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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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On not wasting a good crisis

by Rob Cuthbert

Editorial from SRHE News Issue 41 (July 2020)

It seems that in English higher education, some people have been determined not to waste the Covid19 crisis, either as an opportunity or as a threat. How well have they done? Consider the efforts of the Office for Students, Universities UK, and the government in England.

The Office for Students

The OfS were quick off the mark with their ‘Consultation on the integrity and stability of the English HE system’. They had not hitherto seemed too concerned about integrity and stability, given the government’s advertised willingness to let universities close as a consequence of the market established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA). Nevertheless the OfS drafted proposals to prevent “any form of conduct which, in the view of the OfS, could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector.”

The proposals, aimed at controlling the behaviour of HE institutions, brought an instant storm of criticism. They were condemned as draconian, excessively broad, vague and retrospective. OfS Chair Michael Barber claimed to the House of Commons Select Committee that they were an appeal to universities’ ‘generosity of spirit’, but no-one was convinced. Indeed, in terms of the original proposals there did seem to be breaches of good conduct, but they were mostly by Government, the media and the OfS itself, not by HE institutions.

As governments of different parties introduced progressively higher fees, students taking out loans for fees and living expenses began to graduate and begin their careers with large debts. Did this “have a material negative effect on the interests of students”? Quality assurance shows that the overwhelming majority of HE provision has been and remains satisfactory or better; government has encouraged new ‘alternative providers’, but a significant number of these new entrants provided inappropriate courses of dubious quality. Did these market initiatives destabilise the HE system and jeopardise its integrity and quality?

Recent HE ministers have repeatedly referred to ‘low quality courses’. Jo Johnson called for: “… the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” (The honourable exception to this ministerial failure is Chris Skidmore, who tweeted on 16 April 2020: “Might invent Skidmore’s law- anyone who mentions low quality/value in HE without specific reference to a real institution/course are themselves creating low quality/value arguments which should therefore be discounted.”) Most mainstream media reinforced the ‘low quality courses’ narrative, with The Times prominent: an egregious example by Ross Bryant, ‘Underperforming universities should be allowed to fail’, on 27 April 2020;  Alice Thomson on 31 March 2020: “Institutions panicking about finances have to shift their focus away from expansion and back to gold-standard teaching”. Camilla Turner in The Daily Telegraph on 10 May 2020 fuelled the narrative: ‘’Mickey Mouse’ degrees could be weeded out as universities face financial crisis”. Some would say the narrative has “a material negative effect on the interests of students”, whose academic credentials are called into question, and jeopardises the “stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”.  It might even involve “Making false or misleading statements (including comparative claims) about one or more higher education providers with a view to discouraging students (whether or not successfully) to accept offers from, or register with, those higher education providers.”

The Office for Students itself has still not completed its Register of Providers. OfS said in February 2020 the 2019-2020 Register was still incomplete “so if a provider is not registered at the moment, no conclusions should be drawn about it based upon that fact.” Could that “reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”? At government insistence the OfS has promoted the Teaching Excellence Framework and its advantages for students, presumably on the grounds that it helped their interests. More recently it postponed the next TEF indefinitely, even though there are dramatic changes to the quality of the student experience everywhere – up-to-date information about Teaching Excellence matters as never before. Dropping the TEF at this stage “could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector” – unless TEF never had anything to do with teaching quality in the first place, in which case pursuing it had already damaged the stability and integrity of the system.

The OfS proposals said it was inappropriate for anyone to be “Reacting to a major crisis or emergency affecting the UK in ways which may take advantage of behavioural biases”. However it reacted to the crisis by proposing obligations on individual behaviour, obligations to predict or anticipate the behaviour of others, and sanctions if even in retrospect a pattern of behaviour by others emerges which could not have been predicted. This was indeed to “take advantage of behavioural biases” which might induce people to tolerate, in an emergency, measures which would be unthinkable under normal circumstances. In the event the OfS withdrew and confined itself to outlawing ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, and perhaps unconditional offers more widely. By overreaching itself, OfS seemed to have wasted the crisis.

Universities UK

Universities UK also moved early, in April 2020 making proposals to government for a £2billion crisis package to support universities through the pandemic and beyond. UUK said: “Without government support some universities would face financial failure, others would come close to financial failure and be forced to reduce provision. Some will be in places where they are the only local higher education provider with damaging impact on the local community and economy. Many of those institutions most affected have higher levels of external borrowing, lower levels of cash reserves, and higher proportions of BAME students.” Former UCAS head Mary Curnock Cook blogged for HEPI on 15 April 2020 about ‘A student-centric bailout for the universities’, with a piercing critique of the soft spots and gaps in the UUK proposals. David Kernohan crunched numbers on the UUK proposals in his blog for Wonkheon 10 April 2020. He noted that doubling research funding would do little for many universities, and that the student number proposals would still enable selective universities to create major problems for those lower down the pecking order.

The DfE website reported on 4 May 2020 that “Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced a package of measures to protect students and universities, including temporary student number controls, £2.6bn of forecast tuition fee payments for universities being bought forward and an enhanced Clearing system. … to stabilise admissions, support students and allow universities to access financial support from the Government where it is necessary.” The DfE headline was ‘Universities need our help – we must maintain education’s jewel in the crown’, echoing a 2012 Russell Group publication, but the measures fell well short of the UUK proposals. This made clear the potentially devastating effects on many universities outside the Russell Group, with a probable shortfall in student numbers. It was hard to credit that UUK had suggested student number controls in its own proposals, and even harder to believe that all universities had agreed to the UUK’s skewed package in the first place. Chris Cook wrote a long and careful analysis of the perilous situation facing UK universities for TortoiseMedia  on 26 May 2020.

Here was Wonkhe’s immediate assessment. David Kernohan of Wonkhe  took a look at ‘Clearing Plus’, which was being presented as (but was not) a way for applicants to trade up to a ‘better class of university’. Nick Hillman of HEPI said: ” While we need time to digest the finer details, this seems like a carefully-calibrated package that delivers much of what the higher education sector called for without over-exposing taxpayers.” Well, he probably would, wouldn’t he, as a former special adviser to David Willetts. Former minister Jo Johnson, popping up as President’s Professorial Fellow at King’s College London, said that after the pandemic: “The Office for Students will need to design and put in place a multi-billion pound stabilisation fund to prevent the collapse of scores of vulnerable English universities. Access to this fund should be subject to strict non-negotiable conditions, including the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” Shadow Minister Emma Hardy’s open letter to HE on ResearchProfessional News on 6 May 2020 didn’t add much beyond her disappointment that the government package didn’t accept UUK’s proposals.

A second round of support simply shored up the bail-out of the Russell Group. The support package announced by government on 27 June 2020 provided extra research funding: a mixture of grants and loans for up to 80% of income lost because of a shortfall of international students in 2020-2021, and £280million for stated research priorities. That will be little consolation to the many vulnerable universities less blessed with research funding and less dependent on overseas student fees.

Judged by the effects on all of its members, UUK not only wasted the crisis, they may well have made it worse. 

Government

The long-running ‘low quality courses’ narrative and the almost-forgotten Augar report proved to be groundwork for a series of government initiatives still unfolding, beginning with a blunt Ministerial statement abandoning the 50% HE participation target and proposing to expand technical and vocational provision elsewhere. Jim Dickinson had blogged for Wonkhe on 11 May 2020 that: “… the headlines in the DfE package were all about treating the issues facing the higher education sector as a liquidity crisis rather than a solvency crisis. Optimists figure this is because it’s only Part One of any plan, and Numbers 10/11 of Downing Street prefer to sort things in terms of impacts of immediate problems than assessing the size and scope of modelled/potential problems which they assume a) might not be as bad as they look, and b) discourage efficiencies and sacrifices if “cushioned” too early, or for too long. … And then, as if by magic, David “somewheres or anywheres” Goodhart appears – with a Policy Exchange report that’s officially on “skills”, but is really on reorganising tertiary. … Research funding for the “best”; mergers, shorter strings and localism for the “rest”.”

Jack Grove in THE on 11 May 2020 wrote: “English universities at risk of financial collapse will receive significant government assistance only if they agree to merge or to accept a “further education future”, vice-chancellors have predicted. … some university leaders … fear that the reintroduction of student number controls − which allow universities to recruit 5 per cent more this autumn than they did last year − signals the Treasury’s intention to intervene far more in higher education, which might include denying some institutions access to research funding.”

The doomsayers were vindicated when Minister Michelle Donelan made a speech on 1 July 2020, in the grossly inappropriate context of an online conference about improving HE opportunities for disadvantaged students. Richard Adams reported for The Guardianon 1 July 2020 on her speech: “Since 2004, there has been too much focus on getting students through the door, and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go on to graduate jobs. Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market,” Donelan said. “Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of, particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense. … And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses. We have seen this with grade inflation and it has to stop.”

The government is poised to offer new policies on skills and qualifications for school-leavers in England, rebalancing away from universities and emphasising social mobility through skilled, well-paid jobs secured through further education and apprenticeships. A white paper on further education is promised, along with a green paper on higher education that will limit courses where a high percentage of students drop out or where few go on to graduate-level employment. Donelan’s comments appeared to repudiate her own government’s guidance to the Office for Students. Asked about the use of contextual admissions by universities to help under-represented groups gain entry, Donelan said: “To be frank, we don’t help disadvantaged students by levelling down, we help by levelling up.”

Chris Husbands (VC, Sheffield Hallam) spoke for many in a powerful rejoinder in The Guardian on 2 July 2020: ‘University changed my family’s life. So why do ministers want fewer people to go?’ As Alison Wolf, now once again a government adviser, pointed out long ago, the oft-mooted expansion of non-university technical education is always regarded as a good thing – ‘for other people’s children’. We must wait and see whether this time the government initiative will be any different from the many other times similar things have been attempted. This time her daughter Rachel Wolf, another long-term adviser to the Prime Minister who co-wrote the 2019 Conservative manifesto, is also making the running. Whether the government has wasted the crisis remains to be seen.

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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Surely not another cryptic crossword

by Rob Cuthbert

The SRHE cryptic crossword returns despite lack of popular demand. This is No 2. As usual, familiarity with SRHE staff, members, journals, SRHE News and Blog will be a big advantage, perhaps even essential. There are some proper names; other words are in any good dictionary (Chambers, of course, is recommended).

Professor Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog and chairs the SRHE Publications Committee.

Email your solution to Rob.Cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk. There were no correct solutions for Crossword No 1, so the meagre prize rolls over and becomes almost respectable for the first correct solution submitted by an SRHE member and drawn after 1 August 2020. The solution will appear in the next issue of SRHE News, October 2020. If you can’t wait that long, email Rob.Cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk after 1 August for solution and explanations.

To download this crossword as a word document, click here.

Across

1. Kind of VLE where learning at first is missing, leaving something behind (9)

6.    Finance officer is back in the rat race (5)

9.    A traveller, one detected in the air, always 3 (5)

10.  One on both sides takes in former wife, a princess (9)

11.  Heir to the throne making a fist of university (4,2,9)

13.  Go back in – die – not entirely nice, to be cynical (8)

14.  One academic, first class, was called God (6)

16.  Fabricate inferior hide (3,3)

18.  Make out with good girl, that’s one thing that’s looking up (8)

21.  Regular feature of SRHE Conference – Perkins gives it a shaking (8,7)

23.  Learner with Cert Ed (FE) lost in thought (9)

25.  Members of SRHE lend their authority on everything that goes on in society (5)

26.  Did well to live after 11’s mother left (5)

27.  At the end of the year I’m to be in Paris. It’s not far (9)

Down

1. Perhaps be a way to get an academic on TV (5)

2. High time to be seen here, in universities like Birmingham and Queen Mary (5,6)

3. Possibility of Bayes on win margin requiring expert judgment (2,1,4)

4. An American cop here in ancient Rome? That means no law at all (8)

5. Manuscript read back to front at first, with hopes rather than expectations (6)

6. Professor and editor took charge of Publications Committee, for example (7)

7. Seeing this, anything could happen – it’s partly unpredictable (3)

8. People not lacking discipline but with freedom to disagree (9)

12.  Demand a little academic work – there’s plenty to follow (4,3,1,3)

13.  Removed organ? Room was needed for 21 to have done this (9)

15.  Initially every programme in soap operas demands interesting characters, appearing at intervals (8)

17.  Nothing for dinner? Just gruel (7)

19.  Our Rob’s a law unto himself (7)

20.  Brought together teams in Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle (6)

22.  Anger management in the kitchen (5)

24.  You can get a loan for this, or run away with no start in life (3)

Solutions to Cryptic Crossword No 1:

Across

1 Campfire 5 Profit 10 Tonal 11 Sandstorm 12 Boy wonder 13 Annul 14 Rumpole 16 Escape 18 Instil 20 Dominie 22 Rifle 23 Not on show 25 Abstracts 26 Goner 27 Slowey 28 Starlets

Down

1 Cuthbert 2 McNay 3 Fellow of the SRHE 4 Residue 6 Research manager 7 Frown upon 8 Temple 9 Untrue 15 Manifesto 17 Networks 19 Lunacy 20 Data set 21 Greats 24 Hinge

For an explanation of the solutions email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk.

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Happy New Year? If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here

By Rob Cuthbert

As the new year begins there is news of balloting for more industrial action by university staff. The continuing dispute between university staff and their employers is deep-rooted and deeply worrying. It may not be like previous disputes, and the employers may not be well-equipped to resolve it, for two reasons. First, because the roots of the dispute are in the marketisation of HE, the result of political initiatives which university employers cannot easily remedy. And second, because too many university employers have done too little to ameliorate the precarity and increased workload which quasi-markets encourage.

Staff at 60 universities across the UK announced in early November their intention to stage an eight-day strike at the end of November over pensions, pay and conditions. Universities UK and UCEA, the employers’ association, wrote an open letter to all staff on 19 November 2019 setting out their arguments, headed ‘letter to staff impacted by the UCU pensions and pay disputes’. The heading blaming UCU (begging the question: ‘who started it?’) may be a misjudgment, but is perhaps only what one side of the disputants would say. Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, wrote for The Guardian on 7 November 2019 that “University staff don’t want to strike for fair pensions and pay, but we’re being forced to”, a statement which the employers objected to. Both sides accuse the other of refusing to come to the table to negotiate. So far, so completely normal in any employment dispute. But then …

“Universities accused of using ‘strong-arm tactics’ to undermine strike action”, wrote Sally Weale and David Batty for The Guardian on 24 November 2019. Cheche Spencer, Students’ Union Women’s Officer at Liverpool University, on 22 November 2019 tweeted her disgust at the University’s message to students, which said it was ‘unlawful’ for students to join pickets. The message said the university would make no allowances for non-attendance when it comes to assessment, and warned international students that failure to attend might jeopardise their visa status. This went well beyond the more measured USS employers’ advice to students during the strike.

Sheffield Hallam University invited students to complete a form stating which of their classes had been disrupted and naming the member of staff concerned. After a student backlash the university removed the section asking for staff names. Students condemned the move as ‘a surveillance tool’ – perhaps a misunderstanding, since the identities of the strikers are hardly a secret, but symptomatic of a misguided managerial mindset. It is also reported that universities have warned staff not to speak to students about the dispute.

These things tend to happen in any dispute: excesses of local zeal going beyond a difficult-to-maintain national party line. But Liverpool and Sheffield Hallam have VCs whom some might regard as members of the sensible tendency, in Janet Beer and Chris Husbands. Beer, as a former chair of UUK, might  be expected to be impeccable in holding the line. Husbands is a leading figure in the hardly popular TEF, but has nevertheless seemed able to sustain reasoned debate and argue the case for improvement from within the TEF regime. If these are the zealots, what is going on? It seems as if the employers are deliberately taking a hard line.

The current dispute brings together two arguments, one about pensions and one about pay and conditions. But there is really only one grievance, and that is the growing alienation of staff, increasingly fixed-term, part-time and precarious, in an excessively marketised and too often managerialist higher education regime. As Liz Morrish observed in her blog after the Spring 2018 dispute on 8 June 2018: “The pensions issue seemed to be a conductor for a whole host of other grievances about marketization, financialization, audit culture, management by metrics and the distortions of league tables and concern with university ‘reputation’.” The UCEA/UUK letter said: “While the collective employers’ view is that a fair and realistic outcome has been reached on pay, they acknowledge however that UCU pursued its campaign on three other themes around workload, gender pay/equality and casual employment arrangements, and that these are important matters that their members, and indeed other colleagues, feel strongly about.”

The earlier dispute over USS benefits saw increased militancy and unionisation among many staff who had previously eschewed industrial action; the action succeeded in overturning the threat to move away from a defined-benefits scheme. (Meanwhile a change to TPS employers’ contributions raised the rate to 23.68% from September 2019, which was said to be enough to give UCU what they are asking for from USS employers.) Since the first dispute the UCU-nominated USS trustee Jane Hutton (Warwick) has been dismissed by the USS Board for “breaches of her duties as a director under company law and contract”. An independent investigation led to a report which USS relied on for her removal, but this has not been published in full despite Hutton’s request that it should be. Hutton, a professor of medical statistics and long-term critic of mistakes in USS calculations, had become a whistleblower writing to the Pensions Regulator. She had been denied data by USS executives and could not persuade the USS board to budge from what the Pensions Regulator called a mistake in its earlier controversial valuation. Clearly not everyone is convinced that USS does what it claims:

As the UCEA/UUK letter said, there has been some movement and learning by the employers since the earlier dispute. But not enough for UCU, and in particular nothing offering hope of enough change in the regime which exploits the goodwill of too many committed staff. Some universities (eg the University of Reading) are planning to withhold up to 100% of pay for ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS), which involves working for contracted hours without the normal unpaid overtime – the irony of which seems to be lost on the universities concerned.

In normal times everyone might regard the hours stated in contracts as an acceptable fiction, knowing that professionally committed staff will do what is needed for a proper job, and professional leaders will not exploit their commitment. But these are not normal times. Marketisation in HE goes hand in hand with attempts at deprofessionalisation and growing workloads. In HE, just as in schools and in the health service, employers are discovering that contractualisation of what was once seen as professional obligation means that less of it gets done, and/or it ends up costing more. UCEA/UUK may complain that “The focus of the negotiations was almost entirely on the pay uplift”, but this is common in disputes, and market regimes drive that focus. What makes it much worse for UCEA is that in any pay dispute the employers’ position is fatally undermined. That UCEA/UUK letter might in different times have been more persuasive, but the credibility of vice-chancellors themselves has vanished as for too many years their own pay rises outstripped those of their staff, and universities relied increasingly on lower-paid, part-time, fixed term staff .

The employers are between a rock they did not create and a hard place which they have brought on themselves. The hard place is the deep concerns of many staff about their workload and working conditions, the precarity of their employment, their pay and pensions. (The results of a UCU survey on ‘Counting the costs of casualisation in higher education’ were published by UCU in June 2019.) The rock is the certainty that students collectively will begin to seek compensation from universities for disruption to their studies, even though many, perhaps most, students will at the same time sympathise with and support staff in their campaign. That compensation might turn out to be ruinously expensive and trigger a downward spiral for all concerned.

The UCEA/UUK letter no doubt aimed to win the hearts and minds of staff, perhaps encouraged by the failure of strike ballots in some institutions to cross the threshold needed for authorised action, but the signs are not good and the tactics seem misjudged. Universities need also to win the hearts and minds of students, but using threats about students’ assessment and international students’ visa status is an odd way to go about it. Some university employers in a hole are still digging: Liverpool UCU tweeted on 5 December 2019: “Here we go. @livuni have today asked staff to “recover” (‘make good’!) missed teaching asap. We will not “recover” work we’re not being paid for and our refusal is lawful under ASOS. With yet another intimidating email, the Uni has withdrawn its goodwill. We have withdrawn ours.” It may be that a few overzealous or overexposed institutions are undermining the employers’ argument, but in any dispute the employers’ side will be a coalition reflecting a wide range of opinion: now is the time for the moderates to assert themselves. Anna McKie for Times Higher Education reported on 25 November 2019 that: “At the University of Bristol … the vice-chancellor Hugh Brady … was seen on the picket line. It could be a further sign of university leaders starting to break ranks, after Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, said last week that his institution would be willing to pay more into pensions.”

After the long-running press furore over VCs’ pay the Office for Students has begun to survey and report on pay levels, although the Times Higher Education has gathered and published such data for many years. The OfS said on 19 February 2019: “where pay is out of kilter, or salary increases at the top outstrip pay awards to other staff, vice-chancellors should be prepared to answer tough questions from their staff, student bodies and the public. It is good to see signs of pay restraint at some universities, with some vice-chancellors refusing a salary increase. A number of governing bodies have reduced the basic pay of their vice-chancellor, though we acknowledge that it can be difficult to revisit contractual obligations while a vice-chancellor is in post. We expect to see further progress next year.”

Perhaps it is time for a different kind of leadership, and a different kind of leadership pay. The Committee for University Chairs (CUC) published The Higher Education Staff Remuneration Code in June 2018, full of worthy sentiment and careful drafting, but the only potential limit on pay was this: “Institutions must publish the multiple of the remuneration of the Head of Institution and the median earnings of the institution’s whole workforce annually. This should be accompanied by sufficient explanation and context to enable useful comparison.” Salaries are decided by Remuneration Committees, too often full of people whose yardsticks are drawn from the private sector. In the current dispute, as always, UUK has trotted out the line about needing to pay the best to attract the best talent in a global market, an argument that seems to apply in every case to the field marshals, but much less frequently to the poor bloody infantry. And the VC population is not noticeably more global than the staff themselves. We need a different kind of leadership from governors too. A national formula to guide VCs’ pay may be impracticable, even though it has been achieved for other groups of staff. But putting a staff member of the governing body on the Search/Remuneration Committee for VC appointments would be more straightforward. Such staff governors would naturally be obliged to maintain strict confidentiality, as with so many other issues for all governors. Advertise an explicit salary range for every vacancy of VCs and perhaps others in the senior management team, and apply the same annual uplift as the weighted mean of the uplift for all staff in the university. Allow those presently overpaid to continue to the end of their hopefully fixed terms, then reboot. Then institutional leaders might be able to restore some credibility as leaders in discussions about pay and conditions. The UCU has its own difficulties in seeking to swing its diverse set of members behind any effective collective action. In the present dispute the employers are making it easy for UCU, by appearing to ignore or deny the realities that their highly committed, intelligent, articulate and analytical staff confront every day.

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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#AbolishOxbridge (or, the Survival of the Elitists)

by Rob Cuthbert

It started as just a crazy idea proposed by a few naive idealists, mostly privately-schooled Oxbridge graduates, a motion never likely to get onto the main conference agenda. But with the HE party dominated by guilt-ridden privately-schooled Oxbridge graduates, not only did it ‘gain traction’, as they say in the mainstream media, it was stiffened up as it moved closer and closer to adoption.

On the surface it had a lot of appeal. Most prime ministers went to Balliol College, Oxford, most spies went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and Oxbridge seemed to be wealthier than the rest of HE put together. Let’s share it all out more fairly. What’s not to like?

There was a problem with some of the proposed amendments. First of all was the one proposing to #AbolishTheRussellGroup instead. After all, the Russell Group had a lot more money than the rest of HE, even if they didn’t have the endowments to show for it. Clearly the amendment was more egalitarian than the original motion, so it was a bit hard to argue against, but a lot of people did, mostly the ones who hadn’t got jobs at Oxbridge but worked in the Russell Group. They developed lots of superficially persuasive arguments about how much more accessible the Russell Group was, especially nowadays. Or at least, how much more polished their Access and Participation Plans were nowadays. The opponents of the amendments were however hamstrung by the support of their trade union, the, er, Russell Group, which had always existed solely to promote and defend the elitist excellence of their members and put out documents about their members with titles like The Jewel in the Crown.

The #AbolishTheRussellGroup proposers were a mixed bunch, but obviously in a more declassé way. Most were from the rest of HE: fuelled by a mix of egalitarianism, guilt and resentment, quite a few had Oxbridge degrees, but most of them were graduates of Russell Group universities. (So, not very declassé then.) It looked at first as if they might carry their amendment on the HE conference floor, even despite the block votes from UUK and the Russell Group, because they already had a well-oiled, if small and frugal, machine, long dedicated to complaining about the unfairness of resource distribution in HE. They even had their own hashtag, #MillionPlus. And they gained support in the end from the Alliance group, who as usual spent a lot of time, Frost Report style, wondering whether to look up or look down, before choosing sides.

But then they had a shock from an unexpected quarter. The NUS, which had already shown its unreliability by electing leaders who weren’t even in HE, put forward its own amendment, #AbolishHE. They wanted to replace HE with #TertiaryEducation. After all, HE had a lot more money than FE and what was sometimes called vocational training. (As a term of implicit denigration, that obviously did not apply to things like medicine and the law, but only to those far below the salt.) Clearly the NUS amendment was even more egalitarian than #AbolishTheRussellGroup, so it was a bit hard to argue against, but a lot of people did. They developed lots of superficially persuasive arguments about how important it was to maintain standards in HE and how much more money HE needed than FE as a consequence. Or at least, how much more expensive HE buildings were than FE colleges, and how much harder it was to work in HE than FE, even though FE teachers had bigger teaching loads.

The proposers of #AbolishHE were however hamstrung by the infighting on their own side. The International Secondaryists wanted to amend the amendment so as to support #PostSecondaryEducation, with a moderate faction, Supporters Of the Further Tendency (SOFT) left arguing for #FurtherEducation. It all meant that the support for #AbolishHE was hopelessly split; #AbolishTheRussellGroup carried the day, and the party executive were charged with working up detailed policy proposals. It turned out there were some quite well-argued proposals already out there:

“… it is regarded as normal and preferable that a young person who does achieve top grades at school should avoid the universities that are less selective. Yet there is no reason for doing this based on any systematic differences in teaching quality or the likelihood of completing or obtaining a good degree classification once student background is taken into account. We instead appear to be in a world based on snobbery and discrimination rather than evidence, which is socially damaging and could be producing worse educational outcomes overall.” So the idea of comprehensive universities only needed to overcome the same problem as #AbolishEton, which was how to prevent the creation of middle class enclaves around some universities, sustained by house prices beyond the reach of all but the privileged and comparatively few. A bit like the status quo, only less transparent. But the HE party hadn’t yet worked out how to abolish the HE market, and abolishing the housing market looked a lot harder; even #AbolishEton hadn’t got past that one, so the party executive decided that they needed something different. They wondered if Meritocracy (rebranded, obviously: they didn’t want anyone looking too closely at the original) might suffice? At least to deal with the 50% who weren’t in HE.

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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Augar and augury

By Rob Cuthbert

This is written just as Boris Johnson is declared the new leader of the Conservative Party and therefore the new occupant of No 10 Downing Street. All of the jockeying for prime ministerial position has made our national Brexit-obsessed politics even more bizarre than before but, not far below the surface, some semblance of normal policymaking struggles to carry on, not least in higher education. When the much-delayed Augar report finally appeared on 30 May 2019 it had even more than the usual treatment from the policy wonks.

The good news was that at least the Report aimed to take in the whole of post-18 education, and it started by setting out eight principles:

  1. Post-18 education benefits society, the economy, and individuals.
  2. Everyone should have the opportunity to be educated after the age of 18.
  3. The decline in numbers of those getting post-18 education needs to be reversed.
  4. The cost of post-18 education should be shared between taxpayers, employers and learners.
  5. Organisations providing education and training must be accountable for the public subsidy they receive.
  6. Government has a responsibility to ensure that its investment in tertiary education is appropriately spent and directed.
  7. Post-18 education cannot be left entirely to market forces.
  8. Post-18 education needs to be forward looking.

It seems to be a rule that national reports identify a steadily increasing number of purposes for post-18 education. Robbins needed only four; Dearing had five. Augar has six:

  • Promote citizens’ ability to realise their full potential, economically and more broadly.
  • Provision of a suitably skilled workforce.
  • Support innovation through research and development, commercial ideas and global talent.
  • Contribute scholarship and debate that sustain and enrich society through knowledge, ideas, culture and creativity.
  • Contribute to growth by virtue of post-18 institutions’ direct contributions to the economy.
  • Play a core civic role in the regeneration, culture, sustainability, and heritage of the communities in which they are based.

So far so good; then the bunfighting begins: “We make recommendations intended to encourage universities to bear down on low value degrees and to incentivise them to increase the provision of courses better aligned with the economy’s needs … Universities should find further efficiency savings over the coming years, maximum fees for students should be reduced to £7,500 a year, and more of the taxpayer funding should come through grants directed to disadvantaged students and to high value and high cost subjects. “ (p10) ‘Low value’ degrees?! How shall we define them? Augar seemed to identify value only (for students) with graduate earnings, and (for everyone else) with ‘courses better aligned with the economy’s needs’.

The traditionalists were quickly into the fray. Indeed, the Russell Group got its retaliation in first (20 March 2019) – “Reports suggest the Prime Minister’s review of post-18 education and funding could recommend cutting tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 or even lower. We are concerned such a cut would not be fully compensated and could have a devastating impact on our universities.” It was therefore ready to cut and paste its response on the day of publication: “It is imperative the next Prime Minister provides students, businesses and universities with a cast-iron guarantee that, in the event of a fee cut, teaching grants will fully cover the funding shortfall and meet future demand for higher education places.”

Nick Hillman of HEPI blogged on the same day with ‘ten points to note’ as ‘lunchtime takeaways’. Debbie McVitty on 29 May 2019 offered the ‘essential overview’ of Augar, and her WonkHE colleagues followed up with their usual assiduity. David Kernohan argued for WonkHE on 3 June that the underpinning evidence for a £7500 fee level was weak, and he was back on 6 June 2019 “unable to find the evidence that backs up Augar’s rationale for recommending the end of the foundation year.” “Whether or not there is any evidence that providers are seeing the foundation year as a cash cow, or that it offers a poor deal for students, we are not getting to see it. The data that does exist does not support the Augar conclusions, even when it is directly cited as doing so.” Mark Corney (independent) pointed out the logical errors in the Augar proposal to end support for Foundation Years in his blog for HEPI on 21 June 2019, saying that abolishing Foundation Years would not lead to a surge in Access to HE course enrolments.

David Midgley (Cambridge) supplied a balanced précis on the CDBU website on 5 June 2019; Lizzy Woodfield (Aston) provided a useful analysis for WonkHE on 3 June 2019 of the impact on widening participation for her university, but slowly the economists and the accountants took over. Gavin Conlon and Maike Halterbeck of London Economics had already blogged for WonkHE on 30 May 2019 about winners and losers from the Augar Review. Andrew Bush (KPMG) wrote about how Augar analysed costs, for WonkHE on 10 June 2019. An Institute for Fiscal Studies Note on 30 May 2019 argued that the “Augar Review aims to rebalance funding to FE and give government more control over HE funding”, authored by IFS regulars Jack Britton, Laura van der Erve and Paul Johnson.

The financial arguments were subject to increasing critique, with Greg Walker of MillionPlus supplying a well-considered analysis on the HEPI blog on 15 July 2019 – ‘Does Augar present evidence-based policy or policy-based evidence?’ – suggesting that the HE fees cut was intended and inevitable. Tim Blackman (Middlesex) then argued (for WonkHE on 4 June 2019) that Augar is technocratic rather than visionary: “Augar navigates awkwardly between the pros and cons of planning or market forces as the drivers of tertiary education … I get the impression the authors would have liked to have gone further with reintroducing more planning. They point out that some of the most problematic features of how universities behave are a product of marketisation, and make recommendations for rejuvenating further education colleges that amount to national planning of the sector. Why not the same planning paradigm for higher education? The answer would appear to be that sticking with the market conveniently allows Augar to claim that academic autonomy has been protected despite an agenda of major change and austerity.”

In similar vein, Mark Leach of WonkHE, arguing on 3 June that the true challenge in Augar was bridging the gulf between FE and HE, identified the chasm between the two: “One way to read the underlying narrative of the Augar report is that it represents an indictment of two parallel education policy approaches, pursued by multiple, and politically different, governments over the last fifteen or so years. These parallel approaches have treated higher education and further education in radically divergent and – the report implies – radically incompatible ways. In short, the parallel policy approaches can be summed up as follows: The government has pushed higher education towards a more market-like system, which Augar says has gone so far as to become dysfunctional (with symptoms ranging from the total lack of price competition to grade inflation, unconditional offers and other much-discussed system problems). But he also says that, in parallel, further education has been subjected by governments to a policy of intense, highly bureaucratic central planning, tinkering and micro-management, which has also become dysfunctional.”

Thus the commentariat has already supplied analyses an order of magnitude beyond the Review’s 200 pages. So far, so much like normal policymaking – a Review based on considerable thought and analysis, by a significant group, taking positions and making proposals which have properly been subject to much comment and counter-analysis. But in our current abnormal times we can have no confidence that the Review will even be taken into consideration by the about-to-be-formed new administration. Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds and Universities minister Chris Skidmore have perhaps done better than most at trying to maintain some kind of business as usual, with a comparatively low profile in the choose-your-side battles to become the next prime minister. However there can be no certainty that either will still be in post even by the end of the week, and the Augar Review itself was very much a creation of No 10 during Theresa May’s tenure.

No doubt this encouraged Liz Morrish on her Academic Irregularities blog on 11 June 2019 to pronounce that Augar was ‘dead on arrival’, concluding that “Augar has thrown universities to the wolves of a rather rigged market at this point. Nobody – neither staff nor student – can enter a university with any certainty that their career or course of study will be fulfilled without interruption or derailment.” For Morrish, Augar is likely to be no more than background mood music, while the new Johnson administration decides anew what to do with post-18 education – although we can expect, as usual with national reviews, that the government will choose the proposals that suit its purpose, while ignoring the rest of what is, as usual, presented as a package deal. No-one will be betting against a £7500 fee, but no-one will expect the Treasury to stump up the balance lost in the fees cut, especially since so many spending promises have already been made by prime ministerial contenders in recent weeks – none of them for post-18 education.

John Morgan reported on 11 July 2019 for Times Higher Education that former education secretary Justine Greening had said it was “inconceivable” that the new Prime Minister would adopt the Augar review plans. She “believes that the model she explored in government of funding English universities through a graduate contribution plus a “skills levy” on employers could be taken up by the next prime minister.” Her plan would abolish tuition fees and loans: “I think it’s probably the only higher education bill that could get through Parliament.” This is because she says the Augar review’s recommendations were “hugely regressive” in increasing the burden on low- and middle-earning graduates, while lowering it for those on higher incomes: “I find it inconceivable that any future Conservative government that cares about … progressive funding of higher education and social mobility could take that kind of proposal forward”. It is possible to take a very different perspective on Augar, as Nick Barr (LSE) did in declaring it progressive rather than regressive, simply because it proposed to redress the balance between FE and HE. But Greening’s comments are directed more towards heading off the Labour Party’s putative promises on tuition fees, returning to a pre-Augar position which re-institutionalises the chasm between the HE market and the micromanagement and planning of FE. An augur was “a priest and official in the classical Roman world. His main role was the practice of augury: interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds – whether they were flying in groups or alone, what noises they made as they flew, direction of flight, and what kind of birds they were”. (Wikipedia) The media’s augurs have for months been studying the noises Boris Johnson has made, the groups he is travelling in, his direction of flight, and what kind of bird he will turn out to be. The Tory press will announce the eagle has landed; he may of course turn out to be a different bird. A cuckoo, temporarily occupying a place where he doesn’t belong? A swallow who cannot make the summer on his own? Or a parrot, saying only what it has heard someone say before? We may hope that a bird in No 10 is worth two in the prime ministerial hustings, but no-one in HE should be counting chickens before a new policy hatches.

SRHE News Editor:  Professor Rob Cuthbert
rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk  

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner,Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com.

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Academia: the beautiful game ?

By Rob Cuthbert

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

(Bill Shankly, former manager of Liverpool Football Club)

The SRHE 2018 Research Conference in December was full of academics with a passion which Bill Shankly would have recognised. Perhaps not all the kind of people who would have taken their partner on a birthday outing to see Rochdale reserves on a rainy weekday evening, but certainly many of the kind of people who went home from the conference for a Christmas they would fill with reading, writing and reviewing. Academia and football are both common pursuits worldwide; can we make something of the parallels? Continue reading

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Fake Research and Trust in the Social Sciences

By Rob Cuthbert (Editorial from SRHE News, October 2018)

In 1996 physics professor Alan Sokal (New York/UCL) submitted a hoax article to Social Text, a postmodern cultural studies journal. ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ argued nonsensically that quantum gravity was a social and linguistic construct. The journal did not at that time practise peer review and the article was not submitted for expert consideration by any physicist. Sokal revealed his hoax on the day of publication and it was understandably seized on by conservative science academics as evidence that some social science academics are predisposed to accept arguments that fit their ideological preferences, a thesis put forward by biologist Paul Gross (Virginia) and mathematician Norman Levitt (Rutgers), in their 1994 book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, which Sokal said had inspired his hoax.

The Sokal affair prompted much comment, ranging from support of his hoax as a legitimate exposure of academic shortcomings to severe criticism of the questionable ethics of his manoeuvring. Social Text editors at Duke University, Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, wrote a long response in attempted justification, which variously said the piece had at first been rejected, that it had been accepted in the sense of being a well-meaning attempt by a scientist to engage in an outdated way with a different discipline, that their journal was more like a magazine than an academic journal, and that it was ethically unacceptable for Sokal to behave as he had.

Twenty years on, Continue reading

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Doing academic work

by Rob Cuthbert

Summer holidays may not be what they were, but even so it is the time of year when universities tend to empty of students and (some) staff – an opportunity to reflect on why we do what we do. What do universities do? They do academic work, of course. What exactly does that involve? Well, as far as teaching is concerned, there are six stages in the ‘value chain’. For every teaching programme a university will: Continue reading

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The Toby Young saga and what it tells us about the blunders of our governments

By Rob Cuthbert

Once upon a time some politicians used to take the blame for their departments, even when civil servants were perhaps more at fault (famously, in the Crichel Down affair). And once upon a time the integrity of the civil service could be relied on, even or especially amid government mistakes. Continue reading

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Nonsense on stilts

By Rob Cuthbert

How does government think Britain’s higher education can be improved? The government legislated in 2017 to expand competition in a statutory higher education market. We may think this is a consistent policy narrative for public services, but consider the experience of transport. How does government think Britain’s transport system can be improved? After years of debate the government finally announced in October 2016 that it would expand Heathrow rather than Gatwick. And in recent months government has considered reopening some railway lines closed in the Beeching cuts 50 years ago. These policy choices in HE and transport differ considerably in how they have been framed.

50 years ago government set up the Roskill Commission to examine alternatives for London’s third airport; it relied heavily on an economic perspective. Peter Self’s (LSE) famous article in Political Quarterly in 1970 said: ‘Nonsense on stilts … Bentham’s unfair description of natural rights, is a phrase which might more fairly be used of the gigantic cost-benefit exercise which is currently being carried out by the Roskill Commission’ It was academic economists who helped to dismantle the primacy of economic arguments. In 2017-2018 the government is consulting on proposals for the third runway at Heathrow, with new legal objections coming from the local councils around the airport. Politicians losing the political argument are resorting to law. Economics no longer frames the argument.

50 years ago drastic cuts in the rail network followed the ‘notorious’ Beeching report: ‘ Continue reading