A Stern Talking To ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEF Times: 2nd Reading of the HE Bill

In July 2016 we are contemplating a new period of instability for universities in the UK, and with the passing of the 2nd reading of HE Bill, things could quickly get a lot worse. The EU Referendum result has already created uncertainty regarding the future of much of our research funding. It seems there is much uncertainty at the top of UKHE: Universities UK (‘the definitive voice of UK universities’) has asked for the government to press the pause button on HE reform , Meanwhile, the vice-chancellors of Nottingham Trent and Exeter Universities argue for forging ahead with reform and the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Maddalaine Ansell, CEO of the University Alliance, appears to agree with the latter in her prediction that the HE Bill will take the sector to calmer waters.  Ansell’s premise is that there will be a benefit from having all legislation relating to HE encompassed in one piece of legislation: The Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Except it won’t, of course. A moment’s reflection allows us to list student loans, students with disabilities, and academic freedom – all of which have separate legislation. Additionally, Ansell appears to overlook the added complications of teaching and research which will now be overseen by different government departments since Theresa May’s July ministerial reshuffle. It is a complicated picture, and I cannot see any advantage to deepening it.

Let us remind ourselves just how disruptive these changes proposed by the White Paper entitled Success as a Knowledge Economy (SKE) will be. They include an invitation to new private ‘challenger institutions’ who may be granted degree-awarding powers more quickly than previous regulation allowed. There are changes proposed to governance, academic freedom and protections against arbitrary dismissal which appear to infringe the historic autonomy that universities enjoyed from government. A critique of the proposed changes can be found in an Alternative White Paper (AWP), authored by a group of concerned academics can be found here.

The most unnecessary and wasteful plan in the White Paper is for a Teaching Excellence Framework. This has been proposed to correct supposedly ‘lamentable’ teaching (AWP p28). The paragraphs which outline how this will work display some baffling logical linkages. Here are some of the assertions made in the paragraphs which outline the justification for the TEF:

  • higher education leads to better employment outcomes, but these outcomes are not consistent;
  • there is considerable variation in employment outcomes and employability amongst subjects and across institutions;
  • students often enter HE with little information to guide their choices;
  • students often say they would have chosen a different course;
  • the importance of students having access to a wide array of work experience opportunities;
  • a recent IFS study also found huge variance in graduate earnings depending on choice of subject and institution, as well as background;
  • higher average earnings mean that graduates make an important contribution to society through their tax revenues;
  • employers and HE providers working together on curriculum design, and graduates having the ‘soft skills’ they need to thrive in the work environment. (SKE p42).

Apparently, the answer to all of these is the TEF which they claim will raise teaching standards. From 2018/19, an award of excellent or outstanding will permit an HEI to increase its fees in line with inflation. Others, even those meeting expectations, will suffer various degrees of attrition and their students condemned to a ‘choice’ of an educational resource eroded by inflation.

The government remains confident that good teaching can be measured on an institutional basis, but the first point to emphasize is that these measures are, as the White Paper admits, proxies, not measures of good teaching which transpires in classrooms and other learning contexts.

“Such things can be measured: students assess their satisfaction with their courses, retention rates are a good proxy for student engagement, contact hours can be measured, employers choose to sponsor some courses, or work with some institutions, because of the industry-relevance of their offerings, and employment rates can be measured. Some of these metrics are of course proxies – but they directly measure some of the most important outcomes that students and taxpayers expect excellent teaching to deliver. And we recognise that metrics alone cannot tell the whole story; they must be benchmarked and contextualised, and considered alongside the additional narrative that can establish a provider’s case for excellence”. (SKE p46)

Secondly, nowhere in the White Paper is there any evidence of so-called lamentable teaching. In fact the published NSS figures show the opposite. Taken nationally, the average figure is extremely high at 86% (England 2015 NSS results) with a rather small range of scores. So why, asks Dorothy Bishop, is there any need for a TEF?

It is hard to avoid the implication that there is likely to be a shift in the direction of prioritising graduate earnings, and indeed, it is one of the proposed measures as the TEF moves towards “a more granular and informative assessment of graduate outcomes” (SKE p48). Possibly the best expose of this misguided proxy measure was the study published in April by the IFS. It demolishes graduate salary as a metric, with its finding that “Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities.”  Although this study is acknowledged in SKE, the logic is not absorbed. If we can assume that excellent teaching will not be restricted to more socially advantaged students, what relevance is there to measuring graduate earnings? We can detect an implicit threat in the White Paper that the government may seek to pressure universities to close courses which do not deliver the right ‘outcomes’, i.e. graduates who are able to earn enough to pay back the cost of their student loans. That, then, is the real purpose of this metric. Purely ideological – your graduates don’t pay back – your course is closed.

“In creating the OfS, the regulation of higher education will be restructured, shifting from an outdated, top-down model of a funding agency to a market regulator clearly focused on the student interest. We will give the OfS an explicit duty to promote choice and competition, which will increase quality and efficiency in the sector, and will expect the OfS to work closely with the Student Loans Company and Government to ensure the decisions it takes have regard to affordability and deliver value for money for the taxpayer”. (SKE p63)

In 2017/18 the TEF will be run on a voluntary basis. A ‘provider’ can opt in, presumably if it wishes to establish a good reputation for teaching. A mock league table of benchmark-adjusted metrics published by the Times Higher showed that the Russell Group universities were eclipsed by a Midlands triangle of Loughborough, Aston and De Montfort universities. But this could also be part of the script. The government is creating the conditions whereby the Russell Group flounce out of the TEF and follow the incentives towards privatisation. It is only a matter of time before the elite universities follow their counterparts in Australia and start charging variable fees which will have nothing to do with teaching quality and everything to do with accrued reputation – something which the White Paper claims it wishes to dismantle. Rather than providing concrete information on which students can base their choices, this uninformative snapshot will leave students confused between choosing between the dodgy dossiers of established reputation and the imposter proxies of the TEF.

The TEF will do nothing to increase good teaching, curtail bad teaching or provide students with any more guidance than they already have. And if the REF is anything to go by, it will involve escalating costs and a scale of wastage which makes older, experienced academics weep with regret at what could be achieved if only the money were spent wisely. The cost-benefit analysis is provided by Dorothy Bishop here.

Universities have gone along with the REF because (up to now at least) there were reputational, even if few financial, gains to be won. The TEF allows for little financial gain, and also looks to be repeating some of the reputational mistakes of the early QAA subject reviews which denounced some subjects as failing. The TEF, even when it launches its disciplinary-level ‘granularity’ will not be a ‘game changer’.

Even though universities now have the tools to immediately individualise TEF scores of student satisfaction, nobody is going to be poached by an HEI for their superior teaching scores. Similarly, I would imagine that few academics will be to be tempted to move to a stronger teaching department. And bear in mind, academics have limited agency to affect outcomes such as retention, student satisfaction and employment. Students may be very satisfied with individual teachers, while perceiving elements of the course to be disappointing, funding to be inadequate, accommodation too expensive or the claims of family or paid employment to be stronger.

For universities it is another hurdle to be surmounted. A promised tuition rise in line with inflation will be quickly consumed in the arms race to enhance the institutional image. But the government’s nudge unit will clock up another win as soon as it achieves the desired outcomes; privatisation of an elite tier of universities free to charge whatever they wish, and perhaps, the closure of a few universities which have widened participation, but failed to compensate for the calculated upward distribution of wealth which has been part of the neoliberal project. Whether the HE Bill is creative disruption or reckless joyriding remains to be seen.

Brexit – is this Schrödinger’s neoliberalism?

The day after what the BBC has been calling a seismic event is bound to feel rather numbing. The prospect of leaving the EU is disorienting and scary precisely because no manifesto, no roadmap has ever been presented by the quitters. Everybody is wondering what it will mean for them, and there is no guidance. We’re used to getting that much within minutes after the Chancellor’s budget statements. But today, we’re all feeling bewildered about jobs, mortgages, pensions, the NHS, tax, bendy bananas, and all the rest.

Twitter was filled with people saying how their timeline had not prepared them for this. Like me, many were connected to other left-leaning, progressive internationalists, and so had felt entitled to discount what they regarded as the kneejerk xenophobia of the uninformed. I howled in sympathy with my learned friend @Plashingvole who is profoundly immersed in the tolerant embrace of British cultural history. He cites the legacy of Paine, Wollstonecraft, Rowan Williams, Chartists, Suffragists….and the Ramblers’ Association. What, eh? Somebody forgot to tell my sister’s bloke about that. But when your whole being is infused with that radical legacy, it is hard to wonder how it could be so convincingly rejected by the majority of the nation.

However, I ended this memorable day with a renewed respect for democracy and the important lessons it teaches us.  The workers of the north east and Wales have been told for the last 40 years that their skills are out of date, their industries uncompetitive and their productivity lacking. They were the first canaries down the disused mine of neoliberalism.  How long can working people absorb austerity, unemployment, being told they need to change and be flexible….and still never be better off? The EU has meant that my class has accrued a degree of job security through transnational mobility, but that has not been extended to the steel worker in Redcar. We can point to many waystations on the road to Labour allowing its working class constituency to be displaced by a liberal elite. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were ‘relaxed’ about wealth accumulation (i.e. upward distribution of capital). Gordon Brown chose to paint Gillian Duffy in Rochdale as an irrational bigot. In the last election, Labour, led by Ed Milliband, shimmied rather uncomfortably around the issue of immigration, and horrified the liberal middle class voter in the process.

And so the referendum result came as a surprise to a party which saw itself as having a working class base, but broad appeal. The surprise was that the vote was divided along lines of class, privilege and education. As many commentators have pointed out, a referendum doesn’t allow for nuance and negotiation. It draws a binary divide and you are compelled to vote for one side or the other. It also captures one instant in a decision-making process and makes it a defining moment. Well, now the victims of the neoliberal constructed recession have told national and global elites to get stuffed, and they’ll take their chances with a different way – any way. We have Schrödinger’s neoliberalism – it has been both rejected but guaranteed at the same time.

Some among the national elite in government and the media rail against the rejection of ‘experts’, even though they have had a hand in undermining their claims to authority. But university leaders need not feel blameless in this. I marvel at the hypocrisy of vice-chancellors who seek to marginalise critical voices in their own universities, and then wonder why the debate has not been carried by the weight of public intellectuals.  Public intellectuals should play a role in informing opinion, but very often they come from those departments now on the danger list in many universities because they don’t bring in huge amounts of money in research grants. So when your VC emails out their post-referendum statement, ask them – where is your affirmation of academic freedom? Where is your continuing and unfettered support for history, cultural studies, literature, social sciences, politics, philosophy, international relations, modern languages?  These are the incubators of critique and framers of arguments in these crucial debates.  But when you try and subdue a university into a controversy-free, ‘managed’ zone, if you silence the radical voice, then don’t ask why the intellectuals suddenly find themselves ostracized.

Despite what has happened, I remain optimistic because these events tend to trigger moments of ‘grand narrative’.  On the one hand we can see Donald Trump, who embodies that resistance to traditional elites, surfing in on the Brexit wave. On a more hopeful front, we can envisage that this narrative of defiance and empowerment might be directed, not just against symbolic national elites, but also at authority in other locations. Perhaps this is a time for those of us who work in universities to challenge the corporate managerialists who have seized hold of universities and subverted their purpose. At the moment, if you are in arts and humanities in a university, you probably feel a bit like voters in Scotland – as if you are held in thrall by a self-interested and bungling regime which acts against your interests and values.

So it’s a big vote of thanks to academics at the University of Aberdeen and Newcastle University who are already making progress with their campaigns to take back the university for its academic citizenry. How long do you feel like being treated to the Neoliberal University bait and switch? 40 years? Time to start acting against those structures of power which have worked against fundamental academic values of education, trust, community and academic freedom. Below are the core principles from the draft manifesto of the ‘Reclaiming Our University’ group at Aberdeen:

  • To create an environment for free, open-minded and unprejudiced debate, which stands out as a beacon of wisdom, tolerance and humanity.
  • To defend our freedom to undertake research and teaching in the pursuit of truth, against the constraints, both internal and external to the institution, which threaten to curtail it.
  • To restore the trust that underpins both professionalism and collegiality, by removing those systems of line and performance management, and of surveillance, which lead to its erosion.
  • To bring together research and teaching as complementary aspects of an education that carries a responsibility of care.
  • To restore the governance of the university, and control over its affairs, to the community of staff, students and alumni to which it rightfully belongs.

Join the conversation, and organise against attacks on academic freedom and the collegiality of the university. Comments on this blog will be copied to the Aberdeen group’s site.

Care in the virtual community

It was the recent article on the paying-members-only university common room that made me think about the importance of belonging to an academic community. This particular story drew our attention to the fact that some academics, primarily casualized staff and graduate students, might be excluded from these spaces.

It appears that in a number of universities, senior common rooms have been ‘re-purposed’ by the space-utilisation team. At best, there may be ‘breakout areas’ with a kettle and a microwave. This solution is greenwashed by the estates team who will have saved a few micro-joules of heating and lighting, while at the same time keeping the CCTV and swipe-card barriers going (right, The Plashing Vole?).  But, in the jargon of university managers, are these spaces ‘fit for purpose’?

For one thing, the breakout areas tend to be the provenance of just one faculty or school housed within a building. There is often no central social space, and few social occasions to draw faculty together. So it is far less likely that there’s going to be a happy coincidence like the one that brought together an Anglo Saxon scholar and a microbiologist . The former knew of potions and remedies contained in the ancient Leechbook and she wondered whether they would work today as antibacterial agents. The latter decided to give it a go, and as a result, we have one new weapon against MRSA.

If we ever needed a defence of humanities and sciences co-mingling in universities, this is the example. But more than that, it points to the necessity of nurturing the fortuitous cross-fertilisation of intellects which really drives innovative research. Universities should be less like factories, and more like hangouts where clever people can talk to each other and ignite ideas. For this to happen we need space and – buzzword of the moment – a sense of belonging. Every university needs common spaces, but also head spaces – in other words, free, unstructured time. If I may commit heresy in an age of workload dashboards and management by metrics, we need to build aimlessness into a university.

Instead what we are likely to get are multi-occupancy offices and hot-desking spaces. The Plashing Vole on Twitter has talked about the impossibility of doing any real academic work when there are 15 people in an office. As I am thinking this through, I realise I’m echoing many of the same points made by him in this excellent piece from April 2016.

And so more and more people stay home to work without interruption, or without surveillance. This is not a helpful way to create ‘belonging’. But even if real academic community has been dissolved, academics still form a rather distinctive community of practice – shared lore and values, social practices and a joint enterprise. University leaders say they want the former, while being less enchanted by the prospect of the latter. At the same time as they say they want to break down silos and cross disciplines, they neglect to cultivate the spaces where those connections can be forged. In what seems like a perverse project designed to deprofessionalize, casualize and atomize the academy, community has been hard to maintain. Universities keep us marching along, forming and reforming in response to multiple restructurings, reviews and revalidations. There is a reason the word ‘tradition’ is rarely uttered in UK universities, except in the most elite. We are all newly precarious and we are not supposed to look for permanence.

When the university becomes a forbidding space, we head to what Thomas Docherty has called the Clandestine University. In the five years since his 2011 piece, the virtual academy has emerged as the place where academics go looking for stimulating and receptive imagined communities. In a recent Skype call with Music for Deckchairs  we marvelled at having found each other – and all the other Twitterers and bloggers who sustain us with affirmation, retweets and feedback, and introduce us to new compadres. This is academe sans frontieres, in effect, the new common room where we can recover some of the elation of academic discussion with people we would love to have as colleagues. We can write something and know it will not be blighted with a grade of 1*-4*. The casualized academic or the early career researcher who finds research leave foreclosed without a prior 3* publication can receive encouragement for their writing. The retiree uninvited from the weekly seminars can still find like-minded seekers of knowledge. We can roam, daydream, offend and reoffend and learn from those experiences. But it is the conversations we have, as I am having now, picking up themes from those other bloggers I’m so delighted I ran into. Those stunning writers discovered so unexpectedly when bouncing around the Twittersphere. Like Emily. And I am so grateful for their care and generous words when the kind of joyless academia which is expressed in brutalist concrete, offers only:

Research evaluation frameworks, sabbaticals, promotion criteria, appraisals, funding applications, the class structures of academia, the tacit division of work between Genius and Menial: all conspire to encourage the division of the Achiever sheep from the Nurturing goats. [The Plashing Vole] http://plashingvole.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/paying-in-kindness.html

The Plashing Vole says he is thankful for his immediate colleagues, and so am I. I have been supported, nay indulged, by a wonderful group of friendly, brilliant and accomplished scholars. I hope I have reciprocated their kindness – maybe so, since one dear man called me The Mother of the House recently. But I also want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone out there who has followed me, interacted in some way or just clicked on that weird red heart. You really keep me going. The Plashing Vole is right, together, we are so close to Utopia.

 

References

Grove, Jack. 2016. Members only staff room splits opinion. Times Higher. April 28th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/members-only-staffroom-splits-opinion

Normalising immorality

My last blog post was about the perverse incentives currently circulating in universities which lead good academics to do bad things. I cited studies which indicate academics may lie to get research grants, selectively present data confirming a hypothesis or exaggerate their findings to get published. This was read by one commentator as blaming academics for merely responding to the conditions which are necessary to keep their jobs. And she didn’t care for the appropriation of the Trump analogy either.

OK, time to get right back into the water. My point was that, primarily, it is the structures within which academics work that are to blame. Governments send down their edicts, and universities seek to maximize their opportunities within them. But there must also be some degree of agency which we can all exert in defiance of corrupting structures. I want to state why it is unacceptable for any of us to overlook dishonesty and the undermining of legitimate process, and why we need to act collectively to stop it.

I’m becoming quite a fan of Rowan Williams. For one thing he examines the dangers of tolerating hypocrisy and unethical behaviour. For another, he does not speak well of Donald Trump, so he’s my man. In March 2016 he spoke locally about ethics, morality and empathy. His argument was that when people behave unethically, it does not mean they are devoid of empathy; in fact, the reverse. Those who perpetrate causal cruelty achieve their result precisely because they recognise what they are doing, and understand the extent of their victims’ suffering. These are unusual people, but how do they manage to get away with this kind of evil? How do bad things happen in what seems like a good institution?

Edmund Burke wrote “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. This, says Williams, in a recent article in New Statesman, gives evil far too much credit and agency. He believes that evil creeps upon us in rather a different way, more like a perfect storm that a strategic plan. He outlines a slippery slope argument in which “we are at least half-consciously complicit”.

I am aware that some people find it offensive when others draw analogies between the Holocaust and more contemporary concerns in society. My own view is that it is irresponsible not to learn these lessons, and I imagine Rowan Williams would agree. Williams invites us to contemplate how complicity is constructed in a society, and he draws on the example of the Third Reich (which he calls “a masterclass in executive tyranny”) to illustrate his argument. In order to persuade a populace to collude in genocide, Hitler took advantage of some routine anti-semitism which had been normalised by the repetition of certain tropes and myths about Jews. In a re-reading of Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil”, Williams blames an “erosion of a sense of the ridiculous”. We may recognise ourselves in this characterisation; we find the ridiculous in the times when we have complied with an inducement to game a system, inflate a finding, or we have watched silently as others struggle with disproportionate demands. We remember those occasions when we have failed to confront the exercise of excessive power, and told each other, ‘this is over the top’. That is the ridiculous, and that’s when we need to act, because immorality starts with small concessions and by dint of permissiveness, end up overwhelming us. And that leads us to Donald Trump and his evocations of external and internal threats, barriers necessitated, and birth rights revoked. Williams sees him as an exemplar of someone “divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity”. Ridiculous, in other words, and our antennae should be twitching.

Williams ends: “For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private”. Let me be clear. I’m not setting myself up as some moral arbiter. I’m as flawed as the next person. But I do agree with Rowan Williams that it is imperative to watch out for danger signs in our own environment, and to act according to our consciences. To recognise when governments, corporations, behaviours have become excessive and harmful. It is about trusting our instincts over the hypocrisies we are asked to absorb. It is about having a clear sense of purpose and legitimacy. It is recognizing when the demands of the imaginary and the dishonest displace the integrity of doing your job. And it is about refusing to be silent when ‘theatres of cruelty’ (Couldry 2008) invade your very humanity. Rowan Williams has certainly not restrained himself from denouncing a “new barbarity” in the de-humanising language and expectations circulating in UK universities.

Since reading Christabel Bielenberg’s powerful account of her family’s anti-Nazi resistance during the 2nd World War, I have been preoccupied with what Williams calls “moral luck” – “the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz”. Perhaps also the converse must be true – that people with the capacity to resist immorality and corruption are not called upon to do so. But that seems unlikely to me, given the moral forcing ground that surrounds us in contemporary academia. Most of us know when things are not right and we are being manipulated into unethical behaviours. But it is easy to lose our perspective when coerced by threats of losing our jobs or punitive consequences for not meeting ‘targets’. As Williams writes, all it takes is “the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society”. There are no accidents of immorality – there are choices. The choices may be unwilling, but please let’s start standing up to misuse of power, authority and expertise before we start accepting it as the new normal, and it empowers the next step towards dishonesty and corruption. Because if we let go of academic values of honesty, integrity and fearlessness, then along with them go academic freedom and a little bit more of our humanity.

References

Bielenberg, Christabel. 1968. The Past is Myself. London: Corgi Books. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Past-Myself-Christabel-Bielenberg/dp/0552990655

Couldry, Nick (2008) Reality TV, or the secret theater of neoliberalism. Review of education, pedagogy, and cultural studies, 30 (3), pp. 3-13. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/52405/1/Couldry_Reality_TV_secret_theater_2008.pdf

Morgan, John. 2015. Rowan Williams on higher education’s ‘inhuman and divisive’ jargon. Times Higher. January 29th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/rowan-williams-on-higher-educations-inhuman-and-divisive-jargon/2018188.article

Williams, Rowan. 2016. A nervous breakdown in the body politic. New Statesman. 1st May. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/05/nervous-breakdown-body-politic

Are we seeing the rise of the Trump Academic?

A post by Mark Carrigan caught my imagination a few weeks ago. It was about ‘networking’ with its usual connotations of “insincerity, instrumentalism and general creepiness”. We can all recognise the ambitious researcher at the conference who is anxious to advertise their own work while affecting interest in the keynote speaker’s presentation.  It resonates with my current work on academic self-promotion via university profile pages. And I start to wonder, is a new academic habitus is beginning to emerge?

There are a lot of incentives for a young academic to develop chameleon-like characteristics. In an era when many are forced to spend years on short term, casualized contracts, your advancement increasingly depends on accumulating the right kind of academic accolades. I refer to this as the ‘Bisto kid’ approach, whereby you learn to sniff the air and follow the smell of money, because money now equates to academic regard. Pursuing grants will be your ticket to a permanent job, time for research and access to international conferences. Without it, you may be left alone with your passion and originality to generate an unfunded, and therefore marginalised, research program.

The consequences for academic freedom have been obvious for some time, but other problems are now starting to become apparent, particularly in the sciences. There have been an unsettling series of stories on the same theme in the Times Higher and in the blogosphere recently.

A study conducted in the UK and Australia indicates that academics regularly lie to inflate the predicted impact of their research (Matthews 2016 a). One professor in Australia is quoted as saying “It’s really virtually impossible to write an ARC (Australian Research Council) grant now without lying.” It is harsh to condemn these colleagues when you consider the ludicrous necessity of fabricating an impact statement. By definition, if the work has yet to be done, there can be no confident claims of either results or significance. The scientific community has collectively decided to acknowledge that if everybody knows it is absurd, then there is no moral hazard to trouble their consciences.

Two more significant issues have been discussed by Dorothy Bishop in her blog “There is a reproducibility crisis in psychology and we need to act on it”. If other scholars cannot reproduce the results of psychology experiments, this means the discipline has a problem which needs to be addressed, she argues. The other, related, problem is also methodological; the phenomenon of p-hacking – selecting experimental data after doing the statistics to ensure a p-value below the conventional cutoff of 0.05. (See also Nuzzo 2014 on p-values and reproducibility concerns). P-hacking is recognised as one reason for poor reproducibility of scientific findings, and the phenomenon is well explained for the non-scientist by David Colquhoun here.

Meanwhile, a number of academics are detecting an apparent bias towards positive results operated by journals in publication of scientific work. Simon Hatcher asks “Is something rotten in the state of academia?” and explains, “The need arises out of intense competition between Universities to compete for funding and for journals to publish the latest breakthroughs”, and he offers this insight into why this effect has arisen, “It increasingly seems that journals value themselves not by the quality of what they publish but by whether it is picked up on social or main stream media. As a result negative studies are much less likely to be published.”

Equally, in a world where academics are obliged to offer up each piece of work to be evaluated as internationally significant, world leading etc., they will seek to signal such a rating discursively. A study by Vinkers et al. 2015 in the British Medical Journal    uncovered a new tendency towards hyperbole in scientific reports. They found the absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), which amounts to a relative increase of 880% over four decades. 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%”). The authors comment upon an apparent evolution in scientific writing to ‘look on the bright side of life’.

It is rather more than that, though. This behaviour of extolling banal results is what is more commonly called ‘gaming the system’, and it is clearly being learned young. Tim Birkhead (2016) narrates an encounter with undergraduate students which opened his eyes to some disturbing attitudes:

Here’s a tiny but telling example of what we are now faced with. At the end of a recent seminar I presented on scientific misconduct, I asked the audience whether they knew anyone who had fabricated data for their final-year undergraduate project. Eighty per cent said yes. My jaw dropped and the expression on my face must have shocked the students since one of them came up to me and, touching my arm, said: “Tim, don’t be upset, we wouldn’t do this if it was real science.” This attempted reassurance only plunged me further into despair. I probed a little deeper and asked the students why they felt it was acceptable to fabricate data in a teaching context, but not in a “genuine” scientific investigation?

Xenia Schmaltz (2016) fast-forwards to the next stage of a young scientist’s career, when she questions “Good scientist or a successful academic? You can’t be both”. She encapsulates some of the contradictions in a simple table.

Good scientist

The behaviours on the left are those necessary for academic integrity, while those on the right may lead to academic preferment. Birkhead blames a culture that pressures academics into quantity and speed of publication, competition and league tables, a confirmation bias, a pursuit of safe science which might win scarce grant money, and the need to specify ‘impact’ before the work is even done. David Graeber (2012) writes, “If you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover”.

It is not just our research which we must ‘sell’. We sell new courses, conference, institutes, grant proposals, and, as I am finding, our academic selves on social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Academia.edu or ResearchGate.  The self-promoting academic has emerged hand-in-hand with the marketization of universities, so that now, the X Factor could be the next model for filling university jobs. Indeed, Jack Grove (2016) reports on a selection procedure for a postdoctoral position in a The University of Calgary’s medical school in which interviews were streamed to a live audience of 70 early career scientists who voted with 90% agreement for the same candidate.

The point of the Calgary exercise was to make the trainees more self-critical when showcasing their own skills, but it seems likely that such structures will produce a particularly narcissistic graduate, as this study (Matthews 2016 b) seems to predict.(For the original study click here). Examining traits of undergraduate business studies students, the authors found “more narcissistic students “thrived” with similarly self-obsessed instructors. These latter seemed to act as role models to the former, further legitimising their behaviour. By contrast, less narcissistic students did not thrive with the narcissistic faculty. Matthews’ article in the Times Higher asks: “As millennials enter the faculty ranks, will they be disproportionately narcissistic?” .

It is unfair to ascribe this behaviour to millennials.  Academia, often portrayed as the home of eccentric loners, has always had its share of self-important grandstanders. But current inducements are giving rise to a new phenomenon of the Trump Academic. Rather like The Donald, who is prepared to jettison previous party affiliations and beliefs in order to reinvent himself as the creation of Republican intolerance and bigotry, the Trump Academic will gladly set aside scientific passion or originality in favour of safe and fundable research. Their boastful certainties, unanchored in the truth, might allow the suppression of a negative result, or the inflation of some calculations to reach a threshold of significance. They may switch paradigms entirely in order to run with the popular crowd.

If you haven’t yet met the Trump Academic, you should probably get out more. Increasingly they will be hard to miss as the motivations coalesce around work which pleases governments, university managers and students. Now, even a permanent contract cannot guarantee the indulgence of ethical behaviour and academic freedom. Tressie McMillan Cottom writes of the rarity of great genius. When indisputable talent evaporates, all that is left is ‘the hustle’. The more that regimes of top-down interference chip away at academic authenticity and integrity, the further we are from that perennial pretension of ‘excellence’. We risk becoming a profession of self-regarding hustlers, changing our game plan at each new behest from above. Let’s count them: contract renewal, tenure, promotion, student evaluations, research selectivity, impact, employability. I was reminded of a recent article in The Guardian (Hattenstone and Allison, 2016), a profile of former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, who, on leaving the post said, “You shouldn’t do this job for too long because you get used to things you shouldn’t get used to”.

I hope those early-career researchers in Calgary aren’t saying that in ten years’ time.

  

References

Birkhead, Tim. 2016. Government policy is wrecking science. Times Higher. March 24th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/government-policy-is-wrecking-science

Bishop, Dorothy. 2016.  http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/there-is-reproducibility-crisis-in.html.

Bishop, Dorothy. 2016.  http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/the-amazing-significo-why-researchers.html

Mark Carrigan. 2016. http://markcarrigan.net/2016/04/04/how-to-network-without-chipping-away-at-your-soul/

Colquhoun, David. 2014. http://www.dcscience.net/2014/03/24/on-the-hazards-of-significance-testing-part-2-the-false-discovery-rate-or-how-not-to-make-a-fool-of-yourself-with-p-values/

Graeber, David. 2012. Of flying cars and the declining rate of profit.  The Baffler. 19. http://thebaffler.com/salvos/of-flying-cars-and-the-declining-rate-of-profit#left-menu

Grove, Jack. 2016 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/could-the-x-factor-be-a-model-for-filling-university-jobs Times Higher March 8th.

Hatcher, Simon. 2016. https://shatchersite.wordpress.com/2016/03/21/is-something-rotten-in-the-state-of-academia/  21st March 2016.

Hattenstone, S. and Allison, E. (2016). Interview with Prisons Inspector Nick Hardwick: ‘You shouldn’t do this job for long because you get used to things you shouldn’t’. The Guardian. 29th January. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/29/prisons-inspector-nick-hardwick-interview  Accessed 1st April 2016.

McMillan Cottom, Tressie. 2016. There are thieves in the temple tonight.  https://tressiemc.com/2016/04/21/there-are-thieves-in-the-temple-tonight/ April 21, 2016

Matthews, David. 2016 a. Academics ‘regularly lie to get research grants’. Times Higher. March 9th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/academics-regularly-lie-to-get-research-grants

Matthews, David. 2016 b. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/selfie-generation-grades-boosted-if-lecturers-are-narcissists  Times Higher. April 5th

Nuzzo, Regina. 2016. 2014. Scientific method: statistical errors. Nature. http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-statistical-errors-1.14700

Schmaltz, Xenia. 2016. Good scientist or a successful academic? You can’t be both. Times Higher. March 1st. You https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/good-scientist-or-successful-academic-you-cant-be-both

What if Academia had an Ocean’s Seven?

The winning mindset of a top athlete might be a possibility for academics, if managers worked out how not to demotivate them. Liz Morrish has been paying attention to the UK’s top ocean swimmer.

I went to a fascinating book launch last week. The book, Man vs Oceanis by Adam Walker and was written after his successful completion of the Ocean’s Seven. This – according to Wikipedia – is the swimmers’ equivalent to the Seven Summits mountaineering challenge. It encompasses The English Channel, The Catalina Channel in California, The Cook Strait in New Zealand, The Molokai Channel in Hawaii, The Strait of Gibraltar, The Tsugaru Strait in Japan and The North Channel which lies between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Currently only six people have successfully completed all seven swims, which, by the way, must be done unaided and wearing only a regulation swimsuit.

Each of Adam’s swims featured a major difficulty, which might have wilted the resolve of lesser mortals. Adam was able to persist through injury, personal sadness, fear of sharks, cold, and, in the Molokai Channel, the vicious sting of a Portuguese Man o’ War jellyfish that threatens to shut down your major organs. The Cook Strait swim was enlivened by a pod of dolphins who seemed to be protecting Adam from a lurking shark, and who made him feel connected to his oceanic habitat in a new and joyous way. As a (more leisurely) open water swimmer, I had followed most of Adam’s voyages on Twitter, and so was voraciously looking forward to reading the book. I recommend it to you.

Like everyone else in the room, I was thrilled to meet this engaging and modest man as he read and recounted tales from his ten year quest for the Ocean’s Seven. In moving from a job as a toaster salesman to conqueror of the planet’s most tumultuous seas, Adam described a transformative experience. His self-belief had grown enormously. He was no longer daunted by challenges and he felt equipped to succeed. Here was a man who strode the planet, and swam its oceans, with justifiable confidence.

I took away an important key message – not finishing a project is not an option. This is something I can definitely respond to, as can most academics. We may not be in the world’s top six in our field, but we deliver high quality teaching and research, nevertheless. We embark upon PhDs, writing books and articles, major research projects, and the pursuit of recognition as our careers unfold. But, I mused later over dinner with a friend, why do academics feel so defeated, even in the face of striving and achievement. Haven’t we also surmounted self-doubt, intellectual and institutional hurdles, faced our fears of exposure and ridicule, taken risks, charted unknown waters and made our mark on the world stage? Some of us may even have our own version of swimming with sharks, or being levelled by a poisonous sting. I started to wonder why so many of us are failing to rejoice in our achievements.

It was interesting the next day to read this piece by Anonymous Academic in the Guardian – a kind of positive spin on academic life. On Twitter, it was immediately garlanded with affirmation from a number of people – among them a vice-chancellor and a pro vice-chancellor. Among the other ranks, though, there was a less uniform reception. “My favourite parts are the job insecurity, long working hours, and fiercely intense competition for funding” snarled Paul Coxon. For me, those are not the major blights; these reside in the shifting goals and parameters as institutions equivocate over what to prioritise this year. Graduate employability is the current totem, but we must also respond to the demands of research league tables, student satisfaction scores, quality enhancement strategies and all the rest. I have blogged previously about the quite unattainable expectations being placed on many academics at Russell Group Universities: multiple research outputs classed as world-leading, conference participation, especially as keynote speakers, international collaborations, innovation and leadership within one’s field, research grant ‘capture’ and income generation, proving impact of research, supervision of PhD students, and, of course, high student satisfaction scores.

It is a dizzying array of expectations, leading to a kind of individual lighthouse effect, whereby the researcher focusses on whatever seems most pressing at the time, leaving other ‘drivers’ neglected and awaiting the notice of sharks who are keen to point out the gaps in performance.

What, I pondered, if there were an Ocean’s Seven for university academics? What might its constituents be? Seven 4* publications, with impact? Seven major program research grants? Seven PhD students placed in lectureships in Russell Group universities? All of the above. One certainty is that, whatever the milestones, they would keep shifting. You would always be judged by what you had failed to complete, rather than what you had accomplished. In the kind of Hunger Games dystopia of UK universities, if anyone achieved them all, managers would add another. Indeed, anyone subsequently falling short of all seven would find themselves designated as failing, and placed on punitive performance improvement procedures in order to ‘empower’ them.

Nobody is ever going to tell Adam he is under-performing. I hope if they did, they might find themselves swimming with sharks, but he seems too nice, too humane to arrange that.  But it has happened to some of the highest achieving colleagues I know, whose record and esteem should be beyond disparagement.

Perhaps the answer lies in the other advice that Adam gave. I know about the debate over structure versus agency, and I do accept that institutions are rarely as facilitative as their HR policies make out. But in order to end your career with any sense of self-worth, you need to be working for your own satisfaction. Ignore the false metrics and the externally-imposed benchmarks, and do it for yourself. Do it because you desire the achievement and because it is what you were put on earth to do. Break the whole endeavour down into very small parts; one stroke after another. And keep going. Be sure to celebrate your success, and try to disregard the setbacks and anything else that makes the journey seem hopeless. I just hope you are swimming with dolphins, and not with the killers who are after your bodily organs.

 

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism