staff representation on these structures of governance. Many of these problems are sadly sector-wide – and some can be traced to processes of marketisation, the tyranny of metrics and the crisis of the present funding regime. But they are particularly severe at University of Leicester. In 2016 we characterised the leadership team’s slavish reliance on sector benchmarks as a ‘strategy’ of ‘trying to achieve excellence by aiming for the average’. Three years on, it’s clear that this policy of reverting to the mean has produced an institution that is becoming both mediocre and mean.
The University of Leicester is at a crisis point. (We use ‘crisis’ in its precise meaning, as fork or moment of decision.) Despite everything, it retains many committed, imaginative and capable staff. We invite you, first of all, to recognise us and to acknowledge that we the employees – all of us – make the university; we are its foundations. Second, the issues we identify above must be addressed. We acknowledge that many are rooted in national problems, but we believe they can nevertheless be mitigated at local level. We (as employees in general, and as Leicester UCU in particular) have many ideas about this, so we hope that you will choose to fully involve us in this.
More broadly, our university needs to rediscover itself and its mission and we believe its motto – regrettably dropped from the shield in 2016’s rebranding exercise – can help us frame this rediscovery. Usually translated as ‘that they may have life’, ‘Ut Vitam Habeant’ may, less literally, but still correctly, be translated as ‘that they may live’; and by living we have in mind something more than mere physical survival. The ability to live – a full life, a fulfilling life – must first of all be open to the university’s employees. Excessive workloads and insecurity are both life undermining; both must be banished. In the twenty-first century – and in the university’s second century – the community the University of Leicester must serve extends beyond the physical boundaries of Leicester and Leicestershire – though there is much more we could and should do to enrich the lives of ‘locals’. This community is global, but its fabric is being unpicked by the agonies of racist discourse and borders, of the ‘hostile environment’, of Brexit. in November 2018 the University of Leicester declared itself ‘university of sanctuary’: how can this aspiration be given substance? Finally, community must have a temporal dimension. The founders of our university were, to some extent, looking backwards, seeking to memorialise the horrors of the Great War. We must look forwards, to future generations. Seeking to avert and to mitigate the horrors of the unfolding climate catastrophe (already been visited on people in many poorer countries – and a driver of migration), such that these generations might live, must underpin everything that we do.
We have tried to summarise what we think the challenges are for the University of Leicester – and what we think its priorities should be in its second century. We have been as brief as we can. Suffice to say, we have much more to say of these questions and many others. We look forwards to discussing them further and we very much hope we can work productively with you in order to address them.
With best wishes
[This open letter was corrected on 5 November to correct two minor errors. In the original version we incorrectly stated: (1) that mathematicians were sacked in 2016; and that Leicester is a ‘city of sanctuary’ – it is not although the charity Leicester City of Sanctuary does exist.]