Category Archives: Universities

Frozen, but Solid: #USSstrikes 2018

Thanks to someone on Twitter for supplying the title for this piece. Since the USS strikes began, I have been interested to see which of my Twitter follows has been tweeting strike-related material and which have ignored it. However, it occurred to me that I was yet to offer anything more than a few tweets myself. Some might say I have no ‘skin in the game’ because I am looking forward, in due course, to receiving a government-backed, defined-benefit TPS pension. Such critics are the sort of people who assume everybody else is as exclusively motivated by self-interest as they are. On the contrary, it has always been clear to me that this strike is pivotal; it is higher education’s PATCO moment in that, if the strikes fail to secure defined-benefit pensions for USS members, we may as well all forget holding on to many more of our rights as workers.

I won’t rehearse UCU’s position on the disputed valuation of the scheme. It is sufficient to say that all UCU members, younger and older, are now far more financially literate on pensions than they would otherwise have been. Additionally, we have all been educated that pensions are not ‘perks’ or ‘benefits’; they are deferred wages which should be responsibly stewarded until we claim them at retirement.

There are some other very positive things have come out of this strike, and more will follow. Perhaps the most conspicuous gain is that there has been a mass recognition of the value of solidarity, together with the sheer joy of strikers finding they do indeed belong to a community. As academics and professional staff have stood together in the appalling weather over the last few days, they have rediscovered the fun of academia. If imaginative, energetic, knowledgeable people are given the opportunity to chat to each other, mess around, dance and sing, who knows what brilliant ideas will emerge? Quite a few from the sound of it.

USS strikes Baty tweet

The irony is that so many have pointed out that in the course of a regular day’s work at a university, such productive and unplanned meetings would probably not occur. That alone should concern managers, but what else can they learn from this moment of industrial action?

Academics need the time, head space and physical space that afford optimum conditions for research and thinking to occur. The picket lines have allowed strikers to exchange experiences of university workplaces, and it is clear that one source of discontent is the removal of social spaces where random encounters can take place. In many cases, ‘space utilisation’ surveys have justified the re-appropriation of staff common rooms. Vast, empty atriums with foam sofas in primary colours are not conducive to community and collegiality. As one tweep wrote, without spaces to talk, we are atomized and alienated. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, and mentioned this particular meeting of minds at the University of Nottingham.

It is far less likely that there’s going to be a happy coincidence like the one that brought together an Anglo Saxon scholar and a microbiologist . The former knew of potions and remedies contained in the ancient Leechbook and she wondered whether they would work today as antibacterial agents. The latter decided to give it a go, and as a result, we have one new weapon against MRSA.

But space is not the only factor inhibiting the emergence of new collaborations. For fortuitous meetings to happen, and for imaginations to roam free, there must be spare time. This has become an unpopular idea with university managers who have embraced new workload models and staff dashboards to ensure that every lecturer and professor is fully scheduled up to their contractual maximum. I remember when I was a UCU official on the ‘information and consultation forum’ and this was first proposed at my former workplace. I was thanked, confidentially, by several heads of department, when I pointed out the inevitable consequences of ensuring that every academic was fully timetabled. Now that such practices are widespread, we can see that my fears have been realised. Take a look at this excellent piece of research. The author has made FOI requests on the numbers of staff referrals to occupational health and counselling services at each university. The rises have been dramatic over six years – 64% and 77% respectively, and these figures signify an appalling crisis of staff mental health.

Another issue mentioned by a striker is that actual hours worked increase year on year, while the hours credited to your workload remain the same or even decrease. How does this accounting trick happen? Workloads are divided into categories. It is hard to misrepresent actual class contact time, but you can pour more students into a class by raising the staff-student ratio, which in some university departments would disgrace a 1950s primary school. Then you can reduce the time for teaching-related activities, like tutoring, setting assessments and marking them – at the same time as demanding that formative as well as summative feedback is ‘delivered’ to students with lightning speed after submission. I won’t even start on time allocated for administrative tasks as the mere memory of it all give me vertigo.

And yes, these fictitious workloads have been conjured by the very people who have overseen the valuation of your pension scheme.

Another miscalculation by the employers has been the views of students. Lots of them have expressed fulsome support for their lecturers,  and I’m sure that has kept the strikers buoyant. The myth of the student as truculent and demanding customer has been thoroughly busted as students have joined the picket lines. The great success story has been the inspired provision of teach-outs which have covered everything from modernist poetry to pensions forecasting and risk assessment. They have been occasions for both staff and students to experience what it would be like to teach and learn beyond the shadow of learning outcomes, NSS, TEF, Evasys, Prevent, Panoptico lecture capture and without some clown from space utilisation barging in. Quite a few teach-outs broached the subject of the marketised, consumerised and finacialised academy that has seen vice chancellors abdicate academic leadership and the defence of public universities in favour of a new role in asset management. Students seem satisfied that they have learned something this week, and staff are all the more gratified because they have escaped the unbearable compulsion of audit.

bath teachout

These problems cannot be dismissed – trivialised – as one striking tweep wrote, as ‘failure to communicate’. This is the last refuge of the mediocre manager who thinks the response to every justifiable grievance is a louder megaphone and a larger stick. To the surprise of Universities UK and the vice chancellors who represent universities with USS members, the public seemed to sympathise with workers who were facing vastly reduced pension terms. Perhaps the ground had been softened by a sustained campaign of vilification against VCs by the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and the Observer. It was a good week for Channel 4 to run a Dispatches report on their high salaries and evidence of reckless spending on expenses. In any case, VCs were probably surprised to find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, and just as astonished to find they had lost control of the narrative that students were getting as well.

There is a new and jubilant tenor to the tweets and blogs I’m seeing. But as UUK and UCU enter talks again, UCU members are building momentum for the next wave of strikes. The delight in camaraderie seems to be outweighing fears of poverty, even for the casualized workers who are being penalized the most. If not exactly shedding their chains, I see workers emboldened to act against the injustice of what employers are proposing. I see workers who have just had enough. And acting in this defiant way is a new experience for a workforce bullied even now by threats of pay docking for working to the limits of their contractual obligations. Younger workers will be formed by this industrial action and they will be less susceptible to coercion in the future.

Many strikers wrote that they have been let down for decades by university leaders. ‘Sold out’ appears in several tweets. They feel vice chancellors have caved in too many times to government demands to the point where universities have conceded all meaningful autonomy. Adam Tickell came in for particular dishonourable mention with several economic geographers perusing the University of Sussex VC’s previous published writings where he wishes to ‘slay the neoliberal beast’ (1995) and praises the value of dependable pensions.

But there are also some commendations to award. At this point the membership of Universities UK is split. First out of the blocks was Stuart Croft of the University of Warwick, followed swiftly by Chris Day of Newcastle University saying he didn’t know “what else they could do to express their concerns about the current situation”. Then one by one some big hitters posted their support for more talks, and specifically support for a defined-benefits element to USS. Strikers were moved by the appearance on picket lines of Sir Anton Muscatelli of the University of Glasgow, Robert Allison of Loughborough University and there were even cups of tea sent round by Chris Day. This will be remembered when it is time to rebuild goodwill. And that is important for the future of universities because strikers are insistent and vociferous that pensions are just the starting point and there are many more grievances to be worked through on their return to work. The pension scheme needs to be on a solid footing and sustainable in the long term, but so do academic and professional careers.



In Development

Like a lot of other people, I watched Carrie Gracie give evidence to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on January 31st 2018. Gracie, as you may recall, resigned as the BBC’s China Editor in early January after finding she was paid 50% less than male counterparts.

A review conducted by auditors PwC and published on Tuesday concluded there was “no evidence of gender bias in pay decision-making” at the BBC. Bias in decision-making is not the same as bias exposed by outcomes, of course. Nice side-step. Nice obfuscation. Nevertheless, a group known as BBC Women countered with reports of ‘veiled threats’ if they petitioned for equal pay and “a wider culture of gender discrimination, which can be seen in patterns of promotion, especially after women take maternity leave.”

Carrie Gracie’s evidence was electric. She was passionate, committed and above all outraged. She kept her emotions in check but the hurt of that burning insult was palpable. Gracie had just been informed of the outcome of her grievance with the corporation in which she claimed the reason given for paying her less than her counterparts was that she was ‘in development’. At age 55. After 30 years. And when she was in post as an international editor.

I watched this and wept as my own memories of witnessing similar degradations in academia resurfaced. I recognised the mythologies of HR-bots, of continuous development and improvement. After all, nobody must be granted the conceit of expertise and value, or the sense of having ‘arrived’. That might render them less easy to control.

Gracie spoke about the “strain of being in conflict” and that, in the process, managers had attempted to “to crush your self-esteem about your work”. Other women employed by the BBC confirmed this. Samira Ahmed, quoted in the New York Times had this to say:

“I can only describe the feeling of being kept on much lower pay than male colleagues doing the same jobs for years as feeling as though bosses had naked pictures of you in their office and laughed every time they saw you,” Ms. Ahmed wrote. “It is the humiliation and shame of feeling that they regarded you as second class, because that is what the pay gap means.”

When you have seen managers unite into an impregnable cult, you recognise the manoeuvres. As well as denial of expertise, we see lies, obfuscations, post-hoc justifications, moving of goal posts, minimisation of role, diminishment of contribution and equivocation of responsibility. Here are those instances faced by Gracie and others in BBC Women, together with their academic equivalents.

Just in case the ‘in development’ line failed to get over the credibility hurdle, the Director General, Lord Tony Hall, and the Head of BBC News, Fran Unsworth, devised a post-hoc justification to present the two jobs – North America Editor and China Editor – as not at all equivalent. Lord Hall said: “We will not discriminate on gender between anybody but there are differences in the work, the nature of the work and the amount of work between say North America and China. Fran Unsworth explained that determination of value was nothing to do with geography, or the fact that Gracie had to be fluent in another language, or deal with relentless and intimidatory efforts at censorship. “It’s a different job, the China job. It’s a more features-based agenda, it’s not on the relentless treadmill that something like the North America editor’s job is.” The North America editor was on air “twice as much in peak time – and that is at a busy time in the China story”, she added.

Does this remind you of frequent moving of goal posts in universities, so that finally meeting last year’s criteria for promotion results in just a shrug at this year’s appraisal? And then there is the position of responsibility that always merited a promoted grade, until suddenly it didn’t. Or the promotion that was rescinded when it was – surprise! – revealed to be just a secondment. It is always justified in terms that the role has changed, become less central to the university’s mission, is much less onerous after the last restructure (with no justification) and so that’s why we have regraded the post AND reduced the hours credited to your workload. It always drives a coach and horses through the National Framework Agreement which has been quietly discarded by university managers.  And similarly, are you an academic who has built a reputation via the publication of scholarly monographs ? That is so over! The REF has ensured the supremacy of the science model which privileges journal articles supported by metrics of journal impact factors and citation indices. The promised reward seems to continually elude us, and even if confirmed, we understand it is temporary and contingent.

Many women will recognise the next step. As women take over roles, they are likely to be at a downgraded. This seemed to be confirmed by Ms Unsworth with this line on minimisation of role to BBC News: “Entertainment is a much more competitive market than news is, and has become increasingly competitive”. Good grief. Evidently, she is taking her cue from the kind of cabinet minister who seems set on running down their department, financially and in terms of reputation. Nothing is off limits for crush-the-opposition managerialism. Who cares about news in 2018? We’re only seeing the fall of western democratic institutions.

It is distressing to read the accounts of how many BBC Women were made to feel worthless. We remember the case in 2011 of Miriam O’Reilly who successfully pursued an employment tribunal case against the BBC for ageism and victimisation. Yesterday Victoria Derbyshire retweeted this message she received about herself “To be quite honest you’re nothing special.” Gracie suspected high-level briefing against the merits of her case, and Fran Unsworth, BBC Head of News is alleged to have said that Gracie worked part time. Unsworth denies this. 

It is all rather reminiscent of this piece I wrote two-and-a-half  years ago about the imposition on academics of unattainable targets, constant surveillance and audit, and the knowledge that any dip in ‘performance’ may see their contracts terminated. Academics, in cultural studies anyway, are sustained by scholarship which theorises their experience. I have often turned to the work of Nick Couldry (2005) who offers us the notion of ‘theatres of cruelty’ legitimised by a society which has taken a socially Darwinian turn. And if Gracie had suffered in such a theatre, she returned the favour yesterday. Much as we envied her the satisfaction of humiliating her seniors in a televised spectacle, we are aware that this must have been at a huge personal cost. We witnessed the ebbing of faith in an institution she had revered, and shuddered at the denigration of her talent. Like the superb Gracie, many academics measure their self-worth and define themselves by their work. Most are intrinsically motivated to do their best work, and a simple expression of thanks is often all that is required to secure their loyalty. Even that was denied. Gracie tells that she received no official appreciation as she stepped down. That is inexcusable incivility.

But on with the insults. Lord Hall proudly equivocated responsibility and boasted “Wherever I can, properly, we have been trying to appoint women to key roles at the BBC – key roles in news, key roles as correspondents and reporters in news”  even as he added: “That’s not saying I’m happy with where we are.” The most stunning revelation of wilful non-comprehension emerged when Lord Hall emphasised, “I don’t believe there is an old boys network, I believe in equality of opportunity” and added: “The idea of some old boys club, I abhor. That is not the way I believe that BBC should be or is.” At that point Jo Stevens MP asked Lord Hall how he had obtained his job as Director General.

In develpment Jo Stevens

Although the guilelessness was comical, this comment on Twitter by Esther Webber was perceptive  – and Jo Stevens retweeted: “This is why I don’t think the BBC leadership gets it”. #bbcpay #bbcwomen @BBCCarrie @NUJofficial

Some may say that the BBC Women are privileged to work in an organisation which permits them to openly criticize it. That is not the point, however. And it’s also not about the money, it’s about the shabby treatment and above all, it’s about the lies. As Gracie said herself, “We’re not in the business of producing toothpaste or tyres at the BBC. Our business is truth. We can’t operate without the truth”. And I’m sure there will shortly be much disingenuous managerial pontificating about ‘lessons learned’.

Universities have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to employee relations or dealing reasonably with scholars who exercise their right to criticize the system they work in. And again here. The Times Higher reported in 2014 that universities were forced to pay out £19 million in employment disputes,  and reports of bullying are rising in universities. It is this toxic culture that has seen many late-career women head for the exits.

CNN has a segment with Anderson Cooper titled Keeping them Honest which investigates the seedier side of politics, power and business. What we have all failed to realise is that with implacable liars, shame has no purchase, because they are shameless. I suggest that perhaps our leaders might consider themselves to be ‘in development’. Lessons in humanity, fairness and morality are urgently required to fill this developmental void.


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 other than English and Irish Gaelic 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.

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.




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 …

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

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.