Higher Education: Deeper Than Data

The data-driven nature of the regulation, representation and marketing of Higher Education in the UK and beyond is a well documented phenomenon, about which many of us currently working in the sector often lament.  Higher education seems to have become driven by statistics, ratings and rankings – the National Student Survey (NSS) results, for example, were out this week, and have seen universities and departments take to their Twitter streams to extol their respective virtues.  We already know about the various league tables, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which is explicitly linked to the results of the NSS, and so on.  There aren’t really many arguments I can relay here that are not already well-known and discussed, whether online, on social media, in the press and behind closed doors within university departments themselves.

But one thing in particular got me thinking this week.  The UCU began sharing a web link, which enables anyone to type in the name of a university, and their vague relationship to that institution (past student, future student, concerned parent…) to find out some basic employment-related data.  The online tool then reveals the percentage of temporary teaching contracts within that university and male-to-female average earnings (which, invariably, reveals that HE uses a lot of temporary contracts and that the gender pay gap is still dire in HE).  This got me thinking, as, yes, clearly it’s very important for such information to be made public, for average earnings and the security of staff contracts to be public knowledge, for universities to be accountable, and especially welcome is the notion that parents and potential students should be aware of how staff are treated within various institutions.  Indeed, however shiny a prospectus may seem, and however well a particular course is marketed, the academics teaching it are more than a significant factor in how a student may experience their university life.

But, is there not a case to be made regarding the use of bald statistics alone?  They can give us indicators – how happy students were on a particular course, how quickly coursework was returned, how much women are paid when compared to men.  Yet, for a sector which is so driven by culture, cultures within universities and departments, work cultures, learning cultures – reflection upon and creation of culture – should we not look more deeply?  Cultures vary between universities and departments, and in themselves they create different sets of expectations within their own communities, which may, ultimately, lead students to answer questions in different ways.  Universities which have, seemingly, according to this basic data, higher levels of permanent staff contracts may be hiding other things.  How secure do ‘permanent’ staff feel?  Is a low level of temporary staff necessarily a good thing in a sector in which staff need to take research leave?  And although I would be the last person to in any way justify any kind of gender pay gap (pay should be equal and opportunities so much more readily and equally open to female academics) but the statistics can only give us rough indicators of a culture.  What is daily life like in university departments?  How are women treated (and colleagues more widely), encouraged and supported?  What roles are they given on a day-to-day basis?  And to come back to that idea of culture – what is the working culture like?

Having worked in and for various universities throughout my career, I can attest to the different nature of cultures – and I am lucky enough to find myself currently working in an institution which seems to me to be at the healthier end of the spectrum.  In a sector driven so wildly by average scores, data and competition, however, it is easy for the academics to find themselves on the harsh edge of an institution which sees itself as marketing a product, rather than providing transformative education and inspiring genuine cultural change.  When that happens, when competition for students and funding is fierce, when staffing is low, and redundancies likely – what is it like to work in those institutions?  What kinds of culture are young people, embarking on their degree study, really entering?  If it’s one of exploitation, bullying and workplace violence, what will the HE sector really teach our young people?  If academic staff members are treated as merely marketable and disposable resources, what will we be able to pass on to younger students about their own rights and inherent value in the workplace?  How will we influence their expectations, and then how will they answer the questions which inform the very data which is now driving our HE sector?  I have no answers to these questions – just a wish for us to scrape beneath the surface, to think about the cultural and social value of our universities, and to look to protect those cultures, for universities to be fully accountable for those cultures – and to consider more than the basic marketability of staff and degrees – for the good of all who work and study in them.

Passing The Parcel

The History Boys

The History Boys

We might be the last people in this hemisphere to see a version of Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys. Not only did it prove so popular that theatrical productions of it abounded; the play was filmed in 2006. It was this which we sat down to watch at the weekend. Not having seen the play, we have no opinion on its status as an adaptation (although we understand that the fate of some characters were considerably changed). The film managed very well on its own, though – there was no real way to tell that this was an adaptation, if one were somehow not to know. No doubt this is partly because Bennett did his own adapting, and put the original cast in their well-worn parts. In no small part, however, a hat-tip is due to Nicholas Hytner, who directs a film like it’s his day job: The History Boys is a smoothly wrought thing, quite unusual for the adaptation of a play. (Mike Nichols’s film version of Marbet’s Closer came to Dan’s mind in particular as a film which failed to escape the more static qualities of its source material).

For all the sound and fury about pedagogy and learning, however, the play is ultimately surprising for how humdrum are the fates of its boys: none go to Oxbridge and become world leaders, or even leaders in their fields. All seem to wind up in the sort of career they might have managed anyway; it’s easy for an Oxbridge graduate like Bennett to be blase about the benefits of the ancient universities, but the play’s scepticism was nevertheless refreshing, particularly in light of today’s delightful news on tuititon fees (naturally denied by Oxford). [ETA: Interesting that the Telegraph link is broken…]

The play sees the Oxbridge hoopla as a way into a debate about the value of knowledge, and in particular a criticism of modern priorities in education: targets and exams distort how we appreciate learning, and create a system which prizes a student’s ability to fake it more than their creativity in making it. The strength of the play, though, is that this sentimental view isn’t endorsed so much as it is contrasted to its polar opposition. The truth, as all good historians know, is somewhere in the middle.