Category Archives: redundancy

From the linguistic turn, to the turn of linguistics – for closure

After the linguistic turn of previous decades, it seems as if English universities have unilaterally decided the discipline should be abandoned. And it is English universities that are acting to close courses because of the peculiarly destructuive nature of their version of the marketised funding model. Vice chancellors seem inclined to follow each other’s lead in withdrawing courses in the arts and humanities. Last year saw closures in history and archaeology. The previous year it was modern languages. Fifteen years ago it was chemistry. This year it’s the turn of English and linguistics. In all cases, there has been very little account taken of the quality of courses or the nature of outcomes for graduates. Even less thought has been given to the complex inter-dependencies of disciplines within and across universities. Arguments – if any are presented – tend to be made on the basis of falling applications, even when the subjects under review have been identified as strategic priorities by government, as in the case of chemistry and languages. Staff, naturally, feel traduced and gaslit when they have exceeded expectations in TEF and REF success, but management teams cut courses and implement redundancies anyway.

There have been several of these scenarios in recent weeks and reports of poor treatment of both staff and students at the universities of Wolverhampton, Huddersfield, Roehampton and Sheffield Hallam. I have written a number of letters to vice chancellors in defence of the implicated courses. These letters have been similar in theme, but tailored in each case to reflect the particular circumstances of the university. To date, I have received just one reply, from the Communications team at Roehampton referring to ‘careful consideration’ and a ‘challenging environment’ and assurances that ‘no decisions have been taken at this stage and we are committed to engaging in meaningful consultation with our academic colleagues’.

The obvious irony for me is that, in engaging with vice chancellors, I have chosen to rely, in part, on arguments from metrics. One reason is to point out the hypocrisy and arbitrariness involved in some of these decisions. There sometimes seems to be a kind of herd mentality whereby, if one university decides to withdraw a course, in short order, a number of ‘competitor institutions will follow suit. The implications for students are that some courses, often in the arts and humanities, cease to be available in certain geographical areas or in certain types of institution. Modern languages courses are now rare at post-92 universities. There is a well-founded fear that arts and humanities courses will soon be the provenance of just the Russell Group.

Below is my email to Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.

Dear Vice-Chancellor

I am writing to express concern at the proposed closure of degree courses in English Language and Literature at Sheffield Hallam University.

The linguistics team at Sheffield Hallam have earned a significant reputation for their work in all areas of applied linguistics, and their research underpins the high-quality teaching enjoyed by students. In my role as subject leader of Linguistics at Nottingham Trent University, I attended research seminars with members of the English language team, most notably Dr Jodie Clark who served as our external examiner for a number of years. I currently follow Jodie’s podcast ‘Structured Visions’ which is a model of academic outreach and how to make research accessible.

As a former chair of the TEF and a board member of HESA, you will be aware that measures of teaching quality have now been subsumed under the metric of LEO graduate outcomes.  Scrutiny of these offers a means of making intra- and inter-institutional comparisons between courses. This tableau from Wonkhe has been devised so that the government’s Start to Success graduate outcomes (based on percentage of students continuing to a degree and progressing to highly skilled employment) can be mapped across courses and universities. Sheffield Hallam English Language scores 9.5 out of 10; English Literature scores 8.28. These scores compare well to the local Russell Group University of Sheffield where English language and Linguistics scores 8.55 and English Literature scores 8.8. You will also be aware that the Sheffield Hallam English courses lie at the top end of course STS scores across the university, with course scores ranging from 5.5 – 9.5. They are, then, strong courses whose graduates progress to highly skilled occupations.

Turning to the recent 2021 REF results, it is apparent that the English UoA submission has achieved the second highest GPA in the university at 3.19, with 42% of its research in the 4* category and 35% at 3*. Again, this compares well with the University of Sheffield English Language and Literature with 4* 53% and 3* 37%.

If a student applicant is concerned about teaching quality, outcomes and careers after graduation, there would be no reason to prefer to study English at the University of Sheffield over Sheffield Hallam, other than concern over perceived prestige. I would argue that the way to make gains on that front would be to invest in those courses which lead to enhanced opportunities, underpinned by excellent research-led teaching. Cancelling the university’s strongest programmes would seem to undermine progress towards meeting the government’s agenda on delivering high-quality courses which contribute to levelling up opportunities in the region.

There may be a temporary fall in applications, but a degree in English Language makes for a very marketable graduate. A distinctive feature of the English Language degree at Sheffield Hallam is the placement year option. High quality placements have been shown in a study by Nottingham Trent University to reduce the graduate outcomes gap between economically-fortunate and more deprived students.  

The more extensive the range of modules, the wider the choice of postgraduate opportunities. English language or linguistics is essential for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and many students seek employment abroad after graduation. Others progress to teacher training where an understanding of language structure and function is vital for teaching English in schools. Methods of linguistic analysis such as corpus linguistics are widely applicable in research areas from parliamentary research to AI. The study of language, identity, digital communication and pragmatics all offer skills which can be applied to teaching, journalism, marketing or the development of search engine optimisation.

I accept that the marketisation of universities has presented us with some contradictions, and these must be difficult for any leader to manage effectively. The reactive strategy suggests prioritising response to applicant choice in courses, but this requires constant revision of the course portfolio in order to accommodate shifting popularity. The pro-active strategy is to identify the university’s strengths in teaching, research and outcomes, and support their development. I imagine a university employs a marketing team in order to persuade students to enrol in such proven high-quality courses. If marketing fails to persuade, what is marketing for?

The fact that English at Sheffield Hallam has attained such high scores in the new STS measures of teaching and in the REF, and that these have been achieved in the context of the pandemic and large-scale disruption of teaching, is remarkable and should be the occasion for celebration. To close these courses and place careers at risk when staff have met all that could be asked of them would be an object lesson in how to demoralise an entire university.

Having an awareness of language structure and usage is crucial for so many areas of work. It is also one of those humanities disciplines most critical for sustaining democracy. I urge you to reconsider proposed course closures in English.

Yours sincerely,

Liz Morrish (Ph.D.)

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The celebrations and commiserations of the REF results have ebbed; now it’s time to weigh up the repercussions. An entertaining pastime is to re-evaluate some of the early forecasts. One prediction, ironic in hindsight, was from David Price, the outgoing vice-provost (research) at UCL, who said that the REF 2021 post Stern Review reforms had ensured that the game-playing that was such a feature of REF 2014 was ‘not noticeable’.

It’s clear now that it all depends on who is playing the game and who sets the rules.

Price’s viewpoint is revealing of his position in relation to power structures in academia. Presumably, he was referring to the absence, in 2021, of the pre-census transfer market of academics whose ‘outputs’ and ‘impact’ make them desirable assets for other institutions wishing to beef up their own unit of assessment submissions. Stern’s recommendation that HEIs could submit all work produced by researchers while they were in employ there has meant a switch in the balance of power. The person who creates the outputs no longer holds them in their vault. Instead, they are banked by the institution along with the funds that flow to any 3* and 4* research. From the point of view of academics, game playing has been very much in evidence, only, this time, they are the playthings.

The REF funding model and the audit-disciplined university has meant academics have been told their job security depends on achieving the highest targets for research quality and impact. Additionally, those willing to focus their research on government priorities are more likely to enjoy access to funded research opportunities. The response of academics in keeping their research afloat through the pandemic when teaching has intensified and student need swelled, has been heroic. They were unprepared and undeserving of the retribution which has arrived – prompt, pervasive, and punitive. Across the sector, academics are being served with notice of redundancy: De Montfort University, Roehampton, Wolverhampton, and of course, early adopters like Leicester and Liverpool. Many of these job losses are in departments which have scored well and exceeded expectations. Now that the REF results are announced, the institution is free to lay off academics and claim the funding for retired or fired employees even as their REF narrative depicts a vigorous and lively research environment. Ben Whitham, on Twitter, wrote: ‘The spectacle of uni VCs that waited until the teaching term was over and the ref results in to try to force through unnecessary frontline redundancies (while they keep drawing their own inflated salaries) is just gross… DMU, Wolverhampton, now Roehampton… It’s a frenzy’. The MP for Putney, Southfields and Roehampton, Fleur Anderson has revealed that she has spoken to the VC and voiced her concerns about ‘fire and rehire’ tactics that have been alleged.

What do we call this other than a cynical exercise in rentier redundancy? How can universities possibly claim to be decent employers when staff are treated so appallingly? Let’s recognise as well that trade unions are often bypassed in many of these ‘consultations’ or ‘non-restructures’.

From the point of view of a high proportion of academics now, the REF has yielded nothing but contingent departments contingent courses and increasingly contingent staff. These conditions cannot nurture knowledge creation, dissemination and transfer. Academics need to take risks with their work, and a degree of job security had always been normalised in universities until the attacks on tenure and on academic freedom of the last few decades.

But now we have transparent attacks from government on academic culture and endeavour delivered with financial levers and the reputational risks of audit ignominy. Alongside this sits an aversion to the arts and humanities which vice chancellors seem happy to prosecute, even though this means turning away fee-bearing students from courses which recruit well and cross subsidise the more expensive-to-teach courses in STEM and in some cases, place institutions at risk of bankruptcy.

The problem with a government willing to see universities go to the wall is that we currently have a huge demand for higher education. As Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe points out: “Somewhere up the “top” of the tables, there’s students rammed in on massive modules, where the personal tutor system is more of an ambition than a reality. And at the other end, the redundancy programmes pick up pace.”

For a government which now avows a commitment to the student experience and student support (i.e. learning analytics), the contradictions accumulate. In desperation, some university managers reach for an uncapped source of subsidy to solve their cash flow problems – international students. Even in an era of heightened regulation and surveillance of international education, there can be cases of exploitative practices. Plashingvole on Twitter wrote, “I find myself wondering why senior managers thought it was ethical or sensible to do a deal with agents in a very poor country to recruit 700 students from one particular place largely to a single course with very few checks on qualifications.” And even that strategy has not stanched the financial haemorrhage.

It would be hard to advise an 18-year-old university applicant which universities and which courses might last the course of a 3 year degree program. Jim Dickinson on Twitter (May 18th 2022): ‘It’s miserable for students and academics. You can make a case (not one I simplistically agree with) that demand should drive HE supply – but not at this pace. Because it takes time to expand or contract in a way that doesn’t damage the student experience’. Inevitably, the impact on students of this failure of policy will be to limit their choices and crush ambition. Not only that, but the closure of a course leaves a cloud of uncertainty hanging over its graduates. Was their course worthwhile? Will their degree be valued by an employer? Will there be any staff left to write them a reference?

I suppose the over-arching theme of many of my blogs is why do staff keep turning up ? Why do talented students still strive to do good doctoral research? More and more I find an uncomfortable rebuttal in the number of tweets from academics leaving their university posts. For many of them, they can no longer face the daily battle with expectations versus a worsening reality. The Times Higher reports: “A new article blames academia’s rising mental health toll on universities’ refusal to allow staff to apply principles of academic inquiry to their own institutions. “Values that an academic might seek…to uphold in one’s work – such as a commitment to reason, objectivity, public responsibility and the pursuit of knowledge – are routinely compromised, thwarted, trivialised or dismissed,” says the paper in the journal Social Alternatives. “The very tools of critique and analysis that academics use to understand the world around them are simply not able to be applied in any meaningful way to their own employment circumstances.” The mental injuries sustained when dealing with this conflict and alienation has led to an epidemic of mental illness among university staff.

Jim Dickinson has identified the flaw in marketisation concerning the student experience. In terms of the staff experience, marketisation, commercialization, the audit and rankings agendas and the removal of academic autonomy work against the need for long-term planning for serious work to take place. It is pointless if all we can do is swim upstream against the vicissitudes of government impulse. As one head of department wrote on Twitter: “YES. I’m a Head of School now and this question is central to everything I do, both for myself and for my colleagues – what can I ask them to put energy into when we all know that 2 years on everything will be knocked down again?”

It doesn’t have to be like this. I had dinner last week with two recently-retired professors from US research-intensive R1 universities. They are both just retiring in their late 70s or 80s. Both of them had significant reputations in Hispanic literature and both had served as heads of the MLA and both had been on committees awarding Pulitzer Prizes and MacArthur Grants. Here I defer to all the caveats about the American academic superstar system, but nevertheless, I was struck by how they have reached the end of their careers with a great deal of earned self-worth intact,  whereas, right now, I know about half a dozen UK professors who are leaving academia. None of them feel as if they have any respect from their university management. They all seem to be quitting in a state of despondency. By contrast, one of my dinner companions was talking about the care the university was taking of their archive of papers. The other had just been honoured with a festschrift produced by former graduate students. I couldn’t even begin to try and explain the circumstances which drove me out of UK higher education in my 50s; the two world views are not mutually comprehensible. How do you convey the brutality of a system which reckons the value of an academic, however ‘productive’ and influential, in only the most instrumental terms? How do you explain the necessity of justifying every last minute of your time at work? How do you explain the anxiety of whether your work will ‘fit the REF narrative’ or ‘have impact’. To someone whose career has been driven by their own autonomous academic judgment and priorities, it just wouldn’t have made sense.

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.