srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Covid-19 won’t change universities unless they own up to the problems that were already there

by Steven Jones

At a national level in the UK, two Covid narratives vie for supremacy. The first positions the government response to the pandemic as successful, pointing to a world-leading vaccine development and roll-out, a well-received furlough scheme, and an accelerated return to ‘normal’. The second positions the government response as calamitous, pointing to recurring misspends, accusations of corruption, and a death rate among the highest in Europe.

Within UK higher education, two parallel narratives have arisen. On one hand, sector leaders and institutional managers claim against-the-odds victory because most universities emerged reputationally and commercially unscathed from the most unforeseeable of global challenges. On the other hand, for many students and staff, Covid-19 further exposed the limits of market-based approaches to funding universities, and the harm done by corporate governance cultures.

Discursively, Covid-19 laid bare a higher education sector fluent in the language of competition but mostly unable to articulate its underlying value to society. Senior management teams continued to pore over league table performance indicators and rejoice in individual ‘excellence’, but struggled to co-create a narrative of common good and humanity in the face of a deadly virus.

Yet at the local level there was much of which to be proud: university staff listened to their students and put their needs first, recognising that welfare now took priority over academic outcomes. Learning persisted, even during the depths of lockdown, with pedagogies adapting and curricula evolving. The question now is how to reconcile a renewed spirit of collegiality and creativity with top-down policy wedded to the idea that universities are ‘providers’ and their students little more than consumers of a premium product.

The starting point may be to accept that UK universities were struggling long before Covid-19 struck. Many of the sector’s underlying problems were simply brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. This slower-burning crisis in higher education means that: 

  1. Relations between senior managers and their staff are broken. During Covid-19, university staff wondered why their efforts appeared to be appreciated more by their students than their employers. For those in positions of authority, the successful response of front-line personnel seemed almost to threaten their authority. Top-end remuneration had raced ahead of median campus pay for decades because governing bodies were convinced that the university’s most important work was undertaken by its executive. Suddenly, it appeared that collegiality at the disciplinary level was what mattered most. Institutional managers would no doubt retort that running a university by consensus is impractical, not least during a worldwide emergency, and that the financial sustainability of the sector was secured by their swift pre-emptive action. But to those on the outside, the simmering resentment between employers and employees remains unfathomable: how can those who lead the university be so far adrift of those who work for the university?
  • Relations between senior managers and students are also badly damaged. Partly this was the fault of policy-makers, for whom students were at best an afterthought. But instead of fashioning an alternative narrative, institutional management teams mostly followed the lead of a cynical government and framed students as potential individual rule-breakers rather than a vulnerable cohort of young people facing an extraordinary mental health challenge. One vice-chancellor foolhardily suggested that where students were forced into self-isolation it might engender a ‘Dunkirk spirit’. At times, international students were treated like cargo. In August 2021, over fifty UK universities clubbed together to charter flights and import students from China. Home students were also lured back on to campus prematurely, the risks to local communities apparently secondary to income from accommodation, catering and other on-site spending.
  • Ministers don’t listen to sector leaders. Despite institutional managers and their representative bodies dutifully following the marketisation road-map that policy-makers laid out, Covid-19 exposed a sector that had remarkably little sway over government strategy. Ministers showed no interest in University UK’s proposed bail-out package, with one Conservative peer pointedly suggesting that institutions show ‘humility on the part of those vice-chancellors who take very large salaries.’ This undermined the soft-power strategies of which sector leaders had boasted for decades. Some ‘wins’ for students did emerge, but they were invariably overstated: the government’s announcement of a £50m package of support in February 2021 was met with enthusiasm by sector representatives, leaving it to mental health charities like Student Minds to point out that this amounted to barely £25 per head. Ironically, when the government botched its A-levels algorithm, universities stepped in to bail-out policy-makers.
  • The business model on which universities operate is brittle. No-one would deny the reliance on overseas student income leaves the sector financially exposed. Many would go further and say that there’s something unethical – neo-colonial even – about charging sky-high fees to foreign students so that other university activity can be cross-subsidised. The most principled long-term approach would be for university leaders to reassert the common value of higher education, and seek to persuade the public that a system funded through progressive general taxation, akin to that of other nations, would be fairer and more robust. With graduates of English universities facing interest charges of 9-12% over four decades, there has never been a better time to make this argument.

In 2020, I wrote an upbeat piece in The Guardian suggesting that Covid-19 could change universities for the better. This is still just about possible. However, recent evidence suggests that there is no great eagerness on the part of management to seize the opportunity. Indeed, Covid-19 could change next to nothing, allowing sector leaders and institutional managers to distract from previous failings and double down on a failed corporate leadership model. At the national level, campuses have become battlefields for unwinnable ‘culture wars’, as right-wing politicians and media commentators take pot-shots at a sector lacking the confidence or guile to defend itself. At the institutional level, the cost-of-living crisis is already being used to vindicate new survivalist discourses that will later be used to rationalise further reconfigurations and cuts.

Covid-19 exposed the vulnerability of a heavily marketised university sector. As student loan interest rates rocket and staff pensions crumble, our sector leaders say almost nothing. Markets in higher education do more than monetise students’ learning; they co-opt and silence those whose primary duty it is to defend the universities that they manage.

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester. Steven’s new book, Universities Under Fire: hostile discourses and integrity deficits in higher education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) will be published in the summer.


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“Levelling Up the United Kingdom”: Examiner’s report

By Paul Temple

This thesis deals with a topic – the large variations in economic and social conditions across the UK – that is of great interest both to policy-makers and to researchers. Although the present submission unfortunately falls some way short of the standard required for doctoral research, in terms of content, analysis, and presentation, I hope the author can be encouraged to pursue his work to produce a thesis that will do justice to the significance of the topic.

The first difficulty with this thesis is its lack of a clear research question. I think that the author has mistaken the collection of data of a vaguely relevant kind (12 tables and 80 diagrams of various sorts) for research which properly informs the topic under review. The author also makes the basic error of presenting data without showing its relevance: telling us, for example, that Jericho was the largest city in 7000 BC might be relevant if the topic was to do with ancient civilisations, but it verges on the bizarre when the topic is modern Britain. The purpose of the un-captioned pictures of apparently random urban scenes is unclear.

The central research question that might be inferred appears to be something about getting the various intangible “capitals” – human, social, institutional, and so on (as well as the tangible ones) – that social scientists have been developing for nearly half a century to work together more effectively. One of the important policy implications that the thesis then identifies is that achieving this integration requires some serious devolution of power: it notes that levelling-up “requires a further devolution of decision-making powers to local leaders where decisions are often best taken” (Foreword); and that “levelling up will only be successful if local actors are empowered to develop solutions that work for their communities” (133) – and much more in the same vein.

The thesis shows all too clearly, however, that centralised decision-making is so embedded in government thinking that the resulting policy contradictions which are reported on here are seemingly invisible to the author – at least, he does not comment on them. So although the planning of schools is a fundamental task devolved downwards in nearly all countries, here we read that “The UK Government will drive further school improvement in England through 55 new Education Investment Areas (EIAs )in places where educational attainment is currently weakest. The Department for Education (DfE) will support strong multi-academy trusts to expand into these areas” (xxii). In other words, micro-level educational change is still to be controlled centrally, despite the fine words about local devolution of powers. There are many other examples of central decision-making supposedly supporting local initiative when actually it will undermine it. It appears also that simply relocating central government functions from London is regarded as devolution: for example, “taking decision-making closer to the communities the Government serves, including…[moving part of, presumably,] the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to East Kilbride” (xiii). Quite how the people of East Kilbride might influence international policy is not made plain, nor why their voices should be heard in preference to those of other UK citizens. This kind of unreflective thinking undermines the claims of the thesis.

The academic study of social capital has struggled with the problems of direction of causation and circularity: in other words, are better health outcomes (for example) caused by higher levels of social capital, or do we identify levels of social capital by reference to health outcomes? This difficulty is not mentioned in the thesis: so although we are told that “Smoking rates in England range from 8% in Richmond upon Thames to 23% in Blackpool” (63), it is not clear if the implication is that reducing smoking in Blackpool will cause it to become more like Richmond in other respects; or whether making Blackpool more like Richmond, perhaps economically, will reduce the level of smoking there. Clearly, the policy implications will be different depending on which alternative is favoured; but we are not told which way round the causation works.

The role of higher education in levelling-up is mentioned only in passing, and the institutional significance of universities in their cities – as employers, as forces for internationalisation, and as contributors to the cultural lives of their cities – is not discussed at all. Graduate mobility is examined (90), but the implications of these movements are not explained. The significance of “the Cambridge phenomenon”, and the possibilities of replicating it, are not discussed.

The thesis presents a large number of maps and diagrams showing the concentration of high-value-added economic activities in London and the south-east. What is nowhere mentioned is what has been a truism of economic geography for over half-a-century, namely that the strength of this region derives in substantial part from its proximity to the European economic heartland of north-western Germany, the Low Countries, and the Paris region. The proverbial visitor from Mars, on reading this thesis, might be excused for assuming that Kent looks out on an empty ocean. This obvious omission is hard to explain, and further weakens the argument of the thesis.

Examiner’s decision: resubmit within twelve months, with major amendments.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.


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Blue-skies thinking

by Paul Temple

A few years ago, a recently-retired Permanent Secretary talked to our MBA group at the Institute of Education, on a Chatham House rule basis, about policy-making in government. One of his remarks which stayed with me was about the increased speed of policy change during his professional lifetime. The key word here was “change” – as an end in itself. A newly-appointed Secretary of State, he explained, after a week or so in the job, would be invited to pop in to Number 10 for a cup of tea. “How’s it going, then?” he or she would be asked. If the answer was, “Oh, fine, thanks, everything seems to be running smoothly”, then they were toast. The correct answer was, “Well, I expected a few problems in taking over from X, but, really, I was shocked to discover how bad things are. But I’ve got a grip on it, and I’ll be making big changes.” Status around the Cabinet table depended on the boldness and scope of the policy changes your Department was pursuing. Effectiveness was a secondary matter.

The March 2020 budget included the commitment for the Government to “invest at least £800m” in a “blue-skies” funding agency, to support “high risk, high reward science”[1]. This seems to be the one possibly lasting legacy of Dominic Cummings’ reign in Downing Street: as I noted in my blog here on 6 February 2020, one of his stated goals was to create a UK version of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), famous for initiating the internet. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reported on the Government’s plans on 12 February 2021[2], expressing puzzlement about the lack of detail on the proposed Agency’s remit since the proposal was unveiled in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech: “a brand in search of a product” was the Committee’s acid summing-up of the position. (Perhaps Cummings is being missed more than was predicted.) The Committee recommended that the “Haldane principle should not apply to how UK ARPA’s overall focus is determined. Ministers should play a role in shaping ARPA’s initial focus” but after that, it should be able “to pursue ‘novel and contentious’ research without case-by-case Ministerial approval” (p45). Which Minister(s) will have this focus-shaping responsibility is not yet clear.

The Committee obviously struggled to see what precisely an ARPA could do that UKRI, with perhaps some amended terms of reference, could not do. But of course the big difference is that an ARPA will be change – a shiny new initiative – and so much better for the Minister involved than tinkering with existing bits of governmental machinery. I expect they’ll find a way to launch the ARPA involving the Minister standing next to some fancy scientific kit wearing a hi-vis jacket and a hard hat.

As David Edgerton has pointed out[3], the so-called Haldane principle – that government should decide on overall research funding but that decisions on individual projects should be made by researchers – was never actually formulated by Haldane himself (Viscount Haldane, 1856-1928) and has a somewhat chequered history in science policy. Nevertheless, for much of the twentieth century, what was considered to be the Haldane principle underpinned the funding of UK research, with the idea of academic freedom so central to research funding that, as Edgerton says, it was “a principle that didn’t need to be written down”. That was then.

This began to change with the 1971 report by Lord Rothschild on The Organisation and Management of Government R&D[4], which, controversially, introduced the client/contractor relationship into public funding of research. This began the long and winding journey, via the Research Assessment Exercises, starting in in 1986, which led to the “impact statements” of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework in order to demonstrate proposals’ value for money. As Susan Greenfield once remarked[5], this was like saying that you’re only going to back winning horses.

Lyn Grove, whose PhD research[6] cast a fascinating light on why and how researchers approached their topics, quoted one of her respondents as saying, “the main thing is that you should try to do research that answers a question that is troubling you, even if it’s not yet troubling the rest of the world”: a pretty good summary of what blue-skies research should do. Is the ARPA blue-skies proposal going to take us, at least in part, back to a lost world, where researchers could pursue troubling ideas without considering their possible “impact” and where failure was accepted as an unavoidable aspect of research work? Has research policy, almost inadvertently, really run full-circle, driven by the incessant demand for novelty in policy-making? In the context of increasingly intrusive interventions by government into everyday university life (the idea of a university “woke warden”[7] would until recently have been a good joke), it somehow seems implausible. But we can always hope.

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


[1] House of Commons Science and Technology Committee website, visited 13 February 2021

[2] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmsctech/778/77803.htm

[3] Research Fortnight 12 December 2018

[4] Published with other material as HMSO (1971) A Framework for Government Research and Development Cmnd 4814. London: HMSO

[5] Greenfield, S (2011) ‘Research – the current situation and the next steps’ in The future of research in the UK – value, funding and the practicalities of rebalancing the UK economy London: Westminster Education Forum

[6] Grove, L (2017) The effects of funding policies on academic research Unpublished PhD thesis London: UCL Institute of Education

[7] briefing@wonkhe.com, 15 February 2021