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Viscount Hanworth, Leicester professor emeritus, on the state of higher education

Published: 11th May, 2018

On May 9, the House of Lords debated the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Viscount Hanworth, aka Stephen Pollock, is emeritus professor in the University of Leicester’s economics department (now subsumed into the School of Business) and remains a member of Leicester UCU. Below, we reproduce his contribution to the debate.

My Lords, the scrutiny of these regulations, which are consequential on the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, provides an opportunity to take another look at the developments in the governance of UK universities and to consider where they are taking us.

The education Act of 2017 encapsulated a modern view of the purpose of universities that is greatly at variance with a conception that prevailed for most of the 20th century. In the traditional view, which accompanied the expansion of universities that began in the 1960s, the purpose was to create an educated population and to give it full access to our cultural and our intellectual heritage,

There was no limit, initially, on the number of participants. It was maintained that anyone who was capable of profiting from a university education should  be enabled to do so.

Nowadays, it is generally agreed, among members of the Government and the senior management of universities, that universities should be regarded as institutions for training the workforce and for making discoveries and for pursuing developments that might stimulate economic growth.

The universities Act of 2017 attempted to direct the activities of universities to these ends via a plethora of regulations and initiatives that fall under three headings: the research excellence framework, the REF; the teaching excellence framework, the TEF; and, latterly, the knowledge exchange framework, the KEF.

Work is under way to develop metrics to enable the Government to jude the successes and failures of institutions in each of these three areas and to award the available funds to support their activities accordingly. There has been a hypertrophy of university administration, which has arisen largely to service the demands of Governments. In most institutions, administrators now outnumber the academic staff.

The declared objectives of Governments have been mutually antagonistic and largely counterproductive.

To recruit sufficient numbers of students in the increasingly competitive open market environment created by the present Government, UK universities are indulging in what has been described as an amenities arms race. They have been spending exorbitantly on student union buildings, swimming pools, sports centres and student accommodation. Things have had to give way to enable these developments. The university to which I am affiliated as an emeritus professor has declared the objective of reducing its salary bill by 20% to provide the funds for capital investments.

It is clear that there has been a conflict of objectives in the context of the teaching excellence framework. The assessments are based largely on measures of customer satisfaction. The provision of student amenities is liable to enhance this satisfaction. The reduction in the numbers of permanent teaching staff and their replacement by casualised teachers has provided some of the necessary funds. The casual workers are mainly drawn from amongst the postgraduate students, but they include a growing number of post-doctoral teaching fellows on temporary contracts. This is bound to affect the quality of the teaching.

The research excellence framework involves a quinquennial competition amongst university departments to determine where they should be ranked in terms of their research output. Once more, the effect has been dysfunctional. These assessments are based on a so-called peer review by senior academics. Departments can guess what sort of research will be most favoured by closely examining the adjudicators’ research output. Innovative research and interdisciplinary research, in particular, tend to be discouraged.

The principal effect of the research excellence framework has been to compel academics to maximise their published output. They have learned to write several papers for the price of one good idea by contriving never completely to finish a research paper. In this way, there will be something left over on which to base a subsequent paper.

A small voice used to remind me, whenever I became enthused by the prospect of a new avenue of enquiry, that I could not afford to indulge in speculative research. My mission instead was to write papers. Only when I had produced a sufficient number of papers was I free to pursue the research.

The research excellence framework has also militated against the objective of doing applied research of a sort that might lead to industrial innovation. Such research is liable to be sponsored, in part, by an industrial enterprise. For that reason, it is often subject to industrial secrecy.

An academic who seeks promotion through the excellence of their publications would be advised to steer away from such applied research, which might not see the light of day for many years. This is one way in which the research excellence framework comes into direct conflict with the objectives of the knowledge exchange framework, which aims to encourage the practical application of academic research.

One cannot impose these contradictory requirements upon academics without driving them to despair. Nor can academics evade these demands, which are being placed upon them at the behest of the Government by university administrators. Vast amounts of time are liable to be spent in meeting the demands of the various assessment exercises, to the detriment of teaching, research and the transfer of knowledge.

The mantra of the present Government is to induce market competition into the university environment. University life is already very competitive. Hitherto the competition has been largely academic. Now there is intense competition to win research grants, since their acquisition is liable to be an important factor in achieving promotion.

A young statistician in my department was able to make rapid headway on the basis of a grant from the Medical Research Council to pursue a very ordinary epidemiological investigation, which would not have incited any interest among his more cerebral colleagues. His preferment created intense jealously.

Maybe that is too personal a story to dwell upon, but there is a point to be made. Applied research of this nature is best conduced in research establishments that are devoted to the relevant lines of inquiry, be they in medicine, pharmacology, telecommunications, aviation or whatever.

Britain was once endowed with many splendid research establishments within the public sector. These had strong relationships with universities, as well as with industry. Many of them were abolished in the 1970s and 1980s. It is wrong to expect universities to fill the gap that has been left, which is what the knowledge exchange framework is intended to force them to do.

I believe that the Government’s policies towards our universities are self-defeating. They are liable greatly to diminish the quality of our universities and their status in the world of learning.