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The VERY big financial picture for English universities?

By David Palfreyman

The Financial Sustainability Strategy Group, a dedicated bunch of HE nerds, has churned out 90 pages on the funding model of UK universities (February 2019), based on TRAC data (Transparent Approach to Costing, as compiled and collated since 1999). 

The core activity of teaching UK/EU undergraduates brings in c£13.25billion of income and covers its full economic cost (FEC). Within that overall picture, subjects vary in matching fee income to their FEC. Even after some (HEFCE) top-up grant subsidy for STEM, there is an internal transfer as subsidy to STEM from the cheap-to-teach and massively expanded subjects such as Law and Psychology, as well as the cheap but less expanded Humanities. International student fee income is c£4.5billion, with a third of such high fee-payers coming from China. The FEC is more than covered – leaving a 40% surplus transferred to subsidise research. 

Research generates c£9.25billion (£1.5billion as HEFCE QR and the rest as grants/contracts from various sources) but recovers only about 75% of its FEC. Research grants from Government cover 80% of their FEC, from industry and the Research Councils 75%, from the EU 65%, and from charities 60%. The overall loss on research will, therefore, vary according to the mix of research funding from these various sources. The Russell Group lose the most but are best placed to attract more international student fees. A thing called ‘Other Activities’ generates c£5.5billion and has a 15% profit on its FEC – again a source of subsidy for over-trading in under-priced research. 

What are the challenges and threats to this financial model? 

  1. Any wobble in the UK share of the global student market – especially since most universities in their financial projections make happy assumptions about growing their International fee income. 
  2. The hikes due in employer contributions to USS (c5%) and to TPS (c8%). 
  3. The freezing of the £9250 UK/EU UG fee.  
  4. The impact of (now unlikely?) Brexit on EU undergraduate numbers and their fee income – although the loss of EU research grants when every one involves a subsidy of 35% of the FEC would be no bad thing!
  5. Whether the Augar Review will recommend UK undergraduate fees should be cut from £9250 to, say, £7500 – and, even if it does, whether any Government ever implements the proposal.
  6. How those universities that have borrowed massive amounts will be able to service the interest payments as the above happens – let alone save up so as one day to repay the capital. 

In the current financial year English universities get c£1.5billion of funding from the OfS, mainly for the extra cost of STEM teaching over and above the £9250 tuition fees but also for various specialist programmes. Then some £1.6billion is shared out by UKRI to all UK universities as support for research (based on the REF). The OfS and UKRI funding is the job HEFCE used to do before the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act. So the direct taxpayer spend on HE is c£3billion pa, plus spending on support for teaching in UK universities beyond England – and not counting the cost of the subsidy to the student loans system, nor the financing of the various research councils. 

We await the Augar Review; meanwhile the supply of UK 18-year olds continues to decline until the early 2020s, which can be bad news for some universities, as the OfS warned in its analysis of Financial Sustainability of Higher Education Providers in England on 4 April 2019. The flow of EU students may reduce IF Brexit ever happens, and on the spending side institutions face significant increases in employer contributions to pensions. All in all, this is not a rosy picture in the short term and potentially grim in the medium term – unless, of course, the Augar Review gets lost in the context of Brexit-induced government chaos or the Treasury generously substitutes extra grant funding for any Augar reduction in the £9250. Unless indeed any ‘Brexit dividend’ leaves room for more public spending on HE as a call on taxpayer largesse alongside the NHS, social care for the elderly, the funding of schools, etc etc…

SRHE Treasurer David Palfreyman is Bursar, New College, Oxford, Director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (OxCHEPS), and a member of the Board of the Office for Students. He writes in a personal capacity.

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Axe S?

By Rob Cuthbert

People on both sides argue passionately about what they see as the biggest change in their working lifetimes. The present situation is flawed, but some believe the best way forward is to work within the system for continuing improvement. However others believe with equal passion that the best way is to crash out, with no deal for the big unaccountable bureaucracy on the continent. The European Commission is heavily involved. The debate has run for years, but then the powers that be announced that they would implement a phased transition to completely new trading arrangements. Battle lines were drawn and both sides dug in for a conflict which so far shows no sign of resolution.

Plan S is higher education’s version of Brexit. It may not have generated quite as much media coverage as that unreal thing, but it has its full share of intransigent minorities, suspicion on all sides, special pleading, accusations that the elite is merely looking after its own interests, and claims that a voiceless majority will be the ones who suffer the most.

Everyone is in favour of open access, in much the same way as everyone is in favour of free trade, but it turns out that neither concept is as clear-cut as it first appears. Academics’ guerrilla warfare campaign against what they saw as the exploitative practices of some publishers has now led to some major cancellations of contracts, the biggest and best-known being the decision by the University of California system to cancel its contract with Elsevier. Such legal opposition runs alongside illegal but massive file-sharing operations, the biggest being the Eastern-European based SciHub. Meanwhile the launch of open access journals such as PlosOne has not dented the supremacy of the major publishers: such journals may already have peaked with a very small proportion of the total publishing market.

Hence Plan S, an initiative by 13 European funders, the European Commission and charitable funders including Wellcome and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This group, known as cOAlition S, want all scientific publications arising from research they fund to be published in compliant open access journals or on compliant open access platforms from 2020. They launched a consultation on their proposals which generated a huge worldwide response from academics and academic publishers.

The UK entered the field early with the 2012 Finch Report (see SRHE News 9, July 2012), which controversially led government to choose Gold Open Access (OA) as its primary route, with the REF embodying this requirement. This means that ‘article processing charges’ (APCs) have to be paid up front, whether by the author(s), the institution or the research funder. It was envisaged that APCs would fall over time thanks to competition between publishers, but in fact there has been a 16% rise since then, as David Kernohan reported for WonkHE on 20 February 2019. The last-but-one HE Minister Jo Johnson asked Sussex VC Adam Tickell in 2016 to advise further – thatadvice and an Open Research Data Task Forcereporthave now been published. Kernohan reported that: “the UK hit 54% of outputs as OA in 2016, up from 15% in 2012. We are firmly on track to achieve the target. And there is substantial evidence that OA articles are downloaded more, cited more, and used more than their non-OA counterparts, both from journals and repositories.” The upfront cost of Gold OA is a clear disincentive for many researchers despite REF requirements: grants may not cover publication costs and research may be unfunded. The research councils currently provide block funding for APCs, but this is unlikely to be permanent, and Kernohan suggests total expenditure on APCs could triple in real terms from the 2016 figure, to £818million by 2028 if gold OA achieves 100% take-up. Something has to give, and a policy initiative is keenly awaited.

Robert Harington (American Mathematical Society) asked ‘Plan S: what about researchers?’ on the LSE Impact Blog on 17 January 2019. On 21 January 2019 University College London (UCL) said Plan S was “heavy-handed”, the Plan S coalition should engage more with universities and researchers, and the requirements of individual subject areas need to be more precisely understood, as Ashleigh Furlong reported for *Research on 21 January 2019.

Jeffrey Brainard wrote in Science on 25 January 2019 that scientific societies supported by journal subscriptions describe Plan S as “an existential threat … Many journals now follow a hybrid model, publishing individual papers open access for a fee but deriving most of their income from subscriptions … Plan S’s requirements will disproportionately hurt the journals that many societies publish … Such journals typically have high [APCs] … and the societies typically have lower profit margins than … commercial publishers … The largest, Elsevier, based in Amsterdam, publishes more than 2500 journal titles; scientific societies each publish at most a few dozen.”

Steven Inchcoombe of Springer Nature said Plan S might put Nature out of business, as Rachael Pells reported in Times Higher Education on 13 February 2019: “All the focus [of Plan S] is on the supply side and we think a lot more focus should be on demand – by which I mean the researchers themselves, and other funding agencies that are not yet signed up with Plan S”. Springer Nature then resorted to special pleading, saying titles such as Nature should be treated differently under Plan S: the cost per article of in-house professional editors and the high refusal rate means average APCs are between €10,000 and €30,000 (£8,770 and £26,300), which would be “very difficult” to recover via an article processing charge. 

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) summarised the tsunami of responses to the cOAlition S’ call for feedback on the Guidance on the Implementation of Plan S, writing for The Scholarly Kitchen blog on 11 February 2019, picking out seven themes:

  • Clear support for the transition to open access and the goals of Plan S.
  • Concern that the implementation guidance reflects models that work for STEM but will negatively impact HSS scholars.
  • The technical requirements for publication, repository, and other platforms are poorly thought out.
  • The predicted effects on small, independent, and society publishers raise concerns for the viability of these publishers.
  • Setting a fair and reasonable APC sounds fair and reasonable but it is also likely impossible.
  • Scholars and organizations in the Global South object to being told what they want.
  • The timelines are not feasible.

Martin Szomszor, Head of Research Analytics at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), part of the Web of Science Group, blogged on 14 March 2019 for The Impact Blog about findings from ISI’s The Plan S footprint: Implications for the scholarly publishing landscape, asking four key questions:

  • Without carefully paced transition to allow for the emergence of new titles, is there a risk of unusual constraints and disjunctions in publishing opportunities in affected subjects? 
  • Might restructuring the spread of well-cited papers have unplanned contingent consequences?
  • How can the shift to Gold Open Access and associated APCs be managed equitably to protect the positions both of unfunded researchers in G20 economies and of a wider spread of authors in emergent research regions, especially given the collaborative nature of academia?
  • There are many small publishers, including those linked to learned societies, who publish an important part of the Plan S funded output in serials central to their discipline. Will transition be more difficult for them and, if so, can this be managed effectively but flexibly?

Jon Tennant (independent) wrote for The Impact Blog on 5 March 2019: “The whole point of Plan S was to disrupt the status quo and transform the world of scholarly publishing. If it yields to those who it is trying to disrupt, at the cost of the greater good, than that’s not exactly progress. Open Access is not a business model, so let us stop treating it as such. I believe that science can help us shape the world to be better, and can help solve the enormous problems that our planet currently faces. I do not believe that having it under the control of mega-corporations and elite individuals or institutes helps to realise this, or is in the principles of fundamental human rights.”

Richard Poynder (independent), who has been called the “chronicler, conscience, and gadfly laureate” of the Open Access movement, wrote for The Impact Blog on 6 March 2019: Plan S and the Global South – What do countries in the Global South stand to gain from signing up to Europe’s open access strategy? He noted thatPlan S raises challenging questions for the Global South … To succeed, Plan S will need other countries to commit to the initiative. To this end, Plan S architect Robert-Jan Smits spent considerable time last year lobbying funders around the world. But should countries in the Global South sign up? Perhaps not … legacy publishers would have little choice but to replace current subscription revenues with article-processing charges (APCs) … Plan S would lead to a near universal pay-to-publish system. APCs range in price from several hundred to over $5,000 per article. This is unfeasible for the Global South and so researchers would be excluded in a different (but more pernicious) way than they are under the subscription system: free to read research published in international journals but unable to publish in them.”

Clearly Plan S poses a host of difficult moral, ethical and financial challenges for all learned societies, including SRHE. Like most societies SRHE joined in a collective response from the Academy of Social Sciences response in February 2019, to which SRHE Director Helen Perkins contributed significantly. That response said:

“3. The AcSS supports the principle of open access as an important public benefit. A key question though is how best to implement this principle, and how to balance it against other principles (academic excellence, autonomy and freedom). Balancing open access is not just a question of balancing one principle against another but considering how in practice open access can be broadened, while not undermining the conditions for producing excellent research and ensuring that an appropriate degree of academic autonomy is supported.

4. Like many other respondents, the Academy of Social Science has concerns about the method and speed of implementation proposed both by cOAlition S and, in the UK, UKRI. We are concerned that these plans are still accompanied by little detail in many important areas, and little empirical evidence about possible effects on the wider systems and structures within which academic research in produced (as well as consumed), or of the effects on different disciplines. We do not believe that ‘Gold’ access is the best solution in all cases; we think that Green (and hybrid) journals are capable of meeting aspirations for wider access.

5. We believe that cOAlition S, and in the UK, UKRI and others, should engage more widely with a range of stakeholders to consider relevant evidence about systemic effects, looking also at distributional effects (between early career and established researchers; research in different parts of the world; and researchers from different disciplines) and a range of possible
unintended consequences, including the effects on the social sciences. This should inform proposals about how to implement aims to improve open access, but would require changes to the timetable announced by cOAlition S.”

The British Academy response in February 2019 was blunt:“ … our initial response … set out our concerns about Plan S’s antipathy to hybrid journals … these concerns are not allayed by the new Guidance. … cOAlition S’s hostility to all forms of hybridity will have precisely the opposite result to its stated intentions.” Meanwhile Euroscepticism persists in Brussels, with Robert-Jan Smits, described as the European Commission’s ‘open access envoy’ declaring there is ‘something fishy’ about publishers setting up mirror journals to get past Plan S proposals about hybrid journals, while publishers protest that mirror journals are simply a necessary part of hybridity.

Echoing Brexit, it seems the divide between the proponents of Plan S and the defenders of the status quo has not diminished, and the initial response to the deadlock may well be to extend the deadline. Elites may be divided, but no doubt they will still emerge unscathed; the price of any change will be paid by marginal communities in the North and the global South. With Brexit many academics, bolstered by overwhelming academic belief in the rightness of their cause, have seized on every shred of evidence to dismiss the alternative. Will Plan S be able to exploit its superficial appeal to the evident rightness of open access, or will academics be willing to engage with the difficult ethical and moral questions which Plan S poses? It may be time for the Creative Commons to take control.

SRHE News Editor:  Professor Rob Cuthbert  

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics

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Supporting disadvantaged students is more expensive than you think

By Marcia Devlin

A national election looms in Australia and while no-one is under any illusion about the likelihood of higher education being a key issue for the Australian public when they are considering for whom to vote, those in the sector are hopeful that, at the very least, higher education policy common sense will prevail. Depending on your particular higher education interests, the focus of such policy common sense will differ. For me, at least partly, the focus will be on equity policy.

I recently led to completion a national study that looked in part at the costs of supporting students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in Australian universities. We used a mixed methods approach, incorporating quantitative analysis of national higher education data and qualitative exploration and validation.

The complexity of university finances, the opaque nature of equity funding and the generally low level of understanding of the precise costs of supporting low SES students in the sector provided challenges to meeting the project brief. That said, we used data from 37 universities over ten years and a sophisticated quantitative methodology and detailed consultation with senior executives at four universities on the quantitative findings to test their validity. The results were, as one Vice-Chancellor described them, “stunning”.

We found that the average costs of supporting low SES undergraduate students are around six times higher than the costs of supporting medium and high SES students. This was for a university with an average number of undergraduate low SES enrolments. At the postgraduate level, the average support costs for low SES students are around four times higher than those for medium and high SES students for a university with an average number of postgraduate low SES students.

These are, indeed, stunning findings.

We found that the kind of additional support needed by students from low SES backgrounds includes: outreach support to raise aspiration and relevant individual capital prior to enrolment; academic, personal and financial support while at university; and in some cases, support to care for students with highly complex needs.

We found that the additional cost incurred in supporting a low SES student compared to other students include those inherent on the support listed above and additionally, the costs inherent in the interventions required to address disadvantage throughout school and university.  We found that the costs of establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple and/or regional campuses, particularly but not only those located in highly disadvantaged communities, also contributed to the cost differentials.

In simple terms, we found that universities that are strongly prioritising or enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions.

Because low SES students are not a homogeneous group, we found that additional support costs are not the same for all low SES students. As will be unsurprising to those working with equity group students, depending on their particular background and circumstances, low SES students may experience different levels of disadvantage and/or multiple disadvantage. In the four universities consulted, there were different costs in, and different approaches to, supporting low SES students. This was partly because of the differences in the universities’ missions, the number and geographic locations of campuses, whether the student was undergraduate or postgraduate and the characteristics of the particular low SES students for whom support was being provided.

There are a number of policy implications that an incoming Australian government might like to consider:

  • Given universities that are enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions, moving from activity-based to mission-directed costing may be a fruitful area for further exploration.
  • Given that the costs of supporting low SES students are four to six times higher than those of supporting medium and high SES students, consideration could be given to applying the principles of ‘cost compensation’ in university funding for low SES numbers. In rudimentary terms, this would mean that each low SES student would attract four times (postgraduate level) to six times (undergraduate level) more funding than otherwise like students.
  • Given the lack of homogeneity of low SES students and the differential costs for different universities in supporting low SES students, consideration could be given to the distribution of funding to support low SES students according to the investment/cost need of a university/campus/area in which a campus is located, rather than according to the number of students at each university who meet the technical definition of ‘low SES’. This would also help reduce perverse incentives to seek only the least costly low SES candidates.

I’m not overly optimistic about these findings being immediately embraced and celebrated by either side of politics. I am hopeful, however, that a government genuinely interested in equity might recognise that properly funding universities to enact their missions might be purposefully conceived as an investment that lowers social disadvantage and ultimately improve economic outcomes for both graduates and communities. In other words, I’m hoping policy common sense will prevail.

SRHE Fellow Professor Marcia Devlin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Senior Vice-President at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. The study referred to above was funded by the Australian government through the National Priorities Pool

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University Governance

by Phil Pilkington

There has been widespread discussion and outrage about the pay and reward of Vice Chancellors and their accountability to their governing bodies. In addition, there is discussion about the need to provide greater support for the lay members who govern universities, and the related need for the reform of institutional management to be less dependent upon an individual’s abilities as manager-leaders in a complex environment (‘less analogue and more digital’, Mark Leach, WonkHE).

A recent concern was whether ex-VCs should be encouraged to join the governing boards to provide some empathetic support for the management, and perhaps an independent but expert view of management in HE for the benefit of lay governors.

Another complaint has been the lack of gender balance and BAME representation on Boards of Governance, with women comprising 32% of board members (Sherer and Zakaria, 2018). There are other critical matters: civic engagement and the relationship with the local community; disproportionate pay increases for VCs and the consequent demoralisation of staff; the worsening conditions of all employees in pay and ‘contracting out’ to global corporations; calls for the democratisation of universities; and strategic engagement with political change. Issues such as freedom of speech, Prevent, institutional autonomy, public understanding of science to international partnerships and more are all directly or indirectly connected to the nature of governance. The governance of US universities is said to involve the triple duty of fiduciary, academic and moral responsibilities; there may be no limit to the responsibilities of governors.

A recent colloquium on governance focussed on the need for creativity in the global market of higher education and the needs for science innovation and pedagogic development (University Governance and Creativity, European Review, Cambridge, 2018). Whatever the limited pool of talent available for the lay governance of universities the UK stands strong in the league table for sectoral autonomy, scoring top at 100% in the European University Association (EUA) review in 2017. This is nonsense. Or rather, the concept of autonomy is nonsense for universities. It is an enlightenment concept out of Kant as a condition for moral agency and the categorical imperative. ‘Independence’ may be a better term to be used for organisations, but independence from what or whom? No organisation (or person) is context free or without history.

Explanations of university autonomy often appeal to von Humboldt and/or Newman; both had contextual arguments for independence from. In the first case, independence from crazed minor princes in the Holy Roman Empire or a Prussian king seeking fame as an enlightened autocrat making whimsical appointments; in the second, independence from the strictures of a bone-headed clergy in Dublin. (Interestingly, public state universities in the USA have senior appointments made by the state governor, boneheaded creationist or not.) Given the constraints and historical conditions for universities the question arises: is the governance what is needed? A related question then is what are universities dependent upon?

The EUA review of degrees of autonomy is flawed in assessing governance as either unitary or binary. In a unitary model the board of governors receives a strong or determining input from a senate or academic board. In the binary model the academic receives instruction from the governance/ management. The UK is assumed by the EUA to be a unitary model, but any academic input is strongly mediated by the management/executive, which to a large degree determines the agenda for the boards of governance and also sets the conditions for academic performance and structures. How can autonomy be graded? In the same way we might ask: how can uniqueness be conditional?

The end of the public sector higher education (PSHE) sector ended not just the polytechnics (and the soon to be promoted colleges of HE), it ended an accountability regime linked to local democracy. The Education Reform Act 1988 not only abolished that mechanism for local accountability (and, for good measure, the architecture of accountability with the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority and regional advisory councils), it put in place a system for the self-replication of governing bodies once Secretary of State Kenneth Baker had approved the initial tranche of governors. 30 years later we have a uniform system of accountability dominated by a specific professional outlook and culture. 

A sample of the experiences of governors, if we ignore the small minorities of academic and student governors, is salutary*.

There are minor differences in board membership between Russell Group and post-92 institutions, but the similarities seem more important. The striking feature of governing bodies is the preponderance of accountants, or rather senior executives of the major accounting firm. In my sample one Russell board has four members with current or recent professional experience with the big four accountancy firms. This is not unusual; another Russell has three members similarly engaged. ‘High powered’ accountancy skills are of course useful in overseeing a £multi-million business such as a university.

However, the political and social values that go with the high-level accountancy skills are now intricately connected to external political discourse and practice: the governor who advised on the privatisation of the railways, or the advisor on the HBOS-Lloyds merger; the advisor to the government on deregulation in HR, the directors (regional or national) of the CBI. There are others: financiers, bankers, corporate lawyers, big pharma directors, entrepreneurs in a range of consultancies, a smattering of retired senior civil servants and even a lead figure in the Student Loans Company. Any concern about the impact of the REF and TEF on academic staff would be overridden by a priority to ensure that targets are delivered.

The values and ethos of the individuals who comprise the governance of universities are not left outside the boardrooms. Why would they enter governance if they did not bring with them the normative values of their competences? And such competencies, if they can be described as such, carry with them a world view of how others should be and do.

Post-92 governors are less elevated; not as many MBEs, OBEs or knighthoods as the Russell Group. And there are more public sector roles such as youth justice, charities, health service executives, housing associations, media executives and senior local government or police service officers. There are some interesting outliers in the post-92 sector with senior women executives in industry, but – albeit to a lesser extent – the bankers and senior accounting partners are still there.

The concern for diversity – there is some ethnic and gender diversity in the post-92 group, less so in the Russell Group – is diminished by the uniformity of seniority and positions of power that all board members have in the private or public sectors as CEOs, partners, and chairs of boards, with what is likely  to be a uniform ideological outlook on the world. It has been suggested that remuneration (£20K pa has been mooted by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC)) would encourage more to volunteer their time and expertise on boards of governors, but the current incumbents are similar to those great and good who always seem to have volunteered in the past; they can afford to volunteer, others will be providing the work/value while they sit on the boards.

Remuneration would be appropriate if the board members needed the money to enable them to attend board meetings. The suggested amount from the CUC is more than annual wages for many.

Halting the self-replicating nomenklatura of these boards would be difficult, requiring an external intervention to put forward board members of a different character and set of values; perhaps those who are antithetical to the interests of the Student Loans Company, to privatisation of public services and the burdens taxpayers suffered with the banking crisis of 2008. But there have been interventions on board membership before – in the 1988 Act which ended  ‘donnish dominion’, thanks to the groundwork in the Jarratt Report. Some may protest that this would be an attack on institutional autonomy, but autonomy is not an unqualified condition of the success of universities in the UK, notwithstanding the glowing report from the EUA.

The CUC code of conduct requires governors to have the interests of the HEI at heart, but governors’ perceptions, values and interests will determine assessments of current and future positions. Given the monoculture and common discipline background, there may not be enough disagreement. Such uniformity calls for more creativity in governance. The focus will be on the operational imperatives of performing well within the current context, a context of ‘academic capitalism’, with a well-known critique which may not be accessible in governance or top down management. The lineaments of such a regime are: funding via student enrolments; quality assurance regulatory systems; marketisation; the OfS regulatory framework; financial viability standards; league tables; branding and consumerisation of education.

The freedom of the market is an ideological position: the market is externally created and freedom for action and conscience is limited by the external impositions. These conditions are not only handed down by the OfS but from ‘advisory’ instructions from government on an annual basis to consider participation rates, schools links, the green agenda, grade inflation, freedom of speech (yet again), consumer rights for students, et al. The fiduciary responsibilities of governance leave little room for manoeuvre and no prospect of supererogatory action. The advisory, regulatory and the bigger socio-economic conditions, from mobility and debt aversion to the international market for students, predetermine the scope of governance.

In contrast to the UK’s HE market superstructure there is a telling edict in the EU Lisbon Treaty, which has lofty expressions of modernisation and the knowledge economy but also asks universities to contribute to the advancement of democracy. We will not have to worry about that anymore. Given the experience of many lay board members in being directly engaged in engineering the market conditions which prevail for universities it would be surprising if boards did not find a normalcy, a correctness in the prevailing conditions. The other responsibilities of governance for academic and moral matters as expected in the USA seem simply preposterous.

Beyond the need to broaden the experiential background of governors, we can also question the constitution of boards. Current expertise can be useful for audit, financial oversight and stress testing business planning (although the big four accountancy firms have had some remarkable involvement in corporate failures in the recent past), but to duplicate this at full board means a loss of opportunities for the more discursive. The current uniformity also explains why, notwithstanding the managerial links of performance to executive leadership, high levels of pay for VCs are not considered exceptional by remuneration committees – they share the same atmosphere.

Reform of governance  structures means that some of the axioms in mission statements should be considered as governance issues. If universities are ‘communities of scholars’ then why is the governance of that community in the hands of corporate accountants, financiers and directors of privatised public assets? If universities are to play a role in partnership with the local community in the civic mission then what of the governance implications with that community?

Finally, how can the academic/senate discourse connect with corporate governance? This is not simply about which will take priority: first we must ask, can they talk to each other? The simple hierarchical format of governance ‘works’ in terms of financial viability (more or less) and international status and delivery (more or less) but that should not be confused with overall efficacy. Other historical conditions contribute to the success of the HE sector – or rather, parts of the sector, as some struggle to survive in the market, or exit.

There is talk of the need to devolve managerial leadership, not always a happy experience if distant and indirect corporate performance targets give way to local bullying. Weakening governance by having the not so great and the good might not alter the dynamic of executive leadership; management might become even more powerful and autocratic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, too often, challenging and questioning the executive is rare.

The deeper problem is to disperse governance from the hierarchical to a more clustered and broader stakeholder approach. Beware the unanalysed ideological values that we all bring to bear on decision making. Let’s ditch the concept of autonomy which is a historical accident in semantic terms and begin some creative discussions on what creative governance should look like.


Sherer, M and Zakaria, I (2018) ‘Mind that gap! An investigation of gender imbalance on the governing bodies of UK universities’ Studies in Higher Education 43(4): 719-736

*I looked at 12 universities, six  Russell Group and six post-92 universities. Some governing bodies are known as Council, some have changed their title to Board of Trustees, but all have the same legal responsibilities for the institution. The Committee of Universities Chairs (CUC) has produced 3 advisory reports on remuneration of senior staff, one advisory report on Prevent, and on student’s (sic) unions.

Phil Pilkington is Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, a former CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union, an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE.

Paul Temple

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Let the sunshine in! – no, hang on…

By Paul Temple

I’m walking through central London on a bright, warm, sunny day, people sitting outside at pavement cafes, and I’m thinking, this is nice – then thinking, this isn’t nice at all, this is February, the temperature shouldn’t be in the low 20s. Sunshine – oh, the irony for people on a damp, cloudy, island in the North Atlantic – is now a further unwelcome reminder that my generation has comprehensively failed in its – our – responsibility for the biggest problem, by far, facing us all. There is no technological fix for climate change that is even remotely in sight. Nor can I see a way of evading our responsibility: our generation, the baby-boomers, was of voting age – to set the bar at its lowest – when the damage that humans were doing to the climate became apparent in the later twentieth-century; and nothing much was done.

The evidence mostly wasn’t available for our parents to act on; and the die was already cast (a lot of global warming now being “baked-in”, to use the unfortunate metaphor popular with climate scientists) by the time the generation after us reached voting age. So responsibility for the state of the planet around the turn of the next century, maybe much sooner (and it’s hard to find an informed estimate that isn’t somewhere between unbelievably terrible and plain apocalyptic), rests squarely with us. I’m glad I won’t be around to have to try to explain how we managed to make such a mess of things.

If universities can’t help with what now seems to be mainly a damage-limitation exercise, I’m inclined to think that we should just pack up and go home. The more positive view, presented cogently by Neil Harrison in his 20 February SRHE blog, is that: “We need to reoccupy public spaces and reassert our expertise …. Why would someone want to spend valuable time that could be spent on developing further expertise in dialogue with those seeking to undermine their authority from a position of relative ignorance? … However, this impulse to disengage must be resisted, with educators needing to reassert their expertise in public forums … Relevance can only be rediscovered by finding new ways of working together to reapply our expertise to the world’s wicked problems.”

And while resisting the huge temptation to say “I told you so” to the climate-deniers and climate-delayers (“Yes, we must act, but not just yet…”), universities are in a uniquely strong position to press for global action. They possess both the necessary knowledge base and a non-partisan status. The actions needed are, however, going to be uniquely difficult politically – though perhaps less so as the decades pass and coastal cities flood (see the Environment Agency’s handwringing about the expected future ineffectiveness of the Thames Barrier) and the equatorial belt becomes uninhabitable, driving mass migration. But universities, certainly in Britain, have been notably timid in speaking truth to power, even where the research evidence is overwhelming.

Take an education example: the empirical case against selection at 11+ is as unarguable as anything can be in social research, but I think many parents could be forgiven for assuming that a grammar school/other divide reflects some kind of natural educational order. Have I missed hearing our university leaders saying, minister, your schools policy is just plain wrong? If universities, individually or collectively, can’t make a powerful public case for policy change where the rock-solid research evidence shows that everyone will benefit, what chance is there of them engaging in a difficult debate where politicians need to tell people that they have to put up with uncongenial changes for the benefit of their grand-children?

I really do hope that I’m being far too pessimistic, and that Neil Harrison’s call to arms will be answered by academics taking the fight to public forums and to politicians with the full backing of their vice-chancellors and universities. But if university leaders don’t rally round, well, it’s not the end of the world. Oh, sorry, it is, isn’t it?

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

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Putting the education back into governance and teaching

By Rob Cuthbert

The theme of the 4th Annual Conference of the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) was Challenging Higher Education: it did not disappoint.

The opening remarks by CGHE Director Simon Marginson (Oxford) were a rousing call to arms, urging universities to look beyond current bipolar conflicts to develop a more collaborative world, in which UK universities would do more than just “work the British colonial circuit”, in a post-Brexit world of regions where UKHE might not have a region any more. Marginson segued into his introduction of the Burton R Clark Lecture, now a fixture in the CGHE Conference, and delivered this year by Bob Clark’s good friend Michael Shattock (UCL).

In his lecture on ‘University governance and academic work: the ‘business model’ and its impact on innovation and creativity’ Shattock previewed some findings from his latest book, to be published in July 2019. His research with co-authors Aniko Horvath (King’s College London) and Ellen Hazelkorn (Dublin Institute of Technology) in a range of universities in the UK had revealed accelerating diversity of modes and missions, and a trend towards ever more intrusive government policymaking. Governors who might once have been critical friends were now obliged to enforce regulatory guidance from the Office for Students, perhaps the thin end of a wedge of more lay intrusion into what is taught, and how. Paradoxically the idea of the student as customer barely featured in the almost dystopian landscape he painted, first of teaching and then of research. The metric-driven pressure to perform should not, said Shattock, be confused with Clark’s identification of a ‘strengthened steering core’ in the entrepreneurial university. (He would say that, of course, since the original strengthened steering core was probably Warwick’s during Shattock’s towering tenure as Registrar, but it doesn’t make it less true.) That core was closely connected to the academic community, whereas the current academic climate risked repressing rather than fostering academic innovation and creativity. The ‘English experiment’ with HE marketisation had reinforced executive governance; it was time to restore the academic community to its proper role as a key partner in governance. Questions and discussion pushed Shattock to a ‘back to the future’ position somewhat removed from his argument, as he was reluctantly driven to extol an Oxbridge model of governance by academics in contrast to the unduly top-down executive management and governance searingly exposed by his research. It was, nevertheless, a lecture which in a fitting way did justice to Clark’s legacy.

Next up the organisers had conceived a panel discussion on ‘Brexit, UK and Worldwide Higher Education’, not – as no doubt first planned – days after Brexit had actually happened, but on the day after a seven-hour Cabinet meeting had led to proposals for a further meeting, something Cornford surely wrote in Microcosmographia Academica. A post-Brexit Panel would have seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it fell rather flat, despite the best efforts of chair Ellen Hazelkorn (Dublin Institute of Technology) and engaging contributions from Nick Hillman (HEPI) and David Palfreyman (New College, Oxford and an OfS Board member), arrayed perhaps symbolically on the right wing of the panel (as seen from the floor). Lunch intervened before the second keynote from Marijk van der Wende (Utrecht): ‘On a Learning Curve: New Realities for HE in a Changing Global Context’. Her theme was the rise of China, probably soon to become the world leader in HE, and already surpassing the European Union in R&D spend, and the US in scientific output. It was a presentation informed and enlightened by much first class research evidence, but hindered by unreadably small text in many powerpoints, problems with the sound system, and a fire alarm which forced the hall to empty for 30 minutes halfway through her presentation. She was however able to rally and finish with an upbeat quote by the Rector of Leiden about Brexit not holding back the progress of scientific collaboration.

The CGHE team decided to make no concessions for time lost, their judgment vindicated by the continuing presence of most participants staying for the delayed finishing time after 6pm. They were drawn first by the parallel sessions reporting work in progress on some of the many CGHE projects, living up to the Director’s prospectus by offering multi-level global perspectives on public good, graduate skills and careers, sectoral evolution, participation, financing and equity, management and academic work, and more. Golo Henseke and Francis Green of UCL were developing a thesis that social skills were increasingly important for graduate earnings, drawing economic comparisons across Europe, and comparing European and US experiences. Vassiliki Papatsibas (Sheffield) and Simon Marginson were in the early stages of a project on ‘Brexit, emotions and identity dynamics’, where they had been taken aback by the emotional ‘turn’ their data had forced upon them. Does reason enable and passion disable? they speculated. (How else, I wonder, can we account for the flood of academic tweets seizing on every lone shred of evidence pointing to the iniquity of Brexit, from those who would otherwise be railing against government’s own attachment to policy-based evidence?). Aniko Horvath reported early stages in her research with Jurgen Enders (Bath) and Michael Shattock into the scope for negotiated local orders in university governance, drawing interesting comparisons between the UK’s legitimation of committees as part of governance structures, and Germany’s attitude, which regards the role of committees and working groups as at best questionable.

In the final plenary Paul Ashwin (Lancaster) spoke with research-informed passion on ‘Transforming University Teaching’. Oversimplified accounts of the educational process make us lose sight of the educational arguments for undergraduate education. Too often we mistake privilege for ability, and prestige for quality. Justifying HE in terms of generic skills is reductionist, and purporting to explain HE in terms of signalling for employers simply reinforces the iniquitous force of global rankings and institutional prestige. Instead we should recognise that universities are the distinctive custodians of structured bodies of knowledge, and teaching is about designing ways for students to develop access to one or other of those bodies of knowledge – that is how teaching may truly be transformational. This is a continuing process of hard intellectual work: we need to change ourselves and our curriculum, not expect students, managers and policymakers to change so we can stay the same.

Thus the conference ended as it had begun, with a call to put education back on centre stage – in these troubled times that is indeed challenging higher education.

SRHE member Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog.

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A Letter from Germany

By Richard Budd

In March 2019 I attended the GfHf (Gesellschaft für Hochschulforschung – German Society for HE Research) conference, in Magdeburg. I was supported by the SRHE as part of their ongoing and developing relationship between the two societies; the GfHf sent two ECRs to Newport for our 2018 conference. I was presenting a paper at the conference anyway, but was also looking to build networks and think about potential research collaboration.

As is often the case, the comparative aspects, both the similarities and dissimilarities, spring to mind when thinking about the conference. As we might expect, German-speaking HE researchers are, by and large, talking about the same things in and around universities that we are: populism and the legitimacy of experts and university-produced knowledge; governance in and around research and teaching; big data, digitalisation and social media; aspects of social justice around widening participation, gender pay inequalities, and employability. In this way, it was familiar territory. What stand out as different, though, are the geographical scale and unit of analysis.

In the first instance, the majority of papers were about German-speaking countries, and predominantly about German HE itself. This contrasts with the SRHE’s annual jamboree, which while being fairly UK-oriented, also sees and attracts a great deal of internationally comparative/non-UK research and researchers. Part of this is no doubt cultural, given the limited geographical spaces where German is the first language, and also because the countries in this space operate a specific kind of university system. Another part, though, can be attributed to funding, in that the German government, either centrally or at the regional state (Bundesland) level commissions a lot of research into examining the lay of the land and analysis of their policies.

Secondly, almost all of the papers relate to the macro and meso levels, or nation/system and organisational. As an admittedly crude generalisation, much of our UK-based research is macro-micro, connecting social and governance trends and/or analysis of individual/group experiences and responses. We do look at organisations, but for ethical/access reasons, universities’ identities tend to be anonymised, and this means that much of the case detail goes unreported. This is often not the case in Germany, they are much more matter-of-fact about what’s working, as well as where it’s going wrong. I’d argue that this is a good thing, being far healthier than sweeping problems under the carpet for reputational reasons, but then also German universities aren’t involved in the same kind of bun-fight for funding and students as we are.

This macro-meso orientation in German HE research probably connects to the fact that, as the majority of universities over there are state institutions, many changes to the system have to come from the top. Education in Germany falls within the remit of each of the 16 Bundesländer, and they are very protective of their regional turf. This means, though, that while universities and academics do have some autonomy, they are not as flexible (or as responsibilised) as in the UK. It also means that change is somewhat pedestrian by UK standards, but systemic. It has been well-documented that, for this reason, German speaking countries have been relatively slow to embrace (or have been immune from) the marketisation and performance-based elements that are so prevalent in many other countries.

A secondary observation is that nearly all of the papers are applying the same theoretical approach, neo-institutionalism. Neo-institutionalism is largely concerned with organisational behaviour, and sees organisations embedded within fields (i.e. sectors). It is therefore well-suited to what German HE researchers are looking at, but it was striking to see it appearing almost ubiquitously across the presentations I attended – including mine! We do see it in management/organisational studies in the UK, but not so much in HE research. Methodologically, the spectrum is as we see it, everything from multi-level modelling to discourse analysis and interviews etc. However, the qualitative work was invariably being utilised to examine the effect/effectiveness of interventions at the organisational level, rather than the personal experiential aspects.

What the conference really offers, then, is a different set of references and perspectives, as well as a different set of people, and therefore an opportunity to step out of our UK-oriented bubble. Many of us do research on an international and comparative basis, but we inescapably bring at least an element of ethno-centricity into our work. Being in Germany allowed me to step outside that a little more, and identified some of my own biases. Maybe, I’m wrong, and perhaps this says more about my methodological nationalism than anything.

As a caveat, most of the presentations – and both of the keynotes – are, naturally, in German. (It also reminded me that the non-native English speakers at our conferences have to work so much harder to follow presentations, ask/answer questions, and engage with colleagues; this is incredibly tiring.) As of 2018, though, there has been an English track in the conference – I presented my paper in this. German colleagues are almost invariably more than happy to converse in English for those who can only ask their way to station auf Deutsch. Culturally, the food is different, and there was an endless supply of (really good) cakes and coffee. Also, for those not familiar with German higher education, audience participants rap their knuckles on the desk at the end of presentations rather than clapping, which can be unsettling the first time you experience it!

In closing, it’s probably worth mentioning that nobody mentioned Brexit until the second round of drinks after dinner. There’s certainly absolutely no schadenfreude in Germany for the political corner we’ve painted ourselves into in that regard.

SRHE member Richard Budd is Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Lancaster.

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Organising, funding and participating in care-friendly conferences

By Emily Henderson

SRHE member Emily Henderson (Warwick) runs the ConferenceInference blog with Jamie Burford (La Trobe), offering a unique gateway to research about HE conferences. Her recent post is adapted and reblogged with permission here.

Conferences are highly exclusionary spaces for all manner of reasons. They are also vital sites for learning, knowledge production and dissemination, career development, and the formation of collaborations and partnerships for publications and research projects, sites where jobs are directly and indirectly advertised and secured, and sites of friendship, mentoring and all kinds of relationships. Conferences are recognised in research on academic careers as important sites which have a plethora of indirect benefits. Furthermore, attending, organising and being invited to speak at conferences are also expectations which are included in many promotions criteria and also in some hiring criteria (particularly for early career scholars who may not yet have a publication record). The role of conferences is often downplayed in practice and in research; amassing research and evidence on the impact of conferences on careers has resulted in a clear and irrefutable conclusion: missing out on conferences disadvantages academics in multiple regards. 

While the role of conferences continues to be downplayed – often by those for whom it is easiest to attend – there will continue to be hidden inequalities which contribute to overall inequalities in the academic profession and which cannot be addressed until fully acknowledged.

Based on some initial understanding of this problem from my doctoral work on knowledge production about gender at Women’s Studies conferences, and from personal experiences, I decided to explore the exclusionary nature of conferences – with a particular focus on caring responsibilities. The particular features of the stance taken in this project were: (i) a wide definition of care, to include partners, children, other relatives, pets, friends and kin; (ii) a focus on how care interacts with both access to conferences and participation in conferences while there.

In December 2016, I won internal funding from the University of Warwick Research Development Fund for a small-scale project on the relationship between conference participation and caring responsibilities. This was originally intended as a ‘pilot study’ for a larger project, but it touched a nerve and became much more than a pilot study – producing important findings and provoking widespread interest, including several invitations to present the research at events on inequalities and on care in the academic profession. The discussions in turn highlighted the need for further discussions – and for concrete outputs to influence the actions of those involved in organising, funding and participation in conferences. To develop the project’s trajectory further, in 2017 I applied for funding from Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Studies and embarked upon the production of a range of outputs for different audiences.

The project was assisted by Julie Mansuy in the first phase and Xuemeng Cao in the second phase, and I offer my sincere gratitude to them for their assistance with the logistics and implementation of this project. The outputs from the project, ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation’, can all be downloaded or viewed from links included here (see also the events and outputs page on the project website).

The Conference Inference blog has already told parts of the story. ‘Conferences and caring responsibilities – individual delegates, multiple lives‘, explained how the project stemmed from the realisation that conferences are often designed for unencumbered delegates, and much conferences research (and indeed HE research in general) constructs an individualised academic subject who has no ties. The project explored conferences in their own right as sites which contribute to the development of knowledge, careers and collaborations, but also as a lens through which the academic profession as a whole can be viewed, given that conferences are both representative of and resistant to the institutional norms of academia (see Henderson, 2015).

Overwhelming care: reflections on recruiting for the “In Two Places at Once Research Project”‘, marked the moment where I realised that the project had touched a nerve. I was inundated with requests to participate – messages flooded in with enthusiasm and relief that someone was finally researching this – with snapshots of the complexity of academics’ lives, juggling care and academic work. The project research used a diary-interview method with 20 academics; a further 9 participants just filled in the diary. ‘Conferences and complex care constellations‘ revealed early findings, showing the range and complexity of different care constellations. This included temporary and long-term caring, shifting and dynamic care needs, hands-on and virtual caring, and a variety of different caring responsibilities.

The project has since produced a number of different outputs for different audiences, which all emerge from the study, with inflections from various discussions with colleagues, the project’s stakeholder groupreactions to the project I have received, and questions and comments from the various events at which I have presented the research.

Output 1: Recommendations briefing for conference organisers (view)

 This briefing, produced in collaboration with Leigh Walker and the Impact Services team in the Warwick Social Sciences Faculty, outlines how conference organisers can facilitate access to and participation in conferences for academics with a variety of caring responsibilities. Many considerations can be implemented at little or no cost (eg indicating evening social events in advance, or ensuring the wifi is easily accessible), but with significant impact. Care provision at a conference does not amount to providing a creche (see also Briony Lipton’s post, ‘Baby’s first conference‘). The briefing is targeted at both larger association conferences and smaller one-off events, which are often hosted in HEIs but tend to fly under the radar of institutional equalities policies.

Output 2: Recommendations postcard for Higher Education Institutions (Human Resources, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion personnel, Department Chairs) (view)

This is a short set of priorities for HEIs as a reminder that institutions expect their academics to attend conferences, but do not necessarily take responsibility for ensuring that academics are able to do so. While conferences are often portrayed as something like leisure – an optional extra (see ‘Conferences are (not) holidays‘), HEIs have a responsibility in this regard as long as academic promotions and hirings include conferences and the indirect outcomes of conferences such as publications and collaborative research projects – as well as ‘esteem’ and ‘reputation’ indicators. The postcard highlights the role of HR/EDI professionals in drawing together different relevant policies (eg relating to expenses claims, right to childcare, travel bursaries – see also the post about La Trobe’s carers’ travel fund) and the role of department chairs in being aware of and implementing policies.

Output 3: ‘Juggling Conferences and Caring Responsibilities’ short film (view)

 This short film, freely accessed on Youtube, aims to raise awareness of how conference attendance and participation are affected by the challenges of managing caring responsibilities. The film, produced by Mindsweep Media, includes reactions to ‘In Two Places at Once’ from: an EDI professional; a higher education and equity researcher; and academics with caring responsibilities (including a doctoral researcher with a young child, a dual career couple with a young child, and an academic who had cared for her elderly parents). Academics with caring responsibilities benefit from knowing that this is a shared issue and the film can be shown in training sessions and meetings for senior decision-makers.

Output 4: ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation – Final Report’ (view)

Henderson, EF, Cao, X, Mansuy, J (2018) In Two Places at Once: The Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation: Final Project Report, Coventry: Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. DOI: 10.31273/CES.06.2018.001

The project report is a more comprehensive but accessible resource, with recommendations for action by different parties, including EDI and HR professionals and people involved in the ATHENA Swan process or other equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives. The report is also an academic resource for research in the areas of care, higher education, gender and the academic profession.

Next steps

A chapter focusing on the diary data was published in Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion in Critical Events Studies (Routledge, 2019), with two journal articles and a conference presentation planned. I am developing a broader research agenda focusing on intersectional issues of access to and participation in conferences. Updates will be reported at Conference Inference, on Twitter (#I2PO), on the project website, or email me ( to join the project mailing list.

Follow Emily Henderson on Twitter @EmilyFrascatore.