Five things I learned from the USS strikes

 

This is turning out to be a hard, long strike but there are some important lessons emerging from picket lines, teach-outs and social media. Twitter has been invaluable for me as all of us learn from each other, one tweet at a time. So, thank you Twitter colleagues, here are a few more things I have learned from you today:

1.Universities feel absolutely entitled to the free labour of academic staff. They make veiled threats about job security if you even have the temerity to defend your right to a weekend at home, and not donate your free time to student recruitment activities. There’s no credit in the favour bank though. Heavens no. Several universities (Leeds, Kent, Keele) are going much further than just withholding pay for days on strike, they are also telling staff they will withhold 100% of pay unless all classes cancelled due to strike action are rescheduled within 5 days. Effectively, this means strikers will be penalised financially twice. And if they comply with the demand, they will be working for free. Action Short of a Strike (ASOS), otherwise known as working to contract is also being heavily punished and treated just like full strike action at some universities. In other words your contract means nothing. In a world where any management demand is seen as ‘reasonable’, you can be asked to do double, triple, quadruple duty. Management have been trying to normalise that for years. They are now on the verge of having it codified as custom and practice.

2.Management’s discourse around pensions is carefully chosen to construct them as exorbitantly risky perks. The whole idea that they are unaffordable is a contradiction in terms if we recognise that pensions are deferred earnings invested collectively on our behalf. The notion of ‘risk’ is deliberately unattributed, because management have been coached to fear any financial risk that might attach to them, or the charge that they have mismanaged the fund.

3.There has been some very peculiar accounting going on in order to assess the value of the pension scheme. The 2017 valuation was apparently modelled on the scenario of all pre-1992 universities going bust at once. That made Oxford and Cambridge wary of being left holding the bag and they used their disproportionate vote to express their refusal of that risk. There were other discrepancies which you can read about here, but as Ben Anderson insightfully pointed out on Twitter, VCs have constructed a valuation method based on the most fanciful scenario possible. The fact that they have gone to such lengths to do so, reveals their contempt for their own staff. Their incompetence and neglect, compounded by a degree of duplicity and subterfuge has told strikers all they need to know. It really is an ‘us and them’ world in universities.

4.Ever wondered how superficial all those boasts are about commitment to being an equal opportunity employer? St Andrews stepped up for the big reveal last night when it emailed this:

St Andrews strike threat.jpg_large

No doubt the programs referred to by the vice chancellor have appeared in various strategy documents and will feature in their applications for badging and kitemarking for equal opportunities awards like Athena Swan. But all these are expendable when it comes to pressuring strikers and attempting to offload the responsibility onto them. Apparently you cannot have a fair workplace AND a pension. You need to choose, and St Andrews is bartering with your rights to equality of opportunity in its workplace. The announcement was met on Twitter with disgust from alumni, potential students and applicants for academic posts alike. I hope everybody learns from this.

5.I now know how pensions are…or should be…valued, though I don’t claim to understand all the details. I also know there are at least four different models of pension schemes, and some deliver better benefits than others. The scheme with the less favourable benefits is, of course, the one UUK is attempting to sell to USS members. George Osborne would like you to think this is about giving people ‘choice’ in how you use your money. When you hear managers use words like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ you need to set off the fire alarms. Be very wary because the USS proposals also involve the transfer of financial risk from the employer to the individual enrolled in the scheme. It is not a scheme in which money is collectively pooled and invested. It is just your pot, with your name on it, fluctuating up and down in line with the vicissitudes of the stock market. That’s not a choice I would be willing to make. More about why the investor class hates pensions was published in the New York Times 5th March 2018.

But as VCs are finding out, strikers and those who support them are still able to make choices that will have reputational and financial consequences for universities. The VCs who are so heavily in favour of academics having ‘choice’ in managing their USS pension money will find it rather inconvenient when that ‘choice’ is exercised in an external examining boycott, or a suspension of alumni donations.

Week three starts tomorrow, 5th March. Keep up the momentum everybody. UUK are so discredited even Lord Lucas, Conservative peer with an education brief, described UUK as “off their rocker”, and had this to say on Twitter on 3rd March:

“UUK, with all the intelligence at its command, ought to understand that pensions deficits are an imaginary product of quantitative easing and politicians who confuse safety and the stillness of death. They ought to be in the vanguard of reform”.

Given UUK’s general failure to defend public higher education , that hope may be misplaced. But as ACAS talks get underway, there is a real possibility their incompetence will be exposed.

 

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Dear Vice Chancellor…..

To: Vice-Chancellor@leeds.ac.uk

2nd March 2018

Dear Vice Chancellor

You may have been alerted by the Alumni Office to a tweet I posted about 48 hours ago (@lizmorrish). In it I announced that I feel so strongly about management’s treatment of staff at Leeds that I will no longer be contributing to the alumni fund. To date, that tweet has reached 36,500 engagements and seems to have encouraged other donors to follow suit at Leeds, as well as at other universities.

The tweet was sent in response to a notification received by striking UCU members at the university informing them that they are likely to face a 25% pay deduction for continuing to take industrial action short of a strike, and in particular, if they fail to reschedule classes missed on strike days within an unreasonably short time. As the UCU letter details, this is effectively penalising strikers twice: once for the strike, and a second time for not doing the work you have not paid them for.

I consider this not just unfair, but bullying and abusive. It follows the serious breakdown in goodwill caused by the university management’s wish, in 2016/2017, to impose an update to Statute VII, adding a clause for dismissal of an employee ‘for some other substantial reason’.

The current strikes are taking place because academics are facing insecure, temporary contracts, potentially capricious reasons for dismissal, and now, the prospect of an insecure future in retirement. I understand, then, that many have reached the limits of their tolerance and have decided to withdraw their labour.

I am not in a position to withdraw labour, but I am in a position to withdraw my support for the alumni fund. It must be over a decade since a third year student called Charlotte phoned me in the evening from the alumni office. I was delighted to receive the call because I have always been grateful for the free education I received at Leeds all the way to PhD. In the era of tuition fees, I had begun to feel uncomfortable about the intergenerational inequity of imposing debt on young people just so they could access their right to education. I was teaching in another university and felt I could not face a classroom full of students without contributing something, somewhere to alleviate this unfairness. I take that obligation to contribute very seriously even to the point of having bequeathed my body to a local medical school after my death. I was a push-over, and Charlotte signed me up to a monthly donation and we moved on to talking about her dissertation. As we hung up from the conversation, Charlotte said she wished I was her seminar tutor. That made me feel very warm towards current students at Leeds.

Since leaving full time employment my gifts have become less regular, but I am still willing to donate, especially when I read articles in the alumni magazine such as the recent brilliant explanation of a new cancer treatment, or inspiring stories of students who have benefitted from scholarships.

Because I feel such a commitment to current students and research at Leeds, I have done my best to persuade other alumni to donate as well, with some success. However, I feel equally strongly about decent treatment for talented, highly qualified staff that does not deny them dignity or the salary and pension they have earned. I cannot in all conscience contribute to what will probably be another metric, another KPI that feeds into yet another league table. Please be assured that I am willing to use these arguments in conversations with other alumni donors. I will post this open letter to my blog and to Twitter, and I can only hope that reason, and whatever powers of persuasion I can bring, will result in you rescinding threats to penalize your staff in such a shameful way. Until that point, I’m afraid my philanthropic association with the university is suspended.

Yours Sincerely,

 

Liz Morrish

BA Linguistics and Phonetics, 1982

Ph.D. Phonetics 1985

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.

Jo Johnson’s Office for Students: Straight outta Pearson

There is some good news on this New Year’s Day of 2018. Nobody in academia ever need feel the demoralizing burden of imposter syndrome ever again

The announcement at midnight GMT of Toby Young’s appointment to the board of the Office for Students came as a shock. That’s why it was buried, rather than greeted, by the distraction of fireworks and revelry.

I like to think there is a diversity of opinion on higher education represented by my Twitter follows. Nevertheless, my timeline revealed a universal sense of outrage at Young’s lack of any obvious qualification for the post. I outline some of the reasons we might all be concerned about this appointment.

For five years Toby Young ran a free school and associated trust, but stepped down in 2016 remarking that the project had been much harder than he had thought.  His other career highlights are within the field of journalism and he currently sits as associate editor of The Spectator. His real expertise seems to be in restaurant and food journalism.

The post requires oversight of the new regulatory body for higher education whose priorities are: “to promote choice and opportunities for students, encourage competition as a means of promoting the student interest, promoting value for money in the provision of higher education and driving equality of opportunity in connection to access and participation in higher education. Let nobody say Toby Young is not concerned with fairness and equality. In an article entitled ‘The Fall of the Meritocracy” (2015) he reveals he is an advocate of behavioural genetics, a theory that “cognitive ability and other characteristics that lead to success, such as conscientiousness, impulse control and a willingness to defer gratification, are between 40 per cent and 80 per cent heritable.”

In other words, those of us concerned that young men  and BME students fail to achieve at the expected level at university can relax; we can just attribute it to their inherited IQ and leave questions of inadvertent discrimination unexamined. Young believes that members of a cognitive elite with IQs over 125 will inevitably be the ones to enjoy high socioeconomic status. Tell that to the growing army of casualized academics with PhDs. Furthermore, he believes bright people are few and far between in low paying jobs. Tell that to my New York taxi driver who just educated me on Persian poetry. He couldn’t talk to his literature PhD wife about it – she was only interested in the status of the job, not its substance.

The threat that a cognitive underclass will be excluded from this Brave New World can also be solved. Young offers a solution based on as-yet unavailable technology of progressive eugenics. If the embryos of lower IQ parents could be screened, and their higher IQ embryos implanted, then inequality would be reduced. This innovation should be ringfenced for the less intelligent to offset the heritability of disadvantage. This is: a) an improbable scenario that a new and desirable technology would be placed solely at the service of the disadvantaged, and b) only deliverable by a despised ‘big government’ which in the US anyway, seems rather averse to making known technologies and societal goods – contraception, healthcare or education – available to the underprivileged. I’m aware there is enough controversy about the reliability of IQ tests for children and adults, let alone speculating on how we might test embryos for intelligence. In any case, it employs an a priori argument that there is a genetic basis for intelligence.

Similarly, any obligation of the OfS to ensure equality of access to universities will not disturb Young’s conscience. In a 2012 Spectator column, he pens this objection to the adjective inclusive:

Schools have got to be “inclusive” these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from Dyslexia to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels the government will have to repeal the Equality Act because any exam that isn’t “accessible” to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be “elitist” and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law.

These are the published opinions of Toby Young, prospective board member of the Office for Students. It’s not a case of no-platforming. This man is inimical to the OfS essential requirements for the post:

  • Genuine interest in contributing to the delivery of the Government’s priorities for higher education and effective running of OfS.
  • Candidates should be able to demonstrate good judgement and high levels of integrity. This as part of a commitment to the seven principles of conduct in public life.

Jo Johnson urges us to embrace the new Office for Students. Putting students at the heart of the system. Strengthening the student voice. Except there is only one student representative on the board. If there is another seat destined for a candidate who has “recent and substantial experience of representing the interests of students” let’s hope this is not the one assigned to Toby. Not to worry, though. In higher education today, we are more comfortable making all important judgments on quality of teaching and research by reference to unreliable proxies. This means that the central concerns of the OfS will be to “promote choice and opportunities for students, encourage competition as a means of promoting the student interest, promoting value for money in the provision of higher education and driving equality of opportunity in connection to access and participation in higher education.” No thought that an up-to-date curriculum might be important to students, or teaching staff who have contracts which allow them to build the kind of sustainable academic careers from which expertise and quality emerge.  Freedom of speech is only likely to be regulated insofar as universities permit themselves to become platforms for some speakers whose opinions might bring them into conflict with another avowed purpose of the OfS – ensuring “equality of opportunity in connection to access and participation in higher education”. It is rather difficult to feel an equal member of a community which requires that your identity, not that of a more favoured group, is subject to interrogation and skepticism.

At least the OfS guardianship of the student experience will be unencumbered by any need to consider research, which is now the purview of UK Research and Innovation. Probably this is a first step in unbundling the more marketable aspects of universities, and we see the direction of travel signaled by the new Knowledge Exchange Framework The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 has as a specific goal to open the door to more private providers, excuse me – challenger institutions – as we must use the compulsory language of competition. So it now makes sense when we see the board of the OfS being stuffed with collaborators who are well disposed towards privatization of education. This project, under the guise of ensuring value for money, will be delivered by the privatisation crusaders at the Office for Students. Also on the board is Carl Lygo, VC of BPP University, part of the Apollo Group which includes the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA. What the two institutions have in common is that they focus on degree programs which are vocational in nature. The suspicion is that inviting more private providers in the UK will act as asset-stripping of the most marketable (and cheaper to teach) university programs, like law and business. A further suspicion is that the attraction to new HE providers will be students who are eligible for tuition loans.  Indeed, the University of Phoenix has been under criticism for preying on US service veterans who are entitled to educational benefits.

Sir Michael Barber, the Chair of the Office for Students has an equally tight relationship to the new world of commercialized education. He was Chief Education Officer at Pearson, the publisher whose aim to commercialize education was achieved first by capturing the market in textbooks, followed by taking over the testing regimes (including the influential PISA tests). Once you have defined what it is schools must teach, you are then in a position to privatize schools. This has become particularly successful in developing countries, anxious to appear ‘competitive’. This enterprise has often appeared altruistic, such as the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund – a for-profit venture fund launched by Barber to support low-fee schools in India, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and the Philippines.  Given that Barber is the author of An Avalanche is Coming we may surmise his attitude to the economies of scale promised by ed-tech ‘learning products’. This ‘Starbucks style learning has worked well in the test-bed of the developing world, and is about to be rolled out, with ministerial blessing from Jo Johnson, in British universities.

This is what is known in 2018 as disruption. The mantra is “move fast and break things.” Like all destructive children, there is no consideration about whether the things belong to you, or whether they are valuable. The universities and higher education institutions I care about, and you care about, belong to the learning communities that constitute them. However, they are at risk from regulation by a group of people who are hostile to the aims of higher education for the public good. These are not reflective, nurturing people who care what they leave behind them. They are not the world’s philanthropists. They are profiteers, contemptuous of academics with more noble aims. We may find that the appointment of Toby Young is short-lived. We must still be vigilant about the rest of them, because otherwise there really will be an avalanche, and this time academics whose mission diverges from the profit motive may find themselves buried.

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.

 

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism