srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education

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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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Ian Mc Nay


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The higher education business and alternative providers.

By Ian McNay

The sale of two recently designated ‘for-profit’ universities to owners outside the UK is one indication of the government’s market approach to higher education. I return to this below, after covering another piece of evidence.

Those who do not read the financial pages of the Guardian will not have seen an article by Rupert Neate Cannes on student accommodation as giving ‘first class returns to investors’ (17 March 2017, p33). It included two things that shocked me. ‘Last month, the value of contracts awarded to build student housing projects in the UK totalled more than the deals to build care homes, housing associations, local authority housing and sheltered housing added together’, and flats in ‘some student blocks… in London cost as much as £650 a week’. In Reading, there is one block where prices are £300 per week, and the UK average for one builder was £175 a week. Rents for university owned properties already constitute a supplementary fee and exceed the level of the maintenance loan, adding another financial obstacle to equity of access.

That may be one reason why, paradoxically, students are turning to private HE – alternative providers as they were called by government in last year’s White Paper, and now the subject of an enquiry by the Higher Education Commission, to which Ron Barnett and I were recently invited to give evidence. I did some digging around and the picture that emerged surprised me, and moved me from my initial stance of total opposition. Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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Lessons for HE leaders from recent events

By Ian McNay

This is a longer piece than usual, an essay on leadership in HE, triggered by reflections on recent events and the lessons they offer. Turbulence in political leadership has been rife in the last six months from Italy to Gambia and New Zealand; UK and USA; the Labour Party, the Conservatives, UKIP; even the Open University. Which bridges to the first of five lessons to be drawn for HE leaders.

Lesson 1: listen to those you lead

If not, they will leave you – you risk losing their support, as in the OU, their loyalty, their commitment, even their compliance. Alternative leaders will spring up. I had hoped that the discourse about ‘disconnected’ might shift after the referendum vote. That showed that it was not the underclass who had disconnected from reality, but the political class whose bubble had floated off in to some cloud cuckoo land far from the reality of ‘others’ in those parts of Britain similar to my roots, on Teesside. It could have been Ashington, Scunthorpe, Motherwell, the Welsh valleys – alien places the perceivedly posh politicians do not go to and of which they have no understanding. But, after the shock wore off, the liberal elite, with its high proportion of graduates, returned to blaming the disenchanted – Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ – for their ignorance or even lack of gratitude for what the EU/Obama had done for them. As with the rust belt in the USA, the view was that, to quote Shirley Maclaine in Sweet Charity, ‘there’s got to be something better than this’. Or even, ‘it can’t get any worse, and voting to continue means more of the same old, same old, which has done nothing for us’. So, change, any change, was seen as worth the risk, even if its proponents were lying clowns. What does that say about their views of the incumbent leaders? Continue reading