If I ruled the higher education world: an article on metrics for Research Professional

Below is the text of an article I published this morning (Monday 20 May) with Research Professional, reproduced here with their kind permission. For the original article, click here.

The General Secretary candidates were each asked what they would change if they could change on thing in the Higher Education sector. Here is my answer:

Self-reflection is fundamental to higher education. Those of us who work in the sector and provide or support teaching and research know the value of good, constructive feedback. This comes from students and junior colleagues as well as peers. The notion that higher education staff resent accountability is a fiction.

What we resent is being measured and managed by harmful proxies that don’t reflect the real value our work can have for society. The measurements of performance that the government and other external bodies impose on universities are a Frankenstein’s monster, the product of a system that is neither public nor private.  

Metrics exist partly because public expenditure is regarded as a loss that must be accounted for in the short term, as opposed to a form of investment. One of their purposes is to make higher education function, or appear to function, like a market. But at the same time, metrics thrive because the market is so incomplete. Public funding mechanisms and price controls still prevail. Metrics are used as a substitute measure of “value for money” because prices, in the form of tuition fees and research funding, are strictly regulated. 

The need for diversity

But who decides what constitutes “value for money”, and what are the consequences of their decisions? The people who decide are far less diverse than the actual higher education workforce or student body, in terms of their viewpoints, life experiences, and areas of expertise. This is as true of the Office for Students as it is of the compilers of world rankings and of university ministers.

Representatives of these bodies are overwhelmingly white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied and from the global north, and very few of them have deep roots in higher education. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that for most of them, the true “value” of higher education lies in reproducing the world they have benefited from. Thus, the value of undergraduate teaching lies in the number of management consultants it produces, the true “value” of research in the development of new drilling technology for fossil fuel companies. 

What are the effects of the hierarchies of value handed down to us from above? Take, for example, the perspective of an academic who teaches and conducts research on colonialism and aspires to “decolonise” the curriculum and the university itself. What place do our current metrics of success in higher education assign to this person? At worst, very little. A “decolonial” undergraduate curriculum in their subject area might struggle to compete with other subjects in terms of recruitment, or to ensure that its graduates earn enough after leaving to perform well in the Teaching Excellence Framework. In research, papers grounded in intellectual practices hailing from the global south, rather than canonical western theorists, might receive fewer citations and thereby degrade the author’s chances of promotion and the university’s performance in global rankings. 

Best-case scenario?

What is the best-case scenario for this scholar in our current system? If they are lucky, their curriculum will recruit well, and their research will succeed. They will generate money for the university and be rewarded with promotions. They may even ascend to the ranks of senior management. None of this will necessarily have fulfilled their purported intellectual and pedagogical ambitions. The students recruited could all be white and could all go on to work in the worst sections of the private sector. The research might not change minds or have any of its intended consequences. Meanwhile, the university might use the cash generated from that scholar’s recruitment and research income to open a foreign campus, hoovering up international student fees while lending an aura of legitimacy and cultural prestige to the world’s most oppressive governments. 

I could suggest similar examples to illustrate the plight of those working in feminist theory, or disability or transgender studies. What is the alternative? Fund education publicly, open tertiary education up to anyone who wants it, and let the whole community of university staff and students determine what they want to do for society. As general secretary of the UCU, I will lead the resistance to management by metrics, on the basis that something better is possible. Whether the government of the day is hostile or receptive to my ideals, I will create spaces within our union for staff who aspire to work in the right place, to strategise, and develop campaigns for a truly public, social education system. 

Just 48 hours left to elect Jo Grady!

This is an email sent to subscribers of the #Grady4GS mailing list on Sunday 19 May 2019 (some subscribers may have received this later). To subscribe to our GDPR-compliant list, please fill out your details here!


Dear Colleagues

48 hours of this campaign to go

We’re in the last, crucial 48 hours of getting ballots in the mail. This coming Friday, when the results are announced, we want to hear that Jo Grady is elected our union’s next General Secretary. If she wins, she will be the first UCU Gen Sec who has worked in tertiary education.

Round up those ballot papers

If previous Gen Sec elections are anything to go by, there are still many more unused ballot papers around than have been returned. We’re asking you today and tomorrow to contact your colleagues and friends who are UCU members. Check that they’ve voted. If they haven’t, tell them why Jo Grady should become the next Gen Sec.

Very last chance to order a replacement ballot

Order a replacement ballot here. That option closes, we understand, later this afternoon (ie this Sunday, 19 May).

Speed those ballot papers on their way

Say to colleagues you’ll post the ballot paper for them – and will add a first class stamp – on Monday morning. (If so, make sure you or they cross out the pre-paid envelope’s ‘2’ and the barcode with a pen.) Make sure ballot papers go directly in a Royal Mail post box – and are not left in an institution’s ‘out box’ or mail room.

Another future

#Grady4GS has inspired members up and down the country and across all parts of our sector. The endorsements list goes on and on – from the most precariously employed staff to those with senior jobs. If Grady wins, we can transform our union and make another future for tertiary education.

The polls close on Thursday 23 May at noon.

High Noon – for our campaign, and maybe for the future of tertiary education in the UK.

We’re relying on you. One more push.

The Grady4GS campaign team

Endorsement: Susanne Hakenbeck, University of Cambridge

Endorsement from Dr Susanne Hakenbeck, University of Cambridge

I wholeheartedly support Jo Grady’s candidacy for UCU General Secretary. I consider Jo Grady to be the candidate with the clearest vision for what we need in our sector right now. She is standing on an ambitious platform that is supported by concrete aims.

I got to know Jo Grady well through our work on the USS National Dispute Committee that was created following the strike last year. In our monthly meetings, I found her to be exceptionally collegial and comradely, and always willing to consider any idea on its merits. I believe that with Jo as General Secretary we can move from our current trajectory of managed decline to real, positive change in our sector.

Since I joined UCU in 2006, I’ve only ever seen UCU react to the increasing pressures in our working conditions, be they pay, pensions or casualisation. In Jo we have a candidate who is proactive, and who understands that collective bargaining can be more than simply trying to stop a further turn of the screw.

Her manifesto is full of ideas; I particularly support her stance on climate change and on sexual harassment.

The ballot is only open for a few more days. I hope you will support Jo Grady. Please post you letters right away!

Endorsement: Fabian Frenzel, University of Leicester

Endorsement from Dr Fabian Frenzel, University of Leicester

It is genuinely exiting to see Jo Grady running her inspiring and powerful campaign for a stronger and more democratic UCU, and for a better further and higher eduction sector. I am convinced by the power of UCU to transform the sector towards the genuine public institution it should be. Successive governments have nearly crippled the sector, creating layers of useless higher management on vastly inflated salaries, while students are burdened with huge debt and staff experienced years of redundancies, reduced pay and benefits and increased precarity. The pension strike has shown the spirited nature and potential of our collective power. Jo Grady stands for this spirit and this is why I endorse her as the best candidate for UCU General Secretary.

Endorsement: Catherine Oakley

Endorsement from Dr Catherine Oakley, UCU Anti-Casualisation Committee 2018-2019, co-author, The Precarious Postdoc report

I’m no longer a member of UCU, but Jo Grady has my heartfelt endorsement for General Secretary. Jo recognises the issues which have led so many people like myself to leave the profession, and understands the need for the union to transform itself from within to address them. I’ve experienced a toxic mixture of these issues first hand, and I know many others experience them too.

Between 2018 and 2019, I served on the UCU’s Anti-Casualisation Committee. Union members have been working incredibly hard on that committee for many years for genuine recognition and proper resourcing from UCU HQ to support them in tackling casualisation.

Attending the eventful UCU Congress in 2018 as a first-time delegate, I heard senior execs on the podium refer to casualisation as an issue now “at the heart” of the union’s agendas, while knowing from my work on the inside that this is not the case.

If elected, Jo will appoint national branch coordination officers for anti-casualisation to develop this infrastructure. She understands the importance of a democratically-led national union in ensuring that local branches can organise effectively and in protecting individual members from burnout.

Jo is an independent, grassroots candidate with the knowledge, skills and background to lead UCU into a new era. Her manifesto gives me real hope for the future of our universities at a critical time for their futures. She’d have my first vote, with Jo McNeill as second.

Transgender rights and UCU

I am an unequivocal supporter of trans rights and the right to gender self-definition under the law. This will not come as a surprise to anybody who knows me or has followed my public pronouncements in the past. The rights of trans people are under constant attack in this country, in the mainstream press, in workplaces, and, unfortunately, in our colleges and universities. They suffer disproportionately from numerous forms of discrimination and violence. They are among the most vulnerable targets of the far-right ideologies that are becoming increasingly visible and influential in society. No candidate for General Secretary should be able to claim that they care about equality unless they have vocally and publicly defended transgender rights.

Our Union has policies upholding trans rights, updated most recently at its 2018 Congress, as well as academic freedom. To the best of my knowledge, nothing I have said or done is inconsistent with these policies. I will continue to uphold them if I am elected General Secretary. I hope that the other candidates in this election will also commit to doing so.

People sometimes ask me why I began using a service known as ‘TERF Blocker’ on Twitter last year, which provides an easy mechanism for blocking large numbers of accounts that have been identified as articulating transphobic views. The reason is that I was receiving an enormous volume of personal abuse for expressing my opinions about transphobia and trans rights. The right to freedom of speech or academic freedom is not a right to level unlimited personal abuse, in public, at individuals with whom you disagree.

I stopped using TERF Blocker after I stood for election to UCU’s National Executive Committee earlier this year, by which point the abuse directed at me had subsided. At no point did my use of TERF Blocker prevent anybody who was blocked from viewing my tweets, either by using a different account or by browsing Twitter while remaining logged out. Throughout this period, I have continued to receive and, when appropriate, respond to emails from individual members of UCU who disagree with me about this issue.

Endorsement: Daniel Davison-Vecchione, University of Cambridge

Endorsement from Mr Daniel Davison-Vecchione, University of Cambridge

I’m a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and I’m pleased to say I’m backing Jo Grady for UCU General Secretary.

In an education sector where those of us beginning our academic careers are on the knife edge of marketisation, expecting to spend the years ahead on insecure contract after insecure contract, we need a General Secretary who will fight tooth and nail against casualisation. Jo plans not only to convert local claims against casual labour into a viable national strategy, but also to make the voices of precarious staff heard within the union’s channels. In other words, Jo is not only committed to making our union fight for us: she’s committed to making us feel a vital part of the union itself.

I’m also extraordinarily impressed by Jo’s assertive stance in favour of migrants’ rights. She keenly understands the horrific role thrust upon education workers to act as de facto border guards. This is an issue of which I became vividly aware back when I was Branch Secretary of Surrey UCU and on which I wrote during the USS Strike, when many UCU members on Tier 2 visas feared that missing consecutive work days would put them at risk of being reported for ‘unauthorised absence’. Jo will commit the union to resisting our forced complicity in the sprawling, violent apparatus of the immigration system and to helping migrant workers fight for their rights by organising in the workplace. She knows that we should push not only to protect our EU colleagues and students in the current context of Brexit, but also to extend the limited benefits presently enjoyed by EU staff and students to all international staff and students. I therefore trust Jo as a General Secretary who can make the slogan ‘Build unions, not borders!’ mean something palpable.

Lastly, it is an incredibly positive sign that Jo does not shy away from bigger political issues. She is upfront about the risks of simply leaving a socialist or social-democratic party ‘to do the right thing on the issues that matter to us, like immigration and border controls, Brexit, or direct funding of education and research’. She understands keenly that we need to build our own power as organised labour so that we can tackle such national and international matters ourselves, even during less politically hospitable times for the labour movement.

I therefore call upon my fellow UCU members to vote for Jo Grady.

Endorsement: Jo Edge, University of Manchester

Endorsement from Dr Jo Edge, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester

I was proud to nominate Dr Jo Grady for UCU General Secretary and, as an early-career researcher who is now on my second fixed-term contract since finishing my PhD, I firmly believe she is the candidate who best represents me and those in a similar position. I first became aware of Jo during 2018’s USS strikes and was impressed by her knowledge, expertise, and professionalism. I was so disappointed when the strike was called off, against the advice of experts such as Jo. She is also the only independent candidate standing for election and is not involved in the factional politics that have plagued our union for so long.

I have been so impressed with Jo’s inclusivity and attention to detail throughout her campaignfor example, she was careful to get high-quality translations of her materials into Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. This not only shows solidarity with colleagues in Welsh and Scottish institutions, but is also a commitment to diversity. She is standing on a broad range of issues that affect us all, from PhD students to the professoriate including casualisation, pensions, pay and conditions, and mental health. The managed decline of our sector has to stop if it is to survive, and Jo is the person to lead UCU’s fight against this.

 

All-Member Email 4

Below is the text of the fourth of four emails which I am entitled to send to all members of UCU as one of the candidates in the General Secretary election. It will be sent on Sunday 19 May. To read the first, second, and third emails, click here, here, and here.

Dear colleague,

Further and Higher Education are part of a social context which we cannot ignore. Both sectors have been shaped in the last decade by a series of crises: from the financial crisis, to the human and macroeconomic crisis of austerity, to the ongoing crisis of Brexit. Governments have cut some costs, and shifted others to us and to our students.

Managers of universities and colleges have, at best, failed to protect us from politicians and the private sector. At worst, they have actively conspired to undermine public education. Universities and colleges could be part of the solution, but they are becoming part of the problem. It is up to us to turn things round.

You have a few days left to vote. The pre-paid envelopes in your ballot papers are Second Class, so you need to post them by Monday to be sure that they will arrive in time. Today is the last day you can order a First-Class replacement ballot.

The USS crisis: what we have learnt

Last year’s USS dispute showed how far managers’ priorities have diverged from our own. It brought out the worst in them. But it brought out the best in us. Our students supported us. We gained thousands of members. Our collective expertise and experience overturned more than a decade of conventional wisdom about the supposed decline of good, guaranteed pensions. We taught each other what is possible when we take collective action.

Building an open, democratic, proactive union

The fight for USS is not over. As I point out in my manifesto, we still need to secure our pensions for the longer term. But we also need to turn UCU into a union that can confront all the challenges I have mentioned above, and bring about sector-defining change.

We need a plan for Further Education. We can convert local action into a return to meaningful national bargaining, and rebuild the union’s FE membership in the same way we have for HE. But we also need plans to protect our international staff and students; combat climate change; repair the damage done by the Brexit Referendum; eradicate sexual harassment from our workplaces; and replace irresponsible and harmful metrics with meaningful standards for evaluating what we do.

There are no shortcuts. Nobody will do these things for us. I stood up from the ranks of university staff to stand for General Secretary because I know that we are the answer. We can turn UCU into a union that reflects the full diversity of our workforce and represents the very best of tertiary education.

We can reach out to casually employed staff; take action to support our colleagues in professional services; and advance the cause of equality in our annual bargaining.

We can make negotiations more transparent, so that our members can make informed decisions and hold their representatives to account.

We can form member ‘task groups’ to develop new campaigns, and convert our understanding of what is going wrong in each sector into meaningful action against it.

Use your vote, give me a mandate for change

My website now contains an extensive list of my responses to questions from members on a range of issues, and I continue to welcome your inquiries via email, Twitter, or Facebook.

For all our efforts over the past decade, UCU has struggled to find a way forward. This election gives us an unprecedented opportunity to do so.

If I win this election, I will have the honour of being the first General Secretary to come from the membership. I hope to see a record turnout, and a strong mandate for change.

Dr Jo Grady

Image from Scott Hurrell