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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Memo to Universities UK: don’t let this crisis go to waste

by Rob Cuthbert

Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero[1]

Our text is from Boris and Horace. Boris Johnson had Churchillian aspirations, and it was Churchill who supposedly first said in the 1940s: “never let a good crisis go to waste”, in the context of the formation of the United Nations. And it was Horace much longer ago who urged us to seize the day, and put little faith in the future.

As we survey the present carnage[2] in government, what are vice-chancellors to do? First, take stock of the damage to the machinery of government, both in the Department for Education and the Office for Students. At government level we had three Secretaries of State in the space of just 48 hours. Nadhim Zahawi, the last-but-two incumbent, had shown some signs of common sense, although admittedly his predecessor Gavin Williamson had set the bar very low. Nevertheless Zahawi had done nothing to rein in his universities minister Michele Donelan, who seemed to prefer fighting the culture wars to addressing the real problems of English HE – declining levels of funding, an epidemic of student mental health problems, profound staff dissatisfaction and the threat of mass redundancies and even insolvencies in too many universities. She had taken to telephoning individual vice-chancellors to question some aspect of university management or student behaviour, while enthusiastically pursuing the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which at the time of writing is at the committee stage in the House of Lords, procedurally close to its establishment in statute – perhaps. Her reward as the resignation carnage unfolded was a big promotion to Zahawi’s job, as he moved to be Chancellor of the Exchequer on Rishi Sunak’s resignation. But as the ministerial resignations surged past 50 on Thursday 7 July, Donelan obviously thought that it was safer to join in than to be, perhaps, buried in an eventual massacre of the survivors. But her timing was bad. Her letter of resignation was made public less than an hour before the news emerged that Boris Johnson had bowed to the inevitable and agreed to step down as leader of the Conservative Party – but to continue as Prime Minister, possibly until the Autumn party conference. For a brief period the DfE had no ministers at all, but the Donelan resignation made no difference to the outcome. Had she stayed, she would probably have remained in post and the outcomes for HE might have been different. Instead James Cleverly is the new Secretary of State. He has previously served in the Cabinet, but his views on Education have been “mainly confined to a yearly jeremiad on how A levels were getting easier”, according to David Kernohan’s instant appraisal for Wonkhe on 8 July 2022. At the time of writing the new Universities Minister has yet to be named.

The tsunami of ministerial changes will make waves for the regulator too. While that would be true of any ministerial change, in these peculiar circumstances the waves may reach storm heights. The chair of the Office for Students owes his position to his closeness to Boris Johnson. Baron Wharton of Yarm, as he now is, was simply a former MP when he took on the role of campaign manager for Boris Johnson’s successful bid to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party. (In the past there has been some dispute about whether he really was ‘the’ campaign manager, but no doubt there are now fewer claimants to that ‘honour’.) Wharton was rewarded first with a peerage, and then with the chair of the Office for Students. Controversially, he has continued to take the Conservative whip in the House of Lords although the OfS is by statute an independent regulator. It comes as no surprise that the OfS is fulfilling the prediction made before OfS was established by Director of Fair Access Les Ebdon, when he said “the OfS will do whatever the government of the day wants it to do”.

One of many ministerial letters of ‘guidance’ went to the OfS from the then Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi and the then Universities Minister Michele Donelan on 31 March 2022. It said in effect that they like the way the OfS is doing the government’s bidding, but they want it done quicker and better. The interim OfS Chief Executive, Susan Lapworth, tried to defend the position in her HEPI blog on 13 June 2022: “ministers are not ‘politicising’ the work of the OfS when they make use of these lawful mechanisms to express their priorities and expectations. Rather, they are making proper use of the powers Parliament gave to them and that feels entirely democratic to me.” She noted that “ministers appoint the members of the OfS board: the OfS chair, independent members, the Chief Executive, the Director for Fair Access and Participation, and, subject to the passage of the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill, another future director. These are all subject to the normal processes for public appointments. It is, though, hardly a surprise that ministers would wish to appoint people broadly aligned with the policy preferences of the government of the day. And a democratically elected government gets to make those decisions.”

Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan in their 1 June 2022 blog for Wonkhe noted: “… the first meeting for a new [OfS] board member announced by the Department for Education (DfE) as one Rachel Houchen. She’s the wife of Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, who “lives in Yarm with his wife Rachel” and who until recently was assistant headteacher and governor of a local school, making her arguably more qualified than James Wharton to be on the board. No problem – according to the OfS interim chief executive, it’s OK to appoint the wife of your good friend and neighbour (and Conservative MP) to a seat on the board, if you’re the Chair who still takes the party whip in the House of Lords, because, “once appointed, we all ensure that OfS decisions are taken independently”.  

Now all bets are off. It remains to be seen whether the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill will be enacted; it might depend on the kind of drubbing it gets in the Lords at committee stage, and whether a limping government has the inclination for a fight on that particular hill. That will determine whether we get a higher education free speech ‘tsar’, directly appointed by the Secretary of State (whoever that is by then). But the Donelan-pleasing initiative announced on 26 May 2022 is already looking more uncertain. The OfS launched investigations into eight universities and colleges to decide whether they meet the OfS’s conditions for quality, which had just come into effect. “Other factors to be considered include whether the delivery of courses and assessment is effective, the contact hours students receive, and whether the learning resources and academic support available to students are sufficient. To support this work the OfS is recruiting a pool of experienced academics to lead the investigative work.” OfS warned that they would be putting ‘boots on the ground’. But on what grounds? Diana Beech (London Higher) was in combative form in her HEPI blog  on 16 June 2022: “In sum, it appears that before implementation of the B3 risk framework, we have moved to a process of investigation based on undefined thresholds or metrics, accepted a subject-based evaluation rather than sector or institution, and accepted that volume balances against scale of variance. Consequently, questions must be asked about the timings, approach and motives for this announcement, which comes before the new Chief Executive of the OfS has been announced and also before a much-anticipated ministerial reshuffle.” Beech, of course had no inkling then of the scale of the ‘reshuffle’, but those questions must be asked with even more urgency now. Will the new DfE ministerial team wish to persist with such an ill-founded venture?

The situation poses existential challenges not just for government and the OfS, but perhaps also for Universities UK. There is an unprecedented opportunity for UUK to reset the terms of engagement between government and universities, by asserting a new and better interpretation of what the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 should mean. There is a chance to put an end to unproductive top-down meddling and reinstate constructive dialogue. But will UUK seize the day?

Some recent signs are not hopeful. OfS have repeatedly criticised ‘unexplained’ increases in the proportion of first class and 2:1s degrees, most recently in a report published on 12 May 2022, readily spun as ‘grade inflation’. In response Universities UK and GuildHE jointly announced on 5 July 2022 their plans to return to pre-pandemic levels of first class and 2:1 degrees being awarded over the next two years. The UUK ‘commitment’ is carefully worded, so the details of how the new arrangements will work are yet to be determined. However UUK accepted the language of ‘unexplained’ increases in the proportions of first class and 2.1s, even though the possible explanations include ‘better teaching’ and ‘students working harder and better’ – for which there is some research evidence. In principle the UUK announcement can only be seen as a shift to norm-referencing and away from criterion-referencing. There is no reference in the UUK announcement to the value of academic autonomy, or the need to be mindful of that autonomy. There must be a danger that UUK will continue to be reactive rather than assert more vigorously the value and the values which underpin the excellence of the English HE system.

But there are encouraging signs too. On 9 May 2022, while Michele Donelan was still fighting the culture wars as Minister for Further and Higher Education, UUK issued a strongly-worded rebuttal of government proposals to cap student numbers and introduce minimum entry requirements: “proposed reforms to post 18 education and funding in England would turn back the clock on social mobility while limiting the government’s own levelling up agenda. … UUK strongly opposes the introduction of student number caps, which would hurt those from disadvantaged backgrounds the most. As well as limiting student choice, student number caps entrench disadvantage because students who are unable to move location to attend university have fewer opportunities to apply and be accepted to university, making them more likely to choose a path with poorer employment outcomes. Limiting educational opportunities is also counterproductive as the UK looks to upskill and meet the growing need for graduate skills. There were one million more graduate vacancies than graduates in 2022. As part of its response to the consultation, UUK has also raised issues with using minimum entry requirements. The universities most likely to be most affected by minimum entry requirements recruit high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

This is the kind of robust response which UUK will need to maintain and strengthen. The clear statement of values which underpins the statement is the best way to show in practice how UUK will stand up for HE’s best interests and the ‘brand’ that is British (not just English) higher education. Zeenat Fayez (The Brand Education) wrote in a HEPI blog on 11 July 2022: “Brand is a comparatively new concept for universities and can be an intimidating commercial term; but, distilled to an essence, it is simply the reputation of an institution. Marty Neumeier encapsulated the concept best in his description: ‘a brand is not what you say it is. It is what they say it is.’ A brand can therefore be said to be a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or company. Consequently, brand management is the management of differences, not as they exist on data sheets, but as they exist in the minds of people.”

There are profound differences within HE, not least between staff and vice-chancellors, thanks to the long-running dispute over pay, pensions and conditions in USS institutions, and the equally severe problems facing many other universities as student numbers have shifted upmarket, away in particular from Million+ universities towards those Russell Group universities which have chosen to expand. This jeopardises opportunities for many potential students unable to move beyond their local institution, especially across arts and humanities subjects, as the reported redundancies in too many universities demonstrate. In some cases vice-chancellors have been tin-eared in response, as in the case of one VC announcing redundancies to a mass staff audience online, simply making a statement and not taking questions, and another threatening to stop recruitment to a programme where staff are currently taking industrial action. However a number of individual VCs swiftly and robustly disagreed when Michele Donelan wrote to all English HE providers on 27 June 2022 about “growing concern that a ‘chilling effect’ on university campuses leaves students, staff and academics unable to freely express their lawful views without fear of repercussion.” As for the Race Equality Charter and Athena Swan: “I would like to ask you to reflect carefully as to whether your continued membership of such schemes is conducive to establishing such an environment. On that note, I would draw to your attention that, in May 2022, the interim CEO of the Office for Students, warned that universities, should “be thinking carefully and independently about their free speech duty when signing up to these sort of schemes.” Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe on 27 June 2022 was quick to note there had been no ceasefire in the culture wars.

It is time for the sensible tendency in UUK to reassert itself. That would enable UUK to reset how people inside and outside HE think about the management of differences, especially those between HE staff, UUK, OfS and DfE. It might even enable UUK to give a lead in the broader culture wars. By asserting its position vigorously and properly, and by being proactive on some issues rather than simply responding to another government initiative, UUK has an unprecedented opportunity to restore some faith and trust in its capacity to represent the sector’s interests.

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 rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.


[1] “Seize the day, put little faith in the future” Horace Odes 1.11

[2] After pausing to be grateful that carnage for once refers to somebody else’s mess, rather than commercially-inspired student drunkenness.


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Yes, but what about the academic research?

by Steven Jones

Review of Influencing Higher Education Policy: A Professional Guide to Making an Impact, edited by Ant Bagshaw and Debbie McVitty (London: Routledge, 2020)

“The existence of Wonkhe won’t save us,” suggests Debbie McVitty (p13), “but it could be a good place to start.”

And so the tone is set for a new Routledge collection about HE ‘wonkery’, a relatively recent phenomenon that has doubtless changed the way in which the sector operates. Wonks are policy analysts, planners and strategists, and HE is blessed with more than its fair share. New policy development? Expect multiple ‘hot takes’ straight to your inbox. HE story in the mainstream media? Expect a range of insider perspectives that allow every possible angle to be explored. No more waiting for trade publications to drop through the letterbox, let alone for academic critiques to satisfy a journal’s peer review process. Thanks mostly to Wonkhe, we now have real-time analysis of everything that ever happens in HE.

In such a context, a book that explores the sector’s influence on policy is timely. Important questions need to be confronted. How can universities maintain integrity in an increasingly hostile regulatory and media environment? What does meaningful policy ‘impact’ look like? Which individuals or groups are most legitimately entitled to advocate on behalf of the sector? And, crucially, how can academic research evidence be communicated to those who most need to engage with it?

This collection, edited by Ant Bagshaw (Nous) and Debbie McVitty (Wonkhe) takes on some of these questions. It’s at its best when mapping legislative processes and regulatory frameworks, as William Hammonds and Chris Hale (both Universities UK) do, or comparing policy contexts, as Cathy Mitchell (Scottish Funding Council) does in relation to performance measurement. Anna Bradshaw (British Academy) and Megan Dunn (Greater London Authority) theorise the relationship between evidence and policy in valuable new ways, while Adam Wright (British Academy) and Rille Raaper (Durham University) perceptively characterise students’ framing within HE policy. Clare Randerson (University of Lincoln) enlightens readers on the OECD’s under-acknowledged role in HE policy-making, while Diane Beech’s (University of Warwick) chapter offers a useful guide to think-tanks, until spiralling into an advert for the Higher Education Policy Institute.

However, many questions remain unanswered. Partly, this is because some of the book’s contributors spend more time celebrating their own influence than critically evaluating the assumptions that underpin their proposed solutions. Indeed, many university staff will feel perplexed by McVitty’s opening assertion. Who is the ‘us’ that the existence of Wonkhe won’t save? What then makes Wonkhe a good place to start? And why does the ‘us’ need saving anyway?

This is not the sort of detail on which the book’s contributors tend to dwell. Rather, the style is choppy and pacey. In many chapters, soundbites are favoured over deeper reflection. Blunt recommendations (often bullet pointed and emboldened) are ubiquitous, generally urging ‘us’ to do things differently.

As usual in HE wonk discourses, academics hold a strange and curious place. Often we’re problematised. Sometimes we’re patronised. But mostly we’re just ignored. Rarely is it acknowledged that academic research might actually have anything useful to contribute. Universities are assumed to be desperately in need of some wonk savviness to overcome their policy naivety. Why would any institution turn to its own academic expertise when it can commission all-knowing external consultants? Scholarship isn’t part of the solution. If anything, it’s part of the problem.

Take Iain Mansfield’s (Policy Exchange) list of the “additional constraints” (p87) that he argues make policy influence tougher in HE than in other sectors. Among the subheadings presented is ‘left-leaning’. Here, academics and students are homogenised as anti-consumer, anti-rankings and generally difficult. There’s even a censorious mention of “cultural attitudes to issues such as class, race and gender” (p88). Another of Mansfield’s subheadings is ‘non-independence of research’. Here, the focus is academics’ perceived partiality. With so few scholarly sources cited, it is difficult to know on what evidence suspicion rests. However, the implication is clear: academics can’t be trusted to research themselves or their professional environment with objectivity. “Although any sector is subject to vested interests and unconscious bias,” Mansfield snipes, “only in HE are those same people writing the research” (p90).

Elsewhere in the collection, Josie Cluer (EYNews) and Sean Byrne (Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College) make the case that “only by understanding, predicting, and being ready for the Politics – with a capital P – will [wonks] be able to influence the policies that will support the sector to thrive.” Among the few examples offered is that of vice-chancellors’ pay. Here the implication is that the sector should have better managed recent negative media coverage that resulted in “a series of uncomfortable moments” (p22). While brand management matters greatly, and while the authors are right to suggest that some universities are suboptimal when it comes to shielding their reputation, the issue of senior pay is surely more nuanced than the single-paragraph analysis suggests. Being ‘ready for the Politics’ (with or without a capital P) requires universities to develop carefully thought-out internal policies, consistent with their claimed civic role and open to public scrutiny. The message implied by this book, in places, is that HE can continue its merry march toward the market, just so long as it remembers to buy in the right kind of spin.

Granted, the editors pre-empt some of these criticisms, emphasising that engagement with academic literature is not their priority, and that the collection essentially functions as a “professional guide” (p xvii). However, the analysis presented is often alarmingly thin. The first of Colette Fletcher’s (University of Winchester) five ‘lessons’ on how to influence policy – “have the confidence to be yourself” (p134) – captures something of the book’s tendency to drift into feelgood self-help rhetoric where close-up, critical analysis might be more appropriate.

Nonetheless, contributors are clearly satisfied that they have what it takes to save the sector. Everyone should get behind the wonks’ solutions, not least us pesky, prejudiced academics. Indeed, what Influencing Higher Education Policy arguably does best is highlight the growing challenge to the ways in which scholarly work is undertaken and disseminated. Wonkhe’s central role in bringing multiple perspectives to HE debates, usually in super-fast time, should be welcomed. But in such an environment, the book reminds us how easily academics and their research can be marginalised.

Without question, the UK HE sector needs to become better at influencing policy. Bagshaw is right to say we’ve relied on “benign amateurism” (p169) for too long. And without question, this collection includes several chapters’ worth of considered reflections and constructive recommendations. But elsewhere the book lapses into glib strategising where it could be reconnecting with universities’ core purpose. The best way to improve the sector’s standing is to ensure that it operates according to the highest possible ethical standards, and makes policy recommendations firmly grounded in empirical evidence.

One of the book’s contributors quotes Richard Branson to illustrates a policy point: “it’s amazing what doors can open if you reach out to people with a smile” (p139). But who knows, perhaps it’s even more amazing what doors can open if you reach out to people with rigorous academic research?

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at the Manchester Institute of Education. His research focuses on equity issues around students’ access, experiences and outcomes. Steven is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and he teaches on the University of Manchester’s PGCert in Higher Education. The views expressed here are his own.

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Wonkfest – where people know policy backwards

by Rob Cuthbert

Wonk A person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of political policy

The etymology of ‘wonk’ is uncertain: I like to think (with no corroborating dictionary evidence whatsoever) that a wonk is someone who will ‘know’ something backwards. Unlikely to be etymologically true, but nevertheless a good description of the 600 or so participants at the third Wonkfest on 4-5 November 2019, the annual event organised by WonkHE (“the home of HE policy, bringing the sector together through expert analysis”). The assembled wonks came from HE institutions and hundreds of other organisations with an interest in HE policy. SRHE is one such organisation, with an SRHE-supported session considering ‘How do we build a research agenda for HE policy?’.

Wonks may know policy backwards, but how well do they know the research? The answer lies on a spectrum stretching from zero to hero in research terms. As the designated explorer from the SRHE enterprise I boldly went looking for research awareness, seeking stars as I trekked the Wonkfest venue. Policy conferences are always prey to political emergencies, and the just-announced general election, along with Parliament’s election of a new Speaker, robbed the conference of not only Wes Streeting, NUS leader turned Labour MP, billed for the opening panel session, but also HE Minister Chris Skidmore, unable to attend as the mid-conference star turn. But Wonkfest is a cavalcade of networking opportunities with a galaxy of talent, and the Minister’s absence caused hardly a hiccup, with John Kingman talking about UKRI, Shirley Pearce saying as much as she could about TEF, given continuing delay in laying her long-finished report before Parliament, and US statistics legend Nate Silver causing a flurry of excitement among the worshipping wonks in the closing session.

The Wonkfest programme featured, as you might expect, a decent diet of data-driven sessions, some primers on pay and pensions, finance, marketing and governance, and a healthy set of sessions posing diversity challenges – Kehinde Andrews (Birmingham City) leading ‘I’m not racist, but …’, sessions on ‘Tackling on-line harassment’, ‘Building a trans-inclusive education’ and more. Globalisation, the value of a university and university education, digital learning, the student experience and student wellbeing were all present and to be expected as features of the policy landscape. Artificial intelligence at work in universities sat uneasily alongside the perhaps toxic environment for the research workforce, with the almost surprising ‘I, vice-chancellor: exploring humanity in HE leadership’ even more surprisingly fronted by a headhunter.

Where was the research in all this? Pushing through everywhere, but often in unexpected places. Best of all the sessions I attended, for its high-level theorised and research-informed approach, was ‘Is “fake news” fake news? And what should universities be doing about it?’, led by Helen Beetham, Jennifer Jones and Penny CS Andrews, three academics all billed as independent researchers, without institutional affiliations, and enjoying the different freedoms that independence confers. This seemed significant, coming for example after Bristol University earlier this year distanced itself from the now-challenged claims of ‘honorary research associate’ Gerard Cheshire about decoding the Voynich manuscript – fake news? – after first proudly claiming the discoverer as its own. Perhaps I was unduly sensitised after the Wonkfest session on the ethics of marketing …

As for ‘How do we build a research agenda for HE policy?’, those attending thought they could see gaps in research: on the hostile environment created by those three stooges REF, TEF and KEF; on the student voice and how to give it due weight; on student expectations of university, and employer expectations of graduates, and more. Whether there are indeed gaps in research, or rather gaps in how the research is communicated, is a moot question. The usual lament of researchers into HE is that policy makers are not taking enough account of the research evidence, but it may be that HE as a policy sphere is comparatively blessed in this respect, thanks in no small way to the work of WonkHE and think tanks like HEPI, whose director Nick Hillman was much in evidence at the Fest. However it may also be that wonks bringing research and policy together are, like politicians, unduly focused on the short term, with blogs and briefing notes as the wonks’ weapons of choice. For a more balanced perspective you can always rely on the SRHE Research Conference – at Celtic Manor, December 11-13 2019.

What do you call someone who knows the research backwards? Oh yes, an academic.

Academic (n) A person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of a subject (adj) of no practical importance.

Rob Cuthbert is emeritus professor of higher education management and editor of SRHE News and the SRHE Blog. He has worked in colleges, universities, national agencies and government as an academic, manager, consultant and policy adviser.