All posts by lizmorrish

Academic in linguistics. Writes about the discourse of managerialism and audit culture.

It’ll never happen

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 previously appeared on the *Research blog 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?

The piece first appeared in Research Professional online forum, 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.



Managing malice, reaffirming Robbins

My last blog post addressed some of the misconceptions surrounding the award of first class degrees in UK universities. I was favorably surprised by the reception and the number of people who seemed relieved to be presented with another explanation than the now customary media allegations of dumbing down, declining standards and apathetic students being rewarded for sub-standard work. However, in the print media, there swiftly followed another set of familiar accusations  – that universities are admitting students with poor A levels to under-subscribed degrees.  Even more concerning, apparently these students won’t be able to secure a graduate job commensurate with their knowledge and skills.

This year’s cohort of freshers will experience uncertainty over value for money, having heard that universities are replacing credentialed academics with graduate teaching assistants or disenchanted teaching fellows.   Even lecturers with permanent posts are bailing out with stress-related illnesses.  Many students will have internalized the suspicion that a share of their £9000 could be gifted to an avaricious vice chancellor by a secretive remuneration committee. And they harbour the nagging thought that if they defer admission for a year or two, they might not have to pay such exorbitant fees.  And now, even if they overlook this catalogue of condemnation, students are told that they may be denied the prize of a first class honours degree, as universities could be punished if they award too many of them. And in any case, even the Guardian believes that academic judgement of degree classifications is so flawed it amounts to universities ‘marking their own homework’, and questions whether a first from one institution is equivalent to one from another. 

As I write, it is encouraging to know that for the first time in a long time, there has been an immediate and robust response to some of the critics from the new CEO of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis, citing “misinformation, muddled argument and even a little malicious intent.” It is a welcome intervention.  

The uniting theme to all these accusations is that universities are doing a poor job and standards are slipping. The tired old argument goes, that if only 5% of students were admitted to universities in 1970, and today 32.5%, then it stands to reason that the bar must have been lowered. I suggest such critics go and read this excellent blog by Mike Ratcliffe, More Means Better, which is aimed at deflating the fiction that higher education should be the provenance of a self-defined elite.

My contribution to the debate has been to rebut the argument that universities have no check on standards and quality of teaching and assessment. My last blog piece pointed out that student achievement at university is criterion referenced, i.e. if a student reaches a threshold of learning, they will be awarded the same mark as every other student at this level of achievement, regardless of how many of them there are. Every student’s work is blind-marked, moderated (double checked) by another qualified academic, and passed before an external examiner whose job it is to monitor standards and comparability. This is fair to both students, and institutions who need to safeguard standards and reputation. At present, the reputation of UK universities is high – outside of the UK. It appears to be a peculiarity of UK journalists that they condemn the system that educated them. The fact that so many who voice skepticism are graduates of Oxford University has not escaped me, but you cannot be sure whether their views are the product of careless ignorance or exclusionary elitism. We can probably assume, though, that they will foster the ascent of their own children to suitably selective universities.

Let me offer an analogy which might clarify why ‘more means worse’ arguments are unsound, and which sheds some light on objective criterion referencing and improvements in performance.  

Recently untethered from the academy, I have been able to spend time during the summer with New York Open Water – a group which organizes marathon swims in New York. The most arduous of these swims is the 8 Bridges Hudson River marathon swim. It is a multi-stage swim, and each day’s distance of between 13.2and 19.8 miles must be completed within the time window allowed by the tidal flow of the Hudson River. It is preposterously hard to swim a marathon on consecutive days over a week. Between 2011 and 2016 only six swimmers managed to successfully accomplish all seven stages of this 120 mile swim between Kingston and New York Harbor, and there were two years when nobody made it. Nevertheless, the 2017 cohort furnished us with nine new entrants to the 8 Bridges hall of fame. Could anybody seriously suggest that somehow the standard required for success has slipped? Quality control tanked? Demand an investigation from the regulatory body? The 2017 event took place over the same course, had the same organizers and was run under the same rules of marathon swimming.

So what might account for the sudden and massive increase in success? Firstly, the profile of this event has risen across the international community of marathon swimmers, so many more people see it as an accomplishment they might wish to add to their CVs. Secondly, techniques of training, nutrition, mental and physical preparation have been customized towards the requirements of this event. It adds up to a highly targeted approach to this demanding swim, and a consequent rise in the success rate has been the result.

The analogy with university degrees is this; contrary to the misgivings of the media critics, universities have become much more focused on how to teach students in interesting and varied ways, on how students learn, and how to embed feedback and progression into the assessment process. Every student is made aware of the requirements of the course, the learning outcomes and assessment criteria. No surprise, then, that they focus their efforts on meeting these.

It is different world from the exams encountered by students fifty years ago. Then, nobody thought it off limits to set questions on material the course had not actually covered. Arts and humanities courses, particularly, saw their final exams as an assessment of general erudition. I have seen a finals paper from Bristol university (circa 1965) sat by all arts students which assumed knowledge of literature, poetry, artistic movements as well as music. There was no preparatory taught course; students were just expected to have absorbed this knowledge as part of their autonomous intellectual development. The Robbins principle had, after all, stated that the role of universities was to produce “cultivated men and women; and to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship.” 

It would be facile to compare exam papers from the 1960s with those of today and declare the latter less challenging. In the intervening years, the emphasis has swung from familiarity with high culture, to the acquisition of transferable skills and intellectual agility. We now appear to be moving beyond this to a requirement for demonstrable ‘learning gain’ in graduates. 

Failure to understand the evolution of teaching and learning in universities may be at the root of some of the dismissive articles we have seen over the last year. It sometimes happens that the products of elite institutions believe their own myths. When you are told you are very ‘bright’, and are surrounded by others who are deemed ‘bright’, you tend to believe in your own exceptionalism and entitlement, when in fact ‘bright’ is often nothing more than the expression of privilege and social capital. As an educator of over 30 years, I am unimpressed by ‘bright’ because it has always seemed one of the least useful predictors of success in higher education, or indeed life. Give me the curious, the challenging, the creative, the hardworking, but above all the persistent. And a measure of self-belief is always helpful. These are the attributes I observed among the marathon swimmers I met, and among the students who distinguished themselves by improving year on year. So rather than objecting that universities are somehow diluting their standards and bestowing worthless degrees, let’s at least acknowledge two important legacies. Students are emerging from school, motivated, qualified with A levels and fully eligible for higher education. This is also one of the outcomes envisaged by Lord Robbins who argued that university places “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment” Robbins believed that many more students could benefit from university than had been able to access it prior to 1963. He went to great lengths to provide statistical evidence that more would not mean worse in terms of lowering of standards, and indeed the expansion of UK universities was matched by enhanced international standing.

The Robbins’ principle of democratization of universities was what we wished for the nation’s young people in 1963 and it is worth defending today. It is what our politicians and journalists want for their children, even as they undermine those advantages for everyone else’s.

Firsts Among Equals? Why have the number of first class degrees increased so dramatically?

“Figures on degree scores from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, analysed by the Press Association, show that 40 higher education institutions saw the proportion of firsts rise by more than 10 percentage points between 2010-11 and 2015-16” (Simon Baker, Times Higher, July 20th 2017).

Once again the annual HESA figures on degree classifications have set in motion an outpouring of consternation from broadsheets and tabloid newspapers alike. Photos two weeks ago of conventionally attractive, white, and mostly female students tossing their mortarboards are now displaced by sneers and insinuations that their achievements have been compromised by a wanton lowering of standards. Simon Baker’s piece shows some startling figures: The University of Surrey’s proportion of first class graduates has doubled between 2011 and 2017 from 19.3% to 41.2%, while firsts at the University of East Anglia have tripled from 12.5% to 34%. The article offers some explanations for the large increase: better teaching, higher entry standards to universities, students working harder, the effect of students paying higher fees; league tables which reward high percentages of ‘good degrees’. This year there is an additional incentive to send students out with a first or upper second class degree – many employers demand them, and the TEF rewards institutions with solid track records of graduate employment. But for the newspapers, I suppose it is what they call ‘low hanging fruit’ – something they understand so little about, it is easy to distort the facts and take a whack at universities, ever a target for an eye-bulging populist. You almost expect to see Lord Adonis weighing in.

I think I can offer some insight into why the achievement of students has risen in the past 6 or 7 years. For over twenty years I was actively involved in quality exercises at subject, department and institutional level. I also gained considerable experience as an external examiner. Progress in academic standards and quality has been in process throughout my career, and it seemed to me we had achieved peak criterion-referenced scrupulosity. No longer is the award of a first class degree treated as some kind of mysterious alchemy, recognised only by possessors of an equal or superior first class mind. The culture of metrics and key performance indicators has made itself known to students in the form of learning outcomes and assessment criteria. This means that students are not in the dark about ‘what the lecturer wants’, or ‘what do I need to do to get a first’. The approach to advanced learning that elicits such questions is, to my mind, inherently flawed, but nevertheless, that’s where we are in UK universities. The system has constructed a student who is a consumer with anxieties which must be allayed by the provision of roadmaps to success.

We have also been led in this direction by very sound pedagogy. We now know that the best way to learn is by having a go, and then getting advice from someone whose knowledge and experience can help you improve. To that end, students are given many forms of feedback during their course, among them formative and summative feedback. An assessment may be broken down into, for example, a proposal which is marked and returned with comments (formative), and then an essay or project which a student can write up in the light of this feedback (summative). Lecturers are also encouraged to make available ‘exemplars’ which show how a previous student has attempted the exercise (anonymised, and with permission, of course). These will be accompanied with a commentary which clarifies exactly how the student has met the marking criteria, and why the grade was achieved.

The marking criteria themselves are extremely explicit, and the marker will indicate, for each of the criteria, exactly which level has been achieved. The comments will give guidance on how the student could improve to the next level. This is how quality feedback should work – the student knows exactly where the areas of strength and weakness are, and can work to address them. No surprise then, if more students learn to follow these recommendations in order to achieve the higher grades.

And for the marker too, there are surprises. Sometimes the mark you originally had in your head after reading an essay will change once you start to systematically align your marks with the criteria.

Additionally, for many years external examiners have been encouraging internal markers to extend the range of marks given. It is easy to see how many more students ended up with a 2.2 or a 2.1 when the vast majority of their marks over three years were between 50-69%. If they were awarded a first class mark, this would probably be between 70-74% so it was unlikely to tilt the average over the first class threshold. More recently, the top end of the scale has been opened up because – well, not all first class papers are equally good. So now a student may receive 96% for an exceptional piece which is regarded by markers as almost of publishable standard. This would be very rare. But there can be marks in the 80% range for excellent work, as well as a solid 70+% for the very good pieces. A few of these stellar grades, and you will get more clear, numerical firsts emerging.

Even in pre-HESA, NSS and TEF days, it was never the case that all first were awarded on the basis of reaching the numerical threshold of 70%. This was largely to take into account the rather parsimonious award of marks over 70% for essays and exams, and the artificial compression of those first class marks into the 70-75% range. Very few candidates would end their studies with an aggregated mark of over 70%, so exam boards would consider a candidate for ‘promotion’ to a higher grade if their score fell within 1-2% of the first class borderline. Also, scores were weighted to reflect ‘exit velocity’, so the student who improved over the course of their degree and achieved mostly first class marks in their final year, would graduate with the higher classification. There were other locally-agreed regulations, but as far as I am aware, most universities acted to make sure students were awarded a degree classification which reflected their ability and scholarly improvement. This worked well.

The problem, if it is a problem, is that we now have two forces of uplift operating at the same time: the broadening of the first class marking range, and the regulations for ‘promotion’ to the higher degree classification. If both are applied, it is not surprising that 20-25% of candidates qualify for a first. This would explain the very large increase from 2010/11 to 2016/17.

I am not making any recommendations here, merely trying to add some clarity and reason to what has become a rather volatile issue. I have avoided the term ’grade inflation’ because this oversimplifies the confluence of processes and rationales which have led to the current situation. Universities must prioritise good practice and fairness in teaching, learning and assessment. But they must also guard against the more perverse incentives presented by consumerism, student satisfaction, league tables and the TEF.



The Disrespect of the TEF


I have been a few days late to the sector-wide freakshow that is the TEF results.  There has been a news-grabbing but probably temporary perturbation to the traditional hierarchy of mostly English universities, their VCs enlivened by the prospect of being able to raise tuition fees. The resulting categorisations of Gold, Silver and Bronze brought forth just one expression of outrage from Sir Christopher Snowden, the VC of the University of Southampton, and former Universities UK president. Altogether three more (Liverpool, Durham and York) have joined him in launching an appeal. Endorsed by the vice-president of the NUS, Sorana Vieru, Snowden levelled this criticism, “I know I am not alone in having deep concerns about its subjective assessment, its lack of transparency, and with different benchmarks for each institution removing any sense of equity and equality of assessment.”

The statement would have had more force if it had been delivered before the data for the TEF had been sent to Hefce by compliant vice-chancellors. Better still, the sector could have prevented needless and undeserved reputational damage to a majority of universities which received Bronze and Silver ratings if they had stuck together and paid heed to the uncontestable arguments against the TEF. The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) has published several informative pieces on their website. A key contributor is Professor Dorothy Bishop of the University of Oxford whose argument is summarised in this excellent reply to an article by Edward Peck, VC of Nottingham Trent University.

Her key points are that the justification for the TEF of supposed ‘lamentable teaching’ is unfounded, and in any case, weaknesses in teaching can be diagnosed and addressed by the current QAA inspection and quality framework. Crucially, “The validity of the National Student Survey as a measure of teaching quality has been roundly criticised, and these criticisms appear to have been accepted by the chair of the TEF.” Also, “the statistical properties of NSS data have been described as unsuitable as a measure of teaching quality by the Office for National Statistics, the Royal Statistical Society and, most recently, by Lord Lipsey, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Statistics.”

This should have been a damning enough condemnation to stop the TEF in its tracks before the HEAR Bill could be hustled through parliament before the General Election. It is disturbing that a process which would not get through the first pass of peer review if submitted to an academic journal is now being triumphantly lauded as begetter of a new and ‘disruptive’ hierarchy of universities which better reflects and serves ‘student choice’.

The majority of those who teach in universities are clear that the TEF methodology is fatally flawed, and the results meaningless. There are those in government and the media, though, who still defend its meager claims on credibility. One such is Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, the Higher Education Policy Institute, a position he assumed after a spell as the Special Advisor to David Willetts when the latter was Minister of State for Higher Education. Nick appears, from my many years of interaction with him on Twitter, to be an amiable and fair minded human being. I appreciate his willingness to engage with critics of the TEF and higher education policy generally. However, I was alarmed at some comments made during this thread. It is worth showing the interaction in full below. The thread starts with the CDBU taking issue with Nick’s view that the TEF offers students important information on which to base their choice of university, a view which echoes the wording of the HE White Paper of May 2016.






What surprised me was Nick’s response to my suggestion that an ill-conceived array of proxy metrics might not serve anybody’s purpose. He seems to believe that it is too much to ask that any policy should work well from Day 1. I suggest that a well-recognised business process, Six Sigma, which focusses on identifying flaws and process improvement, could be adopted here. In an era when public sector organisations are directed to be more business-like in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, I would have thought this would be an article of faith in policy analysis too. Clearly, getting it right in government circles is too much to ask, as Nick reflects on “the messiness of policymaking in a democracy”. Actually, you don’t need anything as systematic as Six Sigma, you just need evidence-based policymaking, and it starts with paying attention to well-informed critics like Dorothy Bishop.

My point in writing this is not to make a personal attack on Nick, who, as I said above, distinguishes himself by his willingness to engage with alternative viewpoints. This is rather a howl of despair at an apparent double standard in expectations between government and those who must deliver their policies. What I am hoping to convey is the frustration of academics who are asked to restrain their own exploratory instincts in favour of a highly-regulated, audited and disciplined approach to working which has predictability and safety as its guiding principles.

What an ironic reversal this is. In previous years we might have expected universities to have license to experiment, to fail, to be messy in their approach. This was how discovery and progress was assumed to move forward. No longer, apparently. While government is afforded the indulgence of failure in policy-making, this is not the case for those who are charged with delivery. For policy makers there appears to be no obligation to embody ‘excellence’, to do what works, to get it right first time, to be evidence- and outcomes-led. These are instead demanded from those who must fulfil them under conditions of an increasingly demanding workload into which more government policy initiatives are emptied on a continuous basis. Unlike government, there is no five-year window for memory slippage when you are subject to performance improvement procedures every three months over some imagined lapse in ‘excellence’. It must be an enjoyable life, driving policy changes when you know that ‘messy’ outcomes will be tolerated, but it is a rather different story in academia 2017.

Let me give just a couple of examples. Research can be a step into unknown territory, but in REF culture, it would be an unwise scholar who set out without a clear sense of – not just results – but the ‘value’ and ‘impact’ of their work. No unpredictable outcomes possible. And similarly, academic staff are expected to fund their research with grant money from research councils with success rates for applications as low as 11%. Similarly, in our teaching, despite recognising that each individual student will take something different from our courses, we must submit them to a system of empty standardized ‘learning outcomes’. And when we have assessed them in a way which belies their imagination and intellectual response, we must endeavor to portray this as ‘personalisation of the learning experience’. There is little tolerance for even necessary ‘messiness’ in academic life. We mourn its passing.

Nick has urged universities to offer more support for students with mental health difficulties in a recent HEPI reportI look forward to another HEPI report which considers the crisis in academic staff mental health, and the role of frameworks such as the TEF and REF in heightening this. They may seem like benign instruments of audit, necessary to justify the considerable public spend in higher education. This would be uncontroversial but for the fact that these have been folded into the disciplinary mechanisms of New Public Management in universities. They too have been personalized and dashboarded into instruments of performance management.  And if HEPI does join the growing band of voices advocating for a more humane university workplace, I hope the report encounters a more gracious reception than I did when I spoke truth to power.

Nick seems to find my retort disrespectful, and if I have been, I offer my apologies. I have always said that the only thing that ever trickles down is contempt, and academics feel it raining down from government, magnified by sections of university management.  As I indicted in my response, democracy has perished in universities alongside ‘messiness’. And when such a double standard is in place, and you are only as good as your last ‘win’, even in the face of structural obstacles, it is nothing less than abusive.