by Ron Roberts
Much could be written about the state of higher education in the UK in the second decade of the 21st century. But what are the most essential features which describe not only its current malaise but the possibilities for change which exist at the present moment? Of course we regularly hear from ministers how the UK remains high up in the ‘world league tables’, continues to ‘punch above its weight’ and produces ‘world leading research’. Anyone who actually works in the system and who has worked in it over the period of market transformation began under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s knows that behind glib phrases lies a very different reality. In this short piece I’ll provide a rough guide to what things are actually like today.
Thatcher’s reforms were intended to introduce what she referred to as ‘market discipline’ into the tertiary education sector. The principal weapons for achieving this over the years have been the teaching quality assurance (TQA) inspection regime, the research assessment exercise (RAE), the infamous National Student Survey (NSS) and of course the insanity of university tuition fees. The TQA has been largely abandoned but ushered in its wake a system of permanent internal bureaucratic regulation of courses –described by one commentator as a conveyor belt of Stalinist non-production. The NSS – said to assess the ‘quality of the student experience’ has been subject to regular criticism and evidence of ‘irregularities’ at various institutions has been plentiful. Then there is the RAE (now re-branded as the REF – Research Excellence Framework) which involved huge bureaucratic panels rating the research of academics in every university department on a 4 point scale. Initially academics didn’t take this too seriously and simply got on with doing what they had always done. Thirty years later however we see the corrosive effect of this all too clearly. Research which gets high ratings is of the type which is Government and business ‘friendly’. The range of research in different departments has accordingly narrowed. The ratings system itself which purports to provide a measure of ‘quality’ is largely regarded as baloney and entirely lacking in validity. I’ll explain – a high proportion of the papers which academics submit are not in fact actually read, their supposed quality being determined by what journal the work is published in. So for example if the work is published in a US published journal – which will inevitably have a large readership – it is likely to get better ratings. So – it’s a bit like judging Shakespeare, Goethe or Bronte on the basis of the name of their publishing house. Not exactly convincing! As a measure it has not surprisingly been described by numerous academics as ‘nonsense’.
If this dents one’s confidence in what is being produced one may always seek solace from the system of peer review which is supposed to operate to ensure that only good quality work gets into print in the first place. Sadly all is not what it seems here as well. The peer review system dates from the 18th century and has been lambasted as a process susceptible to control by elites and personal jealousy. The editor of the British Medical Journal, Richard Horton remarked that we portray it “as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller but we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong”. Particular disciplines are more problematic than others – Economics and Psychology in particular have become little more than makeover departments for brandishing the twin weapons of neoliberal economics and individualism. In the case of the former, students in various university departments have at least began to smell a rat and have demanded a more varied education – whether they get it is another matter. In Psychology the picture is less rosy. The Social Sciences now have to pay their own way – having been effectively robbed of any Government support – and so their desire to please their pay masters as opposed to producing viable critiques of the status quo that is this dysfunctional society has never been higher. Added to all this the level of fees now operating mean that we have the most expensive higher education system in the world with students disciplined into the realities of the market through eye watering levels of debt. Such a system of occurs means that certain professions will be increasingly occupied by the daughters and sons of the wealthy who can afford these fees and as well as surviving within the slave labour system of internships (i.e. work done without pay) which operates to smooth career progression are less likely to question the system.
The upshot of all this is that academic freedom is effectively dead in the UK. This will no doubt come as a surprise to those who think it is protected by protected by section 202 of the Education Reform Act 2008 and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Two relatively recent cases in the UK hint at the problems. In the most recent (Duke v University of Salford  EWHC 196 (QB)) the High Court confirmed that a University is entitled to protect its reputation by suing for defamation. The other case concerns an Employment Appeal Tribunal (Hill v Great Tey Primary School UKEAT/0237/12/SM). This is without doubt the more disturbing. Readers may recall the tale of a school dinner worker who not only told a child’s parents that their daughter had been tied to a fence and whipped with a skipping rope by some other pupils, but also repeated this to the press. The allegations were true, but the worker lost her job – dismissed by the school for “breach of confidentiality” and acting in a manner likely to “bring the school into disrepute”. Her lawyers argued that this interfered with “right to freedom of speech” under Article 10 of the ECHR. The argument was rejected – the tribunal holding that “a school had a reputation to protect”. The judgement went on to say that although “the disciplinary proceedings constituted a restriction upon the claimant’s freedom of speech it was open to the school to seek to justify the interference by reference to the legitimate aims of protecting the reputation.”
These two cases legally place educational institutions in general and universities in particular in a class which entitles them to protect their reputation. They are able to do this, when for example local authorities cannot, because they are considered not to be organs of local or central government but institutions which “are in competition to secure funding by admitting pupils” and of course students. As such interpretation of the law is designed to protect private corporations and institutions. This has been described elsewhere as “the politics of wealth defence” by materially endowed actors. The threat to academic freedom then, is that universities can effectively declare their reputation to be at risk by any piece of research work (more likely to be in the social sciences) which might throw an unfavourable light on the workings of the university. As de facto corporations, the activities of theirs which could conceivably attract social science interest, likely to be construed as unwelcome and therefore worthy of secrecy, could concern any or all of the following; patterns of investment, sources of income, employment practices, hiring and firing practices, behaviour of university staff and students (legal or otherwise) etc.
In summary what we now have is a system of higher education engineered and structured to transfer wealth from students and their families to corporate managers and investors and to de facto privatise knowledge and the institutions which produce it. How this can be challenged will be discussed in part two.
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