Category Archives: HE policy

TEF metrics: proxy, toxic and idiotic…but very neoliberal

This is an updated version of a previous blog post and apeared recently on the LSE Impact blog. It also draws on my article, The Accident of Accessibility: How the Data of the TEF Creates Neoliberal Subjects, published in Social Epistemology and appeared in a special issue on Neoliberalism, Technocracy and Higher Education; Guest Edited by Justin Cruickshank and Ross Abbinnett.

The stated aim of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is to encourage excellence in teaching in higher education and to provide information for students to make improved decisions about the courses they take at university. In this post, I argue that contrary to these goals, the TEF is only marginally interested in teaching quality and instead contributes to the increasingly personalised and transactional nature of university education, provides perverse incentives for educators and ultimately positions participants in higher education as neoliberal subjects.

The stress occasioned by constant demands for academics to submit to evaluation has been well documented (Loveday 2018Morrish 2019), nevertheless the bureaucratic appetite for surveillance is fed by the ease of accessing quantifiable data. This blog looks at the repercussions for universities, students and academics of the chosen metrics of the Teaching Excellence Framework outlined below.

In 2016, the government published a White Paper on plans to reform higher education, Success as a Knowledge Economy (SKE). The brainchild of Jo Johnson, former minister for universities, it laid out a justification for the introduction of the TEF as the solution to a series of imagined faults with universities, such as ‘lamentable’ teaching, and a lack of ‘return on investment’ for graduates of some university courses. Johnson promised that it would never become ‘big, bossy and bureaucratic‘.

The selection of metrics for the TEF appeared arbitrary: student satisfaction with teaching, assessment and feedback (taken from the National Student Survey, NSS), continuation (retention) rates (taken from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, HESA) and a measurement known as Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data (LEO). These proxy measures have nothing to do with classroom teaching, and yet have become imbued with spurious validity.

David Beer writes that metrics measure us in new and powerful ways such that they order the social world and shape our lives. Whereas, metrics can appear neutral and necessary, in the case of TEF proxy metrics, we can argue that their whole purpose is dirigiste. Since the introduction of tuition fees in 1999, successive governments of all hues have sought to reconfigure universities as instruments of market ideology.

Each of the TEF proxy metrics underpins this strategy: the NSS arose from the project to transform students into consumers; the retention rate metric was similarly designed to measure consumer appeal, even though it reflects more accurately the social advantage of the student body; LEO data became available with the passing of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act. This legislation permits mining of individual tax records for integration with student loan and university degree records and enables the government to assess which courses produce graduates most able to repay their tuition fee loans. It becomes apparent, in the context of some of Jo Johnson’s remarks (20152016a2016b), that the role of the TEF was to shift student choice towards STEM subjects which, on average, lead to higher-paying careers, which the government judges to be more beneficial to the economy.

These metrics are not simply benign and have serious implications for academics whose labour is being evaluated along new and unforeseen dimensions. For instance, they must now privilege the potential popularity of a subject before proposing to teach it. They must justify both new and current courses on the grounds of ‘employability’. And so, innovation in teaching and research is determined by appeals to economic value and the capricious choices of 18-year olds, rather than by the advance of knowledge or professional judgement of academics. Nevertheless, universities which fail to score highly on the TEF metrics risk being deemed ‘failing’ and the government may seek to pressure them to close courses which do not deliver the right ‘outcomes’. These market reforms were skillfully packaged as enhancing student ‘choice’. Furthermore, market ideology and tenets of neoliberalism such as competition, choice and individual responsibility are all bolstered discursively throughout the SKE White paper and by repetition by politicians.

A neoliberal discourse 

Significantly, the government avoids the word ‘university’, insisting that that there has been insufficient penetration of ‘the market’ in the higher education sector, and so in order to instil ‘competition’ and ‘choice’, the market must be opened up to new providersProvider also implies a transactional function for universities – a kind of cash for credentials scenario in which the institution simply provides its product to its ‘customers’ in exchange for money.

Investment, and its cousin, return on investment (ROI), are further linked discursively with teaching quality, in a way that implies that receiving information about the latter would in turn ensure a guarantee of the former: ​“The quality of teaching should be among the key drivers of a prospective student’s investment” ​(SKE Ch 2 para 8 p43). However, evidence reveals that there is little material correlation. Reports by the Institute for Fiscal Studies analyse the government’s Longitudinal Earnings Outcome data (Bellfield and Britton 2018Britton et al. 2016) and show the outcomes-require-competition assumption to be a myth. The best predictors for graduate earnings (the likely meaning of investment here) is found to be parental income and prior attainment. Return on investment in this way has arguably been used deliberately to reposition higher education as a private, rather than a public good.

Although the government has claimed the TEF will empower students, the Office for Students,  which was supposed to  ensure that student choice is placed at the centre of university policy making, fell silent when a student voice was raised in challenge. In 2017, a great deal of manufactured outrage was expressed in right-wing newspapers when a University of Cambridge student, Lola Olufemi, expressed a request for the English department to more fully decolonise the curriculum. Nor has recent higher education legislation or market discipline enabled a broadening of student choice when we consider that, since the implementation of the Browne Review funding system of tuition fees, there has been a precipitous decline in the availability of part-time routes for undergraduate study.

Conclusion

The accident of accessibility of particular metrics, inasmuch as they overlap with neoliberal priorities, has therefore determined which data will serve as Key Performance Indicators in the TEF. What may seem to be a random assortment of proxy data points, has in fact  served an agenda to refashion universities, staff and students as neoliberal subjects. The TEF audit therefore only appears to be tangentially concerned with quality. Instead it incentivizes universities towards a more pronounced concentration of business and science curricular provision and is reinforced via discourse which all participants in the framework are compelled to cite.

There is a discussion page for articles in the special issue of Social Epistemology which readers can find here.

The Augar Report, Dead on Arrival?

The headlines talked about a fee cap of £7,500 for undergraduate tuition, and it will be the headlines which secure the enduring myth of Augar 2019. Its brief was to review all of post-18 higher education, but it has been portrayed as a panicked response to Labour’s promise to young people to abolish tuition fees, and perhaps, in this spirit, it feels very much like a report on funding rather than policy generally. 

Augar is not just the work of Augar, of course. It is Robinson, Peck, Crewe Wolf and De Rojas together with their mix of expertise in HE, FE, vocational education and the tech industry. If the emphasis on funding stems from the chairmanship of Philip Augar who was a former equities trader, much of the rest appears to be a steer towards FE for the majority of 18 year olds, perhaps reflecting the influence of Baroness Alison Wolf, author of Does Education Matter: Myths about Education and Economic Growth

It is important to mention some very welcome recommendations from the report. In many ways it marks a return to some of the assumptions of the post-Robbins consensus on the funding of higher education, albeit with a very firm commitment to the student (and parental) contribution. There is a call for the return of maintenance grants as well as loans, a commitment to a four-year entitlement to FE/HE financing available to all, and a recommendation to cease charging interest on loan amounts accrued during the period of study. Another welcome reversal is an end to ELQ restrictions (whereby a person cannot receive funding for a qualification of equivalent or lower-level qualifications). Also celebrated are the call for a return to a (diminished) government teaching grant, but one whose amount is adjusted to reflect the differential costs of certain subjects, although the buck for making this decision is passed to the Office for Students (p.95) – a return to subject banding, perhaps? Suddenly, we seem to be back on the familiar territory of decades earlier, and led there by those most vociferous champions of change, higher education leaders. 

And then there are some ruptures with the trends of recent years. There’s a proposal to make funding available for ‘unbundled’ modules (p.39), so thanks to every course leader who has been compelled to defend the progression and coherence of their program’s learning objectives. It’s not that I personally ever invested much in that, but I despise the way these apparently essential tenets of ‘accountability’ are so easily dispatched without mention or consultation. ‘Badging’ and micro-credentialing do not constitute an education.  

Despite the title of Wolf’s volume, the report has plenty to say about the value of HE and FE to the economy. Ninety-eight mentions of value according to Johnny Rich.  And despite its disavowals of marketization in HE (p.78), there is strict adherence to the language of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) of competition, choice, and value for money. Anyone excited to find mentions of strengthening governance will be disappointed to find that it usually collocates with ‘financial’.  

The proposed funding model for HE reckons to reduce the loan write off (RAB charge) from 45% to 25% by introducing a longer period of repayment. This will be extended from 30 to 40 years to benefit from a longer period when the graduate is at maximum earnings. But this assumes a very male-centered career trajectory and inscribes a norm whereby nobody can retire before their early sixties, let alone work flexibly in order to care for parents or grandchildren. Significantly, it doesn’t allow any time for the graduate to save money for their own children’s higher education.  

And in return for finagling this saving, the report’s authors assume that government will cover the shortfall created by a reduction in the tuition fee. That seems to betoken the kind of faith in government largesse which stems from the experience of those who have benefitted from it. I doubt there is much of that kind of faith among the under-40s.  

Much is made of degree apprenticeships. There could be no more fervent endorsers of those then the university managers avidly siphoning off the apprenticeship levy for their own MBAs.  At the same time, perhaps for other people’s children, there is the wish to graduate many more students with level 4 and 5 qualifications, ignoring the fact that the currency for both students and employers for 30 years has been an honours degree. The justification for the downgrade, paradoxically, is that there is a need for more technically-qualified workers. Such workers can only emerge from FE, according to Augar. Apparently, you can just uncouple the association between social mobility and an honours degree, an assumption which, the report says, should be subject to a bit of questioning. In any case, for those under 25, access to financial support for level 6 (honours degree level) will be contained with a new demand for high enough attainment at levels 4 and 5. We can only speculate about the risk to students’ levels of stress, and the corresponding pressure on staff, to ensure they attain the necessary grades to progress. If this is a money-saving measure, perhaps the toll on mental health services should feature in another column on the balance sheet.  

And then there are ‘unintended consequences for subject provision that are not aligned with the government’s Industrial Strategy’ (p.91) and degree courses which are unlikely to result in ‘good value for taxpayer money’ (p.84). When you get past reparsing the peculiarities of grammatical concord and attribution by apposition, this turns out to be code for concern that we are producing graduates whose reward is not monetary. Or at least not monetary enough to pay back the entirety of their tuition loans.  In particular, the report chides whomever is listening at this point, that the current funding methodology has resulted in an over-investment in arts and humanities at the expense of STEM (p.84) The remedy appears to be to prevent these students from progressing from levels 4/5 to level 6, which will presumably depress their earnings even further. 

The scale of the damage done by market extremism and individual value for money discourse is laid out on page 191 where the case for reinstatement of maintenance grants is supported by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, the Commons, Educational Select Committee, Hepi, and the Intergenerational Foundation. The understanding that the young are entitled to support and opportunity for their education runs throughout the report. I just wish the authors had made the case for intergenerational equity more unconditionally. 

There are some quite radical changes which will have impact on university autonomy. Yet another plank of academic freedom is scythed away when accusations are made that grade inflation has been too great to suggest plausibly that it is caused by student performance (p78). I always marvel at commentators who insist on evidence and accountability from universities that their teaching and learning resources are all constantly improving, and then press the fire alarm when those learning outcomes improve. To find a group of vice-chancellors and other senior educators saying it is simply perverse. 

But then outcomes don’t always mean learning outcomes as we already know from the semantic shape-shifting in HERA. On page 75 we read that ‘there is a wide variation in spend on subjects grouped in the same funding categories, at apparently similar institutions, with no known correlation to outcomes.’ Outcomes in this instance, as indeed in most usages within the report, equals graduate earnings as indicated by Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data. It was always inevitable that once LEO data became a metric in assessing the value of higher education, they would become THE metric, but perhaps not in a study which declares itself concerned with ‘economically defined value calculations, not value judgements’ (p.87). Incredibly, on the very same page, the authors admit that earnings data is one of a trio of unreliable metrics which constitute the Teaching Excellence Framework. We already know that graduate salaries are affected by region and correlate more effectively with distance from London than any other variable. But they also vary with social advantage, prior attainment and gender. To pretend that they can be considered a reliable criterion by which to judge the way a university teaches a subject, much less ‘adds value’, is fanciful.  

If there is ‘a growing gap between what the labour market demands and what post-18 education supplies’, as Alison Wolf declares,  then Augar provides few of the solutions. Wolf is an advocate of vocational education, despite evidence that the landscape of employment continues to shift rapidly. If employers require graduates with sophisticated IT, numeracy, communication and problem-solving abilities; if the current challenge to liberal democracies require an educated electorate with a working knowledge of history, economics and government, as well as world languages, then solutions lie in a much broader-based common curriculum and enhanced degree-level resourcing.  

Throughout the report there is a supposition that, even in the face of a huge reduction in the government-allocated teaching grant, universities have had a golden decade of opulence, and that their benefit has come at the expense of the withering of FE. As a consequence, Augar recommends that HE should absorb a freeze to fund investment in FE and apprenticeships (p.92,) in addition to the government funding additional capital investment for FE. In actuality, funding for HE has been provided by enrolled students who have been charged the full cost of their teaching. Surely the answer is to introduce a sustainable model of funding for FE and HE, and for both to have considerable public subsidy? 

Sadly, this is not what Augar recommends. The authors fail to state unambiguously the case for supporting and sustaining the UK’s universities which form its repositories of knowledge and its crucibles of learning. Instead the contagion of HERA persists as far as affirming the right of the Office for Students to refuse to bail out institutions which fall into financial difficulties, or as the report writes, echoing HERA discourse and previous ministers for higher education, risking the ‘moral hazard’ of ‘bailing out’ ‘failing institutions’ (p.98).  

Augar has thrown universities to the wolves of a rather rigged market at this point. Nobody – neither staff nor student – can enter a university with any certainty that their career or course of study will be fulfilled without interruption or derailment.  

Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff

This blog originally appeared on the HEPI website: and accompanies HEPI Occasional Paper 20. I am grateful to HEPI and its director, Nick Hillman, for the opportunity to produce this report.

There has recently been a significant amount of media concern surrounding the poor mental health of academics. See also.

In February 2018, Paul Gorczynski of the University of Portsmouth claimed that more academics and students have mental health problems than ever before, with findings that 43% of academic staff exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder. This is nearly twice the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population.

The degree of overwork is confirmed by a work-life balance survey published by Times Higher Education, as is the extent to which this damages mental health. Students also recognize that being taught by exhausted and depressed staff impairs their experience of university courses.

A report from Nottingham Trent University UCU confirms that workloads, for many academics, have become unmanageable. In the NTU UCU survey, the majority of staff surveyed reported working at least one unpaid half day at weekends, with 18% working a whole day. 41% felt that their workload had had a negative effect on their mental health. In fact only 6% said that their workload did not impair their mental health. Typical symptoms included disrupted sleep, depression and cognitive impairment.

Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, is an Occasional Paper which sets out the scale of the problem based on a Freedom of Information survey showing a rising rate of staff referrals to counselling and occupational health in universities. The report also examines the factors which academics have identified as key causes of stress.

New workload models are at the top of the list, especially those which do not reflect the actual time necessary for completion of a task. Typically, for teaching assignments, one classroom hour will be accompanied by an additional 1.6 or 1.7 academic related hours on the annual workload. Lecturers are now required to provide teaching materials across several platforms. Each lecture will now need a Powerpoint, or similar, presentation, associated handouts and, perhaps, an interactive study guide. The lecture video will require editing and uploading. Student email enquiries will need responses. You will need to supply marking criteria which reflect your assessed learning outcomes. For all assessed tasks, you must upload an exemplar response, with commentary. All of these will, of course, need to be redone if you make any changes at all. And, since about 50% of lecturers are on precarious or casual visiting contracts, more of them will be writing those lectures for the first time. Technology may have transformed academics’ ways of working but has not necessarily lightened their load. Nevertheless, academics are often obliged to collude in the fiction that all of this, together with marking an entire cohort’s assessments, can be discharged in 1.7 hours. No wonder academics are stressed.

Many people outside academia imagine it is a life of contemplation and long summer holidays. In fact, few academics are able to take all of their annual leave allowance, and the NTU UCU study shows that 30% of academics worked on at least 10 days during their annual leave. The Times Higher Education 2018 work-life balance survey quoted one academic “We are not allowed to book holidays during term time, but we are also not allowed to book holidays over exam periods, marking periods, internal exam board meetings or course development meetings. This means that although we get 35 days [of holiday] a year, we actually only have opportunity to use about 14.” Senior members of staff find that non-teaching weeks during the summer are now taken up with reading and assessing the research outputs of their department colleagues for submission to the Research Excellence Framework audit. Junior academics are asked to staff weekend open days for potential applicants to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. And let’s consider as well that the majority of academics will be under pressure to produce published research at high quality and volume. The extent of this work, too, fails to be reflected in staff workloads. Responsibilities like editing academic journals, peer reviewing articles and book manuscripts, examining theses, giving expert testimony – many of these are unforeseen at the start of any academic year and therefore mount up, but remain invisible to the human resources manager.

Academics are also evaluated by an assortment of research metrics: citation counts, the impact factor of the journal in which it is published, and the amount of research grant money obtained. These are all poor proxy measures of research quality, but they are easy to track. Despite their obvious limitations, academics are forced to accept that metrics have become the currency of performance management in universities. To work there means giving yourself over to forensic surveillance, and also being willing to have your closest friends and colleagues scrutinize your work, in both teaching and research. That pressure is cumulative and to many, the university has become an ‘anxiety machine’.

As one academic on Twitter out it, academics have been “forced by management into stress positions”. There have, to date, been two deaths by suicide linked to conditions of work at UK universities. Cardiff University lecturer, Malcolm Anderson, took his life on campus when, after years of appeals to his manager, his workload had escalated out of control. Another death by suicide was triggered by pressures to meet targets for research funding. Professor Stefan Grimm at Imperial College, London, had been rebuked by his manager over this issue.

I am honoured that Professor Mike Thomas, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, has written a foreword. He has conducted research into the area of compassion and kindness in leadership. Universities need to adopt these values because no profession can continue to drive its employees to burnout and alienate its pool of graduate recruits. There are remedies: sustainable career pathways, more autonomy and control over workload and responsible use of metrics. But beyond this, the simple, humane values of kindness and care for each other must be recovered if we are to ameliorate the toxic university.

Managing the Changelings

Crossing my Twitter timeline yesterday was a piece I might not have ordinarily encountered.  ‘From episodic to continuous change’. 
by James Hutchinson
of the University of Exeter sets out to reflect on “key foundations for supporting continuous improvement rather than on the detail of the process itself.”  It occurred to me that if universities are at all concerned with reputation management, pieces like this might  cause a few of the best academics, students and professional staff to press pause on their online applications.

As I said on Twitter, this is one of the most vacuous examples of management discourse I have seen in a while. I say ‘in a while’ because I have been outside of universities for over two years now and so my exposure is more limited, but oh, how I’ve missed it. 

As regular readers of this blog may know, Helen Sauntson and I have co-authored a forthcoming book: Academic Irregularities which seeks to expose underlying power relations within universities as revealed by the discourse of management. The piece on change management made me itch to get out the red pen and annotate some familiar managerial themes. Let me offer a critical analysis of precisely why this piece is so alienating, and so damaging of an institution’s reputation before the majority of academics. 

Frequently, in university managerial discourse, we see the employment of abstract nouns with shape-shifting definitions. Word of the week is nebulous, and that is exactly what we find here. Such words have been designated by Urcioli  (2000: 4) as Strategically Deployable Shifters (SDS). She defines SDSs as follows: 

[…] a lexical item or expression deployed in different discursive fields so that, in effect, people using term X in a referring expression in field A are engaged in a different pragmatic activity from those using the formally identified term X in a referring expression in field B. The salient interpretation of the term depends on the relation of its user to its audience and so shifts with context.

SDSs, then, can mean one thing to one person and something else to another. In this piece we notice a lot of vague abstract terms: improvement, performance, and change itself. They may change meaning entirely when reflecting one set of values or another. Empowered will make some academics shudder. 

Change is always presented as something that must be managed and controlled by an elite cadre of consultants, or alternatively, by a highly-paid member of the senior management team. The author of the piece announces himself as Director of the Strategic Delivery Unit at the University of Exeter, and, notwithstanding a nod towards change as requiring development and feedback rather than fait accompli’, it is evident that it will be led , top-down, by ‘talented managers and team’, presumably made up of ‘change agents’. They will use ‘intelligent business tools’, ‘performance dashboards’ all conforming to the ‘change blueprint’. I’ve seen one, and its prescriptions were completely disregarded whenever it came to implementing change. 

Change is presented as something which will be complicated and difficult, but inevitable and desirable.  Another presupposition is that change must be continuous and institution-wide, not episodic, contingent, and definitely not locally, slowly or organically. The effects of continuous change are documented by Martin Parker in his brilliant 2014 article  entitled, University Ltd: Changing a business school. Parker points out that when staff encounter problems with institutional change, or when its sheer speed is found to cause unacceptable stress, it is pointed out that unhappiness is inevitable at times of change. The solution is always framed as enhancing communication, implying that if managers just raised the volume a little, the message would be received less reluctantly. And change is, of course, always successful in this world.

In this model, all change is seen as revolutionary and self-evidently a good thing, often presented as ‘shaking things up’. Resistance from those with institutional memory (who are often in a position to identify the futility of the change, or its circularity) is framed in terms of their self-interest and intransigence. Indeed, as Parker points out, the very fact of staff leaving, retiring or falling ill with stress is often, in this managerial fiction of change, defended by the institution as evidence that change is both necessary and effective (2014: 288).  

As we learn from James Hutchinson, “continuous improvement is a way of working’.  But is it too much to ask, as we head over the Brexit cliff, that change is debated and justified in terms which go beyond the discourse of the pep rally? And that those with institutional memory are consulted ? This would at least help institutions avoid 
change being decontextualized from any previous history. Parker comments on the strange process of legitimation:  ‘[I]t was necessary to ensure that the past was not available as a valid position from which to criticize the present. In other words, the past needs to be articulated as a problem, as something that needs to be escaped from’ (2014: 287).  

If they try, and don’t meet resistance, they might actually do it.  Please, readers, stay vigilant, and don’t be afraid to offer your thoughts when the consultation phase of the ‘change blueprint, comes your way. 

References

Parker, Martin. 2014. University, Ltd: Changing a business school . Organization. vol 21., pp. 281-292 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1350508413502646?journalCode=orga

Urciuoli, Bonnie. 2000.  Strategically Deployable Shifters In College Marketing, or just what do they mean by “skills” and “leadership” and “multiculturalism”? Language and Culture, Symposium 6, Binghampton University. http://language-culture.binghamton.edu/symposia/6/index.html

Student Protection Plans: Neither plans nor protection

Student Protection Plans (SPPs) are the creation of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and require universities to clarify their arrangements for students to complete their studies should the institution, course or campus close. But are these plans reliable?  How will universities be held to account if it becomes necessary to activate them? And whose interests are most likely to be served by the terms of the SPPs? Are there some unforeseen moral hazards which attach to their implementation?  

These questions have taken on additional urgency this week when we have seen the release of distressing news for anyone who cares about UK universities and the talented staff and students who work within them. At least 8 universities are considering course closures, redundancies , or, as the University of Reading puts it 
‘refreshing their vision’. So far, the following universities have made known their financial difficulties in recent days: Cardiff University, Birkbeck, University of London, University of Gloucestershire, Bangor University, University of Reading, Bath Spa University, SOAS Library and Queen Margaret University.

There have been two informative blog pieces recently which discuss SPPs. Gordon McKenzie compares how arrangements for insolvency are handled in the Further Education sector.  Meanwhile, Jim Dickinson has helpfully provided species identification and taxonomy – not an easy task since only 65 out of 203 SPPs were traceable.  

SPPs vary in size and detail with The University of Leeds discharging its obligation in just two pages, while the University of Birmingham’s plan runs to a very detailed 21 pages.

The Office for Students (OfS) and Sam Gyimah, former Minister of State for Universities and Science, have both signalled in the starkest terms their intention not to engage in bailouts or, as Hefce did, to facilitate amalgamation of institutions.  

This change of policy is framed as a necessary encounter with the discipline of the market, and fits entirely with the presumptions of the 2016 White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, that success will be ensured by the application of competition and choice. According to this logic, “we must accept that there may be some providers who do not rise to the challenge, and who therefore need or choose to close some or all of their courses, or to exit the market completely. The possibility of exit is a natural part of a healthy, competitive, well-functioning market and the Government will not, as a matter of policy, seek to prevent this from happening. The Government should not be in the business of rescuing failing institutions” [Executive Summary para 17]. 

And so universities must now assess their own financial risk and disclose that in an accessible statement as a condition of OfS registration.  

It only takes the slightest acquaintance with Erving Goffman’s theory of face to understand that universities, famously concerned with reputation above other considerations, will be eager to contradict any suggestion of financial vulnerability. In fact, nearly all of them are at pains to lay out their credentials for financial and academic sustainability.                              

This leads to moral hazard #1– Denial. Most universities claim to be at very low risk of institutional closure.  Leeds dismisses this prospect with “The likelihood that the University will be unable to operate is negligible”. Generally, the SPPs refer to the healthy income and bank surplus ( Birmingham), and strong market position (read league tables), so “the University is, therefore, able to absorb market shocks” ( Birmingham). More worrying is that many go on to rebuff the idea that courses, departments or schools could close, claiming these are all mature and well-established (Leeds). Newcastle University evaluates the possibility of closure of a whole programme because of loss of market viability or insufficient enrollments thus: 

We consider this risk to be low, overall, because of our confidence in our market position and popularity as a destination. 

The University of Liverpool is one institution to make a rare disclosure that it withdrew 37 programmes  from 2014-15 to the present academic year, and all continuing students were able to complete their courses.   

Despite the denials of vulnerability,  universities are required to give details of actions they would initiate if that ‘negligible’ risk should be ‘crystallised’, in the OfS jargon. A number of universities refer to the practice of ‘teaching out’ a course, which means continuing to teach those students already enrolled, while halting recruitment. This is a well-established practice in the sector. Other SPPs promise to support students in finding another provider. Sometimes that means presuming upon a multilateral agreement whose ratification seems unassured. The University of Birmingham undertakes to: 

Facilitate transfer or direct-entry to another provider: We would look to work with partner providers across the UK, including our fellow Russell Group members and our strategic partners such as the University of Nottingham, to accommodate you by transfer or direct entry – subject to their entry requirements.  

The strategic partnership is confirmed in Nottingham’s SPP, if not acknowledged in those of other Russell Group members. However, it raises a question:  is this in the best interests of students to privilege provider status over compatibility of course offerings? What happens if your course is not available at the partner institution? For example, The BA (Hons) in Gemmology and Jewellery Studies is unique to Birmingham City University which states proudly that its School of Jewellery has been in operation since 1890. The agreements, then, provide no guarantees that a student will be able to complete the course they first enroll on, and one wonders how a naïve university applicant is meant to find reassurance in the SPP.  

Also, even where transfer agreements are in place, how would another university suddenly accommodate a large number of supernumerary students? The answer to that lies in an increase in ‘flexibility’ of resourcing in the form of precarious and ‘atypical’ staffing arrangements. Nottingham Trent University’s SPP has this to say:

 The University maintains a flexible pool of adjunct and sessional staff to ensure continuity of supply of both general and specialist teaching.” 

At the University of Wolverhampton,

The University makes use of visiting lecturers to bring in expertise as and when required to ensure core course elements can be delivered.

This reveals moral hazard #2 whereby there is an incentive for employers to conflate protection of student interests in the case of ‘market exit’ with the kind of staffing economies they might like to avail themselves of. The use of contingent staff on insecure contracts has been increasing over the last decade and now atypical staff account for a third of posts in the UK (HESA stats: Staff by HE provider, academic contract marker and mode of employment 2016/17). It appears their use may now be extended to cover core teaching in universities. Given that closure of a teaching facility, discontinuation of a course or loss of Tier 4 licence (international students) are included in the risk analysis along with ‘market exit,’ this reference to a ‘flexible pool’ of casualized staff may prefigure a permanent change in the career structure for an even larger number of academics.  

It should be apparent that these policies are far from being insurance policies for students. Consider moral hazard # 3 – an absence of accountability, identified by Jim Dickinson, who asks, who does the student wave their SPP at if the eventualities are ‘crystallised’? The institution in receivership? The OfS?  The Minister for Universities and Science? The Office of the Independent Adjudicator? – but even they accept they have no regulatory powers over providers and cannot issue fines. What do you do if your recently conferred degree from X university is rendered worthless?  

The final moral hazard belongs to the OfS which, according to Dennis Farrington  “has no statutory authority to guarantee sustainability in any institution” and he raises the prospect of there being ‘disposable universities.’ The consequences of maintaining a stance of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ extend beyond curbing the autonomy of UK universities. The SPPs offer a Trojan horse for greater casualization of the sector and an excuse to devastate a university unpopular, for any reason, with ministers. In either scenario, the interests of students are not served when they cannot rely on an institution enduring for the length of their degree course.  

It is the discourse of HERA legislation that has allowed us for the first time to contemplate the closure of a university for reasons of financial embarrassment unrelated to academic performance. Aside from financial and wider economic issues, there are very good political reasons to proceed cautiously with threats of ‘market exit’.  December 3rd saw Central European University (CEU), one of Europe’s best universities, forced to take the decision to leave Budapest. The Hungarian government has been accused of being the first to actively seek the removal of a university since the German Third Reich.   There has been no response to this from the UK government and none from university leaders who notoriously fail to see the benefit of collective resistance. I hope it will quickly dawn on Chris Skidmore, the next minister for universities, that he would not wish the UK to join this ignominious club. At the moment, that might be the best assurance that the academic community could wish for.  

Sam’s on campus, but is the campus onto Sam?

A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 5th July 2018. 

It might have been mildly embarrassing for the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah, to have to retract his accusation a couple of weeks ago, that a lecturer at King’s College London had been reported for spreading ‘hate speech’ during his history lectures, but the evidence was against him. Unfortunately, like some more of Mr Gyimah’s more volatile claims on stifling of freedom of speech in universities, this had proved impossible to verify.

However, rather than being reassured that Gyimah has had to back away from citing unsubstantiated anecdotes, perhaps we should be concerned that this behavior fits a pattern in modern politics, of pushing at the boundaries of credibility knowing that some fabrications will stick if they are repeated often enough. In this case, academics, universities and freedom of speech itself are all damaged by these allegations.

Sam Gyimah has styled himself as rather a champion-protector of freedom of speech on campus, and has already hosted a free speech summit for universities, urging leaders to stamp out ‘institutional hostility to unfashionable views’ and to take stronger action against ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no-platform’ policies that he alleges have appeared on campuses.

It is perhaps convenient that the minister has overlooked the actions of a member of his own party whose partisan interest in the university curriculum recently caused controversy. Last October, a few months prior to Gyimah’s appointment, Chris Heaton-Harris, MP wrote to vice-chancellors asking for the names of any professors involved in teaching courses in European Studies which might have a bearing on Brexit. He suspected that such courses were being taught from a point of view which might lean towards Remain.

It was probably a futile gesture designed to draw attention to some politicians’ belief that all academics are left leaning. This fear seems to have its origin in the ongoing US culture wars, and a recent study which found that 60 percent of professors identify as liberals, while a mere 12 percent identify as conservative. Despite allegations of ‘group think’ and lack of political diversity, there is no real evidence in the UK, apart from anecdotes such as the one dismissed by King’s, to indicate that political orientations translate into bias in the classroom. There is nothing to suggest that issues like Brexit are taught in a way which is not entirely evidence-driven, nor is there anything to suggest that students are not free to argue with their lecturers.

Nevertheless, Sam Gyimah has kept his attention on this issue and fully embraces his new ministerial role with a sharper focus on students than any of his predecessors. He does occasionally, though, give the impression that, far from being even-handed, he is rather invested in being minister primarily for conservative students. He has openly stated that his ‘Sam on campus’ tours have been intended to bestow on the Tories the kind of appeal elicited by Labour politicians, and especially Jeremy Corbyn.

The first concerns about a new kind of partiality within government were raised when, on January 1st 2018, it was announced that provocative conservative commentator, Toby Young, would be serving on the board of the Office for Students, and that Ruth Carlson, a hitherto unknown name, had been selected as the board member for the student experience when, according to a written answer from the Minister to Kevin Brennan, MP,  she had not even been among the original applicants considered appointable. Her chief virtue seemed to be that she had no connection with the National Union of Students. Even though Young resigned, the episode led to accusations that the new Office for Students was little more than an office for state control.

 

These developments are all the more disconcerting if we consider some recent precursors in the US. In February 2017, a state senator in Iowa introduced a bill into the state’s legislature. The bill, SF 288, aimed to ensure that ‘hires’ – and this targeted just new academic recruits – at the state’s universities should reflect equal proportions of liberals and conservatives. The purpose of the bill, according to its sponsor, Republican state senator Mark Chelgren, was an attempt to counter the ‘liberal slant’ at the state’s three public universities, and its wording specified the exact proportions to be achieved:

“A person shall not be hired as a professor or instructor member of the faculty at such an institution if the person’s political party affiliation on the date of hire would cause the percentage of the faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by ten percent the percentage of the faculty belonging to the other political party, on the date established by the board for determining the political party composition of the faculty.”

Notwithstanding debates in the US about affirmative action for under-represented groups, this seems like an unnecessary privileging of a group which does not lack political clout.

UK readers may be wondering how university hiring committees would be made aware of political affiliations. The answer lies in the voter registration processes of many states in which voters need to register with a particular party – Republican or Democratic – if they wish to participate in that party’s primary elections. The bill specified that those records would be made available to the state board of regents which governs the state-funded higher education institutions. However, the measure was opposed by the board of regents and the bill failed to proceed.

At around the same time, a Republican state senator in North Carolina, Ralph Hise, was tabling a similar measure in his state legislature, requiring faculty members across the UNC system to “reflect the ideological balance of the citizens of the state,” plus or minus two percentage points.

So, when a minister alleges political bias in universities, or condemns political activism within them, or when the Office for Students threatens to fine universities for alleged failure to protect freedom of speech (even as they must abide by the Prevent Strategy), this echoes the more extreme political interference attempted in Iowa and North Carolina. Even the sanctions resonate with Office for Students discourse. This from North Carolina sounds familiar:

“If the accreditors conclude that something is amiss, they could sanction individual UNC campuses, which would endanger the ability of those campuses to attract research funding, facilitate financial aid, and compete nationally and internationally for faculty and students.”

And indeed, we see on 20th June, a tweet from the Office for Students clearly stating a threat to intervene in universities’ pay structures when they deem a vice chancellor’s pay to lack justification.

OfS threaten VCs

In Iowa, these assaults on university autonomy have come hard on the heels of repeated pressure to rescind tenure and end faculty collective bargaining. But in the UK, we no longer have even the nominal protection of tenure, and assaults on collective bargaining and benefits are well underway. Much of the sector is now staffed with casualized labour – exactly the kind of employees likely to police their own teaching and publications for apparent political bias. The field has been cleared for dirigiste policies.

It seems disingenuous to venerate university autonomy, as Gyimah did at the February 2018 launch of the Office for Students, when your regulatory regime is predicated on attempts to curb it. If the threat of tenured radicals has been seen off in the UK, then a new one has been installed. Not, as Gyimah might imagine, in the form of NUS militants, but in the form of a regulatory body which has control and political entryism as its priorities.

The Office for Students: Ten reasons why it is not for students at all

The Office for Students (OfS) is the new regulatory body for universities and higher education providers in the UK.  To date it has had a short and rather volatile history. Below is a collection of the main issues which students and academics should be aware of.

  1. The OfS will ensure that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) becomes even more prominent for universities who are to be assessed on their ‘outcomes’. However, the TEF is relatively untested, and its critics charge that it will not diagnose poor teaching any more than it will uncover excellent teaching. It is not designed for these tasks since no teaching is actually observed. Teaching quality is inferred from proxy measures which have a very distant and disputed relationship with teaching. See this blog from Dorothy Bishop, and this previous one from me.
  2. The TEF will not incentivise universities to prioritise teaching. Unlike the REF (Research Excellence Framework) which has, arguably, recognised and rewarded excellence in research wherever it is found (notwithstanding Derek Sayer’s well-founded objections), a very different set of circumstances obtain for the TEF. Let’s take an example. Several universities have seen fit to cut courses in Modern Languages in response to falling student demand. Languages other than English and Irish Gaelic will soon no longer be taught in Northern Ireland, so how would an undisputed finding of excellent teaching affect that decision? Will universities channel funding to support excellent teaching wherever it is found? I predict they will not, and that is because funding follows the student. It is a formula designed to disrupt the traditional right of universities to make autonomous decisions about course provision based on the current state of knowledge and discovery. The fact is, when university curricular decisions are outsourced to the caprice of 18 year olds, there is little point in trying to pretend any other factor counts. If you have decided to expand a course because it attracts funding and international students, then no amount of poor National Student Survey scores will not dislodge that conclusion.
  3. Ergo, poor teaching will be condoned and concealed by universities in the flawed and distorted market of UK higher education. The TEF is still useful to universities as it offers a justification for getting rid of unconventional academics who are disliked by managers.
  4. The Office for Students seems to fixate on issues which don’t really register as important for students. Amatey Doku, NUS Vice President for Higher Education, answered questions from The Joint Committee on Human Rights – a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament on 17th January 2018. Here he exposes the mythology of a crisis of freedom of speech in universities which is not top of students’ priorities.Amatey Doku
  5. The Office for Students has no representative from the National Union of Students on the board. This is in spite of promises from Theresa May that the NUS would work in consultation with the new regulatory body. The sole student representative, Ruth Carlson, is relatively unknown. The circumstances of her appointment are not clear, but the new minister for higher education, Sam Gyimah, revealed that she was chosen from outside of the pool of three candidates considered appointable by the interview committee. We can only speculate what advantages Ms Carlson’s appointment might confer on the board of the OfS, but expertise in student representation does not appear to be among them. She is studying civil engineering, however, and this might plug a gap on the board (see 6).
  6. Not a single other scientist or engineer has been selected for the board.
  7. The Office for Students’ mission is defined in Chapter 2 para 37 of Success as a Knowledge Economy, the government White Paper published in May 2016.

“The OfS will be explicitly pro-competition and pro-student choice, and will make sure that a high quality higher education experience is available for students from all backgrounds. For the first time, we will put the interests of the student at the heart of our regulatory landscape. By enabling better student outcomes, we will also protect the interests of taxpayers and the economy”.

But the suspicion at this point is that the government’s understanding of competition and choice is restricted to the introduction of new private providers into the system. The fear is that they will choose to provide cheap-to-teach courses, like law and business, and this will further restrict the choices available to students. This concern is grounded in the fact that among the members of the board are Carl Lygo, former VC of BPP University, part of the Apollo Group which includes the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA. The rest of the appointees can be seen here  and we note that private sector and business professionals predominate over practitioners in higher education.

8. There are real doubts about how the quality of higher education courses will be protected by the new regulator. The OfS will oversee the award of university title to new HE providers – a privilege currently only bestowed by the Privy Council. The OfS has already shown signs that it may tolerate a less rigorous pathway to university status than we see with current arrangements. Alarm bells rang for many academics when the UA92 Manchester United Academy was announced. The new regulatory arrangements allow for degree awarding powers to be issued with no demand for a track record of quality teaching and assessment under the supervision of an established university.  OfS will also be able to revoke the title of university for those institutions it deems to be failing. The current quality assurance system works with universities if they are seen to be in need of improvement, but students now might start studying at a university, only to find their institution downgraded or fined into bankruptcy.

9. The OfS has already demonstrated poor judgement in its attempt to appoint Toby Young to the board. Given the structures outlined in the White Paper, this appointment must have been overseen by ministers (namely Jo Johnson), and Young would have been interviewed by Sir Michael Barber, the Chair of OfS. The appointment of student representative, Ruth Carlson (see point 5 above) seems similarly unorthodox. This action has alienated most parts of the sector, as we can only assume it was meant to. We need an independent regulator which can work with universities, not antagonise them for the sake of it.

10. Jo Johnson, the previous minister for higher education, has suggested that it will be within the remit of OfS to issue financial penalties to universities which award ‘too many’ firsts and 2.1 degrees. Firstly, as I argue (in a forthcoming piece), there is no firm basis for charging universities with grade inflation. Secondly, there is no suggestion at the moment what might constitute ‘too many’. If the OfS does interfere with universities’ cherished independence and academic judgement in this manner, it is unlikely to make many friends among students it counts as its central constituency.

The unease which has greeted the launch of the OfS has prompted Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, the vice chancellors’ representative body, to write of the recent consultation document from the OfS, “The tone of the document is, in places, confrontational and appears preoccupied by short-term political concerns rather than the larger long-term task of creating a credible, independent regulator”.

The OfS has shown itself to be willing to pursue moral panics that vice chancellors feel originate with a government piqued by perceived opposition to its agenda (especially Brexit).  Many of the rest of us resent the ideologically motivated campaign in both government and media circles which is unsympathetic to dearly held academic values such as education for the public good and worry that the OfS is merely another vehicle by which to instigate this. I for one share Alistair Hudson’s hope that, “In the months ahead, it will be necessary for the OfS to establish itself as a mature, fair and accountable regulator that uses its powers to support students through proportionate regulation and judgement.” Sadly, the shortcomings exposed by its initial actions have meant that OfS has probably exhausted any goodwill it might otherwise have been able to claim.

Adonis takes a scalp?

Let the 28th November 2017 stand as a pivotal moment for UK universities. Phil Baty of the Times Higher tweeted, “So Adonis gets a scalp”. That seemed to over-simplify the circumstances surrounding the retirement, announced that day, of Dame Professor Glynis Breakwell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Bath.

It has been a busy few months for Dame Glynis. As well as sustained pressure in the media from Lord Adonis, the academic staff union members had voted unanimously for a motion of no confidence in the Vice Chancellor. She then narrowly escaped another vote of no confidence in the University’s senate and was facing yet another censure from the students’ union later in the week.

The rebellion had built quickly in response to the findings of a Hefce enquiry into governance issues surrounding determination of senior pay at the University of Bath.   This had been initiated by a complaint from Lord Andrew Adonis in July 2017 in which he criticized what he saw as excessive pay for the Vice Chancellor at £451,000, and the lack of restraint on senior salaries in the face of an appeal for such by the Minister for Higher Education. Additionally, Adonis had reservations about the conduct of the remuneration committee which oversees the vice chancellor’s pay increases, and on which Dame Glynis had exercised her right to vote. He raised additional concerns about governance at the university later in August 2017.

Hefce launched an unprecedented enquiry into the University of Bath case. Unprecedented because I cannot remember a similar instance, and the absence of other cases on Hefce’s regulation and assurance website page seems to confirm this was a new venture for them. Nevertheless, the findings are remarkably fearless; perhaps they were belatedly flexing a muscle in order to assert their independence credentials in advance of their impending abolition. Hefce was not pleased with governance at Bath, finding conflict of interest with regard to the remuneration committee and poor governance practice in aspects of the handling of a University Court meeting, declaring “These issues have, in our view, together resulted in damage to the reputation of the university.” The fact that Dame Glynis was heavily implicated may have sealed her fate.

Arguably, this was only partially Adonis’ scalp. He objected to levels of pay among senior staff, and the circumstances of salary increases, but in fact these had been the subject of protest since 2012 by staff at the university. In the last few months they collated a number of other grievances, and they built alliances with local councillors and local MPs. They also kept the story in the local and national media headlines throughout the summer and autumn. According to a Guardian article, “Junior staff complain of job insecurity caused by short-term or zero-hours contracts, of pay held deliberately low, and a “culture of fear” permeating Bath’s campus”.

So on Tuesday 28th November 2017, it was announced that Dame Glynis had chosen to retire in August 2018. Once again it was felt she had misjudged the changing mood as she will be granted a sabbatical, as I understand it, on full salary and her £31,000 car ‘loan’ will be paid off by the university. It is not a bad package. But many will be asking the question, are vice chancellors worth it? The public perception that they are overpaid has been simmering for several years. Vice chancellors routinely defend their emoluments by maintaining they are possessed of rare and valuable skills, and that they operate in an international market for such expertise. Continued salary competitiveness is essential to ensuring that UK universities remain world class. I have always been sceptical of this line of argument, given that the vast majority of VCs are white, and from the UK, Australia, USA or South Africa. By contrast, at almost any faculty meeting, you would be guaranteed to be sitting among equally distinguished colleagues from a far wider number of countries.

Ironically, it has been revealed that Dame Glynis did not add her voice to claims of exceptional leadership and influence. In a 2010 research article co-authored with Michelle Tytherleigh, entitled ‘University leaders and university performance in the United Kingdom: is it ‘who’ leads, or ‘where’ they lead that matters most?’, they had this to say on the question of whether institutional performance can be related in any way to the characteristics of its leader, “our findings suggest that, whilst the performance of a university may be ‘moulded’ by the characteristics of its’ leader, most of the variability is explained by non-leadership factors”.  I have retained their rogue apostrophe for authenticity.

It is curious that a salary of £450K+ has attracted such opprobrium when there have been higher paid chief executives in recent memory. In 2015, Neil Gorman of Nottingham Trent University topped the league table of salaries with £623,000. It caused such controversy that staff were issued with a script in anticipation of hostile questions at recruitment open days. By contrast, Dame Glynis’ compensation seems almost modest. There were some commentators who suggested that Adonis’ complaints were animated by misogyny and that it was no accident he had targeted a female vice chancellor who just happened to be the most highly paid. A letter in the Guardian on Saturday 25th November from a group of women senior staff offered their support for their vice chancellor, saying “Being a successful woman seems to attract a disproportionate degree of negative criticism”, and enumerating the successes racked up by the University of Bath during Breakwell’s tenure.  A retort from other female staff indicated that such solidarity had not been entirely reciprocated, and identified one of the largest gender pay gaps in the country, as well as wide use of zero hours contracts.

It will be interesting to follow repercussions from these events. I’m sure the rest of the UK’s vice chancellors will be feeling a little unsettled in the following months. The Bath case sends out a signal to the leaders of the marketized and managed universities of the post-Jarratt era that they have had their wings clipped, cards marked, or to use a current favourite managerial metaphor, they are on a burning platform. Their wealth and power has risen as that of their staff has declined. There has been a league table of vice chancellors’ salaries – denounced by academics but embraced as a bargaining benchmark by those chief executives. It seems unlikely that many of them will wish to occupy the top position now. Lord Adonis continues his campaign, one vice chancellor at a time. In a tweet last night (28th November) he seemed to focus his ire on the luckless Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton. Whatever the outcome of that manoeuvre, I predict that the range of salaries will contract to an average of £230K and will increase slightly below the inflation figure (i.e. in line with other academic salary increases). There will be greater efforts towards transparency and accountability for executive salaries and increases. It now seems politically toxic to do otherwise. As a consequence, we may see a new ethos of intrinsic motivation to lead UK universities for the sake of doing a good job. I hope a new breed of vice chancellors will align themselves more openly with the values of universities as public good and democratic necessity, not as engines of economic competitiveness.

Their rising tide of senior executives post-Jarratt has certainly not lifted all boats. Tenure was abolished in the 1980s. Vice chancellors became chief executives and stifled the influence of academics on university senates. They cut expenditure on pay by employing hourly paid lecturers in posts previously held by full time career academics. They now seem to be presiding over the withdrawal of a final salary pension for staff in the USS pension scheme. So far, only one vice chancellor, Stuart Croft of Warwick, has stated his opposition to this move. This is probably the one benefit that academics will vote to strike for because, for one thing, it makes UK universities attractive and competitive to the best researchers from overseas. It does seem odd to demand decent remuneration packages just for senior management, and not for the people who actually make the universities world-leading.

There is a rising tide though – of resistance from the academic ranks. Just as Bath colleagues take inspiration from the successful campaign against Raising the Bar at Newcastle, others are beginning to organise towards restoring democratic governance in our universities. It is important to remember that it is staff and students who form the ‘core business’ of universities; managers are ancillary ‘overheads’ – and expensive ones. It may be misplaced optimism to say that we are seeing a new dawn in universities, but I am nevertheless hopeful.

I end with the final paragraph from the narrative of events at Bath authored by the President of the UCU branch, Michael Carley.

The position now is that Bath staff and students have concluded that the governing body have learned nothing from the HEFCE report or from the publicity surrounding the Vice-Chancellor’s pay and perks. The campus, students and staff, is more politicized than it has been since the glory days of the 1970s. Questions of governance are being discussed as if they mattered. Staff have spoken openly about the “climate of fear” at the university and are beginning to throw it off.

 

The accident of accessibility: How the data of the TEF creates neoliberal subjects

This is the link to a video of a talk I gave to the Digital University in a Neoliberal Age Symposium, organised by the Contemporary Philosophy of Technology Research Group. Title: The accident of accessibility: How the data of the TEF creates neoliberal subjects.

Abstract:

In an era of neoliberal reforms, academics in UK universities have become increasingly enmeshed in audit, particularly of research ‘outputs’ via the Research Excellence Framework (REF). A new Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF) has emerged in 2017, whose results are determined primarily by proxy data of National Student Survey (NSS) scores, retention data and Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data (LEO), i.e. salaries of graduates. This has been made possible by SBEE (Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015) legislation which has enabled data mining and synthesis of data streams from records held by the Student Loans Company (SLC), HMRC and universities themselves.

These two audit processes, REF and TEF, were originally envisaged as instruments to evaluate research and teaching, respectively, at institutional level. This had a distinctively neoliberal purpose in seeking to mould universities more closely towards serving the economic needs of the nation. The REF, however, has also been recruited as an instrument of individual performance management in universities, with each academic forced to compete in academic output and research funds with the most talented and unencumbered scholars. The TEF, similarly, bestows an institutional ranking, but will rapidly be repurposed in order to shape the behaviour and priorities of academics. For example, the participation of local areas (POLAR) classification allows universities to be rated according to their success against the Widening Participation (WP) agenda. In this way, universities can appear to fail by revealing larger differential outcomes for target groups according to ethnicity and social class than their benchmark permits. The discourse of the TEF legislation, bolstered by studies from HEA/HEPI, assumes the source of inequality of outcome is poor teaching and requires corrective action by universities. Further justification for surveillance and quasi-regulation is borne by appeals to ‘value for money’ and ‘competition’. Universities are positioned as subject to market forces, and students positioned as consumers. Universities are responding by creating ‘managers for the student experience’ whose responsibility it will be to oversee change, without ever addressing the question of what causes differential outcomes, or what actions on behalf of government or institutions might make a difference.

I argue that what seems to be an arbitrary constellation of proxy data points has in fact been a calculated plan to render universities, staff and students as neoliberal subjects. The accident of accessibility, inasmuch as it overlaps with the neoliberal imperative, has determined which data shall function as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These KPIs are signalled via metrics-driven student and staff dashboards which offer no retreat from the interpretation and coding imposed by government, and the whole assemblage is cemented by discursive choices which align with neoliberal principles. In this way, the ideological purpose of the legislation and the audit is realized: the imposition of institutional and personal responsibility for structural inequality has been achieved.

The Government White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy, May 2016, will form the text for corpus analysis of keywords, discourses and metaphors.

When does Prevent prevent freedom of speech?

A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 19th September 2017 http://www.researchresearch.com/news/article/?articleId=1370192

Earlier this year I was expecting to deliver a talk to a UCU meeting called to oppose the University of Warwick management’s proposal to reform Statute 24. This refers to amendments to the University’s procedures for Disciplinary, Grievance, Redundancy and Removal for Incapacity on Medical Grounds for Academic Staff. I had been asked seven days previously to address the meeting, but because Warwick has a requirement to give three weeks’ notice for approval of a visiting speaker, the organisers felt the meeting was unable to proceed.

Warwick’s ‘three week rule’ is one of the procedures adopted by the university under the government’s Prevent agenda.  I was invited to an emergency meeting and the union organisers needed to find a speaker fast. Understandably, they had other things on their minds and forgot to apply for speaker approval. Warwick administrators quickly responded to say that they had received no application for speaker approval, and indeed would not have refused any application on my behalf. There is, apparently, a procedure which covers the eventuality which occurred:

The principal organiser must ensure sufficient time for the HoD or nominee to give consideration to any concerns, and for the University to review the request should the HoD or nominee deem this necessary. If so, and where possible, the University should be notified of the speaker request in question at least three weeks prior to the event, to enable a full risk assessment to be conducted and any mitigating arrangements to be put in place. If it is not possible to provide three weeks’ notice, the department should inform the University as soon as practicable.

Perhaps staff were not well informed about this.

Like most academics, I do a fair amount of speaking at conferences and events, and this was my first encounter with Prevent or any need to get prior approval before appearing on campus. A three week notice period for all speakers seemed to me rather excessive. However inadvertent, the resulting cancellation acted as an impediment to the free flow of discussion, and has hindered organisation of a trade union activity.

Is there scope within Prevent to do things differently? I decided to do a bit of research. I started with the HM Government Prevent Duty Guidance for Higher Education.

When deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, RHEBs should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups.

RHEB – Relevant Higher Education Bodies. The government would always rather use an exclusionary acronym than call them universities, but this was a new one on me. Mind you, this was written in 2015, before we had to start calling them ‘providers’. The document contained a lot of information about defining terrorism, assessing risk and forming action plans, but no specific guidance on implementation. That advice is provided in a 44 page document from Universities UK on external speakers in higher education institutions.

There is a flow chart for speaker approval, and guidance on best practice for communicating the policy and timeline. Nowhere is a review period of three weeks suggested.

Some of the advice contained in this document, however, is almost guaranteed to impinge on academic freedom. For instance page 20:

Who is chairing the meeting? Are they sufficiently qualified to provide balance and challenge during the event? What is their stance on the topic under discussion and is this likely to impact the smooth running of the event?

Will hosting the speaker have reputational risks for the institution? Is the event likely to attract media attention and if so how can the university manage this effectively?

In my case, since I had been asked to speak in opposition to a proposal by the university’s management, this might have been unsympathetically construed as posing a reputational risk for the university. So the answers to the above questions, and the assessment of risk, may reflect the assessor’s stance and position in the institutional hierarchy.

An interesting issue arises on page 32 in that academic freedom does not necessarily apply to visiting speakers. We learn this is because academic freedom pertains only to teaching within a university:

The legal basis for academic freedom focuses on the teaching activities of staff and the freedom of institutions and their staff to determine admission criteria and the content of courses. Beyond the freedom of speech provisions, the legal framework does not extend academic freedom to the activities of visiting speakers.

And so to the local implementation of the policy at Warwick. The Warwick Prevent Action plan (07/11/2016) says:

Regulation 29 has been completely rearticulated to better foreground the University’s commitment to Freedom of Speech. The Regulation is complemented by a suite of supporting procedures for the approval of external speakers. This includes a light-touch approach for academic visitors and for external speakers associated with commercial conferences.

Regulation 29 says very little about freedom of speech; it has rather more to say about risk assessment and obligations to adhere to guidelines on university branding.

Another document outlines procedures for the approval of external speakers for Students’ Union, Student-Led, and Institutional-Level Events.

Organisers of events involving external speakers encompassed by these obligations, must complete and submit the External Speaker Request Form at least three weeks prior to the event taking place. The event must not be confirmed with the guest speaker until approval has been received from the University or the Students’ Union.

A requirement to give three weeks’ notice does not seem like ‘light touch’, but perhaps local culture permits the rule’s uneven application. I attended a conference at Warwick this year at which a speaker was thanked for stepping in at the last minute. Nevertheless, if you are a union official, you might be deterred by the suspicion that you could be under greater scrutiny.  Clearly my union hosts were cautious about getting their fingers burned, and that was enough to deny a union meeting a knowledgeable speaker.

My experience, and a swift survey of some available university policies, tells me that the Prevent agenda applies with differing degrees of scrupulosity across the sector. Despite Warwick’s wish to appear ‘light touch’, their procedure is lengthy and entails a risk assessment which must apparently be conducted by management. There are other institutions whose policies merely ask that organisers undertake their own risk assessment, and then ‘escalate’ to management if there is a reason for concern.

The University of Bristol policy states:

The Event Organiser (the person responsible for the event) must undertake a self-assessment (using the questions in section 2) to determine whether further scrutiny and support from the University are required. If the Event Organiser reasonably decides that there are no issues, the event can go ahead. It is anticipated that the vast majority of events organised will fall into this category.

Commendably, Nottingham Trent University does not distinguish between internal and external speakers and also allows organisers to make their own assessment of risk:

Formal approval from the University must be obtained, in advance, for any event to be held on the University’s premises (whether or not an external speaker is involved) where it is expected, or reasonably foreseeable, that the event will raise controversial issues which may risk infringement of or non-compliance with the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech.

These are preferable models to follow as they signify a high degree of trust in the judgement of members of the university. This is appropriate for learned, intelligent, responsible scholars and I can’t imagine how a vigorous research culture can thrive without this. Given that universities are currently under the cosh again on the issue of academic freedom, perhaps they can be encouraged to give some thought to reforming procedures which unnecessarily curb the freedom of all speakers to spontaneously address issues as they arise.

A day later and this thoughtful piece appeared from Smita Jamdar on the tensions between the government’s insistance on Prevent, and new regulatory powers on freedom of speech on university campuses.