on the HE White Paper and academic practice

I

As I read the White Paper and the technical consultation on the TEF, I realise that I have spent so much time protesting the UK Government’s assault upon the collective, academic labour of the staff and students who work in higher education. I remember that I think of this as collective, associated labour, and yet the Government’s assault is driven by the human capital that can be accumulated and circulated by individuals and their families, or by universities as competing capitals. There is a different shape or form to the view of social relationships inside the university or inside the classroom that is articulated by those of us who see education as an act of love, as opposed to those who can only articulate it through the market and modes of incentivisation. And much of the White paper scopes a regressive space that wishes to marketise love and care if it must, or to marginalise them so that teaching intensity and student outcomes and data on future earnings can be optimised.

I remember that I wrote against learning gain and the ways in which data is used to kettle academic labour.

I remember that I wrote against the HE Green paper, situated through the Treasury’s Productivity Plan, in its obsession with teaching intensity.

I remember that I wrote some notes on saying no to the TEF, and then about the noose of student choice contained in the HE Green Paper.

And for a while I have been considering this in terms of the on-going proletarianisation of the University, in particular as it then relates to academic overwork.

And it is exhausting being against this wide-ranging assault on academic labour, academic practice, academic development, and academic identity. It is exhausting realising that their assault on the fabric of what we might refer to as public or social, and then later as a good, is the dismantling of the spaces that we once regarded as autonomous. Equally, it is exhausting bearing the brunt of their anger about our social, cultural, intellectual or oppositional capital. Knowing that their anger kettles our academic practice as staff and students. Knowing that their anger reshapes the funding, regulation and governance of the space, so that what we do has to be restructured so that it performs. Knowing that the marketisation of the space and the on-going demand for competition will force managers inside universities to recalibrate these as places for the expansion of value, and the production of surpluses, and the production of educational commodities.

And as a result, any attempt to push-back, so that education becomes an act of care, or a form of wider moral, pedagogic responsibility beyond the market, and beyond human capital theory, becomes increasingly difficult. In this moment the White Paper reveals a dominant position that stipulates improvement and enhancement as a functional imperative, shaped by employment and future earnings data.

II

And we remember that there have been evaluations of teaching and learning enhancement that view academic practice as a developmental and pedagogical activity.

there is evidence of strong institutional engagement with the national Enhancement Themes as a driver for development in learning and teaching and associated staff development. While there remains a need to encourage wider and more consistent staff engagement in this area, staff who are involved affirm the positive impact of such engagement. The combined impact of revised promotion criteria, clearer career paths and more strategic approaches to staff development is positive, and is contributing to improved staff development provision to encourage greater engagement with pedagogical and enhancement-led initiatives.

QAA. 2011. Learning from ELIR 2008-11 Staff development: Developing, sharing and recognising good practice, p. 1.

However, as a note on the WonkHE coverage of the White paper, Where is the ‘teaching excellence’ in TEF? argued, developing national enhancement themes or reflective practice is silenced. Or treated with silence, and silenced in the process.

This morning’s White Paper, though ostensibly focused on “teaching excellence”, will not attempt to support academics in developing their own teaching practice – there will be no research projects into HE teaching at a local or national level, and no attempt to understand or collate what makes for excellent teaching, either generally or subject by subject. The TEF is a stick to draw teaching into compliance with institutional and sector norms, not a carrot to encourage the sector to examine in an evidence based manner whether these norms are the right ones.

Today’s White Paper talks at length about teaching excellence, but it won’t support excellent teachers. Neither will it develop excellence in teaching.

This is a central point made by the Second HE Convention in their open letter (NOTE: which is still open for signatures):

Students are supposedly ‘at the heart of the system’, yet the quality regime proposed – the Teaching Excellence Framework – includes no direct measures of teaching quality. Rather it is designed to facilitate increases in fees,

As Andrew McGettigan argues, the White Paper distils the Government’s animus to the established higher education order, in order to focus on student/family choice and the role of challenger institutions, in disrupting complacent or ‘coasting’ institutions. This is its sole relationship to teaching quality, the learning environment and student outcomes.

‘The primary goal is to raise quality’ and the idea is that this is best achieved by having weaker institutions end provision, and stronger institutions replace them (this also applies to individual academics. Hence there is no mention of methods to help individuals improve).

The only issue apparently is to ensure that current students are protected: previously solutions to this conundrum included ideas about ABTA-style bonds, and the Green Paper cycled through a series of options: “an insurance policy, a bond, reserve funds, or Escrow accounts.”

There is no focus on academic practice or enhancement. There is only the signal that academics need to maintain their own career-ready capital, by becoming more entrepreneurial in retrofitting their work to the labour market outcomes of their students. As I note elsewhere this deterritorialises and then creatively destroys both the classroom and the relationships that exist within it.

It is impossible to reconcile the central conditions of the [White] Paper and the [HM Treasury] Productivity Plan to non-marketised/financialised pedagogic relationships. This is the prescribed direction of travel that frames the classroom economically though relations of production that subjugate people, as human capital that can be made productive through discipline.

As McGettigan notes of the context for the White Paper:

it’s hard to give any credence to these market reform measures if they are meant to advance quality: there is no explanation as to what they will be and what evidence supports them. We seem to be asked to ‘feel the radical commitment’, but it all seems rather to express an astonishing level of resentment against the history and autonomy of the established sector. BIS and the Treasury seem to have lost any perspective on what problems there might be in the sector and how they might be solved constructively.

III

So what is left for institutions, in navigating their way through this morass? The TEF assessment criteria on pp. 13-16 of the technical consultation, are outcomes-driven and functional, and leave limited space for reflective practice by individuals or teams. In fact, they will tend to catalyse a range of additional educational services that will affect academic workloads, related to mentoring, personal tutoring, employability, technological innovation, alongside the outsourcing or insourcing of others, such as study skills. These will become increasingly critical because they help delineate graduate work-readiness beyond the content of their degree, thus helping employers overcome issues of ability-bias and signalling (people who exhibit characteristics that the labour market values like a strong work ethic or sense of conformity tend to get more education. They will therefore underpin future metrics.

Further, as UCU have noted, the precarious and insecure nature of academic employment is a painful issue, in terms of developing careers and reward/recognition, and engagement with teaching quality and professional development. Increasingly, institutional context will matter here, because as the White Paper notes throughout, competition is the pivot for reform. Yet inside the system, this will be defined through competition and appeals to the choices made by students and their families.

By introducing more competition and informed choice into higher education, we will deliver better outcomes and value for students, employers and the taxpayers who underwrite the system (p. 8)

So academics and subject teams need to get their story straight for students/families, institutional managers, and for risk-based quality assurers

There are strong arguments to encourage greater competition between high quality new and existing providers in the HE sector (p. 8)

They need to do this as self-exploiting entrepreneurs because the White Paper notes

We must establish a robust framework for gathering the information to measure teaching in its broadest sense (p. 10)

TEF judgements will be made against agreed criteria by an expert peer review panel including employers and students, and based on a combination of core metrics and short institutional submissions (p.19)

Here the section on metrics in Chapter 3a and Annex C from p. 45 in the TEF Technical Consultation are key to the ways in which academics and institutions who wish/need to play along, can then respond.

The emphasis in the provider submission should be on demonstrating the impact and effectiveness of teaching and its outcome (p. 28).

This response is likely to shape any institutional/provider narrative (the short institutional TEF submissions) that enables competitive edge to emerge. And this is the critical moment in this White Paper – that the Government wishes to catalyse a higher education terrain solely defined by work/human capital and the production of value. Thus, the institutional context that will form part of the regulatory landscape will be shaped by this. How will academic teams or institutions describe to students/families and the sector how they “meet expectations”, are “excellent” or “outstanding”?

How they answer this will relate to the place of pedagogical or enhancement-related innovations inside institutional culture: as imposed and functional (training), or as developmental and reflective. This will then inform the renewal or restructuring of academic careers rooted in teaching, such that outcomes- and risk-based refocusing recalibrates progression through Post-Graduate Certificates, internal teaching excellence awards (including applications for readership/professorship by pedagogic practice), and then potentially national awards (if they still exist), alongside an institution’s relationship to the UK Professional Standards Framework. How will this outcomes- and risk-based refocusing, rooted in competition, connect to teaching innovation funding and projects? How will the professional identity or professionalism of academics be supported, rather than eroded as the University is proletarianised?

IV

The White Paper notes the complexity in trying to measure the effectiveness of teaching.

Other important aspects include weighted contact hours and teaching intensity. There is strong evidence that such factors make a difference to students: the HEPI/ HEA 2015 Survey showed that contact hours correlated with both student satisfaction and perceptions of value for money. However, we recognise that these are difficult to measure, if we are to capture the complexities of digital delivery, peer assisted learning and the difference made by both varying class sizes and the status of those carrying out teaching (p. 48)

Yet, in order to drive productivity academics and their managers are coerced into conformity, in order to reinforce hegemony. What we see is that the raft of proposals is an attempt to subsume academic life, so that it becomes more productive, competitive, entrepreneurial and atomised.

The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers. The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers can alone move — these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means — unconditional development of the productive forces of society — comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.

Marx. Conflict Between Expansion Of Production And Production Of Surplus-Value. Capital, Vol. 3.

Revealing the ways in which the White Paper is part of a process of on-going expropriation and pauperisation, of everyday life, of academic autonomy, of care and love inside the classroom, of academic development, is a starting point.

What follows must describe and play-out the conditional development of the social productivity of academic labour, for an alternative set of values beyond the market and instrumental financialisation.

Here we might ask, what can we do in association to resist and refuse the disciplinary instrumentalism of the White Paper and the TEF?

What can we do in association with those struggling for labour rights like trades unions, or with cross-sector groups like the HE Convention/Campaign for the Public University?

What can we do in association to refuse the competitive urges of some university “leaders”?

What can we do in association to frame a counter-position that frames an alternative vision for higher education?

What can we do in association with other public-facing workers, in education, in health, in social care, and so on, to define an alternative vision for our collective work? Can we use this as a moment to define alternatives to the law of value as the organising principle for social life?


One Response to on the HE White Paper and academic practice

  1. Richard

    Brilliant piece on what looks like one of the most advanced attacks on HE in the industrialised world. It will have an influence on other jurisdictions as well.

    I am circulating your note to others outside the UK who have not followed these developments.

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