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


The rise and rise of the senior tutor

Occasionally the job ads give a glimpse of the future. Take, for instance, this one published last week by the University of Bristol, for a full-time ‘Senior Tutor’ in the School of bristol-2Modern Languages.

This is not a new initiative for Bristol (instead, I’m told, it’s a replacement position), but throws light on a serious and distinctive commitment. The appointee ‘will be responsible for the provision of high quality professional pastoral support and advice to undergraduate students and will play a pivotal role in supporting the student experience, student progression and well-being’. S/he ‘will act as the interface between the academic staff in the School and the central support services in the University, ensuring appropriate communication and actions’. The role does not require a higher degree and involves neither research nor conventional academic teaching.

At a time when wellbeing services at universities across the country are under strain and academics are struggling to adequately support their students, this might give those of us working with different structures reason to rethink.


Who’s the senior tutor?

To the best of my knowledge, the senior tutor story begins in Oxbridge colleges, where this is a long-established managerial role. Senior tutors there work across disciplines, managing teaching programmes as well as overseeing student welfare and discipline. They tend to occupy a hinterland between academic and professional services roles: some are conventional academics, others are more fully on a managerial career-path.

In other universities, the role is usually more strictly pastoral. At my own, where we have had senior tutors within departments for roughly ten years, they oversee the personal tutoring system and increasingly deal with acute and problematic cases of student welfare. They need to liaise with various relevant support services, including wellbeing services, counselling, disability-support, exams, and so on.

This role has become critical to just about any department, yet the pressures it brings are great. The very same day that Bristol posted its ad, our current senior tutor was in my office telling me that the job is becoming unmanageable, configured (as it is) as part of a standard ‘education and research’ post. It also takes a significant emotional toll on academics, who take it on with little or no training.


How do they pay for that?

All the same, four posts across a faculty, at salaries in the mid £40k range, would concentrate the minds of most managers. I can hear now the response to any such proposal where I work: ‘You mean you want to appoint four non-research acitve staff for the price of five junior lecturers? Really?’ Those research-active lecturers bring down staff-student ratios, are responsible for earning research income via the REF and grants, and refresh departmental cultures. We like appointing them – and traditionally, they can do it all.

The other challenge with full-time non-research academic posts is the long academic summers. What does a senior tutor do while their researcher colleagues are hard at work on publications and grant applications? The full Bristol job description (google it) includes work on employability (e.g. development of teaching materials, work on placements), as well as some general education-facing administration. But most of this sort of thing still tends to fall in term-time.

Nonetheless, there remain some powerful arguments in favour of the Bristol model. We’re already committing an awful lot of staff time to these functions. In my own department, it’s absorbing about 20% to 25% of a full-time academic workload, and this is supported by substantial further contributions from professional services colleagues. We could reduce that load – but only if we were prepared to diminish the quality of our monitoring and support structures, which we’re not.

There is also an argument for specialisation. Someone with the right skill-set, on hand any time in any academic year, is likely to be more effective than an academic juggling other duties, who may only have a couple of years in the post before passing it on to someone else. And a professionalized senior tutor is likely to build up the experience and institutional networks that can be so valuable in a role of this kind.


Changing world, changing models

Bristol has also been in the news for student suicides. The risk of such extreme events shadows all universities; one of my ever-present anxieties as head of department is that we lose a student and we’re not able to look the parents in the eye and say, ‘We knew your child, we’re devastated by what’s happened – and, by the way, we did all we could to support him/her’. In ethical terms, indeed in simple human terms, what would be the consequences of saying anything else?

So I admire the Bristol commitment. We can’t change the seemingly inexorable rise in wellbeing problems among students, but we can do something about it. The shifting context perhaps requires some imaginative thinking – maybe even some redirection of resources.

And finally, there’s a very short answer to the question: ‘how do they pay for that?’ Students pay us £9000 per year before putting their education and welfare in our hands.

Teaching after Trump: 8.30 a.m., 9 November 2016

I had a class at 8.30 this morning, roughly an hour after listening to Donald Trump make his acceptance speech. We had ten tired and subdued people in a room, ostensibly to talk about the first full-length, original play written by an English woman, Elizabeth Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam.

How does one focus on a seventeenth-century play in the immediate aftermath of this calamitous election? I’m as committed to anyone to the politics of studying this material; just yesterday I had read the same class two pages from last week’s High Court judgement, to demonstrate the pivotal status of the seventeenth century in British constitutional history. But today felt different. The event was too raw and our group of bright young people – including one American citizen – too powerless.

But we discussed it, and I said one thing I believe, more than ever, to be crucial. That is that if there’s a common denominator to the Brexit vote and this US election, it’s the astonishing success of post-truth politics. I wrote about this after Brexit, and it’s the same story now: we’ve heard lies about what can be done, lies about what can’t be done, and lies about what’s wrong. Along the way, we’ve had highly educated people recklessly trashing expert opinion. Moreover, arguably the single most striking demographic trend on the election results has been the influence (for Brexit, for Trump) of voters without university-level education.

Obviously those two things are related. One common factor across just about any discipline of study at university is a respect for evidence-based argument. If we’re doing one thing right, it’s sending graduates into the world capable of assessing evidence, and demanding it when it’s not offered. Different disciplines use different forms of evidence, but nobody gets past ‘go’ without appreciating how to make and assess a convincing argument.

My university, as it happens, produces an unusually high number of Conservative-leaning graduates. That’s not what I would prefer, personally, but it seems to me there’s a world of difference between someone who makes a reasoned decision to support a politics that is not mine, and someone who falls head-first for lies. As I told them today, I’ve been disappointed in the past by plenty of elections on plenty of continents, but these ones feel different. As Simon Schama argued in the immediate aftermath (listen to him on this morning’s ‘Today’ programme) yesterday’s was not just another election.

Hence the value of what we do in the classroom. And hence also the value of a moment – even under such challenging circumstances – to reflect on what we’re doing. But there’s also a greater need than ever to give more people the benefit of higher education, and to find ways of communicating more widely the values and achievements of universities. As it happened, I ended my day in a departmental discussion of widening participation. Let’s remember that the white working class boys who are so desperately under-represented in HE today are the disillusioned post-truth voters of tomorrow.

And Theresa May’s grammar school policies, by the way, surely only exacerbate the problem. They may (though I suspect, from all available expert evidence, that they won’t) help to shake up class divisions, but they will surely only entrench a divide between the educated and the under-educated. Elites of any kind are not, after all, faring well in these two Western democracies. Trump, meanwhile, will most likely take the cause of education backwards in a more brazen fashion, because (as he tells us) he likes the under-educated.

So I’ll be back at work tomorrow, teaching my seventeenth century literature, convinced – or just about – that it matters. And The Tragedy of Mariam, in case you’re wondering, is a stunning study in female identities under conditions of (patriarchal) tyranny. It might become more topical.

Prizes for the elite: gold medals and mission groups

The latest rumour from the May government’s efforts to square the circle on international students takes an unexpected turn. It is a proposal to deal with the long-running bickering over post-study employment rights of international students.

According to The Sunday Times, ‘the government is considering allowing overseas students who attend one of the 24 universities in the elite Russell Group to work in Britain after graduating. Those at other universities might be required to return home.’ This would allow the government to claim it is doing something to support universities and international relationships, while still maintaining control of immigration.

According to The Sunday Times, this was all foreshadowed by Amber Rudd’s Conservative party conference speech, in which she referred to possible preferential treatment for ‘our best universities’. At which point we all thought, ‘Ah yes, the Russell Group.’ Or maybe we thought nothing of the sort.

Actually, many of us probably thought this was code for the judgements we’re expecting from the TEF. A strong TEF result – ‘gold’, according to the current proposal – might quite logically lead to preferential treatments of this kind. The possibility that the Russell Group might be used instead as a proxy definition of the UK’s ‘best’ universities poses some interesting questions.


Do they know what they’re doing?

This is the year when the irrational has become the norm. But it’s also – to add a little perspective – been a year of lots of talk and not a lot of resolution. It’s a year when we’ve learned to be prepared for anything, but not really to believe it until we see it.

But one common thread in the Conservatives’ stance towards universities has been a determination to draw lines through the sector. The wisdom of this is an open question. It’s not hard to find countries that give preferential treatment, usually in terms of research funding, to selected groups of universities. Concentration of resources in this way can support elite groups to compete internationally in research, while a mass education system is sustained in parallel. The counter-argument would be that the UK’s strength has been built on the back of a broad and fiercely competitive structure, that has produced excellence, in different shapes and sizes, across the board.

If, however, we take the desire to draw lines of demarcation as a given, what would it mean to do so by accepting the Russell Group as the privileged elite? The Russell Group is a mission group that maintains control over its own membership. Traditionally entry was determined overwhelmingly by volume of grant income; however, the defining supremacy of that criterion was frayed somewhat by the last round of entry in 2012, which arguably signalled a commitment to a more rounded model of excellence. It’s possible to join the Russell Group, but almost impossible to be asked to leave.

In recent years the Russell Group has done one thing astonishingly well: branding itself as the ‘elite’ group of UK universities. This is understated in its public mission statement, but a huge part of its public relations and marketing operation. At government level, among busy people, often with only superficial knowledge of their briefs, the idea of an accepted elite group must feel comfortingly easy to grasp.

Russell Group universities have never (to my knowledge, anyway) been given special favours by government, simply by virtue of their membership of the mission group. Hence the elaborate mechanisms of the REF, TEF and QAA, which apply equally to all. The present suggestion therefore feels, potentially, like a pivotal moment.


What about the TEF?

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?

If we follow the proposed logic of the TEF, some universities currently low on the national league tables, though doing very well on teaching metrics, could end up with the right to charge higher fees than some that are very high in the international tables. Existing education metrics, such as the NSS, certainly point in this direction. At that point, it seems to me, the commitment of policy-makers to objective tests of teaching quality, with rewards to match, will be sorely tested.

I wonder whether this scenario is only just dawning on people at the top of government: people conditioned into thinking that there is an ‘elite’ group of universities, bound to rise to the top on any measure of performance. While a decision on work-study visas is only one issue – something, indeed, that may seem peripheral to many people in the sector – it would be hard not to see it as something of a test-case. If Russell Group universities were to get special treatment on this matter – sidelining, in the process, the objective measures of the TEF – what next?

Of course, some might argue that the TEF was never going to do what it claimed anyway. It will not be a reliable measure of teaching quality. Maybe, but that feels to me like a different argument. It’s one thing to debate whether teaching quality can be measured; it would be another thing altogether to abandon objective measures in favour of ‘distinction by mission group’.


This particular suggestion, about work-study visas, feels to me a bit like a political advisor flying a kite. It’s not been picked up by other media outlets, and I’m not betting on it happening. But it’s an interesting moment nonetheless: one that indicates the power and potential of elitism in a sector that has been built on more egalitarian foundations, but is creaking under the political and financial strains of the moment.

The geo-politics of plagiarism

Somewhere in Kenya there are bright and motivated university graduates making a living writing essays for students at universities in the English-speaking West. We know this thanks to a report last month in the Chronicle of High Education, and we know more about the mucky business of essay mills thanks to a report

Rather a sophisticated historic treadmill, if you believe google

over the summer by the Quality Assurance Agency.

Such investigations are uncovering the globalized nature of ‘essay mills’. Like other Western universities, the UK is producing graduates – not many, but some – whose grades have been achieved with the unacknowledged support of others – including, we now know, some of the best and brightest of the developing world.

Consider for a moment the geo-politics of this situation. The great – or once, as the case may be, kind of great – Western countries are lurching towards insular, anti-immigration policies. Trump wants to build a wall around the US; Brexit may achieve the same thing rather more effectively for the UK. And yet, as governments try harder than ever to keep immigrants out, there are ‘home’ students breezing through university on the back of their own capital and the intellectual labour of the youth of the developing world. Let’s imagine some of those who graduate on the back of such arrangements slide into politics – another field, it’s fair to say, where mendacity is rewarded – and as a result have the opportunity to argue afresh against immigration. Why would they do otherwise? The current prejudices work quite well for them.

Yep, something about this scenario screams ‘colonialism in the twenty-first century’. Think for a minute about how those essay-writers might more effectively be using their time, doing the much more important work of developing their own countries. But it’s more lucrative to be helping the rich Western kids cheat than to be transforming lives and nations at home.


What’s the QAA going to do about it?

The neo-colonial model is obviously just one of many; in truth essay-writers for hire can be found anywhere in the world. So what’s to be done? For those of us teaching in the great Western universities, how do we confront the reality that some – and it’s absolutely critical to remember that it’s just some, not many – of our students are buying their essays. What’s to be done about the essay mills?

The QAA pushes some predictable solutions from side to side. Given their longstanding commitment to the panacea that Turnitin pretends offer, the rise of the custom-written essay has perhaps taken them by surprise. Part of the purpose of their report is simply profile-raising; too many academics, arguably, are naive in the face of a growing problem. But they also offer some useful actions, including:

  • preventing essay-mills from advertising;
  • promoting changes in assessment models and curriculum design, to make life harder for the cheats;
  • working with UK universities and the NUS, and also with international agencies, to identify best-practice in deterring this particular form of plagiarism.

Which is as much as to say: we can see this is a problem, and our solution is to try our best to fix it. Fair enough: the QAA is by nature cautious, and this report is, for all its limitations, a step in the right direction


What’s trust got to do with it?

But I think there’s another approach. I call it ‘trust’.

If we take a step back and look at higher education in rational economic terms, it becomes quite reasonable for a student to say: ‘I’m spending many thousands of pounds/dollars/etc. to acquire a certificate than will have a material impact on my career prospects and earning potential. In this context, why not spend some more to ensure the best possible result?’ Is this not simply a rational response to a marketised and utilitarian model of higher education?

And now consider how most UK students are already subjected routinely to trial-by-Turnitin, to detect the forms of plagiarism that remain detectable. This practice positions every student as a potential plagiarist, and the student-teacher dynamic as a game. One rational response is to find ever more clever ways of cheating. Hence the essay mills.

But what if we work against such structures of reason? What about if we assert a different model of higher ethoseducation, founded on honest and respectful exchange between the teachers and the taught? This is not especially radical; it’s a model of higher education that has been around for centuries, and continues to this day. It’s just that now we need to think about it a bit more explicitly, and maybe fight for it a bit more rigorously.

In my department we don’t routinely use Turnitin. We trust the students. We have a version of an honour code, which boils down to a commitment to values of integrity, civility and trust. And these values were selected very much because they do not focus purely on a utilitarian gain (i.e. reducing plagiarism), but set out rather to define a community. It seems to me that people who feel part of a community are less likely to break its codes.


Ok, I nicked this one from the Times Higher. Good, though.

I’m sure, as a marker of essays, that I’ve been duped over the years. That pisses me off as much as anyone. But I’m equally sure that the building of academic communities of staff and students, based on mutual trust and respect – not to mention the personal integrity that underpins most students’ drive to succeed – is just about the most effective means through which we can combat cheating.


That will sound like utopian thinking to many people. I can handle that. In the meantime their answers of ‘us and them’, and their new technologies of plagiarism policing are not exactly fixing the problem. They may even be making it worse.

What have they done to the NSS?

Here’s your cut-out-and-keep guide to what’s happening with the NSS for 2017. It’s getting quite an overhaul.

Since a picture tells a thousand words, and since I’ve made my views clear through the extended consultation phase, I’ll add no more here. Please have a look at the changes and complete the poll below.