The threat to standards in UK universities

While their credentials are not in dispute, institutions could have their teaching and research undermined by a crisis in morale

April 12, 2018
A huge plastic dinosaur in the back of a lorry
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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”) 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.

paul.jump@timeshighereducation.com

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