15 April 2010

The End of Research

See this letter by Ian Pears in response to Ross McKibbin's article in the LRB. You'll find it at LRB 32, no.6, 25th March 2010 Or read below.

The End of Research

Ross McKibbin’s excellent article on the inane proposals of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) for the future regulation of research misses one point: the degree to which the universities themselves – or rather the manageriat controlling them – have connived in the subordination of academics to centrally generated goals (LRB, 25 February 2010). Hefce, after all, is not some corporate Trojan horse; it is largely made up of former academics who have made the transition into university management, and have in so doing vastly increased their salaries and their power.

Eight out of 15 of the Hefce board are university managers, the rest coming from business; nine out of 11 members of the research committee, ten out of 14 on the skills committee and 15 out of 18 on the access committee are senior university administrators. Working academics – teachers and researchers – are conspicuously absent. Hefce is, in reality, little more than a managerial oligarchy, and its power is extraordinary: no other country in the world hands out so much money (some £7 billion a year) to such a small group with so little external supervision over what it does. It answers to no one except the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, and in effect is the means by which the government stranglehold over universities is maintained. This is spelled out specifically in the document detailing the role of the chairman, which is ‘to support the wider strategic policies of the secretary of state’. This represents a complete change of focus from the old University Grants Committee, which Hefce replaced in 1992. The UGC was set up in 1919 as a buffer, to prevent direct government interference in the universities. Hefce was set up to facilitate precisely that interference.

The board is not elected, but appointed in a manner that is far from transparent. It may consult on proposals but can, and does, disregard objections: as long as it does the minister’s bidding, its powers are near absolute. Not that there are many objections, as many of its proposals, like the current ones on impact and assessment, are sent out to precisely the same sort of people who generate them in the first place. Senior administrators appointed to Hefce propose changes, senior administrators in universities approve them; the academics themselves are rarely consulted. The most prominent demonstration of this system of mutual support and reinforcement came a few years ago at Oxford when academics revolted against the vice-chancellor’s attempts to dissolve the university’s democratic structure and impose centralised management. Hefce intervened, somewhat shabbily, on the side of the vice-chancellor. I know of no case in which it has urged greater accountability on the part of management. Indeed, when there are complaints against the management of a university, Hefce frequently finds that there is no case to answer, or only raps the offender lightly on the knuckles.

Thus when it was censured by Parliament in 2002 for ‘failing in every respect’ to follow the code of practice on access to government information, Hefce shrugged it off. It took no action when it was revealed that London Metropolitan University had inflated its submission for the Research Assessment Exercise in 1992 and 1996, and misplaced the dossier detailing the charges for 18 months. It ignored London Met’s massaging of its data on student numbers for years; only at the end of last year, when it was revealed that the university had claimed £36 million of funds for students who had dropped out, did Hefce urge London Met’s governors to ‘consider their position’. Here it was building on an old track record: it did nothing when Luton submitted false student data in 2003, and whitewashed complaints against Middlesex in 2002 by asking the university to respond to charges rather than investigating them fully (it then kept the report secret).

Hefce’s style is mirrored inside the universities, which have been slowly converted into hierarchical, authoritarian organisations in which the last vestiges of accountability (e.g. senates with real supervisory power) have been degraded, and guarantees of academic freedom (tenure in particular) abolished. It goes without saying that this undermines researchers’ freedom. It is hardly conducive to fearless innovation if, as is currently happening at King’s College London, a head of department can decide which aspects of historical research are worthwhile (including his own, as it turns out) and close down others (King’s has proposed to get rid of the UK’s only chair in palaeography); or if administrators, using figures whose analysis they control, can denounce certain subjects as ‘sub-critical’ and axe them.

Such administrators identify themselves as the masters of the institution, not its servants, and come to regard academics who were once colleagues as employees to be managed. Pay levels are a good indicator of how power is concentrated. To give some examples, at University College London, while spending on academic departments rose 79 per cent between 1999/2000 and 2008/9, administrative costs rose 119.6 per cent, and the vice-chancellor’s remuneration rose 168.4 per cent. At Bristol, spending on departments rose 84.6 per cent, administration was up 261.2 per cent, and the vice-chancellor’s reward was up 113 per cent. The average pay package of a vice-chancellor is now more than £190,000 (higher than the prime minister’s), and for the Russell Group it is around £250,000. The head of UCL gets a total of £404,000, Nottingham £333,000, Oxford £327,000 and Birmingham £332,000. In many cases these salaries are presented as recompense for increased responsibility, for which read more power.

While lecturers are assessed endlessly by students, administrators and Hefce itself, the managers answer in practice only to the board that appointed them in the first place. In the case of King’s, the senior administrators’ salaries in 2008/09 were determined by a remuneration committee of three people: a marquess, a hotel designer and a banker. The reasoning behind their decisions is not made public, and if there is any performance review it is kept secret.

All this suggests an explanation for Hefce’s periodic bursts of regulatory frenzy. Academics know, as I suspect Hefce knows, that the imbecilic methods of assessment under proposal will do nothing at all to improve output. But I fear that the quality of research is not the point. Control is. Leaving people to do their jobs without monitoring their every step is almost literally incomprehensible to a body specifically set up to wield power.

The humanities are an example of this self-defeating desire to dictate: for many years now, the need to produce RAE fodder to satisfy arbitrary and largely pointless benchmarks has detracted from real and substantial research. The same goes for the fatuous new ideas for assessing impact. At best these will tie academics up trying to find some way of finessing the system; at worst they will produce populist nonsense aimed not at refining the way the public thinks about issues but merely at filling a hole in the market. ‘Impact’ will make the humanities less about education, more about entertainment.

Iain Pears