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

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

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

[Nixon and Scullion 2021]

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

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

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

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

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

[Bosanquet 2021]

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space for Academic Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic Irregularities AT 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism