Fixing Stern

Now that we’ve had a few weeks to get used to the Stern recommendations for the next Research Excellence Framework, some of its underlying principles look immovable. I considered these in my last piece on Stern; it looks like we’re heading for an ‘everyone-in’ REF, and portability looks dead. I expect that too many powerful interests will be supporting those, and other, recommendations.

But I also think there are flaws that need fixing – and they can be fixed.

 

The Early-Career Researcher dilemma

I work at a university that makes temporary appointments every year. We make permanent appointments whenever we have recurrent income to support them, but temporary contracts remain a basic fact of life. Many ECRs will experience several years of temporary contracts – perhaps interspersed with unemployment – before achieving permanency. Stern’s recommendations, as Kirsty Rolfe has eloquently outlined, are hugely destabilizing to people currently in this position.

Indeed following Stern’s recommendation to the letter, a publication by an ECR will be returnable by the university s/he was at when it was contracted. As a result, I could be on the phone in 2019, tracking down all the bright young things we have employed over the years, asking them very politely for copies of their book contracts.

Will that be embarrassing? No, it will be way beyond that. How could we argue that our level of ‘investment’ in these careers warrants such a dividend? And of course this embarrassment multiplies in the case of teaching-only appointments. Stern’s report barely grasps the fact that these exist as a starting-level job for many ECRs.

And let’s not forget that some of these people may not have landed the permanent jobs they deserve in the interim – in part because they will have blown their best post-PhD shots on a temporary employer like mine. Yeh, those people will be happy to hear from me.

But surely there’s a simple answer; indeed it seems so obvious I can’t really believe it needs saying. Any publication contracted while the author is on a temporary contract should remain portable, while temporary people in post at the census date may be submitted as in the past. There are universities that might lose a little from that – notably those that fund a lot of junior research fellowships – but I can’t see how anyone could dispute the ethics of it.

 

‘The dog ate my book contract’: or a note on portability

The recommendation against portability of outputs changes the dynamics of the job-market; I’ve commented on this before. But even if we accept this principle, one practicality that still looks in need of a fix is the recommendation that a publication ‘belongs’ to the university at which the researcher was based when the contract was signed. The principle here is that the REF should recognize the investment made by universities; however, in practice we could get some silly and counter-productive results.

Let’s just say (and this is a common enough scenario in the humanities) that I get offered a publishing contract in the next few weeks for a monograph that may not be finished until 2020. And let’s also say I’m also looking for a new job. Who’s going to pay me to finish a project for my old employer?

As a result, I expect we might find rather a lot of contracts being eaten by dogs. ‘Please, Oxford University Press, can you send me a new one, maybe dated 2017?’ Or: ‘how about we change the terms a bit – even cut my royalties – and call it a freshly negotiated contract?’

There’s a solution. We could retain the principle of Stern, but use publication dates rather than dates of contracts. That’s still a profound change from the present system, but seems to me slightly more flexible and infinitely more feasible. I also rather suspect it will happen. Stern’s recommendation has the whiff of an ambit-claim: like, give the critics some ground on the method, while the principle glides through unscathed.

 

A comment on rent-seeking

rent-seeking   n. Econ. the fact or process of seeking to gain larger profits by manipulating public policy or economic conditions, esp. by means of securing beneficial subsidies or tariffs, making a product artificially scarce (OED)

There’s a streak of moralism running through the Stern report, directed against high-achieving academics who choose to move between institutions or seek pay-increases on the eve of a REF. This, Stern says, is ‘rent-seeking behaviour’.

All I can say is that some of these things are not as simple as they might look. I came from Australia to Leeds in 1999 (on the eve of RAE 2000) for a three-year job, then moved almost immediately for a better job at Exeter. Was that ‘rent-seeking behaviour’? What it felt like was being an ECR looking for a position that gave me job-security and a salary commensurate with my research record. I expect that a lot of cases of ‘rent-seeking’, ‘poaching, and what have you – all terms coined by disgruntled employers – might similarly be positioned as quite reasonable acts of career-advancement.

So Stern ditches meritocracy for austerity-speak labour-market constriction. Actually, I think Stern will win on this one, and we will have as a result a less open and flexible university system, which also in due course becomes less competitive internationally. (See Timothy Devinney’s excellent piece on this.) So on this point I don’t see an easy fix; however, I’d certainly suggest it would be worth thinking about ways of moderating the message. Across the country, and across the world, researchers are listening to this stuff.

Research, researchers and the job market: thoughts on Stern

Plenty of positive things have already been said about Nicholas Stern’s review of the REF. In a summer of uncertainty, Stern has provided continuity, notably in his commitment Sterntp3to peer review and the fundamental value of publications. If the report’s recommendations are accepted, the REF will remain an exercise broadly underpinned by academic perceptions of research quality.

But there are also recommendations that will alter relationships between research, individuals and departments. They could also have a significant impact on the job market, particularly in humanities subjects. The impact won’t necessarily be bad; indeed Stern clearly intends to fix some perceived problems. Yet it’s worth thinking through precisely how they would affect us.

 

We’re all in it together

Recommendation 1: All research active staff should be returned in the REF

The principle of universal inclusion is powerful; I like it. But Stern’s intention, here and elsewhere, is to privilege the department as a unit of research activity over the individual as a sole producer. Hence his further proposal that, while all research-active staff are submitted, some people may submit many items (maybe up to six) and others no items at all. The average (probably two items per researcher) is what will matter.

How would these proposals affect us? At some places there will be increased pressure to push people onto non-research contracts. That’s not necessarily the case, since we will still have one eye on the multiplier effect for QR funding calculations; however, for departments just seeking some respectability in league tables while focusing largely on teaching, it will probably happen.

Meanwhile, decisions about workloads and distribution of resources (including research leave) will be interesting. Ditto advice – and contractual requirements, for some of us – concerning the quality and quantity of outputs. For years I’ve argued that the only thing that really matters, when hiring or promoting, is a researcher’s capacity to produce four-star work. Maybe now I win that argument.

I also think there’s reason to think very carefully about the report’s proposal to abolish ‘special circumstances’. Stern suggests that these will come out in the wash once we shift the focus from individuals to departments; departments will adjust expectations across a group and muddle through. This is to think very clearly from the perspective of an administrative system, but not at all from the perspective of an individual researcher. For many people – and more women than men – the system of special circumstances has been perceived as clear and supportive. Sweeping special circumstances under the carpet cannot be equivalent to a credible equality and diversity policy.

 

You can’t take those outputs with you

Recommendation 3: Outputs should not be portable

A year ago, I lamented that we can’t take impact case-studies with us when we move jobs; now Stern is proposing that we won’t take publications either. In fact he’s taken a step further: the report proposes an output should belong, for REF purposes, to the university where the researcher was employed when s/he signed a contract for its publication.

The principle here is crucial. Thinking (as Stern consistently does) from the perspective of the institution, research outputs represent returns on investments. It is therefore unjust if these outputs occasionally get carried off to another university in the months before a REF deadline. Moreover, as we all know, such moves can distort both the job market and internal pay differentials.

Well, maybe, but this is to set aside the powerful connection that researchers feel with their publications. It is also to remove one of the key sources of power that academics currently have in negotiations over pay. Whether we like it or not, this recommendation would substantially alter that balance of power, and rewrite equations of ‘market-worth’. I’ll also be curious to see, if this proposal is accepted, whether this shift has an effect on motivation, and hence academics’ famed willingness to work unpaid overtime.

The details are equally important. The focus on the date a contract is signed looks to me like Stern’s committee didn’t talk much to researchers in the humanities. I think I’m right in saying that the period between the signing of a contract and the date of publication is much shorter in the sciences than the humanities. Even humanities journal articles can sit in queues for two or three years. And the report seems entirely unaware that some of the most REF-valuable humanities publications – monographs or (in my discipline) critical editions – may be contracted years before they are completed, let alone published.

So consider the effect on the job market. That old interview chestnut, ‘Is your monograph contracted?’, takes on radically new meaning. Somebody who is committed to a pipeline of publications, in a way that last week looked sensibly professional, may now look much less attractive. Can it really be right that I could spend my first three years at a new university being paid to finish work for my old employer? And do we really think this will end ‘game-playing’? Surely we’ll just end up with different kinds of games.

And then there are the blindingly obvious problems presented by early-career researchers. Who owns that first monograph, that might currently win someone a first permanent job? The current REF rules actually work fine for productive ECRs: it makes sense for universities to employ them. This aspect of the report looks very odd, and really should be fixable.

 

And big is better

These proposals are better news for bigger departments. For a big department that has always aimed for 100% submission anyway, these changes will be easy enough to manage. My immediate response to reading the report was to take an evening off. But if you’re in a smaller department, perhaps with a low submission rate in 2014, perhaps with a number of people who might reasonably claim ‘special circumstances’, the next REF will today look significantly more challenging.

International students: an apology

According to a report in The Daily Telegraph, the government is planning a ‘new immigration crackdown on student visas’. This is Telegraph imagebased on the premise – loopy as it is – that students are migrants. And the Tories remain as committed as ever to reducing migration – even while they merrily jettison many the other planks of their platform.

This, it’s worth stressing, is unrelated to Brexit. Indeed many people had hoped that, since Brexit is likely to cause pain in terms of EU students and the precarious state of the Erasmus student-exchange scheme, the government might see the light and finally decouple international students from immigration statistics. That would not only be logical – they’re coming to study, not to stay – it would help just about everybody.

Instead we’re told that ‘The Prime Minister has backed calls to restrict student visas so that only the brightest and best can come to study at reputable universities in Britain’. At a time when tens of thousands of international students are graduating, many of whom have worked desperately hard in an alien system just to pass, that’s a lovely little piece of elitism. Their younger siblings have options.

 

An apology: I was an international student

I was an international student in this country, spending just over three years in Cambridge, 1988-92. I came here because of the reputation of British universities, the quality of the research resources, and the critical mass of like-minded researchers. The experience wasn’t perfect, by any means, but on the whole it set me up for life.

According to The Telegraph, Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, ‘believes assessments of the economic impact of foreign students should not overlook the added strain they place on housing and public services.’ Well, Mr Timothy, all I can do is apologize. I went to the doctor three or four times, I cycled on the roads of Cambridge, I drank its limey water. I even – and I’m desperately sorry, but what could I do? – yes, I even shat in its toilets. But I went home again, honest; for my immigration seven years later, I can only apologize again.

But Cambridge was paid for the education and resources it provided, and I paid for the BSE-laden beef and ropey East Anglian beer I consumed. Even in my day, international students were clearly contributing a huge amount to the economy of Cambridge. And I contributed, to the best of my antipodean abilities, to the cultural and intellectual life of the university. The people with whom I lived and studied form, today, an impressive global network in terms of success and influence.

 

This is serious: the benefits of internationalised campuses

Today, the benefits of international students in the UK are huge. The UK stands as an academic superpower, with sixteen of our universities ranked in the global top 100. That’s not simply a product of international students, by any means, but it says a lot about the global outlook and ambition of British universities. And there’s nothing natural or preordained about that list, just as there’s nothing natural today about the UK’s status as the world’s fifth biggest economy. These things take an awful lot of work.international figs

In economic terms, the value of international students was measured by a  Universities UK Report published last month. The benefits, in terms of revenues to universities and expenditure off-campus, are clear. In my own town, our taxi-drivers benefit, my hairdresser benefits; the whole economy of Exeter has been boosted by the growth of international students in recent years. Yes, international students use ‘housing and public services’, but it is absurd to present them as a drain on the country’s resources. Precisely the contrary is true.

And it’s not just about the economy, stupid. Universities have grown intellectually as a result of the contributions of international students. They bring expertise and endeavour to research labs, and fresh perspectives to seminar rooms. They stretch and challenge home students. In cultural terms, their influence is also positive, helping to make our campuses more outward-looking, globally-engaged environments.

After they graduate, the vast majority of international students return to their homelands, and flourish. They may not all be – with apologies to Mrs May – ‘the best and the brightest’, but they will benefit from their education, maintain the networks they established as students, and remember their formative experiences in the UK. And many will, in due course, move into positions of authority: in business, government, the arts, academia, and so forth.

This is ‘soft power’ at work. The UK is undeniably good at soft power; indeed it topped a recent global soft-power league-table, measuring indices across areas of government, culture, education, global engagement, enterprise, and ‘digital’. There’s nothing natural about this list, either, and our reputation will doubtless take a hit post-Brexit, regardless of how well those negotiations are managed. So it seems to me extraordinary that, at the end of a week in which the UK parliament committed to spending about £40 billion on the hardest of redundant hard-power accessories – the Trident nuclear defence capability – we should choose to shoot ourselves in the feet on soft power.

 

In the post-Brexit weeks, the non-British financial centres have been busy courting companies currently based in London. The mayor of Frankfurt described himself as ‘weeping and laughing’ simultaneously. And so it will be, now, in the field of higher education. University leaders in Australia and the Netherlands, among other ambitious globally-engaged countries, will regret the damage the UK threatens to do to itself. They respect us; many of them were educated here. But nor will they waste time attracting the students our government seems so desperate to make feel unwelcome in the UK.

So, from one head of department, an apology, for these unfortunate signals from above. In our universities and towns, international students: we value you.

Making the evidence disappear: how the referendum was won

Here’s one of the most telling quotes from the post-referendum period: ‘The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work.’ That’s Arron Banks, who did so much to fund the Leave campaign.

And here’s another quote, from before the vote: ‘We just want the facts’. That’s one I heard, over and over, from ordinary voters interviewed on radio and television.

Hence my question: if people wanted facts, and only one side had them, why didn’t that side win?

 

Evidence & argument

‘Evidence’ is a more appropriate word than ‘facts’. Evidence is the very stuff of successful argument. How many Leave arguments, though, began with the words ‘I believe’? Hell, anyone can believe all sorts of bollocks, but without evidence a belief is no argument at all. This is something we fix in first-year undergraduate essays.

Of course it was worse than this. We had, as well, Michael Gove’s claim that ‘Britain has had enough of experts’. I’ve heard it said that Gove surely does believe in expert opinion himself; but that’s beside the point. What he set out to do was legitimize not merely anti-intellectualism, but a form of debate wilfully devoid of evidence. And that has troubling consequences for the nature of democracy.

 

A post-truth media

The media, meanwhile, were caught short by Britain’s first full-scale encounter with ‘post-truth’ politics. We know what to expect from Leave newspapers, but the BBC – upon which we rely so much – had a bad referendum. In their obsession with balance, they repeatedly allowed leavers air-time to peddle their ‘beliefs’, even as the public were crying out for ‘facts’.

One morning, the lead item on the ‘Today’ programme was Boris Johnson offering one of his more outlandish beliefs. The headline began with the phrase ‘Boris Johnson warns’. By lunchtime, the BBC’s ‘fact-checker’ made clear that this belief was wholly fictional. But the damage had been done; lies – and note that verb ‘warns’, as though this might actually be fact rather than fiction – were allowed to seep into the public consciousness.

This is to treat news by the rules of talkback radio, which operates by presenting a balance of – generally extreme and unsubstantiated – views. But might we dare to expect more of serious journalists than this? Might we expect them to inform us accurately? Who in the media told us – as legal expert Michael Dougan did – of the multi-volume UK-government-sponsored Balance of Competences Review, that found overwhelming evidence in favour of EU membership? Dougan got millions of hits on YouTube, but neither he nor those precious volumes of evidence got much attention from the mainstream media.

And it’s still happening. Last week the ‘Today’ programme had what seemed initially an eminently sensible piece on the grave threats to research funding presented by Brexit. But then, in the interest of balance, they dug out one of the few scientists in the country who believes that the situation might actually be positive. If 99% of experts – and yes, I happen to believe in experts – argue one thing, why would we give 50% of the air-time to the 1%. That’s not balance; it’s journalists abandoning their responsibility to inform the public.

Britain’s two seventeenth-century revolutions produced not only the nation’s first newspapers but some of the greatest political theory of all time. So it’s possible to do better, but we’ve got a way to catch up.

 

The place of passion

Here’s another BBC quote, from the day before the referendum. The vote was, the ‘World at One’ journalist said, a contest between ‘the head and the heart’.

The lesser mischief of this quote is its implication that there was no emotion to the remain side of the argument. The greater is the suggestion that, in a decision of such magnitude, the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’ are somehow of equivalent value. Sorry to sound, well, emotional, but that’s bullshit. Having a warm feeling about freedom and sovereignty counts for bugger all, in my book, against the near-certainty of a shrinking economy, more austerity and a fracturing Union.

Since the referendum we’ve seen where a validation of emotion, devoid of evidence, can lead us. Brexit may have no effect on immigration whatsoever, but hasn’t it done a great job at legitimizing the fear and hatred of migrants? It wouldn’t have suited the leave campaign to have an evidence-based debate about immigration, because the weight of evidence is against them. And so now, having got by just fine without evidence, they’re unable to change their narrative in order to put a stop to the epidemic of racism they themselves have unkennelled.

 

Getting on with it

The post-referendum Leave line is that we all need to ‘get on with it’ – as though those of us who are deeply concerned about the risks ahead are no more than sore losers in a bloody game of Monopoly. We’re not; we’re focused intently on making the best of the present, and that’s a responsible attitude for any citizen in a democracy. Now, more than ever, we sorely require a commitment to evidence-based argument.

The initial signs are not good: while senior EU officials and hugely credible British experts have been lining up to give us very clear information, potential prime ministers have been resorting as much as ever to assertions of belief that border upon fantasy. And have a guess which story makes the front-pages? Political drama is easy news.

Meanwhile, many Leave voters would prefer simply to close the nation’s ears. One wrote to the BBC, days after the vote, urging them to be ‘more positive’. I mean, where’s Pravda when you need it?

 

So Remain lost the vote because evidence-based argument lost the campaign. And that happened because the media weren’t ready for post-truth politics. Looking ahead, it seems to me that finding a way to retrieve the value of evidence in national debate is maybe even more important even than finding a way back into the EU.

I’m an immigrant – and proud of it

When opponents of immigration in this country imagine an immigrant, my sense is they don’t have in mind a white, middle-aged university professor. In fact they’re far more likely to imagine a British kid of Asian origin in the local playground as being the foreigner before they think of me.

Maybe that tells us all we need to know about the toxic role of race in discourse on immigration. I remember English friends, many years ago, explaining Norman Tebbitt’s notorious ‘cricket test’ of national identity, along the lines: ‘but he doesn’t mean you’. Immigrants aren’t quite immigrants at all if they’re the right colour and speak the right language.

But I’m an immigrant, twice over. I came to Britain to study for three years in 1988, and came back to work in 1999. I travel on an Australian passport. I follow the Australian cricket team. I came to this country because it is a place of humanity and creativity, a place that rewards hard work and innovation, a place that is tolerant and open to the world, a place that values culture and learning, a place integrated with its neighbours rather than fearful of them. I’ve felt comfortable here, and I’m doing my best as a father to raise two bright, sensitive British citizens.

Being an immigrant can be tough. Even at my level of social and cultural privilege it presents challenges, ranging from living apart from family to learning a new set of cultural codes. For those entering this country with so much less than me in the way of education and financial security – and often weighed down further by the traumas of earlier life experiences – the challenges must be immense. Despite this, all the credible evidence demonstrates that immigrants enter the country with energy and endeavour, and make a net contribution. I don’t know an awful lot about economics, but I know enough to say with confidence that much of the popular arguments against immigration is just plain dumb. Managing a national economy is not a zero-sum game, with a fixed set of resources that foreigners might come and ‘take’ from ‘us’. Immigrants at all levels help the economy grow, and that’s good for everyone.

Of course some of us will get sick. Others will need state support of different  kinds. Shit happens in life, and being an immigrant, away from other support structures, raises the stakes. Sure we’re in the queue for doctors and schools, but our taxes are funding them. The NHS belongs to us as much as anyone else. Last year, a lovely Hungarian-born doctor, with a daughter the same age as one of mine growing up in Britain, spent a few hours realigning one of my wonky antipodean feet. That, it seems to me, was a classic British encounter, and long may it remain one.

I believe that, just like the surgeon, I’m helping to make Britain a better, more successful country. Occasionally a taxi-driver will derive some amusement from the idea of an Australian teaching English literature – ‘too important to leave to the Poms’, I say – but most people accept that a global marketplace for academic labour is overwhelmingly positive. Certainly most politicians, wherever they stand on immigration, are happy to boast of the achievements of ‘our’ universities. These universities have achieved their success in large part because they are so international in outlook.

As a teacher, I’m helping students to fulfil their potential and preparing them for satisfying and productive lives beyond the university. As a researcher, meanwhile, I’m helping us all to understand this country more fully. Much of my time these days is devoted to an extraordinary seventeenth-century poem of nationhood, Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion. For all his commitment to some crazy myths of national origin, even Drayton had the good sense to appreciate the contribution to Britain made by wave after wave of immigrants. Don’t believe people who say that immigration is a modern phenomenon; it’s a British phenomenon.

The divisiveness of the current debate – its discourse of a mythic ‘us’ and ‘them’ – scares me. Time after time, in recent weeks, I’ve heard people complaining about ‘them’, all the while carefully setting aside as exceptions the lovely Indian family next door, the nice Polish bloke who fixed the drains, the hard-working Latvians working on the same production-line, and so on. In the process, ‘them’ recedes into the distance, more recognizable as an image on a UKIP billboard than from any lived reality.

In the face of this, it would be easy enough for me to accept an honorary place as ‘one of us’. But that would merely allow those opposed to immigration to set me aside and continue appealing to prejudice and bigotry. So as long as people want to talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’, I’ll be ‘one of them’, thanks very much. And I’ll be bloody proud of it.

The Widening Participation debate: the sound, the fury, and the missing term

Having widening participation being debated on the Today programme can’t be a bad thing, can it? Well, maybe it depends a little on how it’s done. In fact, hearing John Humphries last Saturday harry Les Ebdon and an admissions officer from Bristol University did not, in my view, do an awful lot for the cause.

Beating up Bristol because their figures on social mix are so low is an easy game. Paradoxically, it’s equally easy for the defenders of social privilege to attack Bristol for its policy on contextual offers. (Bristol does make contextual offers, and does the research on attainment to support its policies.) My point is that this debate is more complex than attacks from one extreme or the other – proponents of social reform or social privilege – allow.

I suggest that we need to look not so much at patterns of offers and acceptances, but rather more at patterns of application. David Morris’s Wonkhe blog-post, ‘Transparency revolution: is there bias in university admissions?’, is good in this regard, demonstrating the tendency of students from certain socio-economic and ethnic groups to gravitate disproportionately to certain universities. I guess we all know this – it’s not hard to see the effects of these patterns in a walk around many campuses – but perhaps we don’t always reflect sufficiently on what it means.

One uncomfortable fact here is that the obsession with defining ‘top’ universities (John Humphries’ term on Saturday), with all its well-meaning yet clumsy snobbishness, helps to create by implication a ‘bottom’. In other words, it serves to run down the reputations of the many excellent universities that are producing high numbers of graduates from ethnic minorities and lower socio-economic groups. Might it not be helpful instead to think about the excellence of, say, Manchester Met, which takes very high numbers of such students? As long as society overlooks the achievements of such students – lazily assuming that graduates from ‘top’ univerisites belong at the top of the pile – this problem of entrenched inequality will survive.

But challenges remain nonetheless for ‘top’ (if we accept, for the sake of argument, the loose equation of ‘top’ with ‘high-tariff’) universities. And it seems to me that these challenges are not just a matter of statistics, to be solved through the calculations of contextual offer-making; they are, arguably above all else, cultural. What are the ‘top’ universities, in other words, doing to create environments in which non-standard (by their terms) students will feel sufficiently welcome to apply, and consequently fulfil their potential when they arrive? Maybe not as much as we could be doing.

I was struck, earlier this year, by three stories of bullying, at different ‘top’ universities: on grounds of racial difference, social difference, and (wait for it) a reputed association with feminist groups. That’s all anecdotal, of course, but a devastating reflection nonetheless on the state of cultural diversity on some campuses. It’s condemning non-standard students in many ‘top’ institutions to struggling daily against a feeling of difference and alienation, and stands as a key reason why many such applicants are just not bothering with the likes of us. Some students will relish the challenge of feeling like a pioneer; many won’t.

So I’d suggest that in order to change the statistics we need first to address campus cultures. There are academic aspects to that project: work at Kingston has done much to demonstrate the importance of sensitive student-support structures in addressing gaps in attainment. But there are also non-academic or semi-academic aspects: from the culture of student halls, through clubs and societies, to the look and feel of campuses. That’s a hugely complex and challenging task, but surely worth the effort.

There’s also the question, finally, of quite how much universities can be blamed for problems of inequality that can be traced back to the earliest stages of education. But I’m not going there; it’s worth raising the point simply to underline the complexity of inequality in Britain. Beating up admissions officers on national radio, on the premise that they have the power to fix things, doesn’t really do much to address these matters.

‘Fee rises’: a comment on the power of words

David Morris’s recent blog-post for Wonkhe, ‘TEF and Tuition Fees: myths and reality’, dares to state the blindingly obvious: that the White Paper’s ‘rises’ in higher education tuition fees are barely rises at all. Indeed, if we take the White Paper at its word, it is actually proposing a mechanism to prevent some – maybe even most – universities from increasing fees in line with inflation. So that’s leaving many universities with long-term, real-terms cuts in fees.

For all their boldness in implementing change, it seems to me the Tories have been hopeless at controlling the message. Let’s start with ‘fees’. These are an odd kind of fee, levied via taxation and capped for those who never become higher earners. Indeed it seems remarkable that Labour has managed to market its ‘graduate tax’ as radically different, when its effect would be roughly similar for most graduates. The Australian scheme, which dates back to the 1980s, was originally titled the ‘Higher Education Contribution Scheme’; although admittedly this has since been dropped, perhaps in acknowledgement of its slippery PR-speak. Maybe, that is, ‘fees’ seems closer to the mark than ‘contribution’; however, it’s subtly misleading, and therefore unhelpful.

And then ‘rises’. Here’s a question: if the Coalition government in 2010 had bitten the bullet on indexation of fees to inflation, would we even have a White Paper in 2016? And would we be getting a Teaching Excellence Framework, leading as it will to convoluted and fine-grained distinctions in levels of fees, from 2017? I think not. It seems to me that an edifice of quality demarcation has been created – and, worse still, a myth of poor-quality education has been propagated – in order to justify what should have been built into the system from the outset.

So this, I’d suggest, is what happens when a government loses control of the terms of debate. ‘Fee rises’ require, as justification, elaborate structures of regulation. The costs of erecting these structures, and of universities bending this way and that to satisfy them, will likely outweigh the extra income. But the power of language drives us not only into this expense, but ultimately into the nonsense – for those universities that don’t attain the highest TEF grades – of ‘rises’ that frankly won’t be rises at all.

None of this is to argue that fees do not feel like fees to those paying them. Nor is it to argue that the current system is either fair or ideal. It is manifestly neither of those things. My point is merely that the choice of words, and the toxic politics accreting over years to those words, is placing us in nonsensical positions.

I’m going to write more about the TEF itself once I get some time to read the ‘technical consultation’ document. As a mechanism for distinguishing between universities that are good, and not so good, at educating their students, I think it can work well enough (although The Guardian league tables do a fair enough job already at no cost to the sector). But as a vehicle for distributing resources it is surely flawed. It’s overly complicated, likely at once to confuse applicants and downgrade hard-won reputations. Moreover, it fundamentally departs from the otherwise rigorous student-centred logic of the White Paper, putting the university’s interest in raising revenue ahead of the student’s interest in minimizing debt.

So I’ll end with a prediction: I don’t think the proposed equation of TEF gradings and ‘fee increases’ will last, if indeed this proposal is ever implemented in the first place. The TEF will survive and ‘fee rises’ will happen, but they will be decoupled. Someone in BIS, one day, will wake up and acknowledge that what’s currently proposed is mad. Surely they will.

Degrees from Tesco: the high-quality – low-cost world of the White Paper

A central fantasy at the heart of last month’s White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility & Student Choice, is that new entrants to the UK higher education market will help to drive both quality and efficiency upwards. By my calculation, the document contains twenty-six reference to ‘high quality’ new/alternative/small providers. These are the universities of the near future.

There are other planks to the White Paper, not least the latest steps towards a Teaching Excellence Framework. But I want here to spend some time on new providers. How might this fundamental reform to the nature of the university in the UK actually work? And what might it mean for the humanities?

 

It’s a funny old market I: the quality-cost paradox

One of the key lessons from the last round of reforms, subsequent to 2010’s Browne Review, was that the higher education market doesn’t operate according to normal economic rules. The expected result of that process was a graduated market, with the ‘top’ universities charging £9000 fees, and others slotting into place below that level.

But what we learned is that cost, in higher education (and probably much else as well – but let’s stick with HE), is a proxy for quality. Hence very few universities indeed were prepared to go into the market saying: ‘Actually our degrees are cheap because they aren’t quite as good as you’ll get elsewhere.’ So we all pretty much fell into line at £9000, and that doesn’t look much like a market at all.

Now the White Paper returns for another try. It states: ‘Competition between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game, offering consumers a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost. Higher education is no exception.’ The nexus between high ‘quality’ – a word used a staggering 180 times in the White Paper’s 83 pages – and low ‘cost’ is critical. The questionable underlying assumption is unchanged since 2010: higher education is a market, and greater competition will help the consumer. Surely it will.

 

It’s a funny old market II: the high-cost providers

Here’s another paradox: existing private providers in the humanities are not less, but considerably more expensive than traditional universities. Some commentators have suggested that the government has been influenced, in its campaign to ease the creation of new universities, by the emergence of the New College of Humanities. But the NCH charges roughly twice as much as the rest of us.

I’m on record as arguing, when the NCH was established, that it was a good thing because it sent a message to the country that excellent education in the humanities could not be provided on the cheap. That seems to me important, not only for potential students and their parents but equally for the cause of the humanities in internal debates, at existing universities, about distribution of resources. But does it really help the arguments of the White Paper?

One possible reading of this cost-quality paradox is that the White Paper is a big old Trojan horse that will lead us towards a complete deregulation of fees. A few years down the track we may all accept that the only way the traditional universities can compete with the new providers is by charging higher fees. But I don’t think its authors are as clever as that. I think they genuinely believe in the high-quality / low-cost nexus, and as a result we should spend some time thinking about how this might work.

 

BA English at Tesco’s: private provision in the humanities

How about, then, an English degree from Tesco University? The White Paper’s vision is stark: small providers with low costs will become universities. Forget about the idea that a university might need to be rather bigger than a couple of managers, a bunch of casual teachers, a few dozen students and a meeting room at the back of the local coffee-shop. Forget also about the relation between research and the concept of a university. That kind of thinking is all very twentieth century.

So there’s no reason why any consumer-facing brand might not consider putting together an English degree and selling it in competition with existing universities. Staffing wouldn’t be a problem, given the surfeit of excellent doctoral graduates on the job market. Resources could also be managed, with a few canny deals for online access to decent books and journals, and a reliance otherwise on open-access materials. And to make it look a bit more edgy and vocational, I’d make it ‘English and something or other’ – maybe ‘professional writing’, ‘journalism’, or ‘publishing’.

But, if you’ve followed me to here I expect you’re screaming: ‘private providers are doing professional degrees; they’re not interested in the humanities’. Actually, I wouldn’t be so sure; this has been the pattern to date, but I can’t see why it should remain that way. Demand for humanities degrees remains strong, while sizable chunks of the £9000 fees paid at traditional universities tend to find their way to places that wouldn’t matter to Tesco University. Research? No need for that. Cross-subsidy of STEM? They wouldn’t touch STEM with a barge-pole. Quality? Near enough is good enough. Call it £7000 and they’d be making 10%-15% profit.

In fact I’ve already spoken to one reputable private provider that was looking several years ago to develop an English degree in partnership with an established university. They won’t need now to suck up to the likes of me in order to deliver their degrees.

 

So there are reasons to take the new providers – ‘high quality’ or not – very seriously. They may not impinge greatly on programmes that are currently attracting more applicants than they can handle, but they could stretch the marketplace, taking students away from existing universities that can hardly afford to lose them. The whole point of the new competitive world, as the White Paper makes clear, is that there should be losers as well as winners.

PS. By the way: many thanks to all those readers who publicized my last blog-post, on impact case-studies. The tweeters and retweeters of the world make a huge difference to independent blogs like this one.

Four-star impact

I’ve spent some time recently reading four-star humanities impact case-studies from REF 2014. This is possible because some departments achieved a perfect score for impact, so we know that all their case-studies achieved the highest grade.

As we turn our thoughts to 2021 (or thereabouts), and as impact becomes accepted as part of research assessment beyond the UK, it’s worth pausing to ask what lessons can be drawn from this evidence. My analysis is subjective and impressionistic: really just picking out some patterns that struck me, in the light of discussions I’ve had over the years with colleagues. The departments I’m considering are: English at Bedfordshire, Newcastle, Kingston, Swansea; History at Hertfordshire; Modern Languages at Swansea.

 

Individuals or departments?

One hypothesis with which I began was: if we’re trying to succeed with impact, it makes more sense to think about four-star departments than four-star case-studies. In other words, I suspected that departmental cultures were more important than star individuals.

The evidence is equivocal. At some places, it appears that impact is delivered brilliantly by a minority of staff, albeit with appropriate institutional support. That’s probably the way most of us are working, in fact, not least because of the time that impact-oriented work absorbs. But some of the ‘impact templates’, outlining methodical efforts and commitment across a department, are instructive. For evidence of how to get it right, I’d recommend History at Hertfordshire.

 

Impact and engagement

One of the great academic corridor put-down lines these days is: ‘Oh, that’s not impact; it’s just public engagement’. Seriously, you wonder what planet we’re on at times (and note, by the way, an excellent argument against allowing the assessment cart to be put before the impact horse in the THE). Nonetheless, this line has a point. It doesn’t make sense, from the perspective of time-management, for overworked people to be knocking themselves out on activities that they mistakenly believe will feed into an impact case-study.

So we focus on impact – on having identifiable effects on identifiable groups – and scale back on engagement. Right? Well, the evidence suggests much more porous dividing-lines between impact and engagement than many would like to believe. Take the historian preparing an exhibition on the basis of a chance research discovery. The aim will be to engage as widely as possible, but four-star impact may still be the result.

 

Locality matters

In the early days of impact, one theory was that it would favour London universities. Not so. Some of the most compelling work was achieved by universities a long way from the cultural centre, with powerful regional commitments.

Take English at Newcastle. This department, over many years, identified ways of involving itself in the region. One example of this commitment is its partnership with Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books: a partnership evident in staffing decisions, grant activity, doctoral studentships, and so forth. Or take English at Swansea, where a longstanding, passionate commitment to Welsh literature and culture shines through in two of their three case-studies.

 

Creativity matters

It’s common sense really: creative people are geared towards engaging with the public. This doesn’t mean that all creative practitioners in universities will be delivering in terms of impact, but it puts them in an excellent position to do so. Take creative writers. Publishing a novel, selling some copies, and doing a few literary festivals may not necessarily amount to much in terms of impact. (Although – and we need to stress this over and over – creative outputs did do rather well in REF 2014.) But if someone writes about a topical or controversial subject – for instance, Jackie Kay (Newcastle) writing about her experiences as a child of Nigerian birth, adopted by white parents in Glasgow – this can lead to important and powerful impact.

 

Questions of longevity

It’s commonly observed that the time-lag between research and impact in the humanities tends to be quicker, on average, than in the sciences. But some of the most impressive case-studies are the product of many years of commitment, and bring benefits that will equally span years. For instance, consider the determination of academics in English at Swansea to bring works of English-language Welsh literature into the public domain, via a series of books that is part-funded by the Welsh government and now sits in every school in Wales. That was an extraordinary achievement.

In this context, of course, it will be fascinating to see how the rules for 2021 deal with the question of ongoing impact from case-studies submitted in 2014. Some of the best impact endures, and hopefully this will be recognized.

 

Questions of cost

Impact costs time and money. In many cases it’s funded by research grants, but across the board it’s apparent that the better departments are underwriting, to a considerable extent, staff time and costs. I’ve commented before about the ‘impact industry’: the advisers, professional case-study writers, and so forth. I think there’s cause to be sceptical about all of that, yet there’s also cause to admire the impressive, moving work documented in these case-studies. The challenge for managers is to find ways of ensuring such work is adequately resourced, at a time when academics and their departments are stretched by competing demands.

 

You can’t take it with you

I’ve noted before the effect upon the impact agenda of the rule, in REF 2014, that if an academic switched universities mid-REF cycle, s/he would take his/her outputs, while the university would retain any impact case-study. That skews the value, to the individual, of impact-related work. Why would a university will spend big money to recruit a major impact-star, as opposed to an output-star, on the eve of  a REF?

One rumour about the next REF is that there may be a perverse solution: perhaps outputs, as well as impact, may be retained for submission by previous employers. Well, let’s wait and see. Such a move might well help keep a lid on wage inflation at the top end; although the implications for early-career appointments would need consideration.

The paradoxes of neo-liberalism in UK higher education

The latest argument that we should be worried about a crisis in the university system comes, via The Guardian, from the US consultant Karen Kelsky. Her key concerns are student debt and casualization of the academic labour-market. The UK, she claims, is barrelling down a road familiar from the US.

Student debt? Well, yes: absolutely, and let’s not forget it. But I want to reflect here on the arguments about casualization and the fears for early-career academics, because it seems to me there are some curious paradoxes here. For Kelsky, the ‘neo-liberal’ structures of UK higher education, such as the Research Excellence Framework, are all part of the problem. But as I see things, they are also having contrary effects, helping to hold at bay some of the economic logic that has driven things in the US.

So let’s consider some effects of two of those neo-liberal monitoring structures, both unique to the UK: the REF and the National Student Survey.

 

The REF and the academic job market

Casualization of academic labour makes good economic sense. Why pay someone a full-time professional salary when you can hire in perfectly well qualified temporary lecturers and pay them only for the teaching they do? That logic has taken root in many US universities; it will most likely drive the growth of private universities in the UK. So there definitely are reasons to be concerned.

But the REF posits a contrary logic, along the lines: why appoint temporary and part-time teaching staff, when you could appoint someone who will contribute to the REF? And that appointment – not always, but more often than not – will be permanent. Certainly that’s my experience. We always have temporary lecturers – to cover for people on funded leave, or maternity leave, and so forth – but we appoint to permanent, research-active posts whenever we can.

And it seems to me that the REF is also a friend to early-career academics. There’s a strong, REF-guided logic to appoint younger people, publishing high-quality work often straight from their doctoral research. It’s not about quantity: four decent pieces in 6-7 years is not unreasonable, and ECRs will typically require fewer than four. The principle of peer-review, meanwhile, remains strong, underpinning the commitment to rewarding quality.

And this all means that universities will generally gain more benefit, for relatively low cost, appointing junior lecturers, as opposed to appointing senior people. This does stimulate the job-market, albeit in an uneven pattern: better in pre-REF years than others. It won’t create jobs for everyone finishing PhDs (and there is a genuine debate to be had over whether we are educating too many smart young people to doctoral level), but it surely works against the logic of casualization.

Kelsky argues also that the REF drives us all towards performance targets, and leads to the persecution of great minds who work slowly. Yes, that’s an old and not invalid argument. But here’s the paradox: if the goal is to create a structure that is more open to early-career academics there is actually a value in ensuring that those in mid-career and late-career are actually doing all parts of their job. However much some of us might resent it, the REF helps with that.

 

The National Student Survey

The National Union of Students has proposed a boycott of the NSS. Actually there’s a logic to this: they argue that if the NSS is to be linked into the Teaching Excellence Framework, and if the latter is to be used to determine differential fees, then the Survey’s original purpose of feeding back to universities on their performance will in practice be superseded by its use as a vehicle of marketization. As someone who has seen the NSS improve the quality of education over many years, I fear a boycott would be self-defeating. But I can see the point.

Yet the NSS – and in due course the TEF, presumably – also works contrary to the forces of casualization that Kelsky bemoans. The NSS gives students some power, and in my experience students tend to be fairly clear about their desire to be taught by fully-qualified and fairly employed lecturers. That’s not to say that we haven’t had superb feedback in my department, year after year, on our (very well trained) graduate teaching assistants. But it is definitely one reason why we employ very few people who look like US-style ‘adjuncts’: who are, typically, people with PhDs, paid to drop into a campus to deliver particular courses, and often working simultaneously at multiple universities.

Do we have people in this category in the UK? Absolutely we do; and I agree that it’s a problem. But I’m yet to see hard evidence that it’s getting worse. And, as I see things at least, another of those neo-liberal monitoring devices, the NSS, is working to some extent counter to the logic of casualization.

 

I’ve written before about the temptation to draw easy parallels between the US and the UK (in the context of the so-called ‘crisis of the humanities’). I think there are genuine problems in the US, which affect all of us one way or another; and I think there is always cause to be vigilant about developments in the UK system. But there are paradoxes in some of these arguments, and structural forces pulling against what may seem like an incontrovertible economic logic. As much as the UK’s various monitoring systems may at times feel oppressive or frustrating, it just might be the case that they have some positive effects on the sector.