Tag Archives: higher education

When does Prevent prevent freedom of speech?

The piece first appeared in Research Professional online forum, 19th September 2017. 

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.

 

 

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Firsts Among Equals? Why have the number of first class degrees increased so dramatically?

“Figures on degree scores from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, analysed by the Press Association, show that 40 higher education institutions saw the proportion of firsts rise by more than 10 percentage points between 2010-11 and 2015-16” (Simon Baker, Times Higher, July 20th 2017). https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/sharp-increase-first-class-degrees-triggers-standards-debate

Once again the annual HESA figures on degree classifications have set in motion an outpouring of consternation from broadsheets and tabloid newspapers alike. Photos two weeks ago of conventionally attractive, white, and mostly female students tossing their mortarboards are now displaced by sneers and insinuations that their achievements have been compromised by a wanton lowering of standards. Simon Baker’s piece shows some startling figures: The University of Surrey’s proportion of first class graduates has doubled between 2011 and 2017 from 19.3% to 41.2%, while firsts at the University of East Anglia have tripled from 12.5% to 34%. The article offers some explanations for the large increase: better teaching, higher entry standards to universities, students working harder, the effect of students paying higher fees; league tables which reward high percentages of ‘good degrees’. This year there is an additional incentive to send students out with a first or upper second class degree – many employers demand them, and the TEF rewards institutions with solid track records of graduate employment. But for the newspapers, I suppose it is what they call ‘low hanging fruit’ – something they understand so little about, it is easy to distort the facts and take a whack at universities, ever a target for an eye-bulging populist. You almost expect to see Lord Adonis weighing in.

I think I can offer some insight into why the achievement of students has risen in the past 6 or 7 years. For over twenty years I was actively involved in quality exercises at subject, department and institutional level. I also gained considerable experience as an external examiner. Progress in academic standards and quality has been in process throughout my career, and it seemed to me we had achieved peak criterion-referenced scrupulosity. No longer is the award of a first class degree treated as some kind of mysterious alchemy, recognised only by possessors of an equal or superior first class mind. The culture of metrics and key performance indicators has made itself known to students in the form of learning outcomes and assessment criteria. This means that students are not in the dark about ‘what the lecturer wants’, or ‘what do I need to do to get a first’. The approach to advanced learning that elicits such questions is, to my mind, inherently flawed, but nevertheless, that’s where we are in UK universities. The system has constructed a student who is a consumer with anxieties which must be allayed by the provision of roadmaps to success.

We have also been led in this direction by very sound pedagogy. We now know that the best way to learn is by having a go, and then getting advice from someone whose knowledge and experience can help you improve. To that end, students are given many forms of feedback during their course, among them formative and summative feedback. An assessment may be broken down into, for example, a proposal which is marked and returned with comments (formative), and then an essay or project which a student can write up in the light of this feedback (summative). Lecturers are also encouraged to make available ‘exemplars’ which show how a previous student has attempted the exercise (anonymised, and with permission, of course). These will be accompanied with a commentary which clarifies exactly how the student has met the marking criteria, and why the grade was achieved.

The marking criteria themselves are extremely explicit, and the marker will indicate, for each of the criteria, exactly which level has been achieved. The comments will give guidance on how the student could improve to the next level. This is how quality feedback should work – the student knows exactly where the areas of strength and weakness are, and can work to address them. No surprise then, if more students learn to follow these recommendations in order to achieve the higher grades.

And for the marker too, there are surprises. Sometimes the mark you originally had in your head after reading an essay will change once you start to systematically align your marks with the criteria.

Additionally, for many years external examiners have been encouraging internal markers to extend the range of marks given. It is easy to see how many more students ended up with a 2.2 or a 2.1 when the vast majority of their marks over three years were between 50-69%. If they were awarded a first class mark, this would probably be between 70-74% so it was unlikely to tilt the average over the first class threshold. More recently, the top end of the scale has been opened up because – well, not all first class papers are equally good. So now a student may receive 96% for an exceptional piece which is regarded by markers as almost of publishable standard. This would be very rare. But there can be marks in the 80% range for excellent work, as well as a solid 70+% for the very good pieces. A few of these stellar grades, and you will get more clear, numerical firsts emerging.

Even in pre-HESA, NSS and TEF days, it was never the case that all first were awarded on the basis of reaching the numerical threshold of 70%. This was largely to take into account the rather parsimonious award of marks over 70% for essays and exams, and the artificial compression of those first class marks into the 70-75% range. Very few candidates would end their studies with an aggregated mark of over 70%, so exam boards would consider a candidate for ‘promotion’ to a higher grade if their score fell within 1-2% of the first class borderline. Also, scores were weighted to reflect ‘exit velocity’, so the student who improved over the course of their degree and achieved mostly first class marks in their final year, would graduate with the higher classification. There were other locally-agreed regulations, but as far as I am aware, most universities acted to make sure students were awarded a degree classification which reflected their ability and scholarly improvement. This worked well.

The problem, if it is a problem, is that we now have two forces of uplift operating at the same time: the broadening of the first class marking range, and the regulations for ‘promotion’ to the higher degree classification. If both are applied, it is not surprising that 20-25% of candidates qualify for a first. This would explain the very large increase from 2010/11 to 2016/17.

I am not making any recommendations here, merely trying to add some clarity and reason to what has become a rather volatile issue. I have avoided the term ’grade inflation’ because this oversimplifies the confluence of processes and rationales which have led to the current situation. Universities must prioritise good practice and fairness in teaching, learning and assessment. But they must also guard against the more perverse incentives presented by consumerism, student satisfaction, league tables and the TEF.

 

 

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.

[http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13144&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html]

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]

TEF Times: 2nd Reading of the HE Bill

In July 2016 we are contemplating a new period of instability for universities in the UK, and with the passing of the 2nd reading of HE Bill, things could quickly get a lot worse. The EU Referendum result has already created uncertainty regarding the future of much of our research funding. It seems there is much uncertainty at the top of UKHE: Universities UK (‘the definitive voice of UK universities’) has asked for the government to press the pause button on HE reform , Meanwhile, the vice-chancellors of Nottingham Trent and Exeter Universities argue for forging ahead with reform and the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Maddalaine Ansell, CEO of the University Alliance, appears to agree with the latter in her prediction that the HE Bill will take the sector to calmer waters.  Ansell’s premise is that there will be a benefit from having all legislation relating to HE encompassed in one piece of legislation: The Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Except it won’t, of course. A moment’s reflection allows us to list student loans, students with disabilities, and academic freedom – all of which have separate legislation. Additionally, Ansell appears to overlook the added complications of teaching and research which will now be overseen by different government departments since Theresa May’s July ministerial reshuffle. It is a complicated picture, and I cannot see any advantage to deepening it.

Let us remind ourselves just how disruptive these changes proposed by the White Paper entitled Success as a Knowledge Economy (SKE) will be. They include an invitation to new private ‘challenger institutions’ who may be granted degree-awarding powers more quickly than previous regulation allowed. There are changes proposed to governance, academic freedom and protections against arbitrary dismissal which appear to infringe the historic autonomy that universities enjoyed from government. A critique of the proposed changes can be found in an Alternative White Paper (AWP), authored by a group of concerned academics can be found here.

The most unnecessary and wasteful plan in the White Paper is for a Teaching Excellence Framework. This has been proposed to correct supposedly ‘lamentable’ teaching (AWP p28). The paragraphs which outline how this will work display some baffling logical linkages. Here are some of the assertions made in the paragraphs which outline the justification for the TEF:

  • higher education leads to better employment outcomes, but these outcomes are not consistent;
  • there is considerable variation in employment outcomes and employability amongst subjects and across institutions;
  • students often enter HE with little information to guide their choices;
  • students often say they would have chosen a different course;
  • the importance of students having access to a wide array of work experience opportunities;
  • a recent IFS study also found huge variance in graduate earnings depending on choice of subject and institution, as well as background;
  • higher average earnings mean that graduates make an important contribution to society through their tax revenues;
  • employers and HE providers working together on curriculum design, and graduates having the ‘soft skills’ they need to thrive in the work environment. (SKE p42).

Apparently, the answer to all of these is the TEF which they claim will raise teaching standards. From 2018/19, an award of excellent or outstanding will permit an HEI to increase its fees in line with inflation. Others, even those meeting expectations, will suffer various degrees of attrition and their students condemned to a ‘choice’ of an educational resource eroded by inflation.

The government remains confident that good teaching can be measured on an institutional basis, but the first point to emphasize is that these measures are, as the White Paper admits, proxies, not measures of good teaching which transpires in classrooms and other learning contexts.

“Such things can be measured: students assess their satisfaction with their courses, retention rates are a good proxy for student engagement, contact hours can be measured, employers choose to sponsor some courses, or work with some institutions, because of the industry-relevance of their offerings, and employment rates can be measured. Some of these metrics are of course proxies – but they directly measure some of the most important outcomes that students and taxpayers expect excellent teaching to deliver. And we recognise that metrics alone cannot tell the whole story; they must be benchmarked and contextualised, and considered alongside the additional narrative that can establish a provider’s case for excellence”. (SKE p46)

Secondly, nowhere in the White Paper is there any evidence of so-called lamentable teaching. In fact the published NSS figures show the opposite. Taken nationally, the average figure is extremely high at 86% (England 2015 NSS results) with a rather small range of scores. So why, asks Dorothy Bishop, is there any need for a TEF?

It is hard to avoid the implication that there is likely to be a shift in the direction of prioritising graduate earnings, and indeed, it is one of the proposed measures as the TEF moves towards “a more granular and informative assessment of graduate outcomes” (SKE p48). Possibly the best expose of this misguided proxy measure was the study published in April by the IFS. It demolishes graduate salary as a metric, with its finding that “Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities.”  Although this study is acknowledged in SKE, the logic is not absorbed. If we can assume that excellent teaching will not be restricted to more socially advantaged students, what relevance is there to measuring graduate earnings? We can detect an implicit threat in the White Paper that the government may seek to pressure universities to close courses which do not deliver the right ‘outcomes’, i.e. graduates who are able to earn enough to pay back the cost of their student loans. That, then, is the real purpose of this metric. Purely ideological – your graduates don’t pay back – your course is closed.

“In creating the OfS, the regulation of higher education will be restructured, shifting from an outdated, top-down model of a funding agency to a market regulator clearly focused on the student interest. We will give the OfS an explicit duty to promote choice and competition, which will increase quality and efficiency in the sector, and will expect the OfS to work closely with the Student Loans Company and Government to ensure the decisions it takes have regard to affordability and deliver value for money for the taxpayer”. (SKE p63)

In 2017/18 the TEF will be run on a voluntary basis. A ‘provider’ can opt in, presumably if it wishes to establish a good reputation for teaching. A mock league table of benchmark-adjusted metrics published by the Times Higher showed that the Russell Group universities were eclipsed by a Midlands triangle of Loughborough, Aston and De Montfort universities. But this could also be part of the script. The government is creating the conditions whereby the Russell Group flounce out of the TEF and follow the incentives towards privatisation. It is only a matter of time before the elite universities follow their counterparts in Australia and start charging variable fees which will have nothing to do with teaching quality and everything to do with accrued reputation – something which the White Paper claims it wishes to dismantle. Rather than providing concrete information on which students can base their choices, this uninformative snapshot will leave students confused between choosing between the dodgy dossiers of established reputation and the imposter proxies of the TEF.

The TEF will do nothing to increase good teaching, curtail bad teaching or provide students with any more guidance than they already have. And if the REF is anything to go by, it will involve escalating costs and a scale of wastage which makes older, experienced academics weep with regret at what could be achieved if only the money were spent wisely. The cost-benefit analysis is provided by Dorothy Bishop here.

Universities have gone along with the REF because (up to now at least) there were reputational, even if few financial, gains to be won. The TEF allows for little financial gain, and also looks to be repeating some of the reputational mistakes of the early QAA subject reviews which denounced some subjects as failing. The TEF, even when it launches its disciplinary-level ‘granularity’ will not be a ‘game changer’.

Even though universities now have the tools to immediately individualise TEF scores of student satisfaction, nobody is going to be poached by an HEI for their superior teaching scores. Similarly, I would imagine that few academics will be to be tempted to move to a stronger teaching department. And bear in mind, academics have limited agency to affect outcomes such as retention, student satisfaction and employment. Students may be very satisfied with individual teachers, while perceiving elements of the course to be disappointing, funding to be inadequate, accommodation too expensive or the claims of family or paid employment to be stronger.

For universities it is another hurdle to be surmounted. A promised tuition rise in line with inflation will be quickly consumed in the arms race to enhance the institutional image. But the government’s nudge unit will clock up another win as soon as it achieves the desired outcomes; privatisation of an elite tier of universities free to charge whatever they wish, and perhaps, the closure of a few universities which have widened participation, but failed to compensate for the calculated upward distribution of wealth which has been part of the neoliberal project. Whether the HE Bill is creative disruption or reckless joyriding remains to be seen.

Brexit – is this Schrödinger’s neoliberalism?

The day after what the BBC has been calling a seismic event is bound to feel rather numbing. The prospect of leaving the EU is disorienting and scary precisely because no manifesto, no roadmap has ever been presented by the quitters. Everybody is wondering what it will mean for them, and there is no guidance. We’re used to getting that much within minutes after the Chancellor’s budget statements. But today, we’re all feeling bewildered about jobs, mortgages, pensions, the NHS, tax, bendy bananas, and all the rest.

Twitter was filled with people saying how their timeline had not prepared them for this. Like me, many were connected to other left-leaning, progressive internationalists, and so had felt entitled to discount what they regarded as the kneejerk xenophobia of the uninformed. I howled in sympathy with my learned friend @Plashingvole who is profoundly immersed in the tolerant embrace of British cultural history. He cites the legacy of Paine, Wollstonecraft, Rowan Williams, Chartists, Suffragists….and the Ramblers’ Association. What, eh? Somebody forgot to tell my sister’s bloke about that. But when your whole being is infused with that radical legacy, it is hard to wonder how it could be so convincingly rejected by the majority of the nation.

However, I ended this memorable day with a renewed respect for democracy and the important lessons it teaches us.  The workers of the north east and Wales have been told for the last 40 years that their skills are out of date, their industries uncompetitive and their productivity lacking. They were the first canaries down the disused mine of neoliberalism.  How long can working people absorb austerity, unemployment, being told they need to change and be flexible….and still never be better off? The EU has meant that my class has accrued a degree of job security through transnational mobility, but that has not been extended to the steel worker in Redcar. We can point to many waystations on the road to Labour allowing its working class constituency to be displaced by a liberal elite. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were ‘relaxed’ about wealth accumulation (i.e. upward distribution of capital). Gordon Brown chose to paint Gillian Duffy in Rochdale as an irrational bigot. In the last election, Labour, led by Ed Milliband, shimmied rather uncomfortably around the issue of immigration, and horrified the liberal middle class voter in the process.

And so the referendum result came as a surprise to a party which saw itself as having a working class base, but broad appeal. The surprise was that the vote was divided along lines of class, privilege and education. As many commentators have pointed out, a referendum doesn’t allow for nuance and negotiation. It draws a binary divide and you are compelled to vote for one side or the other. It also captures one instant in a decision-making process and makes it a defining moment. Well, now the victims of the neoliberal constructed recession have told national and global elites to get stuffed, and they’ll take their chances with a different way – any way. We have Schrödinger’s neoliberalism – it has been both rejected but guaranteed at the same time.

Some among the national elite in government and the media rail against the rejection of ‘experts’, even though they have had a hand in undermining their claims to authority. But university leaders need not feel blameless in this. I marvel at the hypocrisy of vice-chancellors who seek to marginalise critical voices in their own universities, and then wonder why the debate has not been carried by the weight of public intellectuals.  Public intellectuals should play a role in informing opinion, but very often they come from those departments now on the danger list in many universities because they don’t bring in huge amounts of money in research grants. So when your VC emails out their post-referendum statement, ask them – where is your affirmation of academic freedom? Where is your continuing and unfettered support for history, cultural studies, literature, social sciences, politics, philosophy, international relations, modern languages?  These are the incubators of critique and framers of arguments in these crucial debates.  But when you try and subdue a university into a controversy-free, ‘managed’ zone, if you silence the radical voice, then don’t ask why the intellectuals suddenly find themselves ostracized.

Despite what has happened, I remain optimistic because these events tend to trigger moments of ‘grand narrative’.  On the one hand we can see Donald Trump, who embodies that resistance to traditional elites, surfing in on the Brexit wave. On a more hopeful front, we can envisage that this narrative of defiance and empowerment might be directed, not just against symbolic national elites, but also at authority in other locations. Perhaps this is a time for those of us who work in universities to challenge the corporate managerialists who have seized hold of universities and subverted their purpose. At the moment, if you are in arts and humanities in a university, you probably feel a bit like voters in Scotland – as if you are held in thrall by a self-interested and bungling regime which acts against your interests and values.

So it’s a big vote of thanks to academics at the University of Aberdeen and Newcastle University who are already making progress with their campaigns to take back the university for its academic citizenry. How long do you feel like being treated to the Neoliberal University bait and switch? 40 years? Time to start acting against those structures of power which have worked against fundamental academic values of education, trust, community and academic freedom. Below are the core principles from the draft manifesto of the ‘Reclaiming Our University’ group at Aberdeen:

  • To create an environment for free, open-minded and unprejudiced debate, which stands out as a beacon of wisdom, tolerance and humanity.
  • To defend our freedom to undertake research and teaching in the pursuit of truth, against the constraints, both internal and external to the institution, which threaten to curtail it.
  • To restore the trust that underpins both professionalism and collegiality, by removing those systems of line and performance management, and of surveillance, which lead to its erosion.
  • To bring together research and teaching as complementary aspects of an education that carries a responsibility of care.
  • To restore the governance of the university, and control over its affairs, to the community of staff, students and alumni to which it rightfully belongs.

Join the conversation, and organise against attacks on academic freedom and the collegiality of the university. Comments on this blog will be copied to the Aberdeen group’s site.

Normalising immorality

My last blog post was about the perverse incentives currently circulating in universities which lead good academics to do bad things. I cited studies which indicate academics may lie to get research grants, selectively present data confirming a hypothesis or exaggerate their findings to get published. This was read by one commentator as blaming academics for merely responding to the conditions which are necessary to keep their jobs. And she didn’t care for the appropriation of the Trump analogy either.

OK, time to get right back into the water. My point was that, primarily, it is the structures within which academics work that are to blame. Governments send down their edicts, and universities seek to maximize their opportunities within them. But there must also be some degree of agency which we can all exert in defiance of corrupting structures. I want to state why it is unacceptable for any of us to overlook dishonesty and the undermining of legitimate process, and why we need to act collectively to stop it.

I’m becoming quite a fan of Rowan Williams. For one thing he examines the dangers of tolerating hypocrisy and unethical behaviour. For another, he does not speak well of Donald Trump, so he’s my man. In March 2016 he spoke locally about ethics, morality and empathy. His argument was that when people behave unethically, it does not mean they are devoid of empathy; in fact, the reverse. Those who perpetrate causal cruelty achieve their result precisely because they recognise what they are doing, and understand the extent of their victims’ suffering. These are unusual people, but how do they manage to get away with this kind of evil? How do bad things happen in what seems like a good institution?

Edmund Burke wrote “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. This, says Williams, in a recent article in New Statesman, gives evil far too much credit and agency. He believes that evil creeps upon us in rather a different way, more like a perfect storm that a strategic plan. He outlines a slippery slope argument in which “we are at least half-consciously complicit”.

I am aware that some people find it offensive when others draw analogies between the Holocaust and more contemporary concerns in society. My own view is that it is irresponsible not to learn these lessons, and I imagine Rowan Williams would agree. Williams invites us to contemplate how complicity is constructed in a society, and he draws on the example of the Third Reich (which he calls “a masterclass in executive tyranny”) to illustrate his argument. In order to persuade a populace to collude in genocide, Hitler took advantage of some routine anti-semitism which had been normalised by the repetition of certain tropes and myths about Jews. In a re-reading of Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil”, Williams blames an “erosion of a sense of the ridiculous”. We may recognise ourselves in this characterisation; we find the ridiculous in the times when we have complied with an inducement to game a system, inflate a finding, or we have watched silently as others struggle with disproportionate demands. We remember those occasions when we have failed to confront the exercise of excessive power, and told each other, ‘this is over the top’. That is the ridiculous, and that’s when we need to act, because immorality starts with small concessions and by dint of permissiveness, end up overwhelming us. And that leads us to Donald Trump and his evocations of external and internal threats, barriers necessitated, and birth rights revoked. Williams sees him as an exemplar of someone “divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity”. Ridiculous, in other words, and our antennae should be twitching.

Williams ends: “For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private”. Let me be clear. I’m not setting myself up as some moral arbiter. I’m as flawed as the next person. But I do agree with Rowan Williams that it is imperative to watch out for danger signs in our own environment, and to act according to our consciences. To recognise when governments, corporations, behaviours have become excessive and harmful. It is about trusting our instincts over the hypocrisies we are asked to absorb. It is about having a clear sense of purpose and legitimacy. It is recognizing when the demands of the imaginary and the dishonest displace the integrity of doing your job. And it is about refusing to be silent when ‘theatres of cruelty’ (Couldry 2008) invade your very humanity. Rowan Williams has certainly not restrained himself from denouncing a “new barbarity” in the de-humanising language and expectations circulating in UK universities.

Since reading Christabel Bielenberg’s powerful account of her family’s anti-Nazi resistance during the 2nd World War, I have been preoccupied with what Williams calls “moral luck” – “the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz”. Perhaps also the converse must be true – that people with the capacity to resist immorality and corruption are not called upon to do so. But that seems unlikely to me, given the moral forcing ground that surrounds us in contemporary academia. Most of us know when things are not right and we are being manipulated into unethical behaviours. But it is easy to lose our perspective when coerced by threats of losing our jobs or punitive consequences for not meeting ‘targets’. As Williams writes, all it takes is “the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society”. There are no accidents of immorality – there are choices. The choices may be unwilling, but please let’s start standing up to misuse of power, authority and expertise before we start accepting it as the new normal, and it empowers the next step towards dishonesty and corruption. Because if we let go of academic values of honesty, integrity and fearlessness, then along with them go academic freedom and a little bit more of our humanity.

References

Bielenberg, Christabel. 1968. The Past is Myself. London: Corgi Books. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Past-Myself-Christabel-Bielenberg/dp/0552990655

Couldry, Nick (2008) Reality TV, or the secret theater of neoliberalism. Review of education, pedagogy, and cultural studies, 30 (3), pp. 3-13. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/52405/1/Couldry_Reality_TV_secret_theater_2008.pdf

Morgan, John. 2015. Rowan Williams on higher education’s ‘inhuman and divisive’ jargon. Times Higher. January 29th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/rowan-williams-on-higher-educations-inhuman-and-divisive-jargon/2018188.article

Williams, Rowan. 2016. A nervous breakdown in the body politic. New Statesman. 1st May. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/05/nervous-breakdown-body-politic

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.