Burning books on Boxing Day*


It’s unnerving to wake on Boxing Day to the news that universities are apparently opposed to free speech. It’s frankly alarming when this news is being delivered by the Minister for Universities.

Newspapers overnight appeared to rely exclusively on a press release about a speech Jo Johnson would deliver the following day. It was full of broad assertions, with a little bit of balance about Prevent regulations that in fact prescribe limits on free speech when it comes to extremist organisations. By the morning we had Jo Johnson on the Today programme, tossing out some rather wild claims about books being removed from libraries, trigger warnings somehow closing minds, and so forth. Yes, that’s our minister.


Where’s the evidence?

It is possible that Johnson has a dossier of evidence to support his assertions. If so, let’s hope this doesn’t prove as elusive as those Brexit impact assessments, because every academic in the country is curious. It’s equally possible, though, that the evidence is somehow always over the horizon.

Some journalists leapt to an apparent link with the debate raging in Oxford over the research into and teaching of colonial history. But it’s not yet clear that Johnson wants to draw this link himself, however much he might like the feeling of crowd-surfing through a dull news day on the back of it. The simple fact, worth underlining, is that this debate is the very stuff of academic discourse. It’s about the practice and ethics of an academic discipline, not about closing minds and burning books. That’s a critical distinction, and one would hope the minister might acknowledge it.

Others reach to a couple of cases that might just about be labelled ‘notorious’, if only because they have been rehearsed in the media so many times. Hence the supposed ‘no-platforming’ of Germaine Greer at Cardiff University, which has assumed near-mythical status. Well fine, but the evidence is not entirely clear; indeed she did eventually give a talk. More importantly, that was an event organised by a students’ union rather than a university, and there’s an important distinction between the two. One would hope that the government does not want universities to interfere in the independent decisions of their students’ unions.

Beyond that, the criticism degenerates rapidly into vague suggestions that certain views are not being heard. On the one hand, this misrepresents what actually happens in universities. We’re not like parliament or the BBC, organising the pursuit of knowledge around spurious notions of binary contestation or balance. I mean, is Johnson about to suggest that we invite Nigel Lawson to speak at our climate-science conferences? Nor do we routinely stage public debates that, say, a member of the far right might even want to attend. Such events occasionally happen on university premises, but they are much more likely to be organised by students.

And as for those books we’re removing from sensitive student eyes: please show us the evidence. Sensible and committed academics have been on social media this morning, genuinely bemused by this claim. Without evidence, it’s a contemptible insult to people who care deeply about universities.


Murky politics

I would be willing to bet that no UK university will ever be sanctioned under the regulations that Johnson proposes. This issue says much less about any real problem than it does about a minister keen to present his right-wing credentials and create an impression of putting universities in their place. But he’s playing with fire.

The politics of this debate have been marked out clearly in the US. There, far-right political figures (who of course prefer the term ‘alt-right’, because that makes extremism sound more acceptable) have repeatedly manipulated events to create an impression that universities are censoring them. In fact the evidence is more equivocal. Berkeley, for instance, was prepared to spend millions of dollars on enhanced security so that Milo Yiannopoulos could safely speak on its campus. But – what do you know – he didn’t show. He preferred the ‘censorship’ narrative.

So universities are hammered over and again as closed-minded and politically uniform. This plays nicely to a certain audience, but represents a risky positioning of political games over reality. It also threatens to undermine the public status of universities, and in turn their standing internationally. One would hope that similar trends in the US might worry a UK minister, but in this instance he seems happy enough fiddling with his box of matches.

There’s also a nasty generational politics at work here. The Today programme interviewer played into this by making claims about what ‘the students’ want – which, listeners were told, was absolutely not free speech. That’s seriously crap journalism. While some students are arguing with passion about particular political and cultural issues, the ‘snowflake’ slur remains a nasty, unsubstantiated political fabrication.

So here’s an idea: how about we talk with some students at times like these? How about we not rely on the ventriloquizing of them – the ‘students think’ piffle – of middle-aged men? How about we prepare ourselves to engage with some articulate, intelligent people, who want to change a world that isn’t always working in their interests?


The best piece of journalism I read this morning was also about the political corruption of speech, but it had nothing to do with universities. This article, in The Washington Post, was a detailed investigation into Russian interference in Western politics. For anyone who heard Jo Johnson’s brother Boris in Moscow last week, rather illogically arguing that the Russians interfered in the Brexit referendum, but ‘not successfully’, this should be essential reading.

So yes, minister, there are reasons to be concerned today about the politics of speech. But before you proceed with this extraordinary assault on universities, it would be nice if you could reveal your evidence, and it would be worth your while to reflect on where this might lead you. We had been led to believe, after all, that you were the Johnson who thought a little about the consequences of his words.

First published at wonkhe.com


Two-year degrees: another week in the media trenches*

The latest kerfuffle over two-year degrees tells us a lot about the current condition of debate about higher education in the United Kingdom. As Mike Ratcliffe has demonstrated, the long-foreshadowed consultation announced last week proposes a small-scale fix to a niche in the higher education market. At the most ambitious end of the government’s projections, only about 5% of students will be studying on these degrees by 2028.

But that’s not how it has felt. Proponents have seized another opportunity to represent British universities as dozy and dated, while academics have reacted with panic. I’m not sure this helps.

The provocateurs

Free degrees with every copy

It all starts with money, because that has become the baseline in much higher education discourse. The headline in The Sun seized the point: ‘Universities to offer fast-track degrees which will leave students £25,000 better off’. The Telegraph followed suit, stating that ‘Students will save up to £25,000 under radical plans’.


Jo Johnson tweeted links to both these pieces, but he knows this is a speculative figure. As the Department for Education announcement states: ‘The proposals … include a £5,500 (20 per cent) saving for students in total tuition costs compared to a standard three-year course. When added to the average salary of £19,000 in the first year after graduating, it means a potential £25,000 benefit overall.’ So let’s be clear: this is arguably a potential ‘benefit’, but it simply is not by any means a £25,000 ‘saving’ on the cost of a degree.


These reports have also fudged the question of demand. The consultation document states only that: ‘About three quarters of the providers who responded to our 2016 Call for Evidence reported seeing a demand for accelerated courses from students or employers.’ As market research, that wouldn’t convince me to invest. There’s very little evidence in practice that students are drawn towards cut-price options, while the three-year model retains unquestionable status and recognition.


I’d also be wary about trusting that data on employers’ attitudes. In some areas, granted, there may be immediate skills shortages; but in truth there are not many of these. Moreover, most employers tend to want evidence of work experience, internships, ‘international experience’, and so forth. What’s the point of cramming a degree into two years if the three-year students, who have collected these badges along the way, take the pick of the jobs?


Predictably enough, this wilfully fuzzy approach to facts has opened the door to the HE saboteurs. Jo Johnson himself didn’t help, with his quote about  ‘highly motivated students hungry for a faster pace of learning’, implicitly questioning the work ethic of all the others. Subsequently, on cue, we received a piece in the Telegraph from Anthony Seldon, with multiple reference to the summer ‘holidays’ enjoyed by three-year students. Seriously, anyone who thinks that students treat those summer months as one long holiday haven’t spoken to many of today’s students, who are busy in the summers ticking off those achievements that employers expect to see on CVs. (Many are also preparing for summer assessment resits; I haven’t seen any explanation of how these would work in the two-year model.)

And by the end of the week: enter Simon Jenkins. Yes, universities are a ‘cultural confidence trick’, and of course fees are ‘astronomical’ and vice-chancellors’ salaries are ‘indefensible’. It’s easy to fill a column with this stuff after the achievements of Adonis and his acolytes over the summer. I expect you could get a Russian bot to produce it. I imagine it also pulls in the readers, partly because academics can’t bring themselves to ignore it.

Yes, really

But it’s desperately damaging, and also massively misleading. Ben Rosamond exposed one of Jenkins’s statistics as worthless. Further, Johnson categorically did not say, as Jenkins claims, that the ‘three-year university course … is absurd and should end’. Once in awhile one might hope for a minister capable of calling out such lies and idiocy rather than just retweeting his fan-club and – yes, really – advertisements for private providers.

The backlash

But maybe academics don’t help themselves with their reactions to such provocation. The UCU’s response to two-year degrees (from last February) is a model of over-reaction, stating that accelerated degrees risk sacrificing the UK’s ‘global reputation for excellence’. And one doesn’t have to look far on social media to find assertions that two-year degrees will be inferior, or even impossible to deliver.


This is difficult to sustain. There is no logical reason why an additional 120 credits worth of modules could not be delivered over two summers. Granted, this would manifestly alter the nature of the academic year, and would most likely (although not necessarily) reduce research time for academics. It might therefore accelerate not only degrees, but also the differentiation between research-heavy and research-light universities.


But this ship has sailed. We have had the Higher Education and Research Act, which trashed the traditional idea of the university, while across the country many universities are not only struggling to attract students but are also earning precious little research income. The leaders of such universities are understandably desperate for new ideas. In this context, two-year degrees start to look less like a cause of trouble than a symptom of more profound changes.


I also wonder whether there is just a whiff of snobbery in this backlash. The three-year degree, with its built-in time for reflection and suite of development opportunities, is a gold-standard model for 18-year-olds. But what about the mature students who have been draining from the student-pool? A 30-year-old, with plenty of work experience but in need of a career boost, might have little interest in the trappings of the university experience. Such a person might quite reasonably want a degree from a local university, and want it fast.


Ratcliffe notes the way the two-year announcement was scheduled for release on a Sunday. In recent months this has become HE-bashing day, and academics across the country wait by their twitter feeds, steeled for the latest assault. That’s me as well, of course; however, I wonder whether occasionally our headlong rush into polarisation might only exacerbate the damage.

The skills debate needs more oohs and AHSS*

There was something a little underwhelming about the launch this week of a British Academy report on skills in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS). To coincide with a royal engagement feels like misfortune; but to be overshadowed by the government’s underwhelming industrial strategy white paper looks more like miscalculation.

Making an AHSS of ourselves

The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is the product of a project designed to map the skills that students develop across these subject-areas. It lists them under three headings: ‘communication and collaboration’, ‘research and analysis’, and ‘attitudes and behaviours’. For those of us working in these areas and keen to promote them, this is all hugely valuable.

Yet it’s hard not to set this report against the (albeit muted) fanfare attendant upon the industrial strategy. If the white paper represents the continued ascendancy of STEM – that canny little acronym that has taken such hold on the imaginations of politicians – The Right Skills feels rather more awkward. I mean, the acronym, AHSS, is just wrong any which way you look at it. Is it, do you think, to be pronounced ‘ass’, ‘arse’ or ‘aahs’? Then there’s the challenge of representing in one report the sheer breadth of disciplines, from economics through to dance.

As a result, The Right Skills feels to me like only one piece of a bigger, necessary project. As it stands it has the air of a sensible and well-mannered English person speaking politely in the corner of a crowded room. I’d suggest there’s more to be said: about the place of these disciplines in the world, and how they are taught.

The AHSS end of the world

By global standards, the AHSS disciplines in the UK are doing pretty well. I appreciate that’s not always how it feels to early-career academics, nor indeed right now to my friends at Southampton, but we remain well placed. This is partly because of a quirk in the fees system, which makes it advantageous for universities to increase their AHSS courses. But more profoundly I would argue that there is a remarkably solid appreciation – among the public, and also among employers – of what we pain-in-the-AHSS’s do as researchers and teachers.

But we can’t for a minute take this for granted. Beyond the UK, the arts and humanities have been in a state of contraction for some time. Try looking at the data kept in the USA on undergraduate choices of majors; try checking out the size of the average English department at otherwise huge Australian universities. And within the UK, applications are trending downwards in some key disciplines. Brexit also presents reasons to be nervous, especially since the UK’s world-leading services sector, which has traditionally employed so many AHSS-hole graduates, is in line to take a very big hit. And to date the only services strategy seems to involve a lot of waving goodbye.

In this context, The Right Skills helps, but leaves me wanting more. I want a ‘AHSS skills’ poster for my office door. I want a collection of quotes from employers to use at open days. I want to hear politicians endorsing our disciplines with the same fervour they tend to reserve for STEM. And I really, really want a better acronym than AHSS, if that wasn’t quite clear enough…

The AHSS end of the curriculum

When I first started teaching in the UK, a fellow immigrant took me aside and explained that the English single-honours degree model is wonderful because it takes students straight out of school and prepares them to enter research degrees. Even seventeen years ago that sounded a little myopic. Today, with all the emphasis on skills and graduate destinations, it is almost unsayable; yet many of our basic programme structures remain the same.

David Willetts is worried about the level of specialisation in the UK education system: he calls in his new book for both A-Level reform and the introduction of four-year degrees. But the trends are pulling in the other direction. In recent years I’ve been following data produced by surveying A level colleges, which demonstrates how funding constraints are forcing them to cut their range of subjects, and also to limit students to three subjects. Many of those students will, quite reasonably, stick within their comfort zones when choosing degrees, thus compounding the specialisation effect.

The Right Skills is onto this in principle. Its final chapter, ‘Are AHSS graduates fit for the future?’, recommends that universities encourage the development of ‘a mindset of innovation and enterprise’, stresses the value of ‘language, digital and data skills’, and promotes interdisciplinary learning. Precisely; but it would be helpful to have some case-studies of good practice, and maybe a rather more direct challenge to universities. By way of comparison, a useful American report more specifically identifies eight skill-sets that make liberal arts students more employable, and at higher salaries: IT networking and support, sales, computer programming, data analysis and management, marketing, graphic design, general business, and social media. In the UK Nesta and Pearson have also produced useful data-driven research about 2030 employment.

One reason why a greater sense of challenge might be needed is the in-built conservatism in our structures. Teaching single honours programmes is easy and cost-effective, they make sense in terms of workload planning and departmental budgeting. Several years ago I led the development of a Liberal Arts programme at Exeter, which had requirements of language-study, quantitative methods, and group-research. The programme is flourishing, but some of those requirements have been whittled away: partly for administrative reasons, and partly because applicants – trained as they are into conservative choices – were telling us they weren’t comfortable with them.


There are lots of reasons to celebrate AHSS skills. Those of us who teach in these areas know this, since we see our students progressing into excellent jobs. But there is also cause for anxiety, and reasons to promote some challenging reforms. As a next step, it would be good to see the British Academy tackling these issues – at which point I will stop being such a pain in the AHSS.

* Originally published at wonkhe.com

How much cross-subsidy? Research funding and the British university*

A recent HEPI report exposes the confidence trick that sustains British higher education. Research excellence leads to high international status; this in turn leads to high numbers of international students; and these students underwrite the research. Simple, but maybe not sustainable, especially in the current climate. Indeed an examination of this creaky merry-go-round exposes the risks that face UK universities.

How much is too much?

The report, How much is too much? Cross-subsidies from teaching to research in British universities, by University of Oxford MPhil student Vicky Olive, grabbed headlines for its calculation that international students contribute, on average, £8,000 per year to research funding. The author used Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) data (imperfect, yes, but the best information we have) to track income and expenditure, working largely at institutional level. Unsurprisingly, she found that teaching subsidises research. However, it’s almost entirely the surplus value from international students, rather than the income from home students, that is responsible for this effect.

The report’s fundamental point is about the chronic underfunding of research. Research councils never quite pay full economic costs, and increasingly demand match-funding. Charitable trusts and foundations never even pretend to cover full costs; and, again, they can make some stretching demands before releasing funds. Meanwhile, start-up equipment costs, especially in STEM fields, can be prohibitively expensive for many. In the most recent year that it analysed (2014-15), the report calculates a ‘research deficit’ across the UK of £3.3 billion, or 37 per cent of research income. It recommends that the government fills this gap.

There is increasingly intense competition for research resources. Successive rounds of the RAE and REF are driving universities to concentrate efforts on greater research productivity. Competition for grants has intensified as success-rates have waned. The growing trend for grants to be targeted in accordance with government policy (e.g. the Global Challenges Research Fund or the Industrial Strategy Research Fund), is prompting universities to reassess their entire operations. Universities are desperate to stay in the business of high-end research, and are stretching themselves to do so.

One of the ironies of this system is that, because research so consistently incurs losses, the financial strains are greatest on the most successful institutions. The concentration of resources at a select number of universities remains a controversial subject, but in fact it’s old news. The twenty-four Russell Group universities already win 76% of all available research grant and contract income, and 68% of all Quality-Related funding (determined by the REF). Many of the most costly areas of research are already the de facto preserve of a relatively small group of institutions. And these universities, as a result, become the ones that most desperately need to recruit – and charge, at a premium – international students.

Subsidising the cross

‘Cross-subsidy’, however, is an interesting idea. Some parts of university operations have always subsidised other parts. Moreover, in any business the tactical movement of resources from one unit to another is considered normal practice. But, as ‘How much is too much?’ demonstrates, the present circumstances of British higher education are placing practices of cross-subsidy under unprecedented scrutiny.

Critically, age-old tensions between research and teaching are now institutionalised in dual governing agencies: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the Office for Students (OfS). And the latter – with a wisdom that remains unproven – has already swathed itself in the discourse of ‘value for money’, which impels in turn a radical unpicking of university finances. People need to know, we’re told, where every penny of those home fees of £9,250 per year actually goes. Now, as this report reminds us, it is surely only a matter of time before students from our main international markets ask their own questions about ‘value for money’, and look towards ambitious and cheaper universities at home. I don’t expect that countries such as China and India intend to underwrite UK research in the long term.

So there is a lesson here about the underlying tensions of cross-subsidy: the ‘how much is too much’ question. Elsewhere on Wonkhe, David Morris argues that the report exposes a ‘dirty secret’ of universities under-valuing teaching. However, I don’t think this was ever really a ‘secret’, nor is it ‘dirty’ to want one’s university to compete in the expensive, noble business of research. There is real value, for everyone, in universities producing world-leading research, as British universities are doing. But there is also value in appreciating the divergent interests of different stakeholders. Trust matters.

I also wonder whether there is a lesson about what Billy Bragg once called “the temptation / To take the precious things we have apart / To see how they work”. Britain did a lot to establish the prevailing international model of the university, as an institution in which research and education co-exist, not always easily yet almost always creatively. Across the world this model is flourishing, and attracting heavy state investment. The international league tables which have assumed such prominence in recent years are derided by many, yet their attention to ‘reputation’ underlines an essentially conservative conception of what a university actually is. That’s one reason why, for the time being, British universities do so well in these tables.


So what happens when we take liberties with this model, under-funding research and exploiting the desperation of universities to stay in the game? And what happens when we pick it apart, tracing every incoming pound and every TRAC-hour in the interests of ‘value for money’? Maybe that confidence trick I mentioned above, which is fundamentally a story of success, starts to look a bit rickety. Maybe British universities as a result lose some of their reputation for quality in both research and teaching. And maybe we will find that the idea of the university might be easier to pull apart than to put back together.

* Published first by wonkhe.com

This is not normal: universities in the news

It is not normal for universities to occupy the front pages of national newspapers. Granted, at any time there is a vital, occasionally tense, dialogue between universities and the nations in which they are situated. The line between ideals of academic freedom on the one hand, and the realities of finances and state oversight on the other hand, is notoriously fuzzy. The extent to which universities reflect or represent their nations is always a potential point of controversy.

But these are not normal times. Over the past few months, debate has swirled frenetically around questions including university funding, whether we have too many universities, what our top managers are paid, free speech on campus, how we select our students, and what we teach. We appear now to be at the point where even what academics think might be a point for national outrage.

It seems to me that much of this isn’t even about higher education; it’s rather using universities as a site for thinking through bigger anxieties about the nation. It’s tough thinking about cultural diversity post-Brexit (hell, that’s the sort of thing academics are paid to do); it’s easier to focus on admissions at Oxford. The risk is that we lose track of the bigger issues, while dragging universities through the mud. I don’t see this as sinister, but nor do I see how it helps.

This dysfunction and muddled thinking starts at the head. We have a Prime Minister who announces a major change to university funding at her party conference, without so much as an email of notification to the relevant ministers. We have a cabinet in which the respective members are happy to make it known that they hold wildly differing ideas about universities and the funding of higher education. As a result, despite the agitation of restructuring and monitoring – the REF, the TEF, even the KEF (which many academics assumed at first was a joke) – the government has lost control of the narrative.

This environment has created a playground for the likes of Andrew Adonis. Whatever his higher motives might be, Adonis stumbled and brawled his way through a summer, a perfect role-model for a world in which every fool can have a view on universities. Conflicting evidence? Criticism? Hell, that’s what the ‘block’ button on twitter is for, isn’t it? Perhaps he never intended others to follow him with their own variant crusades; perhaps he thought that, being a lord of the realm and all, he might be licensed to speak on behalf of the nation. If so, he misread the times.

Next come the members of parliament. They want to know what we teach. Evidently they want to write books, but can’t be arsed to take our courses and learn stuff the hard way. Bless. And they want to use Oxford and Cambridge to fix the social inequality that their parliament is failing to address at its roots. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of academics want to be involved in widening access to higher education, and that Oxford and Cambridge work assiduously with the Office for Fair Access. But why would MPs bother engaging with academics or talking with OFFA – even trying to reform it, if they think it’s useless – when they can fire off columns for The Guardian? Let’s face it, the latter will generate more ‘likes’.

And then come the columnists, trailled by any old under-the-line dunce with a thought or two to rub together. Not many of these people could be bothered to understand, say, how the student finance system actually works. It’s kind of complicated, after all. Few will tackle the complex, often counter-intuitive data on university admissions and social inclusion. Only rarely does one acknowledge the role of higher education in generating national income. Most prefer to understand universities through hazy memories and anecdotes picked up from the younger generation. This week’s headlines, in which the Cambridge English syllabus has become a battleground in the war between The Guardian and The Daily Mail, with staff and students shamelessly drawn into the crossfire, has helped nobody and changed nothing. Just a hunch here, but I think my Eng-lit colleagues at Cambridge might have had that one covered all along.

It’s a curious thing that throughout this maelstrom of attention to higher education, nobody pauses to consider just how good they want UK universities to be. I don’t mean ‘excellent’, in the degraded language of TEF, REF and KEF, which confuses bureaucracy with vision; I mean just how, holistically and in a world context, good. That seems to be either taken for granted – in a complacent, nationalistic, Brexiteer, ‘we’ll always have Oxbridge’ kind of of way – or just not seen as particularly important.

There’s a character in a Narayan novel (The Painter of Signs, I think) who sits under a tree all day everyday, holding a sign that reads: THIS WILL PASS. For those of us desperate for a week in which universities are off the front pages, this is probably true; we’re just not that important. Yet the current malaise makes universities edgy and reactive, often from the top down, and that can’t be helpful in a fiercely competitive, international context. The UK university system remains world-class, but it’s worth remembering that this condition is neither natural nor unchangeable. The next time one of a nation of commentators sets out to attack us, it would be nice to think that this might be considered. 

Feeling sorry for Oxford: another week in the widening participation debate

Just another week of fury in the coverage of higher education in the British media. On Wednesday The Telegraph was celebrating the fact that half of the students starting this year are the first in their family to go to university, and it seemed like all was well in the world. But in Britain, every patch of sunshine has a Storm Brian on the horizon. So along came The Guardian on Friday, barracked along by the BBC, to hammer Oxford on its record on social inclusion.

It’s not often I feel sorry for colleagues at Oxbridge, but this is one of them. The data are actually contestable (see an excellent twitter thread by @Dr_JSA yesterday), and say much about entrenched problems with social inclusion across the entire education system. It’s a bit tough to blame Oxford for inequality in the UK, but there we are. The Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach from Oxford was pulled onto the Today programme to be harangued by David Lammy, and social media was whipped into a frenzy. (That, by the way, is a definition of acting above one’s pay-grade. Oxford should have put forward a Pro-Vice-Chancellor for that spot.)

Give it a few days and Storm Lammy will blow over, the Daily Mail will publish a piece on the evils of contextual offers – as, let’s remember, they do – and we will stumble into another round of undergraduate admissions no wiser than we were at the outset. What an absurd – yet, in this country at this moment, absolutely typical – way of handling a hugely important social and educational issue.

So, yes, I feel a little bit sorry for Oxford. But I also think they – and other universities that could so easily be the focus of attention next week – could learn something from this.


Transparency and the contextual offer

Universities waffle when it comes to contextual offers (i.e. lower offers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds). Maybe that’s for good reason, since we sail between Scylla and Charybdis, The Guardian and The Daily Mail. Maybe it’s because central governments have been too spineless to give us some cover from the latter by speaking out in support of such offers. But we waffle. I’ve waffled myself at open days.

Yet there is solid evidence that underpins contextual offers: have a look, in particular, at anything from the Bristol Widening Participation Research Cluster. There are limits, of course; a student entering Oxford with A-Levels at CCC is probably more likely to drop out than to succeed. But the research supports making offers roughly two grades lower than standard for a course to students from under-performing schools and colleges. They will catch up.

But I’m amazed how opaque we all tend to be about contextual offers and the basis upon which they are made. My sense is that quite a lot of universities make them, but I’m much less convinced that potential applicants know about them. Surely transparency matters.

Which brings me to the Oxbridge interview. In practice, in the hands of skilled and sympathetic interviewers, I’m sure these can be a mechanism for making very generous contextual offers. I’ve certainly heard stories along these lines, while I know A*A*A* applicants from private schools who have been rejected. But it seems to me that this happens at the expense of consistency and transparency, and as a result all the good work is scattered in the wind. I wonder whether someone at Oxford has studied what would happen if they scrapped their interviews.


Cultural diversity and the dreaming spires

The other big issue with interviews is: how many potential applicants do they deter? I’ve had proponents of the Oxbridge interview tell me over and over that they are socially progressive: a way of weeding out the well-coached but intellectually vacuous privately-educated applicant. But is the working-class Islamic girl in Newcastle hearing this message? Or is she listing other universities on her UCAS form?

I heard a black Cambridge student on ‘The World at One’ yesterday talking about her interview experience. It was fair, she said, but she was glad to have been through an access programme that included interview training sessions. Well, precisely. Access programmes are fantastic and we should do more to publicize them, but they’re also costly and by nature patchy in their coverage of the population. If students like that one need the benefit of an access programme to demystify the Oxbridge interview, I’d suggest they have a problem.

These problems are compounded by the existing lack of cultural diversity. If I was that Islamic girl in Newcastle, I could quite imagine thinking that Oxford isn’t for me. Let’s face it, the public face of Oxbridge is white and comfortable; and much of the rest of the Russell Group – step forward my own university – is pretty similar. Who really wants to be the first black student in six years to enter the gates of Merton College, Oxford? What do universities like mine have, that will attract socially disadvantaged and ethnic minority applicants to us?

This is a huge challenge, but not one that I’ve yet seen any place tackle in an exemplary manner. Who is the outstanding Russell Group PVC with responsibility for cultural diversity? Any answers? Which university has stood back and really asked itself what it needs to do to make itself more welcoming – more of a home – to its ‘non-standard’ applicants? We’ve all addressed this question in relation to international students, so surely it’s possible to change if we really want to do so.

Let’s face it, the presence of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford doesn’t help, especially when an MP is accusing the University of ‘social apartheid’. I appreciate I’m in the minority, but I’d be doing something about that, because symbolism matters. Other universities can start with more of a blank slate, though still facing some undeniable challenges in terms of location, reputation, and so forth. Cultural change is hard – indeed it makes fiddling around with contextual offers look easy – but crucial if we really want to shift patterns of application.

The logical illogic of cutting undergraduate fees

The proposal to cut undergraduate fees in United Kingdom universities to £7500 is at present no more than an article in The Sunday Times, and even here the details are hazy. But it feels like the obvious – not to say ‘logical’ – conclusion to this summer’s frenetic discourse on higher education. It is the product of a government with neither money nor authority, distracted by bigger things, scrabbling about for scraps of political capital.

To say that this government has lost its sense of direction on higher education would be a desperate understatement. The Office for Students is not yet in operation, but already it is beset by enquiries that go to the heart of its purpose. The Teaching Excellenece Framework assumes a new form every time Jo Johnson opens his mouth. We surely have cause to fear that research policy will be the next thing sucked into this vortex of Tory chaos.

They don’t even know what questions they’re trying to answer. Do they want to address stubborn problems of social representation in higher education? Do they want to manipulate the graduate skills base? Do they want to redress the balance of financial commitment, between the state and the student? Or do they want to chase younger voters?

The madness is accentuated by the way that the Conservatives just last week ignored Labour’s effort to cap fees at £9000, blocking the £250 rise that universities and students have been expecting for many months. So they ignore that initiative – thumbing their noses at parliament – yet now (apparently) propose something much more damaging. There’s all sorts of sense in that.

It appears the cut in fees will be justified by the assertion that universities have large cash reserves. To be fair, there are a handful, for various historical reasons, that do. But universities have been running surpluses – in most cases – because they are required to to do, and there are many more debt-valleys than cash-mountains across the sector. Plenty of universities have borrowed considerably in order to make themselves more competitive: or, in other words, more attractive to students.

These loans (at historically low interest rates) have made sense, but only to the extent that fee-income can be assumed. How many of those lenders ever considered the possibility that a government might be sufficiently unhinged to undermine the income sustaining British universities? How many people – anywhere – ever considered that a British government would actively undermine one of the country’s greatest assets, its world-class higher education sector?

This damage will flow from a debate that has focused too much on those who pay, and too little on those who receive and spend that income. There’s a level of magical thinking in the idea that students will benefit from weakened universities – forced to cut staff and facilities, bound to slide in terms of international reputation – simply because they leave with a slightly lower level of debt. That’s consistent, perhaps, with the level of debate on Brexit: the obsession with not paying any more to the EU, without taking any interest in what the money actually achieves. We are not blessed at present with effective or rational public discourse – on anything much at all.

But I think the sector also has itself to blame. The existing system of fees has had precious few supporters, while very many people have been prepared to trash it without having the slightest idea of a sustainable, realistic alternative. Too many people – including our academic union – have got sucked into the criticism of vice-chancellors’ salaries, failing to appreciate that the most likely outcome, every step of the way, was a cut to the whole sector. We will see vice-chancellors taking pay cuts, to be sure; and many high-performing academics will simply clear off to countries that treat universities with respect. But in the meantime, how many thousands of lecturers will lose their jobs if this proposal becomes reality?

As we should have recognized, what’s left when a government loses touch with rational policy-making is the muscle-twitch of ideological reflex. So they want to hit the post-92 universities, because they’ve never liked them much. I mean, who’s going to miss a few of them? So they want to hurt the arts humanities, because we’re all soft lefties and it irritates them that so many students want to study our subjects. And they’re happy enough to inflict austerity and confusion on the one sector that had largely evaded both these prevailing national conditions.

The fact that British universities generate income and knowledge seems barely relevant. This is a government that has has abandoned its grip on any form of economic reality. They’re so clueless they thought CEOs of FTSE500 companies would support their delusional Brexit strategy. The fact that our universities are respected across the world is equally irrelevant, since Britain’s position in the world is sliding so fast that  the people running the country have presumably ceased to care. In a context of illogic, cutting fees becomes entirely logical.

Not much love for the TEF*

How do we like the Teaching Excellence Framework so far? According to a survey of participating higher education institutions conducted earlier in 2017 – after documents were submitted but before results were announced – the answer looks like a resounding: ‘not much at all, thanks’. This survey, part of a rapid-response Universities UK review of the TEF, poses some important questions, centring particularly on the relation between future costs and benefits.

The survey results are heavy with the collective shrugging of PVC shoulders. Asked whether ‘The TEF will accurately assess teaching and learning excellence’, 73% of respondents actively disagreed while just 2% agreed. Given that only 83 universities responded, that means the managers of only two universities in the entire country are prepared to argue that the TEF does its job. Or, to be more accurate, that was the case before the feel of a gold medal possibly changed some minds.

But there is also evidence of a curiously widespread acceptance of TEF. Asked whether it will make a ‘positive contribution to student decision-making’, only 18% agreed. Asked whether it will ‘enhance teaching and learning practice’, views were roughly split (25% agree; 29% disagree). But asked whether it will ‘enhance the profile of learning and teaching’, 73% agreed. It may be unreliable, even misleading – seriously, overall these are awful results, far below my expectations – but at least it’s putting education on the agenda.

It’s perhaps also driving spending decisions within universities. Asked about investment subsequent to the announcement of TEF in 2015, the general attitude seems to be: ‘well, you see, we were going to do that anyway’. Indeed 53% said TEF had no influence or impact on such decisions. But the raw facts of investment in learning and teaching in this period are nonetheless impressive: ‘additional investment in academic support’ (over 70%); ‘additional investment in learning and teaching’ (over 80%); ‘new progression routes for teaching’ (over 20%).

There are plenty of critics of UK higher education who are asserting, on the back of frankly bugger all evidence, that universities are not investing along these lines at all. We’re spending it all on vice-chancellors’ salaries, their houses and, like, loads of other fat-cat stuff. Maybe these critics would say: well, the universities would say they’re doing all that worthy stuff, wouldn’t they? But it’s actually dead easy to document this investment, if anyone cares to look; in fact those provider submissions will help. Our critics are fixated on the lack of competition on price, but anyone working in higher education knows that there is intense competition at the level of quality.

Those, including me, who would argue from this point that the TEF is too important to be allowed to fail might also derive comfort from the estimated cost. Taking account of estimates of staff time devoted to the 2017 TEF by universities, the cost came in at about £4.1 million. Now I know what you’re thinking: we could employ at least nine extra fat-cats for that money. We could let them loose to roam wastefully around the country. But it’s worth remembering that the REF comes in at £212 million. If the TEF helps universities, in the face of ill-informed criticism, to demonstrate commitment to learning and teaching, maybe it’s a steal at £4 million.

But I sense a dilemma. The devastating lack of confidence in the process must be addressed, since indifference could so easily lead to cynicism, and from there to notoriety. Hence the attention that will be devoted to responses to the questions concerned with ‘priorities for future development’. There’s not exactly unbridled enthusiasm here, but let’s work with what we’ve got. Among other things, we have some interest in measures of ‘learning gain’, a fairly solid commitment to the value of teaching qualifications, and a vague appeal to the idea of ‘new metrics’ and ‘more sophistica[tion]’.

Sophistication and new metrics, however, sound kind of expensive. Measuring learning gain is a bottomless money-pit. And subject-level TEF, to which the government remains committed in the face of an overwhelming lack of interest within the universities, is predicted to cost up to £13.7.

So what’s the value to the sector of a TEF that will command a greater degree of confidence? One of the intriguing facts offered in this report is that there was a high correlation between Guardian league table results – which cost the sector nothing – and TEF results. I think I might have predicted that would happen; although if I did, I’ll concede that it was always likely to be the case. Consequently, it seems to me self-evident that if TEF in future is to be demonstrably better than existing league tables, and certainly if it is to be used as the basis for differentials in fees, it will inevitably become significantly more expensive. At what point will its value justify its cost?

* Published under a different title by wonkhe.com

Competition in higher education: notes on a misconception*

In its more sensible manifestations (such as Sonia Sodha’s careful Guardian piece this week), the debate about vice-chancellors’ pay boils down to a question of responsibility. Universities are taking money from students – who are to some extent a captive market – and also from the state. Members of the public are therefore not unreasonable in demanding a right to know how it is spent. Since public universities are demonstrably not taking profits to give to shareholders, the evidently high salaries of senior managers can look like a signal instance of waste. But these arguments seem to me to be based on a misconception of the nature of competition in higher education.

Universities are generally not competing on price: a point which riles so many commentators, but is a product of the peculiar market which was not of their choosing. Once the government set a maximum fee of £9000, fees rapidly gravitated to that figure. That wasn’t because of a ‘cartel’ – that line is absurd and damaging – it was because degrees proved to operate as positional goods. Price, in other words, was perceived as a proxy for quality, and nobody wants a second-rate degree. The repayment system, meanwhile, also serves to mask  differences of cost. In this context it becomes irrational for a university not to set fees at the maximum level. As a point of historical fact, not many people saw this coming when the maximum fee was announced: not the government; not the VCs themselves.

As a result universities, taking the sector as a whole, unquestionably experienced an increase in their finances after 2011, of around 25 per cent. A mandated percentage of that increase is spent on widening participation activities – a point critics rarely acknowledge – but still there has been a bump. Some people, including the architects of the scheme, might in fact argue that this was a good thing, correcting a trend of under-investment and underpinning the ongoing international success of British universities. The international league tables published this week demonstrate at once our high reputation and the intense nature of global competition.

But a lack of competition on price is all too often mistaken for a lack of competition of any kind. We’re told that the advent of £9000 fees gave universities a licence to print money – which, in due course, they might just as well blow on VCs’ salaries. But this is not a world that any academic in the UK will recognize. For the other reform of the coalition government was a lifting of student number controls, that had previously allocated set numbers of students to individual universities. As a result, some universities have expanded; others (although this gets little attention) have contracted. The bump in finances has thus been unevenly – competitively – distributed. The competition to attract students is fierce, and the consequences of failure can be painful.

This system has underpinned recruitment of academics at many of the more successful universities, including my own. We have reduced staff-student ratios and increased contact-hours. It has also driven the capital investment programs at universities across the land. Some of these can easily be portrayed as excessive – ‘iconic’ buildings, sports centres, and so forth – but they are also improving the conditions in which students live and work. And, critically, in a competitive market they may also be necessary in order to attract the students. Is this situation out of control? Not in my view, although I appreciate why some may argue that many students are effectively paying for things they don’t need. Maybe the system is worthy of review – no system is perfect – but the spending decisions we have seen are surely no more than rational responses to the conditions of competition.

There’s also an international dimension to the competition. It’s easy enough for commentators to say that universities can ‘just take more international students’, but the competition for these students is intense. We’re competing not just against other UK universities, but also against universities in other countries. And other governments, it has to be said, are doing rather more than our own to support their universities in this competition. This also brings us back to the international league tables. These are a relatively recent innovation, and are still treated with a degree of scepticism among the academic community. Among prospective international students, however, they can be hugely influential. In this context, no university can afford to ignore them, nor to undervalue the factors that feed most powerfully into them.

And this, in turn, is one reason why there is such a competitive market for the world’s best-performing researchers. Research performance – grant-income, publications, citations, peer-recognition, and so forth – feeds directly into both international and domestic league tables (with, domestically, the exception of The Guardian tables). Some critics of universities assume that the education-function can easily be separated from the research-function, which they portray as a site of wasteful expenditure. But institutional reputations, so heavily based on research, not only help to attract students, but also help graduates when they leave universities. I think we should be discussing very carefully the relation between research and education – and doing so with our students – but we can’t simply ignore these complex interconnections.

And maybe this brings us back to VCs’ salaries. These are people leading complex organizations in a highly competitive international context. Plenty of factors, of course, contribute to the success or failure of a university. But the nature of competition has changed radically, both within the UK and internationally, and this has affected management practices and structures. Maybe some of this can be wound back with some tweaking of the national funding and governance system, but much of it cannot. In this context I can understand why governing bodies and remuneration committees – although, doubtless, they make some mistakes – want to get the best people in place, and keep them there.

* Published under a different title by Times Higher Education

Andrew Adonis’s dead cat*

Andrew Adonis’s fixation on the salaries of vice-chancellors looks like one of Lynton Crosby’s dead cats. In practical terms, cutting the pay of VCs by 20 per cent would make a negligible impact on the sector. But it’s a nice, outrage-inducing, stinking carcass that distracts attention from more profound debates about higher education in the UK.    Amidst all the alarmist rhetoric about excessive spending and student debt, it’s worth remembering where we are. The increase in the maximum fee for home undergraduates in 2012 to £9000 was accompanied by a slashing of the level of state teaching grant: for most courses, to zero. Despite the expectations of the time, almost all universities set fees at the maximum level because degrees operate as positional goods. Price is perceived in this market as a proxy of quality, so it becomes irrational to go low.

    These changes led to an increase in the average funding per student of about 25

IFS, ‘Higher Education in England’ (2017)
per cent. Since there was no inbuilt mechanism to adjust fees in line with inflation, however, the system begged questions of long-term sustainability from the outset. Hence the 2.8 % rise – the first since 2012 – this year. Overall levels of student debt have been affected further by government tinkering with interest rates, repayment rules and the abolition of maintenance grants.

    Many people can’t now see a problem. There is no credible evidence that the system is deterring students from lower socioeconomic groups. And while the headline levels of individual debt look bad, this is a ‘fee’ that operates more like a tax, balancing eventual cost with a individual’s financial benefit. Though some commentators may now resent it, the 2011 reforms lifted a world-class higher education sector out of the reach of austerity. 

    Moreover, vice-chancellors would point to the high levels of competition, for student numbers and research funds. They would also stress evidence of enviably high quality, in terms of research and education. British universities rank well in all international tables – although they are under intense pressures from other countries now investing aggressively.

    The simplest solution – if we accept there is a problem – is to cut fees to zero but maintain current levels of funding. This appears to be what Labour had in mind at the last election. But you could write that on a bus and it would still look like wishful thinking. No government could afford it, least of all at the present time. Nor, if we listen carefully, is this what many of today’s most vocal critics want.

    Adonis suggests cutting the maximum fee, so that the state pays no more and the sector is returned roughly to 2011 levels of funding. This sounds simple, but the impact on quality would be devastating. With few other flexible lines of spending, and often high levels of debt, universities would be forced to cut staff numbers, increase class sizes, decrease contact-hours, and downgrade their research mission.

   Fine, says Adonis: universities are spending too much time on pointless research anyhow, and can balance their books by taking more international students. But this strategy is so laden with risk that it borders on delusion. International students make rational decisions in a fiercely competitive market. Any policy that undermines overall funding levels, or risks our position in international league-tables – heavily dependent, as they are, on research performance – puts our position in this market at risk.

    Arguably the only alternative would be sweeping structural changes, with much more state intervention. That might mean strict tiers of institutions, priced accordingly. It might also mean a concentration of research resources in a handful of universities. There are models for such an approach internationally. It’s an elitist structure, but there’s an awful lot of elitism under Adonis’s faux populism.

    Structural change like this may look deceptively easy from a distance. Funding can be cut, student numbers slashed, preference given to STEM subjects (since, we’re assured, that’s what the country needs). But damage would be done. The strength of the UK system is founded on its diversity: a fact documented in both the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework. Universities that are low in league tables provide important specialist degrees and contribute enormously to regional economies. Which ones do we want to close?

    Populist campaigns like this one can take unpredictable turns, especially when a government is weak and distracted. It might just disappear after the stench of dead cat has lifted. If not, it can only be hoped that everyone involved recognises the world-class quality and diversity of UK higher education. If we’ve learned anything from Brexit, it’s that before we smash something that works, it’s a good idea to have thought about alternatives.

*slightly longer version published earlier on wonkhe. Written and published entirely on my phone, so apologies for clumsy formatting.