The Augar Report, Dead on Arrival?

The headlines talked about a fee cap of £7,500 for undergraduate tuition, and it will be the headlines which secure the enduring myth of Augar 2019. Its brief was to review all of post-18 higher education, but it has been portrayed as a panicked response to Labour’s promise to young people to abolish tuition fees, and perhaps, in this spirit, it feels very much like a report on funding rather than policy generally. 

Augar is not just the work of Augar, of course. It is Robinson, Peck, Crewe Wolf and De Rojas together with their mix of expertise in HE, FE, vocational education and the tech industry. If the emphasis on funding stems from the chairmanship of Philip Augar who was a former equities trader, much of the rest appears to be a steer towards FE for the majority of 18 year olds, perhaps reflecting the influence of Baroness Alison Wolf, author of Does Education Matter: Myths about Education and Economic Growth

It is important to mention some very welcome recommendations from the report. In many ways it marks a return to some of the assumptions of the post-Robbins consensus on the funding of higher education, albeit with a very firm commitment to the student (and parental) contribution. There is a call for the return of maintenance grants as well as loans, a commitment to a four-year entitlement to FE/HE financing available to all, and a recommendation to cease charging interest on loan amounts accrued during the period of study. Another welcome reversal is an end to ELQ restrictions (whereby a person cannot receive funding for a qualification of equivalent or lower-level qualifications). Also celebrated are the call for a return to a (diminished) government teaching grant, but one whose amount is adjusted to reflect the differential costs of certain subjects, although the buck for making this decision is passed to the Office for Students (p.95) – a return to subject banding, perhaps? Suddenly, we seem to be back on the familiar territory of decades earlier, and led there by those most vociferous champions of change, higher education leaders. 

And then there are some ruptures with the trends of recent years. There’s a proposal to make funding available for ‘unbundled’ modules (p.39), so thanks to every course leader who has been compelled to defend the progression and coherence of their program’s learning objectives. It’s not that I personally ever invested much in that, but I despise the way these apparently essential tenets of ‘accountability’ are so easily dispatched without mention or consultation. ‘Badging’ and micro-credentialing do not constitute an education.  

Despite the title of Wolf’s volume, the report has plenty to say about the value of HE and FE to the economy. Ninety-eight mentions of value according to Johnny Rich.  And despite its disavowals of marketization in HE (p.78), there is strict adherence to the language of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) of competition, choice, and value for money. Anyone excited to find mentions of strengthening governance will be disappointed to find that it usually collocates with ‘financial’.  

The proposed funding model for HE reckons to reduce the loan write off (RAB charge) from 45% to 25% by introducing a longer period of repayment. This will be extended from 30 to 40 years to benefit from a longer period when the graduate is at maximum earnings. But this assumes a very male-centered career trajectory and inscribes a norm whereby nobody can retire before their early sixties, let alone work flexibly in order to care for parents or grandchildren. Significantly, it doesn’t allow any time for the graduate to save money for their own children’s higher education.  

And in return for finagling this saving, the report’s authors assume that government will cover the shortfall created by a reduction in the tuition fee. That seems to betoken the kind of faith in government largesse which stems from the experience of those who have benefitted from it. I doubt there is much of that kind of faith among the under-40s.  

Much is made of degree apprenticeships. There could be no more fervent endorsers of those then the university managers avidly siphoning off the apprenticeship levy for their own MBAs.  At the same time, perhaps for other people’s children, there is the wish to graduate many more students with level 4 and 5 qualifications, ignoring the fact that the currency for both students and employers for 30 years has been an honours degree. The justification for the downgrade, paradoxically, is that there is a need for more technically-qualified workers. Such workers can only emerge from FE, according to Augar. Apparently, you can just uncouple the association between social mobility and an honours degree, an assumption which, the report says, should be subject to a bit of questioning. In any case, for those under 25, access to financial support for level 6 (honours degree level) will be contained with a new demand for high enough attainment at levels 4 and 5. We can only speculate about the risk to students’ levels of stress, and the corresponding pressure on staff, to ensure they attain the necessary grades to progress. If this is a money-saving measure, perhaps the toll on mental health services should feature in another column on the balance sheet.  

And then there are ‘unintended consequences for subject provision that are not aligned with the government’s Industrial Strategy’ (p.91) and degree courses which are unlikely to result in ‘good value for taxpayer money’ (p.84). When you get past reparsing the peculiarities of grammatical concord and attribution by apposition, this turns out to be code for concern that we are producing graduates whose reward is not monetary. Or at least not monetary enough to pay back the entirety of their tuition loans.  In particular, the report chides whomever is listening at this point, that the current funding methodology has resulted in an over-investment in arts and humanities at the expense of STEM (p.84) The remedy appears to be to prevent these students from progressing from levels 4/5 to level 6, which will presumably depress their earnings even further. 

The scale of the damage done by market extremism and individual value for money discourse is laid out on page 191 where the case for reinstatement of maintenance grants is supported by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, the Commons, Educational Select Committee, Hepi, and the Intergenerational Foundation. The understanding that the young are entitled to support and opportunity for their education runs throughout the report. I just wish the authors had made the case for intergenerational equity more unconditionally. 

There are some quite radical changes which will have impact on university autonomy. Yet another plank of academic freedom is scythed away when accusations are made that grade inflation has been too great to suggest plausibly that it is caused by student performance (p78). I always marvel at commentators who insist on evidence and accountability from universities that their teaching and learning resources are all constantly improving, and then press the fire alarm when those learning outcomes improve. To find a group of vice-chancellors and other senior educators saying it is simply perverse. 

But then outcomes don’t always mean learning outcomes as we already know from the semantic shape-shifting in HERA. On page 75 we read that ‘there is a wide variation in spend on subjects grouped in the same funding categories, at apparently similar institutions, with no known correlation to outcomes.’ Outcomes in this instance, as indeed in most usages within the report, equals graduate earnings as indicated by Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data. It was always inevitable that once LEO data became a metric in assessing the value of higher education, they would become THE metric, but perhaps not in a study which declares itself concerned with ‘economically defined value calculations, not value judgements’ (p.87). Incredibly, on the very same page, the authors admit that earnings data is one of a trio of unreliable metrics which constitute the Teaching Excellence Framework. We already know that graduate salaries are affected by region and correlate more effectively with distance from London than any other variable. But they also vary with social advantage, prior attainment and gender. To pretend that they can be considered a reliable criterion by which to judge the way a university teaches a subject, much less ‘adds value’, is fanciful.  

If there is ‘a growing gap between what the labour market demands and what post-18 education supplies’, as Alison Wolf declares,  then Augar provides few of the solutions. Wolf is an advocate of vocational education, despite evidence that the landscape of employment continues to shift rapidly. If employers require graduates with sophisticated IT, numeracy, communication and problem-solving abilities; if the current challenge to liberal democracies require an educated electorate with a working knowledge of history, economics and government, as well as world languages, then solutions lie in a much broader-based common curriculum and enhanced degree-level resourcing.  

Throughout the report there is a supposition that, even in the face of a huge reduction in the government-allocated teaching grant, universities have had a golden decade of opulence, and that their benefit has come at the expense of the withering of FE. As a consequence, Augar recommends that HE should absorb a freeze to fund investment in FE and apprenticeships (p.92,) in addition to the government funding additional capital investment for FE. In actuality, funding for HE has been provided by enrolled students who have been charged the full cost of their teaching. Surely the answer is to introduce a sustainable model of funding for FE and HE, and for both to have considerable public subsidy? 

Sadly, this is not what Augar recommends. The authors fail to state unambiguously the case for supporting and sustaining the UK’s universities which form its repositories of knowledge and its crucibles of learning. Instead the contagion of HERA persists as far as affirming the right of the Office for Students to refuse to bail out institutions which fall into financial difficulties, or as the report writes, echoing HERA discourse and previous ministers for higher education, risking the ‘moral hazard’ of ‘bailing out’ ‘failing institutions’ (p.98).  

Augar has thrown universities to the wolves of a rather rigged market at this point. Nobody – neither staff nor student – can enter a university with any certainty that their career or course of study will be fulfilled without interruption or derailment.  


Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff

This blog originally appeared on the HEPI website: and accompanies HEPI Occasional Paper 20. I am grateful to HEPI and its director, Nick Hillman, for the opportunity to produce this report.

There has recently been a significant amount of media concern surrounding the poor mental health of academics. See also.

In February 2018, Paul Gorczynski of the University of Portsmouth claimed that more academics and students have mental health problems than ever before, with findings that 43% of academic staff exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder. This is nearly twice the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population.

The degree of overwork is confirmed by a work-life balance survey published by Times Higher Education, as is the extent to which this damages mental health. Students also recognize that being taught by exhausted and depressed staff impairs their experience of university courses.

A report from Nottingham Trent University UCU confirms that workloads, for many academics, have become unmanageable. In the NTU UCU survey, the majority of staff surveyed reported working at least one unpaid half day at weekends, with 18% working a whole day. 41% felt that their workload had had a negative effect on their mental health. In fact only 6% said that their workload did not impair their mental health. Typical symptoms included disrupted sleep, depression and cognitive impairment.

Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, is an Occasional Paper which sets out the scale of the problem based on a Freedom of Information survey showing a rising rate of staff referrals to counselling and occupational health in universities. The report also examines the factors which academics have identified as key causes of stress.

New workload models are at the top of the list, especially those which do not reflect the actual time necessary for completion of a task. Typically, for teaching assignments, one classroom hour will be accompanied by an additional 1.6 or 1.7 academic related hours on the annual workload. Lecturers are now required to provide teaching materials across several platforms. Each lecture will now need a Powerpoint, or similar, presentation, associated handouts and, perhaps, an interactive study guide. The lecture video will require editing and uploading. Student email enquiries will need responses. You will need to supply marking criteria which reflect your assessed learning outcomes. For all assessed tasks, you must upload an exemplar response, with commentary. All of these will, of course, need to be redone if you make any changes at all. And, since about 50% of lecturers are on precarious or casual visiting contracts, more of them will be writing those lectures for the first time. Technology may have transformed academics’ ways of working but has not necessarily lightened their load. Nevertheless, academics are often obliged to collude in the fiction that all of this, together with marking an entire cohort’s assessments, can be discharged in 1.7 hours. No wonder academics are stressed.

Many people outside academia imagine it is a life of contemplation and long summer holidays. In fact, few academics are able to take all of their annual leave allowance, and the NTU UCU study shows that 30% of academics worked on at least 10 days during their annual leave. The Times Higher Education 2018 work-life balance survey quoted one academic “We are not allowed to book holidays during term time, but we are also not allowed to book holidays over exam periods, marking periods, internal exam board meetings or course development meetings. This means that although we get 35 days [of holiday] a year, we actually only have opportunity to use about 14.” Senior members of staff find that non-teaching weeks during the summer are now taken up with reading and assessing the research outputs of their department colleagues for submission to the Research Excellence Framework audit. Junior academics are asked to staff weekend open days for potential applicants to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. And let’s consider as well that the majority of academics will be under pressure to produce published research at high quality and volume. The extent of this work, too, fails to be reflected in staff workloads. Responsibilities like editing academic journals, peer reviewing articles and book manuscripts, examining theses, giving expert testimony – many of these are unforeseen at the start of any academic year and therefore mount up, but remain invisible to the human resources manager.

Academics are also evaluated by an assortment of research metrics: citation counts, the impact factor of the journal in which it is published, and the amount of research grant money obtained. These are all poor proxy measures of research quality, but they are easy to track. Despite their obvious limitations, academics are forced to accept that metrics have become the currency of performance management in universities. To work there means giving yourself over to forensic surveillance, and also being willing to have your closest friends and colleagues scrutinize your work, in both teaching and research. That pressure is cumulative and to many, the university has become an ‘anxiety machine’.

As one academic on Twitter out it, academics have been “forced by management into stress positions”. There have, to date, been two deaths by suicide linked to conditions of work at UK universities. Cardiff University lecturer, Malcolm Anderson, took his life on campus when, after years of appeals to his manager, his workload had escalated out of control. Another death by suicide was triggered by pressures to meet targets for research funding. Professor Stefan Grimm at Imperial College, London, had been rebuked by his manager over this issue.

I am honoured that Professor Mike Thomas, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, has written a foreword. He has conducted research into the area of compassion and kindness in leadership. Universities need to adopt these values because no profession can continue to drive its employees to burnout and alienate its pool of graduate recruits. There are remedies: sustainable career pathways, more autonomy and control over workload and responsible use of metrics. But beyond this, the simple, humane values of kindness and care for each other must be recovered if we are to ameliorate the toxic university.

Changing the story will require changing the university

It appears I share a concern with John Gill of Times Higher about the mainstream media’s negative portrayal of universities, and I blogged about this a couple of years ago. In that piece I complained that academics always seem to be the objects of wonkery, rarely the wonkers. Happily, there has been some rapid turnaround there. Sisters, and brothers, are doing it for themselves these days, on Twitter, Facebook, Medium and on blogs. Check out the #WeAreTheUniversity hashtag. There will be other HE networking initiatives launching shortly.

Hardly a month goes by without waking up to Justin Webb of the BBC Radio 4Today programme interrogating a spluttering vice chancellor in an echoey Great Hall about his favourite trinity of imaginary HE curses:  freedom of speech, grade inflation and vice chancellors’ pay. We all groan at the endless perseveration on these themes, wishing that the BBC would find some more positive stories to report. 

But in an article on the Times Higher website, Gill charges university staff and managers with doing essentially the same thing and he finds a fair few miserabilists and Cassandras on his Twitter timeline.

He thinks the secret of recovering universities’ standing is for us to all stop throwing digital molotovs, and instead tell positive, and factual, stories about the sector. Stop the civil war, he inveighs, renounce ‘us and them’ divisiveness and ‘replace it with a sense of collegiality and mutual endeavour’.

That’s where I come adrift. There is an implicit assumption that the sides bear equal responsibility for the breakdown in collegiality between staff and managers in universities. There is no imbalance of power, both sides have caused the gender pay gap, career precarity, the assault on staff pay, conditions and pensions, and both sides have inexplicably decided to bully each other. Furthermore, the sniping on Twitter, which we all know can descend into abusive and personal attacks, is undignified.  And nothing erodes our credibility like anonymous accounts, apparently. I know from academic Twitter that these are scorned by Times Higher, but they cannot seriously pretend not to know why so many academics seek protection from beneath the cloak of anonymity.  Several academic and professional Twitter users have explained any number of times why they feel public dissent is unsafe. Indeed, Times Higher has reported instances, including my own case, where universities have censured precisely those critics who have expressed oppositional views openly. Times Higher journalists know this happens, and they risk alienating sections of the readership if they suddenly act as if it doesn’t.

Additionally, in the last few years, some universities have become ‘sector leading’ at social media surveillance. Read this post and you might understand why some academics have retreated underground. /

In case anyone needs reminding about the tendency of some universities to blunt criticism, there is this poem by Grace Krause. It is as brutal as the bureaucratic insincerity she exposes. Just a few excerpts below:

Appropriate Channels
It has come to our attention that
Some of you have been commenting
On working conditions
And other matters best left private
On social media and other channels
Clearly inappropriate

Please refrain from crying in an open-plan office
Unless you are confident in your ability to weep silently

The Appropriate Channel is to package your grief
To divide it into parcels of a size
Suitable for swift processing
Please do not deliver your grief
In portions unsuitable
For handling

We should thank Times Higher for bringing some welcome scrutiny to university management recently. In recent months, we have seen VCs leave under a cloud at Bath, Kent, De Montfort, Bangor, Reading, Swansea and Open universities.

Other reports have covered excessive executive pay and severance packages. But, frankly, there are enough allegations against university managers to account for an ‘us and them’ divide: removal of meaningful democratic governance, colluding in obfuscation over the USS pensions dispute, silencing quitting employees with NDAs, placing excessive workload demands on staff, overlooking staff mental health breakdown, bullying by metrics, nepotism, victimising trade union leaders, financial mismanagement – is it any wonder there are a few angry anonymous accounts out there? Taking grievances onto social media is a sign of exasperation when no amount of evidence presented to ‘the appropriate channels’ seems to bring about change. In some institutions, there is a need for a truth-and-reconciliation process before a civil dialogue can even start.

Gill wonders why staff can’t just tell great stories of new discovery and benefit to society, and he mentions one terrific example of a team of heart surgeons who benefitted from working with university researchers who scanned a patient’s heart and printed a 3D replica. Impact, suggests Gill. No, says the REF which has colonised the word and circumscribed its meaning. And so unless this triumph of joint expertise and  cooperation can be tied to published research  ‘outputs’ from the researchers’ own institution, they would feel unable to proclaim impact. This is sad evidence that UK universities have been hobbled when it comes to conveying their enormous contribution to society.

As the article accumulated judgements like ‘inane’ and ‘abject’, Andrew McRae of Exeter tweeted supportively, “I think we trash the @JG_THE at our peril. As for social media criticism being ‘nothing more than angry tweets…critiquing unis’: no, honestly, there’s more than this. I’ve copped it myself when I’ve stuck my neck out; it’s no wonder most VCs avoid this space, & that’s our loss”. Andrew, whom I have followed on Twitter for a few years, is one of those rare university managers who maintains a presence on Twitter. If we want insights from that position, however much we might occasionally disagree, we need to think twice before throwing around abuse and ad hominem imprecations. However, the suggestion that we should not enrage the editor of the Times Higher would be to afford him exemption from criticism, which seems undesirable. Nevertheless, in homage to McRae’s plea, I acknowledge that the article casts plenty of shade towards university managers for prioritising buildings over people and appearing to be avaricious when it comes to their own pay and perks.

But both McRae and Gill will have noticed, as I have, that some on academic Twitter have renounced Times Higher for a number of reasons, more recently because of a suspicion that there is a damaging alliance between the business model of rankings, vice chancellors and data, branding and consultancy services that will be on offer since its acquisition by Inflexion, a private equity firm. I have no wish to irritate any one person, but when Times Higher wonders why academics are so angry and yet refuses to contemplate the role that its rankings product might play in the deteriorating experience of academics worldwide, I think we are justified in making that point emphatically.

Never mind. Perhaps the recipe for reconciliation is a feelgood event ‘where some of the sector’s brightest communicators and thinkers will gather to find a way forward’. 

I expect it will cost a VC’s bonus to attend, which will rule me out, but anyway, I have indicated my interest in speaking at the event. I can guess at half the lineup for THE Live. I’m willing to have a conversation with the Polyannas and institutional ra-ra types. But for now, I’m off to a wonderful seminar series critiquing Toxic Positivity in HE.  Catch you later.

REF2021: Adding Insult to Injury

31st January 2019.

57 days to Brexit and 659 days to the REF submission, which, if you need reminding, will be 27th of November 2020. At least Research England and the other UK funding bodies have their rules and guidelines published well in advance of the deadline. But hey – you never know. Remember the last-minute requirement for ‘impact’ last time?

Times Higher reports today that employees who have been made redundant by HEIs may still have their work submitted to REF2021. I imagine their permission is not required.

A consultation document released by the REF in July 2018 had asked for responses to a proposal in Paragraph 206.b which “sets out the funding bodies’ intention to make ineligible the outputs of former staff who have been made redundant (except where the staff member has taken voluntary redundancy). This proposal reflects the funding bodies’ view that, in recognition of the HEI’s intentions regarding the post, including such outputs would not be consistent with the principle of non-portability. It also responds to concerns about the potential negative incentives that may be created in including these outputs.”

The steer in the question is obvious, and yet it has apparently been overturned by the intervention of some powerful voices. In the final version of the REF2021 decisions published today, any mention of outlawing submission of work by staff who have been made redundant has been removed. Instead, paragraph 150 states: “Outputs in the submitted output pool may be attributed to former staff, previously employed as Category A eligible in the assessment period”.  

So why the change? Times Higher reports that ‘the funders’ raised “the significant unintended consequences of doing otherwise”, which apparently amounted to discussing “sensitive information about staff employment with those responsible for selecting outputs”. Find me a research unit where the casualties of redundancy aren’t already an open secret, if not actively contrived by those very selectors. The justifications extend towards the fanciful: “Our concern would be that removing the option to include submissions from former fellows for example would be a disincentive for universities to take on fellowships,” said Catriona Firth, head of REF policy at Research England”. As if universities would abandon the cheap research force that such fellowships represent, but now, instead, as the UCU statement worded it, “the move would be a green light for universities to treat staff like a disposable commodity and entrench the casualisation of early career researchers”.

It is more likely that universities will feel emboldened to abandon any commitment to sustainable, secure career pathways, especially from postdoctoral posts to lectureships, if they feel they can easily terminate employment and still retain the fruits of that casually discarded labour.

David Sweeney is quoted in the Times Higher article: “it would be unfair to penalise people who would want their outputs to be counted, simply in order to appease those who do not”. As if the only controversy at stake was a question of being counted in the REF when, presumably, you would have no input to those discussions, let alone benefit, after redundancy.

Meanwhile, I query Times Higher’s interpretation of the ruling on who is included under the designation ‘former staff’. Paragraph 211a states that outputs may be included: “For staff who remain employed at the institution, but are no longer employed as Category A eligible staff on the census date (for example, senior administrative staff), any outputs that were first made publicly available at the point the staff member was employed as Category A eligible”.

Times Higher’s understanding of this is: “the guidance says that academics who change from a teaching and research or research-only contract during a REF cycle are classed as former members of staff and that outputs which were first made publicly available when they were on their old contract are still eligible for submission.”

I disagree. The example given in Paragraph 211a indicates the REF envisages cases where an employee on a research or teaching and research contract has subsequently changed their role to become e.g. a dean, pro vice chancellor or other senior administrator. Universities have, unethically, been gaming the system by moving academics from teaching and research contracts onto teaching-only contracts. Often this is not the choice of the academic, but imposed on them by a department which disapproves of their research, or (often as a result of poorly conducted internal audits and mock exercises) anticipates it would be graded at less than 3*. It would be appalling if this behavior were to be rewarded by allowing submission of their research. Fortunately, Times Higher’s reading would appear to be contradicted by this paragraph:

212. The outputs of staff who continue to be employed by the institution as Category A eligible staff (i.e. meet the criteria set out in paragraph 117) but who no longer have significant responsibility for research on the census date are not eligible.

Very clearly, this rules out submitting the work of those academics who have had their research role explicitly removed by the institution. Nevertheless, expect this to become contested as universities cavil about Schroedinger’s researcher:

Paragraph141. Staff with significant responsibility for research are those for whom:

a. ‘Explicit time and resources are made available’. Indicators of this could include:

a specific proportion of time allocated for research, as determined in the context of the institution’s practices and applied in a consistent way

research allocation in a workload model or equivalent.

b. ‘To engage actively in independent research’. Indicators of this could include (HEIs are also advised to refer to the indicators of independence, paragraph 132, as additional guidance on this aspect):

eligibility to apply for research funding as the lead or co-applicant

access to research leave or sabbaticals

membership of research centres or institutes within the HEI.

c. ‘And that is an expectation of their job role’. Indicators of this could include:

current research responsibilities as indicated in, for example, career pathways or stated objectives

expectations of research by role as indicated in, for example, job descriptions and appraisals.

Lots of room there for last minute retrospective restoration of an individual’s research ’allocation’.

The announcement has been greeted with expressions of outrage by academic Twitter. “Thought the academic employment environment couldn’t get worse”, tweeted @DrJoGrady. @DavidToke commented: “This isn’t even neoliberalism. This is feudalism”. @sstroschein2 wondered if this ruling will survive a legal challenge. I rather hope @EricRoyalLybeck ‘s  graphic stands as a prediction of a rather large uprising.

Managing the Changelings

Crossing my Twitter timeline yesterday was a piece I might not have ordinarily encountered.  ‘From episodic to continuous change’. 
by James Hutchinson
of the University of Exeter sets out to reflect on “key foundations for supporting continuous improvement rather than on the detail of the process itself.”  It occurred to me that if universities are at all concerned with reputation management, pieces like this might  cause a few of the best academics, students and professional staff to press pause on their online applications.

As I said on Twitter, this is one of the most vacuous examples of management discourse I have seen in a while. I say ‘in a while’ because I have been outside of universities for over two years now and so my exposure is more limited, but oh, how I’ve missed it. 

As regular readers of this blog may know, Helen Sauntson and I have co-authored a forthcoming book: Academic Irregularities which seeks to expose underlying power relations within universities as revealed by the discourse of management. The piece on change management made me itch to get out the red pen and annotate some familiar managerial themes. Let me offer a critical analysis of precisely why this piece is so alienating, and so damaging of an institution’s reputation before the majority of academics. 

Frequently, in university managerial discourse, we see the employment of abstract nouns with shape-shifting definitions. Word of the week is nebulous, and that is exactly what we find here. Such words have been designated by Urcioli  (2000: 4) as Strategically Deployable Shifters (SDS). She defines SDSs as follows: 

[…] a lexical item or expression deployed in different discursive fields so that, in effect, people using term X in a referring expression in field A are engaged in a different pragmatic activity from those using the formally identified term X in a referring expression in field B. The salient interpretation of the term depends on the relation of its user to its audience and so shifts with context.

SDSs, then, can mean one thing to one person and something else to another. In this piece we notice a lot of vague abstract terms: improvement, performance, and change itself. They may change meaning entirely when reflecting one set of values or another. Empowered will make some academics shudder. 

Change is always presented as something that must be managed and controlled by an elite cadre of consultants, or alternatively, by a highly-paid member of the senior management team. The author of the piece announces himself as Director of the Strategic Delivery Unit at the University of Exeter, and, notwithstanding a nod towards change as requiring development and feedback rather than fait accompli’, it is evident that it will be led , top-down, by ‘talented managers and team’, presumably made up of ‘change agents’. They will use ‘intelligent business tools’, ‘performance dashboards’ all conforming to the ‘change blueprint’. I’ve seen one, and its prescriptions were completely disregarded whenever it came to implementing change. 

Change is presented as something which will be complicated and difficult, but inevitable and desirable.  Another presupposition is that change must be continuous and institution-wide, not episodic, contingent, and definitely not locally, slowly or organically. The effects of continuous change are documented by Martin Parker in his brilliant 2014 article  entitled, University Ltd: Changing a business school. Parker points out that when staff encounter problems with institutional change, or when its sheer speed is found to cause unacceptable stress, it is pointed out that unhappiness is inevitable at times of change. The solution is always framed as enhancing communication, implying that if managers just raised the volume a little, the message would be received less reluctantly. And change is, of course, always successful in this world.

In this model, all change is seen as revolutionary and self-evidently a good thing, often presented as ‘shaking things up’. Resistance from those with institutional memory (who are often in a position to identify the futility of the change, or its circularity) is framed in terms of their self-interest and intransigence. Indeed, as Parker points out, the very fact of staff leaving, retiring or falling ill with stress is often, in this managerial fiction of change, defended by the institution as evidence that change is both necessary and effective (2014: 288).  

As we learn from James Hutchinson, “continuous improvement is a way of working’.  But is it too much to ask, as we head over the Brexit cliff, that change is debated and justified in terms which go beyond the discourse of the pep rally? And that those with institutional memory are consulted ? This would at least help institutions avoid 
change being decontextualized from any previous history. Parker comments on the strange process of legitimation:  ‘[I]t was necessary to ensure that the past was not available as a valid position from which to criticize the present. In other words, the past needs to be articulated as a problem, as something that needs to be escaped from’ (2014: 287).  

If they try, and don’t meet resistance, they might actually do it.  Please, readers, stay vigilant, and don’t be afraid to offer your thoughts when the consultation phase of the ‘change blueprint, comes your way. 


Parker, Martin. 2014. University, Ltd: Changing a business school . Organization. vol 21., pp. 281-292

Urciuoli, Bonnie. 2000.  Strategically Deployable Shifters In College Marketing, or just what do they mean by “skills” and “leadership” and “multiculturalism”? Language and Culture, Symposium 6, Binghampton University.

Student Protection Plans: Neither plans nor protection

Student Protection Plans (SPPs) are the creation of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and require universities to clarify their arrangements for students to complete their studies should the institution, course or campus close. But are these plans reliable?  How will universities be held to account if it becomes necessary to activate them? And whose interests are most likely to be served by the terms of the SPPs? Are there some unforeseen moral hazards which attach to their implementation?  

These questions have taken on additional urgency this week when we have seen the release of distressing news for anyone who cares about UK universities and the talented staff and students who work within them. At least 8 universities are considering course closures, redundancies , or, as the University of Reading puts it 
‘refreshing their vision’. So far, the following universities have made known their financial difficulties in recent days: Cardiff University, Birkbeck, University of London, University of Gloucestershire, Bangor University, University of Reading, Bath Spa University, SOAS Library and Queen Margaret University.

There have been two informative blog pieces recently which discuss SPPs. Gordon McKenzie compares how arrangements for insolvency are handled in the Further Education sector.  Meanwhile, Jim Dickinson has helpfully provided species identification and taxonomy – not an easy task since only 65 out of 203 SPPs were traceable.  

SPPs vary in size and detail with The University of Leeds discharging its obligation in just two pages, while the University of Birmingham’s plan runs to a very detailed 21 pages.

The Office for Students (OfS) and Sam Gyimah, former Minister of State for Universities and Science, have both signalled in the starkest terms their intention not to engage in bailouts or, as Hefce did, to facilitate amalgamation of institutions.  

This change of policy is framed as a necessary encounter with the discipline of the market, and fits entirely with the presumptions of the 2016 White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, that success will be ensured by the application of competition and choice. According to this logic, “we must accept that there may be some providers who do not rise to the challenge, and who therefore need or choose to close some or all of their courses, or to exit the market completely. The possibility of exit is a natural part of a healthy, competitive, well-functioning market and the Government will not, as a matter of policy, seek to prevent this from happening. The Government should not be in the business of rescuing failing institutions” [Executive Summary para 17]. 

And so universities must now assess their own financial risk and disclose that in an accessible statement as a condition of OfS registration.  

It only takes the slightest acquaintance with Erving Goffman’s theory of face to understand that universities, famously concerned with reputation above other considerations, will be eager to contradict any suggestion of financial vulnerability. In fact, nearly all of them are at pains to lay out their credentials for financial and academic sustainability.                              

This leads to moral hazard #1– Denial. Most universities claim to be at very low risk of institutional closure.  Leeds dismisses this prospect with “The likelihood that the University will be unable to operate is negligible”. Generally, the SPPs refer to the healthy income and bank surplus ( Birmingham), and strong market position (read league tables), so “the University is, therefore, able to absorb market shocks” ( Birmingham). More worrying is that many go on to rebuff the idea that courses, departments or schools could close, claiming these are all mature and well-established (Leeds). Newcastle University evaluates the possibility of closure of a whole programme because of loss of market viability or insufficient enrollments thus: 

We consider this risk to be low, overall, because of our confidence in our market position and popularity as a destination. 

The University of Liverpool is one institution to make a rare disclosure that it withdrew 37 programmes  from 2014-15 to the present academic year, and all continuing students were able to complete their courses.   

Despite the denials of vulnerability,  universities are required to give details of actions they would initiate if that ‘negligible’ risk should be ‘crystallised’, in the OfS jargon. A number of universities refer to the practice of ‘teaching out’ a course, which means continuing to teach those students already enrolled, while halting recruitment. This is a well-established practice in the sector. Other SPPs promise to support students in finding another provider. Sometimes that means presuming upon a multilateral agreement whose ratification seems unassured. The University of Birmingham undertakes to: 

Facilitate transfer or direct-entry to another provider: We would look to work with partner providers across the UK, including our fellow Russell Group members and our strategic partners such as the University of Nottingham, to accommodate you by transfer or direct entry – subject to their entry requirements.  

The strategic partnership is confirmed in Nottingham’s SPP, if not acknowledged in those of other Russell Group members. However, it raises a question:  is this in the best interests of students to privilege provider status over compatibility of course offerings? What happens if your course is not available at the partner institution? For example, The BA (Hons) in Gemmology and Jewellery Studies is unique to Birmingham City University which states proudly that its School of Jewellery has been in operation since 1890. The agreements, then, provide no guarantees that a student will be able to complete the course they first enroll on, and one wonders how a naïve university applicant is meant to find reassurance in the SPP.  

Also, even where transfer agreements are in place, how would another university suddenly accommodate a large number of supernumerary students? The answer to that lies in an increase in ‘flexibility’ of resourcing in the form of precarious and ‘atypical’ staffing arrangements. Nottingham Trent University’s SPP has this to say:

 The University maintains a flexible pool of adjunct and sessional staff to ensure continuity of supply of both general and specialist teaching.” 

At the University of Wolverhampton,

The University makes use of visiting lecturers to bring in expertise as and when required to ensure core course elements can be delivered.

This reveals moral hazard #2 whereby there is an incentive for employers to conflate protection of student interests in the case of ‘market exit’ with the kind of staffing economies they might like to avail themselves of. The use of contingent staff on insecure contracts has been increasing over the last decade and now atypical staff account for a third of posts in the UK (HESA stats: Staff by HE provider, academic contract marker and mode of employment 2016/17). It appears their use may now be extended to cover core teaching in universities. Given that closure of a teaching facility, discontinuation of a course or loss of Tier 4 licence (international students) are included in the risk analysis along with ‘market exit,’ this reference to a ‘flexible pool’ of casualized staff may prefigure a permanent change in the career structure for an even larger number of academics.  

It should be apparent that these policies are far from being insurance policies for students. Consider moral hazard # 3 – an absence of accountability, identified by Jim Dickinson, who asks, who does the student wave their SPP at if the eventualities are ‘crystallised’? The institution in receivership? The OfS?  The Minister for Universities and Science? The Office of the Independent Adjudicator? – but even they accept they have no regulatory powers over providers and cannot issue fines. What do you do if your recently conferred degree from X university is rendered worthless?  

The final moral hazard belongs to the OfS which, according to Dennis Farrington  “has no statutory authority to guarantee sustainability in any institution” and he raises the prospect of there being ‘disposable universities.’ The consequences of maintaining a stance of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ extend beyond curbing the autonomy of UK universities. The SPPs offer a Trojan horse for greater casualization of the sector and an excuse to devastate a university unpopular, for any reason, with ministers. In either scenario, the interests of students are not served when they cannot rely on an institution enduring for the length of their degree course.  

It is the discourse of HERA legislation that has allowed us for the first time to contemplate the closure of a university for reasons of financial embarrassment unrelated to academic performance. Aside from financial and wider economic issues, there are very good political reasons to proceed cautiously with threats of ‘market exit’.  December 3rd saw Central European University (CEU), one of Europe’s best universities, forced to take the decision to leave Budapest. The Hungarian government has been accused of being the first to actively seek the removal of a university since the German Third Reich.   There has been no response to this from the UK government and none from university leaders who notoriously fail to see the benefit of collective resistance. I hope it will quickly dawn on Chris Skidmore, the next minister for universities, that he would not wish the UK to join this ignominious club. At the moment, that might be the best assurance that the academic community could wish for.  

VC Question Time

The Times Higher held an event in London this afternoon. Billed as THE Live  it seemed designed to be a convivial and informative warm up event for the real thing – a gala evening of THE Awards to be presented by Sandy Toksvig. An array of vice chancellors – I believe the collective noun is a wedge – volunteered themselves to be grilled by John Gill, Editor of the Times Higher in a VC Question Time format. They were Chris Day, Newcastle University; Anthony Forster, University of Essex; Pamela Gillies, Glasgow Caledonian University; and Edward Peck, Nottingham Trent University.

THE Live #VCquestiontime was, in sad contradiction, rather lifeless. For one thing, there was no live stream, so I’m not sure what was supposed to be ‘live’ about it. The tweeting was hardly prolific, but there was enough to get a sense of the tenor of the session. My thanks go Mary Curnock Cook, HEPI and Sarah Custer for their live tweeting.

The Times Higher had been actively inviting questions on Twitter from the UK higher education community for a few days. And academics and administrators supplied plenty of tough ones, commenting that they never usually had the occasion to interrogate their leaders.

So it was disappointing to see how searching and sometimes acerbic questions had been tamed towards the inoffensive. For instance, “How do you sleep at night knowing that your grotesquely inflated salary is directly related to the rise of precarious labour?” was reiterated as “What keeps you awake at night?” And “how could you have responded differently to the VCs’ pay furore” framed the issue as one of PR, not one of attempting to justify large pay rises while requiring restraint of ordinary staff. Questions about the adverse conditions of academic careers and workplaces, and poor incentives for the next generation to become academics, appeared to be domesticated into “would you tell your children to become an academic?” This vision of academic life from University of Essex VC, Anthony Forster, stands in rather stark contrast to the experience conveyed by some questioners:  “noble work, should get us out of bed every day of the week, with a spring in our step, transmission of knowledge, creation of new research that will make the world a better place.”

One or two highlights, though. I laughed out loud at Pamela Gillies comment: “Politicians are not going to let universities go under, not in the real world.” That won’t age well, I predict. And I warmed slightly to Anthony Forster who offered an unvarnished opinion about Universities UK saying, ” Sector leadership is not fit for purpose”, calling for reform of @UniversitiesUK to become voice of Universities rather than voice of vice-chancellors. Nice one.

But all in all my impression was that the questions posed in the VC Question Time session failed to capture the intent of those which had been posted on Twitter. Instead, questions were posed which allowed the panel members to construct a rosy and optimistic narrative. Little which implied criticism of VCs’ own behaviour was asked, including my personal favourite: “How destructive and immoral would a government proposal for HE have to be before you’d risk your chance of a gong to oppose it”. From what I could discern, nothing was asked in several areas which had predominated on Twitter: casualization of the workforce, pensions and the recent strike, staff pay, and academic workloads. For all their talk about staff needing to be pushed beyond their comfort zone, university leaders appear reluctant to step outside of theirs.


Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism