Three-D Issue 26: Competition and choice, or more audit and less academic freedom?

David_Hesmondhalgh_770-newDavid Hesmondhalgh
University of Leeds

Amidst the recent political turmoil, it’s been easy to forget the Higher Education White Paper. Obviously, Brexit will have enormous negative consequences for HE, including the MeCCSA subject areas. But no-one who works in UK universities should overlook the White Paper. The UCU are understandably using Brexit as a reason to put the White Paper on hold, but I suspect that (sadly) that won’t wash.

Many people are sick of the word neo-liberalism, and it’s true it’s often used in a way that simplifies complex changes. But neo-liberalism is all over the White Paper, including its very title: Success as a Knowledge Economy (and I thought we’d seen the back of that term under New Labour). The tropes of competition, choice and price invoked by the White Paper are now so familiar in education policy that they may inspire tedium rather than outrage. But there are reasons to be deeply concerned by what the White Paper proposes, and in some cases those of us in media and communication studies should be especially worried.

I won’t summarise the White Paper in detail here. You can read it quickly enough on-line, or you can Google the Times Higher’s helpful summary. I want to point to what I think are the three most important issues: marketization, teaching audit (aka the TEF), and the perils of ‘interdisciplinarity’ in research funding. I also want to say some things about the REF, even though that isn’t really covered in the White Paper.

Marketisation is a major element of the proposals. It mainly takes the form of efforts to make it easier for businesses (for-profit and non-profit) to set up organisations that can claim the name ‘university’. This status would be attainable within six years, and the size threshold would be reduced from the present 1,000 students to an as yet unspecified number.

The goal is competition – a crucial component of neo-liberal public policy. The White Paper claims that this will be achieved by a shift to ‘risk-based regulation’, focusing attention on providers that require ‘additional monitoring’ by the proposed new Higher-Education super-regulator, The Office for Students. Don’t think for a minute that this means less audit for established universities, i.e., the ones you almost certainly work in if you’re reading this. It simply means that all new universities will have to do is provide a plan for what happens if they go bankrupt – an ‘exit plan’. The real risk will be borne by university workers and by students. And in subjects such as media and communication studies, it’s especially likely that likelihood that numerous new providers will wish to enter the market, no doubt dispensing with the boring stuff such as understanding the media’s role in society, or histories of abuses of professional journalism standards, and concentrating on media production and unpaid internships and placements.

Marketization is also embodied in White Paper in its emphasis on ‘student choice’, and the provision of more information. This information will consist of three main elements: the salaries of graduate students, retention and student satisfaction. Salary information will be based on tax returns. Information about this will be available, broken down by discipline, by the end of this year, and the results will be very interesting. Will the famously precarious nature of early-career media work penalise our disciplines? Such an outcome would hardly be surprising. Measures of student satisfaction will of course be based on that masterpiece of methodological rigour, the National Student Survey.

Much of the attention to the White Paper has been devoted to the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework. Of course, this has been interpreted as an REF for teaching, and there is some truth in that. It also, however, represents an effort to bring another element of market thinking to bear on higher education, besides competition and choice: price as a mechanism for measuring and rewarding value. We have been here before. When Vince Cable and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition raised fees in 2010, he specified that universities could charge in a range from 6,000 pounds to 9,000 pounds fees – and with only two or three bizarre exceptions all universities and degrees charged the top of this scale. So much for ‘price differentiation’. Now the Conservatives and their civil servants want to go in harder, introducing a mammoth apparatus of so-called peer review, and tying price to three levels of assessment drawn from the wonderful world of Ofsted: satisfactory, excellent and outstanding. Get either of the latter two categories and you can raise tuition fees in line with inflation.

Needless to say, there is little discussion of price theory in the White Paper. Instead, bold assertions are made about the need to increase teaching quality. ‘Skewed incentives’, we are told, ‘have led to a progressive decline in the relative status of teaching as an activity’. Says who? I’ve worked in higher education since 1992, and the degree of care and attention devoted to teaching has risen steadily through that time, to almost neurotic levels. It’s not enough you bloody shirkers, the White Paper implies. At some universities, the White Paper points out, students do lots more independent study at others. Or ‘some of you are getting away with murder’. In future, you will be assessed by ‘peer review’ panels, which will include students and those embodiments of neo-liberal virtue and wisdom in the neo-liberal worldview, employers.

Remarkably, the White Paper makes no reference to a recent precedent for such efforts to ‘drive up quality’ in university teaching, the Teaching Quality Assessment exercise introduced by the Major government in 1993, and finally scrapped by New Labour in 2004 (though it should be recalled that New Labour were no enemies of audit). Old hands will remember the mountains of paperwork that universities had to provide in advance of week-long visits by smiling teams of assessors, a mix of school inspectors and academics (in media and communications, many of the academics had only tangential contact with the discipline).

Veterans of TQA may also recall the Friday afternoon meetings where departmental scores were read out to teams of staff, some of them visibly shaking. You got 6 marks out of 4, resulting in a maximum total mark of 24, like some kind of dance or gymnastics competition. Over 21 and you were OK, under 18 and you could expect serious attention from senior management. Unlike the REF, at least you had the chance to look your executioners in the eye – or hug and kiss your saviours in moist-eyed relief. Even the winners thought it was a shambles.

As a recent modelling exercise by the Times Higher clearly showed, the TEF is likely to favour universities outside the Russell Group. Some media and communications folk might welcome that inversion of hierarchies, given that so much media studies is taught outside the so-called elite. But that would be a mistake, and I say this not because I work in a Russell Group university. I say it because the TEF threatens to be an appalling extension (or re-extension) of audit. It will create yet more soul-destroying documents that are hardly read by anyone, and which no-one in their right minds would want to read. It will add stress to already stretched university workers (both academic and administrative). It will waste millions of pounds of money, just like the REF does.

A third notable feature of the White Paper is the creation of a new body to bring together all the Research Councils, to be called UK Research and Innovation. In this, the White Paper follows the recommendations of the recent Nurse Review. As with the recent Global Challenges research pot, there is a strong emphasis on that motherhood and apple pie concept, interdisciplinarity. Now all good work is in one sense interdisciplinary, but the kind that recent HE policy has advocated is in my view unlikely to produce much high-quality work. It is likely to drive marriages of funding convenience, rather than genuine excellence.

The new UK Research and Innovation quango will also take over responsibility for the REF from HEFCE – though probably inheriting its machinery, processes and some of its personnel. Oh yes, the REF. This hardly gets a mention in the White Paper, as we await the conclusions of the review of the Exercise being conducted by Lord Stern, a supposed REF ‘sceptic’. But the mention it does get is revealing – a boast that the introduction of research audit by the Tories in the 1980s has, apparently, driven research excellence. Forgive me for departing from my brief to discuss the White Paper for a minute, as I think the REF remains a fundamental issue in UK universities.

Some of my colleagues criticise the REF in terms of vague terms such as ‘bureaucracy’ (a bad thing, involving other people) and ‘autonomy’ (a good thing, to which academics have some kind of right). But in my view the problem with the REF isn’t per se that it involves administration of academic matters by some evil higher authority. There needs to be some mechanism of accountability, and that can be done well or badly, and with varying degrees of respect for academic freedom. The problems with the REF involve unintended consequences and understandable self-interest as much as ideological control.

The REF and its predecessors were justified on the reasonable grounds that research money should be distributed on the basis of peer review, rather than by inherited reputation. But because so much was at stake, financially and reputationally (especially in the era of league tables) academics soon started to object that the system needed to be tighter, more rigorous, more transparent. This is what produced the literally hundreds of pages of documents that lay out the rules of the game, dutifully learnt by administrators and academic managers. The REF isn’t a monster because it’s unfair. It’s a monster because it desperately seeks fairness and transparency on a scale where those goals are quite simply unattainable: an entire nation’s research outputs. Impact and environment add further levels of unreliability.

HEFCE have always said – and no doubt the new REF-administering quango will say the same – that if league tables contribute to distortions in how the results are used, that’s not their responsibility. But in the reputation economy, league tables multiply the implications of assessment way beyond the allocation of funds that is the supposed goal of the exercise. To ignore this distortion is wrong.

Academics are hugely divided on the REF and critics have floundered badly in our responses. A split now seems to be emerging and we will see how the imminent Stern Review seeks to resolve it. The research-intensives are arguing for a reduction in the audit burden, partly by pushing for review at the institutional rather than subject level. Mistakenly in my view, the less research-intensive universities are arguing for maintaining the system, on the grounds that reform based on less burdensome audit will privilege the elite still further.

I believe academics (universities, unions and scholarly associations) should be arguing for the elimination of the REF, and a massive reduction in audit based on simple metrics – for example, PhDs graduating, research grant income, publications with recognised (though not ranked) publishers. To prevent this from entrenching an elite, this should be combined with measures and funding (partly derived from the costs savings generated by scrapping the exercise) to support the growth and development of research in institutions that can demonstrate a real commitment to nurturing research. Of course any system will have its problems, but in my view the REF has got to go, and the TEF and the White Paper should be energetically resisted, by unions, scholarly associations, and all academics.

Posted by Einar Thorsen