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Space for Academic Freedom

Yesterday I was invited by the International Conference for Asian Sudies to particpate in one of their daily panels called Academic Freedom Space. The title of the panel was: Implications of neoliberal-inspired policies for knowledge creation and education. More conferences should do this, especially as we watch the threats to academic freedom mount across the globe. Below is my contribution to open up the discussion.

As institutions of higher education have been privatised, financialised, marketized, neoliberal policies have seen all decisions being handed over to the market. Neoliberalism has unfolded in lockstep with managerialism, and this has been the case in the UK from a much earlier period than may other countries. Since 1992, in universities, democratic, participatory governance by academics through senate committees has been superseded by managerial practices of top-down authoritarian and remote decision making. It has led to an epidemic of bullying – officially prohibited by institutional policies, but (as with Governor Cuomo of New York) concealed, defended and normalised by a cadre of complicit underlings. The tolerance and defence of bullies in universities derives legitimacy from those who believe that authoritarianism is a leaner, more efficient mode of governance. There are parallels in current debates in the West about the burdens levied on the economy by the numerous and cumbersome steps required by consensus. In the US, we are beginning to see the championing of Victor Orban by those on the right who see virtue in his form of post-democratic government which cements its appeal with anti-feminist, homophobic and racist messages.

This deterioration has been mirrored in universities where we see the faculty being subjugated by spurious disciplinary procedures and the prohibition (both formal and implicit) of trade union activities. Actual faculty democracy and discussion are replaced by sham ‘consultations’ repurposed as relay stations for on-the-hoof policy making in the name of ‘agility’.

In some countries, universities are subject to state control, but in many more, autonomy is granted in name only. In 2015, the Japanese government required universities to reform and divert resources away from arts and humanities towards sciences. Brazil, Turkey and Hong Kong have seen the state extend its control into university curriculum, freedom of expression and suppression of dissent. In Greece, a special police force has been assigned to universities to surveil and counter left wing activism. A more propagandist approach was taken by the Trump administration in the US with its war on wokeness and campaign against critical race studies. This has been emulated in Australia and Great Britain, driven by an anti-intellectual media. In the UK, legislation regarding academic freedom has been amended to apply only to those interventions from academics which are judged to be within their area of expertise. Who makes that judgement? Not academics, but their managers. A Regulatory Regime (see August 9th blog) has required universities in the UK to refocus on those areas judged to be of service to the economy. And in contravention of the evidence of graduate employment, this is spelled out as being science and technology subjects, acronym STEM.

Marketisation of the higher education system in the UK has led universities to construct students as customers, degrees as products and staff as overheads. Academic disciplines which can be made to appeal to 18 years olds will thrive, while those which cannot, will be rapidly dispatched, regardless of the value of research or other societal contribution. Staff can only redeem their indentured servitude if they bring in external income in the form of research grants or industry contracts which themselves are subject to government prioritising of economically valuable areas. Now that publishing our own work has to be paid for by article processing charges (APCs), it is more and more likely that only the favoured subjects will be supported by universities. These are structural constraints which have a heavy impact on academic freedom.

The neoliberal agenda and managerialism have led to an emphasis on calculability. Staff are subject to performance management mechanisms in the form of research metrics: number of publications, citations, journal impact factors, H-index- academics may be confronted with these metrics in an annual review and found wanting. The value of their teaching is now to be assessed by a measure of what their graduates earn, relative to graduates of the same discipline at other universities, or graduates of other disciplines at the same university. There are so many ways to fail, and so many metrics to optimise. And just to make things interesting, they change all the time. One year it is student satisfaction which is the criterion for comparison; the next it is drop-out rates; the next it is employment in highly-skilled professions. Who would risk placing curiosity or freedom of enquiry at the top of their personal priority list?

Universities have become much more authoritarian institutions and concerned with preserving reputation at all costs, less any perceived scandal interfere with student recruitment. Even when we point out racism, sexism and homophobia on campus, we may be shunned by university leaders who prefer to genuflect before the government’s obsession with campus politics, ‘wokeness’ and policies regulating student and staff expression of critical opinion.

There are some indicators that this autocratic tendency has accelerated since the pandemic and there is now an urgent need to resist its spread.

At the University of Leicester, scholars of critical management studies have been selected for redundancy on the basis of titles of their journal articles, or sometimes just the titles of the journals themselves. This is the most egregious example of ideological cleansing and a breach of academic freedom by a UK university. But there are other ‘softer’ examples, particularly of university management teams anticipating a future in which the arts and humanities may lose funding and instead, as per the preference signalled by government, are re-orienting their universities towards science, engineering and medicine (Aston, London South Bank).

Let us now turn to the attack on academic tenure, which is surely the mainstay of academic freedom. The UK allowed this to be stripped from universities in the early 1980s. Other countries such as the US have merely supplanted tenure track posts with precarious ones. And now, some mainly Republican-voting states are introducing post-tenure review (established in Wisconsin, under consideration in Georgia). Given the threats levelled, especially at public institutions, this can only be read as a deliberate attack on autonomy and academic freedom to pursue topics which the government finds disturbing or inconvenient.

Just as Orban’s and Bolsonaro’s first targets were gender studies lest women lose sight of what these governments see as their role in society, these have also often been the first targets in universities and in government expressions of dissatisfaction with higher education. They are swiftly followed by incursions into social science and arts and humanities departments. In the UK, the axe has fallen on large numbers of modern language departments and these subjects are now the preserve of highly selective universities, and increasingly of private high schools.

In the UK, you have even this limited degree of academic freedom, only if you check off all of these:

  • Have a permanent post
  • Teach on courses which attract increasing numbers of students
  • Teach on courses that students find satisfying, straightforward and which lead to identifiable career paths
  • Research in a popular area which the government prioritises for grant funding
  • Stay within that area
  • Be successful in the term of metricised success determined by your university

Academic freedom is not a restricted commodity. It is not on ration. It is the entitlement of all academics for the very good reason that it is a pre-requisite for democracy and free enquiry. We cannot all be superscholars, but we all need to take our teaching in new and different directions. Without time and freedom, we cannot even do that.

It is essential to organise to fight back against the diminishing of academic freedom and to defend critical scholarship wherever that is represented across the range of subjects. Unless academics are free to follow their curiosity and open themselves to interrogation and critique, the well-funded haters and the authoritarians can continue to destabilise democracy itself.


The Vice Chancellors’ Christmas Quiz 2020 – the answers

Answers to the quiz posted on December 20th. Congratulations if you scored more then 10 points out of 25.

But first a primer…. (4 points)

1. Who is the current chair of Universities UK?

[Julia Buckingham, VC Brunel University]

2. The director of Universities Scotland shares his name with an actor who played another legendary educator. Name him.

[Alastair Sim]

3. Which University’s chancellor and vice chancellor both served as MPs and held high office in parliament and government, respectively?

[University of Bedfordshire: John Bercow (Chancellor) and Bill Rammell (VC)]

4. Who is the UK’s longest-serving vice chancellor, appointed in 1993?

[John Cater, VC Edge Hill University]

Succession planning (6 points)

5. Which long-serving VC retired in August 2020 and was succeeded by Lisa Roberts?

[Steve Smith, University of Exeter]

6. Who has succeeded David Eastwood as Chair of the board of trustees of the USS pension scheme?

[Kate Barker]

7. Who succeeded Anton Muscatelli as chair of the Russell Group in 2020?

[Dame Nancy Rothwell, VC University of Manchester]

8. Who is still Interim Vice Chancellor of which university, almost two years after having assumed the role in February 2019?

[Andy Collop, De Montfort University]

9. Which university has a vacancy for chancellor after an embarrassing resignation as a result of a Newsnight interview in November 2019?

[University of Huddersfield, after the resignation og HRH Prince Andrew]

Pandemic response (4 points)

10. Which VC was the first to promise a fully open and covid-secure campus for the autumn of 2020?

[George Holmes, VC University of Bolton]

11. Which VC said the pandemic has ‘put a digital rocket up the backsides of mainstream HE’?

[Nick Petford, VC Northampton University]

12. Which VC’s response to impending lockdown in March and posted on Twitter was: ‘Off to the pub. Not sure when I’ll be doing this again. Happy Friday!’ ?

[Liz Barnes, VC Staffordshire University]

13. Which university’s management has been criticised for making redundancies to IT staff in the midst of the pivot to online ?

[University of Brighton]

Celebrity corner (6 points)

14. Which 2020 Strictly Come Dancing contestant is currently Chancellor of which university?

[Ranvir Singh, Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire]

15. One former married couple, both actors and comedians, serve as chancellors of different universities. Name the actors and the universities.

[Dawn French, Falmouth University. Sir Lenny Henry, Birmingham City University]

Apologies (4 points)

16. Which VC has been forced to apologise twice to students this year? The second apology was an apology for not apologising.

[Dame Nancy Rothwell, VC Manchester]

17. Name one VC who was forced to apologise for bullying a senior colleague in 2020?

[Alice Gast, President of Imperial College]

18. Name another VC who apologised in 2019 for a culture of bullying at the university?

[Adam Tickell, VC University of Sussex]

19. The chief operating officer of which university sent an email to staff asking them to stop sending “borderline threatening” emails to professional services staff during the coronavirus lockdown?


Hopeful sign 1 point)

20. Which university’s strapline is “University for the Common Good”?

[Glasgow Caledonian University]

The Vice Chancellors’ Christmas Quiz 2020

Along with the rest of us, vice chancellors and senior managers have had a wretched year in UK HE. They have found themselves in a cleft stick of managing biosecurity, market share, student expectations, Office for Students hostility and uncertain finances. What better way to celebrate their contribution to the HE landscape than a Christmas quiz. In the midst of the pandemic, Santa has been circling those covid-secure campuses looking for VCs, both naughty and nice. So here is a treat for all VC fanciers in the form of a review of the year’s senior management headlines.

But first a primer…. (4 points)

1. Who is the current chair of Universities UK?

2. The director of Universities Scotland shares his name with an actor who played another legendary educator. Name him.

Alastair Sim - Person - National Portrait Gallery

3. Which University’s chancellor and vice chancellor both served as MPs and held high office in parliament and government, respectively?

4. Who is the UK’s longest-serving vice chancellor, appointed in 1993?

Succession planning (6 points)

5. Which long-serving VC retired in August 2020 and was succeeded by Lisa Roberts?

6. Who has succeeded David Eastwood as Chair of the board of trustees of the USS pension scheme?

7. Who succeeded Anton Muscatelli as chair of the Russell Group in 2020?

8. Who is still Interim Vice Chancellor of which university, almost two years after having assumed the role in February 2019?

9. Which university has a vacancy for chancellor after an embarrassing resignation as a result of a Newsnight interview in November 2019?

Pandemic response (4 points)

10. Which VC was the first to promise a fully open and covid-secure campus for the autumn of 2020?

11. Which VC said the pandemic has ‘put a digital rocket up the backsides of mainstream HE’?

12. Which VC’s response to impending lockdown in March and posted on Twitter was: ‘Off to the pub. Not sure when I’ll be doing this again. Happy Friday!’ ?

13. Which university’s management has been criticised for making redundancies to IT staff in the midst of the pivot to online ?

Celebrity corner (6 points)

14. Which 2020 Strictly Come Dancing contestant is currently Chancellor of which university?

15. One former married couple, both actors and comedians, serve as chancellors of different universities. Name the actors and the universities.

Apologies (4 points)

16. Which VC has been forced to apologise twice to students this year? The second apology was an apology for not apologising.

17. Name one VC who was forced to apologise for bullying a senior colleague in 2020?

18. Name another VC who apologised in 2019 for a culture of bullying at the university?

19. The chief operating officer of which university sent an email to staff asking them to stop sending “borderline threatening” emails to professional services staff during the coronavirus lockdown?

Hopeful sign 1 point)

20. Which university’s strapline is “University for the Common Good”?

Happy holidays to all staff and students in higher education. You have deserved them. Answers will be posted in the New Year. A year that is not 2020.

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.


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.

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.

REF2021: Adding Insult to Injury

31st January 2019.

57 days to Brexit and 659 days to the REF submission, which, if you need reminding, will be 27th of November 2020. At least Research England and the other UK funding bodies have their rules and guidelines published well in advance of the deadline. But hey – you never know. Remember the last-minute requirement for ‘impact’ last time?

Times Higher reports today that employees who have been made redundant by HEIs may still have their work submitted to REF2021. I imagine their permission is not required.

A consultation document released by the REF in July 2018 had asked for responses to a proposal in Paragraph 206.b which “sets out the funding bodies’ intention to make ineligible the outputs of former staff who have been made redundant (except where the staff member has taken voluntary redundancy). This proposal reflects the funding bodies’ view that, in recognition of the HEI’s intentions regarding the post, including such outputs would not be consistent with the principle of non-portability. It also responds to concerns about the potential negative incentives that may be created in including these outputs.”

The steer in the question is obvious, and yet it has apparently been overturned by the intervention of some powerful voices. In the final version of the REF2021 decisions published today, any mention of outlawing submission of work by staff who have been made redundant has been removed. Instead, paragraph 150 states: “Outputs in the submitted output pool may be attributed to former staff, previously employed as Category A eligible in the assessment period”.  

So why the change? Times Higher reports that ‘the funders’ raised “the significant unintended consequences of doing otherwise”, which apparently amounted to discussing “sensitive information about staff employment with those responsible for selecting outputs”. Find me a research unit where the casualties of redundancy aren’t already an open secret, if not actively contrived by those very selectors. The justifications extend towards the fanciful: “Our concern would be that removing the option to include submissions from former fellows for example would be a disincentive for universities to take on fellowships,” said Catriona Firth, head of REF policy at Research England”. As if universities would abandon the cheap research force that such fellowships represent, but now, instead, as the UCU statement worded it, “the move would be a green light for universities to treat staff like a disposable commodity and entrench the casualisation of early career researchers”.

It is more likely that universities will feel emboldened to abandon any commitment to sustainable, secure career pathways, especially from postdoctoral posts to lectureships, if they feel they can easily terminate employment and still retain the fruits of that casually discarded labour.

David Sweeney is quoted in the Times Higher article: “it would be unfair to penalise people who would want their outputs to be counted, simply in order to appease those who do not”. As if the only controversy at stake was a question of being counted in the REF when, presumably, you would have no input to those discussions, let alone benefit, after redundancy.

Meanwhile, I query Times Higher’s interpretation of the ruling on who is included under the designation ‘former staff’. Paragraph 211a states that outputs may be included: “For staff who remain employed at the institution, but are no longer employed as Category A eligible staff on the census date (for example, senior administrative staff), any outputs that were first made publicly available at the point the staff member was employed as Category A eligible”.

Times Higher’s understanding of this is: “the guidance says that academics who change from a teaching and research or research-only contract during a REF cycle are classed as former members of staff and that outputs which were first made publicly available when they were on their old contract are still eligible for submission.”

I disagree. The example given in Paragraph 211a indicates the REF envisages cases where an employee on a research or teaching and research contract has subsequently changed their role to become e.g. a dean, pro vice chancellor or other senior administrator. Universities have, unethically, been gaming the system by moving academics from teaching and research contracts onto teaching-only contracts. Often this is not the choice of the academic, but imposed on them by a department which disapproves of their research, or (often as a result of poorly conducted internal audits and mock exercises) anticipates it would be graded at less than 3*. It would be appalling if this behavior were to be rewarded by allowing submission of their research. Fortunately, Times Higher’s reading would appear to be contradicted by this paragraph:

212. The outputs of staff who continue to be employed by the institution as Category A eligible staff (i.e. meet the criteria set out in paragraph 117) but who no longer have significant responsibility for research on the census date are not eligible.

Very clearly, this rules out submitting the work of those academics who have had their research role explicitly removed by the institution. Nevertheless, expect this to become contested as universities cavil about Schroedinger’s researcher:

Paragraph141. Staff with significant responsibility for research are those for whom:

a. ‘Explicit time and resources are made available’. Indicators of this could include:

a specific proportion of time allocated for research, as determined in the context of the institution’s practices and applied in a consistent way

research allocation in a workload model or equivalent.

b. ‘To engage actively in independent research’. Indicators of this could include (HEIs are also advised to refer to the indicators of independence, paragraph 132, as additional guidance on this aspect):

eligibility to apply for research funding as the lead or co-applicant

access to research leave or sabbaticals

membership of research centres or institutes within the HEI.

c. ‘And that is an expectation of their job role’. Indicators of this could include:

current research responsibilities as indicated in, for example, career pathways or stated objectives

expectations of research by role as indicated in, for example, job descriptions and appraisals.

Lots of room there for last minute retrospective restoration of an individual’s research ’allocation’.

The announcement has been greeted with expressions of outrage by academic Twitter. “Thought the academic employment environment couldn’t get worse”, tweeted @DrJoGrady. @DavidToke commented: “This isn’t even neoliberalism. This is feudalism”. @sstroschein2 wondered if this ruling will survive a legal challenge. I rather hope @EricRoyalLybeck ‘s  graphic stands as a prediction of a rather large uprising.

A short commercial break

Earlier this week, Helen Sauntson and I submitted the book which gave its name to this blog. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, Academic Irregularities: Language and Neoliberalism in Higher Education is finished, and away to the publisher, Routledge. Writing the last two chapters partly explains a bit of a fallow summer here on the blog. But there was also rather a lot of life-enhancing activity going on, like spending time with my partner, and observing for the New York Open Water 20 Bridges marathon swims, and ending the summer with a swim of my own with NYOW’s Spuyten Duyvil 10K.

Below is some information about the book which we hope will be published early in 2019.

We all know that universities in the UK and elsewhere are very different places than they were 20 years ago. There has been a massive reorientation of universities away from their previous mission as serving the public good, as repositories of knowledge, as a refuge from the discipline of the market and capitalism, and governed by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The purpose of universities is routinely assumed to be to serve the economic needs of the country, or even of individuals who graduate from them. Cultural and political changes such as consumerism, marketization, New Public Management with its focus on metrics, audit and performance management, have left their imprint on the very language we use to talk about universities – and indeed on the language the university uses to talk about its staff and students. Neoliberalism is a contested term but we use it to designate a broad agreement that universities have reorganised their priorities – and perhaps been coerced by successive governments to do so –  to align with ‘the market’. We uncover the power relations and contradictions experienced by those working and studying in UK and other (largely) western universities. We  make connections between economic and political developments in society, and the changes to conditions of labour and values operating in universities. We find that the nature of academic identities has been resignified so that lecturers and professors feel less autonomous and more ‘managed’. Even what counts as work’ has been redefined in narrow terms which accommodate metrics and audit. Some academics try and resist the new discourse, but it is becoming rather difficult to do so in a context when its use is compulsory. Some of these changes have left academics feeling alienated and deprofessionalised. 

This is an original critique of the neoliberal university and it sits within an emerging discipline of Critical University Studies. We build our case from firm evidence of discourse which echoes the concerns of neoliberal ideology: competition, the market, personal responsibility and benefit, value for money, return on investment and efficiency. Over the three or four years of the project, we amassed a large collection of  documents from university management training courses, performance reviews, university and student union marketing materials, mission statements, REF and TEF policies. Then we got to work with the tools of applied linguistics, such as corpus linguistics, critical discourse analysis and appraisal analysis, to show how insidiously damaging this discourse is. In constructing our own discursive audit trail, we have unearthed metaphors which seek to normalize the discourse of the market, the student as consumer and the academic as corporate subject. We take a look at some of the adjectives and nouns which seem to shift their meanings to the extent they are meaningless: excellence, quality, innovation, vision etc. The discourse analysed throughout the book is more than just a reflection of neoliberal ideology – it is arguably constitutive of ideological change, and of a new kind of neoliberal, self-managing, subordinate subject. 

The book brings the tools of applied linguistics to bear on some central questions for critical university studies:

  1. What does a critical linguistic analysis of managerial discourse reveal about academic values and identities?
  2. How can the tools of applied linguistics be used to enhance knowledge and understanding about critical university studies?
  3. What can critical linguistic analysis reveal about the role of discourse in formulating resistance to the managerial project?

During the course of this project both authors have both faced professional upheaval. This resulted in Helen changing jobs (and earning promotion to professor) and I left academia. In completing this book, we have been sustained by colleagues both personal and virtual too numerous to mention. Special mentions must go to our spouses: Caroline Sauntson and Kathleen (K.O.) O’Mara who have patiently buoyed us with their belief that our work is worthwhile.

We have valued encouragement from and the opportunity for discussion with:  Thomas Docherty, Justin Cruickshank, Eva Bendix Petersen, Kate Bowles, Richard Hall, Aidan Byrne, Derek Sayer, Yoke Sum Wong, Craig Brandist, Eric Royal Lybeck, Nicky Priaulx, Nick Megoran, Raksha Pande, Rosie Miles, Filip Vostal, Jana Bacevic, Mark Carrigan, Sarah Amsler, Annabelle Mooney, Emilie Whitaker, Veronika Koller, Erika Darics, Kerry Dobson Clukas, Joanne Hollows, Patrick O’Connor, Lisa Clughen, Richard Bromhall, Catherine Adams, Steve Jones, Jean-Pierre Boule, Nic Dunlop, Monica Franco-Santos, Louise Mullany, Martin McQuillan, Charlotte Walker, Robert Compton. There are also a few university PVCs and Registrars who might wish to remain anonymous. We are fortunate to have been writing in an age of social media when there are blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook groups for like-minded scholars which have offered support and information.

We mourn the untimely loss of Judith Baxter and Joyce Canaan whose work has enlightened us, and their insights have informed each chapter of the book.

Here’s the Table of Contents. Each chapter includes critical discourse analysis of two case studies based on authentic data.


Chapter 1 – Critical University Studies: Defining a Field

Chapter 2 – The Student as Consumer and Commodity

Chapter 3 – Marketing the Goods

Chapter 4 – Language and Audit Culture 1: Research and Performance Management

Chapter 5 – Language and Audit Culture 2: The Case of the Teaching Excellence Framework

Chapter 6 – Colonising the Corporate Academic

Chapter 7 – Conclusions and Possibilities for Contesting the Discourse

Glossary of terms

Colleagues from universities across the world have shared their stories, examples of discourse and dissatisfaction with the neoliberal academy. While a reorientation of universities from a focus on knowledge-creation to a focus on the student consumer has subdued the enthusiasm of many for academic life, these changes have,  nevertheless, provided an endless source of data for our enquiry.  And so, lastly, we owe sincere thanks to the managers, without whose opaque and hyperbolic discourse in strategy documents, policies, training courses and all-school messages, this book could not have been written. You have been an inspiration.

Can Critical University Studies survive the toxic university ?

Several things in the news recently have made me want to write again about Critical University Studies (CUS) – a discipline that has been given momentum in the UK by the USS pensions strikes of spring 2018. As I visited a number of campus rallies and teach-outs, I became aware of a real thirst for analysis of the UK and global higher education landscape. The pensions issue seemed to be a conductor for a whole host of other grievances about marketization, financialization, audit culture, management by metrics and the distortions of league tables and concern with university ‘reputation’.  These objections have spawned critique from all areas of the academy, from blogs by experimental scientists (Bishop 2013, Colquhoun 2016 ) to theorised analysis in social science (Burrows 2012; Holmwood 2011;  Petersen and Davies 2010; Hall & Winn 2018), to perspectives from literary scholars (Warner 2014; 2015; Docherty 2011; 2014; 2015). This work has now coalesced under the banner of critical university studies (CUS) which in many cases contains (but is not confined to) expressions of discomfort at changes influenced by neoliberal and market fundamentalist ideologies. There are now three book series oriented towards the field, Palgrave, Johns Hopkins  and Berghahn , a journal, LATISS , a university research centre at Roskilde, Denmark, as well as an early career researcher network at the University of Cambridge.   These are all positive developments, although it is wise to be cautious about the ‘institutionalisation’ of CUS, as Eli Thorkelson advises.

CUS as an interdisciplinary field of study was inaugurated by a special issue of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor edited by Petrina and Ross in 2014. This and other subsequent issues drew attention to the effects of neoliberal policies on higher education institutions and sought to identify connections between neoliberal economic and political developments, such as the subsumption of academic labour to profit (Hall & Bowles 2016),  and changes to conditions of work and academic identities in (largely) western universities. The principles of  CUS are informed by a paradigm previously established in Critical Management Studies (CMS) (Butler and Spoelstra 2014). This involves:

  • A critique of power, control and inequality in universities,
  • A challenge to management knowledge and its ideological underpinnings,
  • An ethos of reflexivity and reflection on epistemological, ontological and methodological assumptions.

Some scholars in CUS would argue that the neoliberal structures of marketisation, consumerism, audit and league tables in UK universities lead to the perverse incentive to suppress academic freedom in those institutions (Morrish and Sauntson 2016; Morrish et al 2017). Some universities will act to defuse the force of government regulation and demands for surveillance and ‘accountability’; others will take advantage of the opportunities it affords. To this end, in the last decade, there has been a proliferation of workload models and policy portfolios: disciplinary, performance management, capability, sickness absence – all will have been revised and strengthened to fortify the managerial citadel.

So – back to recent news. As I started to write this piece, news came in about a tragic  death by suicide at Cardiff University in February. An inquest heard how Malcolm Anderson ended his life on campus early in the morning of February 19th. His close colleagues and his family testified to the amount of work Dr Anderson faced, including the requirement to mark 418 exam papers in 20 days.

I’m sure Cardiff will now make the usual noises about ‘lessons learned’, as Imperial College did after the death of Stefan Grimm in 2014.  I have no wish to be seen to exploit these cases for their harrowing personal details, but if we are to learn lessons, then we must know when such deaths, or long-term sicknesses occur and are attributed to overwork. It seems that the academic community did not know of Dr Anderson’s death until the inquest, some 3 or 4 months after the event.

When academics, both individually and collectively, demonstrate with evidence that workloads are too high to be safe, they are told to work smarter. When they complain that many forms of work are erased or undercounted by the workload model – dubbed ‘time laundering’ by Southampton UCU– this falls on deaf ears. When academics point to the incapacitating effects of management by metrics, they are told of a need to be accountable. We now see the consequences of this indifference and we wonder, along with another commentator on Twitter, how many more of our colleagues are just one more responsibility away from disaster.

It is insulting and abusive when universities charge academics with providing a flawless service to students, and then chisel away at the conditions and hours which would permit it to be accomplished. But the neoliberal academy requires the preservation of the myth of the coping academic and demands their enforced compliance, their subjection to surveillance, a strict curb on democracy, and the overarching impulse to protect revenue and reputation. Some scholars have even labelled the university as ‘bad boyfriend (Webster & Rivers 2018)  and Thesis Whisperer (2011). I would claim the working environment is simply toxic. As Sarah Amsler (2015) notes, there are consequences for the less able or non-compliant bodies; they will be refused and rendered aberrant. We see this already in the reaction of Cardiff University with its promise to ‘review the support available’ to lecturers who are struggling with workloads.  But that is not what the union members at Cardiff have been asking for; they have criticised the workload model from its inception and are demanding sustainable and humane workloads.

It is becoming clear that students are also experiencing intolerable pressure. The University of Bristol has been singled out, possibly unfairly, after 10 deaths by suicide in 18 months, because there are fears that coroners may not be reporting the full scale of cases. 

When newspapers report a crisis in mental health, and universities declare a review of ‘welfare’ and ‘support’, this only serves to position the locus of responsibility on the individual and their lack of ‘resilience’. There are even online courses to help academics rehabilitate to the culture of punishing overwork, at the same time as indemnifying universities against legal redress. These courses are now becoming compulsory. Here’s an example email from a Russell Group university sent to staff.

We need to mourn the individuals who are lost to academia, society and to their families, and then ask what is it about university structures and working conditions that has led to anyone’s death or serious illness. We should remind ourselves of a university’s legal obligation to prevent stress, not merely alleviate it. Please let us also think of the students who are left wondering whether they may have been part of the problem. They are not. They are the joy of the job. Yes, they have needs and make demands, but the problem is with universities which have seen fit to join a buildings and ‘student experience’ arms race without actually providing enough lecturers with the working conditions to fulfil the promise.

You wonder when university management will begin to take these issues seriously. They now need to be addressed and resolved, not ‘reviewed’ and ‘supported’. I marvel at the tendency of universities to fear internal critique, and yet their apparent appetite for critical opinion produced by private consultants and government number-crunchers (HESA, IFS, HEPI) is voracious, even when those studies hold up an unwelcome mirror in the form of league tables, retention figures, LEO data etc. Additionally, universities and other HEIs monitor and subscribe to online fora such as HEPI, Research Fortnight and Wonkhe. So why, when universities seem to wish to metricise every action and learn from every available data point, are they so averse to listening to their own staff?

So what, then, awaits the academic employee who seeks to publish their analysis of the effects of academic capitalism, the damage of outcomes-based performance management or the ascent of managerialism? As many will know, I have some familiarity with this, documented here and here.

So with the benefit of experience, I would like to make this observation about the relatively new field of Critical University Studies. It occurs to me it is placed in an unhelpful paradox – one which is not faced by its sibling disciplines of Critical Business Studies or Critical Legal Studies. The paradox is this – even if making a general observation about universities, the scholar seems to imply criticism of the institution in which they work. This is made exceedingly clear in a thread of tweets by Eric Lybeck on  May 30th 2018.


How does one criticize a tendency to undermine academic freedom via social media policies without being able to offer an example from one’s own experience? The academic wishing to draw on expertise and knowledge must, it seems, be pitted at odds with their employer and exposed to considerable personal risk.

To digress just a little, though the issues are connected, we can recognise a pattern identified in a recent piece by Carolyn Gallagher  in which universities seek to distance themselves from academic employees who engage with controversial topics in public debate, and are attacked in those public forums after doing so. Sometimes powerful state funding agencies or media commentators call for the dismissal of the academic. This can lead university managers, many of whom prioritize ‘reputation’ over any wider commitment to scholarship or to a public beyond the university’s walls, to denounce or even discipline the employee, even while proclaiming their right to academic freedom.

In the UK, academic freedom, and the freedom to criticise one’s own university in public, or the system generally, is enshrined in law, and most university statutes and articles of government reflect this. However, in 2017, academic freedom became a moral panic in the UK (UK Government Dept. for Education 2018), and students and academic staff were blamed for undermining it with alleged excessive regard for trigger warnings and safe spaces. However, in reality, it is university managers who display rather different thresholds of tolerance for critics of higher education policy and practice. Too often for university managers the issue is never about academic freedom; it is cast as being about civility, or they will shelter behind  policies  on ‘dignity and respect’; or they will claim ‘reputational damage’.

CUS is very much the canary down the mine of academic freedom.  The process I endured prefigured the kind of despotic capriciousness we associate with the Donald Trump zeitgeist. In an era of weakened trade unions and managerial unaccountability, vice chancellors must accept that, for academic freedom to thrive, requires very thorough protections for those scholars who offer a challenge to ‘the university’ from within. There is a very simple resolution, of course, and it already exists. Universities must observe the safeguards enshrined in law, and they must become more democratic and open to scrutiny from the members of the academic community who constitute them. As Judith Butler wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, “Censorship is always an indirect confession of fear. The censor exposes himself as a fearful being. He fears speech and seeks to contain it. His fear attributes to his opponent’s speech a power that it may or may not have”. For the sake of scholars facing oppressive and hostile structures, let our speech be free and let it be heard.


Amsler, Sarah. 2015. The Education of Radical Democracy. London: Routledge.

Burrows, Roger. 2012. Living with the h-Index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60 (2): 355-372.

Bishop, Dorothy. 2013. Journal impact factors and REF 2014. Accessed June 6th 2018

Colquhoun, David. 2016. More on bullying at Imperial College London: What’s being done?   Accessed June 6th 2018

Docherty, Thomas. 2011. The unseen academy. Times Higher. November 10th.   Accessed June 6th 2018

Docherty, Thomas. 2014. Thomas Docherty on academic freedom. Times Higher. December 4th 

Accessed June 6th 2018

Docherty, Thomas. 2015. Universities at War. London: Sage.

Gallagher, Carolyn. 2018. War on the ivory tower: Alt Right attacks on university professors. The Public Eye, 94, Spring 2018.

Hall, Richard and Bowles, Kate. 2016. Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety. Workplace, 28. 30-47.

Hall, Richard and Winn, Joss. (Eds.). 2018. Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. London: Bloomsbury.

Holmwood, John. 2011. TRACked and FECked: How audits undermine the arts, humanities and social sciences. Accessed 5th June 2018.

Morrish, Liz. 2015. Raising the bar: the metric tide that sinks all boats. Academic Irregularities blog. Accessed 1st June 2018.

Morrish, Liz and Sauntson, Helen. 2016. Performance management and the stifling of academic freedom and knowledge production. Journal of Historical Sociology.  29.1. 42-64.  DOI: 10.1111/johs.12122

Morrish, Liz. 2017a. Stress fractures: One year on. Academic Irregularities.

Morrish, Liz. 2017b. Why the audit culture made me quit. Times Higher. March 2nd. Accessed June 6th 2018.

Morrish, Liz. and The Analogue University Writing Collective. 2017. Academic identities in the managed university: Neoliberalism and resistance at Newcastle University. Australian Universities’ Review, 59 (2), 23-35.

Petersen, Eva.B. and Davies, Bronwen. 2010. In/Difference in the neoliberalised university.  Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences, 3 (2): 92-109.

Petrina, Stephen. and Ross, Wayne. 2014. Critical university studies: workplace, milestones, crossroads, respect, truth. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, 23: 62-71.

UK Government, Department for Education. 2018 (May). Sam Gyimah hosts free speech summit.

Accessed June 6th 2018

Warner, Marina. 2014. Diary: Why I Quit. London Review of Books 36 (17): 42-43.  Accessed June 6th 2018

Warner, Marina. 2015. Learning my lesson. London Review of Books 37 (6): 8-14.

Accessed June 6th 2018


Trigger warnings, safe spaces and common sense.

Scene 1. The postponed drama. Last week the Danish hostage drama series Below the Surface was not aired on BBC 4. There was no explanation offered but I took it to be out of respect to the victims of the act of terror in Carcassonne the previous day, Friday 23rd March. The following week the drama resumed, and the continuity announcer duly offered the explanation I had anticipated.

Was this a trigger warning – a concession to snowflakes, or a sensitive realisation that the content of this hostage drama might reasonably cause distress to friends or relatives still learning details of the tragedy in France? To my shame, the cancellation caught me by surprise. I had been expecting to spend my Saturday evening transfixed by suspense in the safety of my living room. To find another film substituting in that spot made me, instead, think about somebody other than myself.

And that is the point. Though we hear a lot about people who claim their free speech or liberty is infringed by safe spaces, trigger warning, no platforming or policies on hate speech, it is usually from people whose rights and comforts are not generally intruded upon. They are so unaccustomed to having to shift perspective to see the world from another’s vantage point that any attempts to decentralize their privilege appear to them as an unwarranted attack.

So there was the dilemma of the BBC: mild irritation of viewers having to wait for another week to catch up with the drama versus a thoughtless misjudgement which might exacerbate the grief and shock of other human beings. Common sense and consideration point to the obvious choice.

Scene 2. A classroom in a state college in upstate New York in 1990. The class: LING252 Introduction to Phonetics. Topic: The articulation of consonant sounds. The teaching resource was a video with the innocuous title of The Articulation of Consonants. Perfect. The classroom was linked to a central Audio Visual hub which controlled the relay of the video to the classroom at a pre-arranged time. I had chosen the video from the catalogue purely on the basis of the title – I had not viewed it. I greeted the class and briefly reprised the main points of the articulation of consonants to prepare them for the video. And at the appointed minute it started.

The film was in black and white, which surprised me. The credits acknowledged it as a product of the US Veteran’s Administration, which was also unexpected. The film opened with a shot closing in on the profile of a seated man. With no introduction, the next view was a close up of the man’s profile, minus the prosthetic which had covered the missing left side of his face.

There was a clue in the military origin of the film. The subject was clearly a veteran whose gunshot wound to the face afforded students of phonetics an unobstructed view of his entire vocal tract. I was incredulous. I’d never seen anything like this except in an anatomy laboratory. As the man started to talk, and the movements of his tongue, soft palate and lips took shape, a student screamed. Others were momentarily horrified. As the video was streamed from a remote location on campus, I had no means of stopping it. But anyway, it was absolutely the most fascinating demonstration I had ever seen. To their eternal credit, the class hung in with it, and a great deal was learned, on all dimensions.

I didn’t feel the need to stop using that remarkable video though, but I did make sure, on future occasions, that students were better prepared to see it. If this can be called a trigger warning, this is how I went about it. Principally, I tried to make sure they were all able to visit the local medical school’s anatomy dissection laboratory during the course of the module. There they were able to view and handle dissected anatomical specimens of head and neck, larynx, tongue, brain etc. This helped build familiarity and break down the yuk factor. They were better able to visualize how a bullet could cause such a terrible injury, and how a prosthesis might be designed to remediate it. Importantly, they were able to ask questions and make choices about how much they wished to engage with these teaching materials.

Scene 3. Introducing myself to first year students. As a lecturer I held to a principle about coming out as a lesbian to students. There are those who think it is private information and not necessary to share with students. On the other hand, they wouldn’t question the practice of straight lecturers who will inadvertently and unconsciously reveal their sexuality to students. They will mention spouses or children and in other ways cement the implication that they are heterosexual. And this is entirely appropriate and welcome. Students like a certain amount of self-revelation and they appreciate honesty and candour in the classroom. This is denied to the LGBT lecturer who decides to conceal their identity. Not only that, you lose the opportunity – I prefer to see it as an obligation – to be a role model. I really don’t like the term, with its implications that students should want to emulate some supposed virtue, but what I mean is, that at least students see you standing there, reasonably competent at your job, approachable and interested in teaching them.

I would always seize the opportunity to come out at first encounter. Day 1. Introduce myself, teaching and research interests, and then, “As a lesbian I’m very willing to discuss issues of sexual identity with students or support them when they are questioning their sexuality. You can find my contact details on the syllabus and consider my office a safe space for those discussions.” And many did. So what did I mean by a safe space? That a student would not need to fear being judged or derided. They wouldn’t need to explain or justify beyond what they felt necessary. They could rely on finding an older person who had been in their shoes and whose currently stable identity had been tested, interrogated and retrieved from the depths of shame and fear. That did not mean there was an absence of vigorous argument in some of those cases. There was often also discussion of ‘passing’ and covering and how that might protect a person from danger sometimes.

As I have said in these pages before, it is important to remember that the majority of undergraduate students are in their late teens. Let’s also remember that those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender have probably spent their entire childhood hiding their identities and feelings. Schools can be somewhat unregulated spaces of homophobia and sexism. Studies by Stonewall show that 45% of trans teens have attempted suicide and 45% of LGBT teens have been bullied at school because of their sexuality of gender presentation.  Research by me and my colleague Helen Sauntson has shown that when young LGBT teens talk about their school experiences, their discourse is imbued with markers of illegitimation At the same time, our analysis of coming out stories shows that the climate at university offers a more accepting environment where young people can find their identities are validated by the institutional structures (Morrish & Sauntson 2007). Furthermore, the availability of LGBT student societies and organisations can bring about a transformation of confidence and self-worth. Meeting other LGBT young people, sometimes for the first time can be transformative. Research by my partner, Kathleen O’Mara shows that when students work for equality and representation with other LGBT students and  faculty, this can be a life-changing experience (O’Mara 1997). This of course requires acknowledging the organising principles located in identity politics. In this instance, it means realising you are a member of a sexual minority and that you may have faced discrimination and hatred, but you have common cause with others, and together you can effect change.

It should be obvious now that there are institutional and personal dangers when the university spaces occupied by diverse groups are not safeguarded for all. This is documented very recently here and here. Add to that institutional refusal to tackle sexual harassment seriously, and it is no wonder that universities now appear rather intimidating and exclusionary places, and, as a consequence, we see a huge rise in anxiety among students.

There is a tension when universities are required by the Office for Students to meet apparently conflicting agendas: to guarantee ‘free speech’ and to eradicate ‘no platforming’ policies – all at the same time as ensuring equality of outcomes for BME, WP and students of all genders. That goal is unlikely to be met when the campus culture signals that students from these these groups are somehow less entitled to belong.

These contradictions, amplified in the media, are now the subject of a recent parliamentary joint committee on human rights (JCHR) , chaired by Harriet Harman on 27th March. This concluded there was no evidence of a wholesale censorship of debate on university campuses as some media reporting had suggested, but warned “there were nevertheless factors at work that actively limited free speech in universities.”

This report was responding to the annual free speech university rankings published by Spiked Online with its breathless headlines on ‘the new blasphemies on campus’. Among these appear to be infractions of legally-mandated policies (which you might also find endorsed by other respectable employers), such as:

 Free Speech and External Speaker policies

 Bullying and Harassment policies

 Equal Opportunities policies

In the UK, such policies offer little more than a hat tip towards compliance with the law, eschewing any measurable impact on equality and diversity. It is still enough to have the team at Spiked Online clutching their pearls though. A piece by Tom Slater from 28th March refers to ‘transgender ideology’ (whatever is meant by that) and alludes to a forbidding climate for free speech, even if actual prohibition is hard to prove.

Witness for the defence is Jim Dickinson who blasted out a thread of tweets around Christmas time, and followed up with this excellent piece in January 2018 in which he tries to offer a another perspective based around respecting and safeguarding those students “who just wanted to get through the day without having to justify their own identity or existence. And the students who just wanted a heads up if their class was about to discuss something they’ll find traumatic, which without warning would prevent their active participation.”

What if this is not an issue of free speech prohibition at all, but instead an issue of old fashioned values of consideration and common sense. What if defending ‘protected characteristics’ is essential to making sure the academy legitimates the presence of very different groups of people? And what if we decided not to call it infantilisation, but instead recognise it as humanity?



I am grateful to @eSocSci for sending me the link to this thoughtful piece for creating a respectful classroom environment.

Embracing the Dinosaur of Solidarity

One of the revelations for USS pension strikers has been a rekindling of the spirit of the collective out on the picket lines. For many older members of UCU, who have stood on rather porous picket lines during past pay disputes, this is their first experience of really exhilarating solidarity. This makes the appearance of the Dinosaur of Solidarity rather paradoxical, since it is the older workers who are most likely to find it a novelty. Nevertheless, you can imagine this scornful coinage being formed on the lips of an HR manager somewhere among the 65 striking universities. But as I was reminded on Twitter recently, younger strikers would have moulded a collective consciousness during the 2010 protests over the tripling of university tuition fees. They are now deploying the organisational skills gained in their early political education. We can also see something similar taking shape right now in the US, so let me throw in the best tweet of the las few days which comes from the US school protests:

Feral Progressive

Both younger and older USS scheme members have been invigorated by the solidarity found within the union, UCU. When the UCU/ UUK ‘agreement’  was released late on Monday night (12/03/2018) it seemed rather like one of those political advertisements targeted at a Facebook profile. The Collective Defined Contribution is a new pension scheme which seemed designed to appeal to that collective spirit. But the collective were not happy to relinquish their defined benefits, and so it was ‘reject and resubmit’, as the placards said.

Management, meanwhile, were making attempts to break the collective strike action. One of the most disappointing, yet predictable, betrayals has been the appropriation of old ‘lecture capture’ videos which have been offered to students as a replacement for lost lectures. The introduction of lecture capture was resisted by many in UCU, but driven through in the interests of access for disabled students. That resistance was rooted in suspicion that the welcoming of some innovations in ed-tech is motivated by the impulse towards surveillance and monitoring, not the educational support and development of the learner. That suspicion has been confirmed.

Additionally, there is uneasiness that ‘personalised learning’, the constant companion of ed-tech, allows cash-strapped universities to secretly harvest data from commercial dashboard platforms which has been shared in good faith by students. This can then be analysed to determine which graduates to approach for donations, and for which causes. Thus, learning can be opened up to capital exploitation in two ways. Firstly, the sale of learning platforms, and subsequently the capture of student data which can then be made available in other market domains. For example, the alumna who participated in a sports team (dashboard record – extracurricular activities) may be persuaded to fund the new swimming pool, while the student primary school classroom volunteer may wish to fund mentoring or outreach activities.

Personalisation is what is left when we design the collective out of university learning. When did we decide that to ‘disrupt’ was always a better solution than to facilitate? Probably when we sucked down enough of the neoliberal Kool Aid to stop questioning the pervasive reach of competition and markets. In the last 30 years, neoliberalism has constrained the very questions we are permitted to ask about education. Its effectiveness is now judged entirely by imposter metrics of value for money, satisfaction, graduate salaries and ‘learning gain’. These benefits are all framed from the perspective of private gains; they are not positioned as pertaining to the public good.

Fickle Tickell

The USS strikes of 2018 may have caused the cancellation of classes and suspension of the ratified curriculum, but there have been teach-outs, rallies and even ‘teachable moment’ conversations taking place on the picket lines. Some in the media have sneered at off-campus seminars on “How I learnt to love neoliberalism and globalisation and hate myself”. Far from being obscure theorising, this input has allowed students and staff to make sense of their own lived experience in UK HE in 2018.

In large numbers, students have rejected the university of student-as-consumer and crass satisfaction surveys which disguise growing SSRs and an increasing proportion of classes taught by contingent, insecure lecturers. At 22 universities, students have occupied management offices and university buildings in support of their lecturers, but also in protest at fees and excessive marketization. Students who were assured in 2011 that they would be at ‘the heart of the system’  are demanding a very different experience from that envisaged by the government and Universities UK. Students now know there are alternatives. This image is used with the kind permission of University of Nottingham UCU and is the result of a teach-out discussion designed to imagine the university of the future.

A wake-up call

And on Friday 16th March, even Stephen Toope, the VC of the University of Cambridge, has added his voice to the growing disenchantment with market reforms:

“For too long the damaging idea that students are “consumers” has been only weakly resisted. Being a “consumer” implies that students are nothing more than passive recipients of ideas delivered by lecturers. Yet, at its core, education is about active engagement of students with inherited knowledge, with new research, with other students, and with more senior academic guides and mentors. Of course, education is also about preparing students for life in the wider world, for careers, and for making a contribution to the community. Reducing students to mere consumers only makes sense if the value of universities is simply economic. That would be a fundamental error. For centuries, universities have helped successive generations to achieve their potential in these places of breath-taking discovery and disruptive insight”.

Twitter posts have confirmed that an intoxicating possibility of change has not been confined to just one or two radical institutions. It has been universal, as has been the critique of the stress-inducing culture of overwork and hyper-scrutiny. Two professors from the University of Bristol shared their letters to the Vice Chancellor on Twitter:

Professor John Foot writes:

“It has been on the picket lines and in meetings and in teach-outs that I have (re) discovered the ‘community’ and ‘collegiality’ of which you so often speak. I have chatted to colleagues for the first time in years, met colleagues who I had only seen on email, laughed and joked and sang songs with them, marched with them down to college green”.

Professor Timothy Edmunds writes:

“However, this strike period has also been strangely liberating. The friendship and collegiality I have felt from colleagues across the university and sector, and the sense that these are shared challenges we all face, has been a massively positive experience. As has, frankly, the lifting of so many of the day to day pressures and anxieties that for me had become so routine I’d almost forgotten they were there”.

Professor Edmunds, then narrates how his mood improved so rapidly he no longer felt the need for anti-depressants during the strike. While nobody should need to be medicated just to do a job, Edmunds found he had entirely normalised this situation, commenting that his was not an unusual case.

Meanwhile, Gemma (no surname given) wrote of her despondency at receiving this comment from an internal reviewer on her research track record to this point: “very good, not excellent”, but that’s not a problem at this stage”. Wondering what more could be expected at age 33 when,

“You put everything you have into a job. Everything. So that sometimes you don’t sleep properly for months, because if you wake up in the middle of the night, you spend the rest of the night thinking about work. When you look forward to weekends when you have nothing planned, because that means you can get more work done. When you leave work at 10 or 11pm, because you were genuinely too “in to it” to leave earlier. Then you get home and work some more. To be told that all those sacrifices and all your hard work, enthusiasm and passion have left you with a track record that is “not excellent” is… deflating.”

These daily insults. The compulsory overwork which is taken for granted. The rent-seeking priorities of universities which seem to outweigh staff claims for decent pensions. The distortion of metrics, audits and league tables, the depletion of autonomy. And then the findings that the USS scheme valuations had not been carried out transparently, and the suspicion that de-risking had more to do with universities’ desire for more credit to fund buildings than it had to do with any deficit in the pension fund. No wonder then, that this crowdfunder initiative met its first £30,000 target in just 7 hours. Its purpose is to hire a QC “to obtain a legal opinion from a leading barrister on whether the conduct of the USS Trustees complies with the legal duties they owe to the pension fund beneficiaries” and to ascertain whether the trustees have acted in accordance with their legal obligations to act in the interests of the beneficiaries of the pension fund.

There is a new spirit about to transform relationships in UK universities, and a boldness and fearlessness among the staff. The Dinosaur of Solidarity has been more than a metaphor. She/ he has been an important inspiration on the picket lines and on Twitter. We are not about to see her/him extinguished by a managerial meteor just yet.