When Dame Janet Beer became vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool in 2015, she was seen as a progressive influence. She came from a background in American literature and Canadian women’s writing and was known to be well- connected: Theresa May is apparently among her contacts. “She came in with a lot of fanfare as this highly respected academic; a highly respected female leader within the HE sector,” one insider told us. “She was seen as very progressive and nurturing.”
However, her appointment as President of Universities UK, the professional body that represents universities across the country, set her on a collision course with academic staff at the university. One member of staff described her appointment to UUK as a “line in the sand” when she was required to take a lead on pensions, one of the main reasons behind industrial action in the sector in recent years. “She had to play politics, rather than have the interests of the university at heart. All of a sudden she was toeing party lines for UUK,” the insider added.
Beer was, by all accounts, seen little during lockdown in Liverpool and became known as a VC in absentia. One lecturer who has worked for the University of Liverpool for four years recalls seeing her on campus just once. When she announced her intention to retire at the end of December this year, the news was met with ambivalence and a sense of inevitability. “There’s no dynamism; the kind of visionary principles that you need from a VC. They’ve been absent. No one’s really massively going to miss her and she’s probably pretty happy to be pissing off as well,” our source told us.
When asked what sort of relationship between university management and academic staff (the union there was described as the “most militant” one source had ever worked with) she will leave behind, one university employee gave us one word: toxic.
‘Disliked and revered’
“He’s probably disliked and revered in equal measure,” said one insider of Gerald Pillay, the outgoing vice-chancellor of Liverpool Hope University. “There are people who hold them in very high regard because he’s the person who oversaw Hope becoming a university. He turned it from being what was a teaching college into a university with a large research component.”
However Pillay is described as dogmatic by members of staff at Hope, and has faced criticism from staff over workloads. His habit of taking an interest in all academic appointments (there are close to 400 academic staff at Hope) also marks him out as unusual in the sector.
Gerald Pillay signing as an academic partner with Louisiana Christian College in 2019. Photo via Twitter.
Born in apartheid South Africa, Pillay studied and taught theology in South Africa, New Zealand and Great Britain. He was appointed rector & vice-chancellor of Hope in 2003.
Pillay’s faith is well suited to Hope’s ecclesiastical bent, which is largely manifested in its external partnerships. Hope’s relationship with Spurgeon’s College, an evangelical Baptist theological college in London, has led to fears among some staff that there might be curbs on academic freedom if they are required to teach on that college’s curriculum.
Pillay has also invested time and energy in Hope’s beautifully manicured gardens, which give the university a striking physical profile at the Woolton campus. Insiders say he is taken with the idea of the gardens as being places that promote wellness but also educating the individual in mind, body and spirit.
He commenced a three-year term as President of Initiatives of Change — an international Christian fellowship — in January 2022, and staff are anxious about whether his successor will take their complaints about working conditions more seriously.
Regarding the current industrial action, for staff at Hope, where the union is “quite powerful”, issues of workload may be foremost in the mind. One member of staff told us: “University management has tended to be quite dogmatic in the view that whole academic staff are not overworked regardless of all of the evidence to the contrary.”
• Originally written for the Liverpool Post – click here for the original version: What’s driving staff anger at Liverpool’s universities?