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The Doorknob and the Door(s): Why Bayes Matters Now

By Paul Alper

When I was young, there was a sort of funny story about someone who invented the doorknob but died young and poor because the door had yet to be invented. And, perhaps the imagery is backwards in that the door existed but was useless until the doorknob came into being but I will stick with the doorknob coming first in time. Bear with me as I attempt to show the relevance of this to the current meteoric rise of Bayesianism, a philosophy and concept several centuries old. 

In a previous posting, “Statistical Illogic: the fallacy of Jacob Bernoulli and others,” I reviewed the book, Bernoulli’s Fallacy by Aubrey Clayton.  He shows in great detail how easy it is to confuse what we really should want

Prob(Hypothesis| Evidence)                                       Bayesianism

with

Prob(Evidence | Hypothesis)                                       Frequentism

A classic instance of Bayesian revision in higher education would be the famous example at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. In the 1970s, it was alleged that there was discrimination against females applying to graduate school.  Indeed, male admission rate overall was higher than female admission rate.  But, according to https://www.refsmmat.com/posts/2016-05-08-simpsons-paradox-berkeley.html, the simple explanation

“is that women tended to apply to the departments that are the hardest to get into, and men tended to apply to departments that were easier to get into. (Humanities departments tended to have less research funding to support graduate students, while science and engineer departments were awash with money.) So women were rejected more than men. Presumably, the bias wasn’t at Berkeley but earlier in women’s education, when other biases led them to different fields of study than men.”

Clayton’s examples, such as the Prosecutor’s Fallacy and medical testing confusion, give no hint of how analytically difficult it was to perform the calculations of Bayes Theorem in complicated situations. Except for a paragraph or two on pages 297 and 298 he makes no reference to how and why Bayesianism calculations can now be done numerically on very complicated, important, real-life problems in physics, statistics, machine learning, and in many other fields, thus the proliferation of Bayesianism.

For the record, the one and only picture of the reverend Thomas Bayes is generally considered apocryphal; ditto regarding the one and only picture of Shakespeare.   Bayes died in 1761 and his eponymous theorem was presented to The Royal Society in 1763 by Richard Price, an interesting character on his own.

What has changed since the inception of Bayes Theorem more than two centuries ago, the door knob if you will, is the advent of the door: World War II and the computer. At Los Alamos, New Mexico, the place that gave us the atom bomb, five people were confronted with a complicated problem in physics and they came up with a numerical way of solving Bayes Theorem via an approach known as MCMC, which stands for Markov Chain Monte Carlo. Their particular numerical way of doing things is referred to as the “Metropolis Algorithm” named after Nicholas Metropolis, the individual whose name was alphabetically first.

To give the flavour but not the details of the Metropolis algorithm, I will use a well-done, simple example I found on the web which does not use or need the Metropolis algorithm but can be solved simply using straightforward Bayes Theorem; then I show an inferior numerical technique before indicating how Metropolis would do it. The simple illustrative example is taken from the excellent web video, Bayes theorem, the geometry of changing beliefs (which in turn is taken from work by Nobel prize-winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky).

The example starts with ‘Steve’, a shy retiring individual. We are asked to say which is more likely – that he is a librarian, or a farmer? Many people will say ‘librarian’, but that is to ignore how many librarians and how many farmers there are in the general population. The example suggests there are 20 times as many farmers as librarians, so we start with 10 librarians and 200 farmers and no one else.  Consequently,

Prob(Librarian) is 10/(10 +200) = 1/21.

Prob(Farmer) is 200/(10 +200) = 20/21

The video has 4 of the 10 Librarians being shy and 20 of the 200 farmers being shy; a calculation shows how the evidence revises our thinking:

Prob(Librarian| shyness) = 4/(4+20) = 4/24 = 1/6

Prob(Farmer| shyness) = 20/(4+20) = 5/6

‘Steve’ is NOT more likely to be a librarian. The probability that ‘Steve’ is a librarian is actually one in six. Bayesian revision has been calculated and note that the results are normalised.  That is, the 5 to 1 ratio, 20/4, trivially leads to 5/6 and 1/6.  Normalisation is important in order to calculate mean, variance, etc. In more complicated scenarios in many dimensions normalisation remains vital but difficult to obtain.

The problem of normalisation can be solved numerically but not yet in the Metropolis way.  Picture a 24-sided die.  At each roll of the die, record whether the side that comes up is a number 1,2,3 or 4 and call it Librarian. If any other number, 5 to 24, comes up, call it Farmer.  Do this (very) many thousands of times and roughly 1/6 of those tosses will be librarian and 5/6 will be farmer.  This sampling procedure is deemed independent in that a given current toss of the die does not depend on what tosses took place before.  Unfortunately, this straight-forward independent sampling procedure does not work well on more involved problems in higher dimensions.

Metropolis does a specific dependent sampling procedure, in which the choice of where to go next does depend on where you are now but not how you got there, ie  the previous places you visited play no role.  Such a situation is called a Markov process, a concept which  dates from the early 20th century. If we know how to transition from one state to another, we typically seek the long-run probability of being in that state. In the Librarian/Farmer problem, there are only two states, Librarian and Farmer. The Metropolis algorithm says begin in one of the states, Librarian or Farmer, toss a two-sided die which proposes a move.  Accept this move as long as  you do not go down. So, moving from Librarian to Librarian, Farmer to Farmer or Librarian to Farmer are accepted. Moving from Farmer to Librarian may be accepted or not; the choice depends on the relative heights – the bigger the drop, the less likely the move is to be accepted.  Metropolis says: take the ratio, 4/20, and compare to a random number between zero and one. If the random number is less than 4/20, move from Farmer to Librarian; if not, stay at Farmer. Repeat the procedure (very) many, many times.

Typically, there is a burn-in period so the first bunch are ignored and we count from then on the fraction of the runs that we are in the Librarian state or in the Farmer state, to yield the 1/6 and 5/6.

Multiple thousands of iterations today take no time at all; back in World War II, computing was in its infancy and one wonders how many weeks it took to get a run which today, would be done in seconds.  But, so to speak, a door was being constructed. 

In 1970, Hastings introduced an additional term so that for complex cases, the proposals and acceptances would better capture more complex, involved “terrain” than this simple example. In keeping with the doorknob and door imagery, Metropolis Hastings is a better door, allowing us to visit more complicated, elaborate terrain more assuredly and more quickly.  An even newer door, inspired by problems in physics, is known as the  Hamiltonian MCMC.  It is even more complicated, but it is still a door,related to previous MCMC doors.  There are many web sites and videos attempting to explain the details of these algorithms but it is not easy going to follow the logic of every step.  Suffice to say, however, the impact  is enormous and justifies the resurgence of Bayesianism.

Paul Alper is an emeritus professor at the University of St. Thomas, having retired in 1998. For several decades, he regularly contributed Notes from North America to Higher Education Review. He is almost the exact age of Woody Allen and the Dalai Lama and thus, was fortunate to be too young for some wars and too old for other ones. In the 1990s, he was awarded a Nike sneaker endorsement which resulted in his paper, Imposing Views, Imposing Shoes: A Statistician as a Sole Model; it can be found at The American Statistician, August 1995, Vol 49, No. 3, pages 317 to 319.


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Can coaching bring back the joy to academic work?

By George Callaghan

Pause for a moment and jot down how many tasks and projects are currently at the front of your mind? You might already be thinking, “hold on, am I asked to pause, to stop thinking, stop doing, even for a moment? Does he not know how much I’ve got to do!” I would encourage you to give it a go.

Here are mine: write this blog, check work emails, check personal emails, re-read my Career Development Staff Appraisal Form for meeting later today, check train is going to be on time for said meeting, check if Waverley station has moved bike storage area since lock-down, check today’s to-do list I made yesterday, send the two qualitative interviews which have been transcribed to the printers…” OK, I will stop there – quite a long list which only took about 30 seconds to come up with. It also does not include other University work or general life stuff such as parenting, being in a relationship, owning pets, shopping and so on. The distinction between the private and professional life of academics is becoming increasingly blurred – and the pressure of work is becoming increasingly intense.

Then think back to when you embarked on your academic career, most likely full of excitement and joy at being able to pursue your intellectual passion for a subject, enthuse students, write papers, and successfully present at conferences.

What happened between the early excitement and present overload? How did our academic lives become so busy we barely have time for a coffee break, never mind time to think clearly and analytically? And crucially, what might we do about it?

While the answers to the changing nature of demands will be multi-factorial and include the marketisation of higher education and the pressure of research and teaching metrics, I argue in this blog that coaching offers a route-map to creating a more balanced and enjoyable professional life. It is an invitation to self-reflect, to recognise strengths, to develop insights, and to allow obstacles to be identified and overcome. This makes it a tremendously powerful staff development intervention.

Coaching can take several forms. For example, academic leaders and managers might use training to develop a coaching mindset. Here they would be using skills such as active listening and reflective inquiry to deepen the quality of their communication with colleagues. Alternatively, academic and professional staff might take dedicated one to one sessions with a trained and qualified coach.

Here, I begin to tell the story of how we are using coach training and coaching sessions to develop a coaching culture amongst academic staff within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University. The project is still in its early stages but is showing great promise.

The initial idea was sparked by some coach training I engaged with as part of my professional development. I had a lightbulb moment when I realised that the constant curiosity, invitation to self-reflect and absence of judgement which underpin coaching conversations fit wonderfully well with the academic labour process. Many of us are drawn to work as university academics because we value agency, autonomy, and self-direction. As we know only too well, the current intensification of academic work militates against these, produces feelings of frustration and can be overwhelming. Coaching, with its focus on open questions and reflective inquiry, signposts new ways forward. Open questions and reflective inquiry may even lead to insights where we remember the joy and love of our work.

The project involves an external coach organisation providing introductory coaching skills training to academic leaders and managers. The positive early feedback led to expanding this offer of training coaching skills and to set up an internal coaching service where one to one coaching supports colleagues through career transitions.

We are presently working on an evaluation project using grounded theory methodology to analyse the impact of the coach skills training. The data is presently being collected and analysed and our aim is to offer a paper on this evaluation to Studies in Higher Education later in the year. Here, I offer my own reflections on what appears to be working – as well as some thoughts on what I might have done better.

In terms of what’s worked I am both refreshed and relieved to find that informal feedback and my own observations indicate that coaching adds value to the academic working life. One of these is the invitation to leaders and managers to self-reflect. To “listen more and talk less”.

As part of my own self-reflection, I began to pay attention to how I behave in meetings. Not how I thought I behaved, but what I do. I thought I consistently listened intently to others before making my own contribution. In fact, I was half listening to comments while internally formulating my own ‘excellent, articulate and very powerful’ contribution! I barely waited for others to stop speaking before I started. Acceptance of this embarrassing revelation led to a change in my listening. I began to concentrate on what others were saying. Not just to the words, but also the emotion behind the words. I began to pause before replying or I invited someone else to come in first. These are particularly challenging changes to make when one is chairing meetings or in a leadership and management position. Interestingly, once I let go of feeling responsibility for being the one with ‘the answer’ I felt more calm – and better ideas emerged.

In group or one to one meetings, taking the time to really listen generates new insights and opens the door to new possibilities. For leaders this can also be rather humbling as one realises others have equally (or more) valid ideas and solutions. This type of facilitative as opposed to directive leadership is particularly suited to academia, where the apprenticeship for the job involves independent thinking and the development of critical questioning.

This shift to leadership habits which draw on coaching, for example moving from ‘telling’ to ‘listening’, has the potential to motivate and energise colleagues. This takes time but offers substantial returns. Telling and directing is quicker in the short term – perhaps you are familiar with colleagues hesitating before making decisions, looking to first run it past a head of department, research lead or some other authority figure? While this style of management and leadership works to some extent (courses still get taught and research still gets done), it can create a dependent relationship. Leading through coaching invites colleagues to take more responsibility for their own – and consequently the university’s – development and growth.

What might I have done better? What immediately comes to mind is that I could have been much more patient. As I became convinced of coaching’s effectiveness, I set high expectations of uptake and the pace of change. The take up of coach training by leaders and managers did pick up, but over months and years as opposed to weeks. The habit of self-reflection I am (still) learning to practise has been of great assistance. The realisation that I must meet colleagues where they are now, not where I am.

Please consider how adopting a coaching mindset may be of service in improving the leadership and management in your own institution. You might reflect and think it is all working fine, but if you realise there is room for improvement then coaching may very well be of service. In the meantime, stay curious!

SRHE member George Callaghan is Professor of Personal Finance and Economics in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the Open University. He is also a qualified coach with the International Coaching Federation and the Institute of Leadership and Management. If you would like to discuss any points in this blog, please email George.callaghan@open.ac.uk


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Overcoming Built-In Prejudices in Proofreading Apps

by Ann Gillian Chu

As I am typing away in Microsoft Word, the glaring, red squiggly underline inevitably pops up, bringing up all the insecurities I have with academic English writing, as an ethnically Chinese, bilingual Chinese-English speaker. So what if I speak English with a North American accent? So what if English has been my medium of instruction for my entire life? So what if I graduated with a Master of Arts with honours in English Language from the University of Edinburgh? My fluency in Chinese somehow discredits my English fluency, as if I cannot be equally competent in both. Because I am not white, my English will always somehow be inadequate.

The way others, and I, perceive my English ability reflects how ‘standard English’ as an idea is toxic to the identity-building of those who are not middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, white men from the Anglophone world. April Baker-Bell talks about the concept of linguistic justice, arguing that promoting a type of ‘correct English’ has inherent white linguistic supremacy. Traditional approaches to language education do not account for the emotional harm, internalised linguistic racism, or the consequences these approaches have on the sense of self and identity of non-white students. Extending Baker-Bell’s theory, how would this apply to the use of proofreading apps?

Apps are created by people who have their own underlying assumptions and worldviews, even if these assumptions are not explicitly written in any of the apps’ documentation. When using these tools, users need to have a sense of the kind of assumptions these apps carry into their corrections. More importantly, as programmes are written by people and applied in a formulaic way, they should not have the power to define their users’ sense of identity, or even their ability to communicate in English. Algorithm-based tools will always fall short in understanding the nuances and eccentricities that make human writing exciting and intriguing. The app should not have authority over its users, and its feedback should never be taken uncritically.

However, proofreading apps could be used as a pedagogical tool when thoughtfully and critically engaged. Evija Trofimova created a resource titled ‘Digital Writing Tools: Spelling, Grammar and Style Checkers,’ which investigates how different proofreading apps can or should be used. Trofimova’s project assesses how each app can be used for best didactic experiences, with exercise suggestions and classroom activities available for users to begin to see these proofreading apps as a possible pedagogical tool, rather than law enforcement of sorts. Users of proofreading apps should always treat each ‘error’ as a learning opportunity, investigate the rule behind the correction, and actively consider whether it is indeed a correction they want to take up in their writing. If a correction is unexpected, users should be encouraged to investigate why the app suggested it and what is the underlying principle. Crucially, app users need to have a sense of where to draw the fine line between what is conventional (rather than right) and what makes writing comprehensible to readers, and what expresses the unique voice and identity of a writer. Writers should explore more ways to communicate within and outside of conventions, in a way that best represents them. This sort of creativity will go beyond simply relying on the algorithm of a proofreading app.

It needs to be said more often that English as an academic lingua franca is no one’s first language (see Marion Heron and Doris Dippold, Meaningful Teaching Interaction at the Internationalised University). Just because someone is a monolingual English speaker does not necessarily mean that they are good at academic English writing. Just because someone writes in an unexpected or unconventional way does not necessarily mean that they are wrong. An essential purpose of writing is to communicate. As academics, we need to ask ourselves, how much can someone deviate from a standard and still be comprehensible? How much room can we leave to allow students to be themselves and express themselves fully in their writing? How much are proofreading apps stifling their ability to flourish as writers? We are not teaching students to become machines. There is no point in having different students write the same essay in the exact same way. Rather, it is precisely their unique and different voices that should be celebrated.

In ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about her childhood in Nigeria, reading books about white, blue-eyed characters who played in the snow, ate apples, and talked a lot about the weather, which does not reflect her experience of the world at all. Growing up, Adichie struggled with characters in novels being made up of white foreigners from the West alone, as if the Western world is a cultural ground zero. She and other Nigerians are not represented in the literary works she read. Non-white proofreading app users may easily fall into the same impressionable and vulnerable position as Adichie did. These prescriptive ‘corrections’ made by proofreading apps, just like the children stories that Adichie read, implies an ideological position that a specific language standard, such as standard British or American English, is somehow superior and ‘correct.’ However, the West is not a cultural ground zero, nor is English a neutral medium of communication. Other varieties of English used in non-Western worlds, far from being inappropriate or incorrect, should be celebrated for their ability to reflect the culture and experiences of non-Western writers. The attempt to make a piece of written work meet certain linguistic standards should not be above rhetoric, creativity, and cultural expression.

What makes proofreading apps dangerous is that their underlying assumptions remain invisible to their users. A ‘correct’ grammar may reinforce existing biases in our society, creating linguistic violence, persecution, dehumanisation, and marginalisation, which non-standard English speakers endure when using their own language in schools and everyday life. One thing that stuck with me the most from my undergraduate degree is that proper English changes throughout the ages. What is now deemed suitable was once upon a time a deviant use of the language. And what is deviant now may become mainstream in the future. People have always reacted badly to these linguistic changes, but the changes in usage stick nonetheless. As users of proofreading apps and teachers of students who use these apps, it is important to encourage everyone to think about who the apps were built for and what purposes they were meant to serve. What spelling and grammatical rules do they enforce, and why? In After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, Willie James Jennings pushes against (theological) education that is ultimately set up for white self-sufficient masculinity, a way of organising life around a persona that distorts authentic identity. This way of being in the world forms cognitive and affective structures that seduce people into its habitation and its meaning-making. When a white Anglophone world is presumed as a norm, and others somehow have to cater to its expectations, it strangles intellectual pursuits from the perspectives of the other. It is the freedom of expression between interlocutors that will create a space for students from all backgrounds to flourish.

Ann Gillian Chu (FHEA) is a PhD (Divinity) candidate at the University of St Andrews. She has taught in higher education contexts in Britain, Canada, and China using a variety of platforms and education tools. As an ethnically Chinese woman who grew up in Hong Kong, Gillian is interested in efforts to decolonise academia, such as exploring ways to make academic conferences more inclusive.


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Covid-19 won’t change universities unless they own up to the problems that were already there

by Steven Jones

At a national level in the UK, two Covid narratives vie for supremacy. The first positions the government response to the pandemic as successful, pointing to a world-leading vaccine development and roll-out, a well-received furlough scheme, and an accelerated return to ‘normal’. The second positions the government response as calamitous, pointing to recurring misspends, accusations of corruption, and a death rate among the highest in Europe.

Within UK higher education, two parallel narratives have arisen. On one hand, sector leaders and institutional managers claim against-the-odds victory because most universities emerged reputationally and commercially unscathed from the most unforeseeable of global challenges. On the other hand, for many students and staff, Covid-19 further exposed the limits of market-based approaches to funding universities, and the harm done by corporate governance cultures.

Discursively, Covid-19 laid bare a higher education sector fluent in the language of competition but mostly unable to articulate its underlying value to society. Senior management teams continued to pore over league table performance indicators and rejoice in individual ‘excellence’, but struggled to co-create a narrative of common good and humanity in the face of a deadly virus.

Yet at the local level there was much of which to be proud: university staff listened to their students and put their needs first, recognising that welfare now took priority over academic outcomes. Learning persisted, even during the depths of lockdown, with pedagogies adapting and curricula evolving. The question now is how to reconcile a renewed spirit of collegiality and creativity with top-down policy wedded to the idea that universities are ‘providers’ and their students little more than consumers of a premium product.

The starting point may be to accept that UK universities were struggling long before Covid-19 struck. Many of the sector’s underlying problems were simply brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. This slower-burning crisis in higher education means that: 

  1. Relations between senior managers and their staff are broken. During Covid-19, university staff wondered why their efforts appeared to be appreciated more by their students than their employers. For those in positions of authority, the successful response of front-line personnel seemed almost to threaten their authority. Top-end remuneration had raced ahead of median campus pay for decades because governing bodies were convinced that the university’s most important work was undertaken by its executive. Suddenly, it appeared that collegiality at the disciplinary level was what mattered most. Institutional managers would no doubt retort that running a university by consensus is impractical, not least during a worldwide emergency, and that the financial sustainability of the sector was secured by their swift pre-emptive action. But to those on the outside, the simmering resentment between employers and employees remains unfathomable: how can those who lead the university be so far adrift of those who work for the university?
  • Relations between senior managers and students are also badly damaged. Partly this was the fault of policy-makers, for whom students were at best an afterthought. But instead of fashioning an alternative narrative, institutional management teams mostly followed the lead of a cynical government and framed students as potential individual rule-breakers rather than a vulnerable cohort of young people facing an extraordinary mental health challenge. One vice-chancellor foolhardily suggested that where students were forced into self-isolation it might engender a ‘Dunkirk spirit’. At times, international students were treated like cargo. In August 2021, over fifty UK universities clubbed together to charter flights and import students from China. Home students were also lured back on to campus prematurely, the risks to local communities apparently secondary to income from accommodation, catering and other on-site spending.
  • Ministers don’t listen to sector leaders. Despite institutional managers and their representative bodies dutifully following the marketisation road-map that policy-makers laid out, Covid-19 exposed a sector that had remarkably little sway over government strategy. Ministers showed no interest in University UK’s proposed bail-out package, with one Conservative peer pointedly suggesting that institutions show ‘humility on the part of those vice-chancellors who take very large salaries.’ This undermined the soft-power strategies of which sector leaders had boasted for decades. Some ‘wins’ for students did emerge, but they were invariably overstated: the government’s announcement of a £50m package of support in February 2021 was met with enthusiasm by sector representatives, leaving it to mental health charities like Student Minds to point out that this amounted to barely £25 per head. Ironically, when the government botched its A-levels algorithm, universities stepped in to bail-out policy-makers.
  • The business model on which universities operate is brittle. No-one would deny the reliance on overseas student income leaves the sector financially exposed. Many would go further and say that there’s something unethical – neo-colonial even – about charging sky-high fees to foreign students so that other university activity can be cross-subsidised. The most principled long-term approach would be for university leaders to reassert the common value of higher education, and seek to persuade the public that a system funded through progressive general taxation, akin to that of other nations, would be fairer and more robust. With graduates of English universities facing interest charges of 9-12% over four decades, there has never been a better time to make this argument.

In 2020, I wrote an upbeat piece in The Guardian suggesting that Covid-19 could change universities for the better. This is still just about possible. However, recent evidence suggests that there is no great eagerness on the part of management to seize the opportunity. Indeed, Covid-19 could change next to nothing, allowing sector leaders and institutional managers to distract from previous failings and double down on a failed corporate leadership model. At the national level, campuses have become battlefields for unwinnable ‘culture wars’, as right-wing politicians and media commentators take pot-shots at a sector lacking the confidence or guile to defend itself. At the institutional level, the cost-of-living crisis is already being used to vindicate new survivalist discourses that will later be used to rationalise further reconfigurations and cuts.

Covid-19 exposed the vulnerability of a heavily marketised university sector. As student loan interest rates rocket and staff pensions crumble, our sector leaders say almost nothing. Markets in higher education do more than monetise students’ learning; they co-opt and silence those whose primary duty it is to defend the universities that they manage.

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester. Steven’s new book, Universities Under Fire: hostile discourses and integrity deficits in higher education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) will be published in the summer.


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Working class and working in higher education?: Transition(s) from a sociology PhD

by Carli Rowell

Carli Rowell won an SRHE Newer Researcher’s Award to explore working-class early career researchers lived experiences of moving through a Sociology PhD and into the academic workforce. It makes visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. The full report from this research award is available from the 2019 reports at Newer Researcher Awards | Society for Research into Higher Education (srhe.ac.uk)

This blog arises from a project which explores the lived experience of being working-class and moving through doctoral study into the academic workforce. It was motivated by the fact that higher education has historically existed for the working classes as a site of exclusion from participation, from knowledge production and from leadership. Despite the global massification of education, HE continues to operate as a classed pathway and bastion of classed knowledge (Walkerdine, 2021) especially so given academia’s classed ceiling. The project explored the lived experiences of 13 working-class early career researchers (ECRs) in moving through doctoral study into (and out of) the academic workforce. It sought to make visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. I reflect here on some of the key emerging findings (in depth analysis continues) and sketch out early recommendations based on project findings.

The project was underpinned by the following research questions:

  1. In what ways, if at all, do first-generation working-class ECRs perceive their working-class background as affecting their experiences of and progression through doctoral study and into academia?
  2. How do they generate and navigate their own ‘strategies for success’ in their working context?
  3. What are the wider implications of these strategies for success, for example in their personal lives and/or their imagined futures in the academy?
  4. What can be done, if at all, by stake holders of UKHEs to address working-class doctoral students and early career researchers journey to and through a social-sciences PhD and into academia?

A Bourdieusian approach to social class was adopted. Whilst participants self-identified as coming from a working-class background and as being a first-generation (at the undergraduate level), class background and first-generation status were further explored and confirmed through in-depth interviews. All participants were UK domiciled doctoral students and ECRs across a range of university types. Initially the project sought to explore working-class doctoral and ECRs from across the social sciences, but participant recruitment soon revealed a skewedness towards the discipline of sociology. Thus, the decision was taken to adopt a disciplinary case study approach, focusing upon the discipline of sociology. In total, ten of the 13 participants were working in academia and the remaining three were working in the third sector. 12 had completed their PhD’s and one participant had made the decision to leave academia prior to completing the PhD. 12 participants identified as White British, and one participant identified as North African.

What challenges do working-class doctoral researchers and early career researchers face? How, if at all do they overcome such challenges and what can be done to support them in their journeys to and through academia?

The Important of Working-Class ‘Others’ in Academic and Navigating Funding

In journeying to the PhD receiving scholarship funding was foundational to participants’ possibility of progressing to doctoral study. All of my participants received full funding and without this they would not have been able to pursue a PhD. In addition to funding, working-class ‘Others’ (or what I have termed to be very important persons (VIPs) in academia were also central to participants experiences of successful navigating the transition to doctoral study. The VIP, often academic points of contact, who are mostly (though not always) from a working-class background served an important function as a kind of ‘gatekeeper’ to post-graduate study and academia. VIPs often sparked the notion that doctoral study was a possible pathway and provided a window into academia, demystifying academia and the postgraduate applications/scholarship process.

Participants’ accounts showed a range of barriers. Participants rejected the need to be geographically hyper-mobile in order to secure academic employment; they wanted and needed to care for family members and wished to remain connected to their working-class home and community. They spoke at length about the precarious nature of navigating the academic job market and academia per se; this alone was a key barrier to successful progression within academia. Participants also spoke about the multitude of skills and experiences they were required to demonstrate in order to navigate the academic job market. For working-class students who are the first in their family to study at university, knowing which endeavours to seek out and prioritise was a great source of confusion and anxiety. Uncovering how to play the game was not always easily identifiable.

Recommendations

This study leads to recommendations for institutions, funding bodies, and those working in academia in their recruitment, engagement and support with doctoral scholars and early career researchers from working-class backgrounds. These recommendations include, but are not limited to:

(a) schemes aimed at demystifying academia and supporting working-class aspiring doctoral researchers through their doctoral applications and funding process;

(b) funding bodies recognising the precarious financial position of doctoral students, especially so for those from working-class backgrounds and thus financially supporting doctoral students during times of ill health and exceptional circumstances and providing funding to doctoral students for the period immediately following the submission of the PhD; and

(c) Academic hiring committees and funders, postdoctoral or otherwise, should not look more favourably on those applications where the applicant holder is moving to another university, and should accept that some applicants might just prefer to stay, without having an exceptional reason such as caring commitments, or other exceptional academic reasons.

The current academic landscape is marked by precarity and rampant competition for an ever diminishing pool of academic jobs, often short-term, temporary contracts that demand geographical mobility. This in turn has significant impacts upon the knowledge being produced within and across UK universities (and globally). Working-class doctoral students and early career researchers face considerable barriers in their journeys to and through a PhD and into academia. Whilst there has been considerable debate and discussion of the gendered and ethnic makeup of UK higher education there is no equivalent commentary or critique concerned with illuminating, calling into question and critiquing the absence of working-class persons from academia. The future of UK HE, its leadership and scholarship are currently under threat. The values of diversity, accessibility and inclusivity, especially that of class diversity, that universities are quick to espouse should be at the centre of HE policy and practice, especially at the postgraduate level.

Institutions and funding bodies need to take into account, and take action to address, the specific challenges facing working-class doctoral researchers and early career academics. Working-class people should be actively encouraged and supported in their journeys to and through doctoral study and into higher education. As part of this project, a workshop aimed at demystifying the post-PhD post-doctoral funding application process and academic labour market will be run in Autumn 2022.

SRHE member Carli Rowell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is currently an executive member of Gender and Education Association and convenes the British Sociological Associations Social Class Study Group.


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Do we want social science, or social science-fiction?

By Paul Temple

Because a lot of its research work involves schools and school-age children, research training at the Institute of Education tends to emphasise issues around confidentiality and anonymity in presenting research findings. Anonymity usually happens anyway in large-scale studies with hundreds or thousands of respondents – the National Student Survey, for example – because the point is to get a picture of what a category of people think, rather than the views of particular individuals. Those of us working on higher education research, however, are often in the position of asking relatively small numbers of informants about their professional views – that is, about the knowledge for which their employer is paying them, unrelated to their private lives. A university finance director could of course decline to be interviewed, but it’s hard to see why there should be a confidentiality problem about their explanation of the university’s resource allocation methodology.

When one of my PhD students was planning a study of the closure of the Ripon campus of York St John University, she assumed everything would have to be anonymised. But why?, I asked her. Yes, the closure was controversial, but that’s now history. Your study, I said, will have far more value if you contextualise it in the real-life settings of York and Ripon; just be sure that your respondents know that what they say will be on the record. But will they talk to me on that basis, she wondered: your problem, I said (correctly, as it turned out), will be getting them to shut up when you want to end the interview. Her thesis was fine, and the then YSJ VC seemed pleased that the institution was considered to be an interesting research subject.

The book by John Brennan et al, The University in its Place (2018), which provides four case studies of anonymised UK universities, took me back to these discussions. Brennan and his co-authors actually provide enough context to make it easy to work out the institutional identities: how many Scottish east coast cities have two universities, one of which (“Aspirational U”) obtained university status in 1994 and has about 5000 students? – no Googling, please. But it is the conceptual reason for anonymization that the authors put forward, aside from wanting “to respect the confidentiality of those to whom we talked” about the “sensitive” matter of university-regional relationships (p48), that I find fascinating. Anonymity was apparently necessary because “it is simply not possible to capture all the day-to-day complexity and uncertainty associated with higher education in practice and in place … [the study] necessarily involves selection, both intended and unintended … [so we cannot] present a complete and fully articulated representation either of particular institutions or places” (p48).

But making a selection is the basis not merely for all social science but for all research, of any kind. Show me a piece of research that isn’t the result of making a selection from the infinite variety of natural and social phenomena that initially confronted the researcher. Having then made a selection, no social scientific study will “capture all the day-to-day complexity” of an organisation, or of anything else. This is simply a logical impossibility, as there will always be more facts to be collected, more detail to be recorded, more details of details to be examined – as surely every PhD supervisor knows: “You’ve done enough, just write the thing up!”. What a researcher must do is focus on the chosen detail and (with an explanation) ignore the rest: you want the finance director to tell you about the resource allocation model, not about “the day-to-day complexity” of managing cash flow. In the cases of Brennan et al, no reasonable person would expect a study of university-regional relationships to include “a complete … representation” of, say, the catering arrangements in a particular institution, any more than an account of university catering would be expected to consider the university’s relations with regional public bodies.

I think that removing through anonymisation the context in which the research subject is embedded reduces the quality of understanding: it makes it harder for the reader to create their own view about what the research is saying – they have to go along with what the researchers say. Actually, anonymisation may mislead the reader if they guess wrong about the identity of the subject: “Funny, this doesn’t sound like Aberdeen!”.

It seems to me that Americans take a much more robust view about these matters than we do in Britain: maybe it’s a result of the First Amendment. George Keller’s ground-breaking book on university planning, Academic Strategy (1983), carried weight because he was describing successes and failures by named individuals in named universities. In the same tradition, Mark Kretovics (2020) doesn’t pull his punches, describing named leadership successes and failures (the failures are the best bits), down to the juicy details of expenses scandals. These accounts make you almost feel as if you’re in the room, not wondering if you’ve even got the right city.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.

References

Brennan, J., Cochrane, A., Lebeau, Y. and Williams, R. (2018). The University in its Place: Social and cultural perspectives on the regional role of universiites. Dordrecht: Springer.

Keller, G. (1983). Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Kretovics, M. (2020). Understanding Power and Leadership in Higher Education: Tools for Institutional Change. New York: Routledge.

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Who should pay for higher education in England, and how much

by Rob Cuthbert

SRHE News is a quarterly publication, available only to SRHE members, which aims to comment on recent events, publications, and activities in a journalistic but scholarly way, allowing more human interest and unsupported speculation than any self-respecting journal, but never forgetting its academic audience and their concern for the professional niceties. These are some extracts from the April 2022 issue.

Government uses high inflation as cover for hitting students, graduates and universities

The Government sneaked a student loans announcement out on Friday afternoon 28 January 2022. Ben Waltmann (Institute for Fiscal Studies) said: “Today’s announcement … constitutes a tax rise by stealth on graduates with middling earnings. … For a graduate earning £30,000, this announcement means that they will pay £113 more towards their student loan in the next tax year than the government had previously said. … What really matters is how long this threshold freeze will stay in place. If it is only for one year, the impact on graduates will be moderate, and the government can only expect to save around £600 million per cohort of university students. If it stays in place for longer, it could transform the student loan system, with a much lower cost for the taxpayer and a much higher burden on graduates than they thought … when they took out their loans.” However, some well-informed commentators thought that the Minister had made the best of a bad job.

Waltmann followed up in his 10 February ‘Observation’: ”Students will see substantial cuts to the value of their maintenance loans, as parental earnings thresholds will stay frozen in cash terms and the uplift in the level of loans will fall far short of inflation. This continues a long-run decline in the value of maintenance entitlements. The threshold below which students are entitled to full maintenance loans has been unchanged in cash terms at £25,000 since 2008; had it risen with average earnings, it would now be around £34,000. Separately, the student loan repayment threshold will also be frozen in cash terms. … Finally, tuition fees will remain frozen in cash terms for another year, which hits universities and mainly benefits the taxpayer. … as our updated student finance calculator shows, the government is saving £2.3 billion on student loans under the cover of high inflation.”

At last, the government response to Augar

On 24 February 2022 the government finally issued a detailed response to the 2019 Augar Report, setting out a series of policy proposals and further issues for consultation: “Put simply, we need a fairer and more sustainable system for students and institutions, and of course the taxpayer. We need a system that will maintain our world-class universities not just for today, but for the decades to come. And we need a fairer deal for students …”. Rachel Wolf wrote for The Times Red Box on 24 February 2022 that she was encouraged by the Augar response (and the separate consultation on Lifelong Learning Entitlement), because it suggested that there was proper Cabinet government with a sensible Secretary of State for Education, rather than No 10 being in charge of everything. Yes, but … there was precious little welcome for most of the proposals.

Nick Hillman blogged for HEPI just ahead of the DfE announcement, trying desperately to save the Willetts fee policy (he was Willetts’ special adviser) from being labelled as a political failure. That policy was designed to be redistributive and progressive, but in practice the shortfall in repayments (RAB) became much too high and not enough people understood that many students were not expected to repay loans in full. The Theresa May government misunderstood it to the extent that they raised the repayment threshold, which cost the Exchequer much more without giving much benefit to students. The Treasury tolerated it until the national accounting systems were properly changed to show the loans for what they were, rather than spreading them as a cost over 20-30 years. Hillman selectively quoted Moneysavingexpert Martin Lewis, but he would have done better to see the 24 February Lewis quote that loans had now become a graduate tax throughout people’s working lives.

Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe on 24 February 2022 noted the absence of any response to Augar’s chapter on maintenance grants: “Overall then, almost all students will end up paying significantly more for having significantly less spent on their education … we might have at least expected a response on the bits of Augar that were concerned with students’ costs or their maintenance. That they are not even acknowledged tells us quite a bit about what the government thinks about students and graduates.”

Gavan Conlon of London Economics issued his analysis of the government proposals. “Under the current funding system in 2021-22 … the Exchequer contributes approximately £10.630bn per cohort to the funding of higher education. … given that the RAB charge (the proportion of the total loan balance written off) stands at approximately 52.5%, maintenance loan write-offs cost the Exchequer £4.105bn per cohort, while tuition fee loan write-offs cost £5.303bn. The recent freeze in the repayment threshold reduced HMT costs by approximately £300 million. The provision of Teaching Grants to higher education institutions (for high-cost subjects) results in additional costs of £1.222bn per cohort. Higher Education Institutions receive £11.144bn per cohort in net income from undergraduate students … £10.112bn in tuition fee income … £1.222bn in Teaching Grants. … institutions contribute £189 million per cohort in fee and maintenance bursaries (predominantly the latter) in exchange for the right to charge tuition fees in excess of the ‘Basic Fee’ (£6,165 per annum for full-time students). For students/graduates, the average debt on graduation (including accumulated interest) was estimated to be £47,500 (for full-time first degree students), with average lifetime repayments of £35,900 for male graduates and £13,900 for female graduates. We estimate that 88.2% of all graduates never repay their full loan, while 33.0% never make any loan repayment.” The first scenario he modelled involved “removing the real interest rate, reducing the earnings repayment thresholds to £25,000 (and the associated maximum interest rate threshold), and extending the repayment period to 40 years”. That led to savings of £539million for the Exchequer, with no change for HEIs. The average debt on graduation declined following the changes by £1,600. Average lifetime repayments for male graduates  decline by £2,000 but increase by £3900 for female graduates. “However, these are averages and there are important distributional effects associated with these proposals”. Scenario 2 added the introduction of Minimum Entry Requirements and reintroduction of Student Number Controls. The savings for the Exchequer were estimated at £1322million, with a loss for HEIs of £840million. The effect on students was unchanged.

Conlon then co-authored a blog with Andrew McGettigan (independent) for Wonkhe on 25 February 2022, which showed that most of the savings had actually been achieved by changing the discount rate used for student loans, making them more valuable. “… the graduates who will benefit the most are the highest earning – predominantly male – graduates. The messaging has been that lower earning graduates need to pay more to make the system sustainable. In fact it’s the discount rate change that does most of that – with the extra contributions from lower earning graduates helping to fund the reduced contributions from the richest. … It’s hard to see this when there is a lot of smoke and mirrors. What makes all this worse is the government knows that its discount rate change means that the extra payments made by lower earning graduates in years 30 to 40 are doing most of the heavy lifting.” Student finance campaigner Martin Lewis of Moneysavingexpert called it “a very damning piece”.

Ben Waltmann of the Institute for Fiscal Studies wrote on 24 February that: “The largest student loan reform since 2012 will reduce the cost of loans for high-earning borrowers but increase it for lower earners. Today the government has announced the largest changes to the student loans system in England since fees were allowed to triple in 2012. Starting with the 2023 university entry cohort, graduates will pay more towards their student loans each year and their loan balances will only be written off 40 years after they start repayments. For the same cohorts, the interest rate on student loans will be reduced to the rate of increase in the Retail Prices Index (RPI), a large cut of up to 3 percentage points. Maximum tuition fees will be frozen in nominal terms until the 2024/25 academic year. These changes will transform the student loans system. While under the current system, only around a quarter can expect to repay their loans in full, around 70% can expect to repay under the new system. This is partly due to substantially higher lifetime repayments by students with low and middling earnings and partly due to less interest being accumulated on loans. The long-run benefit for the taxpayer will be around £2.3 billion per cohort of university entrants, as higher repayments by borrowers with low or middling earnings will be partly offset by lower repayments of high-earning borrowers.”

Richard Adams in The Guardian on 24 February 2022 pointed out the DfE’s own analysis showed the poorest would suffer: “An equality analysis on the proposals by the Department for Education, states that “those likely to see some negative impact with increased lifetime repayments under the reforms” include younger and female graduates as well as graduates “from disadvantaged backgrounds, or reside in the north, Midlands, south-west or Yorkshire and the Humber”.

On 24 February 2022 Wonkhe’s Debbie McVitty suggested the proposals were looking for “a third way between capping opportunity and letting the HE market run amok”. John Morgan’s article for Times Higher Education on 28 February 2022 had expert commentators describing the Augar response package as a ‘missed opportunity’, with Chris Husbands (Sheffield Hallam VC) saying “what the package essentially does is to kick the difficult questions down the road”. David Willetts, in Times Higher Education on 3 March 2022, thought the Augar response was “balanced tweaks”; he was trying to rescue his fees policy, which worked in theory but not in practice. Nick Hillman was still trying in Research Professional News on 6 March 2022.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan wrote a Conservative Home-spun version of the changes, in which she interestingly she referred to “Our top university cities – Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Manchester and London …”. Donelan’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in March 2022 set out what the Minister wants the narrative to be. Diana Beech (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 7 March 2022 about the government response to Augar and the recent flurry of OfS consultations: “… what we are facing now is not a series of seemingly independent consultations concerned with the minutiae of regulation, but a multi-pronged and coordinated assault on the values our higher education sector holds dear.” Alan Roff, former Deputy VC at Central Lancashire, reprised his 2021 argument for a graduate contributions scheme with his 22 March HEPI blog. We assume that still, no-one in government is listening.

Mary Curnock Cook, former UCAS chief executive, was upbeat about the possibility of setting a minimum entry requirement (MER) in terms of grade 4 English and Maths at GCSE, in her HEPI blog on 24 February 2022. However SRHE Fellow Peter Scott pointed out, in his 28 February 2022 HEPI blog, that “In Scotland, universities set MERs to widen access. In England, the State imposes MERs to curb it. So, it is very difficult to claim the UK Government’s package of measures in response to the recommendations made by Augar are somehow progressive, let alone favourable to fair access.”

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.

To join a global community of scholars researching into HE, see the SRHE website.

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Tunnel vision: higher education policy and the Office for Students

by Rob Cuthbert

In January 2022 the Office for Students published three sets of consultations, 699 pages of proposals for the regulation of student outcomes, the determination of teaching excellence, and the construction of indicators to measure student experience and outcomes. These were not separate initiatives, but part of a co-ordinated programme which needs to be seen in the context of the long-awaited government response to the 2019 Augar report, finally published in March 2022[1].

The OfS consultation announced that numerical thresholds will underpin requirements for minimum acceptable student outcomes at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Universities and colleges not meeting these could face investigation, with fines and restrictions on their access to student loan funding available as potential sanctions. For full-time students studying a first degree, the thresholds require: 80% of students to continue into a second year of study; 75% of students to complete their qualification; 60% of students to go into professional employment or further study.

Not just numbers? OfS say: “we recognise that using our indicators to measure the outcomes a provider delivers for its students cannot reflect all aspects of the provider’s context … If a provider delivers outcomes for its students that are below a numerical threshold, we will make decisions about whether those outcomes are justified by looking at its context. This approach would result in a rounded judgement about a provider’s performance.”

But then: “… such an approach may present a challenge for some providers. This is because they must only recruit students where they have understood the commitment they are making to support their students to succeed, irrespective of their backgrounds. … Most universities and colleges relish this challenge and already deliver on it. However, some do not. While some may offer opportunities for students to enter higher education, we also see low continuation and completion rates and disappointing levels of progression to relevant employment or further study.” A warning, then, for “some”, but not “most”, providers.

The OfS approach will be fine-grained: “We would consider whether a provider has complied with condition B3 in relation to each separate indicator or split indicator. This enables us to identify ‘pockets of provision’ where performance in a specific subject, for students with specific characteristics, or in relation to partnership arrangements, falls below a numerical threshold”.

‘Selecting’ universities might think that ‘contextual judgment’ will rescue them, but may still decide to play safe in subjects where the numbers don’t look so good. ‘Recruiting’ universities, especially in ‘levelling up’ areas, might be looking at the numbers across many programmes and considering their strategy. Everyone will be incentivised to play safe and eliminate what are numerically the most marginal candidates, subjects and courses. And everyone thinks this will discriminate against disadvantaged students. For example, the University Alliance response published on 16 March 2022 said: “The University Alliance is gravely concerned that the proposals outlined by government could have unintended consequences for the least privileged students in society.”

Sally Burtonshaw (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 26 January 2022: “As the dust begins to settle on the 699 pages of Office for Students’ (OfS) consultations and accompanying documents published on Thursday and providers across the sector begin to draft responses (deadline March 17th), it feels like there is a gaping chasm between the sector and its regulator. Language in the accompanying press release with references to ‘crack downs’, ‘tough regulatory action’ and ‘protecting students from being let down’, jars with a sector which has contributed so much throughout the pandemic.”

Diana Beech (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 7 March 2022 about the government response to Augar and the OfS consultations: “… what we are facing now is not a series of seemingly independent consultations concerned with the minutiae of regulation, but a multi-pronged and coordinated assault on the values our higher education sector holds dear.” Diana Beech was a policy adviser to the last three ministers for universities.

SRHE Fellow Peter Scott summed it up like this: “This … ‘direction of travel’ is … based on the assumption that we should continue to distinguish between FE and HE, vocational and academic tracks, in terms of their social bases and costs. Of course, that is the current reality. Universities, especially Russell Group ones, draw a disproportionate number of their students from socially-privileged backgrounds, while FE is badly under-funded. This is why it makes (economic) sense for the Government to try to divert more students there. But is that sustainable in a country that aspires to being both democratic and dynamic? Most other countries have moved on and now think in terms of tertiary systems embracing HE, FE, on-the-job training, adult and community learning, the virtual stuff … bound together by flexible pathways and equitable funding – and, above all, by fair access. In the UK, Wales is setting the pace, while Scotland has had its ‘Learner Journey 15-24’ initiative. In England, sadly, there is no echo of such positive thinking.”

Status hierarchies must, it seems, be maintained, and not just between HE and FE, but also between universities. Contrary to expectations the Teaching Excellence Framework will rise from the ashes of the Pearce Review via the OfS’s second consultation. Earlier versions of TEF did not reliably reproduce the existing status hierarchies; some Russell Group institutions even suffered the indignity of a bronze rating. Clearly this could not be allowed to continue. So now: “The proposed TEF process is a desk-based, expert review exercise with decisions made by a panel of experts to be established by the OfS. The panel would consider providers’ submissions alongside other evidence. … TEF assessment should result in an overall rating for each provider. The overall rating would be underpinned by two aspect ratings, one for student experience and one for student outcomes but there would be no rating of individual subjects within a provider.” Such undifferentiated provider-level arrangements will surely be enough to ensure no further embarrassment for those with the highest reputations.

There will still be gold, silver and bronze awards, but not for all. The OfS script is worthy of Yes Minister: “… our minimum baseline quality requirements establish a high quality minimum for all providers. Therefore, quality identified that is materially above the relevant baseline quality requirements should be considered as ‘very high quality’ or ‘outstanding quality’ … ‘Outstanding quality’ signifies a feature of the student experience or outcomes that is among the very highest quality found in the sector for the mix of students and courses taught by a provider. … ‘Very high quality’ signifies a feature of the student experience or outcomes that is materially above the relevant minimum baseline quality requirements for the mix of students and courses taught by a provider.” Is the difference clear? If not, don’t worry, because the TEF Panel will decide.

As Sir Humphrey might have put it: it’s like the Olympics – not everyone will get on the podium. And it’s like ice dancing: judges hand out the marks based on how they rate the performance. The table of “features of excellence” spells out the criteria, for example: “The provider uses research in relevant disciplines, innovation, scholarship, professional practice and/or employer engagement to contribute to an outstanding academic experience for its students.” Whereas for high quality: “The provider uses research in relevant disciplines, innovation, scholarship, professional practice and/or employer engagement to contribute to a very high quality academic experience for its students.” Is the difference clear? If not, don’t worry, because the TEF Panel will decide.

Nick Hillman blogged for HEPI on 21 January 2022 about the OfS initiatives, reflecting on the limited success of previous attempts to shift evaluation towards metricisation, and Debbie Mcvitty blogged for Wonkhe on 24 January 2022 with a helpful potted history.There will be no surprises in the outcomes of the consultations. Whether or not the Titanic is sinking, we are consulted only on how to arrange the deckchairs. As HEPI’s Nick Hillman said: “I vividly recall what Les Ebdon, the former Director for Fair Access, said a few years ago when he was asked, “What will the Office for Students do?” His answer was, “It’s very simple. I can tell you exactly what the OfS will do. It will do whatever the government of the day wants it to do.” And so it has proved.”

Let us, then, look not at the entirely predictable outcomes, but at the style the OfS has adopted to reach them. The consultation on regulation of outcomes is telling. It takes 100 pages to assemble a rational-bureaucratic edifice in rational-bureaucratic language, with chapter headings including: “… making judgments about compliance with condition B3 … Addressing statistical uncertainty in the assessment of condition B3 … Taking regulatory action when a breach is identified …”. There could have been headings like: “How do we know how good the performance is?” or “What if something goes wrong?”. But that would have exposed the deeper questions, for which answers have already been decided. Instead we are drowned with bureaucratic detail. Details are always necessary, but we should be reminded of why they are needed. Instead these documents do their best to obscure the fait accompli which is their starting point, with a grinding remorseless pseudo-rationality which encourages you to lose sight of purposes and values.

In 699 pages of consultation the OfS has done its bureaucratic best to profess transparency, openness and rigour, while diverting our energies and attention from what an experienced ministerial adviser called the ‘assault on the values which our HE sector holds dear’. The consultations amount to a detailed enquiry about how exactly these values should be assaulted. We are in a consultation tunnel with only one track. What we can see is probably not the light at the end of the tunnel, it may be the lights from an oncoming train.

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.


[1] Covered elsewhere in this issue of SRHE News. SRHE members can read this and previous editions of SRHE News via https://srhe.ac.uk/my-account/


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Statistical illogic: the fallacy of Jacob Bernoulli and others

by Paul Alper

Bernoulli’s Fallacy, Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science by Aubrey Clayton.  

“My goal with this book is not to broker a peace treaty; my goal is to win the war.”    (Preface p xv)

“We should no more be teaching p-values in statistics courses than we should be teaching phrenology in medical schools.” (p239)

It is possible or even probable that many a PhD or journal article in the softer sciences has got by through misunderstanding probability and statistics. Clayton’s book aims to expose the shortcomings of a fallacy first attributed to the 17th century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, but relied on repeatedly for centuries afterwards, despite the 18th century work of statistician Thomas Bayes, and exemplified in the work of RA Fisher, the staple of so many social science primers on probability and statistics.

In the midst of the frightening Cold War, I attended a special lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on 12 February 1960 by Fisher, the most prominent statistician of the 20th century; he was touring the United States and other countries. I had never heard of him and indeed, despite being in grad school, my undergraduate experience was entirely deterministic: apply a voltage then measure a current, apply a force then measure acceleration, etc. Not a hint, not a mention of variability, noise, or random disturbance. The general public’s common currency in 1960 did not then include such terms as random sample, statistical significance, and margin of error. 

However, Fisher was speaking on the hot topic of that day: was smoking a cause of cancer?  Younger readers may wonder how in the world was this a debatable subject when in hindsight, it is so strikingly obvious. Well, it was not obvious in 1960 and the history of inflight smoking indicates how difficult it was to turn the tide, and how many years it took. Fisher’s tour of the United States was sponsored by the tobacco industry, but it would be wrong to conjecture that he was being hypocritical. And not just because he was a smoker himself.  

Fisher believed that mere observations were insufficient for concluding that A causes B; it could be that B causes A or that C is responsible for both A and B. He insisted upon experimental and not mere observational evidence. According to Fisher, it could be that people who have some underlying physical problem led them to smoke rather than smoking caused the underlying problem; or that some other cause such as pollution was to blame. According to Fisher, in order to experimentally link smoking as the cause of cancer, at random some children would be required to smoke and some would be required not to smoke and then as time goes by note the incidence of cancer in each of the two groups.

However, according to Clayton, Fisher himself, just like Jacob Bernoulli, had it backwards when it came to analysing experiments.  If Fisher and Bernoulli can make this mistake, it is easy for others to fall into this trap because ordinary language keeps tripping us up.  Clayton expends much effort into showing examples, such as the famous Prosecutor’s Fallacy. The fallacy was exemplified in the UK by the infamous Meadows case and is discussed at length by Clayton; a prosecution expert witness made unsustainable assertions about the probability of innocence being “one in 73 million”.

The Bayesian way of looking at things is to consider the probability a person is guilty, given the evidence. This is not the same as the probability of the evidence, given the person is guilty, which is the ‘frequentist’ approach adopted by Fisher, with results which can be wildly different numerically. Another example, from the medical world: there is confusion between the probability of having a disease, given a positive test for the disease:

                        Prob (Disease | Test Positive) ; the Bayesian way of looking at things

and

                         Prob (Test Positive | Disease) ; the frequentist approach

The patient is interested in the former but is often quoted the latter, known as the sensitivity of the test, which might be markedly different depending on the base rate of the disease. If the base rate is, say, one in 1,000 and the test sensitivity is, say, 90%, then for every 1000 tests, 100 will be false positives. A Bayesian would therefore conclude correctly that the chances of a false positive test are 100 times greater than the chances of actually having the disease. In other words, the hypothesis that the person has the disease is not supported by the data/evidence. However a frequentist might mistakenly say that if you test positive there is a 90% chance that you have the disease.

The quotation from page xv of Clayton’s preface which begins this essay, shows how much Clayton, a Bayesian, is determined to counter Bernoulli’s fallacy and set things straight. Fisher’s frequentist approach still finds favor among social scientists because his setup, no matter how flawed, was an easy recipe to follow. Assume a straw-man hypothesis such as ‘no effect’, take data to obtain a so-called p-value and, in the mechanical manner suggested by Fisher, if the p-value is low enough, reject the straw man. Therefore, the winner was the opposite of the straw man, namely the effect/hypothesis/contention/claim is real.

Fisher, a founder, and not just a follower of the eugenics movement, was as I once wrote, “a genius, and difficult to get along with.”  Upon reflection, I consequently changed the conjunction to an implication, “a genius, therefore difficult to get along with.”  His then son-in-law back on 12 February 1960 was George Box, also a famous statistician – among other things the author of the famous phrase in statistics, “all models are wrong, some are useful” – who had just been appointed to be the head of the University of Wisconsin’s statistics department. Unlike Fisher, Box was a very agreeable and kindly person and, as evidence of those qualities, I note that he was on the committee that approved my PhD thesis, a writing endeavour of mine which I hope is never unearthed for future public consumption.  

All of that was a long time ago, well before the Soviet Union collapsed, only to see today’s military rise of Russia. Tobacco use and sales throughout the world are much reduced while cannabis acceptance is on the rise. Statisticians have since moved on to consider and solve much weightier computational problems via the rubric of so-called Data Science. I was in my mid-twenties and I doubt that there were many people younger than I was at that Fisher presentation, so I am on track to be the last one alive who heard a lecture by Fisher disputing smoking as a cause of cancer.  He died in Australia in 1962, a month after my 26th birthday but his legacy, reputation and contribution live on and hence, the fallacy of Bernoulli as well.    

Paul Alper is an emeritus professor at the University of St. Thomas, having retired in 1998. For several decades, he regularly contributed Notes from North America to Higher Education Review. He is almost the exact age of Woody Allen and the Dalai Lama and thus, was fortunate to be too young for some wars and too old for other ones. In the 1990s, he was awarded a Nike sneaker endorsement which resulted in his paper, Imposing Views, Imposing Shoes: A Statistician as a Sole Model; it can be found at The American Statistician, August 1995, Vol 49, No. 3, pages 317 to 319.


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Is it possible to bring back the block grant?

by GR Evans

The Government’s latest plan for university funding in England makes depressing reading for future students and universities alike. Students will be paying off their student loans (albeit with slightly reduced but still compound interest), for forty years not thirty. Universities will have the tuition fees funded by their loans capped at £9,250 a year until 2025, making seven years since they were last (slightly) increased.  Yet this can be no more than a holding move in the face of a current student loan-book total of more than £160bn.

The scale of that student debt was not supposed to matter. When loans for student fees began they were considered to be a mere supplement to the Government ‘grant’ of public funding for universities. The write-off of unpaid student debt after 30 years would not count as a loss to the tax-payer in the eyes of the Treasury.

The Coalition Government’s decision in 2010 to triple student fees to £9,000 and  shrink the ‘block grant’ to vanishing point made that view of things impossible to sustain after 2012.  In 2019 the Office for National Statistics redesignated the write-off of student loans as public spending. The now only too visibly mounting £billions have become a major embarrassment. The current proposal to limit student numbers by imposing minimum entry qualifications for students is designed to ensure that fewer loans are taken out, but the system is clearly not sustainable in the long-term.

The ‘block grant’ imposed no debt upon students until tuition fees were introduced in 1998, and until they rose to their current levels the debt was not crippling. Now it is, and it weighs on the taxpayer as well as the student. The Government ‘grant’ was clearly taxpayer money spent, but it could be measured out year by year, was a known quantity, and once spent could not still be costing the taxpayer unforeseen amounts decades later. It was regularly grumbled that fixed annually it gave universities little chance to plan ahead, but that problem has not been removed by leaving universities to gather what fees they can by admitting students.

Funding by Government grant served universities for almost a century from 1919, The call for it began in earnest at the beginning of the twentieth century, once half a dozen new universities had been founded and needed it. In 1918 the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University, Sir Oliver Lodge, set about organizing a deputation ‘for the purpose of applying to the Government for greatly increased financial support’.

One point of principle quickly became important. In 1919 Oxford’s scientists wrote directly to H.A.L. Fisher, President of the Board of Education, to press for money for salaries for demonstrators and scholarships in science and mathematics. The very future of science was at stake, they cried. This prompted a clarification. Fisher explained that:

‘each University which receives aid from the State will receive it in the form of a single inclusive grant, for the expenditure of which the University, as distinguished from any particular Department, will be responsible’ (Oxford University Gazette (1919), p475).

This established the ‘block’ character of the grant’.

The second important principle was that Governments must not be able to attach conditions to the grant however they pleased. As Lord Haldane argued, there must be a buffer or intermediary. From 1919 until the creation of the statutory funding bodies under the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 that took the form of the universities-led University Grants Committee. After 1992 HEFCE always received a guidance letter from the Secretary of State at the beginning of the year, giving a steer about the way in which the block grant should be allocated, but it continued to take its ‘buffering’ duty seriously.

In Times Higher Education on 24 February Aaron Porter told the story of the shrinking of the ‘block grant’ by the Coalition Government and its almost total replacement since 2010 by greatly enlarged student tuition fees. Those of course were in principle payments for teaching,  but there were soon complaints that they were being used to fund research.

The Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 made a decisive separation between teaching and research by creating the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation. The equivalent of the old ‘grant letter’ now comes to the Office for Students from the Department for Education. The most recent of these is dated 9 August 2021. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA s.2(3)) empowers the government to give ‘guidance’, ‘setting out the principles which should be followed in distributing the funding’.  UKRI, which bundles together a number of entities, takes the form of a non-departmental government body, under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Its funding by the Secretary of State preserves the ‘buffer’ or Haldane principle, as defined in HERA s.103, but not the principle that such funding should go in a ‘block’ to each university.

This means there would now be a significant structural difficulty in restoring a ‘block grant’ as the principal source of funding for universities, because it could under current legislation affect only the cost of ‘teaching’. But legislation can be amended and there is unfinished business, because the separation of teaching and research has left research students inadequately supported.

What is the alternative? The present adjustments are unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. Freezing tuition fees cannot continue indefinitely, or even for the period to 2025 now proposed by government, without causing some universities to collapse. In a report on 9 March 2022 the National Audit Office warned that OfS and the DfE had to improve trust in their regulatory processes, with ten institutions already subject to ‘special monitoring’ because of doubts about their financial sustainability. Whether students will be willing to pay off their loans for longer and longer periods remains to be seen. (The possibility of restoring ‘free tuition’ was a prominent issue in the recent US presidential election. Although it remains unlikely at present, it suggests that such a change might come back onto the policy agenda in England.) The 40-year repayment period now adopted by government is in effect a ‘graduate tax’; the revenue from loan repayments might be more efficiently and progressively collected via tax simplification, rather than the imposition of what appears to graduates to be a significant debt to be repaid throughout their working lives. It might be time to give serious consideration to the restoration of a true block grant.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.