Stress fractures: one year on

It is about a year ago since I posted The Kindness of Strangers. It quickly found a lot of readers worldwide. As it travelled, the Times Higher asked my permission to republish it on their blog where it trended for several days. I was obliged to take it down by my former employer, and they forbade me to write any more on stress. The events that unfolded after that are alluded to in this recent piece. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/why-audit-culture-made-me-quit I quit my job to reclaim my academic freedom, and I am now reposting the original piece below.

The post was never about just one university. It was clear from the responses that the issues resonated with many academics at different institutions in different countries, and they continue to do so. Management by metrics is not the provenance of any one higher education system, and neither is the damage to mental health that the pressure to ‘perform’ to targets causes. It is clear in the piece that although the effects of stress were observable among colleagues I know personally – again at different institutions – I am also drawing on the widespread reporting of academic stress in multiple blogs.

Students – I have learned so much about stress and mental health from working with you, and from talking with you about this. I know you understand this, but it bears repeating. The working conditions of the staff who teach you, are your learning conditions. Whatever justifications or denials are uttered, this remains the case. Lecturers who are made ill through work overload cannot give you the time or energy you deserve. In writing this I want to make a difference, and I think it might, because Kate Bowles tweeted this today:

Depression KB snip

Kate also pointed me towards this extraordinary piece by Dr Simon McCormick https://brokentoydotblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/danger-breakdown-ahead/  who narrates the feelings and events that led to his breakdown at work as a consultant in emergency medicine. And then I knew I should re-post in tribute to all those who suffer stress at work.

The kindness of strangers (March 2016)

This week I chose to open up to students about the relentless stress faced by academic staff in universities. Enough of the omerta, the conspiracy of silence.

What made me do this? Well, I have watched one after another of my colleagues taking sick leave, seeking help from occupational health, reporting loss of sleep or just looking exhausted. It is a bleak picture, but it is about to ratchet up a notch further. We learn that the government plans to impose a Teaching Excellence Framework on universities. As if the National Student Survey is not enough, this looks to be a full parade of all the proxy horribles: DLHE (employment data), retention figures, number of firsts and 2.1s (goodbye academic standards and credibility of UK degrees) and something called learning gain. As I blogged previously, there is no consensus on what this is or how to measure it,  but in any case, gears will be grinding in anticipation throughout universities.

So last week I spoke to students about some of the pressures piling in on academics as management-by-metrics toxicity spreads throughout the sector:

  • Pressure to publish, and the fact that our peer-reviewed published research is subject to post hoc internal evaluation by non-experts in our field who assign it a grade 1-4. Unless they judge it as grade 3 or 4 (internationally excellent or world leading), you and your research are seen as inadequate.
  • High expectations of grant capture, with a very low prospect of success. We talked about SMART targets, and the fact that the A stands for attainable.
  • The implicit suggestion that you are only judged worthy if you bring in to the university an amount equal to, or greater than, your salary plus the ‘cost’ of your research. In effect, the status of an academic has slid from institutional asset to indentured servant. In universities sustainable has been untethered from its more usual environmental meaning, and is most often applied to issues of finance (Morrish and Sauntson 2013).
  • The National Student Survey which, in the context of a marketised and consumerist higher education sector, has threatened to turn the relationship between academic staff and students into an adversarial one.

I told them that in many universities, academics are accountable to a dashboard which records these Key Performance Indicators. Vice chancellors issue threats to ‘rank and yank’, i.e. demote or dismiss staff who, particularly, have not been able to secure research grant money. Nobody takes into account whether your research is expensive or not.

I told students that many of these targets are quite outside our control (NSS scores and grant capture). I told them we feel that we are players in some academic version of the Hunger Games where capricious gamesmakers change the rules all the time. Your contract lays out a set of duties, but you would be better off finding out what targets have been set for your Dean. If you are helping them win performance-related pay, you will be tolerated. If you prioritise serving the needs of your students, or scholarship, you make yourself very vulnerable.

I told them you could work 60 hours a week, never take a holiday or weekend off, have internationally regarded publications – lots of them, write textbooks, be a great teacher, and managers will still ask for more. And more.

I told them you are measured only by what you have not managed to achieve, not what you have achieved, never mind how valuable or prestigious.

I told them about the effects of long-term stress on the mind and body. I told them about the death of Stefan Grimm at Imperial University. And they were shocked and frightened that this could happen in a British university. I told them to look up President Alice Gast’s response  when she was asked a direct question about the preventability of Stefan’s death. I hope they read it. [Update: I understand Imperial College has taken some action over staff wellbeing in the intervening 12 months since this was originally posted.]

As I came back to my office there was an email from a Twitter follower, also an academic. We had corresponded but never met.

I’ve just been through a period of a few weeks marked by massive, almost unbearable stress and I’m on the other side of it feeling a bit like I can’t go on as I am in academia, without really knowing what that might mean.  The actual cause of pressure on me was marking, exacerbated by my also having a PhD thesis to read and viva in the same period, and some external examining.  I almost pulled an all-nighter right at the end, and resorted to staying in a hotel one night just to conserve energy for a 9:30am meeting the next day.  There are lessons I can learn from it all (like not putting a PhD viva in a marking period, not that that is likely to happen at all often) though I also think on occasions other of my colleagues have pulled the all-nighter just to get through the workload.  Twice in eight days I had to spend one day basically in bed, utterly exhausted.

Similar stories are shared around on Twitter and on blogs, and it is reassuring in some ways to know you are not the only one struggling to fulfil impossible obligations. Ros Gill (2009) has written about mounting and multiple pressures in academia leading to unmanageable feelings of guilt and anxiety. A scholar in the US recalls struggling to meet the research requirements for tenure.  Amidst anxiety about spending too much time teaching, and guilt at enjoying teaching, she “asked friends with quiet homes if I could visit them for writing weekends” (Albertson 2016). There is a chilling account from Anonymous Academics in The Guardian (2014)  who wrote of a hostile manager unmoved by a professor’s protests of overwork and stress. Some bloggers have suggested that the nature of academic demands play on the symptoms of certain mental illnesses like mania (Tenure She Wrote 2016), and addiction (Ruminations: Life After Academia 2012) but inevitably lead to depression and anxiety.  Others, like Doctor Outta Here,  and the colleague I blogged about some months ago simply decide academia is incompatible with any quality of life. They quit.

Mountz et al (2015) have appealed for feminists to work to a code of slow scholarship as an act of resistance. And Thomas Docherty,, a reliable voice of sanity, has asked for academics to just start saying no.

Maybe you’re thinking it was unprofessional of me to share the personal concerns of academics. My students are ahead of you on this one. They recognise that the personal is political, and that the effects of workplace stress are now having an impact on them. I felt they needed to know some of the context which might explain the deteriorating mental health of some of their lecturers and professors. As my email correspondent put it “How such things get communicated (well, and with care) to students is a real challenge.” I hope I got it right. It felt as if I did. This was not a monologue; students had questions and comments. Most of all they offered support; their responses were simply heartwarming in contrast to the totalising judgement of management by metrics. As I lost my ability to contain my sadness, my voice trembled and I became tearful. A young woman stepped forward and offered a hug. Later more students arrived at my office with coffee and cake, or just concern. Students I barely know out of class offered more humanity and understanding than the managers who are charged with a duty of care to prevent workplace stress. I was humbled and grateful. And so I found the comfort of strangers in unexpected places, and as I said to my Twitter contact, that day is one I won’t quickly recover from. It was, ironically, Universities Mental Health Day.

References

 

Gill, R. 2009. Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in R. Flood & R. Gill (eds) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.

Morrish, L. and Sauntson, H. (2013): ‘Business-facing motors for economic development’: an appraisal analysis of visions and values in the marketised UK university, Critical Discourse Studies, 10 1, 1-20.

Resist, Insist, Persist

One of the things I miss about my life in a university is the recommended reflective feedback sessions with my managers after each staff development training. I’m sure they don’t feel the same. But to continue the habit of a lifetime – and with very sincere gratitude – I want to thank everyone who read this piece I wrote in the Times Higher (2nd March 2017)  Thanks especially to those who commented, retweeted, quoted, DM-ed, emailed or hollered. Reactions fell into largely three categories: congratulation, commiseration and corroboration.

First the congratulations, and there were some lovely QTs which featured adjectives like inspirational, insightful, courageous, powerful, excoriating, remarkable, brilliant. These all made me blush, but these linguistic judgments of esteem and veracity fuelled me with more determination to keep writing.

From the US, a Professor Emerita wrote: “It’s very interesting to read the comments of many here, who speculate on how to rebuild or create a better system, and whether or not that is possible. With such minds as I see among you and your friends, dear Liz, there seems to be a great deal of possibility–and it’s exciting to imagine what very different ways of learning you may bring into being in the coming years”.

From a fellow blogger with a keen critique of university policy and implementation:  “You’ve become a lodestone for us all as an example of the ethic of academia, and how difficult it’s becoming to behave ethical in the current structures. You’ve helped me personally and intellectually Liz – I hope there’s a lot more to come”.

Other colleagues offered commiseration and expressed their own sense of disenchantment.

This was from a union colleague: “It is getting increasingly difficult for me to experience the constant trampling of basic professional ethics. I was disgusted to hear what had happened to you, Liz, after sharing your views on performance management. Sadly so few academics today understand the value of academic freedom, in part because they are not doing work sufficiently controversial as to require its protection”.

It was consoling to hear from a few pro-vice chancellors. One wrote: ” Very sorry to hear about your recent experiences. You seem to have been treated very badly. Your Times Higher article is really effective in keeping these issues on the agenda”.

From another: “When I read your article in the THE this morning I was overwhelmed by a great sadness to think that you had left your university following an absurd ‘disciplinary’ process.  This evening I read it again and I am furious to imagine what nonsense you must have been through.  I am just sorry I did not know about it while the process was in train, to provide solidarity and counsel.  This injustice will remain a running sore as long as it is acceptable to think that the best way to do academic work is outside the academy.  This wrong must be righted.  It is just such a pity that academics and our union (don’t make me laugh) is so bad a mobilising around truly important issues”.

Two readers told me privately that they had broken down in tears after reading my piece. When a person suffers burnout and emotional distress, their own empathic reactions to another’s plight can be overwhelming. This I know from experience.

Others corroborated my analysis by sharing their own experiences of audit culture in universities. The panoptical nature of the surveillance, the punitive actions that accompany it, and the often unattainable targets demanded, all add up to stress, despondency and mental illness. One colleague pointed towards a future of algorithmic performance management of the sort identified at Amazon in the New York Times expose.

“Here at [Russell Group University] we have [XX company] coming in soon which allows real time micro level performance management via ‘dashboards’ recording all data on all staff for the duration of the ‘staff member’s life cycle’…. I guess that means electronic module evaluation feedback to save processing time, being added to H-index etc. data. Although this is denied by managers, part of the purpose with this is to strip out middle management and allow central / senior management to set targets for ‘teams’ and saying they can ‘liaise’ with the ‘core member’ if they need resources to achieve their targets, which really means, ‘we have direct control, total ‘transparency’ and can get rid of teams that ask for too much”.

A colleague in Australia DM-ed: “I’ve just come out of a traumatic couple of weeks in which I was asked to write a self-evaluation report identifying and quantifying my value to the university. I’ve been told that unless I can come up with some ‘low-hanging fruit’ in the short term my days are numbered etc. And I am – by any measure – a highly productive academic with millions of dollars in grant money, a plethora of publications etc”.

A colleague at another Russell Group University wrote: “The problem seems to me to be that the institution’s demands for compliance wreck our intellects (and our resolve and resilience), while stamping on us with disciplinary power whenever we point this out”.

This theme was best summarized in a tweet by one respected commentator (well, I respect him, and if he’s reading, I’d be really chuffed if he’d follow me on Twitter. Like what else do I need to do??):  “Powerful piece by @lizmorrish in THE today; something is going horribly wrong with way academic staff are managed”.

A colleague at yet another Russell Group University which has had its own issues with metrics reflected on the influence of a talk I gave in November 2015: “Thanks too for the mention of our success in [Russell Group University] in resisting a ghastly outcomes-based performance-management system last year. You came and gave an insightful and inspiring critique of it to a UCU branch meeting, which provided us with courage and the intellectual tools to tackle it. I am sure you will continue to play such a role. How can those of us still in universities support you at this time and going forwards?”

After such a show of appreciation, I can honestly say that I do feel supported – anchored, actually – in a community of scholars from which my former employer thought I had been ejected. I am fortunate to be able to continue writing, blogging and reaching out on Twitter and hopefully connecting and influencing that way. So in that sense I am ok. It’s the rest of you left behind that I worry about, so let me make some suggestions.

The people who need our concerted support are those whose academic freedom is compromised because their contracts are temporary or zero hours forcing them into the hire and fire economy of contingent labour. They dread questioning authority and have no real autonomy either in the classroom or outside of it. Thankfully, our union is campaigning on this issue. We must put pressure on universities to take measures for sustainable careers post-PhD.  The University of Birmingham is making a start with its research fellowship scheme – 5 years of research followed by a lectureship. This is a positive development.

We must talk to colleagues and students about the effects that work-related stress is having. When I was still working at a university, I was often sought out by colleagues for these conversations because my research and stance offered reassurance that it was the system and structures which were the problem, not the individual. This remains the case, despite all the wellbeing workshops and employee assistance programs being implemented across the sector. Unless we challenge management-by-metrics, academics will continue to get ill. This recent article in the Guardian Academics Anonymous addresses the embargo on talking about stress and mental health in universities. As my Times Higher piece reveals – there can be penalties for breaking the code of omerta, but we must.

We must resist collapsing our academic identities into a set of data points and spurious proxy metrics for ‘performance’. Let’s not talk about being REFable, or incorporate our h-index into our email signature. Instead, resolve to have conversations about interesting research, and how we add to it or want to integrate it into our teaching.

We can put pressure on our institutional managers to sign up to DORA: the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment. Imperial College has just become a signatory, and several UK research universities have now committed to this pledge not to use journal-based metrics in hiring and promotion decisions.

Universities are held in thrall by the REF, and will presumably be so again with the TEF as long as government uses these mechanisms to control funding. It is sometimes hard to differentiate unavoidable external constraints from gratuitous control of academics’ behaviour. But if we empty academic careers of autonomy, then we risk being left with universities full of dressage ponies.  Let’s resolve to use our own judgement in our ‘self-directed research and scholarship’. We owe that to our students and our disciplines.

We should reject the damaging discourse of ‘excellence’ that has invaded every corner of universities. This is critiqued in an excellent paper by Moore et al. (2017). As the authors point out, excellence is not a discoverable quality. It is, of course, a fiction. At best it is a discursive strategy to normalise the achievements of the most talented and ambitious academics and make everyone else seem deficient by comparison. At worst it is a smokescreen for what Joyce Canaan calls ‘a culture of crappiness’. Moore et al. recommend that we retrain ourselves to evaluate our academic endeavours in terms of soundness and capacity.

And lastly we must ask our union branches to monitor any rise in disciplinary actions against colleagues, and scrutinize the effects on academic freedom, or rise in fear of inappropriate reprisals. There is a perception that there has been more frequent recourse to these procedures, but we need evidence and consistent monitoring.

I am grateful to Agnes Bosanquet who blogs at The Slow Academic. She writes about small targeted acts of resistance (STARS). In a citation she gives these examples: “Individuals were deliberately maintaining their research interests in defiance of perceived [audit]-rewarded tends; departments were actively pursuing collegial rather than competitive practices.”

These are all things we can do individually and collectively to resist the erasure of our academic autonomy by audit and the limits that discourse sets for our sense of achievement.

Some of my colleagues asked me why, unlike Marina Warner in this hard-hitting piece and another,  I refrained from naming the institution I left. The first reason is because my critique has never been intended to single out one institution – the problems are quite manifestly sector-wide. The second reason is more complex. The managers who chose to pursue me with disciplinary action will recognise themselves in the piece. The postmodernists among us would call this interpellation, and in queer theory, individuals are interpellated by shame if they respond to a hailing. They are hardly likely to step forward and claim their ignominy by objecting, in the same way they shut me down the last time. On that occasion they isolated me with a bond of silence. Now I have turned the tables and gagged them. One small targeted act of resistance.

The wonkers and the wonked

 

We have become used to universities taking a regular kicking for all kinds of supposed faults. You expect it from politicians and some areas of the media. Some universities even get it from their own former chancellors.   However as higher education practitioners and supporters, we take it personally when it comes from a newspaper many of us felt to have the interests of education at heart. Readers of the Guardian and Observer have a relationship to those papers which is rooted in a sense of community with other educators. We have come to trust them to be knowledgeable and impartial on the subject of education. We don’t mind being challenged, but today, judging by the activity on Twitter, many of us feel betrayed.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and has form on denigrating UK universities.   Other than her own university education some decades ago, she seems to have had no other direct involvement in higher education. Despite slender claims to expertise in the area, she was back again today  to claim that “universities are not very good at innovation in terms of undergraduate education”, that they are excessively costly and over-funded, financially unaccountable, and cursing students with poor value for money. She greeted the expressions of annoyance and factual refutations on Twitter, not with contrition but with triumphalist provocation:

sodha

It was disappointing to see a number of HE supporters, including Wes Streeting and Stian Westlake falling in behind Sodha. Making a lukewarm stand for the beleaguered academics, was Phil Baty of the Times Higher:

baty

I don’t know what Sodha imagines goes on in universities. Perhaps, she remembers gloomy lecture theatres with a balding don in high-water trousers mumbling at the front, occasionally jotting key facts on the chalk board. By contrast, post QAA and pre-TEF universities are all keen to introduce enhancements to student learning, and my recent experience was among educators fizzing with ideas for engaging students. University teachers are currently using a range of new techniques such as flipped classrooms, online and blended learning, practice-based learning, simulations, placements, employer-led research briefs, and staff-student research collaboration. It is Sodha who is trapped within a rigid notion of student as consumer, when in universities, we encourage the student to see themselves as producers of knowledge.

If teaching has not yet been fully transformed from 1990s patterns, it is less because university staff are resistant to change, but more because students are conventional in their learning preferences. When staff appraisals and university league tables hinge on the results of the NSS, we are forced to pay attention to feedback that expresses a preference for ‘a good set of notes’ over more challenging exercises in group work and problem-solving. University managers may well make noises about disrupting student expectations of learning and teaching, but will hold individual lecturers responsible for any drop in satisfaction scores. The accountability that Sodha extols incentivizes the conservatism she decries.

One thing that has been transformed is the funding landscape. Students who are in fear of accruing debt may well express this as resentment over ‘value for money’. After all, when surveyed, they are at the point when they have not yet translated their risk into what is now called ‘return on investment’, in other words, a paying job. But the HEA/HEPI report Sodha refers to clearly shows the point at which ‘value for money’ became a concern. It was, of course, with the cohort who started paying £9000 fees in 2012. What she doesn’t cite is the overall statistic on course satisfaction which is 85%. And if she had take a closer look at the statistics, she would perhaps have recognised that those ‘drivers’ of value for money judgements are actually very weakly correlated. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it is misleading to cite them as correlations at all.

value-for-money

It is not that I and other academics do not recognise changes that need to take place in universities. Many would prefer to prioritize staffing levels over another new vanity building project. These tend to feature cathedral-like atriums, empty of students and staff, while teaching is compressed into tiny rooms whose utilisation percentages are faithfully recorded by auditors for their annual ‘green’ league table. Indeed, when I was teaching, each and every one of my classes was interrupted by a utilisation surveyor taking attendance.

That is probably not the financial accountability Sodha was looking for in her article. She seems ignorant, though, of sources of information provided by HESA, Unistats, Hefce and all the rest. She indicated in an exchange with me that universities should offer line-item costings for each of their courses. It would be impossible for any university to disaggregate the cost of the university library, counselling service, sports facilities, marketing, equal opportunities, student support services etc., for each course, and I can’t see a benefit to students in doing so.

But if you want to get exercised about something legitimate Sonia, yes, many of us would endorse your concern with senior managers’ pay. There is very little accountability evident there, and as one tweep reminded me, ‘try getting hold of the minutes for the remuneration committee’. There are too many scandals over the biscuit budget, first class air travel and reckless spending on ceremonial furniture. Other economies would result from a reconsideration of the structure of the academic year. Too many universities have adopted semester models, while keeping in place the terms inherited from year-long courses. This is an inefficient anomaly and results in discontinuous patterns of study. Whether 2 year or 3 year degrees, undergraduates could continue their learning during the summers; there is plenty of scope for placements and internships that would allow students to apply their learning, or for study abroad opportunities. However, we need to recognise that this would not be a cost-neutral development and cannot be delivered with current staffing and resourcing levels.

This is not the first quarrel I have had with an HE wonk this week. An earlier interaction had the same hallmarks as the communications with Sodha. We see a rather one-dimensional view of university education, and a firm belief that their own experience is universal. Any rebuttal, however factual, is derided as the “howling of vested interests”.  But the Observer should be concerned at the number of today’s readers who seem ready to abandon it for future Sundays. Perhaps they should behave more like universities and consider the needs and beliefs of their clientele. In 2017 we are seeing the consequences of a political class which does not understand the lived experience of many of the governed. I am wondering whether the higher education community has become similarly divided. Have the wonkers lost touch with those they wonk upon?

 

 

 

The Academic Hustler Meets Forensic Academics

I recently wrote a piece for the Sociological Review blog entitled The Rise of the Trump  Academic . It is hardly a new phenomenon, but in that piece I was claiming that there is a lot of poor academic practice going on in the world of research, from p-hacking, to confirmation bias, to excessive self-promotion. All of this is incentivized in a world of increasing competition for funds, reputation and university rankings.

Much less common on campus is what I call the academic hustler (after Tressie McMillan Cottom). I’ll attempt species identification. You know when the hustler is due on campus because their mail starts arriving several weeks before they do. They moment they appear they start cultivating the institutional hierarchy. Sabbaticals, travel money and conference bursaries are granted with few of the usual formalities. Before any serious obligations, such as teaching a new module or position of responsibility fall due – they are gone. Not that their profiles lack evidence of ‘leadership’ though. There will be journal editorships, conferences organised and international networks assembled. Their colleagues breathe a sigh of relief at their departure. In their short tenure the hustler will have divided departments and activated volcanic resentments over their sequestering of departmental resources.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when I read a blog post from Luděk Brož, Tereza Stöckelová and Filip Vostal which mourns the withdrawal of Jeffrey Beall’s online list of possible predatory publishers which he alleged corrupt scholarly communication. Featured on the list were several journals patronised by a scholar whose academic practice they claim has been discreditable.

The charges detailed by Brož et al are that Dr. Wadim Strielkowski, who describes himself as ‘bibliometrics expert, prolific author and a globetrotting entrepreneur’ has:

  • published in dubious journals that were nevertheless featured in SCOPUS and Web of Science’s databases,
  • recycled the same content in different publications,
  • indulged in authorship trafficking (very similar texts are variously co-authored by different people, and some appear to be fake identities),
  • offered advice to others on how to get published in journals listed in SCOPUS and Web of Science,
  • delivered courses in becoming a MAW – Master of Academic Writing.

Strielkowski’s response is summarised in the title of his reply:  “It is easier to write a blog than a paper in a journal indexed in Web of Science or Scopus”. This was not the response you might expect if he wanted to dismiss the charges. There is no line-by-line rebuttal. Instead Strielkowski unwarrantedly denounces the publishing records of his accusers. Additionally, he asserts that blogging is the refuge of those who are avoiding peer review, which latter activity is exactly what his accusers allege against him. It is an attempt to undermine the usual purpose of this sort of scholarship which most of us recognise enables a dialogue pre-publication.

I would guess that most people will, over the course of their careers, meet a few individuals who display these professional behaviours. They thrive in certain quarters of academia, often private ‘providers’ of their own creation. They have been vitalized by three recent developments: the move towards open access publication which is now mandatory as a kind of gold standard for the Research Excellence Framework; the annexing of all subjects to the science model of metrics, citations, journal impact factors, etc.; and league tables which are reliant on these metrics. Everything necessary is in place to reward the ultimate game-player, especially when performance-related salary increases are factored in.

When the hustler lands in a conventional university, it is usually seniors in the hierarchy who part the waters to promote them, so beguiled are they by the glitzy innovations of ‘academic entrepreneurs’. You will see the professed achievements of these people being exalted over those of more careful and deliberate scholars. The hustler’s vigorous industry makes everyone else look like a slacker. What the managers don’t always realise, however, is that they will be fully implicated in the hustler’s dodgy deals and most likely left carrying the can for any loss of institutional reputation. Not that anyone ever apologises for running after these scams, though. They will never turn back to the scholars with integrity and admit they were duped. They are more likely to save face by limiting everybody’s access to sabbaticals, conference money etc. and they will increase monitoring of academic ‘productivity’ of a very tightly delimited kind – exactly along the lines of the metrics gamed so plausibly by the hustler.

UK academics should shudder at what they wished for; I was always cautious about the rush to the supposed gold standard of open access, fearing that it would blur the demarcation between respectable peer-reviewed publication and the cowboy kind – witness the controversy over online journal PLOS One. I knew academics would end up paying for it, sometimes literally. Brož et al capture this crisply:

“Importantly, careful reading of Strielkowski’s story shows that his academic-trickster business model worked in synergy with dominant indicators of scientific quality integral to many evaluation and rankings systems….Considering this case, it seems that the current globally shared obsession with “exact” bibliometric measurements of research productivity and impact is a source from which predatory/parasitic publishing spawns, rather than a remedy for it.” [https://derivace.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/predators-and-bloodsuckers-in-academic-publishing/]

When the supposed objectivity of ‘metrics’ can be so easily subverted and held up as a kind of insignia of respectability  it truly is parasitic publication. As we know, parasites have their hosts, and both parties benefit from the arrangement. Brož et al seem to have founded an academic service which is even more necessary than replication studies to expose sloppy science. Welcome aboard to forensic academics. I recommend we all adopt their vigilance.

Research and teaching – unite or divide?

I always know I’ll be rewarded when I start to read one of David Morris’ longer, detailed, well-argued pieces for Wonkhe. I like the way he’s willing to take a swipe at some uninterrogated assumptions in higher education. So perhaps he’ll understand if I reply in the same vein.

The piece is raising the old question of whether teaching and research must necessarily take place in the same institution. Are they mutually reinforcing, and is it necessary for those teaching undergraduates to be engaged in research? Morris cites some studies which suggest the answer is no, on both counts. There is a suggestion that universities might operate a Glass-Steagal approach and separate the functions, and presumably distribute staff according to their dispositions. It is a popular call at the moment in the wonkoshphere, and Morris cites a 2004 paper which endorses it. Was it ever published in a journal and peer-reviewed? The link takes me to a conference paper.

Firstly, let’s dispel some of the assumptions. Let’s leave aside unresolved questions of whether the REF can be said to measure research quality, or the NSS measure teaching quality. Not all teaching in HE is research led and some of it doesn’t need to be. If you are teaching an undergraduate 100 or sometimes 200 level Linguistics or Biochemistry courses, the content is likely to be pretty similar from one department to another. The expectation is that anyone suitably qualified in Linguistics or Biochemistry would be able to turn their hand to these. Research-led teaching tends to occupy more specialized 300 (UG Level 6) courses.

Secondly, skim through any student course evaluations and you will find that the one thing they appreciate in a lecturer is enthusiasm. I can still remember the classes taught by the most research-active lecturer when I was a student. She would often arrive breathless from the lab, but with a story to tell about the latest experiment. You won’t be surprised to find that academics impart their own specialist subject with most enthusiasm. In turn, it is surprising what insights you pick up from students when teaching on your research area and supervising their projects and dissertations. Universities aim to ensure that students have the opportunity to engage in research during the course of their studies, because this skill above all is commensurate with ‘graduateness’. How can this be taught except by trained researchers?

Thirdly, things have moved on since Hattie and Marsh were writing in 2004. External and internal audits in universities have insisted on subjects demonstrating that teaching and research are linked. Why would QAA demand this if there were no symbiotic links? Perhaps the most obvious justification for the linkage is curriculum development. The kind of degrees which are likely to be appropriated by ‘alternative providers’ are professional courses which are taught by practitioners, and not necessarily those advancing new developments in the subject. Sometimes the curriculum is set by those professional bodies. For the rest of academia, we would be shocked if we visited our old university department and found the same curriculum in place that we followed 20 or 30 years ago. How did the new material get there if not informed by recent research?

Call me old school, but honestly, we have to decide whether we want universities or we don’t. Morris mocks the panicked response that HE without research means “we might as well be in a further education college”. That shudder reflects not primarily status anxiety , but a recognition that FE is hardly a sector with a shining reputation. It is underfunded and tarnished with poor staff retention, poor work conditions, short-term contracts, uncertainty of mission and patchy outcomes – with private providers circling the remains. The higher education sector, by contrast, has good records of retention and the vast majority who enter achieve an honours degree. The satisfaction rates are excellent. Can we really afford as a nation to convert a large part of the successful sector into replicas of the failing one?

Nobody ever claimed that each and every lecturer was the embodiment of the academic holy trinity of teaching, research and scholarship, but we all benefit by working in an environment where research takes place. No, not all good researchers will be good teachers, but most of them are at least competent. On the other hand, the inevitable outcome of dividing teaching from research would not resemble banking so much as hydraulic fracking, only with more protest and worse pollution of the surroundings.

Universities – truth or consequences

Amidst the articles reproaching universities for failing to change, adapt and embrace reform there have been just as many declaring universities are even more relevant in a world challenged by post-truth politics and fake news. Some university leaders in the USA are explicitly defending the essential role of scholarly enquiry in dissipating false communications.

In the McCarthyite era it was the army and Hollywood which were in the front line of political persecution. This time it is scientists who are finding that their notions of working in an objective, apolitical enclosure have been disrupted by Donald Trump’s attacks on their right to report valid climate change research.  Scientists are now being drawn into political action committees to face down potential threats to funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and, perhaps, to the teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools.

While we stand with beleaguered scientists, I hope we can also defend experts in nuclear and apocalyptic literature in austerity Britain, and a new scholarship of authoritarianism  because we must all be vigilant to make sure universities continue to be sites of resistance to the rollback of the enlightenment.

In this context, many people are seeing a bright future of renewed purpose for arts, humanities and social sciences and it is nice to see a few defences of these disciplines and calls for widespread media literacy programs. The British Academy has jumped in, but regrettably it is not animated by the urgency of resisting authoritarianism, fascism and the rollback of every progressive policy since 1960; instead the BA is still focussed on economic justifications, or ‘what employers want’.

The British Academy has launched a new flagship project to provide evidence for why arts, humanities, and social science (AHSS) graduates, and the skills they learn, are vital to economy and cultural life, in the UK and worldwide. In an age of rapid and far-reaching social and technological change, the world is increasingly interconnected and complex. This project will display, for the first time, how AHSS skills can help us cope and adapt in a changing world and contribute to society individually and collectively.[http://www.britac.ac.uk/news/first-ever-depth-study-why-we-need-arts-humanities-and-social-science-graduates]

Alternatively the BA could have mentioned that a degree in the humanities or social science will equip students with an ability to evaluate a wide range of texts, a regard for truth, justice, morality and equality which can install a wedge of resistance in a post-truth society. Now that I have left the academy and its perverse Qualspeak behind, I can talk about qualities like knowledge and habits of mind which are vital for a democratic society. Let’s contemplate what kind of a world will unfold when we no longer have the historians and/or a media studies graduates to recognise this: “When Trump appeared at the Republican National Convention last July in front of a colossal picture of his own face, many were startled by his conjuring of fascist iconography”.

But quite frankly, at the moment, the question absorbing me is not whether universities are meaningful to society, but whether they are meaningful to the academics who work within them. It is no longer an exceptional minority who are seeking to leave university posts, or, to reduce contracted hours.  For those who can afford to leave, thanks to online resources, academic vocation can still be pursued from the outside. Titles and affiliations are less and less significant when it is possible to access research and disseminate your own independently.

Academia has soured for many who feel that universities have become purveyors of fake news all the way from their management and PR suites, to some of the research practices pursued within their walls. As I have blogged elsewhere, there is a problem with research ethics and practices in some universities and among a minority of researchers. The blog piece discussed the intense competition for funding, or league table standing that results in academics faking research data or inflating findings. Tressie McMillan Cottom calls this an academic hustle. I call it the behaviour of the Trump Academic.

Another serious concern is the reluctance of some university management teams, and their political masters, to countenance evidence-based argument. I have been reading Dorothy Bishop’s excellent lecture delivered recently at the University of Southampton.  It is a compelling argument, well supported with evidence and statistics, that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) proposed by Jo Johnson, Higher Education Minister will neither diagnose nor address what he has claimed (with no evidence) is ‘lamentable’ and ‘patchy’ teaching in universities. She adds more data on the cost-benefit analysis and points to the addition of more stressors on already overburdened staff.  There is a frustration in knowing that this analysis will penetrate no further at Oxford University that it will with the Minister for Higher Education. It is the repeated experience of seeing cast-iron arguments like this being displaced by flaky, unsubstantiated, ideologically-motivated fictions that has demoralised me and other long-serving academics. And when you see vice-chancellors failing to sustain any serious objections to the notion of a league table for teaching ‘excellence’, you know they have been corrupted by the inducement of higher fees.

When universities take their instructions from governments and research councils who control the finances, they lose the ability to defend themselves, let alone society against fake news, or even a creeping Lysenkoism (I am grateful to Michael Carley (@drmcarley) for introducing me to this concept). Rather like totalitarian regimes, when universities don’t like a set of facts, they turn to gagging clauses to suppress them rather than outright distortion. It is more costly, but less taxing to the managerial imagination.

We might even say that universities have become well adapted to fake news. Anyone who works in a UK university will be familiar with strategies for REF gaming, citations gaming, sacrificing rigorous but less profitable courses for those with more youth appeal, and soon we will add TEF gaming. Last week we were introduced to the world’s first ‘positive university’.  Read about some of the myths of ‘positive thinking’ from the Guardian (7th February 2017) here.

Our universities are in danger of becoming institutional mirrors of Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. Her ‘alternative facts’ and fabrication of a Bowling Green massacre have diluted her credibility to the point that CNN will no longer interview her, but any academic forced to echo the management refrain of ‘excellence’ will have sympathy with her plight. As a colleague of mine regularly says, “whenever they’re boasting about excellence, you can be sure there is none”. This may be a harsh appraisal, but it is cheering to see ‘excellence’ being submitted to some pretty heavy-duty critique by Moore et al. (2017).

It is the very focus on “excellence”, however, that creates this situation: the desire to demonstrate the rhetorical quality of “excellence” encourages researchers to submit fraudulent, erroneous, and irreproducible papers, at the same time as it works to prevent the publication of reproduction studies that can identify such work.” Note that these actions are incompatible with the values inherent in science and “the actual qualities funders, governments, journal editors and referees, and researchers themselves are ostensibly using “excellence” to identify (Moore et al 2017).

Universities? Busted, I’d say.

Rather than securing staff complements of obedient but timid scholars, universities need to build new reputations based on truth and reliability. Moore et al. recommend that universities should supplant the rhetoric of ‘excellence’ with a rhetoric around soundness, capacity and credibility:

the evaluation of “soundness” is based in the practice of scholarship, whereas “excellence” is a characteristic of its objects (outputs and actors)”. This can encompass reproducibility in fields where this has become a pressing issue (psychology), or credibility in others. (Moore et al. 2017)

There is a risk in not countering a culture where fact, opinion and sheer fantasy are neither distinguished nor evaluated. We are awash in data, but we have too little idea how to interpret it responsibly. It is ironic that in a world of management dashboards and learning analytics there is a looming public health crisis because so few people have the ability to analyse NHS data. In a post-truth society, we are analysed to death, but cannot apparently muster the know-how to be able to allocate hospital beds during a cold winter.

This week’s issue of the Times Higher  is all about the role of universities in pursuing truth and building public trust. It might, though, behove us to take a step back and trace the descent into untrustworthy perdition. We exist in an enclave of hyper-competitiveness – and sometimes just hype – and we can lay a lot of the blame on league tables and rankings. Never mind what other rationalisations are provided, proclamations about excellence are bound to feel undignified when academics sense a hinterland of boosterism.

There is a great deal further to go towards building academics’ trust in the universities that employ them, but we can start with the way we talk about our own and each other’s work. Let’s cut out the flashy banners all over campus announcing “80% of our research has internationally-significant impact”. It might mean raiding the marketing budget, or freezing the hew HR hires, but we should encourage academics to speak and write confidently and accessibly about sound and contestable research findings.

And as for the vice-chancellors who are impervious to evidence-based arguments about the TEF, I’ll leave the last word with Laurie Taylor (9/2/2017).

It’s a rollover!

Our Director of Corporate Affairs, Jamie Targett, has praised universities minister Jo Johnson for his latest attempt to measure even more university activities. This new initiative, the roll over excellence framework (ROEF), will assess the readiness of individual vice-chancellors to accept government proposals.

Targett explained that in order to test this readiness, it was necessary to use a government proposal that was so patently ill-conceived that no reasonable person could possibly entertain its adoption.

Enter the teaching excellence framework. In Targett’s words, “What better test could there be of the average vice-chancellor’s acquiescence?” For as was recently pointed out by Stuart Croft, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, it is “the overwhelming view of those actually involved in higher education” that the TEF “metrics are flawed”. Or in the words of Roger Brown, former vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, “there simply is no scientific basis for the TEF”.

“This means”, said Targett, “that vice-chancellors who mutely go along with the TEF despite such uncontested evidence of its invalidity and unreliability, display a truly heroic readiness to roll over.’’

Would this be the only test of a vice-chancellor’s readiness to submit to new government initiatives?

Targett said he had no knowledge of any new test but he understood that Jo Johnson would be adding to his illustrious ministerial record by proposing that vice-chancellors not only accept all the flawed provisions of the new TEF but do so while standing on their heads with a carrot up each nostril.

 

Moore S et al. (2017) “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence. Palgrave Communications. 3:16105 doi: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.105.  http://www.palgrave-journals.com/articles/palcomms2016105#affiliations

The Fiction of Tenured Unsackables

A Guardian piece entitled “Unsackable senior staff make life even harder for junior academics” has been doing the rounds on Twitter for a few days now. In the Anonymous Academic series, the author depicts an academic career path that resembles an NHS ward obstructed by elderly ‘bed blockers’. The senior and mid-career ranks of academia are apparently gridlocked by those whose tenure grants them both permanency and the ability to evade current expectations of research ‘productivity’ imposed by many universities.

Let’s do some fact checking here. There is no doubt that there has been appalling exploitation of qualified PhDs in the context of mounting casualization of undergraduate teaching, and research contracts. UCEA (the university employers’ association) claims that ‘atypical’ contracts arise from universities’ need for “input from skilled professionals contributing specialist teaching on specific courses”, and that they only represent 3.2% of the full-time equivalent academic workforce. Meanwhile, the website Wonkhe has this to say, “In the Russell Group…69% of atypical academics are paid at teaching assistant or research assistant rates or lower. If this is a reserve army of specialist professional labour, it’s not charging a very good hourly rate”.

Leaving on one side the question of whether appointed senior faculty are collectively responsible for this situation, it is just not true to portray senior staff as ‘unsackable’. UK academics have not had tenure since Mrs Thatcher dispensed with it in 1981. Precarity, even in the senior ranks of professor and reader, has escalated in recent years as aggressive performance management policies have brought about threats of demotion, which in turn have triggered cases of burnout or a simple desire to move beyond the intrusive bullying of the HR department. And so we witness a wave of resignations at mid-career and senior levels, which, by the way, is gendered; a large number of women have decided they just don’t want to live like this anymore.

I am well aware that the quality of new entrants to the profession is extremely high, and entry-level academic posts come with long periods of probation. Confirmation may only be achieved after a searching performance review and the performance criteria are designed not to diagnose competence, but to stigmatise all but the most exceptional achievers. However, this approach to management now blights the entire profession. There are no easy gigs any more in academia. All university academics are obliged by law to undergo annual appraisal, and in many universities this has been transformed from a supportive and appreciative dialogue with a senior colleague, into the ruthless scrutiny of ‘performance management’. The criteria have been ratcheted ever upwards as universities place ascent in the league tables above the mental health of their employees, and the criteria are intended to designate many excellent academics as failing.

This effect has been most magnified at professorial level. I have seen many documents from different universities which lay out performance criteria for professors. Commonly these include: research grant capture targets, research leadership (institutional roles,  journal editorships or leading professional organisation), conference keynotes, student evaluation scores, PhD supervision completions, research ‘outputs’ at 3* or 4* and other metrics such as journal impact factors/ citation indices. In many cases, all of these must be fulfilled in order to avoid punitive disciplinary processes. So with all this to attend to, perhaps it is understandable if senior staff produce fewer publications than less frantic colleagues. As Dorothy Bishop writes, “Even if you’re not worried about your own job, it is hard to be cheerfully productive when surrounded by colleagues in states of high distress”. Besides being unethical, this has a destabilizing effect on all academics. I take this to be intentional on the part of management.

This response is not without a nostra culpa. Our generation has not resisted forcefully enough the creeping casualization of universities. Often it has been in the interests of senior staff to have a ready supply of postgraduate teaching assistants and postdoctoral researchers to do the heavy lifting on a grant-aided project. We have sat on interview panels and marvelled at the publication and teaching records of new academic appointees. But the professors and mid-career academics are largely not responsible for the instability of funding that afflicts universities, nor the relinquishing of academic futures to the impulsive choices of the nation’s 18-year olds. The chief culprits are government policies which have encouraged vice-chancellors to play the short game, and many of them have chosen the path of least resistance. Academics who have raised their voices in protest have been swiftly branded as ivory tower ancients who refuse to live in the real world.

Having recently left the academy, perhaps I might offer the wisdom of hindsight. Above all, be kind to others. Endeavour not to let anger at your own harsh treatment displace concern for others coming behind you. Support your younger colleagues, and value your older ones. Looking in the wrong direction for others to blame is divisive and unhelpful.  Join the union to campaign for a fair and sustainable career structure for research and research/teaching posts. Campaign against the appalling waste and disregard for talent. Take care to build a community, as well as a publications record. The academy should not just be a crucible for your own advancement. I am indebted to my colleague Nick Megoran of Newcastle University who has drawn my attention to Phil Cohen’s (2015) discussion (cf Weber) of vocation versus career.

Vocation unfolds as an inner directed quest or drive for an authentic self, primarily through the realisation of a special gift, talent, or calling. It is associated with the mastery of artistic or spiritual disciplines and with various forms of service. Vocation operates largely within the framework of a moral economy of worth, in which the value of the work performed under its sign is the means of satisfaction it produces. Authenticity is its benchmark. Career, in contrast, unfolds as so many steps up a ladder of personal ambition, marked by increments of status and income, often correlated with the achievement of professional qualifications and other so called performance indicators. Career operates entirely within a market economy of worth, every promotion is indexed to the competitive value of the work within a segmented labour market. Career is other-directed, it is driven by the desire to outperform one’s peers. Success is its benchmark.

It would be very easy to surrender to others the judgements for success and achievement. You should learn to be sceptical of performance indicators, promotions criteria and other institutional quantifiers. They are far from objective, and have a tendency to retreat just as you reach the required level. You may be cresting the wave now, but, by no fault of your own, you could find yourself beached on a sand bar. The author indicates they are in the early stages of an academic career, so they may not be aware of the tendency for managerial incentives to shift, sometimes quite suddenly and capriciously. For example, in arts and humanities, for most of my career, single authored monographs were seen as the hallmark of good scholarship. This regard has dissolved as the science model of research evaluation has superseded disciplinary autonomy. Grant capture is now the most essential signifier of esteem, and monetary value takes precedence over published outcomes. Who knows what might be the next deal-breaker for promotion – international collaborations, spinout companies, policy and advising work? Your senior colleagues will have shifted tack several times trying to comply with the vagaries of government and management behests. And they were probably as disdainful of their seniors as you are now. To paraphrase David Cameron’s words to Tony Blair, many of us end our careers with a sense that we were the future once. All we can do is the work that gives us pleasure, strive to preserve our integrity and try and leave the profession in better shape than we found it.

 

Reference

Cohen, Phil. 2015, ‘From vocation to career: the organic crisis of the political class.’ LW Blog  https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/blog/vote-perchance-dream-ay-theres-rub

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism