The threat to stan­dards

UK uni­ver­si­ties’ cre­den­tials are not in dis­pute, but the pen­sion dis­pute re­veals the risk that a cri­sis in morale could de­grade teach­ing and re­search

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - Paul.jump@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

The an­nounce­ment of the lat­est re­cip­i­ents of the Euro­pean Re­search Coun­cil’s ad­vanced grants – ar­guably Europe’s most pres­ti­gious re­search award – un­der­lines the strength of UK uni­ver­si­ties.

Of the 269 grants awarded, 66 went to UK-based re­searchers. That is just un­der a quar­ter of the to­tal – and much higher than the 42 grants landed by the se­cond most suc­cess­ful na­tion, Ger­many.

The re­sults also un­der­line how much UK sci­ence has to lose if it is barred from the EU’s next frame­work pro­gramme – or if the loss of its con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence over that pro­gramme’s for­mu­la­tion re­sults in a pro­gramme that it wouldn’t want to join any­way. The gov­ern­ment has re­cently in­creased re­search bud­gets con­sid­er­ably – in line with sci­ence’s cen­tral role in its post-Brexit in­dus­trial strat­egy – but much of that money comes with strings at­tached. It is hard to see how it could ef­fec­tively sub­sti­tute for the pres­tige and sci­en­tific free­dom of­fered by the ERC’s cov­eted cheques for pure re­search.

Wor­ries about post-Brexit ar­range­ments rep­re­sent one as­pect of a gen­eral sense that – for all their suc­cess in the in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion for fund­ing, aca­demics, stu­dents and rep­u­ta­tion – Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties face an un­cer­tain and po­ten­tially trou­bled fu­ture.

As this week’s cover fea­ture de­scribes, the re­cent 14 days of strike ac­tion in re­sponse to the pro­posed clo­sure of the Uni­ver­si­ties Su­per­an­nu­a­tion Scheme’s de­fined-ben­e­fits plan has been de­scribed as UK academia’s “Brexit mo­ment”: the point at which pa­tience ran out with the gen­eral di­rec­tion of travel in which sup­pos­edly over­paid, out-of-touch elites are drag­ging their un­der­lings.

A scan through THE’s sub­mis­sions in­box quickly gives a name to this sup­posed malaise: ne­olib­er­al­ism. The con­cept is prob­a­bly the most con­sis­tently and cer­tainly the most pas­sion­ately railed against among would-be con­trib­u­tors. It is re­garded as man­i­fested in ev­ery­thing from over­pay­ment and over­bear­ing man­age­ment ini­tia­tives at the top to un­der­pay­ment and in­se­cu­rity at the bot­tom – not to men­tion min­is­ters’ in­sis­tence on ever greater lev­els of ac­count­abil­ity and pro­mo­tion of com­pe­ti­tion and con­sumerism.

All this is said to have im­pov­er­ished re­search agen­das, eroded ad­mis­sion and as­sess­ment stan­dards, un­der­mined aca­demic au­ton­omy and in­tegrity and led to a cul­ture of pre­car­i­ous­ness and over­work among aca­demics that is highly detri­men­tal to their men­tal health.

The ex­tent to which stu­dents re­gard aca­demics in the same way as they re­gard shop as­sis­tants is, of course, open to ques­tion – es­pe­cially in light of their re­ac­tion to the pen­sion strike. As our fea­ture makes clear, the mass protests against the loss of teach­ing hours that were pre­dicted by some never ma­te­ri­alised. A con­sid­er­able num­ber of stu­dents even made a point of demon­strat­ing their sup­port for their lec­tur­ers’ ac­tions – and for their cri­tique of the di­rec­tion higher ed­u­ca­tion is tak­ing.

Still, there are clear threats to stan­dards posed by high fees and a high level of com­pe­ti­tion among in­sti­tu­tions to at­tract and re­tain stu­dents. This week’s opin­ion piece on mu­sic cour­ses pro­vides an ex­am­ple of that. And last week’s fi­nal re­port by the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Fund­ing Coun­cil for Eng­land un­der­min­ing the ar­gu­ment that ever-im­prov­ing de­gree clas­si­fi­ca­tions are ac­counted for by ris­ing en­try qual­i­fi­ca­tions (“As the low­est rise, so too do fears of grade in­fla­tion”, News, 5 April) is a stark warn­ing that should not be ig­nored.

Wide­spread aca­demic dis­like of some­thing doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make it bad. Sup­port­ers of the re­search ex­cel­lence frame­work (and they do ex­ist) ar­gue pas­sion­ately that it has raised re­search stan­dards – and de­fend­ers of the teach­ing ex­cel­lence frame­work in­sist that, how­ever flawed its met­rics may be as mea­sures of pure teach­ing, it will have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on teach­ing stan­dards by con­cen­trat­ing at­ten­tion on their im­por­tance.

There is also a plau­si­ble ar­gu­ment that strong in­sti­tu­tional lead­er­ship is re­quired if uni­ver­si­ties are to ne­go­ti­ate the po­lit­i­cal, de­mo­graphic, tech­no­log­i­cal and re­search chal­lenges that they face as in­sti­tu­tions and that we face as a species. The as­ser­tion that since many uni­ver­si­ties have en­dured for hun­dreds of years, they would con­tinue to flour­ish for hun­dreds more if only they were left un­al­tered and undi­rected is far from be­yond dis­sent.

Still, the pen­sion dis­pute flags up the fact that min­is­ters and univer­sity lead­ers need to tread very care­fully. There is a real risk that – as­sess­ment frame­works not­with­stand­ing – a cri­sis in morale could un­der­mine stan­dards in teach­ing and re­search when the UK needs its uni­ver­si­ties more than ever to ex­cel.

High per­for­mance is much more eas­ily wrought from a con­tented work­force. And it is also worth ask­ing what suc­cess is worth if it is bought at the cost of aca­demics’ bit­ter­ness and dis­il­lu­sion.

The as­ser­tion that since many uni­ver­si­ties have en­dured for hun­dreds of years, they would flour­ish for hun­dreds more if only they were left un­al­tered is far from be­yond dis­sent

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