Are ‘critters’ taking over your university management?

It may be because it’s August, but I am feeling a little more optimistic about the future of university management.

The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) is a company which runs training programs for university senior managers, and aspirants to those roles. Their website states that, “The Leadership Foundation is committed to developing and improving the management and leadership skills of existing and future leaders of higher education”.

I ‘m ready to confess a skeptical, though ghoulish, fascination with higher education management, but I don’t usually get warm, fuzzy feelings when reading material on strategic management, succession planning and governance reviews. But that is changing; more recently on the LFHE website, there seem to have been contributions from ‘critters’, that is advocates of critical management approaches. On the CMS portal (highly recommended) we find that approach portrayed as:

“a largely left-wing and theoretically informed approach to management and organisation studies. It challenges the prevailing conventional understanding of management and organisations. CMS provides a platform for debating radical alternatives whilst interrogating the established relations of power, control, domination and ideology as well as the relations among organisations, society and people”.

Critical Management Studies arose in the 1990s and 2000s. Butler and Spoelstra (2014: 540), citing Fournier and Grey (2000:17) characterize critical management studies approaches as exhibiting:

  • an ethos of non-performativity, rejecting the usual work of improving efficiency and effectiveness of an organisation, but instead exploring issues of power, control and inequality at work,
  • an ethos of denaturalization: critical scholars do not accept management knowledge at face value but actively seek to expose – and challenge – its ideological underpinnings,
  • an ethos of reflexivity: critical scholars tend to reflect on their epistemological, ontological and methodological assumptions far more explicitly than their non-critical (especially positivist) counterparts who may practise an ethos of scientific disinterestedness.

There have been a few recently- commissioned reports for the LFHE that, while I don’t think I’m quite ready to say that they tick all the boxes, I do detect sympathetic echoes of the values stated above. Take, for instance, a report on the future of performance management (Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M. 2014.) The report distinguishes between stewardship and agency approaches to performance management, and urges universities to consider a more flexible application of these. Stewardship approaches “focus on long-term outcomes through people’s knowledge and values, autonomy and shared leadership within a high trust environment”. By contrast, “agency approaches focus on short-term results or outputs through greater monitoring and control”. The authors find that institutions with a mission that is focused on “long-term and highly complex goals, which are difficult or very costly to measure (e.g., research excellence, contribution to society)” are more likely to benefit from incorporating a stewardship approach to performance management. I can probably guess which model seems more familiar to most academics, for whom autonomy, shared leadership and high trust working environments reside in the folklore of a previous generation.

The next piece which cheered me was pitched as a ‘stimulus paper’ by Richard Bolden, Sandra Jones, Heather Davis and Paul Gentle, “Developing and sustaining shared leadership in higher education”. I hope to read the entire report next week when I’m on proper holiday, but the executive summary drew my interest.

“Within higher education, shared leadership offers a compelling alternative to the discourse of managerialism (based on principles of new public management), which has become increasingly prevalent within the sector. In a context where many are sceptical of traditional influence and authority, it has been suggested that shared leadership may offer a means of reconnecting academics with a sense of collegiality, citizenship and community”.

There are those of us who are more used to expecting university senior managers to be among the more insistent adherents of command-and-control managerialism.  However, even within that grouping, there may be a growing appetite for the kind of reflexivity and exploration of power and control that underpin critical approaches to management. Janet Beer, the newly appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, bemoans a masculinist narrative of heroism in the job descriptions and ethos of vice-chancellors (Morgan 2015) . She accuses universities of overlooking other attributes which also sustain good leadership, such as ‘consensus-building and collaborative and partnership working at all levels. Job specifications, she continued, can often emphasise qualities that aren’t necessarily about leadership in a well-balanced way’. Similarly, Keith Burnett of Sheffield University signaled a desire to loosen the thumbscrews a little: “Great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends upon it. It demands the unshackled possibility to question and seek knowledge wherever it is to be found, and to convey this to students without fear of intervention or sanction by the state. A value that is globally understood to be a prerequisite for scholarship”.

It is a little premature to predict the overthrow of New Public Management, and, as George Eliot taught us “signs are small, measurable things; interpretations are illimitable”. But let’s hope this heralds a new, critical ‘direction of travel’ for the LFHE. I’ll certainly keep on checking the website.


Bolden, R., Jones, S., Davis, H and Gentle, P. 2015. ,  Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London.

Burnett, K. 2015. Want to raise the quality of teaching? Begin with academic freedom. Times Higher.  August 3rd.

Butler, Nick and Spoelstra, Sverre. 2014. The regime of excellence and the erosion of ethos in critical management studies. British Journal of Management, Vol. 25, 538–550.

Critical Management Studies portal:

Fournier, V. and Grey, C. 2000. ‘At the critical moment: conditions and prospects for critical management studies’, Human Relations, 53, pp. 7–32.

Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M. 2014. Performance Management in UK Higher Education Institutions. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London.

Leadership Foundation for Higher Education:

Morgan, J. 2015. Janet Beer on leadership diversity: don’t hold out for a hero. Times Higher. March 12th.


The disciplinary dashboard: from reception class to retirement

The photo above made me start contemplating the intrusion of a repressive disciplinary culture into UK universities. Disciplinary action for tailgating? Whatever happened to having a quiet word with somebody? Just a few years ago, campus security was left in the capable hands of a few retirees from the services and the police. They knew academics and students by name, and exerted a calm authority refined through years of dealing with minor infractions. Now, a mere parking violation incurs a meeting with HR.

Many of us will be aware of new university policies on disciplinary procedures. If we have read them, we will be aware that the policies themselves are often not in the least repressive or out of kilter with professional expectations. It is when these policies intersect with over-zealous performance management procedures that things get troublesome – I have previously blogged about so-called under-performing professors 

So when I read the front page of the New York Times this morning (Sunday 16th August 2015), the portrayal of compulsory overwork and inhumane demands at Amazon in Seattle seemed unsettlingly portentous. When employees ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, they are told to ‘climb the wall’. Amazon boasts an approach termed ‘purposeful Darwinism’ which ensures the lowest ranked employees are ‘eliminated’. This is facilitated by an Anytime Feedback Tool – a ‘widget’ which allows co-workers to report each other to management for poor performance or bad attitude. Shockingly, among the victims of this regime, there were employees with long-term serious health problems. According to one interviewee, he had witnessed everybody he worked with breaking down and crying in the office at some point. No wonder.

So this is testosterone-fueled Silicon Valley, not academia. But the future is closer than you think. It is not just a tightening vice around professors and their ‘performance management’, it seems that the panopticon is about to be extended across the whole academic hierarchy with the introduction of ‘faculty dashboards’. These are tools which allow data on each academic to be collated into an individual profile showing publications, citations, research grants and awards won. It can be updated daily by the head of department, dean or vice-chancellor. Norms can be established, and of course, extended year-on-year. They may be changed, according to strategic priorities beyond the control, or indeed the value set, of academics.

This may seem alien and frightening to the current generation of academics. I hope so. What frightens me, is how little resistance this style of management evokes from current undergraduate students. Many universities now have a ‘student dashboard’ apparently aimed at supporting students and increasing retention. It may record VLE logins, door swipes, tutorial attendance, titles of library books borrowed, assignment submissions and grades. When I asked my students if they were comfortable with revealing all this to me, who had just met them, they were nonchalant, and even welcoming of a virtual servo-system which would keep them ‘on track’.

I wonder if this acceptance will be even more enthusiastic among a generation raised with this ‘educational disciplinary system’. Demeritus keeps track of rules, issues penalties, informs parents and, chillingly, discursively inaugurates a new generation of ‘repeat offenders’ – all before they have even learned to ride a bicycle. I rather hope it will inspire sullen resistance if not outright intergenerational retribution.

This disciplinary excess is a sign of a culture which chooses to ‘invest’ in privatized prisons rather than ‘subsidize’ schools and universities. It is certainly familiar in the US to residents of states like Texas, where social justice forums have identified a school-to-prison pipeline.

It is dangerous – immoral – to allow childhood and adolescent transgressions to remain on an electronic rap sheet, to be uncovered when, for what – a job application, adoption process, or even running for President? And when students graduate to college, they face even more repression. Paul Greatrex has written about the routine arming of US university police with military hardware. We have learned this year that such environments may bring about dangerous consequences for students and faculty of color. In the UK too, police have been brought onto campus to quell student protests at the Universities of Birmingham, Warwick and London.

Universities, as I have blogged elsewhere, are unpopular in sections of the media, and with many in the Conservative government. They have come under scrutiny in the US as well, with President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton both questioning the spiraling cost of higher education. This has occasioned a predictable attack on the easy targets – tenured faculty members. A bill is being considered by the Iowa Senate which purports to relate to the teaching effectiveness and employment of professors. I quote from the first few paragraphs of SF64:

Each institution of higher learning under the board’s control shall develop, and administer at the end of each semester, an evaluation mechanism by which each student enrolled in the institution shall assess the teaching effectiveness of each professor who is providing instruction to the student each semester… Scores are not cumulative. If a professor fails to attain a minimum threshold of performance based on the student evaluations used to assess the professor’s teaching effectiveness, in accordance with the criteria and rating system adopted by the board, the institution shall terminate the professor’s employment regardless of tenure status or contract. (2) The names of the five professors who rank lowest on their institution’s evaluation for the semester, but who scored above the minimum threshold of performance, shall be published on the institution’s internet site and the student body shall be offered an opportunity to vote on the question of whether any of the five professors will be retained as employees of the institution.

Dismissing apparently competent, but unpopular academics starts to look very much like the Amazon ‘purposeful Darwinism’. We can only imagine the consequences for the stability of programs, research and collegiate relations. As we anticipate the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework, we must hope that it does not cement a culture of perpetual surveillance and ruinous ‘consumer choice’ by National Student Survey scores. If there is no pause button in academia, if there is no room for slow work, risk, failure and unpopularity, then universities really will have become a disciplinary dystopia.

National Student Survey: the view from different disciplines

Yesterday (12th August 2015) saw the publication of the UK National Student Survey, spawning much discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #nss.  Here are just a few views collated from academics on Twitter. There’s a bit of editorial licence, of course, in the general spirit of gaming the exercise. On occasions this extends to actual substitution of quotations.

Here are some typical views from the different academic disciplines.

Statistics:  Celebrating a statistically insignificant change in historically unreliable data rendered invalid by spurious comparisons of massively different respondent pools.

Discourse analysis: Signs are small, measurable things; interpretations are illimitable (George Eliot).

Literature: If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same (Kipling).

Politics: The only statistics you can trust are those you falsified yourself (Churchill).

History: The problem with surveys as indicators of satisfaction is that they only capture the present.

Education: Universities with high NSS scores are failing to teach critical thinking.

Philosophy: Experience cannot be converted to a median score.

Associate Dean: Only a moron would treat this datagarbage seriously. Wait….5th nationally? Wow, seriously? Yay !

The Russell Group Tagline Rap

It’s August. Just as I was leaving for my period of ‘annual leave’, this crossed my Twitter feed – 88 college taglines, arranged as a poem. Be inspired – oh yes. So here is my Russell Group Tagline Rap for 2015.

Together we can go beyond

A place of possibility

Developing great minds

For student satisfaction

Ambitious and innovative

A world top 100

An engaged university

A research beacon

Be inspired

Change the world

Your ticket to Newcastle

It’s meant to be.

Whatever Happened to Academic Freedom?

Paul Greatrix, writing on the Wonkhe blog on July 14th 2015, includes an account of how, as recently as the 1980s in the UK, autonomy, academic freedom and academic standards were thought to be inextricably linked.

In the blog piece, he quotes two key higher education reports: on efficiency (The Jarratt Report 1985), and on degree validation (The Lindop Report 1985). Both contain appeals to academic freedom.

  • “The most reliable safeguard of standards is not external validation or any other outside control; it is the growth of the teaching institution as a self-critical academic community’. (The Lindop Report 1985, p6)
  • “Academic excellence is crucially dependent on academic freedom” (Jarratt Report 1985, p6).

Academic freedom, then, is an issue of academic standards. What has changed, in the 30-year interim, except the infiltration of neoliberalism and managerialism? Why does each new report on governance, standards and ‘quality’ in higher education overlook this essential element? Harvey writes that democracy is viewed as a luxury, only to be afforded under optimum conditions of affluence – and for ideological reasons this is prevented in public services which must be kept ‘efficient’. “Neoliberals therefore tend to favour governance by experts and elites” (2005:66).

On July 6th 2015, a letter to The Guardian, signed by over 100 UK academics, spelled out the consequences of this toxic working environment for academics: “This deprofessionalisation and micro-management of academics is relentlessly eroding their ability to teach and conduct research effectively and appropriately. A compliant, demoralised and deprofessionalised workforce is necessarily underproductive, and cannot innovate.” This belies notions of efficiency, performance, outputs and change management so relentlessly advocated by university managers.

Thomas Docherty (2014), who sharpened his critique during the months of his suspension from Warwick, writes: ‘We are perilously close to a position where the unquestioned power of management is declaring war on the academic community, the university, itself; civil war in academia’.

Perhaps, then, if we can find a way to persuade managers to be critical, we may go some way to returning academic freedom to its rightful place in the academy.

August 3rd 2015 and one lone vice-chancellor raises the flag for academic freedom in the Times Higher. “Great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends upon it. It demands the unshackled possibility to question and seek knowledge wherever it is to be found, and to convey this to students without fear of intervention or sanction by the state. A value that is globally understood to be a prerequisite for scholarship”.



Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief history of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

England Rejects the Learning Tower of Pisa ?

Earlier this month (July 2015), the Times Higher announced the news that England will not be taking part in an OECD project to make Pisa-style international comparisons of graduates’ learning gain. This came as a surprise, given the priority this Conservative government has placed on learning gain and on a Teaching Excellence Framework.

To those of us following the debate, the OECD’s AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes) project seemed like the only game in town. Now, apparently we are back to the drawing board on what measures may constitute learning gain and the TEF (see previous post for critique).

The story was followed up in The Guardian on 28th July.The first thing that struck me was what seemed like a collective sigh of relief by the nation’s vice-chancellors and other HE worthies. This from a group of people who have never met a ‘tool’ they couldn’t beat their staff with. Except this time, the ‘tool’ could not be gamed, or weaponized against academics. It threatened, instead, to appraise the qualities of England’s graduates, and clearly there is an insecurity about how they might hold up in international comparison. After all, the much vaunted REF has managed to avoid any kind of international evaluation, so why not the TEF? Perhaps the vice-chancellors had read a recent report from HEPI indicating that students from other countries work harder than home students. Or perhaps they had also seen pictures of students in Guinea studying outside under the floodlights at the airport, and shuddered at the comparison with pictures of the more bacchanalian evening adventures of UK students.

students study under airport lights

Maybe they had also sensed disapproval from the Higher Education Minister as he diagnosed grade inflation among the escalating numbers of First and 2.1 degrees awarded. But in any case, this was an unexpected retreat after we had listened for months to all the sermonizing about empowering students to demand better teaching and make universities accountable for the public spend.

Whatever had made the VCs and their friends anxious, it is clear that the TEF may be charting new and uncomfortable ground. UK universities have become really adept at process – what is known lower down the ranks as ‘quality bollocks’. Do your learning outcomes show a hierarchy of cognitive domains? Do they line up with your modes of assessment? Yes, indeed they do, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with teaching quality or learning gain. After several years of this, I am now giving master classes in this to my US colleagues as they enter a new era of fictitious ‘assessment’. In the UK, we have process down to a fine art, but engagement is less of a triumph. This we need to address, since nobody ever signed on to a university course because its quality management processes were optimized in strategic alignment.

If engagement means active, enthusiastic participation in a course leading to measurable learning outcomes (precis of a definition offered in an HEA document)  we have a problem in UK universities. Lecturers complain that attendance is poor on many courses and that students fail to prepare for seminars or read outside of class. There is a culture of permitting students with failed modules to progress to the next level under rules of ‘compensation’. I understand that most students have other responsibilities such as paid work, but still, many graduate knowing they would have got more out of their courses if they had tried harder. This, I think is one reason for the reluctance to enter into international comparisons of learning gain and transferable skills.

But none of this features among the justifications recorded in the Guardian article. On the question of AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes), Peter Williams, former CEO of the Quality Assurance Agency is quoted in the hard copy of the article, “I thought the whole thing was a nonsense”. Alison Wolf, of King’s College, London, offers a more cogent evaluation, “It is basically impossible to create complex language-based test items which are comparable in difficulty when translated into a whole lot of different languages”. Comparability is more likely to depend on culture than on language, so given the constituency of the OECD, we can probably reject that claim.

My understanding of the AHELO assessment was that it followed the kind of reasoning, problem-based scenarios presented in the CLA (Collegiate Learning Assessment), so I turned to my colleague Louise Cummings for a view. Louise – a linguist and philosopher – pretty much dominates the field of informal logic and scientific reasoning under conditions of uncertainty (Cummings 2015). Would performance on these tasks be affected by translation from one language to another? No. A firm, no.

So, as I write, the University Alliance (the ‘mission group’ which used to be for ‘business-oriented universities, but now claims “we are Britain’s universities for cities and regions. We believe in making the difference across everything we do”) is holding a day event to discuss the TEF. I’m sure they would prefer to find a way of slipping back into their comfort zone of process-oriented subject review. But if we have to have a TEF, it should be more like the US NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement) which would put the emphasis where it belongs: on student engagement, and on “how the institution deploys its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate”.  I’m not making great claims for this particular instrument, but something similar might give us a picture of how to marry teaching effectiveness and student learning measures.

Cummings, Louise. 2015. Reasoning and Public Health: New Ways of Coping with Uncertainty. London: Springer.

How not to measure teaching quality and learning gain

I blogged previously about learning gain just after the General Election.

At that point there was not much to go on but a hazy promise in the Conservative manifesto to “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”.  On July 1st 2015, Jo Johnson added some more details; the teaching REF was intended to be outcomes focussed, in other words, not focussed on the kinds of ‘quality’ processes that universities had perfected over the last 20 years. The Conservative government hoped to devise a test of learning outcomes that, anticipating the skills of the best schemers in universities, would not be open to gaming.

In the Times Higher on 23rd July 2015, Julia King, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, made this comment about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF):

First, it needs to measure the right things. It cannot be a superficial extension of the data provided through the Key Information Set, a variant on the Quality Assurance Agency’s higher education review or some rehash of the subject league tables that drive universities to offer higher and higher proportions of firsts and 2:1s.

Too right, and while I don’t agree with all her conclusions, I appreciate her drive to ensure that the TEF is based on “a properly evidenced measure of that quality”.

It was disappointing then, in the same week, to read a guest blog hosted on Wonkhe from Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University. The piece started with a critique of the validity of current DLHE (Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education) data, and I became hopeful of a rebuttal of some of the cruder measures of graduate success. However, in the piece, entitled Finding New Ways to Measure Graduate Success, Peck explicitly rejects measures which, while not the sole determinants of teaching quality, might at least impact positively on the student experience. On the list are Staff Student Ratios and spend per student, which he regards as perverse, and rewarding inefficiency. As I read on, disenchantment grew:

“Secondly, the 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”.

Now, I’m all in favour of looking at learning gain and allowing that to inform improvements to the student experience. I’m not in favour of releasing irrelevant and crude data in a league table. I’m still pondering the author’s logic when he presents graduate salary levels as an indicator of ‘value added’ by universities, and appears to see this as a proxy measure for learning gain. Universities are repositories and generators of research and knowledge, not factories for ‘salary men’. I would have hoped the nation’s vice-chancellors would have challenged those assumptions, not propounded them.

Here are five reasons why the equation of graduate salary, teaching quality and learning gain is unfounded.

  1. The glass floor effect. On July 26th The BBC news lead story was that middle class families are able to prevent their children from sliding down the social scale, regardless of talent. Clearly, then, graduate salaries are more likely to correlate with social class.
  1. The continued existence of a gender pay gap underlines how fanciful it is to assume that a high salary results from ‘value added’ higher education. Have only male graduates received better teaching? Data from the Fawcett Society indicates a pay gap of 19.1%. Admittedly, this figure encompasses pay for all workers, not just graduates, but points about the motherhood penalty, and outright discrimination are still valid, even in universities. Talk of perverse incentives! Would universities accept more white, able-bodied, middle class males onto courses, if they were likely to earn higher salaries?
  1. Economies are not stable. Middle class professionals continue to feel the force of austerity caused by bankers’ irresponsibility. ‘Generation rent’ may never attain the standard of living of their parents, but this has resulted from a failure of the generational compact, not the failure of universities.
  1. Similarly, we cannot predict which subject areas may prove lucrative. Recently, graduates of any discipline who work in finance have received higher salaries, while pay and employability for graduates in IT and bioscience have taken a downturn.
  1. The SBEE (Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015) has unleashed a huge data salad of graduate earnings, student loan repayment and course/ university attended. . At best, there may be an association between your earnings and your alma mater. This raises the question of construct validity – a notion drilled into all educators – make sure you have the appropriate measure in order to draw conclusions. Association of any set of measures does not indicate causality, so Peck’s suggested metrics are not even valid as proxy measures of learning gain.

Those of us who care about the future of higher education in the UK cannot let these lazy assumptions dominate the agenda of academic institutions. The data points may link up, courtesy of the SBEE, but the logic does not. It would be ironic if we allowed universities, of all places – interrogators of assumptions, busters of myths and challengers of fallacies – to be led by spurious metrics for what will probably turn out to be immeasurable.

teaching quality venn

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism