What next for the TEF?

The fact that the first Teaching Excellence Framework results will be published the week after the election wasn’t planned that way, but feels appropriate. Somehow it seems as though that the entire process of TEF-construction has been conducted in the shadow of a dysfunctional political system with other things on its mind.

Indeed, looking back on the hurried, slightly chaotic passing of Higher Education and Research Bill in the days after the election was announced, I wonder whether we will this as the moment when the TEF started to assume rather more docile a shape than we had been led to expect. The review of the TEF, scheduled to happen ‘by the end of 2019’ – in other words, about as soon as possible – looks ominous.

So here, having followed the TEF through its development (like, here and here, and a bit more here), and having got a couple of predictions right already, I’m going to make a few more. I have no evidence for my claims; I just reckon I might be right.


Gold, silver, bronze: bin

This is the easy bit. The ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ rankings, announced in the euphoric wake of Australia’s (or maybe that was Great Britain’s – but surely not) medal haul in 2016, is universally accepted as bonkers. It belittles the whole process of assessing teaching excellence, and it unreasonably stigmatizes universities that are in actual fact doing a perfectly good job.

So this will go, as soon as it can be shuffled off stage in a seemly manner. I’d even bet that people in the Department of Education – maybe even the halfwits who dreamt it up in the first place – have discussed whether it might be ditched for this round, given the way that it undermines the image of the entire TEF enterprise. But that possibility looks just a little implausible, even in these turbulent times.

That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that it would revert to becoming a pass/fail exercise, like a parallel version of a QAA review. I expect there will be gradings of some kind, and that these will be fed into existing league tables; however, they will be more nuanced – and, frankly, also more useful – rather on the model of REF results. In this way assessments will provide objective and constructive information, both for universities and applicants, without being unnecessarily damaging.


TEF results linked to ‘fee-rises’: believe it when you see it

So TEF results were all set to be linked to ‘fee rises’ (albeit that these were never rises at all, merely – at best – increases in line with inflation). But here’s me back in November last year:

One question I’ve been asking since the TEF was first proposed goes roughly along the lines: what happens when people at the highest levels of government realize that some of the universities most likely to lose from the exercise are some of the country’s biggest higher-education brands?

I must admit that I never equated the House of Lords with ‘the highest levels of government’. I rather overestimated the capacity for people elsewhere to behave sensibly, and underestimated the influence of this curious remnant of British elitism.

But it happened. In my imagination it was just a matter of a couple of VCs of high-profile universities that were looking down the barrel of a ‘bronze’ sitting down to dinner with a few inluential alumni in the House of Lords and explaining the outrage about to unfold. Their grand alma mater will be forced to charge lower fees than the scruffy post-92 down the road. Really. Perish the thought.

And so, one way or another, I’d bet this will happen again. The sensible compromise option – submit yourself to TEF, get a satisfactory rating (i.e. anything from bronze upward, in this round’s terms), and you can raise your fees in line with inflation – seems to me like a long-term solution. Such an outcome would also help to revive the battered reputation of the National Student Survey, on the back of the National Union of Students’ boycott. (That worked a treat, didn’t it guys?) Maybe those running the TEF might even see their way to promoting the NSS, rather than questioning its value.


Subject-level TEF: yeh, right

Sorry, but I just see the prospect of subject-level TEF as madness. I was involved in preparing Exeter’s institutional response, which was hard work but served a purpose, usefully prompting us to reflect on what we’re doing. Moreover, when the institutional statements are all published, universities across the land will have at their fingertips a huge bank of ideas for educational innovation. That’s great for everyone, most of all the students.

But what’s to be gained from a subject-level exercise? In sheer bureaucratic terms, I can’t see how the labour – on the part of the academic departments or the reviewers – will justify the outcomes. In financial terms, I can’t realistically see how results could be factored into course fees, creating a weird patchwork of slightly different fees across any university. And – most importantly – as an exercise in driving forward innovation I’m not sure this will add in any credible way to the achievement of the institutional exercise.


Get a future; get a logo

Finally, the TEF is suffering a serious branding deficit. It needs a logo. It needs some pictures on its website, for God’s sake. Everything about it screams: ‘bleak and bureaucratic’. It sits up and says, ‘Hate me’. I’m predicting this might change; although, to be honest, I’m less confident about that than any of the above. In the meantime, for the sake of an image for this blog-post, I offer you a kitten (nicked shamelessly from the web).


So that’s all settled, then. What could possibly go wrong from here?

Note. This piece has been republished by wonkhe.com. But they didn’t publish the kitten. I mean, seriously, it’s only me giving you the cuteness factor.

The great arts, humanities and social sciences skills audit

When predicting the value of skills that students acquire at university, science, technology, engineering and maths subjects appear to have some advantages. Nuclear power, for instance, depends on highly trained nuclear engineers – or we all die. English graduates can become prime ministers and CEOs, but the link between disciplinary learning and career effectiveness is rather less direct.

The British Academy is trying to do something about this, through a ‘flagship skills project’ titled ‘Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences’. This is driven by a grand ambition: ‘to articulate the skills that are inherent to the study of arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS), their value to the individual, and the contribution they do make and could make in future to society’. Utopian in some respects, the project nonetheless demands attention from everyone involved in these fields.


Skills, skills, skills

Skills matter. It’s critical that those involved in higher education should be able to demonstrate the skills their students learn, and equally critical that graduates should be able to articulate the value of what they have learned. This matters in the undergraduate admission cycle, when potential students want to know where their degree – coming, as it does, at considerable cost – might take them. It also matters in terms of the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which in future will assess not just destinations but perceptions of the connection between learning and career success.

In public discourse the skills debate has been monopolized by STEM advocates. We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of HASS-educated politicians asserting that the only degrees with any real value are STEM ones. HASS disciplines have been slow to rise to this challenge. Our lists of ‘transferable skills’, buried away on module descriptions, are copied and pasted from year to year without much reflection. Maybe some academics feel uneasy about a skills agenda; many surely lack confidence in the non-academic value of what they are teaching.

In this context, the British Academy initiative is timely. It begins with a pragmatic acknowledgement of a ‘need for a better understanding of whether the UK has got the right balance of skills levels and disciplines for the future’. The ‘call for evidence’ document provides a useful, if not comprehensive, review of existing literature on the subject of HASS skills. On this basis it proposes an excellent list of core HASS skills:

  • Advocacy and the ability to present a case
  • Analysis and evaluation of evidence, weighing up arguments and understanding multiple perspectives, awareness of the possibilities and limitations of data, methodological rigour
  • Ability to notice and describe, and to contextualise, pointing out and unravelling complexity
  • Imaginative objectivity, persuasion, diplomacy, negotiation, listening, empathy
  • Leadership, independence, initiative, problem solving
  • Creative enthusiasm, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, self-management
  • Resilience, cultural awareness, adaptability, flexibility and the ability to navigate change

As the document acknowledges, however, it’s easy enough to assert that HASS subjects teach these skills but another to be able to demonstrate it. And the question of whether we do it well is another question again. It would be great to have some hard evidence to support claims such as these.


Trawling for evidence

As much as I want to see the BA’s project succeed, I admit to a degree of scepticism. While the Academy can claim a measure of success in its previous, more focused work on quantitative skills and languages (not complete success by any means, given the seemingly unstoppable decline in language learning), this programme is of another degree of complexity altogether.

If the ‘call for evidence’ document was a grant application, it has to be said that it wouldn’t get past peer reviewers. It makes the mistake of foreshadowing its findings before undertaking the research: this is a project, as the title proclaims, aiming to celebrate skills in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Its questions, meanwhile, are unnervingly broad and open-ended. Respondents are asked more than once whether they know of ‘any other evidence’, while at one point they are canvassed for advice on how this project might be done. We’re assured that this will all be processed in time for a final report in autumn 2017. I’ll believe that when I see it.

I also fear that this project has not achieved the level of recognition that it deserves. There was no mention of it at the annual general meeting of my own subject association, University English, last week. Maybe the association executive members were overwhelmed by the bank of questions; more likely they (like me: sorry) simply had not been aware of the project. The deadline for responses has been extended once (to today, in fact), and maybe the process will need to be stretched again.


If the people charged with leading this project can get a grip on it, this may still be a hugely valuable initiative. The call for evidence document alone is rich in its outline of the field; if this sense of purpose can be maintained, there’s cause for hope. There should be much to celebrate, once the evidence is gathered and analysed.

Industry with the creativity taken out

In order to become a citizen of the UK, an immigrant needs to learn a lot about the nation’s creative past and present. Life in the UK: A Guide for New Residents introduces its readers to Britain’s theatres, museums and galleries, and a host of poets and novelists. Those aspiring to British citizenship are warned not to take the ‘Life in the UK Test’ without having grasped, among other things, ‘the development of British cinema’.

But what happens to this proud appreciation of the creative industries should the aspiring British citizen enter the world of government policy? Faced with the Building our Industrial Strategy Green Paper, a very different kind of nation emerges. This document sees industry through a prism of science and technology. It contains eight references to battery technology but no mention of the film industry. Its perception of research and skills barely glances beyond ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

Of course it would be absurd to claim that the sciences are free of creativity, just as it would be foolish to deny the importance of battery technology to the sustainability agenda. But people working in the film industry – or, for that matter, the still more lucrative gaming industry – have cause to feel marginalized, even patronized.


Putting creativity back in

The creative industries include film and television, publishing, architecture, design, advertising, music, software and gaming. While the Green Paper might prefer a model of ‘industry’ forged in the heat of the Industrial Revolution, creativity is a big deal in 2017.

In January this year the Business secretary, Greg Clark, acknowledged the creative industries as the fastest growing sector of the UK economy. Figures released in 2016 by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport demonstrated that the creative industries generated £87.4 billion of value to the UK economy in 2015, and that they were creating new jobs at more than twice the rate for the economy as a whole. And if we stretch our focus a little, almost 10% of the UK workforce is employed in creative occupations, which is more people than are employed in either construction or financial services.

At their most successful, the creative industries draw upon people with a wide range of skills and training. A recent report on a cluster of high-growth creative firms in Brighton found not only that a mix of disciplinary expertise brings success, but also that 48% of the entrepreneurs were arts, design or humanities graduates. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. Steve Jobs described Apple as ‘existing at the intersection of technology and liberal arts’. We know also that roughly a third of FTSE100 CEOs hold humanities degrees, along with a significant proportion of politicians and senior sivil servants.


Creativity? We can teach that

But somewhere along the line, education in STEM subjects became the priority. ‘STEM’ wasn’t even a thing until the present century; people studied science and technology disciplines, but not under this brand. The coinage of the acronym dates back to 2001, and has been a little piece of public relations brilliance that has transformed public discourse on education across the world.

This is not to argue that more expertise in the sciences and technology disciplines may not be a good thing. That would be madness. But the easy over-reliance on ‘STEM’ in the public arena all too quickly becomes exclusive, creating a binary that looks rather like: ‘STEM’ v ‘the less useful stuff’. The Green Paper dives right down this tunnel of vision, promising to ‘boost STEM skills’, increase PhDs in STEM, and so forth. ‘STEM’ is mentioned twenty times, the social sciences and the arts and humanities not at all. The spring budget fell into line, promising 1000 new PhD studentships ‘in areas aligned with the industrial strategy’. It’s boom-time for batteries.

It’s surely time to think about ways of articulating more powerfully the skills that students develop through studying other disciplines, in the arts, humanities and social sciences. These skills – qualitative and quantitative analysis, communication, critical thinking, team-working, design, entrepreneurialism, and so forth – take our graduates into all sorts of important places. Educators need to remember that, and we need to ensure that our graduates don’t forget it when they become CEOs and government ministers. And, by the way, we can teach creativity.


Creativity? We can research that

For the UK’s researchers, the big proposal in Building our Industrial Strategy is the creation of an ‘Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’, worth around £2 billion. Though not intended as exhaustive, the Green Paper lists likely priority areas, including: robotics, satellites, biotechnology, supercomputing, and – yes – batteries.

Much research in the arts and humanities has no obvious implications for the creative industries. This is also true of much STEM research. But the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council have worked hard over the past decade to support collaboration at areas of interface. For example, the AHRC’s  knowledge exchange hubs experimented with models of engagement between researchers and industry, and demonstrated the economic impact of such investment. Specific projects ranged from innovation in gaming, textiles, medical products, intellectual property, through to the ambitious Creative Cardiff initiative.

After these developments, researchers were primed and ready for a bold, twenty-first century industrial strategy. We’ve proved that we can achieve a lot, in a fast-growing sector, with a fraction of the overall investment promised in the Green Paper. In terms of research synergies, just as in the area of skills and training, we have much to contribute to industry. But that’s not the vision we get from Building Our Industrial Strategy.


There’s a way to go in this process. The Green Paper is open for consultation until 17 April. Meanwhile Sir Peter Bazalgette, outgoing Chair of the Arts Council, has been commissioned to conduct a review of the creative industries. But shifting both the terms and the tone of the debate will require some energetic and collaborative – even, in the classic use of the term, industrious – labour.

Trash the NSS? Let’s be careful what we wish for

It’s been open season for attacks on the National Student Survey in recent months. The House of Lords, for instance, was treated to the old chestnut that students give better satisfaction ratings to easier courses. That’s not only entirely unsubstantiated, but disrespectful to the many thousands of students who actually want to be challenged, and in turn respond honestly to NSS questions. Even Chris Husbands, Chair of the Teaching Excellence Framework, has labelled the NSS as a ‘flawed … proxy for teaching quality’.

This has been music to the ears of many academics, who have long felt the NSS as a stick used to beat them, a key and resented manifestation of an audit-culture. Some objections to the NSS are fair, and indeed entirely helpful in limiting the uses to which it might be put; others, in my opinion, are knee-jerk reactions to students who dare to voice their dissatisfaction.

My point here is: be careful what you wish for. Because if we don’t stand behind the survey that gathers the considered responses of roughly 70% of all final-year undergraduates each year, just stand back and watch as other forms of quasi-research flood the public sphere.


Letting the journalists do the satisfaction research

Take the piece in today’s Times by Jenni Russell, which claims that many students are ‘getting a third-class education’. This contains no mention at all of the NSS. I mean, why should she worry about this longstanding and universal survey of finalists, when even the chair of the TEF seems so keen to run it down? And the piece demonstrates very well what happens when journalists go looking for other forms of evidence.

Russell has two sources of evidence. First, she uses students’ perceptions of ‘value for money’ as recorded in the Student Academic Experience Survey administered by the Higher Education Policy Institute. Fair enough: that survey gathered 15,000 responses in 2016. But to cry in horror at evidence that students became less convinced of value for money when the government transferred the cost of higher education from the state to the student, payable in the form of income-contingent loans, is a bit rich. Obviously this is a measure universities have to address, but of course students were going to react when their levels of debt soared.

Second, rather than turning to the NSS, Russell performed her own student satisfaction survey. In her words: ‘I’ve talked to ten students in the past few days’. Ten students: that’s a tough piece of research. And on this basis she concludes that Oxbridge is good, on the back of a chat with maybe no more than one student. But, you know, that feels about right, doesn’t it; after all, Russell herself is an Oxbridge graduate. She assures us also that the sciences are doing fine: maybe another two or three students there. So what’s left? Let’s have a go at the humanities and social sciences; that would be original, wouldn’t it? Sussex is slated on the word of one student. Feedback at Manchester is trashed on the basis of one tutor.


Reputation, reputation, reputation

Reputations for quality teaching are hard-won. And they matter; in a context of declining university applications, jobs depend upon them. There may well be programmes at Sussex or Manchester that are poor – I don’t know – but to pass judgement on dozens of academic departments, at a moment when applicants are making decisions about where to study, is desperately irresponsible.

But, to say it again, maybe that’s just what we get if we diss the NSS. It’s not hard to work through unistats and identify some programmes that are getting poor satisfaction results. It’s also easy enough to drill down, say, to satisfaction with feedback, or to compare results over a succession of years.

If a journalist were to identify a course that’s been underperforming for years, then seek out some students on that course, I’d applaud her. I’ve worked to turn around units getting poor NSS results, and this has convinced me: a) that the NSS gives us reliable data; and b) that concentrated work can turn the situation around. Poor practice should be exposed and addressed, but let’s be careful how we identify it in the first place.


Attacks on the NSS seem especially unfortunate given the excellent, considered revision the survey has undergone this year. It seems to me blindingly obvious that student satisfaction does matter in a competitive system, whether academics like it or not, and universities are being sensible and responsible when they respond, year by year, to NSS results. Jenni Russell has merely demonstrated what we get when we don’t stand with confidence behind this reliable evidence-base.


A one-way ticket to New DLHE

Farewell, then, Old DLHE; your passing is unlikely to be mourned.

The Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which delivers ‘graduate outcomes’ figures for league tables, has reached the final stages of a review. The consultation document, published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency this week, has an air of finality. The proposed new arrangements will affect students currently in their second of year of three-year undergraduate degrees.

So for those of us whose departments are judged by DLHE results – which means, basically, all UK academics – it’s worth pausing to consider the proposed changes and what impact they might have. There might even be ways in which we can influence the first results, due for publication in January 2020.


Fifteen months is the new six months

The principle of Old DLHE was to ask graduates what they were doing on one day, roughly six months after their graduation. As the consultation document notes, this was always controversial, and had arguably become increasingly problematic as a result of ‘the changed structure of the graduate jobs market and expectations of longer transitions into a settled pattern of activity’. Hence New DLHE proposes to ask graduates what they were doing in one week, roughly fifteen months after graduation.

This feels right, and should produce more reliable data. Notably, there’s a provision that will still capture those on twelve-month MA programmes (‘graduates who are surveyed in the September – November period will be asked about the activities they were undertaking during the first week in September’). While these programmes are not always the best way to ensure long-term employability, this commitment will be welcome in the sector.


Show us the money

As well as surveying the levels of graduate employment, New DLHE will gather information on salaries. The methods for this investigation remain just a little bit of a work in progress, but will involve a combination of self-declaration in survey-interviews and figures drawn from existing national datasets.

We’re not unfamiliar with these kind of data. They tend to show that if you study economics at the LSE you’re going to make money, and if you study ceramics you’re probably going to make rather less. For most disciplines in between, meanwhile, the average figures tend to be more closely bunched.

So I’d put this in the category of: ‘bound to happen, nothing much to be done about it’. My only concern would be the potential uses of the figures. Given the accepted correlation, regardless of one’s degree, between social background and future earnings, one hopes they are never worked into league tables.


But tell us how you really feel about it

The most interesting aspect of the proposals is the inclusion of qualitative questions: or, as the consultation describes them, ‘“graduate voice” measures [designed] to capture alternative ways of measuring graduate success’. These questions will include:

  • Why did you decide to take up your job?
  • My current activity fits with my future plans (agree or disagree)
  • My current activity is meaningful and important to me (agree or disagree
  • I am using what I learned during my studies in my current activity (agree or disagree)

This promises to give us some fascinating data, reflecting in particular on the ways in which graduates understand the place of their degrees in their unfolding lives. Universities will also have the opportunity to add further optional questions. A year ago I facetiously suggested calibrating DLHE with a national happiness index; HEFCE has opted instead for ‘meaningfulness’.

These questions might also prompt academics to think afresh about how we help our students make connections between their learning and their future careers. If Old DLHE has encouraged a utilitarian approach to employability – just getting graduates into jobs – this is altogether more idealistic.

But how will these questions be made to matter? I’ll be watching to see whether responses end up being factored into league tables. If this doesn’t happen – and it’s not obvious to see how it would – then their effect will be limited. They could even come to be seen as more trouble than they’re worth.


The rise of the entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship is the new black on UK campuses. Hence the predictability that the definition of ‘graduate employment’ in New DLHE would be adjusted accordingly. It will aim ‘to capture graduates pursuing non-traditional career-paths, such as those developing creative portfolions or setting up businesses’.

That will be welcomed in particular by academics in creative disciplines, who have argued that Old DLHE fails to recognize the more dynamic and entrepreneurial routes taken by many of their graduates. But the calibration with earnings data may well cut in the other direction, exposing areas where ‘entrepreneurship’ often boils down to taking bar-work while struggling in vain to get a creative career off the ground.


Will it work?

Kind of. Response rates of 70% per provider are predicted on the basis that they do something similar in Australia and get 39% – but, hey, we’ll do it better. That smacks just a little of wishful thinking. I’ll also be curious to see whether some of the idealism – and length – gets whittled away somewhere along the line. But hopefully this is pretty much what we will get; it looks like a better destination than Old DLHE.

Caution: dinosaurs in the classroom

The slow parliamentary progress of the Higher Education Act is stirring some fundamental debate about the very definition of a university. And for an example of why this might be important, we need look no further than Sonia sodhaSodha’s attack on ‘arrogant’ and ‘dinosaur-like’ universities. It demonstrates how a narrow focus, coupled with an irresponsible misuse of evidence, can make universities look rather staid and wasteful. This must be challenged.


Definitions, anyone?

Sodha looks at universities entirely as providers of undergraduate education. As a result, she asks, why can’t we all provide degrees at the same price as, say, the private provider BPP does with its Law degrees. Indeed, why should we cost more than schools?

Well, that’s one way we could look at the university system. But that would be to trash an awful lot of other activity, including research, public engagement, partnerships with business and industry, government consultancy, and so forth. Do we want universities to be internationally competitive? Do we want them to attract international students, worth billions of pounds to regional and national economies? Do we want them to forge regional and international partnerships for research and innovation? Do we want to attract the world’s best academics to the UK?

Maybe some people don’t want any of that at all. After all, if international students look too much like migrants, maybe some people rejoice in the recent downturn in enrolment numbers. Maybe some people hanker after a time before global league tables – before, even, globalization itself – when universities taught British students to go forth and work in Britain. But maybe – just maybe – that’s all a little bit out of touch with reality.


Myth upon myth

Simplistic definitions lead naturally enough to a lazy treatment of evidence. Sodha points out that the cost of British public university education is the highest in the OECD. True enough, if approached from the perspective of the student; however, this is a product of the state’s withdrawal of funding. While the state underwrites student-loans on advantageous terms, most likely incurring considerable cost in the process, the up-front fees for many degrees are borne entirely by the students. In the humanities and social sciences, a student’s £9000 per year is all we get to cover the cost of his or her education.

As for her claims that British universities lack transparency: well, some people lack the energy to look at what’s staring them in the face. How about unistats? It provides information, by programme, on student satisfaction, graduate employment, as well as all sorts of information about how programmes are delivered. If someone wants to find out about contact hours, class sizes, assessment models, and so forth, universities aren’t hiding anything. Wait just a couple of months and the Teaching Excellence Framework will disgorge further reams of information. Meanwhile, information about staffing – who we employ, even how much we pay them – is also easy enough to find on any university website.


Doing what we’ve always done

And so to innovation: we’re all just doing what we’ve always done.

Well that’s perhaps the sloppiest of cliché-driven assertions in her entire piece. It overlooks the year-to-year reforms that happen in every programme in the country as we respond to student feedback and other evidence from a fiercely competitive marketplace. So in my department, to take some examples from recent years, we have: increased contact hours, decreased seminar sizes, introduced video-recording of all lectures, committed ourselves to returning feedback on written work within three weeks, diversified our assessment models, introduced employability-driven modules – and I could go on.

If that’s not enough, how about some reforms at programme level? We introduced a Liberal Arts programme, aiming to stretch students beyond Single Honours models. We have increased our provision of study abroad. We’re increasingly looking afresh at online learning, whether in the form of MOOCs or on a more formal and commercialized basis. And at a postgraduate level, we have forged innovative partnerships, such as (in my own department) the London Film School.

Looking further afield: how about the New College of the Humanities? Maybe this is not quite what Sodha has in mind in terms of costs, but what I like about it is the honesty on the principle that excellence – innovative or not – can’t be done on the cheap. We’ve got a diverse, vibrant, competitive sector – but maybe Sodha prefers a stereotype forged a generation ago.


I’m not going to argue that UK higher education is perfect, but let’s have a reality-check. If we’re going to attack universities, let’s first define what we mean and what we want from them. And if we’re going to make outspoken assertions, let’s do a little research. That’s the kind of basic academic responsibility we teach our students. And while academic responsibility is perhaps an old-fashioned value, I’d suggest that it’s proved its worth over the years.

The disappearance of the male humanist, and other stories from the 2017 UCAS data

The headline figure from this year’s dump of UCAS university application data is an overall drop in demand. To the extent that this is a home-student phenomenon, it is largely demographic and was widely expected; to the extent that it’s an EU-student phenomenon, it’s Brexit. But these figures tell a multitude of more specific tales, particularly when broken down to subject areas.

I want to focus here on the humanities, analyzing trends in the JACS3 codes Q to V. Without getting too detailed, Q includes linguistics and literature subjects, R and T are largely languages, while V includes history and philosophy. There is no S. Really, there is no S.

And while it’s easy to get distracted by the overall one-year decline, I’m more interested in the five-year trends. Helpfully, the overall (all-subjects) figures for applicants to universities in all parts of the UK were roughly comparable in 2013 and 2017 (to be exact, a rise of c.1%). So any deviations are worth noticing.

Is it time, yet, for a crisis in the humanities?

               The view from the USA

I’ve argued in the past that ‘crisis’ talk, imported from elsewhere in the world, is misplaced in Britain. In the USA, there is evidence of a consistent year-by-year decline in demand at undergraduate level for humanities majors over the past ten years (see table, right). History has, perhaps, been most badly hit.

In the UK the only thing we have known for sure is that there’s a crisis in Modern Languages. No change there: over the period 2013-2017 the main ML category (R) is down 24%. Maybe there’s now a narrative that goes: the Erasmus crisis gets sorted, and a generation of right pissed-off teenagers flood into ML departments as a form of resistance to Brexit. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Overall, in categories Q-V, the trend is down 9% over five years. While these figures are not so useful for tracking individual subjects, some trends are apparent. As opposed to the US experience, History appears to be holding up quite well. By comparison, English is down, and the pressures on this discipline – my discipline – are compounded by the fact that some of the more prestigious universities have increased capacity through the same period. More and more English departments are likely to feel the pinch.

‘Oh my boys, my boys, we are at the end of an age!’

While a crisis in the humanities remains a matter of debate, we don’t need Uncle Monty to remind us that there’s one hell of a gender crisis. This table indicates the disparity between male and female applicants, with young men drifting away from the humanities at a disproportionate rate. The drop in category Q means that there are now more than threeucas-table17 female applicants for these subjects for every one male applicant.

Two anecdotes at this point. Number one: last week I met with one of my few male personal tutees, who is flying along in his first year of an English degree, and couldn’t be happier. His only concern was that he needs a few extra kilograms of muscle to stand a chance of not being knocked senseless on the university rugby field. Number two: at an open day last year, a mother pressed me after my talk, on whether English was, well, suitable for her son – as, you know, a boy.

There are at least three reasons why we should address this trend. Firstly, we manifestly can’t afford to lose any applicants at all. Secondly, it can’t be good for any subject – be it Engineering (a 47% rise in women over five years there, by the way) or English – to be so overwhelmingly identified with one gender. And thirdly, the evidence suggests that once we get them through the doors men actually do disproportionately well. Maybe I have a certain bias on this matter, but it seems to me that the world needs male humanists.

The demise of the combined degree

There aren’t many places in the world where students go to university aged 18 and study only one subject for three years. Some of us would argue that this isn’t necessarily the best approach to university-level education. Some of us ucas-table-17-3have even worked to develop innovative multi-disciplinary alternatives. There are some wonderful programmes available, but the UCAS data suggests that applicants are flocking instead towards traditional single-honours models.

How do we make sense of this trend? My only hypothesis is that in the post-financial crisis, post-£9000 fees era students have become more conservative. Hence the slight shift away from humanities, and hence also a resistance towards degrees that look a little bit novel, and potentially unrecognizable to employers. That’s a great pity; more might be done to raise the profile of such programmes.

Finally, a reminder. The application figures are just the start. There’s an awful lot of work to be done between now and August, when we get a clearer sense of how our lecture theatres will look next autumn.

Time for a student-support arms race: entering the era of the Teaching Excellence Framework

Here’s a coincidence. Over the past couple of weeks, senior academics and managers across the UK have been polishing their ‘provider submission’ documents for the first cycle of the Teaching Excellence Framework. If you haven’t felt the terror of thistelegraph-final process, you just haven’t been in the right meetings.

Meanwhile up north, the University of Manchester has become the latest to advertise new paid posts for ‘working-class officers’. This kind of appointment, through the students’ union, won’t cost the university very much money but is an important statement of a perceived need.

I think these two things are – indirectly, at least – related. Staring into the abyss of a possible ‘silver’ – or, God forbid, ‘bronze’ – rating rather concentrates the mind. It might quite logically lead to new initiatives and commitments. Indeed I’m prepared to ask here whether – contrary to the assertions of those inflation-deniers at the National Union of Students – the TEF might turn out to be rather a good thing for students after all.


Cultural diversity and all that

The Manchester initiative follows similar appointments at SOAS and St Hilda’s, Oxford. While some will doubtless mock the idea that universities need these posts, they seem to me realistic and responsible responses to emergent needs.

There is ample evidence that students are arriving at university with more complex and urgent requirements for support than ever before. Wellbeing and disability services are oversubscribed across the country, while freshers arriving with weak qualifications often need intensive study-skills support if they are to adjust successfully to university-level study.

Cultural diversity presents further challenges. As I’ve written before, it can be all too easy for universities to assume that they’ve done their bit for widening participation simply by getting applicants from marginal and disadvantaged groups through the doors. But at that moment the challenges for those students are only just beginning, especially if they’re arriving at a university where the vast majority of students are middle class and white.

The TEF, by the way, recongnizes this issue. The bundle of data handed to universities includes figures on retention, broken down by categories of students. If a university is failing to support its non-standard students, it will be exposed.


The TEF and the art of bullshit-detection

The institutional TEF submission this time around consists of that institutional data-set and a supporting document. The data will give each university a pretty good indication of how they will be graded, but it seems that the written submission may make a moderate-to-significant difference, especially in borderline cases.

Universities have not been given much guidance about how to approach the provider submission. But one of my conclusions, based on the experience of a long day editing a draft version (a bloody good one, mind), is that it’s a genre that soaks up a whole pile of evidence, while rather hanging rhetorical flourishes out to dry.

Or, to put it another way, this exercise will expose universities that try to hide behind rhetoric. We all say the same stuff anyway – student-first, research-led, challenge and stretch, etc. – so there’s no pretending that one place has uncovered the holy grail of excellence. And I have it on good authority that the TEF panel will be employing state-of-the-art bullshit-detection systems.

So, to take one example, a university might say ‘we’re committed to supporting widening-participation students’ in fifty-eight different ways, but without some evidence of actions, those claims are going to look worse than threadbare. What the university needs to be able to say is: ‘we’re so committed to supporting widening-participation students that we’ve employed people to support them’. That kind of evidence could, let’s say, be worth it’s weight in gold.

I expect, therefore, that the experience of filling those fifteen pages has demonstrated, to managers across the country, the importance of credible commitments and actions. Once the results are announced and all relevant documents are published, I also expect that this message will be reinforced by the experience of us all reading ‘gold’ statements. That will in turn foster a spirit of emulation and competition.


I don’t particularly like the TEF: it’s onerous, it’s not especially necessary, and it’s set to produce some perverse results. But I’m coming around to its mind-focusing powers. We’re all accustomed to the discourse of strategy-documents and marketing, but the provider submission will prompt senior managers, on a regular basis, to reflect upon what really has been done to improve the student experience. Maybe ‘working-class officers’ will remain a niche career-path, but I’d predict increased commitments across the country to resources, education enhancement and – maybe above all else – student-support. That can’t be a bad thing.

Boycott the National Student Survey? Please don’t be so stupid

A March update

The recent vote in the House of Lords to decouple TEF results from fees might have looked like a victory for the inflation-denial arguments of the NUS. But a couple of reflections are worth making: a) the House of Lords doesn’t make the laws, so this will bounce back to the Commons; b) the members who made the winning arguments were explicitly not opposed to inflationary fee increases, which they suggested should happen at all universities regardless.

So smashing the TEF may be a pain-pain result for students: i.e. they lose the power of the TEF, with its agenda-shifting link to fees; and they get fees rise in line with inflation regardless. My prediction, by the way, is a fudge: inflationary rises for all universities, on the condition that they enter a pass-fail TEF. Just a prediction, though.

Finally, while people from all angles are denigrating the NSS, look what happens when journalists conduct their own student satisfaction surveys. Is this what we want?

And an April update

The government is determined to maintain a link between the TEF and fees, but is buying itself some wiggle-room as it tries to push through the HE Bill. To make sense of the amendments, I recommend the excellent Andrew McGettigan.

And from here, from January (as relevant as ever, kind of) …

The National Union of Students is calling for a boycott of the 2017 National Student Survey. The argument goes that onceboycott-the-nss-_640x400 the NSS is used as a metric to inform the Teaching Excellence Framework – as is now happening – it becomes implicated in the commercialisation of education. Hence – or so it’s claimed – by boycotting the NSS students can undermine the TEF and derail fee rises.

As a long-time lover of the NSS, I share the frustration that it should be monetized in such a crass manner. But I believe that the boycott is based on wonky logic, and will only hurt those the NUS represents. Students, please, don’t boycott the NSS.


When ‘fee rises’ aren’t fee rises

The TEF, according to the NUS, is a vehicle designed to increase fees. But I’d argue precisely the opposite: it’s designed to suppress fees.

My logic depends on a thing called ‘inflation’. The £9000 that a student was paying four years ago is not the same as £9000 today. Hence the government’s decision in 2010 that £9000 was a fair price for 2012 entrants leads logically – or should have done – to a principle of rises in line with inflation. Did anyone seriously believe that £9000 would remain the maximum price indefinitely?

The only reason we are where we are, in fact, is that the government neglected to future-proof the system. That was stupid, but it was also politics. And the political fix now is not a rise; indeed it’s not even a commitment to maintaining funding levels in real terms. It’s a commitment to reducing funding for universities.

This is because only some universities will be allowed to increase their fees in line with inflation. Others – those that receive ‘silver’ or ‘bronze’ ratings in the TEF – will experience real-terms cuts since their students will pay less, in real terms, than those of previous years. Students and staff alike really should be bloody angry about this assault on universities’ finances.

And I’m aware, by the way, that some people will argue that £9000 was not a fair price in the first place. I’m also aware that some see the TEF as a kind of stalking-horse, that will open the door to more fundamental deregulation of fees. And I’m aware, above all, that very many of us regret the state’s withdrawal of public funds for higher education. But the fact remains that, given where we are and the system in which we’re working, what look like fee rises are really nothing of the sort.


Students can’t break the TEF; they can only make it worse

I don’t much like the TEF. I think it’s unnecessary because standards are already high; I think it’s an instance of government fussing about stuff it doesn’t much understand; and I think the infantile ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ tags will make us all look ridiculous. I also rather suspect it might collapse, or at least metamorphose into something quite different, under the weight of its idiocy.

But I don’t think that a boycott of the NSS will do anything more than make the TEF worse. Participation rates will drop in response to the NUS position, but not enough to trouble anyone at a senior level. I mean, just about all the TEF data are already wobbly one way or another; this is a low-expectation environment.

The data will be less valuable, because some of the most politically engaged students will withhold their opinions. But probably the only people who will notice the difference will be those of us at department level who really, deeply care about the NSS because we profoundly value our students’ opinions. A boycott will hurt us, but the TEF will roll on regardless.


What’s so smart about saying nothing?

nss-logoI’ve read plenty of people arguing that the TEF is not really assessing teaching quality at all. That’s fair enough at a theoretical level: we can all see that satisfaction and graduate outcomes are not precise measures of teaching quality. But it’s nonetheless ridiculous to argue, with the NUS, that the NSS does not ‘have anything to do with teaching quality’.

In actual fact the NSS is a pretty good proxy for measuring quality. Moreover it has been the greatest agent of educational reform that I have known. I’ve seen how poor NSS results can provide a catalyst for major reforms within departments. I’ve also seen how, even within a department getting quite good results overall, the NSS helps academics to rethink aspects of how we work.

I could give countless examples, but here are a few. The NSS has put contact hours firmly on the agenda across the sector. Ditto schedules for the return of feedback on assignments, and equally the form of feedback. Now, thanks to the new questions on student engagement, we’re all thinking about the culture and communities within which our students are learning.

Of course universities also use good NSS results for promotional purposes. But why does this become, for the NUS, such a terrible thing? Good NSS results are the result of hard, successful work. There are still departments out there getting crap results, and boycotting the NSS will only give them an excuse to hide for another year.


So please, please let’s not boycott the NSS. There’s plenty to be angry about, but I can’t believe we’ve reached a point at which saying nothing makes political sense. In fact this campaign feels to me like an insult to students who have waited for three years to have their say. I think those students are smarter than the NUS campaign.

All we want for Christmas is a bigger pile of UCAS forms – and a farewell to 2016

As we reach Christmas, all around the country admissions officers are wishing for a few stockingmore UCAS forms to fall down the chimney. As has been well documented, applications are down across the board, and substantially so at some universities. What might the future hold in store?


A bit of horizon-scanning

I’ve learned recently (with thanks to some helpful colleagues) just how volatile application figures can be, even in the best of years. Looking at the subject-group (as defined by UCAS) of ‘Linguistics, Classics and Related’, which includes my own discipline of English, some universities have experienced drops in applications of up to 40% over an eight-year period. Others have almost doubled their applications in the same period. (I’m honestly not sure whether this is ‘classified’ information or not, so no names – but trust me, it’s true.)

Why does this happen? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. Some of those with falling figures do wonderfully well in league tables. Nor is it necessarily a matter of supply and demand, since some universities that are known to be increasing their intakes are not necessarily attracting more applicants.

There’s also a discipline-level dimension to this volatility. English studies has been trending downwards for a couple of years. Meanwhile History is trending upwards. This is equally hard to explain – although we absolutely need to be asking the questions. A few years ago, when there was a premium on AAB (or, later, ABB) applicants, it seemed to me conditions were unevenly challenging across disciplines in the humanities. But that situation was more readily understandable than the dip being experienced now by English.

Faced by these circumstances, the promotion of our disciplines becomes more important than ever. I lived through a time – as a junior lecturer, in Australia – of disciplinary contraction. And today the discipline of English studies is nowehere near as significant in Australia, in terms of the numbers of studients studying it, as it is for most major UK universities. So volatility in subject choices can have very real, long-term consequences.


And a little further down the line

It’s also worth looking at trends in A-Level provision, which may in due course have knock-on effects for universities. I was struck by a report in the autumn by the Sixth Form Colleges Association, a body representing colleges that educate roughly 20% of all A-Level students in the UK.

They reported two forms of ‘narrowing’ in provision, due to funding pressures. Firstly, increasing numbers of colleges are limiting students to three subjects, whereas in the past many students would have taken four, at least for their first year. Secondly, many colleges are cutting subjects entirely, with languages departments being hit hardest. Indeed 39% had dropped courses in at least one modern foreign language between 2011 and 2016.

And so, at a time when many people might well argue that we need students entering university with a greater breadth of expertise, we’re getting a trend in the opposite direction. This may also affect the subjects these students will choose to study.


Solidarity now?

One big problem with all these trends is that they cut very differently, from one university to another, one department to another. And the Higher Education bill currently working its way through parliament is committed to a radically open marketplace, admitting – even embracing – the possibility of ‘market failure’ (or, in common terms, a university going broke).

Solidarity is tough in these conditions. If a popular university increases its intake in a discipline from an otherwise declining national pool of applicants – because, well, it can – that’s bound to have an impact somewhere down the line. At some point, the pool runs dry. As my mother used to say: ‘it’ll end in tears’.

Equally, how are universities and academics to respond if students gravitate towards a narrower range of subjects? Personally I worry about the mega-disciplines of English and History, that dominate many humanities faculties. Small disciplines – including many languages – look inefficient to managers, but they remain vital to the intellectual lives of universities. Let’s hope a sense of solidarity can survive: the kind of spirit underpinning the ‘English: Shared Futures’ conference that I will attend next July.


And that’s 2016

Thanks for reading this blog in 2016, and special thanks to those who have retweeted or publicized it in other ways. That makes a huge difference.

If nothing else, 2016 was a good year for bloggers. When I started this blog, I intended to be writing about things that interest me and a few dozen others: widening participation, research management, the academic job market, and that sort of thing. 2016 changed that a bit. If you missed them along the way, here are my top five posts for the year.

  1. I’m an immigrant, and proud of it
  2. Teaching after Trump: 8.30 a.m., 9 November 2016
  3. Research, researchers and the job market: thoughts on Stern
  4. International students: an apology
  5. Four-star impact