Higher education

Britain: Universities on Strike

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 16/03/2018 - 7:34am in

British university lecturers are in their fourth week of a militant, historic strike—taking a stand not just against austerity, but for a more humane, democratic higher education system.

Looming REF deadlines lead to a rush in publication of lower quality research

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 15/03/2018 - 10:00pm in

The increased significance of research assessments and their implications for funding and career prospects has had a knock-on effect on academic publication patterns. Moqi Groen-Xu, Pedro A. Teixeira, Thomas Voigt and Bernhard Knapp report on research that reveals a marked increase in research productivity immediately prior to an evaluation deadline, which quickly reverses once the deadline has passed. Moreoever, the […]

The hidden costs of research assessment exercises: the curious case of Australia

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/03/2018 - 10:00pm in

Research assessment exercises provide the government and wider public with assurance of the quality of university research, with the guiding principles being accountability, transparency, and openness. But is there the same accountability and openness when it comes to the public cost of these large-scale exercises? Ksenia Sawczak examines the situation in Australia as the research sector looks ahead to the […]

Deficit, what deficit? The politics of financial fact

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/03/2018 - 2:32am in

Our pensions are under threat. You will be familiar with the headline numbers – pensions slashed by over half, to a level where the very survival of the university sector seems in jeopardy. I have done the numbers, like everyone else, and they make grim reading. But how did this whole mess come about? At root, it’s a struggle over risk and who should carry it. The deficit itself is the result of some particular choices made by regulators and administrators. Its very existence is a reflection of the broader struggles over the marketizing of universities and the social contract for public services, and it’s this battle that academics are fighting, whether we know it or not. 

Just to be clear, USS (the scheme for all universities older than 1992) is a defined benefit (DB) scheme, with limits. It is not a final salary scheme, Members of the scheme (us) are entitled to a fraction (currently 1/75)  of our average salary for every year of our retirement. If you are paid over £55,000 (only the higher senior lecturer grades and professors are) then you make contributions into a pot of investments and your return depends on the financial markets. This kind of arrangement is known as defined contribution (DC). DC is something of a euphemism because contributions are always defined and the name distracts attention from the fact that the returns – the benefits – are largely due to chance. DC is simply a tax-efficient savings pots.

The deficit exploded into our consciousness after USS’ three yearly valuation in mid-2017 and subsequent politicking. Universities at first accepted and endorsed it, but now Vice Chancellors are lukewarm. This morning Sally Mapstone, Vice Chancellor of the University of St Andrews circulated a letter sent to Universities UK (UUK) , in which she writes ‘It is now very clear that the current valuation does not command the confidence of USS members at St Andrews, and for that reason we support the call for an independent assessment of the valuation and the scale of the USS deficit.’ Her letter is simultaneously encouraging and troubling – encouraging beacuse in hints at a solution, but troubling because it implies that there is such a thing as a correct valuation, and that a bigger calculator will get there.

And, I suppose, once the facts are discovered we must all just fall into line.

Facts are made. They are made in laboratories and by experts, by machines and instruments and practices. As Donald MacKenzie points out, even the etymology of the word reassures us of the labour involved in assembling the factual.[1] Financial facts are especially made, complex representations of states of the world – and because of that they are irredeemably political. You may think of your overdraft as very concrete, in the sense that the rock David Hume kicked was all too solid for his toes. But even your overdraft is the result of considerable calculation and social and material coordination: what you paid in and when you paid it, what you bought and when those charges were processed. The overdraft is no innocent; as anyone who has been on the wrong side of a bank fine or wrongful credit card transaction will know, it looks politically charged soon enough. We discover it is a microcosm of capitalist politics: the bank makes the rules and for the most part we simply have to go along with them. We find ourselves in a similar position regarding the USS deficit. A group of powerful players have changed the rules and we have been left in the cold.

It is possible, as scholars documenting the sociology of science have been saying for years, to generate different facts – entirely different knowledge worlds – from the same materials. What’s more, they may each be true in their own context. John Law and John Urry write that ‘different research practices might be making multiple worlds…such worlds might be equally valid, equally true, but simply unlike one another’.[2] USS helpfully demonstrate this point by providing four different valuations, all of which are true and valid but are simply unlike each other.

  • The headline figure comes from USS’s everyday accounting methodology, which it calls a monitoring basis. It writes: ‘The figures given in our Reports and Accounts were on our monitoring basis and reported liabilities of £72.6bn – a funding deficit of £12.6bn and a funding ratio of 83%.’ This estimate (as USS calls it) of shortfall is driven by USS’s assessment of future returns, and I will get back to why these are so bad in a moment. The funding ratio of 83% is roughly in line with other UK defined benefit schemes, by the way.
  • The accounting measure following the set of rules called FRS102 calculates a deficit of £17.5bn. This measure is intended solely for comparison between schemes.
  • On a “self-sufficiency basis” – the amount that would be required if the scheme was to move everything into a risk-free investment – there is a deficit of £27.4bn.
  • Finally, by USS’ ‘best estimate’ view, the scheme is in surplus. According to the trustees of the scheme, there is no problem at all. (But, says USS ‘our ‘best estimate’ by definition only has a 50/50 chance of success and in order to ensure USS pensions promises are properly secure, and to be compliant with legislation, we have to apply a degree of prudence.’)
  • There is a fifth valuation driven by the amount that an insurance company would demand to take the scheme over, but that need not detain us here.

We may conclude, then, that the USS is operating at somewhere between a surplus and a deficit of £30 billion, depending on how you choose to count. And that is where the politics comes in.

By law, a pension must be revalued every three years. The calculation of surplus or deficit is based on the assumed future liabilities of the pension set against assumed future revenue streams. Neither of these are straightforward, and the basis on which calculate them reveals much about our aspirations for the organization of society.

In terms of sorting out the eventual liabilities, two things really matter: how long we live – for obvious reasons – and the returns the fund can expect on all the money that we and our employers have paid in. To deal with the former, USS has assumed that we will live 1.5 percent longer each year. This may be a ‘prudent’ measure, but it is at odds with current practice in a sector cheerful about slowing growth in life expectancy: the insurance company Legal & General has, for example, just released £330 million of reserves that believes it no longer needs to cover growing life expectancy.

In terms of long term income, the valuation hinges on the return available from so-called ‘risk free’ assets, usually in the shape of government bonds (gilts). Pension funds are required to keep a certain amount of long-life investments to match their liabilities. But the return on bonds fluctuates with interest rates (and expected future rates). Bonds pay a fixed coupon, in terms of x pence per pound; often they pay this at the end of the term and so the market adjusts the prices of bonds to make the return fall into line with interest rates. At the risk of oversimplification, if a bond pays more than interest rates, people will buy it. The price will drift up until the return (the coupon as a percentage of the bond’s price) falls into line with interest rates. And vice versa: when interest rates go up, bond prices go down. In a prolonged low-interest environment, like the one we have enjoyed for nearly a decade, it follows that bond investment will be unattractive. Other factors, such as investors looking for safe havens for their funds, drive prices up even further to the point where USS believes that the long-term return on inflation-linked gilts will be -1.5%. In other words, holders of bonds are having to pay for the privilege of keeping their money safe.

At the 2014 valuation In 2014 USS had a deficit of £5.1 billion. By law the pension must have a long-term recovery plan, and USS launched a 17 year programme. In the face of low bond yields, USS turned to the stock market (equities) in search of better returns. Stock markets raced upwards: in the five years to March 2017, the value of USS’s assets increased by 12 percent annually, and in the 12 months to March 2017 assets had grown by more than £10bn, or 20%. But the scheme’s liabilities outpaced the growing assets. Why? It is a matter of future returns, says USS: ‘while there has been significant focus on the existence of a deficit, it is actually the outlook for future returns that has had the most material influence on the outcome.’

Alas, the same diminishing returns apply to rising equity prices as they do to bonds: the higher the price of a stock, the lower the dividend in percentage terms (the yield). As we keep paying into the scheme USS needs to keep buying assets, but it can’t find anywhere to put them. It now has to forecast that it will receive much lower returns than the five percent originally planned. USS states this explicitly, writing ‘while the investment team has continued to be successful against the benchmarks set its expectations of how successful it can be in future reflect the reduced returns available in the markets.’

But USS is not a scheme at the mercy of the markets. It is based on a ‘covenant’ between employers and employees designed to pay a retirement wage at a set amount. It is underwritten by the entire higher education sector, and with all the universities standing behind it, USS could take steps to recover from the deficit. In particular, it could place less of its funds into bonds – which, remember, now cost money to own – and more into other areas, be they equities, hedge funds, property investments, green energy or whatever took its fancy. Or it could simply wait, paying its pensions and running a deficit, until economic times changed and the deficit contracted once more. It has become apparent, however, that the universities no longer want to sign up to this bargain.

In the summer of last year USS asked employers – via Universities UK – whether they wanted more or less risk. It might seem a silly question, for out of context everyone wants less risk. But universities have a particular agenda. USS is what is known as a ‘last man standing’ scheme, meaning that should institutions start to fail, risk would pile up on those still operating. And university managers, now thoroughly versed in the language, practices and salaries of business, are obsessed with avoiding risk. Risk has practical implications, for under current accounting rules employers must carry full pension liabilities on their balance sheet. This affects administrators who, seeing themselves primarily as curators of rankings in a market-driven system, are diverting all the funds they can into an arms race of building and infrastructure investment. Universities can borrow very cheaply – often at less than the cost of inflation, and almost free money is too good a ticket to be passed up. But lenders are not going to offer such preferential terms to borrowers with huge pension liabilities; for a university, the covenant of USS begins to loom as an enormous blot on an otherwise shiny credit rating.

Even then, a majority of employers (58 percent) responded that they were happy with the level of risk. Enter the pensions regulator. In October last year the regulator wrote to USS instructing it to downgrade its confidence in the institutions. Josephine Cumbo reported the story in the FT (here if you can access it) and quoted a letter from the regulator, ‘We take the view that there are issues with the sector’s ability to increase payments to the scheme, which might arise under realistic downside scenarios, to remove the deficit over an appropriate period.’ Though the modelling will have been complicated, the principle is clear enough: less underwriting means more risk, which must be offset in other ways. USS found itself needing to articulate an investment strategy that poured more money into those costly, risk-free investments, leading it to estimate investment returns of less than inflation for the next decade. (Ironically, that is exactly the kind of return it would get from lending to a safe haven such as a university – where do you think all that cheap money is coming from?) Lower investment returns mean a bigger deficit: simple arithmetic, innit.

Here I speculate, but it seems that UUK took the opportunity offered by the regulator’s intervention to back the large minority of respondents in calling for an end to defined benefits, doing away with the employers’ share of all future risk arising from the scheme, for ever. The risk doesn’t go away, of course, but simply moves into the laps of employees where – according to neoliberal visions of a market-organized, individualist society – it belongs.

Let me recap. Racing equity markets and the expectation of low interest rates in the longer term have created an environment for poor future returns on investments. Unnecessarily cautious life expectancy assumptions have increased the expectations of future liabilities. USS has enjoyed some flexibility in generating above market returns by way of the covenant with the employers, but employers are increasingly unwilling to underwrite the scheme. Once the covenant starts to erode the ‘last man standing’ nature of the scheme makes membership a prolonged game of prisoner’s dilemma, and as everyone with an MBA knows, the strategic option is to cut and run. Everyone without an MBA – thieves and prisoners included – recognises that the best outcome all round comes from sticking together. Honour among thieves if not vice chancellors, but that’s an aside. Finally, the pensions regulator has cast doubt on the sector’s ability to underwrite the scheme, and ordered USS to buy more loss-making but safe bonds. And there we have a grotesque deficit.

If this sounds suspiciously like politics, it is. A scheme that is solvent on a going concern basis for 40 years, and backed by one of the longest established and most robust sectors in the country – we’re hardly running railways or overstretching ourselves supplying government contracts – is recast as being risky and in deficit by the removal of the foundational assumption of the scheme, that we are all in it together, now and in the future. Prudent assumptions and compulsory stand-on-your own feet valuations are a device to crystalize risk now and force it into the matrix of labour relations.

The question of who should mop up the risk then becomes a reflection of the bigger question of how the higher education sector should be organised. Employers, who see themselves as corporate businesses, do not want to carry risk. The regulators worry that our pension scheme might end up in the taxpayers’ lap; as we are now employees of corporate organisations that would be politically unacceptable. The easiest thing is to offshore the whole lot onto us. That’s an ideological choice, driven by the expansion of a market-style social contract into HE. It’s just another aspect of the barrage of quality measures and assessment, or the toxic problem of student fees, as regulators strive to legislate for a market in a market-averse sector.

It’s also the expression of a particularly nasty form of political meanness that seems to have reared its head in recent years. The Economist’s Buttonwood Notebook (always an academic’s friend) catches the flavour here: ‘In a DC scheme, it [risk] does fall on the employee. In a DB scheme, it rests largely on the employer. But in a sector heavily funded by the public sector that could mean the taxpayer…With public pensions, the rich tend to subsidise the poor. They are also run on a pay-as-you-go basis with today’s workers paying the pensions of current retirees.’ Buttonwood imagines a world where everyone looks out for themselves: God forbid that the rich should subsidise the poor or today’s hard workers should pay the pensions of those skiving retirees. Or indeed that taxpayers should underwrite the pensions of people who work for them, accepting poor conditions and sub-market salaries to pursue the task of educating their children.

It is true that 2017 and 2018 are a low point for pension fund managers looking after defined benefit schemes but USS needs to be understood in the long-term – it will have to last for 70 years and more to cover the obligations it has already accrued. The trustees themselves think – their ‘best estimate’ – that this problem will go away, but regulation demands they act otherwise; our union’s actuary also believes there is no fundamental problem with the scheme. It will continue to be funded by the contributions of future members because we are all in this together. University administrators have an opportunity to underwrite the covenant and recognise that it is beneficial for everyone to maintain those obligations. They do not have to kowtow to a regulator that demands our valuation starts off from the ground zero of economic apocalypse.

Our current dispute is a skirmish in a longer war. Defeating these proposals is simply a means to a bigger end: forcing politicians, University administrators and the public to think differently about the sector and why it matters.

[Many thanks to all of my colleagues and others on line and on Twitter from whom these ideas and comments havebeen gleaned.]

[1] MacKenzie, D. (2009). Material Markets: How Economic Agents are Constructed Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Law, J., & Urry, J. (2004). Enacting the social. Economy and Society, 33(3), pp. 397.


The gendered impact agenda – how might more female academics’ research be submitted as REF impact case studies?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/03/2018 - 10:00pm in

As the impact agenda increases in importance, appropriate consideration should be given to its effects on female academics. The REF has obviously gendered implications, with a number of different factors combining to exacerbate existing inequalities in the academy. Emily Yarrow and Julie Davies have examined impact case study submissions to the REF2014 business and management studies unit of assessment and […]

Hitting the QR sweet spot: will new REF2021 rules lead to a different kind of game-playing?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 07/03/2018 - 10:00pm in

Today marks 999 days until the expected deadline for submissions to REF 2021. Universities’ preparations are already well under way, with additional guidance published last autumn in the form of new REF rules designed to reduce game-playing behaviours among institutions. However, as Simon Kerridge observes, the rule changes may have introduced, or rather enhanced, some hidden dangers around universities’ FTE […]

Book Review: The Digital Academic: Critical Perspectives on Digital Technologies in Higher Education edited by Deborah Lupton, Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 05/03/2018 - 10:52pm in

Eschewing the polarising perspectives that often characterise discussions of digital technologies in academia, The Digital Academic: Critical Perspectives on Digital Technologies in Higher Education, edited by Deborah Lupton, Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson, offers an insightful and diverse take on the digital landscape in Higher Education, covering topics such as MOOCs, ‘flipped classrooms’ and academic blogging. Keeping the human impact of these technologies firmly in view, the book’s contributions are lively, accessible and a frequent joy to read, recommends Dr Jessica Frawley.

This review is published as part of a March 2018 endeavour, ‘A Month of Our Own: Amplifying Women’s Voices on LSE Review of Books’. If you would like to contribute to the project in this month or beyond, please contact us at Lsereviewofbooks@lse.ac.uk

The Digital Academic: Critical Perspectives on Digital Technologies in Higher Education. Deborah Lupton, Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson (eds). Routledge. 2018.

Find this book: amazon-logo

In 2016 a contributor to The Guardian’s ‘Academics Anonymous’ section wrote a post entitled: ‘I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer’. In it, the anonymous author criticised and bemoaned the increasing expectation that academics should use social media, whether to promote themselves or to be seen to appear enthusiastic. Within a week of hitting the web, the article had garnered over 300 comments, 3,000 shares, one jocular counter piece and a small storm on Twitter whose apex took the form of a parody account replete with a meme of a cat wearing a lab coat (@SeriousAcademic).

Amongst the outrage, cats and memes was a debate on what new technologies mean for academic work and the university. For universities, digital technologies bring major changes to the way that teaching, research and communication can occur. Blogs, tweets, automatically generated citation measures, learning analytics, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), flipped classrooms, open access research – all of these impact on academic work and academic workers.

In trying to make sense of this new world, discourse around digital technology in the academe can often result in polarising categories. On the one hand, we find the glorified hype of the Web 2.0. version of the university: the digital classrooms of the future where education is free and democratised for all. On the other, one-dimensional stereotypes of ‘digital natives’ glued to iPhones and academics forced into yet more content production in the form of blogs, tweets and videos, all of which will be used to reward and penalise the neoliberal worker. Inadvertently, by assuming either utopic or dystopic futures, discussions of the digital are prone to mirroring the very binary structures of the machines and systems they seek to explore.

In a context saturated with hype and hope, there is a need for more varied insight. The provision of this is one of the key achievements of The Digital Academic: Critical Perspectives on Digital Technologies in Higher Education. Edited by Deborah Lupton, Inger Mewburn (of Thesis Whisperer fame) and Pat Thomson, this scholarly edited work curates multiple critical perspectives from contributors, many of whom are themselves active digital users of social networking sites and digital technologies. This collaboration has resulted in a text whose academic prose remains lively, accessible and at times joyful to read. The inherent readability also attests to earlier commentary that blogging may serve to help academic writing.

Image Credit: (Animated Heaven CCO)

By focusing a critical lens on academic life, this collection contributes to an increasing body of research interested in universities and the realities for the academics who exist within them. If Burton Clark’s 1987 book The Academic Life began the conversation around the effects of changes such as massification and marketisation, then The Digital Academic takes this conversation in a specifically digital direction.

While the digital landscape may be the context for this work, the focus remains a human one. Technical functionality and specifications give way to more socio-technical philosophies. This shows in methods that consistently explore the digital by turning towards the human, with interviews, surveys and ethnographies taking the place of more quantitative tech-centric approaches. This decision to focus on the voice of the academic is moreover an important one, particularly at a time when the academic self is so frequently quantified, measured and commodified.

Instead of presenting technology as something all-determining, each chapter invites the reader to explore how new technologies are actually used within faculties and institutions. By taking a critical perspective, the authors deliberately situate this usage within the various power structures that exist within and across the contemporary academe. These chapters navigate away from visions of the utopic or dystopic university of the future to explore what is happening in the here and now, in what Neil Selwyn (2014) has referred to as the messy and mundane everyday realities of university life.

One of the main vehicles for thinking about this is the academic self. As observed by the editors, ‘an academic in a cloister is a very different creature from one on a stage’ (6). Though blogs, Twitter and Facebook are performative spaces, academic use and appropriation of these stages are diverse. Chapter Two’s study of PhD students found blogging to be a way for students to create a scholarly identity, think out loud, receive feedback and engage with a community. Likewise, Charlotte Frost’s chapter on her work around PhD2Published demonstrates a way of publicly self-teaching and how this manifest as part of her own career trajectory – countering claims that no-one ever gets tenure from a blog post.

As a set of critical perspectives, this book would not be complete without a deep dive into power structures and hidden labour. In Chapters Eight and Nine, the respective authors’ turn their attention to academic experiences of two oft-endorsed innovations: ‘flipped classrooms’ and MOOCs. Though an abundance of research already exists on these, most has so far focused on their implications for learning and teaching. Instead, these chapters contribute insight from a wider academic perspective. Martin Forsey and Sara Page’s chapter on flipped classrooms demonstrates that, while ‘flipping’ lecture content to online delivery to allow for more interactive classes can be very positive, students and staff have to invest considerable time and energy to make them work. Likewise, Katharina Freud et al’s chapter on MOOCs draws attention to the ‘labour iceberg’ of MOOC delivery and the way the MOOC marketplace may lead to some voices, content and forms of knowledge being privileged over others. These perspectives draw further attention to the complexities of work within the neoliberal university context.

Taken together, the overall direction of The Digital Academic is to encourage further critical exploration of the role that digital media plays for the academy. Aside from this shared goal, the book’s chapters eschew taking one united position or advancing a single argument. Instead, illumination comes from different voices. In edited scholarly works this approach can run the risk of lacking coherence, however well justified or theorised by the editorial team. Yet, in this instance, the approach is not only appropriate but well-executed. Though there can always be a case made for further diversity, there remains value in the specifics of the qualitative even, or especially because, it is always partial, never universal and seldom fully representative.

For the academe ‘there is no escaping the digital – no outside to which we can retreat’ (15). As such, this volume is a vital contribution for anyone who cares about academic work and labour. While a number of the theoretically denser chapters will elude some, as a collection The Digital Academic offers a sufficient range to engage a wide variety of readers. This is important since one of the barriers to broader uptake of research of this nature has been its impermeability to academics working outside the arts and social sciences. Those who are curious will find Chapter One to be an accessible and highly enjoyable overview of the key issues, while interview transcripts in Chapters Eleven and Twelve embrace a conversational messiness that provides an alternative to the research studies. In summary, this thoughtful volume invites us to go beneath the surface of hypes and hopes to critically explore the wonders and problems of the digital university. This invitation is one that anyone who cares about the modern university should most definitely accept.

Dr Jessica Frawley is a Lecturer in Academic Development and an Honorary Associate of the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. Having a cross-disciplinary background, with degrees in both information technology and the humanities, Jessica’s research and teaching focus on understanding and designing technologies from a human perspective. Jessica currently teaches undergraduate subjects in design and postgraduate subjects in higher education and educational technologies. Dr Frawley is Co-President of the Australian and New Zealand Mobile Learning Group, Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a regular contributor and managing editor for Teaching@Sydney.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Is pursuing an academic career a form of “cruel optimism”?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 01/03/2018 - 10:00pm in

What does the future hold for PhD graduates? Marie-Alix Thouaille has found that for many the post-PhD transition is characterised by exploitative, often unsustainable working conditions, emotional upheaval, financial worry, and poor wellbeing. Despite this most PhD graduates remain absolutely determined to forge an academic career, unwilling to even entertain the idea of working in another sector. This paradoxical condition […]

Transdisciplinary PhD programmes produce more high-impact publications and foster increased collaborations

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 27/02/2018 - 10:00pm in

Traditional doctoral programmes require students to gain in-depth knowledge in one subject area. Transdisciplinary programmes aim to foster synthesis across disciplines and focus on translating research findings into real-world solutions, helping students to develop a professional disciplinary identity that is enhanced by multidisciplinary methods and theories. Anna-Sigrid Keck, Stephanie Sloane, Janet M. Liechty, Barbara H. Fiese, and Sharon M. Donovan […]

Resist? Welcome? Co-opt? Ignore? The pressures and possibilities of the REF and impact

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 26/02/2018 - 10:00pm in

The increased focus on impact in research evaluation represents a range of possibilities and pressures to those academics whose work is being assessed. For some it offers an opportunity to progress social justice causes and engage in participatory, bottom-up research approaches with less powerful groups; while to others it is further evidence of the managerial audit culture that is corrupting […]