Letters

August 15, 2013

REF non-submission and teaching moments

I find the University of Leicester’s decision to review the contracts of staff not submitted for assessment in the forthcoming research excellence framework shocking (“Memo to staff: REF non-submission may have consequences”, News, 8 August). I agree that any academic who is contracted to carry out teaching and research but fails to engage in research to the highest standards expected has to be “dealt with”. However, the REF submission decisions are not robust enough indicators to trigger such action. Casual comments, strongly held biases, impact factors of journals and the use of anonymous external reviewers with no sense of transparency or accountability are all part of the game in these internal selectivity exercises.

Selectivity in submissions itself is an unnecessary imposition arising from the arbitrary capping of the number of researchers submitted per impact case study. It is further compounded by the childish obsessions that we all seem to have with league tables computed from the profile of REF scores.

Even worse is the fact that the reverse of such judgements of under-performance – those academics who are contracted to do teaching and research but find ingenious ways to avoid undergraduate classrooms – often go unnoticed or even attract substantial rewards in some research-led universities. How fair is that in an economy in which teaching income subsidises research? I would be delighted to see a parallel proposal at Leicester to transfer those who are poor at teaching or who do none at all on to research-only contracts and take the title “professor” away from them.

What has started at Leicester is bound to propagate across the sector. It has to be strongly opposed by the academic community.

Mahesan Niranjan
University of Southampton

Title contentions

I wonder whether it is strictly correct for BPP to claim that it is now a university (“And BPP makes two: coalition confers university title on second for-profit”, News, 8 August). The decision to allow a company to use in its title a word classified by law as “sensitive” is taken in the case of “university” by “the Registrar of Companies on behalf of the Secretary of State, not by BIS as the specified body”. Companies House merely requires confirmation from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that it has no objection.

I corresponded with BIS about this process late in 2011. The letter I received said that “there are no formal criteria for dealing with such applications”. A Freedom of Information request yielded the missive BIS had written in the case of Coventry University College. It seems to have applied only one criterion, that “the title is clear, unambiguous and not otherwise misleading”. It accordingly wrote to Companies House that it did not object.

However, the technical consultation published by BIS in August 2011 does identify “formal criteria” and states that they are the same as those governing applications from higher education bodies that have taught degree-awarding powers. In that case, “the Privy Council Office forwards the submission to the Secretary of State for advice as the relevant Privy Councillor”, who in turn seeks advice from the Higher Education Funding Council for England “on which to assess whether the applicant meets the criteria of student numbers and good governance”.

It continues: “Organisations not eligible to apply for university title via this process can apply to Companies House to use the sensitive word ‘university’ in their title. They will first need to seek the approval of BIS, as the specified body for the sensitive word ‘university’, which applies the same criteria as above in assessing the application.”

It cannot be true both that there are “no formal criteria” and that the criteria are “the same” as those required by the Privy Council route. If there are going to be more BPP-type applications (and next time making sure that temporary degree-awarding powers have been renewed first), the consistent application of the criteria is going to be important – or it could become easy for title to be confused with substance.

G. R. Evans
Oxford

Pre-emptive sanctions

As part of its sanctions against Iran, the US government recently issued a regulation that in effect prohibits any US citizen from managing or processing a journal article on which at least one author is employed by or funded by the government of Iran. At least two major journal publishers – Elsevier and Taylor & Francis – have agreed to support this regulation and have instructed their UK journal editors and editorial board members to refrain from sending out for review any such articles to a US citizen – typically a university academic. A major justification given by the publishers is that they do not wish inadvertently to place such reviewers in breach of the regulation.

This decision was made, as far as we are aware, without discussion with editors or editorial boards, and it amounts to a form of academic censorship that is very worrying. If an editor decides to go along with this policy, some articles from Iranian researchers may not get a proper review or indeed any review at all.

While we do not wish to comment directly on the general issue of sanctions, extending them to obstruct the free flow of scientific information seems to us to be totally unacceptable. We believe that many US colleagues would agree. If publishers are concerned about inadvertent contraventions of US regulations by US citizens, then at the very least, potential US referees should be given a choice whether to undertake the review or not.

If academic publishers hold true to their often stated commitment to freedom to publish, why are they not lobbying the US administration to withdraw this regulation and making public their opposition to it? In the past the US administration has been forced to backtrack on similar attempts at coercion by the refusal of researchers and their representative organisations, including the Association of American Publishers, to cooperate.

If editors and editorial boards associated with these and other publishers were to make clear their opposition to this decision and to refuse to implement it, this form of censorship would become impossible to operate. It would also send a useful warning to other governments that might be tempted to introduce a similar regulation, not just in the case of Iran but in any other country where such a curtailment of academic freedom is being contemplated.

Harvey Goldstein
Professor of social statistics
University of Bristol

John Bynner
Emeritus professor
Institute of Education, University of London

Silence and selfish genes

While it may be true that “sustained practices of silence are profoundly transformative…of one’s spiritual and ethical perspective” (“Giving but not yielding”, Features, 8 August), apparently they do not necessarily improve scientific reasoning.

Equating cooperation with mutation and selection as a “third principle” in evolution is a straightforward misunderstanding of evolutionary theory that will hinder rather than aid our understanding of the evolution of complexity. Mutation generates variation, selection filters it, and together these two processes cause change. Complexity and cooperation are inevitable products of such change, not agents of it. To criticise Richard Dawkins’ “selfish” gene metaphor for implying that cooperation is unimportant is, likewise, a misunderstanding. Genes are selfish in the sense that there is selection, period. Cooperation evolves as a result of selection among genes, not in spite of it. Logically, it could not be otherwise, and Dawkins’ critics have merely obfuscated this simple point. Unfortunately, the tendency to confuse clarity of argument with oversimplification continues.

Robert Barton
Evolutionary Anthropology Research Group
Durham University

System-wide thinking

Jon Turney’s review of Toby Tyrrell’s On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth (Books, 8 August) refers to Tyrrell’s proposal that the Gaia hypothesis is not a reasonable view of how the Earth and life interact.

Tyrrell’s investigation is hugely valuable and makes a considerable contribution to current understanding. On Gaia, however, makes a category error conflating Gaia theory as the new field of holistic science with the very human desire for explanations and mechanisms. Gaia theory has made the Earth, its rocks, oceans and atmosphere and all of life upon it the ultimate system of ecological study. In Revolutions that Made the Earth (2011), Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson write: “Gaia Theory and the Earth system are for us close to being synonymous.”

Tyrrell considers “there is a lack of any clinching fact or argument that points exclusively to Gaia as the only plausible hypothesis for how Earth and life influence each other”. This is a young science, and the lack of an explanatory mechanism is no reason for rejection or for acceptance.

Tyrrell writes that “a complacent belief in the comforting power of Earth to self-heal, which can come as unwanted baggage with the Gaia hypothesis, is neither merited nor helpful”. James Lovelock in his writings and broadcasts agrees as he continually argues that our actions are likely to perturb the Earth system.

Lovelock’s genius sets out the new world-view that Earth system science is taking forward. His fruitful questions are guiding scientists, non-governmental organisations and politicians to imagine to what extent we can mess with the planetary system before it bites back. Gaia science’s new paradigm is specifying for engineers, entrepreneurs and investors the challenge to develop solutions to adaptation and mitigation as the Earth system approaches tipping points.

John Gilbert
Friends of the Lovelock Archive at the Science Museum

Professional identities

Fred Inglis’ rage against marketing and the way corporate identities are reported to be created for universities (“Incinerated by the branding iron”, 18 July) may be shared by many academics and university administrators if comments heard in and around institutions of higher education are to be believed.

Professional practitioners and firms of such professionals tend to cultivate, protect, cherish and, in some cases, flaunt their professional reputation, and many staff of universities behave in the same way. The same people appear to hate the idea that they and their organisations can be branded, marketed and pushed in to the market with sales promotion campaigns as if they were packaged goods, like soap powder, which they are not.

The problems are well known among academics, administrators, advertising agencies, their support teams and other stakeholders in higher education. What are less well known are the solutions. I think I may have an answer. Wally Olins’ The Corporate Personality: An Inquiry into the Nature of Corporate Identity (1978) is a seminal book that gives a well-regarded introduction to the subject expressed by the title. G. Lynn Shostack’s “Breaking Free from Product Marketing” in the Journal of Marketing (1977) is a much-cited article on the issues. I would encourage those with a stake in higher education to look over the two works, reflect on the thoughtful and constructive ideas they develop and consider them in relation to their own work and to their home institution.

Nicholas Beyts
London

Buy now, regret later

Cary Cooper’s review of The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization mentions the “consumption paradox”, the notion that as we become more affluent, we become less satisfied (Books, 8 August). Perhaps because the affluent make larger purchases more often, they are likely to suffer more buyer’s remorse – the regret a person may feel after making a purchase, also called post-purchase dissonance.

Alex Chablo
Manchester

Metropolitan follies

How can a university “outgrow” a name such as “Metropolitan” (Campus round-up, 8 August) and how does “Beckett” encompass anything wider? Do the leaders of Leeds Metropolitan University not have something better to think about? And what small fortune will it take to effect all the necessary changes when the new name (Leeds Beckett University) is adopted?

Anthony Ingleton
Sheffield

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