“The genetic defence of private schools is filled with fabrications”

This piece, co-authored with Steven J Courtney and Helen M Gunter, was first published by the Private Education Policy Forum (04.10.21)

In this response to Saunders (2021), we have been galvanised as much by his misuse of genetic evidence as by the claims that derive from it.

We intend here to focus on the former, but use specific examples from his seven claims to demonstrate how this misuse serves only to maintain the status quo.

We use the metaphor of conjured fabrications to shed light on the way in which this misuse is integral to conservative modes of social reproduction and draws on recognisable tropes, all illusory and, paradoxically in this genetics-steeped discourse, all profoundly sociological.  

The promotion and defence of private education tends to be located in ideological claims about libertarian freedom as a personal and family property, where the segregation of children into different school types is further justified on the basis of an assumed causal relationship between the entitlements of family resources (e.g. money, status, networks) and the ability of offspring.

For example, Tooley presents the validity and vitality of the privacy within and for the private both through ridiculing democratic processes and conduct (Tooley 1995), and by arguing for the “3Fs” of “family, freedom and philanthropy” (Tooley 2000: 220).

Such arguments are replete with conjured fabrications whereby normative trickery is invoked to make claims about the world as it is and what it could be through the acceptance of ideological positioning – those who do not have the resources to attend private schools have to accept marketized inequity (see Courtney 2021; Courtney and Gunter 2020).

Magic tricks are vital because the exceptionalism that underpins private education is not only contra democracy but also increasingly dangerous to democratic values and processes (e.g. Green and Kynaston 2019). The question to be addressed is: why can’t all children be educated together in their local school? (Ryan 2019).

Contrarian sociologist Saunders conjures up his ideological defence of the segregation of children by deploying genetics: “The main reason pupils from private schools out-perform those from non-selective state schools in university entry is that they are, on average, brighter”, and he then goes on to state: “Robert Plomin’s research confirms this”.

Such a claim exposes the trickery in two main ways: first, Plomin’s work cannot be used to justify private schools; and second, Plomin’s work has been subjected to significant methodological critiques.

Saunders is wrong to use Plomin’s work to justify selection and access to school places.

Plomin (2018) does argue that: “children in private and grammar schools in the UK have substantially higher education attainment polygenic scores than students in comprehensive schools” (172), and he goes on to explain that this is because private schools select children, where in fact, “students would have done as well if they had not gone to private schools” (173).

This has been demonstrated through the evidence against academic selection at 11 (Gorard and Siddiqui 2018), and the adoption of the common school, where in Finland all children attend high-quality local schools, and the children from families of different economic resources not only achieve excellent examination outcomes, but also learn to respect each other (Sahlberg 2015).

In fact, for Plomin, the biggest learning outcome from his work is that access to a school place should not be based on selection, and instead the common school can be a  “genetically sensitive school” where “every child of every faith, every race, and every social background will want to be educated there” (Asbury and Plomin 2014: 178-179).

Plomin’s argument is that use of genetic data would mean that teachers could accurately predict children’s learning needs, and so plan and deliver a personalised learning programme without segregating children into separate classes or schools or communities.

Saunders is wrong to use Plomin’s work to predict the abilities of children in private schools without engaging in the debates over methodology (e.g.  Dorling 2015; 2019; Gillborn 2016; Mithen 2018). If there is a blueprint in an individual human it may be a factor but it does not determine who ‘I’ actually turn out to be.

Ball (2018) argues that Plomin is focused on the “difference between individuals, not to individuals” (60, original emphasis). What happens to each individual during a lifetime is important because “we don’t all have a shared ‘given situation’ – we each have a distinct life” (61).

It seems that genes are part of who we are but do not define who we are, and importantly Saunders needs to read up on epigenetics in general (Meloni 2019) and in education (Youdell and Lindley 2019).

Perhaps parents who pay fees for private education actually do understand the impact of structural power (class, taste, family name) on the life chances of their children, and while they may engage with the conceit of genetic superiority, in reality they are buying into an experience that will structure the agency of their child, and importantly the agency of those who will engage with their child during their life course.

This challenges Plomin’s genetically sensitive approach to personalization, because what really matters is how the person with the genes is characterized and categorized as a power structure that generates advantage and disadvantage.

Conjured fabrications are replete in Saunders’ defence of private education. The social mobility ‘truths’ that he peddles are dependent on the premise that middle-class children inherit superior DNA.

This enables Saunders to admit that middle-class children are indeed twice as likely to get middle-class jobs than working-class children, but simultaneously to deny that this is due to class privileges.

Saunders similarly argues that we should not be surprised that top universities appear to have an over-representation of private-school entrants because “after all, these kids generally have very successful parents”.

The familiar discursive move is then made of implying that this is a “truth” which cannot be acknowledged, presumably because Leftist educationalists are too blinded by their prejudices.

Fabrications about “innate ability” are also reproduced through Saunders’ simplistic understandings of IQ tests. Such tests are culturally biased, and intelligence is not the linear, immutable and objectively measurable quality that Saunders mistakes it for.

Differences in IQ scores are unproblematically assumed to be an explanation for varying outcomes, rather than the consequences of access to varying educational resources.

In the comments beneath one of his pieces, Saunders responds to his critics by asking “Do people really think that achievement in life has nothing to do with cognitive ability?” This is a ‘straw man’ argument – few would deny any link at all.

Similarly, Saunders’ faith in meritocracy is largely based on the claim that there is some social mobility in the UK (which, again, few would deny). The problem is that from this Saunders concludes that society should accept the status quo, including the persistent over-representation of private-school students in elite universities and in elite professions.

This is a problematic leap, particularly troubling because of the misappropriations of genetic studies to confer a sense of scientific legitimacy to old and reactionary arguments.

The conjured fabrications do no more than represent Saunders’ ideological positioning; substantively, absent the genetics fluff, they are the same bunny being pulled from the same hat that we’ve seen many times before.

Importantly, they offer no explanation as to why children cannot be educated together in their local school.

Might selective English universities now wean themselves off A-levels?

This piece was first published by the Council for the Defence of British Universities (02.09.20)

One reason that the government took so long to U-turn over this summer’s A-level debacle is that the qualification itself holds a much loftier status in society, particularly among the ruling classes, than it deserves. The ‘mutant’ algorithm was considered necessary because ministers feared that any sort of human judgement, even from professional educators who knew their students best, might tarnish the A-level’s purity. Policy-makers regard the qualification as inviolable because they did rather well from it themselves, often securing their Oxbridge place on the back of some splendid results. Their own success offers all the evidence they need: clearly, the system is meritocratic.

Like most seasoned university lecturers, I have taught students with stellar grades who struggle with the idea of learning independently and thinking critically. I have also taught students without A-levels who blossom on campus, swiftly figuring out how to absorb complex, contrary positions and craft measured, evidence-based arguments. 

Selective universities have relied on A-levels not because they bring unique insights into candidates’ scholarly promise, but because they allow a limited number of places to be allocated between a larger pool of applicants. In this respect, the qualification acts as an expedient filter. A-levels are arguably the closest we can get to objective assessment of ability. 

But sentimentality should not blind us to the defects of a qualification that prematurely narrows young people’s learning, and further entrenches university hierarchies. Outcomes are distorted by multiple non-academic factors, including socio-economic status, social capital and school type, all compounded by stark inequality. With private tuition openly touted on many high streets and Facebook groups, buying an extra grade or two has never been easier. 

Post-Covid, one question for universities to ask themselves is ‘what are we selecting for?’ The obvious answer is ‘ability’: let those who have demonstrated the most excellence enter the most elite institutions. But with such an approach, prior advantage always trumps future potential. A more progressive strategy might be to work harder at identifying those young people who still have most to gain. The use of contextual data has been a major step forward, but the marketised system punishes innovation in admissions. League tables favour universities with high tariff entrants. And with institutions now held responsible for their graduates’ future earnings, why would any gamble on candidates not firmly plugged in to the middle-class networks through which the best paid jobs are often secured?

Selective universities defend their approach to admissions as ‘holistic’: interviews with candidates, head-teachers’ references and personal statements all supposedly mitigate the over-reliance on grades. But these pointers are subject to the same distortions as a students’ qualifications. The highest achievers are invariably the young people with the confidence and cultural capital to excel against softer indicators too.

The argument that entry requirements are simply there to ensure that their students can cope with the academic demands of their course is also overplayed. Any institution that boasts of a ‘world-leading’ status should surely be able to modify its teaching practices to accommodate more varied cohorts of students. 

The more selectivity there is in the system, and the more that debates are dominated by talk of selection, the more difficult it is for young people to choose the right course for them, regardless of an institution’s league table position. Ministers love to talk up further education and vocational qualifications, but BTECs were barely an afterthought in the summer’s ruckus. The relentless focus on the minority of students who enter a Russell Group university – let alone the minority of them who enter an Oxbridge college – is counter-productive. Now more than ever, the sector needs to unite behind all young people. 

In the current model of higher education, selective universities have little incentive to sever their ties with A-levels. The market demands prestige, and prestige comes from exclusivity. Who gets kept out matters as much as who gets in. A fairer admissions strategy would explicitly prize social and ethnic diversity over gameable proxies of personal excellence. Students would not need to be uniformly hyper-qualified. Other nations have experimented with imaginative alternatives, with some apportioning places by lottery for over-subscribed courses. A sector weaned off A-levels could be a sector less stratified and less divided.

If more students choose home over halls, it’s time to celebrate

This piece was first published in The Guardian newspaper (30.06.20)

University graduate and parent/guardian

Covid-19 is causing young people to re-evaluate their educational choices. Though it seems that would-be UK university students are not being deterred as much as initially feared, it is likely that many will shun the traditional campus experience and opt to stay local. This means living at home and commuting to class instead of the bathroom and kitchen-sharing challenges – and the cost – of university accommodation.

The stay-at-home trend was accelerating even before Covid-19 struck, as young people increasingly began putting their friends, family and part-time jobs ahead of the promise of far-off adventures. Yet these students still fall beneath the radar. Some universities can even be sniffy about those who decline the ‘full’ campus experience.

Attempts to ‘involve’ stay-at-home students in campus activities are sometimes clumsy and misguided. Buddy schemes suppose that they yearn for companionship and inclusion, when many already have full social lives. Underlying assumptions can reflect an out-dated notion of the ‘ideal’ student: white, well-off, and hundreds of miles from home.

The proportion of stay-at-home undergraduates in the UK has risen to 21% from around 8% in the late 80s and early 90s. Newman University in Birmingham now classifies 93% of undergraduates as ‘commuter’ students. Such students are more likely to be from a lower-income household and to be the first in their family to attend university. British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi students are over six times more likely than their white peers to continue living with their parents or guardians.

Older generations of graduates, including university leaders, tend to assume that stay-at-home students are somehow missing out. They recall their own desperation to escape from their parents’ clutches, and grow wistful at having ‘found themselves’ during a life-defining undergraduate experience. But it’s not always acknowledged that the context was very different. In many cases, their fees were covered by the state. They were care-free because university was cost-free.

The stay-at-home option became more attractive at English universities as fees started rising. Young people are now particularly keen to avoid exorbitant rents, and universities tend to under-estimate how important paid employment can be to those feeling suffocated by educational debt. Recently, a freedom of information request found that only eight universities knew how many hours their students spend at work, and just two had any information about how this might affect their grades.

The relationship that elite universities have with their stay-at-home students often mirrors an uneasy rapport with ‘the community’ more generally – historically known as the town and gown divide. Despite claims to be civic institutions, not all universities readily share their facilities. Some open their doors for once-a-year special events, while closely guarding entry for the rest of the time. Others boast of research partnerships with local residents – while exploiting them as convenient sources of data.

It’s no coincidence that stay-at-home students are disproportionately BAME and working-class. Their sense is often that the higher education sector has been blind to issues of racism, and slow to address deep-rooted snobberies.

Regardless of where they’re living, drugs and partying are off the menu for lots of today’s students. Their identities are forged on-line, and they connect primarily through social media. Mental health is a priority. Many wouldn’t know where to find the Students’ Union bar.

If Covid-19 makes the stay-at-home option more appealing, this is something to celebrate, not regret. The local students that I teach are invariably an asset to their learning environments, bringing important alternative perspectives and enlivening academic discussions.

Crucially, stay-at-home students also take the university back to their own neighbourhoods, doing invisible but invaluable access work on their institution’s behalf. Informal chats with friends who aren’t students can demystify higher education. Stories are told. Social and cultural capital is shared. Perceptions are changed. Slowly, going to university becomes a more thinkable option for other young people within society’s most marginalised groups.

All universities may soon be forced to re-examine their provision for stay-at-home students – for financial reasons if nothing else. Applicants are no longer as geographically and socially mobile as the sector imagines. The number of mature students at English universities is beginning to recover following a drop that coincided with the 2012 fee increase. Many people have indicated that the pandemic has rekindled a long lost academic curiosity. The higher education sector – by accident rather than design – suddenly seems more available to those traditionally on its fringes.

Universities now need to focus on practical measures. Stay-at-home students don’t always have access to the working space and wifi that their peers in institutional accommodation take for granted. Employment or caring commitments may prevent some from engaging fully with group work, or socialising after hours.

In years to come, “stay-at-home” may become a redundant description. The preferred mode of engagement could be changing for all young people. Even middle-class students are beginning to choose economic and emotional security over a more immersive experience. Soon, universities may have to come up with a new label for the minority of students who insist on doing university the old-fashioned way.

More than ever, university governors need academics as partners

This piece was first published by the Council for the Defence of British Universities (05.06.20)

Last month, WonkHE ran a short series of blogs on ‘governance in a time of pandemic’. Developed in partnership with one of the ‘big four’ accountancy firms, the blogs drew on business terminology (‘customers’, ‘executive teams’, etc.) and reproduced familiar stereotypes. Fundamental change was described as “not necessarily in the character of universities” and “hard to deliver”. A former Conservative minister encouraged both FE and HE to begin thinking about “what skills people will need”. Such framings are unlikely to resonate with academics subject to repeated internal reconfiguration and employability agenda based on graduate earnings data. 

Where university staff were mentioned, it was typically as the passive recipient of some ‘difficult decision’ or other. The only time that scholars made an appearance, even obliquely, was when one blogger asked “how do you create the academic flexibility and agility required to meet [students’] demands?” None of the pieces made any mention of academic governors, or the role of senates or academic boards. As such, the blogs were firmly situated within a larger discourse that frames the governance of UK universities as a private matter, and a corporate challenge. 

Meanwhile, on CDBU, academic staff were busy presenting collective strategies for wholesale sector change. One manifesto considered ways to renew the traditional concept of the university – “as a public good, based on public service values, academic freedom and democratic governance”. Another argued that universities needed not visions and slogans, but a governance structure with transparent processes, and working relationships that promote meaningful engagement. Real-world financial recommendations were put forward, including proposals for savings that would allow higher-paid staff to shoulder the brunt of forecast financial shortfalls, and short-term borrowing that would not damage institutional credit ratings. Full transparency of financial accounts was called for.  

As Julie Rowlands (2013) points out, university governance is symbolic as the site in which struggles for control over the sector play out at an institutional level. Governance is crucial because it involves oversight of decision-making structures, often as prescribed by the statutes and ordinances of the institution. Governors are custodians of the university’s principles, reputation and financial sustainability. The Office for Students has ramped up the power of governing bodies in recent years, demanding that boards and councils give approval to a range of increasingly complex financial and value-for-money returns. Yet governing bodies remain a mystery to most university staff, with discussions shrouded in secrecy, and the noble-sounding principle of ‘collective responsibility’ sometimes used to obscure the very kind of intellectual back-and-forth with which academics are most comfortable. To the ordinary employee, governance thus becomes indistinguishable from any other form of management, rather than the level of power legally sanctioned by the regulator to hold senior managers to account. 

The rise of the commercial model has been charted by Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath, who express concern that the language and structure of university governance now borrows too facilely from business (2020, 87). The corporate board is presented uncritically as the gold standard for universities, with little thought given to how education might differ from the products and services exchanged in the private sphere. 

Questions about which individuals have the authority and legality to act on behalf of the university are rarely asked. Boards at most UK universities retain a ‘lay majority’, subscribing to the idea that individuals with no specific knowledge of higher education are best placed to oversee operations. As I’ve indicated before, most lay governors are selfless in their motivations, devoting long hours to poring over dry institutional policy documents. Some will readily acknowledge that they are not specialists in higher education, and quietly wonder why on-campus expertise isn’t drawn upon more enthusiastically and systematically. Meanwhile, critical academics find their research expertise and first-hand experience kept at arm’s length. Senates and academic boards can become places for ‘sounding off’, while decision-making powers are concentrated elsewhere. 

The WonkHE blogs inadvertently expose why this model fails everybody. One rightly reminds governors to interrogate the impact of budget cuts on the student experience; another wonders how the shift online is affecting undergraduates; and a third asks how more diverse learner cohorts might affect teaching. These are all excellent questions. But surely the answers must come from – or at least involve meaningful input from – academic staff? 

If the current governance model was working well, academic marginalisation would be a matter of personal irritation rather than structural risk. But years of market-friendly managerialism have left the sector damaged, unpopular with the government, and unpopular with staff. Universities’ recent request for £2bn of emergency funding was met with a no by the UK government at the same time that authorities overseas were announcing much larger support packages for their institutions and students.

Rather than double down on existing modes of HE governance, a more enlightened approach would be to consider afresh what kind of individuals are best placed to offer informed oversight. How are schools and colleges represented? Who stands up for local communities? What kind of governance would strengthen universities’ links with neighbourhood health centres, youth groups and libraries? Clearly, governing bodies need members that understand finance, accountancy and business. But they also need members with awareness of universities’ core contributions to society, and the courage to steer management teams away from commercial KPIs where necessary.

Does Covid-19 offer the opportunity to imagine a different discourse, one in which university managers turn not to external consultants for governance solutions, but to their own in-house expertise? One where boards and councils hungrily devour academic literature in search of insights? Yes, but Covid-19 offers the opportunity to imagine all kinds of things that probably won’t happen. Indeed, the more time academics spend crafting plans for a better tomorrow, the more readily they seem to be dismissed as idealistic. 

WonkHE offers a useful barometer of how governance discourses have become colonised by corporate thinking. The instinct of the platform is to celebrate the ‘resilience’ of governing bodies. As a result, private sector models are privileged, misleading discourses are reproduced, and frontline staff are side-lined further. Shattock and Horvath (2020) point out that senior managers could resist the dominant conceptualisation of university governance if they so wished, and instead position themselves primarily as a ‘bridge’ to academic communities. But within the overriding logic of the market, there is little incentive to do so. The challenge for academics is figuring out how to disrupt that logic while shut out from so many conversations.

In a HE sector as diverse as the UK’s, no single model of governance can be suited to every institution. But all universities work best when run through consensus. A more collegial approach need not be anything to fear, offering ways for institutional managers to constructively reengage with their staff and make better use of their expertise.

In times of crisis, the trust and goodwill of academic staff is vital. The sector needs to move forward as one, rather than as a mishmash of individual institutions, torn apart by market rivalry. Governance is at the heart of the issue. The accountancy-bloggers offer one perspective, but other voices need urgently to be heard too. 

Covid-19 is our best chance to change universities for good

This piece was first published in The Guardian newspaper (31.03.20)

Aberystwyth University students attending a lecture.

March is normally one of the busiest months in the academic calendar. Lecture theatres bulge, coffee queues lengthen and library shelves empty. The interactions are multilingual and non-stop.

This year, silence. Buildings are in lockdown and staff barred from their offices. Those students who remain are mostly unable to go home.

5 Advantages of Online Learning | Online Digital Marketing CoursesBut learning goes on, displaced, not discontinued. In many respects, Covid-19 is drawing out the best from staff, their commitment to students’ education and wellbeing shining through the uncertainty. Seminars zoom on to students’ smartphones, live from lecturers’ homes. WhatsApp groups, set up very recently to coordinate picketing strategy, become forums in which colleagues can support and advise one another. Behind the scenes – and under-acknowledged – armies of administrative staff and IT workers make all of this possible.

Already, old ways of working seem distant and inexplicable. Were there really so many face-to-face meetings? What did all that bureaucracy achieve? Why did universities submit to so many external metrics? Were we improved by this “accountability” regime? Or did we just get better at playing the market’s games?

For logistical reasons, planned audits of teaching and research such as the National Student Survey and the Research Excellence Framework are on hold or in jeopardy. Could it be the time to consider whether their benefits are proportionate to their costs?

We were told that student consumers could make informed decisions only if able to access maximum information. But the ones I’m now Skyping care little about “value for money” or expected graduate incomes. They are just glad that their learning still matters, and that university staff care about them.

If universities emerge from Covid-19 with trust won back from government – and, crucially, are willing to pass on that trust to frontline staff – post-pandemic higher education could look very different.

University of Northumbria at Newcastle Reviews and RankingOpportunities are everywhere. With no school-based exams this year, university admissions could finally take place in ways that allow fairer access. The move to online teaching could accelerate the decolonisation of curriculums. The shift away from on-campus research could open doors for more collaborative scholarship. Unfettered by physical location, and the compulsion to erect ever-shinier buildings, universities suddenly find themselves free to reimagine their place in society.

Maybe we can collaborate to form a knowledge base that allows future crises to be handled in more informed ways, so that fewer lives become disrupted or endangered? Academic research offers a highly potent antidote to the slew of misinformation and speculation that can jam social media. A single updateable point of truth, based on the most rigorous scholarship available, might help win back public confidence and redeem the tarnished reputation of experts and expertise.

Covid-19 research is being published at a faster pace than sluggish peer review processes customarily allow. And there’s an audible softening of tone from the Office for Students – a regulator previously wedded to competition at all costs, now promising to adapt.

But as lecturers imaginatively pivot to remote teaching, trust issues linger. What will happen to electronically “captured” content when the crisis is over?

A TedX model of teaching could prove attractive to those seeking efficiency savings during the inevitable post-Covid financial squeeze, and predatory “ed-tech” companies are already seeking ways to cash in. But students don’t want passive and distant models of learning. They want technology that brings them closer to specialists in the subject they love. Now is the time to make sure that those staff are valued fully by their employers. Casualisation must dog the sector no more.

What do you call the disease caused by the novel coronavirus? Covid-19For decades, universities have been distracted from their core functions by a regulatory framework and management culture that demanded they vie with one another endlessly for research and teaching income, and for league table recognition. With campuses standing empty, those “wins” seem hollow.

Staff have already demonstrated their adaptability, intuitively and collegially doing what is right for their students. Now Covid-19 offers a chance for the sector to redefine its relationship with the public, and for university managers to reset their relationship with staff.


UK academics must stand up to stop universities becoming sweatshops

This piece was first published in The Guardian newspaper (28.02.20)

Striking staff in November at University College London

When senior academics go on strike, it is not usually because of financial hardship. Pay, while modest, is comfortable. Instead, academics’ motivation to strike runs much deeper: universities have been fast-tracked towards a market system that sits uneasily with their public role and employees’ values.

Institutional managers say they are powerless to resist structural reform. Highest fees in Europe? Blame the government. Yet more league tables and metrics? Blame the regulator. But casualisation can’t be blamed so readily on external forces.

Under casualisation, academic labour previously undertaken by staff on secure contracts is being transferred to people employed on a fixed-term basis. This accentuates hierarchies, tests collegiality, and – at worst – ends promising careers.

The universities minister, Chris Skidmore, has voiced concerns about the practice, reminding universities of the importance of “sustainable” career pathways.

His comments came in response to a report by Newcastle University’s Nick Megoran and Olivia Mason that implied many institutions now have pools of highly qualified staff – disproportionately female; disproportionately BAME – that they dip into when the need arises, but otherwise leave to stagnate. Research shows 97% of academics on fixed-term contracts would rather be on permanent ones, exploding the claim that “flexibility” is some kind of lifestyle choice.

Image result for precarityOf course, temporary contracts have long been a feature of higher education, particularly in the sciences, where the journey to having one’s own laboratory is paved with job insecurity. Experience is accumulated, knowledge gained, and – in due course – research grants are sought. Even in non-science disciplines, many of us began our careers on hourly-paid fixed-term contracts.

Before securing my first permanent post, I covered maternity leave at two institutions and delivered adult education courses at another. The work was demanding and poorly paid, but I learnt my craft working with inspirational colleagues and students.

What has changed is that fixed-term appointments are no longer an apprenticeship but part of a business model that accepts staff insecurity as a necessary condition of HR “agility”. This is compounded by the decoupling of teaching from research. Teaching-focused contracts are widespread, usually accompanied by workloads that leave little time for research.

What would end casualisation? On the research side, funders could impose firmer conditions on their grant holders’ employment practices. On the teaching side, universities could be required to publish course-level information specifying the proportion of lectures and seminars delivered by staff on permanent contracts.

Image result for tenure

But, as securely employed academics, we also need to look at ourselves. Winning a research grant, receiving a sabbatical, or taking on a management role often allows us to “buy out” more mundane aspects of our job. But is it possible to outsource our academic labour without perpetuating others’ job insecurity? Do we oppose casualisation even when it’s advancing our own careers?

During the strikes, resistance to casualisation has united colleagues across pay grades and disciplines. “It is really important that senior academics on established contracts make a stand in support of less fortunate colleagues,” said one of 29 professorial signatories to a letter in the Guardian last week.

Casualisation pushes higher education employment practices closer to those of sportswear barns and fashion outlets, where personnel are exploited as much as legally possible. If universities were to reverse this trend and emerge as exemplary employers, giving early career staff an authentic route into the profession, it would go a long way towards winning back their academics’ trust.

Book Review: “Influencing Higher Education Policy” (2020) ed. Ant Bagshaw and Debbie McVitty, Routledge.

This piece was first published by the Society for Research into Higher Education (16.01.20)

Image result for "Influencing Higher Education Policy" (2020) ed. Ant Bagshaw and Debbie McVitty, Routledge.


“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 WonkHEE a good place to start? And why does the ‘us’ needs 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).

Image result for "Influencing Higher Education Policy" (2020) ed. Ant Bagshaw and Debbie McVitty, Routledge.

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.

Image result for "Influencing Higher Education Policy" (2020) ed. Ant Bagshaw and Debbie McVitty, Routledge.

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?

Beyond TEF Cynicism: Towards a New Vocabulary of ‘Excellence’?

This piece was first published by the Society for Research into Higher Education (24.10.19)


One might expect that asking a room full of diverse stakeholders to discuss ‘teaching excellence’ would result in all kinds of quarrels and disagreement. In fact, the SRHE’s September 2019 event (The impact of the TEF on our understanding, recording and measurement of teaching excellence: implications for policy and practice) was a refreshingly convivial and creative affair.

Everyone present agreed that the TEF’s proxies for excellence were wholly inappropriate. In fact, there was surprisingly little discussion of existing metrics. We all felt that the consumerist language of ‘value for money’ and the instrumental lens of ‘employability’ were inadequate to capture the nuanced and complex ways in which curiosity can be sparked and orthodoxy challenged in the HE classroom.

Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka spoke about the absence of the student voice in TEF policy, noting that conceptualisations of ‘excellence’ tend to overlook the very moral and critical components of transformative teaching that students value most highly. Michael Tomlinson drew attention to student-as-consumer framings within the ‘measured market’, noting the inevitability of institutional game-playing, status leveraging and brand promotion in such a relentlessly competitive environment. Both speakers suggested that students were misleadingly empowered, lacking the agency that policy discourses attribute to them.


I tried to push this idea further, beginning my talk by asking whether any lecturer had ever actually changed the way they teach because of government policy. There was broad agreement that while excellence frameworks influenced professional cultures and co-opted university managers, they barely touched academic practice. Lecturers know their own students – and know how to teach them – better than any White Paper.

But is the TEF actually about university teaching at all? Or do too many barriers sit between policy and practice for that to be a realistic aim? Policy enactment in HE is interrupted by institutional autonomy, by academic freedom and, increasingly, by lecturers’ professional identity. The TEF’s real purpose, I would argue, is more about manipulating the discourse. It manufactures a crisis, positioning intractable academics as the problem and students as the victim, thus allowing competition to come along and save the day.

Proportion of students awarded firsts_0

Grade inflation is one area in which the contradictions of top-down policy discourse are laid bare. The market demands that lecturers mark students’ work generously (so that ‘value added’ columns in league tables don’t hold back institutional ranking). Then policymakers wade in, attacking institutions for artificial increases and threatening fines for those who persist. The logic is inconsistent and confused, but this matters little – the discourse persuades voters that their own hard-won education successes are being devalued by a sector overprotective of its ‘snowflake’ customer base.

TEF provider statements offer the opportunity for universities to fight back, but evidence suggests they’re bland and indistinct, tending towards formulaic language and offering little additional clarity to the applicant.

But despite such missed opportunities, 73 Collier Street was full of new ideas. Opposition to metrics wasn’t based on change-resistance and ideological stubbornness. Indeed, as respondent Sal Jarvis noted, we urgently need to measure, understand and close differential attainment gaps in many areas, such as ethnicity. But there was consensus that current proxies for ‘excellence’ were incomplete, and creative thoughts about how they could be complemented. What about capturing graduates’ long-term well-being instead of their short-term satisfaction? Or encouraging institutions to develop their own frameworks based on their specific mission and their students’ needs? How about structural incentives for collaboration rather than competition? And a focus on teaching processes, not teaching outcomes?

The argument that the TEF is less about changing pedagogies than manipulating wider discourses shouldn’t bring any comfort to the sector. I tried to show how the dominant logic of teaching excellence primes the sector for more fundamental policy shifts, such as for-profit providers receiving taxpayer subsidy on pedagogical grounds. One delegate spoke to me at the end of the event to offer another example, explaining how employability-minded managers within his institution were squeezing out critical engagement with cultural theory to allow for further skills-based, professional training. The TEF may not change practice directly, but it retains the power to nudge the sector away from its core public roles towards more privatised and instrumental practices.

af0f7e8f3d0e34ea3acd3a88e7aaf102_400x400The challenge for us is to articulate a confident and robust defence of all kinds of university teaching. We need to explain how our pedagogies bring lifelong gains both to our students and to wider society, even if initial encounters can be difficult and unsettling. Policy has taken us a long way down the market’s cul-de-sac, but what’s reassuring is that we’re now moving on from TEF-bashing towards a coherent counter-narrative. This event confirmed that universities have more meaningful things to crow about than their fleeting goldenness against a bunch of false proxies.

University Governance in a new age of regulation: a conversation between Steven Jones and Nick Hillman


The dialogue below is taken from HEPI Report 119, the full version of which includes an excellent introduction from Professor Michael Shattock.

HEPI is the Higher Education Policy Institute and Nick Hillman is its Director.


Steve Jones 005-1

Dear Nick,

It’s good to have this exchange with you. The role of university governors is beginning to get some critical attention, but it still seems neglected relative to the responsibility that it now carries.

I sense that Board members across the higher education sector feel pulled in different directions. On one hand, there’s a traditional idea of ‘wise elders’ meeting to offer some light-touch and well-mannered guidance on a university’s general direction of travel. On the other hand, there’s a regulatory framework that positions governors as legal custodians of multi-million pound, global organisations.

The Office for Students wants Boards to be accountable for upholding ‘public interest governance principles’, but what are those principles and how best can they be defended?

University staff who volunteer for governance roles are usually regarded with suspicion. I received condolences from some colleagues when elected! Maybe this follows a long tradition of academic misgivings about perceived compromises of ‘freedom’.

Back in 1918, Thorstein Veblen characterised non-academics who join Boards as ‘quite useless to the university for any business-like purpose’. I was reminded of this more recently when Peter McCaffery, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cumbria, suggested Whitehall departments privately regard the way in which universities are governed as ‘bogus professionalism’.

However, my main concern isn’t lack of know-how. It’s that university governance – and the corporate model upon which it’s generally based – seems detached from the day-to-day reality of many academics’ working lives.

In my experience, this gap is wider in the higher education sector than in the compulsory part of the sector, where the pressures of school teaching are perhaps better understood by governors.

As an ‘insider’, I sense frustration among colleagues that representation on decision-making bodies is usually limited to a handful of staff, and that Boards sometimes focus on the narrow market needs of their individual institution at the expense of the wider societal contribution that universities make. As an ‘outsider’, what do you think?


Dear Steven,

Thank you for starting this important conversation. My experience is different to yours. When I was appointed as a lay governor, no one commiserated me. Nor did they congratulate me. Perhaps the silence reflects how poorly understood the role of university governors is – far below knowledge about school governorship.
I am amused by Peter McCaffery’s words but they don’t resonate with me. When I worked on higher education in Whitehall, little thought was given to university governance issues. There were many reasons for this but perhaps the most important is that Whitehall looks for big problems to solve and university governance seemed at the time to be ticking over quite nicely. Admittedly, my Whitehall experience came before the really big rows on vice-chancellors’ pay as well as before Hefce had made way for the new Office for Students.

During my own experience as a governor at two universities, I have been very impressed by the professionalism and calibre of the governors, especially the chairs. Many other lay governors that I have come across have fitted well into that general definition of a good Board member: an intelligent person who asks ignorant questions. That is not meant to sound rude. Anyone who has ever been interviewed by the media knows that perceptive but unexpected questions can prove the most testing. An intelligent outsider’s perspective can teach an institution lots about itself – and, of course, new lay members rapidly stop being ignorant anyway.

But no one associated with higher education must allow the core strengths of the sector to hide the need for constant improvement. Nor should we respond so defensively to media coverage that we refuse to look in the mirror for flaws. I want to avoid sweeping generalisations, yet I do worry that the quality of governance in our sector may not always be as quite good as we like to think.

The regulation of higher education has been transformed in recent years, especially from the top via initiatives like the Higher Education and Research Act (2017), which puts far more onus on governors – including for self-reporting of problems. I am not entirely convinced, as I travel up and down the UK speaking to senior managers and governing bodies, that governance has changed as fast as regulation.

Perhaps it is naïve to think this could happen quickly but, unfortunately, the regulatory changes have occurred at the same time as other changes that have, in some instances, literally threatened the existence of long-standing universities.

Moreover, people with experience governing other comparable bodies that sit between the public and private sectors – for example, in the health sector – often claim change has come later in higher education than elsewhere.

Perhaps because I am not an ‘insider’, I worry less than you about the disconnect between academics and governors. For a start, I think the supposed disconnect is overdone: the input of academics at governors’ meetings (either as members or observers), at away days discussing strategy and in other ways is more common than might be expected. This helps to provide a map for those governors still trying to uncover the lie of the land. Lay governors come into close contact with the day-to-day life of academics in other ways too – for example, when chairing disciplinary review hearings.

Notwithstanding this, if I were an academic I am not confident I would worry too much about not knowing the finer points of the latest discussions among governors. They can be some way removed from the core responsibilities of teaching students and pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge so could sap time and effort from the more immediate responsibilities that would have brought me into academia in the first place.

Steve Jones 005-1Dear Nick,

You’re right to say that academics would much rather be doing teaching and research than pondering institutional strategy. But in the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in staff becoming more curious – and then better informed – about how their university is run. The pensions dispute is the obvious example, but there are other issues too, from capital expenditure to investment strategy. In my view, this is a good thing. But it does bring to the fore questions about who gets to govern our universities and what kind of values they bring to the table.

Take the current composition of most governing Boards in England. Having a lay majority is useful in that that universities are forced to justify their activities to people who come from different professional backgrounds and have different perspectives.

For me, it’s always refreshing to hear non-academic voices – university staff quickly become institutionalised, losing touch with how the sector is viewed from the outside. But the lay-majority composition has drawbacks too, especially where academics are framed in negative terms: as change-resistant, or ‘difficult’, or instinctively critical.

The job of the university lecturer requires a huge amount of flexibility and there’s pressure to be excellent at everything. Metrics track our every move. League tables pitch us against colleagues elsewhere in the sector with whom we’d rather be collaborating. Newer academics are under particular stress, often in precarious employment conditions. I’m not sure that Board discourses always fully acknowledge this wider professional context.

You’re unusual among lay members: you know the higher education system inside out because of your day job. But for most lay members academia remains shrouded in mystery. I think universities need to expose their governors to more routine institutional activities. Maybe induction should involve taking in a few undergraduate lectures, or attending some research seminars or eavesdropping on a departmental meeting?

I also wonder about representation. Local communities seem to have fewer Board members than in previous generations, but institutional activity can affect them fundamentally, for better and worse. And given that taxpayers underwrite what we do, I think it’s important for Boards to have representation from those who never went to university.

Then there’s the question of the student voice. Most Boards seem to have a token representative or two, but it can be incredibly difficult for those individuals to make themselves heard, surrounded not only by highly successful lay members but also by academic representatives who may well be directly involved with their teaching and supervision. The system marginalises students, not deliberately, but through top-down mechanisms that don’t always speak to their concerns.

There’s recently been talk of a ‘licence to practise’ for university governors, but the system remains largely dependent on goodwill. The Code of Governance, developed by the Committee of University Chairs in 2014, is useful. However, it captures little of the cultural expectations and challenges faced by Board members. The ‘critical friend’ role is fine, but governors mustn’t cross management lines. It’s a tight-rope for members to walk, not least because the sector can be damaged reputationally when an institutional Board is too hands-off.

Wonkhe-Nick-Hillman-contributorDear Steven,

There probably is not a person alive who would claim that university governing bodies are properly diverse. They do not accurately reflect the demographics of students and staff, let alone society at large. There is clearly a mountain to climb. Middle-aged white men like us are in a majority. We are often caricatured as ‘male, pale and stale’ and I plead guilty to at least two of these attributes.

The question is, as always, what to do about it. As with other realms of life, we need to advertise roles more widely, ideally in a centralised place (as used to happen) rather than wait for people to stumble across opportunities in the sector for themselves. I remember an experienced governor at the top of their own profession telling me their partner, another senior professional, was interested in becoming a university governor, but that she had no idea where to start looking. Too often governors are appointed over a drink after a tap on the shoulder. We need to employ headhunters to dig deeper.

But while the personal characteristics of governors is far from representative, a great deal of thought is typically put into the skillset of any governing body. Financial skills are especially important, such as for audit committee work. I am regularly contacted by people searching for names of potential governors with a background in policy, as many universities feel underpowered in that area.

Incidentally, it is tragic that the Department for Education (DfE) discourage their civil servants from serving as university governors. The loos in the DfE are plastered with posters encouraging staff to become school governors. But university governorship is, weirdly, seen as a conflict of interest and actively discouraged or even barred. Yet we wonder why policymakers don’t always seem to understand our sector.

On metrics, I agree academics typically dislike being constantly measured and tend to think their work cannot be easily captured by a few headline numbers. But this isn’t the fault of non-academic governors. Governors with a background in other sectors might just as likely propose more rounded ways of assessing performance than believe academics can be easily squeezed into a REF / TEF / KEF triptych.

On student representation, I agree. Student members can feel overwhelmed and inexperienced. But when I am a visiting speaker at a governing body meeting, the student rep(s) will often seek me out afterwards and the conversations are usually incredibly illuminating. A good chair will draw a student out so that their experiences inform the work of the governing body as a whole. One remaining problem is the typically short tenure of a student governor and I am genuinely uncertain as to what can be done about that. The best chief executives of students’ unions know as much about their institution and how its students are faring as anyone: can governing bodies capture their knowledge more effectively in some way, I wonder?

I also agree we need to look for mechanisms to bring governors closer in touch. Perhaps the single most interesting thing I have done as a governor is to take part in semi-structured discussions on issues like mental health and student support services with students. I am not the only governor who has found such conversations provide a year’s supply of new points to make at future meetings.

Having greater civic engagement with university boards is a good idea but it is not a dealbreaker for me. Our universities are generally national and regional, not just city-based, so there are limits to the desirability of this in my view, especially when other areas of civic life may need more urgent support. The relationship can work the other way around though, with academics becoming part of their locality’s policymakers: try attending a local council meeting in either Oxford or Cambridge and you will hear many declarations of interest from serving councillors whenever university issues come up.

I think you slightly overdo the risk of governors stepping over the management line. Any competent chair knows when this is happening and can delicately point it out. It is a challenge for every organisation with a board of trustees and widely acknowledged in all sorts of contexts. The line is an important one, as is the line between governance issues and academic decisions, because it provides clarity on who should do what.

Steve Jones 005-1Dear Nick,

I didn’t know the DfE discourage their civil servants from acting as university governors. It is curious that so many major organisations (universities included) now press their staff to volunteer as school governors, but joining a university Board often still requires a furtive tap on the shoulder.

You acknowledge that more could be done to connect governors with the mass of students, but what about the mass of staff? Can the broad range of views from employees spanning multiple roles and disciplines be captured by a handful of volunteer representatives? I can’t help thinking that universities miss a trick by not drawing on the expertise of their own workforce more systematically.

Michael Shattock has been writing about governance in UK higher education for decades, and he points out that there are big differences in how different universities approach the process. My anxiety here is that academics at the more elite universities retain a relatively firm grip on governance, while those elsewhere in the sector see the balance of authority steadily tipping away from them. In an already hierarchical higher education system, the danger is that this results in yet more stratification.

Michael also points out that it’s not the state that has directly imposed changes on university governance structures; it’s more a consequence of relentless shifts towards competition. I do think that’s where misunderstandings can arise.

Lay governors from a private sector background are often fluent in the language of the market, and know plenty about keeping their customers satisfied. But it’s not easy for them understand why their views might meet with push-back from academics who just don’t think it appropriate that higher education is further commodified.

Having said that, one thing that is always good to see is conflict. From the outside, Boards give the impression of being united in their views, but beneath this veneer is often forceful debate and challenge. Because academics are trained to see both sides of an argument, and to reach informed and balanced conclusions, most would be reassured by such deliberation.

However, staff are sometimes informed of blunt outcomes without being privy to any underpinning rationale. I get the idea of ‘collective responsibility’, but it’s unfortunate when it runs counter to the spirit of courteous disagreement that fuels most academic enquiry. I’d like university Boards to prioritise transparency over confidentiality, where possible.

Dear Steven,


I suspect the proliferation of governors with a business background does help explain the explosion in senior staff pay. If you come from business and are put on the Board of a university with a turnover of a billion pounds a year, then you are bound to make some comparisons in your head with the salary of a CEO at a business with a similar turnover.

But this sort of influence is hugely exaggerated in importance. Consider the pensions issue. Defined benefit pension schemes have essentially disappeared in the private sector. If lay governors had imposed their private sector practices on our universities, then the USS would have become a defined contribution scheme many years ago. It is too simplistic to think anyone who has helped run a large business cannot recognise that charitable universities are different.

A glance at my Twitter feed leads me to doubt your assertion that ‘academic research’ is typically fuelled by ‘courteous disagreement’. It can feel more like the old Newman and Baddiel sketch ‘History Today’. But I nonetheless accept your comment about transparency, at least up to a point. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, to coin a phrase.

There are many important issues that governors need to discuss though, such as restructuring, senior appointments and purchasing land, which could go badly awry if they were immediately and fully put in the public domain. So it is important we do not fall for demands for transparency that are really thinly-veiled attacks on the whole operating system of a 21st century university, especially if they also discourage good people from accepting Board positions.

Diversity seems to me to be a concept that is nearly always good, including when applied to education. So I have no principled objection to the idea that the roles played by lay governors, university managers and academics will be different at different institutions. It is, after all, nothing new. Our universities have such diverse histories that, to me, it seems odd even to entertain the idea that this is something we should worry about as a matter of principle. A single higher education system, yes; a monolith, no.

Steve Jones 005-1Dear Nick,

You’re right to say that not all academic disagreement is courteous. But my point was more that it usually takes place in public (in journals, on social media, and at conferences), whereas governance disagreement tends to take place behind closed doors. Decisions can then emerge from the Board that, from an academic perspective, seem not to be based on even-handed reasoning. It’s a bit like publishing a paper without the methods section.

Maybe where we disagree most is in terms of the extent to which academic involvement actually matters? Many university staff feel that the ‘comms’ are one-way and the ‘consultations’ insincere. To some extent, university governance is performed in a managed environment (more so than in schools, in my experience). I know that senior leadership teams can’t always operate in a democratic and open fashion, and that some choreography is occasionally necessary. But where two-way interaction is possible I think it’s important that it occurs as authentically as possible.

You mentioned earlier that perhaps headhunters would be useful in increasing the diversity of university governors, and I note that much of the recent coverage of Board issues has revolved around whether lay members should be paid for their contribution. I don’t have a strong view on this.

Lay members devote a generous portion of their time to governance work, and if a small fee recognised this, I think it would be a reasonable use of money. But it’s noticeable that some of the loudest voices making this argument are from private agencies that would, presumably, get a slice of the cake. I had no idea that these agencies existed, but there’s a growing industry around governor recruitment. It’s another market that, in my view, the sector doesn’t really need.

My underlying fear is that university Boards are being co-opted to enact market-driven ideologies (some of which you may support, but I know you’d also support the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom). Even if this isn’t the case, it remains very difficult for any group of individuals, however well-meaning and committed, to reflect the views of the incredible range of communities that universities now serve, and to act simultaneously as savvy market advisers and protectors of the public good.

Wonkhe-Nick-Hillman-contributorDear Steven,

I have shifted from being agnostic about, or even slightly against, paying lay governors to supporting the idea. It is, honestly, not because I am now one, and I am not necessarily arguing for payment for all. When the time spent serving as a governor is provided fully or partly by an employer, then a fee for attending would be to pay someone twice for the same job.

But how on earth are we to get the diversity we want if someone cannot afford to be a governor? Indeed, why should we expect a younger person, with not much to their name, to give up their time freely the way that a retired CEO with a huge pension and no mortgage might?

I also think people tend to take roles more seriously when they are being paid for them. It is easier to ease out underperforming people if they are not doing the job you are paying them for than it is if you are not paying them in the first place. So, in my view, a system of payments for at least some governors can’t come soon enough.

The role of a governing body is to protect their institution by reacting to the context in which they find themselves. So I don’t think a governor who recognises the reality of high fees / loans and no student number controls is somehow being ‘co-opted to enact market-driven ideologies’ any more than they would be co-opted to socialism if a left-of-centre government forced governors to take a new set of circumstances into account.

Steve Jones 005-1Dear Nick,

Returning to the comparison with schools, is it significant that university governors have not been subject to the same regime of ‘professionalisation’ and ‘accountability’ as their school-based counterparts? Policy now seems to be nudging higher education more in that direction.

I accept there are good reasons for this – massive and complex institutions can’t be operated by academic rota – but it’s vital that incoming lay governors understand what’s going on at the local level. Governing bodies tend to meet in their institution’s grandest surrounding, and the danger is that they soon become isolated from the day-to-day struggles and mundane resource issues with which staff must cope.

Managing academics is difficult: we tend not to be motivated primarily by income and we tend to view our employers with wariness. So it can’t be simply assumed that because someone has been successful in the private sector or as a social entrepreneur that they have the insights needed to make a university perform better.

I admit there’s sometimes too much exceptionalism in the way that higher education is discussed, but I do think the challenges are very different to those sectors in which the main goal is to gratify shareholders. The danger is that if UK universities are run just like any other business, they lose the very qualities that have made them so historically successful.

For me, there are significant core issues to address in university governance. Should we assume the corporate Board model is always fit for purpose? Can the often divergent directions in which Board members are drawn ever be compatible? Can universities learn from schools about more inclusive governance? In what ways should (and shouldn’t) Boards be empowered by government? My fear is that we’ll only get round to thinking fully about such questions when the sector reaches breaking point.

Wonkhe-Nick-Hillman-contributorDear Steven,

There is a saying that is used heavily by civil servants: ‘Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good’. I worry you are falling into the trap of listing the problems of the current governance model (alongside some of the positives), without really explaining what a better one would look like and how it will come about.

I fully accept some of your criticisms. As someone who regularly speaks to governing bodies, it always seems strange when meetings take place in a country house hotel somewhere miles from campus. A better model is to move meetings around so that one might be in the oldest part of the university, another in a new satellite campus and a third in the students’ union or hall of residence.

But I think the current governance model works to the extent that it is a conversation between insiders and outsiders. There are problems from having too many or too few of either, if the external expertise is not sufficiently tempered by the academic expertise or vice versa. While some Boards were unwieldy in the past, I worry that the general trend towards smaller boards risks creating imbalance as well as ensuring insufficient (internal and external) experience is on tap.

No one is saying life is perfect at the moment. Governing bodies should be more diverse, capture the student voice more and become somewhat more professional. But, compared to what we have, the European model of running universities as an arm of the state is much worse, in my opinion, because of the limited room for manoeuvre that it gives proud long-standing institutions that want to protect their future by innovating.

You assume a ‘breaking point’ is coming. Perhaps it is. It looks likely that it is for a small number of institutions, at which point managers and governors will be in the firing line but so will policymakers and regulators. More institutions will struggle if we move to a system in which the Treasury are expected to foot the entire costs of educating students – taxpayers tend to have higher priorities than higher education and most students accept good-quality mass higher education is best delivered through a mixed funding model.

The predictions of failure that echo endlessly around our sector remind me of my academic research on a fringe politician: he spent so long waiting for a crisis that he was certain would happen that he spun out of the mainstream to the extremes before spending decades in the wilderness. No doubt this analogy would break down if considered too closely. But I am sure many outside observers would find it bizarre that some people want our well-funded, open, diverse, high-quality and ancient university system to be subjected to the upheaval of a revolution in the unproven hope that there might just be something a little better to be discovered around the corner.

Steve Jones 005-1Dear Nick,

I’m not sure I’m about spin out into the wilderness, but I take your point about there being no perfect alternative to the current model. Without lay governance, it’s unlikely that consensual academic democracy would organically emerge in its place.

But I do believe that university Boards would be better placed to respond to an increasingly complex and difficult policy environment if they engaged differently with staff and operated less opaquely.

Your earlier point about practice changing less quickly than regulation is well made. But if university governance is ever to catch up with policy – and if public, academic and student confidence in the sector is to be improved – further dialogue is surely required.

Wonkhe-Nick-Hillman-contributorDear Steven,

On that, I wholeheartedly agree – indeed, I would say it is long overdue.

Is PQA scepticism damaging the sector’s reputation?

This piece was first published on WonkHE (27.08.19)


Only in the UK does PQA have a name. Post-Qualification Admissions, the practice by which universities make offers to students once their results are known, has been debated every summer since it was first mooted in the Dearing and Schwartz reports of 1997 and 2004 respectively.

The reason that other nations don’t have an equivalent term for PQA is because it’s something they’ve always done. The abbreviation would be as redundant as PPC (post-pregnancy childbirth) or PND (post-night day).

But the UK system is historically wedded to guesswork, making offers to students based on how well their teachers reckon they might do in their exams. We know that such forecasts tend to be imprecise. Research by Gill Wyness demonstrates that nearly one in four disadvantaged students who go on to achieve AAB or better at A-level have their final grades under-predicted. Only 16% of students have every one of their grades prophesied accurately. What’s more, our crystal balls are becoming more, not less, prone to malfunction over time.

Increasingly, there’s political backing for PQA. Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner recently reiterated that a Labour government would scrap predicted grades, adding that “our education system must work for students and be driven by fairness, not market forces”. Newspaper editorials point to the UK’s “outdated” model. Danny Dorling, like many senior academics, is a long-time supporter of reform.


Local admissions staff are on board too, with seven out of 10 respondents to a recent survey saying they back PQA. And David Olusoga gets to the heart of why the current admissions process feels unjust to those without the requisite social and cultural capital, likening it to a first encounter with estate agents: “one of those moments in life when the realities of class and privilege are brought out into the open and thrust into the faces of the disadvantaged”.

What’s more, PQA would mean an end to the rise in unconditional offers, a practice which possibly breaks consumer law and for which the sector is rightly attacked from all sides. Teachers are aghast that their efforts to secure the very best grades for their students can be so casually undermined one game-playing, supposedly market-savvy university.

In the face of such widespread support for PQA, one might expect the HE sector to embrace the opportunity. At the very least, one might expect acknowledgement that the current system – mostly untouched since the early 1960s – is out of line with what’s now regarded as fair and transparent.

But this is not how sceptics frame PQA. Take the response of UCAS to Angela Raynor’s statement, which argued that:

“If introduced wholesale within the current timetables, [PQA] would be likely to significantly disadvantage underrepresented and disabled students, unless secondary and/or university calendars changed”.

It may be technically correct to say that if PQA were imposed on the sector without any adjustments at all then those (typically middle class) students with in-the-know personal contacts to draw on in mid-summer would be further advantaged. But of course timetables would change. And of course schools and universities would adapt to a new system.

The claim that underrepresented and disabled students would be “significantly” disadvantaged is both premature and speculative, muddying moral waters. Any negatives would need to be carefully and systematically weighed against the many positives of PQA, a system that could potentially open the door for the kind of ambitious, joined-up progress in widening participation that’s long overdue.

Few of the advantages offered by PQA are acknowledged in the UCAS statement, which drifts unhelpfully into paternalistic and market-based language (“our admissions service protects students, enabling them to exercise their consumer rights”), before ending with boasts about high student satisfaction. As Jo Grady notes, it’s a “lazy defence of the status quo”. But it’s also a self-defeating position if it allows the sector to be framed by outsiders as bureaucratic and change-resistant.

Timing is not the only problem with the UK’s admission process. Indeed, as Debbie McVitty points out, arguments about PQA threaten to suck the oxygen from wider conversations about support for under-represented groups. It’s essential that forthcoming reviews look at other problems with the application process.

For example, each UCAS applicant currently requires a reference from their school, something that can take up many hours of valuable staff time. But do generically glowing exaltations really help universities to select the most suitable applicants?

Similarly, my own research for the Sutton Trust has shown that the personal statement disproportionately benefits applicants from better off backgrounds, and that state school teachers struggle to give appropriate guidance to their students because they don’t what universities are looking for in an application. It’s also time we took seriously Vikki Boliver’s finding that ethnic minority applicants to selective universities are less likely to receive offers than comparably qualified white applicants.

No doubt the shift to PQA will create many new challenges, as Chris Husbands and others warn. But the narrow logistical problems aren’t insurmountable. Remember that every other nation’s admissions agency copes perfectly well with a post-qualification system.

What’s vital is that the UK sector doesn’t unwittingly give the impression it’s complacent about equity, and tone deaf to legitimate criticism of its practices. With senior politicians now openly seeking to “rebalance” resources away from higher education, the risk is that excess caution about PQA – justified or not – gives ammunition to those who think the sector has lost touch with what society wants from it.