Ten Myths and a Truth from the TEF: Reading the White Paper

Although the Higher Education and Research Bill is still going through parliamentary scrutiny, the Teaching Excellence Framework is about to be implemented and yet we do not know for certain what its effects will be, or even which institutions will enter into it. On the 2nd of December 2016, the same day as students at Warwick University went into occupation against the TEF , the chair of the TEF, Professor Chris Husbands,  published a blog piece entitled Busting five common myths about the TEF. A welcome addition to the critique, I thought, but I felt as though we were reading different documents.  I have been working on Chapter 2 of the White Paper (TEF) and so I checked some of Jo Johnson’s claims against evidence from some of the other publications I have been reading recently. Concealed within the pages of Jo Johnson’s White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, May 2016,  are quite a few contested propositions and ten more myths which Chris Husbands has overlooked.

We hear much of how political discourse operates in a post-truth culture, but one of the key strategies of persuasion is via presupposition – an statement whose truth is assumed without substantiation. Another trick is to make syntactic linkages between concepts which then acquire the appearance of logical relationship. We find both of these demonstrated in the White Paper.

Below I outline myths (quotations and presuppositions from the White Paper) and responses based on evidence and reason.

Myth 1: There is a problem with ‘lamentable’ teaching quality in universities.

Response: There is no evidence presented to sustain the claim. Use of an inflammatory adjective installs the presupposition.

Myth 2: Students cannot make informed choices….These decisions are significant factors in determining a student’s future life and career success, so it is crucial that they represent sound investments. We need to make sure that students have access to the best possible information to make choices about what they study, and the benefits that they can expect to gain from those choices.

Response: Students have a lot of choice of courses, and they make up their own minds by consulting websites, alternative prospectuses, going to open days. There is even metricised data from Unistats  (comparison site which evaluates NSS scores, employment data and graduate salaries – exactly the innovation Jo Johnson thinks the TEF will deliver) and from league tables.

Nouns like ‘investment’ can also operate as presuppositions as the concept is assumed to be inevitable and universal.  ‘Investment’ is presented in crudely financialised terms as ‘return on investment’ or ROI, which presupposes that students are primarily concerned about future earnings. No evidence is presented to substantiate this, even in the face of students continuing to apply for courses where relatively low salaries are likely upon graduation e.g. nursing, creative arts, education, agriculture. We note that ‘investment’ is a polysemic (multi-meaning) term used to reference the expending of economic capital, and emotional/ intellectual capital by the individual.

Myth 3: Robust, comparable information about the quality of teaching – and the components that contribute to it – is not currently available… That is why this Government will introduce the TEF and for the first time bring sector-wide rigour to the assessment of teaching excellence.

Response: A repetition of the presupposition that students do not already have access to this information. As stated above, it clearly is available. If it is not, why have we been pouring money into QAA, institutional reviews,  Hefce, etc. for all these years, if it has not had the effect of ensuring the quality and reputation of the sector? This architecture of quality assurance, though imperfect, has ensured that the UK is one of the most highly regulated and inspected sectors in the world.

Myth 4: The consumer organisation Which? has found that three in ten students think that the academic experience of higher education is poor value, and the issues raised by students in that research included the amount, and quality, of teaching they received, and the extent to which they are academically challenged.

Response: It is good to see a rare appeal to evidence, but perhaps the wrong conclusions are being drawn by the Which? study. This study by Steven Jones, Steven Courtney and Ruth McGinity proposes another interpretation: “Large fee increases mean that university is bound to be seen as exploitatively expensive by students. This does not mean they are dissatisfied with their courses or teaching quality”. In fact, the NSS scores nationally indicate that students are satisfied with their university experience. Can Jo Johnson make NSS a key metric, and then discount it, all in the same policy document?

Myth 5: Clear priorities of students while at university included: “having more hours of teaching”, “reducing the size of teaching groups” and “better training for lecturers”, but there is little information for prospective students on this in advance.

Response: As this study finds, effective student learning does not always emerge from ‘more contact hours’; in fact independent study is more valuable.   Learning may be the first casualty of a popularity-led evaluation like the NSS/ TEF.

Myth 6: Employers report a growing mismatch between the skills they need and the skills that graduates offer.

Response: A study reported in the Times Higher in 2015 shows that universities are doing a good job in developing the kind of skills which employers find useful and “UK employers are still among the most satisfied with their nation’s higher education system (giving it 7.3 out of 10, compared with a global average of 6.8).”

Myth 7: We need to ensure that our higher education system continues to provide the best possible outcomes. These come from informed choice and competition.

Response: This is a logical non-sequitur, but allows a lazy conflation of several unrelated concepts and assumes causality between them. The White Paper assumes that outcomes = return on investment = graduate salaries, and that these will be consequent upon informed choice and competition. Quality of courses, and choice for students, is more likely to emerge from imaginative cooperation between institutions. This would be an innovation worth pursuing.

This study by David Morris of Wonkhe analyses the government’s Longitudinal Earnings Outcome (LEO) data. There are a number of departures from the outcomes-require-competition myth. Prior attainment, i.e. A Level performance, makes a huge difference to graduate earnings, regardless of subject studied.  This raises a question about ‘learning gain’ – also a concern of the White Paper. I’m sure this will present itself as another cudgel to beat less-favoured universities with. However, Morris’ study also identifies a gender gap and a race gap for earnings, which is far less consonant with a learning gain/ value-added analysis.

Myth 8: By removing student number controls and making it easier for new providers to enter, we will create the conditions that will allow choice and competition to flourish. But what is also needed is the information to allow students to determine where the best teaching can be found.

Response: The answer to quality enhancement, we are expected to believe, is the entry of new providers in order to create ‘competition’. Except the new providers will not be expected to fulfil all the expectations that publically-funded universities are expected to address. As this article makes clear, as new private providers have emerged in strength in South America, especially Argentina and Chile, they have not been engaged in research. This, argues the author – Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela, restricts the number of qualified PhDs who are able to take the higher education system forward.

Myth 9: The Government believes that excellent teaching can occur in many different forms, in a wide variety of institutions, and it is not the intention of the TEF to constrain or prescribe the form that excellence must take. What we expect though, is that excellent teaching, whatever its form, delivers excellent outcomes.

Response: The TEF will have criteria, and metrics, so how can the White Paper say that the form of excellence will not be prescribed or constrained. In fact, that is exactly what will happen as institutions align their priorities precisely to those criteria – which as the statement makes clear, are in any case based on the proxy ‘outcomes’ of NSS scores, retention and most importantly graduate salaries which are high enough to pay back all the money the government has lost in its ill-advised restructuring of HE finance towards what are, in effect, individual student vouchers.

Myth 10: Perhaps the biggest myth of all – as Jones, Courtney and McGinity point out, is Johnson’s claim that the TEF will strengthen the position of students.  It will not – and indeed, the NUS has voted to disengage from TEF. Evidence shows that co-opting students as consumers is damaging to educational experience.

A truth – a veritable truth: There is of course more to university than financial gain, but the idea that excellent teaching occurs in a vacuum, independent of its impact on students’ future life chances, is not one we can or should accept.

Response:  There is a nice hat tip to other justifications of HE, but immediately we see the counter-narrative remains in place with co-reference of outcomes with financial gain, disguised as ‘life chances’. The presupposition is that the most significant outcome of higher education is employment, but as this study shows, economists have often found that education has benefits for society beyond those of the individual – for example in terms of volunteering, social trust, better citizenship (lower crime).

 

Whatever does ail the higher education sector in the UK, the TEF spreadsheet will not fix it. Much more likely is that the government will recruit ‘consumer choice’ as a disciplinary tool, overlooking the needs of scholarship, local economies or student interests, and possibly serving as licence for university closure. By allowing this false reasoning to go unopposed, we risk losing quality, opportunity and reputation within the sector. Here is a link to the Convention for Higher Education website which has some key resources for opposing the TEF and the Higher Education and Research Bill. Organise, and support students in their refusal to co-operate with the TEF and NSS as long as it threatens to raise their fees, waste millions of pounds of their ‘investment’, threaten the reputation of their courses and distort the priorities of universities away from good teaching and research.

 

Parkinson’s Law

If some staff  felt that the appointment of Sir Michael Parkinson as Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University (2008-2014) was an unexpected choice, they may feel vindicated now. Of course in my day you had royalty, and you didn’t have to fear a ‘Ratner moment’  from them. They wouldn’t drop an ill-advised comment which would bring the university into disrepute. And anyway, the ennobled former Tory minister who usually headed the university management would have kept the chancellor well away from any actual students.  When deference to the titled aristocracy collapsed, there emerged rather a vacuum in universities when it came to filling the largely ceremonial role of chancellor.  A number of universities saw the opportunity to indulge their students’ regard for celebrity culture by appointing chancellors who were well enough connected to be able to enliven their graduation ceremonies with a few stars from the world of film, television and sport.

At the time, Parkinson fitted this ideal, and seemed to be an ally, saying, as he stepped down in July 2014, “I was involved a lot with the media courses. When I was doing shows in London, a group of them would come down and spend time with me and watch how it all worked. It was always very refreshing. I’m 79 now and I didn’t go to university. Being with young people has opened my eyes. You forget how ambitious they are and you see yourself in them”

During Parkinson’s tenure these journalism courses, and their students, won several national awards and graduated hundreds of employable students. Indeed, his endorsement still garlands the recruitment website for the NTU broadcast journalism degree: “It is important that those who are choosing to go into the industry are as well prepared and highly skilled as they can be, not only to compete for jobs but also to ensure that the media grows and remains fresh with new ideas brought in by graduates. The Centre for Broadcasting & Journalism at Nottingham Trent University is focused on giving students the best possible start by ensuring that our graduates have all the skills necessary to be at the forefront when it comes to employability.”

You feel for the students as they must now wonder what contempt was suppressed behind the Chancellor’s cap doffing at their degree ceremonies,  because in the Daily Mail on 25th November 2016, under the perennial slur ‘Mickey Mouse media degrees are a waste of time’, Parkinson is quoted in an interview ‘They have them at Nottingham Trent [and] it seems to me that a lot of young people do it as they see it as a way of getting onto shows like I’m A Celebrity. They want to be famous. They are convinced by things like I’m A Celebrity and that is their idea of fame – that instant fame that makes you a hero on the internet”.

The Daily Mail reminds us that the term ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’ was coined by the former Labour Education Minister, Margaret Hodge who felt that some courses failed to serve students in both rigour and employability. Neither of these myths is true.  Media Studies is second only to medicine in employability, though cynics would add that media graduates fall at the bottom end of the salary scale. But then, not all students are motivated by the promise of a high salary, which is just as well, because few graduates of any discipline will receive one. And as for celebrity aspirations, I have to say, I have encountered some strange rationales for going to university (including my own), but being on I’m a Celebrity isn’t one of them. Sure, students are willing to discuss shows such as these, but are also anxious to encounter ways of making sense of their hold over the viewing populace.

There is another type of media studies degree, though, that vice-chancellors are not so ready to defend, and have been rather fond of closing down. These are degrees which might once have formed a strand in an English degree, but in the 1980s fielded independent degrees housed in departments of cultural studies. These became a home for literary scholars, historians, modern linguists, sociologists, philosophers, ethnographers, social psychologists, and social geographers. To start with it was a peculiarly British development, but quickly attracted a large number of influential scholars from across the globe. Cultural studies was the crucible of critical thought about structures of power, class, gender and race throughout those decades. Building on the work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, the discipline gave birth to a large number of what Americans would call public intellectuals: Stuart Hall, Richard Johnson, Dick Hebdige, Angela McRobbie, Paul Gilroy, Celia Lury, Ien Ang, Meahgan Morris, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, among others.

There has been enormously significant cultural ‘turn’ in the world of humanities scholarship. The discipline offers students a methodology of decoding texts, including visual texts, and the signs, beliefs, myths, narratives, structures and institutions which coalesce into ‘culture’. It has spawned postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, postmodernism, gender and queer theory – all no doubt disapproved of by the Daily Mail, but nevertheless productive paradigms of enquiry. And, yes, all of these have huge ‘impact’. The influence of cultural studies inside and outside the academy is now equalled only by the assaults on its claims to legitimacy.

The University of Birmingham was home to perhaps the most famous and influential research centre, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded by Hoggart in 1964 which was internationally regarded. This deserved reputation did not survive the distortions of the Research Assessment Exercise, and the management closed the Centre in 2002. Supporters felt that it was the centre’s own propensity to critique the structures of power operating throughout the institution within which they sat that was their undoing. Indeed, as a critical scholar I know only too well the penalty of following their lead.

But what is a university without scholars who feel free to be critical of political traditions, or offer new forms of literacy and make way for new paradigms of enquiry? Why is it considered a good thing to produce graduates who can assess the influence of Oliver Cromwell, but not Jamie Oliver? The media produces texts and shapes beliefs, just as the literary canon does, and these require our critical attention. How do we decode their meanings, identify their purpose and their audience? Without these skills, how do we hold the media to account? I’m not suggesting that Media Studies graduates will guarantee the survival of our liberal democracy. Far from it. But protecting that body of knowledge and supporting the current work of scholars will ensure that the media, and perhaps even university chancellors, are held to greater scrutiny. And if we do sacrifice the critical content of media and cultural studies degrees – if we render them mere training courses for the ‘creative industries’, then behold the culture which finds itself unable to distinguish evidence from post-truth politics. We seem to be already there.

Postscript:

I waited a couple of days before writing this. I thought I would give the management of Nottingham Trent University chance to make a ‘robust’ response in defence of its media and journalism degrees. To my knowledge, no such statement has appeared, and I wished to defend my colleagues and their students who do excellent work. NTU management are very sensitive about  reputational damage, so I know they will appreciate me making the effort.

Metaphors we work by

This post has been inspired by a vigorous discussion on Twitter initiated by a question from Jesse Stommell (@jessifer) (6th November) who had been attending the recent #opened16 conference. “How many of us have been told our work doesn’t count as research or scholarship? How many teachers, adjuncts, activists? How many students”? The question raises issues of autonomy, academic judgement, academic freedom – and all the mechanisms of audit and regulation which act to compromise these, making academic work and research a contested area of access and legitimation.

Helen Sauntson (@HelenSauntson) and I have been investigating how discourse constructs notions of what counts as academic labour, and we started by analysing the discourse of university managerial training courses. The choice of managerial, not management, is deliberate. Managerialism offers the sense of management for its own sake, of management as the central and privileged purpose of the university. Managerialism imposes ‘false’ needs (Klikauer 2013) – inconsequential management demands for their own sake – or rather for the purpose of rendering employees subordinate.  The management training courses, and the materials and documents used within them circulate widely in most university environments and their aim is to effect the reconstitution of academic subjectivities as ‘corporatised’. Included in our survey were documents from several universities’ courses: Personal Development Review (PDR) training, a team leadership course for middle managers, and a module on change management. We have carried out an analysis of the key metaphors used throughout the training course documents.

The rationale of PDR is to make sure that all employees’ objectives are in alignment with the university’s Strategic Plan. One of the possible outcomes of the process is that the employee may be recommended for a performance related pay award. It usually lies in tandem with the university’s performance management process, which ostensibly is designed to diagnose under-performance.

The team leadership course was designed to support employees across the university who had line management responsibilities. The course was detailed and drew on theories of management: teams, change, strategy, leadership, values. It was taught in three modules, consisting of two full days of activities, led by a facilitator. The associated learning packs, slides and documents provide the data.

Change Management was a companion module to the team leadership course, and the associated training pack provided the data. This module was aimed at senior university staff who were deemed to be in a position to implement change.

Metaphors

Metaphors are figures of speech. Words or phrases are used non-literally so that the usual literal ones are displaced, temporarily or habitually, in a particular context. Words are employed symbolically in order to activate images, and thereby associated meanings. For example, in the data of the management courses, work is presented using metaphors of sport. The frequent occurrence of such metaphors means that working in a university is constructed as competitive and is never described in any other terms. These metaphors also present a zero-sum scenario of victory or failure. The density of this lexicon is quite extraordinary. Examples include:

  • How do we kick it [change] off?
  • Kotter argues that many change projects fail because victory is declared too early.
  • Quick wins are only the beginning of what needs to be done.
  • ‘…striving to accomplish pre-determined goals or objectives…
  • The use of specific tactics can also smooth the change process.
  • …emphasises the need for keeping in the win-win area.
  • Targets will be set by the line manager and/or the management of the area and must support the goals of the department.
  • Coaching is about helping someone to get the best performance out of themselves – the potential for which was already there. Coaching is about releasing that potential.
  • This simple model takes the three questions of the sports coach

More concerning is the appearance of metaphors of war in relation to performance management.

  • …how to motivate survivors of a savage round of downsizing.
  • When people feel they are under attack, one response is to become defensive. This might result in territory battles
  • I quickly spot, and take advantage of, weaknesses in competitors.
  • Such individuals are not overtly self-protective or inclined to wage turf wars.
  • What might you do to sabotage your own efforts to reach this goal?

Examples such as these fit with a dominant neoliberal discourse of universities as competitive, not collaborative, and concerned with dominance. How often have we heard about education and its role in making us ‘internationally competitive’?  The aim is to win, or, even better, to win-win. We notice that a discourse is created in which it is acceptable (or even encouraged and celebrated) to exploit implied ‘weaknesses’ in a competitor or opponent.

As the opportunities for research funding diminish and panic escalates, the metaphors become more alarmingly violent. I have seen one university’s research newsletter which features cartoons and images depicting research as an gruelling, tortuous process. Achieving impact, for example, is illustrated with a mallet poised to crack an egg. The process of peer review is portrayed in a cartoon where a white-coated scientist is set to run a gauntlet of enemies with swords, cudgels, axes, a chainsaw and at the end the grim reaper ready to strike him down. The ‘welcome to the new academic year’ email from one vice chancellor mentioned that they had enjoyed a two-week holiday getting acquainted with a new chainsaw, which they had found ‘therapeutic’. This was taken by the appalled employees to have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. One academic, recently promoted, was told they were on a ‘burning platform’ with a time-limited window before successful progression to the next level would be expected.

The work of academics and their experience with the management and structures of the university is presented as an exercise in mortification of the body and psyche. We are seemingly imprisoned in the logic of these metaphors, with all their neoliberal ideological underpinnings. With repetition, this discourse is normalised and institutionalised as a commendable activity; the danger is that we become desensitized to our own objectification.

It is only too evocative of the disintegration of public discourse in the recent US election. We are now left to contemplate the widespread endorsement of bullying, boastfulness and aggression. On Channel 4 News, reporting on the eve of the election Kylie Morris asked, ‘is this a permanent retreat from civility’? It probably is. Another academic colleague emailed this commentary: “the fact that we are asked/required/disciplined to become ever more the hard, ruthless, competitive, economistic, justice-indifferent, homogenised, torture-normalising/enduring, Embodied Metric while all of this is going on, says just about everything.”

References

Klikauer, Thomas. 2013. Managerialism. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan.

We’re gonna build a wall; the impossibility of the civic university

My first year as a graduate student coincided with Mrs Thatcher’s first great assault on academic culture in UK universities. There were calls for academics to experience the ‘real world’ of business and industry. This was rather faithfully captured in the David Lodge 1988 satire Nice Work. Academics played along, some rather enjoying sabbaticals and secondments which sidestepped the circadian rhythm of the academic calendar. I remember one of my supervisors returning to campus from such a corporate sojourn and exclaiming in relief at not having to wear a pass or sign in to a laboratory. Universities were seen as freely accessible to all who should wish to wander their halls, libraries and galleries. This was the era of the ‘big civic’ university. The university opened its doors to the city, and the city took pride in its university.

Thirty-five years on and one of the many manifestations of the surveillance culture which operates in UK universities has been the incremental imposition of barriers and swipecards which exclude the non-paying citizenry. This has always irked me. Universities  have sacrificed that sense of spontaneity in favour of number plate recognition, and the HR team safely penned into an impregnable executive suite.

Oddly this fetishisation with security – usually justified with infantilising appeals to protection of vulnerable young people (or technical equipment) – does not obtain in most US universities I have visited. Granted I may be caught in the sights of a sniper rifle or mown down by an armoured car, patrolling courtesy of the 1033 program that transfers surplus military weapons to both city and university police forces, but nevertheless, I can probably browse the bookstore, run the track and blag my way into the swimming pool without arousing too much suspicion.

Richard Hall’s blog 7th November 2016 talks about reasons for his despondency over the future of academia. He laments the closing-down of our wider connections to civil society, by which he means an open and critical engagement with the intellectual concerns of the civitas, but I think we can also mourn this immuring of universities which symbolizes their anti-intellectual and corporatist trajectory.

I share Richard’s despondency at the impossibility of universities as spaces for openness and emancipation. I share his despair at our unwilling co-optation and the obstruction of our pedagogical responsibility to offer something better. Where is the space for the curriculum-as-praxis as a means of negating the basis of domination? he asks. It seems impossible to protect universities as spaces of free enquiry and access.

A post last week by Paul Prinsloo argued that not doing anything can still be a form of activism. There is a recognition that in managerial cultures, those who resist are marginalised, and Richard complains that playing in the margins seems like hopelessness. So I think Richard and I, and everyone else who is feeling defeated by audit culture, surveillance and pedagogical asphyxiation should embrace  Paul’s idea of hospicing which, he writes, “entails accepting the death/decline of a system and accepting that due to various factors, that you cannot directly intervene/act, but you also don’t allow yourself to walk away. In hospicing as activism, you remain involved, caring for a system in decline to the extent that the system allows you to care for it, nothing more, nothing less”. It is not inertness; rather it requires analysis and bearing critical witness. And a great deal of unreciprocated caring.

Paul Prinsloo ends with this moving sentiment. “But activism most probably also requires a letting go, a critical self-knowledge of your own locus of control, and things beyond your locus of control. Activism involves self-care, allowing the community to care for you, to shield you, to hide you, to allow others to speak on your behalf”. At least we can do that for each other. Offer affirmation. Support. The university will survive because we are the university. Pass it on, and don’t build that wall.

The Justice League of Academia has lunch

Last Wednesday (late October 2016) I was privileged to meet up with four of my favourite tweeps and bloggers. Kate Bowles (@KateMfD) and her wonderful daughter Clementine (@clembowles) were visiting the UK from Australia, so Richard Hall (@hallymk1), @Plashingvole (PV) and I couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to get together. All of them have been an enormous source of support, advice and incomprehending headshaking during my last few tormented months in academic employment. The latter three of us are all based in the Midlands, and since Kate and Clem seemed to be circumnavigating the UK en route to various relatives, they were persuaded to drop by Leicester for lunch at Delilah Fine Foods , conveniently located next door to the Richard III Visitors’ Centre.

It turned out I was the only one who had met each of the others (except Clem) – either in person or via Skype, and could be relied upon to pick each of them out of a line up, so we wouldn’t be  loitering around wondering if that was an academic fellow traveller or another vegan habituee of Delilah’s.

I can’t really convey how momentous it was to be in the company of all these fine people. Despite coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, we are united in our opposition to the corporate university, managerialism, academic capitalism, management by metrics – and united in our wish to support the humanities, academic freedom kindness and humanity in our universities. Our conversation was not entirely uplifting as we all had stories of brutality being visited on friends and colleagues in academia. We told stories of infringement of academic freedom  and of impossible targets  being levied on academics . We heard about the astonishing levels of casualization in Australian universities , and how that strategy is gaining momentum in the UK. We discussed government policies which seem to undermine both the resourcing and independence of universities in the UK and Australia. We talked about possibilities for resistance, and the importance of conveying to younger scholars that it doesn’t need to be like this. As Steven Jones et al. argue here  we need to seize the narrative, challenge the discourse, do some refusing and disrupting…..Perhaps we could be more active in our unions in order to focus their efforts more intently on the erosion of academic freedom and job security.

As I blogged last time, those counter-narratives are strengthening and solidifying in the form of manifestos. Here’s a link to the Copenhagen declaration. What they all have in common is a plea to reinstate humanity at the core of the university. There is a callousness and objectification in being measured, evaluated, appraised and performance managed in each class, journal article or syllabus. There is some kind of template being imposed on academic careers, and even academic opinions, outside of which it is impermissible to stray. Enough. This is not a plea for special treatment because, yes, Glyn Davies, MP, academics do live in the real world – even in an extreme and dysfunctional simulation of the corporate world. This is a plea to allow academics to survive in their jobs without epidemic levels of anxiety and work-related stress. Here I would have linked to the blog post I wrote last March, except my previous employer required me to take it down.

Despite the catalogue of academic aversions, it seems we share a collective belief in humanity and the possibility of a better future. And of course we are animated by our engagement with digital pedagogies, social media and critical university studies. PV, with his inexhaustible range of cultural references has appointed us as the Justice League of Academia. I confess I had to look this up because comic superheroes would never have made it through the parental firewall chez Morrish; nevertheless it is an appealing comparison. It certainly added to the allure for Clem of meeting some rather sedate middle-aged bien-pensants, although we may have fallen short on discernible super-powers. Clem, incidentally, is already accomplished at the practice of artful and articulate authoritarianism.

As we left the café, I hauled out my camera for a photo to memorialize the occasion. As we shuffled into position, a kindly passer-by stepped forward to offer to take the picture. ‘See’, said Kate triumphantly, ‘humanity is always there’. Indeed. Time to start believing again, and more importantly, making it part of our academic practice and our activism.

And so we dispersed to fight for liberty, justice and the academic way in our various projects. PV (who like any self-respecting superhero prefers the cloak of virtuous and virtual anonymity) set off for the second hand bookshops to slake his thirst for literature. Richard headed for a meeting. Kate and I queued in Boots for Lemsip to clear that fog-induced catarrh of an English October. The Justice League, but also my fantasy league of academic colleagues.

It wasn’t many days before we were all in touch again – called to attention by a blog piece from the excellent Paul Prinsloo @14prinsp   where he offers several different approaches to educational activism: of being ‘woke’ meaning switched on and critical, to passing round the messages via retweets and postings, or just quietly ‘hospicing’ – not looking away, but watching and witnessing with care and concern as a dying system progresses to its demise. This is “a letting go, a critical self-knowledge of your own locus of control, and things beyond your locus of control”.  And activism also means taking care of yourself, and “allowing the community to care for you, to shield you, to hide you, to allow others to speak on your behalf”. I read this and felt enormously grateful that colleagues of such commitment and integrity are in my corner. And I am in theirs.

 

Academic Capitalism and the Accelerated Academy

Corporate culture has no place in academia says Olof Hallonsten in his report for Nature on the medical scandal at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. This involved allegations of fraud against Paolo Macchiarini which may have resulted in patient deaths  .

It appears that university leaders chose to overturn established procedures and overlook external evaluations of Professor Macchiarini’s work, preferring to prioritise reputation and avoidance of scandal. As Hallonsten points out, this sort of behaviour by senior managers of universities, although tiresomely familiar, conflicts strongly with academic values of peer review and close scrutiny of claims which are designed to protect those hard-won personal and institutional reputations for research integrity. Unfortunately, too many university managers have confused university reputation with accumulated capital, not with solid scholarship and ethics.

The episode at Karolinska has led the president of the Supreme Administrative Court in Sweden to conclude that: “There is now an elevated risk that fraud is not properly detected and that ethically doubtful research is allowed to continue, notes the report, because new policy incentives cloud the judgement of academic leaders.”

Policy incentives? Hallonsten identified the intrusion of academic capitalism  whereby “universities abandon traditional meritocratic and collegial governance to hunt money, prestige and a stronger brand.”   He goes further: “The individual’s struggle for recognition in science is colonized by university managers, who use the achievements of scientists and students to accumulate capital (economic, symbolic and cultural, in Bourdieu’s terms), and thus increase the visibility of their university”.

Notice this is Nature, not Workplace or Discover Society where you might be more accustomed to finding these critical voices. To divert this readership from Mars exploration or quantum dynamics, and turn their collective heads towards Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital – well, you know there must be an issue with academics’ condition of labour.

In more news this week, the Times Higher reports that applications for grants to research councils have success rates of 12-33%. Such evidence, though, when placed before a university manager cuts no ice. Gaining a grant is in many UK and US universities, an essential requirement for promotion. But when success rates are so low, and when each proposal is estimated to take 171 hours of an academic’s time, it is apparent that the wolf of academic capitalism has started to devour its own young. The time would be better spent in actually writing and researching, but journal articles do not afford vice chancellors the same bragging rights as £££ secured.

Management by metrics has been very successful in constructing highly stressed but docile bodies for the exploitative demands of the corporate anxiety machine.  Hall and Bowles (2016) argue that the construction of anxiety is not an unintended consequence, but instead is “inherent in a system driven by improving performance”. Drawing on the Marxist concept of subsumption whereby constraints on labour are overruled by the demands of capital, they claim that anxiety has an important role to play in persuading workers that they are underperforming, and to deflect strategies of refusal. Given the incapacitation which is evoked by this level of scrutiny and control, there can be no other reason for management to deploy these strategies.

There is an alternative. We can reclaim academic integrity and freedom by refusing to inhabit the accelerated academy. We are urged towards a kind of academic festination, which to those familiar with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is an inefficient and tiring gait whereby the patient finds it hard to slow down and stop. It usually ends with a bad fall. Many of us in the academy will recognise that disorder.

Colleagues based at the University of Warwick Sociology department are researching the effects of the accelerated academy . This scholarship is beginning to be translated into action in the form of collective resistance to defeat outcomes-based performance management.

Manifestos are springing up to defend traditions of university autonomy, a humane workplace, collegiality, academic freedom and shared governance.

The Copenhagen Declaration (2016) details some essential rights: “These include the right to intellectual and professional self-determination within the context of the organization’s welfare, the right not to be fired at will, the right to a workplace that does not tolerate bullying and other abuses of authority, the right to criticise the institution in public, and the right to reject inappropriate forms of assessment”.

Aberdeen’s Reclaiming our University (2016) includes this goal: “To restore the trust that underpins both professionalism and collegiality, by removing those systems of line and performance management, and of surveillance, which lead to its erosion”.

Other declarations urge universities to resist the distorting effects judging academic work by simple metrics.

We can all act to make a difference and push back this most damaging, league-table induced trend in UK universities and beyond the UK. Join us by supporting the work of the HE Convention and the Alternative White Paper 2016. 

References

Academics Anonymous. (2014). Professors are supposed to be stressed! That’s the job. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/oct/24/bullying-academia-universities-stress-support 14th October.

Editorial. (2016). Macchiarini scandal is a valuable lesson for the Karolinska Institute. Nature, 537,137 (08 September).

Hall, R. and Bowles, K. (2016). Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labour. 28. Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor.

Hallonsten, O. (2016). Corporate culture has no place in academia. Nature, 538, 7, (06 October).

Slaughter, Sheila and Rhoades, Gary. (2009). Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

A Stern Talking To ?

The Stern Review has appeared and HE wonks are rushing back to the laptops they had just powered down for the briefest of summer holidays. So here are my thoughts, based on a skim reading of the report, and also the helpful comments on Twitter from the following: Emilie Whitaker @Dr_EmWhitaker , Steven Jones @StevenJones_MCR David Wright @WrightDW  Daniel Grey @djrgrey  Mike Ratcliffe @mike_rat and James Wilsdon @jameswilsdon.

It is clear that Stern endorses the continuation of the REF. This is no mutinous denunciation of research assessment. But then that was never in the terms of reference with its forecast of ‘future iterations of the REF’. He has, though, proposed fixes to escalating costs, institutional gaming and some of the impediments to providing a true picture of UKHE research, such as requiring a demanding output-impact case study ratio and ‘selectivity’ of individuals submitted for assessment. There is also a welcome focus on support for interdisciplinarity which many have felt was overlooked in REF2014. Derek Sayer’s important criticism that the REF is a parochial and navel-gazing exercise is addressed; at last, international researchers are to be invited onto panels (Para 109).

One of the stated imperatives of Stern is to reduce the workload of the exercise. He recommends a strong reduction in the average number of ‘outputs’ submitted per faculty member (Para 69) which at this point is looking like a baseline of 2, or even fewer. There will still be sampling of outputs by unit of assessment (Para 71). One more priority is to reduce gaming of the system, and to this end Stern has recommendations about who owns ‘outputs’, and an end to ‘selectivity’.

The most radical of the recommendations in terms of its implications for current practices is that there should be no portability of research ‘outputs’. Stern feels that they should remain returnable by the HEI which ‘helped to produce’ them. This raises the issue of who owns research ‘outputs’ and is guaranteed to cause indignation among the more mobile academics, and also Early Career Researchers who may have had a series of short-term contracts at different universities. It would, however, reduce the likelihood that avaricious institutions would poach individual researchers if they were entitled only to ‘outputs by the individual that have been accepted for publication after joining the institution’ (Para 74). There is no doubt that this will hit the perceived ‘marketability’ of individual academics, but perhaps Stern has rather harshly assumed that the only reason academics leave universities is because of their own ‘rent-seeking behaviour’.

Recommendation 1 is that all research-active staff should be returned in the REF, noting that ‘exclusion and the associated stigma are being driven by factors that are not wholly related to the quality of an individual’s research contributions and potential’ (Para 64). While this is commendably inclusive, and recognises that excellence in research may be found anywhere, it might also act as an incentive for universities to reassign staff to career-limiting teaching-only contracts. This fear is mitigated by the recognition that the proposed TEF looks favourably on research-led teaching (Para 112). Like other high-level communications and policy documents, the Stern Review also presupposes the implementation of the TEF, even though (in July 2016) this proposal is still being debated in parliament.

There seems to be some sanity at last on the notion of research impact. This should be based more generally on research activity, and not dependent on particular ‘outputs’. Also, assessment of impact need not be confined to socio-economic impact as it was for REF2014. Stern recommends that it ‘should also include impact on government policy, on public engagement and understanding, on cultural life, on academic impacts outside the field, and impacts on teaching’ (Recommendation 7).

From my reading, I felt my antenna twitch at a couple of potential Trojan Horses. Stern allows scope for the use of metrics, while cautiously invoking James Wilsdon’s ‘Metric Tide’ report of a year ago. Once metrics are allowed to stand as proxies for the health of a unit, then inevitably this lends permission for greater infiltration.

Indeed, the primary way the research environment will be assessed will be via metrics (Para 48). It seems perverse not to allow for a qualitative statement in this particular area. One wonders how an environmental template based on metrics will facilitate the ambition to capture ‘the contribution that its academics make to the wider academy (‘academic citizenship’)’ (Para 88). Recommendation 4 states that panels should continue to assess on the basis of peer review but may supplement this with metrics, as long as they are transparent about their use (Para 105).

Sadly, there is no recommendation to commit institutions to become signatories of the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment. HEFCE is currently a signatory, although in a rather insouciant way. Instead, Stern invokes an aspiration to standardise the metrics supplied to various bodies whose incompatibility currently stands in the way of more widespread use. There seems to be an invitation to UKRI to become the overlord in this integration of research metrics (Para 107). Will they, too, sign DORA?

The REF needed a stern review, and it has got it. It offers enough clarity to subdue even the most feverish of vice-chancellors for a weekend. It seems to be informed by principles of parsimony and lean management in contrast to the speculative profligacy of the White Paper’s TEF. If we must live with the REF, an ‘iteration’ whose more rapacious and distorting inclinations have been curtailed is preferable.

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism