‘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.

English studies: a mid-life review*

  • I wrote this piece for an excellent new journal launched last month by Exeter’s graduate students, Exclamation – working on the presumption that 25 years of employment in English departments gives one the right to reflect and pontificate. ‘Mid-life’ , by the way, refers to my life, not that of the discipline, and frankly it’s a little optimistic.

The contributors to this inaugural volume of Exclamation are at the beginning of their careers. For me, it’s now 25 years since I was given the key to an office at the University of Sydney, and a list of nine classes (of the same module) to teach each week of the year. I think I was given a computer, though that wasn’t standard; I can date myself by having worked in newspapers when computers consigned linotype to history, and in universities when email made handwritten memos an oddity.

So this seems like a reasonable time and place to ask two questions. Firstly, what’s changed in the discipline of English, for those of us teaching it? And secondly, what comes next?


English really mattered in the 1980s and 1990s. Politics and post-structuralism were blowing open the canon. It was never entirely clear whether someone at Cornell really was ‘teaching the phone-book’, but I swear that made the newspapers. And there was a genuine political force behind the motivation to put women and non-white authors onto courses, and question the politics of literary representations. Lit crit changed lives; or we thought it did.

These movements also changed departments. Australia had always been more susceptible to new ideas about the discipline; many of my colleagues at Sydney were veterans of one arguably the most bitter departmental splits anywhere in the world on Leavisite grounds. And in Australia since the 1980s traditional canon-based English curricula have been eroded. Gender studies, film studies, postcolonial studies, theory, creative writing, indigenous studies, and so forth, have transformed the shape of the discipline in that country. Personally I don’t see this as right or wrong, and I appreciate the powerful cultural reasons for it in a country I love. But it’s an interesting case-study in the nature of our discipline, and of how quickly things can change.

In the United Kingdom, change has been more incremental. I see that as partly a result of the more central cultural position of the basic idea of ‘English studies’, partly a result of the power of the enduring disciplinary brand within an A-Level system that is wary of change, and partly a result of a coordinated national curation of disciplines via the QAA’s benchmark statements. The English Benchmark Statement, in its recently-revised form, is a sensitive yet essentially conservative document, informing the way English is perceived and taught from schools through to universities.

But a high degree of stability in the classroom has been coupled with radical transformations in the shapes of academic careers. The RAE has been an extraordinary agent of dynamism: manufacturing lifetimes of anxiety on the one hand, but with the promise of swifter career progression on the other hand. A culture of external grants has changed the way we do research, increasing its pace, levels of collaboration and interdisciplinarity. In teaching, we’re perhaps performing the same functions but in different ways. In particular, forms of assessment have diversified, while technology is transforming how students access information, and maybe even how we all think.


So where to in the next 25 years? Based on nothing particularly scientific by way of evidence, here are some predictions. With a bit of luck I’ll be around to see how successful I am.

  • Let’s start with the negative. I fear that some of the core values of our discipline are under pressure. What has always typified English for me is a commitment to close, independent critical engagement with texts. What worries me is that students seem increasingly less prepared, in general, to commit themselves to this activity. Maybe this is caused by the way they’re so ferociously prepped for A-Levels, maybe it’s a product of the discipline’s stretching; or maybe this is simply the perception of someone growing old and grumpy without noticing. But if we lose these core values and practices, what’s left to give us coherence?
  • I expect we will all need to become more pragmatic and employability-focused about what an English degree might involve. Internship-based modules are becoming common, and rightly so. At Exeter we’re not alone in having introduced modules that directly face the creative industries and digital humanities. Of course changes along these lines may, through unintended consequences, place still more pressure on those core values (above), but I think this is where we’re heading.
  • Student numbers in English are currently in slight decline. I think it will remain a robust discipline, but that’s not to say that the decline will quickly be arrested or reversed. I even wonder whether the small-nation political connotations of ‘English’ as a brand, however much we vociferously contest them, might rankle a little with the Brexit generation (and even more so with international students). In practical terms, I expect departments to close at some (maybe many) universities that do wonderful work but simply lose out in the fierce competition among universities for a limited pool of students.
  • I think we will increasingly find ways of collaborating with other scholars in our discipline across the world. The growth areas for English are not in the UK; they’re in Asia. Many of today’s PhD students may find careers in places they hadn’t expected.
  • Interdisciplinarity will continue to transform the way we do research, especially anything externally funded. The rise of the medical humanities is instructive in this regard. It remains to be seen whether the Global Challenges Research Fund will be as powerful an agent of change, but it’s indicative of changes that today’s early-career researchers would do well to notice.
  • How will we be publishing our research 25 years from now? The monograph has proved astonishingly resilient; certainly a lot more are published now than when I wrote my first one. But the open-access movement, and the availability of digital technologies, really must at some point shake our lives more than they have to date.
  • Finally, I wonder whether academic careers might become more varied and multi-dimensional. In a world where most people change jobs frequently and careers occasionally, academia is an outlier, and our discipline more so than others. This gives us security and continuity, but can also leave us desperately exposed when funding is tight. Given greater levels of openness, especially in relation to the impact agenda and the creative industries, maybe this will change.

But only one tantrum: getting it right and wrong on TEF results day*

The TEF results have come and gone, and the press has predictably declared some of the nation’s best universities to be ‘second-rate’. One lesson to be drawn from the past few months is that there are plenty of people determined to kick the British university system for no better reason than that it remains world-class despite an overriding spirit of national decay. The TEF has fed such commentators an easy line.

But setting aside those frustrations, what might we learn from initial responses across the sector? What might they tell us about the faultlines in debates over TEF as we move forward?


Only the one tantrum? Really?

Just a hunch, this, but I reckon that when Christopher Snowden, VC of Southampton, cut loose within hours of his university’s bronze award being announced, he rather expected to be leading a chorus. A concerted vice-chancellorial spitefest might have battered a hole in the TEF.

Tantrums there must surely have been, but Snowden is to date the only one (as far as I know) to have taken his into the public domain. I suspect he’ll regret it. Meanwhile there are some outstanding examples of how to present mediocre news. Bristol, for instance, takes the opportunity to boast about other league table successes, and lists some ‘ongoing improvements’. UCL’s Michael Arthur boldly concedes that there remains another level beyond silver: ‘UCL puts education firmly on a par with research and we will not be satisfied until we have achieved a gold standard’.

Maybe those statements are easier to articulate when one’s institution has outperformed expectations, but their focus on the future is smart. In my mind that’s also preferable to the vainglorious puff produced by some of the golden ones. But perhaps the dominant impression, certainly from non-gold Russell Group universities, is a desire that this whole bloody thing will just go away. Some don’t even mention the TEF on their websites. Others waited a day or so to do so, when they had had the information two days before its release. Listen carefully: that’s the sound of institutional passive aggression.

All of which suggests that the TEF has roughly the same level of security as Brexit. It will probably survive, but plenty of people will try to soften it or blow it out of the water in the months and years to come.


But when did words ever matter?

What, then, do responses indicate about the possible shapes TEF might assume? For me, one surprising aspect of the post-results commentary has been criticism  that provider submissions have influenced the panel’s judgement. In other words, a set of metrics that indicated a lower grade has in some instances been trumped by sixteen pages of prose – or, in a couple of PVC-career-wrecking cases, vice versa.

Goddamn, the university system in this country is addicted to metrics. We’ll bicker forever and a day about what those metrics should be, then we’ll cry foul when they aren’t followed slavishly by the experts we’ve put in place to exercise some discretion. Why not just use a computer next time?

I’d argue, on the contrary, that those submissions are a critical part of the process. When I was involved in producing my university’s statement, I was vaguely aware that it probably wouldn’t much matter since our metrics were already good. Yet, as I’ve written before, the process of that document’s composition, which involved senior figures across the university, was part of the TEF’s point. It focused minds on what we were doing well, and what we could be doing better. Now we’ll work through the submissions of other successful universities, looking for further ways to improve.

Anyone who argues that these documents should be disregarded doesn’t understand the relation between self-reflection and transformation. But it seems that this point might need to be made to metrics-heads in reviews to come. Moreover, those arguing that a gold rating will lead to complacency similarly fail to understand how such levels of performance have been achieved. My university’s gold award is the result of a decade or more of relentless attention to the student experience. Nobody can expect to slack off for a couple of years and revive things in time for the next assessment.


Future medalling

I think I’ve made my disdain for the olympic-style medals clear enough already. But I appreciate the dilemma. The architects of TEF wanted something that couldn’t easily be brushed aside. They also wanted to avoid the silliness of meaninglessly fine league-table gradations, of the kind produced by the National Student Survey. Chris Husbands, the TEF Chair, has been quick to rubbish league tables produced on the basis of the TEF results.

It seems to me that some of this year’s silver medallists might have pointed the way to the future in their press releases. Warwick’s headline, for example, states simply: ‘Government declares Warwick teaching “excellent”’. And so it did. By implication it declared certain other universities to be ‘outstanding’. Perhaps those bronze universities, meanwhile, were ‘good’. Maybe that sounds a bit OFSTED-ish, but there’s a value in that kind of recognition.

One interesting question, though, is grade-inflation. A system of medals suggests there will always be a decent proportion of bronzes. But what if TEF does its job and raises levels of performance? Will panels of the future reward those improvements, or systematically raise the bar?


I’m betting the TEF will continue for a while, though it’s bound to change. Focusing on proxies of teaching quality, though unpopular with some, remains the only feasible method. Medals remain irredeemably mad. Subject-level assessment looks as cumbersome and impractical as ever, and might quietly be shelved. Linking the right to raise fees to a silver rating or gold rating, and not messing around with gradations between them, looks like a sensible modification of the crazily finely-grained model originally proposed. And honestly, even the LSE might be able to get a silver if they set their minds to it.

* Published under a different title by wonkhe.com

Widening participation and the demise of the great British university*

Let’s think, for a minute, about why British universities might be slipping down the international league tables. The figures are fairly clear: 51 of the UK’s top 76 universities, including sixteen from the Russell Group, have dropped in the latest QS rankings.

The Telegraph had a go at this exercise this morning, and concluded that ‘experts [blame] the decline on pressure to admit more disadvantaged students’. In response, I’d start with the word ‘experts’. It seems to me they had just one, from the University of Buckingham (and I’m not even sure that he would be comfortable with the way his words have been used). Their other interviewees seemed to be pulling in different directions; but, hey, why miss an opportunity for a spot of reactionary elitism on the day of a general election?

What this extraordinary explanation for the fall of Britain is doing, after all, is blaming a programme of social mobility – the longstanding commitment to widening participation in higher education – for a decline in quality. Or, in a not wholly subliminal way, it’s suggesting that our top universities could be great again if only they didn’t have to admit so many of the wrong kind of persons. Those poor people from underfunded schools: they really pull us all down.

Another way of analysing these results might have been to start with the QS methodology. It encompasses six metrics:

  1. Academic Reputation
  2. Employer Reputation
  3. Faculty/Student Ratio
  4. Citations per faculty
  5. International Faculty Ratio
  6. International Student Ratio

As hard as I look, I don’t see anything here about the average net worth of the parents of a university’s students. Funny that; if we could only take ourselves back a few generations, it was all so much more straightforward.

So where else might we look for explanations? First of all, we might consider the level of international competition. There are countries around the world, not least in Asia, that have methodically and ruthlessly targeted success in the international league tables. They have increased investment across the board, and also concentrated resources on identified elite groups of universities. They’re not relying on reputations rooted in the past; they’re aggressively building those reputations right now.

Secondly, let’s pause on the final two measures, which are all about international outlook. For all our ‘we are international’ hash-tags, British universities are hamstrung by a government that is and insular in its outlook and hostile – at least in its rhetoric – towards international students. Other countries are increasing their numbers of international students while we are going backwards on this measure. Our participation in EU research funding schemes, which have been the single greatest engine of international collaboration, is in serious doubt.

Which leads us to Brexit. After an election campaign in which both major parties have made promises about this and that while determinedly ignoring the fact that Brexit will rip a bloody great hole in the nation, it seems appropriate that we should be looking every which way other than Brexit for an explanation for these league table trends. Because it couldn’t have anything to do with Brexit, could it? It surely couldn’t – or not, anyway, for The Telegraph – be influenced in any way by this historical act of insularity and xenophobia?

No: there must be someone else to blame. It must be caused by our dreadfully misguided efforts to drag forward all these frightfully uneducated oiks. Britain was an altogether greater nation when those folk knew their place, and when the higher education system was designed to damn well keep them there.

* Published under a different title by wonkhe.com

Still loving the bomb: Britain and Trident, 2017

What is it with the British and nuclear weapons? I’ve lived in the UK half my adult life, but it’s only the current election campaign that has prompted me to ask this question. My answers, so far, are depressing.

It’s not that I’ve never before had to think about nuclear weapons. If the Americans had invaded Japan in 1945 rather than dropping those two bombs, my father, interned as a prisoner-of-war and slave labourer in the city of Kobe, most likely would have been shot. I exist because nuclear weapons were invented and I’ve never been passionately anti-nuclear; I just think there’s something peculiar about what I see today in Britain.

Britain acquired nuclear weapons at the very historical moment when it was losing its empire. While there was no causal relationship between these two developments, I can’t be the first person to suggest that this has led to the inflated significance of nukes in many British minds. Do I need an expert to demonstrate a correlation between nostalgia for the empire and a deep attachment to Trident? Probably, but I’ll go out on a limb regardless.

And so, despite any evidence that nuclear weapons are more likely to be used now than at any other time in the past sixty years, despite all the evidence that what the military needs most of all is more conventional equipment, and despite the fact that both main political parties are wilfully leading us into economic decline and diplomatic irrelevance, many people are clinging to the bomb as a sign of British greatness. For Lynton Crosby, it’s doubtless a wondrous dead cat. For the rest of us, it’s a symptom of national delusion. Clinging onto Trident gives us cause to feel powerful beyond our means.

Nuclear bombs, to state the obvious, are the ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Even the testing of Britain’s early bombs, in supposedly uninhabited desert in Australia, caused damage to lives that is still evident decades later. Maybe, at a time when warfare has transformed into something that happens in faraway countries, that most of us watch only on television, that’s somehow hard to grasp. After all, we’re capable of watching the destruction of Syrian cities on the telly, then grumbling about the bloody refugees.

In the current election campaign, we have a candidate being pilloried for refusing to abandon his lifelong distaste for nuclear weapons. It seems that some people actually want him to say that he would strike first, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of, well, different kinds of people in the cause of a fantasy of British ‘safety’. For a start, this is all a desperate irrelevance; I mean, how many nuclear standoffs has Britain actually had, ever? More disturbingly, it’s an insight into how many British people appear to assess the ‘strength’ of their nation and its leaders.

Actually, I’m not sure Britain has ever had a prime minister who would have dealt with a nuclear crisis any differently from how Corbyn might end up dealing with one. Not many outright sociopaths work their way through the Westminster system, whatever their opponents might think of them at the time. But for me, what’s telling about this upsurge of emotion masquerading as rational debate, is what it reveals about the people – maybe many millions of them – who love our nukes. It seems to me this reveals rather a lot about a desire to approach complex problems in simplistic, binary, confrontational, aggressive terms. And it perhaps reveals a lot about Britain in 2017.

And in my next post, I promise, I’ll return to higher education stuff. This election campaign is winding me up a bit.

How old is a voter? A peculiar British media obsession with age

I may be an immigrant, but I’ve passed my ‘Life in the UK’ test and I understand that people in this country can vote from the age of eighteen. But what’s really winding me up in this election is that you wouldn’t bloody well know it from the way the media behaves.

So, with apologies to those who flock to this blog for my considered views on higher education, I’m going to have a media-studies rant. I figure the BBC – though they’re not alone in this – has a view of a voter as being about sixty. And given the powerful data on age as an influence on voting intention, which suggests that age now has more influence on choice than class, I reckon this is distorting their professedly unbiased representation of the election.


Exhibit A: the vox pop

Journalists apparently love going out into the big wide world to gather the views of ‘the public’. Actually, I think they really hate it, which may be part of the problem, but the model is predictable and occasionally illuminating.

But I swear – and maybe I’ve missed things, but I’ve been stuck at home for the past two weeks after an operation, getting bored and listening to lots of news programmes, and I really mean that I’d swear to this – every time I’ve heard a BBC radio journalist doing this in the course of the current election campaign they’ve spoken only to people over the age of about fifty.

Now I accept that it might be easier to find huddles of older folk in the daytime; I accept also that it can be catchy to have someone saying ‘I’ve always voted X, but I’m buggered if I’m going to do that this time’; and I also accept that the average journalist might feel more comfortable approaching a sixty-year-old than a nineteen-year-old. But it’s unrepresentative and it’s crap. Every time we get the nice retired chap saying that Theresa May will be strong and stable, without a student chipping in with an opposing view, we’re actually getting an insidious little bit of bias.

I’d also bet that if I asked one of these journalists to visit a university campus, I’d be told that they know what the majority of students will say, so it would be unrepresentative to do so. Well, frankly, on that I’d rest my case. See you at the bowls’ club.


Exhibit B: Andrew Neil and the IRA

How much of his interview with Jeremy Corbyn did Andrew Neil devote to the IRA? Ten minutes? Eight minutes? Five minutes? Honestly, I couldn’t bear to drag myself back to it in order to check. And if it wasn’t the IRA it was other historic conflicts.

I wouldn’t argue for a minute that this isn’t relevant, nor would I argue that Corbyn’s political backstory isn’t an issue in this election. I’m one of those people who blew £5 by becoming a Labour ‘supporter’ last year in order to vote for Owen Smith. But is it really all that important as we look forward to the next five years?

I mean, there are millions of voters who can’t remember The Troubles. Maybe they need to learn their history, but perhaps most of all right now they’re worrying about the future. These are the people who voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, and whose lives are going to most affected by it, for decades to come.

But Brexit, Andrew Neil? I think he mentioned it once in that interview. The unmade costings of Brexit render all other calculations in this election pretty much meaningless. We’re living in a fantasy land in which we talk about education, social care and nuclear weapons without anyone questioning just how devastating a hit the economy is about to take.

I can’t believe I’m the only one who would rather hear Corbyn’s views on this – and, by the way, that could be the best tactic to expose him, because I don’t think he has any more idea about Brexit than May – than on the IRA. But the wait is becoming a little frustrating.


And so the press will turn around in due course and say that younger voters don’t turn out on the day. Frankly, the way they’re represented, who could blame them? In fact, though, this has been exposed as a bit of a myth in relation to the referendum, and I wouldn’t be surprised if younger voters surprise us again this time. I’m not sure any party has the answers they need, but they have every right to be mightily pissed off.


The idea of the university in the Conservative Party manifesto*



On the evidence of their election manifesto, universities make Theresa May’s Conservatives uneasy. Something about the modern university worries the authors of this document, as they pick away at higher education policy in one section after another. While Labour’s manifesto mentions universities only in relation to fees, it feels like there’s a lot more at stake for the Tories.

So I’d like to consider what’s troubling them, and also what they propose instead, by dwelling on some of the manifesto’s language.


‘We will toughen the visa requirements for students, to make sure that we maintain high standards’

The curious thing about this sentence is not the commitment – hugely disappointing though it is – but the justification. What does it mean?

In technical terms, David Morris identifies two alternatives: ‘standards of visa compliance or standards of quality in higher education’. It’s also effectively meaningless; who’s asking for lower standards, of anything? But there’s perhaps something more fundamental, even philosophical at work here as well. It’s an anxious sentence. It has the tone of a head-teacher fretting that her pupils’ are being distracted by the latest social media fad.

British universities are accustomed to working in a global higher education network. Their ideal would be a world with frictionless movement of students, researchers and ideas. Mass movement of students is a good thing for the exporting country since it raises skill levels, and for the importing country since it generates income. And we talk about a ‘fourth age of research’, in which international collaboration makes our work more effective and visible.

But that’s not the way this manifesto sees the world. It wants the UK to be special, even as it struggles to put its finger on how. This is a document, after all, that positions the UK as a ‘champion of free trade’: using a metaphor from medieval chivalry to position a former colonial power as distinctive in endorsing a value that might otherwise appear to be all about international equality.

So ‘maintaining standards’, I’d suggest, is about having a little bit of globalization while maintaining British universities as a little bit insular. It is of a piece with the ongoing commitment to ensuring that international students return home after graduating, and that they pay more money towards the cost of the National Health Service. It says: you can be here, but just don’t affect us in any discernible way.


‘we will also launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole’

In practical terms, one might ask: why on earth would they want to rip this hornets’ nest right off the branch, immediately after passing the Higher Education and Research Bill? The commitment is made in the context of a vision of a revived ‘technical’ education sector, yet it’s another statement that betrays more fundamental anxieties about the university.

There was a moment, not so very long ago, when vice-chancellors fantasized about freedom from state control. The state, it was said, was an unreliable partner. The fees settlement meant that primary educational contracts were now between students and providers, while research councils and independent funding bodies further served to keep the state at arm’s length.

But this election’s Tories don’t like this. Moving higher education into the Department for Education was symbolically important in this regard, indicating a perception that universities are fundamentally not independent businesses but part of a national educational system. This manifesto is a record of their scrabbling around in the dark looking for new levers to pull.

Not that all their ideas are uninteresting. There’s a proposal to ‘build up the investment funds of our universities’, enabling them ‘to enjoy the commercial fruits of their research’. But there’s also a reiteration of the Industrial Strategy commitment to a more interventionist approach to research funding. And there’s the controversial commitment that universities must involve themselves in secondary education: ‘We will make it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools.’

Hence that ‘major review of funding’. Maybe differential fees according to an institution’s graduates’ record of repayment? Who knows? Maybe they don’t know themselves. It might never happen. But it’s important as a statement of authority: the state is in charge.


‘It is why we want to see universities make their full contribution to their local community and economy’

Universities argue that global recognition and local influence are symbiotic. This is powerfully stated in University College London’s strapline: ‘London’s global university’. But the Tories – the declared party of the ‘somewheres’, sceptical of the ‘citizens of the world – are suspicious.

Hence the free schools and academies. They also want to ensure that universities create ‘opportunities for local people, especially those from ordinary working backgrounds’ – frankly, the HE equivalent of a commitment to the family. But there’s more: new technical colleges will be linked with ‘leading’ universities (a phrase that, as Andrew McGettigan has noted, might leave the ‘non-leading’ post-92s feeling painted into a corner – most likely the Tories envisage some repurposing); and the relocation of government departments and agencies, which will supposedly create further opportunities for local development.


The Conservative Party manifesto moulds an idea of the university from the clay of British nationalism. It’s a university of ‘high standards’ and Nobel laureates, recognized in global league tables while maintaining an arm’s-length approach to the messy business of globalization. It’s a university that can be turned to address government priorities, from battery technology research to training more doctors, at the flick of a policy switch.

At one moment the manifesto declares a commitment to ‘enable top scientists to work here’. While perfectly in accord with its idea of the university, this statement is telling in its assumption that top scientists will actually want to buy into the Tories’ insular, containable, malleable model of a British university. They – like international students, like existing academics in UK universities, indeed like all those other potential migrants scuttling their way through the netherworld of Tory policy – may very well decide to go elsewhere.

* A version of this piece (ruthlessly stripped of some of its best lines) was published by The Guardian HE blog.