Category Archives: Universities

#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.

 

 

 

 

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When does Prevent prevent freedom of speech?

The piece first appeared in Research Professional online forum, 19th September 2017. 

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.

 

Stress fractures: one year on

It is about a year ago since I posted The Kindness of Strangers. It quickly found a lot of readers worldwide. As it travelled, the Times Higher asked my permission to republish it on their blog where it trended for several days. I was obliged to take it down by my former employer, and they forbade me to write any more on stress. The events that unfolded after that are alluded to in this recent piece. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/why-audit-culture-made-me-quit I quit my job to reclaim my academic freedom, and I am now reposting the original piece below.

The post was never about just one university. It was clear from the responses that the issues resonated with many academics at different institutions in different countries, and they continue to do so. Management by metrics is not the provenance of any one higher education system, and neither is the damage to mental health that the pressure to ‘perform’ to targets causes. It is clear in the piece that although the effects of stress were observable among colleagues I know personally – again at different institutions – I am also drawing on the widespread reporting of academic stress in multiple blogs.

Students – I have learned so much about stress and mental health from working with you, and from talking with you about this. I know you understand this, but it bears repeating. The working conditions of the staff who teach you, are your learning conditions. Whatever justifications or denials are uttered, this remains the case. Lecturers who are made ill through work overload cannot give you the time or energy you deserve. In writing this I want to make a difference, and I think it might, because Kate Bowles tweeted this today:

Depression KB snip

Kate also pointed me towards this extraordinary piece by Dr Simon McCormick https://brokentoydotblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/danger-breakdown-ahead/  who narrates the feelings and events that led to his breakdown at work as a consultant in emergency medicine. And then I knew I should re-post in tribute to all those who suffer stress at work.

The kindness of strangers (March 2016)

This week I chose to open up to students about the relentless stress faced by academic staff in universities. Enough of the omerta, the conspiracy of silence.

What made me do this? Well, I have watched one after another of my colleagues taking sick leave, seeking help from occupational health, reporting loss of sleep or just looking exhausted. It is a bleak picture, but it is about to ratchet up a notch further. We learn that the government plans to impose a Teaching Excellence Framework on universities. As if the National Student Survey is not enough, this looks to be a full parade of all the proxy horribles: DLHE (employment data), retention figures, number of firsts and 2.1s (goodbye academic standards and credibility of UK degrees) and something called learning gain. As I blogged previously, there is no consensus on what this is or how to measure it,  but in any case, gears will be grinding in anticipation throughout universities.

So last week I spoke to students about some of the pressures piling in on academics as management-by-metrics toxicity spreads throughout the sector:

  • Pressure to publish, and the fact that our peer-reviewed published research is subject to post hoc internal evaluation by non-experts in our field who assign it a grade 1-4. Unless they judge it as grade 3 or 4 (internationally excellent or world leading), you and your research are seen as inadequate.
  • High expectations of grant capture, with a very low prospect of success. We talked about SMART targets, and the fact that the A stands for attainable.
  • The implicit suggestion that you are only judged worthy if you bring in to the university an amount equal to, or greater than, your salary plus the ‘cost’ of your research. In effect, the status of an academic has slid from institutional asset to indentured servant. In universities sustainable has been untethered from its more usual environmental meaning, and is most often applied to issues of finance (Morrish and Sauntson 2013).
  • The National Student Survey which, in the context of a marketised and consumerist higher education sector, has threatened to turn the relationship between academic staff and students into an adversarial one.

I told them that in many universities, academics are accountable to a dashboard which records these Key Performance Indicators. Vice chancellors issue threats to ‘rank and yank’, i.e. demote or dismiss staff who, particularly, have not been able to secure research grant money. Nobody takes into account whether your research is expensive or not.

I told students that many of these targets are quite outside our control (NSS scores and grant capture). I told them we feel that we are players in some academic version of the Hunger Games where capricious gamesmakers change the rules all the time. Your contract lays out a set of duties, but you would be better off finding out what targets have been set for your Dean. If you are helping them win performance-related pay, you will be tolerated. If you prioritise serving the needs of your students, or scholarship, you make yourself very vulnerable.

I told them you could work 60 hours a week, never take a holiday or weekend off, have internationally regarded publications – lots of them, write textbooks, be a great teacher, and managers will still ask for more. And more.

I told them you are measured only by what you have not managed to achieve, not what you have achieved, never mind how valuable or prestigious.

I told them about the effects of long-term stress on the mind and body. I told them about the death of Stefan Grimm at Imperial University. And they were shocked and frightened that this could happen in a British university. I told them to look up President Alice Gast’s response  when she was asked a direct question about the preventability of Stefan’s death. I hope they read it. [Update: I understand Imperial College has taken some action over staff wellbeing in the intervening 12 months since this was originally posted.]

As I came back to my office there was an email from a Twitter follower, also an academic. We had corresponded but never met.

I’ve just been through a period of a few weeks marked by massive, almost unbearable stress and I’m on the other side of it feeling a bit like I can’t go on as I am in academia, without really knowing what that might mean.  The actual cause of pressure on me was marking, exacerbated by my also having a PhD thesis to read and viva in the same period, and some external examining.  I almost pulled an all-nighter right at the end, and resorted to staying in a hotel one night just to conserve energy for a 9:30am meeting the next day.  There are lessons I can learn from it all (like not putting a PhD viva in a marking period, not that that is likely to happen at all often) though I also think on occasions other of my colleagues have pulled the all-nighter just to get through the workload.  Twice in eight days I had to spend one day basically in bed, utterly exhausted.

Similar stories are shared around on Twitter and on blogs, and it is reassuring in some ways to know you are not the only one struggling to fulfil impossible obligations. Ros Gill (2009) has written about mounting and multiple pressures in academia leading to unmanageable feelings of guilt and anxiety. A scholar in the US recalls struggling to meet the research requirements for tenure.  Amidst anxiety about spending too much time teaching, and guilt at enjoying teaching, she “asked friends with quiet homes if I could visit them for writing weekends” (Albertson 2016). There is a chilling account from Anonymous Academics in The Guardian (2014)  who wrote of a hostile manager unmoved by a professor’s protests of overwork and stress. Some bloggers have suggested that the nature of academic demands play on the symptoms of certain mental illnesses like mania (Tenure She Wrote 2016), and addiction (Ruminations: Life After Academia 2012) but inevitably lead to depression and anxiety.  Others, like Doctor Outta Here,  and the colleague I blogged about some months ago simply decide academia is incompatible with any quality of life. They quit.

Mountz et al (2015) have appealed for feminists to work to a code of slow scholarship as an act of resistance. And Thomas Docherty,, a reliable voice of sanity, has asked for academics to just start saying no.

Maybe you’re thinking it was unprofessional of me to share the personal concerns of academics. My students are ahead of you on this one. They recognise that the personal is political, and that the effects of workplace stress are now having an impact on them. I felt they needed to know some of the context which might explain the deteriorating mental health of some of their lecturers and professors. As my email correspondent put it “How such things get communicated (well, and with care) to students is a real challenge.” I hope I got it right. It felt as if I did. This was not a monologue; students had questions and comments. Most of all they offered support; their responses were simply heartwarming in contrast to the totalising judgement of management by metrics. As I lost my ability to contain my sadness, my voice trembled and I became tearful. A young woman stepped forward and offered a hug. Later more students arrived at my office with coffee and cake, or just concern. Students I barely know out of class offered more humanity and understanding than the managers who are charged with a duty of care to prevent workplace stress. I was humbled and grateful. And so I found the comfort of strangers in unexpected places, and as I said to my Twitter contact, that day is one I won’t quickly recover from. It was, ironically, Universities Mental Health Day.

References

 

Gill, R. 2009. Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in R. Flood & R. Gill (eds) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.

Morrish, L. and Sauntson, H. (2013): ‘Business-facing motors for economic development’: an appraisal analysis of visions and values in the marketised UK university, Critical Discourse Studies, 10 1, 1-20.

Resist, Insist, Persist

One of the things I miss about my life in a university is the recommended reflective feedback sessions with my managers after each staff development training. I’m sure they don’t feel the same. But to continue the habit of a lifetime – and with very sincere gratitude – I want to thank everyone who read this piece I wrote in the Times Higher (2nd March 2017)  Thanks especially to those who commented, retweeted, quoted, DM-ed, emailed or hollered. Reactions fell into largely three categories: congratulation, commiseration and corroboration.

First the congratulations, and there were some lovely QTs which featured adjectives like inspirational, insightful, courageous, powerful, excoriating, remarkable, brilliant. These all made me blush, but these linguistic judgments of esteem and veracity fuelled me with more determination to keep writing.

From the US, a Professor Emerita wrote: “It’s very interesting to read the comments of many here, who speculate on how to rebuild or create a better system, and whether or not that is possible. With such minds as I see among you and your friends, dear Liz, there seems to be a great deal of possibility–and it’s exciting to imagine what very different ways of learning you may bring into being in the coming years”.

From a fellow blogger with a keen critique of university policy and implementation:  “You’ve become a lodestone for us all as an example of the ethic of academia, and how difficult it’s becoming to behave ethical in the current structures. You’ve helped me personally and intellectually Liz – I hope there’s a lot more to come”.

Other colleagues offered commiseration and expressed their own sense of disenchantment.

This was from a union colleague: “It is getting increasingly difficult for me to experience the constant trampling of basic professional ethics. I was disgusted to hear what had happened to you, Liz, after sharing your views on performance management. Sadly so few academics today understand the value of academic freedom, in part because they are not doing work sufficiently controversial as to require its protection”.

It was consoling to hear from a few pro-vice chancellors. One wrote: ” Very sorry to hear about your recent experiences. You seem to have been treated very badly. Your Times Higher article is really effective in keeping these issues on the agenda”.

From another: “When I read your article in the THE this morning I was overwhelmed by a great sadness to think that you had left your university following an absurd ‘disciplinary’ process.  This evening I read it again and I am furious to imagine what nonsense you must have been through.  I am just sorry I did not know about it while the process was in train, to provide solidarity and counsel.  This injustice will remain a running sore as long as it is acceptable to think that the best way to do academic work is outside the academy.  This wrong must be righted.  It is just such a pity that academics and our union (don’t make me laugh) is so bad a mobilising around truly important issues”.

Two readers told me privately that they had broken down in tears after reading my piece. When a person suffers burnout and emotional distress, their own empathic reactions to another’s plight can be overwhelming. This I know from experience.

Others corroborated my analysis by sharing their own experiences of audit culture in universities. The panoptical nature of the surveillance, the punitive actions that accompany it, and the often unattainable targets demanded, all add up to stress, despondency and mental illness. One colleague pointed towards a future of algorithmic performance management of the sort identified at Amazon in the New York Times expose.

“Here at [Russell Group University] we have [XX company] coming in soon which allows real time micro level performance management via ‘dashboards’ recording all data on all staff for the duration of the ‘staff member’s life cycle’…. I guess that means electronic module evaluation feedback to save processing time, being added to H-index etc. data. Although this is denied by managers, part of the purpose with this is to strip out middle management and allow central / senior management to set targets for ‘teams’ and saying they can ‘liaise’ with the ‘core member’ if they need resources to achieve their targets, which really means, ‘we have direct control, total ‘transparency’ and can get rid of teams that ask for too much”.

A colleague in Australia DM-ed: “I’ve just come out of a traumatic couple of weeks in which I was asked to write a self-evaluation report identifying and quantifying my value to the university. I’ve been told that unless I can come up with some ‘low-hanging fruit’ in the short term my days are numbered etc. And I am – by any measure – a highly productive academic with millions of dollars in grant money, a plethora of publications etc”.

A colleague at another Russell Group University wrote: “The problem seems to me to be that the institution’s demands for compliance wreck our intellects (and our resolve and resilience), while stamping on us with disciplinary power whenever we point this out”.

This theme was best summarized in a tweet by one respected commentator (well, I respect him, and if he’s reading, I’d be really chuffed if he’d follow me on Twitter. Like what else do I need to do??):  “Powerful piece by @lizmorrish in THE today; something is going horribly wrong with way academic staff are managed”.

A colleague at yet another Russell Group University which has had its own issues with metrics reflected on the influence of a talk I gave in November 2015: “Thanks too for the mention of our success in [Russell Group University] in resisting a ghastly outcomes-based performance-management system last year. You came and gave an insightful and inspiring critique of it to a UCU branch meeting, which provided us with courage and the intellectual tools to tackle it. I am sure you will continue to play such a role. How can those of us still in universities support you at this time and going forwards?”

After such a show of appreciation, I can honestly say that I do feel supported – anchored, actually – in a community of scholars from which my former employer thought I had been ejected. I am fortunate to be able to continue writing, blogging and reaching out on Twitter and hopefully connecting and influencing that way. So in that sense I am ok. It’s the rest of you left behind that I worry about, so let me make some suggestions.

The people who need our concerted support are those whose academic freedom is compromised because their contracts are temporary or zero hours forcing them into the hire and fire economy of contingent labour. They dread questioning authority and have no real autonomy either in the classroom or outside of it. Thankfully, our union is campaigning on this issue. We must put pressure on universities to take measures for sustainable careers post-PhD.  The University of Birmingham is making a start with its research fellowship scheme – 5 years of research followed by a lectureship. This is a positive development.

We must talk to colleagues and students about the effects that work-related stress is having. When I was still working at a university, I was often sought out by colleagues for these conversations because my research and stance offered reassurance that it was the system and structures which were the problem, not the individual. This remains the case, despite all the wellbeing workshops and employee assistance programs being implemented across the sector. Unless we challenge management-by-metrics, academics will continue to get ill. This recent article in the Guardian Academics Anonymous addresses the embargo on talking about stress and mental health in universities. As my Times Higher piece reveals – there can be penalties for breaking the code of omerta, but we must.

We must resist collapsing our academic identities into a set of data points and spurious proxy metrics for ‘performance’. Let’s not talk about being REFable, or incorporate our h-index into our email signature. Instead, resolve to have conversations about interesting research, and how we add to it or want to integrate it into our teaching.

We can put pressure on our institutional managers to sign up to DORA: the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment. Imperial College has just become a signatory, and several UK research universities have now committed to this pledge not to use journal-based metrics in hiring and promotion decisions.

Universities are held in thrall by the REF, and will presumably be so again with the TEF as long as government uses these mechanisms to control funding. It is sometimes hard to differentiate unavoidable external constraints from gratuitous control of academics’ behaviour. But if we empty academic careers of autonomy, then we risk being left with universities full of dressage ponies.  Let’s resolve to use our own judgement in our ‘self-directed research and scholarship’. We owe that to our students and our disciplines.

We should reject the damaging discourse of ‘excellence’ that has invaded every corner of universities. This is critiqued in an excellent paper by Moore et al. (2017). As the authors point out, excellence is not a discoverable quality. It is, of course, a fiction. At best it is a discursive strategy to normalise the achievements of the most talented and ambitious academics and make everyone else seem deficient by comparison. At worst it is a smokescreen for what Joyce Canaan calls ‘a culture of crappiness’. Moore et al. recommend that we retrain ourselves to evaluate our academic endeavours in terms of soundness and capacity.

And lastly we must ask our union branches to monitor any rise in disciplinary actions against colleagues, and scrutinize the effects on academic freedom, or rise in fear of inappropriate reprisals. There is a perception that there has been more frequent recourse to these procedures, but we need evidence and consistent monitoring.

I am grateful to Agnes Bosanquet who blogs at The Slow Academic. She writes about small targeted acts of resistance (STARS). In a citation she gives these examples: “Individuals were deliberately maintaining their research interests in defiance of perceived [audit]-rewarded tends; departments were actively pursuing collegial rather than competitive practices.”

These are all things we can do individually and collectively to resist the erasure of our academic autonomy by audit and the limits that discourse sets for our sense of achievement.

Some of my colleagues asked me why, unlike Marina Warner in this hard-hitting piece and another,  I refrained from naming the institution I left. The first reason is because my critique has never been intended to single out one institution – the problems are quite manifestly sector-wide. The second reason is more complex. The managers who chose to pursue me with disciplinary action will recognise themselves in the piece. The postmodernists among us would call this interpellation, and in queer theory, individuals are interpellated by shame if they respond to a hailing. They are hardly likely to step forward and claim their ignominy by objecting, in the same way they shut me down the last time. On that occasion they isolated me with a bond of silence. Now I have turned the tables and gagged them. One small targeted act of resistance.