by Rob Cuthbert
SRHE News is now 50 issues old, covering a momentous 12 years for higher education worldwide, but especially in the UK, and even more especially in England – an opportunity to reflect on what we thought and how we felt as it happened, and whether things seem different now.
Since 2010 the UK has seen four general elections, four prime ministers, and in England nine Secretaries of State for Education, and seven ministers for higher education (two appointed twice). In that time Brexit accounted for much political turmoil but ‘got done’, after a fashion. Undergraduate fees were trebled, to deliver most tuition income via students rather than a funding agency. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 aimed to enshrine the market with students as customers, and established the Office for Students. There was much political talk of ‘low quality courses’; the Teaching Excellence Framework rose and fell. Two Research Excellence Framework exercises continued the remorseless evidence-defying concentration of research funding. Publishing worldwide was roiled by open access initiatives, especially the EU-inspired ‘Plan S’. Vice chancellors’ salaries soared into the stratosphere but more and more staff joined the precariat; industrial action became commonplace as job insecurity and low pay for many was aggravated by swingeing reductions in USS pension entitlements. Covid disrupted everything with a lightning shift towards online learning amid much student dissatisfaction, but enrolments surged. Government incompetence accentuated massive problems with school examinations and HE admissions, with disruptive enrolment changes rippling across the entire HE system. As HE coped with all this it was assailed by politicians wanting to fight culture wars, and cronyism installed apparatchiks where once there had been civil servants.
After the first issue of SRHE News in February 2010, No 2 (The World to Come), came out just before the May 2010 election with HE facing major financial cuts, but we were still upbeat:
… in difficult times let us think not only of what the community can do for our institution, and what our institution can do for our students. Those things are important, but let us think too of what our higher education sector, working together, can do for the community in the difficult world to come.
Optimism dwindled as fees were tripled; No 3 asked ‘What Next?’, and the 2010 SRHE Conference feared the worst:
Two issues came through strongly at Conference … first, that this might be the end of the idea of higher education as a public/social good; and second, that the Government has chosen to deconstruct one of the UK’s greatest achievements – a higher education system which until now is still the envy of many other nations and a highly successful export brand. This is a high stakes gamble with the life chances of a whole generation. (No 4 The English experiment)
No 5 asked: Is SoTL special and precious, or too special and too precious?, suggesting that universities should take their share of responsibility for the plight of HE:
For many of our universities the “student experience” has become the organising concept, the fount of a thousand strategic priorities and key performance indicators. But the student experience tends to be conceived as if the interpretivist paradigm had never existed, becoming no more than a quantitative summation of student surveys and managerialist evaluations. The ‘student experience’ has become a stick to beat academics with, instead of the carrot that motivates them. It has also become a tool for reductionism, as students are driven ever closer to being the consumers and customers which neither they nor their teachers wish them to be. The student experience is conceived as some kind of unified average instead of being celebrated for its individually constructed uniqueness.
No 6 urged us to reframe (This isn’t why I came into higher education) and No 7 said we should be Taking the long view of higher education reform, in contrast to the short-termism embedded in HE policy, exemplified by The ‘failure’ of the CETLs and the usefulness of useless research (No 8):
… how ‘useless’ or ‘useful’ was the scholarship of teaching and learning embedded in or stimulated by CETLs and the CETLs programme as a whole? The HEFCE-commissioned evaluation tells us only that it was not very ‘useful’ in the terms defined by the current policy framework. It tells us next to nothing about its value in other frames of reference, or even in a policy frame over a longer timescale.
In 2012 the Finch review of options for academic publishing seemed immediately to have got it wrong, as later experience showed:
… we must look beyond Finch for the open access formula that ‘maximises benefits and minimizes risks’. (No 9 ‘Open access’ publishing: is gold overpriced, is green more sustainable?)
As the year progressed we were thinking about the future (No 10 Strengths, weaknesses and the future of research into higher education) and asking ourselves at the 2012 Conference What is higher education for?’ (No 11). In early 2013 we hoped that good sense might yet prevail:
HEFCE still might, as the Government White Paper suggested, take the lead among the various sector regulatory bodies such as QAA and OIA, all having set their face against the super-merger to create a super-regulator hypothesised but not thought through by the Browne Review. (No 12 Hanging by a thread)
Alas, it didn’t:
Just like the railways, the national system of HE in England is being dismantled, with new forms of competition being imposed or encouraged. Public subsidies will continue, but in a much less transparent form, which will presumably provide growing profits for new HE providers. The rationale for spending cuts and wholesale privatisation is increasingly challenged. In sum, we seem to be edging closer to repeating the history of rail privatisation. It may not be Virgin territory, but is higher education on the right track?” (No 13 On the right track?)
Universities minister David Willetts left in a Government reshuffle in mid 2014:
… after all the noise about open access, the UK is left with a model which is out of line with the emerging preference of most of the developed world, and provides public subsidies for big publishers. This is not paradox but consistency. In open access to research, as in open access to undergraduate opportunities, David Willetts professed to improve standards and openness but his legacy is worsened access for some, increased cost and debt for many, a transfer of public funds to private sector providers, and a system which is likely to cost the government more than the system he inherited. (No 17 This is an ex-Minister)
However, his tenure was probably the high point of the last 12 years. After musing about Degrees of freedom (No 14) by early 2015 we had resorted to satire (with topical cricket references):
This editorial is in affectionate memory of policy making for English higher education, whose demise is deeply lamented. (No 15 Reputation in Ashes)
But some of the problems of HE are self-inflicted: the woeful experience of UNC Chapel Hill was an example of
… a long-term institutional systemic failure of academic accountability and quality assurance. The sorry saga reminds us that while embracing plurality and difference in higher education is a necessary condition of academic excellence, inspiring future generations also needs a sufficient measure of the more prosaic virtues of compliance and accountability. (No 18 Embracing plurality and difference in higher education – necessary but not sufficient)
By 2015 we were picking over REF outcomes (No19 Was that a foul REF?) with football analogies. We lamented the tragic loss of our former SRHE President (No 20 David Watson, 1949-2015), sadly just before he and we were able to celebrate 50 years of the Society (No 21 Special 1965-2015 Valuing research into higher education: advancing knowledge, informing policy, enhancing practice).
The Green Paper on HE issued in November 2015 suggests that the problem with English HE is its failure to embrace the market, red in tooth and claw; the Government proposals are designed to accelerate market forces and promote competition as the solution. Teaching in some places is ‘lamentable’: solution, a Teaching Excellence Framework which sorts out sheep, goats and others, and rewards them accordingly. It is still too difficult for new providers to enter the HE market: solution, levelling the playing field to make it much easier for entrants with no track record. The market isn’t working properly: solution, sweep up most of the key agencies into a new super-regulator, the Office for Students, which will put students’ interests ‘at the heart of the system’, to echo the previous White Paper – on which there was much ado, but almost nothing to show. And much more, but with a consistent theme in which students are the key customers and what they pay for is simply economic advantage in the workplace. In 50 years we have come a long way from Robbins and ‘the general powers of the mind’, let alone the ‘transmission of a common culture’.
David Watson, with his memorable analysis of the ‘Quality Wars’, was still our guide:
Central administrators trying to standardise and ‘calibrate’ that which should be diverse do so at their peril. External examining is quintessentially subjective: academic standards are those which academics agree to be the standards, through legitimate processes. What matters are robust and rigorous processes; ‘calibration’ (if it means measurement, as it almost inevitably would) is not necessary and probably not achievable. Grade inflation is a systemic risk when competition treats students as customers: it is a predictable outcome of Government policy. The HE Academy research suggests some grade inflation at the margins; that we have not seen more is a tribute only to academics’ concern for standards in the face of institutional pressure for better ‘results’ to improve league table position. (No 24 The Thirty Years Quality War)
The Brexit referendum in 2016 gave us a new Prime Minister but by analogy suggested that parts of the HE establishment were ripe for change (No 25 Universities reel after Hexit vote). No 26 (‘May in October: a climate change for HE?’) asked: would the new PM mean changes to HE policy? Not at all:
Smita Jamdar, partner and head of the education team at lawyers Shakespeare Martineau blogged for WonkHE about the Bill … “Some, maybe even a lot, of this may change as the Bill works its way through Parliament, but the main principles on which it is founded are unlikely to. We will undoubtedly be left with a more explicitly regulated, less autonomous and less stable English higher education sector, with greater risks for prospective students, students and graduates alike. I only hope that the upside, whatever Ministers think that might be, is worth it.” (No 27 Post-truth and the Higher Education and Research Bill)
In 2017 amid political ferment we asked What’s wrong with higher education management? (No 28):
The responsibilities of HE’s governors and senior managers are clear: to stand up for the best of academic values and to be transparent about their motives – supporting sustainable research and teaching. Their role is not to be a transmission belt, either for unthinking performance measurement from above or for unthinking academic populism from below. They need to rediscover, where it is lost, their responsibility to lead the institution by exercising their independent value-based judgement, and to educate those inside and outside the institution about the legitimate perspectives of other stakeholders in the higher education enterprise, and about the inevitability of disagreement and compromise.
And then in No 29 ‘What’s wrong with politicians in HE?’:
The storm brewing since the election was sparked into life by the intervention of Lord Adonis, self-styled architect of the fees policy and director of the No 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair. It captured all the worst features of politicians in HE in one episode: selective attention to issues; pursuing personal interests in the guise of caring about the issue; selective memory; rewriting history; not taking advice from people who actually know how a policy might work; and – worst of all to academics – contempt for evidence.
The prospects for HE looked increasingly bleak (No 30 ‘HE finance after Hurricane Adonis’) and
The excessively economic framing of HE policy is ‘nonsense on stilts’, and it will sooner or later collapse under the weight of its own absurdity. (No 31 Nonsense on stilts)
The government overreached itself with its winner-takes-all mentality to quango appointments, when the execrable Toby Young’s appointment to the Office for Students board was overturned (No 32: The Toby Young saga and what it tells us about the blunders of our governments):
DfE civil servants trying to respond to the Commissioner for Public Appointments were between a rock and a hard place. Saving the minister and his fellow-travellers in OfS from their mistakes was a hard place to be, but the civil servants’ biggest mistake was losing hold of the rock of civil service integrity.
But it wasn’t just ‘them’ doing it to ‘us’:
Too many ‘academic staff’ are less likely to see the bigger picture, and more likely to weaponise educational and academic values for some real or imagined battle with ‘the university’ or one of its malign manifestations: ‘the management’, ‘the admin’ or sometimes just ‘them’. But it does not need to be like this. (No 33 Doing academic work)
Populism and Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ had taken hold in the USA; the UK had its own problems:
The Times leader writer represents a culture where distrust of the rigour of the social sciences is all too common, fuelled not only by hoaxes such as these, but also by every instance of academics who slip into unthinking intolerance of anything but a dominant perspective. The appropriate response to alternative views is rigorous examination sufficient to assess their worth, not a priori dismissal. … The price of academic freedom is eternal academic vigilance. (No 34 Fake research and trust in the social sciences)
By January 2019 we had resorted to more football analogies (No 35 Academia: the beautiful game?):
… more research is needed. And more teaching. And better policy, leadership and management. Then academia could be a beautiful game.
The open access movement was regrouping for a fresh onslaught:
Plan S is higher education’s version of Brexit. It may not have generated quite as much media coverage as that unreal thing, but it has its full share of intransigent minorities, suspicion on all sides, special pleading, accusations that the elite is merely looking after its own interests, and claims that a voiceless majority will be the ones who suffer the most. (No 36 Axe S?)
Meanwhile, Philip Augar’s postsecondary review, commissioned long before by PM Theresa May, had been published after a long delay, amid scepticism that it might ever see its proposals implemented:
… former education secretary Justine Greening had said it was “inconceivable” that the new Prime Minister would adopt the Augar review plans. She “believes that the model she explored in government of funding English universities through a graduate contribution plus a “skills levy” on employers could be taken up by the next prime minister.” Her plan would abolish tuition fees and loans … the Augar review’s recommendations were “hugely regressive” in increasing the burden on low- and middle-earning graduates, while lowering it for those on higher incomes … It is possible to take a very different perspective on Augar, as Nick Barr (LSE) did in declaring it progressive rather than regressive, simply because it proposed to redress the balance between FE and HE. But Greening’s comments are directed more towards heading off the Labour Party’s putative promises on tuition fees, returning to a pre-Augar position which re-institutionalises the chasm between the HE market and the micromanagement and planning of FE. (No 37 Augar and augury)
No 38 echoed that plus ça change vein (#AbolishOxbridge (or, the survival of the elitists)) and by January 2020 widespread industrial action was reflected in No 39 Happy new year? If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here:
The employers are between a rock they did not create and a hard place which they have brought on themselves. The hard place is the deep concerns of many staff about their workload and working conditions, the precarity of their employment, their pay and pensions.
And then came Covid lockdowns, bringing even more work for some, while others had too much time on our hands, so SRHE News offered a new kind of diversion – an SRHE-themed cryptic crossword. Its conspicuous lack of success did not deter a second attempt before we admitted defeat. No 40 advised What to do in the pandemic but No 41 (On not wasting a good crisis) criticised national responses:
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 A-levels debacle of 2020 prompted reflections on Policymaking in a pandemic (No 42):
My HEPI blog on 16 August 2020 about the A-levels debacle said: “for five months the Government and Ofqual have been too secretive, made bad choices, refused to listen to constructive criticism, tried to tough it out and then made the wrong concessions too late.” Not decisive, not inclusive, not transparent, and not how to make policy in a pandemic.
Things hadn’t got better in January 2021 …
What are the key issues in HE quality and standards, right now? Maintaining quality and standards with the massive transition to remote learning? Dealing with the consequences of the 2020 A-levels shambles? The student experience, now that most learning for most students is remote and off-campus? Student mental health and engagement with their studies and their peers? One or more of these, surely, ought to be our ‘new normal’ concerns. … For government, the new normal was just the same as the old normal. (No 43 Quality and standards in higher education)
… they just got worse, with the appointment of Lord Wharton as chair of OfS …
We need more people, leaders and staff on all sides, to speak truth to power – not just playing-to-the-gallery ‘our truth’, but a truth people inside and outside HE will find persuasive. (No 44 Cronyism, academic values and the degradation of debate)
… and worse:
In sum, government HE policy is in something of a hole, pursuing internally contradictory policies which might play to a wider ‘anti-woke’ agenda but in economic and political terms seem likely to run counter to any thoughts of levelling up. But the Secretary of State keeps digging, even after the great A-level disaster of 2020. It may not be too long before this becomes another fine mess. (No 45 Another fine mess)
But when PM Johnson finally reshuffled Education Secretary Gavin Williamson out of digging an even deeper hole, all we could do was hope:
We can hope that the faux outrage of the culture wars and the faux consultations on decisions already made might give way in future to something more approaching evidence-based policy and proper consultation. (No 46 English higher education policy: hope and pay)
The spectacular success of the online 2021 SRHE Conference allowed us to get back to basics:
… does research into HE also need to (re)connect and (re)build? What exactly is the territory for research into higher education now, what needs to be joined up, where should we be building? … several maps and guides … suggest a field that is maturing rather than one in immediate need of reconnection and rebuilding.(No 47 Are these transformative times for research into HE?)
But soon we discovered in detail how the crony-laden Office for Students proposed to attack HE’s basic values:
In 699 pages of consultation the OfS has done its bureaucratic best to profess transparency, openness and rigour, while diverting our energies and attention from what an experienced ministerial adviser called the ‘assault on the values which our HE sector holds dear’. The consultations amount to a detailed enquiry about how exactly these values should be assaulted. We are in a consultation tunnel with only one track. What we can see is probably not the light at the end of the tunnel, it may be the lights from an oncoming train. (No 48 Tunnel vision: higher education policy and the Office for Students)
In July 2022 SRHE was rocked by the end of The Helen Perkins era (No 49):
For so many SRHE members, Helen Perkins and the Society have been inseparable and it will be hard to imagine SRHE without her. But the academic and financial health of the Society have never been better, and the staff team she created but now leaves behind is a strong guarantee that SRHE will continue to develop and prosper.
For 12 years SRHE News has aimed to fulfil the ambitions of the editorial in SRHE News No 1:
SRHE News is changing, with a new editor, a new format, and some new ambitions. SRHE News will carry official communications from the Society, comment on developments in the field of research into higher education, and provide news and current awareness for the research community. The News will have a global perspective and the balance of content will reflect members’ interests. I hope we can make SRHE News a publication that informs and entertains SRHE members – academically credible journalism with a unique research-into-HE perspective.
The 2014 Conference set new challenges for SRHE News, starting with the launch of srheblog.com. We imagined that SRHE might ultimately create:
… a website for research into HE which is:
- differentiated and searchable, so that specialists can easily find the research that particularly interests them – as if Google Scholar had been tailored just for people doing research into HE
- interactive, so that you can find other people with similar interests and engage in structured and unstructured discussions with them – as if SRHE Networks had suddenly gone 24/7 digital and local wherever you are
- constantly refreshed and updated with new entries, with a range of regular targeted communications for which anyone could sign up and sign out at any time – like The Chronicle of Higher Education, the best kind of newspaper sites, or the Impact of Social Sciences blog
- genuinely global in its reach, to promote capacity-building, inclusion for isolated researchers and breadth for researchers wishing to learn from other perspectives
- accessible for non-specialists and useful as a vehicle for communicating research results to a broader public and improving research impact
- entertaining, informative and readable, like SRHE News
- and free (No 16: Sustainable blogging)
We’re still working on it …
Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.
Email email@example.com, Twitter @RobCuthbert.