Category Archives: academic freedom

Academic freedom is in crisis; free speech is not

This post was first published on the CDBU blog on April 6th 2021.

In August 2020, the UK think tank The Policy Exchange produced a report on Academic Freedom in the UK, alleging a chilling effect for staff and students expressing conservative opinions, particularly pro-Brexit or ‘gender critical’ ideas. This is an issue that was examined by a 2018 parliamentary committee on Human Rights which found a lack of evidence for serious infringements of free speech. In a university context, freedom of speech is protected under the Human Rights Act 1998 as long as the speech is lawful and does not contravene other university regulations on issues like harassment, bullying or inclusion. Some of these controversies have been firmly rebutted by Chris Parr and others who describe how the incidents have been over-hyped. 

Despite this, the government seems keen to appoint a free speech champion for universities which continues a campaign started by Sam Gyimah when he was minister for universities in 2018, and has been interpreted by some commentators as a ‘war on woke’. In the current climate of threats to university autonomy, many vice chancellors wonder whether this might be followed by heavy fines or reduced funding for those institutions deemed to fall on the wrong side of the culture wars.

While public concern has been directed to an imagined crisis of free speech, there are more significant questions to answer on the separate but related issue of academic freedom. Most university statutes echo legislation and guarantee academics ‘freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial and unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.’ [Section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988]. In reality, these freedoms are surrendered to the greater claims of academic capitalism, government policy, legislation, managers’ responses to the pandemic and more dirigiste approaches to academics’ work. 

Nevertheless, this government is ploughing ahead with policies designed to protect the freedom of speech that is already protected, while doing little to hold university managers to account for their very demonstrable violations of academic freedom. The government is suspicious of courses which declare a sympathy with social justice or which manifest a ‘progressive’ approach. This hostility also extends to critical race theory and black studies. Indeed, the New York Times has identified a right wing ‘Campaign to Cancel Wokeness’  on both sides of the Atlantic, citing a speech by the UK Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, in which she said,  “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt…Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.” 

This has now set a tone for ideological oversight which some university leaders seem keen to embrace. Universities will always wish to review their offerings to ensure they reflect academic currency and student choice. However, operating under the cover of emergency pandemic planning, some are now seeking to dismantle what they see as politically troublesome subject areas.

Let’s start with the most egregious and transparent attack on academic freedom. The University of Leicester Business School, known primarily for its disdain of management orthodoxy, has announced it will no longer support research in critical management studies and political economy, and the university has put all researchers who identify with this field, or who at some time might have published in CMS, at risk of redundancy. Among the numerous responses circulating on Twitter, nearly all point to the fact that the critical orientation made Leicester Business School distinctive and attractive to scholars wishing to study and teach there. Among those threatened with redundancy is the distinguished former dean, Professor Gibson Burrell. The sheer volume of protest at this anomaly must be an embarrassment to Leicester management. We should remember that academic freedom means that, as a scholar of proven expertise, you have the freedom to teach and research according to your own judgement. When those in a field critical of structures of power have their academic freedom removed, this is, unarguably, a breach of that expectation. Such a violation should be of concern to the new freedom of speech champion and to the regulator, the Office for Students. 

If the devastation in the School of Business were not enough humiliation for Leicester, in the department of English, there are plans to cancel scholarship and teaching in Medieval and Early Modern literature. The thoughtless stripping out of key areas that give context and coherence within a subject is not unique to Leicester – similar moves have taken place in English at University of Portsmouth.  At Leicester, management have offered the justification that this realignment will allow them to put resources towards the study of gender and sexuality. After all, the Vice Chancellor, Nishan Canagarajah, offered the keynote speech at the Advance HE conference in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion on 19th March  and has signalled that he supports decolonising the curriculum. This might have had more credibility if he was not equally committed to extinguishing critical scholarship in the Business School. The two positions are incompatible and reveal an opportunistic attempt to reduce costs and remove signs of critical scholarship which might attract government disapproval. 

At the University of Birmingham, the response to the difficulties of maintaining teaching during the pandemic has been to issue a ruling that three academic staff must be able to teach each module. The explanation for this apparent reversal of the ‘lean’ principle of staffing efficiency, is to make modules more resilient in the face of challenges like the pandemic – or perhaps strike action. There is a consequence for academic freedom though – only the most familiar, established courses can be taught. Courses that might have been offered, which arise from the current research of the academic staff, will have to be cancelled if the material is not already familiar to other colleagues in the department. It is a way of designing innovation and advancement out of courses at the University of Birmingham. 

Still at Birmingham, UCU is contesting a proposal for a new ‘career framework’ by management characterised as ‘up or out’. It will require newly appointed lecturers to achieve promotion to senior lecturer within five years or face the sort of performance management procedures that could lead to termination of their appointment. The junior academics who enter on these conditions are unlikely to gamble their careers on academic risk-taking or pursue a challenge to an established paradigm. We can only speculate how this apprenticeship in organisational obedience might restrain the pursuit of discovery, let alone achieve the management’s stated aim to “develop and maintain an academic culture of intellectual stimulation and high achievement”. 

Meanwhile at the University of Liverpool, Vice Chancellor Janet Beer is attempting to apply research metrics and measures of research income over a five-year period to select academics for redundancy in the Faculty of Life Sciences. Staff have been threatened with sacking and replacement by those felt to hold more promise. It will be an unwise scholar who chooses a niche field of research which will not elicit prime citations. Astoundingly, university mangers claim that their criteria are not in breach of their status as a signatory to the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment. That is correct insofar as selection for redundancy by grant income is clearly such dishonorable practice as to have been placed beyond contemplation by the international board of DORA.

It seems we are reaching a pivotal moment for academic freedom for higher education systems across the world. In Arkansas and some other states in the USA, there are efforts to prohibit the teaching of social justice.

In France, the education minister has blamed American critical race theory for undermining France’s self-professed race-blindness and for causing the rise of “islamo-gauchisme”, a term which has been cynically deployed to blunt any critique of structural racism.

In Greece, universities are now bound by law to ensure policing and surveillance of university campuses by ‘squads for the protection of universities’ in order to suppress dissent with the Orwellian announcement that the creation of these squads and the extensive surveillance of public Universities are “a means of closing the door to violence and opening the way to freedom” and an assertion that “it is not the police who enter universities, but democracy”.

Conclusion

It occurs to me that those public figures who feel deprived of a platform to express controversial views may well be outnumbered by the scholars whose universities allow their work to be suppressed by targeted intellectual purges, academic totalitarianism and metric surveillance. It is telling that assaults on academic freedom in the UK have not attracted comment or action from the organisations which might be well placed to defend this defining and essential principle of universities. I hereby call on Universities UK, the Office for Students and the freedom of speech champion to insist on an independent audit of academic freedom and autonomy for each higher education institution. 

We now know where intervention into the rights of academics to teach and research autonomously may lead. We also know that many of the candidates targeted for redundancy are UCU trade union officials; this has happened at University of East London and the University of Hull. Make no mistake, this is a PATCO moment for higher education in the UK as management teams try to break union support and solidarity in order to exact greater control in the future.   

Universities are the canary down the mine in an era of right-wing authoritarianism. We must ensure that they can maintain their unique responsibility to protect against the rise of populism and the dismantling of democracy. We must be assertive in protecting the rights of academics whose lawful and reasoned opinions are increasingly subject to some very sinister threats. Academic freedom needs to be fought for, just like the right to protest and the right to roam. That leaves a heavy responsibility for academics if the abolition of autonomy and academic freedom is not to be complete. 

More details of the planned redundancies at the University of Leicester:

Zoom conference on the Leicester Business School redundancies and academic freedom – chaired by Prof. Martin Parker.

Prof. Andrew Timming interviews Prof. Martin Parker on ‘What the hell is going on at Leicester University?’

Nobody is redundant

Along with everybody else concerned about higher education, I have been immersed in debates about the future of universities after Covid. I recommend the Post-Pandemic University’s blog and series of online conferences . We discuss how face-to-face and online learning will coexist. How different are the underlying pedagogies for each modality? Scholars describe the huge increase in workload that multi-mode and multi-platform teaching has generated and worry this will further exhaust their mental health and energy.

Amidst this crisis, university managers are contemplating a financial shortfall arising from missing accommodation revenues, costs of increased biosecurity measures and, in some cases, fear of declining student headcount. Among the cost-cutting measures currently being imposed are the non-renewal of short-term contracts, curtailing of research leave, and most controversial in the context of a pandemic recession, compulsory redundancies.

So here are some thoughts on the post-pandemic landscape of universities and their campuses which occurred to me after I received unexpected but welcome messages from a couple of former students in the last few weeks.

James who graduated in the early 2000s got in touch to ask “Are you watching It’s A Sin? It made me realise that the first time I learnt about ‘gay history’ was at university. In your class and in another module called ‘representing aids’ – I can’t remember the tutors name? Anyhow it was the first step into a world where suddenly everything started to make sense – I’d never been so connected to learning. It’s a sin reminded me of sitting in your office and telling you I was gay after your class – and feeling safe. Will never forget that moment. Thanks 🙂 x’.

Mike who also graduated in the early 2000s messaged to say ‘I now look back on my time at NTU with fondness. You stand out as a hugely positive influence on me thanks to your open and engaging teaching style and your natural pastoral approach to conversations on numerous topics which certainly helped to broaden my view of the world and influenced my liberal political stance. So thank you again for the part you played in opening the mind of a somewhat fucked-up young man from a Yorkshire mining town!’.

While these affirmations might confirm all the suspicions Sam Gyimah and other Tory ministers hold about apparently left-wing lecturers, there is a more important message. It is about shared, interactive learning. Learning in a community. Learning and memory. Learning in place. Learning in a place. And most importantly, learning is personal in a very different way from the concept of ‘personalisation’ which is sold by the ed-tech industry and endorsed by vice chancellors and deans across the HE sector.

I have had a few emails from students over the years, reminiscing about course content which has been transformed from the abstraction of a university seminar to becoming personal and immanent. No former student has ever thanked me for raising their income or increasing their return on investment. And yet, this seems to be high among the concerns of the department of education. The OECD has produced a report which attempts to monetise what they see as each year of missed learning for children and university students and the presumed concomitant loss in knowledge and skills.

There are two related streams of long-run economic costs that are central to this discussion. First, affected students whose schooling has been interrupted by the pandemic face long-term losses in income. Second, national economies that go forward with a less skilled labour force face lower economic growth which subtracts from the overall welfare of society.

[Eric A. Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann 2020. The economic impacts of learning losses. OECD Education Working Papers No. 225]

On Twitter, Ben Williamson, a critic of ed-tech, has been resisting the analysis that less learning = less human capital = weaker productivity, and points out that ‘economization of education is nothing new. Education has been positioned as integral to economic development for years. States compare and compete over education. So “learning loss” is just a new anxiety of a much longer trend to instrumentalize education.’ And he goes on to warn how ed-tech companies are waiting in the wings to provide the ‘digital transformation’ solutions to enable students to catch up.

In February 2021 Ben Williamson and Anna Hogan wrote a report for Education International in which they recognise that a large amount of venture capital is flowing into ed-tech in response to a much more prominent role for data-driven decision making in higher education. Together with the perennial promise of ‘personalised’ educational content, their report predicts a future of ‘unbundled’ courses, and an accelerated process of marginalisation or ‘pausing’ of activities which do not satisfy the monetised criteria for their continuation. It is important to remember that much of this personalisation depends on the collection and use of large amounts of student data which students are obliged to surrender just as a consequence of logging on to the university VLE.

There are other similarly undemocratic and data-driven ways in which universities are being refashioned. In announcing redundancies and course closures, a number of universities (Portsmouth, Liverpool, Brighton, Leeds, Leicester and others) are stripping their own assets. In the case of Portsmouth, the group @Save English Literature at Portsmouth #UCU alleges that decision making has lacked openness. At the University of Sussex, a newly-validated BA course in Languages and Intercultural Studies has been cancelled without consultation.

Some of these decisions appear to constitute major restructuring of the university and curricular provision without going through the regular channels for making such changes. This risks compromising the autonomy of academics to teach and research according to their own judgement. The most egregious violation of this principle is the University of Leicester which recently announced redundancies in English and in Business, with UCU blaming a history of poor financial management.

In English at Leicester, redundancy notices have been served on scholars in medieval literature. If you are thinking that Leicester might have been motivated to nurture its medievalists after the discovery of the remains of Richard III in 2012, well that was probably archived as the last REF’s impact case study. On with the new, as the justification for the cuts, according to management, is to allow greater support for gender and sexuality themes within English literature. Management have seized a tactical opportunity to align this action with their aspiration to ‘shape for excellence’ and towards decolonising the curriculum. If this pronouncement was not so naïve and disingenuous it might find support. But you don’t decolonise the curriculum just by excising every literary period prior to colonisation. As Martin Parker points out in a recent podcast, in the school of business, where a vigorous and renowned critical curriculum already exists, the university management are acting to erase precisely those perspectives. So, critical management studies and political economy are being axed in favour of data analytics, entrepreneurship and leadership along with the erasure of jobs and expertise. These two parallel catastrophes expose the insincerity of a management team trying to camouflage their own opportunistic vandalism as progressive development.

Bad faith and insufferable, gaslighting hypocrisy do long-term damage to ambition, loyalty and trust within an institution. Staff and students are bound to feel poorly served when ratified governance procedures and normal consultation are circumvented to the point whereby the university is left in a weak position academically. Staff suspect politicians and university managers of mounting an ideologically-driven assault on the arts, humanities and social sciences, and it is refreshing to see one university leader calling for resistance to the government onslaught.

As well as echoing government hostility to non-stem subjects, some executive teams seem to be taking their orders from data crunching firms like DataHE or The Knowledge Partnership whose websites suggest they have greater regard for short-term marketing data than for the function or composition of universities. Data HE assert ‘We are expert in data sensitivities…We are data specialists in higher education recruitment and our aim is to accelerate the use of data for good strategy and high performance in universities.’  Despite DataHE’s goal to “increase trust in the use of data”, their blog appears to end in May 2019.


If there is one insight which does have currency within academia, it is that scholars in universities are bound by complex chains of mutual dependence on each other’s knowledge and expertise. Whether you call it collegiality or networks or interdisciplinarity – universities function as intellectual ecosystems. So, international relations is underpinned by history and geography which make use of concepts developed in sociology which has close links with anthropology and social theory whose concepts are developed in cultural studies which informs the study of literature and media. And expertise in all of these disparate but interconnected fields will be represented and strengthened by colleagues in departments of linguistics and modern languages. In science as well, these polymer chains entwine the disciplines and allow new connections to emerge.

It goes without saying that universities are knowledge institutions. Their ability to develop successfully depends on the expertise of the staff who work within them. There are no short cuts to academic careers that require long periods of training in highly specialised areas. This requires academic, personal and financial dedication and all without any guarantee of what the government wishes us to view as ‘return on investment’. In other words, many take the long-term risks, but few are rewarded with the academic post that enables good work and academic freedom.  

It is appalling that these strong but also fragile connections may be carelessly severed by those who are ready to cede institutional autonomy to data consultants or government caprice, or who are willing to see staff numbers fall to in order to finance a new atrium or promote the ultimate status symbol – the overseas campus.

Unless we make decisions on academic grounds and not the data of marketisation, branding, reputation, universities risk irrelevance and collapse into alienation. Research will not be led by curiosity but instead by the kind of ill-informed hunches the prime minister’s advisors tend to have. Higher education will become increasingly standardized, homogenized and dehumanized even as the preposterous contradiction of algorithmically-driven ‘personalization’ is sold to students and university managers alike. It is really important that all staff take part in conversations about the future of universities and the way they may work in the future. Structures of democratic governance and collective decision making have never been more important – or weaker.

From Regulation to Regime. Are we seeing a government takeover of universities?

This blog previously appeared on the CDBU website.

One thing governments have learned over the last 30 years is not to let a disaster go to waste. In the guise of offering a survival strategy for universities in the pandemic, the Department for Education has issued, in July 2020, a document: Establishment of a Higher Education Restructuring Regime in Response to COVID-19.

The Regime ostensibly promises a relief package for universities which find themselves in financial difficulty due to factors beyond their control. These include loss of income from overseas student fees which is predicted to fall precipitously. However, it is clear there is no bailout; relief comes in the form of a repayable loan, and there are a number of conditions attached. Particularly, the government is keen to see a re-focus on scientific research and ‘a much greater reorientation towards the needs of the local and regional economy’.

Providers will need to examine whether they can enhance their regional focus. I want it to be the norm for far more universities to have adopted a much more strongly applied mission, firmly embedded in the economic fabric of their local area, and consider where appropriate delivery of quality higher technical education or apprenticeships. And all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy.

While its content has been discussed on several HE forums and news outlets over the past few days, no-one, it seems, has questioned the origin or legitimacy of this pronouncement. Perhaps we are already used to having policy made on the hoof, outside of parliament and by the sort of unelected ‘elites’ the Brexiteers had railed against. But to my mind, a restructuring ‘Regime’ does not sound like a consultation, a discussion or a review, nor is it being presented as a Green or White Paper. This is an edict beyond parliamentary scrutiny, and one wonders what else it would take for Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan (whose name does not appear on the document), to be accused of ministerial overreach.

It is noteworthy that the terms of the package outlined in the Regime differ from those accompanying an earlier grant/ loan scheme intended to replace revenues from charities, businesses or international student fees which have supported research in universities. While lenders may be expected to impose conditions on their beneficiaries, this does not seem to be the case for this tranche of loans announced in June. It is assumed that science and medicine will be the recipients, but otherwise the understanding is, “Universities will be required to demonstrate that funds are being spent on research and on retaining research talent”.

And then there is the question of whether the proposals of the Regime stand in conflict with the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 which enshrines the protection of university autonomy. It is worth reminding ourselves exactly what HERA says, courtesy of Gary Attle blogging in 2018 on the AHUA (Association of Heads of University Administration) website.

The Act includes an express statutory duty on the new regulator, the Office of Students, to have regard to the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers as it goes about its functions. “Institutional autonomy” has been defined in section 2 (8) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 for these purposes as:

  • a) the freedom of English higher education providers within the law to conduct their day to day management in an effective and competent way;
  • b) the freedom of English higher education providers –
    • i) to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,
    • ii) to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
    • iii) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
  • c) the freedom within the law of academic staff at English higher education providers-
    • i) to question and test received wisdom, and
    • ii) 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 the providers.

It looks as if government is seeking to override the protections of bi) and biii). Indeed, the very mention of autonomy has been dismissed; Gary Attle describes the struggle to include an amendment which ultimately did not pass.

During the passage of the bill, an amendment was tabled to include on the face of the legislation what might be seen as the quintessential features of a UK university: their autonomy. This includes the imperatives that they must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech; that they “contribute to society through the pursuit, dissemination and application of knowledge’; and that they must ‘be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.

Over to the regulator, and Susan Lapworth, Director of Competition and Registration at the Office for Students, blogging on the OfS website, also in 2018, notes the OfS is required to ‘have regard’ for institutional autonomy, but states this is not an absolute. Some of the Act’s provision may be in tension with each other, for example, competition might not be the best guarantor of equality of access and participation. Nevertheless, ‘providers are free to make their own academic decisions’ and to set vice chancellors’ salaries. But, wait – this is another curtailment hinted at in the Regime, this time in breach of section a) of HERA. Has university autonomy been declared null and void by one sole government edict? How soon before the UK emulates other authoritarian governments, such as Hungary or Brazil, in deciding to outlaw gender studies or other perceived left-wing critical areas? The government seems to want to re-shape universities in terms of curriculum, delivery, recruitment and management. This is, to use an over-worked term in 2020, unprecedented.

This kind of dirigisme is unlikely to add to the allure of universities for either staff or students. A government and regulator which upholds the primacy of the marketized university and the consumer model seems now to be tuning 180 degrees towards centralised, autocratic control.

I have been fortunate to hear Dr Rowan Williams, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, speak at two Zoom meetings in the last week. When speaking at the AGM of the CDBU (Council for the Defence of British Universities), Lord Williams emphasized how important it is for universities to model democratic decision making if they are, as the Regime document suggests, ‘cornerstones of our liberal democracy’. In the other meeting, this time to launch the latest statement from the Convention for Higher Education, he argued for a measure of the public good of higher education that goes beyond the economistic. In order to deliver liberation, academic practitioners must be prepared to seize back control of governance from those who have presided over ‘the barbarizing policies of previous years.’ From a former Archbishop of Canterbury, these are strong words, but they are timely, especially when we address the ideological implications of the Regime for student unions.

The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns.

It is extraordinary to demonise all student campaigning as illegitimate ‘activism’. By contrast, in his address to the CDBU, Lord Williams urged universities to become more democratic in order to offer a generation steeped in grass-roots activism a reason to remain within them. And furthermore, I have just been listening to the moving tributes to Congressman John Lewis in the USA, a notable leader of the 1960s civil rights struggle. One of his more memorable quotes was ‘if you see something that is not right, you have a moral obligation to say something and do something about it’. John Lewis was an activist and he suffered violence and discrimination because of it. Today he is regarded as a pioneer and a hero. How can the minister for higher education decide unilaterally and a priori that all activism should be prohibited? This is not conservatism; it is something more sinister entirely.

It remains to be seen whether VCs fall into line with the Regime or will seek to avoid drifting within its jurisdiction at all costs. Paradoxically, these costs may be the loss of STEM programs and departments which are costly to teach and resource and are often cross-subsidized by higher recruitment of arts and humanities students. This Guardian article by Glen O’Hara predicts that universities will shed STEM subjects in favour of the cheaper humanities ones.

I’m not so sure. Vice chancellors have all too often been willing to genuflect to government wishes even to the point of sacrificing valuable research capacity and indeed entire chemistry and languages departments when it seemed expedient to respond to incentives. The conditions of the Regime loans seem designed to divide the sector into two: government-controlled and autonomous universities, perhaps foreshadowing another division into publicly funded and private ones. I wonder how many of them will align with Rowan Williams’ vision for universities as transformative institutions and forces for intellectual growth. This is a crucial decision for university leaders, indeed all university workers, to make. Gary Attle’s blog ends with this thought: ‘What remains to be seen is how these twin features of the new architecture – autonomy and accountability – will co-exist’. Two years on, the answer to that is now very apparent, and we must fight hard to protect university autonomy across the sector.

Keeping a lid on the pressure: universities and mental health

It has been almost a year since HEPI published the first Pressure Vessels report on the epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff. Last week saw the publication of an update co-authored by Nicky Priaulx of Cardiff University and me: Pressure Vessels II.

The update was written partially to address criticisms of the first report levelled by some vice chancellors: the data was too old, lessons have been learned, mental health is our priority etc. But the updated report tells its own story. With the last two years of data analysed, there has been a continued rise in the numbers of referrals to occupational health (19%) and counselling services (16%). Scroll down to the press release for more headlines.

The response to Pressure Vessels II from Universities UK gave me a sense of déjà vu and so I compared it with last year’s quote in the Times Higher – it was word for word the same:

In a statement Universities UK said “the health, wellbeing and safety of all staff and all students is a priority for universities.

The response from UCEA was baffling to say the least:

Raj Jethwa, CEO of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said the report could have viewed year-on-year increases in mental health referrals “as a positive improvement to staff well-being in the HE sector.”

In what world is an increase in mental health referrals a positive reflection on the sector’s response to the mental health crisis? When we remember that it is the employers’ responsibility to PREVENT stress, you wonder why they have not moved to follow some of the recommendations I made last year. Their response prompted me to tweet:

And here’s UCEA, channelling Captain Schettino of the Costa Concordia, vaingloriously sailing his liner towards the rocks, abandoning crew members as it sinks.

There are a number of unanswered questions looming as universities face the future post-Covid 19. How will staff be protected from excessive workloads arising from redundancies, resignations that will not be replaced, and an unwillingness to continue to employ hourly-paid staff or graduate teaching assistants? Universities are even now cancelling sabbaticals and cutting academics’ time for research – but will the same expectations to produce world-leading REF 3* and 4* research outputs still apply? And what about student satisfaction as courses move online – will academics still be held accountable for that? These are all serious stressors in the life of academics at the moment before we have even taken account of sickness, grief and changes to financial circumstances being confronted by many in universities.

Most people who read this blog are aware of why the staff experience in universities and the mental health crisis are important to me, but let me give some context.

Just a few days previously, I published this piece on the CDBU website (and also on this blog). Here’s the connection to the Pressure Vessels reports. The CDBU blog piece ‘Don’t frighten the students’ was my account of the events that led to my resignation from my academic post in 2016. It places my concern with universities and mental health as the motivating force behind the work that has kept me busy with speaking and writing for the four years since I left. I felt I owed it to the injured colleagues I had met at various UK and international universities, and those whose blogs and tweets I had read, to keep raising the issue. I think the evidence speaks for itself – it is, after all, based on the universities’ own figures for mental health referrals.

When managers questioned my right to publish on this issue, their immediate concern was to silence a voice they considered impertinent. Rather like Matt Hancock, they didn’t like my tone.

It might have played out very differently. An enlightened manager could have suggested, as Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, did, that I pursue a rigorous and fact-based study of the issue. University managers, though, are less interested in hearing challenging views on issues they consider inconvenient. My experience reminded me of a story told by fellow blogger, Plashingvole, about the time he was interviewed for a management job. He was asked what he would do with dissenters. ‘Encourage them’ was his reply. He didn’t get the job. But questioning, challenge and refusal are all essential if universities are to nurture the critical thinking that drives real progress. It has amused me to speculate that these two reports for HEPI might have formed the basis for quite a creditable REF impact case study. No skin off my nose, because, as I am fond of saying, I have been able to get so much more real work done when I’m not having to justify it to management or the machinery of academic audit.

When Pressure Vessels came out in May 2019, I still did want to take one last swipe at the forces of institutional repression. I sent ‘personalised’ copies of the report to two of the managers who presided over my process for gross misconduct. The inscription read:

For X – witnessing your creative approach to the disciplinary process at Z University inspired me to campaign for compassion and kindness in university management. Your actions have led me to publish with a well-regarded organization which has amplified my voice. I will always be grateful.

Subtle. And true. Without them, these reports probably wouldn’t have been written.

This press release first appeared on the HEPI website on 30th April, 2020. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/04/30/pressure-vessels-ii-an-update-on-mental-health-among-higher-education-staff-in-the-uk/

Pressure Vessels II: An update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK (HEPI Policy Note 23) by Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University, and Professor Nicky Priaulx, a Professor of Law at Cardiff University, reveals figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests on demand for counselling and occupational health services.

  • From 2016 to 2018, there was an increase of 16% in counselling at the 14 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained.
  • Over the same period of time, there was a rise of 19% in occupational health referrals at the 16 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained.
  • From 2009/10 to the end of 2017/18, at those five universities reporting complete data, there was a rise of 172% in staff access to counselling.
  • At all 17 universities covered in the report, there has been a rise in staff access to counselling of 155% in recent years.
  • At the 10 universities with data for 2009 to 2018, occupational health referrals rose by 170%.
  • For counselling and occupational health, the figures reflect gender differentiation, with women more highly represented.
  • There is also a pattern corresponding to contract type: for occupational health data, the largest proportion of individuals being referred is non-academic staff.
  • While greater use of support services may sometimes reflect improved access, the analysis may also support previous claims about the declining mental health of university staff.

The report builds on HEPI’s earlier ground-breaking work on this issue, published in May 2019 as Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff.

Dr Liz Morrish, the co-author of the report, said:

‘The first Pressure Vessels report was well received by staff who work in higher education. However, some managers and executives appeared unwilling to accept the findings of year-on-year increases in mental health problems. We hope this updated report will confirm our case beyond argument. The current sample of institutions has identified increases in referrals to occupational health and counselling as high as 500% since 2010.

‘We have also looked at the effect of this climate of workplace stress on staff retention. As we look forward to a future after the COVID19 pandemic, higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.’

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI, said:

‘After the current Covid-19 crisis is over, universities are going to have to pick up the pieces. There will be new challenges in recruiting and keeping students, in managing finances and in delivering research. It is vital that the wellbeing of staff is always considered as these changes occur.

‘The future success of UK universities mustn’t come at the cost of individuals’ lives. We need to build a virtuous circle by delivering supportive environments that strengthen institutions because they work well for all staff and students, rather than a vicious circle where institutions may succeed in the short term but people’s wellbeing is harmed.’

 

‘Don’t frighten the students’: the crisis of academic freedom in the managed university

This post appeared first on the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) blog on April 20th 2020.

When I started my blog, Academic Irregularities , in 2015, I intended to contribute to a conversation within the emerging discipline of critical university studies, which looks at the role of higher education in society, and in particular the power relations at play.

This seemed like a safe enough path to follow. After all, in the UK, academic freedom is guaranteed, and all higher education institutions registered with the Office for Students (OfS) must demonstrate provision for safeguarding it within their statutes of governance. A definition can be found in Section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988. It states that academics enjoy ‘freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial and unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.’

How did we reach the point where university managers have been willing to sacrifice these fundamental ideals? In this report, I’ll try to answer that question – and narrate my own encounter with the forces that threaten to quash any opinion considered inconvenient for those in authority.

What is this thing called managerialism?

The 1980s saw the arrival of New Public Management (NPM) and its close relative New Managerialism (NM) (Deem et al 2007:3; Deem and Brehony 2005) in the public sector in the UK. Managerialism is essentially a belief that all other purposes of an organisation are subordinate to the managerial functions, and that managers need no specialist knowledge of a particular organisation or sector as their skills are generalizable.

Older readers will have noticed a shift in university leadership and management over the course of their careers. Up until the 1980s, roles such as dean or head of department were filled on a rotating basis by senior members of a department. After a fixed term of office, they would return to their teaching and research. This ensured that they themselves would have to experience whatever changes or restructures they wished to enact, once they returned to the faculty. Today, we see career managers in universities; heads of department, deans, pro-vice-chancellors are all substantive appointments. There is usually little mobility back into academic posts. There has been a more formalised stratification of hierarchies in universities with managers seeing themselves as separate from and superior to rank-and-file academics.

This categorical difference is denoted through the use of a new lexicon of entrepreneurship, competition, excellence and change, while the unequal power dynamic is recognizable in new techniques of performance management and measurement of tightly-delimited productivity targets. The managerial project in universities has the aim of restructuring the values, perceptions and behaviours of academics. Essentially, it has driven us into a culture war in which the stakes are respect for knowledge, and academic freedom for citizenship in a liberal democracy versus university as transaction, marketplace, crude metric accountability and the rule of the consumer.

I became fascinated with the opaque discourse that both accompanied and reinforced the changing culture and I started to collect management emails and other communications from a large number of campuses. Here is one prime example:

‘The SMT initiative on Employability is providing OOB with an opportunity to consider enhanced management in the School through use of JOW resource and will therefore extend beyond that specific role to a proposal relating to all transversal management roles in the School (initials changed).’

I attended every management training course I could get admitted to: Leading high performance teams; Gold standard customer service; Change management; Succession planning.

My journey into an ethnographic exploration of managerialism was a huge success, and it didn’t take long to accumulate enough material for a book. Together with an excellent discourse analyst, Professor Helen Sauntson, we began the Academic Irregularities project.  I started to blog critically about my experience as an academic and the changes to our working conditions and practices. My posts included critiques of learning outcomes, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), managerialism, research assessment by metrics and performance management. The blog started to attract readers, and one piece in particular went viral.

On March 10th, 2016, I published a piece entitled ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ in which I recounted an episode in a class in which I had discussed with students, on University Mental Health Day, the stresses associated with toxic managerialism and the resultant breakdown in mental health of so many academics in the UK and universities across the world. With my permission, Times Higher Education republished the piece on their blog (the piece was republished a year later on my blog as Stress Fractures, One Year On.)

This is the story of what happened to that piece, and what happened to me.

Gross misconduct allegations

Five days after posting my blog piece, I received an email at about 8pm. It announced that I was required to attend a meeting the next day with the pro-vice-chancellor (PVC) and Human Resources. I didn’t have to guess what it was about. I had made a calculation in which I had weighed the anticipated extreme authoritarian response alongside my obligation to speak out against a destructive, sector-wide culture which was damaging my colleagues in several institutions.

The piece was well received by its intended audience with supportive comments on Twitter, on my blog and below the line on the Times Higher website. Without exception they confirmed the point I made in the piece, that stress caused by unattainable targets in academia was widespread, and indeed, international. I had not referred to any one institution in the piece.

At the meeting with the PVC and Human Resources three allegations were put to me which were deemed to constitute gross misconduct. The charges were that there had been on my part:

  • Breach of confidentiality regarding the health and wellbeing of colleagues
  • Serious carelessness and negligence in the performance of duties
  • Misuse of media whereby postings made about the university were considered to bring the university into disrepute

The rebuttal

This first meeting with the PVC was intended to be a short interview to allow me to hear the charges against me; however, I wanted to take the opportunity to offer an immediate rebuttal which I thought would enable the university to avoid wasting valuable time and money pursuing a non-issue.

Firstly, I was able to assure the PVC that I had not breached confidentiality as I had not named any particular colleagues in the blog piece. In the face of the PVC’s evident displeasure, I was able to reassure her that there had been 12,000 hits on my blog and it had been trending for four days on the Times Higher website, and judging by the comments and retweets, she was the first person to find a fault with it. Nevertheless, the PVC demanded that I ask the Times Higher to take the piece down and also delete it from my own blog, Academic Irregularities.

Secondly, it became clear that management had formed the impression (on the basis of no evidence or enquiry) that I had abandoned the day’s plan for the class and instead forced the students to endure a digression into a private grievance about working conditions. Notwithstanding my legal right to teach autonomously, this is not what had taken place. I was visiting a sick colleague’s class to explain to the students (with my colleague’s express permission) the cause of their lecturer’s stress-related illness and convey to them the arrangements I would be making for immediate covering of the remainder of classes during the semester. The conversation that emerged was fully commensurate with that purpose. No reasonable person could charge that I had been neglectful of students as my immediate concern was to safeguard uninterrupted continuation of their teaching, and this was achieved. In doing so, I had also ensured that the university would not risk incurring complaints from the affected students.

Lastly, I had evidence in the form of an email exchange between me and a Times Higher sub editor which included a clear request from me not to edit the piece so as to seem that stress in academia is a localised problem. I emphasised that this is widespread nationally and even internationally. I had not identified the institution at which I worked. None of the readers who responded in comments under the line or on my blog had mentioned my employer or any other academic institution. Consequently, there could be no possibility of reputation damage. I had been identified as author of the piece, and my institutional affiliation, but this was merely house style by Times Higher and indicated only that the author could claim knowledge of the higher education context.

Despite this clear rebuttal, I found myself in the grip of a twelve-week disciplinary process whose charges, seemingly, could not be halted by clear, exculpatory evidence. Furthermore, for the duration, I was forbidden to write more on the topic of academics, stress and mental health, and also prohibited from discussing the disciplinary process with any other person than my union representative. This was designed to bring my writing to a halt and to isolate me professionally and personally.

Disciplinary investigation

This immediate explanation should have sealed the matter at the first meeting. It was clear that there had been a rush to judgement and some serious misconceptions had been formed. Still, when I received notification that I was required to attend a disciplinary investigation, I was not concerned. I regarded it as a formality before getting back to focusing on my teaching and research.

The investigation meeting occurred promptly, about a week later, and its purpose was to explore the events that had taken place, and allow me the opportunity to explain my actions, intentions and the context in which they had occurred. Despite my candid and well-evidenced rebuttal of the charges, it appeared that this had not weakened management’s attachment to their misapprehensions. Indeed, the need to uncover some other supposed transgressions to populate the same charges seemed even more urgent.  For example, at the investigation, I was asked precisely when I had written the blog piece. I interpreted this enquiry as an attempt to demonstrate that I had wasted work time on unauthorised activity. Since I usually confined my writing to evenings and weekends, I knew that this second effort to prove neglect of duties would fail.

The university’s policy on disciplinary action pledged that the process would be completed in a ‘timely’ manner. I expected to receive the report on the investigation within ten days, but I heard nothing for seven whole weeks after the investigation. At this point, I was informed that a disciplinary hearing was being called as the investigator had concluded there was sufficient evidence to believe there was a disciplinary case to answer. This took place four weeks later.

A new charge: ‘frightening students’

To pursue these allegations seemed an overreaction on the part of managers and a distortion of the gravity of the charge of gross misconduct, which is usually confined to financial or sexual impropriety. I was not suspended from work at any time and I continued to teach my classes. This seemed an unusual course of action towards an employee who was under charges of gross misconduct, and I began to wonder if I was really considered a genuine threat to the students or the university’s reputation. It remains my view that this misapplication of the process, in itself, brought the university into disrepute.

In the end, they had to settle for the absurd in their increasingly panicked pursuit of a charge which would hold firm. I had, apparently, ‘frightened’ the students in relaying my narrative of workplace stress, and the increasing toll of illness and suicide among academics. This they had ascertained from the blog piece where I stated, ‘I told them about the effects of long-term stress on the mind and body. I told them about the death of Stefan Grimm at Imperial College. And they were shocked and frightened that this could happen in a British university’. There is a difference, though, between students being frightened, and me having frightened them. The students were, of course, adults and, to my knowledge, nobody had complained about the episode.

So, in addition to frightening students, I had also, according to management, failed to observe the correct procedures for communicating information about mental health. In opening up to students about the stress academics face, I stood accused of sharing inappropriate information that left the students ‘in a stressful situation themselves’ (sic). It should be mentioned that there was no evidence that any students had felt stressed, nor had anyone complained about either my disclosure or the arrangements I had put in place for continuation of their studies. The managers, though, decided to take a very literal and restrictive view of the activities listed on the University Mental Health Day website.  Their claim was that the only permissible way to start a conversation about mental health in universities was to get students to fill in postcards. While this may have been one of the recommended activities for the 2016 event, it was by no means recognised as the only method of starting a conversation. Nevertheless, this inconsequential deviation was seized on as an example of my delinquency.

The threshold for bringing the university into disrepute was set even lower. The hearing concluded that there had been the potential for a detrimental reputational impact on the university. Of course, I had presented evidence which showed conclusively that there had been no such outcome, and also evidence confirming my expressed intention to avoid that outcome. Nevertheless, my accusers pronounced that it might have happened. Fictions and the imaginary, rather than evidence, apparently, are enough to sustain a career-threatening charge of gross misconduct. Even though my line manager had reassured me that ‘you have done nothing wrong,’ the allegations were sustained with only the breach of confidentiality dismissed. It didn’t matter. Management had their conviction and my union representative and I stepped outside while the sanctions were discussed.

A climate of intimidation

In the end, it was clearly not in the interest of management to dismiss me. The opportunities for legal challenge, which really would have brought them into disrepute, must have been only too apparent to them. It was much less likely that I would challenge the decision to issue a final written warning which would stay on my record for 18 months. This tactic would advance the real objective – the creation of a climate of intimidation resulting in the silencing of me, and by extension, other staff.

And so, despite having an unblemished record of service for over thirty years without so much as a late library book to sully it, I found myself with two counts of gross misconduct. For me, the only important thing was to retain my academic freedom: freedom to write, to blog and to campaign on issues of importance within the sector. It was now clear that living under an injunction whereby my employment could now be terminated at any point without notice, would put my ambitions in peril. I resigned immediately, and within a few months found myself able to write another piece in Times Higher Education.

Ironically, one performance metric I have allowed myself to embrace is the fact that this piece in the Times Higher recounting the experiences that led to my resignation became one of the top 25 most-viewed pieces of 2017.

Some colleagues have asked me why I didn’t fight this verdict. To me it seemed pointless to continue within an institution which seemed to have abandoned fairness and tolerance. In leaving, I signalled a refusal of management’s decree of abjection and shame. In an inversion and subversion of the whole disciplinary process, shame has been refracted by their own authoritarianism and disgrace has instead attached to them.

 Freedom of speech: the wrong end of the viewfinder

In a market-driven system, the legal requirement for universities to defend academic freedom has been overridden by the determination of university managers to avoid what they see as reputational damage. The issue has attracted the scrutiny of a series of universities ministers as well as the current secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson. Unfortunately, they have all found themselves staring down the wrong end of the viewfinder.

In a recent piece for The Times, Williamson has issued universities with ‘a final warning to guard free speech or face legislation’ and repeats the familiar accusation that students’ unions are responsible for disrupting invited speakers. He maintains this position despite the verdict of the 2018 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights report on freedom of speech which ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested’.

It is not students but rather university managers who have the most significant track record of compromising the academic freedom of staff and the freedom of speech of students. I outline just one recent example of the latter below.

A member of a student group at Loughborough University, Loughborough People and Planet, found themselves subject to disciplinary action for chalking messages on campus in support of their campaign for the university to cut their ties with Barclays Bank. The group objected to the bank’s ties to fossil fuel companies. Shockingly, the university senior management were concerned that the university should not become ‘a political space’. You wonder what they think universities are for, if not for political debate and the cultivation of active, responsible citizenship.

When leadership is subsumed by an exercise in public relations, students quickly learn that institutions which may proclaim students are customers can rapidly rescind that promise when the shop window display is disturbed.

Vice-chancellors and other senior managers have found some useful tools in constructing a cordon sanitaire of reputational impermeability. In a sector in which around a third of academics are engaged on temporary contracts, this precarity acts as one more instrument of coercion. It is the brave scholar who stands on a picket line, takes extended sick leave, or refuses to work more than their contracted hours when they understand these actions will be revisited at the time of contract renewal.

The plight of the early career academic

Even when a permanent position is secured, the period of probation is now so lengthy that, by its end, academic freedom must seem like a distant mirage. The early career researcher will have learned to conform to the required specialisms of the departmental unit of research, to publish in a narrow set of journals with high impact factors and to observe the priorities of the funding councils in making grant applications. The ability to demonstrate compliance to the strictures of the watching culture of universities is more important than being able to demonstrate originality in research. The scholar who, like me, wishes to contribute to the field of critical university studies is particularly vulnerable. Even if making a general observation about universities, they are likely to be accused of implying criticism of the institution in which they work. Research which is driven by honesty and integrity will not emerge from a strategy of academic defensive driving which many young academics have been forced to adopt.

The surveillance continues outside the academy into cyberspace. Many academics suspect their social media accounts are being monitored by human resources, reporting to senior managers.

We find both staff and students being pressured into silence by the imposition of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Shockingly, these have been used to prevent victims of sexual assaults students from speaking out about their experiences under threat of expulsion from their courses. The BBC states that £87 million has been spent on silencing academics since 2017. This, of course, is money furnished by students’ tuition fees. In 2020 we might now construe such cover-up tactics as Trumpian admissions of guilt.

If academic freedom is to flourish, universities must allow dissent

Universities need to draw back from repression and allow dissent. It is simply not acceptable that the only critical opinion permitted to cross the vice chancellor’s desk must come in the form of a management consultant’s report. University executives must be held accountable for breaches of academic freedom, and this requires a strengthening of faculty and student voices. Universities must become more democratic in their governance and outlook.

In an era of weakened trade unions and an academic body whose members are demoralized by their experience of precarity, vice-chancellors must accept that, for academic freedom to thrive, requires very thorough protections for those scholars who offer a challenge to ‘the university’ from within. There is a very simple resolution, of course, and it already exists. Universities must observe the safeguards enshrined in law, and they must create the conditions whereby staff and students feel secure enough to speak their truth. As Judith Butler wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2018, ‘Censorship is always an indirect confession of fear. The censor exposes himself as a fearful being. He fears speech and seeks to contain it. His fear attributes to his opponent’s speech a power that it may or may not have.’

For the sake of scholars facing oppressive and hostile structures, let our speech be free and let it be heard.

 

References

Deem, R. and Brehony, K. 2005. Management as ideology: the case of ‘new managerialsim’ in higher education. Oxford Review of Education 31 (2): 217-335.

Deem, R., Hillyard, S. and Reed, M. 2007. Knowledge, Higher Education and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrish, Liz. Academic Irregularities. https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/

Morrish, Liz and Sauntson, Helen. 2020. Academic Irregularities: Language and Neoliberalism in Higher Education. London: Routledge.