Nobody is redundant

Along with everybody else concerned about higher education, I have been immersed in debates about the future of universities after Covid. I recommend the Post-Pandemic University’s blog and series of online conferences . We discuss how face-to-face and online learning will coexist. How different are the underlying pedagogies for each modality? Scholars describe the huge increase in workload that multi-mode and multi-platform teaching has generated and worry this will further exhaust their mental health and energy.

Amidst this crisis, university managers are contemplating a financial shortfall arising from missing accommodation revenues, costs of increased biosecurity measures and, in some cases, fear of declining student headcount. Among the cost-cutting measures currently being imposed are the non-renewal of short-term contracts, curtailing of research leave, and most controversial in the context of a pandemic recession, compulsory redundancies.

So here are some thoughts on the post-pandemic landscape of universities and their campuses which occurred to me after I received unexpected but welcome messages from a couple of former students in the last few weeks.

James who graduated in the early 2000s got in touch to ask “Are you watching It’s A Sin? It made me realise that the first time I learnt about ‘gay history’ was at university. In your class and in another module called ‘representing aids’ – I can’t remember the tutors name? Anyhow it was the first step into a world where suddenly everything started to make sense – I’d never been so connected to learning. It’s a sin reminded me of sitting in your office and telling you I was gay after your class – and feeling safe. Will never forget that moment. Thanks 🙂 x’.

Mike who also graduated in the early 2000s messaged to say ‘I now look back on my time at NTU with fondness. You stand out as a hugely positive influence on me thanks to your open and engaging teaching style and your natural pastoral approach to conversations on numerous topics which certainly helped to broaden my view of the world and influenced my liberal political stance. So thank you again for the part you played in opening the mind of a somewhat fucked-up young man from a Yorkshire mining town!’.

While these affirmations might confirm all the suspicions Sam Gyimah and other Tory ministers hold about apparently left-wing lecturers, there is a more important message. It is about shared, interactive learning. Learning in a community. Learning and memory. Learning in place. Learning in a place. And most importantly, learning is personal in a very different way from the concept of ‘personalisation’ which is sold by the ed-tech industry and endorsed by vice chancellors and deans across the HE sector.

I have had a few emails from students over the years, reminiscing about course content which has been transformed from the abstraction of a university seminar to becoming personal and immanent. No former student has ever thanked me for raising their income or increasing their return on investment. And yet, this seems to be high among the concerns of the department of education. The OECD has produced a report which attempts to monetise what they see as each year of missed learning for children and university students and the presumed concomitant loss in knowledge and skills.

There are two related streams of long-run economic costs that are central to this discussion. First, affected students whose schooling has been interrupted by the pandemic face long-term losses in income. Second, national economies that go forward with a less skilled labour force face lower economic growth which subtracts from the overall welfare of society.

[Eric A. Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann 2020. The economic impacts of learning losses. OECD Education Working Papers No. 225]

On Twitter, Ben Williamson, a critic of ed-tech, has been resisting the analysis that less learning = less human capital = weaker productivity, and points out that ‘economization of education is nothing new. Education has been positioned as integral to economic development for years. States compare and compete over education. So “learning loss” is just a new anxiety of a much longer trend to instrumentalize education.’ And he goes on to warn how ed-tech companies are waiting in the wings to provide the ‘digital transformation’ solutions to enable students to catch up.

In February 2021 Ben Williamson and Anna Hogan wrote a report for Education International in which they recognise that a large amount of venture capital is flowing into ed-tech in response to a much more prominent role for data-driven decision making in higher education. Together with the perennial promise of ‘personalised’ educational content, their report predicts a future of ‘unbundled’ courses, and an accelerated process of marginalisation or ‘pausing’ of activities which do not satisfy the monetised criteria for their continuation. It is important to remember that much of this personalisation depends on the collection and use of large amounts of student data which students are obliged to surrender just as a consequence of logging on to the university VLE.

There are other similarly undemocratic and data-driven ways in which universities are being refashioned. In announcing redundancies and course closures, a number of universities (Portsmouth, Liverpool, Brighton, Leeds, Leicester and others) are stripping their own assets. In the case of Portsmouth, the group @Save English Literature at Portsmouth #UCU alleges that decision making has lacked openness. At the University of Sussex, a newly-validated BA course in Languages and Intercultural Studies has been cancelled without consultation.

Some of these decisions appear to constitute major restructuring of the university and curricular provision without going through the regular channels for making such changes. This risks compromising the autonomy of academics to teach and research according to their own judgement. The most egregious violation of this principle is the University of Leicester which recently announced redundancies in English and in Business, with UCU blaming a history of poor financial management.

In English at Leicester, redundancy notices have been served on scholars in medieval literature. If you are thinking that Leicester might have been motivated to nurture its medievalists after the discovery of the remains of Richard III in 2012, well that was probably archived as the last REF’s impact case study. On with the new, as the justification for the cuts, according to management, is to allow greater support for gender and sexuality themes within English literature. Management have seized a tactical opportunity to align this action with their aspiration to ‘shape for excellence’ and towards decolonising the curriculum. If this pronouncement was not so naïve and disingenuous it might find support. But you don’t decolonise the curriculum just by excising every literary period prior to colonisation. As Martin Parker points out in a recent podcast, in the school of business, where a vigorous and renowned critical curriculum already exists, the university management are acting to erase precisely those perspectives. So, critical management studies and political economy are being axed in favour of data analytics, entrepreneurship and leadership along with the erasure of jobs and expertise. These two parallel catastrophes expose the insincerity of a management team trying to camouflage their own opportunistic vandalism as progressive development.

Bad faith and insufferable, gaslighting hypocrisy do long-term damage to ambition, loyalty and trust within an institution. Staff and students are bound to feel poorly served when ratified governance procedures and normal consultation are circumvented to the point whereby the university is left in a weak position academically. Staff suspect politicians and university managers of mounting an ideologically-driven assault on the arts, humanities and social sciences, and it is refreshing to see one university leader calling for resistance to the government onslaught.

As well as echoing government hostility to non-stem subjects, some executive teams seem to be taking their orders from data crunching firms like DataHE or The Knowledge Partnership whose websites suggest they have greater regard for short-term marketing data than for the function or composition of universities. Data HE assert ‘We are expert in data sensitivities…We are data specialists in higher education recruitment and our aim is to accelerate the use of data for good strategy and high performance in universities.’  Despite DataHE’s goal to “increase trust in the use of data”, their blog appears to end in May 2019.


If there is one insight which does have currency within academia, it is that scholars in universities are bound by complex chains of mutual dependence on each other’s knowledge and expertise. Whether you call it collegiality or networks or interdisciplinarity – universities function as intellectual ecosystems. So, international relations is underpinned by history and geography which make use of concepts developed in sociology which has close links with anthropology and social theory whose concepts are developed in cultural studies which informs the study of literature and media. And expertise in all of these disparate but interconnected fields will be represented and strengthened by colleagues in departments of linguistics and modern languages. In science as well, these polymer chains entwine the disciplines and allow new connections to emerge.

It goes without saying that universities are knowledge institutions. Their ability to develop successfully depends on the expertise of the staff who work within them. There are no short cuts to academic careers that require long periods of training in highly specialised areas. This requires academic, personal and financial dedication and all without any guarantee of what the government wishes us to view as ‘return on investment’. In other words, many take the long-term risks, but few are rewarded with the academic post that enables good work and academic freedom.  

It is appalling that these strong but also fragile connections may be carelessly severed by those who are ready to cede institutional autonomy to data consultants or government caprice, or who are willing to see staff numbers fall to in order to finance a new atrium or promote the ultimate status symbol – the overseas campus.

Unless we make decisions on academic grounds and not the data of marketisation, branding, reputation, universities risk irrelevance and collapse into alienation. Research will not be led by curiosity but instead by the kind of ill-informed hunches the prime minister’s advisors tend to have. Higher education will become increasingly standardized, homogenized and dehumanized even as the preposterous contradiction of algorithmically-driven ‘personalization’ is sold to students and university managers alike. It is really important that all staff take part in conversations about the future of universities and the way they may work in the future. Structures of democratic governance and collective decision making have never been more important – or weaker.

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The Vice Chancellors’ Christmas Quiz 2020 – the answers

Answers to the quiz posted on December 20th. Congratulations if you scored more then 10 points out of 25.

But first a primer…. (4 points)

1. Who is the current chair of Universities UK?

[Julia Buckingham, VC Brunel University]

2. The director of Universities Scotland shares his name with an actor who played another legendary educator. Name him.

[Alastair Sim]

3. Which University’s chancellor and vice chancellor both served as MPs and held high office in parliament and government, respectively?

[University of Bedfordshire: John Bercow (Chancellor) and Bill Rammell (VC)]

4. Who is the UK’s longest-serving vice chancellor, appointed in 1993?

[John Cater, VC Edge Hill University]

Succession planning (6 points)

5. Which long-serving VC retired in August 2020 and was succeeded by Lisa Roberts?

[Steve Smith, University of Exeter]

6. Who has succeeded David Eastwood as Chair of the board of trustees of the USS pension scheme?

[Kate Barker]

7. Who succeeded Anton Muscatelli as chair of the Russell Group in 2020?

[Dame Nancy Rothwell, VC University of Manchester]

8. Who is still Interim Vice Chancellor of which university, almost two years after having assumed the role in February 2019?

[Andy Collop, De Montfort University]

9. Which university has a vacancy for chancellor after an embarrassing resignation as a result of a Newsnight interview in November 2019?

[University of Huddersfield, after the resignation og HRH Prince Andrew]

Pandemic response (4 points)

10. Which VC was the first to promise a fully open and covid-secure campus for the autumn of 2020?

[George Holmes, VC University of Bolton]

11. Which VC said the pandemic has ‘put a digital rocket up the backsides of mainstream HE’?

[Nick Petford, VC Northampton University]

12. Which VC’s response to impending lockdown in March and posted on Twitter was: ‘Off to the pub. Not sure when I’ll be doing this again. Happy Friday!’ ?

[Liz Barnes, VC Staffordshire University]

13. Which university’s management has been criticised for making redundancies to IT staff in the midst of the pivot to online ?

[University of Brighton]

Celebrity corner (6 points)

14. Which 2020 Strictly Come Dancing contestant is currently Chancellor of which university?

[Ranvir Singh, Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire]

15. One former married couple, both actors and comedians, serve as chancellors of different universities. Name the actors and the universities.

[Dawn French, Falmouth University. Sir Lenny Henry, Birmingham City University]

Apologies (4 points)

16. Which VC has been forced to apologise twice to students this year? The second apology was an apology for not apologising.

[Dame Nancy Rothwell, VC Manchester]

17. Name one VC who was forced to apologise for bullying a senior colleague in 2020?

[Alice Gast, President of Imperial College]

18. Name another VC who apologised in 2019 for a culture of bullying at the university?

[Adam Tickell, VC University of Sussex]

19. The chief operating officer of which university sent an email to staff asking them to stop sending “borderline threatening” emails to professional services staff during the coronavirus lockdown?

[LSE]

Hopeful sign 1 point)

20. Which university’s strapline is “University for the Common Good”?

[Glasgow Caledonian University]

The Vice Chancellors’ Christmas Quiz 2020

Along with the rest of us, vice chancellors and senior managers have had a wretched year in UK HE. They have found themselves in a cleft stick of managing biosecurity, market share, student expectations, Office for Students hostility and uncertain finances. What better way to celebrate their contribution to the HE landscape than a Christmas quiz. In the midst of the pandemic, Santa has been circling those covid-secure campuses looking for VCs, both naughty and nice. So here is a treat for all VC fanciers in the form of a review of the year’s senior management headlines.

But first a primer…. (4 points)

1. Who is the current chair of Universities UK?

2. The director of Universities Scotland shares his name with an actor who played another legendary educator. Name him.

Alastair Sim - Person - National Portrait Gallery

3. Which University’s chancellor and vice chancellor both served as MPs and held high office in parliament and government, respectively?

4. Who is the UK’s longest-serving vice chancellor, appointed in 1993?

Succession planning (6 points)

5. Which long-serving VC retired in August 2020 and was succeeded by Lisa Roberts?

6. Who has succeeded David Eastwood as Chair of the board of trustees of the USS pension scheme?

7. Who succeeded Anton Muscatelli as chair of the Russell Group in 2020?

8. Who is still Interim Vice Chancellor of which university, almost two years after having assumed the role in February 2019?

9. Which university has a vacancy for chancellor after an embarrassing resignation as a result of a Newsnight interview in November 2019?

Pandemic response (4 points)

10. Which VC was the first to promise a fully open and covid-secure campus for the autumn of 2020?

11. Which VC said the pandemic has ‘put a digital rocket up the backsides of mainstream HE’?

12. Which VC’s response to impending lockdown in March and posted on Twitter was: ‘Off to the pub. Not sure when I’ll be doing this again. Happy Friday!’ ?

13. Which university’s management has been criticised for making redundancies to IT staff in the midst of the pivot to online ?

Celebrity corner (6 points)

14. Which 2020 Strictly Come Dancing contestant is currently Chancellor of which university?

15. One former married couple, both actors and comedians, serve as chancellors of different universities. Name the actors and the universities.

Apologies (4 points)

16. Which VC has been forced to apologise twice to students this year? The second apology was an apology for not apologising.

17. Name one VC who was forced to apologise for bullying a senior colleague in 2020?

18. Name another VC who apologised in 2019 for a culture of bullying at the university?

19. The chief operating officer of which university sent an email to staff asking them to stop sending “borderline threatening” emails to professional services staff during the coronavirus lockdown?

Hopeful sign 1 point)

20. Which university’s strapline is “University for the Common Good”?

Happy holidays to all staff and students in higher education. You have deserved them. Answers will be posted in the New Year. A year that is not 2020.

‘low quality’ higher education…again

This blog post appeared on the Wonkhe site in mid-November 2020. Written by Nick Holland, Competition and Registration Manager at the Office for Students, it had been anticipated by a statement by Universities UK the previous day. In this article, UUK clearly aligned themselves with the presuppositions that there is a serious problem with quality in UKHE and that the sector needs to introduce some proper regulating. This plays into widely-held beliefs amplified by some media outlets hostile to universities, and a government which seeks to undermine them along with other pillars of a democratic society like the legal apparatus, a free press and even parliament itself.

It is dispiriting for those of us who have had quite a lot of faith in the UK’s HE regulatory mechanisms from the Quality Assurance Agency to the internal procedures of validation and periodic review that operate within all universities. Less able to command confidence has been the government’s own regime of the Teaching Excellence Framework, operated by the Office for Students.

Nevertheless, Nick Holland, the author of the piece, appears innocent of these established structures. We apparently exist in some post-lapsarian quality vacuum which needs to be pumped with new regulations, about which OfS has launched a consultation. And so OfS promises to act on new proposals, even if it requires a temporary adjournment of its other preoccupations: freedom of speech  and grade inflation – another piece by Nick Holland.

So below, with some commentary, are excerpts from Holland’s blog. What his choice of discourse does is to install a set of presuppositions about the endemic poor quality of higher education. Furthermore, in this depiction, no evidence can be relied upon apart from a limited set of proxy measures which lend metric infallibility to the conferral of quality. This intervention from the Office for Students seems to reverse several years of avowed ‘light-touch’ regulation in which oversight enabled universities to operate their own bureaucracy of quality assurance and enhancement. But now, the principal metric to be trusted to certify the worthiness of higher education is that of graduate salaries. This is the fulcrum which has elevated the concept of higher education as private good while depressing the notion of higher education as public good. 

*****

Excerpts from Holland in grey and interpretation in green

While we had planned to consult on our approach to quality and standards in any case, we will of course draw on our experience of regulating through the pandemic in our future regulation of quality and standards.

This was conducted through veiled threats demeaning the quality of online provision with no thought about how we might intervene to support universities. That’s just not what we do.

The OfS has always been able to hold universities and other higher education providers to account for the quality of their courses and the standard of qualifications they award. But these proposals would sharpen our regulatory requirements, raise expectations for quality and student outcomes, and allow us to take action where there are poor quality courses at providers in particular subject areas.

We already have the regulatory framework well embedded in practice and working well. But since the bar for moral panics has gone way north in 2020, we thought we’d create a bit of spontaneous drama.

Quality and standards

Also included are secure standards – so students can be assured that their degree will stand the test of time – and successful outcomes. Subject to consideration of responses to the consultation, we would be looking to use these definitions as part of our regulation – underpinning the baselines we set which all providers must meet in order to be, and remain, registered with us.

Of course, the enduring worth of your degree would be best ensured if we were committed to ensuring that your HEI continues to function. Instead, we are committed to ‘the market’ and providing registration to new, ‘challenger’ institutions which are awarded degree awarding powers almost immediately. It’s hard to imagine a better way to undermine the hard-won accreditation of your university. And what do we mean by ‘outcomes’? Well, that changes all the time. Sometimes it means ‘good degrees’ but then we clamp down when universities give too many of them. We’re a bit clearer what it means this month later on.

Crucially, we are also saying that all higher education providers must provide quality for all groups of students. That means two things. First, if we are worried that certain groups of students are being adversely affected, we can swiftly intervene. Second, we are saying – unequivocally – that is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes. Doing so creates a skewed playing field, where poor performance for disadvantaged students is effectively allowed. That is untenable, and unfair to those students who have often overcome the odds to enter higher education. Obstacles to attainment for these groups need to be removed and not hidden behind.

See what I did there? First I install a presupposition that not all HEIs provide a quality education for all students. That charges universities with the responsibility to fully compensate for the social, educational, cultural and systemic inequalities that particular groups of students encounter. For example, the long periods of missed education that disabled students or care-experienced students have faced. And don’t make excuses for the alienation that many BEM or gay students have experienced all through school – that’s up to universities to fix. It’s helpful to scapegoat universities as it makes us popular with government when we undermine public trust in them.

The plans also allow us to intervene at a subject level if we have concerns. This intervention really matters. Most universities and other higher education providers offer high quality higher education across the board.

I had to say this. But important to rattle that sabre every time I throw them a compliment.

But at some providers, we have been concerned about pockets of low-quality provision. Being able to intervene at subject level will make a real difference. As well as assessing data on student outcomes we will also continue to welcome notifications from students alerting us to issues and concerns about the quality of their course.

Obviously, you’d be better making your views known through the various structures available at your HEI, from course committees, to student unions or even the NSS. But here at OfS, while we don’t endorse ‘cancel culture,’ we do approve of snitch culture, and we have always envied the direct reporting line offered by ‘rate your professor’.

Toughening up

Choosing a section title that’s maximally offensive especially during a pandemic.

Ensuring students have every opportunity to achieve successful outcomes on their courses remains an important OfS priority. That is why we are focusing on the number of students who progress to the end of their course and go on to managerial and professional employment or higher-level study. We are proposing to update – and toughen – our requirements for the minimum performance we would expect from any university or other higher education provider.

I told you we’d be clearer what ‘outcomes’ means. In 2020, we’ve pretty much settled on it meaning getting a well-paid job. Because we want students to pay back their loans. Yes, we’ve reduced the whole university experience to pretty much that.

Deciding on the numerical values for these minimum baselines will take time and be subject to further consultation, but we will have higher expectations for providers for all of their students.

I think we can guess what that baseline will be…because we want students to pay back their loans.

These are important proposals, which will help to properly protect students. Please do take the time to have your say in the consultation, which runs from today until January 12.

Don’t waste your time. We’ve already decided.

*****

That subject level data again…..

It’s fascinating to trace the meandering semantics and pursuit of ‘low quality degrees’ over the years. It has meant many things, from accusations of ‘lamentable’ teaching to complaints that too often degrees do not lead to high-paying jobs. While the government boldly alleges poor quality of provision and outcomes in the public HE sector, by contrast, they are happy to support a favoured ‘challenger institution’ by conferring (via QAA) degree awarding powers on the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology before it has even had a graduating cohort.

Such indulgence is not bestowed on other institutions and an assemblage of metrics must be found to identify courses that the government rather wishes would disappear. Chief among them, we suspect, might be media studies, gender studies, creative arts and the more critical humanities and social science subjects generally.

David Kernohan of WONKHE (30th November) writes that OfS were due to publish data and a report entitled Start to Success representing the latest attempt to devise a diagnostic quality tool. To save them the trouble, Kernohan has produced a draft version mapping data points representing all HE courses in the UK against projections of non-continuation of students on courses and data from Graduate Outcomes on “highly skilled” graduate employment. Kernohan himself suspects that this metric may be low quality.

What we find is that many of the courses the government denounces, or that universities have been busy eradicating, perform well against these metrics. In the lower quadrant of the quality mapping are quite a lot of law, business, civil engineering and computer science courses, while in the higher quadrant are many courses in Arabic, Classics, English and Geography. Also, some courses at higher status universities manifest surprisingly low scores, while some less-favoured courses like media studies at lower-ranked universities turn up scores above 9/10. Like Kernohan, I am not attempting to confer credibility on these metrics; instead we need to recognise that in searching for ‘low-quality courses’ to liquidate in the name of regulatory scrupulosity, the casualties may not be the government’s preferred candidates. If the government wants to purge those courses which develop critical questioning and an awareness of social justice, then coercion and apparent metric infallibility will not deliver that result. They will have to emulate the more authoritarian approach adopted by Victor Orban in Hungary. They will need to name the courses they disapprove of and ban them. I wonder how close we are to that eventuality? The culture warriors are laying the groundwork and a receptive post-truth society might see it through.

A plague on universities: How the pandemic has created breach points for the future of labour, pedagogy and values in higher education.

This post is based on my keynote address to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), 21st October 2020. My thinking owes much to conference papers on 18th September and 21st October 2020 hosted by the Post Pandemic University, especially papers by Jon Hughes, Anis Rahman, Philippa Adams and Nicole Stewart; Mia Zamora, Kate Bowles; Autumn Caines and Maha Bali; Laura Czerniewicz; Ben Williamson; Helle Mathiasen;  Mariya Ivancheva. Abstracts can be found at https://postpandemicuniversity.net/ I have also incorporated some reflections from a HEPI/ Lloyds webinar today: ‘The long-term impact of COVID-19 on the higher education sector’

In the UK, as in many other university systems across the world, we are contemplating emergency measures in working, teaching and learning conditions. We hope these will be temporary. We know there is unlikely to be a return to ‘normal’. However, we also know that the managerial university seizes on the opportunity to nurture a sense of crisis in order to re-orient the university according to a set of priorities that might not be shared among those who ARE the university. What we see right now is a sector which is struggling because of a number of persistent vulnerabilities which Covid has brought into focus and which weigh on conditions of labour and the student experience.

In mid October 2020, Nottingham had the highest rate of spread in the UK. Sadly, the spike in figures coincided with the arrival in the city of 60,00 or so students. Let me say first I am not blaming students for this state of affairs. But I am hoping that an eventual public enquiry will hold the government and university management teams to account for this failure of policy. Opening campuses and residences proceeded against the advice of the government’s scientific advisory committee (SAGE), the trade unions and public health academics. Nevertheless, the mass migration of students across the country went ahead. It was always going to be a disaster to encourage the relocation of over a million students to new cities and residences that demanded close sharing of quarters. Despite assurances of Covid-free campuses from university managers, incidences of Covid infection in some areas of university cities were running at around eight times that of New York City at peak Covid in April. This is a shocking failure to protect public health at any scale. because of it, VCs may have squandered the well-earned appreciation of teams of scientists in terms of research on vaccines, population behaviour, epidemiology and demonstrating to a public made sceptical of experts and academic enquiry, the greater public good that universities can be.

Why did this happen? We need to first understand the political economy of British universities and the vulnerabilities revealed by the epidemic. In the UK we have a marketized system in which 80% of the income for teaching comes from student fees and 23% of that amount comes from the lucrative overseas student body. We would expect to find many universities exposed to financial adversity if enrolments in either category were disrupted.

Throughout the summer, the government urged universities to open for in-person teaching, and the minister for higher education also indicated that the quality of online teaching would be the subject of scrutiny adding that, “If unis want to charge full fees they will have to ensure that the quality is there”.   Additionally, the business model of most universities depends on income from halls of residence, food and other services like gyms. By early October, halls were crammed, unlike some US universities which had kept them under 50% capacity. And please note, it is the richer US universities which have been more able to suppress virus transmission with more meticulous distancing measures.

And so, in a system with little direct investment from government, there was simply no room to take a stand, especially if that government was pulling the levers of power. The health of students, staff and the wider community had to be sacrificed if universities were to survive. Of course, management didn’t put it like that. It was all about not letting this cohort of students fall through the gaps, safeguarding students’ mental health (irony), maintaining the student experience, as well as fulfilling a government mandate that universities should ‘remain open for face to face teaching’. All the while, university managers were maintaining that “Throughout the pandemic our prime concern has been, and remains, the health, safety and general well-being of our students and staff. This will always come before any financial considerations.” [VC of University of Edinburgh, but repeated by many others.]

Over the spring and summer of 2020, universities in the UK became very cautious about finances. Some spent the period seeking to restructure away from hard-to-fill courses and towards the government’s preferred STEM priority. Some planned for mass redundancies in the face of what they anticipated would be falling enrolments this next academic year. In many places, the price is being paid by early career and precarious academics as graduate teaching assistantships and adjunct posts were cancelled. Their prospects may never recover. If they were graduating in most EU countries, their careers could continue. The most significant issue that has been brought into focus by the pandemic is that a higher education system controlled by the market is not as robust as market fundamentalists like to insist. There are no reported redundancies in Germany, and Dutch academics have been awarded a pay rise, while we in the UK are hostage to the (anticipated) fluctuations of the market.

The result has been an unsustainable load on the remaining teaching staff, many of whom have seen their workloads triple and research time cancelled. Shockingly, Coventry University is reported to have announced 100 redundancies at associate professor level with their labour being replaced by additional hourly paid staff.

Some universities have come to regret making redundancies among staff. In the wake of a program of voluntary redundancies over the summer, Nottingham University had to send out an appeal for volunteers to offer phone support to students and parents concerned about Covid issues on campus. They have been told this will require ‘deprioritising’ of their other duties.

In the event, university campuses have been far from under-enrolled; in fact they are full beyond capacity because of another episode of government incompetence. In August, a scandalously botched process of determining A Level exam results (the most frequent route to university entrance) saw large numbers of university applicants appealing their grades. Consequently, universities which had rejected some applicants were then obliged to honour the offers of university places that the applicants had now met the standard for. As a result, universities ended up taking in far more students than they had anticipated. The good news was that this mitigated the losses of overseas student fees; the difficult news was that teaching and residential accommodation would now exceed capacity.

So this is where we are in the UK. On 21st September the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) met and advised an immediate short ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown and for universities to maintain online learning. This was ignored by government. Vice chancellors, reliant on fees, felt obliged to observe the strong government steer to offer some in-person teaching to students. And we now see the result. Even in the face of reassurances about their ‘Covid-safe campuses’, we saw some 14,000 infections in universities in the first two weeks of October.  By date of writing, that has risen to nearly 40,000 cases at UK higher education settings. Newcastle University and the University of Nottingham are at the top of the leader board with over 2000 cases each. It is a quite staggering testament to managements’ unwillingness to heed evidence and well-founded, timely warnings. It is still not too late to change tack.

This is a story of some of the more obvious vulnerabilities of a public service subject to crude marketisation. But we don’t need to look too far to identify some of the others.

Teaching and the student experience

There will be opportunities for curriculum redesign in the post-Covid university, but we need to ensure that these facilitate the purpose of universities as transforming, not just transmitting knowledge. As April McMahon remarked, if we are able to take digital learning forward, we will need to accept it as more than just an accommodation to the pandemic situation.

There may be a rapid return to ‘business as usual’ with regard to reliance on casualised labour. Universities may seize the chance to further exploit these workers by appropriating their expertise via ‘lecture capture’ or other online archiving. This can be predicted when we look at the opportunistic moves to capitalise on the pivot to online by the edtech industry.

Edtech software demands an opportunity for exploitation. Ben Williamson points out that some firms pursue a strategy of ‘free now, sell later’ while “both seeking to solve the short-term global disruption of education, and paving the way for longer-term transformations to education systems, institutions and practice.”

For example, the Khan Academy is offering free software in response to donations from benefactors hoping to make a financial gain on reduced teaching costs ultimately. “Offering products for free in hopes of getting sales later has long been a strategy for many companies in education (and other industries).”

Meanwhile there are reports that software enabling algorithmically proctored exams may compromise student privacy. There is also criticism that facial recognition and detection algorithms may fail to recognise black faces as easily as white, thus reinforcing structural racism.

As Ben Williamson writes, we could be looking at a future in which “the dominant education policy preoccupation globally is how to deliver schooling without schools and degrees without campuses.” Edtech presents itself not as disruptive, but as a saviour.

In her talk for the Post Pandemic University online conference on digital technology (21st October), Helle Mathiasen warned that emergency teaching must not become the new normal, saying  “increased online learning risks instrumentalizing teaching”.   A prime example would be the move towards microcredentials and what I call teleological teaching – courses supposedly demanded by government, industry or some kind of imagined priority specified by university managers. This approach sees knowledge as bounded, packaged and transactional. It is what Bowles, Zamora, Caines and Bali call the archival view of universities – universities as mere repositories where the student-customer equips themselves with only that product which is immediately required.

One advocate for such a move towards disaggregating degree programs into a set of ‘stackables’ is Nick Petford, VC of the University of Northampton. In his talk to the HEPI/Lloyds webinar, he declared that the pandemic has placed an overdue ‘digital rocket’ up HE. While other industries, such as retail and music have already embraced a move online, HE has pursued this more slowly. He looks forward to a move away from ‘provider-led degrees’ with little regard for the demands of business and the economy and towards a degree that might resemble a Spotify playlist – which may incorporate ‘stackables’ from different universities.

This radical departure from a traditional model of pedagogy had its critics on the webinar. As one questioner ( John Baker) noted, artists have been poorly served by the digital unbundling of their work, and perhaps academics can envision a similar fate. This approach would inevitably destabilize any continuity of curriculum or of careers. How can academics commit to a system which views their contribution  as designed for bite-size consumption and time-limited by economic exigency ?

Could we instead look for a redesign of curriculum and assessment which seeks to transform student learning, and enable, rather than limit it? Those very high level and generalisable skills such as problem solving are highly sought after by employers, but they are acquired during long periods of intensive and wide-ranging study. They also underpin the ability to extend and challenge existing bodies of knowledge. There are experiments in this vein, though mostly in the private HE sector in the UK. Taking current degree programs and exploding them into ever-diminishing units for sale might divert us from a more productive way forward to a truly 21st century curriculum.

Academic conditions of labour

With the sudden shift to online learning, many academics find themselves overwhelmed by excessive workloads, especially if they lack experience and training. There has been pressure to redesign modules, sometimes in four modalities: FTF, online, hybrid and hyflex. This has meant many academics have gone without leave and have shelved their research.

Suddenly teaching has taken centre stage as universities have struggled to fulfil obligations to enrolled students. This has come without any promise of reward or esteem. In some cases, universities have cancelled or denied research leave this year. Often, research grants and book contracts have inflexible deadlines, so academics find themselves working massive overloads.

Alongside the pivot to online, there has been an expectation that academics will undertake additional emotional labour as they realise the importance of staying in contact with students who may be facing a difficult transition to ‘the student experience’ 2020. As well as coping with Covid and isolation, many first year students will have understandable anxieties about more extensive independent learning than they were anticipating. They will turn to academics for reassurance in the first instance, adding another priority. After the summer’s redundancies, that workload will be distributed among even fewer staff.

Even prior to the pandemic, there has been a move towards academic fracking – the separation of teaching and research pathways for academics -. It has become harder (or management has become more unwilling) to subsidize research from tuition fees. Therefore, to be coded as research, your project has to be paid for by external income. So, no grant can mean no research component to your workload. This trend will be accelerated by the pandemic.

There is a suggestion that teaching may assume a new primacy and that we might exchange precarity of labour for more full-time jobs. But is this an advantage if those posts are characterised by inflexibility and paucity of opportunity, especially in the teaching-focussed pathways?

What will emerge from this chaos is the post-pandemic university. We just hope that the university that emerges is one we recognise and one that works in the interests of students and academic enquiry. We need to be vigilant and ensure that the more pernicious patterns that hamper those interests now are not amplified in the new forms of pedagogy and management that will materialize. We need to develop what Kate Bowles and colleagues call labour literacy (Building the Post Pandemic University online conference 18th September). And because the neoliberal university demands that we prepare students for the world of work, we need to ensure we teach critical labour literacy to students.

To summarise, there are some choices that will arise from our current breach point for higher education:

Labour

More full-time jobs or a descent into casualisation?

Will teaching and research go forward together, or diverge as separate pathways?

Workplaces that nurture the human or neglect it?

Pedagogy

Universities as training farms for industry or spaces for exploration and growth?

Assessment for pedagogy or penance?

Curriculum design: which modality of teaching offers the best experience of interaction, engagement, equality?

Values

Universities where outcomes or values predominate? Teleological or mechanistic drivers.

Universities as archival or critical?

Universities for kindness or rigidity?

All of these have implications for academic freedom in that any one conceptualisation of the purpose of a university sets limits for what can be said, explored, debated or imagined. A greater reliance on staff with continuing appointments may secure their freedom, but not, perhaps, if exploratory research is curtailed and along with it, the possibility of curriculum renewal, challenging received wisdom and authority.  

But perhaps at the root of all this is an urgent need to challenge the very fundamentals of higher education as a marketized, financialised system. It is now clear that universities cannot function when they are constantly pressed into survival mode, even in the ‘best’ of times.

Craig Brandist in a recent article in the Times Higher offers a warning for those who wish for a revolution.

“But we should be cautious. In post-Communist Russia, the upper classes succeeded in implementing an alternative way of ruling – an authoritarian gangster capitalism – and the lower classes paid a heavy price. If we do not translate our brighter vision into a mass campaign to change the financialised basis of higher education, we too may find ourselves at the mercy of something even worse.”

Doing the right thing, or doing the thing right ? A reply to Paul Greatrix

Today, 28th October 2020, on Wonkhe, Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham posted this blog Doing the Right Things? Universities under Covid. It has attracted a lot of comment on Twitter. I felt I wanted to answer a number of points in more detail than Twitter would allow. So here it is – Paul’s statements in bold italics, followed by my responses.

There has been a huge debate about the start of session with everyone having a view on whether or not universities should have opened for face to face teaching this term. I do think that universities re-opening for students this September was, on balance, the right thing to do – the alternative would have had a greater negative effect on both new and returning students but arguing now about September is pretty pointless.

There was pressure from the government, indeed a requirement, that universities deliver some in-person teaching to be able to charge full tuition fees. This probably corresponded with student preference, but I doubt whether students were told that they would not be able to go back home once on campus if there were incidences of Covid. Were they told that they would be establishing a new ‘household’ and unable to see their families for many months ? It’s hard to know what their choices might have been if all scenarios had been laid out. There was time to do this, especially as some US campuses had started to see cases in early August. It still isn’t too late, as we have seen many universities in the US, UK and across the globe switching to largely online delivery since September. And yes, we can and should argue. The amount of evidence available at the start of the UK term in late September clearly pointed to what would happen. You mention ‘the alternative’ when in fact many alternative solutions present themselves for first years and returning students. And it is not ‘pointless’ to argue about this, in fact it is crucial to do so, preferably through the vehicle of a public enquiry because it is essential that we do not allow such refusal of evidence to lead UK universities into such a dangerous situation ever again.

Everyone in universities is trying to do the right thing for our students, staff and the communities where we all live and work…Everyone has gone above and beyond to ensure our students are supported and we were able to restart teaching in September safely.

Agreed. It has been impressive.

You can’t do any of this without money and there aren’t many who would say that the financial structure of our higher education system is optimal…. Is there a scenario in which government will deliver a bail out package to sustain universities for the next, say, 18 months, which means we don’t have to do any of this stuff on campus? No. We saw only very limited success from a campaign to support universities after lockdown and the idea that we are now top of the list for financial support from government is fantasy.

I don’t know the details of negotiations with the government – mainly because Universities UK prefers to lobby in private – but perhaps universities had a little more leverage than they imagined. And again, if the choices were restricted to bringing all students to campus versus not doing so, then an opportunity was missed to make a plan which could address a situation of evolving knowledge with a number of creative solutions. First years on campus, others online. Or stagger the year groups with attendance on campus for a few weeks at a time.

Furthermore, I would contest that the arguments for going to online only provision are not strong – there are very, very few cases of transmission in the classroom.

You don’t present any evidence for this assertion. Given what we now know, and have known for several months, about aerosol transmission of the virus, it is very clear that there is a risk from having several people in a room together, even with 2m distancing. In some universities, students are not required to wear masks. This is shocking. You can’t keep hiding behind out of date information and recommendations and presenting this as ‘doing the right thing’. As Paul Johnson pointed out to me on Twitter, it is a classic case of ‘doing the thing right’ i.e. a misguided adherence to regulations, rather than thinking through what is actually required. Here. With what we know now.

The SAGE advice prior to the start of session about an online only approach was too late to impact the new term and really could not be applied now.

I’m not sure which SAGE report you are referring to, but a report dated 3rd September, three weeks before most universities brought students to campus, states:

There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight. It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making.

The report goes on to identify residential and social settings as high risk for transmission of virus. But there was a financial imperative to fill halls of residence, and the government’s botched handling of A level results meant universities ended up having to take more students than anticipated. Halls should only ever have been half full if there was to be any real chance at suppressing transmission. But given the government-generated chaos and the early September advice, perhaps other solutions could have been found that did not set in motion exactly the scenarios warned about.

There does not seem to be a strong argument at all therefore for moving right now to an online only mode.

I can only think you have not been listening to the staff of your own university and leaders of universities all over the globe. Your reasoning appears to be based on establishing an argument from authority. But when this becomes detatched from current expert opinion (aerosol transmission), this argument becomes deontic – one driven by perceived duty or oblgation. I would go as far as to say it is an argument from authoritarianism when it is used to oblige others, with more informed argments, to comply.

Do we want students to stay in their rooms, halls and houses and avoid campus, classrooms and learning resources altogether?

In many cases, this is exactly what has happened as Covid outbreaks have seen students quarantined in their rooms, accessing learning resources online.

And where will it end – under what circumstances would in person teaching resume?

That’s easy to answer – when the cases per 100,000 fall to an agreed safe level. We note that universities in Hong Kong are mostly online while they have just a handful of cases, mostly arriving at airports, and almost no community transmission. But they are not taking the chance of universities becoming virus clusters and drivers of transmission.

We really do not want Covid to lead to the establishment of a two-tier community where we have one group of staff who are dealing with student issues face to face day in day out and another most of whom never come to campus but instead deliver everything online.

No, we don’t want a two-tier community when we know that all staff make an essential contribution to the student experience. What we want is appropriate assessment of risk. So, in a context of high asymptomatic virus circulation, seeing students individually for short periods, with distancing and masking is one risk; a group of 30 all in one room for 50 minutes with no masks is another, higher level of risk you are asking, or requiring, staff to take.

However, there are other communities too – the local communities in which universities sit and staff and students live, shop and socialise. These communities are suffering much more than our institutions and many local residents are anxious, concerned or even angry about the student presence in neighbourhoods. One thing this crisis has demonstrated is that relationships between universities and their local communities, partners and stakeholders have never been more important.

I do wonder how much goodwill universities have squandered by going ahead with the migration of students and, arguably, accelerating the second wave of the virus. There is evidence of correlation, which obviously doesn’t always entail cause. But there is evidence of correlation of students on campus and the rise of virus transmission in this case as the graphic from mid October at the end of this piece shows. In the case of my borough, Rushcliffe, cases went from 45 per 100k in early September to 1206 today. The incidence in the locality of University of Nottingham is currently falling, but the spread in the neighbouring boroughs is exponential, leading to imminent Tier 3 restrictions. Yes, local populations will, unfairly, blame students. It remains to be seen how they view the presence of universities in their midst in the future.

I argued then (early September) that looking to the position in the US and highlighting the problems that many universities have had there with their reopening plans was not instructive. This was on the basis that there were many variances between US and British higher education, health care and societal models as well as what are often quite different residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social structures which meant that things are hard to compare with the UK in the context of the pandemic….Well, I would still contend that the UK – and UK higher education – are different to the US in many respects, and that whether or not there were loads of cases in the US is not the determining factor in seeking fully to open campuses safely and securely in the UK.

You seem to have been alone in arguing this, and again, presented no evidence. I responded to this at the time. There just is no warrant for making these assumptions that the Covid spread would not be replicated on UK campuses. Obvious if you think about students in halls of residence and their understandable need to meet new people and socialize.

I would honestly say I think the speed of transmission both within student halls and in off-campus settings took many, including me, by surprise and coping with that has been a huge challenge for universities.

This has been a common claim by Nancy Rothwell and others as well. I contend that all university managers KNEW. Hope is something else. Your own scientists were telling you. So were social scientists. And the evidence was mounting across the US. This line is just not credible.

Rather it just feeds social and other media and the notion, quite wrong, that somehow this is all completely out of control and that students are a problem. It isn’t and they aren’t…. Blaming and denigrating students for the growth in Covid-19 cases is both unfair and wrong. They may not all be following all the regulations all the time but show me any part of the community that is.

I completely agree. I make a point of explaining to people it is the fault of the government and university mangers who ignored evidence.

But we do have to learn from the experience of the start of session and ensure we are better placed to prevent future outbreaks and deal with them when they do occur.

Given the current performance, and failure to learn from and adapt to the changing state of knowledge, I’m afraid you have lost my confidence. And that of residents in my neighbourhood.

Worse still, most of these slurring pub bores are also self-appointed experts on everything about Covid-19, British politics and higher education. And everyone is just SHOUTING all the time. I’m not sure I can really see the appeal any more.

They are shouting because they can’t think what else to do when they’ve been shown to be right, colleagues are still being exposed to avoidable risk, and this was all preventable. People are angry, and as you have pointed out, exhausted. And yes, there are a lot of people who are well informed, not experts. And invested in seeing things work. That’s what it means to be a stakeholder.

The alternative to where we are now – not opening campus to new and returning students – would have meant that over two million students would have been staying exactly where they were since March and half a million of these would never have been to their chosen university. In my view the consequences of that for them, their mental health, their ability to adapt and grow into university life and studies would have been potentially catastrophic.

As someone who was a resident tutor for over ten years, I wonder at the damage to mental health that isolation on campus and restrictions on seeing family will do. How is this working for shy students? Students with autism? Homesick students? LGBTQI students? Minority students? Students whose first language is not English?

We have to work out a way to chart a course to how we see our universities operating in future, both to ensure we stand a chance of survival and long run success but also to give us something to be optimistic about.

There is a group of researchers from over 50 universities having very wide-ranging, informative, respectful discussions about building the post pandemic university. You would be welcome to join these conversations about teaching, learning, research, equality, edtech, conditions of labour and many more issues. Your experience would be a valuable contribution.

The collapse of the Covid-secure campus

We are now into September 2020 and plans to allow students to come back to university campuses are proceeding. Universities have been required by the Office for Students to inform new and returning students what they might be able to expect in terms of teaching (online or face to face) in 2020/2021 and how quality, standards and a good student experience will be maintained. 

However, evidence is emerging that even the high degree of planning for Covid-secure campuses that has happened over the summer might not be enough to prevent students, staff and communities from spreading the virus. 

Nobody, apparently, wants to be the second campus to tell students they are going to be studying totally online; the University of Cambridge made an early decision in May to go to online classes for the next academic year. 

By contrast, the University of Bolton was the first to release extensive and detailed plans for a Covid-secure campus which would allow for the resumption of face to face classes, and the University of Leicester has promised Covid screening to reassure new students deterred by the recent city lockdown. 

Everything was looking hopeful until August when universities opened up in the US and offered the UK a preview of what happens when you invite thousands of students back to Covid-secure campuses and hold them to unrealistic expectations. The first forewarning came from cities in the southern states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Texas as videos of mass outdoor parties circulated on social media. These were followed by a spike in positive tests, even when those cases were asymptomatic. In swift succession, cases in Iowa surged, mainly in cities with large universities. These were all states where the rate of positive tests was well over 10%. And then came SUNY Oneonta, a campus I know well – I taught there at one time and my spouse retired from there recently. Here was a small (6000 students) rural, upstate campus where the positive test rate in the region had been around 1%. Within two days of starting, mostly online, classes, there were over 100 cases. The problem, evidently, was bringing students back to residences where naturally they would want to congregate, and perhaps also visit the town bars (alcohol being banned on most US campuses). As of today (7th September) the college reports 651 cases. It is now beyond dispute that the Covid hot spots are tracking the migration of students. And let’s hope the colleges are able to quarantine infected students in order to prevent exporting the virus as they leave campus to return home. 

Some universities have been more successful at securing public health. Duke University, among others, has used constant pool testing to identify the presence of virus as well as screening of all returning students. They have also reduced the number of students resident on campus by 30% and moved most classes online. These strategies point the way to offering students some kind of quality experience while learning and living with Covid on campus. 

In the UK, though, the warnings from the US are not being fully heeded. Universities UK, the group representing university managers, has indicated its preference for some face to face teaching to be offered by universities. UUK retweeted a letter published in The Times, with the comment, “The majority of UK universities will provide a combination of online and face-to-face teaching this year where it’s safe to do so. The importance of having in-person contact with tutors has been flagged by 100 leading academics in the Times today”.  

As a result of this steer, most universities are still making plans to open university residences,  even while most classes are online, with the promise of some face to face teaching. This is probably the most ill-advised fudge they could have come up with. What it suggests to critics is that universities have been more concerned with recruiting students and their tuition fees than with safeguarding public health.

Many academics and support staff have been resistant to teach face-to-face, pointing to new and evolving information about the transmission of the disease and concerned about their own vulnerability to it. And it appears now that their reluctance has been vindicated by the Independent Sage group of scientists which has counselled caution regarding opening of campuses to students.

Universities should focus on providing excellent quality remote learning by default, with regular review points, rather than deliver in-person teaching on campuses that are likely to close again.

To the disappointment of some university managers, the more formal Sage group has confirmed the view that:

There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight. It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making. [Sage statement 3rd September]

Their report recommends clear strategies for testing and tracing, warning that ‘accommodation and social interactions are likely to be a high-risk environment for transmission to occur’ which is less easy to mitigate. UCU fully endorses the opinion that the health of staff and students should come before other considerations. 

Paul Greatrix, Registrar of the University of Nottingham, writing on Wonkhe, offers a picture of what a ‘Covid-proofed’ campus should look like. He makes the case for full re-opening, with mitigations, and a commitment to managing student behaviour to address the fears of the wider community in which universities reside. “We have to begin the journey which will eventually get us back to something approaching normality.”

He details the following well-evidenced mitigations and preconditions:

  • Many buildings have been adjusted for social distancing arrangements
  • Plans have been made for delivering larger classes online
  • Changes to timetables to help with preventing crowded corridors, allowing for smaller class sizes and cleaning in between classes
  • Face coverings mandated indoors in many places
  • New Covid student codes of discipline and pledges
  • New restrictions on numbers of people who can be present on campus or in particular buildings at any one time
  • Physical changes to halls of residence
  • Working closely with Local Resilience Forums including in relation to local outbreak control plans
  • Planning how best to ensure an effective test and trace operation within a less than satisfactory national context.

It is the last point that should be the rate limiting step. News from all UK outlets today, confirmed on Twitter, is that testing is overwhelmed and not readily available in all areas, and yet the efficacy and availability of regular testing is key to reassuring staff and students that it is safe to return to regular classes. As SUNY Oneonta puts it, this is ‘a dynamic situation’, and it is time the UK recognised that pursuing a course that has not worked elsewhere, and expecting it to be different, will be disastrous. Paul Greatrix argues that  there can be no comparison between the US and UK HE contexts  but I am not convinced that the residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social models are different enough that the spread of Covid in the UK cannot be predicted from the US experience. There is a recurrent assumption by  those urging a return to classes that students can be contained within Covid-secure campuses. I suppose it is consistent with a view that positions students as service users rather than as members of a community, but it does fly in the face of reality. Students come to university towns and cities and take jobs, volunteer, join gyms, use bars and importantly, rent housing. Universities play an important social and community role, a view supported by the UPP Civic University Commission (and indeed by Greatrix himself).  To invite students back to campus and forbid them to socialise is a perverse attempt to shift the responsibility for the outcomes from university managers onto students.

We hear from the higher education minister, Michelle Donelan, that further guidance on opening campuses will be provided this week. Unfortunately, this comes after students have committed to university places and in many cases, to accommodation contracts. You can sympathise with ‘stakeholders’ who are wondering why this worst of all possible worlds has been allowed to unfold – or why the course towards adversity hasn’t been reversed.

From Regulation to Regime. Are we seeing a government takeover of universities?

This blog previously appeared on the CDBU website.

One thing governments have learned over the last 30 years is not to let a disaster go to waste. In the guise of offering a survival strategy for universities in the pandemic, the Department for Education has issued, in July 2020, a document: Establishment of a Higher Education Restructuring Regime in Response to COVID-19.

The Regime ostensibly promises a relief package for universities which find themselves in financial difficulty due to factors beyond their control. These include loss of income from overseas student fees which is predicted to fall precipitously. However, it is clear there is no bailout; relief comes in the form of a repayable loan, and there are a number of conditions attached. Particularly, the government is keen to see a re-focus on scientific research and ‘a much greater reorientation towards the needs of the local and regional economy’.

Providers will need to examine whether they can enhance their regional focus. I want it to be the norm for far more universities to have adopted a much more strongly applied mission, firmly embedded in the economic fabric of their local area, and consider where appropriate delivery of quality higher technical education or apprenticeships. And all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy.

While its content has been discussed on several HE forums and news outlets over the past few days, no-one, it seems, has questioned the origin or legitimacy of this pronouncement. Perhaps we are already used to having policy made on the hoof, outside of parliament and by the sort of unelected ‘elites’ the Brexiteers had railed against. But to my mind, a restructuring ‘Regime’ does not sound like a consultation, a discussion or a review, nor is it being presented as a Green or White Paper. This is an edict beyond parliamentary scrutiny, and one wonders what else it would take for Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan (whose name does not appear on the document), to be accused of ministerial overreach.

It is noteworthy that the terms of the package outlined in the Regime differ from those accompanying an earlier grant/ loan scheme intended to replace revenues from charities, businesses or international student fees which have supported research in universities. While lenders may be expected to impose conditions on their beneficiaries, this does not seem to be the case for this tranche of loans announced in June. It is assumed that science and medicine will be the recipients, but otherwise the understanding is, “Universities will be required to demonstrate that funds are being spent on research and on retaining research talent”.

And then there is the question of whether the proposals of the Regime stand in conflict with the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 which enshrines the protection of university autonomy. It is worth reminding ourselves exactly what HERA says, courtesy of Gary Attle blogging in 2018 on the AHUA (Association of Heads of University Administration) website.

The Act includes an express statutory duty on the new regulator, the Office of Students, to have regard to the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers as it goes about its functions. “Institutional autonomy” has been defined in section 2 (8) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 for these purposes as:

  • a) the freedom of English higher education providers within the law to conduct their day to day management in an effective and competent way;
  • b) the freedom of English higher education providers –
    • i) to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,
    • ii) to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
    • iii) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
  • c) the freedom within the law of academic staff at English higher education providers-
    • i) to question and test received wisdom, and
    • ii) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the providers.

It looks as if government is seeking to override the protections of bi) and biii). Indeed, the very mention of autonomy has been dismissed; Gary Attle describes the struggle to include an amendment which ultimately did not pass.

During the passage of the bill, an amendment was tabled to include on the face of the legislation what might be seen as the quintessential features of a UK university: their autonomy. This includes the imperatives that they must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech; that they “contribute to society through the pursuit, dissemination and application of knowledge’; and that they must ‘be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.

Over to the regulator, and Susan Lapworth, Director of Competition and Registration at the Office for Students, blogging on the OfS website, also in 2018, notes the OfS is required to ‘have regard’ for institutional autonomy, but states this is not an absolute. Some of the Act’s provision may be in tension with each other, for example, competition might not be the best guarantor of equality of access and participation. Nevertheless, ‘providers are free to make their own academic decisions’ and to set vice chancellors’ salaries. But, wait – this is another curtailment hinted at in the Regime, this time in breach of section a) of HERA. Has university autonomy been declared null and void by one sole government edict? How soon before the UK emulates other authoritarian governments, such as Hungary or Brazil, in deciding to outlaw gender studies or other perceived left-wing critical areas? The government seems to want to re-shape universities in terms of curriculum, delivery, recruitment and management. This is, to use an over-worked term in 2020, unprecedented.

This kind of dirigisme is unlikely to add to the allure of universities for either staff or students. A government and regulator which upholds the primacy of the marketized university and the consumer model seems now to be tuning 180 degrees towards centralised, autocratic control.

I have been fortunate to hear Dr Rowan Williams, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, speak at two Zoom meetings in the last week. When speaking at the AGM of the CDBU (Council for the Defence of British Universities), Lord Williams emphasized how important it is for universities to model democratic decision making if they are, as the Regime document suggests, ‘cornerstones of our liberal democracy’. In the other meeting, this time to launch the latest statement from the Convention for Higher Education, he argued for a measure of the public good of higher education that goes beyond the economistic. In order to deliver liberation, academic practitioners must be prepared to seize back control of governance from those who have presided over ‘the barbarizing policies of previous years.’ From a former Archbishop of Canterbury, these are strong words, but they are timely, especially when we address the ideological implications of the Regime for student unions.

The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns.

It is extraordinary to demonise all student campaigning as illegitimate ‘activism’. By contrast, in his address to the CDBU, Lord Williams urged universities to become more democratic in order to offer a generation steeped in grass-roots activism a reason to remain within them. And furthermore, I have just been listening to the moving tributes to Congressman John Lewis in the USA, a notable leader of the 1960s civil rights struggle. One of his more memorable quotes was ‘if you see something that is not right, you have a moral obligation to say something and do something about it’. John Lewis was an activist and he suffered violence and discrimination because of it. Today he is regarded as a pioneer and a hero. How can the minister for higher education decide unilaterally and a priori that all activism should be prohibited? This is not conservatism; it is something more sinister entirely.

It remains to be seen whether VCs fall into line with the Regime or will seek to avoid drifting within its jurisdiction at all costs. Paradoxically, these costs may be the loss of STEM programs and departments which are costly to teach and resource and are often cross-subsidized by higher recruitment of arts and humanities students. This Guardian article by Glen O’Hara predicts that universities will shed STEM subjects in favour of the cheaper humanities ones.

I’m not so sure. Vice chancellors have all too often been willing to genuflect to government wishes even to the point of sacrificing valuable research capacity and indeed entire chemistry and languages departments when it seemed expedient to respond to incentives. The conditions of the Regime loans seem designed to divide the sector into two: government-controlled and autonomous universities, perhaps foreshadowing another division into publicly funded and private ones. I wonder how many of them will align with Rowan Williams’ vision for universities as transformative institutions and forces for intellectual growth. This is a crucial decision for university leaders, indeed all university workers, to make. Gary Attle’s blog ends with this thought: ‘What remains to be seen is how these twin features of the new architecture – autonomy and accountability – will co-exist’. Two years on, the answer to that is now very apparent, and we must fight hard to protect university autonomy across the sector.

Higher education and pandemic uncertainty

Anyone managing, working in, studying at or applying to a university is facing uncertainty during a pandemic spring that may extend into a pandemic autumn.

Wonkhe has published four informative pieces on the scale of the economic challenge for universities: by David Kernohan here  and  here , and Jim Dickinson here.  In another, Jo Grady, General Secretary of UCU, writes:

A conservative estimate on the impact of Covid-19 on our universities by London Economics identified a £2.5bn funding black hole, which would result in a £6bn shock for the economy and a loss of around 60,000 jobs – half directly in universities and the rest in the communities they serve. It is an alarming prospect.

What was unexpected was a sudden curveball from the government on student number controls. The Office for Students had already issued an injunction not to implement any admissions policies which might cause instability in the sector. This was interpreted as a warning to those universities which had been named and shamed for offering ‘conditional-unconditional’ offers in the hopes of grasping some certitude by luring applicants from the clutches of more prestigious, but selective universities. But then the government saw fit to destabilize the admissions process all on its own. The award of 5,000 places on the basis of selective metrics was a calculated decision to further rig a market which has stubbornly refused to bend to incentives over the years to deliver market supremacy to the Russell Group. David Kernohan explains:

The ability to bid for a total of 5,000 places in architecture, sciences, maths, social work, engineering (and engineering geology), and veterinary science is linked not to TEF itself – but to the data underlying two TEF metrics as absolute values. Additional places are only available if your continuation rate is over 90 per cent, and your graduate highly skilled employment or further study rate is above 75 per cent.

So we have eligibility criteria that actively encourage the growth of providers that recruit students overwhelmingly from well-to-do backgrounds. And this is a deliberate choice.

For 2020/ 2021, most universities are offering the prospect of some face to face teaching, while presenting online lectures as something they have been ‘aspiring’ to for a long time. In fact, they had seemed just as happy with Panopto lecture capture and its dual promises of surveillance and strike breaking opportunities. But never let a pandemic forestall the opportunity for some PR casuistry from Universities UK and some individual universities.

It was fantastic to see our blended approach to online and face-to-face learning being held up as an example to follow yesterday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Education Select Committee Chair Robert Halfon MP.

boasted Nottingham Trent.

However, it may have been premature to announce death of traditional campus-based learning. The president of Indiana University, Michael McRobbie, quoted in the Times Higher said “One thing we have learned definitively is that students do not want to be locked in their parents’ basement for four years doing their degree online.”  But we wait to see if the yoyo-ing ‘market’ and online delivery will carry much appeal for students who are reportedly considering deferring entry until September 2021. Many also support delaying the academic year.

If students are feeling anxious, academics are feeling the pressure of panicked demands for increased research activity from managers who at the same time are threatening redundancies.  Even as academics have struggled with home-based working, some university research mangers have demanded ‘business as usual’. This has provoked an instant reality check from contributors to academic Twitter, and this from Daphne S. Ling in a Nature article entitled ‘This pandemic is not an extended sabbatical’.

Many of us are also dealing with precarious housing, food and financial insecurity, unexpected care of children and relatives, exacerbation of chronic physical illness and mental-health struggles, family members working on the frontlines and separation from families and friends. Our struggles, anxiety, fear and grief are real. We don’t all have access to the same resources or support systems, and not everyone’s struggles look the same. Disparaging messages about productivity are especially toxic to people struggling with their mental health who have been cut off from their support networks.

The relentless insistence on productivity has been on display at the University of Strathclyde where there has been no relaxation of pressure to produce world-leading REF outputs from the University of Strathclyde. Below is a screenshot of the email recently sent to academic staff. Despite the attempt to camouflage the purpose of this message as ‘support’, the message from management is transparent and threatening. Don’t you dare let your ‘outputs’ fall or your citations diminish, even though you may have little control over either.

Strathclyde expectations

On a more promising, if contradictory, note, it is refreshing to see a new commitment to mental health in universities. This will be a priority says Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK who asks UK vice chancellors to commit to mentally healthy universities, heralding the Step Change program, which, in partnership with the Student Minds charity, promises a new whole-university approach which puts equal emphasis on staff and student mental health.

We encourage our members to adopt a whole university approach to mental health, ensuring that mental health and wellbeing are a core part of all university activities. Strong and visible leadership is essential to unlock the changes we all want to see”…“We need to see senior leaders speaking out and promoting open and supportive conversations about mental health, involving students and staff in a collective commitment to improve outcomes for all.

Readers of this blog may be familiar with my account of trying to have one of those conversations with students about staff mental health. I imagine there will remain some similar limits to the scope of those conversations.

In my subsequent investigations (here and here) of the mental health climate for staff in universities, I have made quite a few recommendations on how this might be ameliorated in terms of structural changes and realistic expectations of staff. One recommendation which now seems doomed is any commitment to sustainable careers for new PhDs, post-doctoral researchers and newly appointed lecturers. In the US and England – market-dominated higher education systems – the price is being paid by early career and precarious academics who now face hiring freezes which will blunt their ability to get a career launched. Their prospects may never recover. If they were graduating in most EU countries, their research could continue.

The most significant issue that has been brought into focus by the pandemic is that a higher education system controlled by the market is not as robust as market fundamentalists like to insist. While there are no reported redundancies in Germany, and Dutch academics have been awarded a pay rise, we in England are obliged to gamble the future of universities on tuition fee income and a constant flow of students from outside the EU. We are about to witness the consequence of a depletion of both sources of income. The claim has frequently been made that higher education in the UK has been spared the consequences of austerity. That claim will not be repeated as we see the failure of the strategy of marketisation to counter the vulnerabilities revealed by an unforeseen crisis. Today The Times pronounces, “The likely bankruptcy of some institutions would be neither surprising nor particularly regretful.”   There seems to be a real chance that England will see its universities decimated, while those of other major economies will strengthen. Let’s hope those whose educational choices are so casually dismissed by The Times will fight for the university places that will expand their opportunities and they have qualified for.

 

 

 

 

Background as foreground

During the Covid lockdown period, we’ve all become strangely familiar with other people’s bookshelves. As interviewers and interviewees have all forsaken television studios, suddenly their homes become the backdrop for the performance of professionalism and seriousness. As we scrutinize their collections, we consider how much their choices convey meaning. What has fascinated me is how similar they all are, but like many signifiers, bookshelves are shifting ones. In the UK a background of while bookshelves seems more or less universal. They may be tidily arranged or interspersed with heaps of books and ugly file folders, sometimes a few ornaments. Meanwhile, in the US commentators seem to prefer to be framed by the old money insignia of glass-fronted, oak bookshelves to denote their Harvard club class credentials.

If bookshelves are now a status symbol, then we should not be surprised to find they have given rise to a competition which apparently Rishi Sunak wins.

bookshelves rishi

We have been conditioned to admire the spectacle of celebrity interiors, but I wasn’t expecting books to displace the gold toilets and hot tubs and become the standard for emulation. Are we witnessing a new domestic Overton window, only to find it intensifies our personal anxieties?

Those who cannot rely on their own taste and sophistication must procure the discernment of others. We learn that some celebrities, whose home décor is now exposed to the pitiless appraisal of the media, have paid to have their bookshelves curated. I quote from the article recounting Gwyneth Paltrow’s literary makeover which details the approach to shelving books.

Gwyneth remodeled her L.A. home a few years ago and when she moved in she realized she needed about five or six hundred more books to complete the shelves….In the family room we integrated the books into her existing collection so that it felt very light, inviting, and easy to grab off the shelves. In the dining room, we stuck to a more rigid color palette of black, white, and gray since it was less of a space where one might hang out and read.

This logic may elude academics, but some of our managers may share some of Gwyneth’s apprehension about the semiotics of household interiors. This blog post came about as a result of swapping Twitter messages with Kate Bowles who has written a wonderful piece about the difficulties of camouflaging the reality of our homes when they feature as the backdrop to Zoom lectures or meetings.

In common with several other universities across the world, Kate’s had sent a video to staff suggesting the kinds of backgrounds considered acceptable. The implication, of course, is that, left to the judgement of academics, those interiors might confound the professional image the university would want us to convey.

As so often with Kate’s pieces there is a skillful meditation on a lexical ambiguity. There is the literal background which perhaps reveals more about the hinterland of a lecturer’s life than the employer is comfortable with. The piles of laundry. The chattering children.  All need to be airbrushed out of focus so as not to disturb the notion that the academic may be at home, but they and their home are still entirely clothed in corporate drag – and the gendered implications of drag are deliberate paradox.

“Top line: remove all signifiers of your human weaknesses from shot” reads one article on working from home. It’s not just human weaknesses that must be removed, either. It is any evidence of our humanity. Teaching, or learning, in Hong Kong may take place in small spaces shared by several generations of family members. One professor recounts seminars that have been accompanied by the sound of a student’s grandfather playing mah jong, together with a momentary sighting of a brother strolling by in his underpants.

And that’s the point that Kate makes. We don’t all have access to private and exclusive study space. As Petra Boynton writes, “Staff and students who are poor or in precarious situations are inconvenienced further by working at home. Space, quiet, light, heat and time are privileges, not, as some management assume, universals”. Taking them for granted presumes norms of propriety which are highly classed and age stratified. For example, one colleague of mine was told that on no account were Zoom lectures to be recorded in a bedroom – far too suggestive. But what if that is their only private space? How about the kitchen? Does wifi coverage extend to the shed?

Unsurprisingly, most universities will recommend that academics should be seated in front of a bookshelf. I find this deeply ironic. I once worked for a vice chancellor who was keen to introduce shared offices and hot desking (for us, not him, and we resisted). Early on, we raised the issue of where to house bookshelves. The response came back that academics didn’t need books – these were just ‘academic bling’. It is interesting that such disposable encumberances are now the preferred background when it is a question of appropriate branding. At this point background becomes very much the foreground.

This all reminded me of a blog post by Philip Moriarty late last year during the pay and pensions strikes. Although taking strike action himself, Philip had a sense that another tactic might be more effective.

So let’s stop trying to repeatedly use the same seventies strategies to attack a 21st century problem. Let’s think a little bit more about what really matters to university managers.

It’s not the students*.

It’s not the staff.

It’s the brand.

He has a point when we read ‘intelligence’ like this:

The strongest brand in the world is not Apple or Mercedes-Benz or Coca-Cola. The strongest brands are MIT, Oxford, and Stanford. Academics and administrators at the top universities have decided over the last 30 years that we’re no longer public servants; we’re luxury goods.

Some universities have even become ‘super brands’.

Reputation is like a supertanker: it’s pretty hard to turn around unless you do something very wrong…Those six über-universities are the ones ­people want to believe are the best: they are well visited, very rich and beautiful to look at.

So, when it comes to backgrounds that promote the brand, university managers are very aware that staff ARE the public face of the university. ‘We are the university’ is a slogan that academics have been keen for them to hear, but managers have defended ‘the university’ as a managerial enclosure. Nevertheless, academic staff and their domestic backgrounds find themselves unexpectedly propelled into the foreground and charged with the expectation of reputation enhancement. You would hope it would be a rewarding and mutually beneficial exchange of favours.  However, in a previous post, I suggested that some universities have been less than accommodating to the pressurized circumstances many employees are facing as teaching, supervision and research shift online.

And in a recent HEPI Policy Note co-authored with Nicky Priaulx, we cite work by Gail Kinman and Siobhan Wray who found that many universities do not even meet Health and Safety Executive management standards in terms of levels of psychological hazard. Workloads have escalated, and the control that academics have traditionally maintained has been diminished to the point where universities are becoming increasingly stressful and unsafe working environments. “The findings quantify the perceptions of academics that their working environments have quite rapidly deteriorated into a situation where urgent action is required, and indeed mandated, by the HSE”. [Kinman and Wray 2020 cited in  Pressure Vessels II, HEPI Policy Note 23, p.9]

You may wish to foreground these thoughts when you decide how many cushions to fluff or bookshelves to pose; whether to shave/ wear makeup or iron the shirt you’re wearing. Consider how willing your managers have been to meet your needs for space, privacy and psychological wellbeing in the workplace before you allow them to appropriate your home as a screen on which to advertise their brand. Mi casa is definitely not su casa. And don’t hurry to get that post-lockdown haircut. Set it as your university profile picture.

 

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism