Widening participation and the demise of the great British university*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Published under a different title by wonkhe.com

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A global view of the discipline: English studies and the QS international league tables

While most university league tables come and go without cause for comment, some present trends that are impossible to ignore. For me, the recent QS subject-level table for English Language and Literature falls into the latter category. The top-100 list includes fourteen Asian universities, up from three the previous year. All but one of these has moved forward significantly: two have leapt from outside the top-100 into the top 30. South Korea has four universities on the list, having had none before.

For those of us comfortably settled in Anglophone countries, rather assuming that we have a natural disciplinary advantage in this particular discipline, these figures pose some interesting questions. What might they tell us about the way the discipline is perceived internationally? What might they suggest about the future?

Making sense of QS

The QS tables are at the ‘rough and ready’ end of the market, less prestigious than the THE equivalents (which don’t break down to subject level). They’re compiled on three bases: citations, academic reputation, and employer reputation. This year the rise of Asian universities has been the headline across the board. Looking elsewhere in the humanities: in History there are twelve (three new entrants); in Modern Languages there are eighteen, though that’s fairly stable from 2014. (How QS distinguishes between ‘Modern Languages’ and ‘English’, since the latter is a subset of the former in many parts of the world, is another matter.)

How might we explain these trends? The authorized account, put forward in The Guardian report, is that Asian universities are aggressively investing in higher education while the UK is treading water. This is absolutely true. Asian countries (in fact, all sorts of countries apart from the UK) also tend to be more elitist in their funding models, identifying a small number of institutions for enhanced support. If these conditions hold over coming years, it’s almost inconceivable that the overall trend will not continue, and equally inconceivable that the trend for UK universities will be down rather than up.

I wonder whether another explanation for the shifts on the English list might lie in methodological tweaks. (There was certainly something curious happening behind the curtains, as the release of these results was delayed for several weeks.) For instance, might there have been more Asian responses this time to the reputational surveys? Given the size of the Asian population, this would perhaps make sense: and an employer in Beijing is not very likely to list UK English departments as favoured sources of employees. Might there have been more attention, in the citational data, to Asian (and Asian-language) journals? There are a lot of them in our field. Whether these changes are ‘corrections’, ‘over-corrections’, or something else again remains to be seen. But I think it would be foolish to ignore them.

The QS guide to the future

For me, this league table gives us a fascinating glimpse of how our discipline is viewed across the globe. It’s a growing field in many parts of the world: growth fuelled in part by demand for English speakers, and in part by growing signs of interest in what the humanities might offer (as opposed to vocational, science-heavy degrees). My hunch – not entirely without evidence – is that the growth of liberal arts education in Asia could be one of the big international educational trends of the next twenty years. Futhermore, once there’s a critical mass of English departments and academics across the region, it makes sense that they should professionalize in all the usual ways: establish their own journals, conferences, and reputational hierarchies. All of this is happening.

And it should be said that the discipline, in these contexts, looks very familiar. There’s unquestionably considerable emphasis on English language and linguistics in such contexts, as one might expect. But there’s also a consistent attention to more traditional, period-based study of English-language (especially English and American) literature. I’ve visited a few of the Chinese universities on the list and been impressed by the range, ambition and resources. The staff-student ratios at Peking University (number 30 on the QS English list, and bound to rise further) are beyond the wildest dreams of anyone working in the UK.

I know less about South Korea, so I spent some time with websites. There are some substantial, literature-focused departments, on the list, staffed by research-active academics. At Seoul National University the mission-statement begins: ‘The Department of English Language and Literature trains students in English language skills necessary for scholarly research, and provides students with in-depth knowledge of a broad range of subjects in the fields of English linguistics and literature. Students may specialize either in English linguistics or English and American literature.’ Many UK and US departments would be happy to stand behind that.

So what might all this mean for the future of the discipline? It’s interesting to me that, despite a league table listing English departments from all over the world alongside each other, there’s still relatively little engagement between departments in some parts of the world and those in other parts. English literature academics occasionally talk about the discipline ‘on both sides of the Atlantic’, as though this is the extent of it. (As an Aussie, I’ve always found that a bit offensive.) Conceivably this could continue: we could have a discipline fractured into geographical sub-groups, all with their respectable forms of interaction.

But I hope not. The opportunities for creative international engagement, and for refreshing our discipline in the process, are huge. We’ve made some initial steps in this direction at Exeter, and we’re certainly not the only ones doing so. And in my own field of research, some of the work on global Shakespeare is at the cutting-edge of the discipline, using digital technology to forge international dialogues. If ‘English literature and language’ academics on all continents start to move in these directions, looking for ways of collaborating in research and teaching, we all could be in for exciting times.

What do International League Tables Mean for the Humanities?

The rise of international university league tables has taken many of us by surprise. Not long ago we seemed to be safe enough dismissing them as lacking credibility; now they make the national news. University leaders are taking them very seriously indeed – whatever they might say if their institution happens to slide a little – so maybe it’s time that we all thought about what they might mean for academics working at a subject level.

As with national tables, there are several rival international tables: the QS and the Times Higher probably the most influential, though there are others. Their approaches all differ slightly, but centre attention on metrics such as: reputation (among academics, mainly, but also employers), citations, measures of internationalization (e.g. students, staff, co-authorship), and some teaching metrics (e.g. staff-student ratios). Because they measure different things, they produce results that diverge from UK tables: universities within the national top ten can be more than one hundred places apart in the international tables.

I want here to think about how we got here, and then focus on what international tables might mean for the humanities. How might they prompt us to change our behaviour? And what happens if we find their logic pulling us in different directions to the more familiar logic of UK tables?

How did we get here?

A couple of years ago I arrived in Melbourne to find the daily newspapers awash with international league tables. The University of Melbourne had sponsored a wrap-around front-page to the city’s daily broadsheet, to celebrate its place in some table or other; Monash and RMIT were finding their own ways to spin the results. I told a mate who worked at Melbourne that we, in the UK, don’t take these tables seriously. He shrugged.

Australia was perhaps ahead of the game because it doesn’t have a serious internal market, and has too few powerful universities to give national tables much value. More importantly, Australians understood the importance of internationalization. The market for students from Asia is huge for Australian universities. The competition for research resources – and, simply, for visibility, which has always been a bugbear for Australians – was also felt with some urgency.

In the UK, we’ve taken time to catch up. We’ve gone from dismissing international tables, to looking closely while muttering about credibility, to a state of preoccupation. Perhaps this is just us accepting the inevitable: not only are they coming to mean more than UK tables internationally, they probably already mean more than some of our existing brand-identifies, such as ‘Russell Group’. Indeed the fact that some Russell Group members are inside the international top 20 while others are outside the top 400 surely raises questions about its future. Could the international tables eat the Russell Group?

International league tables and the humanities

It is commonly understood that international tables tend to favour big, science-heavy universities. Indeed the lesson to be drawn from the huge success of MIT and Caltech (where they do teach humanities subjects, but very much as a minority exercise) might be that the humanities are something of an irrelevance in this game.

Some of the reasons for this are clear. In particular, citations indices don’t work well for our subjects, given our commitment to monographs over journals and the longer time-span over which our work tends to be read. Nor do we attract the high volumes of international students and staff. Others are perhaps more vague and perceptual: an implicit equation, perhaps, of a university’s success with big scientific advancements (graphene = Manchester, etc.). Certainly these tables lack the essentially egalitarian (in disciplinary terms) structure of UK equivalents. Metrics such as REF results, the NSS and tariff-on-entry place humanities disciplines comfortably alongside STEM.

What about the international subject tables? I’d like to know more about these: particularly how they feed into (or not) the institutional tables. One hypothesis, just from looking at some of the surprises they throw up, is that some humanities units table-surf on the success of their university’s reputation in the sciences. But can the opposite happen? What about a university such as our own, where league-table standings in the humanities are stronger than in STEM?

How might they change our behaviour?

The logic of the international tables is not benign for the humanities. If international success is paramount, why shouldn’t a university pump maximum resources into STEM, using cheap labour in the humanities to bring in a steady stream of student-fee income? That exaggerates the position, but maybe not greatly.

In this context, my question would be: how might we adapt? It seems to me that citation indices are crucial. Perhaps it’s time we stopped grumbling about them, and found a way to make them work for us. The AHRC and our subject associations must have a role to play, but I think it’s also something for individuals to consider. I don’t think that a 30-year-old beginning a career in the humanities will be able to ignore citation indices the way I have been able to do. Internationalization also becomes critical: more international co-authorship; departments that are engaged with the international dimensions of their disciplines.

These shifts might challenge is to rethink our focus on the metrics of national tables. In humanities subjects, we tend to assume that the REF favours single-author publications, and monographs over articles. We’ve never thought much about international co-authorship, and especially not across cultural and language barriers. Maybe we need to think again. And in terms of hiring practices, I’ve found over the years that a REF-focus instils a degree of conservatism, that may work against the interests of developing more boldly international areas (such as, in my department, world literature). I think we now have arguments for thinking a little differently.

These conditions, and these emerging institutional priorities, present challenges for the humanities. We need to understand them: better, indeed, than I do in this initial effort. But we’ve adapted in the past, and we can do so in the future.

Any thoughts?