Category Archives: Universities

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.

Answers to the Vice Chancellors’ Annual Quiz 2016

Happy New Year. Here are the answers to the 25 questions I posted on 13th December. Nobody attempted all of them, so the prize remains unclaimed. I will, though, offer a commendation to Michael Carley – clearly a promising VC-fancier.

Which vice-chancellor, principal or provost (and one ex):

  1. Raised the bar for academic staff….and then lowered it again? [Chris Brink, Newcastle University]
  2. Rejected government calls for universities to sponsor schools, saying it would be ‘a distraction from our core mission’? [Louise Richardson, University of Oxford]
  3. Told a meeting of ECRs “we have no security to offer you. It is so easy for us to replace you”? [Michael Arthur, UCL]
  4. Criticised university leaders for being too wedded to outdated notions of the heroic in leadership, and acting like Zeus not Athena? [Janet Beer, University of Liverpool]
  5. Caused controversy by saying “society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian”. [Patrick Johnston, Queen’s University Belfast]
  6. Reportedly added £2 worth of biscuits to a £20,000 expenses bill? [Dame Glynis Breakwell, University of Bath]
  7. Lost a no-confidence vote by staff after unpopular cost-cutting measures. [David Bell, University of Reading, or Peter Horrocks, Open University]
  8. Was knighted in 2016? [Sir Paul Curran, City University London]
  9. Did the mannequin challenge at the graduation ceremony? [Jane Harrington, University of the West of England]
  10. Said “great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends on it”? [Sir Keith Burnett, University of Sheffield]
  11. Has been appointed Chair of the TEF? [Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam University]
  12. Said the TEF is ‘a further safeguard for students, one that has now been largely accepted by the sector’? [Edward Peck, Nottingham Trent University]
  13. Does the open day talk for the mathematics course at their university? [Alistair Fitt, Oxford Brookes University]
  14. Said Brexit is “the catalyst we all need”? [Sir David Greenaway, University of Nottingham]
  15. Was the most recent VC to appear on Desert Island Discs? [Louise Richardson, University of Oxford]
  16. Is the UK’s longest-serving VC? [John Cater, Edge Hill University]
  17. Heads the league table for spending on air fares among VCs in Wales? [Colin Riordan, Cardiff University]
  18. Born in Germany, moved to Ireland, back to Germany, back to Ireland, to England, back to Ireland and now in Scotland. Best known for his report on governance in Scottish HE. [Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, Robert Gordon University]
  19. Is the most highly ranked VC on the Wonkhe HE Power List 2016? [Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, University of Cambridge]
  20. Said, “Professors are really like small business owners”? [Alice Gast, Imperial College]
  21. Dressed up as Bonnie Tyler for a charity fund raiser? [Dominic Shellard, De Montfort University]
  22. Used to be a van driver, and once crowd surfed among his students? [Nick Petford, University of Northampton]
  23. Was reportedly once housed in a homeless hostel? [Mary Stuart, University of Lincoln]
  24. Spent £95,000 on a set of ceremonial chairs? [Wendy Purcell, Ex-VC Plymouth University]
  25. The answer is Professor Sir Steve Smith, University of Exeter. Suggested questions in comments please. [Disappointingly, there were no suggested questions. But just who is that Santa sipping a marguerita in the photo above?]

More next year, so be good in 2017, vice-chancellors. Be very good.

Metaphors we work by

This post has been inspired by a vigorous discussion on Twitter initiated by a question from Jesse Stommell (@jessifer) (6th November) who had been attending the recent #opened16 conference. “How many of us have been told our work doesn’t count as research or scholarship? How many teachers, adjuncts, activists? How many students”? The question raises issues of autonomy, academic judgement, academic freedom – and all the mechanisms of audit and regulation which act to compromise these, making academic work and research a contested area of access and legitimation.

Helen Sauntson (@HelenSauntson) and I have been investigating how discourse constructs notions of what counts as academic labour, and we started by analysing the discourse of university managerial training courses. The choice of managerial, not management, is deliberate. Managerialism offers the sense of management for its own sake, of management as the central and privileged purpose of the university. Managerialism imposes ‘false’ needs (Klikauer 2013) – inconsequential management demands for their own sake – or rather for the purpose of rendering employees subordinate.  The management training courses, and the materials and documents used within them circulate widely in most university environments and their aim is to effect the reconstitution of academic subjectivities as ‘corporatised’. Included in our survey were documents from several universities’ courses: Personal Development Review (PDR) training, a team leadership course for middle managers, and a module on change management. We have carried out an analysis of the key metaphors used throughout the training course documents.

The rationale of PDR is to make sure that all employees’ objectives are in alignment with the university’s Strategic Plan. One of the possible outcomes of the process is that the employee may be recommended for a performance related pay award. It usually lies in tandem with the university’s performance management process, which ostensibly is designed to diagnose under-performance.

The team leadership course was designed to support employees across the university who had line management responsibilities. The course was detailed and drew on theories of management: teams, change, strategy, leadership, values. It was taught in three modules, consisting of two full days of activities, led by a facilitator. The associated learning packs, slides and documents provide the data.

Change Management was a companion module to the team leadership course, and the associated training pack provided the data. This module was aimed at senior university staff who were deemed to be in a position to implement change.

Metaphors

Metaphors are figures of speech. Words or phrases are used non-literally so that the usual literal ones are displaced, temporarily or habitually, in a particular context. Words are employed symbolically in order to activate images, and thereby associated meanings. For example, in the data of the management courses, work is presented using metaphors of sport. The frequent occurrence of such metaphors means that working in a university is constructed as competitive and is never described in any other terms. These metaphors also present a zero-sum scenario of victory or failure. The density of this lexicon is quite extraordinary. Examples include:

  • How do we kick it [change] off?
  • Kotter argues that many change projects fail because victory is declared too early.
  • Quick wins are only the beginning of what needs to be done.
  • ‘…striving to accomplish pre-determined goals or objectives…
  • The use of specific tactics can also smooth the change process.
  • …emphasises the need for keeping in the win-win area.
  • Targets will be set by the line manager and/or the management of the area and must support the goals of the department.
  • Coaching is about helping someone to get the best performance out of themselves – the potential for which was already there. Coaching is about releasing that potential.
  • This simple model takes the three questions of the sports coach

More concerning is the appearance of metaphors of war in relation to performance management.

  • …how to motivate survivors of a savage round of downsizing.
  • When people feel they are under attack, one response is to become defensive. This might result in territory battles
  • I quickly spot, and take advantage of, weaknesses in competitors.
  • Such individuals are not overtly self-protective or inclined to wage turf wars.
  • What might you do to sabotage your own efforts to reach this goal?

Examples such as these fit with a neoliberal conception of universities as competitive, not collaborative, and concerned with dominance. How often have we heard about education and its role in making us ‘internationally competitive’?  The aim is to win, or, even better, to win-win. We notice that a discourse is created in which it is acceptable (or even encouraged and celebrated) to exploit implied ‘weaknesses’ in a competitor or opponent.

As the opportunities for research funding diminish and panic escalates, the metaphors become more alarmingly violent. I have seen one university’s research newsletter which features cartoons and images depicting research as a gruelling, tortuous process. Achieving impact, for example, is illustrated with a mallet poised to crack an egg. The process of peer review is portrayed in a cartoon where a white-coated scientist is set to run a gauntlet of enemies with swords, cudgels, axes, a chainsaw and at the end the grim reaper ready to strike him down. The ‘welcome to the new academic year’ email from one vice chancellor mentioned that they had enjoyed a two-week holiday getting acquainted with a new chainsaw, which they had found ‘therapeutic’. This was taken by the appalled employees to have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. One academic, recently promoted, was told they were on a ‘burning platform’ with a time-limited window before successful progression to the next level would be expected.

The work of academics and their experience with the management and structures of the university is presented as an exercise in mortification of the body and psyche. We are seemingly imprisoned in the logic of these metaphors, with all their neoliberal ideological underpinnings. With repetition, this discourse is normalised and institutionalised as a commendable activity; the danger is that we become desensitized to our own objectification.

It is only too evocative of the disintegration of public discourse in the recent US election. We are now left to contemplate the widespread endorsement of bullying, boastfulness and aggression. On Channel 4 News, reporting on the eve of the election Kylie Morris asked, ‘is this a permanent retreat from civility’? It probably is. Another academic colleague emailed this commentary: “the fact that we are asked/required/disciplined to become ever more the hard, ruthless, competitive, economistic, justice-indifferent, homogenised, torture-normalising/enduring, Embodied Metric while all of this is going on, says just about everything.”

References

Klikauer, Thomas. 2013. Managerialism. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan.

TEF Times: 2nd Reading of the HE Bill

In July 2016 we are contemplating a new period of instability for universities in the UK, and with the passing of the 2nd reading of HE Bill, things could quickly get a lot worse. The EU Referendum result has already created uncertainty regarding the future of much of our research funding. It seems there is much uncertainty at the top of UKHE: Universities UK (‘the definitive voice of UK universities’) has asked for the government to press the pause button on HE reform , Meanwhile, the vice-chancellors of Nottingham Trent and Exeter Universities argue for forging ahead with reform and the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Maddalaine Ansell, CEO of the University Alliance, appears to agree with the latter in her prediction that the HE Bill will take the sector to calmer waters.  Ansell’s premise is that there will be a benefit from having all legislation relating to HE encompassed in one piece of legislation: The Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Except it won’t, of course. A moment’s reflection allows us to list student loans, students with disabilities, and academic freedom – all of which have separate legislation. Additionally, Ansell appears to overlook the added complications of teaching and research which will now be overseen by different government departments since Theresa May’s July ministerial reshuffle. It is a complicated picture, and I cannot see any advantage to deepening it.

Let us remind ourselves just how disruptive these changes proposed by the White Paper entitled Success as a Knowledge Economy (SKE) will be. They include an invitation to new private ‘challenger institutions’ who may be granted degree-awarding powers more quickly than previous regulation allowed. There are changes proposed to governance, academic freedom and protections against arbitrary dismissal which appear to infringe the historic autonomy that universities enjoyed from government. A critique of the proposed changes can be found in an Alternative White Paper (AWP), authored by a group of concerned academics can be found here.

The most unnecessary and wasteful plan in the White Paper is for a Teaching Excellence Framework. This has been proposed to correct supposedly ‘lamentable’ teaching (AWP p28). The paragraphs which outline how this will work display some baffling logical linkages. Here are some of the assertions made in the paragraphs which outline the justification for the TEF:

  • higher education leads to better employment outcomes, but these outcomes are not consistent;
  • there is considerable variation in employment outcomes and employability amongst subjects and across institutions;
  • students often enter HE with little information to guide their choices;
  • students often say they would have chosen a different course;
  • the importance of students having access to a wide array of work experience opportunities;
  • a recent IFS study also found huge variance in graduate earnings depending on choice of subject and institution, as well as background;
  • higher average earnings mean that graduates make an important contribution to society through their tax revenues;
  • employers and HE providers working together on curriculum design, and graduates having the ‘soft skills’ they need to thrive in the work environment. (SKE p42).

Apparently, the answer to all of these is the TEF which they claim will raise teaching standards. From 2018/19, an award of excellent or outstanding will permit an HEI to increase its fees in line with inflation. Others, even those meeting expectations, will suffer various degrees of attrition and their students condemned to a ‘choice’ of an educational resource eroded by inflation.

The government remains confident that good teaching can be measured on an institutional basis, but the first point to emphasize is that these measures are, as the White Paper admits, proxies, not measures of good teaching which transpires in classrooms and other learning contexts.

“Such things can be measured: students assess their satisfaction with their courses, retention rates are a good proxy for student engagement, contact hours can be measured, employers choose to sponsor some courses, or work with some institutions, because of the industry-relevance of their offerings, and employment rates can be measured. Some of these metrics are of course proxies – but they directly measure some of the most important outcomes that students and taxpayers expect excellent teaching to deliver. And we recognise that metrics alone cannot tell the whole story; they must be benchmarked and contextualised, and considered alongside the additional narrative that can establish a provider’s case for excellence”. (SKE p46)

Secondly, nowhere in the White Paper is there any evidence of so-called lamentable teaching. In fact the published NSS figures show the opposite. Taken nationally, the average figure is extremely high at 86% (England 2015 NSS results) with a rather small range of scores. So why, asks Dorothy Bishop, is there any need for a TEF?

It is hard to avoid the implication that there is likely to be a shift in the direction of prioritising graduate earnings, and indeed, it is one of the proposed measures as the TEF moves towards “a more granular and informative assessment of graduate outcomes” (SKE p48). Possibly the best expose of this misguided proxy measure was the study published in April by the IFS. It demolishes graduate salary as a metric, with its finding that “Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities.”  Although this study is acknowledged in SKE, the logic is not absorbed. If we can assume that excellent teaching will not be restricted to more socially advantaged students, what relevance is there to measuring graduate earnings? We can detect an implicit threat in the White Paper that the government may seek to pressure universities to close courses which do not deliver the right ‘outcomes’, i.e. graduates who are able to earn enough to pay back the cost of their student loans. That, then, is the real purpose of this metric. Purely ideological – your graduates don’t pay back – your course is closed.

“In creating the OfS, the regulation of higher education will be restructured, shifting from an outdated, top-down model of a funding agency to a market regulator clearly focused on the student interest. We will give the OfS an explicit duty to promote choice and competition, which will increase quality and efficiency in the sector, and will expect the OfS to work closely with the Student Loans Company and Government to ensure the decisions it takes have regard to affordability and deliver value for money for the taxpayer”. (SKE p63)

In 2017/18 the TEF will be run on a voluntary basis. A ‘provider’ can opt in, presumably if it wishes to establish a good reputation for teaching. A mock league table of benchmark-adjusted metrics published by the Times Higher showed that the Russell Group universities were eclipsed by a Midlands triangle of Loughborough, Aston and De Montfort universities. But this could also be part of the script. The government is creating the conditions whereby the Russell Group flounce out of the TEF and follow the incentives towards privatisation. It is only a matter of time before the elite universities follow their counterparts in Australia and start charging variable fees which will have nothing to do with teaching quality and everything to do with accrued reputation – something which the White Paper claims it wishes to dismantle. Rather than providing concrete information on which students can base their choices, this uninformative snapshot will leave students confused between choosing between the dodgy dossiers of established reputation and the imposter proxies of the TEF.

The TEF will do nothing to increase good teaching, curtail bad teaching or provide students with any more guidance than they already have. And if the REF is anything to go by, it will involve escalating costs and a scale of wastage which makes older, experienced academics weep with regret at what could be achieved if only the money were spent wisely. The cost-benefit analysis is provided by Dorothy Bishop here.

Universities have gone along with the REF because (up to now at least) there were reputational, even if few financial, gains to be won. The TEF allows for little financial gain, and also looks to be repeating some of the reputational mistakes of the early QAA subject reviews which denounced some subjects as failing. The TEF, even when it launches its disciplinary-level ‘granularity’ will not be a ‘game changer’.

Even though universities now have the tools to immediately individualise TEF scores of student satisfaction, nobody is going to be poached by an HEI for their superior teaching scores. Similarly, I would imagine that few academics will be to be tempted to move to a stronger teaching department. And bear in mind, academics have limited agency to affect outcomes such as retention, student satisfaction and employment. Students may be very satisfied with individual teachers, while perceiving elements of the course to be disappointing, funding to be inadequate, accommodation too expensive or the claims of family or paid employment to be stronger.

For universities it is another hurdle to be surmounted. A promised tuition rise in line with inflation will be quickly consumed in the arms race to enhance the institutional image. But the government’s nudge unit will clock up another win as soon as it achieves the desired outcomes; privatisation of an elite tier of universities free to charge whatever they wish, and perhaps, the closure of a few universities which have widened participation, but failed to compensate for the calculated upward distribution of wealth which has been part of the neoliberal project. Whether the HE Bill is creative disruption or reckless joyriding remains to be seen.

Brexit – is this Schrödinger’s neoliberalism?

The day after what the BBC has been calling a seismic event is bound to feel rather numbing. The prospect of leaving the EU is disorienting and scary precisely because no manifesto, no roadmap has ever been presented by the quitters. Everybody is wondering what it will mean for them, and there is no guidance. We’re used to getting that much within minutes after the Chancellor’s budget statements. But today, we’re all feeling bewildered about jobs, mortgages, pensions, the NHS, tax, bendy bananas, and all the rest.

Twitter was filled with people saying how their timeline had not prepared them for this. Like me, many were connected to other left-leaning, progressive internationalists, and so had felt entitled to discount what they regarded as the kneejerk xenophobia of the uninformed. I howled in sympathy with my learned friend @Plashingvole who is profoundly immersed in the tolerant embrace of British cultural history. He cites the legacy of Paine, Wollstonecraft, Rowan Williams, Chartists, Suffragists….and the Ramblers’ Association. What, eh? Somebody forgot to tell my sister’s bloke about that. But when your whole being is infused with that radical legacy, it is hard to wonder how it could be so convincingly rejected by the majority of the nation.

However, I ended this memorable day with a renewed respect for democracy and the important lessons it teaches us.  The workers of the north east and Wales have been told for the last 40 years that their skills are out of date, their industries uncompetitive and their productivity lacking. They were the first canaries down the disused mine of neoliberalism.  How long can working people absorb austerity, unemployment, being told they need to change and be flexible….and still never be better off? The EU has meant that my class has accrued a degree of job security through transnational mobility, but that has not been extended to the steel worker in Redcar. We can point to many waystations on the road to Labour allowing its working class constituency to be displaced by a liberal elite. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were ‘relaxed’ about wealth accumulation (i.e. upward distribution of capital). Gordon Brown chose to paint Gillian Duffy in Rochdale as an irrational bigot. In the last election, Labour, led by Ed Milliband, shimmied rather uncomfortably around the issue of immigration, and horrified the liberal middle class voter in the process.

And so the referendum result came as a surprise to a party which saw itself as having a working class base, but broad appeal. The surprise was that the vote was divided along lines of class, privilege and education. As many commentators have pointed out, a referendum doesn’t allow for nuance and negotiation. It draws a binary divide and you are compelled to vote for one side or the other. It also captures one instant in a decision-making process and makes it a defining moment. Well, now the victims of the neoliberal constructed recession have told national and global elites to get stuffed, and they’ll take their chances with a different way – any way. We have Schrödinger’s neoliberalism – it has been both rejected but guaranteed at the same time.

Some among the national elite in government and the media rail against the rejection of ‘experts’, even though they have had a hand in undermining their claims to authority. But university leaders need not feel blameless in this. I marvel at the hypocrisy of vice-chancellors who seek to marginalise critical voices in their own universities, and then wonder why the debate has not been carried by the weight of public intellectuals.  Public intellectuals should play a role in informing opinion, but very often they come from those departments now on the danger list in many universities because they don’t bring in huge amounts of money in research grants. So when your VC emails out their post-referendum statement, ask them – where is your affirmation of academic freedom? Where is your continuing and unfettered support for history, cultural studies, literature, social sciences, politics, philosophy, international relations, modern languages?  These are the incubators of critique and framers of arguments in these crucial debates.  But when you try and subdue a university into a controversy-free, ‘managed’ zone, if you silence the radical voice, then don’t ask why the intellectuals suddenly find themselves ostracized.

Despite what has happened, I remain optimistic because these events tend to trigger moments of ‘grand narrative’.  On the one hand we can see Donald Trump, who embodies that resistance to traditional elites, surfing in on the Brexit wave. On a more hopeful front, we can envisage that this narrative of defiance and empowerment might be directed, not just against symbolic national elites, but also at authority in other locations. Perhaps this is a time for those of us who work in universities to challenge the corporate managerialists who have seized hold of universities and subverted their purpose. At the moment, if you are in arts and humanities in a university, you probably feel a bit like voters in Scotland – as if you are held in thrall by a self-interested and bungling regime which acts against your interests and values.

So it’s a big vote of thanks to academics at the University of Aberdeen and Newcastle University who are already making progress with their campaigns to take back the university for its academic citizenry. How long do you feel like being treated to the Neoliberal University bait and switch? 40 years? Time to start acting against those structures of power which have worked against fundamental academic values of education, trust, community and academic freedom. Below are the core principles from the draft manifesto of the ‘Reclaiming Our University’ group at Aberdeen:

  • To create an environment for free, open-minded and unprejudiced debate, which stands out as a beacon of wisdom, tolerance and humanity.
  • To defend our freedom to undertake research and teaching in the pursuit of truth, against the constraints, both internal and external to the institution, which threaten to curtail it.
  • To restore the trust that underpins both professionalism and collegiality, by removing those systems of line and performance management, and of surveillance, which lead to its erosion.
  • To bring together research and teaching as complementary aspects of an education that carries a responsibility of care.
  • To restore the governance of the university, and control over its affairs, to the community of staff, students and alumni to which it rightfully belongs.

Join the conversation, and organise against attacks on academic freedom and the collegiality of the university. Comments on this blog will be copied to the Aberdeen group’s site.

Care in the virtual community

It was the recent article on the paying-members-only university common room that made me think about the importance of belonging to an academic community. This particular story drew our attention to the fact that some academics, primarily casualized staff and graduate students, might be excluded from these spaces.

It appears that in a number of universities, senior common rooms have been ‘re-purposed’ by the space-utilisation team. At best, there may be ‘breakout areas’ with a kettle and a microwave. This solution is greenwashed by the estates team who will have saved a few micro-joules of heating and lighting, while at the same time keeping the CCTV and swipe-card barriers going (right, The Plashing Vole?).  But, in the jargon of university managers, are these spaces ‘fit for purpose’?

For one thing, the breakout areas tend to be the provenance of just one faculty or school housed within a building. There is often no central social space, and few social occasions to draw faculty together. So 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.

If we ever needed a defence of humanities and sciences co-mingling in universities, this is the example. But more than that, it points to the necessity of nurturing the fortuitous cross-fertilisation of intellects which really drives innovative research. Universities should be less like factories, and more like hangouts where clever people can talk to each other and ignite ideas. For this to happen we need space and – buzzword of the moment – a sense of belonging. Every university needs common spaces, but also head spaces – in other words, free, unstructured time. If I may commit heresy in an age of workload dashboards and management by metrics, we need to build aimlessness into a university.

Instead what we are likely to get are multi-occupancy offices and hot-desking spaces. The Plashing Vole on Twitter has talked about the impossibility of doing any real academic work when there are 15 people in an office. As I am thinking this through, I realise I’m echoing many of the same points made by him in this excellent piece from April 2016.

And so more and more people stay home to work without interruption, or without surveillance. This is not a helpful way to create ‘belonging’. But even if real academic community has been dissolved, academics still form a rather distinctive community of practice – shared lore and values, social practices and a joint enterprise. University leaders say they want the former, while being less enchanted by the prospect of the latter. At the same time as they say they want to break down silos and cross disciplines, they neglect to cultivate the spaces where those connections can be forged. In what seems like a perverse project designed to deprofessionalize, casualize and atomize the academy, community has been hard to maintain. Universities keep us marching along, forming and reforming in response to multiple restructurings, reviews and revalidations. There is a reason the word ‘tradition’ is rarely uttered in UK universities, except in the most elite. We are all newly precarious and we are not supposed to look for permanence.

When the university becomes a forbidding space, we head to what Thomas Docherty has called the Clandestine University. In the five years since his 2011 piece, the virtual academy has emerged as the place where academics go looking for stimulating and receptive imagined communities. In a recent Skype call with Music for Deckchairs  we marvelled at having found each other – and all the other Twitterers and bloggers who sustain us with affirmation, retweets and feedback, and introduce us to new compadres. This is academe sans frontieres, in effect, the new common room where we can recover some of the elation of academic discussion with people we would love to have as colleagues. We can write something and know it will not be blighted with a grade of 1*-4*. The casualized academic or the early career researcher who finds research leave foreclosed without a prior 3* publication can receive encouragement for their writing. The retiree uninvited from the weekly seminars can still find like-minded seekers of knowledge. We can roam, daydream, offend and reoffend and learn from those experiences. But it is the conversations we have, as I am having now, picking up themes from those other bloggers I’m so delighted I ran into. Those stunning writers discovered so unexpectedly when bouncing around the Twittersphere. Like Emily. And I am so grateful for their care and generous words when the kind of joyless academia which is expressed in brutalist concrete, offers only:

Research evaluation frameworks, sabbaticals, promotion criteria, appraisals, funding applications, the class structures of academia, the tacit division of work between Genius and Menial: all conspire to encourage the division of the Achiever sheep from the Nurturing goats. [The Plashing Vole] http://plashingvole.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/paying-in-kindness.html

The Plashing Vole says he is thankful for his immediate colleagues, and so am I. I have been supported, nay indulged, by a wonderful group of friendly, brilliant and accomplished scholars. I hope I have reciprocated their kindness – maybe so, since one dear man called me The Mother of the House recently. But I also want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone out there who has followed me, interacted in some way or just clicked on that weird red heart. You really keep me going. The Plashing Vole is right, together, we are so close to Utopia.

 

References

Grove, Jack. 2016. Members only staff room splits opinion. Times Higher. April 28th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/members-only-staffroom-splits-opinion