Academic Irregularities AT 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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