Your First is my Artefactual Algorithm

There was an interesting piece by Mike Ratcliffe on Wonkhe last week: Why my university is proud to be awarding fewer first class degrees. It deserves further discussion. 

Mike was writing about Nottingham Trent University’s response to government and media concerns about the rising percentage of first class degrees being awarded across the higher education sector. He cites figures of 16% in 2011 rising to 29% in 2018.

I have blogged before about the moral panic over the increasing numbers of firsts. However, in a context where some employers overlook graduates without ‘good’ degrees, and universities are rewarded in the TEF for the high salaries earned by graduates, it is inevitable that this would have provided an incentive for universities to look for ways to uplift marks.  

As Mike points out “the HE sector runs a criterion-based assessment system; firsts are not rationed according to a predetermined allocation, they are awarded for meeting the criteria…The grading ensures marks are based entirely on comparing the qualities of student work with associated written descriptors of assessment criteria.” And that is the whole point of the GBA system; it defines for students exactly what standards of work and academic practices they need to master to attain a specific grade. The learning outcomes are very clearly laid out, and the different levels of attainment exemplified with sample responses to assignments. This is good pedagogy. There should be no mystery about how to attain high marks, and students should benefit from excellent teaching and the kind of feedback that enables them to improve their work as they progress through their studies.

Grade-based assessment was introduced at Nottingham Trent around the time of the introduction of 9K tuition fees and there is even an explanatory video.  If you extend the usable range of marks from 70 to 100 in an aggregate system, then obviously this will result in a larger number of higher awards being made. This was not an artefact; it was intentional, because, as was explained to staff at the time, they should be “leading students to a high end of level standard”. It was also a justified response to that perpetual urging from externals to use the top range of marks to distinguish excellent work from the good and very good. And for the reasons I have outlined above, it was defensible on pedagogical grounds.

Nottingham Trent University now says that it is proud to be awarding fewer first class degrees. I wonder how the students feel about this. If universities are supposed to publish a Degree Classification Statement of Intent   which promises to “review and explain how final degree classifications are calculated” what, then, if those algorithms change between a student’s first and final years? Last year’s students appear to have been the subjects of a re-jigged algorithm which, instead of awarding a first to students who have at least half of their credits in the first class category, they must now have the majority. This will not have affected those students whose aggregate score is over 70%, but may have affected some of those who exhibited ‘exit velocity’ with an improved performance in their final year. This approach has reduced the number of firsts by 7.1%. But what about that injunction to reward ‘a high end of level standard’?  

If you say you’re running a criterion-led system, and then try and curtail the resulting high scores with a revised algorithm, you risk this being seen as grade-based gerrymandering. And will students be reassured to learn that lecturers who have taught them will no longer be invited to speak up in support of a higher award if their aggregate marks happen to fall on the borderline? Mike writes that “the University has also removed the power of examination boards to make discretionary classification decisions for students on the classification borderline.” There hardly seems to be any point in having an exam board if the algorithm is accorded supremacy while personalized academic judgement is evacuated.

It is a shame that universities cannot summon the confidence to assert that improving teaching has been a priority and that, as a result, student achievement has been enhanced. It seems absurd to take pride in claiming the reverse. If only higher education was driven by principles of pedagogical soundness, not by political soundbites, it might be easier to win the confidence of students, staff and government.

The turn of kindness

September and October this year have seen another round of academics on Twitter announcing their withdrawal from academia. And I have met quite a number of doctoral students whose very last option for a career would be a university post. It’s not even a brain drain overseas – new graduates understand the performance-managed, metricized, casualized, marketized university is global. We see the emergence of a generational refusal to pledge lives and wellbeing to institutions which reward dedication and loyalty with excessive workloads, unattainable expectations coded as ‘performance’ but which in all reality obscure the actual work of research and teaching.

When I wrote the HEPI report Pressure Vessels in May of 2019, one reviewer said it read like a UCU rant. In fact, the assertions are fully supported by universities’ own figures showing the year-on-year increase in referrals to occupational health and counselling services. The conclusion – that universities are making academic and professional staff ill – is inescapable. In his foreword, Professor Mike Thomas, former vice chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire wrote:

Liz’s report clearly indicates, with evidence, that directive, performance management approaches are counter-productive to the output, efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation and also to staff wellbeing and mental health. If such an approach works, why are so many of our colleagues so unwell and continue to be so?

And it is not just performance management and workloads which are mentioned in so many of the tweets and blogs that some describe as quitlit. The growth of casualization has meant that academic career pathways in universities are unsustainable and leave many entrants disappointed in the opportunities even for medium term job security. See this and this.

However, there are ‘turns’ and ‘moments’ in postmodern academia. There are also ‘performances’ and ‘cultures’. But while these latter tend to be recruited to management strategies of ‘excellence’ and ‘competitiveness’, there seems to be a move to hit a reset button with regard to academic culture which is aligned with kindness, inclusiveness and sustainability.

A recent opinion piece in Times Higher discusses the prevalence of gaslighting behaviours by managers in higher education. Gaslighting is a kind of psychological manipulation which is designed to destabilize a person’s sense of reality. They start to question their own sanity and perceptions. I have written before about universities and their shifting goalposts in relation to evaluating academic performance.

When the first research assessment exercise took place, the gold standard of research in the humanities was the research monograph. But it is clear now that researchers are being required to follow a model common in STEM fields of producing more calculable outputs in the form of short journal articles in high-ranking journals. This has led in some circumstances to exceptional work being devalued or excluded from the REF. Such exclusion has consequences; some academics may find that active researcher or not, they are placed onto teaching and scholarship pathways which determines which part of their work is sanctioned by the institution; others will find that their apparent non-REFability limits career advancement beyond their current post.

I learned about gaslighting from my old deputy headmistress long before I could give it a name. In retrospect, Grangefield Grammar School for Girls, Stockton-on-Tees, prepared me for employment in UK higher education better than any doctoral program ever could. As we arrived at school, we would find Miss S chalking up a set of new rules each day, some contradicting the edicts of previous days. Each one began with the phrase ‘Girls must NOT…’ followed by some trivial violation of decorum. There was ‘girls must not walk home two abreast’ which caused some hilarity among teenage girls, but not as much as the announcement in assembly, ‘girls must not have intercourse with the boys through the tennis netting’.  Our tennis courts adjoined the boys’ and friendships were often formed across the fencing that divided us. Nobody could think why that should be prohibited until Miss S left us with a raunchy mental image than certainly didn’t reflect reality.

You can imagine that this lack of inter-generational awareness and a preoccupation with micromanaging and punishment gave rise to a pretty toxic school environment. It was authoritarian and hierarchical and there was frequent, coerced denunciation of peers. We hated it and learned ways of hostile resistance. So, when my experience of the academic workplace started to give me flashbacks to Grangefield, I knew it was time to quit. But I have spent the last three years thinking about alternatives.

It has been four years since the publication of James Wilsdon’s The Metric Tide, and some of the report’s recommendations have not been universally applied, but academics are getting bolder about calling out offenders. Here, for example, is Murdoch University in Perth, WA.

Level E academics in engineering would need to punch out eight publications a year in well-regarded journals and generate $158 000 in research income.  In agriculture and vet science the quota is 11 publications and $288 000.  In the humanities, the numbers are not as large, four publications and $83 000 for a Level E in history and archaeology – although two publications and $31 000 might strike career commencers at Level A as an ask.

Campaigns against this sort of bullying can be successful, such as the one organized by Newcastle University academics against their management’s ‘raising the bar’ initiative.

But in addition to resistance from the academic workforce, research councils and grant awarding institutions need to be part of the culture change. It is encouraging to see this recent Nature editorial championing kindness in research and supported by Wellcome, the University of Sheffield, UK (home to Professor James Wilsdon), Leiden University in the Netherlands (see the Leiden Manifesto) and the company Digital Science. The article came as Wellcome hosted the launch of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI), a venture which seeks to mitigate some of the distasteful aspects of academic research and instead support environments where researchers want to work.

There have also been calls for kindness in leadership and institutions. Professor Mike Thomas, former VC of UCLAN, was briefly able to inaugurate a research centre into kindness in leadership in 2018 before his departure from the university in the same year. Sadly, there was no trace of the centre when I searched for it on the UCLAN website in March 2019. Perhaps the university’s management team and governors did not share those values. One suspects the academics did. Or perhaps it was another casualty of the marketised university privileging income over the creation and curation of knowledge. The University of Sussex claims to promote kindness as one of its core values but the message seems to focus on students, not staff. It does fund a kindness research centre, though. The University of Buckingham’s efforts to unearth kindness lead it straight to embrace its more prosperous alumni. It seems kindness, like education, is transactional.

At the very least, we should expect sector leaders who are prepared to challenge some of the more toxic imperatives of government. Pam Tatlow, former chief executive of the MillionPlus group of universities, agrees:

We are chronically short of such leaders. I hesitate to show favoritism – I have The Stranglers’ No More Heroes ringing in my head – but the willingness of Professor David Green CBE, vice chancellor of the University of Worcester, to speak out against government policy has, on more than one occasion, given me cause to cheer, and I don’t cheer much. Is it too much to ask that we have universities I could recommend as workplaces or places of education to my friends and family ?

TEF metrics: proxy, toxic and idiotic…but very neoliberal

This is an updated version of a previous blog post and apeared recently on the LSE Impact blog. It also draws on my article, The Accident of Accessibility: How the Data of the TEF Creates Neoliberal Subjects, published in Social Epistemology and appeared in a special issue on Neoliberalism, Technocracy and Higher Education; Guest Edited by Justin Cruickshank and Ross Abbinnett.

The stated aim of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is to encourage excellence in teaching in higher education and to provide information for students to make improved decisions about the courses they take at university. In this post, I argue that contrary to these goals, the TEF is only marginally interested in teaching quality and instead contributes to the increasingly personalised and transactional nature of university education, provides perverse incentives for educators and ultimately positions participants in higher education as neoliberal subjects.

The stress occasioned by constant demands for academics to submit to evaluation has been well documented (Loveday 2018Morrish 2019), nevertheless the bureaucratic appetite for surveillance is fed by the ease of accessing quantifiable data. This blog looks at the repercussions for universities, students and academics of the chosen metrics of the Teaching Excellence Framework outlined below.

In 2016, the government published a White Paper on plans to reform higher education, Success as a Knowledge Economy (SKE). The brainchild of Jo Johnson, former minister for universities, it laid out a justification for the introduction of the TEF as the solution to a series of imagined faults with universities, such as ‘lamentable’ teaching, and a lack of ‘return on investment’ for graduates of some university courses. Johnson promised that it would never become ‘big, bossy and bureaucratic‘.

The selection of metrics for the TEF appeared arbitrary: student satisfaction with teaching, assessment and feedback (taken from the National Student Survey, NSS), continuation (retention) rates (taken from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, HESA) and a measurement known as Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data (LEO). These proxy measures have nothing to do with classroom teaching, and yet have become imbued with spurious validity.

David Beer writes that metrics measure us in new and powerful ways such that they order the social world and shape our lives. Whereas, metrics can appear neutral and necessary, in the case of TEF proxy metrics, we can argue that their whole purpose is dirigiste. Since the introduction of tuition fees in 1999, successive governments of all hues have sought to reconfigure universities as instruments of market ideology.

Each of the TEF proxy metrics underpins this strategy: the NSS arose from the project to transform students into consumers; the retention rate metric was similarly designed to measure consumer appeal, even though it reflects more accurately the social advantage of the student body; LEO data became available with the passing of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act. This legislation permits mining of individual tax records for integration with student loan and university degree records and enables the government to assess which courses produce graduates most able to repay their tuition fee loans. It becomes apparent, in the context of some of Jo Johnson’s remarks (20152016a2016b), that the role of the TEF was to shift student choice towards STEM subjects which, on average, lead to higher-paying careers, which the government judges to be more beneficial to the economy.

These metrics are not simply benign and have serious implications for academics whose labour is being evaluated along new and unforeseen dimensions. For instance, they must now privilege the potential popularity of a subject before proposing to teach it. They must justify both new and current courses on the grounds of ‘employability’. And so, innovation in teaching and research is determined by appeals to economic value and the capricious choices of 18-year olds, rather than by the advance of knowledge or professional judgement of academics. Nevertheless, universities which fail to score highly on the TEF metrics risk being deemed ‘failing’ and the government may seek to pressure them to close courses which do not deliver the right ‘outcomes’. These market reforms were skillfully packaged as enhancing student ‘choice’. Furthermore, market ideology and tenets of neoliberalism such as competition, choice and individual responsibility are all bolstered discursively throughout the SKE White paper and by repetition by politicians.

A neoliberal discourse 

Significantly, the government avoids the word ‘university’, insisting that that there has been insufficient penetration of ‘the market’ in the higher education sector, and so in order to instil ‘competition’ and ‘choice’, the market must be opened up to new providersProvider also implies a transactional function for universities – a kind of cash for credentials scenario in which the institution simply provides its product to its ‘customers’ in exchange for money.

Investment, and its cousin, return on investment (ROI), are further linked discursively with teaching quality, in a way that implies that receiving information about the latter would in turn ensure a guarantee of the former: ​“The quality of teaching should be among the key drivers of a prospective student’s investment” ​(SKE Ch 2 para 8 p43). However, evidence reveals that there is little material correlation. Reports by the Institute for Fiscal Studies analyse the government’s Longitudinal Earnings Outcome data (Bellfield and Britton 2018Britton et al. 2016) and show the outcomes-require-competition assumption to be a myth. The best predictors for graduate earnings (the likely meaning of investment here) is found to be parental income and prior attainment. Return on investment in this way has arguably been used deliberately to reposition higher education as a private, rather than a public good.

Although the government has claimed the TEF will empower students, the Office for Students,  which was supposed to  ensure that student choice is placed at the centre of university policy making, fell silent when a student voice was raised in challenge. In 2017, a great deal of manufactured outrage was expressed in right-wing newspapers when a University of Cambridge student, Lola Olufemi, expressed a request for the English department to more fully decolonise the curriculum. Nor has recent higher education legislation or market discipline enabled a broadening of student choice when we consider that, since the implementation of the Browne Review funding system of tuition fees, there has been a precipitous decline in the availability of part-time routes for undergraduate study.


The accident of accessibility of particular metrics, inasmuch as they overlap with neoliberal priorities, has therefore determined which data will serve as Key Performance Indicators in the TEF. What may seem to be a random assortment of proxy data points, has in fact  served an agenda to refashion universities, staff and students as neoliberal subjects. The TEF audit therefore only appears to be tangentially concerned with quality. Instead it incentivizes universities towards a more pronounced concentration of business and science curricular provision and is reinforced via discourse which all participants in the framework are compelled to cite.

There is a discussion page for articles in the special issue of Social Epistemology which readers can find here.

The Augar Report, Dead on Arrival?

The headlines talked about a fee cap of £7,500 for undergraduate tuition, and it will be the headlines which secure the enduring myth of Augar 2019. Its brief was to review all of post-18 higher education, but it has been portrayed as a panicked response to Labour’s promise to young people to abolish tuition fees, and perhaps, in this spirit, it feels very much like a report on funding rather than policy generally. 

Augar is not just the work of Augar, of course. It is Robinson, Peck, Crewe Wolf and De Rojas together with their mix of expertise in HE, FE, vocational education and the tech industry. If the emphasis on funding stems from the chairmanship of Philip Augar who was a former equities trader, much of the rest appears to be a steer towards FE for the majority of 18 year olds, perhaps reflecting the influence of Baroness Alison Wolf, author of Does Education Matter: Myths about Education and Economic Growth

It is important to mention some very welcome recommendations from the report. In many ways it marks a return to some of the assumptions of the post-Robbins consensus on the funding of higher education, albeit with a very firm commitment to the student (and parental) contribution. There is a call for the return of maintenance grants as well as loans, a commitment to a four-year entitlement to FE/HE financing available to all, and a recommendation to cease charging interest on loan amounts accrued during the period of study. Another welcome reversal is an end to ELQ restrictions (whereby a person cannot receive funding for a qualification of equivalent or lower-level qualifications). Also celebrated are the call for a return to a (diminished) government teaching grant, but one whose amount is adjusted to reflect the differential costs of certain subjects, although the buck for making this decision is passed to the Office for Students (p.95) – a return to subject banding, perhaps? Suddenly, we seem to be back on the familiar territory of decades earlier, and led there by those most vociferous champions of change, higher education leaders. 

And then there are some ruptures with the trends of recent years. There’s a proposal to make funding available for ‘unbundled’ modules (p.39), so thanks to every course leader who has been compelled to defend the progression and coherence of their program’s learning objectives. It’s not that I personally ever invested much in that, but I despise the way these apparently essential tenets of ‘accountability’ are so easily dispatched without mention or consultation. ‘Badging’ and micro-credentialing do not constitute an education.  

Despite the title of Wolf’s volume, the report has plenty to say about the value of HE and FE to the economy. Ninety-eight mentions of value according to Johnny Rich.  And despite its disavowals of marketization in HE (p.78), there is strict adherence to the language of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) of competition, choice, and value for money. Anyone excited to find mentions of strengthening governance will be disappointed to find that it usually collocates with ‘financial’.  

The proposed funding model for HE reckons to reduce the loan write off (RAB charge) from 45% to 25% by introducing a longer period of repayment. This will be extended from 30 to 40 years to benefit from a longer period when the graduate is at maximum earnings. But this assumes a very male-centered career trajectory and inscribes a norm whereby nobody can retire before their early sixties, let alone work flexibly in order to care for parents or grandchildren. Significantly, it doesn’t allow any time for the graduate to save money for their own children’s higher education.  

And in return for finagling this saving, the report’s authors assume that government will cover the shortfall created by a reduction in the tuition fee. That seems to betoken the kind of faith in government largesse which stems from the experience of those who have benefitted from it. I doubt there is much of that kind of faith among the under-40s.  

Much is made of degree apprenticeships. There could be no more fervent endorsers of those then the university managers avidly siphoning off the apprenticeship levy for their own MBAs.  At the same time, perhaps for other people’s children, there is the wish to graduate many more students with level 4 and 5 qualifications, ignoring the fact that the currency for both students and employers for 30 years has been an honours degree. The justification for the downgrade, paradoxically, is that there is a need for more technically-qualified workers. Such workers can only emerge from FE, according to Augar. Apparently, you can just uncouple the association between social mobility and an honours degree, an assumption which, the report says, should be subject to a bit of questioning. In any case, for those under 25, access to financial support for level 6 (honours degree level) will be contained with a new demand for high enough attainment at levels 4 and 5. We can only speculate about the risk to students’ levels of stress, and the corresponding pressure on staff, to ensure they attain the necessary grades to progress. If this is a money-saving measure, perhaps the toll on mental health services should feature in another column on the balance sheet.  

And then there are ‘unintended consequences for subject provision that are not aligned with the government’s Industrial Strategy’ (p.91) and degree courses which are unlikely to result in ‘good value for taxpayer money’ (p.84). When you get past reparsing the peculiarities of grammatical concord and attribution by apposition, this turns out to be code for concern that we are producing graduates whose reward is not monetary. Or at least not monetary enough to pay back the entirety of their tuition loans.  In particular, the report chides whomever is listening at this point, that the current funding methodology has resulted in an over-investment in arts and humanities at the expense of STEM (p.84) The remedy appears to be to prevent these students from progressing from levels 4/5 to level 6, which will presumably depress their earnings even further. 

The scale of the damage done by market extremism and individual value for money discourse is laid out on page 191 where the case for reinstatement of maintenance grants is supported by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, the Commons, Educational Select Committee, Hepi, and the Intergenerational Foundation. The understanding that the young are entitled to support and opportunity for their education runs throughout the report. I just wish the authors had made the case for intergenerational equity more unconditionally. 

There are some quite radical changes which will have impact on university autonomy. Yet another plank of academic freedom is scythed away when accusations are made that grade inflation has been too great to suggest plausibly that it is caused by student performance (p78). I always marvel at commentators who insist on evidence and accountability from universities that their teaching and learning resources are all constantly improving, and then press the fire alarm when those learning outcomes improve. To find a group of vice-chancellors and other senior educators saying it is simply perverse. 

But then outcomes don’t always mean learning outcomes as we already know from the semantic shape-shifting in HERA. On page 75 we read that ‘there is a wide variation in spend on subjects grouped in the same funding categories, at apparently similar institutions, with no known correlation to outcomes.’ Outcomes in this instance, as indeed in most usages within the report, equals graduate earnings as indicated by Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data. It was always inevitable that once LEO data became a metric in assessing the value of higher education, they would become THE metric, but perhaps not in a study which declares itself concerned with ‘economically defined value calculations, not value judgements’ (p.87). Incredibly, on the very same page, the authors admit that earnings data is one of a trio of unreliable metrics which constitute the Teaching Excellence Framework. We already know that graduate salaries are affected by region and correlate more effectively with distance from London than any other variable. But they also vary with social advantage, prior attainment and gender. To pretend that they can be considered a reliable criterion by which to judge the way a university teaches a subject, much less ‘adds value’, is fanciful.  

If there is ‘a growing gap between what the labour market demands and what post-18 education supplies’, as Alison Wolf declares,  then Augar provides few of the solutions. Wolf is an advocate of vocational education, despite evidence that the landscape of employment continues to shift rapidly. If employers require graduates with sophisticated IT, numeracy, communication and problem-solving abilities; if the current challenge to liberal democracies require an educated electorate with a working knowledge of history, economics and government, as well as world languages, then solutions lie in a much broader-based common curriculum and enhanced degree-level resourcing.  

Throughout the report there is a supposition that, even in the face of a huge reduction in the government-allocated teaching grant, universities have had a golden decade of opulence, and that their benefit has come at the expense of the withering of FE. As a consequence, Augar recommends that HE should absorb a freeze to fund investment in FE and apprenticeships (p.92,) in addition to the government funding additional capital investment for FE. In actuality, funding for HE has been provided by enrolled students who have been charged the full cost of their teaching. Surely the answer is to introduce a sustainable model of funding for FE and HE, and for both to have considerable public subsidy? 

Sadly, this is not what Augar recommends. The authors fail to state unambiguously the case for supporting and sustaining the UK’s universities which form its repositories of knowledge and its crucibles of learning. Instead the contagion of HERA persists as far as affirming the right of the Office for Students to refuse to bail out institutions which fall into financial difficulties, or as the report writes, echoing HERA discourse and previous ministers for higher education, risking the ‘moral hazard’ of ‘bailing out’ ‘failing institutions’ (p.98).  

Augar has thrown universities to the wolves of a rather rigged market at this point. Nobody – neither staff nor student – can enter a university with any certainty that their career or course of study will be fulfilled without interruption or derailment.  

Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff

This blog originally appeared on the HEPI website: and accompanies HEPI Occasional Paper 20. I am grateful to HEPI and its director, Nick Hillman, for the opportunity to produce this report.

There has recently been a significant amount of media concern surrounding the poor mental health of academics. See also.

In February 2018, Paul Gorczynski of the University of Portsmouth claimed that more academics and students have mental health problems than ever before, with findings that 43% of academic staff exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder. This is nearly twice the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population.

The degree of overwork is confirmed by a work-life balance survey published by Times Higher Education, as is the extent to which this damages mental health. Students also recognize that being taught by exhausted and depressed staff impairs their experience of university courses.

A report from Nottingham Trent University UCU confirms that workloads, for many academics, have become unmanageable. In the NTU UCU survey, the majority of staff surveyed reported working at least one unpaid half day at weekends, with 18% working a whole day. 41% felt that their workload had had a negative effect on their mental health. In fact only 6% said that their workload did not impair their mental health. Typical symptoms included disrupted sleep, depression and cognitive impairment.

Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, is an Occasional Paper which sets out the scale of the problem based on a Freedom of Information survey showing a rising rate of staff referrals to counselling and occupational health in universities. The report also examines the factors which academics have identified as key causes of stress.

New workload models are at the top of the list, especially those which do not reflect the actual time necessary for completion of a task. Typically, for teaching assignments, one classroom hour will be accompanied by an additional 1.6 or 1.7 academic related hours on the annual workload. Lecturers are now required to provide teaching materials across several platforms. Each lecture will now need a Powerpoint, or similar, presentation, associated handouts and, perhaps, an interactive study guide. The lecture video will require editing and uploading. Student email enquiries will need responses. You will need to supply marking criteria which reflect your assessed learning outcomes. For all assessed tasks, you must upload an exemplar response, with commentary. All of these will, of course, need to be redone if you make any changes at all. And, since about 50% of lecturers are on precarious or casual visiting contracts, more of them will be writing those lectures for the first time. Technology may have transformed academics’ ways of working but has not necessarily lightened their load. Nevertheless, academics are often obliged to collude in the fiction that all of this, together with marking an entire cohort’s assessments, can be discharged in 1.7 hours. No wonder academics are stressed.

Many people outside academia imagine it is a life of contemplation and long summer holidays. In fact, few academics are able to take all of their annual leave allowance, and the NTU UCU study shows that 30% of academics worked on at least 10 days during their annual leave. The Times Higher Education 2018 work-life balance survey quoted one academic “We are not allowed to book holidays during term time, but we are also not allowed to book holidays over exam periods, marking periods, internal exam board meetings or course development meetings. This means that although we get 35 days [of holiday] a year, we actually only have opportunity to use about 14.” Senior members of staff find that non-teaching weeks during the summer are now taken up with reading and assessing the research outputs of their department colleagues for submission to the Research Excellence Framework audit. Junior academics are asked to staff weekend open days for potential applicants to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. And let’s consider as well that the majority of academics will be under pressure to produce published research at high quality and volume. The extent of this work, too, fails to be reflected in staff workloads. Responsibilities like editing academic journals, peer reviewing articles and book manuscripts, examining theses, giving expert testimony – many of these are unforeseen at the start of any academic year and therefore mount up, but remain invisible to the human resources manager.

Academics are also evaluated by an assortment of research metrics: citation counts, the impact factor of the journal in which it is published, and the amount of research grant money obtained. These are all poor proxy measures of research quality, but they are easy to track. Despite their obvious limitations, academics are forced to accept that metrics have become the currency of performance management in universities. To work there means giving yourself over to forensic surveillance, and also being willing to have your closest friends and colleagues scrutinize your work, in both teaching and research. That pressure is cumulative and to many, the university has become an ‘anxiety machine’.

As one academic on Twitter out it, academics have been “forced by management into stress positions”. There have, to date, been two deaths by suicide linked to conditions of work at UK universities. Cardiff University lecturer, Malcolm Anderson, took his life on campus when, after years of appeals to his manager, his workload had escalated out of control. Another death by suicide was triggered by pressures to meet targets for research funding. Professor Stefan Grimm at Imperial College, London, had been rebuked by his manager over this issue.

I am honoured that Professor Mike Thomas, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, has written a foreword. He has conducted research into the area of compassion and kindness in leadership. Universities need to adopt these values because no profession can continue to drive its employees to burnout and alienate its pool of graduate recruits. There are remedies: sustainable career pathways, more autonomy and control over workload and responsible use of metrics. But beyond this, the simple, humane values of kindness and care for each other must be recovered if we are to ameliorate the toxic university.

Changing the story will require changing the university

It appears I share a concern with John Gill of Times Higher about the mainstream media’s negative portrayal of universities, and I blogged about this a couple of years ago. In that piece I complained that academics always seem to be the objects of wonkery, rarely the wonkers. Happily, there has been some rapid turnaround there. Sisters, and brothers, are doing it for themselves these days, on Twitter, Facebook, Medium and on blogs. Check out the #WeAreTheUniversity hashtag. There will be other HE networking initiatives launching shortly.

Hardly a month goes by without waking up to Justin Webb of the BBC Radio 4Today programme interrogating a spluttering vice chancellor in an echoey Great Hall about his favourite trinity of imaginary HE curses:  freedom of speech, grade inflation and vice chancellors’ pay. We all groan at the endless perseveration on these themes, wishing that the BBC would find some more positive stories to report. 

But in an article on the Times Higher website, Gill charges university staff and managers with doing essentially the same thing and he finds a fair few miserabilists and Cassandras on his Twitter timeline.

He thinks the secret of recovering universities’ standing is for us to all stop throwing digital molotovs, and instead tell positive, and factual, stories about the sector. Stop the civil war, he inveighs, renounce ‘us and them’ divisiveness and ‘replace it with a sense of collegiality and mutual endeavour’.

That’s where I come adrift. There is an implicit assumption that the sides bear equal responsibility for the breakdown in collegiality between staff and managers in universities. There is no imbalance of power, both sides have caused the gender pay gap, career precarity, the assault on staff pay, conditions and pensions, and both sides have inexplicably decided to bully each other. Furthermore, the sniping on Twitter, which we all know can descend into abusive and personal attacks, is undignified.  And nothing erodes our credibility like anonymous accounts, apparently. I know from academic Twitter that these are scorned by Times Higher, but they cannot seriously pretend not to know why so many academics seek protection from beneath the cloak of anonymity.  Several academic and professional Twitter users have explained any number of times why they feel public dissent is unsafe. Indeed, Times Higher has reported instances, including my own case, where universities have censured precisely those critics who have expressed oppositional views openly. Times Higher journalists know this happens, and they risk alienating sections of the readership if they suddenly act as if it doesn’t.

Additionally, in the last few years, some universities have become ‘sector leading’ at social media surveillance. Read this post and you might understand why some academics have retreated underground. /

In case anyone needs reminding about the tendency of some universities to blunt criticism, there is this poem by Grace Krause. It is as brutal as the bureaucratic insincerity she exposes. Just a few excerpts below:

Appropriate Channels
It has come to our attention that
Some of you have been commenting
On working conditions
And other matters best left private
On social media and other channels
Clearly inappropriate

Please refrain from crying in an open-plan office
Unless you are confident in your ability to weep silently

The Appropriate Channel is to package your grief
To divide it into parcels of a size
Suitable for swift processing
Please do not deliver your grief
In portions unsuitable
For handling

We should thank Times Higher for bringing some welcome scrutiny to university management recently. In recent months, we have seen VCs leave under a cloud at Bath, Kent, De Montfort, Bangor, Reading, Swansea and Open universities.

Other reports have covered excessive executive pay and severance packages. But, frankly, there are enough allegations against university managers to account for an ‘us and them’ divide: removal of meaningful democratic governance, colluding in obfuscation over the USS pensions dispute, silencing quitting employees with NDAs, placing excessive workload demands on staff, overlooking staff mental health breakdown, bullying by metrics, nepotism, victimising trade union leaders, financial mismanagement – is it any wonder there are a few angry anonymous accounts out there? Taking grievances onto social media is a sign of exasperation when no amount of evidence presented to ‘the appropriate channels’ seems to bring about change. In some institutions, there is a need for a truth-and-reconciliation process before a civil dialogue can even start.

Gill wonders why staff can’t just tell great stories of new discovery and benefit to society, and he mentions one terrific example of a team of heart surgeons who benefitted from working with university researchers who scanned a patient’s heart and printed a 3D replica. Impact, suggests Gill. No, says the REF which has colonised the word and circumscribed its meaning. And so unless this triumph of joint expertise and  cooperation can be tied to published research  ‘outputs’ from the researchers’ own institution, they would feel unable to proclaim impact. This is sad evidence that UK universities have been hobbled when it comes to conveying their enormous contribution to society.

As the article accumulated judgements like ‘inane’ and ‘abject’, Andrew McRae of Exeter tweeted supportively, “I think we trash the @JG_THE at our peril. As for social media criticism being ‘nothing more than angry tweets…critiquing unis’: no, honestly, there’s more than this. I’ve copped it myself when I’ve stuck my neck out; it’s no wonder most VCs avoid this space, & that’s our loss”. Andrew, whom I have followed on Twitter for a few years, is one of those rare university managers who maintains a presence on Twitter. If we want insights from that position, however much we might occasionally disagree, we need to think twice before throwing around abuse and ad hominem imprecations. However, the suggestion that we should not enrage the editor of the Times Higher would be to afford him exemption from criticism, which seems undesirable. Nevertheless, in homage to McRae’s plea, I acknowledge that the article casts plenty of shade towards university managers for prioritising buildings over people and appearing to be avaricious when it comes to their own pay and perks.

But both McRae and Gill will have noticed, as I have, that some on academic Twitter have renounced Times Higher for a number of reasons, more recently because of a suspicion that there is a damaging alliance between the business model of rankings, vice chancellors and data, branding and consultancy services that will be on offer since its acquisition by Inflexion, a private equity firm. I have no wish to irritate any one person, but when Times Higher wonders why academics are so angry and yet refuses to contemplate the role that its rankings product might play in the deteriorating experience of academics worldwide, I think we are justified in making that point emphatically.

Never mind. Perhaps the recipe for reconciliation is a feelgood event ‘where some of the sector’s brightest communicators and thinkers will gather to find a way forward’. 

I expect it will cost a VC’s bonus to attend, which will rule me out, but anyway, I have indicated my interest in speaking at the event. I can guess at half the lineup for THE Live. I’m willing to have a conversation with the Polyannas and institutional ra-ra types. But for now, I’m off to a wonderful seminar series critiquing Toxic Positivity in HE.  Catch you later.

REF2021: Adding Insult to Injury

31st January 2019.

57 days to Brexit and 659 days to the REF submission, which, if you need reminding, will be 27th of November 2020. At least Research England and the other UK funding bodies have their rules and guidelines published well in advance of the deadline. But hey – you never know. Remember the last-minute requirement for ‘impact’ last time?

Times Higher reports today that employees who have been made redundant by HEIs may still have their work submitted to REF2021. I imagine their permission is not required.

A consultation document released by the REF in July 2018 had asked for responses to a proposal in Paragraph 206.b which “sets out the funding bodies’ intention to make ineligible the outputs of former staff who have been made redundant (except where the staff member has taken voluntary redundancy). This proposal reflects the funding bodies’ view that, in recognition of the HEI’s intentions regarding the post, including such outputs would not be consistent with the principle of non-portability. It also responds to concerns about the potential negative incentives that may be created in including these outputs.”

The steer in the question is obvious, and yet it has apparently been overturned by the intervention of some powerful voices. In the final version of the REF2021 decisions published today, any mention of outlawing submission of work by staff who have been made redundant has been removed. Instead, paragraph 150 states: “Outputs in the submitted output pool may be attributed to former staff, previously employed as Category A eligible in the assessment period”.  

So why the change? Times Higher reports that ‘the funders’ raised “the significant unintended consequences of doing otherwise”, which apparently amounted to discussing “sensitive information about staff employment with those responsible for selecting outputs”. Find me a research unit where the casualties of redundancy aren’t already an open secret, if not actively contrived by those very selectors. The justifications extend towards the fanciful: “Our concern would be that removing the option to include submissions from former fellows for example would be a disincentive for universities to take on fellowships,” said Catriona Firth, head of REF policy at Research England”. As if universities would abandon the cheap research force that such fellowships represent, but now, instead, as the UCU statement worded it, “the move would be a green light for universities to treat staff like a disposable commodity and entrench the casualisation of early career researchers”.

It is more likely that universities will feel emboldened to abandon any commitment to sustainable, secure career pathways, especially from postdoctoral posts to lectureships, if they feel they can easily terminate employment and still retain the fruits of that casually discarded labour.

David Sweeney is quoted in the Times Higher article: “it would be unfair to penalise people who would want their outputs to be counted, simply in order to appease those who do not”. As if the only controversy at stake was a question of being counted in the REF when, presumably, you would have no input to those discussions, let alone benefit, after redundancy.

Meanwhile, I query Times Higher’s interpretation of the ruling on who is included under the designation ‘former staff’. Paragraph 211a states that outputs may be included: “For staff who remain employed at the institution, but are no longer employed as Category A eligible staff on the census date (for example, senior administrative staff), any outputs that were first made publicly available at the point the staff member was employed as Category A eligible”.

Times Higher’s understanding of this is: “the guidance says that academics who change from a teaching and research or research-only contract during a REF cycle are classed as former members of staff and that outputs which were first made publicly available when they were on their old contract are still eligible for submission.”

I disagree. The example given in Paragraph 211a indicates the REF envisages cases where an employee on a research or teaching and research contract has subsequently changed their role to become e.g. a dean, pro vice chancellor or other senior administrator. Universities have, unethically, been gaming the system by moving academics from teaching and research contracts onto teaching-only contracts. Often this is not the choice of the academic, but imposed on them by a department which disapproves of their research, or (often as a result of poorly conducted internal audits and mock exercises) anticipates it would be graded at less than 3*. It would be appalling if this behavior were to be rewarded by allowing submission of their research. Fortunately, Times Higher’s reading would appear to be contradicted by this paragraph:

212. The outputs of staff who continue to be employed by the institution as Category A eligible staff (i.e. meet the criteria set out in paragraph 117) but who no longer have significant responsibility for research on the census date are not eligible.

Very clearly, this rules out submitting the work of those academics who have had their research role explicitly removed by the institution. Nevertheless, expect this to become contested as universities cavil about Schroedinger’s researcher:

Paragraph141. Staff with significant responsibility for research are those for whom:

a. ‘Explicit time and resources are made available’. Indicators of this could include:

a specific proportion of time allocated for research, as determined in the context of the institution’s practices and applied in a consistent way

research allocation in a workload model or equivalent.

b. ‘To engage actively in independent research’. Indicators of this could include (HEIs are also advised to refer to the indicators of independence, paragraph 132, as additional guidance on this aspect):

eligibility to apply for research funding as the lead or co-applicant

access to research leave or sabbaticals

membership of research centres or institutes within the HEI.

c. ‘And that is an expectation of their job role’. Indicators of this could include:

current research responsibilities as indicated in, for example, career pathways or stated objectives

expectations of research by role as indicated in, for example, job descriptions and appraisals.

Lots of room there for last minute retrospective restoration of an individual’s research ’allocation’.

The announcement has been greeted with expressions of outrage by academic Twitter. “Thought the academic employment environment couldn’t get worse”, tweeted @DrJoGrady. @DavidToke commented: “This isn’t even neoliberalism. This is feudalism”. @sstroschein2 wondered if this ruling will survive a legal challenge. I rather hope @EricRoyalLybeck ‘s  graphic stands as a prediction of a rather large uprising.

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism