Buying and Selling

Paul Foot

  • The Davies Report: The ‘Great Battle’ in Swansea by Michael Davies
    Thoemmes, 139 pp, £3.99, October 1994, ISBN 1 85506 366 2

Can you spot the difference between the following passages? The first is a dissertation by a student seeking an MA degree in philosophy at a British university:

As an ultimate philosophical proposition, the case for voluntary euthanasia is strong. Whatever may be said for and against suicide generally, the appeal of death is immeasurably greater when it is sought not for a poor reason or just any reason, but for good cause so to speak; when it is invoked not on behalf of a socially useful person, but on behalf of, for example, the pain-racked hopelessly incurable cancer victim.

The second is a passage from a published collection of essays entitled Ethical Issues in Death and Dying – a standard work on the subject.

As an ultimate philosophical proposition, the case for voluntary euthanasia is strong. Whatever may be said for and against suicide generally, the appeal of death is immeasurably greater when it is sought not for a poor reason or just any reason, but for ‘good cause’, so to speak; when it is invoked not on behalf of a ‘socially useful’ person, but on behalf of, for example, the pain-racked ‘hopelessly incurable’ cancer victim.

Have you spotted the only difference – the inverted commas round three phrases in the textbook? Examiners of dissertations are always on guard against plagiarism. Nothing in the student is more intellectually slovenly than copying someone else’s ideas and even the exact words which express those ideas. Just one example like the above would alert any half-competent examiner. It certainly shocked Geoffrey Hunt and Anne Maclean, two lecturers in philosophy at the University College of Swansea, when they first read the dissertation in 1989. They reckoned that half of it had been copied out of books. Yet, they discovered to their horror, the lucky student had got his MA without a viva or a word of criticism.

Something was plainly wrong in the university’s Centre for the Study of Philosophy and Health Care, which had granted the MA. The Centre was set up as part of the Philosophy Department in 1987. By the end of 1989, when 40 MAs were handed out (including the one to our plagiarist), Hunt and Maclean had serious doubts about the academic standards of the degree. Another candidate, they discovered, had passed after submitting, two years late, two essays of 1500 words each. The essays were both supposed to be about 3500 words long.

Moreover, no one had failed the new healthcare course. The Examining Board did not appear to exist; and if it did, it didn’t meet. It seemed as though degrees were on sale to anyone who paid the entry fee; and that the new Centre was driven more by a determination to raise funds from well-heeled executives in the health-care industry than to preserve the intellectual and academic standards of the philosophy department.

Hunt and Maclean were supported in their indignation by almost all their students, and by some of their colleagues, including Colwyn Williamson, who had been lecturing in philosophy in Swansea since 1967, and Michael Cohen, a former Tory voter described by Sir Michael Davies as a ‘careful and reasonable sort of person’. In early 1990, all four lecturers, Hunt, Maclean, Williamson and Cohen, formally complained to the Academic Secretary of the University, Mr Jeffrey Pritchard, about standards at the Health Care Centre. Mr Pritchard passed the matter to the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Eric Sunderland, who acted promptly. On 4 May 1990, Pritchard replied with a letter which also needs to be read very carefully:

The Vice-Chancellor has asked me to inform you of his decision to set up a committee of inquiry into the allegations concerning academic standards on the MA course in Philosophy and Health Care at Swansea. The composition of the inquiry team has not yet been finalised but its members will be shown all the papers which have been referred to the University and will then need to determine what additional oral or written evidence needs to be taken.

Even the most hair-splitting philosopher would find it hard not to deduce from the letter that the Vice-Chancellor had decided to hold an inquiry and was appointing a committee to do the job. The outcome, therefore, was strange. No committee was set up and there was no inquiry. Instead, the registrar of Aberystwyth University College – like Swansea, part of the University of Wales – investigated the complaints without calling for witnesses or oral evidence and concluded that there was no case for an independent inquiry. The lecturers’ message was not investigated. Instead, the university authorities unleashed a campaign of vilification and abuse against the messengers. The immediate agency for this campaign was a committee of three under Professor H. Calvert, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Cardiff (also part of the University of Wales). The Calvert Committee sought only to examine the ‘grievances’ against the complainants submitted by the principal of the Department of Philosophy, Professor D.Z. Phillips, and the head of the Health Care Centre, Dr Donald Evans. The complainants were on trial – their complaints irrelevant. They walked out of the Calvert Committee proceedings.

They were obviously right to do so. The language of the Committee’s report would have sounded extreme at an Un-American Activities Committee hearing in the early Fifties. Williamson was described as ‘a man saturated in malice and impervious to truth’. On and on went the abuse against him in language which Davies describes as ‘quite remarkable for what was or should have been a calm, considered and rational document’. Cohen and Maclean, whose political affiliations were not as left-wing as Williamson’s, were also attacked. The possibility that the lecturers were expressing genuine concern about falling examination standards in their department was hardly even considered by Calvert, who concluded that Williamson was guilty of conduct of a ‘scandalous and disgraceful nature’ and should be hauled up in front of another committee so that he could be sacked. Cohen got a severe reprimand. Before the report came out, Anne Maclean had bowed to the pressures to which she and her colleagues had been subjected. She accepted a year’s salary, and left – after promising never to discuss the issues which led to her departure: ‘a complete gag’, as Davies described it.

Williamson and Cohen spurned the gag. Suspended from their jobs, they taught their students in a pub. They engaged in a powerful campaign against the authorities, in which they were supported throughout by the students, who at one stage occupied the College buildings, and by their unions. Philosophers from all over the country joined in the campaign. Protest letters from teachers filled the columns of the posh newspapers. The authorities hit back in their own special way. When graffiti not altogether complimentary to Professor Phillips appeared in the College toilets, a senior academic was instructed to compile a collection of them, two pages of which were solemnly presented in evidence. When an anonymous leaflet attacking the authorities circulated in the College, it was sent to a language specialist to identify the author. A Swansea PR firm was hired by the College to put the case against the complainants.

Even so, the campaign forced the University to think again about an independent inquiry. Eventually, they set up two – one under Professor K.O. Morgan of Aberystwyth and the other under Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer. Both reports supported the basic case put by the suspended lecturers. Morgan expressed his ‘unease at what appear to be various weaknesses in the overall administration of the MA scheme’. Swinnerton-Dyer said that the amount of formal teaching on the course had fallen ‘considerably below’ the standards it set itself, and added: ‘the amount of examining is also unusually low.’

As a result, the health-care course was changed. It was shifted out of the Philosophy Department and its standards scrutinised and toughened. The troublemakers’ basic case had been proved and acted on – but what should happen to them? The implacable duo and their equally implacable employers reached an impasse. Who could possibly serve as referee in the dispute?

The unusual answer seized on by the university authorities was – Her Majesty the Queen. By dint of an old rigmarole, the Queen is Visitor to the University of Swansea; and the Visitor, it was discovered, can be engaged to sort out disputes. Hey presto! By resolution of the College Council on 18 July 1991, the Queen became the arbiter. Her Majesty herself is perhaps not best qualified to deal with disputes of a philosophical character. Someone had to be appointed to act on her behalf. Her Privy Council was asked to make such an appointment. On 9 July 1992, nearly two and half years after the dispute broke out, the Council named Sir Michael Davies, a retired High Court judge, who had spent his last few years presiding in jocular mood over libel actions.

Davies was amazed and slightly bewildered by the ferocity of the contest he had to judge. His report, which was published on 29 May 1993, caused consternation among the University authorities. Polite in tone, meticulous to the point of fussiness in argument, never for a moment budging from the political fence, Davies declared game, set and match to Williamson and Cohen. The lecturers were not the monsters who had been painted, he argued. It was Phillips and Evans, not Williamson and Cohen, who had been intractable and haughty. The language of the Calvert Committee was unacceptable. The gag on Anne Maclean – indeed her whole treatment – had been wrong. Williamson and Cohen’s criticisms were plainly valid. There should have been an independent inquiry when the Vice-Chancellor first promised one. The critics, as he called them, should have been answered and their criticisms acted on.

After reaching these conclusions, Davies tried to get the parties to agree to conciliate. Surely, he pleaded, some compromise could be found which would satisfy both sides. Provided they got their jobs back, Williamson and Cohen were prepared to make peace. Their department head, Mr R.W. Beardsmore was not. He wrote to Davies: ‘We regard the return of either to the Department of Philosophy as non-negotiable as fat as we are concerned.’

Davies took no notice. Instead, he coolly recommended that both men – and Mrs Maclean – be unconditionally reinstated in their old jobs: and they were. The Principal of the College, Dr Brian Clarkson, has since left his job. Professor Phillips now spends half the year in the United States. But Colwyn Williamson, Anne Maclean and Michael Cohen are happily teaching philosophy in the department they helped to clean up. They have launched an organisation, the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, to assist other teachers who have been victimised for blowing the whistle.

Prolonged cheering would, however, be premature. In every university in the country there is the same boom in the number of students, the same pressure to cram more and more of them into each course, the same concessions to rich ‘students’ who want to buy their degrees. The commercialisation of education has been as crucial a component of the Thatcher experiment as has the privatisation of utilities or the quangoising of health. All of these have been thrust on the British public with a language of freedom which means exactly the opposite. ‘Freedom from bureaucracy’ in health has brought an enormous increase in bureaucracy. Freedom from monopoly in the utilities has resulted in the most monstrous monopolies. As for education, Williamson and Cohen were right when they said in a pamphlet published early in the dispute: ‘when academic standards start to slide, respect for academic freedom follows fast behind.’

The central aim of the Thatcher experiment was not to liberalise the production process, let alone free the market, but to humble and discipline the common herd into doing what they are told. Davies found that Professor Phillips ‘likes things done his way’. At an early meeting at the Centre of Health Care, the professor announced that ‘majority decision-making by the staff is not acceptable.’ Dr Evans, Davies reports, ‘seems to me to regard all criticism as ill-founded, trivial or suspicious’. The prevailing attitude at the College was admirably summed up by the Principal: ‘If this had happened in a company and I had been managing director, these people would have been up the road the moment they kicked up the fuss they did. They would have taken us to an industrial tribunal but they would have been off the payroll.’

Think as I think. Do as I do. Or get up the road to an industrial tribunal. This is the dynamic philosophy of modern British capitalism. It was stopped in its tracks at Swansea by a campaign which sought to involve as many people as possible far outside the campus; and by a High Court judge who recognised that a university is not a company, that its principal is not a managing director and that academic freedom cannot survive, let alone flourish, in the vice of the free market and its new disciplinarian disciples. Almost everywhere else in the newly-commercialised universities and the newly-privatised further education colleges the Swansea Menace stalks the corridors.