Are university leaders on ‘Fat Cat’ Salaries?

Rolly

If you want Rolls Royce leadership, you have to pay for it. Supposedly.

The fact that university leaders are paid fairly well bubbled up in the summer and has rumbled on since then, with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath being the best paid – nigh on half a million pounds a year. She has since lost her job, and there’s a new code of practice for establishing VC pay. Was all this fuss justified?

First off, universities employ hundreds, if not thousands, of staff, have thousands of ‘customers’, and have budgets that run into the billions – the VC is carrying a lot. That that senior leaders elsewhere in the public sector often earn as much or more was pretty much ignored, as was the fact that CEO salaries for comparably-sized businesses in the private sector are often way in excess of this. A comparison is often made with the Prime Minister’s salary (c.150,000), but this a red herring. PMs may have a lot of responsibility, but they get a grace and favour house in Downing Street, and Chequers Court in the Buckinghamshire countryside. They’re ferried around in chauffeur-driven cars, and spend the rest of their lives earning a fortune in memoirs, after-dinner talks, and lucrative part-time engagements. But this is a hot topic, and seems to have grasped the public/media imagination.

What is dodgy here is that VCs often seem to be on the panels that review their pay packages – turkeys and Christmas, right – and that staff across the sector have seen the value of their wages fall. This is due to wages rising slower than inflation, and that a lot of university staff are on short-term and zero-hours contracts. So, fat cat salaries, not really, but there are problems in pay across the sector, so this is more of a fairness and bad taste issue than anything.

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Are university degrees ‘Value for Money’?

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All that learning’ll never pay off, you know…

Government policy has, for some time now, been seeking to create an educational market, in both schools and universities. This comes about through trying to prove (through measurement and league tables) that the quality between universities varies, and well-informed punters then choose where to study (or send their children) based on the quality of the course and the likely financial outcomes. Universities, it is hoped, will charge different levels of fees based on this variation of quality/employment opportunities, just like in other markets, like cars, holidays, whatever. They will also look to up their game in relation to their competitors, to attract those punters.

The first problem is that not everyone is equally well-informed or equally able to apply for whichever university they want; this little to do with ‘ability’ and more to do with luck, parental income and education. High status universities are socially selective, and this is not because wealthier people are brighter.

The second problem is that there is no evidence for any real variation in teaching quality, despite what the National Student Survey (NSS) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) claim to show. They’re not valid or reliable measures of how good a university/course is (or isn’t). That students from ‘better’ universities earn more and dominate the professions is more an issue related to the labour market and the fact that certain employers – lazily – rely on university status (and the social class of applicants) to select their staff. This connects with the third problem, financial outcomes.

Undergraduate degrees across England cost £9,250 a year, regardless of the subject. This is because the government has said that’s the most that universities can charge. Overall, the inputs the the same, it’s the outcomes that vary widely. The cost of running a degree is not cheap – think of the staffing and infrastructure (administration, libraries, labs, classrooms, IT). Also, as I explain here, courses that are cheaper to run (in the Humanities and Social Sciences) subsidise the more expensive ones (Engineering, Medicine), and the probable salaries in those fields don’t correspond with the cost of provision. If you charge variable fees, you potentially exclude people from poorer backgrounds, and that’s an absolute red line.

All of this obscures that current fee levels are the result of poor government policy. Universities can’t charge variable fees, because it looks bad, but also need to cover their costs – if anyone’s guilty, it’s the politicians that created this unholy mess. The fact that some degrees aren’t ‘value for money’  in the rawest sense should almost certainly be addressed through greater state subsidies for degrees across the board rather than excessive loans which are often not repaid. Fees and loans, particularly in their current form, are pretty hard to justify, and we saw a public view on this in the general election where Labour’s commitment to lower/abolish fees seemed to be a vote-swinger. All of this, though, also obscures the fact that cost = salary is a very narrow way to consider the ‘value’ of a degree when the many of the benefits of a degree are social and therefore unquantifiable.

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Are Academics are Out of Touch?

Kyoto Tower at Night

Are universities an ivory tower?

I know the Brexit vote was pre-2017, but it’s obviously an ongoing issue, and it marked a significant event where mainstream understandings of politics and voting were way out of kilter. For universities, staying in the EU is an absolute no brainer – we want to employ staff and recruit students from elsewhere in Europe, to collaborate with colleagues there, and have access to EU funding. The economic numbers for Remainers, also make sense, as it’s cheaper for us to import and export from other EU countries. But we’re in an interesting time, politically. Brexit – and Trump – neither of which many people saw coming, have shown that a lot of people feel left behind, or left out, of the benefits of globalisation. Voting to Leave, for Trump, or for UKIP, is a sign that a lot of people feel that politics in its current form has let them down – they want something different. As a sociologist of education, I see the effects of poverty on  lower educational attainment, and then on the labour market, but I’d not made the connection with voting; the working class Labour, and older and/or wealthier Conservative voter may still be still out there, but it’s less cut and dried.

While we may have been out of touch, there has been a concerted effort to understand what’s going on. The Conversation – a public engagement website written by academics – has a lot of articles on Brexit, for example. Journal articles also started to emerge in 2016, which was pretty impressive given the lead time on publishing. So universities probably are more in touch now, but what we’re still not very good at is communicating with the public. We have a few lobbying groups, the most visible and influential of which is the Russell Group. They represent the ‘top’ universities, but seem to have little interest in anyone else, or in social justice or diversity within their student body. Universities UK represents the whole sector, but their arguments about the value of higher education is largely about economic. It’s an easy argument to put cross, but it’s entirely reductive – where are the social arguments? These are also entirely missing in the Brexit discussion, which drives me mad – it’s fun to be mobile, to share experiences and ideas.  Have universities been divided and conquered, more obsessed by competing with each other than applying a concerted voice?

I feel that universities, particularly in the social sciences, need more academic celebrities – my students this year couldn’t name any when I asked them. Mary Beard is accessible in classics (and kick-arse), Lucy Worsley has done well in History, and Bettany Hughes did this fantastic series on Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, but it’s a rarity that these kinds of things feature on TV.  Then there’s Richard Dawkins, but he’s curmudgeonly and contrary, and not very constructive for religious discussions, but Danny Dorling is good on social inequality. None of them has the visibility of Brian Cox, and neither of the men have the same kind of approachability. We need a Brian – in fact universities need a lot of them, and preferably not so many in the white-male category. We’re getting better, I think, but there’s a long way to go before academics are part of the national conversation outside the broadsheets. We’re in touch, but not not quite connected.

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The Tale of the Disappearing Academics and Death by Poisoned Numbers

Disappearing

Do they even know we’re here?

I’m Irrelevant!

My university doesn’t give a monkey’s about me. I’m one of several hundred employees, and as in any organisation that size, my hopes and dreams, my own trials and tribulations, are essentially irrelevant. The ideal situation is that your personal missions in life overlap with those of your job. If they don’t, and you can’t reconcile the differences, then you’re probably in the wrong business. This of course assumes that you have a choice about what you do and where you work. The sociologist in me also knows that the business you’re in informs what you hope and dream for, but that’s a discussion for another day.

An organisation can’t possibly ‘care’ about you: it’s not an animal/person, even if we – and particularly advertisers and brand managers – like to associate companies, teams, and so on, with personalities. If you have large groups of people arranged around various tasks and responsibilities, with a chain of command, then it can’t be personal. It’s not a family. It’s not a democracy, either, and even if it was, you can’t please everyone all the time. That’s not to say that you can’t have a culture that looks values and fosters collegiality,  decency, positive morale and sound mental health, you can (and should). But at the same time, we’re cogs in a machine – we need maintenance and oil, but we’re basically replaceable components.

The Point of Invisibility

At one level, I’m asking a philosophical question here, but at the same time it’s a practical one: when is it, within an organisation, that individuals become lost, or invisible? The point at which people ‘vanish’ will depend on the organisation and the people in it. My direct superior, my Head of Department certainly knows a fair amount about my current projects, teaching, and other responsibilities because he’s dished most of them out. He also knows a fair amount about my life outside work. His boss, the Faculty Dean, knows a fair bit less, so the invisibility starts setting in there. The further removed you are, the less you can know. What is unusual at my current university is that the ‘boss of bosses’, my Vice Chancellor, knows me by name; this is because it’s a relatively small place but also because he makes it a point to know everyone who works for him. But he can’t know that much, so I’ve faded further into insignificance there, and I doubt that I enter his thoughts when he makes wide-reaching decisions.

I acknowledge that this fading and vanishing happens ‘beneath’ me, too. I have a pretty good sense, individually and collectively, of the 25 students I see twice a week. How well they do is partly down to me – I can explain, nudge, and advise as best I can, but it’s probably 20% me, 70% them, and 10% whatever else is going on around them. I’m also ‘responsible’ for about 120 students doing final year research projects, across three campuses. At various points this year I’ll probably teach about two thirds of them a few times, and I supervise some, but many of them I don’t know and never talk to. So quite a few of them are invisible to me, too, but I’ve designed the course, and work with other supervisors, in a way that I hope will help them. It does in the main, from experience, and we tweak and improve the course every year based on feedback. However, I have very little influence over the end result, but still have an agreed ‘target’ with my boss, which to get the cohort’s average over 60% (a B grade). This target is reasonable and achievable – it’s not far from where we’ve been in the past – but my job and promotion prospects are not on the line if it doesn’t happen if he knows that I’m doing what I can.

Targets

We have our own goals and those that are set out by our employers. These usually fit within the job description, which if you didn’t have, you’d have little idea of what to work on. Provided the goals are relevant, meaningful, and achievable – within reason – this is can work well. A target is often quite specific (i.e. measurable) and they’re common in most walks of life, from sports to sales. They can be useful when you have a lot of people in an organisation, as you have to ‘rationalise’ things – to ‘manage’ a system where people know what is expected of them. This is the alchemy of leadership, of steering a ship manned by hundreds or thousands of people towards where you want it to go. Some of this rationalisation comes about through the use of numbers, of working out how long things take, how much things cost, and this allows you see where changes are happening, where things need to be done.

But imagine what happens if those numbers are wrong. Let’s say, for example, that an academic is contracted to work something like 1500 hours a year (i.e. after holidays). You say that they’re timetabled to teach and supervise for 200 hours, and then give them an equal amount of time for additional teaching-related tasks (marking, class preparation etc) . What if the hours spent in front of students are right (after all, they’re timetabled), but the additional work is two to three times what you’ve allocated? Then consider the other things they’re expected to do, like research, writing papers and attending conferences, as well as being part of departmental and university committees. Your expectations of what they’re capable of then starts to fall apart, and it’s really in tatters if your calculations of non-teaching activities are out of whack. Either staff will underperform according to your expectations, or they end up working much longer hours. Maybe both.

The plot in the Tale of the Disappearing Academics, though, is about to become even hazier, and could lead to Death by Numbers. What if some the numbers you’re collecting and making decisions on are wrong in the sense that they don’t capture what they’re supposed to? Teaching hours are one thing, but there a great many other things that are counted and compared within universities. I’ve written for some time that a great many of them don’t actually measure the thing they claim to – they may be related, but often only weakly. How happy your students are does not necessarily mean that your teaching is good, the proportion of students who drop out may have nothing to do with your teaching quality, and  how many of international staff you employ does not, in itself make you a world-leading university, either. The list of these things is endless, and of course focusing on these can lead to huge amounts of wasted time, effort, and exhausted, frustrated (invisible) people.

Shooting in The Dark?

This question of vanishing people and dodgy data is not just about academics; we only make up about half of the staff in higher education, and we’d be lost without most of the other half. This just as much about anyone who makes organisational, national, or global policy. Bringing about change where large numbers of people are involved is almost unfeasibly complex but this makes it incredibly interesting, and it can be done. But a focus on misleading numbers and targets is hugely unhelpful, and they proliferate across education, health, the penal system, and so on. Counting things is often useful, but the numbers themselves may misrepresent the reality of people they impact. If we start to see the world solely through erroneous spreadsheets, then we’re asking people we can’t see – and don’t understand – to do things which we ourselves don’t understand, either. The outcomes are likely to range from pointless, to unhelpful, or even outright disastrous.

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How sexist are universities?

Sexism

Is Higher Education a country for (old) men?

At first glance, you might think that universities, as spaces for promoting critical thinking and (often) social justice, are more immune from sexism than, say, the film industry. You might expect them to less homophobic than professional football, and less racist than the Metropolitan Police, and so on. A hunch says that they might be, but sadly the truth is less positive in terms of our record and culture of gender in-/equality, for one.

Academia: The Big Hope?

There’s a long (right wing) tradition of criticising academia as dressing towards the political left, favouring politics and policies that promote social equality. Universities are, not coincidentally, significant (but not the only) places where the perspectives of marginalised groups are investigated and highlighted through feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory. This leftish orientation is unsurprising given that a great deal of university activity is geared around trying to understand the word we live in – and that we are, as a result, by and large Brexit Remoaners, too. We’re a veritable hotbed of Political Correctness Gone Mad (PCGM). To add to this, there are now more female students in UK universities than male – 57% to 43%, to be precise. This bodes well for higher education, right? The reality of the situation, though, is far from rosy.

Degree ‘Choice’ and Gender

In terms of study options, there are long-standing differences in the gender balance on degree courses. In spite of there being more women than men at university, there are far more men in engineering, computing, physics and chemistry, and maths. In computing and engineering, it’s about 85% men. Then there are more women in health sciences, biology, social sciences, languages, education, and creative arts. In education, the ratio of women to men is 9:1. The only subject with an equal balance is, interestingly, business. There are also far fewer women taking postgraduate research degrees than men across the UK (except Northern Ireland, for some reason).

We might casually discount these figures as representing students’ natural ability and free choice: some subjects are simply more ‘girly’ or ‘boyish. But the figures indicate that degree choice is anything but free, and sociology helps us to understand that what is or isn’t girly/boyish is socially dictated. There is no biological reason for gender differences on any degrees – i.e. no evidence to support any real differences in ability or preference by gender (or race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, or social background, for that matter). This means that people’s choices are being steered by culture – that people from either gender are subtly or even explicitly encouraged towards (or discouraged from) certain subjects. The knock-on effect then spills into the labour market around jobs that are supposedly appropriate (or inappropriate) to particular genders. The numbers themselves also play a role here: imagine walking into a lecture theatre, careers fair, meeting, or training event, where nearly 90% of the people there are the other gender to you.

University Jobs and Gender

The gender differences in postgraduate research students, often the ticket into academic posts, provide an inkling as to how things pan out in the academic life for men and women. Of all academic staff in the UK, 55% are men. This is ‘better’ than some of the figures above, but still strange when you consider that there are more female than male students. What stops women staying on beyond their Bachelor or Master’s degree? When it comes to part-time staff, the balance is the other way around – more female academics than male. Maybe they’ve got childcare responsibilities, so don’t want to work full time – but why shouldn’t the men be doing that? I’ve written before that the funding for students in higher education favours those that don’t have family commitments, and this is one reason why mature students essentially vanished the last time tuition fees went up in 2012.

What you see when you get to the top end of academia is that only a quarter of all senior academic posts are held by women. This comes about in part because men are more likely to want/be able to forgo family commitments to further their careers, women are more likely to act collegially (rather than selfishly in their work), There is even evidence of a clear gender bias towards men in student assessments of teaching. The deck is therefore stacked in men’s advantage. It’s worth remembering here the national pay gap figures – last week marked the point in the calendar when women effectively started working for free for the rest of the year.

Why?

We can see that the gender imbalances in society are also present in higher education; universities don’t operate in a social vacuum, and the problems you see in society therefore crop up there, too. This is in spite of their PCGM and socially critical credentials. Why is the overall picture so bad?

A useful window into understanding this has come in the aftermath of the Weinstein case, which seems to have marked a shocking but significant step in the battle towards gender equality. Among the discussions and revelations around sexual harassment and discrimination in the media and social media, two hashtags have been particularly powerful in bringing issues to light: #notallmen and #metoo. #notallmen refers to the common refrain, from both men and women, that not all men are Harvey Weinsteins in practice (or in waiting). They’re not, but the problem is that sexual (and other) discriminations are built into everyday life, and are so pervasive that people don’t even know they’re there (or doing them). #metoo was used by Twitter users who’ve been subject to some kind of sexual harassment. Basically, it’s every woman you know (and some men) and this means that you really can generalise – i.e. it’s all men.

For example, academics sometimes have relationships or ‘liaisons’ with their students. Is this adults making free choices? Actually it’s incredibly problematic as the power – and therefore consent – dimension is in the academic’s favour, and there is a real opportunity to abuse that power. It’s this same power that can help them (and the wider community) silence any complaints of inappropriate behaviour. At what might seem the more banal level, men are more likely to be considered authoritative and/or knowledgeable, to agitate for pay raises, to be assertive on grant and promotion applications, to have a stronger physical presence, and (be allowed to) dominate conversations. Once we realise and accept this, then beyond the sledgehammer cases that shock most people, it’s more often a case of harassment and discrimination by a thousand cuts for women everywhere.

I’m struck in all of this by something I read recently, which claimed that most white people are racist, most heterosexuals are homophobic, and most men are sexist. The initial reaction to this is to disagree (#notallmen, right?), but as painful as it is to admit it, it’s true. The problem is that even the most well-meaning of us – academics as much as anyone – often don’t realise that we’re being this way. We need to wake up.

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New Academic Year’s Resolutions: 2017-18 is the year of more ruth!

 

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I’m feeling positively autumnal!

I love autumn. In one way it’s a sad sign of nature slowing the whole show down, but it’s the season with the best light, the most interesting colours, and is also the start of the new academic year. When I was working in the private sector I missed that sense of starting afresh every September/October, the nostalgic and exciting feeling of a new school year as the summer draws to a close. The excitement is, I admit, tinged with a sense of trepidation around the more hectic rhythms and requirements of term time. That trepidation, though, is part adrenalin rush as we step again into the partial unknown of new and updated courses, fresh faces, un-/expected internal and governmental edicts, and so on.

I find the start of the new academic year is also a good time to clarify where I’m going. Reflecting on previous year/-s (like here and here), always highlights room for improvement, and while I’m not interested in thinking about marginal gains, here are the five simple things that I’m hoping will make a difference this year:

  1. Have a Plan

It might sound like having a meeting to plan the next meeting, but I discovered at the end of last year that I was a little short of direction in my research. I do have a sense of where I’m going and what I’m trying to find out/contribute to knowledge, but I need to make better sense of what it is. This will give me a clearer idea of what to read (and what not to), the kinds of projects that I want to be doing/involved with, and a more cohesive overall purpose (and academic identity). This should be helped by the next few resolutions, as well as improve my career prospects, see number 5!

  1. Be ruthless.

I’ve written before about the tricky balance between collegiality and being overloaded. I’m going to try a new approach this year where I try much harder to turn work down. This isn’t a blanket policy, as there are some things I’ll have to do, and colleagues/students who need help aren’t going to be left in the lurch. But I’m going to be more discerning (or cautious) about saying yes to additional tasks. Part of this involves trying to prepare all of my teaching materials before the year really starts, something a colleague of mine does. There may be the odd class that’s added as the year goes on, but in the main I know in advance what I’ll be teaching. Getting this done beforehand will free up huge amounts of space for better thinking about – and doing – my teaching, research, and other activities. 

  1. Switch off my email.

Email is a boon as well as a curse. You can be in touch with multiple people quickly, and it serves as a record of past conversations – particularly helpful as a list of things to do, to chase up people you’ve asked for something, or equally to double check when you’re accused of saying/doing (or not saying/doing) something! But at the same time the speed of it means that much more is expected of us, and more quickly. Emails are never urgent, but I’ve tended to have my emails open and pick away at them as they come in. It’s great for people who ask me to do things, but inefficient and distracting for me. I noticed over the summer that I was more productive as email goes much quieter. I’m aiming to only email in bursts at the beginning, middle, and end of the day. If someone needs something quickly, they can call.

  1. Read the news once a day (only).

A bit like email, the 24-hour news stream has its pros and cons. I got into the habit last year of checking the news on my phone a few times a day, as well as reading ‘the paper’ (i.e. online) in my lunch break. I’m not alone in my slightly pessimistic view of national and global politics right now, and my job as a social scientist doesn’t help – life is pretty shit for a lot of people. But I found that my stress levels while on holiday dropped hugely as I stayed away from the news entirely. I want/need to know what’s going on in the world, both professionally and personally, but I don’t need to be constantly plugged into it. In the same vein, I need to be a bit more organised around my social media interactions – I’ve switched of push notifications on Twitter, and ‘check’ Facebook less.

  1. Apply for another job.

I’m not unhappy where I am, but I found that applying for a job at another university was, in the words of a friend, ‘like a career MOT’. It provided a useful measure of how far I’ve come since I completed my PhD and started looking for full-time work in earnest. It highlighted a few things (like a the lack of a plan) that I can work on, too. Getting shortlisted shows that I’m in the right kind of place, and not being offered a job is not necessarily down to you. However, the feedback if you are interviewed and don’t get it can give you useful things to work on. If I do get an offer I can’t refuse, then great, but equally I know that the grass isn’t necessarily greener elsewhere. Applications and interviews are a useful way of getting a feel for what the grass is actually like in other places and whether or not someone else might want you to eat it!

I suppose, in a nutshell, the plan for this year is to try and cut out (or down on) the dross and focus much better on the important stuff. I’m still committed to helping my students as much as before and being a valued colleague, but I’m also hoping that I can make more space for myself.

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Confessions of a new lecturer, Volume 3: The downside of being a ‘Yes Man’

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Have I inadvertently tied my shoelaces together?

When I started as a new lecturer, I found it impossible to turn calls for assistance down, partly in the interests of making a good impression and partly because there’s a power dynamic when senior colleagues ask you to contribute to something. Adding further activities to the new job, new courses, new people, and so on left me lurching from one week to the next. I noticed a few comments on the THES version that my teaching load was excessively light; in response – it was on paper when I started, but additional classes were added throughout the year, making the workload unpredictable.

Any road, how are things different, two academic years later? In some ways, easier. I’m doing the same amount of teaching; I deliver just over 100 classes across the year, varying from one-hour tutorials or lectures to three-hour seminars or workshops. I’ve also supervised nearly 50 – mostly undergraduate – dissertations. Our teaching allocation is considered to be 500 hours of preparation and classroom/lecture theatre time (plus supervisions), with one hour of prep for every hour taught. This works out if you’re marginally tweaking your own established materials, but a new lecture can take days to research and write. I lead two courses now, and these have both required rewriting and then amending after a year to cater for changes elsewhere in the course.

Overall, I have a much better sense of the ebb and flow of the year, when the manic and quieter patches are, and this makes planning ahead easier. I always feel, though, that the promised land of a genuine lull is permanently elusive. In practice it’s never much of one – something always crops up. I do have my teaching qualification and HEA fellowship behind me. In hindsight, and this seems to be common, I’d have liked much more time to dedicate to it and benefit from it. The assignments had to be squeezed in and written last-minute and slightly unreflectively – basically all those things we tell our students not to do.

Research-wise, as of last week I’ve got four publications under my belt, two of which will be submitted as part of my external review in a few years from now, two of which won’t be. I’ve also had one rejected (with snide feedback, it’s a rite of passage, right?), and there’s one I’ve co-written with a doctoral student that went in last week. There are two more pieces from my doctorate which are in various stages of undress, and I did some work with my former supervisor which fell by the wayside. We’re in the process of (metaphorically) resuscitating the patient, and I’m leading on a project which is trundling along, albeit very slowly. I’m not sitting still, but I’m not exactly motoring either, because…

…I’m not any better at saying no. Well, maybe a little, but not by much! I really buy into this idea of the university, that it’s about being part of a collective and greater good. I’m also interested in a lot of things within university life (in part because higher education is my area of research) and I like seeing how it all works. Also, if nobody volunteers for stuff, it simply doesn’t get done. You add this interest and collegiality together, and I’m no longer volunteering to ingratiate myself, but because that’s how it works. I’m beginning to realise though, that I’ve overcooked it in the commitment stakes. We have to log our research time, and I’m well short of the 500 hours I’m supposed to spend on it, even in spite of also having some research leave this year. I accept that my occasional poor time management and the incessant stream of emails get in the way, but I still have more on my plate than is helpful. Helpful to me, at least. I simply have too little time to read and reflect; I’m not joking when I say that my best ideas come when I’m staring out of the window. I don’t get to spend enough time gazing into space, letting the grey cells make those insightful connections that help fuse the reading and writing together.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a job interview for a pre-92, and that I didn’t get it. They were right not to offer me the job – in addition to the person who got it (a good friend of mine, as it happens!) being far further ahead in research terms than me – I’m just ‘not there’ yet. The preparation, interview/presentation and feedback were useful and interesting, and I now have a good sense of what I need to do/where I need to go next. Also, I’m not quite ready to go: I’ve got unfinished business where I am. The research centre that I co-run with a colleague is on a solid footing and is going places, and I want to see that the courses I’m responsible for be successful.

The interview question that struck me the most, because it threw me, was about where I see my contribution to knowledge being over my career. In a sense I can’t know because I’m not long out of my doctorate and some of your research trajectory comes about by chance. At the same time, as they say, you make your own luck, and you fit your own longer-term interests into bigger projects. If I’d thought – and known – about this question, I’d be better off, not only in the interview, but overall, in terms of having a master plan. As it turns out, I do have an answer, but I haven’t had the space to stare into to develop and articulate it. Have I been too much of a ‘yes man’? I’m all for being collegial, and (university) life relies on it, but am I being over-collegial? There’s always a balance between selfishness and altruism, and perhaps I need to be a bit more of a no-man. The ideal situation is where you help yourself and others at the same time, but this isn’t always possible.

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What we need is a new ranking – for journals.

Maybe not what you were expecting from me – the last thing we need is another ranking in higher education, right? As I’ve written before, they’re based on proxy measures and therefore rarely, if ever, capture what they claim to. For universities, we have national and international league tables, rankings for the best party atmosphere, green credentials, student satisfaction – one for just about everything except social justice. Maybe that’s the one we really do need. Perhaps another is a – new – ranking of academic journals. There’s already a scoring system for what’s called ‘impact factor’, which is how often you get cited, but this isn’t necessarily a sign of quality: it varies hugely between disciplines, and people cite rubbish as examples of bad work!

Much has been written about the dysfunctional nature of the academic publishing industry. A summary of how it works goes something like this:

  • Academics write up and submit articles (for free), having spent months/years doing the research;
  • An editor – a senior academic (paid a nominal fee) – looks at their list of experts on that topic, and sends it out with requests to review;
  • The article is reviewed by at least two academics (for free);
  • The reviews go back, through the editor, who informs the writer (with the feedback) if it’s accepted, accepted with amendments, or rejected.
  • Accepted/amended articles are then sent by the publisher to the writer for proof reading and error corrections (usually minor discrepancies in referencing);
  • The finished article (excuse the pun) is published, and sold back to universities.
  • The upshot is that publishing houses make huge profits for doing relatively little. Genius!

Academics have to publish, our careers depend on it. Universities are partly measured – and ranked – based on the volume of their publications, and we therefore have annual targets of x number of articles per year. This all means that publishing academic journals is not unlike dealing drugs except that your customers aren’t just addicted to consuming your merchandise, they’re addicted to growing it, and the refining process is free! Seriously, though, publication serves a central purpose in academia – it’s about sharing your work with your peers, and the review process makes sure it’s as good as it can be. You’re building a pool of knowledge that has a strong quality control, which is a good thing.

The publishing game is particularly tricky for new academics. It’s a key external marker of quality, and it can take ages to get published. First up, it’s difficult to do – it is supposed to be, of course – but consensus is that takes upwards of a month to write an article, and this is after the research and analysis is complete. That time has to be found in between teaching, research, and ‘stuff’. Often you write with colleagues, you’re both/all busy, and this extends the writing process immeasurably. Then you have to submit it and wait for your reviews. This usually takes a few months; a friend of mine waited over a year for his, just to hear back. Assuming you get accepted with amendments, you have to go off and sort them out, which again might take a while. If the paper’s rejected, you can rework it and send it to another journal, but you might even have to bin it altogether. I’m sure senior academics have folders full of work that has never made it into daylight.

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Has your article reviewer just wiped the floor with you?

I’ve had three things published, have several in the pipeline, and submitted another one three months ago (no news yet). I also had one (co-written with a professor) rejected last year. The feedback from one of the reviewers pointed out some shortcomings and indicated room for improvement, all of which I had no truck with – they were right. The other review was brief, its highlight being ‘this is about the standard of a Master’s degree’. Ouch – and here’s the kicker – some reviewers seem to get off on giving bitchy comments. They can do it because both the article and reviews are submitted anonymously. I guess it’s a form of academic trolling. For a selection of these kinds of review, see here. In a way they’re are quite funny – insulting people politely is, after all, something of an art form.

The unfunny side of the equation is that this is a piece of work that someone has probably spent months working on, and their career depends on it. In the name of both karma and decency, you should review the way that you want to get feedback – constructively. Even if the paper is to be rejected, there’s always a way of fixing it, it’s just that sometimes that fixing requires quite a lot of work. I’ve had some really good reviews, giving me advice on aspects I’ve been struggling with, and/or suggesting useful authors or specific readings to help with that. Simply writing ‘There is so much that is wrong with this paper that it is difficult to know where to start’ just marks you out as a wanker.

So here’s where the ranking comes in. Why don’t we rate journals based on:

  1. How long they take to get back to you, and;
  2. How good the feedback is?

There is a caveat on each. For the length of time, you somehow need to factor in that the sheer volume of journal submissions nowadays makes the editor’s job hard, and they can sometimes spend months just trying to find reviewers. Perhaps they should let you know if it’s being delayed. For your feedback on the feedback, as it were, you need to be honest and not simply slate journals for rejecting your work. You could qualify your poor rating with by pasting offending sections into the ranking, like the feedback on other kinds of reviews.

You could argue that you don’t need a ranking, more a collection of comments, but you do need a good volume of data to build a representative picture. You could go up the scale for sensible turnarounds and constructive reviews, and down for being ignored for months and/or harsh feedback. As with all forms of quantification, you have to be careful with what weights you assign to different criteria, but you never know, if this took off, maybe the unkindness would begin to be sanctioned by the journals. There is a shortage of reviewers, and this might shrink the pool a bit, but those nasty bastards really aren’t helping.

Posted in Early Career Academia, International Students, Rankings | Leave a comment

Universities are the (spluttering) engines of social progress.

 

Universities change the world, right? Well, sort of, but maybe not as much as they could or should…

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Is there more silver or grey in the clouds of higher education?

 

Researching for the Greater Good

Through their research, academics learn new things about the world, and this drives scientific and social progress. This is sort of true, but comes with a few qualifications (excuse the pun).

Firstly, a certain amount of research has little direct use, and some of it that does never sees the light of day. This can be because it’s not made widely available (journals aren’t universally accessible), it isn’t publicised, or it gets smothered by funders – governments who don’t agree with the findings, or other sponsors who’d rather keep the goodies for their own use. Research can also be suppressed by other academics. Public research is about producing knowledge and then sharing it for critique and discussion to assess and improve it, but science (well, scientists), can be quite conservative. As ‘schools of thought’ emerge and establish themselves, their adherents/acolytes may spend their entire careers vigorously defending this (potentially flawed) work and belittling alternative (potentially better) perspectives. Economics at the moment offers a case in point. After conventional economists, to some extent, failed to predict and explain the 2008 economic crash, there has been pressure to broaden the taught curriculum, moving away from what some see as overly abstract and unrealistic models. There has, though, been resistance to change within the discipline because this undermines some of the well-established concepts on which many careers have been built.

Secondly, as I’ve written elsewhere, politicians or organisations in general may not be very interested in acknowledging evidence if it contradicts their position. Michael Gove famously labelled academics opposed to his education reforms as ideologically-driven ‘enemies of promise’. Of course Gove has an ideology, too, and while much of the critique of his views may have been based on an alternative  political position, it was one founded on a great deal of data.

This inability for research to ‘get out‘ is to do with power, the sociology of science, and the dynamics and politics of policy making, which are all fascinating. But it all means that there may be less of a connection between research and (positive) revolution than there should be.

Graduates: moving up in the world?

A second area where universities aren’t having being as beneficial as they could is through their limited contributions of social mobility. Higher education and education more generally, so the argument goes, open the doors to better opportunities through more mentally and financially rewarding jobs. Well, this is true, but it’s not equally true for all. This is another topic I’ve blogged about a fair bit, but we can see overall that the children of people who went to university do better at school, and are in turn more likely to go to uni and get the same kind of (middle class) jobs as their parents. They’re not brighter than the other kids, but they are more likely to look as if they are. So what we see, by and large, is history repeating itself – and a lack of diversity within universities means that get less varied perspectives within the student body, which also doesn’t help.

There has, though, been a massive increase in the numbers of people going to uni from the mid-90s onwards. Maybe we could argue that because there are more working class people going to university, social mobility has improved. Well, it has, but not by that much. The growth of higher education has been accompanied by unfounded accusations of ‘dumbing down’ in some ‘lower’ parts of the system. Evidence shows that it’s the wealthier students who tend to populate the so-called better universities. They have more of an advantage on the labour market, partly due to the status of their university, and partly because it’s easier for them to do unpaid internships and the other things that improve their CVs. The production of more degree holders has also created some graduate underemployment and – you guessed it – it’s the working class kids at ‘weaker’ universities who are more likely to be un- or underemployed (and highly in debt). This all muddies the waters even more on tuition fees as the costs of all degrees are the same but the outcomes are not.

Is there any good news here? Of course, but it has to be tempered with the (sad) realities. There is a lot of university research which does make it into the public sphere, and academics and universities are getting better at sharing their work with the public in general. This, in one sense, is what this blog is what this blog is all about. Also, there is social mobility for graduates, but for better and fairer outcomes all round, the ‘whole thing’ requires major changes in the school system, university admissions, fees, salaries, and the labour market in general. Most of the responsibility here falls squarely on the government’s lap…

Winning Hearts and Minds

What this blog originally going to be about, but which has (characteristically) taken me a long time to get to, is where I see the greatest change from universities: through their teaching. We’re more or less at the end of the academic year, and this allows me space for a little retrospection. Because of the teaching model where I work, I see the same group of first year students twice a week (all year), and mark nearly all of their work. This means that I can see what they were like when they arrived, how they’ve developed over the year, and what kind of assignments they’re handing in at the end. I also supervise a lot of final year research projects, and you get to compare their initial research ideas with the finished product.

The difference, overall, has been huge, and it’s clear that some of those students have been absolutely transformed. A few haven’t, and this is often related to their willingness/ability to engage, and maybe at times there are holes in my teaching. It’s important to note, though, that the greatest agents of change are the students themselves. The majority of the effort is theirs; my job is to give them some new knowledge, but it’s mostly about providing useful pointers and feedback on the way. My first years, as a group, scored really well on their final assignments, taking advice on board, assembling solid, interdisciplinary discussions based on what was sometimes unexpectedly broad reading. I’m due to mark the dissertations over the coming weeks, but I have high hopes for most of them based on previous experience and the discussions we’ve been having over the year.

The caveats (there are always some) is that is some bad teaching or poorly constructed courses don’t really enable student development, and there are some students who don’t engage with their degrees and therefore get less out of it. I’d argue, though, that even they change a great deal but just less than some of the others. Even if they do the minimum, handing in passing assignments during their degree, they’ll be working at a level that they certainly weren’t at when they started.  I did, though, have a bit of a golden moment with some final year students a few weeks ago. We went (slightly) off piste during an in-class discussion, and the conversation veered towards how they felt they’d changed over their degree. Many of the students in the class were mature, working class parents, with relatively unspectacular educational histories, and initially low intellectual opinions of themselves. But they lit up the room with their enthusiasm through statements (in their own words) like this:

  • ‘I’m incredibly proud of myself. I have grown in confidence and feel that I am more respected and valued in my job role. I feel like I have grown as a person since the course began.’
  • ‘I’ve discovered how to be a critical thinker. I accept less of what I am told to believe and form my own opinions based on the evidence I am now able to seek. I now think I can work at a higher level after graduating than I first aspired to and am looking for where I might fit in and what my next steps should be. It’s all rather exciting!’

This is probably the ‘silverest’ lining in the cloud of higher education, and this is why I teach.

 

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Is this the beginning of the end for tuition fees (as we know them)?

 

The Higher Education Bill – currently passing through the hoops of parliamentary deliberation and approval – involves, for the first time, generating systematic data on graduates’ tax returns. The government sees this as leading one way, but I’m imagining (hoping) that something else might happen…

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R.I.P. Tuition Fees, 1998-2018?

The data they’re going to collect means that we’ll be able to track clearly, for the first time, how graduates from different universities, having studied different subjects, fare financially over their working lives. The rationale behind this is an economic one – to establish, with greater precision, what ‘graduate premiums’ are – how much graduates earn based on what and where they study. This, the government hopes, will offer a stronger argument for universities to charge different rates for their degrees, something they’ve been trying to encourage for some time. The idea, you see, is that higher education is a market, and differences in quality should be reflected in differences in price. There are a lot of arguments as to why education isn’t/shouldn’t be a market, but I’ll save that conundrum for another day.

Plan A: The Price Range

The logic of matching tax returns and degrees works like this. Let’s say, for example, that a graduate from an elite university, over their working lifetime, earns an average of £60,000 a year, and one from a non-elite university £40,000. This provides a bona fide reason, they’ll argue, for elite universities to charge more because the degree is ‘worth more’. You can also drill down a little deeper and see that a degree in Finance leads to better earnings than a degree in Art History, so the Finance option should cost more. In short, highly-ranked universities should charge more (some of them are already pushing for this), and more lucrative degrees should be more expensive. The problem is, this doesn’t wash.

Firstly, there is no clear indication that an English degree from ‘Top University X’ is better than an English degree from ‘Mediocre University Y’. We have all sorts of comparisons and rankings that include differences in admission standards, student satisfaction, retention rates, research income and capacity, and so on. They’re also looking to measure teaching quality (which they can’t). As I’ve ranted regularly about rankings, these figures are based on proxies. In other words, they measure something ‘next to’ what they want to capture, and then pretend that they’ve actually captured it. The linking of tax records is essentially going to be doing the same thing, but from a different angle, as it will equate quality with with earnings.

Secondly, as I’ve written elsewhere, calculating the ‘price’ of a degree is problematic. UK universities currently all charge the same, at least for undergraduate (Bachelor) courses. There are several reasons for this:

  • The government has capped what you can charge for an undergraduate degree, currently £9000;
  • Universities are worried that charging a lower rate might make them look as if they’re lower quality (the same logic as luxury goods, interestingly);
  • Not all subjects cost the same to deliver. Currently the excess cash from cost-effective degrees (in humanities and social sciences) is used to support cost-intensive courses (in sciences);
  • Degrees in the same subject but at different universities, cost about the same to deliver;
  • More expensive courses/universities could become (even more) socially exclusive as poorer students feel forced to choose cheaper/less prestigious ones, not the ones they like/want to go to;

Plan B: The Demise of Fees?

We already know a little bit about what the future looks like for graduates. At the aggregate level, they are more likely to be employed, and to earn more over their lifetimes, than non-graduates. This is the main rationale for tuition fees, that you invest in your future earnings by going to university. The problem is that what you do – and how much you earn – after graduating can vary hugely. Overall, it is down a range of things, key of which are:

  • What you study;
  • Which university you go to;
  • Who you are;
  • How long you work for;
  • Luck (e.g. the state of the economy/labour market).

If you take a ‘perfect’ case, you’d be a posh, white, able-bodied male studying Engineering at Oxbridge. You get hoovered up by a City finance firm before you’ve even graduated, in part due to the status of your university, your numeric literacy and problem-solving skills, and how you talk/dress etc. It will also help that you rowed for your college, hiked up Kilimanjaro and rescued turtles in Indonesia on a gap year, and did a summer internship at an investment bank, courtesy of an uncle who works there. Your future will be almost immune how the economy is doing, you make big bucks and your tax returns for the next forty odd years are impressive – assuming you pay tax, of course!

This, of course, doesn’t represent many people at all. There is a great deal of unfairness here, particularly as women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to study certain subjects and/or attend certain kinds of (i.e. ‘top’) universities. They then also pay a penalty on the labour market for having babies, being sick, working collegially rather than competitively, being the ‘wrong’ colour, having the ‘wrong’ kind of name, speaking with a regional accent, and/or simply living/graduating during an economic recession. The problem here is that most of this is known, but the evidence is piecemeal.

What the tax return data may do is definitively take the wool off our eyes, proving that the current numbers behind degrees simply don’t add up for most people. There are already indications of this because the rate of repayments for student loans is lower than predicted. The cynical among us might think that they knew this would happen and were overly optimistic to get the policy approved… Either way, we might be on the edge of blowing the lid off the whole thing, exposing the unfair and partially invisible financial and status divides that permeate our university system and job market. Maybe they’ll have to charge higher fees for wealthier students, although I can’t see that one washing through an election!

In the longer run, it’ll take years, even decades, to really understand what’s going on in relation to degrees and earnings, and there’s no guarantee that whoever is in government won’t cherry-pick the data to show what they want it to. But if the data was publicly available, and we can see dimensions such as gender, ethnicity, social background, dis-/ability, and the state of the economy, this could be a powerful resource for positive change. Wishful thinking? Watch this space!

Posted in Access to Uni, Employability, Rankings, Student Loans, Tuition Fees | 1 Comment