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. 

What are you going to do about Brexit?

I’ve got this question from more than one member, unsurprisingly, including after my first all-member email went out on Monday. Here’s how I’ve been replying:

First of all, I voted Remain, and I prefer Remain to any of the alternatives that would be on the ballot if this Parliament could schedule another referendum. I’ve also criticised UCU for waiting two years to schedule a member consultation on Brexit (in September 2018) without organising any larger campaign on the issue. The lack of a concerted campaign probably explains why only 25% of UCU members voted in that consultation. And since the consultation, we’ve not really seen UCU do anything to enact the will of the membersa press quote here, an announcement there, but nothing concrete. I wrote a blog about this for Times Higher Education which I’d invite you to have a look at if you’ve got a spare couple of minutes: it’s been republished on my campaign website and you can read it here. My manifesto also points out that we can’t trust either of the main political parties, including Labour, ‘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’.

In the absence of sympathetic parliamentary forces, the key thing to do is negotiate with employers to protect our EU staff and students as much as we can. For example, I plan to demand that employers pay any costs that fall on EU (as well as non-EU) staff relating to their immigration status if we end up with a Brexit deal that ends freedom of movement. At present, UCU is letting its international members down by failing to demand things like this in its annual negotiations with employers, as my manifesto points out. I’ve also made a statement on the government’s proposals to end home fee reciprocity for EU students after Brexit, which was quoted in The Guardian: click here to have a read.

Some other members have asked me about the prospect of UCU formally affiliating itself with the Labour Party, the way some other trade unions do, partly in order to have an influence on its Brexit policy. My take (which I’ve already offered on Twitter) is that although I’m a Labour member, I would require convincing by our membership on this issue. UCU is small compared with the main affiliated unions and it’s hard to see how much influence we would have in the policy areas that matter most to usand that includes immigration and Brexit.

 

What are you going to do about climate change?

More than one member has asked me about this, one in response to my first all-member email, which went out on Monday, and others on Twitter. Here is my answer:

Thanks for asking me about this very important issue. You may have seen that I talk about climate change in the pensions section of my manifesto. Given the size of the USS pension scheme’s fund (well over £60bn at the moment), my view is that the single most important thing UCU can do is to force USS to divest from its large direct fossil fuel holdings and invest in green assets instead. This is an area where UCU could have a lot of leverage in the near future. The Joint Expert Panel is going to issue its second report soon, which will deal with the question of overhauling USS’s decision-making mechanisms, governance structures, and investment strategies. There may well be more industrial action, or threats of industrial action at that point, and that will be the perfect time to put divestment on the table.

Other members have asked me about other forms of action on climate change, including the possibility of a general strike, and I’ve already said a bit about this on Twitter. There are legal issues around a general strike: since trade union laws prevent workers from striking over anything other than their own terms and conditions, we would need to find workarounds in order to make it clear that we are in dispute with our employers about how they are handling (or rather, failing to handle) climate change, and not directly with the government or any other body. But I think the possibility is there and we have to investigate it. Students have led on this issue, and we need to find ways to support them. And there may be other local opportunities, short of a strike, to make a difference: for example by pushing some of our wealthiest institutions, e.g. the big pre-92 universities, to divest. To my mind that’s bound up with the larger enterprise of governance reform, replacing the corporate figures who tend to direct decision-making at the highest levels of universities with representatives from student and staff bodies.

Can employers afford the higher pay and pensions contributions UCU has asked for?

Your manifesto claims that ‘all Higher Education employers can afford to meet recent national pay and pensions claims made by UCU, and more’. How can you justify this statement?

This question was put to me in a long, politely-worded email from a very senior manager at a pre-92 university. They are still a member of UCU and they were replying to my first all-member email, which went out on Monday 29 April and linked to my manifesto. Their main argument was that universities’ main source of income, tuition fees, has failed to increase in line with inflation, and it was therefore necessary to cut staff pay relative to inflation as well. We decided to ‘agree to disagree’ after their second reply to me, but here is the gist of my argument:

Employers have imposed real-terms pay cuts on staff nearly every year since the financial crisis. They did this even after their per-student funding increased very significantly, when £9,000 fees were introducednot just when the fees were capped and funding stopped rising with inflation. The fact is that employers have repeatedly paid staff less when they could afford to pay them more. But instead of doing that, they chose to increase their capital expenditure and borrowing, while amassing substantial unrestricted reserves.

Either of UCU’s most recent pay claimsa 7.5% salary increase last year, and an increase of 3% + RPI this year (which will almost certainly turn out lower than 7.5%)still would not bring pay back in line with inflation, if implemented. Look at the annual accounts of most universities today, pre- or post-92, and you’ll see a net cash inflow from operating activities which is more than big enough to fund that 7.5% increase on its own. Most universities, to put it in plainer terms, have enough money in their back pocket to fund a significant increase in staff costs. But even those that don’t have the cash upfront can still afford it. Universities now tend to have a ratio of unrestricted reserves to annual income which is far higher than the norm for the charitable and non-profit sector. Our demands are reasonable and the money is there.

The same is true for the USS pension scheme: as information released by the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) has demonstrated, independent reviews by two accounting firms (PwC and EY Parthenon) found that all but one USS employer could increase their contributions from 18% to 21% without making any cuts in other areas of expenditure. And yet throughout the USS strike, employers insisted they had to close the pension scheme because they couldn’t afford to pay to maintain even a half-decent benefit package. In the 12 March Acas deal which UCU branches rejected, employers still only offered us 19.3%. Similar issues are occurring with TPS, too: post-92 universities are already claiming they need to make staff redundant in order to be able to soak up an impending 7% contribution increase, when their accounts are pretty healthy and they haven’t provided the evidence to justify their case, as I point out in my manifesto. So in the case of pensions, just like pay, we simply cannot trust employers when they tell us what they can and can’t afford.*

Another thing that makes it hard for staff to trust their managers is the lack of transparency and, in many cases, good judgement in the ways universities have been spending their money. Most institutions disclose very little to their staff, students, or the general public about their capital expenditure, borrowing activities, cross-subsidies, and the use of external consultancies and other private-sector collaborations.

I think it’s worth bearing the larger political context in mind, too. It really is extremely disappointing to witness just how complicit some of the most powerful figures in UK Higher Education have been in the Coalition Government’s disastrous tuition fee ‘reforms’. There was a reason why I cited the example of vice-chancellors secretly lobbying Labour to keep the current system in my manifesto. That sort of behaviour comes across really badly in the eyes of staff. There is a fundamental divide here: between staff who want a publicly funded tertiary education system, and managers who don’t.

*Of course, in the case of USS, the JEP and subsequent developments have made clear that if USS were governed in a responsible and evidence-based way, staff and employers could enjoy the current benefits at a rate equal to or lower than the one agreed at the 2014 valuationno need for any of the contribution increases USS has imposed on us. Employers should have joined forces with UCU some time ago, before last year’s strike and before the JEP was convened, to try to make the necessary changes. The fact that they didn’t is their fault, not UCU’s, and I believe it’s fair that employers should soak up the costs associated with tolerating USS’s dysfunctional management for as long as they have.

Universities challenged: Reversing market tyranny in Higher Education

In May 2018, I participated in the “Reasons to be Cheerful” podcast, hosted by Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd. The episode was entitled “Universities challenged: Reversing market tyranny in Higher Education”, and you can listen to it here. Here is the blurb:

Hello. We’re on the road again—this time in Sheffield at the Festival of Debate. We’re asking what’s to be done about our universities? Our guests Jo Grady, Joshua Forstenzer and Mark Leach want to rescue the public purpose of Universities from the tyranny of the market’s high fees, casualised staff, distorted assessments of research and teaching, and frustrated students.