Universities – truth or consequences

Amidst the articles reproaching universities for failing to change, adapt and embrace reform there have been just as many declaring universities are even more relevant in a world challenged by post-truth politics and fake news. Some university leaders in the USA are explicitly defending the essential role of scholarly enquiry in dissipating false communications.

In the McCarthyite era it was the army and Hollywood which were in the front line of political persecution. This time it is scientists who are finding that their notions of working in an objective, apolitical enclosure have been disrupted by Donald Trump’s attacks on their right to report valid climate change research.  Scientists are now being drawn into political action committees to face down potential threats to funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and, perhaps, to the teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools.

While we stand with beleaguered scientists, I hope we can also defend experts in nuclear and apocalyptic literature in austerity Britain, and a new scholarship of authoritarianism  because we must all be vigilant to make sure universities continue to be sites of resistance to the rollback of the enlightenment.

In this context, many people are seeing a bright future of renewed purpose for arts, humanities and social sciences and it is nice to see a few defences of these disciplines and calls for widespread media literacy programs. The British Academy has jumped in, but regrettably it is not animated by the urgency of resisting authoritarianism, fascism and the rollback of every progressive policy since 1960; instead the BA is still focussed on economic justifications, or ‘what employers want’.

The British Academy has launched a new flagship project to provide evidence for why arts, humanities, and social science (AHSS) graduates, and the skills they learn, are vital to economy and cultural life, in the UK and worldwide. In an age of rapid and far-reaching social and technological change, the world is increasingly interconnected and complex. This project will display, for the first time, how AHSS skills can help us cope and adapt in a changing world and contribute to society individually and collectively.[http://www.britac.ac.uk/news/first-ever-depth-study-why-we-need-arts-humanities-and-social-science-graduates]

Alternatively the BA could have mentioned that a degree in the humanities or social science will equip students with an ability to evaluate a wide range of texts, a regard for truth, justice, morality and equality which can install a wedge of resistance in a post-truth society. Now that I have left the academy and its perverse Qualspeak behind, I can talk about qualities like knowledge and habits of mind which are vital for a democratic society. Let’s contemplate what kind of a world will unfold when we no longer have the historians and/or a media studies graduates to recognise this: “When Trump appeared at the Republican National Convention last July in front of a colossal picture of his own face, many were startled by his conjuring of fascist iconography”.

But quite frankly, at the moment, the question absorbing me is not whether universities are meaningful to society, but whether they are meaningful to the academics who work within them. It is no longer an exceptional minority who are seeking to leave university posts, or, to reduce contracted hours.  For those who can afford to leave, thanks to online resources, academic vocation can still be pursued from the outside. Titles and affiliations are less and less significant when it is possible to access research and disseminate your own independently.

Academia has soured for many who feel that universities have become purveyors of fake news all the way from their management and PR suites, to some of the research practices pursued within their walls. As I have blogged elsewhere, there is a problem with research ethics and practices in some universities and among a minority of researchers. The blog piece discussed the intense competition for funding, or league table standing that results in academics faking research data or inflating findings. Tressie McMillan Cottom calls this an academic hustle. I call it the behaviour of the Trump Academic.

Another serious concern is the reluctance of some university management teams, and their political masters, to countenance evidence-based argument. I have been reading Dorothy Bishop’s excellent lecture delivered recently at the University of Southampton.  It is a compelling argument, well supported with evidence and statistics, that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) proposed by Jo Johnson, Higher Education Minister will neither diagnose nor address what he has claimed (with no evidence) is ‘lamentable’ and ‘patchy’ teaching in universities. She adds more data on the cost-benefit analysis and points to the addition of more stressors on already overburdened staff.  There is a frustration in knowing that this analysis will penetrate no further at Oxford University that it will with the Minister for Higher Education. It is the repeated experience of seeing cast-iron arguments like this being displaced by flaky, unsubstantiated, ideologically-motivated fictions that has demoralised me and other long-serving academics. And when you see vice-chancellors failing to sustain any serious objections to the notion of a league table for teaching ‘excellence’, you know they have been corrupted by the inducement of higher fees.

When universities take their instructions from governments and research councils who control the finances, they lose the ability to defend themselves, let alone society against fake news, or even a creeping Lysenkoism (I am grateful to Michael Carley (@drmcarley) for introducing me to this concept). Rather like totalitarian regimes, when universities don’t like a set of facts, they turn to gagging clauses to suppress them rather than outright distortion. It is more costly, but less taxing to the managerial imagination.

We might even say that universities have become well adapted to fake news. Anyone who works in a UK university will be familiar with strategies for REF gaming, citations gaming, sacrificing rigorous but less profitable courses for those with more youth appeal, and soon we will add TEF gaming. Last week we were introduced to the world’s first ‘positive university’.  Read about some of the myths of ‘positive thinking’ from the Guardian (7th February 2017) here.

Our universities are in danger of becoming institutional mirrors of Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. Her ‘alternative facts’ and fabrication of a Bowling Green massacre have diluted her credibility to the point that CNN will no longer interview her, but any academic forced to echo the management refrain of ‘excellence’ will have sympathy with her plight. As a colleague of mine regularly says, “whenever they’re boasting about excellence, you can be sure there is none”. This may be a harsh appraisal, but it is cheering to see ‘excellence’ being submitted to some pretty heavy-duty critique by Moore et al. (2017).

It is the very focus on “excellence”, however, that creates this situation: the desire to demonstrate the rhetorical quality of “excellence” encourages researchers to submit fraudulent, erroneous, and irreproducible papers, at the same time as it works to prevent the publication of reproduction studies that can identify such work.” Note that these actions are incompatible with the values inherent in science and “the actual qualities funders, governments, journal editors and referees, and researchers themselves are ostensibly using “excellence” to identify (Moore et al 2017).

Universities? Busted, I’d say.

Rather than securing staff complements of obedient but timid scholars, universities need to build new reputations based on truth and reliability. Moore et al. recommend that universities should supplant the rhetoric of ‘excellence’ with a rhetoric around soundness, capacity and credibility:

the evaluation of “soundness” is based in the practice of scholarship, whereas “excellence” is a characteristic of its objects (outputs and actors)”. This can encompass reproducibility in fields where this has become a pressing issue (psychology), or credibility in others. (Moore et al. 2017)

There is a risk in not countering a culture where fact, opinion and sheer fantasy are neither distinguished nor evaluated. We are awash in data, but we have too little idea how to interpret it responsibly. It is ironic that in a world of management dashboards and learning analytics there is a looming public health crisis because so few people have the ability to analyse NHS data. In a post-truth society, we are analysed to death, but cannot apparently muster the know-how to be able to allocate hospital beds during a cold winter.

This week’s issue of the Times Higher  is all about the role of universities in pursuing truth and building public trust. It might, though, behove us to take a step back and trace the descent into untrustworthy perdition. We exist in an enclave of hyper-competitiveness – and sometimes just hype – and we can lay a lot of the blame on league tables and rankings. Never mind what other rationalisations are provided, proclamations about excellence are bound to feel undignified when academics sense a hinterland of boosterism.

There is a great deal further to go towards building academics’ trust in the universities that employ them, but we can start with the way we talk about our own and each other’s work. Let’s cut out the flashy banners all over campus announcing “80% of our research has internationally-significant impact”. It might mean raiding the marketing budget, or freezing the hew HR hires, but we should encourage academics to speak and write confidently and accessibly about sound and contestable research findings.

And as for the vice-chancellors who are impervious to evidence-based arguments about the TEF, I’ll leave the last word with Laurie Taylor (9/2/2017).

It’s a rollover!

Our Director of Corporate Affairs, Jamie Targett, has praised universities minister Jo Johnson for his latest attempt to measure even more university activities. This new initiative, the roll over excellence framework (ROEF), will assess the readiness of individual vice-chancellors to accept government proposals.

Targett explained that in order to test this readiness, it was necessary to use a government proposal that was so patently ill-conceived that no reasonable person could possibly entertain its adoption.

Enter the teaching excellence framework. In Targett’s words, “What better test could there be of the average vice-chancellor’s acquiescence?” For as was recently pointed out by Stuart Croft, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, it is “the overwhelming view of those actually involved in higher education” that the TEF “metrics are flawed”. Or in the words of Roger Brown, former vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, “there simply is no scientific basis for the TEF”.

“This means”, said Targett, “that vice-chancellors who mutely go along with the TEF despite such uncontested evidence of its invalidity and unreliability, display a truly heroic readiness to roll over.’’

Would this be the only test of a vice-chancellor’s readiness to submit to new government initiatives?

Targett said he had no knowledge of any new test but he understood that Jo Johnson would be adding to his illustrious ministerial record by proposing that vice-chancellors not only accept all the flawed provisions of the new TEF but do so while standing on their heads with a carrot up each nostril.


Moore S et al. (2017) “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence. Palgrave Communications. 3:16105 doi: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.105.  http://www.palgrave-journals.com/articles/palcomms2016105#affiliations


4 thoughts on “Universities – truth or consequences”

  1. But what can we in the academy do? Join our unions and act collectively. Ask our professional associations to be articulate, active and angry. Form “communities of assent” on campus – life-affirming collectives that invigorate and inspire, and help deal with the wounds. Create welcoming space and places on campus for progressive activism. Listen to those on the margins and admire their creativity and tenacity. Find our courage – its a daily habit and needs exercise to form and foster. Organise, Act, remember to play, rejoice and celebrate every small achievement. Make mistakes and learn from them. Some of us are wounded, some of us are tired but we can create the powerful narrative of we. Disperse authority within whatever spaces we can and practice new and invigorating forms of civility and citizenship. Articulate values, vision and valor. Some people are our enemies and can terrorise and try to bully us – we can look them in the eye and move towards them, and call them to account. Allies are everywhere. Play with tactics, strategies and actions. Reframe the core purposes of the university into our opportunities to create the universities we want – create alternative conceptions of the academy. And sometimes sit together, go slow, be quiet and still, re-energise. Have hope – not because its naïve but because its bold and because hope is about meaning-making from the messiness.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Liz, I was just being spontaneous on a hot Australian day, so I hope the ideas are worthy! Later today I read an editorial which really resonated- the last couple of paragraphs talk of actions we can take such as resurrecting social activism, and being vigilant. Fasenfest David 2017, february , editorial The struggle continues, Critical Sociology, pp1-5.

    The local branch of my union has lots of active members from the general/professional staff, working in alliance building with our academic colleagues. Allies really are everywhere and perhaps delightful surprises await us while we struggle with neoliberalisms monstrous abuse of education.

    In activism in the physical sciences in the academy , I really like reading Vallero DA & Vesilind PA (2007) Socially responsible engineering. Justice in risk management, Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons.


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