The impact agenda has refreshed my academic career

Apologies to regular readers if you’ve been waiting forlornly for posts in recent months. This piece helps to explain the distraction: normal service will resume.

If, 10 years ago, I had declared to my line manager that I wanted to manage a summer-long creative arts project across England and Wales, she would have told me to get back to my monograph. Professors of 17th-century literature needed to know their place back then. But the impact agenda has changed all that.

Impact remains controversial among some academics yet, in the UK, it has opened doors to different, more varied careers. It has changed relationships between academics and their research and between universities and the wider world.

In the midst of all the anxieties about the next research excellence framework – submissions for which are due next year – it is worth keeping this point in mind. The REF may be warping the practices of academics and their employers alike, but it is the introduction of impact in the 2014 REF that is chiefly responsible for this transformation.

My own obsession has been with creating a digital map of England and Wales filled with crowd-sourced poems written by people who care about particular places and their histories. Titled “Places of Poetry”, it is a simple enough idea. It is also born out of research: work done by me and my partner, the poet Paul Farley, on Michael Drayton’s 17th-century poem, Poly-Olbion: an attempt to describe the history and geography of England and Wales – all of it – in 15,000 slightly crazy, occasionally beautiful hexameter lines.

We wanted to use Drayton’s model, in which places provide points of entry to history, and to adapt the stunning, decorative county maps that were published with Poly-Olbion. But we wanted to capture multiple perspectives, of writers from different parts of the country, of different ages and different levels of experience. We wanted a polyvocal record of the meanings of places.

Just over halfway through the project, we have about 3,500 poems. We are also nearing the end of a programme of targeted engagement activities, centred on pairing poets-in-residence with heritage sites. We’ve been working with sites from Caernarfon Castle to Ely Cathedral, Big Pit National Coal Museum in South Wales to Byker Wall Estate in Newcastle upon Tyne. These activities are putting a spotlight on different kinds of heritage, and in many cases engaging with particular community groups.

Anyone doing anything like this will be familiar with the queasy feeling prompted by the question: “Where’s the impact in that?” The bureaucratisation of impact – with professional advisors, evidence gatherers, case study writers – is one of the questionable aspects of this agenda. What proportion of the funding distributed on the basis of the REF is spent on the bureaucracy that the REF encourages, if not requires? But these questions, these experts, can also help shape projects and maximise their value, as we have found.

Perhaps the biggest argument for a university to take a lead on this kind of work, however, is because it can. One reason it can is that academics are generating, as a matter of course, the ideas and research that can lead to impact. In the course of Places of Poetry, I’ve been amazed by how many people have wanted to learn about Poly-Olbion. That point of inspiration, and our knowledge of it, matters, just as Paul’s credibility as a poet also matters.

And a university can because it has the infrastructure to support complex, multifaceted projects. Most of our partners just could not do this themselves: the arts and heritage sectors are fuelled by passion, but are often very short on resources. Yet Places of Poetry is not at all an isolated case: the impact agenda has stimulated a wave of partnership-building between universities and the arts and heritage sectors. If you see an ambitious initiative of this kind, there is a good chance that, as Universities UK likes to say, it was #MadeAtUni.

One common misconception in the lead-up to REF 2014 was that arts and humanities subjects would struggle with impact. To be sure, impact in the sciences can present easier stories to tell, but we should also recognise, and in my view celebrate, impact in the arts and humanities. It connects universities with the public, stimulates creativity and innovation, and provides answers to the question: “What has research in your field ever done for me?”

It can also refresh careers – even for middle-aged scholars of 17th-century literature.

  • Published in Times Higher Education, 13/9/19

The skills debate needs more oohs and AHSS*

There was something a little underwhelming about the launch this week of a British Academy report on skills in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS). To coincide with a royal engagement feels like misfortune; but to be overshadowed by the government’s underwhelming industrial strategy white paper looks more like miscalculation.

Making an AHSS of ourselves

The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is the product of a project designed to map the skills that students develop across these subject-areas. It lists them under three headings: ‘communication and collaboration’, ‘research and analysis’, and ‘attitudes and behaviours’. For those of us working in these areas and keen to promote them, this is all hugely valuable.

Yet it’s hard not to set this report against the (albeit muted) fanfare attendant upon the industrial strategy. If the white paper represents the continued ascendancy of STEM – that canny little acronym that has taken such hold on the imaginations of politicians – The Right Skills feels rather more awkward. I mean, the acronym, AHSS, is just wrong any which way you look at it. Is it, do you think, to be pronounced ‘ass’, ‘arse’ or ‘aahs’? Then there’s the challenge of representing in one report the sheer breadth of disciplines, from economics through to dance.

As a result, The Right Skills feels to me like only one piece of a bigger, necessary project. As it stands it has the air of a sensible and well-mannered English person speaking politely in the corner of a crowded room. I’d suggest there’s more to be said: about the place of these disciplines in the world, and how they are taught.

The AHSS end of the world

By global standards, the AHSS disciplines in the UK are doing pretty well. I appreciate that’s not always how it feels to early-career academics, nor indeed right now to my friends at Southampton, but we remain well placed. This is partly because of a quirk in the fees system, which makes it advantageous for universities to increase their AHSS courses. But more profoundly I would argue that there is a remarkably solid appreciation – among the public, and also among employers – of what we pain-in-the-AHSS’s do as researchers and teachers.

But we can’t for a minute take this for granted. Beyond the UK, the arts and humanities have been in a state of contraction for some time. Try looking at the data kept in the USA on undergraduate choices of majors; try checking out the size of the average English department at otherwise huge Australian universities. And within the UK, applications are trending downwards in some key disciplines. Brexit also presents reasons to be nervous, especially since the UK’s world-leading services sector, which has traditionally employed so many AHSS-hole graduates, is in line to take a very big hit. And to date the only services strategy seems to involve a lot of waving goodbye.

In this context, The Right Skills helps, but leaves me wanting more. I want a ‘AHSS skills’ poster for my office door. I want a collection of quotes from employers to use at open days. I want to hear politicians endorsing our disciplines with the same fervour they tend to reserve for STEM. And I really, really want a better acronym than AHSS, if that wasn’t quite clear enough…

The AHSS end of the curriculum

When I first started teaching in the UK, a fellow immigrant took me aside and explained that the English single-honours degree model is wonderful because it takes students straight out of school and prepares them to enter research degrees. Even seventeen years ago that sounded a little myopic. Today, with all the emphasis on skills and graduate destinations, it is almost unsayable; yet many of our basic programme structures remain the same.

David Willetts is worried about the level of specialisation in the UK education system: he calls in his new book for both A-Level reform and the introduction of four-year degrees. But the trends are pulling in the other direction. In recent years I’ve been following data produced by surveying A level colleges, which demonstrates how funding constraints are forcing them to cut their range of subjects, and also to limit students to three subjects. Many of those students will, quite reasonably, stick within their comfort zones when choosing degrees, thus compounding the specialisation effect.

The Right Skills is onto this in principle. Its final chapter, ‘Are AHSS graduates fit for the future?’, recommends that universities encourage the development of ‘a mindset of innovation and enterprise’, stresses the value of ‘language, digital and data skills’, and promotes interdisciplinary learning. Precisely; but it would be helpful to have some case-studies of good practice, and maybe a rather more direct challenge to universities. By way of comparison, a useful American report more specifically identifies eight skill-sets that make liberal arts students more employable, and at higher salaries: IT networking and support, sales, computer programming, data analysis and management, marketing, graphic design, general business, and social media. In the UK Nesta and Pearson have also produced useful data-driven research about 2030 employment.

One reason why a greater sense of challenge might be needed is the in-built conservatism in our structures. Teaching single honours programmes is easy and cost-effective, they make sense in terms of workload planning and departmental budgeting. Several years ago I led the development of a Liberal Arts programme at Exeter, which had requirements of language-study, quantitative methods, and group-research. The programme is flourishing, but some of those requirements have been whittled away: partly for administrative reasons, and partly because applicants – trained as they are into conservative choices – were telling us they weren’t comfortable with them.


There are lots of reasons to celebrate AHSS skills. Those of us who teach in these areas know this, since we see our students progressing into excellent jobs. But there is also cause for anxiety, and reasons to promote some challenging reforms. As a next step, it would be good to see the British Academy tackling these issues – at which point I will stop being such a pain in the AHSS.

* Originally published at

Notes from an ex-head of department

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

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

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


  1. Trust your colleagues

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

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


  1. But the value of signposts

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


  1. And signs pointing in new directions

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


  1. The people stuff

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


  1. It’s amazing what you can’t do

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

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


  1. The value of rails

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


  1. Also surprising what you can do

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


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

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


  1. No department is an island

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


  1. I’ve had it easy

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


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

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

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.

  • The was published under a different title by

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.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Four-star impact

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

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


Individuals or departments?

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

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


Impact and engagement

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

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


Locality matters

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

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


Creativity matters

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


Questions of longevity

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

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


Questions of cost

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


You can’t take it with you

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

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

What will they do when they grow up? Employability and the academic experience

The imminence of a Teaching Excellence Framework in the UK is placing our existing bundle of metrics under fresh scrutiny. Hence recent attention to employability, measured now by the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, which tracks down graduates six months after they have received their degrees.

We’re all familiar with DLHE data: in the coming weeks I, like thousands of other academics across the country, will be quoting figures at open days. I’ve also been to plenty of meetings at which ‘employability strategy’ has been code for ‘getting the right graduates to complete DLHE’.

Johnny Rich, meanwhile, is the latest of a long line of critics to argue that DLHE is a poor proxy for a measure of employability. Rich’s timely report, Employability: Degrees of Value, argues that graduate employment is a very different thing from employability. Moreover, focus on the former, since it produces our familiar metric, can distract us from the more important labour required by the latter. This seems to me worth some thought.


  1. Employability & apple pie

So how should we define employability? Here are two existing efforts, taken from a Higher Education Academy report (p. 6):

  • ‘A set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that make individuals more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy.’ (Knight & Yorke, 2003)
  • ‘The qualities, skills and understandings a university community agrees its students would desirably develop during their time at the institution and, consequently, shape the contribution they are able to make to their profession and as a citizen.’ (Bowden, et al., 2000)

And then there’s Rich’s definition, boiled down into three terms: ‘knowledge, skills and social capital’.

There’s a degree of commonality across these definitions, and a degree of beauty to them as well. Thinking about employability, they teach us, is thinking about helping students get where they want to go. And Rich, in particular, is very good on ‘soft skills’, powerfully shifting the focus away from those skills that appear to lead directly to jobs, and onto ‘the transferable skills that employers say time and again that they want’.

But there’s also a degree of fuzziness. The notion of ‘employability’ risks collapsing into ‘all that’s kind of good about education’. Indeed for Rich ‘employability’ is roughly equivalent to ‘learning gain’: another notoriously woolly concept. So this is great – honestly, it is – but it doesn’t necessarily help when I’m trying to convince sceptical parents that an English degree is the right way forward for Sophie. Nor does it necessarily help me identify concrete steps forward in improving ‘employability’ within my department.


  1. ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’

Anyone who has been a personal tutor has experienced excruciating ‘what do you want to do when you leave?’ discussions. Actually, I think they serve a purpose, if only to remind students that we actually care. But regardless of whether the student has any ideas: what the hell do we know? Academics are not careers advisors, and tend to be united by our limited range of life experience.

A focus on (soft) skills, however, opens avenues for more creative interactions. One outstanding example, cited by Rich, is Durham’s ‘Skills to Succeed’ initiative. While many universities, including my own, have tried skills audits in different forms, this looks notably sophisticated, guiding students sensibly through the rationale for the process. And the real genius is the timing. Durham’s students complete the audit before they arrive. Surely this is precisely the right transitional moment for them to reflect upon where they are, and what they want to achieve at university.


  1. ‘No jobs in the humanities’

We’re all well aware of an instrumentalist discourse that positions the humanities as hopelessly impractical, an unaffordable luxury in an age of austerity. Actually this is much more prevalent in the US and parts of Asia than in the UK, but never too far away.

In this context, Rich’s table of soft skills (right) is a blessing, since it speaks so

Employability: Degrees of Value, pp. 22-3

directly to much of what we do in the humanities. Yet it also poses questions. Might we be doing more – or doing what we do differently – in order to stretch our students that little bit more?


I’m a big advocate of interdisciplinarity, and I like models (Durham again, also Warwick)  which prioritize opportunities for students to step out of single-honours comfort-zones. University affords precious opportunities to develop new skills – languages, numeracy, entrepreneurship, and so forth – and too often our structures mitigate against them. Likewise, interdisciplinary programmes, intelligently designed, can directly address Rich’s list. ‘Liberal arts’ can mean a range of different things in the UK, but at its best it signifies a calculated interdisciplinary stretch.

And there are also lessons for the ways we teach and assess. Some careful thought addressing how to develop these soft skills might pull us in new directions: maybe away, in some programmes, from so many essays and exams; maybe also away from a reliance on lectures.



But I can’t help feeling, for all that is obviously right about Rich’s arguments, that something is missing. Indeed I’ve read a lot of commentary on employability and graduate employment data recently, and I’m still waiting for someone to propose a realistic alternative to DLHE. And, thinking politically, we want something; we can’t ignore the value that DLHE’s figures – demonstrating as they do the value that degrees add – give the sector.

What else to measure? Presumably stretching the DLHE deadline from six months wellbeing1after graduation to, say, 2-5 years, would produce richer data. Some of the best-equipped graduates, in terms of soft skills, take time to settle. Learning gain? They’re working on it. Maybe the best alternative of all, meanwhile, would be the ‘happiness index’, or national well-being data, that David Cameron endorsed in younger days. But, seriously, are we going to be able to justify more funding for English degrees on the grounds they make graduates happier? I’d love to think so …

Paul Nurse’s Utopianism

Paul Nurse’s report on the research councils, Ensuring a Successful UK Research Endeavour, has left some readers bemused. It doesn’t adhere to the conventions of its apparent genre: no executive summary, no tables, very few references, and a personal voice guiding the reader throughout. As I read it – in my first ever blog-post with an embedded play-list – Nurse’s report is a form of utopian discourse.


Research UK: total control over you

Most official reports need at least a modicum of utopianism, to the extent that they are required to identify problems and seek solutions. But few betray the burning idealism of Nurse. ‘Science,’ he writes, ‘is a high calling in the pursuit of truth that needs to be pursued in a proper and ethical manner.’ Looking back to the ‘new science’ of the seventeenth century, he notes that ‘Francis Bacon argued that science improved learning and knowledge which “leads to the relief of man’s estate”’. Today, it promises solutions to our ‘grand challenges’.

The report is also profoundly idealistic in its assessment of how systems of research funding might be made to work. Nurse dreams of a world in which there is ‘effective dialogue’ between scientists, politicians and public. He dreams of a world in which universities exercise appropriate quality-control over grant applications, so that plunging success-rates do not render existing funding mechanisms untenable. He dreams of a world in which the best researchers provide intelligent peer reviews of grant applications, and funding panels operate consistently and provide ‘constructive feedback’ to applicants. He dreams of a world in which monitoring systems – even, yes, researchfish – work smoothly. He even dreams of a world in which the discourse of researchers is governed by ‘courtesy’. That’s right, courtesy.

These are noble goals. And yet, as Bacon’s contemporary William Shakespeare appreciated, there is another side to utopian discourse. In The Tempest, the dozy courtier Gonzalo displays his own courtesy by rehearsing a vision of a perfect state. His utopia will be devoid of property, hierarchy and laws, yet is predicated on his own status of ‘king’. As one of his companions notes, ‘The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning’.

The realization of Nurse’s vision may not collapse so utterly on a paradox, but it depends similarly on a benign magus: ‘a highly distinguished scientist, capable of delivering a managerially efficient organisation and of interacting effectively with Government’. This person will be head of ‘Research UK’: a new body built upon the existing structures of RCUK, but with more substance and resources. S/he will be the ‘Accounting Officer collectively for all the research councils’. S/he will also have a budget: funds ‘needed to respond effectively to epidemics, volcanoes, flooding and earthquakes for example’.

So maybe that’s more Prospero than Gonzalo, watching over us with his impeccable map of research activity, and scanning the horizon for natural disasters. Nothing to worry about then, is there, Shakespeareans?


The truth about scientists

One question bound to be asked by those of us in the arts and humanities, or even the social sciences, goes along the lines: when is a scientist a scientist?

Nurse opens his report with a definition: ‘In this review the terms “research” and “science” are usually used in the context of the entire academic landscape, reflecting the Latin root, “scientia”, meaning knowledge’. That’s appropriately Baconian, taking us back to a time when the quest for knowledge barely recognized disciplinary borders. More pertinently, perhaps, it is aligned with the discourse of the national ‘science’ budget.

But what about that qualifier, ‘usually’? When might Nurse be using ‘science’ instead in its more common modern sense? When might his ‘scientist’, as a seeker of knowledge, actually be a scientist, as someone operating predominantly in the STEM disciplines?

I never have much time for ‘crisis of the humanities’ conspiracy theories. It’s also fair to say that as long as the AHRC accounts for (on my reading of 2015-16 figures) just 3.6% of the total research councils’ budget, we’re barely worth the fuss and bother of a robbery. But there is just enough ambiguity in the Nurse report to unnerve us. I’d bet the head of RUK will be, well, a scientist. And I’d expect the RUK budget – ditto the (related?) ‘Global Challenges Research Fund’ – to be weighted heavily towards the, let’s say, sciences. This is not the disaster for non-STEM that it might have been, but any humanities researcher will be bound to point out that signs – like words, usually – matter.


A Little Green

The Green Paper also had at least one utopian moment. It said, in its slim chapter on research funding: ‘Our ambition is to reduce bureaucracy and release our scientific and research leaders from administrative burdens as far as possible.’ More specifically, it targeted REF preparations: ‘We must also address the “industries” that some institutions create around the REF and the people who promote and encourage these behaviours.’

Absolutely: far too much resource is being devoted to the management of research (and impact), which could better be spent on the thing itself. But I have two questions. Firstly, how do they think they’re going to stop us? Unless (and here’s an interesting thought) someone finds a way of altering the system so as to negate such activities, they will surely remain responsible management by another name.

Secondly, can Nurse help with this agenda? As I read his report, the thought has barely entered his mind. Indeed his desire for a thorough ‘mapping [of] the UK research landscape’, and commitment to fixing the imperfections of grant-awarding systems suggests the contrary. Bureaucracy, for Nurse, is not a dirty word.


There’s a lot to like about Paul Nurse’s idealism and advocacy of researchers. Maybe this is one reason why commentary on the report has been slight: there’s not much to get grumpy about. But utopianism is an unreliable foundation for policy. In all of the 499 years since Thomas More published Utopia, I’m not aware of a single example of utopian discourse producing a utopian state.