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Managing malice, reaffirming Robbins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Disrespect of the TEF


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

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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

Defend Academic Freedom at Warwick

This is the script of what I hoped to deliver today (10th May) to a UCU meeting called to oppose the University of Warwick management’s proposal to reform Statute 24, and specifically the University’s procedures for Disciplinary, Grievance, Redundancy and Removal for Incapacity on Medical Grounds for Academic Staff. I was asked on Tuesday May 2nd to address the meeting. Sadly, due to Warwick’s policy under the government’s Prevent agenda, there is a requirement to give three weeks’ notice for approval of a visiting speaker. The  organisers were evidently aware of this regulation and realised they had not left enough time to apply:

“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.”

So I was not able to address an emergency meeting on important union business.  But at least I can blog.

If the amended Statute 24 and ordinances pass, Warwick UCU feel that academic freedom at the university would be weakened. I agree with them, and my belief is underpinned by personal experience.

If you care about the attempted roll-back of academic freedom in UK universities, please sign this petition for Warwick UCU.

I was a student back in 1981 when Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph launched the first governmental assault on public universities. The outcome was the rescinding of tenure for academics. I remember at the time there was a competition in the university staff bulletin. These were often jokey things, like write a reference for the person you’d most like to get rid of from your department. But this one was genuinely thought-provoking: ‘write a speech defending tenure to a steelworker from Consett’. That was a ‘check your privilege’ moment. If it was a hard sell in 1981, it is seems more defensible now. We know what abolition of tenure looks like 36 years on. We have seen the steady erosion of academic freedom and job security. We have seen the undermining of shared governance in universities, and how swiftly the space emptied of democracy has been exploited by authoritarian management structures.

Universities used to be based on collegiality and shared governance. The Union has a role in negotiation, but the starting point in universities should be staff participation in decisions on how the university is run. If our role is to defend democratic values in the public sphere, we should be able to model that within our own walls. It is clear that we have rather neglectfully buried our heads, while shared values, traditions and assumptions have been overridden in the corporate university. Our colleagues in the US are appalled at our lack of tenure and academic freedom. They are busy protesting rescinding of tenure in Wisconsin, and threats in Iowa. Meanwhile, in Hungary, thousands took to the streets when the government threatened to close an entire university.

Now that we can see the danger, why aren’t we in the UK protesting more widely?

We can’t wind the clock back, but for heaven’s sake, at least we deserve protection from summary dismissal and attacks on academic freedom. Let’s start there. Take a look at what is being proposed at Leeds University – dismissal for ‘some other substantial reason’:

“The university wants to add a new reason for dismissal ‘some other substantial reason’ to our Statutes, which would make it easier to dismiss people for any reason. For example, a conflict of interest or personality clash, third party pressure, raising insufficient funding, not publishing enough, not having a PhD, or criticising management.” Leeds UCU

As CARA – Council for At-Risk Academics  – says, ‘you only need to kill one academic to silence a hundreds’ so our academic freedom is worth protecting.

So, we need to educate UCU members and academic staff members about their clear rights to academic freedom. Here is section 27 of the UNESCO Constitution:

  1. The maintaining of the above international standards should be upheld in the interest of higher education internationally and within the country. To do so, the principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed. Higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.


And the UCU Statement on Academic Freedom:

  • Freedom in teaching and discussion

  • Freedom in carrying out research without commercial or political interference

  • Freedom to disseminate and publish one’s research findings

  • Freedom from institutional censorship, including the right to express one’s opinion publicly about the institution or the education system in which one works

  • Freedom to participate in professional and representative academic bodies, including trade unions

[–a-guide-for-early-careers-staff/pdf/Academic_freedom_leaflet.pdf ]

All of these are reflected in the 1988 Education Reform Act and this is the basis for current statutes and articles of government in UK universities. However, they are not always well supported by the nation’s vice chancellors. I’d suggest Sir Keith Burnett at Sheffield is a lone beacon among them for academic freedom, saying: “Great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends upon it.”

Certainly Warwick’s proposed amendment to Statute 24 says nothing about freedom to criticise the institution or system in which one works. In fact, the paragraph d) of the amendment to the statement on academic freedom reads: “To avoid unlawful discrimination and promote equality of opportunity, dignity at work and good relations with the University.” Are employees obliged to be on good terms with ‘the university’ at all times, even if its management does things they don’t agree with? Some of us know from experience that that any form of controversy or critique can be regarded by management as causing reputational damage. That might lead to a charge of gross misconduct, and as far as I can see, the most likely outcome for that is instant dismissal. But universities are not above the law, and they should not try to amend their statutes to circumvent it.

If you think we have no need to fear for our freedoms, just remember that several colleagues have reported on Twitter that they have been forbidden from speaking beyond their area of designated expertise, or even from speaking about their research during the election campaign.

Warwick is also seeking to amend its disciplinary code. The right to legal representation will no longer be part of the procedure. From the FAQ:

“The use of legal representation in any internal proceedings creates an overly adversarial environment, not least for the individual member of staff involved. Often the use of legal representatives results in an overly legalistic approach to the issues to be determined and this does not necessarily assist any party, nor is it in line with general good employment practice or the ACAS Code of Practice”.

Really? Do they think you just sailed up the river? Let’s imagine what might have happened to a rather well known professor at Warwick if he had not had legal representation.

Would absence of a lawyer make the disciplinary process less confrontational ? Add clarity ?  In short, no, of course not. But there are two points to raise here.

If the experience of colleagues at a couple of other universities in the Midlands are any guide, there will be many more disciplinaries for what most reasonable people would regard as minor infractions. These take up enormous time and energy and are stressful, not to mention the expense of these, and the drain on the university’s main source of income – student fees.

Second point – Regardless of whether the wording in the statute on academic freedom remains unchanged, disciplinaries will be used to curtail academic freedom, as they were in my case. I wrote a blog piece about the causes of the epidemic of work-related stress in academia – and chose to talk to students about this. The piece was re-published on the Times Higher website where it trended for 4 days. That eventually attracted the attention of management and I found myself facing a 12-week disciplinary process. Previously, I had served 30 years without so much as a late library book. There was no doubt in my mind about the intention to silence me as a critical voice. Incidentally, I had not mentioned the university that employed me, because the piece wasn’t about them. It was about a system that has become an ‘anxiety machine’ as Richard Hall calls it.

I notice that Warwick’s proposed disciplinary policy allows appeal on the grounds of academic freedom. But from the management perspective, it is never about academic freedom. There are always other justifications for alleging gross misconduct. As long as the charges are in place, the actual behaviours pinned on them tend to be rather fungible. But management are pretending that this is a strengthening of academic freedom. It is anything but.

I resigned because for me the capacity to do the job rests entirely on academic freedom. Without that, there seemed no point in turning up. So take note of the mushrooming of these procedures being taken against staff for fairly minor infractions and expect summary dismissals or written warnings that inhibit further risk-taking with independent thought. Be warned. This is the direction of travel in universities.

Another bullying tactic is the use of Capacity Procedures in accordance with performance management and quite unrealistic targets, for example, for grant capture.  In several universities, professors have faced redundancy, performance management, or even in one case, being told that the criteria have shifted and they can be judged to no longer ‘map over’ to the new role descriptor. This is inhumane. In several universities, I have seen the result of this to be incapacitating stress, professional and personal breakdown. It is the academic equivalent of being dragged off the plane. In the words of the late Stefan Grimm, ‘they treat professors like shit’.

Democratic structures must be built from the ground up. They will not materialize through authoritarian diktat. It is now clear that highly qualified and able people work much better in a high-trust environment. It is really important to remember that management are not the university. The university is made up of an entire community. Nobody ever came to a university because of the Human Resources department or its disciplinary policy. And as Rob Cuthbert has written

“It behoves managers to remember that as managers they make no direct contribution to the real work of the university – teaching and research. They are an overhead and, like all overheads, they need to justify their existence.” [What’s wrong with management in higher education? April 28, 2017 by SRHE News Blog

Managers are overheads. Let’s all remember that.

Steps to resistance – what works. A case study of RTB from Newcastle University.

The details of The Newcastle University Raising the Bar initiative were well-reported in the Times Higher in 2015 . There was an attempt to formalize outcomes-based performance management, whereby academics would be judged by metrics on financialized targets for grant capture, REF ‘outputs’ at grade 3 or 4; PhD student throughput etc. I have blogged about this here.

After academic staff protested, organised and negotiated further, the proposal was withdrawn last summer. I like to think of it as a successful culture hack towards more democracy and civility within the university. I have been collaborating with a collective from Newcastle known as the Analogue University. We have written a chapter (unpublished but forthcoming) on the context of management by metrics, and the Analogue University collective has reported on their extensive research project which documented the resistance to Raising the Bar (RTB). The following were the main strategies that were used successfully in countering the management’s narrative. The summary and quotations are used with kind permission of the Analogue University collective.

Organise and mobilise support

Use whatever democratic structures are available to you within the university. A massive turnout at school, department and union meetings is important in voicing concerns and planning strategies for opposition. Try and get student support and press coverage. Both will make an impact. Get an online petition together, and ask prominent professors to write a letter to management. Within three days over 3,500 people worldwide had signed the petition against RTB at Newcastle.

Deconstruct management-speak

Start with the pronouns “we” (Morrish & The Analogue University, 2017, forthcoming; Machin and Per, 2016). Often in these documents there is a deceptive ambiguity about ‘we’. It is a quirk of the English language that ‘we’ can be both inclusive and exclusive. These documents which claim to be ‘modernising’ and bringing procedures up to date with recent legislation usually exploit that. So ‘we’ retains both its managerial prerogative and its pretence at inclusivity. However, the Warwick communications from Provost Christine Ennew are unusual in their use of the exclusive ‘we’, demonstrating that the innovation is led and imposed by management:

We began consultation with the Trade Unions in December 2016.

We have published the revised statutes, ordinances and policies in draft so that you can see the proposed changes.

We have discussed the proposals with the University Council, Heads of Department and our Trade Unions.

We are proposing.

We would like to hear views from all of our staff community.

And if there is any doubt about the managerial exclusivity:

If you are a member of a Trade Union, you will have the opportunity to contribute to this process through your Unions.

Publicize the story – especially social media

There is now a lot of evidence that shows when you get an intransigent management, using social media can bring about results. “Since the RTB was primarily driven by a desire to raise Newcastle University’s reputation as a premier research institution, the activists felt that the management would be more receptive to their demands if they saw the university in the news for the wrong reasons. The news and social media platforms such as Times Higher Education (THE) and Facebook were used to publicize the growing dissatisfaction and opposition to RTB”. [Morrish & The Analogue University, 2017, forthcoming]. Notice this would violate the new statute which requires “good relations with the University”.

“The research project succeeded in getting public intellectuals who have written on the threat of neoliberalism to the humanities, such as Martha Nussbaum, Marilyn Strathern, Stefan Colini, and Rowan Williams to join its advisory board. Their very presence drew attention to the dispute and helped ensure it was more widely publicised. As one key goal of RTB was raising the reputation of the university internationally, such attention risked undermining RTB by negatively damaging the reputation”. [Morrish & The Analogue University, 2017 forthcoming]. Again, would this invite disciplinary action under the proposed amendments?

Industrial action

“In the summer of 2016, after all the attempts at getting the university management to withdraw it failed, the UCU moved towards industrial action in the form of Action Short of a Strike (ASOS), principally a marking boycott. This precipitated a swift climbdown on the part of management and a successful resolution of the dispute in favour of the Union and its members”. [Morrish & The Analogue University, 2017, forthcoming]

Articulate an alternative vision and vocabulary of excellence in academia

The activists felt that they ‘fought hard but without bitterness’. It was important for them to not personalise the campaign as being against the VC and senior management. An alternative to RTB was drafted under the title ‘Improving Research Together’ (IRT).This recognised the need to be seen to perform well in key audit exercises, and asked management to withdraw RiPE and engage in the proposed IRT alternative as, “an inclusive, collegial, evidence-based, bottom-up process to devise a non-coercive framework in which to foster a higher-performing research community”(Academic Frameworks for Research Improvement, Newcastle University / University and College Union, June 6, 2016). [Morrish & The Analogue University, 2017, forthcoming]

The wonkers and the wonked


We have become used to universities taking a regular kicking for all kinds of supposed faults. You expect it from politicians and some areas of the media. Some universities even get it from their own former chancellors.   However as higher education practitioners and supporters, we take it personally when it comes from a newspaper many of us felt to have the interests of education at heart. Readers of the Guardian and Observer have a relationship to those papers which is rooted in a sense of community with other educators. We have come to trust them to be knowledgeable and impartial on the subject of education. We don’t mind being challenged, but today, judging by the activity on Twitter, many of us feel betrayed.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and has form on denigrating UK universities.   Other than her own university education some decades ago, she seems to have had no other direct involvement in higher education. Despite slender claims to expertise in the area, she was back again today  to claim that “universities are not very good at innovation in terms of undergraduate education”, that they are excessively costly and over-funded, financially unaccountable, and cursing students with poor value for money. She greeted the expressions of annoyance and factual refutations on Twitter, not with contrition but with triumphalist provocation:


It was disappointing to see a number of HE supporters, including Wes Streeting and Stian Westlake falling in behind Sodha. Making a lukewarm stand for the beleaguered academics, was Phil Baty of the Times Higher:


I don’t know what Sodha imagines goes on in universities. Perhaps, she remembers gloomy lecture theatres with a balding don in high-water trousers mumbling at the front, occasionally jotting key facts on the chalk board. By contrast, post QAA and pre-TEF universities are all keen to introduce enhancements to student learning, and my recent experience was among educators fizzing with ideas for engaging students. University teachers are currently using a range of new techniques such as flipped classrooms, online and blended learning, practice-based learning, simulations, placements, employer-led research briefs, and staff-student research collaboration. It is Sodha who is trapped within a rigid notion of student as consumer, when in universities, we encourage the student to see themselves as producers of knowledge.

If teaching has not yet been fully transformed from 1990s patterns, it is less because university staff are resistant to change, but more because students are conventional in their learning preferences. When staff appraisals and university league tables hinge on the results of the NSS, we are forced to pay attention to feedback that expresses a preference for ‘a good set of notes’ over more challenging exercises in group work and problem-solving. University managers may well make noises about disrupting student expectations of learning and teaching, but will hold individual lecturers responsible for any drop in satisfaction scores. The accountability that Sodha extols incentivizes the conservatism she decries.

One thing that has been transformed is the funding landscape. Students who are in fear of accruing debt may well express this as resentment over ‘value for money’. After all, when surveyed, they are at the point when they have not yet translated their risk into what is now called ‘return on investment’, in other words, a paying job. But the HEA/HEPI report Sodha refers to clearly shows the point at which ‘value for money’ became a concern. It was, of course, with the cohort who started paying £9000 fees in 2012. What she doesn’t cite is the overall statistic on course satisfaction which is 85%. And if she had take a closer look at the statistics, she would perhaps have recognised that those ‘drivers’ of value for money judgements are actually very weakly correlated. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it is misleading to cite them as correlations at all.


It is not that I and other academics do not recognise changes that need to take place in universities. Many would prefer to prioritize staffing levels over another new vanity building project. These tend to feature cathedral-like atriums, empty of students and staff, while teaching is compressed into tiny rooms whose utilisation percentages are faithfully recorded by auditors for their annual ‘green’ league table. Indeed, when I was teaching, each and every one of my classes was interrupted by a utilisation surveyor taking attendance.

That is probably not the financial accountability Sodha was looking for in her article. She seems ignorant, though, of sources of information provided by HESA, Unistats, Hefce and all the rest. She indicated in an exchange with me that universities should offer line-item costings for each of their courses. It would be impossible for any university to disaggregate the cost of the university library, counselling service, sports facilities, marketing, equal opportunities, student support services etc., for each course, and I can’t see a benefit to students in doing so.

But if you want to get exercised about something legitimate Sonia, yes, many of us would endorse your concern with senior managers’ pay. There is very little accountability evident there, and as one tweep reminded me, ‘try getting hold of the minutes for the remuneration committee’. There are too many scandals over the biscuit budget, first class air travel and reckless spending on ceremonial furniture. Other economies would result from a reconsideration of the structure of the academic year. Too many universities have adopted semester models, while keeping in place the terms inherited from year-long courses. This is an inefficient anomaly and results in discontinuous patterns of study. Whether 2 year or 3 year degrees, undergraduates could continue their learning during the summers; there is plenty of scope for placements and internships that would allow students to apply their learning, or for study abroad opportunities. However, we need to recognise that this would not be a cost-neutral development and cannot be delivered with current staffing and resourcing levels.

This is not the first quarrel I have had with an HE wonk this week. An earlier interaction had the same hallmarks as the communications with Sodha. We see a rather one-dimensional view of university education, and a firm belief that their own experience is universal. Any rebuttal, however factual, is derided as the “howling of vested interests”.  But the Observer should be concerned at the number of today’s readers who seem ready to abandon it for future Sundays. Perhaps they should behave more like universities and consider the needs and beliefs of their clientele. In 2017 we are seeing the consequences of a political class which does not understand the lived experience of many of the governed. I am wondering whether the higher education community has become similarly divided. Have the wonkers lost touch with those they wonk upon?




The Academic Hustler Meets Forensic Academics

I recently wrote a piece for the Sociological Review blog entitled The Rise of the Trump  Academic . It is hardly a new phenomenon, but in that piece I was claiming that there is a lot of poor academic practice going on in the world of research, from p-hacking, to confirmation bias, to excessive self-promotion. All of this is incentivized in a world of increasing competition for funds, reputation and university rankings.

Much less common on campus is what I call the academic hustler (after Tressie McMillan Cottom). I’ll attempt species identification. You know when the hustler is due on campus because their mail starts arriving several weeks before they do. They moment they appear they start cultivating the institutional hierarchy. Sabbaticals, travel money and conference bursaries are granted with few of the usual formalities. Before any serious obligations, such as teaching a new module or position of responsibility fall due – they are gone. Not that their profiles lack evidence of ‘leadership’ though. There will be journal editorships, conferences organised and international networks assembled. Their colleagues breathe a sigh of relief at their departure. In their short tenure the hustler will have divided departments and activated volcanic resentments over their sequestering of departmental resources.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when I read a blog post from Luděk Brož, Tereza Stöckelová and Filip Vostal which mourns the withdrawal of Jeffrey Beall’s online list of possible predatory publishers which he alleged corrupt scholarly communication. Featured on the list were several journals patronised by a scholar whose academic practice they claim has been discreditable.

The charges detailed by Brož et al are that Dr. Wadim Strielkowski, who describes himself as ‘bibliometrics expert, prolific author and a globetrotting entrepreneur’ has:

  • published in dubious journals that were nevertheless featured in SCOPUS and Web of Science’s databases,
  • recycled the same content in different publications,
  • indulged in authorship trafficking (very similar texts are variously co-authored by different people, and some appear to be fake identities),
  • offered advice to others on how to get published in journals listed in SCOPUS and Web of Science,
  • delivered courses in becoming a MAW – Master of Academic Writing.

Strielkowski’s response is summarised in the title of his reply:  “It is easier to write a blog than a paper in a journal indexed in Web of Science or Scopus”. This was not the response you might expect if he wanted to dismiss the charges. There is no line-by-line rebuttal. Instead Strielkowski unwarrantedly denounces the publishing records of his accusers. Additionally, he asserts that blogging is the refuge of those who are avoiding peer review, which latter activity is exactly what his accusers allege against him. It is an attempt to undermine the usual purpose of this sort of scholarship which most of us recognise enables a dialogue pre-publication.

I would guess that most people will, over the course of their careers, meet a few individuals who display these professional behaviours. They thrive in certain quarters of academia, often private ‘providers’ of their own creation. They have been vitalized by three recent developments: the move towards open access publication which is now mandatory as a kind of gold standard for the Research Excellence Framework; the annexing of all subjects to the science model of metrics, citations, journal impact factors, etc.; and league tables which are reliant on these metrics. Everything necessary is in place to reward the ultimate game-player, especially when performance-related salary increases are factored in.

When the hustler lands in a conventional university, it is usually seniors in the hierarchy who part the waters to promote them, so beguiled are they by the glitzy innovations of ‘academic entrepreneurs’. You will see the professed achievements of these people being exalted over those of more careful and deliberate scholars. The hustler’s vigorous industry makes everyone else look like a slacker. What the managers don’t always realise, however, is that they will be fully implicated in the hustler’s dodgy deals and most likely left carrying the can for any loss of institutional reputation. Not that anyone ever apologises for running after these scams, though. They will never turn back to the scholars with integrity and admit they were duped. They are more likely to save face by limiting everybody’s access to sabbaticals, conference money etc. and they will increase monitoring of academic ‘productivity’ of a very tightly delimited kind – exactly along the lines of the metrics gamed so plausibly by the hustler.

UK academics should shudder at what they wished for; I was always cautious about the rush to the supposed gold standard of open access, fearing that it would blur the demarcation between respectable peer-reviewed publication and the cowboy kind – witness the controversy over online journal PLOS One. I knew academics would end up paying for it, sometimes literally. Brož et al capture this crisply:

“Importantly, careful reading of Strielkowski’s story shows that his academic-trickster business model worked in synergy with dominant indicators of scientific quality integral to many evaluation and rankings systems….Considering this case, it seems that the current globally shared obsession with “exact” bibliometric measurements of research productivity and impact is a source from which predatory/parasitic publishing spawns, rather than a remedy for it.” []

When the supposed objectivity of ‘metrics’ can be so easily subverted and held up as a kind of insignia of respectability  it truly is parasitic publication. As we know, parasites have their hosts, and both parties benefit from the arrangement. Brož et al seem to have founded an academic service which is even more necessary than replication studies to expose sloppy science. Welcome aboard to forensic academics. I recommend we all adopt their vigilance.

Research and teaching – unite or divide?

I always know I’ll be rewarded when I start to read one of David Morris’ longer, detailed, well-argued pieces for Wonkhe. I like the way he’s willing to take a swipe at some uninterrogated assumptions in higher education. So perhaps he’ll understand if I reply in the same vein.

The piece is raising the old question of whether teaching and research must necessarily take place in the same institution. Are they mutually reinforcing, and is it necessary for those teaching undergraduates to be engaged in research? Morris cites some studies which suggest the answer is no, on both counts. There is a suggestion that universities might operate a Glass-Steagal approach and separate the functions, and presumably distribute staff according to their dispositions. It is a popular call at the moment in the wonkoshphere, and Morris cites a 2004 paper which endorses it. Was it ever published in a journal and peer-reviewed? The link takes me to a conference paper.

Firstly, let’s dispel some of the assumptions. Let’s leave aside unresolved questions of whether the REF can be said to measure research quality, or the NSS measure teaching quality. Not all teaching in HE is research led and some of it doesn’t need to be. If you are teaching an undergraduate 100 or sometimes 200 level Linguistics or Biochemistry courses, the content is likely to be pretty similar from one department to another. The expectation is that anyone suitably qualified in Linguistics or Biochemistry would be able to turn their hand to these. Research-led teaching tends to occupy more specialized 300 (UG Level 6) courses.

Secondly, skim through any student course evaluations and you will find that the one thing they appreciate in a lecturer is enthusiasm. I can still remember the classes taught by the most research-active lecturer when I was a student. She would often arrive breathless from the lab, but with a story to tell about the latest experiment. You won’t be surprised to find that academics impart their own specialist subject with most enthusiasm. In turn, it is surprising what insights you pick up from students when teaching on your research area and supervising their projects and dissertations. Universities aim to ensure that students have the opportunity to engage in research during the course of their studies, because this skill above all is commensurate with ‘graduateness’. How can this be taught except by trained researchers?

Thirdly, things have moved on since Hattie and Marsh were writing in 2004. External and internal audits in universities have insisted on subjects demonstrating that teaching and research are linked. Why would QAA demand this if there were no symbiotic links? Perhaps the most obvious justification for the linkage is curriculum development. The kind of degrees which are likely to be appropriated by ‘alternative providers’ are professional courses which are taught by practitioners, and not necessarily those advancing new developments in the subject. Sometimes the curriculum is set by those professional bodies. For the rest of academia, we would be shocked if we visited our old university department and found the same curriculum in place that we followed 20 or 30 years ago. How did the new material get there if not informed by recent research?

Call me old school, but honestly, we have to decide whether we want universities or we don’t. Morris mocks the panicked response that HE without research means “we might as well be in a further education college”. That shudder reflects not primarily status anxiety , but a recognition that FE is hardly a sector with a shining reputation. It is underfunded and tarnished with poor staff retention, poor work conditions, short-term contracts, uncertainty of mission and patchy outcomes – with private providers circling the remains. The higher education sector, by contrast, has good records of retention and the vast majority who enter achieve an honours degree. The satisfaction rates are excellent. Can we really afford as a nation to convert a large part of the successful sector into replicas of the failing one?

Nobody ever claimed that each and every lecturer was the embodiment of the academic holy trinity of teaching, research and scholarship, but we all benefit by working in an environment where research takes place. No, not all good researchers will be good teachers, but most of them are at least competent. On the other hand, the inevitable outcome of dividing teaching from research would not resemble banking so much as hydraulic fracking, only with more protest and worse pollution of the surroundings.