PhD funding in the Covid-19 era*

In the hours before the Easter break, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) gifted final-year PhD students an extra six months of funding. It is symptomatic of this period of accelerated policy-making that this announcement felt long-awaited. It is perhaps also a sign of the times that its details took many people by surprise: begging as many questions as they answered, inciting a wave of grumpy tweets from students, and leaving universities with fresh headaches to nurse over the vacation.

Covid-19 is presenting intense challenges for postgraduate research students (PGRs). Some are unable to proceed with the core business of research: conducting experiments, collecting data, working in archives, and so on. Many are international students, sitting out the university closures either in their home countries, far away from their academic support networks, or in the uncomfortable confines of UK student housing. By comparison with undergraduates, many more PGRs will have young children, and therefore be affected by the closure of nurseries and schools. But these impacts are also radically uneven. No two PGR experiences are ever identical, and right now the effects of Covid-19 are being felt – or, in some cases, not felt much at all – in myriad ways.

The funding of PGRs is also highly uneven. Some are entirely funded by external bodies, such as UK research funders or international government schemes. Some are entirely self-funded. Many others are supported by partnership arrangements involving some combination of a funding agency, a business or charity, and/or a university. These arrangements, encouraged by UKRI over the past couple of decades, mean that a UKRI-funded Centre for Doctoral Training or Doctoral Training Partnership might well involve commitments from several universities and a dozen or so external bodies. Covid-19 might upset these arrangements in all sorts of ways. We probably even have students co-funded by companies that will not exist by the time this crisis has passed.

Locked out of labs and offices, many PGR students understandably have felt anxious, even abandoned, over the past weeks. But their interests were raised in some of the earliest national lobbying, and has been the subject of intense work within universities. PGR management and support teams have been stretched, tracking individual students in especially difficult circumstances, and rewriting policies within days. Universities that have worked hard to maintain systems of PGR student representation, and that now have strong and articulate student leaders in post, are unusually well placed. Trust is a precious commodity.


The lucky few

But funding for lost time has been looming from the very beginning as the single biggest question for PGRs. Universities appreciated the lead that UKRI took on 26 March, when it announced a policy of funded extensions for any student, to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. But that statement left some loose ends, particularly concerning the overall cost and how it would be covered. Hence the level of anticipation in advance of last Thursday’s announcement.

Specifically, UKRI declared that its ‘funded doctoral students in their final year will receive an extension to their research with additional grants, known as a costed extension, of up to six months providing them with peace of mind that they will be able to complete their studies. The extension offer will apply to final year PhD awards that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.’ This has initially been interpreted as a commitment to a blanket six-month extension for all eligible students. That’s not exactly what it says – note the conditional clauses ‘up to’ and ‘PhD awards that have been impacted’ – but at this stage I think it is fair to assume this is what it means. In advance of any further details regarding process, it looks as though any student with a completion date in the designated period who sticks up a hand will be given six months of funding, from a new government pot of money.

The key to that announcement was the quote from the Science Minister, Amanda Solloway, signalling that this was new money and possibly also a modification of the government’s approach to PGRs. She said: ‘The extra six months study funding announced today will give students who have spent years on their research, and who in some cases are helping in the fight against coronavirus, certainty that they will be able to complete their courses in spite of the disruption caused by this outbreak. We are committed to investing in the future of our world-leading science and research community.’ One might reasonably infer from this that certain lines of argument have worked with the government. Note, for instance, ‘spent years on their research’, ‘helping in the fight against coronavirus’, and ‘investing in the future’. The stuff she was presumably told about complex case-by-case circumstances? Maybe that just didn’t crack it.

And maybe the comment about investment helps to explain why the extensions will be for six months, when at present we are still in the first month of a lockdown of uncertain duration. At a time when there is so much talk nationally about ending the lockdown, an assumption of six-month delays is striking, going further than most student demands, and most likely also exceeding internal planning assumptions within universities. But perhaps it makes more sense when considering the employment prospects for PhD graduates in the current circumstances, as universities and research funders count their losses and scale back on recruitment plans. Just weeks ago many academics were on strike over the plight of the precariat; with the possible exception of some areas of medical research, Covid-19 will make this situation worse. In short, the extensions help an acutely vulnerable cohort, and hence support the wider national interests of maintaining the research base.


Following the money

The greatest drawback to last week’s announcement is the way it divides the PGR community. While this body is never especially cohesive, given the markedly different circumstances in which any two given PGRs may operate, UKRI has driven a wedge between different categories of students. UKRI-funded students with less that a year until completion are today considerably happier than those with more than a year to go. There were doubtless reasons not to like the ‘case-by-case’ approach of the 26 March UKRI statement – it is cumbersome, raises questions of process, and could place unnecessary pressures on students to demonstrate impact – but it was at least consistent and ethically defensible. I understand that by last week most universities had in principle adopted it for granting extensions (though not necessarily funded extensions).

There is also uncertainty for students who are not wholly funded by UKRI. The ‘frequently asked questions’ document released in support of the funding announcement places an unnerving weight on the verb ‘hope’. Looking towards co-funded students, who in fact are the vast majority, it states: ‘We hope that funding partners will be able to provide additional funding to support extensions … but understand many partner organisations are facing uncertainty and financial constraints too.’ Most universities will appreciate this as code; in effect we have little choice but to match the UKRI commitment. But external partners will feel less pressure, maybe taking the acknowledgement of their ‘financial constraints’ as an invitation to step back. Pressure to fill these gaps will thus in turn weigh heavily on universities, hit now by multiple demands of uncertain dimensions. The UUK proposal (also published over Easter) for a doubling of QR funding would help to meet these costs, but as we all wait for a response to that request students will quite reasonably be wanting answers.

And there is even more uncertainty for students not funded at all by UKRI. There will be pressure on universities in these cases as well. For example, if your university has made a fuss about its own branded studentships, it can hardly afford now to stand back and watch these students get a lesser deal than those funded by UKRI. But then it will need also to consider students funded by bodies less generous than UKRI, or those co-funded with external organisations which are perhaps more likely to be withdrawing than extending their support. Estimating the cost of these measures is complicated by a number of unknowns: whether to apply funded extensions case-by-case or across the board, the length of the current (and any possible future) lockdown, and UKRI’s assertion that there may be further commitments from them still to come.

Finally, for self-funded students there is not so much uncertainty as a sinking feeling. If you are a self-funded Masters by Research student in the sciences, for instance, locked out of your lab for four months, you face losing almost 10 per cent of the time for which you carefully budgeted, and if you are unlucky in the timing closer to 15-20 per cent of the time designated for experiments. Universities across the country are looking into hardship funds, which tend not to be geared towards PGRs. They may also need to consider what ‘mitigation’ might mean for a research dissertation. There is a risk that some students will be lost if no solutions for them are identified.


Squeaky bum time

Many people in control of university finances struggle to understand the economics of PGRs. Conditioned to see universities as businesses and PGTs as nice little earners, they can struggle to appreciate the difference that a consonant can make to the bottom line. There are many reasons for universities to support PGR programmes, but making money is never one of them. Now such people – finance directors, lay governors, and so forth – will be presented with blank cheques to sign, even if universities are to match the UKRI commitments to date. There are good reasons for PGRs to feel uneasy.

The UKRI announcement is thus welcome to the extent that it injects fresh resource into the system, offering a powerful statement of support and making a material difference to many students. But it also fractures the PGR community, stretching fragile bonds of trust between students, universities and funders, and positing the risk that not all universities will be able to match this level of support for all students. In some respects it serves merely to underscore the Covid-19 questions that were already pressing upon everyone with an interest in PGR programmes. These were never going to be easy to resolve, and UKRI has not necessarily made the job any easier.

First published by 14/4/20

‘That’s not my university’: making sense of the media*

FirtTackling another week’s worth of attacks on universities feels a bit like reading one of those books for toddlers. ‘That’s not my university, Julian Brazier; my university is not a left-wing indoctrination camp.’ ‘That’s not my university, Owen Jones; my university is not a neo-liberal corporation.’ But maybe this is not about my university at all. Maybe it’s not about any of our universities.

The ‘university’ in public discourse is much discussed, with a fury that seems only to escalate with the commentator’s distance from the realities of higher education. It occupies a discursive space in which rival views of ideal societies are tested. Hence the unreal isolation of higher education in much of this discourse, as though all the nation’s problems can be fixed here. Let’s look at social inclusion without worrying about early-years education; let’s fret about free speech without bothering about media ownership.

The logic of such arguments goes a bit like this. I assert that a phenomenon exists and is damaging the entire nation. I identify this phenomenon within universities. And then I claim that if the phenomenon is fixed in universities we can change the country. It’s a form of utopian thinking: imagine universities as an island and the commentator as a benevolent dictator. At that point it’s easy enough to believe that universities can fix all sorts of things: free speech, racism, the youth mental health crisis, social inequality. For Brazier, by closing down some universities we might even be able to fix the unfortunate tendency for well-educated people to assess the evidence and choose not to vote Conservative.

Setting aside for a moment what tends to happen in utopias (which is rarely good), let alone what invariably happens to benevolent dictators (which is also pretty grim), where does this leave those of us working in universities? This stuff drives vice-chancellors crazy. Each assault seems to demand a response and every column is doubtless laden with untruths, but how should a university leader – indeed anyone involved with universities – respond?

In the seventeenth century there was a brief fashion for animadversion, a form in which an antagonist’s text was cut into pieces and interspersed with critical comments. It was a neat way to assert intellectual control over an antagonist. Then came the letter to The Times, weighted with the authority of titled signatories. Now we have social media, with its illusion of free exchange but its unending spirals of whataboutery and nuttery. It is genuinely hard to find spaces for dispassionate assessment of evidence, appreciation of the complex systems within which universities operate, and maybe even respect for those with experience and expertise. Given that this is precisely how we operate within universities, that’s a particularly maddening paradox.

But what would be the consequences of accepting that there’s actually not much we can do? If people are determined to lay their utopian fantasies upon their idea of a university, there really may not be much point outlining their errors. The university, after all, is not their main concern; it’s just a discursive space in which to take their ideology for a walk. In this context maybe the best thing for universities to do is just get on with stuff. And, like, all the good stuff we do: research, education, student support, aspiration-raising, community engagement, and so forth. We’re not going to be able to stop the attacks, because they are about so much more than us.

This is not to say we retreat to another idea of insularity, rather that we adhere to the principles on which academic work rests. We ask: what’s your evidence for that? And we demonstrate the place of universities within wider structures (e.g. funding models, visa laws, primary and secondary education systems), and entrenched social problems (e.g. inequality, post-Brexit racial tensions, underfunded mental health services). The problems our critics pin to universities are rarely, if ever, specific to universities.

Maybe we even go on strike. While I despise the zealots standing outside universities and interpreting our strikes for their own ideological ends, and suspect the UCU of some utopian thinking and dodgy data of its own, I respect colleagues striking in good faith for fine causes. We will take a beating in the public sphere during the strike, but this too will be coloured by ideology. As Jones has demonstrated, much of what we read about the strike will not much be concerned with universities at all.

I suspect that recent higher education ministers have understood this point about attacks on universities. They found scraps to toss to the gallery – free speech, value for money, Augar – but basically let us get on with being bloody good. Our new minister, Michelle Donelan, has apparently distinguished her time in parliament by raising questions about vice-chancellors’ ‘outrageous’ pay and unconditional offers somehow ‘closing doors’. So far, so simplistic. It will be easy enough to say ‘yes, minister, we can fix all of that’. It’s what she will want to hear, and it’s what VCs like to say. But honesty, about the complexity of most problems and the position of universities within the nation, may produce better policy.

The impact agenda has refreshed my academic career

Apologies to regular readers if you’ve been waiting forlornly for posts in recent months. This piece helps to explain the distraction: normal service will resume.

If, 10 years ago, I had declared to my line manager that I wanted to manage a summer-long creative arts project across England and Wales, she would have told me to get back to my monograph. Professors of 17th-century literature needed to know their place back then. But the impact agenda has changed all that.

Impact remains controversial among some academics yet, in the UK, it has opened doors to different, more varied careers. It has changed relationships between academics and their research and between universities and the wider world.

In the midst of all the anxieties about the next research excellence framework – submissions for which are due next year – it is worth keeping this point in mind. The REF may be warping the practices of academics and their employers alike, but it is the introduction of impact in the 2014 REF that is chiefly responsible for this transformation.

My own obsession has been with creating a digital map of England and Wales filled with crowd-sourced poems written by people who care about particular places and their histories. Titled “Places of Poetry”, it is a simple enough idea. It is also born out of research: work done by me and my partner, the poet Paul Farley, on Michael Drayton’s 17th-century poem, Poly-Olbion: an attempt to describe the history and geography of England and Wales – all of it – in 15,000 slightly crazy, occasionally beautiful hexameter lines.

We wanted to use Drayton’s model, in which places provide points of entry to history, and to adapt the stunning, decorative county maps that were published with Poly-Olbion. But we wanted to capture multiple perspectives, of writers from different parts of the country, of different ages and different levels of experience. We wanted a polyvocal record of the meanings of places.

Just over halfway through the project, we have about 3,500 poems. We are also nearing the end of a programme of targeted engagement activities, centred on pairing poets-in-residence with heritage sites. We’ve been working with sites from Caernarfon Castle to Ely Cathedral, Big Pit National Coal Museum in South Wales to Byker Wall Estate in Newcastle upon Tyne. These activities are putting a spotlight on different kinds of heritage, and in many cases engaging with particular community groups.

Anyone doing anything like this will be familiar with the queasy feeling prompted by the question: “Where’s the impact in that?” The bureaucratisation of impact – with professional advisors, evidence gatherers, case study writers – is one of the questionable aspects of this agenda. What proportion of the funding distributed on the basis of the REF is spent on the bureaucracy that the REF encourages, if not requires? But these questions, these experts, can also help shape projects and maximise their value, as we have found.

Perhaps the biggest argument for a university to take a lead on this kind of work, however, is because it can. One reason it can is that academics are generating, as a matter of course, the ideas and research that can lead to impact. In the course of Places of Poetry, I’ve been amazed by how many people have wanted to learn about Poly-Olbion. That point of inspiration, and our knowledge of it, matters, just as Paul’s credibility as a poet also matters.

And a university can because it has the infrastructure to support complex, multifaceted projects. Most of our partners just could not do this themselves: the arts and heritage sectors are fuelled by passion, but are often very short on resources. Yet Places of Poetry is not at all an isolated case: the impact agenda has stimulated a wave of partnership-building between universities and the arts and heritage sectors. If you see an ambitious initiative of this kind, there is a good chance that, as Universities UK likes to say, it was #MadeAtUni.

One common misconception in the lead-up to REF 2014 was that arts and humanities subjects would struggle with impact. To be sure, impact in the sciences can present easier stories to tell, but we should also recognise, and in my view celebrate, impact in the arts and humanities. It connects universities with the public, stimulates creativity and innovation, and provides answers to the question: “What has research in your field ever done for me?”

It can also refresh careers – even for middle-aged scholars of 17th-century literature.

  • Published in Times Higher Education, 13/9/19

Cambridge and the slave trade: extended mix of a letter to The Times*

The decision by Cambridge University to establish an enquiry into how it benefited from the slave trade was attacked by Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar as setting ‘new standards of political correctness. Will the Cambridge vice-chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, be worried? I expect he will be delighted.

Inclusivity is one of the biggest challenges facing university leaders, especially at elite institutions. In A-Levels, black students significantly under-perform against other ethnic groups; fewer than 500 achieved three As or better in 2016-17. Similar attainment gaps have been identified within universities.

In this context, attracting students of black African and black Caribbean origin is a huge challenge, and creating an environment in which they will fulfil their potential is maybe even more challenging. Pressure is being placed on elite universities by the Office for Students and liberal politicians. More importantly, university leaders increasingly recognize the value, for all students, of diverse learning environments. At Exeter, I’ve been privileged this academic year to be involved in a project to address these issues.

Critics of the Cambridge decision have labelled it ‘virtue signalling’, deploying the reactionary’s suspicion that anyone looking virtuous must merely be putting on a show. And yet universities today spend much time and money on signalling their virtues, usually in the form of ‘values’ or ‘mission statements’ that are rarely read or remembered. By contrast, Cambridge is enacting its virtues, and sending in the process a much more powerful message to former, current and potential students.

One of the extraordinary aspects of the reaction to the Cambridge announcement has been hearing professional historians – outliers, admittedly – arguing that knowing more about the past might be a bad thing. Biggar himself rests his profile less on his position as a theologian than his current research project designed to resurrect the reputation of the British Empire. This all feels a little bit like proponents of sovereignty arguing that a little bit more democracy would be a bad thing. Maybe there’s just a bedrock of reactionary illogic holding some people from engaging with the rest of us at the moment.

And in truth there are few risks to this review. Broadly speaking, the outcomes are known: of course Cambridge benefited from the slave trade, as all major British institutions did. I expect the recommendations are also envisaged in advance: a package of student support, some curriculum changes and staff hires, changes to university symbolism and the built environment, and so on. Some of the trickier decisions may fall to colleges rather than the University: this thought might just have crossed Toope’s mind as well. Critics have said the University should do other things if it’s serious about inclusivity, but without explaining why doing this will prevent it from doing those as well.

Biggar turns his ire in closing on the ‘aggressively woke’ Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, whose research on colonialism takes a somewhat different approach to the topic to Biggar’s own. For an Oxbridge vice-chancellor, looking for brand ambassadors to crack the challenge of inclusivity in 2019, I would suggest that Gopal looks a better bet than her antagonist and Times columnist. If you were one of the 500 or so black students predicted three As at A Level – a cohort of interest to all the UK’s elite universities – would you be feeling more warmly towards Oxford or Cambridge this week?

  • Back in the day, we might have said ‘the twelve-inch version’. There’s only so much you can say on 200 words, so there are a few more here. Thanks to Rosemary Bennett, at The Times, for inviting a response to Nigel Biggar’s piece (which really wound me up).

Intangible research funding for the arts and humanities: comments on a proposal

When ideas emerge from right-wing think-tanks, appealing to popular resentments about existing bureaucratic systems and vaguely promising a brighter future for all, maybe we should be prepared for trouble. And so it goes with John Marenbon’s Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities, which makes a delightfully subtle case for ‘funding’ by removing the arts and humanities from their two principal funding streams.

Readers of the report might know Marenbon as a distinguished Cambridge professor of Medieval philosophy. Or they might remember him as the author of such articles, released through the Politeia think-tank, as Militancy on the March (attacking the academic strikes earlier this year), or ‘OFFA’s Topsy-Turvy World’ (a critique of widening participation in higher education). From the perspective of a senior research fellow of Trinity College, it is perhaps easy to believe that humanities researchers should not have to scrabble about for state funding, submitting ourselves to scrutiny and public accountability. One’s college does a much better job of supporting one’s research.


Intangible resources for intangible assets

Intangible Assets proposes abolishing the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and removing arts and humanities subjects from the Research Excellence Framework (REF). (The latter argument was repackaged for The Guardian last week.) He suggests that the quality-related (QR) funding that flows from the REF would remain the same, but be determined by the performance of all those other subjects which are so manifestly more suited to the REF’s assessments. AHRC funding, meanwhile, would be redirected into the creation of permanent teaching-and-research posts. The British Academy, which accounts for a small fraction of arts and humanities funding, could stay, because its standards are sound – and, well, John is a fellow, of course. How we would continue to fund PhD students remains something of a mystery.

The report’s evidence is heavy with questionable assumptions and back-of-an-envelope statistics. If I was trying to determine how much time a REF panellist devotes to grading an item, I might start by surveying some of them. I might also consider whether their universities relieve them of other duties while working on the REF. But that would be too rigorous for Marenbon, who concocts his way to a figure of 2000 pages of reading a day, to be done outside normal hours. (Conclusion: The REF is a sham.) Similarly, before dismissing the assessment of impact – which he considers pointless for the humanities – I might bother to read some four-star case-studies. I might also enquire about the effect of QR funding on arts and humanities departments across the sector, before asserting that ‘no [QR] money reaches’ them (an outright falsehood by my experience). And I might even consider the achievements of some AHRC-funded projects before pontificating about the ‘damage’ that grant-funding does. Indeed I might consider these to be basic methodological expectations of a researcher.

Some arts and humanities academics – particularly those involved in institutional struggles for resources and recognition – might as a result feel uneasy about Marenbon’s logic. He breezily assumes that if the overall QR pot remains the same, universities will remain well resourced and the arts and humanities will be protected. Hence universities should be required – presumably by the Office for Students, but he doesn’t say – to provide research leave, while somehow or other all that former AHRC money will find its way to the right place. How this all squares with resource allocation models within legally autonomous institutions, a culture of ‘value for money’ in a sector otherwise funded by students’ fees, and a mass higher education system with vastly uneven funding and career structures to begin with, is never really addressed.


And is there honey still for tea?

Like so much utopian discourse, Marenbon relies heavily on an idealized representation of an ‘old world’. There was a time, he says, when arts and humanities academics all did some teaching, some research, and paused every day for a three-course lunch at high-table. Ok, so I made up that last bit, but the vision of a world in which nobody was monitoring academics’ work, nor urging them to compete for research support, and assessment was reserved for the rare occasions on which one would apply for promotion, is designed to seduce. What’s not to like?

In truth, this is a blueprint for constraint and elitism. Oxbridge would survive well enough, but what about other universities, where resources are tighter? If no income was generated by research in the arts and humanities, could we confidently expect the vice-chancellor of a university struggling with debt and falling student numbers to maintain staffing levels and protect research time, let alone consider promotions and pay-rises in the humanities faculty? Moreover, it’s worth noting that some universities never experienced the revered ‘old world’, so it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine how, from current working conditions that are often radically different to those familiar to Marenbon, they might now contrive to return to it. And with no research council to make the case for what we do as researchers, could we realistically hope that policy-makers would smile benignly upon us for ever more? Like many who profess to believe in a small state, Marenbon places great trust in its readiness to enforce the regulations that he devises.

As much as we might sometimes wish to deny it, money matters for the arts and humanities. Within a year from now, in the wake of the Augar Review, students could be paying less for arts and humanities degrees. Already many universities are under financial strain, and redundancies and departmental closures are likely to accelerate. The system as a whole is fluid and contested, and in this context both the REF and the AHRC give the arts and humanities visibility, credibility and representation. These things matter. Even to contemplate tossing all that away risks inviting all sorts of insidious and unreliable forces into the conversation. After all, there are plenty of people who would like to see the arts and humanities weaker and poorer.


To pretend that we can improve working conditions while evading public accountability and competition for resources is thus to display reckless disregard for the prevailing conditions in which we operate. Right now there are people in this country fighting tirelessly to convince sceptical politicians of the value of the arts and humanities, in the many contexts in which they are taught and researched. John Marenbon is not one of them.

Sam Gyimah: broken by Brexit*

With the resignation in the final hours of November of Sam Gyimah as Minister for Universities and Science, higher education loses not just another minister, but its most endearing animoji. This fresh-faced two-dimensional cartoon figure took an astonished sector by storm in 2018, tracing the minister’s journeys through higher education, bristling with conservative fervour yet rapidly coming to appreciate the quality of British universities. The departures of both the man and his animoji leave many questions behind.

In a Brexit context, Gyimah’s resignation feels significant because of his record of careerism and party loyalty. While Jo Johnson, another former Higher Education Minister, produced at the moment of his resignation as Minister for Transport last month a perfectly formed argument for remaining in the European Union, Gyimah’s farewell facebook post was rather a cry of confusion and anguish. Though remainers will doubtless claim him as one of their own, he is in truth not sure who to blame, nor what the country should do next. This is a man who drank deeply from the Brexiters’ Kool-Aid after backing ‘remain’ in the 2016 referendum, and is only gradually coming back to his senses.

His willingness to share his learning processes also made him an intriguing minister. David Willetts, one of Gyimah’s most influential predecessors in the role, famously began his book, A University Education, with the statement: ‘I love universities.’ Gyimah came around to the same position, as he declared to the Universities UK conference in September; however, his love was never unconditional. He inherited the right-wing free-speech crusade from his predecessor, and ploughed ahead on this front with little regard for evidence. He also drove forward Johnson’s agenda of ‘value for money’, founded on ever-more detailed graduate salaries data. And he famously declared himself ‘minister for students’, almost as though suggesting that universities couldn’t be trusted with such responsibility themselves.

As a result his public declarations about universities were wildly erratic, and also notably partisan. His interest in student welfare, for instance, was well-meaning and timely, yet his ‘Sam on Campus’ events combined a genuine effort to listen with an attempt to rally Conservative students. And even in his last week he maintained his pattern of provoking in one speech and placating in another: lashing out at supposed ‘poor-value’ courses, acknowledging that ‘earnings are not everything’, celebrating agricultural and space technology, and then promising at the Times Higher Education awards that ‘as long as I am minister I will fight for universities’ interests’. Perhaps he never really wanted academics to trust such promises, since getting too close to the sector had proved fatal for his predecessors. To be fair to his critics, though, he gave plenty of cause for mistrust.

Yet maybe the promise of support was also increasingly difficult to fulfil. As much as he and his animoji strode purposefully onward, Gyimah’s ministry was surely being torn apart on at least two fronts. Firstly, the discourse of value for money was driving hard towards simplistic solutions damaging to the sector he had come to love. University closures, for instance, are easy enough to embrace in theory, but trickier in practice. Then there is the spectre of the Augar review, with its widely-leaked thinking around fee-reductions (possibly with a promise to make up the difference from government spending – like, honest). Gyimah inherited this along with much else; indeed it is widely believed that the opposition to it of Johnson and then Education Minister Justine Greening played a role in their respective dismissals. It was also stamped from the beginning as Theresa May’s project, that would report jointly to the Secretary of State for Education, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. But his influence could still have been critical when that report hit those desks, and rumours suggest that he was wary of the damage it may cause.

Secondly, he was torn on the question of research. Indeed it is hardly surprising that Galileo, the biggest of big science projects, appears to have been the satellite that broke this minister’s will. His arguments that the UK could drive towards ambitious increases in research and innovation funding – aiming at a target of 2.4% of GDP, from a starting position of roughly half of that – were feeling increasingly stretched against the fiscal realities of Brexit. He must have understood that himself, for all his evidently naïve confidence. And he must have felt the strain of that tension, since he embraced the world of science and technology with a passion. Moreover, he appeared to understand the importance of research collaboration. His suggestions that academics would be able to replace the effect of EU funding if we just tried a bit harder were unquestionably ham-fisted, playing to the Brexiter gallery, but there was more to him than that. Importantly, in his final days he was arguing the case for international researcher mobility, pleading for universities to have special status in any new immigration regime and stating that UK access to EU funding after Brexit ‘won’t work’ without mobility. Not every politician gets this point.

One post-Gyimah scenario might go along the lines: May loses her vote, resigns, is replaced by someone less antipathetic towards universities, and Augar gets politely buried. After all, nobody apart from the Prime Minister really wanted the review in the first place. But that is surely utopian thinking; instead the sector will have a May loyalist, signed up to the delivery of Brexit, sceptical of a sector in which leading figures have been finding an oppositional voice in recent days, and therefore happy enough to inflict some pain in the interests of career and the shadowy outlines of a plausible ideology. Gyimah’s journey perhaps demonstrates that it is difficult to spend any time in British higher education without coming to appreciate it – even to love it – but his successor could have precious little of that commodity on his or her hands before making pivotal decisions.

From a distance, one might well reflect that this is no way to manage a university system. But then it’s no way to run a country either, yet we seem to be doing it.

More adventures in the search for value for money

This is the 12-inch version of my 7-incher in the ‘THE’, 15 November 2018. Editors do tend to fret about things like words and – well – accuracy. Here’s to artistic freedom.


The past was a simpler time; governments controlled universities then. This nostalgic fantasy, at the heart of so much public discourse about higher education, is articulated with admirable energy by the House of Commons Education Committee in its recent report, Value for Money in Higher Education. Its list of recommendations stretches to twenty-eight, packed with things that universities ‘must’ or ‘should’ do, but somewhat slighter on quite how they can be made to do so. It demonstrates at once the shortcomings, but also some benefits, of a quest for simplicity.


Rage against the machine

The quest to define value for money in higher education has taken many commentators down some twisting paths in the past year. It has a tendency to become all-encompassing, unlocking a higher education theory of everything. This report is a classic of this genre, setting out to consider value for money from the perspectives of: graduate outcomes and the use of destination data; social justice and support for disadvantaged students; senior management pay; quality and effectiveness of teaching; and the role of the Office for Students.

As with any research project, the Committee’s methods, for better or worse, lead to its conclusions. These methods boil down to listening to a bunch of different people. Hence the common structure: ‘we heard X say this, Y say that, Z say the other, and we think A’. Sometimes ‘A’ feels like wishful thinking: such as when they call for the reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants, without having to worry about where the money comes from. They also acknowledge that prospective students take no notice of the Teaching Excellence Framework, yet conclude that, ‘For the TEF to improve value for money … it must play a more significant role in the decision-making process of applicants.’ Well, quite.

Granted, there are some steps in the right direction. The Committee has grasped that the debate over two-year degrees is rather more complex than some may have thought this time last year. The costs are not significantly lower, these degrees offer little opportunity to earn money or gain work experience along the way, and therefore they do not offer a magic solution, especially for lower-income students. But elsewhere the report strains against the weight of evidence. On the TEF, for instance, they heard that it is costly and arguably does not assess quality at all; however, they conclude only that it requires a little ‘embedding’.

But the method is not helpful for understanding massive differences between the missions and objectives of different universities. The concept of institutional autonomy is foreign to this report, and the idea the overpaid managers of universities might make independent decisions rather unnerves them. Hence, they note, ‘We are disappointed that institutions such as Oxford University are not offering degree apprenticeships’, and they ‘encourage’ universities that are wary of admitting applicants with BTECs and T-Levels to think again. And managers are overpaid, by the way; the ‘current system of self-regulation for senior management pay,’ the report asserts, hankering again for state control, ‘is unacceptable’.

Above all, the Committee’s approach eschews complexity. It is a peculiarly myopic exercise to consider universities purely as providers of undergraduate education to home students, and as a result to focus entirely on what happens to those students’ fees. This report says nothing about postgraduate students, barely mentions research, and fails to acknowledge the international context within which universities operate. It nods once towards Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, on ‘the international outlook of many of our most prestigious universities’, but moves swiftly on. (One is left with the impression the MPs didn’t much warm to Richardson.) But international students? International collaborations? International league tables? Not a word to be said.


Trust us: it’s simple

Like much post-2012 commentary on universities, this report positions fees as individual debt in one paragraph, and ‘public money’ in the next. This is in part a matter of tactics; it suits the argument at different times for the money to be either that of the individual or the taxpayer. Yet the impression it gives is of someone turning a naïve gaze upon a complex machine, and looking for simple answers. To give it some credit, sometimes it finds them.

For example, it’s excellent on university admissions. It comes down against unconditional offers, but firmly in favour of contextual offers. On the latter point, some vice-chancellors might mutter darkly about the failure of successive governments to stand up to the Daily Mail on this point, but it is nonetheless welcome support for a good cause. And the Committee trashes the use of entry-tariff as a measure in league tables. That argument is somewhat more complicated, since applicants may reasonably want to know about the quality of those they with whom they will learn; however, it’s still useful to know that objective observers, like many academics, see this metric as a worthless indication of a course’s quality.

Their perspective is also bracing on flexible learning, even if these points will be obvious to most people within the sector. Policy in recent years has focused unhelpfully on 18-21 year-olds, even as the mature-age and part-time markets have collapsed. Their recommendations, that universities ‘should move away from a linear approach to degrees’, and that the current post-18 review might ‘develop a funding model which allows a range of flexible options’, are not exactly plotting a clear and easy path towards recovery. But it’s not as though anyone else has cracked this puzzle either.


Much has changed over the fourteen months through which the Commons Education Committee has turned its mind to these matters. Indeed much of this report feels tired and wistful, not only for an era when overseeing universities was more straightforward but for days when this Committee was setting an agenda. Hence, perhaps, its unwieldy number of recommendations. It’s not likely that any will lead directly to action, but there’s a certain satisfaction to be derived simply from ticking all the boxes.


The Concordat and the precariat: radicalism and the art of policy review

Radicalism can arrive in unexpected forms. For months now one of the hottest topics on academic social media – and for good reason – has been the precarious employment conditions endured by many early career researchers. The Universities and Colleges Union even staged a strike ballot on the issue, albeit linked with other matters. But then along comes the consultation documents from the review of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, to show us how it’s done.

The Concordat was established in 2008 ‘to improve the employment and support for researchers and research careers in UK higher education’ by ‘setting out clear standards that research staff can expect from the institution that employs them, as well as their responsibilities as researchers’. The ten-year review process has to date produced a report by a Review Panel, a response from a Steering Group, and now opens this week to a period of public consultation.

The consultation process promises to be very interesting indeed. There is much in the Review that is uncontroversial and arguably overdue, such as recommendations about equality and diversity, or concerning the language in which the Concordat is framed. There are also some issues on which the Review poses purposeful challenges, such as length of contracts, the value of bridging periods between contracts, and the potential to transition some individuals from fixed-term to open-ended contracts. But the action is likely to centre on two matters: support for researchers’ career development, and the definition of researchers.

Careers for researchers or researchers for careers?

The lives of early career researchers are characterized by fixed-term contracts, high levels of competition and stress, and job insecurity. Most, especially in the sciences, will not find permanent employment as academics. From the beginning, the Concordat has aimed to face this context by understanding and prioritizing the interests and career needs of this crucial category of highly-skilled, motivated, yet also vulnerable people.

Since the Concordat was produced, it has become standard practice that researchers employed on research council contracts are entitled to ten days per year for professional development activities. This may include, for example, independent research or training, and may be focused either on academic or non-academic career progression. As the Review notes, this entitlement is neither well understood nor consistently applied. Many individuals are still not getting the support they need, to progress either in academic or other careers.

The Review’s response takes two forms. Firstly, ‘there should be increased emphasis and support, by both funders and employers, for uptake of researchers’ 10 days training allowance’. That will hardly prove controversial. Secondly, ‘20% of a researcher’s time should be allowed for developing independent research and skills’. To be clear, that means 20 per cent in total (i.e. inclusive of the existing ten training days), and represents a four-fold increase on the existing provision.

The key responses to this proposal will come from research councils. Universities and principal investigators will be mightily anxious about potentially lost project time, and this will doubtless feature in institutional responses. Charitable and industry funders will likely also have views. My bet is a compromise; however, if the councils fall into line and are prepared to absorb the cost of one day per week when researchers will not be advancing the projects on which they are employed, this could well become the new reality.

Yet there still remains a question: if the model of ten days per year is not being applied effectively, why would forty-four days necessarily work any better? Perhaps some respondents might also suggest that a more sensible requirement would be for universities to provide more tangible support for career development. At my university, the careers counselling service for postdoctoral researchers can be booked up several months in advance. Those sessions require just one hour of a researcher’s time, but can transform the way they understand their skills and career options.

In other words, will the problem of career development necessarily be fixed by more time? Quality may matter at least as much as quantity; it might be more sensible for universities to be required to provide more support, rather than simply freeing time for researchers. Moreover, it could be argued that prioritizing time privileges the model of postdoctoral researchers transitioning naturally to PIs. That will appeal to many people, but will not necessarily fix the problem since this will inevitably remain a minority experience.

Who’s an early-career researcher anyway?

Footnotes do not come more explosive than number 2 on page 10 of the Review: ‘Hidden researchers include a large number of individuals who are employed by HEIs on teaching-only contracts, often on an hourly-paid basis, and who pursue research outside their contracted hours.’

The Review’s point here is that for a revised Concordat to focus only on postdocs employed on funded projects is to ignore a plethora of other people, many of whom at present enjoy weaker levels of institutional support. This is the ‘academic precariat’. According to the Review, ‘the definition of “researchers” used in the Concordat should be explicitly broadened to include staff not primarily hired as researchers, but who are research active’. That’s teaching-only staff, hourly-paid staff, even laboratory technicians. And all these people – researchers almost by a process of self-definition – should as a result be eligible for the support outlined in the Review’s other recommendations.

This will feel to very many people, not least those employed on hourly-paid, teaching-only contracts, like a blow for workplace justice. But there will also be objections, not solely on financial grounds. This proposal might have the perverse, and potentially chaotic, effect of sucking many more people into the scope of the REF, on the grounds that a substantial amount of their time is devoted to research. Moreover, it undermines the well-intentioned, if not always well-received, efforts of many universities to create teaching-only career-paths, on which academics will be rewarded according to a set of standards that does not include research. Good luck to the people who have to navigate a path through the responses on this one!

The opening of the consultation phase has been cannily timed, to coincide with a day when everyone’s favourite postdoc, Rahul, proved that researchers can do anything. But there’s perhaps an even bigger challenge ahead for those charged with making sense of the consultation responses. What they produce will shape the lives of researchers for the next ten years.

Free speech: whose problem is it really?

At a time when the Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, is renewing his free speech crusade – popping up at The EconomistOpen Future Festival’ last weekend – there are indeed some glaring examples of problems. No-platforming, closing down of informed debate: it’s all there, just – well – not on university campuses in the United Kingdom.

Take, for example, the treatment of the ‘Best for Britain’ campaign by the Conservative Party. Best for Britain is a peaceful and law-abiding group gaining widespread support in its campaign for a people’s vote on the Brexit deal, and had been planning to hold fringe events at the Conservative conference in Birmingham later this month. But applications by three group members for passes allowing them to enter the conference venue were last week refused. They were no-platformed.

Or take a report of the response at the highest levels to one of the most careful academic studies so far on the question of the likely effect of Brexit on national food supplies. According to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, his research group’s report did indeed attract the attention of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as one might well expect. But their meeting did not go well: “I told [Michael Gove] he was driving the country into a food security crisis. He looked incredulous.” And so, at a time when Professor Lang’s expertise is more valuable than at any other point in decades, I’m not getting the impression that he is being invited to present his analysis to other members of the government.

And then there’s the case of Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary. He’s no proponent of free speech; indeed he has restricted the media and judiciary, and manipulated the democratic system to the advantage of his party. His repression has also been felt within universities: for instance, his government is proposing to ban gender studies courses, while the Central European University has declared it may have to leave the country entirely because Orban is refusing to legalise its status. Last week two-thirds of the members of the European Parliament supported a motion to censure Orban’s government. But where did Gyimah’s party – those proud defenders of free speech – stand on this matter? That’s right, they whipped their MEPs to vote against the motion.

Maybe one could argue that there is not much wrong with any of this. The Tories surely have the right to decide who they want to hear at a conference, just as a government minister must by necessity sift competing voices on any issue. And maybe, after all, 95 per cent of the nation’s economists really are wrong, and their rational rebuttals of Patrick Minford and the Economists for Free Trade may justly be set aside. Maybe. Or maybe the ‘robust debate of contentious issues – to reach the truth’, something Gyimah sees as ‘core to university life’, is somewhat absent at present from political circles.

And maybe one could also argue – perhaps with rather more cause – that student unions have the right to decide how debates will be staged on their premises. For the evidence that critics raise on this issue tends to reduce to a handful of well-publicized cases, usually centred on students’ unions rather than universities, that regardless collapse under any degree of scrutiny. Arguably, then, much of the fabricated outrage over alleged censorship on campus boils down to resentment that someone or other was not invited to speak somewhere or other. Surely students should not be left to make these decisions themselves, especially when the Conservative Party is evidently so much more reliable in its ethical judgements.

A generous reading of Gyimah’s attack is that it’s merely a diversionary tactic. It doesn’t pay for Conservative universities ministers to look as though they are too close to universities, so it’s helpful in political terms to pick a fight or two. And a cultural matter like free speech plays well with the rightish edges of the party while making little practical difference to the way in which universities operate. It’s worth noting, in his defence, that Gyimah has not – yet – hit the revenues of universities; indeed on research spending there is a positive story to tell, while his recent endorsement of universities’ core mission was widely welcomed.

But I’m no longer prepared to take that generous reading. I’m sick of the slipshod approach to evidence in these attacks on universities, and I’m tired of being told that students and academics have insufficient respect for divergent viewpoints – that we’re not much fussed with the truth. How about, just for once, setting aside the easy, damaging rhetoric and looking at the hard, complicated facts of speech on campus? In other words, how about setting an example of intellectual honesty for other members of this historically slippery, self-absorbed government?

Moreover, whatever their motivations, Gyimah’s largely unfounded attacks on universities are working to deflect attention from far more serious problems at the heart of his own government. He is at present complicit in a project to close down debate and suppress uncomfortable evidence, and the nation stands to suffer as a result. He would therefore do well to direct his gaze to his own workplace, and turn his supposed passion for reason and transparency upon the debased way in which Brexit is being discussed. Universities are not the problem here.

The case of the shouty lords*

Higher education policy debates have become remarkably shouty. Perhaps people fear that unless they identify massive structural problems and propose sweeping reforms, all in a very loud voice, nobody will take any notice. Usually nobody takes any notice anyway.

If you thought that the House of Lords might offer something altogether more elevated, you would be very much mistaken. Its Economic Affairs Committee report, Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-School Education, published last week, is very much a product of its time. The lords listened to some shouty people, saw nothing but trouble, and shouted a little themselves.


Like so many commentators on higher education, these lords can’t quite work out what they want to shout about. The report’s most significant points are financial: the loans system, the effect of abolishing maintenance grants, the squeeze on further education, and misuses of the apprenticeship levy. These are hugely important matters, but all too often their arguments suffer from sketchy research and lack of depth. The paint scrapes away all too easily; for example, Nick Hillman took just a few days to pick apart one of the report’s key arguments about further education funding.

We might equally examine the question of fees. This was a subject they could so easily have left alone; I mean, why enter this quagmire, when there were more urgent and original lines to pursue? In the space of a few paragraphs, they quote the unquestionable expert Andrew McGettigan, the splenetic Andrew Adonis, a parent who has just discovered the notion of ‘self-guided study’, and a student who happened to write in to say he reckoned fees should be somewhere around £3000. On the back of this research, and with not a thought to calculating the impact of real-terms funding cuts on the quality of British universities, the lords stick their fingers in the air and conclude that fees should remain frozen ‘for the medium-term’.

My point is that they did not need to dive down the rabbit-hole marked ‘value-for-money’, nor listen to mad hatters in their own House. And their adoption of the methodology of talkback radio merely prompts the reader to question their evidence elsewhere. For instance, I’m broadly sympathetic to the argument that maintenance grants should be reintroduced; however, the report’s evidence for the impact of abolishing grants is almost exclusively anecdotal. It also rests rather too heavily on a desire for all graduates to emerge from university entirely equal, which is to ignore the desperate inequalities which the British economy otherwise nurtures (and, frankly, which their House represents). We might call this the ‘universities must fix everything’ delusion: it’s rather common.


The report also betrays a whiff of disdain for universities and those who choose to spend their time at them. In a familiar manoeuvre, universities are simultaneously attacked for not creating a market in terms of pricing, and slated for daring to operate rationally in response to the government’s market-based reforms. How dare we set our fees at £9000? How dare we all want to be universities in the first place?

Students, meanwhile, are manifestly being had. Why, the lords ask, ‘are people continuing to pursue undergraduate degrees if future employment benefits are uncertain?’ At heart these are serious debates; they are correct to point out that the link between graduate numbers and economic growth is no longer as solid as it once was. Nor are they alone in wanting to raise the profile and status of apprenticeships. Fair enough, but their decree that schools ‘must present all post-16 and post-18 options as equal’ occupies the realm of dictatorial fantasy, while the report’s tone is dismissive of those who dare to aspire to higher levels of education. Might they have given, perhaps, a moment’s thought to how it might look for a handful of the most privileged people in the country to dismiss some young people as ‘overeducated’? I have an inkling my own students would not take that too well.

There’s not much respect for student achievement either. Grade inflation – another of the report’s unnecessary crusades – surely cannot be the result of students’ ability and labour, can it? On the basis of precisely no evidence whatsoever, they propose that this pattern ‘may’ be a result of universities being ‘incentivised … to attract prospective students’. It ‘may’; seriously, they’re worrying about grade inflation, yet they have the temerity to put this sort of unfounded speculation in an official report. And of the student voice? Well, the National Student Survey is clearly unreliable, because they heard an anecdote about a university that pays students £5 to complete it. The assumptions that this story is true (interestingly, they do not dare to name the university), and that students could so easily be bribed, are worthy of the Daily Mail. The fact that the subsequent paragraphs hopelessly confuse the NSS with the Teaching Excellence Framework rather confirms the damage to the report’s credibility.


But there is perhaps even more disdain for the government. The Augar Review, the government’s ‘major’ effort to rethink student finance, is not even mentioned. Moreover, the extravagant, largely uncosted recommendations in Treating Students Fairly seem cruelly framed to make Augar’s team, hamstrung as they are by a requirement that no more money can be spent, appear niggardly. Nor do the lords have any time for sparkling new administrative structures. The Institute for Apprenticeships – barely a year old – ‘should be abolished’. The Office for Students ‘should’ have its ‘remit … extended to regulate and fund all higher education’. I mean, guys, I know the Office for Students doesn’t have a lot of friends, but maybe we could give it a few more weeks before pulling it all apart.

By the end, the shouty tone and spirit of revolution leave the reader perplexed, struggling to make sense of some genuinely important recommendations against the background noise. There must be better ways of engaging with these debates, and also more effective ways of connecting with those running the show. At risk of being accused of grade-inflation, I’d give it a 55.


Apologies: it’s taken me a couple of months to upload this, after it was first published on Truth be told, I couldn’t work out how to edit pictures on a new computer. Then I got distracted by grant applications and end of year stuff; you know how it is.