Tag Archives: research

Metaphors we work by

This post has been inspired by a vigorous discussion on Twitter initiated by a question from Jesse Stommell (@jessifer) (6th November) who had been attending the recent #opened16 conference. “How many of us have been told our work doesn’t count as research or scholarship? How many teachers, adjuncts, activists? How many students”? The question raises issues of autonomy, academic judgement, academic freedom – and all the mechanisms of audit and regulation which act to compromise these, making academic work and research a contested area of access and legitimation.

Helen Sauntson (@HelenSauntson) and I have been investigating how discourse constructs notions of what counts as academic labour, and we started by analysing the discourse of university managerial training courses. The choice of managerial, not management, is deliberate. Managerialism offers the sense of management for its own sake, of management as the central and privileged purpose of the university. Managerialism imposes ‘false’ needs (Klikauer 2013) – inconsequential management demands for their own sake – or rather for the purpose of rendering employees subordinate.  The management training courses, and the materials and documents used within them circulate widely in most university environments and their aim is to effect the reconstitution of academic subjectivities as ‘corporatised’. Included in our survey were documents from several universities’ courses: Personal Development Review (PDR) training, a team leadership course for middle managers, and a module on change management. We have carried out an analysis of the key metaphors used throughout the training course documents.

The rationale of PDR is to make sure that all employees’ objectives are in alignment with the university’s Strategic Plan. One of the possible outcomes of the process is that the employee may be recommended for a performance related pay award. It usually lies in tandem with the university’s performance management process, which ostensibly is designed to diagnose under-performance.

The team leadership course was designed to support employees across the university who had line management responsibilities. The course was detailed and drew on theories of management: teams, change, strategy, leadership, values. It was taught in three modules, consisting of two full days of activities, led by a facilitator. The associated learning packs, slides and documents provide the data.

Change Management was a companion module to the team leadership course, and the associated training pack provided the data. This module was aimed at senior university staff who were deemed to be in a position to implement change.


Metaphors are figures of speech. Words or phrases are used non-literally so that the usual literal ones are displaced, temporarily or habitually, in a particular context. Words are employed symbolically in order to activate images, and thereby associated meanings. For example, in the data of the management courses, work is presented using metaphors of sport. The frequent occurrence of such metaphors means that working in a university is constructed as competitive and is never described in any other terms. These metaphors also present a zero-sum scenario of victory or failure. The density of this lexicon is quite extraordinary. Examples include:

  • How do we kick it [change] off?
  • Kotter argues that many change projects fail because victory is declared too early.
  • Quick wins are only the beginning of what needs to be done.
  • ‘…striving to accomplish pre-determined goals or objectives…
  • The use of specific tactics can also smooth the change process.
  • …emphasises the need for keeping in the win-win area.
  • Targets will be set by the line manager and/or the management of the area and must support the goals of the department.
  • Coaching is about helping someone to get the best performance out of themselves – the potential for which was already there. Coaching is about releasing that potential.
  • This simple model takes the three questions of the sports coach

More concerning is the appearance of metaphors of war in relation to performance management.

  • …how to motivate survivors of a savage round of downsizing.
  • When people feel they are under attack, one response is to become defensive. This might result in territory battles
  • I quickly spot, and take advantage of, weaknesses in competitors.
  • Such individuals are not overtly self-protective or inclined to wage turf wars.
  • What might you do to sabotage your own efforts to reach this goal?

Examples such as these fit with a neoliberal conception of universities as competitive, not collaborative, and concerned with dominance. How often have we heard about education and its role in making us ‘internationally competitive’?  The aim is to win, or, even better, to win-win. We notice that a discourse is created in which it is acceptable (or even encouraged and celebrated) to exploit implied ‘weaknesses’ in a competitor or opponent.

As the opportunities for research funding diminish and panic escalates, the metaphors become more alarmingly violent. I have seen one university’s research newsletter which features cartoons and images depicting research as a gruelling, tortuous process. Achieving impact, for example, is illustrated with a mallet poised to crack an egg. The process of peer review is portrayed in a cartoon where a white-coated scientist is set to run a gauntlet of enemies with swords, cudgels, axes, a chainsaw and at the end the grim reaper ready to strike him down. The ‘welcome to the new academic year’ email from one vice chancellor mentioned that they had enjoyed a two-week holiday getting acquainted with a new chainsaw, which they had found ‘therapeutic’. This was taken by the appalled employees to have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. One academic, recently promoted, was told they were on a ‘burning platform’ with a time-limited window before successful progression to the next level would be expected.

The work of academics and their experience with the management and structures of the university is presented as an exercise in mortification of the body and psyche. We are seemingly imprisoned in the logic of these metaphors, with all their neoliberal ideological underpinnings. With repetition, this discourse is normalised and institutionalised as a commendable activity; the danger is that we become desensitized to our own objectification.

It is only too evocative of the disintegration of public discourse in the recent US election. We are now left to contemplate the widespread endorsement of bullying, boastfulness and aggression. On Channel 4 News, reporting on the eve of the election Kylie Morris asked, ‘is this a permanent retreat from civility’? It probably is. Another academic colleague emailed this commentary: “the fact that we are asked/required/disciplined to become ever more the hard, ruthless, competitive, economistic, justice-indifferent, homogenised, torture-normalising/enduring, Embodied Metric while all of this is going on, says just about everything.”


Klikauer, Thomas. 2013. Managerialism. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan.


A Stern Talking To ?

The Stern Review has appeared and HE wonks are rushing back to the laptops they had just powered down for the briefest of summer holidays. So here are my thoughts, based on a skim reading of the report, and also the helpful comments on Twitter from the following: Emilie Whitaker @Dr_EmWhitaker , Steven Jones @StevenJones_MCR David Wright @WrightDW  Daniel Grey @djrgrey  Mike Ratcliffe @mike_rat and James Wilsdon @jameswilsdon.

It is clear that Stern endorses the continuation of the REF. This is no mutinous denunciation of research assessment. But then that was never in the terms of reference with its forecast of ‘future iterations of the REF’. He has, though, proposed fixes to escalating costs, institutional gaming and some of the impediments to providing a true picture of UKHE research, such as requiring a demanding output-impact case study ratio and ‘selectivity’ of individuals submitted for assessment. There is also a welcome focus on support for interdisciplinarity which many have felt was overlooked in REF2014. Derek Sayer’s important criticism that the REF is a parochial and navel-gazing exercise is addressed; at last, international researchers are to be invited onto panels (Para 109).

One of the stated imperatives of Stern is to reduce the workload of the exercise. He recommends a strong reduction in the average number of ‘outputs’ submitted per faculty member (Para 69) which at this point is looking like a baseline of 2, or even fewer. There will still be sampling of outputs by unit of assessment (Para 71). One more priority is to reduce gaming of the system, and to this end Stern has recommendations about who owns ‘outputs’, and an end to ‘selectivity’.

The most radical of the recommendations in terms of its implications for current practices is that there should be no portability of research ‘outputs’. Stern feels that they should remain returnable by the HEI which ‘helped to produce’ them. This raises the issue of who owns research ‘outputs’ and is guaranteed to cause indignation among the more mobile academics, and also Early Career Researchers who may have had a series of short-term contracts at different universities. It would, however, reduce the likelihood that avaricious institutions would poach individual researchers if they were entitled only to ‘outputs by the individual that have been accepted for publication after joining the institution’ (Para 74). There is no doubt that this will hit the perceived ‘marketability’ of individual academics, but perhaps Stern has rather harshly assumed that the only reason academics leave universities is because of their own ‘rent-seeking behaviour’.

Recommendation 1 is that all research-active staff should be returned in the REF, noting that ‘exclusion and the associated stigma are being driven by factors that are not wholly related to the quality of an individual’s research contributions and potential’ (Para 64). While this is commendably inclusive, and recognises that excellence in research may be found anywhere, it might also act as an incentive for universities to reassign staff to career-limiting teaching-only contracts. This fear is mitigated by the recognition that the proposed TEF looks favourably on research-led teaching (Para 112). Like other high-level communications and policy documents, the Stern Review also presupposes the implementation of the TEF, even though (in July 2016) this proposal is still being debated in parliament.

There seems to be some sanity at last on the notion of research impact. This should be based more generally on research activity, and not dependent on particular ‘outputs’. Also, assessment of impact need not be confined to socio-economic impact as it was for REF2014. Stern recommends that it ‘should also include impact on government policy, on public engagement and understanding, on cultural life, on academic impacts outside the field, and impacts on teaching’ (Recommendation 7).

From my reading, I felt my antenna twitch at a couple of potential Trojan Horses. Stern allows scope for the use of metrics, while cautiously invoking James Wilsdon’s ‘Metric Tide’ report of a year ago. Once metrics are allowed to stand as proxies for the health of a unit, then inevitably this lends permission for greater infiltration.

Indeed, the primary way the research environment will be assessed will be via metrics (Para 48). It seems perverse not to allow for a qualitative statement in this particular area. One wonders how an environmental template based on metrics will facilitate the ambition to capture ‘the contribution that its academics make to the wider academy (‘academic citizenship’)’ (Para 88). Recommendation 4 states that panels should continue to assess on the basis of peer review but may supplement this with metrics, as long as they are transparent about their use (Para 105).

Sadly, there is no recommendation to commit institutions to become signatories of the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment. HEFCE is currently a signatory, although in a rather insouciant way. Instead, Stern invokes an aspiration to standardise the metrics supplied to various bodies whose incompatibility currently stands in the way of more widespread use. There seems to be an invitation to UKRI to become the overlord in this integration of research metrics (Para 107). Will they, too, sign DORA?

The REF needed a stern review, and it has got it. It offers enough clarity to subdue even the most feverish of vice-chancellors for a weekend. It seems to be informed by principles of parsimony and lean management in contrast to the speculative profligacy of the White Paper’s TEF. If we must live with the REF, an ‘iteration’ whose more rapacious and distorting inclinations have been curtailed is preferable.

Raising the Bar: The Metric Tide That Sinks All Boats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Video of talk at Newcastle University 25th November 2015

Newcastle Humanities and Social Sciences RTB doc



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Quality Assurance

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

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

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

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

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

Student debt

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

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

Headlines from this piece:

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

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

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

And the future?

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

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

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

Networking Our Way Through Neoliberal U

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nottingham Uni H Index

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

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


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