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

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. 

‘We need to talk about your gross teaching quotient’*

There’s a new frontier in the quest to demonstrate teaching excellence, and it’s called the Gross Teaching Quotient. By mid-winter senior managers will be descending upon departments across the country bearing spreadsheets and bad news: ‘We need to talk about your Gross Teaching Quotient’.

It’s gold, gold, gold for the English Department

The Gross Teaching Quotient – and let’s call it GTQ, because that’s what it will become – is the most eye-catching aspect of the recent proposals outlining the subject-level Teaching Excellence Framework. It’s just a pilot version at this stage, but it’s coming at us fast, scheduled to be in place for real in 2019-20.

I’m broadly supportive of institution-level TEF. Some aspects of it, such as the olympic-style medals, are manifestly barking, but there’s no avoiding the push to demonstrate teaching excellence. The TEF uses reasonable proxies for quality – and I haven’t heard any better suggestions, despite all the noise – while the written submission encourages innovative actions and reflective thinking.

But I’ve had my head firmly in the sand on subject-level TEF. On practical grounds the concept has seemed too cumbersome, while I’ve also wondered about the relation between cost and value. I mean, if institutional-level TEF is already focusing managerial minds and driving reform – as I think it is, though nobody has bothered to wait long enough to assess this – where is the added value to subject-level TEF?

Jo Johnson’s answer would be that it’s all about the consumer. Potential students generally choose courses first and universities second, so they will want evidence of quality at that more granular level. In my experience such people are in fact overwhelmed with evidence – from league tables, unistats and so forth – but perhaps that might equally support Johnson’s argument. Some people, it seems, just want to see a gold medal.

The pilot will include only a handful of universities. Subject-level TEF will use the same metrics as institution-level TEF, with a few notable additions. There will be a written submission, stripped back to five pages. And there will be 35 subjects or subject-groupings, to avoid the metrical muddle that can be caused by small disciplines.

There are two pilot models. Model A (‘by exception’) will simply give subjects the same rating as their institutions unless the metrics indicate a need for closer investigation. Model B (‘bottom-up’) will assess each subject fully, and build towards an institution-level award from this basis. I propose to label these, respectively: ‘the sane model’ and ‘brace yourself, it’s coming’.

Then it starts to get interesting. All the well-meaning complaints from across the sector about the TEF merely measuring proxies have got the TEF-team thinking. They’re not for turning; they’re marching ever onward to the holy grail of quantifiable teaching excellence. And this brings them – as, of course, it would – to the GTQ.

The GTQ is a measure of ‘teaching intensity’. And teaching intensity is not all about contact hours; honest, the document says this maybe fifteen times, so I swear they must mean it. Instead it’s an idea, kicked about in last year’s Success in a Knowledge Economy White Paper, about the relation between the quantity and quality of teaching. And that was all derived from Graham Gibbs’s 2010 report Dimensions of Quality.

Teaching intensity will be measured in part by a student-survey. Think about that for a minute: students will be asked questions about whether they’re getting enough teaching. And then there will be the calculations, weighting ‘the number of hours taught by the staff-student ratio of each taught hour’. Got it? The GTQ is then ‘calculated by multiplying the taught hours by the appropriate weighting and summing the total across all groups, followed by multiplying by 10 to arrive at an easily interpretable number’. And then it’s divided by the square-root of staff days lost due to stress. Or something like that.

It’s worth noting just what a narrow reading of Gibbs this actually is. In the desperation to create a new metric, lots of valuable Gibbsian ‘dimensions’ have been set aside: from the critical questions of who does the teaching and how well they have been trained (puzzlingly ignored by TEF so far), through assessment and feedback, and beyond. I guess we get to brush up on this stuff when we’re preparing our written submissions, but there’s a curious narrowing of vision for all the rhetoric to the contrary.

My greatest concern about all this is that GTQs will evidently be produced as comparative measures, driven by an underlying assumption that more intensity is always going to be better. Practice in my department may be perfectly sound from all sorts of perspectives; however, as I understand the proposals, if our GTQ is weaker than a competitor’s we may be heading for silver. Admittedly  it’s only one metric, but from a management perspective it will attract attention as the newest and perhaps the easiest to manipulate. Subject-level TEF will understandably instil anxiety in all sorts of people in management positions; not all of them can be relied upon to respond reasonably.

This is a pilot, and much may change between now and full implementation. Crucially, the review of the first round of institution-level TEF will affect anything that happens thereafter at subject level. But subject-level TEF may affect departments pretty much immediately. Much of that change will be for the good, some will be more questionable, and an awful lot could increase workloads and stress-levels, for students and  staff alike.

* This piece was first published in Times Higher Education, 10/8/17

The year the National Student Survey was sabotaged*


The cunning plan of the National Union of Students to boycott the National Student Survey feels like a long time ago. It wasn’t so much a different news cycle as a different dimension of experience altogether. I mean, back then Andrew Adonis looked like a supporter of the British higher education system.

Now that it’s come back to bite, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what it was all about. The NUS was aggrieved that the NSS was being used as a metric in an exercise – the Teaching Excellence Framework – that was being used to drive an agenda of marketization. It wasn’t a protest against the NSS itself, but the only way that students could see to undermine the TEF. It remains NUS policy.

The boycott has had highly marked though isolated effects. While the national response rate has dropped only four points, twelve universities did not receive sufficient responses to be able to register results. That says a lot about the NUS: passionately political on some campuses but not at others. At my university I couldn’t even find students who wanted to debate the issue.

Should the student leaders at those twelve unlisted universities be proud of themselves this morning? Doubtless they will see it as a result; many students devoted an awful lot of time and energy to sabotaging the survey. They have ensured that the 2017 NSS results will always be marked with an asterisk.

But I don’t see any chance of this stopping the TEF. That ship has sailed; the debate has moved on in the meantime to new metrical frontiers, such as learning gain and teaching intensity. While many people argue that the TEF metrics are no more than proxies of teaching quality, the direction of travel is towards more rather than fewer metrics, and also towards the granularity of subject-level assessment.

Meanwhile, the fact remains that there is only one TEF metric that directly registers the perceptions of students, and this is the NSS. It’s also been arguably the greatest single driver of reform in higher education over the past decade. I’ve seen it prompt wholesale change in poorly-performing departments. And even in my own, which generally does well, we always identify specific areas for attention: feedback, programme management, student support, resources, and so forth.

So I feel sorry for the  students at those twelve unlisted universities who completed the survey. No, actually I feel bloody angry on their behalf. Their responses will be made available internally so they should still have some impact; however, they won’t be published and won’t register in league tables. A handful of managers this morning will be breathing sighs of relief, and that’s not what their students deserve. Those students paid £27000 – in fees alone – and their views matter.

I also feel sorry for the people who put so much effort into revising the NSS. The focus right now shouldn’t be on the boycott; it should be on the responses to the new questions added this year. My favourite one was: ‘I feel part of a community of staff and students’. But there was also: ‘I have had the right opportunities to work with other students as part of my course’; and ‘The IT resources and facilities have supported my learning well’. These questions help to document the full dimensions of higher education. They are light-years away from the ‘value-for-money’ reductivism of certain other student surveys that jostle for the attention of policy-makers and journalists.

The NSS also includes a section on ‘student voice’. There’s: ‘It is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on’. And there’s a bleak irony to this one: ‘The students’ union effectively represents students’ academic interests’. Well, did they?

I’m not immediately sure how the NSS results will be spun as bad news, but I expect it will happen. Maybe Lord Adonis will claim that there is ‘no student satisfaction in Cambridge’. It feels like a precarious moment for the sector, and everyone – not least the students – could do with some credible data on what’s working and what needs attention. In this context, the boycott-compromised 2017 results feel like an own-goal for British higher education. I’m not sure that’s exactly what the NUS had in mind.

Notes from an ex-head of department

Today is my last day as head of English and Film at Exeter, before moving on to a new role.

A lot of people in academic life wonder – no, they openly question – why anyone would want to be a head of department. It’s thankless, relentless and powerless. But there’s also more to it than that; being HoD is about people and culture. I’ve enjoyed it.

Below are some things I’ve learned over three years in the job. They’re not ‘how to do it’, because any of my colleagues will attest that I messed up, pissed off and muddled through, at least as much as anyone would. But anyone, also, can learn.


  1. Trust your colleagues

Why? Firstly, consider your options. Not many heads of department are blessed with the kind of power they might, in moments of late-night sociopathy, wish to have. So mistrust might lead to nothing more than antagonism and passive aggression, grinding on month after month. I think we’ve all seen how that works.

Secondly, they deserve it. Universities are full of driven, professional people: to use a totally made-up statistic, 99.2% of academics want to do a good job. It’s just that – and vice-chancellors tend to forget this – sometimes we can have a funny way of showing it.


  1. But the value of signposts

But let’s not confuse trust with a lack of direction. Higher education is awash with metrics and targets – REFs, TEFs, and so on – and we all have to be sensitive to that context. My junior colleagues, in particular, work towards challenging probation goals. But it’s also worth remembering the basics. Any department will do ok if it appoints carefully, mentors sensitively and promotes appropriately.


  1. And signs pointing in new directions

The dimensions of success in an academic career have shifted – stretched – in recent years. Perhaps most notably, impact-oriented work can absorb huge amounts of time, but if we get it right the rewards can be equally substantial. More than ever before, heads need to be alert to the different ways in which careers can take shape, and be ready to support and advance them accordingly.


  1. The people stuff

Shit happens, to everyone. As head of department, you see and hear stuff that would normally pass one by: parental deaths, caring responsibilities, illnesses, miscarriages. It’s humbling, really. You learn that good people can’t always be at their best.


  1. It’s amazing what you can’t do

I came to the headship after a spell as associate dean. That’s a wonderful role: you dream up all sorts of new policies, then leave others to make them happen – or not. I changed the world for a few years there.

But being head of department is different, because other people – the departmental directors of this and that – tend to have their hands on the policy levers. So affecting change is perhaps more about trying to set a tone, supporting the right people, nudging things along, and maybe choosing just one or two personal crusades along the way. It can feel like you’re doing bugger all; and maybe sometimes that’s just about what you should be doing.


  1. The value of rails

It’s also a job in which one appreciates the value of keeping everything moving roughly in the right direction most of the time. In an age when managers are all expected to be strong and strategic – shaking things about and breaking some of them along the way – just keeping things on the rails can be an under-rated skill.


  1. Also surprising what you can do

Heads of department end up on a bunch of committees. University committees get a bad press, but they’re rarely completely pointless, and in my experience most senior managers actually want to hear what colleagues in departments are thinking. Furthermore, in my experience an awful lot of shit gets waved through committees because people in the room can’t be bothered to read the papers. Hence anyone can make things happen – or unhappen – in the interests of his or her department, simply by being one of those who do.


  1. You can’t have a great department without great students

This is not to say we all need AAA students, but a culture of engagement makes a huge difference. Anyone involved with students knows that the ‘customer’ discourse is 90% bullshit; students are working harder than ever, and they are often deeply invested in their departments. If academics organize an event, a handful of students might show up; if students organize the same event, they will fill the room.


  1. No department is an island

I’ve worked in departments run like insular nation-states, complete with independent legal systems and customs-checks at the borders. But today education and research are both more interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary than ever: have a look at the growth in programmes like liberal arts; have a think about the trajectory of external research funding schemes. So while any head is expected to argue the department’s case for resources, there’s always a wider context. To recognize that is not necessarily to be weak.


  1. I’ve had it easy

For any head of department, the next three years are likely to be tougher than the last. The wheels of the REF will be cranking into action now that we’re getting clarity on the rules, while subject-level TEF is likely to become a reality. Meanwhile competition to land student numbers is becoming more ever more intense. Heads will find themselves in some challenging conversations, with both colleagues and senior managers.


  1. If you start a blog, choose a title that will last

‘Head of Department Blog’ was a nice title at the time, but what the hell do I do now? ‘Dean of Postgraduate Research and the Exeter Doctoral College Blog’ just doesn’t cut it. I’d appreciate suggestions, but I’ll continue one way or another, and I’ll be very grateful to readers who stick with me. Thanks, as ever, for reading and sharing.

Tuition fees in an age of unreason

It’s been a bad time for evidence-based argument. Now even the world of higher education policy, which one might have hoped would operate to tougher standards, is being dragged into the soup of unreason.

Even the intelligent Andrew Adonis has been affected. Adonis helped to create the tuition-fee regime, he says, and now he rejects it. That’s all fine; people have every right to change their minds, and it’s helpful for someone in his position to explain his thinking. But it’s a desperate pity that he so woefully misrepresents higher education in the process.

Let’s consider some of his points.


‘graduates on modest salaries … can’t remotely afford to pay back these sums while starting families’

Tuition fees and the middle-class birth-rate: well, it’s a new angle. Honestly, though, t’s hard to tell whether criticism along these lines is based on a desire to mislead by exaggeration, or blind ignorance of the nature of the student-loan system. These loans are income-contingent. To quote David Morris: ‘In most debts, the repayment obligations are relative to the amount loaned and the rate of interest (or other loan charge). But with student loans, repayment obligations are largely determined by income, not the total debt that I owe (principal + loan fee).’

Hence graduates earning, say, £35,000 per year will pay back exactly the same amount per month, whether they owe £10,000 or £100,000. And after 30 years any remaining debt is cancelled. What Adonis presents as awful – that most graduates will never fully repay their loans – is in fact a basic principle of ongoing means-tested state support for higher education.

There remain some powerful arguments to be made about the way the system has been manipulated. Increases to the rate of interest and a freeze of the threshold at which repayments are charged have worsened financial conditions for graduates. This does warrant scrutiny, but Adonis muddles arguments against the system’s operation and underlying principle.


vice-chancellors formed a cartel’

This is untrue in fact and based on a misunderstanding of the higher education market.

Exeter was the first university in the country to declare that it would charge £9000. This decision was made independently, indeed with sensitivity to competition law. There was never anything resembling a cartel.

But everyone – including vice-chancellors – failed at the time to grasp the peculiar logic of this market. I remember a meeting at which my own VC speculated that maybe 20-30 universities would be bold enough to charge £9000. I asked him why that number wouldn’t be significantly higher, and was politely dismissed as an associate dean’s naivety.

Why did we get near-uniformity? Partly because the difference between £6000 and £9000, when it’s a payment long deferred, was not significant enough to affect students’ decisions. And partly because in this marketplace price became accepted as a proxy for quality. Degrees operate as positional goods: that’s something we all learned from the exercise.

(There’s a nice, clear explanation of the economics of this situation, published soon after the present piece, here.)


‘The quality of university teaching remained patchy, and often got worse as lecturers focused on their research ratings’

How many measurements of teaching quality do some people need? We’ve just come through the Teaching Excellence Framework, which demonstrated there is rather a lot of excellence around. Over the past decade or more the sector has adjusted to the scrutiny of the National Student Survey, the ‘key information sets’ of unistats, the entry of Which into higher education, and the unending pressures of league tables.

In a series of tweets, subsequent to his Guardian piece, Adonis turned his attention to academic workloads, saying: a) we don’t teach enough; and b) we all have three months off in the summer. Any academic knows the latter assertion is wrong, but it’s also at odds with his claim that we’re obsessed with research. When does he think we do this?

There’s always room for improvement, but this debate would be a bit more credible if we used the available evidence. That evidence simply does not support Adonis’s insulting and damaging assertions.


‘[vice-chancellors] persuaded David Cameron and George Osborne that they were still cash-starved and needed even higher fees’

And so, Adonis suggests, it was all the Tories’ fault. This ignores the fact that the Browne Review was commissioned in 2009 by a Labour government. Its recommendations were much more radical than the system that the Coalition government introduced. Browne proposed no cap on fees at all.

So the Coalition government, rightly or wrongly, bottled it and set a maximum fee. That maximum fee, when charged, meant increased levels of income for universities, but Adonis joins other commentators in brushing one key point under the carpet. The higher cost to students was directly linked to a withdrawal of direct state funding. Some subjects continued to receive a much-reduced level of state funding; most now receive no direct state teaching funding at all.

He might also have mentioned that there was never any provision for fees to rise in line with inflation. So the initial increase in income for universities has been followed by a series of real-terms decreases in income.

And did vice-chancellors ever argue that they ‘needed even higher fees’? We might reasonably expect them to argue for higher levels of investment in higher education, since by international standards these were, and remain, worryingly low. But I’m not aware that any ever argued for higher fees, as opposed to direct state support. Indeed I know that many were unsettled – on practical and ethical grounds – by the proposals of Browne and the subsequent White Paper.


‘In my view, fees have now become so politically diseased that they should be abolished entirely’

Hence to Adonis’s proposals. As I understand his position, British universities should be allowed to recruit as many international students as they wish, and this will underwrite a ‘minimum’ level of home students.

I may have misunderstood, but this seems so bonkers it’s hard to know where to begin. Firstly, he fails to acknowledge any extra cost to the state. That means he either imagines a brutal wave of austerity, or has no idea what it costs to run a university at any level of quality. Secondly, he assumes a virtually unlimited supply of international students (a business model, it’s worth noting, that Theresa May has derided as unsustainable). This ignores the international competition for such students, who are attracted to British universities – now – because of our strength and reputation. Thirdly, he suggests universities will take fewer home students than now, a shift that would almost certainly hit those from lower socio-economic groups.


‘why did we give university vice-chancellors a licence to print money … in a decade when austerity has dominated every other public service, including schools and hospitals?

There’s the rub. Britain has a world-class university system, that punches above its weight on research and education metrics, attracts international students, and makes massive contributions to the economy and society. And yet this success invites some commentators to ask why higher education isn’t being sucked into the morass of austerity like other sectors.

Well, Andrew, I’m sorry for our success. I’m sure there are ways you can find now to reshape universities in the image of austerity-Britain.


None of this is intended as an argument in favour of fees (although I fully expect that it will be read as such). There’s no reason why we can’t have a high-quality, high-participation higher education system without fees. We just have to think seriously about what it costs and where that money will come from. Adonis doesn’t help.