Book Review of Steven Jones: Universities Under Fire

This review first appeared on the HEPI blog on 31st August 2022. An alternative review of the book, by Nick Hillman appeared on the HEPI blog on 25th August here.

The 18th book in the Palgrave series on Critical University Studies tells us there is a lot to critique in universities in the 21st century. The problems detailed in Steven Jones’ book are familiar to HEPI readers: higher education funding, marketisation, academic precarity, management by metrics, and students positioned as consumer. Jones discusses all of these, together with a chapter on culture wars and freedom of speech controversies. His view of academia is discouraging: a sector where precarious staff, menaced by exhortations to be ‘resilient’ and ‘agile’ suffer imposter syndrome, and where ‘quit lit’ is a ratified genre of academic writing.

Neoliberalism

Jones focuses his critique on the pervasive spread of market ideology and neoliberal values given extra impetus since 2012 by the new tuition fee regime in England and the removal of student number controls. This perspective is often dismissed by commentators who claim to be perplexed by the meaning of the term ‘neoliberal’. Jones, on the other hand, demonstrates its explanatory value as he convincingly clarifies the connection between ideology, policy and language, and changing practice in regulation, pedagogy and research. Universities have seen the widespread imposition of markets, competition and accountability (which Jones does not entirely dismiss) and this has led to the acceptance of discourses of student as consumer, personal (financial) responsibility and value for money. This has successfully indemnified the taxpayer against their intergenerational responsibility to educate the young, instead transferring the bulk of the cost to the identified student beneficiary.

As a result, the acquisition of a university degree has been increasingly framed in commodified terms. This has been evident when we consider the attacks by The Times in the summer of 2022 on international student recruitment by the Russell Group. The UK public are led to suspect that universities have become mercenary institutions which have allowed their children to be displaced by foreigners with larger fee tabs. Paradoxically, however, attracting a healthy overseas student contingent can elevate a university’s ranking. This cements the status of their degrees as an elite product, attractive to ambitious students and their parents. The sad fact is that universities have styled themselves as ‘we are international’ while neglecting to ensure an international experience for most UK-domiciled students and even discontinuing degree courses in modern languages. No wonder, as Jones reveals, some universities spend millions on marketing the symbolic rather than the academic offerings. New students may be greeted on the clearing hotline by professional footballers while others are introduced to the city by a staffer in a tiger costume.

Critique of Marketisation

While university managers have been panicked into an embrace of market values, the Government’s application of principle is more inconsistent. The market is one that has been manipulated by interventions like allowing students with high A-Level grades to ‘trade up’ university offers. There has been a similarly fluctuating commitment to ‘students at the heart of the system’ such as when the National Student Survey was dismissed as a key Teaching Excellence Framework metric when scores failed to condemn the government’s less favoured universities. There is no need for student opinion when a quantifiable metric of graduate salaries is available to serve as a dubious proxy for teaching quality. As long as the measures are congruent with market ideology, they are preferred to, say, the student voice which asks for decolonisation of the curriculum.  It is more convenient to disparage such calls as ‘political’ if their concerns do not align with those of university managers.

Vice-chancellors have not been rewarded for their genuflection to the market, though. They are forever obliged to exalt employability and yet derided for teaching subjects coded by the media as non-serious, such as gaming, which are nevertheless in high demand in a growing sector of the economy.

Critique of university management

Jones argues firmly and persistently that university senior managers, have neglected their duty to defend the sector from the damaging effects of political interference and a consistent ‘deficit narrative’ in the press which has eroded public trust in universities. He punctures the conceit of managers who style themselves as chief executives or, more often now, as presidents with chiefs of staff, who with swaggering pretension, ‘lead change’ and ‘shape for excellence’, oblivious to the alienation around them. Meanwhile, individual academics have often been left to be monstered by the right-wing press for fear of offending a Government wedded to myths of ‘lamentable teaching’, ‘mickey mouse courses’ and specious culture wars, revealing that ‘[W]hile the establishment has grown anti-university, universities have assuredly not grown anti-establishment’ (p.226).

Call to action

The book is a call to action and Jones lays out precisely where intervention and restructuring are necessary if the sector is to recover its sense of purpose and public trust. Competition has served the sector poorly, constraining the opportunity to articulate shared values and promoting conformity. Universities should be tasked, as New Zealand’s are, with being the critics and conscience of society, and for Jones, ‘The first step is for universities to resist being co-opted into a system it is their primary role to critique’ (p.248).

Everybody invested in higher education – managers, policymakers, students and staff – needs to seize the narrative for education as a public good. That narrative is encoded in linguistic choices: higher education is in receipt of investment not subsidy; it is for pleasure, creativity and inquisitiveness. The problem, in an era of metric infallibility, is that none of these is as measurable as value for money, graduate salaries or even ‘satisfaction’.

Jones’ appeal for integrity in university management should be an uncontroversial one. Managers could start by heeding current research in Business and Education departments which is sceptical of outmoded managerial practices such as management by metrics which lead to compliance rather than innovation. Accountability is necessary, but other metrics are possible, as we know from the work on responsible metrics which informs the current project to review the REF – Future Research Assessment Programme.

Jones makes a case for what we thought we already had – autonomous universities with democratic participatory governance, held accountable by independent regulators.

This is a well-written and engaging book. Jones’ ability to write an introductory paragraph is a model that could serve all academic writers. There was a quote on almost every page I wanted to commit to memory. I hope it inspires more people to believe in the benefit of higher education and counter the destructive narratives that undermine it.

From the linguistic turn, to the turn of linguistics – for closure

After the linguistic turn of previous decades, it seems as if English universities have unilaterally decided the discipline should be abandoned. And it is English universities that are acting to close courses because of the peculiarly destructuive nature of their version of the marketised funding model. Vice chancellors seem inclined to follow each other’s lead in withdrawing courses in the arts and humanities. Last year saw closures in history and archaeology. The previous year it was modern languages. Fifteen years ago it was chemistry. This year it’s the turn of English and linguistics. In all cases, there has been very little account taken of the quality of courses or the nature of outcomes for graduates. Even less thought has been given to the complex inter-dependencies of disciplines within and across universities. Arguments – if any are presented – tend to be made on the basis of falling applications, even when the subjects under review have been identified as strategic priorities by government, as in the case of chemistry and languages. Staff, naturally, feel traduced and gaslit when they have exceeded expectations in TEF and REF success, but management teams cut courses and implement redundancies anyway.

There have been several of these scenarios in recent weeks and reports of poor treatment of both staff and students at the universities of Wolverhampton, Huddersfield, Roehampton and Sheffield Hallam. I have written a number of letters to vice chancellors in defence of the implicated courses. These letters have been similar in theme, but tailored in each case to reflect the particular circumstances of the university. To date, I have received just one reply, from the Communications team at Roehampton referring to ‘careful consideration’ and a ‘challenging environment’ and assurances that ‘no decisions have been taken at this stage and we are committed to engaging in meaningful consultation with our academic colleagues’.

The obvious irony for me is that, in engaging with vice chancellors, I have chosen to rely, in part, on arguments from metrics. One reason is to point out the hypocrisy and arbitrariness involved in some of these decisions. There sometimes seems to be a kind of herd mentality whereby, if one university decides to withdraw a course, in short order, a number of ‘competitor institutions will follow suit. The implications for students are that some courses, often in the arts and humanities, cease to be available in certain geographical areas or in certain types of institution. Modern languages courses are now rare at post-92 universities. There is a well-founded fear that arts and humanities courses will soon be the provenance of just the Russell Group.

Below is my email to Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.

Dear Vice-Chancellor

I am writing to express concern at the proposed closure of degree courses in English Language and Literature at Sheffield Hallam University.

The linguistics team at Sheffield Hallam have earned a significant reputation for their work in all areas of applied linguistics, and their research underpins the high-quality teaching enjoyed by students. In my role as subject leader of Linguistics at Nottingham Trent University, I attended research seminars with members of the English language team, most notably Dr Jodie Clark who served as our external examiner for a number of years. I currently follow Jodie’s podcast ‘Structured Visions’ which is a model of academic outreach and how to make research accessible.

As a former chair of the TEF and a board member of HESA, you will be aware that measures of teaching quality have now been subsumed under the metric of LEO graduate outcomes.  Scrutiny of these offers a means of making intra- and inter-institutional comparisons between courses. This tableau from Wonkhe has been devised so that the government’s Start to Success graduate outcomes (based on percentage of students continuing to a degree and progressing to highly skilled employment) can be mapped across courses and universities. Sheffield Hallam English Language scores 9.5 out of 10; English Literature scores 8.28. These scores compare well to the local Russell Group University of Sheffield where English language and Linguistics scores 8.55 and English Literature scores 8.8. You will also be aware that the Sheffield Hallam English courses lie at the top end of course STS scores across the university, with course scores ranging from 5.5 – 9.5. They are, then, strong courses whose graduates progress to highly skilled occupations.

Turning to the recent 2021 REF results, it is apparent that the English UoA submission has achieved the second highest GPA in the university at 3.19, with 42% of its research in the 4* category and 35% at 3*. Again, this compares well with the University of Sheffield English Language and Literature with 4* 53% and 3* 37%.

If a student applicant is concerned about teaching quality, outcomes and careers after graduation, there would be no reason to prefer to study English at the University of Sheffield over Sheffield Hallam, other than concern over perceived prestige. I would argue that the way to make gains on that front would be to invest in those courses which lead to enhanced opportunities, underpinned by excellent research-led teaching. Cancelling the university’s strongest programmes would seem to undermine progress towards meeting the government’s agenda on delivering high-quality courses which contribute to levelling up opportunities in the region.

There may be a temporary fall in applications, but a degree in English Language makes for a very marketable graduate. A distinctive feature of the English Language degree at Sheffield Hallam is the placement year option. High quality placements have been shown in a study by Nottingham Trent University to reduce the graduate outcomes gap between economically-fortunate and more deprived students.  

The more extensive the range of modules, the wider the choice of postgraduate opportunities. English language or linguistics is essential for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and many students seek employment abroad after graduation. Others progress to teacher training where an understanding of language structure and function is vital for teaching English in schools. Methods of linguistic analysis such as corpus linguistics are widely applicable in research areas from parliamentary research to AI. The study of language, identity, digital communication and pragmatics all offer skills which can be applied to teaching, journalism, marketing or the development of search engine optimisation.

I accept that the marketisation of universities has presented us with some contradictions, and these must be difficult for any leader to manage effectively. The reactive strategy suggests prioritising response to applicant choice in courses, but this requires constant revision of the course portfolio in order to accommodate shifting popularity. The pro-active strategy is to identify the university’s strengths in teaching, research and outcomes, and support their development. I imagine a university employs a marketing team in order to persuade students to enrol in such proven high-quality courses. If marketing fails to persuade, what is marketing for?

The fact that English at Sheffield Hallam has attained such high scores in the new STS measures of teaching and in the REF, and that these have been achieved in the context of the pandemic and large-scale disruption of teaching, is remarkable and should be the occasion for celebration. To close these courses and place careers at risk when staff have met all that could be asked of them would be an object lesson in how to demoralise an entire university.

Having an awareness of language structure and usage is crucial for so many areas of work. It is also one of those humanities disciplines most critical for sustaining democracy. I urge you to reconsider proposed course closures in English.

Yours sincerely,

Liz Morrish (Ph.D.)

Metric Tide Revisited

The independent report The Metric Tide (TMT) was released in 2015 and its recommendations outlined a way of using research metrics responsibly in the design of the REF. It led many of us to hope it would curb some of the more damaging effects of metrics in research assessment.

To a large extent, REF panels are now aware that the focus must be on peer review, supplemented by responsible metrics. Although the Stern Review agreed with the recommendations of TMT, there have been some failures of implementation, acknowledged by the report’s author, James Wilsdon. On reflection, he feels that TMT was overly managerial in its approach, and there needs to be a focus on changing the culture towards healthier research processes.

There was definitely a moment of optimism after the 2014 REF that universities may be induced into treating research, the process of research and researchers with more respect and support. Together with the publication of TMT, the movement for responsible metrics has been buoyed by some declarations of principle such as the Leiden Manifesto for Research Metrics and the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Metrics (DORA) . Despite this, we have seen some egregious and irresponsible abuses of metrics, even among the many UK universities which have become signatories. Some credit the REF with having driven some more undesirable results outcomes including an increased homogenisation in research (see work by Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra) and the never-ending fixation with rankings.

UKRI has now decided it is time to review how the purposes and design of the REF could be improved. This discussion and consultation is known as the Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP)  which will “look afresh at the role of metrics in any future research excellence framework and consider whether design changes now under consideration as part of the FRAP suggest similar or different conclusions to those reached in 2015”. The review is being led by Stephen Curry, James Wilsdon and Lizzie Gadd, so in my estimation, the project is in good hands.

There are a number of consultations for FRAP taking place, and at a Zoom round table on July 12th, Silke Machold, Dean of Research of the University of Wolverhampton, wondered how to change behaviours which distort research priorities, but which nevertheless construct the criteria for success. The platforms which provide the research monitoring extract huge profits while funding for research is impoverished. Machold questioned what value is created by metrics and the associated requirements to monitor, report and manage.

We also heard from Rachel Gooberman-Hill, Chair of the UK Committee on Research Integrity, set up this spring with the intent to champion rigour, transparency and care and respect for researchers. We all raise our hats to that, but the next speaker, Patricia Murray of the University of Liverpool, illustrated how far we are from those ideals. Disgracefully, metrics such as grant capture and field-weighted citations have been used to select academics for redundancy at her university . Another low point for integrity was the shameless targeting of scholars in critical management studies at Leicester – a discipline which no longer exists there. And there have been multiple reports of academics being served notice of redundancy after successful REF results in their units of assessment. As Catherine Davies of the University of Leeds advised, breaches of DORA by signatories need to be addressed before cynicism takes root. Unless we have managers who embody research integrity in their own practice, then metrics will continue to be weaponized against researchers and academic freedom further undermined.

I agree that the REF has driven research culture, so if it is to continue (and it will), we must identify how we want that culture to change. So here is a suggestion. The one area which seems most open to modification is research environment. It is the area most focussed on people rather than figures, so any transformation could start with an assessment of the experience of academics themselves – postgraduate, post-doctoral and senior researchers. There are many tools like Vitae-CEDARS but again, these are expensive and complex corporate assessments. What is more appropriate is a simpler ‘satisfaction’ questionnaire including questions on perceptions of academic freedom, respect and support for research. This might deliver the kind of picture required, along with some metrics such as staff continuity and turnover, indicators of environment for mental health and, as well as PhD ‘throughput’, a question about the jobs that doctoral graduates go on to.

Another point. The various elements of the REF do not all need to be assessed concurrently. The environment measure surely is amenable to being uncoupled from the one-time census of research outputs and impact. Universities are apparently committed to rolling REF assessment and frequent mock exercises, and have put in place all the infrastructure to manage them. In that case, asking them to send updates on the research environment shouldn’t be burdensome. Continuing REF funding should be contingent on maintaining a healthy research environment that demonstrates standards of integrity and care for research and researchers. It would stop unscrupulous management teams from taking academics’ work for the REF census and then making them redundant the next day. We might find that their commitment to research as teamwork becomes more than mere window-dressing. It would redress the imbalance of power created when the Stern Review allowed institutions to submit outputs created at the institution after a researcher had left or retired. As well as injecting some much-needed integrity, it would give a more realistic picture of UK higher education as a research environment.

Anyone wanting to add their own ideas for the conduct of the next REF can email the team at responsiblemetrics@gmail.com

Rocked by toxic shock jocks 

The celebrations and commiserations of the REF results have ebbed; now it’s time to weigh up the repercussions. An entertaining pastime is to re-evaluate some of the early forecasts. One prediction, ironic in hindsight, was from David Price, the outgoing vice-provost (research) at UCL, who said that the REF 2021 post Stern Review reforms had ensured that the game-playing that was such a feature of REF 2014 was ‘not noticeable’.

It’s clear now that it all depends on who is playing the game and who sets the rules.

Price’s viewpoint is revealing of his position in relation to power structures in academia. Presumably, he was referring to the absence, in 2021, of the pre-census transfer market of academics whose ‘outputs’ and ‘impact’ make them desirable assets for other institutions wishing to beef up their own unit of assessment submissions. Stern’s recommendation that HEIs could submit all work produced by researchers while they were in employ there has meant a switch in the balance of power. The person who creates the outputs no longer holds them in their vault. Instead, they are banked by the institution along with the funds that flow to any 3* and 4* research. From the point of view of academics, game playing has been very much in evidence, only, this time, they are the playthings.

The REF funding model and the audit-disciplined university has meant academics have been told their job security depends on achieving the highest targets for research quality and impact. Additionally, those willing to focus their research on government priorities are more likely to enjoy access to funded research opportunities. The response of academics in keeping their research afloat through the pandemic when teaching has intensified and student need swelled, has been heroic. They were unprepared and undeserving of the retribution which has arrived – prompt, pervasive, and punitive. Across the sector, academics are being served with notice of redundancy: De Montfort University, Roehampton, Wolverhampton, and of course, early adopters like Leicester and Liverpool. Many of these job losses are in departments which have scored well and exceeded expectations. Now that the REF results are announced, the institution is free to lay off academics and claim the funding for retired or fired employees even as their REF narrative depicts a vigorous and lively research environment. Ben Whitham, on Twitter, wrote: ‘The spectacle of uni VCs that waited until the teaching term was over and the ref results in to try to force through unnecessary frontline redundancies (while they keep drawing their own inflated salaries) is just gross… DMU, Wolverhampton, now Roehampton… It’s a frenzy’. The MP for Putney, Southfields and Roehampton, Fleur Anderson has revealed that she has spoken to the VC and voiced her concerns about ‘fire and rehire’ tactics that have been alleged.

What do we call this other than a cynical exercise in rentier redundancy? How can universities possibly claim to be decent employers when staff are treated so appallingly? Let’s recognise as well that trade unions are often bypassed in many of these ‘consultations’ or ‘non-restructures’.

From the point of view of a high proportion of academics now, the REF has yielded nothing but contingent departments contingent courses and increasingly contingent staff. These conditions cannot nurture knowledge creation, dissemination and transfer. Academics need to take risks with their work, and a degree of job security had always been normalised in universities until the attacks on tenure and on academic freedom of the last few decades.

But now we have transparent attacks from government on academic culture and endeavour delivered with financial levers and the reputational risks of audit ignominy. Alongside this sits an aversion to the arts and humanities which vice chancellors seem happy to prosecute, even though this means turning away fee-bearing students from courses which recruit well and cross subsidise the more expensive-to-teach courses in STEM and in some cases, place institutions at risk of bankruptcy.

The problem with a government willing to see universities go to the wall is that we currently have a huge demand for higher education. As Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe points out: “Somewhere up the “top” of the tables, there’s students rammed in on massive modules, where the personal tutor system is more of an ambition than a reality. And at the other end, the redundancy programmes pick up pace.”

For a government which now avows a commitment to the student experience and student support (i.e. learning analytics), the contradictions accumulate. In desperation, some university managers reach for an uncapped source of subsidy to solve their cash flow problems – international students. Even in an era of heightened regulation and surveillance of international education, there can be cases of exploitative practices. Plashingvole on Twitter wrote, “I find myself wondering why senior managers thought it was ethical or sensible to do a deal with agents in a very poor country to recruit 700 students from one particular place largely to a single course with very few checks on qualifications.” And even that strategy has not stanched the financial haemorrhage.

It would be hard to advise an 18-year-old university applicant which universities and which courses might last the course of a 3 year degree program. Jim Dickinson on Twitter (May 18th 2022): ‘It’s miserable for students and academics. You can make a case (not one I simplistically agree with) that demand should drive HE supply – but not at this pace. Because it takes time to expand or contract in a way that doesn’t damage the student experience’. Inevitably, the impact on students of this failure of policy will be to limit their choices and crush ambition. Not only that, but the closure of a course leaves a cloud of uncertainty hanging over its graduates. Was their course worthwhile? Will their degree be valued by an employer? Will there be any staff left to write them a reference?

I suppose the over-arching theme of many of my blogs is why do staff keep turning up ? Why do talented students still strive to do good doctoral research? More and more I find an uncomfortable rebuttal in the number of tweets from academics leaving their university posts. For many of them, they can no longer face the daily battle with expectations versus a worsening reality. The Times Higher reports: “A new article blames academia’s rising mental health toll on universities’ refusal to allow staff to apply principles of academic inquiry to their own institutions. “Values that an academic might seek…to uphold in one’s work – such as a commitment to reason, objectivity, public responsibility and the pursuit of knowledge – are routinely compromised, thwarted, trivialised or dismissed,” says the paper in the journal Social Alternatives. “The very tools of critique and analysis that academics use to understand the world around them are simply not able to be applied in any meaningful way to their own employment circumstances.” The mental injuries sustained when dealing with this conflict and alienation has led to an epidemic of mental illness among university staff.

Jim Dickinson has identified the flaw in marketisation concerning the student experience. In terms of the staff experience, marketisation, commercialization, the audit and rankings agendas and the removal of academic autonomy work against the need for long-term planning for serious work to take place. It is pointless if all we can do is swim upstream against the vicissitudes of government impulse. As one head of department wrote on Twitter: “YES. I’m a Head of School now and this question is central to everything I do, both for myself and for my colleagues – what can I ask them to put energy into when we all know that 2 years on everything will be knocked down again?”

It doesn’t have to be like this. I had dinner last week with two recently-retired professors from US research-intensive R1 universities. They are both just retiring in their late 70s or 80s. Both of them had significant reputations in Hispanic literature and both had served as heads of the MLA and both had been on committees awarding Pulitzer Prizes and MacArthur Grants. Here I defer to all the caveats about the American academic superstar system, but nevertheless, I was struck by how they have reached the end of their careers with a great deal of earned self-worth intact,  whereas, right now, I know about half a dozen UK professors who are leaving academia. None of them feel as if they have any respect from their university management. They all seem to be quitting in a state of despondency. By contrast, one of my dinner companions was talking about the care the university was taking of their archive of papers. The other had just been honoured with a festschrift produced by former graduate students. I couldn’t even begin to try and explain the circumstances which drove me out of UK higher education in my 50s; the two world views are not mutually comprehensible. How do you convey the brutality of a system which reckons the value of an academic, however ‘productive’ and influential, in only the most instrumental terms? How do you explain the necessity of justifying every last minute of your time at work? How do you explain the anxiety of whether your work will ‘fit the REF narrative’ or ‘have impact’. To someone whose career has been driven by their own autonomous academic judgment and priorities, it just wouldn’t have made sense.

Time for a new USS valuation

I have been reading a couple of books about authoritarian threats to democracy: Anne Applebaum’s The Twilight of Democracy, and Mary Trump’s The Reckoning (thank you to John R for sending me the latter). The common thread in these books is the centrality of The Big Lie in political cultures at particular risk from authoritarianism. When a conspiracy theory based on falsehoods is strategically adopted by a government or political party seeking power, espousing it becomes a test of fealty. Applebaum traces one such Big Lie in Poland, regarding the loss over Smolensk of the aircraft carrying the president in 2010. In contradiction of all evidence arising from the independent investigation, the Smolensk conspiracy has seen a great many Poles believing that it was a deliberate act – the result of a plot to assassinate the president and it has now cemented itself as a defining belief of the ruling Law and Justice party. Applebaum notes that it has polarized opinion and poisoned the political climate in Poland. Its tokenistic status is clear when she reports how many of her former friends in government repeat the Big Lie while privately acknowledging they do not believe it.

More recently, the same tactic was used by former US President Donald Trump in his failed insurrection. Only 21% of Republican voters believe the 2020 election of Joe Biden was legitimate. It is one of the most disturbing tactics to use in a population awash in information of dubious provenance. When even basic, observable facts are open to dispute, it is profoundly destabilizing to a democracy. Mary Trump argues this is not the first Big Lie in American history and it remains a country that cannot come to terms with its history of slavery, racism and inhumanity. Even today, the teaching of documented evidence of atrocities is being criminalized by banning ‘critical race theory’. Rather like our own history in the UK of teaching under Section 28, the idea is for teachers to self-police and back away from discussion of race in America’s classrooms which discomfort the white majority.

Perhaps in UK academia we have our own version of The Big Lie. It is depressing to think that members of UCU are having to take strike action again in a campaign that has endured since 2018 and in which the intransigence of the employers’ representatives, USS executive board and many of the scheme’s trustees has continued to draw strikers to the picket lines. Today, a group of women professors has written to Universities UK pointing out the disproportionately damaging impact of a cut to their pensions of 35-45% on women in the scheme. The letter repeats the request made by UCU that there should be another valuation of the scheme and that an equality impact assessment should be carried out. The last (disputed) valuation of the scheme was conducted in March 2020 when markets fell as the pandemic led us into new territory of uncertainty.

Most of us will have followed the discussions on Twitter in which academic pensions experts present their evidence disputing the deficit that USS has claimed. I refer you to the many detailed and informative threads by Mike Otsuka @MikeOtsuka and Sam Marsh @Sam_Marsh101.  The lone voice on the Board of Trustees who alleged a miscalculation of the deficit was Jane Hutton, a professor of statistics and an employee non-executive director. She was rapidly silenced and her dismissal from the board expedited. Also, Josephine Cumbo, the pensions expert of the Financial Times has been persistently sceptical of USS executive/ employers’ allegations of fund deficit and urges a revaluation.

Possibly feeling the weight of evidence is against them, vice chancellors and pro vice chancellors at pre-92 universities have reached out to quell opposition at ‘town hall’-style meetings or more ‘intimate’ departmental visits. They offered reassurance that pension losses would only be around 10% of current benefits. When members tried the projection tool for themselves, the losses were dire and unaffordable. It turns out, you’d need to be earning a senior manager’s salary for the pension losses to be at the smaller end. One VC was reported to have shut down debate by refusing to ‘engage in a back and forth about the ‘facts’ – as if facts don’t matter in a university. As if facts like a new valuation of the USS scheme could not end this particular dispute. But instead, entirely counter-productively, VCs are now spending millions on shoring up a deficit few of them believe exists, preferring to use this opportunity to exhaust the resolve of union members. Academic Twitter reports that privately, many senior managers express sympathy with the position of scheme members who face poverty in old age, and yet, they appear afraid to break ranks with the USS board establishment position. It has all the hallmarks of a Big Lie deployed to crush reason and democracy.

We seem to live in a culture of impunity for lawbreaking and lying in the service of power grabbing. We have been treated to a masterclass this week in the shape of the P&O ferry operator who summarily sacked 800 staff to replace them with cheaper workers from overseas. Despite admitting this was illegal when hauled before a parliamentary committee, the CEO appeared to feel safe from any legal consequences. He may be on less solid ground with the port workers in Rotterdam, or indeed the health and safety inspectors in Belfast and Dover. And the betrayal of trained staff does not seem to have endeared P&O to the travelling public either.

There may be a lesson there for vice chancellors too. You wonder how their persistence will repay them when academics vote with their feet and leg it to universities offering the government-backed, final-salary TPS pension scheme. They will find it difficult to remain attractive as employers when one half of the sector benefits from an OK pension scheme, while the other offers returns worth a couple of bus fares into town for 40 years of work. La trahison des clercs indeed.

I am cheered that as part of the UCU Four Fights action, hundreds of external examiners have publicly resigned on Twitter. External examiners perform many tasks central to the process of awarding degrees: the certification of degree results; the endorsement of assessment reliability, fairness, consistency, and compliance with standards. This work is carried out, usually, for a fee that barely reaches minimum wage when we reckon up time spent. And so, academics have chosen to withdraw their labour from a process that most of them do from a sense of service to the sector. It is often enjoyable and rewarding, but it is voluntary in that it is not directed by one’s primary employer. Most university quality and standards regulations will insist that a qualified and ratified external examiner signs the decisions of exam boards that award degrees. Without them, the standards and academic integrity of those degrees cannot be verified. In response to the mass resignations, some university managers are adopting policies to permit some external ‘representation’ at boards of examiners. So a mathematician from Durham can pronounce on the quality of history degrees at Birmingham? Is this really a legitimate solution?

Maybe the kind of contingent adaptations made to teaching and learning during the pandemic have lent justification to other expedient variances with the orthodoxy, but tampering with the one bit of the quality architecture that requires subject expertise and academic judgement will weaken the reputation of UK degrees internationally. UCU members could go further and, in the same way as safety officials are refusing to let P&O ferries sail, they can refuse to endorse the decisions made at exam boards and insist, on the record, that degrees awarded without external moderation are not safe. The clercs can fight back, especially on their own terrain.

The real threats to academic freedom

Image: Fond vecteur créé par createvil – fr.freepik.com

This post is a version of a presentation to the University of Edinburgh HE Research Group webinar on 26th January 2022

We are all aware of the current legislation going through parliament which is announced as necessary to protect academic freedom. Unfortunately, the government has misread the problem and presented the wrong solution. The threats to academic freedom are largely as a consequence of other government agendas.

  • Research funding – when the government sets priorities for research councils, and there is pressure to obtain grants, can this ensure the integrity of research? How can you pursue unfettered enquiry when hampered by policy which distorts academic priorities?
  • Marketisation and consumer-driven teaching which ensure that there is constant instability and universities cannot plan, must constantly adjust their academic priorities to please a capricious audience of 18-year-olds.
  • Casualisation of the workforce which means that probably half of academic staff have no autonomy to plan their careers or research programs.
  • The prioritisation of STEM – and the consequential closure of departments of modern languages, history, archaeology in rapid succession through 2020 and 2021.
  • Where departments are closed, academics are displaced from important chains of dependence and responsibility. These are academic ecosystems.

These threats are the result of political interference with what is still proclaimed as the autonomy of universities. But it is not enough for this government, and other authoritarian governments across the world, to try and wrest control of the curriculum, research, organisation and financing of universities; they seem determined to see that ideological control is strengthened.

This assault on university autonomy does not seem to concern the kind of media outlets which protest the loudest about freedom of speech. Highest on the scale of media attention in 2020-2021 was the case of Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex. Her resignation followed a period during which she claimed she had been made to feel a pariah on campus after expressing her views on trans people and gender recognition. She espouses the position that human beings cannot change sex because their chromosomal composition remains the same as at birth. This has always seemed to me a non-argument, especially as what is being contested is legislation regarding the rights of an individual to validate their own gender recognition. If proponents of this viewpoint respect trans rights, then exactly what alternative is being proposed? And if you don’t want to make trans people feel excluded and vilified – why bring it up? The arguments are presented as defending the gains feminists have won for women, and which must now, inexplicably, be safeguarded against those women they suspect of gaining false entry. Their position might have some flawed logic if trans men were regarded with similar scepticism, but for some reason, the female-to-male transition escapes the kind of panic and contestation visited on trans women. Having an illogical and inconsistent viewpoint is no excuse for making an academic unwelcome on campus, but at the same time, she must expect those whose existence she has contested, to fight back with visible evidence of their presence. Articulating a moral disclaimer that ‘all trans people share legal rights to be free of violence, discrimination and harm’ hardly seems to outweigh the invitation to discrimination that her views present.

And that is the dilemma universities face. Universities are bound to defend academic freedom, but at the same time, equalities law means that they must take responsibility for an environment in which many diverse groups can flourish and have an indisputable right to belong. This duty appears to offend Stock, as reported in Times Higher:

“Universities have been told they have to go beyond the law and actively embody EDI which creates an intensely moralising atmosphere,” said Professor Stock, who said this agenda’s inclusion into promotion structures “incentivises people to become very moralised”.

What on earth does this mean? Is she really recommending that universities should have policies which are mere legally-mandated window dressing, but adopt a tacit agreement to violate them in practice?

The trouble is, even when challenged and invalidated, these regressive ideas on gender, race and equality take on a life of their own by dint of repetition and broadcast. They are celebrated as contrarian and anti-woke by high profile politicians and provocative thinkers like Toby Young, Rod Liddle, Frank Furedi, Germaine Greer and all the others who claim to be silenced even in the face of frequent invitations to grandstand on programs like The Moral Maze, Newsnight, Hardtalk and in papers like The Spectator, The Times and the Telegraph.

At the same time, another theorist, postcolonial scholar, Priya Gopal, has been prohibited from sharing her expertise with civil servants and ministers, precisely because they have been forbidden to entertain critics of government policy. I quote:

‘A Cambridge University academic has called on the universities minister to defend her freedom of speech, after a claim that her invitation to speak to civil servants was cancelled because of a tweet criticising Priti Patel, the home secretary. Prof Priyamvada Gopal, a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and a respected author on British colonial history, had been invited to speak this week to Home Office officials on the links between the department’s policies and recent colonial history, including the Windrush nationality scandal.’

Inconsistency is a frequent theme when we interrogate the self-appointed guardians of academic freedom.

And it’s not just the UK where academic freedom is being infringed by government.

In New Zealand last year, Massey University faced accusations that it had attempted to gag staff through a media commentary policy introduced amid controversial cuts to its science offerings. [https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/nz-academic-freedom-crisis]

Denmark – has seen enforced downsizing of civic universities and  ‘attacks by politicians on disciplines such as gender and migration studies. Last year the Danish parliament, including the ruling Social Democratic Party, passed a resolution against “excessive activism” in some academic fields, while funding for the humanities in general has been severely squeezed in recent years.’ [https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/jobs-risk-danes-force-big-city-universities-downsize]

In the US, several states, including Florida, are processing legislation regarding the teaching of critical race theory in schools, such that an individual “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” CRT has also been an issue in France with the accusation that American theory is infecting European universities.

So to be legitimate, teaching must now be about the prevention of discomfort. Nobody need encounter any evidence which disturbs their own conjectures and dogmas, however implausible.  Presumably, this affects not just race, but perhaps also another talisman of anti-scientific thought – evolution. Or vaccines. All of these could be placed beyond scrutiny in what is still Trump’s America.

This is a dangerous turn, but in some ways the right wing has mirrored and parodied the left’s appeals for safe spaces, in their refusal to endure challenge to the legitimacy of their views. The most vocal campaigners are often afraid to face the scrutiny of academics. Eric Lybeck at Manchester University has extended invitations, for civil discussion over YouTube, to several prominent individuals who have been involved in free speech controversy. The wishlist included Adam Tickell, VC of the University of Sussex,  Nishan Canagarajah, VC of the University of Leicester of Uni of Leicester, Kathleen Stock, formerly professor at Sussex, Gavin Williamson, former Minister for Education, and Michelle Donelan, Minister for Universities. So far only Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck has come forward.

We have already seen one consequence of this when students at Durham University were recently expected to submit themselves to an offensive, sexist and racist rant from an external speaker when the associate PVC Tim Luckhurst invited Rod Liddle to speak at a college Christmas dinner. Those who peacefully removed themselves were derided as ‘pathetic’.

Worldwide, we see Governments disapproving of and attacking the same subject areas– gender studies, postcolonial studies, race studies. These fields have two things in common: they express a concern with social justice, and they foster critical thinking and so constitute a fortification of democracy. In some cases there has been outright repression – Hong Kong, Brazil and Hungary, for example. But other more democratic governments are also pushing their luck.

In an excellent NY Times opinion piece on rudeness and incivility, Jennifer Finney Boylan asks, ‘So how do we respond to a world under stress, a culture in which the guardrails of so-called civility are gone?’  I think progressives (or the woke) need to commit to resistance, but it needs to be based on sustained, informed and rigorous argument. Why wouldn’t we engage in robust debate? We cannot shelter behind university policies which appear to validate positions of justice and inclusion because, at the end of the day, managers may be tempted to cave to government pressure and the fear of ‘reputational damage’. And so, as well as taking on an organised right wing, we need to show resilience in the face of internally-applied pressures.

So we need to be prepared to do those media interviews and to debate views we would rather not encounter, as long as they are lawful. To step forward to community engagement. I’m have spoken at W.I. meetings about gender and trans issues. Universities are targets in an era of authoritarian populism and this calls all academics to be activists. Of course, this term has also been denigrated by those who are hostile to intellectuals. We need to gain respect and credibility by doing what the right-wing do – repeat, repeat, repeat – the difference being that we must fortify it with evidence. It is a heavy burden for academics but is is essential we step forward and counter arguments which are false and damaging.

‘I’ve got to leave old Durham town’

Featured image: Theo Burman

In universities our perennial Christmas gift to each other is an intensification of the culture wars.

At Durham University, UK, Tim Luckhurst, the Associate Pro Vice Chancellor and Principal of South College, berated students who walked out of a formal Christmas dinner when they realised the speaker was Rod Liddle. Liddle is a ‘controversial’ journalist who has written disparagingly in his Spectator columns about women, trans people and Black people. Some students who stayed on to listen were, reportedly, offended by his remarks. Below is The Guardian’s report on the events of December 3rd.

According to the student newspaper Palatinate, Liddle’s speech began with him expressing disappointment there were no sex workers there that night, in reference to a recent controversy over safety training offered by the university to student sex workers. According to the report, he said the left railed against “science or pure facts”, by reference to people with a “long, dangling penis”, and claimed colonialism was not “remotely the major cause of Africa’s problems, just as it is very easy to prove that the educational underachievement of British people of Caribbean descent or African Americans is nothing to do with institutional or structural racism.”

Luckhurst then compounded his poor judgement by confronting the students who had withdrawn from the dinner, accompanied by commentary from his wife, Dorothy Luckhurst. A good video record and analysis can be viewed here. Luckhurst was irked that the students did not share his taste for obnoxious sophomoric humour – a matter which might have been resolved had he consulted them. His wife seemed even more outraged and contemptuous. On Twitter she posted this: ‘Bunch of inadequates thought it was clever to walk out on a speech tonight because they were afraid of what the speaker said…’

A quick scan of her Twitter timeline (it has since been taken down) indicates support for Toby Young, Priti Patel and Claire Fox. As you might expect, another of the Spiked crew, Frank Furedi, is in sympathy with the Luckhursts.

Frank Furedi (@Furedibyte) Tweeted: I wish Tim has stuck to his gun. What's wrong with describing the pathetic behaviour of students, pathetic? Of course I understand the enormous pressure that he faced for airing uncomfortable truths. https://t.co/ewP1YCBHhi https://twitter.com/Furedibyte/status/1468152955513806849?s=20

The whole event, and Luckhurst’s part in it, is now the subject of an internal investigation. It will surely consider the Office for Students Prevent guidance on properly assessing an external speaker’s risk to public order, and the likelihood of incitement to hatred or obscenity (including the manner of expression). Durham University’s policy states:

All external speaker events must be assessed along the following guidelines.

a) whether the views or ideas to be put forward (or the manner of their expression):

i) discriminate against any individual or group (with a protected characteristic) on any of the grounds of discrimination provided in the Equality Act 2010. Formal requests for gender segregation at meetings (save for those solely used for religious worship or practice) is prohibited on these grounds in accordance with the Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance[3];

ii) are to be presented by any person who has previously been prevented from delivering a speech at the University; or

iii) incite hatred or are considered within the law to be obscene or grossly defamatory.

I wasn’t at the dinner, but the reports evidence content which might contravene the university’s policy, and we wonder if the risk was properly assessed, knowing what we do about Liddle’s inclination for expressing his views on women, girls, Black and LGBT people.

At this point, allow me a digression from a linguistic point of view that I hope adds clarity to this episode. Tim Luckhurst’s behaviour towards the students, caught on video, was contemptuous and hostile. As a member of the senior management team of the university, and principal of the college, he wields considerable institutional power which he has mishandled. He expected the students to indulge his choice of speaker without protest (apparently, the JCR was not consulted). He saw the withdrawal of a dozen or so students as a repudiation, not just of his choice, but of free speech. The students, on the other hand, objected to being a captive audience for an offensive and obscene tirade. This is summarised by Will Jennings @drjennings on Twitter who wrote: ‘The Durham/Rod Liddle affair is a perfect example of how a very large number of people incorrectly equate freedom of speech with freedom to gratuitously offend and troll’.

In linguistics, we would weigh the appropriacy of speech/ discourse as a function of audience design and context. The Durham event was, as indicated by the dress code, a formal occasion. The context was a university college dinner, and so we might rightfully expect a degree of decorum, which need not preclude humour. Another aspect which would determine the expectations is what has happened at previous dinners – were speakers invited, by whom, and what etiquette was observed?

Whether the Principal submitted the Prevent paperwork 7 days before the event, as mandated by the university, is irrelevant. Rod Liddle was his friend and he must have known of his reputation as a provocateur, liable to cause offence. To subject students to that performance must be considered a lapse of judgement and quite possible negligent in his duty of care. I‘m aware of all the issues with the Prevent policy, but on this occasion, it seems to me to uphold a rather old-fashioned value of politeness and considerateness, If you are meeting people you don’t know, on a formal occasion, most of us would try not to violate norms of appropriacy. There were students there from many different backgrounds and cultures, and some would be uncomfortable with public discussion of sexuality. Let’s be clear. This is not an example of cancel culture, nor does the incident have a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. It was not an argument about academic opinions or interpretation of evidence. This was an intentional wind up, an in-your-face confrontation with what many found to be vulgar, obscene and offensive material.

In an excellent opinion piece on rudeness and incivility, Jennifer Finney Boylan asks, ‘So how do we respond to a world under stress, a culture in which the guardrails of so-called civility are gone?’  It’s a world where anti-mask scofflaws walk unchallenged around the supermarket and where Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene thinks it is cute to pose with a gun next to pictures of left-wing, Black and Muslim members of Congress. It’s no wonder that a recent Axios poll showed that young Democrats in the US are unlikely to date or befriend a Trump supporter. This is seen, predictably, by the right wing as further evidence of liberal refusal to engage with opposing viewpoints. But why would you want to enter into a relationship with someone who is comfortable with white supremacy, forced childbirth and attacks on democracy itself ?

The incident at Durham is an example of the right behaving like adolescents; they want to stick it to the woke libtards, they want to scorn everything they value, but we are not their parents, and we don’t have to love them. Durham should be celebrating those students whose good judgement and clarity of thought saw them walk out in the face of a deliberate effort to offend.

It is accidental that my last post was on emotional labour among university managers. Tim Luckhurst may be unencumbered in that department, but I suggest he has a think about what respectful and mature engagement looks like. A good mantra I saw on social media: Is it truthful; is it necessary; is it kind. No, Tim. None of these applied, and you should have known better. I’ll have more to say on academic freedom and civility, but it is clearly time for the guardrails to be renegotiated on the axes of power, respect, decency, appropriacy and just a little thought for those who might not share your preferences.

Emotional labour in higher education – a one-way street?

I have been reading a lot about emotional labour in higher education recently. It’s a topic I addressed in a recent HEPI blog in June of this year. In it I referred to an article by Lizzie Nixon and Robert Scullion which identifies the marketised university as an ‘emotional arena’ in which:

a charged relationship has developed between the anxious student navigating an uncertain future and the all-too-responsible lecturer as customer service provider. In turn, managing student anxiety has multiplied the emotional toll on the lecturer. We can imagine how much this has intensified over the past year and in circumstances in which students, quite understandably, have felt disoriented and alone.

[Nixon and Scullion 2021]

As the disruption from the pandemic has continued, the consequences for universities have multiplied. The cohort entering higher education in 2021 will have had little experience of assessment by examination, leading to further anxiety and need for reassurance. This means an escalation of emotional labour from academics, and traditionally this has fallen on women, particularly working class women (Newcomb 2021; Rickett and Morris 2021) and women of colour, even as the need to nurture and supervise children and dependents have expanded during the pandemic.

I have also been reading Peter Fleming’s excellent book Dark Academia: How Universities Die (Pluto Press, 2021). He notes that in the kind of authoritarian ‘watching’ institution that many universities have become, those subject to power feel more and more powerless. In response to this, they may acquire ‘boss syndrome’ which he defines thus: “In psychotherapeutic terms, the victim seeks to control their humiliation by absorbing the role of the humiliator themselves.”

A fascinating and insightful article on precisely this phenomenon appeared in The Nation by Alexis Grenell. An aide close to Andrew Cuomo described navigating the abusive and bullying working environment around the disgraced former New York Governor. “But for me, it never really bothered me. It was part of the deal.” Grenell asks, ‘Why don’t men speak up when women are being harassed right in front of them? Why is it always on women in the most vulnerable position to take all the risk?’ It seems the answer lies in this insight ‘feigned nonchalance offers some insight into Cuomo’s specific form of predation on men, which required them to disavow their own victimhood and, more broadly, buy into the notion that men cannot be harmed’. This is the emotional labour of denying a threatening reality.

There is extensive research into the emotional labour claimed by academic leaders (Heffernan and Bosetti 2020; Cowley 2019). However, what compliance with a workplace culture of denial buys them, is a kind of emotional firewall around the more demanding aspects of managing staff. An example which will be familiar to many academics is the process of applying for promotion or contract renewal. In compiling these lengthy and detailed portfolios, they are expected to present the self in a carefully curated way. The necessity of erasing any of the hardships that might have impeded their achievements will, in itself, entail anxiety and emotional labour. Agnes Bosanquet recounts her own experience in a powerful blog: “In my academic biography and promotion application, I am measured in words and numbers. I have no corporeality. I summarise myself in dot points. I divide myself into headings.” In a longer form article, Bosanquet writes about the information she knows she must exclude from her application for promotion under the section ‘Relevant Personal Circumstances’, designed to mitigate otherwise excessive expectations and unfair comparisons with those unencumbered by responsibilities and taxing life events. Her response made reference to the fact she had a fractional appointment of which 20% of her workload was for research – almost an apology for what is, in fact, two decades of exemplary scholarship.

A full account would include details of little interest to a promotions committee: a life-threatening birth, a daughter with epilepsy, a too-slow PhD, a grandmother bringing a baby for breastfeeds between lectures, a relationship on the brink, a teaching-focussed appointment, secondary infertility, a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, an implanted neurostimulator to manage debilitating nerve pain, eight years as a part-time academic, a miracle baby, a university restructure, a relationship on the brink again, a daughter on the cusp of puberty with severe epilepsy unable to attend school for eight months, another university restructure, a pandemic … 

[Bosanquet 2021]

At this point I paused not only in admiration, but to contemplate the inhumanity of any system that discourages mention of corporeal life itself, since the neoliberal academic must always be dashboard-able and willing to ablate the urgent calls of body, family and emotion – of the very self who is offered in servitude to the institution.

It is no surprise to find that the expectation of emotional labour follows women into positions of academic leadership (Hort et al. 2001). But the fact that academics expunge their complicating life details before submitting to workplace scrutiny must alleviate the impact of staff members’ misfortunes on managers’ emotions. There is also a tacit understanding that rank and file staff are not permitted to express any other affect but ‘toxic positivity’ at work. This can be defined as the belief that no matter what adversities are encountered, the individual must maintain a positive demeanour. In so doing, they bestow their emotional largesse on their managers. If they refuse, stark consequences can arise. One colleague reports being invited to a weekly ‘virtual staffroom’ which was designed to mitigate isolation and provide support. This was a welcome gesture, but one instruction rankled: ‘bring your best smile’. So, while the manager appeared to offer supportive emotional labour, they were seeking to diminish its impact by proscribing expression of anguish in a time of pandemic death and grief. When my colleague questioned this directive, she received a sharp rebuke. It seems emotional labour upwards must be performed publicly and in highly-constrained ways, preferably in forms coded as public affirmation of the manager’s benevolence.

It might be helpful to draw on Goffman’s concept of face in a final word on this. While managerial prerogative demands protection of their positive and negative face, such consideration is often not extended to academics. One colleague returning to the workplace recounts that hot-desking has now been imposed without consultation. It may be because ‘new ways of working’ lead to increased efficiency, but it is read as just another incursion on academic culture and a calculated attempt to instil a sense of insecurity among staff. Emotional labour sometimes seems to work via cynical manipulation of ‘theory of mind’ in order to signal power and demoralize staff.

The Hort et al. article on women managers’ emotional labour is a reflective piece which includes an admission that even their power and credibility is fragile. It is testament to the fact that many managers are sincere in their intentions to support staff, but my argument here is that, too often, others are willing to sacrifice academics’ sense of worth when coercive and non-consensual patterns of management are modelled higher up within an institution.

The post-pandemic academy will be staffed and managed by people who are exhausted and emotionally drained. If we don’t want universities to be full of victims and victimisers, it is time for an audit of emotional labour and to ensure this is reciprocal and focussed on the needs, feelings and intentions of all involved in the very human chains of relations that are inherent to higher education contexts.

References

Bosanquet, Agnes. 2021. Details optional. https://theslowacademic.com/2021/09/24/details-optional/

Bosanquet, Agnes. 2021. Details Optional: An Account of Academic Promotion Relative to Opportunity. Life Writing. 18:3, 429-442. DOI: 10.1080/14484528.2021.1927492

Cowley, S. 2019. Emotional Labour in the Role of University Department Chair. SFU Educational Review12(2), 9–26. https://doi.org/10.21810/sfuer.v12i2.766

Fleming, Peter. 2021. Dark Academia: How Universities Die. Pluto Press.

Heffernan, T.A. and Bosetti, L. 2020. The emotional labour and toll of managerial academia on higher education leaders. Journal of Educational Administration and History. 52:4, 357-372. DOI: 10.1080/00220620.2020.1725741

Hort, L., Barrett, M. and Fulop, L (2001). Doing hard labour – gendered emotional labour in academic management. Conference on Critical Management Studies, UMIST, Manchester, UK, 11-13 July, 2001 (pp. 1-18).

Grenell Alexis. 2021. How Andrew Cuomo hurt men too. The Nation. September 20th. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/cuomo-abuse-men-rbg/

Newcomb M. 2021..The emotional labour of academia in the time of a pandemic: A feminist reflection. Qualitative Social Work. 20(1-2):639-644. doi:10.1177/1473325020981089

Nixon E. and Scullion R. 2021. Academic labour as professional service work? A psychosocial analysis of emotion in lecturer–student relations under marketization. Human Relations. June 2021. doi:10.1177/00187267211022270

Rickett, Bridgette & Morris, Anna. 2021. ‘Mopping up tears in the academy’ – working-class academics, belonging, and the necessity for emotional labour in UK academia, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 42:1, 87-101. DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2020.1834952

Space for Academic Freedom

Yesterday I was invited by the International Conference for Asian Sudies to particpate in one of their daily panels called Academic Freedom Space. The title of the panel was: Implications of neoliberal-inspired policies for knowledge creation and education. More conferences should do this, especially as we watch the threats to academic freedom mount across the globe. Below is my contribution to open up the discussion.

As institutions of higher education have been privatised, financialised, marketized, neoliberal policies have seen all decisions being handed over to the market. Neoliberalism has unfolded in lockstep with managerialism, and this has been the case in the UK from a much earlier period than may other countries. Since 1992, in universities, democratic, participatory governance by academics through senate committees has been superseded by managerial practices of top-down authoritarian and remote decision making. It has led to an epidemic of bullying – officially prohibited by institutional policies, but (as with Governor Cuomo of New York) concealed, defended and normalised by a cadre of complicit underlings. The tolerance and defence of bullies in universities derives legitimacy from those who believe that authoritarianism is a leaner, more efficient mode of governance. There are parallels in current debates in the West about the burdens levied on the economy by the numerous and cumbersome steps required by consensus. In the US, we are beginning to see the championing of Victor Orban by those on the right who see virtue in his form of post-democratic government which cements its appeal with anti-feminist, homophobic and racist messages.

This deterioration has been mirrored in universities where we see the faculty being subjugated by spurious disciplinary procedures and the prohibition (both formal and implicit) of trade union activities. Actual faculty democracy and discussion are replaced by sham ‘consultations’ repurposed as relay stations for on-the-hoof policy making in the name of ‘agility’.

In some countries, universities are subject to state control, but in many more, autonomy is granted in name only. In 2015, the Japanese government required universities to reform and divert resources away from arts and humanities towards sciences. Brazil, Turkey and Hong Kong have seen the state extend its control into university curriculum, freedom of expression and suppression of dissent. In Greece, a special police force has been assigned to universities to surveil and counter left wing activism. A more propagandist approach was taken by the Trump administration in the US with its war on wokeness and campaign against critical race studies. This has been emulated in Australia and Great Britain, driven by an anti-intellectual media. In the UK, legislation regarding academic freedom has been amended to apply only to those interventions from academics which are judged to be within their area of expertise. Who makes that judgement? Not academics, but their managers. A Regulatory Regime (see August 9th blog) has required universities in the UK to refocus on those areas judged to be of service to the economy. And in contravention of the evidence of graduate employment, this is spelled out as being science and technology subjects, acronym STEM.

Marketisation of the higher education system in the UK has led universities to construct students as customers, degrees as products and staff as overheads. Academic disciplines which can be made to appeal to 18 years olds will thrive, while those which cannot, will be rapidly dispatched, regardless of the value of research or other societal contribution. Staff can only redeem their indentured servitude if they bring in external income in the form of research grants or industry contracts which themselves are subject to government prioritising of economically valuable areas. Now that publishing our own work has to be paid for by article processing charges (APCs), it is more and more likely that only the favoured subjects will be supported by universities. These are structural constraints which have a heavy impact on academic freedom.

The neoliberal agenda and managerialism have led to an emphasis on calculability. Staff are subject to performance management mechanisms in the form of research metrics: number of publications, citations, journal impact factors, H-index- academics may be confronted with these metrics in an annual review and found wanting. The value of their teaching is now to be assessed by a measure of what their graduates earn, relative to graduates of the same discipline at other universities, or graduates of other disciplines at the same university. There are so many ways to fail, and so many metrics to optimise. And just to make things interesting, they change all the time. One year it is student satisfaction which is the criterion for comparison; the next it is drop-out rates; the next it is employment in highly-skilled professions. Who would risk placing curiosity or freedom of enquiry at the top of their personal priority list?

Universities have become much more authoritarian institutions and concerned with preserving reputation at all costs, less any perceived scandal interfere with student recruitment. Even when we point out racism, sexism and homophobia on campus, we may be shunned by university leaders who prefer to genuflect before the government’s obsession with campus politics, ‘wokeness’ and policies regulating student and staff expression of critical opinion.

There are some indicators that this autocratic tendency has accelerated since the pandemic and there is now an urgent need to resist its spread.

At the University of Leicester, scholars of critical management studies have been selected for redundancy on the basis of titles of their journal articles, or sometimes just the titles of the journals themselves. This is the most egregious example of ideological cleansing and a breach of academic freedom by a UK university. But there are other ‘softer’ examples, particularly of university management teams anticipating a future in which the arts and humanities may lose funding and instead, as per the preference signalled by government, are re-orienting their universities towards science, engineering and medicine (Aston, London South Bank).

Let us now turn to the attack on academic tenure, which is surely the mainstay of academic freedom. The UK allowed this to be stripped from universities in the early 1980s. Other countries such as the US have merely supplanted tenure track posts with precarious ones. And now, some mainly Republican-voting states are introducing post-tenure review (established in Wisconsin, under consideration in Georgia). Given the threats levelled, especially at public institutions, this can only be read as a deliberate attack on autonomy and academic freedom to pursue topics which the government finds disturbing or inconvenient.

Just as Orban’s and Bolsonaro’s first targets were gender studies lest women lose sight of what these governments see as their role in society, these have also often been the first targets in universities and in government expressions of dissatisfaction with higher education. They are swiftly followed by incursions into social science and arts and humanities departments. In the UK, the axe has fallen on large numbers of modern language departments and these subjects are now the preserve of highly selective universities, and increasingly of private high schools.

In the UK, you have even this limited degree of academic freedom, only if you check off all of these:

  • Have a permanent post
  • Teach on courses which attract increasing numbers of students
  • Teach on courses that students find satisfying, straightforward and which lead to identifiable career paths
  • Research in a popular area which the government prioritises for grant funding
  • Stay within that area
  • Be successful in the term of metricised success determined by your university

Academic freedom is not a restricted commodity. It is not on ration. It is the entitlement of all academics for the very good reason that it is a pre-requisite for democracy and free enquiry. We cannot all be superscholars, but we all need to take our teaching in new and different directions. Without time and freedom, we cannot even do that.

It is essential to organise to fight back against the diminishing of academic freedom and to defend critical scholarship wherever that is represented across the range of subjects. Unless academics are free to follow their curiosity and open themselves to interrogation and critique, the well-funded haters and the authoritarians can continue to destabilise democracy itself.

Academic Irregularities AT 100

This 100th post for Academic Irregularities has been a difficult piece to write, and I’m not sure whether it is a celebratory piece or a summary of the blog I have been writing over the last six years. I think back to what urged me to start it. Primarily, it was a rage at what Derek Sayer has called the ‘insult’ of the REF, and feeling obliged to take refuge in Thomas Docherty’s clandestine university. It was increasing alarm that workers in universities were being forced to abandon their values, their curiosity-led research and instead allow their careers and academic worth to be defined by criteria that might have emerged from a management consultancy.

In terms of inspiration, I owe much to some early pathfinders: Thomas Docherty, Derek Sayer, Dorothy Bishop, Eva Bendix-Petersen, Bronwen Davies, Kate Bowles, Richard Hall, Helen Sauntson and too many others to mention. Despite ‘leaving’ academia, my academic network has continued to flourish, and I feel more fully connected than ever before. I’d like to offer thanks to Ernesto Priego and Fanis Missirlis who have cheered just about everything I have written. You have a special place in my affections.

The blog has broadly covered policy, organisational and funding changes in higher education in the UK since 2015, from a critical perspective. Issues have ranged over managerialism, research and teaching evaluation, metrics, performance management, casualisation and precarity in academic careers, academic freedom, academic capitalism, stress and mental health, culture wars, the Covid pandemic and the future of universities.

But the underlying theme has been the marketisation of higher education and a system struggling with government interference and insecure funding whose priorities have been distorted by league tables and rankings. As a result, universities have been drawn into a web of unintended consequences of competition. Whereas 15 years ago, universities were striving for uniqueness in their research and teaching, now they are afraid to do anything their ‘competitors’ are not doing. Indeed, the Business School at the University of Leicester has explicitly informed staff that they wish to rebalance their research towards the mainstream.

The reach of metrics into our professional lives has been felt by all who labour in academia. Researchers are now judged by grant capture, the rank of journals they publish in, citations, H-index, and of course, the perceived status of their employer institution. Some universities have started to require a record of grant capture as proof of active researcher status. Although the University of Liverpool is signatory to the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment, colleagues in Life Sciences have seen this measure imposed as the selection criterion for redundancy – a clear violation of the principle of DORA.

Excessive metric surveillance continues to drain the self-esteem of academics in their teaching role where they are subject to student evaluations which can sometimes deliver unfiltered racist and sexist comments. The value of their teaching is further called into question by government and media if their graduates do not attain salary levels which trigger repayment of student loans, currently set at £27, 295. These two arbitrary measures currently form part of the institutional TEF grading. Meanwhile, we are moving closer to a situation whereby the value of a university course will be assessed on students’ ability to secure highly-skilled professional employment on graduation

There is an agenda here and the government has been largely successful in propounding a myth that only science courses are of value.  Summer 2020 saw the government launch a pandemic Restructuring Regime which incentivises universities to re-focus on scientific research and ‘a much greater reorientation towards the needs of the local and regional economy’. This may soon be reinforced with a tuition fee cut (with no replacement funding) for arts and humanities.

This steer has led to a chain reaction of universities cancelling recruitment to a raft of arts and humanities courses, especially modern languages, English (applications are down, but still the 4th most popular UCAS choice), history and archaeology. In this scheme, some universities seem keen to rebrand themselves as Australian-style universities of technology. Aston University and London South Bank University launched their new branding with a webinar on the themes of a Truly Modern Technical Education and stating that the role of universities is to promote UK economic progress and competitiveness. Aston and LSBU have chosen what they hope is a survival strategy that will increase enrolment, funding and perhaps government preferment. They intend that their reputations will not be based on rankings and research council funding; instead, they will now define themselves by validation from business and employers and by success in impact and translational work. And in binning modern languages courses, they show all the signs of being willing to follow government direction, even to the extent of employing the think tank allegedly associated with friends of Dominic Cummings.

Marketisation has taken universities into some strange places and encounters with contradictions. Let’s return for a moment to the metric of graduate salaries or LEO – Long term Educational Outcomes. We don’t need the Telegraph to tell us that graduates of law, business and computing are likely to earn above-average salaries. However, it is also apparent that graduates from these same subjects at different universities have very different outcomes. As David Kernohan points out, when making these globalising statements, no account is taken of prior attainment, subject of study, socio-economic background, sex, and region of residence, and LEO scores disperse in keeping with these characteristics.

David Kernohan has made another data set accessible which contains a few surprises, especially for the STEM-or-bust brigade. Using HESA and Unistats (now Discover Uni) data of progression and graduate salary to give a grade out of 10, each university course can be ranked.    LLB law course scores range from 9.6 to 3.8. Business studies has an even wider range from 10 to 0.45. General computer studies courses earn scores from 10 to 2.25. A lot of variability, then. Meanwhile most standard history courses have scores which cluster around 7-8 as do courses in English and Modern languages. It is a myth, then, that science courses are the sole gateway to prosperity and professional success, but it is a powerful and pervasive one.

The pattern is repeated for individual institutions. If you imagine your future is secure if you graduate from a Russell Group university, you may be disappointed. Undergraduate courses at Newcastle University have scores from 9.5 to 4.0 with the lowest scoring courses being engineering and physics. At York St John University, scores show a strong plateau above 7 with the lowest score at 6 – a similar profile to its Russell Group neighbour, the University of York.

Nevertheless, the message from government conveyed by education minister Gavin Williamson is that some students graduate with ‘nothing but a mountain of debt’. A number of university managers have chosen to genuflect before the veiled threats of funding cuts and have engaged in anticipatory redundancies in subjects they imagine will expose them to disapproval. At each, the presenting justification is that these courses do not lead to good outcomes. As the assault on the arts and humanities gathers pace, it seems to lend permission for closures at more and more institutions. It doesn’t seem to matter how much evidence, such as the data set above, is laid before them. The power of myth continues to supersede reality.

At the University of Leicester, the reason for latest round of redundancies may reveal ideological bias and a distrust of critical thinkers. In the Business School, academics have been targeted because of their apparent affiliation with critical management studies. Sometimes this has been determined on the basis of journals in which work has been published. At other universities, critical race studies and gender studies are at risk. One wonders if the threat to history courses has been generated by government disapproval of any critical engagement with history which might challenge the preferred narrative of a benign and virtuous British Empire. If this is the beginning of the Orbanisation of the UK academy, hostility towards these subjects can be traced at universities as diverse as Cambridge and Chester.

What we are seeing is actually a war on accountability. Just as well-regarded scholars are being exiled from universities through targeted redundancies, there is also a more furtive undermining of regulations and procedures. In universities where managers have chosen to poison industrial relations by refusing to back down on redundancies, there has been industrial action including strikes and marking boycotts. At the universities of Liverpool and Leicester a large number of external examiners have resigned meaning that marks and degree classifications cannot be confirmed. This has not deterred managers at Liverpool from assuring students that marks missing because of the boycott will be manufactured by algorithm and that degrees will be awarded. Liverpool students have reacted by posting the university’s assessment regulations on Twitter and asking the administration to abide by them. The failure of the management’s strategy is painfully evident in the howls of protest from students today (5th July 2020) as the university has released, and then taken down, their marks.

There is also a parallel attack on quality and standards in universities. Despite the international reputation of UK degrees, the new holy grail for higher education capitalists is the unbundling of modules so that students can pick and mix their way to a ‘stackable’ degree from a variety of institutions. Having spent my career being required to account for the coherence of content and learning outcomes, the progression between levels and modules, ‘signposts to success’, assessment and feedback criteria etc., I wonder how the quality and reliability of these degrees can be established.

We are indeed entering a Trumpian vision of deregulation in which all norms are discarded, and evidence is dismissed. Paul Krugman charges that in some institutions, actual expertise is a disqualification for administrative office and, instead, ‘preference is given to the incompetent’. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny; the fish rots from the head – choose your analogy, but government sets the tone for leadership elsewhere, even in universities.

A pertinent example was reported on Twitter yesterday by @plashingvole who was being subjected to a staff development workshop on neuro-linguistic programming. He has blogged about this previously in 2017. NLP is nothing but pseudoscience dressed up as empowerment and it  has been massively debunked, but all to no avail at Vole’s seat of learning.

When I asked HR why they were training managers to use NLP during organisational change they said ‘the academic research may say it doesn’t work but we think it does’. Interesting way to approach working at an actual university. [@plashingvole 4/7/2020]

Just where do you go in the face of this?  It is disturbing to find so much naivety and gullibility among university managers – and so little shame – and you can see exactly why they would be unsettled by sound scholarship in critical management studies, or evidence of declining mental health among academics, or problems of bias with module evaluation questionnaires. Perhaps we need to accept that accountability is for little people; it only works top down, and when convenient.

Richard Hall writes of the ‘hopeless university’. I share his pessimism and the fear that there is now a crisis of legitimation in universities. What kind of knowledge is defensible? Knowledge which will sell. But there are signs that such cynicism is beginning to wear on academics who try to adhere to a different set of values. There is a credibility gap for universities from both within and without.

One of the things to emerge from the pandemic is the demise of the fiction that universities can be market-led and customer-focussed. The hypocrisy and gaslighting they have faced has incubated a generation of students who understand the ways in which universities have sought to exploit them and the money that rides in with them. They understand how the workings of institutional sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia structure their experience of being a student at university. The HE marketeers like to see universities portrayed as transactional service providers, but universities cannot be run like consultancies. They are not designed for short-term commissions. Their purpose is to develop and facilitate the growth of knowledge, wherever that leads. Universities will remake themselves because that is what they have done for a thousand years. Their survival will be achieved through the diligence and imaginations of those who study and work in them. The future of scholarship and learning will require a new commitment towards trust, democracy, accountability, humanity and academic freedom, but there are scant signs of that just yet.

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism