Category Archives: Universities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adonis takes a scalp?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#Brexitshambles

 

One of the peculiarities of language is that the same form of words can mean entirely different things depending on the speaker/writer, the occasion, the intent and the preceding context of interaction. Chris Heaton-Harris is a Conservative MP and government whip. His unusual letter to university vice-chancellors, sent at the start of October 2017, has been brought to the attention of the press by Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University. On face value, it bears all the hallmarks of linguistic politeness. “I was wondering if you would be so kind” and “I would be much obliged”. Nevertheless, David Green’s reaction would resonate with most academics. According to The Guardian, he felt a chill down his spine when he read the “sinister” request: “This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous,” he says. “Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’, a phrase to be found on Mr Heaton-Harris’s website.”

UCU Chair Sally Hunt has also detected “the acrid whiff of McCarthyism” while Chris Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said it was “offensive and idiotic Leninism” 

Another peculiarity of language is that meanings which are obvious to one group can be refused by another. Step forward chief Tory apologist Andrea Leadsom. In her lunchtime Radio 4 interview it is clear she was inclined towards the polite reading of Heaton-Harris’ letter. “It does seem to me to be a bit odd that universities should react in such a negative way to a fairly courteous request,” she said.

Who is to know what was in the whip’s mind? Perhaps he is genuinely interested in filling in the gaps in his knowledge of European Studies. Perhaps he wants to conduct a survey on the diversity of opinion on Brexit. But he is on record as a Euorsceptic, and universities are known to be places with a great deal to lose if the UK proceeds with separation from the European Community. The suspicion of many academics on my Twitter timeline was that Heaton-Harris was attempting a clumsy exercise in political coercion. Oddly enough, the letter evokes another activity which many academics consider inappropriate surveillance – ‘lecture capture’. There are many entirely legitimate reasons to record lectures for students to access later, but now, this incident has gifted refuseniks a really good reason to resist.

In time for the 1 o’clock news on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, Heaton-Harris tweeted: “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”. As bad luck would have it, Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson had just tweeted a couple of hours previously: “Academic freedom -which we’ve just entrenched in statute in Higher Ed &Research Bill 2017! – is core to success +better protected than ever”.

Oops. Clearly the Whips’ Office had forgotten to copy him in to the letter, and this just made Johnson’s assertion seem disingenuous, and not only because of Heaton-Harris’ blunder. For this is the government which is seeking to make scrutiny of university safeguards over academic freedom a condition for registration with the new regulator, the Office for Students. Perhaps protesting too much, Johnson bit the bullet again at 1.30pm: “Academic freedom absolutely fundamental and protected in statute in our recent Higher Education & Research Act 2017 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/29/enacted …

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK moved swiftly on the UUK website to defend universities against a pernicious assault on their autonomy, “I would ask that Chris Heaton-Harris MP explains his motive for asking universities to share names of their European studies Professors, their course content and lecture notes. This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom.” And just for good measure he decided to remind Jo Johnson that academic freedom has been enshrined in legislation since  the 1988 Education Reform Act which “ensures that academic staff have freedom to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions”.

So what was it that allowed Heaton-Harris’ request to be recognised as a threat, not a request? Simply, it stood out as unprecedented.  It was very specific to a controversial issue about which the government is defensive. Furthermore it asked for names of lecturers AND access to the actual lectures they delivered. It seems redolent of the recent intimidation and marginalization of climate change researchers in the US. And where goes climate change may follow research on evolution, fracking, sexuality, colonialism, petroleum engineering, election hacking and any number of other issues for which there is a prevailing body of knowledge and opinion which may unsettle politicians. Even if Heaton-Harris was motivated by desire for “an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”, he could still claim that it is impeded by a homogeneity of opinion in universities. In the United States such claims have spurred legislation to guarantee political ‘balance’ among university academics in Iowa public universities. Iowa Senate File 288, if enacted, would compel university appointment committees to consult voter registration records in order to hire comparable numbers of Democrat and Republican academics.

You’d like to think it couldn’t happen here, but these are very uncertain times in politics and education. Just as each new outrage from Donald Trump seems to allay the offensiveness of the next, we can predict interference in university autonomy will happen again, especially given the monstering that universities have endured over the summer and autumn. As Thomas Docherty tweeted, “The idea is that next time we will be less shocked. Ten times later, we will be expected to just accept it and comply. And some will, sadly.” But we must resist, and it is reassuring that Universities UK has recognised, and rejected, Heaton-Harris’ threat.

 

 

 

 

When does Prevent prevent freedom of speech?

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

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

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

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

Perhaps staff were not well informed about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The University of Bristol policy states:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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). https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/sharp-increase-first-class-degrees-triggers-standards-debate

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.

 

 

Dragged from the plane in academia…time for a culture hack

I’m sure this incident recorded by a passenger on United Airlines will be remembered long after 10th April 2017.

Watching this poor man being violated and treated so inhumanely disturbed me in a very profound way. It stayed with me as a reminder of what seems like an increasingly uncivil, uncaring and ruthless society. There is a massive amount wrong with being dragged off the plane when you have paid for a seat, and settled in for take-off. Sitting with your family and looking forward to getting home. And then two men charge at you and break your face and humiliate you as if nothing about you was valuable, and as if you didn’t matter to anyone, least of all the company. As if you were a criminal.

We all know that the CEO’s first instinct was to defend the actions of the Chicago ground crew and security. He was forced to backtrack within days in the face of viral bad publicity on social and news media. Then on 28th April 2017 there arrived in my inbox an email from United CEO Oscar Munoz which fulfilled all the criteria for a sincere and abject apology. Most significant was this section:

“It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right”.

Right there, that sounds like a major change of corporate direction. A kinder, humbler more intelligent United Airlines which places trust in the wisdom and experience of its employees. Things may be looking up for United. My rage and fear softened. I dared to think I could bestow the trust they are so anxious to earn. I hope I’m right. They had clearly taken a leaf out of Amtrak’s book when the company emailed customers immediately after the last derailment in Pennsylvania. In that letter, the Amtrak CEO expressed sympathy with bereaved families, and unequivocally took responsibility.

Kate Bowles evidently received the same email from Oscar Munoz as I did. In her recent blog piece, she made the connection between the brutality and carelessness the passenger faced, and some of the behaviour we and our colleagues have been witnessing in universities. At one extreme, we remember the professor slammed to the ground by police for allegedly jaywalking on the campus of Arizona State University. More typically in universities the harm is psychological and involves demoralizing or victimizing colleagues. Kate has now activated ‘dragged off the plane’ as a metaphor for those violations. I found it staggeringly powerful when she placed it in an academic context because this is, after all, what drove me out – watching one after another of my colleagues being dragged off the plane. And Kate points out, it is no easier for those in positions of leadership.

“Workplace leaders, on the other hand, have more on the line; they’re watching the rising tides of redundancy and job casualisation around them, and hoping that by clambering to higher ground they can stay one step ahead of what’s coming. On top of this, they’re increasingly seeing colleagues being dragged from the plane, and responding with helplessness and loss. And this is the climate in which they have to lead”.

It certainly is a tough climate for university leaders, especially middle managers. Many feel pressured by those above them in then hierarchy, and distrusted by those they manage. I often read appeals on Twitter from this constituency – why don’t more academics come forward for leadership roles?

In post-92 UK universities particularly, positions such as Head of Department or Dean are not rotating, they are substantive. This means that if you decide the job isn’t for you, there is no faculty position to step down to. Consequently, the middle manager must learn to align their displays of loyalty towards their masters in the university senior management team, rather than their former academic colleagues. This puts in place structures which exact obedience. An example: a new vice-chancellor arrives and demands a restructuring of faculties and departments. Four departments are collapsed into three, which means somebody loses their Head of Department position. Or another scenario is when the job is redesigned with new criteria and the incumbent has to apply for their own job, or endure a demeaning ‘mapping exercise’ which has less to do with competence than with compliance. As one PVC put it to me, ‘you keep getting shafted’. Dragged from the plane, bruised, humiliated. Your loyalty and willingness to accept leadership and responsibility can swiftly become your downfall. This can lead individuals to shelve those widely-held values of democracy, shared decision making and collegiality that have usually held sway in universities. I have previously blogged about the disgraceful treatment of professors and other senior scholars in universities here and here.

In another blog, Jana Bacevic wonders why, when there are so many critiques of the neoliberal, managerial university, is there so little resistance? I think there may not be so much mystery in this. All academics have been made to feel precarious and unworthy and it has led to a focus on meeting the metrics and staying ahead of the escalating demands of the university’s performance expectations. Raising a voice or organising with colleagues to change these absurd conditions seems too much like a risk when there is a mortgage to pay and children to feed. Managers know this, which is why they build structures to feed on academic insecurities – ‘imposter syndrome’- and incorporate employees into an anxiety machine (Hall and Bowles, 2016). So it is as much as academics dare, to reflect and write about their experiences in a rather dispassionate analytic way. Even this leads to a Catch 22 situation whereby academics find themselves required to publish, but publish to satisfy an urge to rebel by tilting at the REF windmill with their (published and peer-reviewed) critique.

Somehow, over the years, like United Airlines, the scale of perversity has driven a stake through any pretence of shared values within universities. We have forgotten how to use any initiative outside of the policies, procedures and line management which directs our work. And like United, there have been instances of brutality and inhumane treatment, just nobody has yet caught it on video. We know that systems and institutions which place rigid and impersonal procedures ahead of ethics and humanity will fail, and fail publically. They will experience the humiliation they have meted out to their employees and other ‘partners’.

So for me, the question is not why there is so little resistance – clearly bullying and repression account for that, but how can resistance take shape? Kate Bowles offers a way forward.  In order to reclaim our shared values – the values of all those who work within universities – not just those who claim the highest salaries – we must tell our stories and make space to listen to others. This is known as values-centered narrative practice, and university managers would do well to ditch the mindfulness seminars and the aromatherapy rooms and get training on this. In this way, we would enable the co-creation of values narratives which could inform the institution from the ground upwards. It would certainly win more support than the banalities of the strategic plan. We need to do this because the repressive, authoritarian atmosphere of many universities just isn’t us. Hardly a week has gone by since the Times Higher printed my piece on quitting academia that someone hasn’t posted it on Twitter with the news that they too are leaving. A few days ago, I received this email:

“You articulate so well the problems of contemporary academia.  It is important that this issue is public and I thank you for being a voice of reason amongst the madness. Yes, I have made this difficult decision as every day was becoming more and more a battle with my values. I could no longer be proud of what I do, which now feels like exploitation of staff and students for profit to oil the corporate machine.  Dedicated colleagues are so ground down and demoralised that it makes the workplace a grim environment”.  (quoted with permission)

I have had many emails like this and my Twitter timeline is testament to the many voices who feel it is time for academia to do better than this. Whether management or employee, we are well equipped with skills of articulating problems and listening to alternative answers. As Oscar Munoz put it, meaningful actions speak louder than words. It is time for a culture hack. My next post will offer some suggestions for those actions.