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The Grim Threat to British Universities

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Everett Collection
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in A Chump at Oxford, 1940

Nonetheless most British academics feel that they must go along with HEFCE, because its second pillar is the funding process that follows the announcement of the RAE results. It is this that gives the system real teeth, since academic departments receive less money if their RAE ratings fall short. There is a cleverness to these rules that points to their origins in the consulting world of McKinsey, Accenture, and Ernst and Young, and of course the Balanced Scorecard. As the deadline for the RAE approaches, university departments do not know the amount of the financial penalties to be imposed by HEFCE if they fail to receive the top grades; they know only that the penalties will be severe. Moreover, these penalties are linked to the performance of each academic entered in the RAE by his or her department. The pressure on academics in the months before the RAE deadline can therefore be intense. A friend at one of the humanities departments at Oxford faced them in the fall of 2007 when he struggled to finish for the RAE deadline a book that had been a lifetime project, with $120,000 of HEFCE funds thought to be at stake.

Things are usually done sotto voce at Oxford, and it didn’t take more than a couple of stiff, pointed telephone calls from my friend’s departmental “line manager” for the RAE (a fellow academic chosen to supervise his work for the RAE) to remind him of how much was riding on his performance. HEFCE’s financing process legitimizes this kind of micromanagement of research by both university departments and central university administrators. The system has therefore markedly shifted the balance of power in British universities from academics to managers. “Managers” is a category that now includes not only professional managers in central university administrations, but also those senior academics in university departments and divisions who have responsibility for submitting work to the RAE panels. They have become hybrid academics/managers and they have to worry about pleasing the agents of HEFCE, whether they like it or not.

What is it like to be at the receiving end of the HEFCE/RAE system, especially for a young academic starting out on his or her career? Here is the testimony of a young and very promising historian teaching at one of the newer universities in the London area:

The bureaucratization of scholarship in the humanities is simply spirit-crushing. I may prepare an article on extremism, my research area, for publication in a learned journal, and my RAE line manager focuses immediately on the influence of the journal, the number of citations of my text, the amount of pages written, or the journal’s publisher. Interference by these academic managers is pervasive and creeping. Whether my article is any good, or advances scholarship in the field, are quickly becoming secondary issues. All this may add to academic “productivity,” but is it worth selling our collective soul for?

A 2000 study carried out by the Universities UK, a body representing the vice-chancellors—executive heads of British universities—found that the frustration and demoralization expressed by the young historian were even then widespread among British academics. Its focus groups criticized “higher workloads and long hours, finance-driven decisions, remote senior management teams and greater pressure for internal and external accountability.”11 Some of the most telling testimony on the damage to British scholarship inflicted by the HEFCE/RAE regime has come not from an academic but from Richard Baggaley, the European publishing director of Princeton University Press, and an acute observer of the quality of British scholarly output.

Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement in May 2007, Baggaley deplored what he saw as “a trend towards short-termism and narrowness of focus in British academe.”12 In the natural and social sciences this took the form of “intense individual and team pressure to publish journal articles,” with the writing of books strongly discouraged, and especially the writing of what he calls “big idea books” that may define their disciplines. Baggaley attributes this bias against books directly to the distorting effects of the RAE. Journal articles are congenial to the RAE because they can be safely completed and peer-reviewed in good time for the RAE deadline. If they are in a prestigious journal, that is the kind of peer approval that will impress the RAE panelists.

The pressure to be published in the top journals, Baggaley wrote, also

increases a tendency to play to what the journal likes, to not threaten the status quo in the discipline, to be risk-averse and less innovative, to concentrate on small incremental steps and to avoid big-picture interdisciplinary work.

In the humanities the RAE bias also works in favor of the 180–200-page monograph, hyperspecialized, cautious and incremental in its findings, with few prospects for sale as a bound book but again with a good chance of being completed and peer-reviewed in time for the RAE deadline. A bookseller at Blackwell’s, the leading Oxford bookstore, told me that he dreaded the influx of such books as the RAE deadline approached.

Baggaley doesn’t mention a further set of practices, above and beyond the RAE, that push British academics toward “short-termism and narrowness of focus” in their research. These are the reporting and auditing burdens imposed on them not only by HEFCE but also by its sister bureaucracies such as the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and by the administrators of the academics’ own university. This is the “pressure for internal and external accountability” to which the Universities UK refers in its report, and is known collectively as the “audit culture.” The audit culture requires academics to squander vast amounts of time and energy producing lengthy and pointless reports, drenched in the jargon of management consultancy, showing how their chosen “processes” for the organization of teaching, research, and the running of academic departments conform to managerial “best practice” as laid down by HEFCE, the QAA, or the university administration itself.

In HEFCE’s texts, words like “quality” and “excellence” have become increasingly empty. For the handful of British universities that are world-class—Oxford, Cambridge, and the various components of the University of London foremost among them—the HEFCE system is especially dangerous, because the reputation of these universities really does depend on their ability to do first-rate research, which is most threatened by HEFCE’s crass managerialism. In Britain there are scholars who will continue to produce exceptional work despite HEFCE and the RAE. But by treating the universities as if they were the research division of Great Britain Inc., the UK government and HEFCE have relegated the scholar to the lower echelons of a corporate hierarchy, surrounding him or her with hordes of managerial busybodies bristling with benchmarks, incentives, and penalties.

To what degree do such methods prevail in American academia itself? It would be surprising if practices so central to the American zeitgeist during the past twenty years had thrived only on foreign soil. In the US, higher public education is the responsibility of the individual states, and the power of private universities also ensures that there can be no American HEFCE exercising monopolist powers over the funding for research in all disciplines. The lifetime security of employment that academic tenure provides—and that no longer exists in the UK—gives the senior professors, who in 2007–2008 made up 48.8 percent of teachers in higher education,13 the power and confidence to stand up to university managers and head off an American version of the RAE. But their success in doing this also points to the dubious bargain that many of them have struck: relatively little teaching, especially undergraduate teaching, is usually required of them, and in return they are left in peace to carry on with their research.

The result has been that the burden of academic managerialism in the US has fallen on the teaching rather than the research side of university life, with university administrators achieving collectively what in the UK has been achieved by government fiat. The imposition of the industrial model on teaching, and especially the teaching of undergraduates, has been most damaging in the state universities below the elite level and in the two-year junior and community colleges that together, Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein remind us in The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers, make up the great majority of American institutions of higher education.

At this lower level the prolonged and continued decline of funding from state and local governments had had a pervasive effect even before the present financial crisis hit, forcing university managers to behave more and more like their corporate counterparts and to treat academic departments as “cost centers and revenue production units.”14 In the science, mathematics, and engineering departments of eleven public research universities examined by Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades in Academic Capitalism and the New Economy, we find an assembly line where increased “student credit-hour production” has become the target of management’s “incentive based budget mechanisms.”15

Texas A&M University of College Station, Texas, provides an extreme example of a teaching factory in the making. For the academic year 2008–2009 each faculty member at Texas A&M was given a “profit and loss account” by the university administration, where the “loss” of the faculty member’s salary was or was not offset by teaching revenues brought in by the faculty member in the form of “semester credit hours.” Professors were in the red when their salary “loss” exceeded their teaching revenues. A professor’s research and publication record, and the value of research grants he or she might have received, did not figure in the profit and loss calculations. So Professor Chester Dunning, a tenured historian of Russia with a distinguished research and publication record, was nonetheless judged to be a $26,863 “lossmaker” for the university because his total salary plus benefits of $112,138 well exceeded the $85,275 he attracted in semester credit hours.16

In Academic Capitalism and the New Economy Slaughter and Rhoades draw on interviews with department heads at public research universities to give a sense of what the mass production of teaching can mean at the classroom level: “The whole thing is marketing. The whole thing is how many bodies do you process. Administrators actually use these terms.” Again, “Chemistry 101 is like a fast dentist. It can generate lots of revenue.” But while faculty output (that is, its teaching load) was scheduled by the administrators to increase, faculty numbers and its remuneration have to be strictly controlled. One department set up a professional masters program that was inexpensive to run because it could be taught “partly or largely by adjuncts and even doctoral students.”

These adjuncts and doctoral students belong to the contingent academic workforce, the expanding army of academics employed on short-term contracts, many of whom work part-time and have little by way of job security or benefits. This workplace “restructuring” is the subject of Schuster and Finkelstein’s monumental study of employment trends in American academia, The American Faculty, an exhaustive examination of the available data. They show that the growth of the “contingent” academic workforce—i.e., nontenured and without secure benefits—over the past thirty years has been spectacular and surpasses anything to be found in the corporate world.

  1. 11

    Universities UK (UUK), “New Managerialism and the Management of UK Universities,” CVCP/SRHS Research Seminar, October 12, 2000, on “Shifting Patterns of State–University Relations,” quoted in Philip Tagg’s Audititis website, www.tagg.org/rants/audititis.html. Tagg is a professor of musicology at the University of Montreal, but was formerly a lecturer at the University of Liverpool in the UK. 

  2. 12

    Richard Baggaley “How the RAE is Smothering ‘Big Idea’ Books,” Times Higher Education, May 25, 2007. 

  3. 13

    National Center for Education Statistics, Table 264: available at nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d09/tables/dt09_264.asp

  4. 14

    Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhonds “Academic Capitalism and the New Economy” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), p. 181. 

  5. 15

    Schuster and Finkelstein, The American Faculty, pp. 323–324; see also American Association of University Professors, “Increase in the Number of Employees in Higher Education Institutions, by Category of Employee, 1976–2005,” available at www.aaup.org

  6. 16

    Stephanie Simon and Stephanie Banchero, “Putting a Price on Professors,” The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2010. For Professor Dunning’s “profit and loss account” see “Texas A&M University System: Academic Financial Data Complication (AFDC), FY 2009,” p. 116. In a letter to the Texas A&M board of Regents, dated September 13, 2010, Michael D. McKinney, M.D., chancellor of Texas A&M, told the regents that they could find the 265-page printout of the AFDC at www.tamus.ed/offices/communications/reports/afdc.pdf. This address now yields a “page not found” message, and the AFDC data is no longer available on the Texas A&M System’s home page, where it has been withdrawn “as we continue to refine the data.” The AFDC printout was made available to me by a faculty member at Texas A&M and is available from me at siheaduk@aol.com. 

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