Rot Log

Tell us what is going on in your university – #recordtherot

“My university has an award-winning professional development review process (which until recently we called ‘appraisal’). I believe it was the method of collating performance data in an individualised on-line form which won the award. One statistic which is collected from each module is the number of students achieving marks of 60% or above, in other words marks which could contribute to their graduating with ‘good degrees’, that is a 2.1 or First. These statistics are available to promotion panels, indeed the professional development review now feeds directly into the annual promotion round.

There are other points at which the percentage of ‘good degrees’ which individual subjects (programmes), departments, schools or colleges award to their students is measured. My own college had a score in the mid-80s this year for good degrees which compared favourably with the university average of around 75%. A PVC praised us for our good work.

At a recent meeting of the College Forum we expressed concern over the linking of promotion to the award of marks of 60% or more to students taking our modules. Our reason is that we feel we are being offered material inducement to give some of our students higher marks than those they deserve. Of course, we recognise that good module design and inspiring teaching make a difference to student performance. Some students on some modules and some programmes do better than other students on other modules and other programmes for these reasons and the staff responsible for the better teaching and the superior module design in those cases deserve rewards. However, there are other ways to improve your figures. Setting predictable exam questions is one, for instance. Finding reasons to push up every mark in the higher 50s to a 60 is another (I do this). Anyone who has taught or has been taught will think of a number of others.

The head of our college refused to see it this way. Student achievement measured as a percentage of marks over 60% is a guide to teaching quality, he said. We must expect our teaching to be judged and to be rewarded if our students do well and not to be rewarded if the opposite is the case, he added. The staff saw the matter differently. We are under pressure to turn any mark over 56 or so into a 60. My modules have clusters of students with 60 or 61 for this reason and nobody on 57-59. I work in a team and we all mark the same way.

The idea of a ‘good degree’ has become discredited. A 2.1 is now the default option. Yet ‘good degrees’ in league tables replaced ‘added value’ only a few years ago (when ‘added value’ turned out to mean ‘good degrees’, if I recall correctly). If ‘added value’ could be measured correctly—and surely nowadays it could be—then we would compare a student’s exit grades with those she had from school. Institutions such as my own with low entry tariffs would stand to benefit, while others which cornered the three A’s market would not. I wonder is this why ‘good degrees’ started to be measured in this way? Whatever the explanation, our practice is corrupting our good name.” Permanent Academic, Humanities 

“This is the submission that the Standing Committee of Convocation made to the Council of Liverpool University. It was not accepted, and the proposal at a subsequent University Court meeting to reconsider the abolition of the University’s court was defeated by one vote (the vote of a member of the senior management team, who happened to be elected by Convocation to Court). If the Privy Council accepts the changes, then the University will have no representative bodies at all, apart from Senate, which is currently under review. University’s that have gone down this road – Birmingham fo example – are in the position of being ‘limited companies’ but without shareholders. The worst of all possible worlds…. [read submission]” Permanent academic, Arts

“The tutors are supportive; the higher ups are not. Courses are being cut despite demand; lecturers made redundant with excuses and then online info changed to support those excuses ; peaceful protests restricted or abolished . Funds allocation is not transparent ; building refurbishments are carried out even when polls express majority or total student opposition, we are told plans are unavailable while the tender winners walk around with the plans and they are also available on the council website ; meanwhile budget cuts apparently dictate that student benefits even minor are restricted, and this is randomly suddenly imposed without consulting the people involved ,ie the students, as to their ideas or opinions – meetings re refurbishment when requested are delayed until too late and then are opened with the stipulation that they are for information rather than to solicit feedback, and then the minutes are posted stating that the students thanked the staff member for taking their feedback. The latest email re the latest refurbishments was mysteriously missing the promised artists design of the building for comments, perhaps since the student paper had already printed it and panned both design and expense. Just a few examples of the systemic disconnect in which students are not the heart of the system -apparently it’s our vice chancellor, who earns the most in the region.” Graduate student, Humanities

See Permanent academic, Humanities

“Several failed attempts at becoming ‘relevant’ were driven by people who had never worked anywhere outside HE, so individual enthusiasms, dubious advice from various collectives, and the loudest voices dominated. Sometimes even petty corruption might have been involved. Managers seem to recruit other hopeless managers. Few have much idea of what goes on in teaching (including doing real course design, maintaining a research programme or assessing students). A massive mock bureaucracy pushes paper around and learns answers to QAA or HEFCE questions, borrows material from other places and spends hours in fruitless and repetitive meetings. Despite increases in fees, students get a worse deal than they did before. They have lots of ‘self-directed study’ and are taught to pass any remaining tests. Most of the increased revenues went to ‘management’.” Permanent academic, Social Sciences.

“Fourth round of redundancies in three years. No longer viable as an institution, those that can are leaving in droves, run by a VC with FE credentials. Morale? Har har.” Temporary contract, Humanities

“We are no longer regarded as members of a collegiate community but as employees to be exploited for REF, income generation, teaching….and cleaning!” Permanent Academic, Humanities

“It’s amusing that you have ‘tenured academic’ as a category, at a time when this is a vanishing, if not vanished breed. I have a ‘permanent’ contract, but the hostile performance management regime in my institution means that we’re all aware that we’re only as permanent as management’s latest whim. We’re inundated with tracts articulating the university’s global aspirations and so-called strategies for achieving them, suggesting stately progress towards a shared destination, while in practice there is constant change and an ever-increasing set of ‘quality assurance’ demands to comply with – which themselves change from one week to the next. Academics are at once marginalised, as Human Resources Officer and Operations Managers dictate how we must spend our time, and also infantilised with incentives and deterrents in the form of competitions, star charts and hortatory memos prohibiting actions not approved by authoritarian committees. Collegiality, imagination, creativity and goodwill are all dwindling as competition and obedience to often absurd strictures thrive.” Permanent academic, Humanities

“The head of our school for the last 4 years was not an academic, but a former executive of a well-known technology company. He was brought in without any previous consultation to the academics of the school and, now that his term as head has finished, he was instantly awarded the title of Professor, without having never written one single paper, done any research or contributed to knowledge in any way. This, in my opinion, shows how meaningless an academic title has become and how corruption has already destroyed most, if not all, academic values.” Researcher, Physical Sciences

“Having grown up through the 1945 New Deal and watched a complete complex of arrangements being embedded to reconstitute the British State in which Welfare (well-being), the protective function of our collective life was placed at its centre, I have looked on with growing anger and outrage at its dismantling after 1980. I decided to nourish my intellectual life, and not simply my reasoning, outside the multiversity, as such a life cannot now be pursued within these institutions emasculated as they are by neo-liberal Corporate interests and the dictatorship of money. I still maintain links with university institutions but am not an ‘insider’. Such a position is inevitably a comparitively powerless one, yet it has its advantages insofar as I no longer live in fear of acting on and speaking from conscience. We need academics and others who want to be independent to rediscover pre-Modern forms of teaching and learning such as the Studium Generale that will enable us to recover true scholarship again. Universities as they are, as multiversities, are corrupt and corrupting, their curriculae have no coherence and they are effectively training camps for the neo-liberal Labour market. Revolutions are pointless now, with a degraded planet, a New Global Serfdom, endless wars and internecine conflicts, what we need is a transformation of both our inner lives and our societies. It was therefore disappointing to hear good and decent academics at yesterdays meeting at the Royal Institute arguing for reforms within the machine. The mechanization of education and the depth of control over research by private interests must be dismantled as a prerequisite to any far-reaching change, otherwise we are doomed to a future in which idolatry becomes an article of faith for practicing within Higher Education!” Researcher, Social Sciences

“As a senior scholar I have for many years, indeed decades, but involved in scholarly and research exchanges with universities in the Far East, most intensively of late years in China. The current frenetic drive for so-called ‘internationalisation’ almost completely ignores such slowly matured scholarly exchange in the mad dash for student mobility and short-term fixes. This is ultimately hugely damaging for proper academic understanding between cultures. At worst it is offensive and ill-informed.” Permanent academic, Humanities

“In 2009 the new administration dismissed me and most other professors who participated in the RAE and used our hard earned QR money to attract a much younger professoriate (none of whom were a professor before).” Permanent academic, Physical Sciences

“Junior colleagues and PG students encouraged to stalk academics through social media and report any materials not in keeping with corporate view of institution. Abuse of disciplinary procedures and anonymity to keep those critical of new management practices in insecurity. Having to spend vast swathes of what-would-be research time rebutting accusations that arrive with big dossiers of supporting material, some of it obviously factitious and implausible yet taken very seriously by the hierarchy. The management and departmental positions quickly populated with right-wing straight males, other candidates edged out through fake sympathy or by making their position unbearable. Breakdown of departmental support sructures through chipping away at subject-based integrity. Perpetual turbulence, divide and conquer, political machinations defended through tropes such as ‘professionalism’ and ‘desperate times’. Central members of the department desperate to leave before things get any worse for themselves.” Permanent academic, Arts

“It is now rumoured that no journal article will be graded higher than 3* in the REF. Consternation! People have been breaking their necks to get into international journals. I imagine it’s not true but a symptom of the prevailing panic. How in the world is this sort of surveillance — and the mythology of alarm that accompanies it — supposed to bring out the best in diffident academics?” Permanent academic, Humanities

“REF: 11-point hurdle for submission. Those missing the bar, or very close, are deeply demoralised. No matter how much they’re told it’s simply an administrative decision, their identity as researchers has been damaged. I’m one of the people who has to pick up the pieces. Stress: more work, less credit, more illness. Welfare tutors, in particular, are overwhelmed by the deluge of issues from students, and not just for extensions. Students: are more broke and more depressed and under more pressure than ever before. Redundancies: questionable practices, deafness, protection of the senior but ineffective, professors = leadership and so can’t be fired, even when they’re not leading and most of the problems are their fault. Curiously submissive attitude among many academics – we can’t change it so we just have to go along with it. Weird. VCs: why are they so silent? Or complicit. Or cheerleaders.” Permanent academic, Humanities

“Watcher from Oz: The sickness is here in Australia. The more committed and vigilant among us keep a keen eye on what is happening in the UK and the USA. From the ‘better informed’ upper echelon there is very limited openness, plenty of rhetoric and for ‘outsiders’ consequential doubt about the future. There are not many of us and at times it is tempting to regard university academic and administration staff as akin to the ‘deer in the headlights’. The lessons from overseas may not be learned in time. Demonize, divide and rule appears to be the crude philosophy and confidential sources from four universities independently describe the environment as ‘toxic’. Caveat:there are 39 universities in Australia and generalizations are perhaps not appropriate for a world heavily weighted toward evidence-based research. But observation, conversation and experiential intuition shared among loosely knit (non-hierarchy) groups provide grounds for serious concern.” Graduate student, Physical Sciences

“We’ve been told that we should spend no more than one hour preparing each lecture– even when preparing new modules. To spend more time than this is regarded as poor time management. We have also been advised that we should spend no more than 20 hours per year supervising each PhD student.”  Permanent academic, Humanities

“A reader who is a friend of mine just told me that there was a student who wanted to do his MSc with him. The student could not afford the university fees for the MSc and asked if there was a way for the university to waive the fees. Of course, the university would not do it, but the head of his institute of this reader approached him and asked if, instead, he would not be willing to use money from his grants to pay the fees of the student for the university. Now, at first sight, that seems to be a noble thing. However, it hides the strictly greedy way the university was dealing with the student and the lack of respect towards the academic. In fact, the university was not willing to help the student because it wanted his money. In addition, the reader was asked to pay from his own money to have the right to work for the university supervising the student. He was being asked to PAY for the right to work FOR the university! If that is not outrageous, I have no idea what could be! The reader, of course, noticed the abuse and said that he would not pay. He suggested that if the university really cared about the student, they should waive his fees. Naturally, the university didn’t.” Temporary contractor, Physical Sciences

“Corporatisation” is a catch-all which does indeed capture how the rot starts and then spreads. At my university a new VC some 4 years ago instigated a “modernisation” of administrative structures in the interests of “positioning the university optimally amongst its Russell group peers”. One exemplar argument for the change was the reasoning that the university’s failure to win enough income from one of the UK research councils concerning PhD training was down to lack of multi-disciplinarity across departmental silos. The real reason was that those who had the experience were not adequately consulted in the bid for this particular resource and without exception considered the bid when they got to see it after submission as manifestly unimpressive. The new administrative structure now in operation for more than three years, presumably with the above small example among many similar other examples in mind (!), has added an extra level of management between the university SMT and senior professors, the latter of whom by definition are best placed to seek research funding based on research excellence and experience of specific agencies. The result of the new administrative structure has been a bureaucratic expansion on the back of a “one suit fits all” principle, the opportunity to appoint “less than the best” academic staff to positions in the new level of management, and the distancing of those who deliver the university’s research and teaching excellence from the university’s senior academic management, the “SMT”. In short the new structure inhibits that which it was said to enhance, and moreover those in the new level of management are at times able to bully, and I choose this word very carefully, young staff professionally for not “performing” based n management-defined metrics which those in the management wouldn’t themselves stand any chance of achieving. High quality staff at all levels are looking to leave, leaving only those who “comply”. The “modernisation” is thus achieving exactly the opposite of what it claimed it would do. Interestingly, another comparable Russell group university, which was much faster off the mark in introducing such a new administrative structure some eight or more years ago, has since started to dismantle what has now been in place in my university for only about 4 years. The above said, the most important reason for mentioning the above is that it is but one example overall of how “corporatisation” is killing excellence. It empowers the mediocre who act on the basis that they think their empowerment means that they are not mediocre. They therefore interpret their management briefs in terms of management mantra which have merit in corporate organisations in which a CEO is responsible solely to shareholders. This includes a misplaced and totally counter-productive sense of management control over the detailed activities of staff at all levels from Professors FRS/FBA to probationary lecturers, even post-doctoral research staff and PhD students and undergraduate teaching. Those in management don’t even see the impossibility of a physicist managing an engineer, or an engineer managing a bio-scientist, so their interference and assumed control management dis-incentivises and destroys research cultures. Those at the top don’t see how incongruously they are viewed, for there are no shareholders” who hold them to account. Rather they sit through meetings of Council where they get their procedures “rubber stamped” by those who never hear the other side of the misplaced corporate arguments which they make. Those who pushed universities to “corporatise” first at the top level with the appointment of “CEO-like” VCs in the last decade with the justification that VCs are responsible for multi-£100M annual turn-over of taxpayers’ money started all this. They have much to answer for already and will have much more to explain soon! We in CDBU should take it upon ourselves to expose the abuse of taxpayers’ funding for higher education by showing how the corporatisation at all levels is destroying intellectual excellence and therefore the return to the UK taxpayer (which is us too) of his/her investment. In my direct experience of politicians, arguments of this nature strike home, for rumblings in the media that taxpayers’ are not getting value for money do cause some reaction. How to do this as “privatisation” ensues and universities become more independent of government, eg by fee income, is more difficult. My conclusion is that the super-elite in the Russell group who are less able to corporatise because of their ancient foundations as assemblies of amazingly disparate sub-institutions called “colleges” will continue to thrive. Those of us in what were once world-beating civic universities will find it ever more difficult to compete because of the far greater opportunities to instigate centralised, Soviet style, managements in our institutions. CDBU must surely recognise this aspect too, and be aware of the benefits or otherwise of such super-elite higher education centres in relation to other “centres of learning”!” Permanent academic, Physical Sciences