In Which We Serve: Universities in Lockdown

In March 2020 we learned the paradox of social distancing. As we offer others the caring gesture of stepping into the street to maintain a two meter gap, they thank us, and each acknowledges the other’s humanity.

Distancing has pervaded our workplaces as many are now working from home. As universities move to online teaching, we wonder how social relations will be changed after the virus has left the scene. None of us quite know what will emerge at the end of this period. A thoughtful piece from USS Briefs  has initiated a conversation about possible futures. The only certainty is it would be misguided to act “as if the world in which we drafted our syllabi and exams is the same one when we begin marking, as if we could carry on working just as before”. I predict that face-to-face teaching will be transformed to a greater extent than online practice. Both students and staff will have had time to reflect on what, exactly, they value about the experience of collective learning and living, and what they would like to change.

Along with the NHS and the BBC, universities have garnered new appreciation as institutions which serve the public good. Former minister of state for universities, Chris Skidmore, has been tweeting out regular good news, with current incumbent, Michelle Donelan joining in more recently. Some notable contributions include: epidemiologists at UCL and Oxford have advised the government by modelling the likely spread of COVID19; the universities of Durham, Salford, Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University have donated supplies and specialist testing equipment to the NHS; King’s College, London has developed a hugely useful symptom tracker app which will collect vital data; and the UCL Institute of Education has made available a bank of resources to support children’s online learning.

Another optimistic development is that many universities are realising that this may be the time to build bridges with staff. Working from home with students at a distance, developing online courses with just a week’s notice, these changes have required a huge effort of learning and application from many academics. They are finding that teaching online involves much more than just uploading lecture videos and learning materials to the VLE. It means shifting to a whole new pedagogy and there has been little time to prepare. The COVID19 campus closures followed hard on the UCU 4 Fights strikes. Goodwill was scarce amid a commitment to ongoing action short of a strike (ASOS). Many UCU members have welcomed the way some universities have sought to alleviate the financial pressure (particularly acute for staff on precarious fixed-term or zero hours contracts) by spreading out the pay deductions resulting from strike action. Newcastle, King’s College, St Andrews, Birkbeck, Southampton and Ulster are among those universities where managers have waived or suspended strike deductions. King’s College and Cardiff Met have also pledged to support hourly-paid and fixed-term staff. These and other accommodations have been documented by Andrew Chitty in a sort of informal league table of university decency.

Other universities have extended consideration to the personal circumstances of staff in this unique situation of home confinement. The VC of the University of York wrote “I want to reassure you we understand additional responsibilities that many of you now have…Do work when you can”. King’s College has been equally understanding: “if you have young children at home when the schools are closed or have other caring responsibilities and are working at home, we know that you may be unable to commit to a full day of work. We understand that and thank you for your best efforts. You do not need to take annual leave to make up any perceived difference. Do what you can, ask for help and take care of your family. If you are unable to work at all because of caring for dependants, please talk to your line manager about dependant’s leave”.  Meanwhile, Newcastle University has offered a paid four-day week to staff in April.

But here let me channel Captain Kinross (played by Noel Coward) as he addresses the ship’s company in the 1942 film In Which We Serve. “Nearly all universities performed as I would expect; however, some didn’t”. There is a disappointing roll call of institutions which still seem to prioritise the settling of scores while remaining deeply wedded to the notion that full productivity must be sustained, even as the REF research audit has been postponed. The Universities of Leeds, Reading and Liverpool have insisted on deducting all strike pay in one month, while Leeds has suggested that staff should use annual or unpaid leave if they face caring duties during the lockdown. ( Update, University of Liverpool UCU have now confirmedthat strike deductions have been postponed until May or staggered for those who require it). Members of higher education’s casualized workforce were among the first to experience brutality when news on Twitter reported that Sussex University will be terminating all temporary contracts. Newcastle also chose the first week of lockdown to issue redundancy notices, with apparently no word of recognition of the extreme misfortune of receiving this when there is no possibility of pursuing other opportunities in higher education for some months. In this case, ‘kind regards’ must be received with very bitter irony.

Newcastle redundancy 1


The horror of this communication was not lost on the students of some of these young, precarious lecturers who made clear how much they appreciated their efforts. This letter to the Vice Chancellor, Chris Day, is so impressive it is worth publishing in full.

Newcastle reundancy responseNewcastle resundancy student response 2

Many of us worry that some universities might seize a moment of ‘disaster capitalism’ to carry out ‘restructures’ or might opportunistically recruit from a reduced pool of students, thus impoverishing other institutions. The logistics of funding universities, both teaching and research, may require some temporary measures – even a one-off block grant. Where new private providers figure within such a policy may prove controversial. Chris Skidmore today is asking for a doubling of research QR money over the next five years

Centralised policies on allocating new students may be required this year and there is now a debate over a return to the student numbers cap if some universities are to avoid financial oblivion, and reduction in opportunities for the 2020 entry cohort. Even more destabilizing is the likely collapse of recruitment of international students leaving some Russell Group universities very exposed.

When universities do gear up for the new academic year, whether that should be in September or January, they will require a spirit of common purpose. The institutions which succeed will be those that inspire confidence among staff and students. Their leaders will have offered support and kindness in harsh times. They will be patient and understanding as people recover their mental and physical health. Perhaps universities will abandon concerns with league tables and competition, metrics and toxic work culture, and recognize they exist as institutions of teaching and research ‘in which we serve’ the public good.

Designing certainty into a crisis

Certainty is in short supply amidst the Covid19 pandemic. These last few weeks have seen all of us chilled by a landscape which seems to be receding into unfamiliarity. And yet, in my neighbourhood, the number 11 bus still rumbles past, BT Openreach are digging trenches up the road and I hear small children squealing as they leave the school gates – until tomorrow.

Because yesterday, Gavin Williamson announced that schools and universities will close and GCSE and A Level exams will not take place in May and June this year. Some, like Anthony Seldon, VC of the University of Buckingham, feel this last measure is unnecessary. It certainly poses difficulties for ensuring students get the grades they have earned. You wonder how we got to the point whereby grades for two years’ work depend so heavily on one set of exams. “Michael Gove’s decision to scrap all course work, make GCSEs and A levels exam only and effectively scrap AS Levels clearly wasn’t fully stress tested” tweeted Rosemary Bennett, Education Editor for The Times. (March 19th 2020)

Deborah Cameron (@wordspinster) also via Twitter (March 19th 2020) laid out some of the drawbacks if we were to attempt to instate new and untried arrangements for taking exams remotely, online. Among them are inequalities in access to broadband and laptops, ensuring the integrity of exam conditions, and also the difficulties of deciding what compensations to make. At least cancelling exams provides some degree of certainty so that students don’t have to try and cope with these stressful events as well as a global pandemic. On balance, if I was an A level student, I might prefer being spared taking exams at the moment, while others sort out the logistics of university access on the basis of a combination of mock results, teacher predictions and external moderation.

But the proposal from Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme took me by surprise. Jarvis indicated that students who were holding an offer from a university might simply be accepted by that university now. Universities, he said, should honour the offers they have already made on the basis of prior attainment, predicted grades, references, UCAS personal statements etc. The presenter, Nick Robinson, asked whether these should now be considered unconditional offers, and Jarvis indicated that, yes, universities needed to be flexible in order to remove uncertainty. (1.55- 1.57)

I wondered how this would work when universities make many more offers to applicants than they have places, in line with a conversion formula. If Jarvis had now implied an entitlement for students to all progress to their first choice university, this was obviously going to cause considerable destabilization for the whole sector.

Rosemary Bennett of The Times seemed similarly startled:

What ? Alastair Jarvis UUK says universities shd honour all offers they have made … Cambridge , Oxford and all the rest who makes more offers than places (knowing not all will get top A levels) will be rammed and other struggling to fill courses. (Tweet 19/03/20)

In response, Jarvis tried to walk it back on Twitter:

No, didn’t say universities should do that. An option being considered is looking at how offers could be honoured – won’t be able to be everyone’s 1st choice. Would need system to allocate places. Very tricky, but unprecedented times. I would prefer A-level grades to be awarded

But rather than sidestep the chaos, and land it on individual universities, I propose some ideas which might be workable, just for this year.

Where possible and where their chosen course was offered, students could be allocated to a local HEI. If they wished to transfer elsewhere in 12 months, they might be able to do so based on first year performance. Given the amount of disruption students have faced, and the lack of clarity as to whether teaching can start in the autumn, the new academic year would need to start in January 2021. If repeated, it would give us the opportunity to put in place post-qualification applications (PQA) – something we should have done two decades ago. Students who have been out of school for some months would understandably not wish to mark time through the autumn until January. But the nation may need willing and able hands and minds by September. We could pay a living wage to 18-year olds and offer them work experience in a national citizen’s volunteer force. There will be elderly people to care for; younger children who have missed school to tutor; sports to coach; new community projects to support. And a grateful nation would waive tuition fees for that disrupted, delayed first year of higher education.

Would it work? It might provide an acceptable stopgap solution to the problem of how to allocate university places fairly. No student need miss out on a university place, and in turn, no university need encounter an unexpected drop in numbers. And a generation which has already demonstrated leadership, altruism and care for the environment might feel that has been reciprocated by their elders.

Back on the Picket Line 2020

I thought my picketing days were over, but on Thursday I got a message from the Nottingham University UCU branch asking me to speak at their strike rally. I was glad to receive the invitation because, for one thing, it eased my conscience about having missed the last strikes in November and December of 2019 when I was on holiday. Being out of university employment means I can take real holidays – the kind where you don’t have to take work away with you. I can’t quite leave the guilty feelings behind though. But all the same, retirement does offer the opportunity for uninterrupted leisure and time for reflection. I still can’t quite believe my luck at just making it under the wire while I’m still physically able to reap enjoyment.

It’s not that I wanted to appear among distressed colleagues like to worst kind of gloating retiree; the whole point is that I want to campaign for those same rights to a decent, comfortable retirement for younger workers who deserve it just as much as I do. And one which comes before the person is exhausted by overwork, surveillance, career insecurity and old age. I don’t regard ‘OK boomer’ as a jeering denunciation but a welcome summons to check my privilege and contemplate what I can do to make a difference to intergenerational inequality.

Individual vice chancellors and their representative organization, Universities UK, and the employers, UCEA and USS are telling academics and professional staff that pensions like mine – defined benefit with fair and reasonable contribution levels – are not affordable. But they don’t control the narrative anymore. When they mess with academics, they are messing with some people who actually know about pensions and investments. After the 2018 strikes, USS, employers and UCU agreed to form a Joint Expert Panel. It published two reports and came to the conclusion that employers needed to tolerate less risk and revise the way the valuation of the scheme was being conducted. Except the employers have refused to honour the agreement and implement the plan. Worse still, there is a threat that more institutional members of the scheme will quit, as Trinity College, Cambridge announced it would last June. Obviously, the viability of the scheme rests on the fact that risk is shared across the sector. If large universities pull out, the whole of the USS pension scheme is at risk of collapse.

Truth, honour, integrity are all scarce commodities at the moment. We live in a world where a 27- year old can throw out a few pseudo-scientific ideas, get some retweets and call himself a super-forecaster. So, I wasn’t surprised to hear the vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University (which probably isn’t even in the USS scheme) saying on the Today programme that it is a legal requirement to raise contributions.

Among the academic experts is Jane Hutton, professor of statistics at the University of Warwick She was until June 2019 a member of the board of directors of USS.  But she was suspended and then fired, apparently for applying her curiosity too meticulously to the work of the board. Professor Hutton had questioned the rather large fluctuations in valuations of the scheme, and also the figures on life expectancy which had led to a deficit being overestimated and which had inflated the cost of the scheme to members and employers. She had also formed the view that the 2017 valuation method was flawed – a view shared by many of the scheme’s members and the Joint Expert Panel – and that, in fact, the USS pension scheme is in surplus. In trying to do her duty and protect the interests of members, which she felt was her responsibility, she had raised these reservations with The Pensions Regulator (TPR). This, the board felt, revealed that she was unwilling to work ‘collegially’ and they considered she had breached confidentiality. The report that led to Jane Hutton’s dismissal can be read here . It is shocking to see how the investigation has allowed the condemnation of a board member who was acting within her area of expertise. Truth is hard won, and it is just as quickly buried again. We live in a culture which seeks to cover up wrongdoing and potential for embarrassment with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), but we cannot normalize a situation in which an expert in statistics is dismissed for discussing serious discrepancies with the regulator.

As Sam Marsh points out  the other board members of USS and the employers were only too keen to eliminate the persistent criticism of the valuation method of the scheme, the evidence of a surplus and the advice of the Joint Expert Panel, and instead, to divert attention towards a whole new narrative in search of a new valuation – based on the same flawed method. This would, of course, keep giving them the same result of a scheme deficit which would continue to bolster their case for increased member and employer contributions, and ultimately will lead to the scheme’s collapse.

It now falls to each of us to inform ourselves because we can no longer trust those charged with protecting our interests to do so. We all need to become experts. We are all Jane Hutton. So, while you’re on strike, follow @USSBriefs on Twitter. Follow Sam Marsh @Sam_Marsh101 and keep following them. Because your pension is affordable and it is not a luxury; it is your right. Solidarity.


PDR in the Disneyfied university

There was a story recently about George Washington University, Washington, DC, and its requirement for senior staff to attend sessions in corporate culture provided at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, by the Disney Institute, the specialist leadership consultancy arm of the Disney corporation. Apparently, the Disney consultants had told managers that there was an absence of culture at the university.

I doubt they found an absence of culture at GWU, rather, the management consultants were keen to promote a change of culture. Academics, of course, have plenty of culture, from a regard for aesthetics, ethics and a common respect for academic values like the pursuit of truth, knowledge and academic freedom. But what they don’t appreciate in large measure is corporate culture. This will need to be imposed. GWU should have forsaken Mickey Mouse in Florida and instead crossed the Atlantic to embrace the full Cruella de Vil experience in the management suites of British universities. Here they could have learned from 30 years of colonizing UK academics within the corporate enclosure.

At GWU, faculty were encouraged to attend the training event. In the UK, participation in corporate culture is inescapable. One prerequisite, of course, is to accept that the university is a corporation. Among managers and human resources, you rarely find the word ‘university’ uttered; for them, it is a ‘business’. The second stage of the project is to engineer the forcible citation of corporate discourse by academics in order to enforce compliance and banish autonomous academic identities. Just as in a Disney film, resemblance to reality is not a requirement.

I offer one example from around 2014. Along with other professors, readers and principal lecturers, I was asked to act as appraiser to more junior colleagues. It didn’t seem to matter that none of us had line management responsibilities nor any ability to affect the opportunities for advancement of those colleagues.

My investiture into the managerial tier took place via a day’s training event entitled ‘Personal Development Review (PDR) Training for Managers’, led by members of the staff development section. The obvious contradiction, that none of the trainees was actually a manager, was pointed out by a colleague. This apparent disqualification was ignored by the facilitators, but it was just the first of the fictions we were invited to inhabit as the internal coherence of the management’s imaginary world dissembled under the force of our critique.

Cascading of the Strategic Plan

It turned out I had a bit of a head start on my fellow learners as my research interest was in university managerial discourse and particularly strategic plans. I had collected and absorbed most of them for the book I was co-authoring, Academic Irregularities. According to the university’s policy, the rationale of PDR was to make sure that all employees’ objectives were in alignment with the university’s strategic plan, and that, consequently, those strategic priorities should cascade down into the objectives delivered by schools, teams and individuals. However, when I asked the other participants, the trainers themselves, the head of department and the dean who were observing the training, if any of them could outline the priorities of the current strategic plan, none could. It looked as if, even at the outset, the system was doomed to fail on fundamental principles.

Not a good start, you’d think. But even this slam dunk was waved away as inadmissible by the trainers and managers even as the participants questioned the scheme’s viability. At this point I read from the policy document which warned, ‘PDR which is ineffective will lack credibility and is damaging to the institution’. Then we were really off to the races.

Imaginary ‘teams’

Next to receive scrutiny were the assumptions around ‘teams,’ an organizing unit preferred by the university over traditional departments. As academics, we saw teams as administrative units but, in all other ways, they were considered superfluous to the ways we conducted our work. They were often comprised of people who were not actually working together in terms of teaching or research. So, to a large extent, the ostensive teams of the school were managerial fictions, and it was hard to see how these imaginary units could have objectives. There were other teams, however, which had formed organically in pursuit of teaching or research collaboration, often organised across disciplines, institutions and even international boundaries. How could our contribution to these endeavours be evaluated, we asked?

SMART objectives

When conducting a PDR, we were told, we should set objectives for our appraisees which were SMART. The first four occupied us for quite some time: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/ Realistic. All were problematic.

Specific – Imagine, I volunteered, your appraisee pledges to write a book which subsequently turns into a series of articles, or vice versa. Or, I may promise to work on diversifying assessment methods, and then the next curriculum review reverses that policy and instead requires a focus on fewer methods (this had happened). Will we be judged to have failed? The very nature of academic work accentuates the unplanned, the unanticipated, the unknown. Requiring specifics ensures that the process becomes an exercise in offering up the tokenistic, already-completed specific task, and is hardly a forcing ground for ‘stretching’.

Measurable – Quantitative or qualitative? If the latter, what methods of evaluation are used? How can we measure work which may extend outside of the university? Even if the measures are quantitative, we all know that the criteria for performance shift frequently: publications: quality, impact, citations; grant capture; external recognition. Trying to keep up with vacillating parameters of academic performance measurement is rather like trying to apprehend a desert mirage. The trainers brightened at the prospect of being able to offer a solution, and we were directed to the university’s Competency Framework. Competencies are described as “a set of behaviour patterns or characteristics which distinguish high performers from average or poor performers in a given role”. I pointed out that this offered little delicacy of scale for distinguishing between levels. The academic role requires a range of disparate competencies: teaching, research, social acumen, leadership, administrative efficiency, pastoral caring, knowledge of the university, careers guidance, fundraising, to name just a few ‘key skills.’ Who is to say my hard-won certificate in Gold Standard Customer Service should be eclipsed by the publication of a prize-winning monograph?

Achievable/Realistic ­– The university had been an early adopter of workload models and we were still being persuaded of their infallibility. It was already apparent that the model underestimated the hours for every single category of the academic workload, and so inevitably provided a poor basis for realistic objective setting or evaluation. When asked to give an example of a SMART objective for an L/SL under my line management, I offered the task of fitting in all your meetings, report writing, emails, exam boards, open days, curriculum development and PDR within the allocation for academic management and administration, for which a token 40 hours were allocated, up to a maximum of 175 hours. The rather flushed facilitator expressed concern that this was probably not an achievable objective. I responded that such a model was going to result in very exhausted, disenchanted, brittle and demotivated lecturers who are unlikely to convey a sense of purposeful aspiration to a PDR reviewee. When there is a dysfunctional workload model which has unattainable objectives sutured into its design, the only thing ‘stretched’ will be their goodwill and mental health.

Personal reflection

At the end of the session, I and several others had reached the conclusion that this PDR model would continue to fail. It was designed to addresses concerns held two decades ago about lack of accountability in universities which have been addressed by the proliferation of tools for monitoring the performance of academics: the National Student Survey, module evaluations, the Research Excellence Framework, internal and external quality audits, and even the hourly ‘tenko’ imposed by the estates office. It was both redundant and ridiculous. It did not meet academics’ realities nor their desires for development opportunities: time to research and develop teaching and opportunities for collaboration and networking.

The training protocol required that the trainee engage with a process of post-event reflection. This I dutifully did, sharing the account above with my manager, staff development and human resources in the hope of promoting dialogue, as requested. There were complaints from the staff development facilitators to my head of department. I had prepared for and fully engaged with the session, but my real crime was that I had exposed the pretence and corporate posturing of the neoliberal university-as-business. I had refused to assimilate to the managerial culture and this was seen as insubordination.

I’m not, generally, opposed to performance review. I have blogged previously about performance monitoring systems hereand here. But at a bare minimum it needs to be developmental, rather than judgmental, and it needs to reflect the experiences and values which obtain in academic workplaces. If it doesn’t, then we might as well all take off for our seminar in Disneyland….or maybe that should be Banksy’s Dismaland.


Humanities for the Humane University

It has been chilling the last few weeks to find universities shuttering degree courses in languages as was announced recently at the University of Sunderland and late last year at Nottingham Trent University. History and politics have also been singled out for closure at Sunderland.

A 13th January 2020 statement on Sunderland’s website reads,

‘The governors agreed that all subjects and programmes in the University should be educationally and financially sustainable, align with a particular employment sector, fit within the University’s overall strategy and be of a consistently high-quality’…’ work is underway to further develop areas of importance to the regional and national economy and those that provide clear routes into employment. These include engineering, computer science and business.’

There is a mistaken assumption that history, politics, and languages have no place in a “career-focused curriculum” when many of our political leaders, and indeed many vice chancellors have taken their degrees in these areas. Significantly, among their number is the Sunderland VC, Sir David Bell, BA History and Philosophy (Glasgow).

This academic vandalism is rationalized with two false assumptions: that the only justification for teaching a subject should be its immediate and obvious vocational application; and that the implicated subjects have lower rates of employment than STEM.

When we look at HESA statistics for the occupations of 2012/13 graduates, we find a very low rate of unemployment for graduates of languages – 2.3%. The unemployment figure for History and Philosophy is 2.5%. This compares well with unemployment rates for graduates of computer science 4.6%, agriculture 3.0%, engineering and technology 2.5%, and biological sciences 2.5%.

Nevertheless, the dean of NTU Arts and Humanities repeats the misinformation that ‘nationally graduate outcomes for these students are often not as good as for those on other courses’ available in this tweet. 

Another important question is – does a university serve its students and its civic function without offering languages to students? In a post-Brexit world, it would benefit students well if universities equipped them all with a usable foreign language. Now that possibility is foreclosed for students at Sunderland and perhaps at Nottingham Trent in the future.

Sunderland’s VC adds to the website statement, ‘Our students will be looked after in a way that is consistent with the Student Protection Plan that was agreed by the Office for Students’. This might be the first time that a SPP has been invoked. Readers who are unfamiliar with these documents can catch up here.  They arrived on the HE landscape with the Higher Education Act and Research (2017) and universities are required to have them approved by the regulator, the Office for Students, as a condition of registration.

It is currently difficult to access the student protection plan on Sunderland’s website. The Office for Students mandates that universities make these easily available to students. However, Jim Dickenson has managed to unearth it at this site. It states,

‘The risk that the University will cease to deliver in complete subject areas is very low. The University has undertaken a comprehensive Quality and Sustainability Review of its provision in 2017/18 academic year, examining data to decide whether any subject or programme areas should be discontinued. This Review has completed and no significant change is taking place’.

This is published as the 2019/2020 Student Protection Plan. Students who are currently studying languages, history and politics will feel duped in view of such a recent bill of health from the university which was undertaken prior to the tenure of the VC, Sir David Bell. What kind of confidence can students have in any promise or guarantee from the University of Sunderland? Do managers not consider this loss of trust to be calamitous reputational damage?

It has seemed for a long time that languages are the canary in the mine that augurs a wider assault on the humanities in general. This week, academics as the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS) were stunned by an announcement that appeared to signal a massive reduction in the employment of fractional teaching staff together with a rescinding of research leave. These announcements were apparently made without consultation and are to take effect immediately. While particular programs are not singled out here, SOAS is an institution dedicated to arts, languages, history and international studies, with a focus on Africa and Asia. Among its specialisms are languages that are not taught elsewhere in the UK Amharic, Hausa, Somali, Swahili, Yorùbá, Zulu and its scholars conduct research on endangered languages. There is also work on inclusive democracy, gender and on decolonizing the curriculum. In an academic world order overshadowed by Victor Orban and Donald Trump, academics at SOAS must fear a Central European University-like exile. ‘Watch out for the “career-focused curriculum” to become the nicer, politer way for right-wing and centrist governments to evacuate critical scholarship from higher education’. Tweeted Ben Miller @benwritesthings

It is disingenuous of Jo Johnson to warn the government about entering a culture war with universities in revenge for their opposition to Brexit. With his White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, he set in place all the machinery for government to apply to universities whatever levers of manipulation it wishes. These have led to the privileging of STEM subjects and others which universities judge will lead students to the highest earnings. This one measure – Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) takes precedence over and above any other forms of life-enriching opportunities. The previous government raised tuition fees to a level which most graduates will never repay in entirety. This now necessitates university courses becoming more closely harnessed to high-paying careers so that the monies which should be seen as an investment in education are instead repositioned as a ‘return on investment’ for both student and the government lender. Except, that investment is solely an economic one. Out of sight and excluded from the public discussion is the investment that lies in the hidden column of the spreadsheet. That investment is actually now a risk. How can we ask postgraduate students to take a gamble on becoming specialists – at their own expense – when their expertise and scholarship is likely to be declared redundant? How can scholarship survive if the only arbiter is economics? How can it survive when we cull entire subjects in a sudden and apparently unjustified edict taken without consultation? And how can UK universities survive when, apparently, the ranks of its leadership are so willing to genuflect and submit before hostile and anti-intellectual governments?

Knowledge, scholarship, truth, diligence, enquiry and democracy are all seen as a cost. Students take university degrees in subjects which they enjoy. Anybody who has taught in universities will know how ill-advised it is to recruit students who sit in class without enthusiasm or inspiration. Even the highest quality teaching will not reach them. And similarly, they are taught by staff whose devotion to a subject has carried them through 10 years of study, research and writing. To try and detach advanced study from love of the subject is to fundamentally change the dynamic and mission of higher education. And yes, Jo Johnson, it is a culture war, and it is one that academics will need to fight because their ‘leaders’ gave up four decades ago.


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 ?

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism