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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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Higher Education and Desistance from Offending

by Debbie Jones and Mark Jones

It is often the case that those entrenched in patterns of offending find it difficult to stop due to stigma, discrimination and other structural issues limiting opportunities to bolster aspiration (Ministry of Justice, 2010; Shapland and Bottoms, 2011). Several studies have concluded that studying within Higher Education (HE) can be a significant ‘hook for change’ offering development of personal agency and widening positive social networks, key factors towards desistance (Lockwood et al, 2012; Runell, 2017).

Yet, despite widening access to HE being a global endeavour (Evans et al, 2017), the Prison Education Trust (2017) highlight that HE can feel unwelcoming for those with a criminal record. Evans et al (2017) found that, despite a drive to widen participation and access to HE in Wales, the internal culture and narrative can become ‘entangled, reinforcing the status quo at the expense of developing non-traditional student participation such as adult learners.

This blog shares our research carried out in Swansea, Wales which was funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education. The project explored the aspirations, barriers, and challenges for those at risk of offending to study in HE and considered what might be needed to support the desire to desist from offending within the context of a HE setting. The data collection phase consisted of two engagement events: one for those that had offended or were at risk of offending and were members of our partner and host organisation ‘The Hub’ (n = 16), and the other with practitioners who worked with people at risk including two participants who were also studying at Higher Education and had offended (n = 10).

We adopted a Pictorial Narrative Approach as a data collection tool and community engagement activity (Glaw et al, 2017). We will talk more about the Pictorial Approach and share some of the visual data in a forthcoming blog but for now, we want to share some of the key findings from the project.

It was clear from the data that aspirations, short and long term, varied but there was a common desire to ‘get back on track’. This was articulated as achieving better mental health and well-being which was seen as a ‘daily struggle’, securing employment, with some of the group wanting to use their own experiences to help others, and the development of positive family ties and relationships.  Such aspirations have been identified as key drivers to desistance (McNeill 2019) and might be the necessary pre-requisites before any consideration can be given to embarking on higher education.

However, one of the more concerning factors from the data was the impact of previous education. 12 participants reported negative educational experiences, feeling like a ‘lost soul swimming in a fish bowl’. Many recounted negative learning experiences within the classroom such as, ‘getting the answers wrong’ and being ‘told off’ leading to feelings of embarrassment and intimidation. A majority of participants identified other forms of educational exclusion such as learning difficulties and bullying. Such experiences left the participants with feelings of alienation and resentment of the whole education sector. For participants who had been to prison it was often ‘the beginning of their education’ where they found hope and aspiration. Prison education was viewed as offering opportunity to develop basic skills such as reading and writing and for one participant it offered the chance to pursue a higher level of education at university on release from prison.

In terms of barriers and challenges to accessing HE, most of the participants were sceptical of HE and identified university as marketing itself as a vehicle for gaining employment but really ‘just wanted the money.’ Three of the participants in the first group had attended university and felt the level of debt acquired in the pursuit of a degree was excessive with no guarantees that it would lead to a job. Indeed, funding of a degree was a perceived as an insurmountable barrier for the group. All participants from the first group were claiming benefits and felt university was out of reach because of the trade-off between state support and the notion of ‘degree debts’. Even something as simple as paying for public transport to get to university was seen as problematic.

There was recognition however that university could help people gain confidence and improve their well-being if the issue of exclusion/rejection for previous offending could be addressed. One participant reported, ‘I applied for university but they rejected me because of my conviction, only drink related offences mind you, but they rejected me anyway but even when I walk across the campus now I feel proud and it makes me walk with my head held high – the university has a good vibe about it’.

Indeed, there was a strong sense of despondency amongst the group who felt their convictions would prevent them from going to university. One participant reported that he had been told that he needed to be ‘clean from drugs for two years before I can start doing courses, it’s really fucking hard’. Another participant articulated the views of the group when he said, ‘if you have the money they’ll take you but not if you have a conviction’.

The findings from this pilot study suggest that HE can offer people who have offended, or are at risk of offending, the opportunity to develop positive personal agency. However, for that to happen universities need to reconfigure how HE is delivered in the truest sense of widening access. This might include: the delivery of HE in partnership with prisons and existing community rehabilitation programmes to overcome issue of stigma and increase confidence; training for student services to meet needs of those students with a criminal record or at risk of offending; and, better outreach and marketing of HE and student loan systems to those at risk of offending. You can read the full report on the project at http://www.srhe.ac.uk/downloads/reports-2018/JONESdebbiemarkReport.pdf

Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University. Deborah.a.jones@swansea.ac.uk, Twitter @debjonesccjc.

Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research and is now Director at Higher Plain Research and Education. HigherPlainResearchEducation@gmail.com Twitter @A_HigherPlain. Our lead partner in this research is The hub in Swansea. Debbie and Mark are grateful to SRHE for funding the project.

References

Evans, C, Rees, G, Taylor, C, and Wright, C (2017) ‘Widening Access to Higher Education: The Reproduction of University Hierarchies Through Policy Enactment’ Journal of Education Policy, 34(1): 101-116

Glaw, X, Inder, K, Kable, A, and Hazelton, M (2017) ‘Visual Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Autophotography and Photo Elicitation Applied to Mental Health Research’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 16: 1-8

Lockwood, S, Nally, J, Ho, T, and Knutson, K (2012) ‘The Effect of Correctional Education on Postrelease Employment and Recidivism: A 5-Year Follow-Up Study in the State of Indiana’ Crime and Delinquency, 58(3): 380-396

McNeill, F (2019) Rehabilitation, Corrections and Society Retrieved July 01, 2019, from http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/159625/7/159625.pdf

Ministry of Justice (2010) Understanding Desistance from Crime. Available at: http://www.safeground.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Desistance-Fact-Sheet.pdf

Prison Education Trust (2017) To be Truly Inclusive, Universities Must Help Prisoners Feel They Belong. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/aug/16/to-be-truly-inclusive-universities-must-help-prisoners-feel-they-belong

Runell, LL (2017) ‘Identifying Desistance Pathways in a Higher Education Program for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals’ International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61(8): 894-918

Shapland, J, and Bottoms, A (2011) ‘Reflections on social values, offending and desistance among young adult recidivists’ Punishment & Society 13(3): 256–282 https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474511404334


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The Office for Students and ‘successful outcomes’

by GR Evans

In March the Office for Students press release welcomed a ‘landmark victory’ which ‘sets an important precedent’ in the  recent judicial review of the Office for Students’ decision not to register Bloomsbury Institute Ltd. The OfS warns that:

The OfS will not hesitate to defend its decisions robustly where they are in the interests of students and will seek to recover its costs in doing so …

Nevertheless, it is likely that this will not be the end of the matter, with other challenges from disappointed providers in the pipeline.

What exactly has been decided and what demands further clarification? The question answered by the judgment was not  whether the decision was right. It was whether the Office for Students had acted ‘lawfully’. That depended on whether the OfS Conditions of Registration were themselves lawful and whether they had been properly applied.

The main hurdle at which Bloomsbury’s application for registration fell was its failure to satisfy OfS Condition B3, which includes the requirement to secure ‘successful outcomes for all of its students’ (‘continuation rates’). This includes an expectation that the ‘successful’ student will be one who enters into well-paid employment on graduation (‘progression rates’) and thus  arguably gets ‘value for money’ for the student fee. These were the two criteria on which Bloomsbury was deemed to have failed.

The judgment considered how OfS had actually applied condition B3. It did not attempt to explore the boundaries of the grey area in which the definition of ‘continuation’ and ‘progression’  continue to sit. It simply concentrated on what the OfS had done to set detailed rules to be applied case by case. It just asked whether they were ‘lawful’.

The problem OfS faces is that providers do not all have the same or similar ranges of students forming a typical body. Bloomsbury had made that point very energetically, explaining that 85%, of Bloomsbury’s students were mature students; 66% were BAME; 16% were disabled; 90% came  from families earning less than £25,000 per annum;  and 88% began with a Foundation year because 80% did not not have A Levels. The OfS explained that it had dealt with this problem pragmatically and that:

this had already been taken into account in the selection of the baselines, ie the baselines were lower than they might have been to take this into account.

In other words, the expectations had been set low so as to accommodate these outliers. That was potentially perfectly reasonable and unlikely to be unlawful.

But Bloomsbury argued that that the OfS erred in law because it had created secret ‘thresholds’ in ‘confidential Decision-Making Guidance’. It said these should have been  published in advance and the attention of applicants for registration should have been drawn to them. It added that they were contrary to the OfS’s published Regulatory Framework and the guidance provided by the Secretary of State for Education. Bloomsbury also pointed to the fact that these ‘thresholds’ had been ‘drawn up by the OfS’s Director of Competition and Registration’,who did not have the necessary authority under the  OfS’s scheme of delegation.

The judgment considered all this and held that the Director for Competition and Regulation had been ‘entitled to take responsibility for the drafting and circulation of the Decision-Making Guidance’, because it counted as an ‘operational decision-making function’. That leaves these ‘thresholds’ not only deemed to be lawful but open to further amendment ‘operationally’. And it does nothing to address the question whether they are satisfactory or fair, and the bigger question whether there can be accurate quantification of degrees of compliance so that setting ‘thresholds’ is appropriate.

It is not the first time quantifications of higher education performance – of students or providers – have been attempted. Under the previous rules, Bloomsbury had been ‘designated’ for Student Loan Company purposes since 2009. In 2015 it had been one of only two alternative providers commended by the QAA and the QAA had been ‘complimentary’ in 2016 and 2017. However, its failure to perform to the standard expected on the numbers of its students who ‘continued’ beyond their first year had brought it an ‘improvement notice’ in February 2106 and again in August 2018. In March 2019 the Department for Education had ‘noted’ the failure to mend Bloomsbury’s performance on continuation rates but this was merely a warning that action might be taken in future if things did not improve.

Bloomsbury argued that the OfS should not have relied on these thresholds without consulting the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher or taking into account the outcomes of reviews and investigations by the QAA in its previous incarnation before it became the OfS Designated Body under Higher Education and Research Act 2017 s.27. It said that it had been unreasonable of the OfS to refuse to grant registraton when it ‘had been granted on previous occasions on the basis of essentially the same data’.

Here the court relied on an important OfS paper which had considered whether the OfS ought to rely on previous QAA assessments.  This had drawn a key distinction. The OfS’s ‘primary aim is to ensure providers are delivering positive outcomes for students’. The task of the OfS  was to form a ‘regulatory judgment’ about that. By contrast, ‘previous QAA review activity’ was considered ‘not relevant to the assessment of student outcomes for condition B3’ because it  had a different purpose. It did not ask about ‘outcomes achieved by the provider’s students’ but ‘focused on the design and operation of a provider’s systems and processes.

The court thought that was clearly correct from the point of view of ‘lawfulness’ in being faithful to the OfS conditions in the decision-making, providing the thresholds were themselves lawful.  In any case, Condition B3 is excluded from the list of conditions on which the OfS is to consult its Designated Quality Body. The Regulatory Framework makes it clear that the OfS itself is alone responsible for assessing Condition B3.

In this connection the judgment makes a clear separation of responsibility for ‘quality’ and for ‘standards’:

The effect of [HERA] section 27 is that when a body is designated as the DQB, only that body can be responsible for assessment of standards. The OfS is, therefore, not responsible for standards. However, section 27(3)(b) makes clear that the OfS is still responsible for the exercise of assessment functions which do not relate to standards. Condition B3 is concerned with quality of education, not with standards, and so the effect of section 27 is not that only the QAA can assess compliance with Condition B3. There was no requirement in section 27, or anywhere else in HERA, for the QAA to play a part in the OfS’s assessment of quality criteria.

Here too there seem to be points which need to be returned to, not in litigation, which cannot easily address them, but in policy-discussion and wider consultation. If there is to be a ladder of quantification of provider performance in setting which the QAA can have no say its existence and the placing of its rungs demand as much. Otherwise how can those ‘successful outcomes’ ultimately be defined?

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).


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Guidance or interference? OfS under pressure

by GR Evans

The Office for Students received yet another ‘strategic guidance’ letter from the Secretary of State for Education, then Gavin Williamson, dated 1 January 2020.  This is the fourth in a year.  HEFCE used to receive just one, to go with the  annual statement of the ‘block grant’ figures covering both teaching and research.  This energetic approach recalls concerns about potential for future ministerial interference repeatedly expressed in the House of Lords during the debates before the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. The new legislation protects ‘the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers’ at s.2(1)(a) and s.2 (8) (b) and (c), and specified instances of institutional ‘academic freedom’ in ‘performing’ a provider’s ‘access and participations functions’ at s.36.  It defines the Haldane Principle at s.103 but in a curiously lop-sided way, in connection only in research and for UKRI not OfS.  So both the tone and the content of this series of letters of ‘guidance’ bear looking at closely for their implications.

OfS now receives only a Teaching Grant, because infrastructure funding for research now goes to Research England within UKRI. The same Minister was in charge of both – Chris Skidmore, one of the three who have gone in and out of that office since 2016. UKRI is in the Department of Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. So for research funding purposes the Minister of State operated in another Department of State altogether. Research England has taken over the infrastructure funding of research, the ‘R’ element of the old ‘block grant’.  Skidmore did not sign the latest letter to OfS,  though HEFCE often used to get its letters signed by both the Secretary of State and the Minister for Higher Education.

The ‘teaching funding’ element of the old block grant has now shrunk to a fraction of its earlier size.  In the latest OfS letter Gavin Williamson provides ‘some specific steers on funding priorities given the need to ensure we are spending public money in the most efficient and effective way’. There is to be a continuation of policy preferences tersely described, such as ‘allocations for high cost subjects’, ‘world leading small and specialist institutions’ and ‘supporting successful participation for underrepresented students’.  There is also to be a requirement to work ‘closely’ with  the DFE to ‘identify’ areas where the need is greatest, while ensuring ‘value for money’. A proposed review of ‘the funding method’ is strongly approved as a ‘move to evaluate value for money’.  ‘I know that  the OfS have been working closely with my officials on funding policy and I hope to see this continue’, Williamson concludes.

The tone is directive. Skidmore had been writing to Research England too, but in a rather different tone. On 2 October 2019 he wrote to David Sweeney, who had moved from HEFCE to head Research England to become its Executive Chair, to thank him for his outline of his ‘proposals’ for the development of the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), to be added to the TEF and the REF.  He also took the ‘opportunity’ to ‘share’ his ‘priorities’ for ‘the future of research and knowledge exchange’.

Among them was Open Access,  ‘a key feature of REF2021’.  Skidmore pressed this urgently, merely noting briskly ‘the implications for Learned Societies of this implementation’ and encouraging  ‘Research England to develop mechanisms which will support them in the transition’ and to engage in ‘dialogue with publishers’, for open access monographs (free books) are on their way. There is no mention of the consequences of the huge upheaval for institutions and academic authors, caused by authors having to pay for publication themselves and institutions having to fund those they choose to support. The heat of anxiety on all that has been growing.

The overriding purpose of research as described in Skidmore’s letter to Research England is to be ‘the creation, transmission and exploitation of knowledge for economic and social benefit’ with KEF in a prominent place and a Knowledge Exchange Concordat being framed, ‘ensuring that it effectively supports our shared priorities around research commercialisation and impact’.

It could of course be understandable that as a new entity the Office for Students  and Research England should both need a specially vigilant ministerial eye on the way they were shaping themselves and their work.  But the artificial separation of Government control of the T and R elements in the old block grant is creating new problems. A controversial Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (the Augur Review), was published in May 2019, proposing a reduction in undergraduate tuition fees from the level of £9,250 a year at which they then stood.  In the summer of 2019 the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee questioned Philip Augar and members of the Committee about the implications for the future of the ‘dual support’ system with its established division between infrastructure and project funding. The Committee was concerned that though ‘traditionally’ the dual-funding system had ‘supported the research community well’, the failure to increase the infrastructure component –  Quality Related (QR)  funding – since 2010, had ‘led to a deficit in funding which universities have had to plug through cross-subsidies’. In other words teaching and research cannot in practice be supported by quite separate funding streams within universities. For example, libraries serve both students and researchers.

Skidmore’s letter to Research England is not insensitive to this problem:

University partnerships with business will be a significant contributor to reaching the 2.4% target by leveraging additional private investment in research through schemes such as UK Research Partnership lnvestment Fund (UKRPIF).

He links that with the ‘impact agenda’, which will increase the benefits and effects from excellent university research for the economy and society, and in addressing key societal challenges such as climate change and ageing’.

The OfS has so far been noisier than UKRI in publishing policy objectives, many of them more ‘social and economic’ than academic or educational. That is unavoidable because the former Office for Fair Access created under the Higher Education Act 2004 ss.22-41, has been absorbed into the OfS. This has encouraged the OfS to launch many objectives which seem to belong in that area rather than in the purely academic. However, the Government’s locus in social and economic affairs is clearly of a different kind from its long-controversial place in controlling the way public funding for higher education is spent.  Those letters from Secretary of State and Minister to OfS and UKRI are beginning to form a corpus worth close study.

Meanwhile it looks as though teaching and research are to be prised even more decisively apart. The Government reshuffle removed Chris Skidmore but replaced him  with Michelle Donelan, who is to be a Minister only in the DfE.  Announcement of a Minister to take charge of research in BEIS was slow to emerge, but the eventual announcement led Nature’s news reporters to ask “Has the UK’s science minister been demoted? Amanda Solloway comes to the job with no ministerial experience, amid concern that the Prime Minister’s office is controlling the science agenda.” Clearly we must continue to watch this space …

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).

Paul Temple


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Weirdos and misfits? I’ve met a few…

By Paul Temple

Perhaps, like me, you’ve had some harmless fun recently in drawing up a mental list of the “weirdos and misfits…with odd skills” you know in university life who might work with Dominic Cummings at Number 10. (In a few cases, I couldn’t decide who I’d feel sorriest for.) Now that Brexit has been “done”, it seems that Cummings plans to “turn the UK into a leading centre for science, putting it at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, robotics and climate change” and needs some hired help. (This and other quotes come from a Financial Times profile of Cummings of 18/19 January 2020, said to have been fact-checked by its subject.)

The irony here, presumably unintended, would be almost funny if it wasn’t completely maddening. I’d be surprised if you could find a single working research scientist in the country who doesn’t view Brexit, so far as science is concerned, somewhere on a spectrum from “unfortunate” to “utter disaster”. Certainly, if there are any Brexiteer scientists working at UCL they’ve kept a very low profile indeed over the past few years. And now the man who has done as much as anyone to damage UK academic work by destroying our links with European partners calmly tells us that his “new agenda” – sensibly distancing himself from the tedious details of working out a new trade deal with the EU – is to achieve a scientific renaissance.

But Cummings, it seems, is thinking beyond the UK merely becoming better at science than it has so far managed when working collaboratively with European science networks. Cummings, an Oxford ancient and modern history graduate, clearly considers that he possesses the skills to apply science “to understanding and solving public policy problems”. This is probably what most social scientists, if pressed, would say they are trying to do, but I don’t think that the humdrum problems that most of us work on are what Cummings has in mind. Instead, “his inspiration is the US government’s Manhattan Project…[and how] the failing NASA bureaucracy [became] an organisation that could put a man on the moon…[he also plans] to set up a civilian version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency”. Big, shiny projects are what he wants.

I’ve used the Manhattan Project as a case study in my teaching, and I’ve no doubt that much can be learned from it. It helped that J Robert Oppenheimer was both a world-class physicist and, as it turned out, a world-class project director, who was able to work with a multi-national group of scientific egoists in a collection of army huts in the New Mexico desert and produce the world’s first atomic explosion within 28 months of starting work. But Oppenheimer knew what he had to do, had a fair idea about how to go about it, and could call on all the resources of the world’s scientific and engineering superpower. It doesn’t at all detract from his achievements to say that the Manhattan Project was in a certain sense straightforward compared to, say, improving health care or reducing crime for a large population. Leaving aside resource limitations, knowing “what works” in these and other areas of social policy has a different meaning to knowing “what works” in nuclear engineering or rocket design. Habermas described this difference in terms of “the ideology of technique”. Even defining what “improved health care” might look like will be contested, as will its measures of success. Nobody doubted that they’d know a nuclear explosion when it happened. (Actually, Oppenheimer might have agreed that quantum mechanics and problems in social policy do have something in common: if you think you understand what it is you’re observing, you’ve got it wrong.)

So my guess is that the clever Oxford humanities graduate, with no formal training in either natural or social science, is going to become very frustrated in attempting to apply methods from the former to try to solve complex problems in the domain of the latter. Paradoxically (or maybe not), this puts me in mind of the education research that I had some acquaintance with in the afterlife of the old Soviet Union. There, the necessary assumption was that if enough data were collected, and the precepts of scientific Marxism-Leninism were correctly applied to them, then a definitive solution to whatever the problem was would be found. There had to be a “scientific” answer to every question, if only you did enough work on it. To suggest otherwise would be, literally, unthinkable in a Marxist worldview.

Still, perhaps Cummings will show that answers to problems in big science do in fact read across to social policy: after all, compared to making Brexit the tremendous national success story that we’ve been assured it will be, it should be quite easy.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17(2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546


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How are the Office for Students and the sector bodies getting along?

by GR Evans

An article in Times Higher Education on 5 December 2019 quoted an unpublished report by Universities UK and the Association of Heads of University Administration. The THE says the report is ‘highly critical’ of the way the Office for Students is working with providers. UUK (the Vice-Chancellors) and AHUA (the Registrars) are both UK-wide organisations so it would be helpful to know how the gathering of information for this report  on the England-only OfS  was done, the methodology designed and the conclusions drawn.

Universities UK and AHUA are composed respectively of the Vice-Chancellors and the Registrars of only a modest proportion of the 389 providers admitted to the OfS Register by early December 2019.  UUK lists a scattering of alternative providers amongst mainly traditional universities.  AHUA says it has 190 members though one must be a member to see who they are.   It is not clear whether other bodies with an interest were involved in the consultation, for example GuildHE with its array of English alternative providers among its 50 published membership. 

Most notable among the bodies apparently not involved in the consultation which produced this report is the Committee of University Chairs, another UK-wide body, but of supreme importance in that these Chairs represent the governing bodies of their member institutions.  The CUC publishes its membership list of 135 including ‘a small number of alternative providers’.

The CUC revised its Higher Education Code of Governance in 2014, providing guidelines strongly endorsed by HEFCE. The CUC is now consulting on a proposed review. Its consultation questions, seeking to address changes of expectation in the sector since 2014, are online. It notes some points emphasised by OfS:

The OfS has also given renewed emphasis to the importance of robust academic governance and the relationship between Board and Academic Board/Senate. There has also been increasing media attention to academic standards and the use of unconditional offers. CUC guidance in this area is set out in Illustrative Practice Note 3: Academic Governance .

The OfS has drawn up its own guidance.

More transparency and some rethinking of the best way to pool expectations must surely be in the interests of OfS and the ‘sector bodies’ if they are to learn to work together for the common good as the UUK/AHUA report apparently desires. There is of course always a case for allowing sensitive consultations to take place in sufficient privacy to permit free and frank discussion.  But there comes a time when the public interest in publication is strong enough to demand transparency. 

The THE says UUK explained that the report was: ‘not published formally, but we did share it with our members to support the development of their own processes and practices under the new approach’. Presumably AHUA’s members got a copy too? THE suggests the UUK/AHUA report has been ‘seen within Government’. Does this mean by the Secretary of State, the Minister for Higher Education, civil servants and advisors? If it had been published that might be less of a puzzle.

And did OfS itself get a copy? At the time of writing the OfS website does not seem to have anything to say about the UUK/AHUA report though perhaps future Board papers will fill that gap. The papers from the 26 September meeting mention a paper from the National Audit Office ‘setting out the key observations and recommendations arising from their audit of the OfS’s financial statements for 2018-19’. Those included a request for ‘more information on the impact of the OfS’s work as a regulator in the 2019-20 performance report’, on which the UUK/AHUA report will clearly be relevant. For the UUK/AHUA report appears to be concerned chiefly with the working relationship OfS is establishing with the providers for whose registration is it responsible.

From HEFCE buffer to OfS Regulator: the transition

For the most part HEFCE took seriously its role as a ‘Haldane’ buffer between universities and Government. Its normal response to the emergence of a serious problem in a provider’s conduct of its affairs was to seek to support the institution to mend matters. This is did informally and constructively, offering guidance to autonomous institutions. It favoured a ‘light touch’. Its operation of conditions of grant sanctions proved to be vanishingly rare. 

OfS has begun its working life with some fierce and threatening  statements and the repeated assertion that failing providers must simply be allowed to collapse. The setting for this heavier ‘touch’ will have to be adjusted to get it right,  and this UUK/AHUA Report could form a useful starting-point for consideration.

If so, there must be a case for publication of the UUK/AHUA report. But what of the performance of UUK, AHUA and other sector bodies in reviewing their own performance in response? Keeping their cards close to their chests would not be a good look at a time when the performance of UUK, AHUA and other sector bodies, statutory (like OfS) or in the form of ‘clubs’ (such as UUK itself) or semi-professional bodies (AHUA?) is also a proper concern. An objective assessment of the performance and very approach of the OfS surely demands a similar transparency about the way the various sector bodies are responding to it. 

Wales is engaged in a review of its own arrangements ahead of new legislation of its own. It retained its own Funding Council in the Higher Education (Wales) Act of 2015 but times and expectations have changed and it is now expected that Wales may move towards a new structure closer to that which allows more active Government control of policy and practice in England  through direction of the OfS as a Regulator through increasingly frequent letters of guidance from the Secretary of State.

It may be too much to hope that any Government will join with the sector bodies and OfS in a dispassionate review if that is for the best for higher education. Too much political investment went into the creation of OfS for such fearlessness to be likely. But at least let the documents in the discussion come out in the open for everyone to read.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the former Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).

Vicky Gunn


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Notes from North of the Tweed: Valuing our values?

By Vicky Gunn

In a recent publication, Mariana Mazzucato1. pushes the reader to engage with a key dilemma related to modern day capitalist economics. ‘Value extraction’ often occurs after a government has valued work upfront through state investment and accountability regimes. The original investment was a result of the collective possibilities afforded by a mature taxation system and an understanding that accountability can drive positive social and economic outcomes (as well as perverse ones). The value that is extracted is then distributed to those already with both financial and social capital rather than redistributed back into the systems which produced the initial work via support from the state in the first place. This means that the social contract between the State and its workers (at all levels) effectively has the State pump prime activity, only to watch the fruits of these labours be inequitably shared.

I find this to be a useful, powerful and troubling argument when considering the current relationship between State funded activity and the governance of UK HE. As a recipient of multiple grants from bodies such as the Higher Education Academy (now AdvanceHE) and the Quality Assurance Agency (now a co-regulatory body in a landscape dominated by the Office for Students), I have observed a similar pattern of activity. What this means is that after a period of state funding (ie taxpayers’ money), these agencies are forced through a change in funding models to assess the value of their pre-existing assets. The change in funding models is normally a result of a political shift in how they are valued by the various governments that established and maintained them. The pre-existing assets are research and policy outputs and activities undertaken in good faith for the purposes of open source communication to ensure the widest possible dissemination and discussion, with an attendant build up in expertise. After valuing these assets, necessary rebranding may obscure the value of this state-funded work behind impenetrable websites in which multiple prior outputs (tangible assets) are pulled into one pdf.  Simultaneously, the agencies offer intangible assets based on relationships and expertise networks back to membership subscribers through gateways – paywalls. This looks like the unregulated conversion of a value network established through the collaboration of state and higher education into a revenue generating system, restricting access to those able to pay.2. If so, it represents a form of value extraction which is limited in how and where it redistributes what was once a part of the common weal.

Scottish HE has attempted to avoid this aspect of changes in the regulatory framework in two ways:

  • Firstly, by maintaining its Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF) in a recognisable form.3. Thus: the state continues to oversee the funding of domiciled Scottish student places; the Scottish Funding Council remains an arms-length funding and policy agency which commissions the relevant quality assurance agency; Universities Scotland continues as a lobbying ‘influencer’ that mediates the worst excesses of external interventions; and the pesky Office for Students is held back at the border, whilst we all trundle away trying to second guess what role metrics will play in the quality assurance of an enhancement-led sector over the next five to ten years. Strategic cooperation and value co-creation remain core principles. And all of this with Brexit uncertainty.
  • Secondly, by refocusing the discussion around higher educational enhancement in the light of a skills agenda predicated not on unfettered economic growth, but on inclusive and sustainable economic growth.4.

Two recent outputs from this context demonstrate the value of this approach: The Creative Disciplines Collaborative Cluster’s Toolkit for Measuring Impact and the Intangibles Collaborative Cluster’s recent publication.5. Both of these projects were valued for the opportunity they provided of collaborative problem solving across Scottish HEIs. Their outputs recognise it is now more important than ever to demonstrate the impact of what we do. Technological advances in rapid, annualised data generation is driving demands to assess the  value of our higher education. The prospect of this demand requiring disciplinary engagement means academics leading their subjects (not just Heads of Quality, DVCs Student Experience, VPs Learning and Teaching) need to be more aware of frameworks of accountability than before. Underneath the production of these outputs has remained a belief in the value of cooperation over the values of competition.

However, none of this means that those of us trying to maintain a narrative of higher education as the widest possible state good can rest on our laurels. If we are to seize this particular moment there are some crucial tensions to problematise and, where appropriate, resolve. We need formal discussion around the following:

  • What is to be valued through State influence in Scottish HE? How does the ‘what is to be valued’ question relate to the values and value of this education socially, culturally and economically?
  • How are these values and value to be valued through the accountability framework for higher education in Scotland?
  • What will the disruptions created by a new regulatory framework in England (based on a particular understanding of value and values) mean for how Scottish institutions continue to engage with the QEF, when they will probably also have to respond to a framework that would like to see itself as UK-wide?
  • How can we protect years of enhancement work from asset stripping and value extraction? How can we continue with an enhancement framework with social, cultural, and economic benefits for Scotland and its wider relationship with the world, at the same time as supporting reinvestment into the enhancement of Scotland’s higher education?
  • There is a push to revalue ‘success’ as simple economic outcomes, away from inter-relational outcomes that capture intangible but nonetheless critical aspects of that education – social coherence, wellbeing, cultural confidence and vitality, collective expertise, innovation, responsible prosperity. That path of value extraction may result in more not less inequality: how can we mitigate it?
  • How can all of this be done without merely retreating to the local? Bruno Latour has noted how locality is a cultural player in the current political inability to engage effectively with the planetary issue of the day: climate crisis.6. He notes the sense of security in the local’s boundaries and a perception across Europe that we somehow abandoned the local in the push to be global. The local is important. Yet, he clarifies, climate regime change means withdrawal into the local in terms of value and values – without interaction across political boundaries at a global level – is tantamount to wilful recklessness. How we can enable higher education to secure the local and the global simultaneously is surely the big question with which we are grappling. How can Scotland’s HE leaders engage to ensure the value and values we embody through our accountability regime do not get mired in local growth agendas unable to measure the impact of that growth within a global ecology?

Sitting within a creative arts small specialist institution, these questions seem both overwhelmingly large (how can a minnow lead such a conversation, surely only a BIG university can do this?) and absolutely essential. In the creative arts our students are, in their own frames of reference, already challenging us on the questions of value, values, environmental sustainability and inequality through their artistry, designerly ethics, and architectural wisdoms. I am, however, yet to hear such a recognisable conversation occurring coherently across the various players (political, policy, institutional) in the wider sector, except in activities related to the localities of cultural policy, the creative economy, and HEI community engagement.7.

Perhaps it is time for sector leaders, social, cultural, and economic policy-makers, and student representatives to work together to identify the parameters of these questions and how we can move forward to resolve them responsibly.

SRHE member Professor Vicky Gunn is Head of Learning and Teaching at Glasgow School of Art.

Notes

  1. Mazzucato, M (2018) The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy,  Penguin, p xv
  2. Allee, V (2008) ‘Value network analysis and value conversion of tangible and intangible assets’, Journal of Intellectual Capital, 9 (1): 5-25.
  3. This 2016 description of the sector’s regulatory framework of enhancement remains broadly the same:  https://wonkhe.com/blogs/analysis-devolved-yet-not-independent-tef-and-teaching-accountability-in-scotland/
  4. See the Scottish Funding Council’s latest strategic framework: http://www.sfc.ac.uk/about-sfc/strategic-framework/strategic-framework.aspx
  5. Enhancement Themes outputs: Creative Disciplines Collaborative Cluster: https://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/current-enhancement-theme/defining-and-capturing-evidence/the-creative-disciplines
    Intangibles Collaborative Cluster: https://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/current-enhancement-theme/defining-and-capturing-evidence/the-intangibles-beyond-the-metrics
  • Latour, B (2018) Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime Polity Press, p 26
  • Gilmore, A and Comunian, R (2016) ‘Beyond the campus: Higher education, cultural policy and the creative economy’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 22: 1-9


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“I blame the teachers”

by Paul Temple

If you sometimes get the sense that your teaching isn’t having much effect on the students in front of you, then perhaps you need a bit of advice from colleagues at Hong Kong’s schools and universities. There – at least, according to China Daily, Beijing’s Pravda equivalent (2 September) – the “root cause of young people’s participation in the Hong Kong protests” is to be found in the teaching taking place in high schools and universities. As a result, “rioting protestors are…ordinary young men and women, including many university students who have…lost their moral bearing”. What is this incendiary teaching about, capable of turning normally well-behaved young Hong Kongers into raging mobs? Liberal studies in high schools, covering topics such as “Hong Kong today”, “globalisation”, “energy technology”, and “public health”, are apparently behind a lot of the trouble. Well, the very titles fairly set your pulse racing, don’t they? I’m planning to get one of these Hong Kong teachers, who can apparently turn a class on public health into an incitement to confront the riot police, to share some tips on stopping a class drifting off when one of my own presentations somehow fails to energise them.

But perhaps the real villain of the piece is the teaching of what is described as critical thinking where, to China Daily’s obvious bafflement, “different [textbook] publishers have different political views”. What’s needed, clearly, is for “The government [to] either directly provide contents for the publishers, or establish an official scrutiny mechanism”. I may have missed some nuances in the various posters I saw plastered around Hong Kong during a visit in early September, but I’m pretty sure that “More intervention by Beijing in textbook publishing” wasn’t a key demand of students who have regularly formed peaceful, dignified human chains encircling their university or high school campuses as a gesture of support for democratic values.

This detail perhaps helps illuminate the widening gulf between the Party bureaucrats in Beijing and their local enforcers in the shape of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and the pro-democracy activists, with the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, routinely described in the local press as “embattled”, caught in the crossfire. Local opinion varies on whether she defied Beijing in withdrawing the extradition bill at the centre of the storm, or whether Beijing decided on a tactical retreat which she executed. Both explanations may be partly true.

Either way, “too little, too late” seems to sum up the situation: withdrawal of the extradition bill has done nothing to prevent the protests, which seem to have developed a momentum of their own. Investigations into allegations of police brutality at earlier demonstrations are now a demand, with placards simply saying “831” (a reference to injuries sustained by protestors at an event on 31 August) being displayed at later protests – and so on, and on. Both sides are digging in. Beijing is said to be determined to stop Hong Kong sliding into what is called a “colour” revolution (Georgia and Ukraine being examples, involving massive largely non-violent street demonstrations), but there are also parallels with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. There, concessions made by the communist regimes that would, only months before, have been regarded as major achievements by reformers were, by the time they were made, dismissed as mere stages on the way to wider change. In Eastern Europe, the demand was to return to pre-1945 national democratic (more or less) structures that hardly anyone could remember. The Hong Kong equivalent is to look back fondly on colonial structures and processes. It is a strange feeling for a visiting Brit to see young people, born after British rule had ended in 1997, waving the colonial-era Hong Kong blue ensign as a gesture of defiance. Nothing could be more calculated to enrage Beijing apparatchiks. It is difficult, at the moment, to see this ending well.

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


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Academic capitalism – or worse?

[1] By Phil Pilkington

There has been much discussion on academic capitalism, the neo-liberalism of universities, the new entrepreneurial management which is transformative rather than transactional. Much has been done to reinforce this change and self-perception by government (in the UK) from the creation of the HE market, the panoply of measuring instruments (however flawed) and the imperative of third stream income to compensate for the loss of state funding.

However, ‘academic capitalism’ is a misnomer: it does not and cannot exist except in the ‘for profit’ sector. Exogenous forces require universities to generate income, sometimes leading to operational surpluses, making universities appear to act as if they are for profit. This is seen in two ways, neither of which are endogenous: the need for growth to remain operationally viable, and the imposition of regulatory controls of quality, responsiveness to ministerial opinions etc, as a consequence of the irony of a Hayekian model of the public sector[2]. But this is appearance and not reality. The marketisation of HE is an outcome of applying Hayekian principles to the public sector; it is not in itself capitalism. Academics are employees who may have ‘professional ethics’ and hard-earned specialisms which are bought in the labour market. Nevertheless, universities are not generating surplus value, a necessary condition for capitalism, as they have no shareholders with which to extract value from the means of production as capital which can become independent of the labour that produces the profit/surplus. The substantial critique of capitalism was that surplus value could be lost or expropriated from the locale of production and converted into more capital. No matter how much university management and governance may copy, or are required by government to enact, business practices in the neoliberal era (measuring performance, contracting out, international competition, and general entrepreneurialism), the challenge to produce operating surpluses is no different for the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other large charities which ‘gift back’ the surplus to the charity from trading activities. Students’ Unions as social enterprises have been doing this for decades with their wet sales supporting their charitable purposes.  Perhaps a discursive view of universities as social enterprises tout court may be helpful for their governance and for deciding how operational surpluses should be applied, perhaps ring-fencing cost centres of undergraduate teaching and research.

Nor is the call for a more skilled and ‘employment ready’ workforce a lowering of universities by promoting an HE sector relevant to and supporting the economy. This purpose was one of the planks of the Robbins Report[3]. This instrumentalist view of education is not new; and this knowledge-servicing role applies to the students as well as the institutional purpose. The polytechnics, and their actual geography, were intended to support the industries of the time, particularly aerospace, steel, chemicals, shipbuilding, mining and the motor industry. What is new is the dissidents’ complaint about the new capitalism of universities, which perhaps obscures some deeper and more disturbing concerns about the situation of universities in the knowledge economy.

The complaints are familiar: a dystopian decline of Western civilisation; the creation of the academic precariat; jeopardising the academic mission; moral decay; avarice; Faustian bargains; dumbing down with student-consumer as sovereign; and so on. But the symptoms of capitalism in HE are shared with other sectors; the precariat as an outcome of the loss of employees’ rights or employers’ opportunities in a flexible labour market; new management systems, and so on. Globalisation is not an essential condition of capitalism but is a late capitalism feature. Global reach has long been a feature of imperial higher education, as in the founding of the LSE, sans academic capitalism. Big science has been international and collaborative for more than a century.

The trappings of capitalism – changes to employment practices, the Taylorism of activity measurement, the creation of a market and the management response, including branding strategies for competitive survival – do not make higher education a capitalist system. The extremes of private enterprise branding go further than universities striving to gain market share and a sense of corporate identity. For example, Sir Philip Green’s channelling money out of BHS ‘in effect monetised the firm’s history as a reliable counterpart for workers and lenders’ (Woodruff, 2018). There are close comparisons in the HE sector in monetising heritage/status: the 100-year financing bonds of Oxbridge suggest a strong leverage through historical branding, compared to say the ability of the University of West London to borrow. Marketisation or branding reinforces the stratified inequalities of the HE system and entrenches the market (Brown, 2018). Nevertheless, this is still not extracting surplus value. Similarly, the contracting out of cleaning services in a local hospital does not make the hospital capitalist. It is the surplus value extracted by the contractor that is capitalist in that, again, the net profit creates capital. Building roads, providing a police force, maintaining state schools etc, are essential for the existence of capitalism (and much else): they are not intrinsically capitalist but act as support services for capital.

Sheldon Rothblatt’s (1997) heart-warming celebration of universities as the second oldest western tradition, that has offered so much in our journey of progress and civilisation, begs the debatable current status of universities as capitalist or indeed even as enduring institutions. (I am reminded of Hobbes’ (1655) paradox of the ship of Theseus which each year came into harbour for a refit:  when is it no longer the same ship? Rothblatt sees similar changes in society and universities but doesn’t argue for a causal relationship.) Universities mutate or emerge over time within the material conditions of power and the economy – from Papal Bull and Royal Charter through Parliamentary legislation, ministerial statutory instruments and finally independent (sic) agency.  Will their function and form now will mirror the current neoliberal conditions of globalisation, public sector regulation and deregulation of the private sector? Not quite. The new cycle of knowledge economies is unlike previous regimes for the supporting universities. It is a different economy for universities and for all of us in some deeper ways.

Universities were, and in some respects still are, the providers of new technologies which advance production and manufacturing processes, new materials and industries as well as long term global opportunities and risk assessments via scientific understanding. Universities have fulfilled that role since the late nineteenth century. What is different is specifically the nature of the new economy which is a new form of market, as capital must search for new markets. This is a new model of business enterprise distinct from manufacturing and traditional service industries – the mining or rather possession (as intellectual property) and exploitation of data as privately-owned property. The case for knowledge as a public good is strong (Marginson, 2013) but the change in what counts as knowledge comes with a stricter control of social conditions. The possession of knowledge begets a new ontology and epistemology. It is the thread that runs through capitalism: the transfer of the public good to the private, from the enclosures onwards, so that old ontological claims appear as delusional, fictions and myths.  Universities and their students are both agents within the knowledge economy and the raw materials.

Universities have been exploited by business in the new technologies with significant growth in profit margins for business, which has enabled the financialisation of business rather than its technological development. The exhortations for universities to provide the materiel for innovation and development obscures another trend.  This is eloquently and passionately explained by Mariana Mazzucato in The Entrepreneurial State (2013). Businesses reduce research costs by contracting out to universities, whilst reaping the major and rapidly increasing profit share which is then used to buy back stockholdings to increase share value. This process continues as competition continues to drive down business research costs , increasing share value (which is capital), and increasing reliance on universities as subcontractors to allow for this business strategy. The knowledge economy is ‘cutting edge’ but universities become a contracting out service industry not just for ‘pushing the technological boundaries’ per se but to be used for capital gain (which is then ‘lost’ to the production process and to the universities’ research centres as surplus value). As Mazzacuto might say, the universities become not so much capitalist agents of the new economies as the exploited.

The knowledge economy flowed from state intervention in the US and the UK but is invisible in plain view. Large corporate R&D centres (Bell, Dupont, Xerox, et al) have largely disappeared and university research in the public domain is used by the new technological businesses. For example, all the Apple innovations of touch screen, GPS, internet, microelectronics, and voice activation were government funded developments.

There is another aspect of the cognitive economy of data and intellectual property ownership which is intimately connected to universities in the new wave of entrepreneurism. This is the monetisation of data within the sector. Not the creation and control of patents resulting from research, but the monetisation of data not previously considered. This new wave of capital is not limited to education. The harvesting of data in the health sector (and the contingent insurance industry) has been a site of contention and dispute in several countries in the last five years[4].

The sale of tranches of the student loan book (losses to the Treasury estimated by the National Audit Office for one tranche as over £600 million) will be a carefully calculated risk for the buyers. In the US student loans are considered as approaching sub-prime liabilities, now with more than a trillion dollars of debt. In the UK part of the value of purchasing student loans stems from the personal data to be harvested for the next 40 years in the interchange between the debtor and the new loan-holders.  A more spectacular example of information converted to a form of capital is the sale of Turnitin.  This is no elevated concept of innovation and development other, simply the ability of capital to create a new ontology of products to be marketed within the cognitive economy. Turnitin was sold in 2008 to Warburg Pincus, then in 2014 to a Singapore-based wealth fund (for $752 million) and finally to a holding company of Condé Nast in 2018 for $1.75 billion. Turnitin has itself acquired other companies in 2018 such as Vericite and Gradescope. Jesse Stommel of the University of Mary Washington, Virginia, noted: “How much of that $1.75 billion is going to the students who have fed their database for years? I have a pretty good guess; zero billion.”

The charge of academic capitalism is misplaced when there should be a growing concern about how late capital will find new ways and practices to exploit the university sector.

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

References

Brown R (2018) ‘Neoliberalism, Marketisation and Higher Education’, Professorial Lecture, University of West London

Hobbes T (1655) De Corpore

Marginson S, (2013) ‘The Impossibility of Capitalist Markets in Higher Education’, Journal of Education Policy 28(3)

Mazzucatto, M (2013) The Entrepreneurial State, Anthem Press

Rothblatt S (1997) The Modern University and its Discontents, Cambridge

Woodruff D (2018) ‘Profits Now, Costs Later’, London Review of Books 40(22)

[1] I am extremely grateful to Ian McNay for his advice and support; the faults here remain mine

[2]  Hayek F (1944) The Road to Serfdom. It is difficult not to take an ad hominem approach to Hayek as a friend of dictators, but also as a paradoxical, confused and failed political theorist; his concept of price as information when human thought is irrational is a foundation of the current dispensation. For neo-liberal policy makers (ie the government/OfS) the uniformity of price in the UK HE sector offends against rational market efficiencies driving down prices. The consequent conspiracy hypothesis of cartel price fixing is another neo-liberal trope: the sabotage of government policies by self-interested public sector management and civil servants. Some university leaders have supported the neo-liberal project on the rationality of price levels by suggesting that the artificial limit set by government at the top end should be lifted and the market could be liberated to compete with Ivy League fee levels (prices). There are alternative models of pricing: a holistic model for price for HE could include prior costs (school fees, private tuition, the housing market reflecting catchment areas, etc).

[3]   My thanks to Ian McNay for a reminder that the Robbins Report included ‘the instruction in skills suitable to play a part in the general division of labour…’ and pointing out the skills support by polytechnics for the heavy industries in the north and north east of England. The assumption throughout the 1940s and 50s, from the 1944 Education Act and Claus Moser’s statistical planning of HE for Education Minister David Eccles, was that 80% of the workforce would be engaged in manufacturing and manual work.

[4] In the UK, following the Health and Social Care Act (2012) there was a requirement that all GPs’ case notes be returned to the central care.data to be exploited commercially, this appears to have been abandoned in 2016 after a campaign in part organised by GPs. In Denmark there was a rescinding of a similar arrangement. Data sharing (sic) between Deep Mind (the AI branch of Google) and a London NHS Trust was considered by the Information Commissioner’s Office to be a breach of law. In Italy a deal was made with IBM in 2016 for access to health data (Source: New Scientist, April 2016).


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“A market exit…with a material negative impact”

by Paul Temple

Our late and much-missed friend David Watson used to say that every government department should have an office marked “Cassandra”. Whenever a new policy was proposed, someone had to poke their head round the door and say, “Cassandra, what went wrong when we last tried this?”. David went on to point out that, just as the mythological Cassandra was cursed to make accurate predictions that were never believed, so policy-making would plough ahead regardless of what the Cassandra down the corridor told them about last time’s mistakes. Still, he thought, it would be nice to know in advance in just what respect a policy was going to fail.

A number of Cassandras predicted, in general terms, the disaster – or “material negative impact” [1] , in OfS-speak – that has now overtaken the 3,571 students of for-profit GSM in London. This was one of the “alternative providers”, so enthusiastically promoted by David Willetts following the 2011 White Paper. In my chapter on private sector higher education in Claire Callender’s and Peter Scott’s Browne and Beyond: Modernizing English Higher Education (2013), I invented the conditional-optimistic tense to describe the White Paper’s language about “alternative providers”: “new entrants to the sector…may have different strengths…they may offer particular well-honed teaching models…” (2011 White Paper, para 4.5). They would shake up the stuffy old university sector with a bracing private-sector ethos – although the exact problem to which they would provide the answer was never precisely set out. This was evidence-free policy-making, but with a blithe assurance that everything would turn out for the best (remind you of anything?). I suspect that the unlucky GSM 3,571 would now prefer to have been at a university with some of the boring old strengths.

The OfS email to other universities about the GSM collapse could serve as a text for a doctoral class on bureaucratic buck-passing: its message might be summarised as, “We’re only the regulator; can the rest of you do something? No, we won’t do anything to help.” The GSM 3,571 are, it is clear, on their own; OfS isn’t going to do anything constructive to clear up the mess. On the contrary, when asked “whether transferred students can be subject to special arrangements relating to the reporting of their progression, completion or in respect of other outcome data/metrics…The answer is no.” Nice.

As I noted in my 2013 chapter, you didn’t need particular insights, let alone Cassandra’s skills of prophecy, to foresee problems ahead in the “alternative” sector – because we had the worked example of the United States before us. A devastating critique of for-profit higher education there was made in 2012 in a report by Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “In this report”, Senator Harkin was reported as saying, “you will find overwhelming documentation of exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation”. The for-profit sectors in the US and the UK depend on easily-available public funding to cover student fees and light-touch regulation of institutions with minimal records of achievement and limited accountability. It is a tragedy that British politicians, driven by free-market ideology, and regulators, following politicians’ biddings, failed GSM’s students so comprehensively.

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

[1] Office for Students email, 21 August 2019