The Office for Students: Ten reasons why it is not for students at all

The Office for Students (OfS) is the new regulatory body for universities and higher education providers in the UK.  To date it has had a short and rather volatile history. Below is a collection of the main issues which students and academics should be aware of.

  1. The OfS will ensure that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) becomes even more prominent for universities who are to be assessed on their ‘outcomes’. However, the TEF is relatively untested, and its critics charge that it will not diagnose poor teaching any more than it will uncover excellent teaching. It is not designed for these tasks since no teaching is actually observed. Teaching quality is inferred from proxy measures which have a very distant and disputed relationship with teaching. See this blog from Dorothy Bishop, and this previous one from me.
  2. The TEF will not incentivise universities to prioritise teaching. Unlike the REF (Research Excellence Framework) which has, arguably, recognised and rewarded excellence in research wherever it is found (notwithstanding Derek Sayer’s well-founded objections), a very different set of circumstances obtain for the TEF. Let’s take an example. Several universities have seen fit to cut courses in Modern Languages in response to falling student demand. Languages will soon no longer be taught in Northern Ireland, so how would an undisputed finding of excellent teaching affect that decision? Will universities channel funding to support excellent teaching wherever it is found? I predict they will not, and that is because funding follows the student. It is a formula designed to disrupt the traditional right of universities to make autonomous decisions about course provision based on the current state of knowledge and discovery. The fact is, when university curricular decisions are outsourced to the caprice of 18 year olds, there is little point in trying to pretend any other factor counts. If you have decided to expand a course because it attracts funding and international students, then no amount of poor National Student Survey scores will not dislodge that conclusion.
  3. Ergo, poor teaching will be condoned and concealed by universities in the flawed and distorted market of UK higher education. The TEF is still useful to universities as it offers a justification for getting rid of unconventional academics who are disliked by managers.
  4. The Office for Students seems to fixate on issues which don’t really register as important for students. Amatey Doku, NUS Vice President for Higher Education, answered questions from The Joint Committee on Human Rights – a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament on 17th January 2018. Here he exposes the mythology of a crisis of freedom of speech in universities which is not top of students’ priorities.Amatey Doku
  5. The Office for Students has no representative from the National Union of Students on the board. This is in spite of promises from Theresa May that the NUS would work in consultation with the new regulatory body. The sole student representative, Ruth Carlson, is relatively unknown. The circumstances of her appointment are not clear, but the new minister for higher education, Sam Gyimah, revealed that she was chosen from outside of the pool of three candidates considered appointable by the interview committee. We can only speculate what advantages Ms Carlson’s appointment might confer on the board of the OfS, but expertise in student representation does not appear to be among them. She is studying civil engineering, however, and this might plug a gap on the board (see 6).
  6. Not a single other scientist or engineer has been selected for the board.
  7. The Office for Students’ mission is defined in Chapter 2 para 37 of Success as a Knowledge Economy, the government White Paper published in May 2016.

“The OfS will be explicitly pro-competition and pro-student choice, and will make sure that a high quality higher education experience is available for students from all backgrounds. For the first time, we will put the interests of the student at the heart of our regulatory landscape. By enabling better student outcomes, we will also protect the interests of taxpayers and the economy”.

But the suspicion at this point is that the government’s understanding of competition and choice is restricted to the introduction of new private providers into the system. The fear is that they will choose to provide cheap-to-teach courses, like law and business, and this will further restrict the choices available to students. This concern is grounded in the fact that among the members of the board are Carl Lygo, former VC of BPP University, part of the Apollo Group which includes the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA. The rest of the appointees can be seen here  and we note that private sector and business professionals predominate over practitioners in higher education.

8. There are real doubts about how the quality of higher education courses will be protected by the new regulator. The OfS will oversee the award of university title to new HE providers – a privilege currently only bestowed by the Privy Council. The OfS has already shown signs that it may tolerate a less rigorous pathway to university status than we see with current arrangements. Alarm bells rang for many academics when the UA92 Manchester United Academy was announced. The new regulatory arrangements allow for degree awarding powers to be issued with no demand for a track record of quality teaching and assessment under the supervision of an established university.  OfS will also be able to revoke the title of university for those institutions it deems to be failing. The current quality assurance system works with universities if they are seen to be in need of improvement, but students now might start studying at a university, only to find their institution downgraded or fined into bankruptcy.

9. The OfS has already demonstrated poor judgement in its attempt to appoint Toby Young to the board. Given the structures outlined in the White Paper, this appointment must have been overseen by ministers (namely Jo Johnson), and Young would have been interviewed by Sir Michael Barber, the Chair of OfS. The appointment of student representative, Ruth Carlson (see point 5 above) seems similarly unorthodox. This action has alienated most parts of the sector, as we can only assume it was meant to. We need an independent regulator which can work with universities, not antagonise them for the sake of it.

10. Jo Johnson, the previous minister for higher education, has suggested that it will be within the remit of OfS to issue financial penalties to universities which award ‘too many’ firsts and 2.1 degrees. Firstly, as I argue (in a forthcoming piece), there is no firm basis for charging universities with grade inflation. Secondly, there is no suggestion at the moment what might constitute ‘too many’. If the OfS does interfere with universities’ cherished independence and academic judgement in this manner, it is unlikely to make many friends among students it counts as its central constituency.

The unease which has greeted the launch of the OfS has prompted Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, the vice chancellors’ representative body, to write of the recent consultation document from the OfS, “The tone of the document is, in places, confrontational and appears preoccupied by short-term political concerns rather than the larger long-term task of creating a credible, independent regulator”.

The OfS has shown itself to be willing to pursue moral panics that vice chancellors feel originate with a government piqued by perceived opposition to its agenda (especially Brexit).  Many of the rest of us resent the ideologically motivated campaign in both government and media circles which is unsympathetic to dearly held academic values such as education for the public good and worry that the OfS is merely another vehicle by which to instigate this. I for one share Alistair Hudson’s hope that, “In the months ahead, it will be necessary for the OfS to establish itself as a mature, fair and accountable regulator that uses its powers to support students through proportionate regulation and judgement.” Sadly, the shortcomings exposed by its initial actions have meant that OfS has probably exhausted any goodwill it might otherwise have been able to claim.


Jo Johnson’s Office for Students: Straight outta Pearson

There is some good news on this New Year’s Day of 2018. Nobody in academia ever need feel the demoralizing burden of imposter syndrome ever again

The announcement at midnight GMT of Toby Young’s appointment to the board of the Office for Students came as a shock. That’s why it was buried, rather than greeted, by the distraction of fireworks and revelry.

I like to think there is a diversity of opinion on higher education represented by my Twitter follows. Nevertheless, my timeline revealed a universal sense of outrage at Young’s lack of any obvious qualification for the post. I outline some of the reasons we might all be concerned about this appointment.

For five years Toby Young ran a free school and associated trust, but stepped down in 2016 remarking that the project had been much harder than he had thought.  His other career highlights are within the field of journalism and he currently sits as associate editor of The Spectator. His real expertise seems to be in restaurant and food journalism.

The post requires oversight of the new regulatory body for higher education whose priorities are: “to promote choice and opportunities for students, encourage competition as a means of promoting the student interest, promoting value for money in the provision of higher education and driving equality of opportunity in connection to access and participation in higher education. Let nobody say Toby Young is not concerned with fairness and equality. In an article entitled ‘The Fall of the Meritocracy” (2015) he reveals he is an advocate of behavioural genetics, a theory that “cognitive ability and other characteristics that lead to success, such as conscientiousness, impulse control and a willingness to defer gratification, are between 40 per cent and 80 per cent heritable.”

In other words, those of us concerned that young men  and BME students fail to achieve at the expected level at university can relax; we can just attribute it to their inherited IQ and leave questions of inadvertent discrimination unexamined. Young believes that members of a cognitive elite with IQs over 125 will inevitably be the ones to enjoy high socioeconomic status. Tell that to the growing army of casualized academics with PhDs. Furthermore, he believes bright people are few and far between in low paying jobs. Tell that to my New York taxi driver who just educated me on Persian poetry. He couldn’t talk to his literature PhD wife about it – she was only interested in the status of the job, not its substance.

The threat that a cognitive underclass will be excluded from this Brave New World can also be solved. Young offers a solution based on as-yet unavailable technology of progressive eugenics. If the embryos of lower IQ parents could be screened, and their higher IQ embryos implanted, then inequality would be reduced. This innovation should be ringfenced for the less intelligent to offset the heritability of disadvantage. This is: a) an improbable scenario that a new and desirable technology would be placed solely at the service of the disadvantaged, and b) only deliverable by a despised ‘big government’ which in the US anyway, seems rather averse to making known technologies and societal goods – contraception, healthcare or education – available to the underprivileged. I’m aware there is enough controversy about the reliability of IQ tests for children and adults, let alone speculating on how we might test embryos for intelligence. In any case, it employs an a priori argument that there is a genetic basis for intelligence.

Similarly, any obligation of the OfS to ensure equality of access to universities will not disturb Young’s conscience. In a 2012 Spectator column, he pens this objection to the adjective inclusive:

Schools have got to be “inclusive” these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from Dyslexia to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels the government will have to repeal the Equality Act because any exam that isn’t “accessible” to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be “elitist” and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law.

These are the published opinions of Toby Young, prospective board member of the Office for Students. It’s not a case of no-platforming. This man is inimical to the OfS essential requirements for the post:

  • Genuine interest in contributing to the delivery of the Government’s priorities for higher education and effective running of OfS.
  • Candidates should be able to demonstrate good judgement and high levels of integrity. This as part of a commitment to the seven principles of conduct in public life.

Jo Johnson urges us to embrace the new Office for Students. Putting students at the heart of the system. Strengthening the student voice. Except there is only one student representative on the board. If there is another seat destined for a candidate who has “recent and substantial experience of representing the interests of students” let’s hope this is not the one assigned to Toby. Not to worry, though. In higher education today, we are more comfortable making all important judgments on quality of teaching and research by reference to unreliable proxies. This means that the central concerns of the OfS will be to “promote choice and opportunities for students, encourage competition as a means of promoting the student interest, promoting value for money in the provision of higher education and driving equality of opportunity in connection to access and participation in higher education.” No thought that an up-to-date curriculum might be important to students, or teaching staff who have contracts which allow them to build the kind of sustainable academic careers from which expertise and quality emerge.  Freedom of speech is only likely to be regulated insofar as universities permit themselves to become platforms for some speakers whose opinions might bring them into conflict with another avowed purpose of the OfS – ensuring “equality of opportunity in connection to access and participation in higher education”. It is rather difficult to feel an equal member of a community which requires that your identity, not that of a more favoured group, is subject to interrogation and skepticism.

At least the OfS guardianship of the student experience will be unencumbered by any need to consider research, which is now the purview of UK Research and Innovation. Probably this is a first step in unbundling the more marketable aspects of universities, and we see the direction of travel signaled by the new Knowledge Exchange Framework The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 has as a specific goal to open the door to more private providers, excuse me – challenger institutions – as we must use the compulsory language of competition. So it now makes sense when we see the board of the OfS being stuffed with collaborators who are well disposed towards privatization of education. This project, under the guise of ensuring value for money, will be delivered by the privatisation crusaders at the Office for Students. Also on the board is Carl Lygo, VC of BPP University, part of the Apollo Group which includes the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA. What the two institutions have in common is that they focus on degree programs which are vocational in nature. The suspicion is that inviting more private providers in the UK will act as asset-stripping of the most marketable (and cheaper to teach) university programs, like law and business. A further suspicion is that the attraction to new HE providers will be students who are eligible for tuition loans.  Indeed, the University of Phoenix has been under criticism for preying on US service veterans who are entitled to educational benefits.

Sir Michael Barber, the Chair of the Office for Students has an equally tight relationship to the new world of commercialized education. He was Chief Education Officer at Pearson, the publisher whose aim to commercialize education was achieved first by capturing the market in textbooks, followed by taking over the testing regimes (including the influential PISA tests). Once you have defined what it is schools must teach, you are then in a position to privatize schools. This has become particularly successful in developing countries, anxious to appear ‘competitive’. This enterprise has often appeared altruistic, such as the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund – a for-profit venture fund launched by Barber to support low-fee schools in India, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and the Philippines.  Given that Barber is the author of An Avalanche is Coming we may surmise his attitude to the economies of scale promised by ed-tech ‘learning products’. This ‘Starbucks style learning has worked well in the test-bed of the developing world, and is about to be rolled out, with ministerial blessing from Jo Johnson, in British universities.

This is what is known in 2018 as disruption. The mantra is “move fast and break things.” Like all destructive children, there is no consideration about whether the things belong to you, or whether they are valuable. The universities and higher education institutions I care about, and you care about, belong to the learning communities that constitute them. However, they are at risk from regulation by a group of people who are hostile to the aims of higher education for the public good. These are not reflective, nurturing people who care what they leave behind them. They are not the world’s philanthropists. They are profiteers, contemptuous of academics with more noble aims. We may find that the appointment of Toby Young is short-lived. We must still be vigilant about the rest of them, because otherwise there really will be an avalanche, and this time academics whose mission diverges from the profit motive may find themselves buried.

Adonis takes a scalp?

Let the 28th November 2017 stand as a pivotal moment for UK universities. Phil Baty of the Times Higher tweeted, “So Adonis gets a scalp”. That seemed to over-simplify the circumstances surrounding the retirement, announced that day, of Dame Professor Glynis Breakwell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Bath.

It has been a busy few months for Dame Glynis. As well as sustained pressure in the media from Lord Adonis, the academic staff union members had voted unanimously for a motion of no confidence in the Vice Chancellor. She then narrowly escaped another vote of no confidence in the University’s senate and was facing yet another censure from the students’ union later in the week.

The rebellion had built quickly in response to the findings of a Hefce enquiry into governance issues surrounding determination of senior pay at the University of Bath.   This had been initiated by a complaint from Lord Andrew Adonis in July 2017 in which he criticized what he saw as excessive pay for the Vice Chancellor at £451,000, and the lack of restraint on senior salaries in the face of an appeal for such by the Minister for Higher Education. Additionally, Adonis had reservations about the conduct of the remuneration committee which oversees the vice chancellor’s pay increases, and on which Dame Glynis had exercised her right to vote. He raised additional concerns about governance at the university later in August 2017.

Hefce launched an unprecedented enquiry into the University of Bath case. Unprecedented because I cannot remember a similar instance, and the absence of other cases on Hefce’s regulation and assurance website page seems to confirm this was a new venture for them. Nevertheless, the findings are remarkably fearless; perhaps they were belatedly flexing a muscle in order to assert their independence credentials in advance of their impending abolition. Hefce was not pleased with governance at Bath, finding conflict of interest with regard to the remuneration committee and poor governance practice in aspects of the handling of a University Court meeting, declaring “These issues have, in our view, together resulted in damage to the reputation of the university.” The fact that Dame Glynis was heavily implicated may have sealed her fate.

Arguably, this was only partially Adonis’ scalp. He objected to levels of pay among senior staff, and the circumstances of salary increases, but in fact these had been the subject of protest since 2012 by staff at the university. In the last few months they collated a number of other grievances, and they built alliances with local councillors and local MPs. They also kept the story in the local and national media headlines throughout the summer and autumn. According to a Guardian article, “Junior staff complain of job insecurity caused by short-term or zero-hours contracts, of pay held deliberately low, and a “culture of fear” permeating Bath’s campus”.

So on Tuesday 28th November 2017, it was announced that Dame Glynis had chosen to retire in August 2018. Once again it was felt she had misjudged the changing mood as she will be granted a sabbatical, as I understand it, on full salary and her £31,000 car ‘loan’ will be paid off by the university. It is not a bad package. But many will be asking the question, are vice chancellors worth it? The public perception that they are overpaid has been simmering for several years. Vice chancellors routinely defend their emoluments by maintaining they are possessed of rare and valuable skills, and that they operate in an international market for such expertise. Continued salary competitiveness is essential to ensuring that UK universities remain world class. I have always been sceptical of this line of argument, given that the vast majority of VCs are white, and from the UK, Australia, USA or South Africa. By contrast, at almost any faculty meeting, you would be guaranteed to be sitting among equally distinguished colleagues from a far wider number of countries.

Ironically, it has been revealed that Dame Glynis did not add her voice to claims of exceptional leadership and influence. In a 2010 research article co-authored with Michelle Tytherleigh, entitled ‘University leaders and university performance in the United Kingdom: is it ‘who’ leads, or ‘where’ they lead that matters most?’, they had this to say on the question of whether institutional performance can be related in any way to the characteristics of its leader, “our findings suggest that, whilst the performance of a university may be ‘moulded’ by the characteristics of its’ leader, most of the variability is explained by non-leadership factors”.  I have retained their rogue apostrophe for authenticity.

It is curious that a salary of £450K+ has attracted such opprobrium when there have been higher paid chief executives in recent memory. In 2015, Neil Gorman of Nottingham Trent University topped the league table of salaries with £623,000. It caused such controversy that staff were issued with a script in anticipation of hostile questions at recruitment open days. By contrast, Dame Glynis’ compensation seems almost modest. There were some commentators who suggested that Adonis’ complaints were animated by misogyny and that it was no accident he had targeted a female vice chancellor who just happened to be the most highly paid. A letter in the Guardian on Saturday 25th November from a group of women senior staff offered their support for their vice chancellor, saying “Being a successful woman seems to attract a disproportionate degree of negative criticism”, and enumerating the successes racked up by the University of Bath during Breakwell’s tenure.  A retort from other female staff indicated that such solidarity had not been entirely reciprocated, and identified one of the largest gender pay gaps in the country, as well as wide use of zero hours contracts.

It will be interesting to follow repercussions from these events. I’m sure the rest of the UK’s vice chancellors will be feeling a little unsettled in the following months. The Bath case sends out a signal to the leaders of the marketized and managed universities of the post-Jarratt era that they have had their wings clipped, cards marked, or to use a current favourite managerial metaphor, they are on a burning platform. Their wealth and power has risen as that of their staff has declined. There has been a league table of vice chancellors’ salaries – denounced by academics but embraced as a bargaining benchmark by those chief executives. It seems unlikely that many of them will wish to occupy the top position now. Lord Adonis continues his campaign, one vice chancellor at a time. In a tweet last night (28th November) he seemed to focus his ire on the luckless Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton. Whatever the outcome of that manoeuvre, I predict that the range of salaries will contract to an average of £230K and will increase slightly below the inflation figure (i.e. in line with other academic salary increases). There will be greater efforts towards transparency and accountability for executive salaries and increases. It now seems politically toxic to do otherwise. As a consequence, we may see a new ethos of intrinsic motivation to lead UK universities for the sake of doing a good job. I hope a new breed of vice chancellors will align themselves more openly with the values of universities as public good and democratic necessity, not as engines of economic competitiveness.

Their rising tide of senior executives post-Jarratt has certainly not lifted all boats. Tenure was abolished in the 1980s. Vice chancellors became chief executives and stifled the influence of academics on university senates. They cut expenditure on pay by employing hourly paid lecturers in posts previously held by full time career academics. They now seem to be presiding over the withdrawal of a final salary pension for staff in the USS pension scheme. So far, only one vice chancellor, Stuart Croft of Warwick, has stated his opposition to this move. This is probably the one benefit that academics will vote to strike for because, for one thing, it makes UK universities attractive and competitive to the best researchers from overseas. It does seem odd to demand decent remuneration packages just for senior management, and not for the people who actually make the universities world-leading.

There is a rising tide though – of resistance from the academic ranks. Just as Bath colleagues take inspiration from the successful campaign against Raising the Bar at Newcastle, others are beginning to organise towards restoring democratic governance in our universities. It is important to remember that it is staff and students who form the ‘core business’ of universities; managers are ancillary ‘overheads’ – and expensive ones. It may be misplaced optimism to say that we are seeing a new dawn in universities, but I am nevertheless hopeful.

I end with the final paragraph from the narrative of events at Bath authored by the President of the UCU branch, Michael Carley.

The position now is that Bath staff and students have concluded that the governing body have learned nothing from the HEFCE report or from the publicity surrounding the Vice-Chancellor’s pay and perks. The campus, students and staff, is more politicized than it has been since the glory days of the 1970s. Questions of governance are being discussed as if they mattered. Staff have spoken openly about the “climate of fear” at the university and are beginning to throw it off.


It’ll never happen

By Liz Morrish

A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 23rd October 2017.


As a linguist I appreciate a good metaphor. ‘Future I-86’ was a coded phrase which would always elicit a knowing smirk from my close academic colleagues when I was a subject leader in a post-1992 university. It meant the new idea being touted was probably going to be a blow-through, never to be encountered again, so we wouldn’t be wasting too much time on it. The phrase had its origin for me back in 1989 when I was working in a college in upstate New York. State legislators announced that the main road up to the Catskill Mountains, Route 17, was to become an Interstate – I-86. In just a few weeks, new signs appeared declaring ‘Future I-86’. They are still there 28 years later, with little actual progress achieved towards becoming an interstate highway.

It is always unwise to impose an idea or process on individuals or institutions for which those values are a poor fit. The values of the private sector – competition, market focus and financialized targets have long grated in the synchromesh of knowledge for its own sake, public service and the collective good. But exactly how can we diagnose a drive-by initiative and make sure it stays quarantined in the Dean’s Consultation Group?

A couple of recent stories have provided us with the benefit of hindsight. First, an article condemning The Digital-Humanities Bust. This takedown of what has seemed to many of us a rather grandiose lauding of a ‘discipline’ lacking unity, identity, research questions or methodology was as welcome as it was elegantly argued. Although I fully acknowledge the great benefits to scholarship which accrue from digitised archives and the compilation of massive linguistic corpora, there has been a lot of hype, and in some cases undue pressure to ‘do’ digital humanities. Denouncing an “extravagant rhetoric of exuberance”, the author, Timothy Brennan, writes, “Digital humanities has a signature style: technophilia crossed with a love for its own neologisms. Data are “curated” rather than assessed; information is “leveraged”; facts are “aggregated” rather than interrogated”. Gotcha.

The uncritical celebration of the technological fix has also been a feature of discussions about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Another article predicts the swift demise of these. And yet it is only in 2013 we were told An Avalanche is Coming, Not a cluster of snowflake students this time, lacking the resilience that a bit of mindfulness might install.  No, this was about the technological revolution about to transform higher education. Universities were advised they must provide online courses and unbundle their degrees in the form of MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses). Universities did provide these, and academics, who love a new audience for their work, engaged with the new teaching and learning technology. Unfortunately, for this is the criteria for success in 2017, few have turned a profit, and the completion rates average just 15%. Currently the most successful MOOC in the UK is Edinburgh University’s Equine Nutrition with an enrolment of 23322 students and a completion rate of 36.1%. To date, they have proven most popular with curious retirees or older workers looking to update their knowledge, and sector pioneer Udacity is already threatening to retrench. MOOCs may have seemed a step in the right direction for public service and knowledge transfer, and they may have been the route to accelerated promotion for a few early-adopters, but universities’ income remains tied to their ability to attract residential undergraduates. Perhaps the mistake was to view universities as just platforms for delivery of courses rather than communities of scholars engaged in rather 12th-21st century activities such as teaching, research and critical engagement with democracy.

One of Avalanche’s authors, Sir Michael Barber, is the Head of the Office for Students (OfS), and a persistent complainer that universities are failing to enter the 21st century. He has laid out his vision for a very new approach to regulation in the UKHE sector where new universities may switch validators, the OfS will be entitled to offer its own degrees, and universities must provide a plan to facilitate student continuation of their degrees at another institution in the event of ‘market exit’.  It is a recipe for destabilization, uncertainty and reputational catastrophe for British universities, albeit dressed up in the language of competition, choice and market fundamentalism.

I left the academy just as the personalization agenda was beginning to invade my consciousness, but before puppy rooms and lazy rivers were judged to be an essential part of ‘the student experience’. I may be getting confused at this point with USP – Unique Selling Point, but I think that’s all a bit noughties. The cult of ‘personalization’ seems likely to increase, with its promise of student-pleasing initiatives and instant feedback. Another report indicates this was a word which went down well with the TEF panel, especially if repeated often enough.  However, I can’t help feeling that the boast of customised teaching is likely to be submerged within a rather depersonalizing student dashboard whose judgements reflect ‘engagement’ algorithms generated by cohort norms, rather than the intuition of academics who teach them.

I’m not sure how the government will weigh obligation to personalize courses against the OfS impulse to enforce ‘market exit’ for what I’m sure will be an increasing list of deficiencies. Finding its way to the top is likely to be failure of a sufficient number of graduates to repay student loans (assuming these persist). Now that the government has access to Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data (i.e. graduate incomes), they can assess the apparent value for money to individuals of particular courses and universities. Enforced closure of courses deemed to lack earning power will ensure that higher education in the UK contracts towards the homogeneous. Meanwhile, the stated purpose of TEF information is to enable students to make informed choices. At the same time, bestowing degree awarding powers on ‘alternative providers’ is supposed to expand diversity in the sector. Both assertions are misleading. They serve only to mask the move towards market fundamentalism.

The TEF of course, is another unnecessary, proxy-data-driven solution to an illusory problem. I wish I could be writing its epitaph, but it has just been saved from the extinction that might have been its fate if the Russell Group had walked away. This looked possible, after TEF-for-fees was revealed to be a bait-and switch decoy. In October 2017 we had news that TEF registration will be a condition for charging in excess of £6K fees. There are indications it will extend its scope into subject level scrutiny, and it may demand evidence of learning gain – if a convincing measure can be found. Or perhaps learning gain will be eclipsed by the easier-to-measure value for money/ LEO data.

Unfortunately, not all bad ideas are future I-86s although they often share the characteristics of excitable pronouncements and the scolding of professionals for imagined recalcitrance in the face of ‘modernisation’. We see high-handed judgements from those who have little contact with day to day operations. This is followed by the conceit of innovation driven by a requirement to convince government funders that the institution is in regulatory compliance.

I have seen a few really good ideas gets wasted and squandered for reasons that baffle. Some of these might even qualify as digital humanities or ed-tech. Online Subject Centres flourished in the early 2000s. Their dynamic projects and invaluable resources made a real difference to teaching and learning in universities. The case studies and question banks that informed my academic practice have been inaccessibly interred by the Higher Education Academy into a Knowledge Hub consisting of webinars and employability strategies. I withhold my judgement on the HEA. Let’s just say they’re still way back on Route 17 as far as I’m concerned.


A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 23rd October 2017.




The accident of accessibility: How the data of the TEF creates neoliberal subjects

This is the link to a video of a talk I gave to the Digital University in a Neoliberal Age Symposium, organised by the Contemporary Philosophy of Technology Research Group. Title: The accident of accessibility: How the data of the TEF creates neoliberal subjects.


In an era of neoliberal reforms, academics in UK universities have become increasingly enmeshed in audit, particularly of research ‘outputs’ via the Research Excellence Framework (REF). A new Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF) has emerged in 2017, whose results are determined primarily by proxy data of National Student Survey (NSS) scores, retention data and Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data (LEO), i.e. salaries of graduates. This has been made possible by SBEE (Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015) legislation which has enabled data mining and synthesis of data streams from records held by the Student Loans Company (SLC), HMRC and universities themselves.

These two audit processes, REF and TEF, were originally envisaged as instruments to evaluate research and teaching, respectively, at institutional level. This had a distinctively neoliberal purpose in seeking to mould universities more closely towards serving the economic needs of the nation. The REF, however, has also been recruited as an instrument of individual performance management in universities, with each academic forced to compete in academic output and research funds with the most talented and unencumbered scholars. The TEF, similarly, bestows an institutional ranking, but will rapidly be repurposed in order to shape the behaviour and priorities of academics. For example, the participation of local areas (POLAR) classification allows universities to be rated according to their success against the Widening Participation (WP) agenda. In this way, universities can appear to fail by revealing larger differential outcomes for target groups according to ethnicity and social class than their benchmark permits. The discourse of the TEF legislation, bolstered by studies from HEA/HEPI, assumes the source of inequality of outcome is poor teaching and requires corrective action by universities. Further justification for surveillance and quasi-regulation is borne by appeals to ‘value for money’ and ‘competition’. Universities are positioned as subject to market forces, and students positioned as consumers. Universities are responding by creating ‘managers for the student experience’ whose responsibility it will be to oversee change, without ever addressing the question of what causes differential outcomes, or what actions on behalf of government or institutions might make a difference.

I argue that what seems to be an arbitrary constellation of proxy data points has in fact been a calculated plan to render universities, staff and students as neoliberal subjects. The accident of accessibility, inasmuch as it overlaps with the neoliberal imperative, has determined which data shall function as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These KPIs are signalled via metrics-driven student and staff dashboards which offer no retreat from the interpretation and coding imposed by government, and the whole assemblage is cemented by discursive choices which align with neoliberal principles. In this way, the ideological purpose of the legislation and the audit is realized: the imposition of institutional and personal responsibility for structural inequality has been achieved.

The Government White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy, May 2016, will form the text for corpus analysis of keywords, discourses and metaphors.



One of the peculiarities of language is that the same form of words can mean entirely different things depending on the speaker/writer, the occasion, the intent and the preceding context of interaction. Chris Heaton-Harris is a Conservative MP and government whip. His unusual letter to university vice-chancellors, sent at the start of October 2017, has been brought to the attention of the press by Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University. On face value, it bears all the hallmarks of linguistic politeness. “I was wondering if you would be so kind” and “I would be much obliged”. Nevertheless, David Green’s reaction would resonate with most academics. According to The Guardian, he felt a chill down his spine when he read the “sinister” request: “This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous,” he says. “Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’, a phrase to be found on Mr Heaton-Harris’s website.”

UCU Chair Sally Hunt has also detected “the acrid whiff of McCarthyism” while Chris Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said it was “offensive and idiotic Leninism” 

Another peculiarity of language is that meanings which are obvious to one group can be refused by another. Step forward chief Tory apologist Andrea Leadsom. In her lunchtime Radio 4 interview it is clear she was inclined towards the polite reading of Heaton-Harris’ letter. “It does seem to me to be a bit odd that universities should react in such a negative way to a fairly courteous request,” she said.

Who is to know what was in the whip’s mind? Perhaps he is genuinely interested in filling in the gaps in his knowledge of European Studies. Perhaps he wants to conduct a survey on the diversity of opinion on Brexit. But he is on record as a Euorsceptic, and universities are known to be places with a great deal to lose if the UK proceeds with separation from the European Community. The suspicion of many academics on my Twitter timeline was that Heaton-Harris was attempting a clumsy exercise in political coercion. Oddly enough, the letter evokes another activity which many academics consider inappropriate surveillance – ‘lecture capture’. There are many entirely legitimate reasons to record lectures for students to access later, but now, this incident has gifted refuseniks a really good reason to resist.

In time for the 1 o’clock news on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, Heaton-Harris tweeted: “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”. As bad luck would have it, Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson had just tweeted a couple of hours previously: “Academic freedom -which we’ve just entrenched in statute in Higher Ed &Research Bill 2017! – is core to success +better protected than ever”.

Oops. Clearly the Whips’ Office had forgotten to copy him in to the letter, and this just made Johnson’s assertion seem disingenuous, and not only because of Heaton-Harris’ blunder. For this is the government which is seeking to make scrutiny of university safeguards over academic freedom a condition for registration with the new regulator, the Office for Students. Perhaps protesting too much, Johnson bit the bullet again at 1.30pm: “Academic freedom absolutely fundamental and protected in statute in our recent Higher Education & Research Act 2017 …

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK moved swiftly on the UUK website to defend universities against a pernicious assault on their autonomy, “I would ask that Chris Heaton-Harris MP explains his motive for asking universities to share names of their European studies Professors, their course content and lecture notes. This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom.” And just for good measure he decided to remind Jo Johnson that academic freedom has been enshrined in legislation since  the 1988 Education Reform Act which “ensures that academic staff have freedom to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions”.

So what was it that allowed Heaton-Harris’ request to be recognised as a threat, not a request? Simply, it stood out as unprecedented.  It was very specific to a controversial issue about which the government is defensive. Furthermore it asked for names of lecturers AND access to the actual lectures they delivered. It seems redolent of the recent intimidation and marginalization of climate change researchers in the US. And where goes climate change may follow research on evolution, fracking, sexuality, colonialism, petroleum engineering, election hacking and any number of other issues for which there is a prevailing body of knowledge and opinion which may unsettle politicians. Even if Heaton-Harris was motivated by desire for “an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”, he could still claim that it is impeded by a homogeneity of opinion in universities. In the United States such claims have spurred legislation to guarantee political ‘balance’ among university academics in Iowa public universities. Iowa Senate File 288, if enacted, would compel university appointment committees to consult voter registration records in order to hire comparable numbers of Democrat and Republican academics.

You’d like to think it couldn’t happen here, but these are very uncertain times in politics and education. Just as each new outrage from Donald Trump seems to allay the offensiveness of the next, we can predict interference in university autonomy will happen again, especially given the monstering that universities have endured over the summer and autumn. As Thomas Docherty tweeted, “The idea is that next time we will be less shocked. Ten times later, we will be expected to just accept it and comply. And some will, sadly.” But we must resist, and it is reassuring that Universities UK has recognised, and rejected, Heaton-Harris’ threat.





When does Prevent prevent freedom of speech?

A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 19th September 2017

Earlier this year I was expecting to deliver a talk to a UCU meeting called to oppose the University of Warwick management’s proposal to reform Statute 24. This refers to amendments to the University’s procedures for Disciplinary, Grievance, Redundancy and Removal for Incapacity on Medical Grounds for Academic Staff. I had been asked seven days previously to address the meeting, but because Warwick has a requirement to give three weeks’ notice for approval of a visiting speaker, the organisers felt the meeting was unable to proceed.

Warwick’s ‘three week rule’ is one of the procedures adopted by the university under the government’s Prevent agenda.  I was invited to an emergency meeting and the union organisers needed to find a speaker fast. Understandably, they had other things on their minds and forgot to apply for speaker approval. Warwick administrators quickly responded to say that they had received no application for speaker approval, and indeed would not have refused any application on my behalf. There is, apparently, a procedure which covers the eventuality which occurred:

The principal organiser must ensure sufficient time for the HoD or nominee to give consideration to any concerns, and for the University to review the request should the HoD or nominee deem this necessary. If so, and where possible, the University should be notified of the speaker request in question at least three weeks prior to the event, to enable a full risk assessment to be conducted and any mitigating arrangements to be put in place. If it is not possible to provide three weeks’ notice, the department should inform the University as soon as practicable.

Perhaps staff were not well informed about this.

Like most academics, I do a fair amount of speaking at conferences and events, and this was my first encounter with Prevent or any need to get prior approval before appearing on campus. A three week notice period for all speakers seemed to me rather excessive. However inadvertent, the resulting cancellation acted as an impediment to the free flow of discussion, and has hindered organisation of a trade union activity.

Is there scope within Prevent to do things differently? I decided to do a bit of research. I started with the HM Government Prevent Duty Guidance for Higher Education.

When deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, RHEBs should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups.

RHEB – Relevant Higher Education Bodies. The government would always rather use an exclusionary acronym than call them universities, but this was a new one on me. Mind you, this was written in 2015, before we had to start calling them ‘providers’. The document contained a lot of information about defining terrorism, assessing risk and forming action plans, but no specific guidance on implementation. That advice is provided in a 44 page document from Universities UK on external speakers in higher education institutions.

There is a flow chart for speaker approval, and guidance on best practice for communicating the policy and timeline. Nowhere is a review period of three weeks suggested.

Some of the advice contained in this document, however, is almost guaranteed to impinge on academic freedom. For instance page 20:

Who is chairing the meeting? Are they sufficiently qualified to provide balance and challenge during the event? What is their stance on the topic under discussion and is this likely to impact the smooth running of the event?

Will hosting the speaker have reputational risks for the institution? Is the event likely to attract media attention and if so how can the university manage this effectively?

In my case, since I had been asked to speak in opposition to a proposal by the university’s management, this might have been unsympathetically construed as posing a reputational risk for the university. So the answers to the above questions, and the assessment of risk, may reflect the assessor’s stance and position in the institutional hierarchy.

An interesting issue arises on page 32 in that academic freedom does not necessarily apply to visiting speakers. We learn this is because academic freedom pertains only to teaching within a university:

The legal basis for academic freedom focuses on the teaching activities of staff and the freedom of institutions and their staff to determine admission criteria and the content of courses. Beyond the freedom of speech provisions, the legal framework does not extend academic freedom to the activities of visiting speakers.

And so to the local implementation of the policy at Warwick. The Warwick Prevent Action plan (07/11/2016) says:

Regulation 29 has been completely rearticulated to better foreground the University’s commitment to Freedom of Speech. The Regulation is complemented by a suite of supporting procedures for the approval of external speakers. This includes a light-touch approach for academic visitors and for external speakers associated with commercial conferences.

Regulation 29 says very little about freedom of speech; it has rather more to say about risk assessment and obligations to adhere to guidelines on university branding.

Another document outlines procedures for the approval of external speakers for Students’ Union, Student-Led, and Institutional-Level Events.

Organisers of events involving external speakers encompassed by these obligations, must complete and submit the External Speaker Request Form at least three weeks prior to the event taking place. The event must not be confirmed with the guest speaker until approval has been received from the University or the Students’ Union.

A requirement to give three weeks’ notice does not seem like ‘light touch’, but perhaps local culture permits the rule’s uneven application. I attended a conference at Warwick this year at which a speaker was thanked for stepping in at the last minute. Nevertheless, if you are a union official, you might be deterred by the suspicion that you could be under greater scrutiny.  Clearly my union hosts were cautious about getting their fingers burned, and that was enough to deny a union meeting a knowledgeable speaker.

My experience, and a swift survey of some available university policies, tells me that the Prevent agenda applies with differing degrees of scrupulosity across the sector. Despite Warwick’s wish to appear ‘light touch’, their procedure is lengthy and entails a risk assessment which must apparently be conducted by management. There are other institutions whose policies merely ask that organisers undertake their own risk assessment, and then ‘escalate’ to management if there is a reason for concern.

The University of Bristol policy states:

The Event Organiser (the person responsible for the event) must undertake a self-assessment (using the questions in section 2) to determine whether further scrutiny and support from the University are required. If the Event Organiser reasonably decides that there are no issues, the event can go ahead. It is anticipated that the vast majority of events organised will fall into this category.

Commendably, Nottingham Trent University does not distinguish between internal and external speakers and also allows organisers to make their own assessment of risk:

Formal approval from the University must be obtained, in advance, for any event to be held on the University’s premises (whether or not an external speaker is involved) where it is expected, or reasonably foreseeable, that the event will raise controversial issues which may risk infringement of or non-compliance with the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech.

These are preferable models to follow as they signify a high degree of trust in the judgement of members of the university. This is appropriate for learned, intelligent, responsible scholars and I can’t imagine how a vigorous research culture can thrive without this. Given that universities are currently under the cosh again on the issue of academic freedom, perhaps they can be encouraged to give some thought to reforming procedures which unnecessarily curb the freedom of all speakers to spontaneously address issues as they arise.

A day later and this thoughtful piece appeared from Smita Jamdar on the tensions between the government’s insistance on Prevent, and new regulatory powers on freedom of speech on university campuses.



Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism