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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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What’s wrong with management in higher education?

By Rob Cuthbert 

Matthew Reisz reported for Times Higher Education on 30 March 2017 that ‘the results beginning to come in from the National Senior Management Survey are both startling and dismaying.’ He said: ‘Early data from the National Senior Management Survey, which is being developed by academics at eight universities, find that barely one in 10 (10.4 per cent) respondents is satisfied with the way their institution is managed; 76.5 per cent are not.’

This is fake news: take a look at the National Senior Management Survey. It has grand aims but asks a series of leading questions, and its self-selecting sample is likely to be all those who want to complain about senior management in their institution. There is something wrong with the methods of this survey, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing wrong with senior management in HE. Indeed, the progenitors of the National Senior Management Survey seem to have been motivated by despair at the apparently irresistible rise of managerialism and the equally irresistible rise of senior managers’ salaries, even while university staff salaries are held down. So what’s wrong with senior management?

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Post-Truth and the Higher Education and Research Bill

By Rob Cuthbert

The Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) has begun its Committee stage in the House of Lords. With 500 amendments tabled for line-by-line scrutiny, six days were set aside through to 25 January 2017, but on the first day, 9 January, only one amendment was considered. It was however a pivotal proposal, about the nature and purpose of universities, with the rarity of being taken to a vote – the first time since 2012 (on a health bill) that there had been a vote at this stage in the Lords. Debate is likely to be both heated and confused, because the Bill embodies two key contradictions – between centralised control and free market forces, and between two very different appeals to legitimacy: emotion and personal belief, or evidence.

In HE the neoliberal tendency often gets the blame, but, as Paul Temple points out in this issue of News, neoliberalism is not easily reconciled with the centralising and controlling inclinations which are a key part of the Bill. Times journalist Matt Ridley departed from his usual science and environment beat to devote a column on 9 January 2017 to the Bill, headlined ‘Universities are being nationalised by stealth’.  As a hereditary peer Viscount Ridley was no doubt heading for the House of Lords for the Bill’s first day. The Bill is indeed ‘a Whitehall power grab’, as he argued.

So far, so easy to understand. Whitehall’s civil servants always want more control. But why would politicians enamoured of the market choose to go along with it? Continue reading

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May in October: a climate change for HE?

By Rob Cuthbert

Since Britain voted to leave the European Union in June it is getting harder and harder to know which way the wind is blowing for higher education, and the outlook is no clearer after Theresa May’s first Conservative Party conference as Prime Minister.

The last Conservative government, the one that was only elected a year ago, had a manifesto commitment to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework. Although it was rumoured that the Higher Education and Research Bill might have to make way in the Parliamentary timetable for EU referendum business, the Cameron government made HE a high priority and the Bill survived. No doubt this owed something to Minister Jo Johnson’s close links to No 10, where he had been head of the Policy Unit. The Bill followed the lines which had been clear for some time in the White Paper and before, continuing the drive to turn students into consumers, making it ever easier for new for-profit institutions to enter the market, and aiming to push universities and other providers into ever more intense commercial competition with one another.

Then came Brexit, and (some) things changed dramatically. Jo Johnson, despite his closeness to Cameron, his friendship with George Osborne, and his Eton-Oxford-Bullingdon Club history, survived the cull of ‘Cameron’s cronies’, and survived the split of his responsibilities between two new government departments. He remains Minister for Universities and Science but must now divide his time between the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the new Department for Education, with universities restored to the Education fold. Did this signal no change for HE? Continue reading

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Universities reel after Hexit vote

By Rob Cuthbert

The referendum result shocked the universities, going against all the expectations that ‘Remain’ would triumph and that the status quo would be preserved. The campaign had become increasingly frenetic as the date for the referendum approached, with claims about the consequences for ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ ever more inflated. But even on the day of the vote no-one, least of all the opinion pollsters, had really expected that ‘Leave’ would win. It was only as voters left polling stations across the country’s campuses that the realisation dawned, with exit polls immediately showing unexpectedly high votes for ‘Leave’, especially in crucial constituencies like Sheffield. As the results came in it was clear that Sunderland, one of the earliest to report a ‘Leave’ majority, had established a pattern that would be replicated everywhere except in parts of London and a few other cities.

It had all seemed so different only a year earlier. Continue reading

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Valuing Research into Higher Education

By Rob Cuthbert

It was an occasion to celebrate in every sense when the Society staged a Colloquium at Church House in Westminster on 26 June 2015, to celebrate its formation 50 years earlier. As part of the preparations SRHE Fellow Michael Shattock had been commissioned to write a study of SRHE over its first 25 years. He explained that:

The SRHE was born out of the ferment in the world of British HE that had been generated by the Robbins Report … [but] it was not the intellectual driver. This came from a different source, a concern about the health and welfare of the student body. … Dr Nicholas Malleson, the University of London Student Medical Officer and Director of Research in Student Problems … the acknowledged inspirer and founder of SRHE … stated that he wanted to create an organisation “to bring together the researchers [in higher education] and those who were users of research, whether as teachers, administrators or civil servants”.

Higher education research in the UK was at that time the pursuit of a very few academics in what was still a small elite HE system, but the researchers into HE came together in the Society’s first governing body, packed with luminaries including Continue reading

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Was that a foul REF?

By Rob Cuthbert

The Research Excellence Framework, the UK’s latest version of research quality assessment, reached its conclusion just after the SRHE Research Conference. Publication of the results in mid-December led to exhaustive coverage in all the HE media. 

In the Research Season 2008-2014 the controversy was not so much about who ended up top of the league, but whether the English premier league can still claim to be the best in the world.

Big clubs were even more dominant, with the golden triangle pulling away from the rest and filling the top league positions. But controversy raged about the standard of refereeing, with many more players being labelled world class than ever before. Referees supremo David Sweeney was quick to claim outstanding success, but sponsors and commentators were more sceptical, as the number of goals per game went up by more than 50%.

During the season transfer fees had reached record heights as galactico research stars were poached by the big clubs before the end of the transfer window. To secure their World University League places the leading clubs were leaving nothing to chance. It was a league of two halves. After positions based on research outcomes had been calculated there was a series of adjustments, based on how many people watched the game (impact), and how big your stadium was (environment). This was enough to ensure no surprises in the final league table, with big clubs exploiting their ground advantage to the full. And of course after the end of the season there is usually a further adjustment to ensure that the big clubs get an even bigger share of the funding available. This process, decreed by the game’s governing body, is known as ‘financial fair play’.

Some players had an outstanding season – astronomers were reported to be ‘over the moon’ at the final results, but not everyone was happy: one zoologist confided that he was ‘sick as a parrot’. The small clubs lacked nothing in effort, especially at Northampton, where they responded superbly to their manager’s call to put in 107%. But not everyone can be a winner, research is a results business and as always when a team underperforms, some clubs will be quick to sack the manager, and many more will sack the players.

Scepticism about the quality of the league lingers among the game’s governing body, suspicious about high scoring, and there is a risk that the money from the Treasury will finally dry up. The game may not have finished yet, but some … some people are running onto the pitch, they think it’s all over. It is for now.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England, Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com, Editor, Higher Education Review www.highereducationreview.com, and Chair, Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service www.idras.ac.uk

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Embracing plurality and difference in higher education – necessary but not sufficient

By Rob Cuthbert – Editor, SRHE News

The SRHE Annual Research Conference in December 2014 invites us to reflect on Inspiring future generations: embracing plurality and difference in higher education: ‘Within the HE research community we have the capacity, the history, the knowledge and the expertise to inform and shape the transformation of the higher education sector globally into an innovative, multi-faceted system; one with new and different sources of funding, with diverse modes of participation and one more responsive to the changing needs and expectations of people, institutions and societies.’ Quite right: inspiration is a benefit we expect of Conference every year. We have it in ourselves to be the best, but there are always temptations to be otherwise, with the lure of funds and reputation sometimes suggesting unethical short cuts. SRHE Vice-President Roger Brown, who in his latest book bemoaned the kind of marketisation where it appears that everything is for sale, has recently warned that ‘The pursuit of status will be the death of the university as we know it.’

Reports of ethical lapses are usually tales of individual transgression and recent European research on unethical behaviour suggests that too many academics admit to some of the behaviours of which they disapprove. But even this pales by comparison to an academic scandal at one of the US’s leading universities, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Continue reading