Tag Archives: academic freedom

Sam’s on campus, but is the campus onto Sam?

A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 5th July 2018. 

It might have been mildly embarrassing for the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah, to have to retract his accusation a couple of weeks ago, that a lecturer at King’s College London had been reported for spreading ‘hate speech’ during his history lectures, but the evidence was against him. Unfortunately, like some more of Mr Gyimah’s more volatile claims on stifling of freedom of speech in universities, this had proved impossible to verify.

However, rather than being reassured that Gyimah has had to back away from citing unsubstantiated anecdotes, perhaps we should be concerned that this behavior fits a pattern in modern politics, of pushing at the boundaries of credibility knowing that some fabrications will stick if they are repeated often enough. In this case, academics, universities and freedom of speech itself are all damaged by these allegations.

Sam Gyimah has styled himself as rather a champion-protector of freedom of speech on campus, and has already hosted a free speech summit for universities, urging leaders to stamp out ‘institutional hostility to unfashionable views’ and to take stronger action against ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no-platform’ policies that he alleges have appeared on campuses.

It is perhaps convenient that the minister has overlooked the actions of a member of his own party whose partisan interest in the university curriculum recently caused controversy. Last October, a few months prior to Gyimah’s appointment, Chris Heaton-Harris, MP wrote to vice-chancellors asking for the names of any professors involved in teaching courses in European Studies which might have a bearing on Brexit. He suspected that such courses were being taught from a point of view which might lean towards Remain.

It was probably a futile gesture designed to draw attention to some politicians’ belief that all academics are left leaning. This fear seems to have its origin in the ongoing US culture wars, and a recent study which found that 60 percent of professors identify as liberals, while a mere 12 percent identify as conservative. Despite allegations of ‘group think’ and lack of political diversity, there is no real evidence in the UK, apart from anecdotes such as the one dismissed by King’s, to indicate that political orientations translate into bias in the classroom. There is nothing to suggest that issues like Brexit are taught in a way which is not entirely evidence-driven, nor is there anything to suggest that students are not free to argue with their lecturers.

Nevertheless, Sam Gyimah has kept his attention on this issue and fully embraces his new ministerial role with a sharper focus on students than any of his predecessors. He does occasionally, though, give the impression that, far from being even-handed, he is rather invested in being minister primarily for conservative students. He has openly stated that his ‘Sam on campus’ tours have been intended to bestow on the Tories the kind of appeal elicited by Labour politicians, and especially Jeremy Corbyn.

The first concerns about a new kind of partiality within government were raised when, on January 1st 2018, it was announced that provocative conservative commentator, Toby Young, would be serving on the board of the Office for Students, and that Ruth Carlson, a hitherto unknown name, had been selected as the board member for the student experience when, according to a written answer from the Minister to Kevin Brennan, MP,  she had not even been among the original applicants considered appointable. Her chief virtue seemed to be that she had no connection with the National Union of Students. Even though Young resigned, the episode led to accusations that the new Office for Students was little more than an office for state control.


These developments are all the more disconcerting if we consider some recent precursors in the US. In February 2017, a state senator in Iowa introduced a bill into the state’s legislature. The bill, SF 288, aimed to ensure that ‘hires’ – and this targeted just new academic recruits – at the state’s universities should reflect equal proportions of liberals and conservatives. The purpose of the bill, according to its sponsor, Republican state senator Mark Chelgren, was an attempt to counter the ‘liberal slant’ at the state’s three public universities, and its wording specified the exact proportions to be achieved:

“A person shall not be hired as a professor or instructor member of the faculty at such an institution if the person’s political party affiliation on the date of hire would cause the percentage of the faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by ten percent the percentage of the faculty belonging to the other political party, on the date established by the board for determining the political party composition of the faculty.”

Notwithstanding debates in the US about affirmative action for under-represented groups, this seems like an unnecessary privileging of a group which does not lack political clout.

UK readers may be wondering how university hiring committees would be made aware of political affiliations. The answer lies in the voter registration processes of many states in which voters need to register with a particular party – Republican or Democratic – if they wish to participate in that party’s primary elections. The bill specified that those records would be made available to the state board of regents which governs the state-funded higher education institutions. However, the measure was opposed by the board of regents and the bill failed to proceed.

At around the same time, a Republican state senator in North Carolina, Ralph Hise, was tabling a similar measure in his state legislature, requiring faculty members across the UNC system to “reflect the ideological balance of the citizens of the state,” plus or minus two percentage points.

So, when a minister alleges political bias in universities, or condemns political activism within them, or when the Office for Students threatens to fine universities for alleged failure to protect freedom of speech (even as they must abide by the Prevent Strategy), this echoes the more extreme political interference attempted in Iowa and North Carolina. Even the sanctions resonate with Office for Students discourse. This from North Carolina sounds familiar:

“If the accreditors conclude that something is amiss, they could sanction individual UNC campuses, which would endanger the ability of those campuses to attract research funding, facilitate financial aid, and compete nationally and internationally for faculty and students.”

And indeed, we see on 20th June, a tweet from the Office for Students clearly stating a threat to intervene in universities’ pay structures when they deem a vice chancellor’s pay to lack justification.

OfS threaten VCs

In Iowa, these assaults on university autonomy have come hard on the heels of repeated pressure to rescind tenure and end faculty collective bargaining. But in the UK, we no longer have even the nominal protection of tenure, and assaults on collective bargaining and benefits are well underway. Much of the sector is now staffed with casualized labour – exactly the kind of employees likely to police their own teaching and publications for apparent political bias. The field has been cleared for dirigiste policies.

It seems disingenuous to venerate university autonomy, as Gyimah did at the February 2018 launch of the Office for Students, when your regulatory regime is predicated on attempts to curb it. If the threat of tenured radicals has been seen off in the UK, then a new one has been installed. Not, as Gyimah might imagine, in the form of NUS militants, but in the form of a regulatory body which has control and political entryism as its priorities.




One of the peculiarities of language is that the same form of words can mean entirely different things depending on the speaker/writer, the occasion, the intent and the preceding context of interaction. Chris Heaton-Harris is a Conservative MP and government whip. His unusual letter to university vice-chancellors, sent at the start of October 2017, has been brought to the attention of the press by Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University. On face value, it bears all the hallmarks of linguistic politeness. “I was wondering if you would be so kind” and “I would be much obliged”. Nevertheless, David Green’s reaction would resonate with most academics. According to The Guardian, he felt a chill down his spine when he read the “sinister” request: “This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous,” he says. “Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’, a phrase to be found on Mr Heaton-Harris’s website.”

UCU Chair Sally Hunt has also detected “the acrid whiff of McCarthyism” while Chris Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said it was “offensive and idiotic Leninism” 

Another peculiarity of language is that meanings which are obvious to one group can be refused by another. Step forward chief Tory apologist Andrea Leadsom. In her lunchtime Radio 4 interview it is clear she was inclined towards the polite reading of Heaton-Harris’ letter. “It does seem to me to be a bit odd that universities should react in such a negative way to a fairly courteous request,” she said.

Who is to know what was in the whip’s mind? Perhaps he is genuinely interested in filling in the gaps in his knowledge of European Studies. Perhaps he wants to conduct a survey on the diversity of opinion on Brexit. But he is on record as a Euorsceptic, and universities are known to be places with a great deal to lose if the UK proceeds with separation from the European Community. The suspicion of many academics on my Twitter timeline was that Heaton-Harris was attempting a clumsy exercise in political coercion. Oddly enough, the letter evokes another activity which many academics consider inappropriate surveillance – ‘lecture capture’. There are many entirely legitimate reasons to record lectures for students to access later, but now, this incident has gifted refuseniks a really good reason to resist.

In time for the 1 o’clock news on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, Heaton-Harris tweeted: “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”. As bad luck would have it, Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson had just tweeted a couple of hours previously: “Academic freedom -which we’ve just entrenched in statute in Higher Ed &Research Bill 2017! – is core to success +better protected than ever”.

Oops. Clearly the Whips’ Office had forgotten to copy him in to the letter, and this just made Johnson’s assertion seem disingenuous, and not only because of Heaton-Harris’ blunder. For this is the government which is seeking to make scrutiny of university safeguards over academic freedom a condition for registration with the new regulator, the Office for Students. Perhaps protesting too much, Johnson bit the bullet again at 1.30pm: “Academic freedom absolutely fundamental and protected in statute in our recent Higher Education & Research Act 2017 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/29/enacted …

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK moved swiftly on the UUK website to defend universities against a pernicious assault on their autonomy, “I would ask that Chris Heaton-Harris MP explains his motive for asking universities to share names of their European studies Professors, their course content and lecture notes. This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom.” And just for good measure he decided to remind Jo Johnson that academic freedom has been enshrined in legislation since  the 1988 Education Reform Act which “ensures that academic staff have freedom to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions”.

So what was it that allowed Heaton-Harris’ request to be recognised as a threat, not a request? Simply, it stood out as unprecedented.  It was very specific to a controversial issue about which the government is defensive. Furthermore it asked for names of lecturers AND access to the actual lectures they delivered. It seems redolent of the recent intimidation and marginalization of climate change researchers in the US. And where goes climate change may follow research on evolution, fracking, sexuality, colonialism, petroleum engineering, election hacking and any number of other issues for which there is a prevailing body of knowledge and opinion which may unsettle politicians. Even if Heaton-Harris was motivated by desire for “an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”, he could still claim that it is impeded by a homogeneity of opinion in universities. In the United States such claims have spurred legislation to guarantee political ‘balance’ among university academics in Iowa public universities. Iowa Senate File 288, if enacted, would compel university appointment committees to consult voter registration records in order to hire comparable numbers of Democrat and Republican academics.

You’d like to think it couldn’t happen here, but these are very uncertain times in politics and education. Just as each new outrage from Donald Trump seems to allay the offensiveness of the next, we can predict interference in university autonomy will happen again, especially given the monstering that universities have endured over the summer and autumn. As Thomas Docherty tweeted, “The idea is that next time we will be less shocked. Ten times later, we will be expected to just accept it and comply. And some will, sadly.” But we must resist, and it is reassuring that Universities UK has recognised, and rejected, Heaton-Harris’ threat.





When does Prevent prevent freedom of speech?

A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 19th September 2017 http://www.researchresearch.com/news/article/?articleId=1370192

Earlier this year I was expecting to deliver a talk to a UCU meeting called to oppose the University of Warwick management’s proposal to reform Statute 24. This refers to amendments to the University’s procedures for Disciplinary, Grievance, Redundancy and Removal for Incapacity on Medical Grounds for Academic Staff. I had been asked seven days previously to address the meeting, but because Warwick has a requirement to give three weeks’ notice for approval of a visiting speaker, the organisers felt the meeting was unable to proceed.

Warwick’s ‘three week rule’ is one of the procedures adopted by the university under the government’s Prevent agenda.  I was invited to an emergency meeting and the union organisers needed to find a speaker fast. Understandably, they had other things on their minds and forgot to apply for speaker approval. Warwick administrators quickly responded to say that they had received no application for speaker approval, and indeed would not have refused any application on my behalf. There is, apparently, a procedure which covers the eventuality which occurred:

The principal organiser must ensure sufficient time for the HoD or nominee to give consideration to any concerns, and for the University to review the request should the HoD or nominee deem this necessary. If so, and where possible, the University should be notified of the speaker request in question at least three weeks prior to the event, to enable a full risk assessment to be conducted and any mitigating arrangements to be put in place. If it is not possible to provide three weeks’ notice, the department should inform the University as soon as practicable.

Perhaps staff were not well informed about this.

Like most academics, I do a fair amount of speaking at conferences and events, and this was my first encounter with Prevent or any need to get prior approval before appearing on campus. A three week notice period for all speakers seemed to me rather excessive. However inadvertent, the resulting cancellation acted as an impediment to the free flow of discussion, and has hindered organisation of a trade union activity.

Is there scope within Prevent to do things differently? I decided to do a bit of research. I started with the HM Government Prevent Duty Guidance for Higher Education.

When deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, RHEBs should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups.

RHEB – Relevant Higher Education Bodies. The government would always rather use an exclusionary acronym than call them universities, but this was a new one on me. Mind you, this was written in 2015, before we had to start calling them ‘providers’. The document contained a lot of information about defining terrorism, assessing risk and forming action plans, but no specific guidance on implementation. That advice is provided in a 44 page document from Universities UK on external speakers in higher education institutions.

There is a flow chart for speaker approval, and guidance on best practice for communicating the policy and timeline. Nowhere is a review period of three weeks suggested.

Some of the advice contained in this document, however, is almost guaranteed to impinge on academic freedom. For instance page 20:

Who is chairing the meeting? Are they sufficiently qualified to provide balance and challenge during the event? What is their stance on the topic under discussion and is this likely to impact the smooth running of the event?

Will hosting the speaker have reputational risks for the institution? Is the event likely to attract media attention and if so how can the university manage this effectively?

In my case, since I had been asked to speak in opposition to a proposal by the university’s management, this might have been unsympathetically construed as posing a reputational risk for the university. So the answers to the above questions, and the assessment of risk, may reflect the assessor’s stance and position in the institutional hierarchy.

An interesting issue arises on page 32 in that academic freedom does not necessarily apply to visiting speakers. We learn this is because academic freedom pertains only to teaching within a university:

The legal basis for academic freedom focuses on the teaching activities of staff and the freedom of institutions and their staff to determine admission criteria and the content of courses. Beyond the freedom of speech provisions, the legal framework does not extend academic freedom to the activities of visiting speakers.

And so to the local implementation of the policy at Warwick. The Warwick Prevent Action plan (07/11/2016) says:

Regulation 29 has been completely rearticulated to better foreground the University’s commitment to Freedom of Speech. The Regulation is complemented by a suite of supporting procedures for the approval of external speakers. This includes a light-touch approach for academic visitors and for external speakers associated with commercial conferences.

Regulation 29 says very little about freedom of speech; it has rather more to say about risk assessment and obligations to adhere to guidelines on university branding.

Another document outlines procedures for the approval of external speakers for Students’ Union, Student-Led, and Institutional-Level Events.

Organisers of events involving external speakers encompassed by these obligations, must complete and submit the External Speaker Request Form at least three weeks prior to the event taking place. The event must not be confirmed with the guest speaker until approval has been received from the University or the Students’ Union.

A requirement to give three weeks’ notice does not seem like ‘light touch’, but perhaps local culture permits the rule’s uneven application. I attended a conference at Warwick this year at which a speaker was thanked for stepping in at the last minute. Nevertheless, if you are a union official, you might be deterred by the suspicion that you could be under greater scrutiny.  Clearly my union hosts were cautious about getting their fingers burned, and that was enough to deny a union meeting a knowledgeable speaker.

My experience, and a swift survey of some available university policies, tells me that the Prevent agenda applies with differing degrees of scrupulosity across the sector. Despite Warwick’s wish to appear ‘light touch’, their procedure is lengthy and entails a risk assessment which must apparently be conducted by management. There are other institutions whose policies merely ask that organisers undertake their own risk assessment, and then ‘escalate’ to management if there is a reason for concern.

The University of Bristol policy states:

The Event Organiser (the person responsible for the event) must undertake a self-assessment (using the questions in section 2) to determine whether further scrutiny and support from the University are required. If the Event Organiser reasonably decides that there are no issues, the event can go ahead. It is anticipated that the vast majority of events organised will fall into this category.

Commendably, Nottingham Trent University does not distinguish between internal and external speakers and also allows organisers to make their own assessment of risk:

Formal approval from the University must be obtained, in advance, for any event to be held on the University’s premises (whether or not an external speaker is involved) where it is expected, or reasonably foreseeable, that the event will raise controversial issues which may risk infringement of or non-compliance with the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech.

These are preferable models to follow as they signify a high degree of trust in the judgement of members of the university. This is appropriate for learned, intelligent, responsible scholars and I can’t imagine how a vigorous research culture can thrive without this. Given that universities are currently under the cosh again on the issue of academic freedom, perhaps they can be encouraged to give some thought to reforming procedures which unnecessarily curb the freedom of all speakers to spontaneously address issues as they arise.

A day later and this thoughtful piece appeared from Smita Jamdar on the tensions between the government’s insistance on Prevent, and new regulatory powers on freedom of speech on university campuses.



Defend Academic Freedom at Warwick

This is the script of what I hoped to deliver today (10th May) to a UCU meeting called to oppose the University of Warwick management’s proposal to reform Statute 24, and specifically the University’s procedures for Disciplinary, Grievance, Redundancy and Removal for Incapacity on Medical Grounds for Academic Staff. I was asked on Tuesday May 2nd to address the meeting. Sadly, due to Warwick’s policy under the government’s Prevent agenda, there is a requirement to give three weeks’ notice for approval of a visiting speaker. The  organisers were evidently aware of this regulation and realised they had not left enough time to apply:

“The principal organiser must ensure sufficient time for the HoD or nominee to give consideration to any concerns, and for the University to review the request should the HoD or nominee deem this necessary. If so, and where possible, the University should be notified of the speaker request in question at least three weeks prior to the event, to enable a full risk assessment to be conducted and any mitigating arrangements to be put in place. If it is not possible to provide three weeks’ notice, the department should inform the University as soon as practicable.”

So I was not able to address an emergency meeting on important union business.  But at least I can blog.

If the amended Statute 24 and ordinances pass, Warwick UCU feel that academic freedom at the university would be weakened. I agree with them, and my belief is underpinned by personal experience.

If you care about the attempted roll-back of academic freedom in UK universities, please sign this petition for Warwick UCU.

I was a student back in 1981 when Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph launched the first governmental assault on public universities. The outcome was the rescinding of tenure for academics. I remember at the time there was a competition in the university staff bulletin. These were often jokey things, like write a reference for the person you’d most like to get rid of from your department. But this one was genuinely thought-provoking: ‘write a speech defending tenure to a steelworker from Consett’. That was a ‘check your privilege’ moment. If it was a hard sell in 1981, it is seems more defensible now. We know what abolition of tenure looks like 36 years on. We have seen the steady erosion of academic freedom and job security. We have seen the undermining of shared governance in universities, and how swiftly the space emptied of democracy has been exploited by authoritarian management structures.

Universities used to be based on collegiality and shared governance. The Union has a role in negotiation, but the starting point in universities should be staff participation in decisions on how the university is run. If our role is to defend democratic values in the public sphere, we should be able to model that within our own walls. It is clear that we have rather neglectfully buried our heads, while shared values, traditions and assumptions have been overridden in the corporate university. Our colleagues in the US are appalled at our lack of tenure and academic freedom. They are busy protesting rescinding of tenure in Wisconsin, and threats in Iowa. Meanwhile, in Hungary, thousands took to the streets when the government threatened to close an entire university.

Now that we can see the danger, why aren’t we in the UK protesting more widely?

We can’t wind the clock back, but for heaven’s sake, at least we deserve protection from summary dismissal and attacks on academic freedom. Let’s start there. Take a look at what is being proposed at Leeds University – dismissal for ‘some other substantial reason’:

“The university wants to add a new reason for dismissal ‘some other substantial reason’ to our Statutes, which would make it easier to dismiss people for any reason. For example, a conflict of interest or personality clash, third party pressure, raising insufficient funding, not publishing enough, not having a PhD, or criticising management.” Leeds UCU

As CARA – Council for At-Risk Academics  – says, ‘you only need to kill one academic to silence a hundreds’ so our academic freedom is worth protecting.

So, we need to educate UCU members and academic staff members about their clear rights to academic freedom. Here is section 27 of the UNESCO Constitution:

  1. The maintaining of the above international standards should be upheld in the interest of higher education internationally and within the country. To do so, the principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed. Higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.


And the UCU Statement on Academic Freedom:

  • Freedom in teaching and discussion

  • Freedom in carrying out research without commercial or political interference

  • Freedom to disseminate and publish one’s research findings

  • Freedom from institutional censorship, including the right to express one’s opinion publicly about the institution or the education system in which one works

  • Freedom to participate in professional and representative academic bodies, including trade unions

[https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/5128/Academic-freedom–a-guide-for-early-careers-staff/pdf/Academic_freedom_leaflet.pdf ]

All of these are reflected in the 1988 Education Reform Act and this is the basis for current statutes and articles of government in UK universities. However, they are not always well supported by the nation’s vice chancellors. I’d suggest Sir Keith Burnett at Sheffield is a lone beacon among them for academic freedom, saying: “Great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends upon it.”

Certainly Warwick’s proposed amendment to Statute 24 says nothing about freedom to criticise the institution or system in which one works. In fact, the paragraph d) of the amendment to the statement on academic freedom reads: “To avoid unlawful discrimination and promote equality of opportunity, dignity at work and good relations with the University.” Are employees obliged to be on good terms with ‘the university’ at all times, even if its management does things they don’t agree with? Some of us know from experience that that any form of controversy or critique can be regarded by management as causing reputational damage. That might lead to a charge of gross misconduct, and as far as I can see, the most likely outcome for that is instant dismissal. But universities are not above the law, and they should not try to amend their statutes to circumvent it.

If you think we have no need to fear for our freedoms, just remember that several colleagues have reported on Twitter that they have been forbidden from speaking beyond their area of designated expertise, or even from speaking about their research during the election campaign.

Warwick is also seeking to amend its disciplinary code. The right to legal representation will no longer be part of the procedure. From the FAQ:

“The use of legal representation in any internal proceedings creates an overly adversarial environment, not least for the individual member of staff involved. Often the use of legal representatives results in an overly legalistic approach to the issues to be determined and this does not necessarily assist any party, nor is it in line with general good employment practice or the ACAS Code of Practice”.

Really? Do they think you just sailed up the river? Let’s imagine what might have happened to a rather well known professor at Warwick if he had not had legal representation.

Would absence of a lawyer make the disciplinary process less confrontational ? Add clarity ?  In short, no, of course not. But there are two points to raise here.

If the experience of colleagues at a couple of other universities in the Midlands are any guide, there will be many more disciplinaries for what most reasonable people would regard as minor infractions. These take up enormous time and energy and are stressful, not to mention the expense of these, and the drain on the university’s main source of income – student fees.

Second point – Regardless of whether the wording in the statute on academic freedom remains unchanged, disciplinaries will be used to curtail academic freedom, as they were in my case. I wrote a blog piece about the causes of the epidemic of work-related stress in academia – and chose to talk to students about this. The piece was re-published on the Times Higher website where it trended for 4 days. That eventually attracted the attention of management and I found myself facing a 12-week disciplinary process. Previously, I had served 30 years without so much as a late library book. There was no doubt in my mind about the intention to silence me as a critical voice. Incidentally, I had not mentioned the university that employed me, because the piece wasn’t about them. It was about a system that has become an ‘anxiety machine’ as Richard Hall calls it.

I notice that Warwick’s proposed disciplinary policy allows appeal on the grounds of academic freedom. But from the management perspective, it is never about academic freedom. There are always other justifications for alleging gross misconduct. As long as the charges are in place, the actual behaviours pinned on them tend to be rather fungible. But management are pretending that this is a strengthening of academic freedom. It is anything but.

I resigned because for me the capacity to do the job rests entirely on academic freedom. Without that, there seemed no point in turning up. So take note of the mushrooming of these procedures being taken against staff for fairly minor infractions and expect summary dismissals or written warnings that inhibit further risk-taking with independent thought. Be warned. This is the direction of travel in universities.

Another bullying tactic is the use of Capacity Procedures in accordance with performance management and quite unrealistic targets, for example, for grant capture.  In several universities, professors have faced redundancy, performance management, or even in one case, being told that the criteria have shifted and they can be judged to no longer ‘map over’ to the new role descriptor. This is inhumane. In several universities, I have seen the result of this to be incapacitating stress, professional and personal breakdown. It is the academic equivalent of being dragged off the plane. In the words of the late Stefan Grimm, ‘they treat professors like shit’.

Democratic structures must be built from the ground up. They will not materialize through authoritarian diktat. It is now clear that highly qualified and able people work much better in a high-trust environment. It is really important to remember that management are not the university. The university is made up of an entire community. Nobody ever came to a university because of the Human Resources department or its disciplinary policy. And as Rob Cuthbert has written

“It behoves managers to remember that as managers they make no direct contribution to the real work of the university – teaching and research. They are an overhead and, like all overheads, they need to justify their existence.” [What’s wrong with management in higher education? April 28, 2017 by SRHE News Blog

Managers are overheads. Let’s all remember that.

Steps to resistance – what works. A case study of RTB from Newcastle University.

The details of The Newcastle University Raising the Bar initiative were well-reported in the Times Higher in 2015 . There was an attempt to formalize outcomes-based performance management, whereby academics would be judged by metrics on financialized targets for grant capture, REF ‘outputs’ at grade 3 or 4; PhD student throughput etc. I have blogged about this here.

After academic staff protested, organised and negotiated further, the proposal was withdrawn last summer. I like to think of it as a successful culture hack towards more democracy and civility within the university. I have been collaborating with a collective from Newcastle known as the Analogue University. We have written a chapter (unpublished but forthcoming) on the context of management by metrics, and the Analogue University collective has reported on their extensive research project which documented the resistance to Raising the Bar (RTB). The following were the main strategies that were used successfully in countering the management’s narrative. The summary and quotations are used with kind permission of the Analogue University collective.

Organise and mobilise support

Use whatever democratic structures are available to you within the university. A massive turnout at school, department and union meetings is important in voicing concerns and planning strategies for opposition. Try and get student support and press coverage. Both will make an impact. Get an online petition together, and ask prominent professors to write a letter to management. Within three days over 3,500 people worldwide had signed the petition against RTB at Newcastle.

Deconstruct management-speak

Start with the pronouns “we” (Morrish & The Analogue University, 2017, forthcoming; Machin and Per, 2016). Often in these documents there is a deceptive ambiguity about ‘we’. It is a quirk of the English language that ‘we’ can be both inclusive and exclusive. These documents which claim to be ‘modernising’ and bringing procedures up to date with recent legislation usually exploit that. So ‘we’ retains both its managerial prerogative and its pretence at inclusivity. However, the Warwick communications from Provost Christine Ennew are unusual in their use of the exclusive ‘we’, demonstrating that the innovation is led and imposed by management:

We began consultation with the Trade Unions in December 2016.

We have published the revised statutes, ordinances and policies in draft so that you can see the proposed changes.

We have discussed the proposals with the University Council, Heads of Department and our Trade Unions.

We are proposing.

We would like to hear views from all of our staff community.

And if there is any doubt about the managerial exclusivity:

If you are a member of a Trade Union, you will have the opportunity to contribute to this process through your Unions.

Publicize the story – especially social media

There is now a lot of evidence that shows when you get an intransigent management, using social media can bring about results. “Since the RTB was primarily driven by a desire to raise Newcastle University’s reputation as a premier research institution, the activists felt that the management would be more receptive to their demands if they saw the university in the news for the wrong reasons. The news and social media platforms such as Times Higher Education (THE) and Facebook were used to publicize the growing dissatisfaction and opposition to RTB”. [Morrish & The Analogue University, 2017, forthcoming]. Notice this would violate the new statute which requires “good relations with the University”.

“The research project succeeded in getting public intellectuals who have written on the threat of neoliberalism to the humanities, such as Martha Nussbaum, Marilyn Strathern, Stefan Colini, and Rowan Williams to join its advisory board. Their very presence drew attention to the dispute and helped ensure it was more widely publicised. As one key goal of RTB was raising the reputation of the university internationally, such attention risked undermining RTB by negatively damaging the reputation”. [Morrish & The Analogue University, 2017 forthcoming]. Again, would this invite disciplinary action under the proposed amendments?

Industrial action

“In the summer of 2016, after all the attempts at getting the university management to withdraw it failed, the UCU moved towards industrial action in the form of Action Short of a Strike (ASOS), principally a marking boycott. This precipitated a swift climbdown on the part of management and a successful resolution of the dispute in favour of the Union and its members”. [Morrish & The Analogue University, 2017, forthcoming]

Articulate an alternative vision and vocabulary of excellence in academia

The activists felt that they ‘fought hard but without bitterness’. It was important for them to not personalise the campaign as being against the VC and senior management. An alternative to RTB was drafted under the title ‘Improving Research Together’ (IRT).This recognised the need to be seen to perform well in key audit exercises, and asked management to withdraw RiPE and engage in the proposed IRT alternative as, “an inclusive, collegial, evidence-based, bottom-up process to devise a non-coercive framework in which to foster a higher-performing research community”(Academic Frameworks for Research Improvement, Newcastle University / University and College Union, June 6, 2016). [Morrish & The Analogue University, 2017, forthcoming]

The Justice League of Academia has lunch

Last Wednesday (late October 2016) I was privileged to meet up with four of my favourite tweeps and bloggers. Kate Bowles (@KateMfD) and her wonderful daughter Clementine (@clembowles) were visiting the UK from Australia, so Richard Hall (@hallymk1), @Plashingvole (PV) and I couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to get together. All of them have been an enormous source of support, advice and incomprehending headshaking during my last few tormented months in academic employment. The latter three of us are all based in the Midlands, and since Kate and Clem seemed to be circumnavigating the UK en route to various relatives, they were persuaded to drop by Leicester for lunch at Delilah Fine Foods , conveniently located next door to the Richard III Visitors’ Centre.

It turned out I was the only one who had met each of the others (except Clem) – either in person or via Skype, and could be relied upon to pick each of them out of a line up, so we wouldn’t be  loitering around wondering if that was an academic fellow traveller or another vegan habituee of Delilah’s.

I can’t really convey how momentous it was to be in the company of all these fine people. Despite coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, we are united in our opposition to the corporate university, managerialism, academic capitalism, management by metrics – and united in our wish to support the humanities, academic freedom kindness and humanity in our universities. Our conversation was not entirely uplifting as we all had stories of brutality being visited on friends and colleagues in academia. We told stories of infringement of academic freedom  and of impossible targets  being levied on academics . We heard about the astonishing levels of casualization in Australian universities , and how that strategy is gaining momentum in the UK. We discussed government policies which seem to undermine both the resourcing and independence of universities in the UK and Australia. We talked about possibilities for resistance, and the importance of conveying to younger scholars that it doesn’t need to be like this. As Steven Jones et al. argue here  we need to seize the narrative, challenge the discourse, do some refusing and disrupting…..Perhaps we could be more active in our unions in order to focus their efforts more intently on the erosion of academic freedom and job security.

As I blogged last time, those counter-narratives are strengthening and solidifying in the form of manifestos. Here’s a link to the Copenhagen declaration. What they all have in common is a plea to reinstate humanity at the core of the university. There is a callousness and objectification in being measured, evaluated, appraised and performance managed in each class, journal article or syllabus. There is some kind of template being imposed on academic careers, and even academic opinions, outside of which it is impermissible to stray. Enough. This is not a plea for special treatment because, yes, Glyn Davies, MP, academics do live in the real world – even in an extreme and dysfunctional simulation of the corporate world. This is a plea to allow academics to survive in their jobs without epidemic levels of anxiety and work-related stress. Here I would have linked to the blog post I wrote last March, except my previous employer required me to take it down.

Despite the catalogue of academic aversions, it seems we share a collective belief in humanity and the possibility of a better future. And of course we are animated by our engagement with digital pedagogies, social media and critical university studies. PV, with his inexhaustible range of cultural references has appointed us as the Justice League of Academia. I confess I had to look this up because comic superheroes would never have made it through the parental firewall chez Morrish; nevertheless it is an appealing comparison. It certainly added to the allure for Clem of meeting some rather sedate middle-aged bien-pensants, although we may have fallen short on discernible super-powers. Clem, incidentally, is already accomplished at the practice of artful and articulate authoritarianism.

As we left the café, I hauled out my camera for a photo to memorialize the occasion. As we shuffled into position, a kindly passer-by stepped forward to offer to take the picture. ‘See’, said Kate triumphantly, ‘humanity is always there’. Indeed. Time to start believing again, and more importantly, making it part of our academic practice and our activism.

And so we dispersed to fight for liberty, justice and the academic way in our various projects. PV (who like any self-respecting superhero prefers the cloak of virtuous and virtual anonymity) set off for the second hand bookshops to slake his thirst for literature. Richard headed for a meeting. Kate and I queued in Boots for Lemsip to clear that fog-induced catarrh of an English October. The Justice League, but also my fantasy league of academic colleagues.

It wasn’t many days before we were all in touch again – called to attention by a blog piece from the excellent Paul Prinsloo @14prinsp   where he offers several different approaches to educational activism: of being ‘woke’ meaning switched on and critical, to passing round the messages via retweets and postings, or just quietly ‘hospicing’ – not looking away, but watching and witnessing with care and concern as a dying system progresses to its demise. This is “a letting go, a critical self-knowledge of your own locus of control, and things beyond your locus of control”.  And activism also means taking care of yourself, and “allowing the community to care for you, to shield you, to hide you, to allow others to speak on your behalf”. I read this and felt enormously grateful that colleagues of such commitment and integrity are in my corner. And I am in theirs.


Are we seeing the rise of the Trump Academic?

A post by Mark Carrigan caught my imagination a few weeks ago. It was about ‘networking’ with its usual connotations of “insincerity, instrumentalism and general creepiness”. We can all recognise the ambitious researcher at the conference who is anxious to advertise their own work while affecting interest in the keynote speaker’s presentation.  It resonates with my current work on academic self-promotion via university profile pages. And I start to wonder, is a new academic habitus is beginning to emerge?

There are a lot of incentives for a young academic to develop chameleon-like characteristics. In an era when many are forced to spend years on short term, casualized contracts, your advancement increasingly depends on accumulating the right kind of academic accolades. I refer to this as the ‘Bisto kid’ approach, whereby you learn to sniff the air and follow the smell of money, because money now equates to academic regard. Pursuing grants will be your ticket to a permanent job, time for research and access to international conferences. Without it, you may be left alone with your passion and originality to generate an unfunded, and therefore marginalised, research program.

The consequences for academic freedom have been obvious for some time, but other problems are now starting to become apparent, particularly in the sciences. There have been an unsettling series of stories on the same theme in the Times Higher and in the blogosphere recently.

A study conducted in the UK and Australia indicates that academics regularly lie to inflate the predicted impact of their research (Matthews 2016 a). One professor in Australia is quoted as saying “It’s really virtually impossible to write an ARC (Australian Research Council) grant now without lying.” It is harsh to condemn these colleagues when you consider the ludicrous necessity of fabricating an impact statement. By definition, if the work has yet to be done, there can be no confident claims of either results or significance. The scientific community has collectively decided to acknowledge that if everybody knows it is absurd, then there is no moral hazard to trouble their consciences.

Two more significant issues have been discussed by Dorothy Bishop in her blog “There is a reproducibility crisis in psychology and we need to act on it”. If other scholars cannot reproduce the results of psychology experiments, this means the discipline has a problem which needs to be addressed, she argues. The other, related, problem is also methodological; the phenomenon of p-hacking – selecting experimental data after doing the statistics to ensure a p-value below the conventional cutoff of 0.05. (See also Nuzzo 2014 on p-values and reproducibility concerns). P-hacking is recognised as one reason for poor reproducibility of scientific findings, and the phenomenon is well explained for the non-scientist by David Colquhoun here.

Meanwhile, a number of academics are detecting an apparent bias towards positive results operated by journals in publication of scientific work. Simon Hatcher asks “Is something rotten in the state of academia?” and explains, “The need arises out of intense competition between Universities to compete for funding and for journals to publish the latest breakthroughs”, and he offers this insight into why this effect has arisen, “It increasingly seems that journals value themselves not by the quality of what they publish but by whether it is picked up on social or main stream media. As a result negative studies are much less likely to be published.”

Equally, in a world where academics are obliged to offer up each piece of work to be evaluated as internationally significant, world leading etc., they will seek to signal such a rating discursively. A study by Vinkers et al. 2015 in the British Medical Journal    uncovered a new tendency towards hyperbole in scientific reports. They found the absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), which amounts to a relative increase of 880% over four decades. 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%”). The authors comment upon an apparent evolution in scientific writing to ‘look on the bright side of life’.

It is rather more than that, though. This behaviour of extolling banal results is what is more commonly called ‘gaming the system’, and it is clearly being learned young. Tim Birkhead (2016) narrates an encounter with undergraduate students which opened his eyes to some disturbing attitudes:

Here’s a tiny but telling example of what we are now faced with. At the end of a recent seminar I presented on scientific misconduct, I asked the audience whether they knew anyone who had fabricated data for their final-year undergraduate project. Eighty per cent said yes. My jaw dropped and the expression on my face must have shocked the students since one of them came up to me and, touching my arm, said: “Tim, don’t be upset, we wouldn’t do this if it was real science.” This attempted reassurance only plunged me further into despair. I probed a little deeper and asked the students why they felt it was acceptable to fabricate data in a teaching context, but not in a “genuine” scientific investigation?

Xenia Schmaltz (2016) fast-forwards to the next stage of a young scientist’s career, when she questions “Good scientist or a successful academic? You can’t be both”. She encapsulates some of the contradictions in a simple table.

Good scientist

The behaviours on the left are those necessary for academic integrity, while those on the right may lead to academic preferment. Birkhead blames a culture that pressures academics into quantity and speed of publication, competition and league tables, a confirmation bias, a pursuit of safe science which might win scarce grant money, and the need to specify ‘impact’ before the work is even done. David Graeber (2012) writes, “If you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover”.

It is not just our research which we must ‘sell’. We sell new courses, conference, institutes, grant proposals, and, as I am finding, our academic selves on social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Academia.edu or ResearchGate.  The self-promoting academic has emerged hand-in-hand with the marketization of universities, so that now, the X Factor could be the next model for filling university jobs. Indeed, Jack Grove (2016) reports on a selection procedure for a postdoctoral position in a The University of Calgary’s medical school in which interviews were streamed to a live audience of 70 early career scientists who voted with 90% agreement for the same candidate.

The point of the Calgary exercise was to make the trainees more self-critical when showcasing their own skills, but it seems likely that such structures will produce a particularly narcissistic graduate, as this study (Matthews 2016 b) seems to predict.(For the original study click here). Examining traits of undergraduate business studies students, the authors found “more narcissistic students “thrived” with similarly self-obsessed instructors. These latter seemed to act as role models to the former, further legitimising their behaviour. By contrast, less narcissistic students did not thrive with the narcissistic faculty. Matthews’ article in the Times Higher asks: “As millennials enter the faculty ranks, will they be disproportionately narcissistic?” .

It is unfair to ascribe this behaviour to millennials.  Academia, often portrayed as the home of eccentric loners, has always had its share of self-important grandstanders. But current inducements are giving rise to a new phenomenon of the Trump Academic. Rather like The Donald, who is prepared to jettison previous party affiliations and beliefs in order to reinvent himself as the creation of Republican intolerance and bigotry, the Trump Academic will gladly set aside scientific passion or originality in favour of safe and fundable research. Their boastful certainties, unanchored in the truth, might allow the suppression of a negative result, or the inflation of some calculations to reach a threshold of significance. They may switch paradigms entirely in order to run with the popular crowd.

If you haven’t yet met the Trump Academic, you should probably get out more. Increasingly they will be hard to miss as the motivations coalesce around work which pleases governments, university managers and students. Now, even a permanent contract cannot guarantee the indulgence of ethical behaviour and academic freedom. Tressie McMillan Cottom writes of the rarity of great genius. When indisputable talent evaporates, all that is left is ‘the hustle’. The more that regimes of top-down interference chip away at academic authenticity and integrity, the further we are from that perennial pretension of ‘excellence’. We risk becoming a profession of self-regarding hustlers, changing our game plan at each new behest from above. Let’s count them: contract renewal, tenure, promotion, student evaluations, research selectivity, impact, employability. I was reminded of a recent article in The Guardian (Hattenstone and Allison, 2016), a profile of former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, who, on leaving the post said, “You shouldn’t do this job for too long because you get used to things you shouldn’t get used to”.

I hope those early-career researchers in Calgary aren’t saying that in ten years’ time.



Birkhead, Tim. 2016. Government policy is wrecking science. Times Higher. March 24th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/government-policy-is-wrecking-science

Bishop, Dorothy. 2016.  http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/there-is-reproducibility-crisis-in.html.

Bishop, Dorothy. 2016.  http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/the-amazing-significo-why-researchers.html

Mark Carrigan. 2016. http://markcarrigan.net/2016/04/04/how-to-network-without-chipping-away-at-your-soul/

Colquhoun, David. 2014. http://www.dcscience.net/2014/03/24/on-the-hazards-of-significance-testing-part-2-the-false-discovery-rate-or-how-not-to-make-a-fool-of-yourself-with-p-values/

Graeber, David. 2012. Of flying cars and the declining rate of profit.  The Baffler. 19. http://thebaffler.com/salvos/of-flying-cars-and-the-declining-rate-of-profit#left-menu

Grove, Jack. 2016 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/could-the-x-factor-be-a-model-for-filling-university-jobs Times Higher March 8th.

Hatcher, Simon. 2016. https://shatchersite.wordpress.com/2016/03/21/is-something-rotten-in-the-state-of-academia/  21st March 2016.

Hattenstone, S. and Allison, E. (2016). Interview with Prisons Inspector Nick Hardwick: ‘You shouldn’t do this job for long because you get used to things you shouldn’t’. The Guardian. 29th January. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/29/prisons-inspector-nick-hardwick-interview  Accessed 1st April 2016.

McMillan Cottom, Tressie. 2016. There are thieves in the temple tonight.  https://tressiemc.com/2016/04/21/there-are-thieves-in-the-temple-tonight/ April 21, 2016

Matthews, David. 2016 a. Academics ‘regularly lie to get research grants’. Times Higher. March 9th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/academics-regularly-lie-to-get-research-grants

Matthews, David. 2016 b. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/selfie-generation-grades-boosted-if-lecturers-are-narcissists  Times Higher. April 5th

Nuzzo, Regina. 2016. 2014. Scientific method: statistical errors. Nature. http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-statistical-errors-1.14700

Schmaltz, Xenia. 2016. Good scientist or a successful academic? You can’t be both. Times Higher. March 1st. You https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/good-scientist-or-successful-academic-you-cant-be-both