Category Archives: university autonomy

Nobody is redundant

Along with everybody else concerned about higher education, I have been immersed in debates about the future of universities after Covid. I recommend the Post-Pandemic University’s blog and series of online conferences . We discuss how face-to-face and online learning will coexist. How different are the underlying pedagogies for each modality? Scholars describe the huge increase in workload that multi-mode and multi-platform teaching has generated and worry this will further exhaust their mental health and energy.

Amidst this crisis, university managers are contemplating a financial shortfall arising from missing accommodation revenues, costs of increased biosecurity measures and, in some cases, fear of declining student headcount. Among the cost-cutting measures currently being imposed are the non-renewal of short-term contracts, curtailing of research leave, and most controversial in the context of a pandemic recession, compulsory redundancies.

So here are some thoughts on the post-pandemic landscape of universities and their campuses which occurred to me after I received unexpected but welcome messages from a couple of former students in the last few weeks.

James who graduated in the early 2000s got in touch to ask “Are you watching It’s A Sin? It made me realise that the first time I learnt about ‘gay history’ was at university. In your class and in another module called ‘representing aids’ – I can’t remember the tutors name? Anyhow it was the first step into a world where suddenly everything started to make sense – I’d never been so connected to learning. It’s a sin reminded me of sitting in your office and telling you I was gay after your class – and feeling safe. Will never forget that moment. Thanks 🙂 x’.

Mike who also graduated in the early 2000s messaged to say ‘I now look back on my time at NTU with fondness. You stand out as a hugely positive influence on me thanks to your open and engaging teaching style and your natural pastoral approach to conversations on numerous topics which certainly helped to broaden my view of the world and influenced my liberal political stance. So thank you again for the part you played in opening the mind of a somewhat fucked-up young man from a Yorkshire mining town!’.

While these affirmations might confirm all the suspicions Sam Gyimah and other Tory ministers hold about apparently left-wing lecturers, there is a more important message. It is about shared, interactive learning. Learning in a community. Learning and memory. Learning in place. Learning in a place. And most importantly, learning is personal in a very different way from the concept of ‘personalisation’ which is sold by the ed-tech industry and endorsed by vice chancellors and deans across the HE sector.

I have had a few emails from students over the years, reminiscing about course content which has been transformed from the abstraction of a university seminar to becoming personal and immanent. No former student has ever thanked me for raising their income or increasing their return on investment. And yet, this seems to be high among the concerns of the department of education. The OECD has produced a report which attempts to monetise what they see as each year of missed learning for children and university students and the presumed concomitant loss in knowledge and skills.

There are two related streams of long-run economic costs that are central to this discussion. First, affected students whose schooling has been interrupted by the pandemic face long-term losses in income. Second, national economies that go forward with a less skilled labour force face lower economic growth which subtracts from the overall welfare of society.

[Eric A. Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann 2020. The economic impacts of learning losses. OECD Education Working Papers No. 225]

On Twitter, Ben Williamson, a critic of ed-tech, has been resisting the analysis that less learning = less human capital = weaker productivity, and points out that ‘economization of education is nothing new. Education has been positioned as integral to economic development for years. States compare and compete over education. So “learning loss” is just a new anxiety of a much longer trend to instrumentalize education.’ And he goes on to warn how ed-tech companies are waiting in the wings to provide the ‘digital transformation’ solutions to enable students to catch up.

In February 2021 Ben Williamson and Anna Hogan wrote a report for Education International in which they recognise that a large amount of venture capital is flowing into ed-tech in response to a much more prominent role for data-driven decision making in higher education. Together with the perennial promise of ‘personalised’ educational content, their report predicts a future of ‘unbundled’ courses, and an accelerated process of marginalisation or ‘pausing’ of activities which do not satisfy the monetised criteria for their continuation. It is important to remember that much of this personalisation depends on the collection and use of large amounts of student data which students are obliged to surrender just as a consequence of logging on to the university VLE.

There are other similarly undemocratic and data-driven ways in which universities are being refashioned. In announcing redundancies and course closures, a number of universities (Portsmouth, Liverpool, Brighton, Leeds, Leicester and others) are stripping their own assets. In the case of Portsmouth, the group @Save English Literature at Portsmouth #UCU alleges that decision making has lacked openness. At the University of Sussex, a newly-validated BA course in Languages and Intercultural Studies has been cancelled without consultation.

Some of these decisions appear to constitute major restructuring of the university and curricular provision without going through the regular channels for making such changes. This risks compromising the autonomy of academics to teach and research according to their own judgement. The most egregious violation of this principle is the University of Leicester which recently announced redundancies in English and in Business, with UCU blaming a history of poor financial management.

In English at Leicester, redundancy notices have been served on scholars in medieval literature. If you are thinking that Leicester might have been motivated to nurture its medievalists after the discovery of the remains of Richard III in 2012, well that was probably archived as the last REF’s impact case study. On with the new, as the justification for the cuts, according to management, is to allow greater support for gender and sexuality themes within English literature. Management have seized a tactical opportunity to align this action with their aspiration to ‘shape for excellence’ and towards decolonising the curriculum. If this pronouncement was not so naïve and disingenuous it might find support. But you don’t decolonise the curriculum just by excising every literary period prior to colonisation. As Martin Parker points out in a recent podcast, in the school of business, where a vigorous and renowned critical curriculum already exists, the university management are acting to erase precisely those perspectives. So, critical management studies and political economy are being axed in favour of data analytics, entrepreneurship and leadership along with the erasure of jobs and expertise. These two parallel catastrophes expose the insincerity of a management team trying to camouflage their own opportunistic vandalism as progressive development.

Bad faith and insufferable, gaslighting hypocrisy do long-term damage to ambition, loyalty and trust within an institution. Staff and students are bound to feel poorly served when ratified governance procedures and normal consultation are circumvented to the point whereby the university is left in a weak position academically. Staff suspect politicians and university managers of mounting an ideologically-driven assault on the arts, humanities and social sciences, and it is refreshing to see one university leader calling for resistance to the government onslaught.

As well as echoing government hostility to non-stem subjects, some executive teams seem to be taking their orders from data crunching firms like DataHE or The Knowledge Partnership whose websites suggest they have greater regard for short-term marketing data than for the function or composition of universities. Data HE assert ‘We are expert in data sensitivities…We are data specialists in higher education recruitment and our aim is to accelerate the use of data for good strategy and high performance in universities.’  Despite DataHE’s goal to “increase trust in the use of data”, their blog appears to end in May 2019.


If there is one insight which does have currency within academia, it is that scholars in universities are bound by complex chains of mutual dependence on each other’s knowledge and expertise. Whether you call it collegiality or networks or interdisciplinarity – universities function as intellectual ecosystems. So, international relations is underpinned by history and geography which make use of concepts developed in sociology which has close links with anthropology and social theory whose concepts are developed in cultural studies which informs the study of literature and media. And expertise in all of these disparate but interconnected fields will be represented and strengthened by colleagues in departments of linguistics and modern languages. In science as well, these polymer chains entwine the disciplines and allow new connections to emerge.

It goes without saying that universities are knowledge institutions. Their ability to develop successfully depends on the expertise of the staff who work within them. There are no short cuts to academic careers that require long periods of training in highly specialised areas. This requires academic, personal and financial dedication and all without any guarantee of what the government wishes us to view as ‘return on investment’. In other words, many take the long-term risks, but few are rewarded with the academic post that enables good work and academic freedom.  

It is appalling that these strong but also fragile connections may be carelessly severed by those who are ready to cede institutional autonomy to data consultants or government caprice, or who are willing to see staff numbers fall to in order to finance a new atrium or promote the ultimate status symbol – the overseas campus.

Unless we make decisions on academic grounds and not the data of marketisation, branding, reputation, universities risk irrelevance and collapse into alienation. Research will not be led by curiosity but instead by the kind of ill-informed hunches the prime minister’s advisors tend to have. Higher education will become increasingly standardized, homogenized and dehumanized even as the preposterous contradiction of algorithmically-driven ‘personalization’ is sold to students and university managers alike. It is really important that all staff take part in conversations about the future of universities and the way they may work in the future. Structures of democratic governance and collective decision making have never been more important – or weaker.

From Regulation to Regime. Are we seeing a government takeover of universities?

This blog previously appeared on the CDBU website.

One thing governments have learned over the last 30 years is not to let a disaster go to waste. In the guise of offering a survival strategy for universities in the pandemic, the Department for Education has issued, in July 2020, a document: Establishment of a Higher Education Restructuring Regime in Response to COVID-19.

The Regime ostensibly promises a relief package for universities which find themselves in financial difficulty due to factors beyond their control. These include loss of income from overseas student fees which is predicted to fall precipitously. However, it is clear there is no bailout; relief comes in the form of a repayable loan, and there are a number of conditions attached. Particularly, the government is keen to see a re-focus on scientific research and ‘a much greater reorientation towards the needs of the local and regional economy’.

Providers will need to examine whether they can enhance their regional focus. I want it to be the norm for far more universities to have adopted a much more strongly applied mission, firmly embedded in the economic fabric of their local area, and consider where appropriate delivery of quality higher technical education or apprenticeships. And all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy.

While its content has been discussed on several HE forums and news outlets over the past few days, no-one, it seems, has questioned the origin or legitimacy of this pronouncement. Perhaps we are already used to having policy made on the hoof, outside of parliament and by the sort of unelected ‘elites’ the Brexiteers had railed against. But to my mind, a restructuring ‘Regime’ does not sound like a consultation, a discussion or a review, nor is it being presented as a Green or White Paper. This is an edict beyond parliamentary scrutiny, and one wonders what else it would take for Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan (whose name does not appear on the document), to be accused of ministerial overreach.

It is noteworthy that the terms of the package outlined in the Regime differ from those accompanying an earlier grant/ loan scheme intended to replace revenues from charities, businesses or international student fees which have supported research in universities. While lenders may be expected to impose conditions on their beneficiaries, this does not seem to be the case for this tranche of loans announced in June. It is assumed that science and medicine will be the recipients, but otherwise the understanding is, “Universities will be required to demonstrate that funds are being spent on research and on retaining research talent”.

And then there is the question of whether the proposals of the Regime stand in conflict with the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 which enshrines the protection of university autonomy. It is worth reminding ourselves exactly what HERA says, courtesy of Gary Attle blogging in 2018 on the AHUA (Association of Heads of University Administration) website.

The Act includes an express statutory duty on the new regulator, the Office of Students, to have regard to the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers as it goes about its functions. “Institutional autonomy” has been defined in section 2 (8) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 for these purposes as:

  • a) the freedom of English higher education providers within the law to conduct their day to day management in an effective and competent way;
  • b) the freedom of English higher education providers –
    • i) to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,
    • ii) to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
    • iii) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
  • c) the freedom within the law of academic staff at English higher education providers-
    • i) to question and test received wisdom, and
    • ii) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the providers.

It looks as if government is seeking to override the protections of bi) and biii). Indeed, the very mention of autonomy has been dismissed; Gary Attle describes the struggle to include an amendment which ultimately did not pass.

During the passage of the bill, an amendment was tabled to include on the face of the legislation what might be seen as the quintessential features of a UK university: their autonomy. This includes the imperatives that they must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech; that they “contribute to society through the pursuit, dissemination and application of knowledge’; and that they must ‘be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.

Over to the regulator, and Susan Lapworth, Director of Competition and Registration at the Office for Students, blogging on the OfS website, also in 2018, notes the OfS is required to ‘have regard’ for institutional autonomy, but states this is not an absolute. Some of the Act’s provision may be in tension with each other, for example, competition might not be the best guarantor of equality of access and participation. Nevertheless, ‘providers are free to make their own academic decisions’ and to set vice chancellors’ salaries. But, wait – this is another curtailment hinted at in the Regime, this time in breach of section a) of HERA. Has university autonomy been declared null and void by one sole government edict? How soon before the UK emulates other authoritarian governments, such as Hungary or Brazil, in deciding to outlaw gender studies or other perceived left-wing critical areas? The government seems to want to re-shape universities in terms of curriculum, delivery, recruitment and management. This is, to use an over-worked term in 2020, unprecedented.

This kind of dirigisme is unlikely to add to the allure of universities for either staff or students. A government and regulator which upholds the primacy of the marketized university and the consumer model seems now to be tuning 180 degrees towards centralised, autocratic control.

I have been fortunate to hear Dr Rowan Williams, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, speak at two Zoom meetings in the last week. When speaking at the AGM of the CDBU (Council for the Defence of British Universities), Lord Williams emphasized how important it is for universities to model democratic decision making if they are, as the Regime document suggests, ‘cornerstones of our liberal democracy’. In the other meeting, this time to launch the latest statement from the Convention for Higher Education, he argued for a measure of the public good of higher education that goes beyond the economistic. In order to deliver liberation, academic practitioners must be prepared to seize back control of governance from those who have presided over ‘the barbarizing policies of previous years.’ From a former Archbishop of Canterbury, these are strong words, but they are timely, especially when we address the ideological implications of the Regime for student unions.

The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns.

It is extraordinary to demonise all student campaigning as illegitimate ‘activism’. By contrast, in his address to the CDBU, Lord Williams urged universities to become more democratic in order to offer a generation steeped in grass-roots activism a reason to remain within them. And furthermore, I have just been listening to the moving tributes to Congressman John Lewis in the USA, a notable leader of the 1960s civil rights struggle. One of his more memorable quotes was ‘if you see something that is not right, you have a moral obligation to say something and do something about it’. John Lewis was an activist and he suffered violence and discrimination because of it. Today he is regarded as a pioneer and a hero. How can the minister for higher education decide unilaterally and a priori that all activism should be prohibited? This is not conservatism; it is something more sinister entirely.

It remains to be seen whether VCs fall into line with the Regime or will seek to avoid drifting within its jurisdiction at all costs. Paradoxically, these costs may be the loss of STEM programs and departments which are costly to teach and resource and are often cross-subsidized by higher recruitment of arts and humanities students. This Guardian article by Glen O’Hara predicts that universities will shed STEM subjects in favour of the cheaper humanities ones.

I’m not so sure. Vice chancellors have all too often been willing to genuflect to government wishes even to the point of sacrificing valuable research capacity and indeed entire chemistry and languages departments when it seemed expedient to respond to incentives. The conditions of the Regime loans seem designed to divide the sector into two: government-controlled and autonomous universities, perhaps foreshadowing another division into publicly funded and private ones. I wonder how many of them will align with Rowan Williams’ vision for universities as transformative institutions and forces for intellectual growth. This is a crucial decision for university leaders, indeed all university workers, to make. Gary Attle’s blog ends with this thought: ‘What remains to be seen is how these twin features of the new architecture – autonomy and accountability – will co-exist’. Two years on, the answer to that is now very apparent, and we must fight hard to protect university autonomy across the sector.