A ‘cohesive and self-critical academic community': an ideal under threat

Opinion piece


An article in Times Higher Education on 2 March collected suggestions from a ‘panel of university administration experts’ on the best way to frame a job advertisement. Wondering where suitably qualified and ‘excellent’ teachers are going to be found to staff an ever-expanding English higher education system as the TEF evolves, I have been exploring such advertisements in recent months.

If institutional autonomy is to remain a fundamental of higher education provision, with new providers trusted to set and maintain standards, what does that imply for the recruitment of a provider’s academic staff? Among the Government’s background papers published in connection with the Higher Education and Research Bill is the Factsheet on Degree Awarding Powers and University Title (January 2017). It explains that the proposed:

reforms are aimed at removing unnecessary barriers that may currently stand in the way of providers that can demonstrate that they have:

  • the ability to design and deliver high quality HE degree courses,
  • the ability to set and maintain academic standards, and
  • their teaching is informed by scholarship and research.

So it is recognised that having academic staff of sufficient quality remains fundamental to justifying the institutional autonomy of new providers as much as to satisfactory ‘teaching performance’ in the TEF.

A teacher at higher education level has traditionally been expected to have academic qualifications over and above those needed to teach to A-Level GCE (Level 3 of the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) ). These are defined by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in line with Government guidance for the grant of degree-awarding powers and university title. The guiding principle is that lecturers in higher education should be qualified to teach at the level of the award offered, with research degrees therefore requiring research-active staff. The Government guidance was revised in September 2015 and further revision is expected to be needed under the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Bill s.40 and following.

The range of subjects in which it is possible to gain a degree has expanded hugely in recent years and so have the modes of study. ‘Workplace learning’, apprenticeship degrees, the need to meet the accreditation requirements of professional and regulatory bodies, vocational courses, frequently call for non-traditional teaching staff. ‘Vacancies’ advertisements for academic staff now often include terms such as ‘professional qualification’ or ‘experience’ as alternatives to the possession of even an undergraduate degree.

There is a further longstanding expectation, going beyond recruiting suitably-qualified academic staff piecemeal. This is that an institution’s academic staff will form a ‘self-critical academic community’ in setting and maintaining standards. In 1985 the Lindop Report (2.5) said that:

Traditionally the university degree was an acknowledgement, by the self-governing community of scholars which constituted the university in its wider sense, of academic attainment such as to warrant full membership of the community.

Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education and Science, added in a House of Commons Written Answer 17 March 1986:

The Government share the [Lindop] committee’s view that the most effective safeguard of an institution’s academic standards is the existence within it of a strong, cohesive and self-critical academic community. In future, the main purpose of external validating arrangements must be to foster the development of such communities.

Kenneth Clarke, as Secretary of State for Education and Science, maintained the principle in the House of Commons, 16 December 1991, speaking of

Criteria for Degree Awarding Powers

The principal criterion would be that any institution seeking degree awarding power for taught courses would need to be a self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to quality assurance supported by effective assurance and enhancement systems.

Jo Johnson, in the House of Commons Higher Education and Research Bill Committee, 15 September 2016, reiterated the expectation that a university is: expected to be an institution that brings together a body of scholars to form a cohesive and self-critical academic community that provides excellent learning opportunities for people, the majority of whom are studying to degree level or above. We expect teaching at such an institution to be informed by a combination of research, scholarship and professional practice.

This expectation that providers with degree-awarding powers or university title will be entitled to autonomy because they employ a critical mass of appropriately qualified academic staff therefore remains fundamental.

The Factsheet gives three Case Studies, describing scenarios in which a new provider might apply successfully for degree awarding powers, all making that assumption. In all three the key element is the presence of a group of ‘experienced academics’. One is a company wishing to set up a new specialist provider. It ‘employs a group of experienced academics‘. Another is an existing ‘world-renowned’ US provider wanting to set up in England and offer English degrees. It sends across the Atlantic ‘an experienced team of academics’. A third is a ‘spin-off’ from a ‘top-ten University’ initiated by ‘a group of leading academics’.

But in the real world much has changed in the patterns of recruitment of academic staff. Advertisements mentioning research as an ‘essential’ requirement now cluster in the older universities, though a number of the newer providers say the possession of a doctorate or a willingness to seek one is ‘desirable’. There is a visible trend towards increasing the number of teaching-only contracts even in ‘research-intensive’ universities. Where the degree is in a vocational subject the job advertisement may be adjusted accordingly. Bought-in and externally assessed courses such as Pearson-Edexcel HNC and HND courses at levels 4 and 5 may plausibly be delivered by teachers without the traditional qualifications of a member of the academic staff envisaged by Lindop and the policy-makers who continue to quote him.

The range of types of employment contract on offer in higher education has been broadening in the direction of the ‘insecure’, though in what proportions it is hard to quantify exactly. Data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency includes information on fixed-term contract numbers, but does not make visible in detail the numbers or proportions of staff on hourly-paid or zero-hours contracts. (Some individuals may of course seek a zero-hour contract because of its flexibility, but the wording of job advertisements suggests it is rarely a matter of choice):

UCU has always been clear that those people returned by universities as atypical academics only represent a part of the real hourly-paid workforce. The rest are concealed within fixed-term contract data.

This pattern of recruitment undermines the expectation that providers will maintain an established ‘community’ of academic staff.

There seems to be a need for some joining-up of ideal and reality to ensure that before the OfS grants degree-awarding powers or university title, the new providers warrant the institutional autonomy they will gain if they succeed by showing that in their lecturers they have that ‘critical community’ of academic staff.














House of Lords debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill

Rapid reaction to the First Amendment



It’s certainly a story when the House of Lords is packed, as it was on 9 January to discuss the first of well over 500 amendments to a Bill.  Several speakers noted that they were adding themselves to the long list who spoke in the Second Reading debate on 6 December because they had not been available to speak then.

When it came to a vote on this first Amendment in Committee, the sheer numbers present became clear. The Amendment was approved by 248-221. A story indeed, as the press was quick to record.

As speakers noted in stressing its importance, the result will now govern much of what follows as the remaining amendments are debated.

Lord Stevenson of Balcamara, introducing the Amendment, put it plainly. ‘The purpose of the amendment is simple. The Bill before us does not define a university, and we think it will be improved if it does so.’

Speakers on both sides had tried to find an existing definition in English law and Baroness Wolf, who had looked hard, noted that ‘the Minister had kindly confirmed, in replies to Written Questions that the term is not defined in legislation’. A couple of corners where they might have looked suggest themselves. They may be worth adding here, for future reference of all concerned.

The distinction between providing ‘higher education’ and ‘being a university’: title and substance

Baroness Wolf in a second speech, seeking to bring their Lordships back to the matter in hand, reminded them that:

Absolutely rightly, the Bill distinguishes between degree-awarding powers and the title of “university”. So it should and so it must, because we are now in a world where many institutions which are not and will never wish to be universities give degrees. Further education colleges are a very obvious and important sector.

We are also, I am delighted to say, moving into a world with degree apprenticeships.

The risk of not having a definition of ‘university’ in law, she reminded them, was that ‘we leave the decisions about what a university is to the bureaucrats of the Office for Students, who will make those decisions but will never actually have to make them public’.

This was not, as other speakers stressed, to seek to devalue other higher educaiton providers, but to clarify a difference in kind. Baroness Blackstone shared the concern to distinguish universities from a vast range of providers of higher education. For ‘many, many decades, higher education has embraced not only universities but many other kinds of institution’ she accepted approvingly.

The first existing legislative marker helps to clarify the important difference between ‘title’and ‘substance’, which worries many when they see that a company applying to Companies House to use the sensitive word ‘university’ has to do little beyond getting it accepted that its new title will not lead to its being confused with any existing university.  The law as it stands confers  university ‘substance’ as well as university ‘title’.

The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 s.77 (4)  states that:

Any educational institution whose name includes the word “university” by virtue of the exercise of any power as extended by subsection (1) above is to be treated as a university for all purposes.

Subsection (1) requires that any such entity be an ‘educational institution’ and ‘within the higher education sector’ and allows both the Privy Council and the Companies House routes to grant permission for use of the word and thus the substantive ‘being’ of ‘university’ to the title-holders.

This provision had to be adjusted in 1998 to prevent ‘university colleges’ claiming that they were substantively universities. So the clause now adds ‘unless in that name that word is immediately followed by the word “college” or “collegiate”’. (Words added by 1998 c. 30, ss.40, 46(4) (with s. 42(8)); S.I. 1998/2215, art. 2).

When Lord Younger responding to the debate on behalf of the Government, could be seen to turn to a prepared script and begin to read, but he added some reference to speeches made that afternoon. His argument was that it would be dangerous to include a definition of a university in legislation. He may now have to think again.

Teaching-only or teaching-and-research: What should a university do?

The other concern which ran through the speeches was about what a university should ‘do’.  Important here is the change of 2004 which allowed holders of only taught degree-awarding powers to gain university title, in England and Wales but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland.  Lord Younger, linking the ‘teaching-only’ policy with the objective of encouraging specialist and single-subject providers,  said:

I have  to agree with the changes made under the Labour Government in 2004. As my noble friend Lord Willetts explained, those changes to the criteria for university title removed the requirement for universities to need to award research degrees and also removed the requirement for a university to have students in five different subject areas. The amendment would be a regressive step. The changes were rightly made to allow for a greater diversity of specialist universities in higher education, and recognised that teaching is a legitimate primary activity for a university.

Here too there is another bit of lingering legislation which seems not to have been spotted. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1877 s.15 , setting up Royal Commissioners to revise the statutes of the two universities, stipulated that ‘the Commissioners, in making a statute for the University…shall have regard to the interests of education, religion, learning and research’. Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923 applied in its Schedule various provisions of the  1877 Act including this one.  When I was admitted to a University Teaching Office in Cambridge in the 1980s  this was still the defining requirement of the job.

Statute and statutes?

It would be a pity to end without mentioning the speech of Lord Broers, who as Cambridge Vice-Chancellor rode the bucking bronco of an unsuccessful attempt to change Cambridge’s statutes. ‘I support the proposed new clause’, he said, but regretted that it ‘does not mention governance, and whether universities not only are autonomous but have the right to determine how they govern themselves’. ‘We debated it intensely in Cambridge at one time’:

Universities should be allowed to determine their own form of governance, and some words need to be included in a clause like this to say that.

The Bill is startlingly silent on the role of the Privy Council in approving changes to university statutes, and indeed on whether it is expected that a university will in future be expected to have its own statutes at all. ‘Autonomy’ means having authority to make their own laws. WithIn those can be embedded its deepest sense of self, the identity which would ensure that it fulfilled the statutory definiton of a university which can now be hoped for.


Speedy entrances and sharp exits: letting in more alternative providers

No. 3 in a series of Guest posts by G. R. Evans


Alternative providers from http://www.hefce.ac.uk/reg/register/getthedata/. Key: Blue have University Title; Brown have Degree-Awarding Powers; Pink offer designated courses; Violet deliver HE as a franchise only.

One of the most controversial suggestions in the White Paper of May 16 is a change to the long-standing policy that on the rare occasion higher education providers get into difficulties the funding council will support them to put right what has gone wrong, in order that students may complete their courses and obtain degrees of lasting repute and value. The White Paper sees new providers as ‘challenger’ institutions and approves of ‘provider exit’, provided there are protections for students affected. The Higher Education and Research Bill includes detailed provisions for the future OfS to register and de-register providers.

Making it easier and quicker for new providers to gain degree-awarding powers or university title

In the House of Lords debate on the Queen’s speech on May 19, Baroness Brinton expressed a concern about the proposal to make it easier to gain degree-awarding powers or university title:

The White Paper relaxes much of the protective structure to ensure quality that has been one of the key reasons the UK’s institutions have an enviable reputation. The new degree-awarding powers mechanism must maintain that protection. We await the detail, to see how this will operate, but I have concerns that allowing start-up universities to set up quickly might not provide the security that students deserve.’

That ‘detail’ was partly provided with the publication of the Bill. One speaker on 19 July had personal experience of the development of a private provider. Mark Field explained that he had spent the past eleven years on the advisory board of the London School of Commerce. It had been a positive experience, he said. However, he argued strongly for ‘the proposals to relax the criteria for validating degree-awarding powers’ to ‘be examined thoroughly’. ‘I have some sympathy with the view that because the title of a university is much respected, it should be clearly protected and defined,’ he added.

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TEF and tuition-fee rises are not in the Higher Education and Research Bill. Why?

No.  2 in a series of guest posts by G.R. Evans


The Secretary of State, introducing the Higher Education and Research Bill at the Second Reading, urged that ‘the teaching excellence framework is such an important part of the Bill’. But the Bill does not mention it. The new legislation will not directly affect the plans to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework, or decisions about raising tuition fees, both of which are being taken forward down separate tracks.

The Teaching Excellence Framework began as an announcement by Jo Johnson as the new Minister for Higher Education in a speech in July 2015, to Universities UK. It had a prominent place in the Green Paper published in November 2015 and again in the White Paper published on May 16 2016, which explained how it was to be ‘designed’ and ‘implemented’ in straightforward ‘it’s going to happen’ language of ‘will’ and ‘shall’ and a timetable making it clear that it did not depend on the coming into force of new legislation.

The TEF does not form part of the Bill because it requires no legislative change except possibly ensuring that the new Office for Students (OfS) will have powers to ‘rate’ English higher education providers ‘regarding the quality of, and the standards applied to, the higher education they provide’ (Bill s.25), with provision for ensuing adjustment of fees under Bill Schedule 2 (The Fee Limit).

Gordon Marsden pointed out in the Second Reading debate that Parliament will have no opportunity to debate the plans to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). He added that ‘the University and College Union and others are deeply concerned by the lack of parliamentary scrutiny built into the TEF’.

Nor does the Bill involve further consideration or review of the operation of the student loan system, which Liam Byrne described in the debate of 19 July as underpinned by a ‘Ponzi scheme’. It does not need to do so in order to achieve its purposes.

The press was quick to remark on the Ministerial Announcement days after the debate that an inflation-related increase above the previous maximum of £9,000 was to be allowed. Universities, including Manchester and Durham, were quick to advertise the new higher fees. Continue reading

The Higher Education and Research Bill: What’s Changing?

Guest post by Gill Evans, Professor Emeritus of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge

History demonstrates a longstanding need for vigilance about the creeping powers of Secretaries of State and the enthusiasm of Governments for greater state control. Since early in the twentieth century two important protections had maintained a balance. First, the Haldane Principle – the notion that “decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians”, and second, the autonomy of universities. Replacing public funding of teaching by tuition fees and reorganising the public funding of research now throws this tested machinery into question.

Last week saw publication of the White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy, rapidly followed by the Higher Education and Research Bill, the most comprehensive piece of higher education legislation since the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. This proposes a radical reduction of the numbers of ‘sector bodies’. How direct may future Government interference be, with the new or continuing ‘sector bodies’ and with institutions themselves?

The ‘Government bodies’ which are to be rearranged for merger are untidily clustered in two ways in the White Paper, as shown in Figure 1. There are to be two new statutory bodies, the Office for Students (OfS) and a single research funding body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

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CDBU Response to REF Review

In December, Jo Johnson, the Universities and Science Minister, launched a review of university research funding. The goals of the review appear well-aligned with those of CDBU: ‘to cut red tape so that universities can focus more on delivering the world-leading research for which the UK is renowned’. The review is chaired by the President of the British Academy, Lord Stern. CDBU drafted an initial response to the call for evidence, which was then circulated to members for comment before being submitted last week. The full response can be downloaded here.

The main points can be summarised as follows:

The committee needs to take a close look at the purpose of the REF; there has been considerable mission creep and it is trying to do too many different things. Its cost-effectiveness has never been properly evaluated.

Specific suggestions are:

  • Reward institutions that have high levels of staff satisfaction.
  • Reward institutions that foster early-career researchers.
  • Consider a system where funding reflects the number of research-active staff who have contracts extending into the future.
  • Do not use incentives that treat accumulation of research funding as an end in itself.
  • Do not award a higher proportion of funding on the basis of impact.
  • Do not rely on competition to drive up standards: create incentives for more co-operation both within and between institutions.
  • Take steps to encourage a diverse research landscape, rather than creating further concentration of research in a few institutions.
  • Be vigilant about the dangers of introducing criteria that might work well in one discipline but be unsuitable for others

We thank those CDBU members who contributed to our submission, and look forward to covering future developments on our website.

What is the Purpose of the Teaching Excellence Framework?

Opinion Piece by Joshua Forstenzer (Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow for the Public Benefit of Higher Education, University of Sheffield)

The higher education Green Paper is a radical document. From its proposed rework of the higher education sector’s governance and regulation structure, to its plans designed to introduce greater competition between newly formed private providers (giving them greater access to university status and degree bearing capacity) and public universities (ridding them of the responsibility to respond to Freedom of Information requests), the Green Paper presents a series of sweeping changes to British higher education. However, nowhere is the Green Paper’s radical potential more directed at the very core of university life than in the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). That is why this report focuses exclusively on the TEF.

The general ambition of the TEF is to rebalance ‘the relationship between teaching and research’ in universities and to put ‘teaching at the heart of the system’, by introducing a teaching quality assessment mechanism using core metrics and qualitative evidence. In exchange, universities deemed to have ‘excellent’ teaching will be rewarded with the right to increase undergraduate fees in line with inflation. Although there will be a technical consultation about the exact metrics used in the TEF, it will start with three readily available common metrics, namely: Employment/Destination; Retention/Continuation; Student Satisfaction indicators from the National Student Survey (teaching quality and learning environment).

While the government has sought to depoliticise the TEF, there is a more fundamental set of political and ethical questions about the purposes and social value of higher education that needs to be at the heart of this debate. Indeed, over the last few decades, much has been written about the overall trend towards marketisation in British higher education. This report proposes to understand the TEF as a policy proposal forming part of that wider trend, by considering the following criticisms: the TEF is not really about teaching excellence, but about fees; the TEF does not serve students, but an imagined group of employers; the TEF ignores the wider public benefits of undergraduate education.

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CDBU’s Response to the Green Paper

The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) today submitted its response to the Green Paper “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice“.

We undertook this exercise in good faith and with good will since the focus of the Green Paper is on issues close to the heart of our founding values: how to assure the continued high quality of university education in the UK, and how to ensure wide and fair access to higher education. One of our aims as an organization is to provide expert, insider advice on, and responses to, government policy proposals that look to build on the already considerable achievements of UK higher education. What our close analysis of the Green Paper has revealed, regrettably, is that ‘consultation’ is a misnomer, since in its content and wording the document reveals time and again that the recommendations, far from being proposed as possibilities, are assumed by the authors of the Green Paper to be acceptable and to be awaiting implementation.

Equally, if not more worryingly, the quality of the arguments, of the evidence used, and of the presentation of the recommendations, is inadequate. One of the chief policies – the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – is put forward to address putative problems, without providing any evidence that these problems exist. The proposed TEF would be an expensive and bureaucratic system that would entail increasing complexity and disruption for years to come. The use of proxies, such as the NSS or graduate income, for teaching excellence is at odds with the ethos and values of education and scholarship. Both the content and the methodology behind the Green Paper come across as counter to the academic values that lie at the heart of any university worthy of the name. These values include reliance on reason, argument, and evidence; critical and creative thinking; rigorous analysis of data; and precise and meaningful communication. There is no recognition in the Green Paper that the primary purpose of universities is to foster these values; instead, universities are equated with businesses, value is defined purely in economic terms, and students and staff are set up in opposition as consumer and vendor respectively, working to serve conflicting interests (to pay as little as possible for the product purchased and to charge as much as the ‘customer’ will take). This is to misunderstand how universities work; to ignore the fact that unlike profit-driven organizations, the idea – and subsequent success – of our UK universities is rooted in staff and students working not towards a transaction but towards collaboration in the pursuit of understanding, knowledge, and truth.

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More Misrepresentation in the Green Paper Damages its Credibility

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

In my previous post, I queried the justification for the proposed new Teaching Excellence Framework. According to the Green Paper, research-intensive universities undervalue teaching, and students and employers are dissatisfied with the quality of teaching in UK Higher Education. I argued that evidence for these claims was lacking. I have now scrutinised in detail the case made in the Green Paper. I thought that perhaps there was better evidence buried in there that I had missed. What I discovered was alarming. I found numerous instances where evidence was cited but in a misleading way.

Here are some examples:

Introduction: The productivity challenge, point 9: Higher education providers need to provide degrees with lasting value to their recipients. This will mean providers being open to involving employers and learned societies representing professions in curriculum design. It will also mean teaching students the transferrable work readiness skills that businesses need, including collaborative teamwork and the development of a positive work ethic, so that they can contribute more effectively to our efforts to boost the productivity of the UK economy.”

A report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills is cited in the Green Paper. There is just one mention of graduates in the report, on page 3. It states: “Over eight in ten employers found university graduates to be well prepared for work.”

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