New year’s resolutions – for others to keep

Imagine having the power to direct higher education leaders, scholars or policymakers to take - and stick to - a new approach in 2015

January 1, 2015

Source: Alamy

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford
My resolution is for UK vice-chancellors: “I resolve that any changes I make to improve my institution’s league-table ranking will also improve staff satisfaction.” Unfortunately, in the quest for higher rankings, some vice-chancellors seem to have forgotten that an institution cannot thrive if staff feel undervalued or insecure, if they are given unrealistic workloads or targets, or are expected to produce research on schedule, without having time to think. There has been a lot of emphasis on student satisfaction: in 2015, we need to start regarding staff satisfaction as an equally important index of the prestige of a university.


Helen Sword is professor and director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland
My new year’s resolution is intended for all academic writers (not to mention administrators, politicians, bureaucrats and anyone else who writes for an audience of fellow human beings): “I will strive to engage and inform my readers rather than to impress or bamboozle them. I will attend to their stamina and respect their sense of style. Never again will I favour pomposity over precision, woolly abstractions over concrete details, jargon over lucidity. From today onwards – through 2015 and for the rest of my writing life – I resolve to choose my words well and to craft my sentences with care.”


Anthony King, Essex County Council millennium professor of British government at the University of Essex, and Ivor Crewe, master of University College, Oxford and president of the Academy of Social Sciences, authors of The Blunders of Our Governments
We have some advice for the party leaders and their colleagues. On New Year’s Day, they should resolve that, if they find themselves in office in May, they should take as few initiatives as possible – ideally none – during the following 12 months. Instead of hitting the ground running, they should survey the landscape. They should determine, on the basis of expert advice and evidence and by carefully weighing alternatives, which policies stand a reasonably good chance of achieving their objectives. In that way they might avoid perpetrating quite as many egregious blunders as their predecessors.


Roger King, former vice-chancellor at the University of Lincoln and visiting professor at the University of Bath’s School of Management
My resolution is aimed at Greg Clark, the universities and science minister, and Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister, and asks that they commit, if in power after the May general election, to publishing a White Paper by the end of 2015 outlining their plans for the regulation of the higher education sector. The regulatory role of the Higher Education Funding Council for England needs to be clarified in particular, and new powers introduced, to reflect the shift from grant funding to a model predominantly based on student fees and loans. In the absence of proposed legislation, we have seen a series of piecemeal executive announcements. Providing an equitable regulatory approach to both established and new providers is now urgently needed in light of the rapid growth in provision by the latter.


Joanna Williams is director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Kent
My wish is for universities to become champions of free speech and open debate in 2015. I’d like students to resolve not to close down discussions but to invite speakers representing all viewpoints, including representatives from the UK Independence Party, Israel and pro-life societies, to engage in campus debates. I’d like lecturers to resolve to lead by example in showing that difficult and challenging ideas can be taken up and debated rather than wrapped up in trigger warnings or avoided altogether in order to secure student satisfaction. I’d like students and lecturers to recognise that learning does not take place when we have our prejudices confirmed but only when our most deeply held beliefs are challenged. Universities are the ideal places for people to confront new ideas. Censorship must be called out and not disguised as either safeguarding or promoting social justice for under-represented groups. We need more academic freedom, not less.


Claire Callender, professor of higher education policy at Birkbeck, University of London
The resolution I propose is for the government to tackle head-on the demise of part-time undergraduate study arising from the 2012-13 funding reforms. The number of UK and European Union part-time undergraduate entrants has halved since 2010-11, yet part-time study is essential to lifelong learning and national skills policies, and for widening higher education participation and creating a more flexible, diverse and equitable sector. Student loans have failed to encourage part-time study, contrary to the government’s aspirations. Tuition fees have doubled or trebled but the majority of would-be part-time undergraduates are ineligible for loans, and so have to pay the higher fees up front and out of their pocket. Those who do qualify for loans find them unattractive; loan take-up has been far lower than anticipated. The government must introduce new policies tailored to part-time students to stem the dramatic decline in enrolments and course closures.


David Palfreyman, bursar of New College, Oxford, and author of The Law of Higher Education
As many across the fortunate First World resolve in the new year to shed all that excess weight gained during the Christmas binge, so all involved in university governance and management should contemplate the growing and costly problem of “administrative bloat” by asking every day: “I know that I am an Expensive Evil but am I a Necessary Evil or could this university function as well or even better were I not here?” As with most new year resolutions about eating and boozing in moderation and going to the gym, of course, sadly, nothing much will result and there will be no reduction in higher education costs nor any savings passed on by way of a reduction in £9,000 tuition fees – nor any such reduction in management expenditure used to enhance teaching resources at the chalkface. But the start of a new year is a time for dreaming…

Statue of human figure resting head in hand

Derek Sayer, professor of cultural history at Lancaster University and author of Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF
New year’s resolutions for the Higher Education Funding Council for England:

  • Free top scholars from ever again having to award ill-defined grades to hundreds of research outputs they don’t have the time to read and lack the competence to judge.
  • Send the department research directors, impact champions, critical friends and the rest of the apparatchiks the research excellence framework has spawned back to the library, the classroom and the lab where they can – just maybe – rediscover what the job is meant to be about.
  • Take the chance to put academic values back in the driving seat. Make REF 2014 the last.
  • Replace the REF with something whose costs in terms of taxpayers’ money, academics’ time and collegial relations are commensurate with telling us what we already know from exercises such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
  • Use the savings (the research assessment exercise 2008 cost £60 million, according to Hefce figures) to fund PhD bursaries, emergent pockets of excellence, and “risky” research whose impact cannot be guaranteed in advance.

James Ladyman, professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol
Some, if not most, of the immense benefits of universities for society cannot be measured or predicted. Our policymakers and even some academics seem to not understand the importance of culture and the indirect propagation of ideas. The impact agenda has led to the measuring of worth in the arts and humanities by the counting of internet clicks and bums on seats, and in science by the focus on direct spin-offs and technologies. However, good academic research is valuable for its contribution to the propagation and maintenance of disciplinary culture even where it does not have direct effects. Our intellectual culture is like the soil without which no fruit would grow. The new year would be a good time for academics to resolve to make the case for the importance of the values that define universities. Curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge, truth and understanding ultimately give rise to many of the ideas that shape the world.


Graham Gibbs, professor of higher education at the University of Winchester
This resolution is for all those who form educational policy that affects the working lives of teachers and the learning lives of students: “I will stop assuming that I know the one true answer to every educational problem in every university, every department or every course. In keeping this promise I will stop imposing policies that help a few and hinder most, constraining the scope teachers have to use their common sense and understanding of their own situation to address idiosyncratic problems in imaginative and locally appropriate ways. I will forgo all attempts to make educational practices uniform.”


Chris Rust, emeritus professor of higher education at Oxford Brookes University
This is a resolution aimed at the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Quality Assurance Agency (or whatever replaces them). There is currently no process in place to enable or ensure the comparability of degree standards. Following the lead of the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency in Australia, all higher education courses should be required, as part of their quality assurance processes, to “regularly externally reference against comparable courses of study, including by referencing the grading of students’ achievement of learning outcomes for selected units of study within courses of study”. Existing disciplinary organisations and professional bodies should be invited to establish communities of assessment practice, or “colleges of peers”, to “own” and monitor their disciplinary standards. The Higher Education Academy could be charged with offering to support them and facilitate this.


Sonal Minocha, pro vice-chancellor at Bournemouth University
For ministers and the Home Office: “As a minister or policymaker responsible for international student visa policy, I have spent every day in the past five years defending the system we designed, developed and delivered. On day one of the new year we resolve to snap out of our denial and defence strategy and confront the reality. We created a mess. We now resolve to sort it out. We will revisit the post-study work visa category and not only reinstate it but go further to give the UK an edge over its competitive policies in the US, Australia and elsewhere. We will put Britain back on the map as the attractor and retainer of international graduate talent.”


Corinne Le Quere, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia
This is a resolution for the prime minister. Over the next decade, you can show the global leadership needed to truly address climate change. You can strive to deliver radical emissions reductions in energy consumption of 8 per cent per year. You can ensure that consumers can purchase only the best and most energy-efficient appliances and have the most fuel-efficient vehicles. You can reduce energy used in buildings to save householders’ money. You can ensure that all new power sources and infrastructure projects deliver on minimal emissions. Your seasonal gift to each Treasury minister is a copy of the recent report The Economics of Climate Change Policy in the UK from the influential economists at Cambridge Econometrics. A 60 per cent carbon reduction by 2030 increases UK GDP by 1.1 per cent, creates 190,000 new jobs, increases household income by £565, reduces oil and gas imports, improves air quality and saves healthcare costs. Happy New Year!


Fred Inglis is honorary professor of cultural history, University of Warwick
Here is a resolution for vice-chancellors: “I resolve not to obey quite so cringingly when the government requires me to betray as absolutely as I have the Idea of a University and its duties to the discomforts of the truth.”


Patience Schell is professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Aberdeen
I often wonder why, when research undertaken within universities not only proves how counterproductive and harmful long hours are but has also identified better ways to work, ways that stimulate creativity, manage energy (not time) and enhance employee well-being, universities are not pioneering, evidence-based, sane working models. My resolution, for university leaders and senior management, is to implement workload and management policies based on the latest research; such policies will improve employee performance, productivity and satisfaction over the long term, ultimately strengthening the sector. This approach should also be applied to existing policies to see if they can withstand evidence-based scrutiny. If they can’t, reform is in order. Let 2015 be the year of evidence-based working lives and also the year of walking meetings, actual lunch hours, taking holidays and job satisfaction.

Statue of man looking towards sky

Get public funding right

Bahram Bekhradnia is president of the Higher Education Policy Institute
In 2015, the Labour Party should get off the fence regarding university funding and make the case for a substantial level of direct funding from general taxation. Instead, the party is spooked by the fear that it will be accused of an “unaffordable” policy, however right that policy might be. There will never be a better time: present arrangements are now universally regarded as unsustainable, and direct funding with a lower level of fees and loan subsidy will cost no more, so Labour hardly needs to worry that it would be unaffordable. To be hesitating over a fee reduction to £6,000 is pathetic and would be inadequate anyway – that would in effect accept the present arrangements but at a somewhat lower level. What is wanted is an unashamed statement that universities should be largely – but not exclusively – funded directly and publicly, and that that is as affordable as the present arrangements. That is not just good policy and politics, it is good economics too.


Paul Ramsden, key associate at the education consultancy PhillipsKPA, visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education, and adjunct professor at Macquarie University
This year, in England, the government will spend £1.6 billion of taxpayers’ earnings on subsidising teaching in higher education. This is an unfair use of public money. It transfers income from the wider community to a small group of students and graduates. Students of subsidised courses would continue to flock to them even without this support. The public benefits would be similar if there were no financial assistance, while graduates would continue to enjoy the advantages of higher pay and all the beneficial experiences that higher education brings. Politicians and policymakers should adopt a new year’s resolution to eliminate this subsidy forthwith.

Make fair pay happen

Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder professor of geography at the University of Oxford
This is a new year’s resolution for university leaders: 2015 is the year in which you need to bite the bullet and finally commit to paying all your staff the living wage. Universities have the resources to do this. A few already have. In many cases all that is being asked for is £10 more a week for those who work part time cleaning our buildings. Universities do not exist in isolation; they are part of the wider community, and they have a responsibility to refuse to subcontract work to any firm that does not pay the living wage.


Sally Hunt, general secretary, University and College Union
We hope that this year university heads will finally lift the lid on the murky world of pay and expenses at the top. To help them along, we will be looking at just who sits on their shady remuneration committees and asking why some universities will not publish the reasons behind bosses’ pay or give details of their publicly funded expense accounts. We will also be asking the next government to clamp down on examples of unregulated largesse that have been embarrassing the sector for years.


Liz Schafer is professor of drama and theatre studies at Royal Holloway, University of London
University leaders should get the gender pay gap sorted. Quite apart from the moral and legal imperatives, there is a business case for equal pay; what woman is going to feel motivated by the knowledge that a man down the corridor is paid more and will receive a better pension for doing the same work? Putting all university salaries in the public domain – as in the US – including market supplements and other weaselly deals, would start the conversation. Anonymised CVs and applications for promotion would help. And I’m not talking just about academics. The gender pay gap is often far worse in professional and technical services.

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