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.
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.