Academic Freedom: definitions and risksPosted: September 27, 2022 Filed under: Academia, Art, Culture, Germany, Higher Education, History, Music - General, Musical Education, Musicology, Practice-Research | Tags: 1988 education reform act, 1997 unesco recommendation concerning the status of higher eduaction teaching personnel, 2017 higher education and research act, 2021 higher education (freedom of speech) bill, academic freedom, Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group, activism, akua reindorf, alice sullivan, arif ahmed, brexit, brian ferneyhough, charles sanders pierce, christopher wiley, collegiality, david ruebain, decolonisation, edi, estelle morris, free speech, higher education policy institute, hillhead amendment, j.p.e. harper-scott, judith suissa, kathleen stock, laura favaro, lord jenkins, Model Code of Conduct for the Protection of Academic Freedom and the Academic Community in the Context of the Internationalisation of the UK Higher Education Sector, music and the university, nick hillman, office for students, philip ewell, quality assurance agency, quillette, researching and writing on contemporary art and artists, roy jenkins, royal holloway, schenkergate, tenure, times higher education supplement, timothy jackson, unesco, university college london, university of birmingham, university of southampton, university of sussex, wilhelm von humboldt, william cheng, wlliam matthews, writing about contemporary musicians 2 Comments
Last week I attended the debate ‘How can universities promote academic freedom? Insights from the front line of the gender wars’, at University College London’s Institute of Education. This was a stimulating and thoughtful event, organised in conjunction with the publication of a booklet of the same name by philosopher Professor Judith Suissa and sociologist Professor Alice Sullivan (both from UCL) (free to download). Suissa and Sullivan gave short introductions then responses to the booklet came from Baroness Estelle Morris (former Labour Secretary of State for Education), Professor David Ruebain (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion at the University of Sussex), Professor Arif Ahmed (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge) (Akua Reindorf was unable to be present). With a debate focused upon the issues of biological sex against gender, it would be hard to deny that the panel was dominated by those believing that the former is not simply subsumed within the latter, though I gather various proponents of the primacy of gender and/or trans individuals (the lack of which was noted by Ruebain) were invited but declined to participate. The discussion centered around the evidence and arguments in the booklet for concerted attempts to silence, no-platform and ostracise ‘gender-critical’ scholars, a phenomenon also identified in a recent Times Higher Education Supplement article by early career scholar Laura Favaro (also available at this link), based upon interviews with 50 academics involved with gender studies. Favaro found many examples of a culture of fear, self-censorship, gatekeeping within journals and academic networks, and a total lack of frank and open discussion on what are undoubtedly contested areas. Various panellists and members of the packed audience at the event related similar experiences. What I have not seen is gender-critical feminists attempting to have their opponents censored, no-platformed, or hounded from their positions, though some have naturally responded very negatively to highly abusive comments towards the former, sometimes advocating sexual or other violence.
Morris argued that the disputes relating to sex and gender were about ideology versus evidence-based reasoning. Sullivan argued that some university Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) organisations can be and have been infiltrated by those from activist groups with extremist views. Ahmed, who paid tribute to Suissa and Sullivan, recognising the concerted hostility they will have faced, also noted other areas of intolerance, such as a tendency to brand anyone in a university who was or is a supporter of Brexit as a bigot. Despite being a 200% Remainer myself, I would be hard-pressed to disagree that this is the case, and can see how much of a problem it is. Ruebain was the one panellist giving a somewhat different view, arguing that we need to understand the contexts in which contested examples of academic freedom occur, and also suggesting that the issues here are so intensely personal and emotionally felt by many that it is hard to subject them to the usual processes of academic critique. This may be the case, but personal feelings do not seem to be a concern for those engaged in quite vicious and abusive hate campaigns against those associated with gender-critical views, often trying to force them out of their job, as occurred with philosopher Professor Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex, after facing a huge mobbing campaign from by students and colleagues. Ruebain also compared current debates with the fervent disputes between second-wave feminists and disability activists in the 1980s over such issues as abortion rights. One questioner argued that the situation depended a lot on the institution at which one was based, noting that UCL’s record on defending academic freedom and staff was exemplary, but the situation was rather different at the Universities of Birmingham or Sussex. A somewhat more ambivalent account of the debate was published by Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe.
Academic freedom is in my view an utterly essential component of university life, a non-negotiable prerequisite of scholarly rigour and integrity. I nonetheless find it disappointing to find that there are more than a few academics, including some in senior positions, who have a rather dismissive view of the whole concept. In part I believe this is relates to one of the most troubling recent phenomena in academia, its infiltration by activists, uninterested in any scholarly knowledge other than that which bolsters their a priori positions, who attempt to recruit in their own image, limit curricula and teaching materials to those things which concur with their activist beliefs, and can act shockingly towards other scholars or students who dare to disagree (more to follow on fair engagement with students of multiple political perspectives in a subsequent blog post). Also at stake is the legacy of postmodernism, sometimes imagined now to be a dated movement of the 1980s and 1990s which no longer carries any sway, but some of the aspects of which, in particular extreme relativisation of concepts of ‘truth’ (often in opposition to straw man characterisations of positions supposedly insisting on 100% objectivity), and the somewhat later dissolution of scholarship into politics, continue to be major presences on the academic landscape.
Stock has written of her memories of pugilistic debate from faculty members (mostly men) with visiting speakers from when she was a Masters philosophy student, which seemed frightening at the time and designed to humiliate the speakers. But for all the problems with this (and it is certainly possible to conduct robust debate in a more civilised fashion), she believes that what came later was worse. Stock observed an exaggerated synthetic ‘niceness’ in debates, but combined with unctuous name-dropping, endless rules around debate, rather arcane rituals for raising hands and fingers, and often banal questions. This did not however remove the aggression, but simply directed it elsewhere. In the absence of proper open debate, many would revert to surreptitious means to undermine others, through mass denunciations on social media, many ad hominem attacks, complaints, hidden campaigns, and so on. As so often, those enforcing an agenda ostensibly about ‘kindness’ could be amongst the most vicious in trying to silence those who disagree with them on anything. One professor has even described debate per se as ‘an imperialist capitalist white supremacist cis heteropatriarchal technique that transforms a potential exchange of knowledge into a tool of exclusion & oppression.’
Suissa and Sullivan (whose excellent booklet I will not describe in detail here, as I would prefer that people read it themselves) find ample evidence of both students and academics attempting to suppress free speech and academic freedom, and make various key recommendations. These include the maintenance of the university as a pluralistic space which welcomes diverse views, avoiding official ideological viewpoints on behalf of institutions and the use of political lobby groups in shaping policy or providing training, and while recognising that activist networks have a place in academia, they must be independent of the university administration. They also advocate education of staff and students on academic freedom and the value of productive disagreement, including its legal and philosophical bases, the promotion of academic freedom alongside equality, including the appointment of a champion for academic freedom within the senior leadership team, further promotion of collegiality (sometimes a misused term taken to signify concurrence with a dominant ideology or promotion of a collective ‘brand’ – see below) and tackling harassment, providing security of tenure, signalling institutional support for academic freedom, and defence of the pursuit of truth. An article on the booklet, in particular the need for appointment of champions of academic freedom, can be read here.
What does ‘academic freedom’ mean? Many at the debate agreed that it was a different concept to ‘free speech’, though the two do overlap. In a paper I gave in ‘Musicology and Academic Freedom’ at the Music and the University Conference at City, University of London in July, I enlisted several definitions which I wanted to share here as well as some other arguments made in this paper. Whilst the concept can be dated back many centuries, it is generally accepted that the moder definition has its roots in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt and the founding of the Berlin Universität in 1810. Humboldt published an essay entitled ‘Über die innere und äussere Organisation der höheren wissenschaftlichen Anstalten zu Berlin’ (1809-10), which has been translated as ‘On the Spirit and the Organisational Framework of Intellectual Institutions in Berlin’, Minerva, vol. 8, no. 2 (April 1970), pp. 242-250. The following are amongst the most pertinent passages:
Since these institutions [universities] can only fulfil their purposes when each of them bears continuously in mind the pure idea of science and scholarship [these two terms are used to translate Wissenschaft], their dominant principles must be freedom and the absence of distraction (Einsamkeit).
At the higher level, the teacher does not exist for the sake of the student; both teacher and student have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge. The teacher’s performance depends on the students’ presence and interest – without this science and scholarship could not grow. If the students who are to form his audience did not come before him of their own free will, he, in his quest for knowledge, would have to seek them out. The goals of science and scholarship are worked towards most effectively through the synthesis of the teacher’s and the students’ dispositions.
The state must always remain conscious of the fact that it never has and in principle never can, by its own action, bring about the fruitfulness of intellectual activity. It must indeed be aware that it can only have a prejudicial influence if it intervenes. The state must understand that intellectual work will go on infinitely better if it does not intrude.
Now as regards the organisational and material side of the relationship of the institution to the state, the only concerns of the latter must be profusion (in the sense of mental power and variety) of intellectual talents to be brought together in the institution. This can be achieved through care in the selection of persons and the assurance of freedom in their intellectual activities. This intellectual freedom can be threatened not only by the state, but also by the intellectual institutions themselves which tend to develop, at their birth, a certain outlook and which will therefore readily resist the emergence of another outlook. The state must seek to avert the harm which can possibly arise from this source.
The heart of the matter is the appointment of the persons who are to do the intellectual work.
The state must not deal with its universities as Gymnasia or as specialised technical schools; it must not use its academy as if it were a technical or scientific commission. It must in general – with certain exceptions among the universities which will be considered later – demand nothing from them simply for the satisfaction of its own needs. It should instead adhere to a deep conviction that if the universities attain their highest ends, they will also realise the state’s ends too, and these on a far higher plane. On this higher plane, more is comprehended and forces and mechanisms are brought into action which are quite different from those which the state can command.
The young person, on entry into university, should be released from the compulsion to enter either into a state of idleness or into practical life, and should be enabled to aspire to and elevate himself to the cultivation of science or scholarship which hitherto have only been pointed out to him from afar.
The way thereto is simple and sure. The aim of the schools must be the harmonious development of all the capacities of their pupils. Their powers must be focused on the smallest possible number of subject- matters but every aspect of these must be dealt with to as great an extent as possible. Knowledge should be so implanted in the mind of the pupil that understanding, knowledge and creativity excite it, not through any external features, but through their inner precision, harmony and beauty. [. . . ] A mind which has been trained in this way will spontaneously aspire to science and scholarship.
Humboldt’s writings should be read in the context of the traditional German division between universities on one hand and academies of the sciences and arts on the other. He definitely favoured the former, and suggested that the latter have only really flourished where there are few universities. Academies had less strict requirements for selection of staff, compared to the habilitation required in a German university. Humboldt also believed the state should take exclusive control of appointments, rather than faculties:
Although disagreements and disputes within a university are wholesome and necessary, conflicts which might arise between teachers because of their specialised intellectual interests might unwittingly affect their viewpoints.
This important point is at odds with common processes for selection in the UK today.
From Humboldt’s ideas came the twin concepts of Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn), as subsets of Wissenschaftsfreiheit or Akademische Freiheit. These concepts developed through the course of the nineteenth century.
Another hugely important intervention in the development of the concept came from philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, in his lectures delivered at Cambridge, MA in 1898 (collected in the 1992 Harvard University Press volume Reasoning and the Logic of Things: The Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898), in particular that entitled ‘The First Rule of Logic’, in which he compared the situation in American universities deeply unfavourably with their German counterparts in terms of free intellectual inquiry and in particular the link between this and teaching:
…inquiry of every type, fully carried out, has the vital power of self-correction and of growth. This is a property so deeply saturating its inmost nature that it may truly be said that there is but one thing needful for learning the truth, and that is a hearty and active desire to learn what is true. If you really want to learn the truth, you will, by however devious a path, be surely led into the way of truth, at last. No matter how erroneous your ideas of the method may be at first, you will be forced at length to correct them so long as your activity is moved by that sincere desire. Nay, no matter if you only half desire it, at first, that desire would at length conquer all others could experience continue long enough. But the more voraciously truth is desired at the outset, the shorter by centuries will the road to it be.
In order to demonstrate that this is so, it is necessary to note what is essentially involved in The Will to Learn. The first thing that the Will to Learn supposes is a dissatisfaction with one’s present state of opinion. There lies the secret of why it is that our American Universities are so miserably insignificant. What have they done for the advance of civilization? What is the great idea or where is [a] single great man who can truly be said to be the product of an American University? The English universities, rotting with sloth as they always have, have nevertheless in the past given birth to Locke and to Newton, and in our time to Cayley, Sylvester and Clifford. The German universities have been the light of the whole world. The medieval University of Bologna gave Europe its system of law. The University of Paris, and that despised Scholasticism took Abelard and made him into Descartes. The reason was that they were institutions of learning while ours are institutions for teaching. In order that a man’s whole heart may be in teaching he must be thoroughly imbued with the vital importance and absolute truth of what he has to teach; while in order that he may have any measure of success in learning he must be penetrated with a sense of the unsatisfactoriness of his present condition of knowledge. The two attitudes are almost irreconcilable.
A range of statements followed from the American Association of University Professors, of which the most important is the ‘1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure’, which was and is endorsed by a wide range of US institutions:
- Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
- Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject [my emphasis]. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
- College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
The idea of limitations on academic freedom with deference to religious or other related principles now seems archaic in the modern secular university, but is understandable in the context of its time. What exactly is entailed by the phrase ‘respect for the opinions of others’ is open to much interpretation (certainly it is hard to see how this is true of those who regularly brand their opponents fascists, communists, colonialists, white supremacists, and so on), but there can be proper arenas and frameworks for this, through scholarly forums and the like, in which any aspect of someone’s arguments can be rigorously debated so long as this does not trespass into the realms of personalised attacks on an ad hominem basis, invoking factors irrelevant to the work. Most arguments, within reason, should be allowed a fair hearing but so should challenges to such arguments. To separate individual from work is harder than ever, however, in a time of intense subjectivity in scholarship, in which some make their case essentially on the basis of who they are and the experiences they have had, rather than the cogency of their arguments, as identified in William Matthews recent article for the THES.
In the UK, the most significant definition of academic freedom in recent times came about in the 1988 Education Reform Act, specifically in the so-called ‘Hillhead amendment’, named after Lord [Roy] Jenkins of Hillhead, which appeared within Section 202. This concerned the appointment of a body of University Commissioners (following the abolition of tenure), who would have various tasks:
to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions;
Similar principles, presented in a more elaborate fashion, can be found in the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel:
III. 4: Institutions of higher education, and more particularly universities, are communities of scholars preserving, disseminating and expressing freely their opinions on traditional knowledge and culture, and pursuing new knowledge without constriction by prescribed doctrines. The pursuit of new knowledge and its application lie at the heart of the mandate of such institutions of higher education. In higher education institutions where original research is not required, higher-education teaching personnel should maintain and develop knowledge of their subject through scholarship and improved pedagogical skills.
VI. 26: Higher-education teaching personnel, like all other groups and individuals, should enjoy those internationally recognized civil, political, social and cultural rights applicable to all citizens. Therefore, all higher-education teaching personnel should enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security of the person and liberty of movement. They should not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through freely expressing their opinion of state policies and of policies affecting higher education. They should not suffer any penalties simply because of the exercise of such rights. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention, nor to torture, nor to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In cases of gross violation of their rights, higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to appeal to the relevant national, regional or international bodies such as the agencies of the United Nations, and organizations representing higher-education teaching personnel should extend full support in such cases.
VI. 27: The maintaining of the above international standards should be upheld in the interest of higher education internationally and within the country. To do so, the principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed. Higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. All higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source. Higher-education teaching personnel can effectively do justice to this principle if the environment in which they operate is conducive, which requires a democratic atmosphere; hence the challenge for all of developing a democratic society.
VI. 28: Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regard to standards and methods of teaching. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be forced to instruct against their own best knowledge and conscience or be forced to use curricula and methods contrary to national and international human rights standards. Higher-education teaching personnel should play a significant role in determining the curriculum.
VI. 29: Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to carry out research work without any interference, or any suppression, in accordance with their professional responsibility and subject to nationally and internationally recognized professional principles of intellectual rigour, scientific inquiry and research ethics. They should also have the right to publish and communicate the conclusions of the research of which they are authors or co-authors, as stated in paragraph 12 of this Recommendation.
VI. 30: Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to undertake professional activities outside of their employment, particularly those that enhance their professional skills or allow for the application of knowledge to the problems of the community, provided such activities do not interfere with their primary commitments to their home institutions in accordance with institutional policies and regulations or national laws and practice where they exist.
The UK 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (which came in the wake of a wide range of changes to Higher Education from 2010 onwards and established the Office for Students, superseding the earlier Higher Education Funding Council for England and Office for Fair Access), contained relevant material on academic freedom in Section 2(8):
In this Part, “the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers” means—
(a) the freedom of English higher education providers within the law to conduct their day to day management in an effective and competent way,
(b) the freedom of English higher education providers—
(i) to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,
(ii) to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
(iii) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
(c) the freedom within the law of academic staff at English higher education providers—
(i) to question and test received wisdom, and
(ii) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions,
without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the providers.
For wider reasons beyond the scope of this article (but which will appear in a piece to be published in the THES in the week beginning 3 October), I do question some aspects of complete autonomy of higher education providers, which I do not believe has ever been wholly meaningful in light of wider bodies dedicated to the maintenance of standards (until recently by the Quality Assurance Agency). Furthermore staff deserve wider protection in terms of selection, appointment and dismissal practices, through employment laws which exceed the priorities of individual providers. Nonetheless, sections (a) and (c) are sound bases for the conducting of academic work.
In 2020, The Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group produced a document entitled ‘Model Code of Conduct for the Protection of Academic Freedom and the Academic Community in the Context of the Internationalisation of the UK Higher Education Sector’. Whilst recognising the difficulties inherent in defining academic freedom satisfactorily, this group emphasise the following freedoms, drawing upon the 1988, 1997 and 2017 provisions:
- teach, discuss, assess, define the curriculum and study within their areas of academic expertise and/or inquiry;
- promote and engage in academic thinking, debate and inquiry;
- carry out research, and publish the results and make them known;
- freely express opinions about the academic institution or system in which they work or study;
- participate in professional or representative academic bodies;
- not be censored; and,
- fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression.
These should not supplant the earlier definitions, but can be combined with them to demonstrate the priorities, and this provides a good basis for formulating working definitions.
Finally, the 2021 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill (based on the white paper ‘Higher Education: Free Speech and Academic Freedom‘) from the UK Department of Education, still going through Parliament, lists the following duties for Higher Education Providers (HEPs):
A1 Duty to take steps to secure freedom of speech
(1) The governing body of a registered higher education provider must take the steps that, having particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech, are reasonably practicable for it to take in order to achieve the objective in subsection (2).
(2) That objective is securing freedom of speech within the law for—
(a) staff of the provider,
(b) members of the provider,
(c) students of the provider, and
(d) visiting speakers.
(3) The objective in subsection (2) includes securing that—
(a) the use of any premises of the provider is not denied to any individual or body on grounds specified in subsection (4), and
(b) the terms on which such premises are provided are not to any extent based on such grounds.
(4) The grounds referred to in subsection (3)(a) and (b) are—
(a) in relation to an individual, their ideas, beliefs or views;
(b) in relation to a body, its policy or objectives or the ideas, beliefs or views of any of its members.
(5) The objective in subsection (2), so far as relating to academic staff, includes securing their academic freedom.
(6) In this Part, “academic freedom”, in relation to academic staff at a registered higher education provider, means their freedom within the law—
(a) to question and test received wisdom, and
(b) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves at risk of being adversely affected in any of the ways described in subsection (7).
(7) Those ways are—
(a) loss of their jobs or privileges at the provider;
(b) the likelihood of their securing promotion or different jobs at the provider being reduced.
(8) The governing body of a registered higher education provider must take the steps that, having particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech, are reasonably practicable for it to take in order to achieve the objective in subsection (9).
(9) That objective is securing that, where a person applies to become a member of academic staff of the provider, the person is not adversely affected in relation to the application because they have exercised their freedom within the law to do the things referred to in subsection (6)(a) and (b).
(10) In order to achieve the objective in subsection (2), the governing body of a registered higher education provider must secure that, apart from in exceptional circumstances, use of its premises by any individual or body is not on terms that require the individual or body to bear some or all of the costs of security relating to their use of the premises.
(11) In this Part—
references to freedom of speech include the freedom to express ideas, beliefs and views without suffering adverse consequences;
“registered higher education provider” and “governing body”, in relation to such a provider, have the same meanings as in Part 1 of this Act
A3 Duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom
The governing body of a registered higher education provider must promote the importance of—
(a) freedom of speech within the law, and
(b) academic freedom for academic staff of registered higher education providers and their constituent institutions,
in the provision of higher education.
The bill goes on to list responsibilities for students unions, governing bodies and the Office for Students in these respects and in particular the creation of a Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to monitor that such commitments on the part of HEPs are upheld.
While the bill is certainly not without problems, and may undergo further amendment before becoming law, I do believe overall it is a step forward. Those on the left who are committed to free speech and academic freedom should be prepared to concede some value in a piece of legislation introduced by a Conservative government.
Risks to Academic Freedom
In my own field of music/musicology, various recent events have highlighted issues of academic freedom. One is the affair known as ‘Schenkergate’, relating to the publication of a special issue of The Journal of Schenkerian Studies in 2020 in reference to the article by Philip A. Ewell, ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, Music Theory, vol. 26, no. 2 (September 2020). The controversy related in particular to an article by Schenker scholar Dr Timothy Jackson, making arguments about the prevalence of anti-semitism amongst African-Americans, and also arguing that the lack of involvement of African-Americans in music theory had much to do with the low incidence of classical music in the common upbringing of members of this community. Jackson found himself removed from the editorship of the journal as a result. He contested this in court and a Judge determined that this may violate his First Amendment rights. Prior to this, Jackson responded with an article for Quillette (‘The Schenker Controversy’, 20 December 2021) arguing for many fallacies in Ewell’s argument and reasoning.
The second affair was the resignation from a chair in musicology at Royal Holloway in the summer of 2021 of Professor J.P.E. Harper-Scott (who I will refer to as ‘Paul’, as that is how all who know him address him), about which I blogged earlier. Paul published an article online about his reasons for leaving academia, which included the following:
Without direct experience of academics until I went (as the first of my family) to university, I naively imagined them to be how they were presented in novels and TV programmes: sometimes quite bumbling and unworldly, but always committed to the pursuit of truth, never trusting in a commonplace ‘fact’ without subjecting it to the most serious sceptical scrutiny. This did not turn out to be true.
[…] It is a place filled with generally quite well-meaning people, but on the whole not with brave people, not people who are willing to follow the truth wherever it leads.
[….] I would put the problem in this (Kantian) way: I wrongly supposed that universities would be critical places, but they are becoming increasingly dogmatic.
This was followed by an example of a statement on the need to ‘decolonise’ the classical musical canon (on which subject I published an article in The Critic in July of this year), which was an example of what Harper-Scott deemed dogmatic, with a suggested alternative which he felt was more in the spirit of critical scholarly inquiry.
I share many of Paul’s concerns, and am also concerned with the trajectory of events relating to Schenkergate. But these relate to what I perceive as a range of factors which serve to limit and condition academic freedom in academia. So I offer the following list of these, some of which would concern those on the left, some those on the right, but all of which I think should concern anyone for whom academic freedom, defined more or less in the ways above, is a defining aspect of a university.
External Pressures from Industries and Institutions
I wrote more extensively about this subject in earlier blog posts here and here, but wish to emphasise (in line with the arguments in the later blog post), that in no sense should this be taken to imply that I oppose external engagement. I am referring to the situation whereby academics enter into partnerships with external institutions and bodies, which may be commercial, state-supported or partially state-supported. These partnerships may relate to research, teaching or both. In particular, I have in mind the situation in which the external institutions provide some financial support for these activities. If there is no such thing as a free lunch, there may also be no such thing as a free teaching or research grant. For such institutions to ask that their finance or other support entail concentration on certain areas is fair and to be expected. But what if the results are not necessarily what the external body wishes to hear?
The point may be made most clearly through reference to wider examples. Suppose that some major manufacturing corporation sponsors some research into the effects of particular types of manufacturing upon the environment. Perhaps the researchers in question may find their work leads them to the inexorable conclusion that this specific corporation are responsible for a range of environmentally damaging actions in the course of their regular activities, contrary to their own promotional material which argues that they are an environmentally-friendly corporation, also drawing attention to the fact that they sponsor this research in order to bolster such a thing. If the researchers felt under pressure to artificially modify or not publish their findings, for fear of not upsetting the corporation, this would in my view severely compromise academic freedom and integrity.
There needs to be some commonly agreed set of principles which become a basic prerequisite for academics entering into some partnership with an external institution, whereby they are free to follow where their research leads them without fear of the institution blocking their access or terminating the partnership prematurely, and also so that future partnerships will not discriminate against those who may have written critically about the institution in the past.
The Complex Relationship between Research and External Practice
This relates to concerns explored in some depth in the conference on ‘Writing on Contemporary Artists’ at the University of Surrey in 2017, organised by Christopher Wiley and myself, and features both in the 2020 Palgrave Macmillan, volume we edited, Researching and Writing on Contemporary Art and Artists: Challenges, Practices and Complexities, while in a specifically musical context will feature in our forthcoming Routledge volume Writing about Contemporary Musicians: Promotion, Advocacy, Disinterest, Censure. This subject is also discussed at more length in the two earlier blog posts linked to in the previous section.
What happens when academics are dealing with living or recently living practitioners or their estates – writers, composers, artists, directors of institutions, critics, promoters, and so on? Or if they have strong external connections with some of these people beyond academia? How free can they feel to write and research these independently, at least considering perspectives on them and their work which may not necessarily coincide with their own self-presentation, that of their publishers, and so on?
Is the role of academics to be ‘advocates’ for these figures, or is it the case, as I believe, that a too-strong application of this principle (as opposed to simply researching things to which one is sympathetic, which is a different matter) can easily result in hagiographic treatment? How do academics maintain critical independence without the fear of being frozen out of some of these people’s circles, their materials, and so on (a situation I know various scholars have experienced)? I have certainly felt the pressure when writing about a range of living composers whose work I also play, and to some extent upon whom I rely upon for some good favour, writing new works for me, recommending me to festivals to play their work, and so on. I am still unsure about the feasibility of reconciling this with being a critical scholar.
One of the factors afflicting a fair amount of writing on new music, in my view, is a failure to consider this. As I have written about in the case of various such writings, a position of defensive advocacy, coupled to attempts to pathologise any who disagree with a 100% favourable view, leads to something more akin to promotional material than more sober scholarly work.
There are of course also plenty of practitioners themselves active within academic arts departments. Whilst some are engaged in the type of more dispassionate scholarship characteristic of the humanities – and I would like to count myself in that category – in other cases the work is of a different nature, framing practice in terms of research questions and context, with the use of verbal material essentially to articulate the ways in which it qualifies ‘as research’. Artistic practitioners frequently have external careers, working in an alternative economy in which critical thinking is by no means necessarily respected or admired. Sometimes simply saying the right thing to the right people, those in positions of power able to do favours, and not questioning all sorts of dominant ideologies operative in these circles, is a much better bet than asking more difficult questions. This can lead to a situation which I conceive as ‘two cultures’ of scholars and practitioners in terms of the attitude and approaches they take.
These issues do, for sure, also apply to those who, as I do, seek to write in non-academic arenas about the arts (or other disciplines), for various reasons, not least because of the differing role that value judgement might play therein. But I think it is possible to differentiate between academic and other writing and not confuse the two. It is less clear where the distinction lies with non-written forms of practice.
Top-down demands by institutions.
In any institutions with a degree of central control of teaching and research, individual academics may find themselves in conflict with the explicit demands or requirements of their department, school, or whole university. Some may try to specify the contents of curricula, or require academics to fashion teaching in general towards generalised criteria of employability. In other cases, support and internal funding for research may rely upon its falling within certain areas, which may be fair enough, but could also require the employment of certain methods which themselves might be more likely to produce certain types of results. These factors might affect the extent, for example, to which teaching can realistically focus on critical perspectives upon the industries or institutions for which students might be looking to work, to link to the first point.
Elsewhere, policies relating to diversity or ‘decolonisation’ might dictate choices or approaches to their teaching, at worst precluding critical treatment of certain types of subjects, and conversely requiring only negative or pejorative attitudes towards others. It is notable in my experience that some who are ferociously defensive of their independence in other contexts can also be supportive of top-down policies in these respects.
But I believe it is important to maintain independence right down to singular academics when it comes to precisely how they conduct their teaching and research. It is fair that departments need to require that certain things are taught as part of a programme, and that certain knowledge and skills are imparted, but the approach to so doing should be left to the individual academic as far as possible. In this respect I have a lot of sympathy with the 2021 Higher Education Bill.
This said, as I will argue in next week’s THES, I do believe that there is a requirement for provision of certain core subjects to a recognised level in all regionalities of the country (not least to facilitate ‘commuter students’, not wishing to incur huge amounts of debt through moving away from home to study), and in this article will advocate some type of tertiary ‘national curriculum’, a more rigorous form of the types of subject benchmarks previously provided by the QAA. Nonetheless, it should still be possible to maintain freedom of individual academics within a framework of encouraging pluralistic perspectives and debate.
Different academics, sometimes of very different or opposing views, work together in departments. A further concern in terms of academic freedom has to do with pressures to conform with prevailing orthodoxies within a department, not questioning these or colleagues who propagate them, so as to maintain a consistent ‘brand’ for a department which is competing with others for students.
Sometimes the term employed here to put pressures on individual academics is ‘collegiality’, understood as working within a set of parameters, not markedly questioning them in ways which are incompatible with a group view. But this is not consistent with what I think is a decent definition provided in the UNESCO 1997 document:
UNESCO 1997, VI. 32: The principles of collegiality include academic freedom, shared responsibility, the policy of participation of all concerned in internal decision making structures and practices, and the development of consultative mechanisms. Collegial decision-making should encompass decisions regarding the administration and determination of policies of higher education, curricula, research, extension work, the allocation of resources and other related activities, in order to improve academic excellence and quality for the benefit of society at large.
All of this is entirely compatible with permitting academics to work without feeling pressure to conform or fashion their work in line with some ‘majority view’ in their department, and I think this is also essential.
Need to concentrate work in particular fields.
Securing academic jobs depends a good deal on one’s particular field and the job opportunities available. In the UK, fewer than 20% of students take traditional BMus or BA courses with a humanities approach which includes historical, analytical, critical and other types of musicology. The remainder take courses in musical theatre, music technology, popular music to a lesser extent, and certain types of musical performance, all of which are primarily vocationally oriented. As a result, the openings for historical musicologists (especially those working on early music), music analysts, and indeed ethnomusicologists working on the non-Western world are limited. Even those already holding university positions can come under pressure to shift in certain directions in light of changing provision, and some have encountered redundancies as a result. To link to a point made earlier, in some contexts a more critical view of the music industry, compared to some presentations of it as a model of diversity and inclusivity, may create problems for the individual academics if they are seeking work in institutions wedded to such a view.
Here I would look back to the Humboldt model and make what now seems a radical suggestion, which is that appointments should be administered centrally by the state rather than individual institutions, so as to ensure a fair distribution and representation of plural areas of teaching and research. Individual departments may recruit ‘in their own image’, and this can have the effect of shutting out openings for academics who once again do not fit with the dominant ‘brand’.
Here I have in mind the view put forward by William Cheng, in his 2016 book Just Vibrations, which has received positive endorsement from a range of leading musicologists (see for example here and here), though others have written very critically about this (see also here). Cheng is dismissive of academic freedom and even of ‘the belief that academics have a right to pursue their work free from political pressures and without fear of termination’. In place of this he advocates a musicology which he says ‘upholds interpersonal care as a core feature’. This is hardly compatible with Cheng’s own dismissive remarks about other musicologists and musicology, but is part of a certain view, usually linked to the term ‘social justice’, seemingly innocuous, but which in reality requires that researchers comply with an unyielding political agenda and fashion their work towards this. A recent position advertised at the University of Southampton Music Department which included ‘social justice’ in the job title. I do not see the difference between this and advertising a position in ‘Music and Support for Jeremy Corbyn’, ‘Musicology and Brexit Advocacy’, and so on – it appears entirely unreasonable and a constraint on academic freedom to specify a specific political outlook in a job description, and this should be investigated in terms of employment law. The view of Cheng and others reminds me strongly of the dictates in various undemocratic countries, in which academics and artists found themselves under strong pressure to propagate particular political ideologies, or find themselves facing censure, termination or worse. This should be utterly unacceptable to anyone concerned about academic freedom.
A new study conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Nick Hillman, ‘“You can’t say that!” What students really think of free speech on campus’ (June 2022)) suggests that very significant numbers of UK students prioritise what they regard as demands for safety and protection from discrimination over free speech, wish to place issues such as sexism and racism outside of the boundaries of legitimate debate, would limit expression of views which offend certain religious groups, and so on.
We hear in many places about the vital role of students as ‘consumers’ who make the activities of universities possible, definitively placing teaching rather than research at the centre of their activities. The pressure on institutions to respond to demands from these ‘consumers’ can be intense, and it is by no means guaranteed that they will always act to protect the freedoms of academics in the face of student pressure.
Here I think we do need statutory measures implemented and enforced by the state, and also welcome some of the proposals in the 2021 act for this reason. For students to be able to hound out academics because they do not like some of what they have to say (as opposed to illegal activity or other things which transgress the inevitable constraints on free speech which need to be enforced by law) is to produce a culture more reminiscent of Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution.
While formal disciplinary mechanisms precluding academic freedom in the Western world may not be that extensive, there are other pressures which can lead to self-censorship. These include increasingly precarious employment. In the UK there is no tenure system, and – as we are witnessing in other areas of the arts and humanities at present – academics can find themselves dispensable.
Some on the left often advocate for silencing of those they deem racist, transphobic, etc., but are highly defensive when others are accused of anti-semitism (or when those associated with genderist politics are accused of misogyny). Some on the right focus on anti-semitism (which ought to be an issue for those of all political persuasions) or advocacy of views they associate with terrorism, but are more defensive with respect to other things. I believe that only in very blatant and explicit cases should any of these be used as a justification for limiting academic freedom. Anti-Zionists and gender-critical feminists should not feel that their view is illegitimate in academia.
Critical subjects should remain a presence in all universities. All academics must be free to follow where their research and convictions take them, even if their conclusions are not what their institutions, external partners, or colleagues want to hear. To fashion one’s work according to the demands of any of these is another fundamental betrayal of academic freedom.
The RAE and REF: Resources and CritiquesPosted: April 3, 2018 Filed under: Academia, Conservative Party, Higher Education, History, Musical Education, Musicology | Tags: 1992 further and higher education act, alex jones, alexander gunz, andrew kemp, andrew mcrae, andy kesson, ann-marie bathmaker, becca harrison, becky gardiner, ben r. martin, benedict anderson, camden reeves, caroline potter, case studies, catherine jenkins, catherine oakley, charles oppenheim, christopher fox, citations, claire launchbury, creative practice, david andress, david birch, david matthews, derek sayer, donald gillies, dorothy bishop, emma fraser, eric pawson, eric r. lybeck, eva moreda rodriguez, george letsas, giulia piccolino, gurminder k. bhambra, heather froelich, hendrik wagenaar, higher education funding council for england, humanities, ian pace, impact, j.r. shackelton, james c. conroy, james t. palmer, james wilsdon, jenn ashworth, jenn chubb, jerry a. jacobs, jo edge, jo grady, john croft, josh robinson, julia cupples, kate beswich, liz morrish, lord mandleson, lord nicholas stern, mark berry, mark reed, matthew j. baker, mel bartley, metrics, michael c. wykes, michael gratzke, michael shattock, michel foucault, molly dragiewicz, nicole kobie, paul jump, paul noordhof, peer review, performance indicators, performance-based research fund, peter scott, phil baty, philip booth, polytechnics, rachel pope, rank hypocrisies, research, research assessment exercise, research environment, research excellence framework, richard bentall, richard smith, richard watermeyer, robbins report, roberts review, rosa scoble, russell group, sarah burton, sherrill stroschein, sir peter swinnerton-dyer, STEM, stern review, tanvir hussain, TEMPO, teresa penfield, the underground academic, tim hitchcock, times higher education supplement, tom slater, units of assessment, universities, university and college union, university grants committee, valerie bence, walter benjamin, Zoë Corbyn 8 Comments
I am writing this piece during what looks like the final phase of the USS strike involving academics from pre-1992 UK universities. A good deal of solidarity has been generated through the course of the dispute, with many academics manning picket lines together discoverying common purpose and shared issues, and often noting how the structures and even physical spaces of modern higher education discourage such interactions when working. Furthermore, many of us have interacted regularly using Twitter, enabling the sharing of experiences, perspectives, vital data (not least concerning the assumptions and calculations employed for the USS future pensions model), and much else about modern academic life. As noted by George Letsas in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Becky Gardiner in The Guardian, Nicole Kobie in Wired, and various others, the strike and other associated industrial action have embodied a wider range of frustrations amongst UK-based academics over and above the issue of pensions: to do with casualisation and marketisation in academia, the growth of bloated layers of management and dehumanising treatment of academics, the precarious conditions facing early career researchers (ECRs), widespread bullying, and systemic discrimination against female academics, those from minority groups, and so on. Not least amongst the frustrations are those about various metrics employed to judge ‘performance’ relating to the government Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)), and new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
In this blog post, I will outline a short history of the RAE/REF with relevant links, and collect together recent comments about it and suggestions for alternatives. For most of this (except a few places), I will attempt to outline the arguments of others (including my own expressed online) on either side, rather than try to unpack and critique them – this blog is undoubtedly a ‘survey text’ in the sense often dismissed by REF assessors, though hopefully should serve some useful purpose nonetheless! In an academic spirit, I would welcome all comments, however critical (so long as focused on the issues and not personalised towards any people mentioned), and will happily correct anything found to be erroneous, add extra links, and so on. Anyone wishing to make suggestions in these respects should either post in the comments section below, or e-mail me at the addy given at the top of this page.
One of the most important pieces of sustained writing on the RAE and REF is Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF (London: Sage, 2014), a highly critical book which carefully presents a large amount of information on its history. I draw extensively upon this for this blog, as well as the articles by Bence and Oppenheim, and Jump on the Evolution of the REF, listed below. A range of primary documents can be found online, provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and its counterparts in the rest of the UK, on RAE 1992, RAE 1996, RAE 2001, RAE 2008, and REF 2014. These are essential resources for all scholars investigating the subject, though obviously represent the perspectives of those administering the system. Equally important are Lord Nicholas Stern’s 2016 review of the REF, and the 2017 key policy decisions on REF 2021, made following consultation.
There are many other journalistic and scholarly articles on the REF and its predecessors. Amongst the most important of these would be the following:
Michael Shattock, UGC and the Management of British Universities (Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, 1994).
Valerie Bence and Charles Oppenheim, ‘The Evolution of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise: Publications, Performance and Perceptions‘, Journal of Educational Administration and History 37/2 (2005), pp. 137-55.
Donald Gillies, ‘How Should Research be Organised? An Alternative to the UK Research Assessment Exercise’, in Leemon McHenry, Science and the Pursuit of Wisdom: Studies in the Thought of Nicholas Maxwell (Heusenstamm: Ontos Verlag, 2009), pp. 147-68.
Zoë Corbyn, ‘It’s evolution, not revolution for REF’, THES, 24 September 2009.
John F. Allen, ‘Opinion: Research and how to promote it in a university’, Future Medicinal Chemistry 2/1 (2009).
Jonathan Adams and Karen Gurney, ‘Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence – how good is the UK’s research?’, Higher Education Policy Institute, 25 March 2010.
Ben R. Martin, ‘The Research Excellence Framework and the ‘impact agenda’: are we creating a Frankenstein monster?’, Research Evaluation 20/3 (1 September 2011), pp. 247-54.
Dorothy Bishop, ‘An Alternative to REF 2014?’, Bishopblog, 26 January 2013.
University and College Union, ‘The Research Excellence Framework (REF): UCU Survey Report’, October 2013.
Paul Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’, Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), 17 October 2013.
Peter Scott, ‘Why research assessment is out of control‘, The Guardian, 4 November 2013.
John F. Allen, ‘Research Assessment and REF’ (2014).
Teresa Penfield, Matthew J. Baker, Rosa Scoble, Michael C. Wykes, ‘Assessment, evaluations, and definitions of research impact: A review’, Research Evaluation 23/1 (January 2014), pp. 21-32.
Derek Sayer, ‘Problems with Peer Review for the REF‘, Council for the Defence of British Universities, 21 November 2014.
‘Telling stories’, Nature 518/7538 (11 February 2015).
Paul Jump, ‘Can the research excellence framework run on metrics?’, THES, 18 June 2015.
HEFCE (chaired James Wilsdon), ‘The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management’, 8 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘The metric tide: an agenda for responsible indicators in research’, The Guardian, 9 July 2015.
Paul Jump, ‘Is the REF worth a quarter of a billion pounds?’, THES, 14 July 2015.
J.R. Shackleton and Philip Booth, ‘Abolishing the Research Excellence Framework’, Institute of Economic Affairs, 23 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘In defence of the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 27 July 2015.
Alex Jones and Andrew Kemp, ‘Why is so much research dodgy? Blame the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 17 October 2016.
James C. Conroy and Richard Smith, ‘The Ethics of Research Excellence’, Journal of Philosophy of Education 51/4 (2017), pp. 693-708.
A Short History of the RAE and REF to 2014
There were six rounds of the RAE, in 1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008, with the gaps between each becoming progressively larger. The REF has run just once to date, in 2014, with the next round scheduled for 2021.
The first ‘research selectivity exercise’ in 1986 was administered by the University Grants Committee (UGC), an organisation created after the end of World War One. As noted by Bence and Oppenheim, there was a longer history of the development of Performance Indicators (PIs) in higher education through various metrics, but definitions were unclear, so this exercise was viewed as an attempt to convert other indicators into a clear PI, which it was thought would add efficiency and accountability to university funding through a competitive process, in line with other aspects of the Thatcher government’s policies.
The 1986 exercise involved just the traditional universities, and only influenced a small proportion of funding. It consisted of a four-part questionnaire on research income, expenditure, planning priorities and output. Assessment was divided between roughly 70 subject categories known as Units of Assessment (UoAs). There were wider criticisms of the 1986 exercise, to do with differing standards between subjects, unclear assessment criteria, and lack of transparency of assessors and an appeals mechanism. As such it was much criticised by academics, and reformed for 1989, in which ‘informed peer review’ was introduced for assessment, following wide consultation. This year, a grading system from 1 to 5 was also introduced based upon national and international criteria, 152 UoAs were used, sub-committees were expanded, and details of two publications per member of staff submitted were required, as well as information on research students, external income and plans. It was used to allocate a greater proportion of funding. There were still many criticism, to do with the system favouring large departments, a lack of clear verification of accuracy of submissions, and late planning causing difficulties for institutions preparing their submission strategies.
Other important changes affecting higher education took place during this early period of the RAE, including the abolition of tenure by the Thatcher government in 1988, then the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act , which abolished the university/polytechnic distinction, so that the latter institutions could apply for university status, and then be included in the RAE. The Act also established four funding councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to replace the UGC, and made research funding allocated entirely on a selective basis, replacing previous systems of funding based upon student numbers. There had been no formula funding for research in polytechnics, so the new system radically altered the balance, allowing them to compete openly with the more traditional institutions for such funding.
RAE 1992 then brought major new changes, with institutions able to select which ‘research active’ staff to put forward, a longer timescale allowed for research in the arts and humanities, improved auditing processes, and reduced assessment down to 72 UoAs. 192 institutions participated, covering over 43,000 full-time equivalent researchers. Practically all university research funding from this point was determined by the exercise, based upon a quality rating, the number of research-active staff, amount of research income and some consideration of future planned activity. Departments which were given an assessment of 1 or 2 would not receive any funding. The result was that the older universities received 91% of the available funding, new (post-1992) universities 7% and colleges 2%. 67% of departments were ranked 1, 2 or 3. This led to objections that the system was biased in favour of the older and larger universities, which had supplied many of the panelists for certain UoAs. Some results were challenged in court, and a judge noted a need for greater transparency.
Changes for RAE 1996 involved the submission of four publications for selected research-active staff, and stiffer requirements on a cut-off date for outputs being placed in the public domain. Rating 3 was divided into 3a and 3b, and an extra 5* rating introduced, while each panel was required to make clear their criteria for assessment. 60 subject panels, with chairs appointed by the funding councils on the basis of recommendations of previous chairs, and other panel members selected on the basis of nominations from various learned societies or subject associations. These considered 69 UoAs on the basis of peer review. This was also the first RAE which allowed performance submissions for musicians (see below), which was encompassed in the following definition of ‘research’ provided by the funding councils:
‘Research’ for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry, as well as to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship*; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction. It excludes routine testing and analysis of materials, components and processes, eg for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques.
* Scholarship embraces a spectrum of activities including the development of teaching material; the latter is excluded from the RAE.
One of the major problems encountered had to do with academics moving to other institutions just before the final date, so those institutions could submit their outputs, as well as early concerns about the power invested in managers to declare members of staff ‘research-inactive’ and not submit them. Furthermore, it was found that outcomes were biased towards departments with members on assessment panels. Once again, no funding was granted to departments graded 1 or 2. This time, however, 43% of departments were ranked 4, 5 or 5*, a rise of 10% since 1992.
The changes to RAE 2001 involved panels consulting a number of non-UK-based experts in their field to review work which had already been assigned top grades. Sub-panels were created, but there were also five large ‘Umbrella Groups’ created, in Medical and Biological Sciences; Physical Sciences and Engineering; Social Sciences; Area Studies and Languages; and Humanities and Arts. Some new measures also acknowledged early career researchers, some on career breaks, and other circumstances, and a new category was created for staff who had transferred, who could be submitted by both institutions, though only the later one would receive the resulting research funding. Expanded feedback was provided, and electronic publications permitted, though different UoAs employed different criteria in terms of the significance of place of publication and peer-review. 65% of departments were now ranked 4, 5 or 5*. 55% of staff in 5 and 5* departments were submitted, compared to 23% in 1992 and 31% in 1996.
The Roberts review of 2002 expressed concern about how the whole exercise could be undermined by ‘game-playing’, as institutions were learning to do. Furthermore, there were concerns about the administration costs of the system. A process was set in place, announced by Gordon Brown, to replace the existing RAE (after the 2008 exercise) with a simpler metrics-based system. As detailed at length in Sayer, despite major consultations involving many important parts of the UK academic establishment, an initial report and proposals of this type were quickly changed to a two-track model of metrics and peer review, then the whole plan was almost completely abandoned.
RAE 2008 itself had fewer major changes. Amongst these were a renewed set of assessment criteria, especially as affected applied, practice-based and interdisciplinary research, a two-tiered panel structure, with sub-panels undertaking the detailed assessment and making recommendations to main panels, who made broader decisions and produced a ‘quality profile’ for a department, in place of the older seven-point system. Individual outputs were now given one of five possible rankings:
4*: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour
3*: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence
2*: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
1*: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment
By 2008-9 (before the results of RAE 2008 took effect) about 90% of funding went to just 38 universities, but from 2009 48 institutions shared this amount (after 15. As Adams and Gurney have noted, the weighting of the 2008 exercise meant that the difference between obtaining 2* and 3* was greater than that between 3* and 4*, or between the previously 4 to 5 or 5 to 5* rankings. 54% of 2008 submissions were ranked either 3* or 4*, 87% 2*, 3* or 4*.
The plans for post-2008 exercises were finally published in September 2009 by HEFCE, indicating a new name, the REF, but otherwise the system was much less different to those which preceded it than had been assumed. Now the ranking was to be based upon three components: ”output quality’ at 60%, ‘impact’ at 25%, and ‘environment’ at 15% (later revised to 65%, 20% and 15% respectively). Outputs were to be assessed as before, though for sciences, citation data would informed various panels. ‘Environment’ was assessed on the basis of research income, number of postgraduate research students, and completion rates. But the most significant new measure was ‘impact’, reflecting the desires of the then Business Secretary Lord Mandelson for universities to become more responsive to students, viewed as customers, and industry, defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Each department was to submit a general statement on ‘impact’ as a whole, and could submit between 2 and 7 impact ‘case studies’, depending upon the number of research-active staff submitted to the REF. This was a huge shift, and restricted to impact which could be observed during the cycle between exercises, and derived from research produced when the academic in question was already at the submitting institution.
Other changes including a major shift in the number of UoAs and sub-panels to 30, and just four main assessment panels. One single sub-panel would assess outputs, environment and impact. However, the same number of experts were involved as before.
Since REF 2014, the Stern Report has informed significant changes to the system, in part intended to avoid the potential for gaming. Following further consultations, it has been announced that a minimum of one output and a maximum of seven from each member of a department will be submitted. Further measures have been introduced to ensure that most short form text-based submissions must be ‘Open Access’, available freely to all, which generates its own set of issues. Further plans for REF 2028 indicate that this will also apply to long form submissions such as monographs; the situation for creative practice outputs currently appears not to have changed, but this situation may be modified. HEFCE was abolished at the end of March 2018, and replaced in England by the new Office for Students (OfS) and Research England, the actions of which remain to be seen.
The RAE and REF have caused huge amounts of resentment and anger amongst academics, and produced sweeping changes to the nature of academic work as a whole. Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, architect of the first RAE (interviewed in Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’) argued against many of the subsequent developments, and with every reform to the system, institutions would put greater pressure on individuals, especially those in junior positions, leading to some of the awful cases of chronic stress, mental illness and bullying which have been detailed recently on social media.. Many report that REF submissions constitute the only research valued by their institutions. A Head of Department (HoD) or other REF supervisor who achieved a high REF scoring could expect to win favour and further promotion from their management; in practice, this often meant cajoling and bullying of already-overworked staff with threats and intimidation about whether they would maintain their job, and and little favour or support shown to those who might not produce the right number of 3* or 4* outputs. Those dealing with mental health issues, trying to balance impossible teaching and administrative workloads (all fuelled by the Mandelsonian idea of the student-as-consumer) and research demands with major care commitments for children or the elderly, were often driven to breakdowns or to quit academia; some cases of this are documented below. Academics ceased, in the eyes of many managements, to be human beings towards whom they had a duty of care as their employers, but merely as potential cash cows, to be dispensed with if there was any pause in this function.
Gaming of the system continued in many forms from RAE 1992 onwards. Many institutions would award 0.2 FTE or short-term contracts in the run-up to the RAE/REF, so that institutions could profit from particular individuals’ outputs (not least ECRs who might have a monograph and were desperate for any employment record on their CVs). All of this could mean that rankings were unrepresentative of the research carried on by the majority of a department’s full-time, permanent staff. Research projects taking more than 6-7 years were greatly disadvantaged, or at least those embarked on them would still have to produce four other world-leading outputs in during a RAE/REF cycle, in many institutions, sometimes in order to retain a position at all. Callous HoDs or other REF managers could dismiss some work which had occupied academics for years (whilst maintaining hefty teaching and administration workloads) as merely 2*, on the grounds of its being ‘journalistic’ (often it was relatively readable), a ‘survey text’ (if it drew upon a wide range of existing scholarly literature), or the like, often with crushing impacts on the academics concerned.
The period of the RAE’s history saw other sweeping changes to Higher Education in the UK. Between 1963 and 1970, numbers of young people attending university had doubled following the Robbins Report, but then remained essentially static until the late 1980s, when over a decade numbers rose from 17% in 1987 to 33% in 1997 (see Ann-Marie Bathmaker, ‘The Expansion of Higher Education: Consideration of Control, Funding and Quality’, in Steve Bartlett and Diana Burton, Education Studies: Essential Issues (London: Sage, 2003), pp. 169-89). Since then numbers participating have continually risen, to a peak of 49% in 2011. This was an unrepresentative year, the last before the introduction of trebled tuition fees, which were a disincentive for students to take a gap year, followed by a concomitant dip of 6% (to 43%) in 2012, then a further rise to 49% in 2015, exceeding the pre-2011 peak of 46%, thus confounding (at least to date) those who predicted that increased fees would lead to decreased participation.
Sayer points out that there are few equivalents for the REF elsewhere in the world and none in North American or Europe. Furthermore, few have sought to emulate this system. Some of those cited below argue that most of the known alternatives (including those which preceded the introduction of the RAE) may be worse, others (including myself) cannot accept that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. I would further maintain that the human cost of the REF should not only be unacceptable, but illegal, and that only a zero tolerance policy, with criminal charges if necessary (even for the most senior members of management) could stop this. Dignity at work is as important in this context as any other, and little of that is currently on display in UK academia.
Creative Practice and Non-Text-Based Outputs
An issue of especial relevance to those engaged in performing-arts-based academic disciplines such as music, theatre, or dance (and in many cases also creative or other forms of writing, the visual arts, and so on) is that of outputs submitted to the REF in the form of creative practice. By this I mean specifically outputs in the form of practice (i.e. practice-as-research), as opposed to those simply documenting or critically analysing one’s own or others’ practice. I have previously blogged extensively on this subject, following the publication of a widely read article by John Croft (‘Composition is not Research’, TEMPO 69/272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11) and replies from me (‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’, TEMPO 70/275 (January 2016), pp. 60-70 ) and from Camden Reeves (‘Composition, Research and Pseudo-Science: A Response to John Croft’, Tempo70/275 (January 2016), pp. 50-59), and a subsequent public debate on the subject. Amongst the issues raised, some of them familiar from wider debates on practice-as-research which are referenced in my own article, were whether creative practice on its own can stand as research without requiring additional written documentation (not least the now-familiar 300-word statements which can be regarded as deemed essential by the REF, as I argue in response to a claim made by Miguel Mera in that debate), whether creative work which most resembles ‘science’ is regarded as more ‘research-like’, an implicit claim unpacked by Reeves (as one colleague put it to me, ‘if it has wires going into it, it’s more like research’), with all this implies in terms of (gendered) views of STEM versus the humanities, or whether certain types of output are privileged for being more ‘text-like’ than others (scores versus recordings, for example) and thus some practitioners are at an advantage compared to others (here I give some figures on the relative proportions of composers and performers in different types of music departments). Attitudes to the latter vary hugely between institutions: at least one Russell Group department was happy to award a chair to a performer whose research output consists almost exclusively of performances and recordings, mostly as part of groups, while at others, especially those without strong representation of the performing arts amongst managements, such outputs are hardly valued at all and are unlikely to be submitted to the REF, nor win promotion for those who produce them.
Another issue is that of parity between creative practice outputs and other types. Many creative practitioners will never have had to submit their work to anything like peer review in the manner known for articles and monographs, and questions arise as to, for example, what number or type of compositions or recordings, visual art works or dance performances should be viewed as equivalent to the production of a monograph, when assessing promotion and the like? Music departments in which half or more of the faculty is made up of practitioners (usually composers) may have limited experience of peer review, or for that matter of wider academic debates and discourses, and some might argue that they are able to get ahead in their professions with considerably less time and effort than their equivalents who produce more traditional outputs. This is, I believe, a very real problem, which then maps onto questions of the significantly different requirements for producing different types of creative practice outputs, and needs serious consideration if there is to be any semblance of fairness within such academic departments.
Sayer also notes how many works in the humanities gain impact over an extended period of time, giving works of Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault and Benedict Anderson as examples, and also notes how many can remain intensely relevant and widely cited long after publication, in distinction to a science-based model of cumulative and rapidly-advancing knowledge, whereby a certain passage of time leads to some outputs being viewed as outdated.
Over the last few days, various academics have been commenting on the REF, mostly on Twitter. I attempt to collect the most important of these here.
One of the first important threads came from geographer Julia Cupples (@juliecupples79). In this thread, she called the fundamental status of REF classifications ‘ludicrous’, argued how problematic it would be to direct research exclusively for REF and elite British academics, called the demands of ‘originality’ for a single publication ‘masculinist and colonial’, argued that female authors and those from ethnic minorities are at a disadvantage, not least because of less likelihood of citation. The ranking of junior colleagues by senior ones was labelled ‘one of the most toxic mechanisms in place in the neoliberal academy’, making a mockery of most other means of achieving equality, and so that the REF works against attempts to ‘dismantle discrimination, build collegiality, prevent academic bullying, and decolonize our campuses’. This thread was widely tweeted and praised, inducing others to share similar stories, with Cupples responding that the REF is ‘a means to discipline, humiliate and produce anxiety’. Not all agreed, with Germanist Michael Gratzke (@prof_gratzke) arguing that the peer review element for arts and humanities was a good thing, and that as the scheme would not disappear, one needed to deal with it reasonably. More respondents were sympathetic, however. Urban Studies Professor Hendrik Wagenaar (@spiritofwilson) cited the REF as a cause of ‘the demeaning command-and-control management style that has infected UK universities, and the creation of the soulless apparatchiks that rise up through the ranks to take every ounce of pleasure out of research and writing’, and how it prevents ‘a climate of psychological safety, trust, mutual respect, and togetherness; a place where it is safe to take risks’. Molly Dragiewicz (@MollyDragiewicz) asked whether metrification fetishises ‘engagement’, though a different view was taken by Spanish musicologist and novelist Eva Moreda Rodriguez (@TheDrRodriguez), in response to some queries of my own to Cupples. Cupples had said that it would be ‘deeply problematic if we started writing for REF and a panel of elite British academics rather than for our research communities’, to which I asked about the definition of a ‘research community’ and why they should be exempt from external scrutiny and issues of parity with other (sub-)disciplines, also pointing out that both the Chicago School of Economics or some groups of racial theorists would have fitted this category. Cupples maintained that such communities were not groups of academics, but Moreda asked in return how ‘we avoid academic work being judged on the basis of whether it reinforces& confirms the basic tenets & prejudices of said research community?’, as well as whether such community engagement was already covered through impact assessment?
Around the same time, drama lecturer Kate Beswick (@ElfinKate) blogged on ‘REF: We need to push back against a system that has lost its way’. Whilst accepting the need for assessment of academic research, she noted how layers of bureaucracy were created to game the system, the growth of internal practice REFs, the pressure to produce outputs simply to satisfy the REF rather than for any other value, and the new pressures which will follow implementation of open access policies. This, argued Beswick, would force scholars to find ‘REF compliant’ publishers, which would compromise academic objectivity, rigour, reach and international credibility. However, she did not suggest any alternative system.
However, the first major thread in defence of the REF came from historian David Andress (@ProfDaveAndress). Andress argued that the RAE/REF enabled quality research funding to go to post-1992 institutions, that every alternative had worse biases, and that the distributive mechanism was so wide that it could almost be called ‘a relic of socialism’, concluding with the confident claim that ‘If you get rid of it, you will definitely get something worse’. This was sure to produce many responses. Clinical psychologist Richard Bentall (@RichardBentall), who was a panelist in 2008 and 2014, argued that the process was ‘conducted with absolute fairness and integrity’, but the problem was with the interpretation of it by universities (a point which many others would also evoke in other threads). Bentall noted how his own former institution gave an edict telling no researcher to publish 2* papers, which constitute 80% of world science, so that the REF ‘has become an end in itself’. I myself responded that many places have concluded that research is of no value unless beneficial to the REF, also raising the question (about which I am most definitely in two minds) as to whether we need to accept that some institutions need to be focused on teaching rather than research, rather than all scrambling over a sum of government money which is unlikely to increase. Some subsequent interactions have however made me rethink this. I also noted how some assessors have little knowledge of anything beyond their own narrow and underdeveloped fields, but which nonetheless are felt necessary to be represented on panels, noted (as would many others) how a similar process is not used in many other countries, and was sceptical about any ‘better than any conceivable alternative’ argument. Andress responded that he was not saying that, but that better alternatives which can be conceived cannot be easily put into effect, and also that, in light of the expansion of the sector, ‘RAE/REF is on the positive side of the ledger’, and shouldn’t simply be dismissed. In a series of tweets, I also expressed some questions about whether all aspects of the expansion had been positive, without corresponding increases in the level of secondary education, which can have a net levelling effect when the Oxbridge/Russell Group model is applied to institutions with very different types of student bodies, from this arguing that REF was a part of a process which pretended there were not major differences between institutions, and causes huge pressures for academics at institutions where the teaching demands are higher for students with less inclination towards independent study. These are highly contentious arguments, I realise, which I want to throw out for consideration rather than defend to the last.
Moreda also responded to Andress, taking a medium view. In a thread, she acknowledged the potential of the REF for management to use to bully academics and the inordinate use of resources, but noted that it had enabled her to gain an academic position in the UK, which would otherwise have been very difficult without an Oxbridge pedigree, also on account of having a foreign accent, with little teaching experience at that point, and so on. However, she did also temper this by noting that the ability to produce REFable publications relied upon her being ‘able-bodied and without caring duties’, and that a continued discourse was required in order to consider how to accommodate others.
I asked REF defenders whether REF panellists ever read more than a few pages of a monograph, because of the time available, or listened carefully to audible outputs (rather than reading the 300-word statements which can act as spin)? Moreda responded by framing the issues as whether the REF or equivalent can ever be free of corruption, and whether such a system needs to exist at all. She was ambivalent about both questions, but also disliked the implied view of some REF-opponents that ‘research shouldn’t be subjected to scrutiny or accountability’. Whilst agreeing on this latter point, I argued that REF does not really account for parity between disciplines and sub-disciplines, some with vast differences of time and effort (especially where archival or fieldwork are involved) required for producing an equivalent output. I proposed that no output should receive 3* or 4* where authors ignore relevant literature in other languages, and that the standards of some journals should be scrutinised more. Moreda essentially agreed with the need for wider factors to be taken into account, whilst (in somewhat rantish tone!) I continued that examiners needed a wide range of expertise across multiple sub-disciplines, and asked how in historical work like hers and mine (I work on music in Nazi and post-war Germany, she works on music in Franco’s Spain and amongst Spanish exiles) how many would know if we were making up or distorting the content of the sources? Knowing of a time when there was a leading REF assessor who could not read music, I asked how they could judge many music-related outputs, and both Moreda and I agreed there could be merit in using non-UK examiners, while I also suggested that a department should be removed from the REF when one of their own faculty members is on a panel, because of the potential for corruption.
Theatre and Performance/Early Modern scholar Andy Kesson (@andykesson) posted a harrowing thread relating to his early career experiences at the 2014 REF, for which his outputs were a monograph and an edited collection. In the lead-up, he was informed that these were ‘”slim pickings” for an ECR submission’, and pushed to get them out early and develop other publications. This came at a time when Kesson’s father died and he was forced to witness his mother in the late stages of a long-term fatal illness. Whilst deeply upset by these experiences, Kesson tried to explain that he would struggle to fulfil these additional publication demands, and was told this work was non-negotiable. After the death of his mother, her own father also became extremely ill, and Kesson was forced to do his work sitting next to his hospital bed. When offered a new job, his previous institution threatened legal action over his ‘slim’ REF submission, leading to a dispute lasting two years. Many were upset to read about the callousness of Kesson’s former institution. Social identity scholar Heather Froehlich (@heatherfro) responded that ‘academics are the most resilient people on earth, who are willing to endure so much yet still believe in their absolute singular importance – only to be told “no, you are wrong” in every aspect of their professional lives’. However, one dissenting voice here and elsewhere was that of Exeter Dean and English Professor Andrew McRae (@McRaeAndrew), who cited Wilsdon’s defence of the REF mentioned earlier, and argued that no QR money would ever be given without state oversight, asking whether a better model than the REF existed? Engineering Professor Tanvir Hussain (@tanvir_h) argued that the problem was with Kesson’s institution’s interpretation of REF rules rather than the rules themselves, a theme which others have taken up, on how the ambiguities of the REF are used as a weapon for favouritism, bullying and the like.
Geographer Tom Slater (@tomslater42), having read many of the worst stories about people’s experiences with the REF, called out those who serve on panels, making the following claims:
A) you are not being collegial
B) you are appallingly arrogant if you think you can offer an evaluation of the work of an entire sub-discipline *that has already been through peer review*
C) you are not doing it because somebody has to
D) you are not showing “leadership”
E) you are contributing to a gargantuan exercise in bringing UK academia into international disrepute
F) you are making academia an even more crappy for women, minorities, critical thinkers, and great teachers
G) if you all stood down, HEFCE would have massive problem
Various people agreed, including in the context of internal pre-REF assessments. Another geographer, Emma Fraser (@Statiscape) suggested simply giving any REF submission a 4*, a suggestion Slater and sociologist Mel Bartley (@melb4886) endorsed, and was made elsewhere by novelist and creative writing lecturer Jenn Ashworth (@jennashworth). Linguistics scholar Liz Morrish (@lizmorrish) was another to focus on the behaviour of individual institutions, maintaining that ‘the
#REF was NEVER intended to be an individual ranking of research. It was intended to give a national picture and be granular only as far as UoA. What you are being asked to do is just HR horning in on another occasion for punishment’. Slater himself also added that ubiquitous terms such as ‘REFable’ or ‘REF returnable’ should be abandoned.
Paul Noordhof (@paulnoordhof) asked in this context ‘Suppose there were no REF, or equivalent, linked to research performance. What would stop the University sector achieving efficiency savings by allowing staff numbers to reduce over time and doubling teaching loads? Especially for some subjects’, but Slater responded that collective action from academics (as opposed to the more common action supporting and promoting the REF) would stop this. Slater also responded directly to McRae’s earlier post, including the statement ‘Careful what you wish for’, by arguing that ‘most would wish for a well funded sector where we don’t have to justify our existence via an imposed, reductive, compromised, artificial assessment system that destroys morale. Careful what you lie down for’.
Italian social scientist Giulia Piccolino (@Juliet_p83), responding to my retweeting of Slater’s original thread, called herself ‘the last defender of the REF’, which she felt to be ‘a bad system but the least bad system I can imagine’, a similar position to that of Andress. In response, I suggested that a better system might involve the submission of no more than two outputs from any department, allowing much more time to be spent on peer review. Piccolino noted that in other countries where she had worked, appointments depended simply on one’s PhD supervisor (a point she also made in response to Cupples), that scholars stop researching after receiving a permanent job (but still try and control junior figures) (something I have observed in some UK institutions), and so argued that while the REF could could be improved and humanised, it seemed a break on arbitrary power as encountered elsewhere. Piccolino’s returned elsewhere to her theme of how the transparency and accountability of the REF were an improvement on more corruptible systems, with which many UK academics were unfamiliar.
The debates with McRae continued, after his response to Cupples, in which he called the REF ‘an easy target’ and suggested that its demise would leave academics reliant on grants (a view endorsed wholeheartedly by Piccolino), claimed that many would prefer to replace peer-review with metrics, and that impact produced some important activity. Legal academic Catherine Jenkins (@CathyJenkins101) asked if things were so bad before the introduction of the RAE in 1986, to which McRae responded that he did not work in the UK then, but saw the problems of an Australian system in which publications in ‘a low-achievement environment’ in which many had not published for years, did not help a younger academic get a job. Modern Languages scholar Claire Launchbury (@launchburycla) argued that the modern Australian system (despite, not because of, its own ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’ (ERA) system for research evaluation) was practically unrecognisable in these terms. In response to a query from Marketing lecturer Alexander Gunz (@AlexanderGunz) relating to the lack of a REF equivalent in North America, McRae responded that that system was radically different, lacking much central funding, but where ‘state institutions are vulnerable to the whims of their respective govts, so in that respect greater visibility/measurability of performance might help’. Cupples herself responded to McRae that ‘The vast majority of universities in the world have no REF (and neither did British universities not so long ago) and yet research gets done and good work gets published’. Historical sociologist Eric R. Lybeck (@EricRoyalLybeck), a specialist in universities, echoed the view of Swinnerton-Dyer in hearkening back to the ‘light touch’ of the first RAE, which ‘would be an improvement’, and also argued against open access, saying this ‘distorts and changes academic practices’.
Film lecturer Becca Harrison (@BeccaEHarrison) posted her first REF thread, detailing her disillusion with UK academia as a result of the system, noting that she was told when interviewing for her first post-PhD job that her research ‘had to be world leading’ (4*) in order to get an entry-level job, and feeling that even this might amount to nothing because ‘there are 100 ECRs with 4* work who need my job’. This led her to support calls to boycott preparations for the REF as part of continuing industrial action. Another thread detailed common objections to the REF, then in a third thread, Harrison detailed her experiences with depression and anxiety attacks during her PhD, leading to hair loss and stress-induced finger blisters making it impossible to type, as well as early experiences with a poorly-paid teaching fellowship together with a non-HE job to pay bills, working 18 hour days in order to produce a monograph and endlessly apply for jobs. In her first full-time job, Harrison encountered bullying, misogyny from students, a massive workload and obsessiveness about production of 4* outputs. This did not lead to a permanent contract, but a new job offer came with huge requirements just for grade 6/7. She rightly said ‘please, people implementing REF, people on hiring committees, please know that this is what you’re doing to us – and that when we’ve done all this and the system calls us ‘junior’ and treats us like we don’t know what we’re doing we will get annoyed’.
Some further questions were raised by several on the new rules on open access, for example from Politics scholar Sherrill Stroschein (@sstroschein2), who argued that this would ‘just make book writers produce best work outside of REF’. But this important debate was somewhat separate from the wider question of the value of the REF, and what system might best replace it, which I decided to raise more directly in a new thread. There were a range of responses: musicologist Mark Berry (@boulezian) argued for a move away from a model based upon the natural sciences, and claimed that ‘Huge, collaborative grants encourage institutional corruption: “full economic costing”‘, while Moreda alluded to an article from 2017 about the possibility of a ‘basic research income’ model, whereby everyone had a certain amount allocated each year for research, so long as they could prove a reasonable plan for spending it (David Matthews, ‘Is “universal basic income” a better option than research grants?’, THES, 10 October 2017, though engineer David Birch responded that this would ultimately lead to another system similar to the REF). She saw how this would be insufficient for most STEM research and some in the humanities, but this could then be supplemented by competitive funding, as is already the case. Berry made a similar point to Moreda, also noting how much money would be saved on administration, whilst Cupples also agreed, as did sociologist Sarah Burton (@DrFloraPoste). Sums of up to around £10K per year were suggested; Burton also added that larger competitive grants should be assigned on a rotating basis, so that those who have had one should be prevented from holding another for some years, to create openings for post-graduate researchers (PGRs) and ECRs. I responded that this might exacerbate a problem already prevalent, whereby time-heavy species of research (involving archives, languages, old manuscripts, etc.) would be deterred because of the time and costs involved; Burton agreed that ‘slow scholarship’ is penalised, especially ethnographic work (this type of point was also made by archaeologist Rachel Pope (@preshitorian), comparing time-intensive archaeological work with ‘opinion pieces’ judged as of similar merit), while Moreda suggested that some ‘sliding scale’ might be applied depending on whether research involves archives and the like, though acknowledged this could result in ‘perverse incentives’.
I also noted that one consequence of Burton’s model would be a decline in the number of research-only academics, but that it would be no bad thing for all to have to do some UG core teaching (with which Cupples agreed). Burton’s response was ambivalent, as some are simply ‘not cut out for teaching in a classroom’, though I suggested similar problems can afflict those required to disseminate research through conferences and papers, to which Burton suggested we also need to value and codify teaching-only tracks for some. Moreda was unsure about the proposal to restrict consecutive grants, especially for collaborative projects, though also suggested that such a model might free up more money for competitive grants. Noting earlier allegations of careerism, etc., Berry argued that one should not second-guess motivations, but there should be space for those who are not careerists, and that it would be helpful for funds to assist with language or analytical skills or other important things.
I asked who might have figures for (i) no. of FTE positions in UK academia at present (to which question I have since found the figure of 138,405 on full-time academic contracts, and 68,465 on part-time academic ones, in 2016-17); (ii) current government spending on research distributed via REF (the figure for 2015-16 was £1.6 billion), and (iii) the administrative costs of REF (for which a HEFCE report gives a figure of £246 million for REF 2014). This latter figure is estimated to represent roughly 2.4% of a total £10.2 billion expenditure on research by UK funding bodies until REF 2021, and is almost four times that spent on RAE 2008. Nonetheless, its removal would not make a significant difference to available research funds. If one considers the ‘basic research income’ model (in the crudest possible form) relative to these figures, an annual expenditure of £1.6 billion would provide £10K per year for 160,000 full-time academics, which would be a very large percentage. if the part-time academics are assumed to average 0.5 contracts.
An arts and humanities scholar who goes by the name of ‘The Underground Academic’ (@Itisallacademic) (hereafter TUA) felt the basic income model would prevent a need to apply for unnecessary large grants, and also expressed personal dislike for collaborative projects, a view which runs contrary to orthodox wisdom, but was backed by Moreda and Berry. I agreed and also questioned the ‘fetishisation of interdisciplinary work’ as well. TUA responded with a pointer to Jerry A. Jacobs, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), which is a sustained scholarly critique of interdisciplinarity, so often assumed to be an unquestionable virtue. Burton also asked that employers and funders value book-based research more, and expressed frustration that her own work on social theory is deemed ‘easy’, to which I added an allusion to a common situation by which reading-intensive work, often involving carefully critical investigation of hundreds of books, can be dismissed as entailing a ‘survey text’.
There were a range of other more diverse responses. Cupples also argued that the New Zealand system, the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), whilst imperfect, was ‘a thousand times better than the REF’; Cupples and Eric Pawson authored ‘Giving an account of oneself: The PBRF and the neoliberal university‘, New Zealand Geographer 68/1 (April 2012), pp. 14-23. Amongst the key differences Cupples outlined were individual submissions, crafting of one’s own narrative, own choice of most suitable panel, own choice of nominated outputs, information on how one did oneself (not available to others), and greater support from departments.
Piccolino returned to her earlier questions about the potential for corruption in non-REF-based academic cultures, and asked ‘which system guarantees that people are hired for being committed, dedicated researchers vs being friends, friends of friends, products of elite institutions etc?’. Following Cupples mention of the PBRF, Piccolino also mentioned the Italian abilitazione nazionale, providing criteria for associate and full professors, but she suggested it was of little effect compared to patronage and the need for compliant researchers. This system was, according to Piccolino, closer to the REF than the German Habilitation. She also drew attention to a scathing article on corruption in Italian academia (Filippomaria Pontani, ‘Come funziona il reclutamento nelle università’, Il post, 11 October 2016).
Social scientist Gurminder K. Bhambra (@GKBhambra) pointed out the intensification of each iteration of the REF, with the current post-Stern version more individualised and pernicious than before. Medievalist James T. Palmer (@j_t_palmer) argued that REF is not the primary means of distributing research funding, because the majority is distributed through competition, though the REF may determine university funding in general (a profound observation whose implications need wider exploration).
Medieval and early modern historian Jo Edge (@DrJoEdge) asked why, in a REF context, peer-reviewed book chapters are seen as inferior to journal articles, to which Andress replied that (a) some believe book peer-review is less rigorous, as chapters are pre-selected and reviewed collectively; (b) the chapters will have less impact since less easy to find through the usual search engines (a point which Burton said she had also heard); (c) old-style elitist prejudice.
A sardonic exchange proceeded between three musicians or musicologists : composer Christopher Fox (@fantasticdrfox, himself a REF 2014 panelist), Berry, and me. Fox felt that ‘the current UK research model is counterproductive in the arts’ and that ‘Competition is a useless principle around which to organise our work’. I asked what it would mean to rank the work of leading late-twentieth-century composers such as Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, Brian Ferneyhough and Robin Holloway, or the playing of pianists Aloys Kontarsky and David Tudor, or clarinettists Harry Sparnaay and Armand Angster, as 3* or 4*, especially if non-musicians were involved in the process? Fox also referenced US composers Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, and as how one can fix criteria which account for the disparities in their aesthetic intentions, while Berry pointed out that Anton von Webern (almost all of whose works are short in duration) would ‘never have been able to “sustain his invention over a longer time-span”‘, alluding to a common criteria for composition. Conversely, I asked if Erik Satie’s Vexations (which consists of two lines of music repeated 840 times), or the music of La Monte Young (much of it very extended in duration) should ‘have been regarded as streets ahead of most others, if submitted to REF?’, in response to which musicologist (French music expert) Caroline Potter (@carolinefrmus), author of several books on Satie, alluded to an upcoming ‘REF-related satire’ which ‘seems like the only sane way to deal with the business’. I asked about whether all of this contributed to a ‘a renewed, and far from necessarily positive, concept of the “university composer” (or “university performer”)’ (terms which have often been viewed negatively, especially in the United States), when academia is one of the few sources of income. Fox felt that this culture encouraged ‘the production of compositions that only have significance within academia’. I also raised the question of whether academics looked down on books which could be read by a wider audience, which Berry argued stemmed from envy on the part of those with poor writing skills.
Independently, cultural historian Catherine Oakley (@cat_oakley) echoed the views of Kesson and Harrison, as regards the impact of REF upon ECRs, who need ‘monograph + peer-reviewed articles’ to get a permanent job, yet start out after their PhDs in ‘precarious teaching posts with little or no paid research time’.
Elsewhere, industrial relations expert Jo Grady (@DrJoGrady) advocated boycott of preparations for the REF and TEF. In a series of responses, some asked how this could be done, especially when individuals are asked to submit their own outputs for internal evaluation. Further questions ensued as to whether this might lead to some of the worst (non-striking) academics undertaking the assessment.
Sayer himself (@coastsofbohemia) also contributed to these Twitter exchanges. In a first thread, he alluded to a passage from his book: ‘In a dim and distant past that is not entirely imaginary (and still survives for the shrinking minority of faculty members in N America) research was something that academics undertook as a regular part of their job, like teaching … Universities … expected their staff to publish … and academics expected universities to give them sufficient time to pursue their research … There was no *specific* funding for time for research but … the salary was meant to support and remunerate a staff member’s research as well as his or her teaching … [whereas today] Because the only govt support for universities’ “research infrastructure … and pathbreaking research …” comes through QR funding and QR funding is tied to RAE/REF rankings, any research that scores below a 3* necessarily appears as unfunded. The accomplishment of the RAE/REF … is to have made research *accountable* in the literal sense of turning it into a possible object of monetary calculation. This makes the REF a disciplinary technology in Foucault’s sense … which works above all through the self-policing that is produced by the knowledge that one’s activities are the subject of constant oversight. Both inputs (including, crucially, academics’ time) and outputs (as evaluated by REF panels and monetized by the QR funding formula) can now be *costed.* The corollary is that activities that do not generate revenues, whether in the form of research grants or QR income, may not count in the university’s eyes as research at all.’ In response to a question from me about his feelings on the argument that RAE/REF had helped post-1992 institutions, Sayer argued that there were other alternatives to no funding or REF-based funding, alluding to some of the suggestions in his article on peer review listed earlier. In a further thread, he summarised these arguments: the relative merits of peer review vs. metrics was ‘not the issue’. Sayer asserted that ‘Peer review measures conformity to disciplinary expectations and bibliometrics measure how much a given output has registered on other academics’ horizons’, and that neither of these are a reliable basis for 65% of REF ranking. Instead, he suggested that more weight should be allocated to research environment and resources, research income, conference participation, journal or series editing, professional associations, numbers of research students, public seminars and lectures, all of which are measurable.
Literature and aesthetics scholar Josh Robinson (@JshRbnsn) joined the discussions towards the end of this flurry of activity. Coming into one thread, he noted that internal mock-REF assessments meant ‘that the judgements of powerful colleagues with respect to the relative merits of their own & others scholarship can never be held to account’, since individual scores are not returned to departments, also arguing that this would be exacerbated in REF 2021. In response to McRae, Robinson added his name to those advocating a basic research income, which McRea said would technically be possible, but in practice ‘would redistribute tens of millions per year from RG to post-92 unis. Try that on your VC!’. Robinson’s response was to quote McRae’s tweet and say ‘the manager at a Russell Group insitution shows what he’s actually afraid of.’ But in response to a further statement in which Robinson thought that what his VC ‘would be afraid of would be a generally good thing’, McRae suggested that this might simply lead VCs to make redundancies. Robinson pointed out that an allocation by FTE researcher would provide an incentive to hire more people with time for research. Robinson has indicated that he might be able to make available a recent paper he gave on the REF, which I would gladly post on here.
But Morrish, responding that McRae’s claim that the REF is ‘the price we pay, as a mechanism of accountability’, retorted that ‘the price we pay’ is ‘a) Evidence of mounting stress, sickness and disenchantment among academics REF-audit related; b) Ridiculous and career-limiting expectations of ECRs’.
A few other relevant writings have appeared recently. Socio-Technical Innovation Professor Mark Reed (@profmarkreed) and social scientist Jenn Chubb (@JennChubb) blogged on 22 March calling on academics to ‘Interrogate your reasons for engaging in impact, and whatever they are, let them be YOUR reasons’, referencing a paper published the previous week, ‘The politics of research impact: academic perceptions of the implications for research funding, motivation and quality’, British Politics (2018), pp. 1-17. Key problems identified included choosing research questions in the belief they would generate impact, increased conflicts of interest with beneficiaries who co-fund or support research, the necessity of broadening focus, leading to ‘shallow research’, and more widely the phenomenon of ‘motivational crowding’, by which extrinsic motivations intimidate researchers from other forms, and a sense that impact constitutes further marketisation of HE. Chubb and Richard Watermeyer published an article around this time on ‘Evaluating ‘impact’, in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF): liminality, looseness and new modalities of scholarly distinction’, Studies in Higher Education (2018), though I have not yet had chance to read this. Historian Tim Hitchcock (@TimHitchcock) also detailed his experiences of the RAE/REF from the late 1980s onwards, first at North London Polytechnic. Hitchcock argues that:
I have always believed that the RAE was introduced under Thatcher as a way of disciplining the ‘old’ universities, and that the 1992 inclusion of the ‘new’ universities, was a part of the same strategy. It worked. Everyone substantially raised their game in the 1990s – or at least became more focussed on research and publication.
Hitchcock goes on to detail his experiences following a move to the University of Hertfordshire after RAE 1996. He notes how hierarchies of position (between Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor) became more important than ever, and recruitment was increasingly guided by potential RAE submissions. However, Hitchcock became more disillusioned when he took a position at the University of Sussex after REF 2014, and saw how the system felt ‘more a threat than a promise’ in such places, in which REF strategy was centrally planned. He notes how ‘The bureaucracy, the games playing and the constantly changing requirements of each new RAE/REF, served a series of British governments as a means of manipulating the university system’, the system was increasingly rigged in favour of ‘old’ universities, and made life increasingly difficult for ECRs, who had to navigate ever-bigger hurdles in order simply to secure a permanent position. Hitchcock concludes that:
Higher education feels ever more akin to a factory for the reproduction of class and ethnic privilege – the pathways from exclusion to success ever more narrowly policed. Ironically it is not the ‘neo-liberal’ university that is the problem; but the ‘neo-liberal’ university dedicated to reproducing an inherited hierarchy of privileged access that uses managerialism and rigged competition to reproduce inequality.
He does not write off the potential of the REF to change this, and appears to see the particular ways it is administered and used (and viewed by some in ‘old’ universities) as the problem.
There is more to say about the Thatcherite roots of the RAE, her disdain for the ‘old’ universities, especially after her alma mater, Oxford University, refused in 1985 to award her an honorary doctorate, and what the 1992 act meant in terms of a new vocational emphasis for higher education in general, to which I may return in a subsequent blog post.
It is very clear that the majority of Academic Twitter are deeply critical or bitterly resentful of the RAE/REF, and most believe reform to be necessary. Editorial director of the THES, Phil Baty (@Phil_Baty) offered up a poll asking whether people thought the REF and RAE had been positive or negative; the results were 22% and 78% respectively (and further comments, mostly making similar points to the above, followed). The arguments pro and contra, as have emerged over the weekend can be summarised as follows:
Pro: provides some transparent external scrutiny and accountability; enables funding for post-1992 institutions; enables some to find work who would find it impossible in other systems dominated by patronage; is a better model than any other which has been discovered; employs peer-review rather than metrics.
Contra: invests too much power in managers; creates bullying and intimidatory atmosphere at work through REF preparation mechanisms; makes job market even more forbidding for ECRs; highly bureaucratic; very costly; dominates all research; time-consuming; discriminatory; sexist; colonialist; makes few allowances for those with mental health, care, family, or other external commitments; uncollegiate; employs assessors working outside their area of expertise; uses too many UK academics as assessors; marginalises 2* work and book chapters; fetishises collaborative or interdisciplinary work; falsely erases distinctions between institutions; relies on subjective views of assessors; artificially bolsters certain types of creative practice; is not employed in almost any other developed country; employs mechanisms more appropriate that STEM subjects than arts, humanities and social sciences; has increased pressure on academics with every iteration; causes huge stress and sickness amongst academics.
Stern has not been enough, and there is no reason to believe that those making the final decisions have much interest in the welfare of lecturers, or for that matter the creation of the best type of research culture. Major reform, or perhaps a wholly new system, are needed, and both government and the OfS and Research England should listen to the views expressed above. And new employment laws are urgently needed to stop the destruction of academics’ lives which is happening, regularly as a result of the REF.