Category Archives: Universities

Managing the Changelings

Crossing my Twitter timeline yesterday was a piece I might not have ordinarily encountered.  ‘From episodic to continuous change’. 
by James Hutchinson
of the University of Exeter sets out to reflect on “key foundations for supporting continuous improvement rather than on the detail of the process itself.”  It occurred to me that if universities are at all concerned with reputation management, pieces like this might  cause a few of the best academics, students and professional staff to press pause on their online applications.

As I said on Twitter, this is one of the most vacuous examples of management discourse I have seen in a while. I say ‘in a while’ because I have been outside of universities for over two years now and so my exposure is more limited, but oh, how I’ve missed it. 

As regular readers of this blog may know, Helen Sauntson and I have co-authored a forthcoming book: Academic Irregularities which seeks to expose underlying power relations within universities as revealed by the discourse of management. The piece on change management made me itch to get out the red pen and annotate some familiar managerial themes. Let me offer a critical analysis of precisely why this piece is so alienating, and so damaging of an institution’s reputation before the majority of academics. 

Frequently, in university managerial discourse, we see the employment of abstract nouns with shape-shifting definitions. Word of the week is nebulous, and that is exactly what we find here. Such words have been designated by Urcioli  (2000: 4) as Strategically Deployable Shifters (SDS). She defines SDSs as follows: 

[…] a lexical item or expression deployed in different discursive fields so that, in effect, people using term X in a referring expression in field A are engaged in a different pragmatic activity from those using the formally identified term X in a referring expression in field B. The salient interpretation of the term depends on the relation of its user to its audience and so shifts with context.

SDSs, then, can mean one thing to one person and something else to another. In this piece we notice a lot of vague abstract terms: improvement, performance, and change itself. They may change meaning entirely when reflecting one set of values or another. Empowered will make some academics shudder. 

Change is always presented as something that must be managed and controlled by an elite cadre of consultants, or alternatively, by a highly-paid member of the senior management team. The author of the piece announces himself as Director of the Strategic Delivery Unit at the University of Exeter, and, notwithstanding a nod towards change as requiring development and feedback rather than fait accompli’, it is evident that it will be led , top-down, by ‘talented managers and team’, presumably made up of ‘change agents’. They will use ‘intelligent business tools’, ‘performance dashboards’ all conforming to the ‘change blueprint’. I’ve seen one, and its prescriptions were completely disregarded whenever it came to implementing change. 

Change is presented as something which will be complicated and difficult, but inevitable and desirable.  Another presupposition is that change must be continuous and institution-wide, not episodic, contingent, and definitely not locally, slowly or organically. The effects of continuous change are documented by Martin Parker in his brilliant 2014 article  entitled, University Ltd: Changing a business school. Parker points out that when staff encounter problems with institutional change, or when its sheer speed is found to cause unacceptable stress, it is pointed out that unhappiness is inevitable at times of change. The solution is always framed as enhancing communication, implying that if managers just raised the volume a little, the message would be received less reluctantly. And change is, of course, always successful in this world.

In this model, all change is seen as revolutionary and self-evidently a good thing, often presented as ‘shaking things up’. Resistance from those with institutional memory (who are often in a position to identify the futility of the change, or its circularity) is framed in terms of their self-interest and intransigence. Indeed, as Parker points out, the very fact of staff leaving, retiring or falling ill with stress is often, in this managerial fiction of change, defended by the institution as evidence that change is both necessary and effective (2014: 288).  

As we learn from James Hutchinson, “continuous improvement is a way of working’.  But is it too much to ask, as we head over the Brexit cliff, that change is debated and justified in terms which go beyond the discourse of the pep rally? And that those with institutional memory are consulted ? This would at least help institutions avoid 
change being decontextualized from any previous history. Parker comments on the strange process of legitimation:  ‘[I]t was necessary to ensure that the past was not available as a valid position from which to criticize the present. In other words, the past needs to be articulated as a problem, as something that needs to be escaped from’ (2014: 287).  

If they try, and don’t meet resistance, they might actually do it.  Please, readers, stay vigilant, and don’t be afraid to offer your thoughts when the consultation phase of the ‘change blueprint, comes your way. 

References

Parker, Martin. 2014. University, Ltd: Changing a business school . Organization. vol 21., pp. 281-292 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1350508413502646?journalCode=orga

Urciuoli, Bonnie. 2000.  Strategically Deployable Shifters In College Marketing, or just what do they mean by “skills” and “leadership” and “multiculturalism”? Language and Culture, Symposium 6, Binghampton University. http://language-culture.binghamton.edu/symposia/6/index.html

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VC Question Time

The Times Higher held an event in London this afternoon. Billed as THE Live  it seemed designed to be a convivial and informative warm up event for the real thing – a gala evening of THE Awards to be presented by Sandy Toksvig. An array of vice chancellors – I believe the collective noun is a wedge – volunteered themselves to be grilled by John Gill, Editor of the Times Higher in a VC Question Time format. They were Chris Day, Newcastle University; Anthony Forster, University of Essex; Pamela Gillies, Glasgow Caledonian University; and Edward Peck, Nottingham Trent University.

THE Live #VCquestiontime was, in sad contradiction, rather lifeless. For one thing, there was no live stream, so I’m not sure what was supposed to be ‘live’ about it. The tweeting was hardly prolific, but there was enough to get a sense of the tenor of the session. My thanks go Mary Curnock Cook, HEPI and Sarah Custer for their live tweeting.

The Times Higher had been actively inviting questions on Twitter from the UK higher education community for a few days. And academics and administrators supplied plenty of tough ones, commenting that they never usually had the occasion to interrogate their leaders.

So it was disappointing to see how searching and sometimes acerbic questions had been tamed towards the inoffensive. For instance, “How do you sleep at night knowing that your grotesquely inflated salary is directly related to the rise of precarious labour?” was reiterated as “What keeps you awake at night?” And “how could you have responded differently to the VCs’ pay furore” framed the issue as one of PR, not one of attempting to justify large pay rises while requiring restraint of ordinary staff. Questions about the adverse conditions of academic careers and workplaces, and poor incentives for the next generation to become academics, appeared to be domesticated into “would you tell your children to become an academic?” This vision of academic life from University of Essex VC, Anthony Forster, stands in rather stark contrast to the experience conveyed by some questioners:  “noble work, should get us out of bed every day of the week, with a spring in our step, transmission of knowledge, creation of new research that will make the world a better place.”

One or two highlights, though. I laughed out loud at Pamela Gillies comment: “Politicians are not going to let universities go under, not in the real world.” That won’t age well, I predict. And I warmed slightly to Anthony Forster who offered an unvarnished opinion about Universities UK saying, ” Sector leadership is not fit for purpose”, calling for reform of @UniversitiesUK to become voice of Universities rather than voice of vice-chancellors. Nice one.

But all in all my impression was that the questions posed in the VC Question Time session failed to capture the intent of those which had been posted on Twitter. Instead, questions were posed which allowed the panel members to construct a rosy and optimistic narrative. Little which implied criticism of VCs’ own behaviour was asked, including my personal favourite: “How destructive and immoral would a government proposal for HE have to be before you’d risk your chance of a gong to oppose it”. From what I could discern, nothing was asked in several areas which had predominated on Twitter: casualization of the workforce, pensions and the recent strike, staff pay, and academic workloads. For all their talk about staff needing to be pushed beyond their comfort zone, university leaders appear reluctant to step outside of theirs.

 

Sam’s on campus, but is the campus onto Sam?

A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 5th July 2018. 

It might have been mildly embarrassing for the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah, to have to retract his accusation a couple of weeks ago, that a lecturer at King’s College London had been reported for spreading ‘hate speech’ during his history lectures, but the evidence was against him. Unfortunately, like some more of Mr Gyimah’s more volatile claims on stifling of freedom of speech in universities, this had proved impossible to verify.

However, rather than being reassured that Gyimah has had to back away from citing unsubstantiated anecdotes, perhaps we should be concerned that this behavior fits a pattern in modern politics, of pushing at the boundaries of credibility knowing that some fabrications will stick if they are repeated often enough. In this case, academics, universities and freedom of speech itself are all damaged by these allegations.

Sam Gyimah has styled himself as rather a champion-protector of freedom of speech on campus, and has already hosted a free speech summit for universities, urging leaders to stamp out ‘institutional hostility to unfashionable views’ and to take stronger action against ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no-platform’ policies that he alleges have appeared on campuses.

It is perhaps convenient that the minister has overlooked the actions of a member of his own party whose partisan interest in the university curriculum recently caused controversy. Last October, a few months prior to Gyimah’s appointment, Chris Heaton-Harris, MP wrote to vice-chancellors asking for the names of any professors involved in teaching courses in European Studies which might have a bearing on Brexit. He suspected that such courses were being taught from a point of view which might lean towards Remain.

It was probably a futile gesture designed to draw attention to some politicians’ belief that all academics are left leaning. This fear seems to have its origin in the ongoing US culture wars, and a recent study which found that 60 percent of professors identify as liberals, while a mere 12 percent identify as conservative. Despite allegations of ‘group think’ and lack of political diversity, there is no real evidence in the UK, apart from anecdotes such as the one dismissed by King’s, to indicate that political orientations translate into bias in the classroom. There is nothing to suggest that issues like Brexit are taught in a way which is not entirely evidence-driven, nor is there anything to suggest that students are not free to argue with their lecturers.

Nevertheless, Sam Gyimah has kept his attention on this issue and fully embraces his new ministerial role with a sharper focus on students than any of his predecessors. He does occasionally, though, give the impression that, far from being even-handed, he is rather invested in being minister primarily for conservative students. He has openly stated that his ‘Sam on campus’ tours have been intended to bestow on the Tories the kind of appeal elicited by Labour politicians, and especially Jeremy Corbyn.

The first concerns about a new kind of partiality within government were raised when, on January 1st 2018, it was announced that provocative conservative commentator, Toby Young, would be serving on the board of the Office for Students, and that Ruth Carlson, a hitherto unknown name, had been selected as the board member for the student experience when, according to a written answer from the Minister to Kevin Brennan, MP,  she had not even been among the original applicants considered appointable. Her chief virtue seemed to be that she had no connection with the National Union of Students. Even though Young resigned, the episode led to accusations that the new Office for Students was little more than an office for state control.

 

These developments are all the more disconcerting if we consider some recent precursors in the US. In February 2017, a state senator in Iowa introduced a bill into the state’s legislature. The bill, SF 288, aimed to ensure that ‘hires’ – and this targeted just new academic recruits – at the state’s universities should reflect equal proportions of liberals and conservatives. The purpose of the bill, according to its sponsor, Republican state senator Mark Chelgren, was an attempt to counter the ‘liberal slant’ at the state’s three public universities, and its wording specified the exact proportions to be achieved:

“A person shall not be hired as a professor or instructor member of the faculty at such an institution if the person’s political party affiliation on the date of hire would cause the percentage of the faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by ten percent the percentage of the faculty belonging to the other political party, on the date established by the board for determining the political party composition of the faculty.”

Notwithstanding debates in the US about affirmative action for under-represented groups, this seems like an unnecessary privileging of a group which does not lack political clout.

UK readers may be wondering how university hiring committees would be made aware of political affiliations. The answer lies in the voter registration processes of many states in which voters need to register with a particular party – Republican or Democratic – if they wish to participate in that party’s primary elections. The bill specified that those records would be made available to the state board of regents which governs the state-funded higher education institutions. However, the measure was opposed by the board of regents and the bill failed to proceed.

At around the same time, a Republican state senator in North Carolina, Ralph Hise, was tabling a similar measure in his state legislature, requiring faculty members across the UNC system to “reflect the ideological balance of the citizens of the state,” plus or minus two percentage points.

So, when a minister alleges political bias in universities, or condemns political activism within them, or when the Office for Students threatens to fine universities for alleged failure to protect freedom of speech (even as they must abide by the Prevent Strategy), this echoes the more extreme political interference attempted in Iowa and North Carolina. Even the sanctions resonate with Office for Students discourse. This from North Carolina sounds familiar:

“If the accreditors conclude that something is amiss, they could sanction individual UNC campuses, which would endanger the ability of those campuses to attract research funding, facilitate financial aid, and compete nationally and internationally for faculty and students.”

And indeed, we see on 20th June, a tweet from the Office for Students clearly stating a threat to intervene in universities’ pay structures when they deem a vice chancellor’s pay to lack justification.

OfS threaten VCs

In Iowa, these assaults on university autonomy have come hard on the heels of repeated pressure to rescind tenure and end faculty collective bargaining. But in the UK, we no longer have even the nominal protection of tenure, and assaults on collective bargaining and benefits are well underway. Much of the sector is now staffed with casualized labour – exactly the kind of employees likely to police their own teaching and publications for apparent political bias. The field has been cleared for dirigiste policies.

It seems disingenuous to venerate university autonomy, as Gyimah did at the February 2018 launch of the Office for Students, when your regulatory regime is predicated on attempts to curb it. If the threat of tenured radicals has been seen off in the UK, then a new one has been installed. Not, as Gyimah might imagine, in the form of NUS militants, but in the form of a regulatory body which has control and political entryism as its priorities.

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.