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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Ten ways Times Higher Education can change the story

By Rob Cuthbert

Tips from an editor on how Times Higher Education can shift the negative perceptions of people in higher education to reassert its value to the sector.

Times Higher Education has faced a blizzard of negative comment over the past year or two. It has been exasperating to see the THE’s incredible work and achievements eclipsed by endless stories about university rankings. The result is that it has been easy – far too easy – for THE to be cast as part of the problem rather than a solution. How has this happened, and what can THE do to get back on track? These questions are unlikely to be answered at THE Live, where a two-day conference will culminate with the THE Awards. Here are 10 ways that THE might consider changing the story:

1. Remember why you do what you do

News media have attributes that many academics admire and respect; journalistic integrity cannot be bought, nor can a workforce that really is in it for love more than money. And yet at times they can appear unaware how powerful these attributes are and instead they scramble to be the poor relations of the commercial sector. “THE is the world leader in university data, rankings and content, with institutions, academics, students, industry and governments utilising the information to gain insight, inform strategic priorities, benchmark, assess and select higher education institutions.” Sure, the problematic (de)monetisation of journalism is largely the cause. But external factors can’t shoulder all the blame. Leadership, culture and self-respect all matter, too. Journalists’ primary mission is finding all the news that’s fit to print, with academic respect and economic impact spinning out from that. Focus relentlessly on excelling in these areas, and the private equity funds will follow. And if they don’t – well, it’s still the right thing to do.

2. Stop the civil war

One of the most damaging trends for UK higher education has been the multiplication of university league tables, creating a sense of “them and us” between people in HE and journalists who write about it. We know that rankings are inevitable, but they have created a debate on social media in particular, in which academics’ grievances are mostly not raised in toxic and personal terms, but they may still upset sensitive THE journalists. Many of the concerns that fuel this atmosphere are legitimate, but HE can see that the proliferation of rankings by THE have little to do with anything except increasing the demand for the THE’s data services. The proliferation has to stop. Replace it with a sense of collegiality and mutual endeavour, and that will be a big step along the road to THE regaining HE’s respect.

3. Demystify, demystify, demystify

I am not sure if private equity-owned news media realise this or not, but for those on the outside, they are very opaque organisations. What do they do? Who do they do it for? And how am I benefiting? Nowadays most people canardly believe in the outdated idea of a newspaper,  employing mostly journalists rather than a bunch of number-crunchers.

4. Don’t obscure the good work with fripperies

There are always ways to rationalise the creation of yet another set of university rankings, but to be blunt, they make you seem not interested in anything but reducing whole universities to one number. Do you need all of them?

5. Don’t be a troll

Do not waste time trying to tell people on Twitter who are oppressed by rankings-driven managerial metrics that they should rise above them, when you are the main source of the rankings that are fuelling – sometimes even causing – the oppression. We know that rankings, like sin and human weakness, are unavoidable; we’d just like the rankers to stay out of the pulpit and cut out the sermons.

6. Don’t be an ostrich

Facing up to a problem is sometimes uncomfortable. But it’s never not a good idea. The most significant blow dealt to the THE’s good name in the past couple of years has been the multiplication of rankings. And a significant compounding factor was the silence echoing back, as THE journalists chose en masse to put their heads in the sand. I understand their reasons: they felt there was nothing they could say that would satisfy their readers. But the row could have been defused much earlier with recognition that this wasn’t going to blow over as it had in the past, and with some proportionate responses from those with the most responsibility for rankings. Similarly, it is a mistake to dismiss all concerns as wilful nonsense – rankings inflation deserves serious investigation, so blanket denials are not the right response.

7. Do tell stories

And make them stories that real people in HE will connect with. THE seems obsessed with rankings. The data are always compelling, and it may well be that this is useful in selling more data consultancy services and more copies of THE. But did any university ever really improve its teaching and research after deciding its target was to become a top 10/20/50 UK university?

8. Value people, not rankings

I have lost track of the number of times I have seen another new ranking while reading a copy of THE. I understand why, but don’t be fooled: it is students, staff, teaching and research which really matter. Show us people, not numbers. Show us education, not metrication. Invest in people. They are the ones who count.

9. Accept that the world is changing – and that’s OK

Our higher education media in the UK may be one of the world’s best. But there’s also a sense when you travel around the world that the UK media are too wrapped up in selling data services and rankings and not as interested in education as they should be. Come back to the UK from a trip to Asia, and the debates about global rankings can seem stale and repetitive. Let’s not stagnate. Trying new things is rarely as bad as the naysayers would have you believe.

10. Don’t write articles that are just selling THE Live this autumn

The THE used to be one of the wonders of the world. Reading it should be a joy. That it isn’t for many in academia tells us that something has gone wrong. But it can be put right. THE needs to rekindle a sense of optimism and enthusiasm and find a way to change the story. Not write stories that are just puffery for another THE event.

With acknowledgement to the usually excellent John Gill, ‘10 ways universities can change the story’, THE 24 April 2019.

Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog.


Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Sam Gyimah MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science

Dear Minister

“Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”

If asked to sum up in a single word the direction of higher education policy from 2010 onwards, I think that many of us who try to follow Government thinking on these matters might say that the word would be “markets”. In successive White Papers and speeches, ministers have insisted that fee-paying students should see themselves as customers buying services from a university provider, which in turn should be competing with other providers in the higher education marketplace to offer the best value for money to student customers. In this way, your predecessors have argued, quality would go up and costs would come down, as happens in most markets for consumer goods. The Government has encouraged this trend by demanding that universities provide more information on which student-customers might base their purchasing decisions – most recently the TEF and the LEO data – and by encouraging new entrants into the marketplace with the aim of sharpening competition further.

Many of us in universities rather doubted that trying to create a straightforward market-type relationship between universities and their students was the best way to organise teaching and learning.  For a start, there is little evidence that students themselves want a relationship on these terms: the great majority of students surveyed in the HEPI 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey, for example, arguably preferred a pre-2004 Act, certainly a pre-2011 White Paper, funding model. I think that one reason for this – paying lower fees is no doubt another – is because they understand that in order to learn effectively they must engage with the academic life of the university in a way that is qualitatively different to, say, my engagement with Sainsbury’s when I go shopping there. Sainsbury’s does not expect its customers to help create the products which appear on its shelves; and if I’m unimpressed with them today, and I can see what Tesco are up to tomorrow. I have made no particular commitment to the Sainsbury’s way of shopping. Forgive me if this seems terribly obvious, but it has not always been clear that ministers fully appreciated this distinction.

Although many of us didn’t much like its implications, we did at least think we knew that Government saw our relationship with our students in these transactional, market-based terms. But then, Minister, along you come saying that, on the contrary, we should be in loco parentis to our students, acting (for instance) as go-betweens with their parents or guardians if we have concerns about their mental health (as reported in The Guardian, 28 June). This is not just overthrowing normal market relationships – Sainsbury’s in truth couldn’t care less about my personal well-being – it is redefining universities’ relationships with their students, and in an unhelpful way. (Having a duty of care towards both students and staff members is a different matter.) If I may say so, this has the distinct feel of political grandstanding, wanting to be seen to be acting decisively in response to – what, exactly? Of course, mental illness is desperately serious for the families and friends of those suffering from its various forms, needing the involvement of skilled professionals. A particular concern may be that suicide could result from overlooking a person’s symptoms. (Though suicide in the UK is actually a good-news story – so to speak – as ONS data show that the number of suicide deaths has been falling steadily over recent decades. Middle-aged, disadvantaged men are most likely to commit suicide – and they don’t constitute a large part of the student demographic.)

But what should be the role of a university in relation to its adult students with mental health problems? Nicola Barden writing for WonkHE on 28 June (do you read it, Minister? – you should) identifies a few of the problems which the proposed opt-in system, allowing universities to contact a student’s parents or other nominated individuals in the event of a mental health crisis, will create. Any social worker will tell you that relationships within families can be difficult in ways that outsiders can’t immediately detect: any member of university staff intruding here must be certain that they will not cause further harm – and how can they know that for sure? Imagine a situation where a parent of a student with mental health difficulties believes that the university will contact them in the event of a crisis – only for the student to have withdrawn that consent subsequently, not wanting their family to be involved. The university will then be in an impossible situation, having made commitments to both parties (as they will see it).

We’re operating, Minister, in a Government-mandated market. Universities should support their students in their academic work, but should not set themselves up to fail as substitute families. That historically never was their role; your Government’s market-focused policies have now put it completely beyond reach.

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

Paul Temple


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If HR is the answer, perhaps we’re asking the wrong question

By Paul Temple

We all know that universities are, above all, people businesses. Every university depends on specialist staff to provide often complex services typically to thousands of students, some of them on a one-to-one basis. Their academic staff members are mostly expected to work at the intellectual frontiers of their disciplines, and are relied on to do so with minimal supervision. The people management issues involved here must therefore be a central concern for any university’s senior management: get this wrong, and the place is in real trouble. So the HR director has a task of at least comparable importance to her colleagues directing teaching, planning research, or exercising overall financial control. Universities are all about people, so HR has to be a key function – right?

Wrong. The analogy with finance, in particular, is tempting but false. Continue reading