UCAS personal statements create inequality and should be replaced by short-response questions

Last week saw the publication of HEPI Debate Paper 31 on Reforming the UCAS Personal Statement.

I’ve been banging on about the UCAS personal statement for over a decade, pointing out that it disadvantages under-represented groups in multiple ways. Initially, there was some pushback (mostly anecdotal), but now there isn’t really much counter-argument at all. Almost everyone in the sector acknowledges that the personal statement is problematic at the very least.

Following the report’s publication, I was asked by a Times Higher journalist why nothing had changed. Being more direct than usual, I said: “Fee-paying schools and colleges have long known that the UCAS personal statement, in its current form, is a chance for their pupils to advantage themselves further in the university application game.”

As well as a powerful independent school lobby persistently advocating for the retention of personal statements, I’d also lay some blame on the elite end of the HE sector. Senior admissions tutors at Russell Group universities often reassure me that nobody actually bothers reading the statements anyway, as though that makes it all okay. Meanwhile, stress levels among students and staff in under-resourced state schools get higher, and the statement continues to provide just enough rope for some applicants to hang themselves.

The HEPI report is an attempt to reach a compromise position. By suggesting that UCAS personal statements should be replaced by short-response questions (rather than scrapped completely), we are trying to meet the sector half way.

I say ‘we‘ but this idea belongs squarely to Tom Fryer, a PhD student of mine. Tom is the report’s main author, and I’m indebted to him for providing new data that supports the case for reform. This data emerges from Write on Point, an organisation that Tom founded to provide young people from under-represented backgrounds with support for writing their statement. Tom is just the kind of thoughtful, self-motivated postgraduate researcher that all supervisors dream of, and I’m very grateful to him for picking up this important issue – and bringing important new evidence to the debate – just as I was beginning to flag!

Will change now happen? Clare Marchant, the chief executive of UCAS, told the Times Higher that she has been working on options for reforming the personal statement since May 2021. Apparently, this has involved consulting with 1,200 students, 170 teachers and advisers, and 100+ universities, and a report outlining proposals for the next admissions cycle will be published in the coming months. But I’m still not holding my breath…


Podcasts as academic book promotion

Since the publication of my latest book, Universities Under Fire, I’ve been asked to give a couple interviews with well-known US podcasters. The genre is new to me, but the experiences were interesting, and it was fun attempting to reach different kinds of audience.

First, I found myself in conversation with Andrew Keen, a San Francisco based entrepreneur and author. Andrew’s questions suggested his familiarity with contemporary English higher education wasn’t in-depth, but his enthusiasm more than compensated for any gaps in knowledge.

Shortly afterwards, I spoke to The Curious Man. The curious man is Matt Crawford, a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Matt’s insider understandings of how universities operate allowed for a more informed exchange, and I soon warmed to his values and politics.

Podcasts potentially offer a way for scholars to reach much larger audiences, and to influence folk outside the usual conference circle and seminar series. It’s a challenge, because usually the only people who want to talk to you for an hour about a book you’ve written are fellow academics (and among your peers you can safely assume lots of shared knowledge). But engaging with podcasters is a worthwhile endeavour, and I’m grateful for the opportunities that Andrew and Matt afforded me.

Book Review of Steven Jones: Universities Under Fire

Academic Irregularities

This review first appeared on the HEPI blog on 31st August 2022. An alternative review of the book, by Nick Hillman appeared on the HEPI blog on 25th August here.

The 18th book in the Palgrave series on Critical University Studies tells us there is a lot to critique in universities in the 21st century. The problems detailed in Steven Jones’ book are familiar to HEPI readers: higher education funding, marketisation, academic precarity, management by metrics, and students positioned as consumer. Jones discusses all of these, together with a chapter on culture wars and freedom of speech controversies. His view of academia is discouraging: a sector where precarious staff, menaced by exhortations to be ‘resilient’ and ‘agile’ suffer imposter syndrome, and where ‘quit lit’ is a ratified genre of academic writing.


Jones focuses his critique on the pervasive spread of market ideology and neoliberal values…

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The Tory leadership race shows what a soft target universities have become

This piece was originally published in the Times Higher Education (05.08.22)

When the Conservative Party leadership hopefuls launched their campaigns at the start of July, the focus of one candidate, Kemi Badenoch, seemed different from that of the others. In addition to pledging tax cuts and economic growth, Badenoch used her platform to needle the UK higher education sector, taking potshots at universities’ brainwashing of students and their “pointless” degrees.

“Some universities spend more time indoctrinating social attitudes instead of teaching lifelong skills or how to solve problems,” she told The Sun newspaper on 11 July. The following day, writing for The Spectator, Badenoch expressed that anti-university sentiment in a way that was more coded but no less recognisable: “I’m not the sort of person who you can sideline, silence, or cancel,” she warned.

Badenoch has a reputation for HE baiting. When minister for equalities, in late 2020 she used Black History Month to pivot into an attack on critical race theory (CRT), accusing educators of presenting white privilege as fact to their students and describing CRT as “an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood and their whiteness as oppression”.

The rhetoric was powerful, but it was also misleading. CRT is a set of cross-disciplinary tools and methods that emerged in the late 1980s for exploring racial injustices. It involves analysis of social structures, not individual identities.

The problem is that, as academics, we tend not to be very good at explaining our methodologies. Historically, we haven’t needed to because the separation of state and university was always enough to keep politicians’ noses out of our curricula. But those days have gone, and we must now find ways to articulate more clearly and more persuasively the value of our approaches.

In an age of culture wars, all kinds of petty non-stories can be blown up into a headline event if it is politically expedient to do so. Even a vaguely unpatriotic gesture by a small group of students can be seized upon by a government keen to divert voter gaze from its economic and social policy. Once outrage is manufactured, the truth matters little.

The temptation for universities is to look the other way until the news cycles roll on. But news cycles don’t roll on. For a public conditioned into distrusting universities, the idea that academics are secretly radicalising their students through CRT is depressingly plausible. So politicians and media commentators continue to fabricate or exaggerate tales of “wokeness” on campus: biased lecturers, student snowflakes, Mickey Mouse degrees and no-platforming.

A programme of marketisation has compromised universities, leaving them unsure how to rebut criticism like Badenoch’s. Discourses of the public good have been mostly displaced by a narrow, utilitarian focus on value for money. Right-wing governments realised that universities were a block to free-market thinking, so they sought to impose competition as disciplining strategy. Now the sector is losing confidence in its core social purposes.

Pushing back against increasingly populist forms of government isn’t easy. However, it is vital that the anti-university narrative isn’t allowed to take hold uncontested. Evidence of the limits of a quasi-market in higher education is ubiquitous: graduates repay loans for most of their working lives, but the cost to the state remains substantial; institutions spend millions on marketing, but price differentiation remains rare; and despite institutions being ranked in every way imaginable, traditional hierarchies of prestige are arguably stronger than ever.

Yet vice-chancellors remain reluctant to dissent. Many were quick to accept sizeable pay rises when the marketisation project began, seemingly unaware that they were being co-opted by the reformers. Meanwhile, the sector’s representative bodies stubbornly favour strategies of soft power and behind-the-scenes influence over more public confrontation. So market logic persists despite strong indications that it is neither sustainable nor equitable.

As academics, we are also sometimes complicit in our silence, swept along by tides of metrics and oblivious to the treacherous undercurrents. Those of us fortunate enough to hold permanent posts can turn blind eyes to creeping contractual and intellectual precarity elsewhere, preoccupied by – and sometimes enticed by – an embarrassment of individualistic metrics.

But a counter-narrative needs to emerge from somewhere. Someone needs to be pointing out that universities remain the lifeblood of many communities, particularly in straitened times, and that higher education is one of the few ways through which the status quo can be challenged. The culture wars and the snipes about academic methods are not inconsequential. They form part of an agenda to soften up the sector for further structural overhaul, and ultimately for cleansing society of critical or counter-hegemonic thinking.

Badenoch didn’t make it to the final two in the Conservative leadership contest. However, she progressed further than most commentators expected, and her anti-university sentiment played well with many in her party and beyond. Other politicians and strategists will have noticed the immense capital to be gained from a plain-speaking, anti-woke stance.

They may also have noticed that the UK higher education sector is a soft target because almost no one is fighting back.

“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.