Course closures are not ‘inevitable’

Times Higher Education published a story today:

Course closures are ‘inevitable’ consequence of Westminster policy. Aston and London South Bank are latest institutions to shutter humanities and social sciences degrees

in which I was quoted as agreeing with a statement from another contributor:

‘Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said successive governments had encouraged universities to specialise in what they’re best at, as well as in certain types of subjects. “As market reforms have intentionally put pressure on universities to think and act this way, it’s inevitable that some provision will disappear in some institutions,” he said’.

Then I am quoted.

‘Liz Morrish, a visiting fellow in the School of Languages and Linguistics at York St John University, agreed, highlighting that universities like LSBU served a number of students from less privileged backgrounds. “Languages and the humanities generally cannot be allowed to become the preserve of the Russell Group,” she said’. Critical scholarship could not flourish, Dr Morrish continued, if academics “don’t know from one year to the next whether their high-quality programmes will satisfy whatever shifting metrics university management are setting this year”.’

I was a little concerned about what it appeared I had agreed to. Was it the proposition that closures in languages and arts and humanities are inevitable ? That is certainly not my position. There is no inevitability to the removal of courses and the stripping out of staff expertise. Are these closures the result of government policy – probably, but it is important for all in universities to resist this misguided suite of policies which spring from marketisation. Many view these closures as opportunistic actions justified as post-pandemic restructure by university managers. We can identify the cause of the course closures, but please, let’s not erase the expressions of disapproval.

So just for the record, when I was asked for an opinion by Anna McKie, the author of the article, this was my reply by email.

It has always seemed to me highly ironic that prime ministers and ministers of education of all parties go to great lengths to emphasize the importance in schools of teaching history and modern languages. By contrast, these same politicians fall silent as university departments of history and languages are closed down with consequent loss of expertise and opportunity. Where do they think teachers of history and languages will come from? 

Aston is just another in a steadily increasing list of closures. in fact with the closure of modern languages at Nottingham Trent, the Midlands – one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the country – risks offering nothing but a monoglot education to a large proportion of its students. 

These institutions serve a number of less privileged students and do well on measures of access and widening participation. It is important to note that, at Aston, the management recognise they are going back on a commitment to its Languages for All program which is part of the Access and WP agreement. Languages and the humanities generally cannot be allowed to become the preserve of the Russell Group. Aston has a Business School and also a degree program in International Relations. Do students of business not need languages? And do students of IR not need both languages and history ? 

It is extraordinary that History has been threatened with closure at Aston. The subject was only started in the 2018-19 academic year and identified as an area of strategic growth. It has not yet produced a graduating cohort. How can the outcomes of the subject be assessed ? Furthermore, several well-known scholars were lured to Aston from secure posts elsewhere and now, 24 posts (21 permanent) are targeted for redundancy. As far as I am aware, the research strength and grant income of the department are satisfactory. And I understand several department members were successful in gaining promotion recently just before the redundancy plans were announced. This is poor management at the very least. 

In my piece on the August restructuring regime, I noted that the relief package was being offered to universities which were providing courses focused on the needs of the local economy, and which were committed to academic freedom. I offered this observation:

 ‘How soon before the UK emulates other authoritarian governments, such as Hungary or Brazil, in deciding to outlaw gender studies or other perceived left-wing critical areas? The government seems to want to re-shape universities in terms of curriculum, delivery, recruitment and management. This is, to use an over-worked term in 2020, unprecedented’.

Academic freedom, and areas of critical scholarship are not best defended when scholars don’t know from one year to the next whether their high-quality programs will satisfy whatever shifting metrics university management are setting this year. What is taking place at University of Leicester Business School is the most transparent attack of academic freedom. We are now, very rapidly seeing the destruction of those areas of critical scholarship which make universities cornerstones of liberal democracy, to quote Rowan Williams.

I hope there is material there you can use. As always, I am very happy to discuss further. 

Our Coach from the Global HE Super League advises

The UK’s vice chancellors have often looked to football metaphors to legitimise their more Darwinian activities and to burnish their street cred with a bit of reflected laddishness. Now, in turn, football is repaying the compliment by modelling their own exclusive cartel on the university sector’s Russell Group.

So as a thought leader and influencer from the Global HE Super League, I decided to offer some coaching to our football partners as they branch out into this new joint venture.

Your players may, naively, have formed the idea that football is about creating trust within a cohesive unit, scoring goals and winning games. This rigid, short-term thinking is typical of those working in silos whose behaviour has been steered by outdated incentives. However, the territory has shifted from satisfaction for supporters to engagement. Engagement of £££. You need to increase gate receipts and you need to increase player name recognition. To this end, I advise rewarding players by the number of fans who enter the stadium wearing their named shirts. In academia, we call this a citation index and we find it very helpful in keeping track of the marketability of our scholars.

You need to encourage flashy play. Spectacular high-risk moves. Quick wins. We’ve had enough of South American artistry and French philosophical attitudes. Footballers need to understand their expertise can easily be replaced by younger and cheaper athletes. We abolished tenure in universities three decades ago and we are still finding ways to make employees uncomfortable. For example, we require them to become citizens of change in order to destabilise any sense of continuity. You are going to have to manage the process of shaping for excellence, so start by making clear you will take immediate action to silence any critical approaches to management.

New territory indeed ! There’s no prospect of demotion anymore, so you need to be entirely focused on entertainment and the more artificial signifiers of performance, like the prestige of the other teams you play against and the ‘wow factor’ of our stadiums. But it is still important to invoke the discourse of competition even if only applied within the team. Realistically, how else are you going to motivate talented, driven people if not by threatening their careers ?

You may need to consider a difficult conversation with the ladies. I suggest: “thank you for bringing in new supporters and players, for mapping out new terrain for the game with some revolutionary approaches and for taking the bad look off all the institutional sexism. You have worked hard, but I’m sure you’ll understand, this league is just for the boys”.

And lastly, do remember that, more than anything else, this league is about a group of clubs trying to ensure that none of them loses. It’s important to move fast, grab the money and keep out those new ‘challenger’ teams. The most successful academics are the ones who announce their own international stature and I commend this strategy to you.

Academic freedom is in crisis; free speech is not

This post was first published on the CDBU blog on April 6th 2021.

In August 2020, the UK think tank The Policy Exchange produced a report on Academic Freedom in the UK, alleging a chilling effect for staff and students expressing conservative opinions, particularly pro-Brexit or ‘gender critical’ ideas. This is an issue that was examined by a 2018 parliamentary committee on Human Rights which found a lack of evidence for serious infringements of free speech. In a university context, freedom of speech is protected under the Human Rights Act 1998 as long as the speech is lawful and does not contravene other university regulations on issues like harassment, bullying or inclusion. Some of these controversies have been firmly rebutted by Chris Parr and others who describe how the incidents have been over-hyped. 

Despite this, the government seems keen to appoint a free speech champion for universities which continues a campaign started by Sam Gyimah when he was minister for universities in 2018, and has been interpreted by some commentators as a ‘war on woke’. In the current climate of threats to university autonomy, many vice chancellors wonder whether this might be followed by heavy fines or reduced funding for those institutions deemed to fall on the wrong side of the culture wars.

While public concern has been directed to an imagined crisis of free speech, there are more significant questions to answer on the separate but related issue of academic freedom. Most university statutes echo legislation and guarantee academics ‘freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial and unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.’ [Section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988]. In reality, these freedoms are surrendered to the greater claims of academic capitalism, government policy, legislation, managers’ responses to the pandemic and more dirigiste approaches to academics’ work. 

Nevertheless, this government is ploughing ahead with policies designed to protect the freedom of speech that is already protected, while doing little to hold university managers to account for their very demonstrable violations of academic freedom. The government is suspicious of courses which declare a sympathy with social justice or which manifest a ‘progressive’ approach. This hostility also extends to critical race theory and black studies. Indeed, the New York Times has identified a right wing ‘Campaign to Cancel Wokeness’  on both sides of the Atlantic, citing a speech by the UK Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, in which she said,  “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt…Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.” 

This has now set a tone for ideological oversight which some university leaders seem keen to embrace. Universities will always wish to review their offerings to ensure they reflect academic currency and student choice. However, operating under the cover of emergency pandemic planning, some are now seeking to dismantle what they see as politically troublesome subject areas.

Let’s start with the most egregious and transparent attack on academic freedom. The University of Leicester Business School, known primarily for its disdain of management orthodoxy, has announced it will no longer support research in critical management studies and political economy, and the university has put all researchers who identify with this field, or who at some time might have published in CMS, at risk of redundancy. Among the numerous responses circulating on Twitter, nearly all point to the fact that the critical orientation made Leicester Business School distinctive and attractive to scholars wishing to study and teach there. Among those threatened with redundancy is the distinguished former dean, Professor Gibson Burrell. The sheer volume of protest at this anomaly must be an embarrassment to Leicester management. We should remember that academic freedom means that, as a scholar of proven expertise, you have the freedom to teach and research according to your own judgement. When those in a field critical of structures of power have their academic freedom removed, this is, unarguably, a breach of that expectation. Such a violation should be of concern to the new freedom of speech champion and to the regulator, the Office for Students. 

If the devastation in the School of Business were not enough humiliation for Leicester, in the department of English, there are plans to cancel scholarship and teaching in Medieval and Early Modern literature. The thoughtless stripping out of key areas that give context and coherence within a subject is not unique to Leicester – similar moves have taken place in English at University of Portsmouth.  At Leicester, management have offered the justification that this realignment will allow them to put resources towards the study of gender and sexuality. After all, the Vice Chancellor, Nishan Canagarajah, offered the keynote speech at the Advance HE conference in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion on 19th March  and has signalled that he supports decolonising the curriculum. This might have had more credibility if he was not equally committed to extinguishing critical scholarship in the Business School. The two positions are incompatible and reveal an opportunistic attempt to reduce costs and remove signs of critical scholarship which might attract government disapproval. 

At the University of Birmingham, the response to the difficulties of maintaining teaching during the pandemic has been to issue a ruling that three academic staff must be able to teach each module. The explanation for this apparent reversal of the ‘lean’ principle of staffing efficiency, is to make modules more resilient in the face of challenges like the pandemic – or perhaps strike action. There is a consequence for academic freedom though – only the most familiar, established courses can be taught. Courses that might have been offered, which arise from the current research of the academic staff, will have to be cancelled if the material is not already familiar to other colleagues in the department. It is a way of designing innovation and advancement out of courses at the University of Birmingham. 

Still at Birmingham, UCU is contesting a proposal for a new ‘career framework’ by management characterised as ‘up or out’. It will require newly appointed lecturers to achieve promotion to senior lecturer within five years or face the sort of performance management procedures that could lead to termination of their appointment. The junior academics who enter on these conditions are unlikely to gamble their careers on academic risk-taking or pursue a challenge to an established paradigm. We can only speculate how this apprenticeship in organisational obedience might restrain the pursuit of discovery, let alone achieve the management’s stated aim to “develop and maintain an academic culture of intellectual stimulation and high achievement”. 

Meanwhile at the University of Liverpool, Vice Chancellor Janet Beer is attempting to apply research metrics and measures of research income over a five-year period to select academics for redundancy in the Faculty of Life Sciences. Staff have been threatened with sacking and replacement by those felt to hold more promise. It will be an unwise scholar who chooses a niche field of research which will not elicit prime citations. Astoundingly, university mangers claim that their criteria are not in breach of their status as a signatory to the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment. That is correct insofar as selection for redundancy by grant income is clearly such dishonorable practice as to have been placed beyond contemplation by the international board of DORA.

It seems we are reaching a pivotal moment for academic freedom for higher education systems across the world. In Arkansas and some other states in the USA, there are efforts to prohibit the teaching of social justice.

In France, the education minister has blamed American critical race theory for undermining France’s self-professed race-blindness and for causing the rise of “islamo-gauchisme”, a term which has been cynically deployed to blunt any critique of structural racism.

In Greece, universities are now bound by law to ensure policing and surveillance of university campuses by ‘squads for the protection of universities’ in order to suppress dissent with the Orwellian announcement that the creation of these squads and the extensive surveillance of public Universities are “a means of closing the door to violence and opening the way to freedom” and an assertion that “it is not the police who enter universities, but democracy”.

Conclusion

It occurs to me that those public figures who feel deprived of a platform to express controversial views may well be outnumbered by the scholars whose universities allow their work to be suppressed by targeted intellectual purges, academic totalitarianism and metric surveillance. It is telling that assaults on academic freedom in the UK have not attracted comment or action from the organisations which might be well placed to defend this defining and essential principle of universities. I hereby call on Universities UK, the Office for Students and the freedom of speech champion to insist on an independent audit of academic freedom and autonomy for each higher education institution. 

We now know where intervention into the rights of academics to teach and research autonomously may lead. We also know that many of the candidates targeted for redundancy are UCU trade union officials; this has happened at University of East London and the University of Hull. Make no mistake, this is a PATCO moment for higher education in the UK as management teams try to break union support and solidarity in order to exact greater control in the future.   

Universities are the canary down the mine in an era of right-wing authoritarianism. We must ensure that they can maintain their unique responsibility to protect against the rise of populism and the dismantling of democracy. We must be assertive in protecting the rights of academics whose lawful and reasoned opinions are increasingly subject to some very sinister threats. Academic freedom needs to be fought for, just like the right to protest and the right to roam. That leaves a heavy responsibility for academics if the abolition of autonomy and academic freedom is not to be complete. 

More details of the planned redundancies at the University of Leicester:

Zoom conference on the Leicester Business School redundancies and academic freedom – chaired by Prof. Martin Parker.

Prof. Andrew Timming interviews Prof. Martin Parker on ‘What the hell is going on at Leicester University?’

Nobody is redundant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Vice Chancellors’ Christmas Quiz 2020 – the answers

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

But first a primer…. (4 points)

1. Who is the current chair of Universities UK?

[Julia Buckingham, VC Brunel University]

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

[Alastair Sim]

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

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

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

[John Cater, VC Edge Hill University]

Succession planning (6 points)

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

[Steve Smith, University of Exeter]

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

[Kate Barker]

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

[Dame Nancy Rothwell, VC University of Manchester]

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

[Andy Collop, De Montfort University]

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

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

Pandemic response (4 points)

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

[George Holmes, VC University of Bolton]

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

[Nick Petford, VC Northampton University]

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

[Liz Barnes, VC Staffordshire University]

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

[University of Brighton]

Celebrity corner (6 points)

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

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

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

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

Apologies (4 points)

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

[Dame Nancy Rothwell, VC Manchester]

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

[Alice Gast, President of Imperial College]

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

[Adam Tickell, VC University of Sussex]

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

[LSE]

Hopeful sign 1 point)

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

[Glasgow Caledonian University]

The Vice Chancellors’ Christmas Quiz 2020

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

But first a primer…. (4 points)

1. Who is the current chair of Universities UK?

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

Alastair Sim - Person - National Portrait Gallery

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

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

Succession planning (6 points)

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

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

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

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

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

Pandemic response (4 points)

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

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

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

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

Celebrity corner (6 points)

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

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

Apologies (4 points)

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

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

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

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

Hopeful sign 1 point)

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

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

‘low quality’ higher education…again

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

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

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

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

*****

Excerpts from Holland in grey and interpretation in green

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

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

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

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

Quality and standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toughening up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

That subject level data again…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching and the student experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic conditions of labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labour

More full-time jobs or a descent into casualisation?

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

Workplaces that nurture the human or neglect it?

Pedagogy

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

Assessment for pedagogy or penance?

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

Values

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

Universities as archival or critical?

Universities for kindness or rigidity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agreed. It has been impressive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The collapse of the Covid-secure campus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He details the following well-evidenced mitigations and preconditions:

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

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

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

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism