srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Dismissing your vice-chancellor

by GR Evans

“Over a few days in September, five universities announced their vice-chancellors were leaving” reported the Guardian in November 2018. The universities included Liverpool John Moores, Southampton, Bradford and Anglia Ruskin. Elsewhere new vice-chancellors were ‘starting’ at the Universities of London, Reading, East London, Sunderland and Belfast. The turnover, suggested the Guardian, was ’unprecedented’. Certainly there had been damaging press coverage on the size of some vice-chancellors’ salaries, but there did seem to be a problem in both getting and keeping the staff at that level. But some vice-chancellors whose conduct has been criticised have recently ‘agreed’ to step down rather than facing a formal procedure for dismissal.

Times Higher Education has recently covered the dismissal of Swansea’s vice-chancellor, which seems to have taken place without reliance on any special provision for the ‘removal’ of the university’s vice-chancellor. This raises the question whether such provision is appropriate, or indeed justified. From a practical point of view alone there will be a difficulty in dismissing  such a chief executive because he or she will normally be listed in the institution’s procedures as the ultimate decision-maker in the dismissal of its employees. But is the head of the institution a special case?

The Model Statute created by the University Commissioners under the Education Reform Act 1988 (s.203) was designed to provide a special protection against dismissal for academic staff when academic tenure was abolished. It applied to all universities then existing and it had a special section providing for ‘removal’ of the heads of institutions. This was clearly needed, for in the case of the ‘removal’ of academic staff only the vice-chancellor could decide whether to initiate the new disciplinary procedure.

Oxford retains the provision, requiring eight members of the Council to make a complaint to the Chancellor and if he considers there may be good cause, the Council must appoint an internal tribunal. The tribunal will comprise a person with judicial or substantial practitioner experience as a solicitor or barrister and not employed by the University, with two members chosen by Council, one of whom must be a member of the academic staff.  The Chancellor would make the decision to dismiss the vice-chancellor, based on the findings of the tribunal.  Cambridge (whose vice-chancellor had been one of the post-1988 Commissioners) retained the wording of that provision until 2010, allowing ‘any three members of the Council’ to complain to the Chancellor ‘seeking the removal of the Vice-Chancellor from the office of Vice-Chancellor for good cause’. Any ensuing charges would be considered by an internal University tribunal in a similar way.

The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge have their own versions of the Model Statute under which the Head of House may similarly be ‘removed’. New College, Oxford  could  set about removing its Warden if nine members of its governing body made a complaint to the Sub-Warden.  The whole governing body would then decide whether there was a prima facie case, with a tribunal to follow if they considered there was.  Girton College, Cambridge may remove its Mistress if three members of its governing body make a complaint to the Vice-Mistress,  with a tribunal to follow and dismissal, if recommended, made by the Vice-Mistress. In all these college examples there are minor variations on the details of the procedure.

A high-profile and unique recent instance of the attempt to ‘remove’ a Head of House in Oxford has been the case against the Dean of Christ Church. The Dean is both the Dean of Oxford Cathedral and the equivalent of a vice-chancellor in his autonomous college. The difficulty of keeping the two roles in balance prompted a Christ Church Oxford Act in 1867. As Head of the College, the Dean’s potential dismissal came under the College’s provisions under Education Reform Act 1988. Christ Church allows ‘any seven members of the Governing Body’ to initiate a call for removal of the Dean from office. The internal tribunal which has just so expensively found no good cause at all against the Dean is a legacy of that provision.

Swansea was free to change its rules and abandon the post-1988 provision because since 2006 universities have been able to modify their Model Statute arrangements without having to seek Privy Council approval, and many have eagerly done so. Procedures for dismissal of academic staff  have frequently been moved to a lower level in the domestic legislation and all staff may be subjected to a single set of employment procedures. A post-1992 university such as Buckinghamshire New University has no statutes but an Instrument of Government approved by the Privy Council under the Education Reform Act 1988 s.124A(3). Any dismissals are carried out under its general HR policies.

Bath still has the Model Statute provision in its statutes, with at least three members of Council making a complaint to the Chair of Council, a Tribunal of three, and the final decision to dismiss made by the Chair, but there was no need in the circumstances for that procedure to be followed when Glynis Breakwell decided to retire. But ‘going quietly’ with a ‘settlement’ can be very expensive. Both Bath and Bath Spa Universities faced strong criticism for the size of the ‘golden goodbyes’ paid to their departing vice-chancellors; Christina Slade ‘stepped down’ as vice-chancellor of Bath Spa in 2017.

A review of the legacy of the clumsy Model Statute provision for removing a vice-chancellor seems overdue, and with it fresh consideration of whether the head of an institution is a special case when it comes to dismissal.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE.


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Customer Services

by Phil Pilkington

“…problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para 38 (original emphasis)

The paradigm shift of students to customers at the heart of higher education has changed strategies, psychological self-images, business models and much else. But are the claims for and against students as customers (SAC) and the related research as useful, insightful and angst ridden as we may at first think?  There are alarms about changing student behaviours and approaches to learning and the relationship towards academic staff but does the naming ‘customers’ reveal what were already underlying, long standing problems? Does the concentrated focus on SAC obscure rather than reveal?

One aspect of SAC is the observation that academic performance declines, and learning becomes more surface and instrumental (Bunce, 2017). Another is that SAC inclines students to be narcissist and aggressive, with HEI management pandering to the demands of both students and their feedback on the NSS, with other strategies to create iconic campus buildings, to maintain or improve league table position (Nixon, 2018).

This raises some methodological questions on (a) the research on academic performance and the degree of narcissism/aggression prior to SAC (ie around 1997 with the Dearing Report); (b) the scope and range of the research given the scale of student numbers, participation rates, the variety of student motivations, the nature of disciplines and their own learning strategies, and the hierarchy of institutions; and (c) the combination of (a) and (b) in the further question whether SAC changed the outlook of students to their education – or is it that we are paying more attention and making different interpretations?

Some argue that the mass system created in some way marketisation of HE and the SAC with all its attendant problems of changing the pedagogic relationship and cognitive approaches. Given Martin Trow’s definitions of elite, mass and universal systems of HE*, the UK achieved a mass system by the late 1980s to early 1990s with the rapid expansion of the polytechnics; universities were slower to expand student numbers. This expansion was before the introduction of the £1,000 top up fees of the Major government and the £3,000 introduced by David Blunkett (Secretary of State for Education in the new Blair government) immediately after the Dearing Report. It was after the 1997 election that the aspiration was for a universal HE system with a 50% participation rate.

If a mass system of HE came about (in a ‘fit of forgetfulness’ ) by 1991 when did marketisation begin? Marketisation may be a name we give to a practice or context which had existed previously but was tacit and culturally and historically deeper, hidden from view. The unnamed hierarchy of institutions of Oxbridge, Russell, polytechnics, HE colleges, FE colleges had powerful cultural and socio-political foundations and was a market of sorts (high to low value goods, access limited by social/cultural capital and price, etc). That hierarchy was not, however, necessarily top-down: the impact of social benefit of the ‘lower orders’ in that hierarchy would be significant in widening participation. The ‘higher order’ existed (and exists) in an ossified form. And as entry was restricted, the competition within the sector did not exist or did not present existential threats. Such is the longue durée when trying to analyse marketisation and the SAC.

The focus on marketisation should help us realise that over the long term the unit of resource was drastically reduced; state funding was slowly and then rapidly withdrawn to the point where the level of student enrolment was critical to long term strategy. That meant not maintaining but increasing student numbers when the potential pool of students would fluctuate – with  the present demographic trough ending in 2021 or 2022. Marketisation can thus be separated to some extent from the cognitive dissonance or other anxieties of the SAC. HEIs (with exceptions in the long-established hierarchy) were driven by the external forces of the funding regime to develop marketing strategies, branding and gaming feedback systems in response to the competition for students and the creation of interest groups – Alliance, Modern, et al. The enrolled students were not the customers in the marketisation but the product or outcome of successful management. The students change to customers as the focus is then on results, employment and further study rates. Such is the split personality of institutional management here.

Research on SAC in STEM courses has a noted inclination to surface learning and the instrumentalism of ‘getting a good grade in order to get a good job’, but this prompts further questions. I am not sure that this is an increased inclination to surface learning, nor whether surface and deep are uncritical norms we can readily employ. The HEAC definition of deep learning has an element of ‘employability’ in the application of knowledge across differing contexts and disciplines (Howie and Bagnall, 2012). A student in 2019 may face the imperative to get a ‘degree level’ job in order to pay back student loans. This is rational related to the student loans regime and widening participation, meaning this imperative is not universally applied given the differing socio-economic backgrounds of all students.

(Note that the current loan system is highly regressive as a form of ‘graduate tax’.)

And were STEM students more inclined toward deep or surface learning before they became SAC?  Teaching and assessment in STEM may have been poorand may have encouraged surface level learning (eg through weekly phase tests which were tardily assessed).

What is deep learning in civil engineering when faced with stress testing concrete girders or in solving quarternion equations in mathematics: is much of STEM actually knowing and processing algorithms? How is such learnable content in STEM equivalent in some cognitive way to the deep learning in modern languages, history, psychology et al? This is not to suggest a hierarchy of disciplines but differences, deep differences, between rules-based disciplines and the humanities.

Learning is complex and individualised, and responsive to, without entirely determining, the curriculum and the forms of its delivery. In the research on SAC the assumptions are that teaching and assessment delivery is both relatively unproblematic and designed to encourage deep, non-instrumental learning. Expectations of the curriculum delivery and assessment will vary amongst students depending on personal background of schooling and parents, the discipline and personal motivations and the expectations will often be unrealistic. Consider why they are unrealistic – more than the narcissism of being a customer. (There is a very wide range of varieties of customer: as a customer of Network Rail I am more a supplicant than a narcissist.)

The alarm over the changes (?) to the students’ view of their learning as SAC in STEM should be put in the context of the previously high drop-out rate of STEM students (relatively higher than non-STEM) which could reach 30% of a cohort. The causes of drop out were thoroughly examined by Mantz Yorke(Yorke and Longden, 2004), but as regards the SAC issue here, STEM drop outs were explained by tutors as lack of the right mathematical preparation. There is comparatively little research on the motivations for students entering STEM courses before they became SAC; such research is not over the long term or longitudinal. However, research on the typology of students with differing motivations for learning (the academic, the social, the questioning student etc) ranged across all courses, does exist (a 20 year survey by Liz Beatty, 2005). Is it possible that after widening participation to the point of a universal system, motivations towards the instrumental or utilitarian will become more prominent? And is there an implication that an elite HE system pre-SAC was less instrumentalist, less surface learning? The creation of PPE (first Oxford in 1921 then spreading across the sector) was an attempt to produce a mandarin class, where career ambition was designed into the academic disciplines. That is, ‘to get a good job’ applies here too but it will be expressed in different, indirect and elevated ways of public service.**

There are some anachronisms in the research on SAC. The acceptance of SAC by management, by producing student charters and providing students places on boards, committees and senior management meetings is not a direct result of students or management considering students as customers. Indeed, it predates SAC by many years and has its origins in the 1960s and 70s.

I am unlikely to get onto the board of Morrisons, but I could for the Co-op – a discussion point on partnerships, co-producers, membership of a community of learners. The struggle by students to get representation in management has taken fifty years from the Wilson government Blue Paper Student Protest (1970) to today. It may have been a concession, but student representation changed the nature of HEIs in the process, prior to SAC. Student Charters appear to be mostly a coherent, user-friendly reduction of lengthy academic and other regulations that no party can comprehend without extensive lawyerly study. A number of HEIs produced charters before the SAC era (late 1990s). And iconic university buildings have been significantly attractive in the architectural profession a long time before SAC – Birmingham’s aspiration to be an independent city state with its Venetian architecture recalling St Mark’s Square under the supervision of Joseph Chamberlain (1890s) or Jim Stirling’s post-modern Engineering faculty building at Leicester (1963) etc (Cannandine 2002).

Students have complex legal identities and are a complex and often fissiparous body. They are customers of catering, they are members of a guild or union, learners, activists and campaigners, clients, tenants, volunteers, sometimes disciplined as the accused, or the appellant, they adopt and create new identities psychologically, culturally and sexually. The language of students as customers creates a language game that excludes other concerns: the withdrawal of state funding, the creation of an academic precariat, the purpose of HE for learning and skills supply, an alienation from a community by the persuasive self-image as atomised customer, how deep learning is a creature of disciplines and the changing job market, that student-academic relations were problematic and now become formalised ‘complaints’. Students are not the ‘other’ and they are much more than customers.

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.

*Martin Trow defined an elite, mass and universal systems of HE by participation rates of 10-20%, 20-30% and 40-50% respectively.

** Trevor Pateman, The Poverty of PPE, Oxford, 1968; a pamphlet criticising the course by a graduate; it is acknowledged that the curriculum, ‘designed to run the Raj in 1936’, has changed little since that critique. This document is a fragment of another history of higher education worthy of recovery: of complaint and dissatisfaction with teaching and there were others who developed the ‘alternative prospectus’ movement in the 1970s and 80s.

References

Beatty L, Gibbs G, and Morgan A (2005) ‘Learning orientations and study contracts’, in Marton, F, Hounsell, D and Entwistle, N, (eds) (2005) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education, 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

Bunce, Louise (2017) ‘The student-as-consumer approach in HE and its effects on academic performance’, Studies in Higher Education, 42(11): 1958-1978

Howie P and Bagnall R (2012) ‘A critique of the deep and surface learning model’, Teaching in Higher Education 18(4); they state the distinction of learning is “imprecise conceptualisation, ambiguous language, circularity and a lack of definition…”

Nixon, E, Scullion, R and Hearn, R (2018) ‘Her majesty the student: marketised higher education and the narcissistic (dis)satisfaction of the student consumer’, Studies in Higher Education  43(6): 927-943

Cannandine, David (2004), The ‘Chamberlain Tradition’, in In Churchill’s Shadow, Oxford: Oxford University Press; his biographical sketch of Joe Chamberlain shows his vision of Birmingham as an alternative power base to London.

Yorke M and Longden B (2004) Retention and student success in higher education, Maidenhead: SRHE/Open University Press


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Teaching for Epistemic Justice in a Post-truth World

by Kathy Luckett

In Teaching in Higher Education’s recent special issue on ‘Experts, Knowledge and Criticality’ (2019) we noted in the editorial that traditional forms of expertise and epistemic authority are under threat. In his subsequent blog, Harrison warned: “Higher education is in danger of sleep walking into a crisis”.

In this post-truth era it is useful to be reminded of Castells’ (1996, 2010) warnings about the crumbling of liberal democratic institutions, which he predicted would become ‘empty shells’, devoid of power and meaning in the ‘information age’ (2010:353). As early as 1996 he warned that the ‘network society’ would bypass the rationalising influence of civil society institutions (include here institutions of higher education). Castells also predicted a related loss of influence for the old ‘legitimising identities’ based on roles located in civil society institutions – such as those of experts and academics in universities and research institutes. The information and communication technologies of the fourth industrial revolution have huge potential to democratise flows of information in open spaces on the web and strengthen civil society, but Castells’ corpus shows how this ‘communication power’ is caught in the contradictions of the global capitalist market. Nation states have limited power to regulate information flows on behalf of their citizens, while control of communication power now rests in the hands of global corporations such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon and Apple which are driven by market rather than democratic logics.

At a cultural level, individuals’ access to mass communication via social media has led to ‘communicative autonomy’ and the emergence of radical forms of individualism which undermine older identities based on tradition or citizenship of sovereign nation states (Castells 2010, 2012). Despite the decline of these older forms of solidarity, those individuals who participate in the wealth and power of the global economy feel recognised and included in society, but those who do not feel excluded and misrecognised. Because the latter groups no longer feel (or never were) included as full citizens of civil society, they are taking up ‘resistance identities’ put out on social media. Resistance identities are invariably based on subordinated groups’ sense of misrecognition and exclusion from the mainstream and tap into axiologically charged ‘structures of feeling’ (Rizvi, 2006:196).  In some cases, the construction of resistance identities draws on fundamentalist or essentialist notions of culture, ethnicity, religion or place. More generally, resistance identities create a sense of belonging by appealing to individual attributes, authentic experience and/or personal pain and trauma. On social media these attributes become reified as new cultural codes, captured in new images of representation and commodified for display. Castells (2010) describes these as closed fragmented identities that fail to connect or transcend into broader forms of human solidarity.

This analysis by Castells is useful for thinking about the recent student protests on South African campuses (2015-2017). Student activists in the #RMF (RhodesMustFall) and #FMF (FeesMustFall) movements creatively used multi-media platforms to spread their message, organise protests and perform their politics, creating new anti-establishment resistance identities and cultural codes. In a post-settler society such as South Africa, where identities remain highly ‘raced’, the contradictions of global capital alluded to above are played out through a race-based identity politics that pits ‘blackness’ against ‘whiteness’. Undoubtedly the assertion of ‘blackness’ by black students and staff, particularly on historically white campuses, was a consequence of their continued misrecognition and exclusion by the ‘whiteness’ of institutional cultures and practices, a generation after South Africa’s political transition (the long shadow of ‘coloniality’). In such neo-colonial contexts, the frustration and anger of black students from poor homes and schools is exacerbated by their continued exclusion from academic success and from the promise of employment in the global economy and the relief from poverty that this guarantees. What also became apparent during the protests was the students’ rejection and dismissal of authority based on the old ‘legitimising’ identities of civil society – such as those of university executives, senior managers, academics and government officials.

In such post-truth contexts where the liberal democratic order is dissipating and our own roles and identities are no longer naturally legitimate, the challenge for academics is how to connect with our students and teach in ways that address their concerns and issues. I suggest this means teaching for epistemic justice. What does this mean?

In the editorial for the special issue (Harrison and Luckett, 2019) we argued that we should work with the destabilisation of modern epistemology and its problematic blindness about the relationship between power and reason. We noted the capacity of digital technologies to open up previously protected boundaries around knowledge production – to include historically excluded and silenced knowers and their ways of knowing. However, we also advocated that we teach our students how to use the epistemic rules, criteria and norms developed by expert communities of practice for validating truth claims. The promotion of epistemic justice involves showing students how to move beyond naïve scepticism and judgmental relativism about truth claims and how to become active and critical participants in processes of knowledge production. The articles in the special issue include creative ideas and strategies on how to give students the tools to judge truth claims for themselves.

I believe the degree to which the academy is prepared to work at promoting epistemic justice – not only on campuses but also on digital platforms – will be reflected in our students’ capacity to judge old and new truth claims for themselves. The achievement of greater epistemic justice in curricula and pedagogy in higher education institutions could empower students to refuse capture by the communicative and axiological power of closed, potentially authoritarian forms of resistance identities. Social and epistemic justice entails the freedom to choose to dis-identify from fixed social identities and encouraging students to work with identity as a process of becoming who they hope to become in a complex heterogeneous public sphere.

Here are a few questions for further reflection:

  • What are the implications for our teaching of the fact that students are highly ‘mediatised’ and may not recognise our expertise and authority as legitimate?
  • When students take up resistance identities do we acknowledge that this is invariably a consequence of their feeling misrecognised and excluded?
  • To what extent do our institutional policies that claim to address equity, access, diversity and inclusion, assume assimilation and compliance? To what extent do they challenge given hierarchies of power and unequal patterns of participation in the academic project?
  • Do we articulate for students our own social and historical locations, acknowledging their political salience for our academic work?
  • In our curriculum development, how far is it possible to challenge the hegemonic grip of the North over knowledge production? Do we, wherever possible, promote a ‘pluriversal’ approach to knowledge that includes making space for new cultural codes, new knowers and alternative ways of knowing?
  • Do we teach students to critically historicise and contextualise the development of the modern disciplines and thus question false claims to universality?

Kathy Luckett is the Director of the Humanities Education Development Unit and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is a member of the Review Board for Teaching in Higher Education.

References

Castells, M (1996) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. The Rise of the Network Society Volume I Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Castells, M (2009) Communication Power Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Castells, M (2010) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. The Power of Identity. Volume II (2nd edn) Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Castells, M (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age Cambridge: Polity Press

Harrison, N and Luckett, K (2019) ‘Experts, knowledge and criticality in the age of ‘alternative facts’: re-examining the contribution of higher education’, Teaching in Higher Education 24 (3): 259-271

Rizvi, F (2006) ‘Imagination and the Globalisation of Educational Policy Research’ Globalisation, Societies and Education 4(2): 193-205  


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University Governance

by Phil Pilkington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

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

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

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Putting the education back into governance and teaching

By Rob Cuthbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doing academic work

by Rob Cuthbert

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


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“Your papers, please!”

By Paul Temple

I should admit at the start that I’ve never been a big fan of HR (or Personnel, as they used to be) departments, in universities or elsewhere. This may result from the tendency of HR people to patronise those they’re dealing with: “We’ve been considering your career options”, “Are you really a team player?”, and so on; and because, however matey the conversation, you need to remember that anything you say may be taken down and later used in evidence against you. The problem isn’t at all confined to universities: Lucy Kellaway used to write a workplace agony aunt column in the Financial Times which featured a running gag on the lines of, “Whatever your problem, going to HR will only make it worse”.

Roger Watson and David Thompson vented their accumulated irritations about university HR departments in a piece in THE on 8 March this year, arguing that the various “downward-spiralling” HR nonsenses that they listed “are just another symptom of the managerialism that is now the norm in UK universities”. Perhaps; but I don’t think that explains why HR departments are, apparently, more afflicted than Student Services, say, or Finance.

If you have recently acted as an external examiner (or something similar) in another university, you will probably have come up against the demand to demonstrate your “right to work”, and probably, for good measure, have been invited to enrol in the university’s pension scheme. I’m not the only person to have pointed out to various HR departments that turning up for a few hours, and then probably never setting foot in the place again, cannot possibly count as employment; but usually to no avail.

It’s interesting, though, that some universities get this right: Oxford, for example, provides a helpful list of the activities that people might do on behalf of the University – including external examining, giving one-off lectures, and so on – where, in Oxford’s view, the “right to work” issue does not arise. At one university where I was asked to examine a thesis and declined to get enmeshed in the “right to work” process, the HR people thought about it for a bit and then said, you’re right, of course being an external examiner doesn’t imply a contract of employment. Take a bow, Manchester Metropolitan University!

My current example, though, of HR dottiness is courtesy of Brunel University. Having agreed to talk at a seminar there, my host apologised for not being able to pay a fee but said that at least travel expenses would be met. She later had to qualify this, as she’d learned that expenses claims would only be paid if “right to work” requirements had been met. The long-suffering departmental administrator took this up with Brunel’s HR department: was it really the case that a two-hour visit to the campus and payment of a tube fare amounted to employment by the University? Came the reply (I summarise), our process is what it is, and we’re really not interested in other people’s views about it. (I didn’t claim for the tube fare.)

I don’t think that this quite supports the Watson and Thompson hypothesis of HR as managerialism-gone-mad. Managerialism (if it is anything) is about a focus on assessable outcomes (or at least outputs) and implementing efficiency gains to achieve them, possibly even at the cost of wider and longer-term institutional effectiveness. What these cases exemplify – as do those given by Watson and Thompson – is almost anti-managerialism, creating complications where none need exist. Instead, I am reminded of dealing with Eastern European education bureaucracies in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Communism, where rule-following was the only consideration, regardless of the particularities of the situation. This attitude arose from, it seemed to me, a mixture of (historically justified) personal insecurity, leading to risk-aversion, and organisational authoritarianism, leading to a refusal to debate the merits of a policy.

The comparison with university HR departments derives from their apparent unwillingness, for perhaps broadly similar reasons, to enter into rational exchanges about why they do what they do, resulting in the passive-aggressive posture that I think irritates Watson and Thompson. Brunel’s HR people didn’t say to the department, “Look, this is why we do it differently to Oxford”: they just said, as if their processes were handed down from Mount Olympus, “This is the way we do it”. Which meant that they missed the opportunity of making a fairly good joke about this being Uxbridge, not Oxbridge.

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


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In the duck house

By Paul Temple

Last autumn, David Palfreyman and I completed our book Universities and Colleges in the OUP “Very Short Introduction” series by compiling the index. It’s a sign of how fast things have changed that if we were preparing the index now, just a few months later, I think that one entry would have to be on the lines of “Greed, vice-chancellors, accusations of.” How on earth have we got to this?

Our late and much-missed friend and colleague, David Watson, would, I am certain, be incandescent with fury at how some of his fellow vice-chancellors have allowed Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, plausibly to compare some vice-chancellors’ expenses claims with episodes from the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal. Halfon picked out the £1600 that Surrey University had paid to relocate its new VC’s dog from Australia, comparing it to the notorious “floating duck island” which, as it happens, cost the same. As with the duck-house, it’s the pettiness, the bathos – not to mention the comedic potential – that catch the attention. Was there nobody at Surrey able to say, “Vice-Chancellor, this really won’t be a good look if (when) it comes out”? And if not, shouldn’t there have been? Continue reading


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Whatever happened to Second Life?

By Paul Temple

You must remember Second Life. Oh, come on, of course you remember it! In the mid-late 2000s it was everywhere, not just in universities but in business, government, all over the place. It was going to be the new way of doing, well, everything – working, learning, entertainment, you name it. What was it? A virtual reality set-up, where you could create an alternative world, and adopt a different persona online, your avatar. Why? Because in your avatar guise, in your virtual world, you could do things you couldn’t otherwise do. What things? Just things, OK? Continue reading

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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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