The celebrations and commiserations of the REF results have ebbed; now it’s time to weigh up the repercussions. An entertaining pastime is to re-evaluate some of the early forecasts. One prediction, ironic in hindsight, was from David Price, the outgoing vice-provost (research) at UCL, who said that the REF 2021 post Stern Review reforms had ensured that the game-playing that was such a feature of REF 2014 was ‘not noticeable’.
It’s clear now that it all depends on who is playing the game and who sets the rules.
Price’s viewpoint is revealing of his position in relation to power structures in academia. Presumably, he was referring to the absence, in 2021, of the pre-census transfer market of academics whose ‘outputs’ and ‘impact’ make them desirable assets for other institutions wishing to beef up their own unit of assessment submissions. Stern’s recommendation that HEIs could submit all work produced by researchers while they were in employ there has meant a switch in the balance of power. The person who creates the outputs no longer holds them in their vault. Instead, they are banked by the institution along with the funds that flow to any 3* and 4* research. From the point of view of academics, game playing has been very much in evidence, only, this time, they are the playthings.
The REF funding model and the audit-disciplined university has meant academics have been told their job security depends on achieving the highest targets for research quality and impact. Additionally, those willing to focus their research on government priorities are more likely to enjoy access to funded research opportunities. The response of academics in keeping their research afloat through the pandemic when teaching has intensified and student need swelled, has been heroic. They were unprepared and undeserving of the retribution which has arrived – prompt, pervasive, and punitive. Across the sector, academics are being served with notice of redundancy: De Montfort University, Roehampton, Wolverhampton, and of course, early adopters like Leicester and Liverpool. Many of these job losses are in departments which have scored well and exceeded expectations. Now that the REF results are announced, the institution is free to lay off academics and claim the funding for retired or fired employees even as their REF narrative depicts a vigorous and lively research environment. Ben Whitham, on Twitter, wrote: ‘The spectacle of uni VCs that waited until the teaching term was over and the ref results in to try to force through unnecessary frontline redundancies (while they keep drawing their own inflated salaries) is just gross… DMU, Wolverhampton, now Roehampton… It’s a frenzy’. The MP for Putney, Southfields and Roehampton, Fleur Anderson has revealed that she has spoken to the VC and voiced her concerns about ‘fire and rehire’ tactics that have been alleged.
What do we call this other than a cynical exercise in rentier redundancy? How can universities possibly claim to be decent employers when staff are treated so appallingly? Let’s recognise as well that trade unions are often bypassed in many of these ‘consultations’ or ‘non-restructures’.
From the point of view of a high proportion of academics now, the REF has yielded nothing but contingent departments contingent courses and increasingly contingent staff. These conditions cannot nurture knowledge creation, dissemination and transfer. Academics need to take risks with their work, and a degree of job security had always been normalised in universities until the attacks on tenure and on academic freedom of the last few decades.
But now we have transparent attacks from government on academic culture and endeavour delivered with financial levers and the reputational risks of audit ignominy. Alongside this sits an aversion to the arts and humanities which vice chancellors seem happy to prosecute, even though this means turning away fee-bearing students from courses which recruit well and cross subsidise the more expensive-to-teach courses in STEM and in some cases, place institutions at risk of bankruptcy.
The problem with a government willing to see universities go to the wall is that we currently have a huge demand for higher education. As Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe points out: “Somewhere up the “top” of the tables, there’s students rammed in on massive modules, where the personal tutor system is more of an ambition than a reality. And at the other end, the redundancy programmes pick up pace.”
For a government which now avows a commitment to the student experience and student support (i.e. learning analytics), the contradictions accumulate. In desperation, some university managers reach for an uncapped source of subsidy to solve their cash flow problems – international students. Even in an era of heightened regulation and surveillance of international education, there can be cases of exploitative practices. Plashingvole on Twitter wrote, “I find myself wondering why senior managers thought it was ethical or sensible to do a deal with agents in a very poor country to recruit 700 students from one particular place largely to a single course with very few checks on qualifications.” And even that strategy has not stanched the financial haemorrhage.
It would be hard to advise an 18-year-old university applicant which universities and which courses might last the course of a 3 year degree program. Jim Dickinson on Twitter (May 18th 2022): ‘It’s miserable for students and academics. You can make a case (not one I simplistically agree with) that demand should drive HE supply – but not at this pace. Because it takes time to expand or contract in a way that doesn’t damage the student experience’. Inevitably, the impact on students of this failure of policy will be to limit their choices and crush ambition. Not only that, but the closure of a course leaves a cloud of uncertainty hanging over its graduates. Was their course worthwhile? Will their degree be valued by an employer? Will there be any staff left to write them a reference?
I suppose the over-arching theme of many of my blogs is why do staff keep turning up ? Why do talented students still strive to do good doctoral research? More and more I find an uncomfortable rebuttal in the number of tweets from academics leaving their university posts. For many of them, they can no longer face the daily battle with expectations versus a worsening reality. The Times Higher reports: “A new article blames academia’s rising mental health toll on universities’ refusal to allow staff to apply principles of academic inquiry to their own institutions. “Values that an academic might seek…to uphold in one’s work – such as a commitment to reason, objectivity, public responsibility and the pursuit of knowledge – are routinely compromised, thwarted, trivialised or dismissed,” says the paper in the journal Social Alternatives. “The very tools of critique and analysis that academics use to understand the world around them are simply not able to be applied in any meaningful way to their own employment circumstances.” The mental injuries sustained when dealing with this conflict and alienation has led to an epidemic of mental illness among university staff.
Jim Dickinson has identified the flaw in marketisation concerning the student experience. In terms of the staff experience, marketisation, commercialization, the audit and rankings agendas and the removal of academic autonomy work against the need for long-term planning for serious work to take place. It is pointless if all we can do is swim upstream against the vicissitudes of government impulse. As one head of department wrote on Twitter: “YES. I’m a Head of School now and this question is central to everything I do, both for myself and for my colleagues – what can I ask them to put energy into when we all know that 2 years on everything will be knocked down again?”
It doesn’t have to be like this. I had dinner last week with two recently-retired professors from US research-intensive R1 universities. They are both just retiring in their late 70s or 80s. Both of them had significant reputations in Hispanic literature and both had served as heads of the MLA and both had been on committees awarding Pulitzer Prizes and MacArthur Grants. Here I defer to all the caveats about the American academic superstar system, but nevertheless, I was struck by how they have reached the end of their careers with a great deal of earned self-worth intact, whereas, right now, I know about half a dozen UK professors who are leaving academia. None of them feel as if they have any respect from their university management. They all seem to be quitting in a state of despondency. By contrast, one of my dinner companions was talking about the care the university was taking of their archive of papers. The other had just been honoured with a festschrift produced by former graduate students. I couldn’t even begin to try and explain the circumstances which drove me out of UK higher education in my 50s; the two world views are not mutually comprehensible. How do you convey the brutality of a system which reckons the value of an academic, however ‘productive’ and influential, in only the most instrumental terms? How do you explain the necessity of justifying every last minute of your time at work? How do you explain the anxiety of whether your work will ‘fit the REF narrative’ or ‘have impact’. To someone whose career has been driven by their own autonomous academic judgment and priorities, it just wouldn’t have made sense.