Category Archives: HE policy

Academic Irregularities AT 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Course closures are not ‘inevitable’

Times Higher Education published a story today:

Course closures are ‘inevitable’ consequence of Westminster policy. Aston and London South Bank are latest institutions to shutter humanities and social sciences degrees

in which I was quoted as agreeing with a statement from another contributor:

‘Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said successive governments had encouraged universities to specialise in what they’re best at, as well as in certain types of subjects. “As market reforms have intentionally put pressure on universities to think and act this way, it’s inevitable that some provision will disappear in some institutions,” he said’.

Then I am quoted.

‘Liz Morrish, a visiting fellow in the School of Languages and Linguistics at York St John University, agreed, highlighting that universities like LSBU served a number of students from less privileged backgrounds. “Languages and the humanities generally cannot be allowed to become the preserve of the Russell Group,” she said’. Critical scholarship could not flourish, Dr Morrish continued, if academics “don’t know from one year to the next whether their high-quality programmes will satisfy whatever shifting metrics university management are setting this year”.’

I was a little concerned about what it appeared I had agreed to. Was it the proposition that closures in languages and arts and humanities are inevitable ? That is certainly not my position. There is no inevitability to the removal of courses and the stripping out of staff expertise. Are these closures the result of government policy – probably, but it is important for all in universities to resist this misguided suite of policies which spring from marketisation. Many view these closures as opportunistic actions justified as post-pandemic restructure by university managers. We can identify the cause of the course closures, but please, let’s not erase the expressions of disapproval.

So just for the record, when I was asked for an opinion by Anna McKie, the author of the article, this was my reply by email.

It has always seemed to me highly ironic that prime ministers and ministers of education of all parties go to great lengths to emphasize the importance in schools of teaching history and modern languages. By contrast, these same politicians fall silent as university departments of history and languages are closed down with consequent loss of expertise and opportunity. Where do they think teachers of history and languages will come from? 

Aston is just another in a steadily increasing list of closures. in fact with the closure of modern languages at Nottingham Trent, the Midlands – one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the country – risks offering nothing but a monoglot education to a large proportion of its students. 

These institutions serve a number of less privileged students and do well on measures of access and widening participation. It is important to note that, at Aston, the management recognise they are going back on a commitment to its Languages for All program which is part of the Access and WP agreement. Languages and the humanities generally cannot be allowed to become the preserve of the Russell Group. Aston has a Business School and also a degree program in International Relations. Do students of business not need languages? And do students of IR not need both languages and history ? 

It is extraordinary that History has been threatened with closure at Aston. The subject was only started in the 2018-19 academic year and identified as an area of strategic growth. It has not yet produced a graduating cohort. How can the outcomes of the subject be assessed ? Furthermore, several well-known scholars were lured to Aston from secure posts elsewhere and now, 24 posts (21 permanent) are targeted for redundancy. As far as I am aware, the research strength and grant income of the department are satisfactory. And I understand several department members were successful in gaining promotion recently just before the redundancy plans were announced. This is poor management at the very least. 

In my piece on the August restructuring regime, I noted that the relief package was being offered to universities which were providing courses focused on the needs of the local economy, and which were committed to academic freedom. I offered this observation:

 ‘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’.

Academic freedom, and areas of critical scholarship are not best defended when scholars don’t know from one year to the next whether their high-quality programs will satisfy whatever shifting metrics university management are setting this year. What is taking place at University of Leicester Business School is the most transparent attack of academic freedom. We are now, very rapidly seeing the destruction of those areas of critical scholarship which make universities cornerstones of liberal democracy, to quote Rowan Williams.

I hope there is material there you can use. As always, I am very happy to discuss further. 

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.

‘low quality’ higher education…again

This blog post appeared on the Wonkhe site in mid-November 2020. Written by Nick Holland, Competition and Registration Manager at the Office for Students, it had been anticipated by a statement by Universities UK the previous day. In this article, UUK clearly aligned themselves with the presuppositions that there is a serious problem with quality in UKHE and that the sector needs to introduce some proper regulating. This plays into widely-held beliefs amplified by some media outlets hostile to universities, and a government which seeks to undermine them along with other pillars of a democratic society like the legal apparatus, a free press and even parliament itself.

It is dispiriting for those of us who have had quite a lot of faith in the UK’s HE regulatory mechanisms from the Quality Assurance Agency to the internal procedures of validation and periodic review that operate within all universities. Less able to command confidence has been the government’s own regime of the Teaching Excellence Framework, operated by the Office for Students.

Nevertheless, Nick Holland, the author of the piece, appears innocent of these established structures. We apparently exist in some post-lapsarian quality vacuum which needs to be pumped with new regulations, about which OfS has launched a consultation. And so OfS promises to act on new proposals, even if it requires a temporary adjournment of its other preoccupations: freedom of speech  and grade inflation – another piece by Nick Holland.

So below, with some commentary, are excerpts from Holland’s blog. What his choice of discourse does is to install a set of presuppositions about the endemic poor quality of higher education. Furthermore, in this depiction, no evidence can be relied upon apart from a limited set of proxy measures which lend metric infallibility to the conferral of quality. This intervention from the Office for Students seems to reverse several years of avowed ‘light-touch’ regulation in which oversight enabled universities to operate their own bureaucracy of quality assurance and enhancement. But now, the principal metric to be trusted to certify the worthiness of higher education is that of graduate salaries. This is the fulcrum which has elevated the concept of higher education as private good while depressing the notion of higher education as public good. 

*****

Excerpts from Holland in grey and interpretation in green

While we had planned to consult on our approach to quality and standards in any case, we will of course draw on our experience of regulating through the pandemic in our future regulation of quality and standards.

This was conducted through veiled threats demeaning the quality of online provision with no thought about how we might intervene to support universities. That’s just not what we do.

The OfS has always been able to hold universities and other higher education providers to account for the quality of their courses and the standard of qualifications they award. But these proposals would sharpen our regulatory requirements, raise expectations for quality and student outcomes, and allow us to take action where there are poor quality courses at providers in particular subject areas.

We already have the regulatory framework well embedded in practice and working well. But since the bar for moral panics has gone way north in 2020, we thought we’d create a bit of spontaneous drama.

Quality and standards

Also included are secure standards – so students can be assured that their degree will stand the test of time – and successful outcomes. Subject to consideration of responses to the consultation, we would be looking to use these definitions as part of our regulation – underpinning the baselines we set which all providers must meet in order to be, and remain, registered with us.

Of course, the enduring worth of your degree would be best ensured if we were committed to ensuring that your HEI continues to function. Instead, we are committed to ‘the market’ and providing registration to new, ‘challenger’ institutions which are awarded degree awarding powers almost immediately. It’s hard to imagine a better way to undermine the hard-won accreditation of your university. And what do we mean by ‘outcomes’? Well, that changes all the time. Sometimes it means ‘good degrees’ but then we clamp down when universities give too many of them. We’re a bit clearer what it means this month later on.

Crucially, we are also saying that all higher education providers must provide quality for all groups of students. That means two things. First, if we are worried that certain groups of students are being adversely affected, we can swiftly intervene. Second, we are saying – unequivocally – that is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes. Doing so creates a skewed playing field, where poor performance for disadvantaged students is effectively allowed. That is untenable, and unfair to those students who have often overcome the odds to enter higher education. Obstacles to attainment for these groups need to be removed and not hidden behind.

See what I did there? First I install a presupposition that not all HEIs provide a quality education for all students. That charges universities with the responsibility to fully compensate for the social, educational, cultural and systemic inequalities that particular groups of students encounter. For example, the long periods of missed education that disabled students or care-experienced students have faced. And don’t make excuses for the alienation that many BEM or gay students have experienced all through school – that’s up to universities to fix. It’s helpful to scapegoat universities as it makes us popular with government when we undermine public trust in them.

The plans also allow us to intervene at a subject level if we have concerns. This intervention really matters. Most universities and other higher education providers offer high quality higher education across the board.

I had to say this. But important to rattle that sabre every time I throw them a compliment.

But at some providers, we have been concerned about pockets of low-quality provision. Being able to intervene at subject level will make a real difference. As well as assessing data on student outcomes we will also continue to welcome notifications from students alerting us to issues and concerns about the quality of their course.

Obviously, you’d be better making your views known through the various structures available at your HEI, from course committees, to student unions or even the NSS. But here at OfS, while we don’t endorse ‘cancel culture,’ we do approve of snitch culture, and we have always envied the direct reporting line offered by ‘rate your professor’.

Toughening up

Choosing a section title that’s maximally offensive especially during a pandemic.

Ensuring students have every opportunity to achieve successful outcomes on their courses remains an important OfS priority. That is why we are focusing on the number of students who progress to the end of their course and go on to managerial and professional employment or higher-level study. We are proposing to update – and toughen – our requirements for the minimum performance we would expect from any university or other higher education provider.

I told you we’d be clearer what ‘outcomes’ means. In 2020, we’ve pretty much settled on it meaning getting a well-paid job. Because we want students to pay back their loans. Yes, we’ve reduced the whole university experience to pretty much that.

Deciding on the numerical values for these minimum baselines will take time and be subject to further consultation, but we will have higher expectations for providers for all of their students.

I think we can guess what that baseline will be…because we want students to pay back their loans.

These are important proposals, which will help to properly protect students. Please do take the time to have your say in the consultation, which runs from today until January 12.

Don’t waste your time. We’ve already decided.

*****

That subject level data again…..

It’s fascinating to trace the meandering semantics and pursuit of ‘low quality degrees’ over the years. It has meant many things, from accusations of ‘lamentable’ teaching to complaints that too often degrees do not lead to high-paying jobs. While the government boldly alleges poor quality of provision and outcomes in the public HE sector, by contrast, they are happy to support a favoured ‘challenger institution’ by conferring (via QAA) degree awarding powers on the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology before it has even had a graduating cohort.

Such indulgence is not bestowed on other institutions and an assemblage of metrics must be found to identify courses that the government rather wishes would disappear. Chief among them, we suspect, might be media studies, gender studies, creative arts and the more critical humanities and social science subjects generally.

David Kernohan of WONKHE (30th November) writes that OfS were due to publish data and a report entitled Start to Success representing the latest attempt to devise a diagnostic quality tool. To save them the trouble, Kernohan has produced a draft version mapping data points representing all HE courses in the UK against projections of non-continuation of students on courses and data from Graduate Outcomes on “highly skilled” graduate employment. Kernohan himself suspects that this metric may be low quality.

What we find is that many of the courses the government denounces, or that universities have been busy eradicating, perform well against these metrics. In the lower quadrant of the quality mapping are quite a lot of law, business, civil engineering and computer science courses, while in the higher quadrant are many courses in Arabic, Classics, English and Geography. Also, some courses at higher status universities manifest surprisingly low scores, while some less-favoured courses like media studies at lower-ranked universities turn up scores above 9/10. Like Kernohan, I am not attempting to confer credibility on these metrics; instead we need to recognise that in searching for ‘low-quality courses’ to liquidate in the name of regulatory scrupulosity, the casualties may not be the government’s preferred candidates. If the government wants to purge those courses which develop critical questioning and an awareness of social justice, then coercion and apparent metric infallibility will not deliver that result. They will have to emulate the more authoritarian approach adopted by Victor Orban in Hungary. They will need to name the courses they disapprove of and ban them. I wonder how close we are to that eventuality? The culture warriors are laying the groundwork and a receptive post-truth society might see it through.

Doing the right thing, or doing the thing right ? A reply to Paul Greatrix

Today, 28th October 2020, on Wonkhe, Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham posted this blog Doing the Right Things? Universities under Covid. It has attracted a lot of comment on Twitter. I felt I wanted to answer a number of points in more detail than Twitter would allow. So here it is – Paul’s statements in bold italics, followed by my responses.

There has been a huge debate about the start of session with everyone having a view on whether or not universities should have opened for face to face teaching this term. I do think that universities re-opening for students this September was, on balance, the right thing to do – the alternative would have had a greater negative effect on both new and returning students but arguing now about September is pretty pointless.

There was pressure from the government, indeed a requirement, that universities deliver some in-person teaching to be able to charge full tuition fees. This probably corresponded with student preference, but I doubt whether students were told that they would not be able to go back home once on campus if there were incidences of Covid. Were they told that they would be establishing a new ‘household’ and unable to see their families for many months ? It’s hard to know what their choices might have been if all scenarios had been laid out. There was time to do this, especially as some US campuses had started to see cases in early August. It still isn’t too late, as we have seen many universities in the US, UK and across the globe switching to largely online delivery since September. And yes, we can and should argue. The amount of evidence available at the start of the UK term in late September clearly pointed to what would happen. You mention ‘the alternative’ when in fact many alternative solutions present themselves for first years and returning students. And it is not ‘pointless’ to argue about this, in fact it is crucial to do so, preferably through the vehicle of a public enquiry because it is essential that we do not allow such refusal of evidence to lead UK universities into such a dangerous situation ever again.

Everyone in universities is trying to do the right thing for our students, staff and the communities where we all live and work…Everyone has gone above and beyond to ensure our students are supported and we were able to restart teaching in September safely.

Agreed. It has been impressive.

You can’t do any of this without money and there aren’t many who would say that the financial structure of our higher education system is optimal…. Is there a scenario in which government will deliver a bail out package to sustain universities for the next, say, 18 months, which means we don’t have to do any of this stuff on campus? No. We saw only very limited success from a campaign to support universities after lockdown and the idea that we are now top of the list for financial support from government is fantasy.

I don’t know the details of negotiations with the government – mainly because Universities UK prefers to lobby in private – but perhaps universities had a little more leverage than they imagined. And again, if the choices were restricted to bringing all students to campus versus not doing so, then an opportunity was missed to make a plan which could address a situation of evolving knowledge with a number of creative solutions. First years on campus, others online. Or stagger the year groups with attendance on campus for a few weeks at a time.

Furthermore, I would contest that the arguments for going to online only provision are not strong – there are very, very few cases of transmission in the classroom.

You don’t present any evidence for this assertion. Given what we now know, and have known for several months, about aerosol transmission of the virus, it is very clear that there is a risk from having several people in a room together, even with 2m distancing. In some universities, students are not required to wear masks. This is shocking. You can’t keep hiding behind out of date information and recommendations and presenting this as ‘doing the right thing’. As Paul Johnson pointed out to me on Twitter, it is a classic case of ‘doing the thing right’ i.e. a misguided adherence to regulations, rather than thinking through what is actually required. Here. With what we know now.

The SAGE advice prior to the start of session about an online only approach was too late to impact the new term and really could not be applied now.

I’m not sure which SAGE report you are referring to, but a report dated 3rd September, three weeks before most universities brought students to campus, states:

There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight. It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making.

The report goes on to identify residential and social settings as high risk for transmission of virus. But there was a financial imperative to fill halls of residence, and the government’s botched handling of A level results meant universities ended up having to take more students than anticipated. Halls should only ever have been half full if there was to be any real chance at suppressing transmission. But given the government-generated chaos and the early September advice, perhaps other solutions could have been found that did not set in motion exactly the scenarios warned about.

There does not seem to be a strong argument at all therefore for moving right now to an online only mode.

I can only think you have not been listening to the staff of your own university and leaders of universities all over the globe. Your reasoning appears to be based on establishing an argument from authority. But when this becomes detatched from current expert opinion (aerosol transmission), this argument becomes deontic – one driven by perceived duty or oblgation. I would go as far as to say it is an argument from authoritarianism when it is used to oblige others, with more informed argments, to comply.

Do we want students to stay in their rooms, halls and houses and avoid campus, classrooms and learning resources altogether?

In many cases, this is exactly what has happened as Covid outbreaks have seen students quarantined in their rooms, accessing learning resources online.

And where will it end – under what circumstances would in person teaching resume?

That’s easy to answer – when the cases per 100,000 fall to an agreed safe level. We note that universities in Hong Kong are mostly online while they have just a handful of cases, mostly arriving at airports, and almost no community transmission. But they are not taking the chance of universities becoming virus clusters and drivers of transmission.

We really do not want Covid to lead to the establishment of a two-tier community where we have one group of staff who are dealing with student issues face to face day in day out and another most of whom never come to campus but instead deliver everything online.

No, we don’t want a two-tier community when we know that all staff make an essential contribution to the student experience. What we want is appropriate assessment of risk. So, in a context of high asymptomatic virus circulation, seeing students individually for short periods, with distancing and masking is one risk; a group of 30 all in one room for 50 minutes with no masks is another, higher level of risk you are asking, or requiring, staff to take.

However, there are other communities too – the local communities in which universities sit and staff and students live, shop and socialise. These communities are suffering much more than our institutions and many local residents are anxious, concerned or even angry about the student presence in neighbourhoods. One thing this crisis has demonstrated is that relationships between universities and their local communities, partners and stakeholders have never been more important.

I do wonder how much goodwill universities have squandered by going ahead with the migration of students and, arguably, accelerating the second wave of the virus. There is evidence of correlation, which obviously doesn’t always entail cause. But there is evidence of correlation of students on campus and the rise of virus transmission in this case as the graphic from mid October at the end of this piece shows. In the case of my borough, Rushcliffe, cases went from 45 per 100k in early September to 1206 today. The incidence in the locality of University of Nottingham is currently falling, but the spread in the neighbouring boroughs is exponential, leading to imminent Tier 3 restrictions. Yes, local populations will, unfairly, blame students. It remains to be seen how they view the presence of universities in their midst in the future.

I argued then (early September) that looking to the position in the US and highlighting the problems that many universities have had there with their reopening plans was not instructive. This was on the basis that there were many variances between US and British higher education, health care and societal models as well as what are often quite different residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social structures which meant that things are hard to compare with the UK in the context of the pandemic….Well, I would still contend that the UK – and UK higher education – are different to the US in many respects, and that whether or not there were loads of cases in the US is not the determining factor in seeking fully to open campuses safely and securely in the UK.

You seem to have been alone in arguing this, and again, presented no evidence. I responded to this at the time. There just is no warrant for making these assumptions that the Covid spread would not be replicated on UK campuses. Obvious if you think about students in halls of residence and their understandable need to meet new people and socialize.

I would honestly say I think the speed of transmission both within student halls and in off-campus settings took many, including me, by surprise and coping with that has been a huge challenge for universities.

This has been a common claim by Nancy Rothwell and others as well. I contend that all university managers KNEW. Hope is something else. Your own scientists were telling you. So were social scientists. And the evidence was mounting across the US. This line is just not credible.

Rather it just feeds social and other media and the notion, quite wrong, that somehow this is all completely out of control and that students are a problem. It isn’t and they aren’t…. Blaming and denigrating students for the growth in Covid-19 cases is both unfair and wrong. They may not all be following all the regulations all the time but show me any part of the community that is.

I completely agree. I make a point of explaining to people it is the fault of the government and university mangers who ignored evidence.

But we do have to learn from the experience of the start of session and ensure we are better placed to prevent future outbreaks and deal with them when they do occur.

Given the current performance, and failure to learn from and adapt to the changing state of knowledge, I’m afraid you have lost my confidence. And that of residents in my neighbourhood.

Worse still, most of these slurring pub bores are also self-appointed experts on everything about Covid-19, British politics and higher education. And everyone is just SHOUTING all the time. I’m not sure I can really see the appeal any more.

They are shouting because they can’t think what else to do when they’ve been shown to be right, colleagues are still being exposed to avoidable risk, and this was all preventable. People are angry, and as you have pointed out, exhausted. And yes, there are a lot of people who are well informed, not experts. And invested in seeing things work. That’s what it means to be a stakeholder.

The alternative to where we are now – not opening campus to new and returning students – would have meant that over two million students would have been staying exactly where they were since March and half a million of these would never have been to their chosen university. In my view the consequences of that for them, their mental health, their ability to adapt and grow into university life and studies would have been potentially catastrophic.

As someone who was a resident tutor for over ten years, I wonder at the damage to mental health that isolation on campus and restrictions on seeing family will do. How is this working for shy students? Students with autism? Homesick students? LGBTQI students? Minority students? Students whose first language is not English?

We have to work out a way to chart a course to how we see our universities operating in future, both to ensure we stand a chance of survival and long run success but also to give us something to be optimistic about.

There is a group of researchers from over 50 universities having very wide-ranging, informative, respectful discussions about building the post pandemic university. You would be welcome to join these conversations about teaching, learning, research, equality, edtech, conditions of labour and many more issues. Your experience would be a valuable contribution.

The collapse of the Covid-secure campus

We are now into September 2020 and plans to allow students to come back to university campuses are proceeding. Universities have been required by the Office for Students to inform new and returning students what they might be able to expect in terms of teaching (online or face to face) in 2020/2021 and how quality, standards and a good student experience will be maintained. 

However, evidence is emerging that even the high degree of planning for Covid-secure campuses that has happened over the summer might not be enough to prevent students, staff and communities from spreading the virus. 

Nobody, apparently, wants to be the second campus to tell students they are going to be studying totally online; the University of Cambridge made an early decision in May to go to online classes for the next academic year. 

By contrast, the University of Bolton was the first to release extensive and detailed plans for a Covid-secure campus which would allow for the resumption of face to face classes, and the University of Leicester has promised Covid screening to reassure new students deterred by the recent city lockdown. 

Everything was looking hopeful until August when universities opened up in the US and offered the UK a preview of what happens when you invite thousands of students back to Covid-secure campuses and hold them to unrealistic expectations. The first forewarning came from cities in the southern states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Texas as videos of mass outdoor parties circulated on social media. These were followed by a spike in positive tests, even when those cases were asymptomatic. In swift succession, cases in Iowa surged, mainly in cities with large universities. These were all states where the rate of positive tests was well over 10%. And then came SUNY Oneonta, a campus I know well – I taught there at one time and my spouse retired from there recently. Here was a small (6000 students) rural, upstate campus where the positive test rate in the region had been around 1%. Within two days of starting, mostly online, classes, there were over 100 cases. The problem, evidently, was bringing students back to residences where naturally they would want to congregate, and perhaps also visit the town bars (alcohol being banned on most US campuses). As of today (7th September) the college reports 651 cases. It is now beyond dispute that the Covid hot spots are tracking the migration of students. And let’s hope the colleges are able to quarantine infected students in order to prevent exporting the virus as they leave campus to return home. 

Some universities have been more successful at securing public health. Duke University, among others, has used constant pool testing to identify the presence of virus as well as screening of all returning students. They have also reduced the number of students resident on campus by 30% and moved most classes online. These strategies point the way to offering students some kind of quality experience while learning and living with Covid on campus. 

In the UK, though, the warnings from the US are not being fully heeded. Universities UK, the group representing university managers, has indicated its preference for some face to face teaching to be offered by universities. UUK retweeted a letter published in The Times, with the comment, “The majority of UK universities will provide a combination of online and face-to-face teaching this year where it’s safe to do so. The importance of having in-person contact with tutors has been flagged by 100 leading academics in the Times today”.  

As a result of this steer, most universities are still making plans to open university residences,  even while most classes are online, with the promise of some face to face teaching. This is probably the most ill-advised fudge they could have come up with. What it suggests to critics is that universities have been more concerned with recruiting students and their tuition fees than with safeguarding public health.

Many academics and support staff have been resistant to teach face-to-face, pointing to new and evolving information about the transmission of the disease and concerned about their own vulnerability to it. And it appears now that their reluctance has been vindicated by the Independent Sage group of scientists which has counselled caution regarding opening of campuses to students.

Universities should focus on providing excellent quality remote learning by default, with regular review points, rather than deliver in-person teaching on campuses that are likely to close again.

To the disappointment of some university managers, the more formal Sage group has confirmed the view that:

There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight. It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making. [Sage statement 3rd September]

Their report recommends clear strategies for testing and tracing, warning that ‘accommodation and social interactions are likely to be a high-risk environment for transmission to occur’ which is less easy to mitigate. UCU fully endorses the opinion that the health of staff and students should come before other considerations. 

Paul Greatrix, Registrar of the University of Nottingham, writing on Wonkhe, offers a picture of what a ‘Covid-proofed’ campus should look like. He makes the case for full re-opening, with mitigations, and a commitment to managing student behaviour to address the fears of the wider community in which universities reside. “We have to begin the journey which will eventually get us back to something approaching normality.”

He details the following well-evidenced mitigations and preconditions:

  • Many buildings have been adjusted for social distancing arrangements
  • Plans have been made for delivering larger classes online
  • Changes to timetables to help with preventing crowded corridors, allowing for smaller class sizes and cleaning in between classes
  • Face coverings mandated indoors in many places
  • New Covid student codes of discipline and pledges
  • New restrictions on numbers of people who can be present on campus or in particular buildings at any one time
  • Physical changes to halls of residence
  • Working closely with Local Resilience Forums including in relation to local outbreak control plans
  • Planning how best to ensure an effective test and trace operation within a less than satisfactory national context.

It is the last point that should be the rate limiting step. News from all UK outlets today, confirmed on Twitter, is that testing is overwhelmed and not readily available in all areas, and yet the efficacy and availability of regular testing is key to reassuring staff and students that it is safe to return to regular classes. As SUNY Oneonta puts it, this is ‘a dynamic situation’, and it is time the UK recognised that pursuing a course that has not worked elsewhere, and expecting it to be different, will be disastrous. Paul Greatrix argues that  there can be no comparison between the US and UK HE contexts  but I am not convinced that the residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social models are different enough that the spread of Covid in the UK cannot be predicted from the US experience. There is a recurrent assumption by  those urging a return to classes that students can be contained within Covid-secure campuses. I suppose it is consistent with a view that positions students as service users rather than as members of a community, but it does fly in the face of reality. Students come to university towns and cities and take jobs, volunteer, join gyms, use bars and importantly, rent housing. Universities play an important social and community role, a view supported by the UPP Civic University Commission (and indeed by Greatrix himself).  To invite students back to campus and forbid them to socialise is a perverse attempt to shift the responsibility for the outcomes from university managers onto students.

We hear from the higher education minister, Michelle Donelan, that further guidance on opening campuses will be provided this week. Unfortunately, this comes after students have committed to university places and in many cases, to accommodation contracts. You can sympathise with ‘stakeholders’ who are wondering why this worst of all possible worlds has been allowed to unfold – or why the course towards adversity hasn’t been reversed.

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.’

 

Designing certainty into a crisis

Certainty is in short supply amidst the Covid19 pandemic. These last few weeks have seen all of us chilled by a landscape which seems to be receding into unfamiliarity. And yet, in my neighbourhood, the number 11 bus still rumbles past, BT Openreach are digging trenches up the road and I hear small children squealing as they leave the school gates – until tomorrow.

Because yesterday, Gavin Williamson announced that schools and universities will close and GCSE and A Level exams will not take place in May and June this year. Some, like Anthony Seldon, VC of the University of Buckingham, feel this last measure is unnecessary. It certainly poses difficulties for ensuring students get the grades they have earned. You wonder how we got to the point whereby grades for two years’ work depend so heavily on one set of exams. “Michael Gove’s decision to scrap all course work, make GCSEs and A levels exam only and effectively scrap AS Levels clearly wasn’t fully stress tested” tweeted Rosemary Bennett, Education Editor for The Times. (March 19th 2020)

Deborah Cameron (@wordspinster) also via Twitter (March 19th 2020) laid out some of the drawbacks if we were to attempt to instate new and untried arrangements for taking exams remotely, online. Among them are inequalities in access to broadband and laptops, ensuring the integrity of exam conditions, and also the difficulties of deciding what compensations to make. At least cancelling exams provides some degree of certainty so that students don’t have to try and cope with these stressful events as well as a global pandemic. On balance, if I was an A level student, I might prefer being spared taking exams at the moment, while others sort out the logistics of university access on the basis of a combination of mock results, teacher predictions and external moderation.

But the proposal from Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme took me by surprise. Jarvis indicated that students who were holding an offer from a university might simply be accepted by that university now. Universities, he said, should honour the offers they have already made on the basis of prior attainment, predicted grades, references, UCAS personal statements etc. The presenter, Nick Robinson, asked whether these should now be considered unconditional offers, and Jarvis indicated that, yes, universities needed to be flexible in order to remove uncertainty.    https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000gbhc (1.55- 1.57)

I wondered how this would work when universities make many more offers to applicants than they have places, in line with a conversion formula. If Jarvis had now implied an entitlement for students to all progress to their first choice university, this was obviously going to cause considerable destabilization for the whole sector.

Rosemary Bennett of The Times seemed similarly startled:

What ? Alastair Jarvis UUK says universities shd honour all offers they have made …..so Cambridge , Oxford and all the rest who makes more offers than places (knowing not all will get top A levels) will be rammed and other struggling to fill courses. (Tweet 19/03/20)

In response, Jarvis tried to walk it back on Twitter:

No, didn’t say universities should do that. An option being considered is looking at how offers could be honoured – won’t be able to be everyone’s 1st choice. Would need system to allocate places. Very tricky, but unprecedented times. I would prefer A-level grades to be awarded

But rather than sidestep the chaos, and land it on individual universities, I propose some ideas which might be workable, just for this year.

Where possible and where their chosen course was offered, students could be allocated to a local HEI. If they wished to transfer elsewhere in 12 months, they might be able to do so based on first year performance. Given the amount of disruption students have faced, and the lack of clarity as to whether teaching can start in the autumn, the new academic year would need to start in January 2021. If repeated, it would give us the opportunity to put in place post-qualification applications (PQA) – something we should have done two decades ago. Students who have been out of school for some months would understandably not wish to mark time through the autumn until January. But the nation may need willing and able hands and minds by September. We could pay a living wage to 18-year olds and offer them work experience in a national citizen’s volunteer force. There will be elderly people to care for; younger children who have missed school to tutor; sports to coach; new community projects to support. And a grateful nation would waive tuition fees for that disrupted, delayed first year of higher education.

Would it work? It might provide an acceptable stopgap solution to the problem of how to allocate university places fairly. No student need miss out on a university place, and in turn, no university need encounter an unexpected drop in numbers. And a generation which has already demonstrated leadership, altruism and care for the environment might feel that has been reciprocated by their elders.

Humanities for the Humane University

It has been chilling the last few weeks to find universities shuttering degree courses in languages as was announced recently at the University of Sunderland and late last year at Nottingham Trent University. History and politics have also been singled out for closure at Sunderland.

A 13th January 2020 statement on Sunderland’s website reads,

‘The governors agreed that all subjects and programmes in the University should be educationally and financially sustainable, align with a particular employment sector, fit within the University’s overall strategy and be of a consistently high-quality’…’ work is underway to further develop areas of importance to the regional and national economy and those that provide clear routes into employment. These include engineering, computer science and business.’

There is a mistaken assumption that history, politics, and languages have no place in a “career-focused curriculum” when many of our political leaders, and indeed many vice chancellors have taken their degrees in these areas. Significantly, among their number is the Sunderland VC, Sir David Bell, BA History and Philosophy (Glasgow).

This academic vandalism is rationalized with two false assumptions: that the only justification for teaching a subject should be its immediate and obvious vocational application; and that the implicated subjects have lower rates of employment than STEM.

When we look at HESA statistics for the occupations of 2012/13 graduates, we find a very low rate of unemployment for graduates of languages – 2.3%. The unemployment figure for History and Philosophy is 2.5%. This compares well with unemployment rates for graduates of computer science 4.6%, agriculture 3.0%, engineering and technology 2.5%, and biological sciences 2.5%.

Nevertheless, the dean of NTU Arts and Humanities repeats the misinformation that ‘nationally graduate outcomes for these students are often not as good as for those on other courses’ available in this tweet. 

Another important question is – does a university serve its students and its civic function without offering languages to students? In a post-Brexit world, it would benefit students well if universities equipped them all with a usable foreign language. Now that possibility is foreclosed for students at Sunderland and perhaps at Nottingham Trent in the future.

Sunderland’s VC adds to the website statement, ‘Our students will be looked after in a way that is consistent with the Student Protection Plan that was agreed by the Office for Students’. This might be the first time that a SPP has been invoked. Readers who are unfamiliar with these documents can catch up here.  They arrived on the HE landscape with the Higher Education Act and Research (2017) and universities are required to have them approved by the regulator, the Office for Students, as a condition of registration.

It is currently difficult to access the student protection plan on Sunderland’s website. The Office for Students mandates that universities make these easily available to students. However, Jim Dickenson has managed to unearth it at this site. It states,

‘The risk that the University will cease to deliver in complete subject areas is very low. The University has undertaken a comprehensive Quality and Sustainability Review of its provision in 2017/18 academic year, examining data to decide whether any subject or programme areas should be discontinued. This Review has completed and no significant change is taking place’.

This is published as the 2019/2020 Student Protection Plan. Students who are currently studying languages, history and politics will feel duped in view of such a recent bill of health from the university which was undertaken prior to the tenure of the VC, Sir David Bell. What kind of confidence can students have in any promise or guarantee from the University of Sunderland? Do managers not consider this loss of trust to be calamitous reputational damage?

It has seemed for a long time that languages are the canary in the mine that augurs a wider assault on the humanities in general. This week, academics as the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS) were stunned by an announcement that appeared to signal a massive reduction in the employment of fractional teaching staff together with a rescinding of research leave. These announcements were apparently made without consultation and are to take effect immediately. While particular programs are not singled out here, SOAS is an institution dedicated to arts, languages, history and international studies, with a focus on Africa and Asia. Among its specialisms are languages that are not taught elsewhere in the UK Amharic, Hausa, Somali, Swahili, Yorùbá, Zulu and its scholars conduct research on endangered languages. There is also work on inclusive democracy, gender and on decolonizing the curriculum. In an academic world order overshadowed by Victor Orban and Donald Trump, academics at SOAS must fear a Central European University-like exile. ‘Watch out for the “career-focused curriculum” to become the nicer, politer way for right-wing and centrist governments to evacuate critical scholarship from higher education’. Tweeted Ben Miller @benwritesthings

It is disingenuous of Jo Johnson to warn the government about entering a culture war with universities in revenge for their opposition to Brexit. With his White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, he set in place all the machinery for government to apply to universities whatever levers of manipulation it wishes. These have led to the privileging of STEM subjects and others which universities judge will lead students to the highest earnings. This one measure – Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) takes precedence over and above any other forms of life-enriching opportunities. The previous government raised tuition fees to a level which most graduates will never repay in entirety. This now necessitates university courses becoming more closely harnessed to high-paying careers so that the monies which should be seen as an investment in education are instead repositioned as a ‘return on investment’ for both student and the government lender. Except, that investment is solely an economic one. Out of sight and excluded from the public discussion is the investment that lies in the hidden column of the spreadsheet. That investment is actually now a risk. How can we ask postgraduate students to take a gamble on becoming specialists – at their own expense – when their expertise and scholarship is likely to be declared redundant? How can scholarship survive if the only arbiter is economics? How can it survive when we cull entire subjects in a sudden and apparently unjustified edict taken without consultation? And how can UK universities survive when, apparently, the ranks of its leadership are so willing to genuflect and submit before hostile and anti-intellectual governments?

Knowledge, scholarship, truth, diligence, enquiry and democracy are all seen as a cost. Students take university degrees in subjects which they enjoy. Anybody who has taught in universities will know how ill-advised it is to recruit students who sit in class without enthusiasm or inspiration. Even the highest quality teaching will not reach them. And similarly, they are taught by staff whose devotion to a subject has carried them through 10 years of study, research and writing. To try and detach advanced study from love of the subject is to fundamentally change the dynamic and mission of higher education. And yes, Jo Johnson, it is a culture war, and it is one that academics will need to fight because their ‘leaders’ gave up four decades ago.

 

Your First is my Artefactual Algorithm

There was an interesting piece by Mike Ratcliffe on Wonkhe last week: Why my university is proud to be awarding fewer first class degrees. It deserves further discussion. 

Mike was writing about Nottingham Trent University’s response to government and media concerns about the rising percentage of first class degrees being awarded across the higher education sector. He cites figures of 16% in 2011 rising to 29% in 2018.

I have blogged before about the moral panic over the increasing numbers of firsts. However, in a context where some employers overlook graduates without ‘good’ degrees, and universities are rewarded in the TEF for the high salaries earned by graduates, it is inevitable that this would have provided an incentive for universities to look for ways to uplift marks.  

As Mike points out “the HE sector runs a criterion-based assessment system; firsts are not rationed according to a predetermined allocation, they are awarded for meeting the criteria…The grading ensures marks are based entirely on comparing the qualities of student work with associated written descriptors of assessment criteria.” And that is the whole point of the GBA system; it defines for students exactly what standards of work and academic practices they need to master to attain a specific grade. The learning outcomes are very clearly laid out, and the different levels of attainment exemplified with sample responses to assignments. This is good pedagogy. There should be no mystery about how to attain high marks, and students should benefit from excellent teaching and the kind of feedback that enables them to improve their work as they progress through their studies.

Grade-based assessment was introduced at Nottingham Trent around the time of the introduction of 9K tuition fees and there is even an explanatory video.  If you extend the usable range of marks from 70 to 100 in an aggregate system, then obviously this will result in a larger number of higher awards being made. This was not an artefact; it was intentional, because, as was explained to staff at the time, they should be “leading students to a high end of level standard”. It was also a justified response to that perpetual urging from externals to use the top range of marks to distinguish excellent work from the good and very good. And for the reasons I have outlined above, it was defensible on pedagogical grounds.

Nottingham Trent University now says that it is proud to be awarding fewer first class degrees. I wonder how the students feel about this. If universities are supposed to publish a Degree Classification Statement of Intent   which promises to “review and explain how final degree classifications are calculated” what, then, if those algorithms change between a student’s first and final years? Last year’s students appear to have been the subjects of a re-jigged algorithm which, instead of awarding a first to students who have at least half of their credits in the first class category, they must now have the majority. This will not have affected those students whose aggregate score is over 70%, but may have affected some of those who exhibited ‘exit velocity’ with an improved performance in their final year. This approach has reduced the number of firsts by 7.1%. But what about that injunction to reward ‘a high end of level standard’?  

If you say you’re running a criterion-led system, and then try and curtail the resulting high scores with a revised algorithm, you risk this being seen as grade-based gerrymandering. And will students be reassured to learn that lecturers who have taught them will no longer be invited to speak up in support of a higher award if their aggregate marks happen to fall on the borderline? Mike writes that “the University has also removed the power of examination boards to make discretionary classification decisions for students on the classification borderline.” There hardly seems to be any point in having an exam board if the algorithm is accorded supremacy while personalized academic judgement is evacuated.

It is a shame that universities cannot summon the confidence to assert that improving teaching has been a priority and that, as a result, student achievement has been enhanced. It seems absurd to take pride in claiming the reverse. If only higher education was driven by principles of pedagogical soundness, not by political soundbites, it might be easier to win the confidence of students, staff and government.