Research and teaching – unite or divide?

I always know I’ll be rewarded when I start to read one of David Morris’ longer, detailed, well-argued pieces for Wonkhe. I like the way he’s willing to take a swipe at some uninterrogated assumptions in higher education. So perhaps he’ll understand if I reply in the same vein.

The piece is raising the old question of whether teaching and research must necessarily take place in the same institution. Are they mutually reinforcing, and is it necessary for those teaching undergraduates to be engaged in research? Morris cites some studies which suggest the answer is no, on both counts. There is a suggestion that universities might operate a Glass-Steagal approach and separate the functions, and presumably distribute staff according to their dispositions. It is a popular call at the moment in the wonkoshphere, and Morris cites a 2004 paper which endorses it. Was it ever published in a journal and peer-reviewed? The link takes me to a conference paper.

Firstly, let’s dispel some of the assumptions. Let’s leave aside unresolved questions of whether the REF can be said to measure research quality, or the NSS measure teaching quality. Not all teaching in HE is research led and some of it doesn’t need to be. If you are teaching an undergraduate 100 or sometimes 200 level Linguistics or Biochemistry courses, the content is likely to be pretty similar from one department to another. The expectation is that anyone suitably qualified in Linguistics or Biochemistry would be able to turn their hand to these. Research-led teaching tends to occupy more specialized 300 (UG Level 6) courses.

Secondly, skim through any student course evaluations and you will find that the one thing they appreciate in a lecturer is enthusiasm. I can still remember the classes taught by the most research-active lecturer when I was a student. She would often arrive breathless from the lab, but with a story to tell about the latest experiment. You won’t be surprised to find that academics impart their own specialist subject with most enthusiasm. In turn, it is surprising what insights you pick up from students when teaching on your research area and supervising their projects and dissertations. Universities aim to ensure that students have the opportunity to engage in research during the course of their studies, because this skill above all is commensurate with ‘graduateness’. How can this be taught except by trained researchers?

Thirdly, things have moved on since Hattie and Marsh were writing in 2004. External and internal audits in universities have insisted on subjects demonstrating that teaching and research are linked. Why would QAA demand this if there were no symbiotic links? Perhaps the most obvious justification for the linkage is curriculum development. The kind of degrees which are likely to be appropriated by ‘alternative providers’ are professional courses which are taught by practitioners, and not necessarily those advancing new developments in the subject. Sometimes the curriculum is set by those professional bodies. For the rest of academia, we would be shocked if we visited our old university department and found the same curriculum in place that we followed 20 or 30 years ago. How did the new material get there if not informed by recent research?

Call me old school, but honestly, we have to decide whether we want universities or we don’t. Morris mocks the panicked response that HE without research means “we might as well be in a further education college”. That shudder reflects not primarily status anxiety , but a recognition that FE is hardly a sector with a shining reputation. It is underfunded and tarnished with poor staff retention, poor work conditions, short-term contracts, uncertainty of mission and patchy outcomes – with private providers circling the remains. The higher education sector, by contrast, has good records of retention and the vast majority who enter achieve an honours degree. The satisfaction rates are excellent. Can we really afford as a nation to convert a large part of the successful sector into replicas of the failing one?

Nobody ever claimed that each and every lecturer was the embodiment of the academic holy trinity of teaching, research and scholarship, but we all benefit by working in an environment where research takes place. No, not all good researchers will be good teachers, but most of them are at least competent. On the other hand, the inevitable outcome of dividing teaching from research would not resemble banking so much as hydraulic fracking, only with more protest and worse pollution of the surroundings.

Universities – truth or consequences

Amidst the articles reproaching universities for failing to change, adapt and embrace reform there have been just as many declaring universities are even more relevant in a world challenged by post-truth politics and fake news. Some university leaders in the USA are explicitly defending the essential role of scholarly enquiry in dissipating false communications.

In the McCarthyite era it was the army and Hollywood which were in the front line of political persecution. This time it is scientists who are finding that their notions of working in an objective, apolitical enclosure have been disrupted by Donald Trump’s attacks on their right to report valid climate change research.  Scientists are now being drawn into political action committees to face down potential threats to funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and, perhaps, to the teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools.

While we stand with beleaguered scientists, I hope we can also defend experts in nuclear and apocalyptic literature in austerity Britain, and a new scholarship of authoritarianism  because we must all be vigilant to make sure universities continue to be sites of resistance to the rollback of the enlightenment.

In this context, many people are seeing a bright future of renewed purpose for arts, humanities and social sciences and it is nice to see a few defences of these disciplines and calls for widespread media literacy programs. The British Academy has jumped in, but regrettably it is not animated by the urgency of resisting authoritarianism, fascism and the rollback of every progressive policy since 1960; instead the BA is still focussed on economic justifications, or ‘what employers want’.

The British Academy has launched a new flagship project to provide evidence for why arts, humanities, and social science (AHSS) graduates, and the skills they learn, are vital to economy and cultural life, in the UK and worldwide. In an age of rapid and far-reaching social and technological change, the world is increasingly interconnected and complex. This project will display, for the first time, how AHSS skills can help us cope and adapt in a changing world and contribute to society individually and collectively.[]

Alternatively the BA could have mentioned that a degree in the humanities or social science will equip students with an ability to evaluate a wide range of texts, a regard for truth, justice, morality and equality which can install a wedge of resistance in a post-truth society. Now that I have left the academy and its perverse Qualspeak behind, I can talk about qualities like knowledge and habits of mind which are vital for a democratic society. Let’s contemplate what kind of a world will unfold when we no longer have the historians and/or a media studies graduates to recognise this: “When Trump appeared at the Republican National Convention last July in front of a colossal picture of his own face, many were startled by his conjuring of fascist iconography”.

But quite frankly, at the moment, the question absorbing me is not whether universities are meaningful to society, but whether they are meaningful to the academics who work within them. It is no longer an exceptional minority who are seeking to leave university posts, or, to reduce contracted hours.  For those who can afford to leave, thanks to online resources, academic vocation can still be pursued from the outside. Titles and affiliations are less and less significant when it is possible to access research and disseminate your own independently.

Academia has soured for many who feel that universities have become purveyors of fake news all the way from their management and PR suites, to some of the research practices pursued within their walls. As I have blogged elsewhere, there is a problem with research ethics and practices in some universities and among a minority of researchers. The blog piece discussed the intense competition for funding, or league table standing that results in academics faking research data or inflating findings. Tressie McMillan Cottom calls this an academic hustle. I call it the behaviour of the Trump Academic.

Another serious concern is the reluctance of some university management teams, and their political masters, to countenance evidence-based argument. I have been reading Dorothy Bishop’s excellent lecture delivered recently at the University of Southampton.  It is a compelling argument, well supported with evidence and statistics, that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) proposed by Jo Johnson, Higher Education Minister will neither diagnose nor address what he has claimed (with no evidence) is ‘lamentable’ and ‘patchy’ teaching in universities. She adds more data on the cost-benefit analysis and points to the addition of more stressors on already overburdened staff.  There is a frustration in knowing that this analysis will penetrate no further at Oxford University that it will with the Minister for Higher Education. It is the repeated experience of seeing cast-iron arguments like this being displaced by flaky, unsubstantiated, ideologically-motivated fictions that has demoralised me and other long-serving academics. And when you see vice-chancellors failing to sustain any serious objections to the notion of a league table for teaching ‘excellence’, you know they have been corrupted by the inducement of higher fees.

When universities take their instructions from governments and research councils who control the finances, they lose the ability to defend themselves, let alone society against fake news, or even a creeping Lysenkoism (I am grateful to Michael Carley (@drmcarley) for introducing me to this concept). Rather like totalitarian regimes, when universities don’t like a set of facts, they turn to gagging clauses to suppress them rather than outright distortion. It is more costly, but less taxing to the managerial imagination.

We might even say that universities have become well adapted to fake news. Anyone who works in a UK university will be familiar with strategies for REF gaming, citations gaming, sacrificing rigorous but less profitable courses for those with more youth appeal, and soon we will add TEF gaming. Last week we were introduced to the world’s first ‘positive university’.  Read about some of the myths of ‘positive thinking’ from the Guardian (7th February 2017) here.

Our universities are in danger of becoming institutional mirrors of Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. Her ‘alternative facts’ and fabrication of a Bowling Green massacre have diluted her credibility to the point that CNN will no longer interview her, but any academic forced to echo the management refrain of ‘excellence’ will have sympathy with her plight. As a colleague of mine regularly says, “whenever they’re boasting about excellence, you can be sure there is none”. This may be a harsh appraisal, but it is cheering to see ‘excellence’ being submitted to some pretty heavy-duty critique by Moore et al. (2017).

It is the very focus on “excellence”, however, that creates this situation: the desire to demonstrate the rhetorical quality of “excellence” encourages researchers to submit fraudulent, erroneous, and irreproducible papers, at the same time as it works to prevent the publication of reproduction studies that can identify such work.” Note that these actions are incompatible with the values inherent in science and “the actual qualities funders, governments, journal editors and referees, and researchers themselves are ostensibly using “excellence” to identify (Moore et al 2017).

Universities? Busted, I’d say.

Rather than securing staff complements of obedient but timid scholars, universities need to build new reputations based on truth and reliability. Moore et al. recommend that universities should supplant the rhetoric of ‘excellence’ with a rhetoric around soundness, capacity and credibility:

the evaluation of “soundness” is based in the practice of scholarship, whereas “excellence” is a characteristic of its objects (outputs and actors)”. This can encompass reproducibility in fields where this has become a pressing issue (psychology), or credibility in others. (Moore et al. 2017)

There is a risk in not countering a culture where fact, opinion and sheer fantasy are neither distinguished nor evaluated. We are awash in data, but we have too little idea how to interpret it responsibly. It is ironic that in a world of management dashboards and learning analytics there is a looming public health crisis because so few people have the ability to analyse NHS data. In a post-truth society, we are analysed to death, but cannot apparently muster the know-how to be able to allocate hospital beds during a cold winter.

This week’s issue of the Times Higher  is all about the role of universities in pursuing truth and building public trust. It might, though, behove us to take a step back and trace the descent into untrustworthy perdition. We exist in an enclave of hyper-competitiveness – and sometimes just hype – and we can lay a lot of the blame on league tables and rankings. Never mind what other rationalisations are provided, proclamations about excellence are bound to feel undignified when academics sense a hinterland of boosterism.

There is a great deal further to go towards building academics’ trust in the universities that employ them, but we can start with the way we talk about our own and each other’s work. Let’s cut out the flashy banners all over campus announcing “80% of our research has internationally-significant impact”. It might mean raiding the marketing budget, or freezing the hew HR hires, but we should encourage academics to speak and write confidently and accessibly about sound and contestable research findings.

And as for the vice-chancellors who are impervious to evidence-based arguments about the TEF, I’ll leave the last word with Laurie Taylor (9/2/2017).

It’s a rollover!

Our Director of Corporate Affairs, Jamie Targett, has praised universities minister Jo Johnson for his latest attempt to measure even more university activities. This new initiative, the roll over excellence framework (ROEF), will assess the readiness of individual vice-chancellors to accept government proposals.

Targett explained that in order to test this readiness, it was necessary to use a government proposal that was so patently ill-conceived that no reasonable person could possibly entertain its adoption.

Enter the teaching excellence framework. In Targett’s words, “What better test could there be of the average vice-chancellor’s acquiescence?” For as was recently pointed out by Stuart Croft, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, it is “the overwhelming view of those actually involved in higher education” that the TEF “metrics are flawed”. Or in the words of Roger Brown, former vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, “there simply is no scientific basis for the TEF”.

“This means”, said Targett, “that vice-chancellors who mutely go along with the TEF despite such uncontested evidence of its invalidity and unreliability, display a truly heroic readiness to roll over.’’

Would this be the only test of a vice-chancellor’s readiness to submit to new government initiatives?

Targett said he had no knowledge of any new test but he understood that Jo Johnson would be adding to his illustrious ministerial record by proposing that vice-chancellors not only accept all the flawed provisions of the new TEF but do so while standing on their heads with a carrot up each nostril.


Moore S et al. (2017) “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence. Palgrave Communications. 3:16105 doi: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.105.

The Fiction of Tenured Unsackables

A Guardian piece entitled “Unsackable senior staff make life even harder for junior academics” has been doing the rounds on Twitter for a few days now. In the Anonymous Academic series, the author depicts an academic career path that resembles an NHS ward obstructed by elderly ‘bed blockers’. The senior and mid-career ranks of academia are apparently gridlocked by those whose tenure grants them both permanency and the ability to evade current expectations of research ‘productivity’ imposed by many universities.

Let’s do some fact checking here. There is no doubt that there has been appalling exploitation of qualified PhDs in the context of mounting casualization of undergraduate teaching, and research contracts. UCEA (the university employers’ association) claims that ‘atypical’ contracts arise from universities’ need for “input from skilled professionals contributing specialist teaching on specific courses”, and that they only represent 3.2% of the full-time equivalent academic workforce. Meanwhile, the website Wonkhe has this to say, “In the Russell Group…69% of atypical academics are paid at teaching assistant or research assistant rates or lower. If this is a reserve army of specialist professional labour, it’s not charging a very good hourly rate”.

Leaving on one side the question of whether appointed senior faculty are collectively responsible for this situation, it is just not true to portray senior staff as ‘unsackable’. UK academics have not had tenure since Mrs Thatcher dispensed with it in 1981. Precarity, even in the senior ranks of professor and reader, has escalated in recent years as aggressive performance management policies have brought about threats of demotion, which in turn have triggered cases of burnout or a simple desire to move beyond the intrusive bullying of the HR department. And so we witness a wave of resignations at mid-career and senior levels, which, by the way, is gendered; a large number of women have decided they just don’t want to live like this anymore.

I am well aware that the quality of new entrants to the profession is extremely high, and entry-level academic posts come with long periods of probation. Confirmation may only be achieved after a searching performance review and the performance criteria are designed not to diagnose competence, but to stigmatise all but the most exceptional achievers. However, this approach to management now blights the entire profession. There are no easy gigs any more in academia. All university academics are obliged by law to undergo annual appraisal, and in many universities this has been transformed from a supportive and appreciative dialogue with a senior colleague, into the ruthless scrutiny of ‘performance management’. The criteria have been ratcheted ever upwards as universities place ascent in the league tables above the mental health of their employees, and the criteria are intended to designate many excellent academics as failing.

This effect has been most magnified at professorial level. I have seen many documents from different universities which lay out performance criteria for professors. Commonly these include: research grant capture targets, research leadership (institutional roles,  journal editorships or leading professional organisation), conference keynotes, student evaluation scores, PhD supervision completions, research ‘outputs’ at 3* or 4* and other metrics such as journal impact factors/ citation indices. In many cases, all of these must be fulfilled in order to avoid punitive disciplinary processes. So with all this to attend to, perhaps it is understandable if senior staff produce fewer publications than less frantic colleagues. As Dorothy Bishop writes, “Even if you’re not worried about your own job, it is hard to be cheerfully productive when surrounded by colleagues in states of high distress”. Besides being unethical, this has a destabilizing effect on all academics. I take this to be intentional on the part of management.

This response is not without a nostra culpa. Our generation has not resisted forcefully enough the creeping casualization of universities. Often it has been in the interests of senior staff to have a ready supply of postgraduate teaching assistants and postdoctoral researchers to do the heavy lifting on a grant-aided project. We have sat on interview panels and marvelled at the publication and teaching records of new academic appointees. But the professors and mid-career academics are largely not responsible for the instability of funding that afflicts universities, nor the relinquishing of academic futures to the impulsive choices of the nation’s 18-year olds. The chief culprits are government policies which have encouraged vice-chancellors to play the short game, and many of them have chosen the path of least resistance. Academics who have raised their voices in protest have been swiftly branded as ivory tower ancients who refuse to live in the real world.

Having recently left the academy, perhaps I might offer the wisdom of hindsight. Above all, be kind to others. Endeavour not to let anger at your own harsh treatment displace concern for others coming behind you. Support your younger colleagues, and value your older ones. Looking in the wrong direction for others to blame is divisive and unhelpful.  Join the union to campaign for a fair and sustainable career structure for research and research/teaching posts. Campaign against the appalling waste and disregard for talent. Take care to build a community, as well as a publications record. The academy should not just be a crucible for your own advancement. I am indebted to my colleague Nick Megoran of Newcastle University who has drawn my attention to Phil Cohen’s (2015) discussion (cf Weber) of vocation versus career.

Vocation unfolds as an inner directed quest or drive for an authentic self, primarily through the realisation of a special gift, talent, or calling. It is associated with the mastery of artistic or spiritual disciplines and with various forms of service. Vocation operates largely within the framework of a moral economy of worth, in which the value of the work performed under its sign is the means of satisfaction it produces. Authenticity is its benchmark. Career, in contrast, unfolds as so many steps up a ladder of personal ambition, marked by increments of status and income, often correlated with the achievement of professional qualifications and other so called performance indicators. Career operates entirely within a market economy of worth, every promotion is indexed to the competitive value of the work within a segmented labour market. Career is other-directed, it is driven by the desire to outperform one’s peers. Success is its benchmark.

It would be very easy to surrender to others the judgements for success and achievement. You should learn to be sceptical of performance indicators, promotions criteria and other institutional quantifiers. They are far from objective, and have a tendency to retreat just as you reach the required level. You may be cresting the wave now, but, by no fault of your own, you could find yourself beached on a sand bar. The author indicates they are in the early stages of an academic career, so they may not be aware of the tendency for managerial incentives to shift, sometimes quite suddenly and capriciously. For example, in arts and humanities, for most of my career, single authored monographs were seen as the hallmark of good scholarship. This regard has dissolved as the science model of research evaluation has superseded disciplinary autonomy. Grant capture is now the most essential signifier of esteem, and monetary value takes precedence over published outcomes. Who knows what might be the next deal-breaker for promotion – international collaborations, spinout companies, policy and advising work? Your senior colleagues will have shifted tack several times trying to comply with the vagaries of government and management behests. And they were probably as disdainful of their seniors as you are now. To paraphrase David Cameron’s words to Tony Blair, many of us end our careers with a sense that we were the future once. All we can do is the work that gives us pleasure, strive to preserve our integrity and try and leave the profession in better shape than we found it.



Cohen, Phil. 2015, ‘From vocation to career: the organic crisis of the political class.’ LW Blog

Courage and integrity in UK academia

I thought I would start 2017 with some higher education news which has cheered me over the past few weeks. It is not often I offer a shoutout to particular universities or vice-chancellors, but there are two which seem to merit honourable mentions.

Firstly, Birmingham City University appears to be resisting the trend towards course offerings which are exclusively vocational. The new BA (Hons.) Black Studies looks very likely to transform the intellectual climate at the university, but also across the sector. We see the closure of too many university courses which foster real fearless critical thinking, and so to see modules like Black Political Activism, Black Feminism, and Power and Inequality and others which set out to challenge racism and interrogate intersectionality is really gratifying. It is a courageous riposte to the constant condemnation of courses which invite students to challenge prevailing power structures. And it stands in clear defiance of the prospect of being monstered by the Daily Mail, hostile generally to universities, but particularly to new scholarly formations which could disturb the complacency of their predominantly white readership.

Another new project at Birmingham City University is the launch on 26th January 2017 of the Centre for Brexit Studies. The website will reflect both Leave and Remain perspectives, and aims to ‘further enhance understanding of the consequences of the UK withdrawing from the European Union (EU)’. It also promises events and resources which will be accessible to local businesses and to civic society. Furthermore, knowing the turgid bureaucracy of university research and curriculum committees, I can only marvel at and admire the speed with which BCU has brought together researchers on a key emerging issue in such a timely manner. This is probably what other vice-chancellors imagine when they evoke that familiar conceit ‘fleetness of foot’. Both of the new BCU ventures embody exactly what a civic university should be doing: facilitating and developing the research ambitions of its academics, opening up  the debates, and harnessing that scholarship in the service of the local and global community.

My other garland is destined for Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex. Yesterday (17th January 2017) saw the publication of a report whose conclusions found that the university failed in its duty of care towards a student who was assaulted and left unconscious by a member of academic staff with whom she was in a relationship. It was Professor Tickell’s first act in post to order an independent review of the incident, and he has faithfully tweeted each press report of the outcome. More importantly he has apologised to the victim of the attack.

On the one hand, the report signals an indictment of the university which, it appears, interviewed only the assailant before assuring themselves he need not be suspended from duty. On the other hand, an admission of fault over an incident of such consequence to the university’s reputation is almost unprecedented. We live in an era when most universities would hasten to bury bad news, at all costs. Thank you, Adam Tickell, for restoring my faith in the integrity of (some) universities.

Answers to the Vice Chancellors’ Annual Quiz 2016

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

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

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

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

The Vice Chancellors’ Annual Quiz 2016

They are the captains of our ‘industry’, and often pilloried for being overpaid, detached, authoritarian, rent-seeking and reluctant to take a stand in defence of universities in a time of crisis. Some of these views have even been reflected in my own postings on this blog. However, in the season of goodwill, I hope a more nuanced picture of the nation’s vice chancellors will emerge from the answers to these questions.  We see VCs’ altruistic (or publicity-seeking) side in charitable stunts. There is the ability to negotiate and reconsider in the face of opposition to a policy. It is clear that not all of them come from a privileged background. One consistently offers staunch defence of academic freedom, and among them, they embrace a variety of views on models of university leadership, the TEF and Brexit.

Answers in the comments section please. The last 5 are old news. Results will be posted after the New Year. Anyone getting all 25 correct will receive a signed copy of my co-authored book on managerial discourse (forthcoming 2018 !!).

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

  1.  Raised the bar for academic staff….and then lowered it again?
  2. Rejected government calls for universities to sponsor schools, saying it would be ‘a distraction from our core mission’?
  3. Told a meeting of ECRs “we have no security to offer you. It is so easy for us to replace you”?
  4. Criticised university leaders for being too wedded to outdated notions of the heroic in leadership and acting like Zeus not Athena?
  5. Caused controversy by saying “society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian”.
  6. Added £2 worth of biscuits to a £20,000 expenses bill?
  7. Lost a no-confidence vote by staff after unpopular cost-cutting measures.
  8. Was knighted in 2016?
  9. Did the mannequin challenge at the graduation ceremony?
  10. Said “great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends on it”?
  11. Has been appointed Chair of the TEF?
  12. Said the TEF is ‘a further safeguard for students, one that has now been largely accepted by the sector’?
  13. Does the open day talk for the mathematics course at their university?
  14. Said Brexit is “the catalyst we all need”?
  15. Was the most recent VC to appear on Desert Island Discs?
  16. Is the UK’s longest-serving VC?
  17. Heads the league table for spending on air fares among VCs in Wales?
  18. Born in Germany, moved to Ireland, back to Germany, back to Ireland, to England, back to Ireland and now in Scotland. Best known for his report on governance in Scottish HE.
  19. Is the most highly ranked VC on the Wonkhe HE Power List 2016
  20. Said, “Professors are really like small business owners”?
  21. Dressed up as Bonnie Tyler for a charity fund raiser?
  22. Used to be a van driver and once crowd surfed among his students?
  23. Was once housed in a homeless hostel?
  24. Spent £95,000 on a set of ceremonial chairs?
  25. The answer is Professor Sir Steve Smith, University of Exeter. Suggested questions in comments please.

Ten Myths and a Truth from the TEF: Reading the White Paper

Although the Higher Education and Research Bill is still going through parliamentary scrutiny, the Teaching Excellence Framework is about to be implemented and yet we do not know for certain what its effects will be, or even which institutions will enter into it. On the 2nd of December 2016, the same day as students at Warwick University went into occupation against the TEF , the chair of the TEF, Professor Chris Husbands,  published a blog piece entitled Busting five common myths about the TEF. A welcome addition to the critique, I thought, but I felt as though we were reading different documents.  I have been working on Chapter 2 of the White Paper (TEF) and so I checked some of Jo Johnson’s claims against evidence from some of the other publications I have been reading recently. Concealed within the pages of Jo Johnson’s White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, May 2016,  are quite a few contested propositions and ten more myths which Chris Husbands has overlooked.

We hear much of how political discourse operates in a post-truth culture, but one of the key strategies of persuasion is via presupposition – an statement whose truth is assumed without substantiation. Another trick is to make syntactic linkages between concepts which then acquire the appearance of logical relationship. We find both of these demonstrated in the White Paper.

Below I outline myths (quotations and presuppositions from the White Paper) and responses based on evidence and reason.

Myth 1: There is a problem with ‘lamentable’ teaching quality in universities.

Response: There is no evidence presented to sustain the claim. Use of an inflammatory adjective installs the presupposition.

Myth 2: Students cannot make informed choices….These decisions are significant factors in determining a student’s future life and career success, so it is crucial that they represent sound investments. We need to make sure that students have access to the best possible information to make choices about what they study, and the benefits that they can expect to gain from those choices.

Response: Students have a lot of choice of courses, and they make up their own minds by consulting websites, alternative prospectuses, going to open days. There is even metricised data from Unistats  (comparison site which evaluates NSS scores, employment data and graduate salaries – exactly the innovation Jo Johnson thinks the TEF will deliver) and from league tables.

Nouns like ‘investment’ can also operate as presuppositions as the concept is assumed to be inevitable and universal.  ‘Investment’ is presented in crudely financialised terms as ‘return on investment’ or ROI, which presupposes that students are primarily concerned about future earnings. No evidence is presented to substantiate this, even in the face of students continuing to apply for courses where relatively low salaries are likely upon graduation e.g. nursing, creative arts, education, agriculture. We note that ‘investment’ is a polysemic (multi-meaning) term used to reference the expending of economic capital, and emotional/ intellectual capital by the individual.

Myth 3: Robust, comparable information about the quality of teaching – and the components that contribute to it – is not currently available… That is why this Government will introduce the TEF and for the first time bring sector-wide rigour to the assessment of teaching excellence.

Response: A repetition of the presupposition that students do not already have access to this information. As stated above, it clearly is available. If it is not, why have we been pouring money into QAA, institutional reviews,  Hefce, etc. for all these years, if it has not had the effect of ensuring the quality and reputation of the sector? This architecture of quality assurance, though imperfect, has ensured that the UK is one of the most highly regulated and inspected sectors in the world.

Myth 4: The consumer organisation Which? has found that three in ten students think that the academic experience of higher education is poor value, and the issues raised by students in that research included the amount, and quality, of teaching they received, and the extent to which they are academically challenged.

Response: It is good to see a rare appeal to evidence, but perhaps the wrong conclusions are being drawn by the Which? study. This study by Steven Jones, Steven Courtney and Ruth McGinity proposes another interpretation: “Large fee increases mean that university is bound to be seen as exploitatively expensive by students. This does not mean they are dissatisfied with their courses or teaching quality”. In fact, the NSS scores nationally indicate that students are satisfied with their university experience. Can Jo Johnson make NSS a key metric, and then discount it, all in the same policy document?

Myth 5: Clear priorities of students while at university included: “having more hours of teaching”, “reducing the size of teaching groups” and “better training for lecturers”, but there is little information for prospective students on this in advance.

Response: As this study finds, effective student learning does not always emerge from ‘more contact hours’; in fact independent study is more valuable.   Learning may be the first casualty of a popularity-led evaluation like the NSS/ TEF.

Myth 6: Employers report a growing mismatch between the skills they need and the skills that graduates offer.

Response: A study reported in the Times Higher in 2015 shows that universities are doing a good job in developing the kind of skills which employers find useful and “UK employers are still among the most satisfied with their nation’s higher education system (giving it 7.3 out of 10, compared with a global average of 6.8).”

Myth 7: We need to ensure that our higher education system continues to provide the best possible outcomes. These come from informed choice and competition.

Response: This is a logical non-sequitur, but allows a lazy conflation of several unrelated concepts and assumes causality between them. The White Paper assumes that outcomes = return on investment = graduate salaries, and that these will be consequent upon informed choice and competition. Quality of courses, and choice for students, is more likely to emerge from imaginative cooperation between institutions. This would be an innovation worth pursuing.

This study by David Morris of Wonkhe analyses the government’s Longitudinal Earnings Outcome (LEO) data. There are a number of departures from the outcomes-require-competition myth. Prior attainment, i.e. A Level performance, makes a huge difference to graduate earnings, regardless of subject studied.  This raises a question about ‘learning gain’ – also a concern of the White Paper. I’m sure this will present itself as another cudgel to beat less-favoured universities with. However, Morris’ study also identifies a gender gap and a race gap for earnings, which is far less consonant with a learning gain/ value-added analysis.

Myth 8: By removing student number controls and making it easier for new providers to enter, we will create the conditions that will allow choice and competition to flourish. But what is also needed is the information to allow students to determine where the best teaching can be found.

Response: The answer to quality enhancement, we are expected to believe, is the entry of new providers in order to create ‘competition’. Except the new providers will not be expected to fulfil all the expectations that publically-funded universities are expected to address. As this article makes clear, as new private providers have emerged in strength in South America, especially Argentina and Chile, they have not been engaged in research. This, argues the author – Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela, restricts the number of qualified PhDs who are able to take the higher education system forward.

Myth 9: The Government believes that excellent teaching can occur in many different forms, in a wide variety of institutions, and it is not the intention of the TEF to constrain or prescribe the form that excellence must take. What we expect though, is that excellent teaching, whatever its form, delivers excellent outcomes.

Response: The TEF will have criteria, and metrics, so how can the White Paper say that the form of excellence will not be prescribed or constrained. In fact, that is exactly what will happen as institutions align their priorities precisely to those criteria – which as the statement makes clear, are in any case based on the proxy ‘outcomes’ of NSS scores, retention and most importantly graduate salaries which are high enough to pay back all the money the government has lost in its ill-advised restructuring of HE finance towards what are, in effect, individual student vouchers.

Myth 10: Perhaps the biggest myth of all – as Jones, Courtney and McGinity point out, is Johnson’s claim that the TEF will strengthen the position of students.  It will not – and indeed, the NUS has voted to disengage from TEF. Evidence shows that co-opting students as consumers is damaging to educational experience.

A truth – a veritable truth: There is of course more to university than financial gain, but the idea that excellent teaching occurs in a vacuum, independent of its impact on students’ future life chances, is not one we can or should accept.

Response:  There is a nice hat tip to other justifications of HE, but immediately we see the counter-narrative remains in place with co-reference of outcomes with financial gain, disguised as ‘life chances’. The presupposition is that the most significant outcome of higher education is employment, but as this study shows, economists have often found that education has benefits for society beyond those of the individual – for example in terms of volunteering, social trust, better citizenship (lower crime).


Whatever does ail the higher education sector in the UK, the TEF spreadsheet will not fix it. Much more likely is that the government will recruit ‘consumer choice’ as a disciplinary tool, overlooking the needs of scholarship, local economies or student interests, and possibly serving as licence for university closure. By allowing this false reasoning to go unopposed, we risk losing quality, opportunity and reputation within the sector. Here is a link to the Convention for Higher Education website which has some key resources for opposing the TEF and the Higher Education and Research Bill. Organise, and support students in their refusal to co-operate with the TEF and NSS as long as it threatens to raise their fees, waste millions of pounds of their ‘investment’, threaten the reputation of their courses and distort the priorities of universities away from good teaching and research.


Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism