Letter to Chief Correspondent regarding Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell


1st March 2019

Dear Sam,

I both studied at, and worked at, the University of Bath during the term of the outgoing Vice-Chancellor. As a mature student, I studied for an MSc International Public Policy Analysis in 2011-2012, and then an abortive PhD in 2013-2015. I worked during my PhD studies as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department for Social & Policy Sciences, and then, amongst other things, a Part Time Teaching Fellow in Academic Skills, and continued working past my studies until it became impossible for me to continue doing so in May 2017.

My experience as a student was mixed. Some of the teaching staff were committed, but most, certainly those below Professorial grades, were struggling with the ludicrous demands on their time. Overall, I did not feel I got the sort of support I needed, to paraphrase the Postgraduate Ombudsman, and this was true at times during my MSc as well as during my subsequent PhD registration. The institution was not responsive to constructive criticism, particularly where it ran against the agenda of its senior officers and bodies. As Academic Representative for my MSc cohort, I conveyed to a Professor in my Department that there were deficiencies in the support for MSc dissertations, to which he responded by saying that there had been issues with that for a long time.

My experience as an academic member of staff – a common occupation and use of part time and full time postgraduate students – was also mixed. I had a lot of time for a number of colleagues in both Social & Policy Sciences, and in what came to be called the Skills Centre. I was also impressed by the leadership of the local branch of UCU; it was at the University of Bath that I first took industrial action during my working life. I delivered what I could in very difficult circumstances, working under zero and variable hours contracts. I departed after the Department – and University – refused to convert the contract covering my work as a Part Time Teaching Fellow into a permanent fractional one, as UCU officers had informed me they were supposed to, in circumstances where more than a certain number of hours had been worked over a sustained period, with the work continuing for the foreseeable future, as per an agreement between the University and UCU. I think this is being revisited presently. I remember remarking to my line manager in a last meeting that it was difficult coming to work each day feeling that your employer had their hand in your pocket.

I should add too that I have experienced some of the effects of the University as a citizen/resident : I have lived much of the last twenty years in Bath. As I write, I reside in accommodation designed for students, brokered through a letting agent focused on student lettings. It is owned by an investor; it is expensive; and I am not sure it is fit for human habitation. Local housing officers said they were surprised I had managed to find anything on the private market within the local housing allowance; I had no alternative and was lucky not to find myself immediately facing life on the street.

A lot has been written about Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell. She is not universally admired. It is certainly true that in her term, and her person, a variety of offending values, attitudes, and behaviours have been in evidence. In turn, the structures that she has instituted within the university, and beyond, are offending structures. It must be understood however that the Vice Chancellor is merely a member of a class that has lived and lives by servicing the interests of the rich, and itself, at the expense of what I consider are the three classes below – the majority of humankind – and of future generations. She did not do what she did alone, and was encouraged from above, supported by colleagues, senior academics and Heads of Department, and allowed to do so by a body of staff, students, and broader society, until more recently.

Much as I am piqued by the wrongs that have been done to me personally, and the injuries done to others, I believe we all need to move forward, and urgently bring into being a human system that does no injury to the Earth System or to humankind. Personnel changes are not enough. We need structural change : values, attitudes, the constitution/governance of institutions, the physical landscape. We must all transcend our class position; the class structure is an offending one, and must also go.

I therefore invite Professor Dame Glynis and all those who have encouraged her, colluded with her, and allowed her to do what she did – to acknowledge the injuries that have been caused, work to understand their shortcomings, and redeem themselves through collective action. Inside the university, union penetration needs to increase. Active participation in the Student’s Union, UCU, and the other unions needs to increase. Outside the university, I would suggest such people apply themselves to the work of their local Extinction Rebellion, a party committed to change of the sort required, such as the Green Party of England and Wales, and in support of the Fridays For Future, Youth Strike For Climate and School Strike for Climate movement. This experience, and the skills likely to be gained thus, will equip them with what they need to live happily in the civilised – and ecologically viable – society we are bringing into being.

Yours sincerely,