What if Academia had an Ocean’s Seven?

The winning mindset of a top athlete might be a possibility for academics, if managers worked out how not to demotivate them. Liz Morrish has been paying attention to the UK’s top ocean swimmer.

I went to a fascinating book launch last week. The book, Man vs Oceanis by Adam Walker and was written after his successful completion of the Ocean’s Seven. This – according to Wikipedia – is the swimmers’ equivalent to the Seven Summits mountaineering challenge. It encompasses The English Channel, The Catalina Channel in California, The Cook Strait in New Zealand, The Molokai Channel in Hawaii, The Strait of Gibraltar, The Tsugaru Strait in Japan and The North Channel which lies between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Currently only six people have successfully completed all seven swims, which, by the way, must be done unaided and wearing only a regulation swimsuit.

Each of Adam’s swims featured a major difficulty, which might have wilted the resolve of lesser mortals. Adam was able to persist through injury, personal sadness, fear of sharks, cold, and, in the Molokai Channel, the vicious sting of a Portuguese Man o’ War jellyfish that threatens to shut down your major organs. The Cook Strait swim was enlivened by a pod of dolphins who seemed to be protecting Adam from a lurking shark, and who made him feel connected to his oceanic habitat in a new and joyous way. As a (more leisurely) open water swimmer, I had followed most of Adam’s voyages on Twitter, and so was voraciously looking forward to reading the book. I recommend it to you.

Like everyone else in the room, I was thrilled to meet this engaging and modest man as he read and recounted tales from his ten year quest for the Ocean’s Seven. In moving from a job as a toaster salesman to conqueror of the planet’s most tumultuous seas, Adam described a transformative experience. His self-belief had grown enormously. He was no longer daunted by challenges and he felt equipped to succeed. Here was a man who strode the planet, and swam its oceans, with justifiable confidence.

I took away an important key message – not finishing a project is not an option. This is something I can definitely respond to, as can most academics. We may not be in the world’s top six in our field, but we deliver high quality teaching and research, nevertheless. We embark upon PhDs, writing books and articles, major research projects, and the pursuit of recognition as our careers unfold. But, I mused later over dinner with a friend, why do academics feel so defeated, even in the face of striving and achievement. Haven’t we also surmounted self-doubt, intellectual and institutional hurdles, faced our fears of exposure and ridicule, taken risks, charted unknown waters and made our mark on the world stage? Some of us may even have our own version of swimming with sharks, or being levelled by a poisonous sting. I started to wonder why so many of us are failing to rejoice in our achievements.

It was interesting the next day to read this piece by Anonymous Academic in the Guardian – a kind of positive spin on academic life. On Twitter, it was immediately garlanded with affirmation from a number of people – among them a vice-chancellor and a pro vice-chancellor. Among the other ranks, though, there was a less uniform reception. “My favourite parts are the job insecurity, long working hours, and fiercely intense competition for funding” snarled Paul Coxon. For me, those are not the major blights; these reside in the shifting goals and parameters as institutions equivocate over what to prioritise this year. Graduate employability is the current totem, but we must also respond to the demands of research league tables, student satisfaction scores, quality enhancement strategies and all the rest. I have blogged previously about the quite unattainable expectations being placed on many academics at Russell Group Universities: multiple research outputs classed as world-leading, conference participation, especially as keynote speakers, international collaborations, innovation and leadership within one’s field, research grant ‘capture’ and income generation, proving impact of research, supervision of PhD students, and, of course, high student satisfaction scores.

It is a dizzying array of expectations, leading to a kind of individual lighthouse effect, whereby the researcher focusses on whatever seems most pressing at the time, leaving other ‘drivers’ neglected and awaiting the notice of sharks who are keen to point out the gaps in performance.

What, I pondered, if there were an Ocean’s Seven for university academics? What might its constituents be? Seven 4* publications, with impact? Seven major program research grants? Seven PhD students placed in lectureships in Russell Group universities? All of the above. One certainty is that, whatever the milestones, they would keep shifting. You would always be judged by what you had failed to complete, rather than what you had accomplished. In the kind of Hunger Games dystopia of UK universities, if anyone achieved them all, managers would add another. Indeed, anyone subsequently falling short of all seven would find themselves designated as failing, and placed on punitive performance improvement procedures in order to ‘empower’ them.

Nobody is ever going to tell Adam he is under-performing. I hope if they did, they might find themselves swimming with sharks, but he seems too nice, too humane to arrange that.  But it has happened to some of the highest achieving colleagues I know, whose record and esteem should be beyond disparagement.

Perhaps the answer lies in the other advice that Adam gave. I know about the debate over structure versus agency, and I do accept that institutions are rarely as facilitative as their HR policies make out. But in order to end your career with any sense of self-worth, you need to be working for your own satisfaction. Ignore the false metrics and the externally-imposed benchmarks, and do it for yourself. Do it because you desire the achievement and because it is what you were put on earth to do. Break the whole endeavour down into very small parts; one stroke after another. And keep going. Be sure to celebrate your success, and try to disregard the setbacks and anything else that makes the journey seem hopeless. I just hope you are swimming with dolphins, and not with the killers who are after your bodily organs.

 

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Raising the Bar: The Metric Tide That Sinks All Boats

Liz Morrish writes: A longer post than usual, but very relevant if your working life in academia is governed by the insanity of metrics – grant income, PhD students, impact, REf 4* ‘outputs’. You know it is insanity, so read on…..

James Wilsdon may as well not have inveighed against the ‘metric tide’, and Jo Johnson could have saved printers’ ink asking vice-chancellors not to waste academics’ time, and students’ fee money by operating multiple ‘mock’ REFs (BIS Green Paper November 2015 Chapter 2, para 7).

It is time for a critical conversation to take place about the use and abuse of metrics. In July 2015, Hefce published The Metric Tide, the report of a review body chaired by James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex.

Despite the report’s chilling preface, announcing a “new barbarity” in our universities, we continue to witness the misuse of metrics as a tool of management in UK higher education. “Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods”, wrote Wilsdon. Universities should proceed with caution, then, lest metrics should spread like a digital Himalayan Balsam and undermine the ethical architecture of universities.

It is ironic, but perhaps fortunate, that students find universities a very different experience than the academic staff who labour in them. For students, the intrusive scrutiny of metrics can at least claim to betoken a therapeutic and supportive institution. Generally speaking, the student ‘dashboard’ does not harbour the disciplinary function of its academic equivalent. 

For academic staff, audit has become a central organizing principle of life in universities (Strathern 2003). Our working lives are structured around the requirement to undergo ‘rituals of verification’ (Power 1997), and there are as many anticipatory audits as there are demands for post-hoc justification. Such is their prevalence that the behaviour of academics has been transformed so that they are interpolated primarily as auditees (Petersen and Davies 2010). Benchmarks, metrics and dashboards are examples of calculative practices (Shore and Wright 2015), used, apparently, to measure and improve the productivity of academics. This imposes a rationality whereby we face a future of ‘algorithmic regulation’ (Morozov 2014), and regimes in which employees are hierarchized according to metrics. University policy documents endeavour to justify these practices as essential, and even empowering to academics.

I have blogged previously about the difference between stewardship and agency approaches to performance management, citing a report from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (Franco-Santos et al. 2014).

Stewardship approaches frame a long term direction of travel which relies on individuals exercising autonomy, while agency approaches address short term goals via monitoring and tight control. While UK universities seem beholden to the short-term, agency approach, stewardship approaches are favoured by Umran Inan, President of Koc University in Turkey. He writes that “that any attempt to pass down norms or procedures” from on high is antithetical to creativity, and that universities must instead “allow unusual [and] inconsistent things to happen” (Parr 2014). At Koc, quality of scholarship is allowed to flourish and internal evaluations take place every five years. By comparison, in the UK, we are in danger of allowing academic freedom and creativity to founder under the distorting constraints of audit.

I am not fond of sports metaphors, but many vice-chancellors are. I understand that what has made the New Zealand All Blacks a great team is a sense that there is a long-term investment in each player’s development, rather than the England team’s reliance on a permanent sense of insecurity and enforced competition for their place on the team.

Raising the Bar is a sports metaphor that will be familiar to academics at Newcastle University, as they have become one of the latest universities to publish their expectations for research performance. All of this was initiated by managerial anxiety, amidst chatter about so-called ‘bottom Russellers,’ that Newcastle has been “lacking in competitiveness compared to other Russell Group institutions”. The Vice-Chancellor, Chris Brink stated in a ‘town hall meeting’ in November 2015 that Newcastle had lacked 4*-ness in the last REF, and that an institutional goal was to be in the top half of the Russell Group. This can be attributed purely to league table-induced status anxiety. But I do wonder when, exactly, did academia become a combat zone? Probably it was at the same time they started awarding stars, like US Army generals. When did the amount of grant money eclipse the actual content of the research? But Raising the Bar is a coercively innocent phrase. It conveniently conceals all the judgement, hostility, pain and pressure that we know will follow it. Academic endeavour is not something that can just be improved by order. Research functions within a context, an ethos and a dynamic.

Now that I have built a reputation for busting managerial myths about performance management, kind Twitterati send me their universities’ policy documents. As a linguist, I feast upon their discursively encoded ideologies. As a human being, a scholar and a friend of many victims, I weep at the cost for these individuals, but also for the future of universities.

This is my analysis of the document (see below): Newcastle University, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Research and Innovation Performance Expectations.

First of all, we find that these are expectations, not objectives, not targets, not goals. Expectations are much more finite and concrete, and do not permit that worrying prospect of slippage.

[T]he expectations on research active staff – so by definition if you do not meet them you are not research active, despite any other evidence to the contrary.

This document is focussed on research performance…..as this will determine our ranking in the next REF. And the key to this, we learn, will be increasing the number of 4* outputs. The parameters of ‘performance’ are drawn so rigidly, and amount solely to ‘being REF-able’.  This circumscribes any kind of professional autonomy, or even what should count as academic labour, guaranteeing that much of what academics do will be rendered invisible. What of the early career researcher, or graduate student celebrating their first scholarly publication? This will probably not be a 4*, and any pleasure or sense of fulfilment will be subdued.  How can any of us take pleasure in our work under these conditions?

 [W]e have largely relied on REF 2014 entry as a proxy for reaching the minimum expectations for research outputs. How is this possible? How would a local assessor know if an individual’s outputs were scored as the quoted minimum 3*? Individual REF scores are categorically not available; they have been destroyed (REF FAQ).

A criterion for a chair is: aspires to be in the Top quartile in UoA for income, or aspiring to 4* – how can everyone be in the top quartile? With success rates as low as 12%, then that is an expectation you will probably not meet. And how do you indicate aspiration, if you fall short? Are we now to be judged on the breadth of our imaginations?

Newcastle University is not alone in planning to audit their academic staff on attainment of quantifiable targets, with some, like grant capture, quite outside their control. Nor is the misery confined to the Russell Group; Newcastle joins a long list which now amounts to one in six UK universities, according to the Times Higher: Queens University Belfast, Imperial, Queen Mary University of London, Abertay University, Plymouth University, Robert Gordon University and the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, East Anglia, Glasgow, Greenwich and Leeds.

If targets are unattainable, this leads to unmanageable levels of stress. This is objective setting 101. Employers have a legal obligation to conduct risk assessments and prevent known causes of stress. “Employers are only in breach of their duty if they have failed to take reasonable steps in the circumstances to prevent the stress”. Notice the word is ‘prevent,’ not alleviate stress. It is not helpful to offer mindfulness workshops, nor aromatherapy. The workplace should be managed in accordance with the law and decent moral conduct.

Of course, Chris Brink alluded to the fact that academics would be ‘supported’ in reaching the new bar; however the inevitable monitoring, reporting and surveillance will only serve to amplify the pressure of the audit. If we need evidence that targets and performance management cause insupportable stress, we should remember the tragic case of Stefan Grimm who took his own life after being threatened with performance management procedures at Imperial College. The coroner found Stefan’s death to be ‘needless’  and Imperial College said that ‘wider lessons’ would be learned. It is now very clear that the nation’s vice-chancellors have been unwilling to face the facts. There is systematic, mass victimization of UK academics.

And it is not confined to the UK; recent research from Australia on the impact of aggressive performance management on early career researchers (Petersen 2016 forthcoming) indicates that stress starts to manifest itself quickly, and has a negative impact on work. Many ECRs “struggled to articulate the value and worth of their work outside the productivity discourse” (2016:12). The constraints of metrics cause the content of the research to change, and researchers attempt to mirror what is ‘hot’ – likely to get funding under shifting priorities of research councils. And I have observed as well that we all tend to discount even solid scholarship – edited volumes or book reviews – if they are not REF-able. And in the same way we will learn to discount any work which is not judged – even by non-expert assessors – as worthy of a 3* or 4* ranking. As Petersen says of her informants, “they and the substance of their work become easier to control”.

Another control technique is to devalue the work of someone who is entirely dedicated to their scholarship, and whose whole identity is enmeshed with their work. Ammunition can easily be found when targets are so numerous and the scope so wide that almost every employee can be found wanting in some dimension. The targets reflect management’s construction of the ideal employee who is ‘compelled never to rest’ (Davies and Petersen 2005: 89). This offers employers the opportunity to apply policies capriciously: poor teaching scores may be overlooked in some cases, but lack of grant income is not. It is a licence for the academically insecure to settle grudges or academic jealousies with their more talented underlings. And so an increasing number of academics are being marched through performance management processes in which their unique contributions are rendered insignificant and their imagined lapses are deemed ‘incapability’. Targets must be attained at each and every period of audit. You may find that international esteem is never arrived at, even though your books – even translations of them – are still on the shelves. Was it achieved and documented in the last six months? That is all that matters. Professorship must be performed in these tightly delimited ways like a horse doing dressage. Threats of demotion are made. It is like rescinding Mark Spitz’s gold medals because he can no longer match Michael Phelps.

I have to question whether these quantifiable targets meet management’s declared aims of encouraging staff retention and offering a structure of support for academics. It is hard to imagine they could work positively in this way when, in some departments, significant numbers of academics are immobilized by emotional and professional breakdown.

In the fictions and contradiction of management Polari, this is returned to the apparently delinquent employee as ‘empowerment’, even as managers arrogate the power to press the detonate button on careers. This mendacious discourse serves to absolve the perpetrators of torture from the shattering incapacitation these procedures invoke.

The Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University portrays the metrics of Raising the Bar as objectivity. It is not, nor is it objective setting; this is objectification. Let us remind ourselves of Martha Nussbaum’s (1995) original seven features of objectification:

  • Instrumentality – to be treated as a tool for man’s purposes. At Newcastle, the function of an academic is to raise the bar, increase grant income and raise the university’s position in the league tables.
  • Denial of autonomy – activity and what counts as work is tightly defined and controlled.
  • Inertness – there are no human agents in the Newcastle documents. Grammatical subjects include ‘this document’, and “this aspect of our academic portfolio”, “a detailed analysis of the results” and “expectations”. There is the passive voice throughout, with just three instances of an unattributed pronoun ‘we’. ‘We’ is an inherently ambiguous pronoun. It can be used either inclusively, or exclusively of the addressee. Looking at the contexts: “we do not expect all staff to have equal strengths”; “we have largely relied on REF 2014”; “We will take early career researcher’ – these usages seem to retain the prerogative of its exclusive attribution.
  • Fungibility – interchangeability with other objects of the same type. How often have you heard managers say “we have an open door policy”? And notice that in HR-speak, there are no people, with contributions to make, there are only ‘roles’, and these can have the status of vacant, or filled.
  • Violability – something that can be broken, violated, smashed into. Many academics are now looking at ruined careers and broken ambitions. We have ensured that an academic career has become unsustainable in the long term.
  • Ownership – something that can be traded or commodified; we now hear about ‘a transfer market’ for ‘4* 4’ professors – professors with four 4* outputs.
  • Denial of subjectivity – your feelings need not be taken into account. Indeed, there is no way of expressing them, as we are forced to account for our work in terms of management-defined metrics. This is known as illocutionary silencing (Meyerhoff 2004).

Does this seem familiar? Objectification is the reality behind what we are supposed to believe is ‘empowerment’, a word now taking that slide into the semantic inversion prefigured by ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’. But generations of women have been persuaded that objectification is empowering, so why not try it out on academics?

This is a job creation scheme for HR as more and more academics will find themselves falling short of ‘Raising the Bar’. If we are lucky, they may embroil universities in grievances and libel suits which will chasten managers’ love of ‘robust’ metrical solutions to problems which do not exist. Vice-chancellors use a dip in metrics, or the effects of incapacitation – ‘falling over’ – in their jargon, as an occasion to axe courses, subject, departments and schools. We are about to enter an era of manufactured instability in universities in both staff turnover and academic offering.  

Metrics, then, are unlikely to offer any of the certainties that their champions have promised, and doubly so because of the sheer irrationality that governs their application. The bar must be raised, and raised again. No-one must slip beneath the bar. There is only the bar, the metric that cannot lie. Except it does. There is always a rush to judgement as metrics occlude any other evidence. This is the weak spot, and one that offers a route to resistance. What about content? What about the imagination, passion and risk-taking that animate research? What about bright people having fortuitous conversations?

There has been a hollowing out of the sense of purpose of universities as power is skewed towards the managerial function. Despite vice-chancellors’ assurances that There is No Alternative, it doesn’t have to be like this, and it is our job to take every opportunity to make this clear. Good work cannot be sustained under these conditions of pressure and surveillance. Academics are not servo systems whose online functioning can be monitored and tweaked in response to new demands. Consider this reality; academics with all their strengths and imperfections are the people who attract students. I gift several Saturdays a year to my institution because, it seems, I am able to persuade students to study there. Nobody ever signed up because of the award-winning Human Resources team, or was swayed by the robustness of the Improving Performance Procedure.

So let’s indeed raise the bar. Let’s raise the bar for decency, humanity, respect and trust. Let’s realise that academic staff do not have either the resources or the capacity to keep expanding their workloads and output every year, and please let’s keep in mind the human consequences of systems that push people above, over and beyond. And let’s return to that meaning of ‘we’ and allow ourselves to feel that it includes everyone who works in a university and not allow it to pertain exclusively to management. I hope that, perhaps, one day, vice-chancellors and their senior management teams will wake up and remember they work for universities; they are not the university.

 Video of talk at Newcastle University 25th November 2015

Newcastle Humanities and Social Sciences RTB doc

 

References

 Davies, B. and Petersen, E.B. 2005. Neo-liberal discourse in the academy: The forestalling of (collective) resistance. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2 (2): 77-98.

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. 2015.  Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. November 2015. HMSO.  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474227/BIS-15-623-fulfilling-our-potential-teaching-excellence-social-mobility-and-student-choice.pdf

Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M. 2014. http://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/news/documents/PerformanceManagementinUKHigherEducationInstitutions.pdf

Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2004. Doing and saying: some words on women’s silence. In R.T. Lakoff. Language and Women’s Place: Text and Commentaries (revised and expanded). M. Bucholtz (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 209-215.

Morozov, E. 2014. To Save Everything, Click Here. Penguin.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1995. Objectification, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24 (4), pp. 249–291.

Parr, Chris. 2014. Young universities’ secrets of success, Times Higher. July 17th.

Power, Michael. 1997. The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.

Petersen, E.B. (forthcoming, 2016) The impact of managerial performance frameworks on research activities among Australian early career researchers, in ed. K. Trimmer Political Pressures on Educational and Social Research. NY: Routledge

Petersen, E.B. and Davies, B. 2010. In/Difference in the neoliberalised university.  Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 3 (2): 92-109.

Shore, C. and Wright, S. 2015. Audit culture revisited. Current Anthropology, 56 (3): 421-444.

Strathern, M. (ed) 2000. Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge.

Wilsdon, J., et al. (2015). The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4929.1363

Dashboard Dopeheads

They’re at it again. The dashboard dopeheads and their metrics. I’ve blogged about it before, David Colquhoun has blogged about it, so has Dorothy Bishop,so has Kate Bowles, so has Philip Moriarty and still the insanity goes on. What is it that we are all railing about? Performance targets which rest on securing grant income, that’s what. This week it has descended on Queens University Belfast. A Russell Group University currently undergoing financial stringency, it has transferred responsibility for dragging them out of destitution onto its academic staff. Already burdened with tripling the number of non-EU students, QUB is requiring staff to reach specific targets of research income. The BBC News website reports:

For instance, a senior lecturer in English is expected to generate £48,000 by 2020, and a senior lecturer in history £69,000, but a senior lecturer in Anthropology is expected to raise almost £200,000 over the same period.

The Times Higher affirmed in June 2015 that one in six universities is now imposing grant targets. This did not count the institutions which offered misleading responses to its Freedom of Information requests. Prime culprits were the managers of the University of Birmingham who were exposed when they sent a “position statement” to the University and College Union, and used that duplicitous trick of redefining their terms. Grant capture was not contractual, they claimed, (so not reported to the Times Higher); instead it was merely an instance of “local or research area specific norms” and “sector-wide standards” being applied.

Local norms. So that’s alright then. Except it’s not. Absolutely not. Let me count the ways why not.

Each time grant capture and associated ‘performance management’ are mentioned, it is inevitable, and appropriate, that the case of Stefan Grimm is raised. Stefan Grimm was a Professor of Toxicology at Imperial College. Public humiliation by his head of department over apparent lack of program grants, and a threatened progression to ‘performance management’ led to this comment in his last email to colleagues before he took his own life “Why does a Professor have to be treated like that”?

While we reflect on the violence of that last threat to Stefan Grimm, we must also consider other realities such as the fact that the success rate of grant applications can be as rare as the low teens  and decide whether academics are being set up to fail. If so, this would certainly constitute institutional abuse on a very large scale.

More bleakness is to come. In November 2015 we will get the results of a government spending review which is likely to result in a 40% cut for the department of Business Innovation and Skills and funding for research. The Minister of State, Sajid Javid is determined to showcase either a defiant belief in austerity, or a hostility to publicly funded science – or both.

None of this penetrates that most stubborn and recalcitrant student – the university vice-chancellor enmeshed in their managerial fictions of targets, rankings and income generation. Universities seem intent on denying their staff even a salary by expecting them to earn their remuneration and expenses from other sources. It’s a bit like expecting a train driver to buy their own train.

The insistence on grant capture imposes some perverse incentives on academics, as Philip Moriarty points out. Academics are forced to prove that they can spend public money, and not necessarily deliver value for that money.

Dorothy Bishop agrees. Grant capture targets distort priorities she says, by discriminating against inexpensive research and privileging the most expensive projects with status and affirmation. This system has led to a backlog of unanalysed data and unwritten reports. As a result, much of the investment is wasted. But never mind, the financial and academic capital has been deployed and the Vice-Chancellor has been awarded a pay rise.

I am sickened by the experience of reading these reports and finding that nothing changes. Universities continue to bully their academics into making premature and futile bids for funding, while still asking for world class research ‘outputs’. Imperial College assured the world of academia that lessons had been learned from Professor Grimm’s death. As it turns out, universities have learned nothing except how to replicate the same conditions. I am traumatised by seeing my friends weeping after ‘performance reviews’ which judge their work by arbitrary and shifting targets, leaving their actual achievements unexamined.

Nick Couldry (2008) writes about theatres of cruelty:

Every system of cruelty requires its own theatre.  By “system” I mean an organization of objects, people and opportunities that is both regular and open to public view. There are of course many forms of cruelty that depend on secrecy, but the legitimation of systems of cruelty requires the transformations enabled by ritualized performance.

This accurately captures the ritual of public humiliation of professors for whom the briefest lapse means they must be gutted like chickens who have stopped laying eggs.

I have reached the conclusion that universities are pretty morally insolvent. There seems to be no animating principle other than the accumulation of capital, both financial and symbolic. Despite majestic promises of visions and values, every university strategic plan is reducible to ‘show me the money’. Never was this more transparent than with Professor Alice Gast, President of Imperial College, brazenly declaring on the Today Programme on 17th April 2015, that “professors are really like small business owners”.  No, Alice, they are not . They are researchers. Let’s not forget the actual accomplishment of research. Before more careers are ruined. Before universities are overrun with more HR managers to discipline the already disciplined. Before academics are reduced to a blinking light on the vice-chancellor’s dashboard. Before we lose the humanity that universities are meant to be safeguarding.

References

Couldry, Nick (2008) ‘Reality TV, or the Secret Theater of Neoliberalism’, Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, 30: 3-13.

Cheering the Change Champions

I really did enjoy an article in the Times Higher 1st October 2015. Steve Olivier, a deputy vice-chancellor at Abertay University, offers advice on How to Manage Rapid Change.

Although nowhere near as eminent as a deputy vice-chancellor, I am also a change champion, I have, over the last few years, presented myself for as many management training programs as I can endure. Operating rather like a resistance worker, I attend, take notes and then work with the tools of critical discourse analysis to uncover the discourses, power relations, metaphors and assumptions that are embedded in these programs. I work with a colleague, Helen Sauntson, and this analysis owes much to her expertise.

Change is one of those managerial ‘hooray words’ and, indeed, Olivier reassures us that ‘change initiatives are well-intentioned’. He then announces a litany of fifteen changes that he and the senior management team have introduced in ‘just 18 months’. Ho-hum. I wouldn’t mind betting most academics have undergone something very similar in the last three years. I could certainly check off half of Olivier’s list. Better than that, I am now looking forward to the fifth iteration of the semesters to year-long back-and-forth in my career. At Abertay, we learn that “No initiative could proceed without our first agreeing to no more than 10 principles to guide it”. That was the part I didn’t entirely recognise. Ten? Crikey, I’d be happy with one. If we can flip-flop so many times, how can we be asked to believe in any underlying principles? I am not so much a change champion as a change veteran. Change is a kind of dysfunctional academic circadian rhythm designed to make sure no process ever fully cements itself. The only response it evokes in me is resignation and thoughts of all the productive work about to be erased while I Do, I Undo and I Redo – in the way of the Louise Bourgeois sculptures.

So what do the documents of managerial training schemes reveal? Firstly, the constant references to ‘change management’ presuppose that change is something that must be managed and cannot simply be allowed to occur organically or naturally. This helps to create a discourse of change as something which must be ‘controlled’ by those in powerful positions within an institution (referred to in training documents as ‘change leaders’, ‘change masters’ and ‘change agents’). It is presented as an indicator of competence, regardless of judgements favouring the status quo, or alternative changes. Resisting change is presented as a ‘negative behaviour’.

Invoking change as a universal good to be embraced, presupposes that there will be resistance and ‘barriers’ to change, and that change is something that will not be wanted by staff working in HEIs. Academics, of course, are often the initiators of change (particularly in their subject areas), but this meaning of change is notably absent from training documents leaving a clear presupposition that change is ‘top-down’ and can only be initiated and directed by those in the most powerful positions within an institution. A discourse is created that any change that is desired by those in less powerful positions must be suppressed and controlled by those higher up.

Parker (2014) documents a convincing case study of change management at its most strident as ‘a project which attempts to ensure that all parts of an organization ‘share’ values. Or, to put it a different way, to ensure that there is no disagreement with the corporate line, and that academics and students know their places and their ‘best interests’’ (2014: 283). Apparent resistance to change was often characterised as a problem of communication (2014: 285), and unhappiness discounted as ‘inevitable in times of rapid change’.

Our documents indicate that managers see all change as revolutionary and self-evidently a good thing, often presented as ‘shaking things up’. However, change is decontextualized from any previous history. Parker comments on the strange process of legitimation: ‘[I]t was necessary to ensure that the past was not available as a valid position from which to criticize the present. In other words, the past needs to be articulated as a problem, as something that needs to be escaped from’ (2014: 287). Resistance from those with institutional memory (who are often in a position to identify the futility of the change, or its circularity) is framed in terms of their self-interest and intransigence. Those who leave are recast as not sharing the vice-chancellor’s vision. The discourse creates binary options of compliance or exit; zero: sum; entrepreneur or whiner hankering for the ‘good old days’. Indeed, as Parker points out, the very fact of staff leaving, retiring or falling ill with stress is often, in this managerial fiction of change, will be defended by the institution as evidence that change is both necessary and effective (2014: 288).

A final strong presupposition underlying the uses and meanings of change in the documents is that all change will ultimately be successful. Despite reservations that covertly may be held, the discourse is relentlessly positive; there are never any ‘problems’, only ‘challenges’, and problems are solved, challenges are overcome, ruthlessly, just like resistance. The ideology created in the text prevents academics from interrogating the legitimacy of change are being imposed – to technology, to working conditions, to ‘performance management’ or to redundancy criteria. One of the absences in the documents is the possibility of academics participating in democratic structures to agree change. Indeed, if resistance fails, and the employee finds themselves stressed or their work impeded by change, then there are institutional means by which the institution attempts to manage the dissatisfied self. Docherty (2014b) writes that “everything, including dissent, is managed and circumscribed to keep existing authority in power. Institutionally, it’s called ‘change management’”.

References

Thomas Docherty (2011). The unseen academy. Times Higher. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=418076&c=2

Parker, Martin. 2014. University, Ltd: Changing a business school. Organization. 21(2) 281–292.

While you were away – Summer 2015 HE news catch up Part II

Part II of the digest of HE news, since the UK General Election. This is selective, and there is much I have left out. Below – research, quality assurance, student loans and a glimpse into the post-spending review future.

Research

On the research front, we anticipate the Nurse Review of funding of research. This is being done in the context of an a government spending review, and, BIS has hired McKinsey management consultants. Most pundits suspect this will result in severe cuts to the department’s budget, and it seems likely that all the research funding councils will join together in one body, with the goal of simplifying the system.

This makes everybody nervous – science, because they fear constant chipping away at research funding; humanities and social sciences who fear that they will lose out when funding bids are pitted against the greater claim to economic value attributed to science. Bets are off whether the system of ‘dual funding’ will continue – money from the REF AND money from the research councils. Jo Johnson seems to be suggesting it will in his speech earlier in September 2015. We will know the results on 25th November, after the government’s spending review has reported.

One piece of unexpected news came with publication in July of the Wilsdon report which came out against a ‘metric tide’ to replace the current REF methodology. Wilsdon’s team found that metrics such as impact factors of journals and citation counts, may easily be gamed, while, by contrast, peer review continues to hold the trust of academics. And David Sweeney, in charge of the REF at HEFCE, seems to agree.

Quality Assurance

Another messy field at the moment. QAA is nearing the end of its contract with HEFCE as regulator of the HE sector. That means it must enter into competition with another two rivals for the task –HEFCE itself who may seek to bring the work in-house, since they no longer have much say in parcelling out funding, except REF (QR) money. However, the latest intel is that both HEFCE and the REF might be axed by BIS

The other candidate for regulator is the HEA whose shaky future might be sustained by a role in quality assurance. It has been rather enfeebled lately, after a series of funding cuts, and is looking for another role besides dispensing credentials to HE practitioners. If it is looking to take a role in the TEF, though, you’d have thought it might have more information about it (and learning gain) on its website.

As the emphasis shifts from process to outcomes (see previous post on TEF and learning gain), it is difficult to predict how this might end up. Jo Johnson has indicated that he would like QA to be ‘light touch’. In saying this, he is probably mindful of the £5M it costs each year, and a diminishing BIS budget. On the other hand, there is an ideological function that underpins QA, the TEF and the REF, and that is to create winners and losers, and perhaps, to provide a means to ‘exit the market’ for unsuccessful ‘providers’, all camouflaged as ‘valuing teaching’ and ‘putting students at the heart of the system’. A re-vamped regulatory framework offers new ways of realising a more Darwinian platform for competition between universities, as does the removal of student number controls (SNC).

And just to stir the hornets’ nest of competition, the government is keen to encourage more private providers to enter the higher education scene. Indeed their access to degree awarding powers may be speeded up, and their Quality Assurance credentials facilitated. “We are a deregulatory government”, Johnson is quoted as saying.

HEFCE, though,  has been consulting on the future approaches to quality assessment in HE.  One thing is clear – neither HEFCE nor Jo Johnson wish to see an increase in grade inflation (see para79) in order for universities to secure student satisfaction or, through crude output measures, to scale university rankings. There may be a new breed of ‘professionalized’ external examiners in order to curb these tendencies.

Student debt

Student debt is still with us, despite calls to follow Germany in abolishing tuition fees. Additionally, the last budget signalled an end to maintenance loans for students from September 2016, and the threshold for repayment has been frozen, rather than hitched to inflation.

If you need to inform yourself about how student loans work – here is the most authoritative voice on the issue, Andrew McGettigan

Headlines from this piece:

  • New student loans are not covered by the Consumer Credit Act and interest rates can be set at the discretion of the relevant Secretary of State without the need for new legislation.
  • The rate of interest can be at market rates, not at RPI minus 1 percentage point as for the earliest tranche of 1990s student loans (which were protected by the Consumer Credit Act).
  • The repayment threshold can also be varied, even after the loan terms have been agreed by the student borrower. The legislation states as follows

“You must agree to repay your loan in line with the regulations that apply at the time the repayments are due and as they are amended. The regulations may be replaced by later regulations.” (p. 8) [http://andrewmcgettigan.org/student-loans-campaign/]

I find it extraordinary, and unethical, to burden 18 year olds with large debts under such uncertain terms.

And the future?

There is a Spending Review in the offing, and George Osborne has already said that austerity is likely to continue for four more years. Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for BIS, the department which deals with universities, is very keen to implement the full 40% cut, which will have a likely impact on HE funding in view of the fact that this spend dominates the department. Not the least of these worries is the RAB charge (the portion of student borrowing that will not be paid back), which has now escalated to a projected figure of 45% of loans.  Fear of that shortfall is evidently what lies behind government attempts to prod universities into channelling their graduates into high-paying jobs. And universities will be happy to comply if they think there’s a league table position at stake.

Additionally, the release of an evaluation of the REF2014 has been put on hold until after the spending review. 77 HEIs offered feedback on their experience of the REF, ‘impact’, cost and interdisciplinarity. You can find your institutional response archived here.

It is a world of financial insecurity, shifting targets and capricious measures of success. I’m having a hard time planning the next 6 months, never mind a curriculum or a research career. Happy new academic year, everybody.

While you were away…Summer 2015 HE news catch up – Part I

Welcome back. That’s assuming you had a holiday in the first place. In case you missed them, here are some of the issues which have emerged since the UK General Election in May (remember that?).

University teaching

You will probably be aware that student number controls have been relaxed from this September. You might imagine this would signal the government’s huge confidence in the university sector. However, the Minister for Higher Education, Jo Johnson, made a speech to the Universities UK Annual Conference on Wednesday 9th September 2015. A useful Bird-and-Fortune-style commentary on the speech can be accessed here. In the speech he announced,

“there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it”.

This pronouncement reprised some of the themes from his speech at the same venue on July 1st, particularly the idea of a Teaching Excellence Framework.

This was the speech where some additional information was added to the Conservative Manifesto promise to “introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality”, but we have still to hear what format it might take, and despite much discussion in the media, the focus is still not clearly defined. Nick Hillman has suggested there are three possible candidates: the familiar Quality Assurance process, National Student Survey scores or a measure of ‘learning gain’. Or a mixture of all three, with DLHE (Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education) data thrown in as well.

This is as much as we know so far, from the July 1st speech:

“I expect the TEF to include a clear set of outcome-focused criteria and metrics. This should be underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body from within the existing landscape”. [http://www.wonkhe.com/blogs/back-to-school-with-jo-johnson/]

The only thing that has been asserted with any clarity is that any increase in the tuition fee will be linked to an institution’s performance in the TEF. In doing so, the government could, at last, claim a success in creating a market in higher education ‘providers’. As we know, the post 2012 reforms had led to a rush for all universities to charge the maximum £9000, or near to it. But now vice-chancellors, particularly in the Russell Group, are lobbying for a fee hike. This could mean some strange incentives arising. If students know that their positive NSS scores will result in a tuition increase for their successors, will they seek to skew their responses, and the university’s league table position, downwards?

Could the TEF resemble a QAA style subject review format? It is hard to imagine that the tried and tested, despised but thoroughly gameable process, will not emerge in some new form. The usual promises have been made, that it would be light touch, and it would need to be, considering the £5 currently spent on QA. However, the QAA was process-focussed, and Jo Johnson has been clear that he wants the emphasis to be on ‘outputs’. In that case, what might it measure?

One candidate is ‘learning gain’ and please see here for a discussion. Simply put, can our graduates demonstrate the nominated transferable skills to a greater extent than before they started higher education? Some commentators talk about ‘distance travelled’.

The OECD just completed a feasibility study into an international comparison of graduates. It seems that European universities are not yet willing to rank their graduates’ learning outcomes against those from other continents. Last week, it was announced that a Europe-only feasibility study will begin: Measuring and Comparing Achievements of Learning Outcomes in Higher Education in Europe project, known as Calohee.

Yet another possibility for the TEF seems to be favoured by Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University. He has evidently read this section from the Conservative Manifesto:

“We will ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students: we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality… and require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates”.

Peck takes that textual linkage of teaching quality and career paths of graduates and makes a learning gain metric out of them. In a piece entitled “Finding new ways to measure graduate success”, he outlines his view thus:

“[T]he forthcoming availability of HMRC tax data to HESA and the Student Loans Company means that we could use a robust measure where we can select the census point at which we present data on average earnings by university and/or by course. This would not be dissimilar to the approach some rankings take to MBA programmes. With secondary education performance data also being brought into the mix, we have the hope of finding a much needed way to measure added value or learning gain”. [http://www.wonkhe.com/blogs/finding-new-ways-to-measure-graduate-success/]

Added value and learning gain are not the same thing, and neither can be measured by graduate salaries. There seemed further valid points to be made against Peck’s suggestion, and so I did, here.

Learning Gain is changing its shape almost daily, and even HEFCE can’t keep up. The Times Higher reports that a number of English (and it is only English) universities are trialling standardized tests from the Wabash National Study.Lots of luck getting your students to turn out for this battery of 13 different tests which have no direct relevance for them.

Meanwhile, BIS is still busy consulting about what the TEF should look like, and at the same time has commissioned a study by RAND Europe into what learning gain is, and how it might be measured. Spoiler – like me, they don’t seem to favour graduate salaries as a valid measure.

Happy new Academic Year. More soon on Research, Quality Assurance, Student debt, and the road ahead in Part II.

Networking Our Way Through Neoliberal U

A recent post on Stuff About Unis  reminded me of an academic ‘networking’ experience a few years ago. It is always interesting to be an onlooker to the internal workings of another university, as opposed to viewing the public face of an institution at a conference. On this occasion, I was visiting an Australian university which has frequently been cited as a trailblazer for the neoliberal academy. Through a local contact, I managed to secure a place on a staff development workshop, designed to groom mid-career academics in the image of the ideal university employee (Morrissey 2015). Normally, at my own institution, I would have scorned such a workshop, but this was a chance to be a fly on the wall, and to decode the culture of another university’s management.

The presenter was offering the participants the benefit of his experience in effective academic networking and collaboration. The advice he extended seemed to be geared to the rather younger academic than the assembled mid-career constituency rather reluctantly gathered before him, as he revealed that, early on, he had decided to “surround myself with excellence”. How to do this? One brief role play required us to imagine this scenario – you are at a conference and find yourself at lunch standing next to the keynote speaker. What ‘chat up’ line would you use, in order to make yourself memorable to this heavyweight, who might subsequently facilitate your self-promotion strategy? Apparently, the route to advancement is mediated through high quality academic partners who “make you look good”. I listened with my jaw progressively slackening; I had never been exposed before to such shamelessly direct exhortations to actualise self-serving sycophancy.

There was more. Building your network should feature high on your one-page career plan, which should be complemented with evidence of your esteem indicators. Your network should be viewed as an asset, and as essential to your CV as any actual professional accomplishments. However, networking and collaboration were defined in extremely limited ways. Partnerships were only viable if they led to outcomes – publications, grant application etc. There seemed to be no room for conversation, mentoring, interest groups, blogging etc. Instead, you were to be measured by the size and geographical spread of your network, and critically, by the status of its participants.

This presenter viewed networking as purely strategic. On the other hand, for many of us, it is experienced as a series of happy accidents, fortuitous collisions of minds, and sometimes bodies, at conferences. Collaborations are driven as often by personal appeal as they are by pure intellectual attraction. I was startled at the apparent contradiction between the stated aim of the workshop – collaboration – and the rather vulgar focus on individualism which animated this particular model of the developing academic career. I wondered how this sat with the HR representative in charge of the Academic Development program, positioned at the back of the room – how was this aligning with the wider mission of the university which surely is not just a vehicle for furthering the priorities of the individual?

At Neoliberal U the individual academic is also responsible for managing their time so that the proliferation of demands must be accommodated unproblematically. In the presenter’s own department, he has forbidden staff to claim they are too busy to take on new projects, organise seminars orwork with new partnerships. The individual should just learn to ‘work smart’. The self-managing academic must become the over-worked academic apparently.

I did come away with some good ideas about networking and collaboration. Go to conferences and talk to people you don’t know, not the other people from your institution. Look for collaborations outside of your own department within your university. However, I was also concerned that institutional impediments to networking were discussed, but I felt they were unlikely to be addressed. University managers have, for some years, sought to dismantle academic culture and sense of community which is seen as threatening to managerialist governmentality. Institutional loyalty is preferred to dangerously off-message subject affiliations, particularly in the ‘critical’ disciplines. Part of the management strategy has been the removal of social spaces where academics might actually mingle and coincidentally realise commonalities and opportunities for research. In a similarly self-defeating vein, REF culture in the UK has, because of research selectivity, and institutional research priorities, set limits on inter-unit collaboration. And so it must be re-built, but in a way which reinforces the neoliberal preoccupation with competition and audit.

Nottingham Uni H Index

The above image shows just how, in the intervening few years, the practice of self-audit has risen to the top of the agenda, particularly in Russell Group Universities. Some academics now include their H-index in their email signature, as some kind of self- nominated esteem indicator. This has led to a crisis of status-consciousness among academics. Rather than telling you what their research is about, they will often regale you with the star ratings of their ‘outputs’ and the impact factor of their target journals.

So I can agree with Stuff About Unis that networking-by-metrics seems artificial, joyless and poisoned. The “light presence of instrumentality”, it seems, is turning out to be a heavier presence than any of us might wish for.

Reference

Morrissey, J (2015) ‘Regimes of Performance: Practices of the Normalised Self in the Neoliberal University’. British Journal Of Sociology Of Education, 36 (4):614-634.

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism