Letters – 31 January 2019

January 31, 2019

Sector fails to self-regulate its ‘wicked issues’

The article on the Office for Students (“‘Quick with the rod’, but is the OfS up to the job?”, News, 24 January) identifies the inbuilt tension within the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 between the OfS being required to balance a duty of having due regard to institutional autonomy and its duty to act as a regulator effectively protecting the consumer interests of the student. It also identifies that some in the sector resent the idea of any meaningful regulation, and wish for the return of a cosy relationship with a cuddly Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The article ends by speculating that there has been a loss of public faith in universities, which has resulted in HERA and the OfS.

This state of affairs might not have come about if the sector had shown itself to be more aware of its problems of weak governance and poor management, which meant that it failed to self-regulate its “wicked issues” – inter alia: unconditional offers, grade inflation, the egregious overpayment of vice-chancellors and senior management teams, inadequate teaching quality, a sloppy attitude to the university-student consumer contract, dodgy deals for branch campuses abroad, and access and diversity issues in its elites. Instead, the sector babbles on in a Panglossian way about its international reputation and the crucial need for institutional autonomy – an autonomy that it has steadily abused and increasingly cannot be trusted with (noting that “academic freedom” is another matter – that will be protected by the OfS).

Dennis Farrington
Visiting fellow
Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies
New College, Oxford

Publishing debate

Those of us concerned about the potential unintended consequences of a headlong rush to “gold” open access do not doubt the value of dissemination (“Access all areas”, Features, 24 January). On the contrary, it is the dangers that we perceive to the future of effective dissemination, particularly beyond the sciences, that drive us to raise questions.

The debate within the UK takes place in the context of open access requirements being forced on us through the research excellence framework, yet with no associated funding to cover implementation. With no prospect of additional quality-related funding to cover open access publishing costs, the reality is that libraries will be forced to carve up ever-shrinking QR funding pots, where the sciences will always win out.

The consequences of this would not only be that public research funding is emptied into the private pockets of the major publishing platforms, but that arts and humanities titles become even less viable.

The march towards the aims of Plan S ignores the benefits of “green” repository options and of associated alternative publishing models such as Goldsmiths Press.

Ultimately, do we want a top-down agenda to dictate the future of academic publishing in a way that undermines the ability of certain disciplines to share the fruits of our research?

Sarah Kember
Director, Goldsmiths Press
Goldsmiths, University of London


The issues occupying the research communication ecosystem are incredibly complex. A lot of good work is going on in the development of publishing from the Global South, and many there want to develop their knowledge production systems using the best professional systems available. Western mandates can hamper this progress.

There are also valid worries over metrics to measure “quality”. Sole reliance on citations is clearly inadequate, although they do represent a positive (or indeed positively negative) act by a researchers’ network. The question becomes: what are other responsible metrics that demonstrate quality? Altmetric social media mentions may just indicate clickbait popularity. And should the criterion of openness be the sole measure of “quality”?

Furthermore, the impact agenda can be used to drive political interference in the research cycle – from what gets funded and where it can be published, to how it is evaluated. And measuring impact outside the academy simply via writing up case studies is insufficient in its own way, not least in terms of comparability.

Finally, initiatives such as Research4Life, PatientInform and INASP are all worth further support and funding.

Publishers already do a lot to support open science and research communities. They undoubtedly could do so much more.

Via timeshighereducation.com 

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