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The Financialisation of Education

We live in interesting times.  All sorts of changes are happening to long established institutions in the United Kingdom, particularly so in the education sector.  Having been working alongside academics who are interested in doing public engagement work, as well as with people in the broad community and independent entrepreneurs, I have notice a trend in concerns in all vocational sectors.

Lately I was directed towards the Novara program on Resonance FM….


(Disappointingly, this podcast has been removed from public airing.  I recommend getting in touch with Resonance FM and asking if you can have access to this very interesting production which lays out important information regarding education and its financialisation)

I used to be much more complacent about academics and what went on inside universities imagining lives stacked with luxurious amounts of free time, more than generous wages, the occasional exam or two and the freedom to do whatever they please.  I felt that academics should have the space to think but also thought that they should do some tangible work…

Well, the last three years running the Ragged project has transformed my ill-informed perspectives on something which I, quite frankly, had not spent the time to know more about. Witnessing up close the vocational nature of the work in higher education I have found that they have very little time, are not highly paid, and are constantly working under the burden of massive amounts of paperwork and administrative demands.  My perspective has been entirely transformed.

Far from having the freedom to think it appears to me on the outside as if they are constantly working into their evenings and weekends, and regularly on call to the large numbers of students who they work with.  I worry that they are getting over worked, under-appreciated and moved from being vocational educators to being staff who have to ‘play the game’ of ‘outcomes and measures’ to allow them to try and help people learn.

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My feelings are that we now live in a time where an economic determinism is having the influence of reducing the world in which we live to shortened visions of society. It is now obvious that this trend for financialisation and metrics is affecting every vocational area of society.  Whatever vocation you pick, there is this profit question creeping into the rhetoric along with outcomes, measurements, metrics and layers and layers of new paperworks.

It makes my head spin, so I have no idea of how people are managing but I do know that it is very important to support them in fulfilling their jobs.  Education and educators are all important, and it is key that this pillar of society is not eroded by funding moats.  I was really surprised to find out about the cuts to humanities funding in 2010 in an article by Andy Worthington :

“Did You Miss This? 100 Percent Funding Cuts to Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Courses at UK Universities In almost all the coverage of the coalition government’s proposed cuts to university funding, as a result of a review conducted by Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP (whose qualifications for such a role have never been adequately explained), it has been notedthat the reduction in funding announced in George Osborne’s comprehensive spending review – from £7.1 bn to £4.2 bn – amounts to a 40 percent cut, to be replaced by increases in fees, from the current rate of £3,290 a year to anywhere between £6,000 and £9,000 a year.

Largely unnoticed, however, is a disturbing sub-text. Because the government has ring-fenced funding for band A and B subjects (science, engineering, technology and maths), subjects in bands C and D (arts, humanities and social sciences) will lose 100 percent of their funding. As the education minister David Willetts explained to the House of Commons business committee on October 26, the teaching grant for band C and D subjects would, in the BBC’s words, ‘be all but wiped out.’

(Taken from internet 30th November 2012: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/11/22/did-you-miss-this-100-percent-funding-cuts-to-arts-humanities-and-social-sciences-courses-at-uk-universities/)

 

This has made me think about what is provable and how much of a science futurology is.  What it looks like is that decisions have been made on which are the more valuable subjects and which are the less.  If we are thinking about criteria of falsifiability brought about by Karl Popper, he knew that it was the case that not all things were immediately testable and so we had to be careful about what we write off.  Indeed, he used Albert Einstein as a chief example of testable knowledge yet technology had to catch up with his work to allow it to be valued.  Ironically, possibly it is this late valuation of Einsteins work which has given rise to the newer trend for funding criteria…So how do we trace the current zeitgeist ? back in 2009 Andrew Hough and Matthew Moore in The Daily Telegraph reported:

“Top universities should get funding to stop ‘mediocrity’, says Russell Group head Research funding should be channelled to Britain’s top 30 universities to halt a ‘progression to mediocrity’ in higher education, the new head of the Russell Group of Universities, Prof Michael Arthur, has said. The vice-chancellor of Leeds University said that the country’s most successful institutions should get 90 per cent of the £1.5 billion in research funding that is allocated to higher education every year.  They currently receive around 80 per cent.

Admitting he was being ‘deliberately provocative’, Prof Arthur used a speech at a conference to argue that research funding had been spread ‘significantly more thinly’, which in turn was affecting critical projects. The 20 research-intensive universities that make up the Russell Group include some of the most prestigious in the country including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London, Warwick and Nottingham.

But Prof Arthur’s comments were angrily received by other groups, who criticised his plans as ‘against basic democracy’ and said it would ensure Britain could not maintain funding excellence. Speaking to nearly 300 university and research leaders for a Times Higher Education conference, Prof Arthur said the policy of shared funding with so many universities ‘came at a price’.

His comments drew immediate condemnation from competitors.  David Maguire, pro vice-chancellor for corporate development at Birmingham City University attacked the comments. ‘I disagree with almost everything you have said,’ he told the conference. ‘The notion of concentration is against the peer-review process and basic democracy.’  He was backed by Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the think-tank million+ which represents newer universities, who said that narrowly focused funding was a ‘no win policy for the UK’.  “The same people who want a market in tuition fees also want a closed shop for research funding,” she said.

(Taken from internet 30th November 2012: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/6407649/Only-top-universities-should-get-research-funding-says-Russell-Group-head.html)

So what factors are tied to these massive changes in the way that education is directed ? On March 1st 2008 the BBC published an article called ‘Blowing the whistle on the REF! By Mike Baker:

“RAE: they are just three little letters. If you live outside the intense world of universities they probably mean nothing.  Yet they represent something vital to researchers who are seeking answers to problems such as hunger, disease, social exclusion, or space exploration.  They dominate the lives of many academics, causing them thousands of hours of work, worry and discussion….The letters are the acronym for the Research Assessment Exercise.  For 20 years this process has determined how the government allocates some £1.4 billion in cash to universities for research via the funding councils.

Now it is being scrapped. The then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, dropped this bombshell last March in one of his final acts before becoming prime minister.  The reason: the government felt it was too complex, costly, and burdensome….Indeed, three new letters are now on everyone’s lips: REF. They stand for the Research Excellence Framework.  This is the RAE Mark II….The RAE involved panels of experts sifting through piles of published academic research in order to grade university departments on a scale from 1 to 5*….

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…So the simple idea was to move to a system based on so-called ‘metrics’.  Metrics involves measuring things in order to compare their scale. The initial idea was to base metrics around the amount of other income researchers attracted from industrial or charitable sources.  This approach was attractive to the government because it wanted a measure that was more sensitive to the needs of industry and the economy.

However, this measure was soon found to be inadequate for many areas, particularly outside industrially relevant research. So another piece of metrics was proposed: counting the number of times a piece of research is cited by other researchers.  The more citations – the argument goes – the more important the research. This would then provide a numerical equation for distributing funds.

However, not surprisingly perhaps in the argumentative world of academia, no one can quite agree on which are the right metrics.  Moreover, some argue that metrics are just inappropriate in some areas, particularly outside the sciences….One fundamental criticism of the REF is that it will make it very difficult to do curiosity-based – or simply unpopular or unfashionable – research. Some say the citations approach will simply prove unworkable.  There is even talk that some universities would consider taking legal action if they lost out in the REF.”

(Taken from the internet 30th November 2012: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7271431.stm)

So where has the Research Excellence Framework got to today ?  There have always been controversies in education and institute one-size-fits-all systems.  There seem to be movements to and from centralisation as with standardization.  As an observer who is happily outside, it makes sense to pay attention to those who live within the culture to try to ascertain the qualities.  Times Higher Education ran an article on 20th September 2012 by Paul Jump called Research intelligence – What’s on the cards for the REF?:

“As academics fret over whether they will be submitted to the research excellence framework – and what will befall them if they are not – heads of research are keeping their cards close to their chest in this evolving game of poker.  Fears that historically low numbers of researchers will be submitted to the 2014 REF have abounded ever since the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills instructed the Higher Education Funding Council for England, at the end of 2010, to confine quality-related funding to “internationally excellent research”.

Hefce and the other UK funding councils responded by removing 2* research, defined as “internationally recognised”, from their funding formula….Consequently, as Adam Tickell, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham, put it, universities have “no rational reason to submit people who haven’t got at least one 3* piece of work”. And since 2* research was the largest category in most universities’ results from the 2008 research assessment exercise, large numbers of academics fear being deemed “unREFable” in 2014.

Such worries were articulated in a statement released in June by the British Sociological Association. “Whereas [in the] RAE 2008, selectivity tended to be either based upon the requirement of four items meeting the criteria for inclusion, or, at worst, a grade point average [GPA] of 2, it now appears that many institutions are adopting a much more restrictive policy of a GPA of 2.75 or higher,” it said. “This means that colleagues risk being excluded despite producing research of international quality.”

….according to Kevin Schurer, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at the University of Leicester, are widely shared among research intensives: namely, that universities with relatively little research above 2* – and so with little to gain financially from the REF – will submit only their 3* and 4* researchers (perhaps fewer than 20 per cent of their total staff eligible for submission) purely in order to maximise their position in the prestigious GPA league tables. He said that a vice-chancellor from a post-1992 university had recently admitted that this would be his strategy.  This would lead to “odd” results that would “give people – especially those outside the sector who do not understand the system – a potentially misleading picture” of where research excellence and critical mass lay, Professor Schurer said.”

 (Taken from the internet 30th November 2012: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=421179)

As someone who is a stakeholder in culture being a place that everyone can participate in intellectual life and peer review, this issue holds great interest.  Not being subject to the metrics and demands of such an imposed situation is a relief but also a concern.  Reading the previous reference to Professor Schurer there is the danger that, as an author of this article my selection holds the bias of my opinion.  Whilst this is true, it is also true that I see knowledge as a process of evolution, whereby being involved amongst peers who hold common the desire to gain a better understanding, by proximity I will gain the chance to learn.

I have always conceived of knowledge as a communitive process which has an absolute requirement for inclusivity.  My reading of the Research Excellence Framework is one which is exclusive.  I would like informed individuals to let me know otherwise if possible.  What is very interesting are some of the comments which were found below the cited article above on the website:

 

  • Ref scandal 20 September, 2012: The whole REF is becoming a complete joke…if you cant submit 2* research then you treat 2* the same as 0* or 1*. Thousands of hard working academics will be excluded from the exercise and it just becomes a game submit 1 researcher with 4-4* and you are a world class Department submit 50 with 4-3* and you end up with a lower score.
  • jimbob 20 September, 2012: It’s a bit of a game, isn’t it? I have already seen colleagues leaving for foreign Universities because they cannot publish where and when they want to without REF obsession interfering.
  • MG21 September, 2012: The REF is fast becoming a complete joke.  The only way to measure department performance is to have everyone submit and assess all.  Otherwise its totally misleading. You couldn’t invent a more corrupt system to favour the Russell Groups than this. It is a deliberate manipulation of funding mechanisms.
  • unrefable 21 September, 2012: @MG then universities would find “creative” ways to recategorise staff so as to achieve their 100% submission. This is apparently what Cambridge did last time as was stated above.

 

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The above are four comments from a large collection on the Times Higher Education website.  I wonder if there is a move towards the Platonic ideal where power is held by the few, and away from the Aristotelian ideal where power is distributed amongst the many.  What are the truths in this complex picture ?  Is there a desire to have everyone involved in intellectual life, particularly as it may be the last sustainable commons from which we can all draw ?

Are we as a culture throwing aside the tenet of Darwin that we adapt to our environment when we seek out a deterministic utilitarian idea of channeling the resources exclusively to ‘the brightest and the best’ ? Is there a desire to let everyone participate or are we to accept a type of intellectual feudalism as the structure of our society ?

Being on the ‘outside looking in’ I would like to understand more about what is going on in higher education.  It is quite important that open discourse is developed in a transparent way to avoid assumptions replacing the facts.

 

This is a Citizen Journalism article. If you are interested in writing a journalistic piece for the Ragged project, please read about more here and get in touch…

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