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Campaign for the Public University
Actualizado: fai 19 horas 22 min
The publication of the report of the Stern Review, Research Excellence Framework (REF) Review: Building on Success and Learning from Experience , marks a new phase in the 30-year long audit of research in UK universities. It seems to recommend continuity – endorsement of dual-funding, maintenance of the REF2014 structure of assessment panels and peer review of outputs – but the small changes it does recommend will have profound implications.
The report describes UK research as highly productive, but acknowledges that the proportion of GDP devoted to research and development in the UK is among the lowest in the OECD. In the context of the vote to exit the EU and its consequences for research funding, we can be sure that the Government is unlikely to make up the shortfall but will want to get even more bang from its limited bucks. We can expect greater central direction of research.
The report provides the Government with the means to do so by strengthening the levers in the hands of University senior management, a group that has not, so far, indicated any strong commitments beyond the maximization of revenues and a willingness to fall in behind any government policy to maintain revenue (thus, Vice Chancellors have been silent on the freezing of the income threshold for the repayment of student loans, but are pleased to support a new Teaching Excellence Framework that will allow them to increase fees charged to students in line with inflation).
The report recommends a new institutional level for the assessment of research environment (probably at Main Panel level), with condensed statements by Units of Assessment (recommendations 8 and 9). This increases the significance of the strategic determination of research at university-level, which is further reinforced by the (partial) separation of impact case studies from specific Units of Assessment (recommendation 5).
Given that university strategies are already directed toward research-grant capture and Research Councils increasingly set (Government-approved) strategic priorities, there is convergence on ‘challenges’ that do not derive from the curiosity of researchers, but from the setting of targets and framing of topics by senior research policy-makers within universities and within Research Councils. Increasingly, all universities direct their research toward the same thematic priorities, including an emphasis on applied problem-solving interdisciplinary research. This undermines the significance of the very dual-funding system that the Review purports to uphold by aligning funding based on past research with funding for future research and puts both in the hands of managers.
The report suggests (recommendation 1) that all ‘research active’ staff should be submitted in the REF (which, of course, allows the creation of some staff as ‘teaching only’, a designation which is itself aligned with the fact that we shall now have ‘teaching only’ universities in the form of for-profit providers facilitated by the new Higher Education and Research Bill 2016-17, a development the report barely notices). Indeed, references to supporting excellence ‘wherever it is found’ when the major threat to many universities is not the administrative burdens of ‘interactions’ between the TEF and the REF to strengthen the relation between teaching and research (recommendation 12), but the fact that, for many universities, competition from new providers threatens to displace research (as is already occurring at London Met).
The report recommends (recommendation 2) that the number of staff submitted and their required number of outputs be disaggregated, but in a way that will not increase the burden on assessment panels. So, staff will submit between 0 and 6 outputs, but each Unit of Assessment will have an upper limit on outputs of ‘Staff FTEs submitted x 2’.
The report is against ‘gaming’ and ‘selectivity’ (evident in REF2014 by some institutions/UofAs to maximize the proportion of outputs at 3*/4*). But this proposal generalizes selectivity and punishes UofAs that previously practiced inclusion. An example will suffice to demonstrate what is at issue. Imagine two UofAs each with 20 members of staff. One submitted all 20 staff and, therefore, was evaluated on the basis of 80 outputs, the other submitted 10 and was evaluated on the basis of 40 outputs. Now, each must submit 20 members of staff, but submit only 40 outputs. Selectivity now operates by assigning fewer outputs to some staff in order to assign more outputs to other staff. The ‘virtuous’ UofA is now also constrained to a similar selectivity. ‘Gaming’ is only avoided by requiring everyone to play the same ‘bad’ game.
The negative consequences of selectivity for staff morale will also be accentuated because selectivity involves more intense performance management and internal processes of ‘picking winners’. Indeed, from an individual member of staff’s perspective there is little difference between not being included in the REF and being included but with no assigned outputs. The report suggests that some staff should be allowed to submit six publications, with the implication that it is because they have outstanding publications, but this requires other staff to have their submission reduced. ‘REF heroes’ require ‘REF zeros’. Now, selectivity is not based on the failure to meet the requirement to have four outputs, or to have a locally-assessed output score (the selectivity done at REF2014 to enhance the UofA profile), but will be done to allow another colleague to submit more outputs. This is a recipe for discord and division.
It is possible to put a positive ‘spin’ on the proposals, that it allows greater flexibility and allows colleagues to emphasize different activities. This has been argued on Twitter by Paul Kirby (@profpck). It seems to be a very unlikely outcome, not least because all the other recommendations diminish the autonomy of UofAs and reinforce managerial hierarchies. Indeed, some colleagues may already be living under a REF regime that is ‘scoring’ their outputs and checking those scores against data provided by a data analytics company, suggesting that their senior management had some inkling of the likely direction of the Stern Review (the clue lies in the scoring of ‘up to 6 items’).
Notwithstanding it is a consequence of their strategies, senior managers don’t like a transfer-market in REF ‘heroes’, so recommendation 3 is that outputs should not be portable. This seems to have been proposed without any wider consideration of the operation of the academic labour market. In effect, all new appointments to an institution come as ‘zeros’, needing to build a portfolio after appointment. This is especially problematic for early-career academics. They can seek to remain at their institution – perhaps one through which they have applied for a postdoc, on the basis of which they have a strong set of publications – but that is contingent on the institution being able to make the appointment permanent. Or, they must leave their outputs behind without having built up the academic capital typical of more senior colleagues and so are less able to build a portfolio during what remains of the REF-period. On the other hand, from the perspective of an externally appointing institution, it would be better to be appointed before publications come on stream. But on what basis would this be done other than ‘reputational’, including where someone has studied? So much for the concern with equalities.
Responding to the vote to exit the EU, the president of the Royal Society, Prof Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, recently argued for the need to recognize that UK research exists in a ‘global market for talent’. Perceptions that the UK was increasingly xenophobic, he argued, might put off overseas academics. However, they might also be put off by a public research system that is increasingly bureaucratized and performance managed. But what message do we give when we tell all new members of staff that they are ‘zeros’?
The Government is rushing the HE Bill through to its Second Reading in the House of Commons.
The Second Reading has been called, at very short notice, for Tuesday 19 July.
The NUS, UCU London Region and other organisations are coordinating an emergency protest in Parliament Square, expected to start at noon.
Emergency Protest against the HE Bill
Tuesday 19 July, Westminster
Assemble 12 Noon, Parliament Square (Westminster Tube)
Called by London Region UCU, NUS, FACE, NCAFC and others
We will publish more information on this page as it becomes available.
The decision to rush this Bill through its Parliamentary stages is despite the current political turmoil created by Brexit, and the economic uncertainty facing the HE sector as a whole. Our analysis is that the HE Bill will compound, rather than solve, the Brexit problems facing universities.Urgent action: Write to your MP
Notes for lobbying your MP
The Convention for Higher Education was formed to promote the public values of higher education and includes colleagues from the Council for the Defence of British Universities, the Campaign for the Public University and the University and College Union). It has produced an Alternative White Paper, In Defence of Public Higher Education: Knowledge for a Successful Society in response to the Government’s White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy. The Alternative White Paper will be launched at the Houses of Parliament on Monday 13th June, 4.30-6.00. Further details on the Convention website.
The government’s current legislative programme for higher education represents a major challenge to the idea of a university and its essential role in the public sphere in the creation and dissemination of knowledge and debate about common objectives. It narrowly views higher education as an investment in human capital and as a contributor to economic growth. It acknowledges that UK universities are world-leading in teaching and research, while destroying the framework of regulation and support that produced that success.
The government’s plans propose to open the sector to private for-profit teaching providers, notwithstanding the history of for-profit higher education littered with poor student outcomes, and with spending concentrated on marketing and profit-sharing. It calls this the creation of a level playing field, while private providers will be relieved (by impending legislation on degree-awarding powers and the title of university) of the wider functions of a university. These moves will undermine the role that universities play in their local communities by opening them to competition for revenue from providers that have no such role.
The government’s proposed “Office for Students” is not about supporting students. It is structured to ensure market competition, to give private providers access to high tuition fees. Its board members will have “the experience of fostering choice and competition, and of robust financial control”. Supposedly “at the heart of the system”, students will instead be short-changed. The Teaching Excellence Framework includes no direct measures of teaching quality. It is designed to facilitate fee increases, with the possibility of abolishing the fee cap in the future.
In contrast, the Alternative White Paper makes the case for higher education as a public good and explains in detail why the present proposals are so damaging and dangerous.
It seems that the White paper setting out the Government’s legislative programme for higher education following the recent Green Paper will be published on May 18th. Two recent newspaper articles have given some indications of what to expect. The Sunday Times suggests that there will be a major push toward for-profit education, with Pearson set to become the first FTSE company applying to be a university. According to the Daily Telegraph, Government ministers believe that some universities – including Russell Group universities – do not offer value for the £9000 fees that they charge and offer poor and insufficient teaching, notwithstanding that the NSS suggest otherwise.
What is clear is that the Government is dismantling public higher education and yet the response within higher education is weak when compared with that of junior doctors in defence of the NHS. In the article below, John Holmwood suggests the reason is that some in HE have thought that there would be winners. However, he suggests that higher education will be damaged at all levels by the legislative programme that is being proposed, and that the only beneficiaries will be shareholders and executives of for-profit providers.
Defending HE as a public good
The Browne Report (2010) and subsequent White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System (2011), set in motion a fundamental change to the nature of higher education in England (with implications for the rest of the UK). The recent Green Paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, goes further toward completing the process. To be sure, there had been earlier developments toward managerialism and performance audits – beginning with the Jarratt Report in 1985, through the Research Assessment Exercise (replaced by the Research Excellence Framework), the Transparent Approach to Costing, the National Student Satisfaction Survey, and the introduction of student fees after the Dearing Report of 1997 – but higher education as a public good remained paramount value (and, indeed, public accountability was frequently the justification of those changes).
Increasing marketization and competition
Since the Browne Report the only purposes for higher education that have been recognized by Government are those of improved economic growth and investment in human capital. Each of these purposes is to be pursued through the marketization of higher education and market outcomes are held to be – by definition – an expression of what is in the public interest, notwithstanding increasing concerns – for example, by OECD – that economic growth is no longer inclusive.
The Green Paper is all about increasing competition in the sector in order to begin a process of differentiation of fees across courses and institutions. The lifting of the fee cap of £9000 has not yet been proposed, but we are moving closer to a situation when that last plank of the Browne Review will become politically possible (Conservative-majority Government has removed the limited brake imposed by the Liberal Democrat coalition partners between 2010 and 2015).
The aim at this stage is to provide for the entry of ‘for profit’ providers and enable them to have the title of ‘university’. This is described as establishing a ‘level playing field’, by incorporating them in regulatory arrangements that do not advantage existing institutions. This description is something of a misnomer. It will be a level-playing field created only by re-defining the university so that it no longer has to cater for a range of subjects or combine teaching with research and other activities (for example, third sector activities). Nor will for-profit providers have to provide library facilities in order to access the research produced by other universities, since Government policies on Open Access are designed to make that research freely available. For-profit providers are stripped out institutions – what Michael Barber, member of the Browne Review and Chief Education Adviser at Pearson, describes as ‘unbundled’ – concentrating on a single teaching function delivered on a cost-effective basis. The level-playing field is open to free-riders.
These new providers are likely to compete for cost-sensitive, debt averse students, and – because their model will be online course material with ‘local’ tutorial support – students for whom expensive living costs to attend a residential university mean that they need to study close to home. But the model is also likely to affect staffing. The curriculum will be centrally provided – Pearson, for example is a curriculum provider at A-level – and taught by hourly-paid or teaching only contract staff.
Engineering the binary-divide
The lifting of the student numbers cap has already led to an increased concentration of students at ‘selective’ institutions and, consequently, pressure on other universities, primarily post-92 institutions. These now face more intense competition from for-profit providers, especially in subjects like business, health sciences, law, and accountancy. This is likely to mean reducing fees closer to those offered by for-profits, as well as adopting their staffing models and restructuring course provision. This will reduce the depth and breadth of such universities and reduce their capacity to contribute to local communities, both economically and culturally, a contribution that is a vital public benefit, as described by New Economics Foundation in their 2011 report, Degrees of Value: How Universities Benefit Society.
The section in the Green Paper on how to manage ‘exit’, then, is not directed simply at for-profits with their short-term orientation to share-holder value, but also to existing universities which may become financially compromised by the new competition. Equally, the section on governance and the possibility of changing corporate form is designed to facilitate mergers, including with for-profit providers. Open University, for example, is already in competition with itself through its for-profit offshoot Future Learn which is a vehicle designed for venture capital investment.
In effect, the Government is promoting the market to engineer a new ‘binary divide’. However, it is unlikely that it will be struck between post-92 institutions and older ones as in the past. It is likely to be drawn at a much higher level, perhaps including some post-Robbins institutions and excluding some Russell Group institutions. What is certain is that these institutions will experience competitive pressures, deriving from the new fees regime, but also a tightening of research funding, leading to restructuring of subject offering and changes in staff structures to take on more casualization.
Silent on research
The Green Paper was relatively silent about research, although indicating a commitment to continuing with QR funding through the REF and maintaining funding of Research Councils in money terms, if not real terms. However, there will be increasing calls for this funding to be concentrated in fewer institutions. So, RCUK funding has become concentrated in fewer institutions (in part, a consequence of ‘demand management’ to reduce administrative pressures on peer review) and there are similar trends with QR-funding, despite it being more dispersed than that of research councils. Indeed, the Russell Group has long lobbied that when research funds are tight they should be more concentrated on fewer institutions, specifically the members of the Russell Group (see their 2012report, Jewels in the Crown: the importance and characteristics of the UK’s world class universities, and note that it does not refer to the UK’s world class university system).
Differential effects for staff
This stratification of higher education institutions will have differential effects for staff. The character of work and staffing structures are likely to change at all institutions, but be more pronounced at those pushed cast below the divide. However, we can expect other effects to be more pronounced at those institutions that are pleased to call themselves ‘elite’ or ‘selective’. They will experience a tightening of audit culture, metricisation and individualized performance management. In this, the Teaching Excellence Framework will be added to the Research Excellence Framework in a situation where preaching the mantra of being a ‘Global Top X (insert a number just above actual rank order position) University’ encourages their prospective students to be particularly sensitive to rank order position.
Small differences magnified to large claims
As the experience of the NSS shows, small differences are magnified to large claims. So, the Russell Group declares itself to ‘outperform’ other universities – an average of 85% satisfaction compared with a sector wide 82% – and rank order positions are used to differentiate universities. However, this is a form of Maoist performance management, since being above and below average operates in relation to a shifting denominator. A programme of study can perform well in one year, its staff can decide to continue with their effective practices into the following year and discover themselves to have dropped by virtue of changing performance elsewhere. Performance can have improved, but relative position can fall and all managers are concerned about is rank order position. Equally, any differences can derive from characteristics of the students and small changes. For example, if ethnic minority students score differently from other students, or if female students score differently from male students, then differences will be produced by the composition of the students, not differences in course quality. This is the reason why HEFCE previously declared cross-subject and cross-university comparisons using NSS scores to be invalid and excluded statements about rank-order position from being included in KIS data. For discussion see here.
Although many academics believe that post-92 universities have had more managerial and less collegial structures than older institutions, it is the latter that are leading in individualized performance management – whether through grant capture targets, REF quality indicators, H-index measures, or student evaluation scores. Research-intensive universities are increasingly audit-intensive universities.
Less public funding, more government control
There is a deep contradiction in the current situation. Universities are less dependent on public funds, yet are subject to tighter government direction. Universities are more market-oriented. But subject to more central-planning. We have moved from a system of publicly-funded universities to a system of debt-financed universities maintained by our students, but where their interests are less well-served. In 2009, a European Commission Report comparing different systems of tertiary education found the UK to perform best on research and on teaching and also to offer best value for money. That is the system that has been dismantled since 2010 promoted by politicians and advisory committee members who are promoting the interests of for-profit companies, and by Vice Chancellors pursuing salary packages commensurate with their presumed status as CEOs of large corporations.
It is time that policies for higher education reflected the interests of students and wider publics. And it is time for all those who believe in public higher education to act to defend it, just as our colleagues are defending the NHS from its dismantling.