Thursday, 26 November 2015

The #REF, #TEF and Contingency in Higher Education

Of all the warning signs about the terrible state of our Universities, the suicide last year of Stefan Grimm, Professor of toxicology at Imperial College, was the most desperate. Like any unnecessary death – and certainly the tragedy of suicide - we are left asking What if? Not only the What ifs of the professor’s work – the ideas he was working on, the ideas he would have gone on to develop had he lived – but also the “What ifs” of the fallout from his death: the damage to those who were implicated in it, the effect on friends and colleagues, the negative publicity, let alone the effects on those who loved him. What if organisational circumstances and institutional politics weighed more in his favour? Grimm, despite being well-published, had been deemed by his departmental management to not have brought in enough money: by the laws of toxic managerialism, he had to go. But his death touched a great many as they pondered the kind of madness we have arrived at. Viewed through the distorted mirror of academic metrics, his death had “impact”. But it was a death: the end of a set of possibilities for what might have been. Whilst we are touched by the tragedy of suicide as if watching a university soap opera, the risk is to lose sight of exactly what is lost. What is lost with the death of someone like Grimm is contingency: it is the snuffing-out of possibilities and as-yet unrecognised ideas. Contingencies in the University are not only at risk from tragic events like Stefan Grimm. They are systematically being eroded by performance metrics like the REF, and now the TEF will have a similar disastrous effect. Whilst contingency is at the heart of what Universities do, our current measures for the effectiveness of the university sector cannot see it. I want to suggest some ways of addressing this.

First of all, let’s consider how the REF removes contingencies in the system. Of all the possible brilliant ideas for research, only a few are likely to achieve impact and success, immediately rewarding the investment in them. There is no way of telling which of the many ideas, plans, individual academics, and so on, are likely to 'pay out' a successful return. This is partly because there is no single idea, plan or individual whose merit can be individually measured: success depends on the intellectual climate, market conditions, history, existing research trajectories and social networks. An individual measure of the likelihood of success - like publication - is on its own a poor indicator, particularly as it acquires a reputation as an indicator by which funding decisions are made.

Contingencies can be removed if we fail to see them. The easiest way of not seeing contingency is to see no differences between contingencies. This is to “analogise” contingency: to see that contingency x is the same as y – effectively to see x or y as ‘superfluous’ or ‘redundant’. Academic judgements of quality are in a large part identifications of analogies of arguments and results. Another way of removing contingency is to eliminate it because despite any original academic difference it presents, this difference is seen either not to fit the particular reductionist disciplinary criteria of a reviewer (“this is not about education, but economics…”), or to be published in an insufficiently “high-ranking” journal. Judgements of quality are judgements about redundancy of ideas based on written communications – and redundant work can lead to redundant academics. As with peer review, analogies, redundancies and contingencies exist as relationships between reviewers and the things they review: there is no objective assessment, and there is no way of assessing what analogies or differences a reviewer is predisposed to identify in the first place.  We understand this so poorly, and so little of it is available for inspection. Its consequence in systematically removing contingency from the system is dire.

Of course, it might be argued that removing some contingency may sometimes be necessary, as a gardener might deadhead roses. But the gardener does this not to reduce contingency in the long-run, but to maintain multiple contingencies of stems, leaves and flowers. In the university contingencies of practices, ideas, relationships and conversations are necessary so that the institutional conditions are maintained to make maximum benefit of the most appropriate ideas in the appropriate conditions. The British Library or the Bodleian make a point of preserving contingencies by keeping a copy of everything that is published: one would hope this would reflect a similar culture in our universities which traditionally has always exhibited many contingencies – it is the principal distinction between higher learning and schooling.

The consequence of removing contingency is increasing rigidity in the system, producing an education system which knows only a few ways to respond to a fast-changing world. There are contingencies not only among the possible ideas which might be thought, researched and developed within the university; there are contingencies in ways of teaching, the activities that are conducted by learners and teachers; the ways learners are assessed; the conditions within which teachers and learners can meet and talk; the technological variety for maintaining conversations, and the broader means by which conversations are sustained.

Contingencies are not only under attack from research budgets and assessment exercises. Government-inspired regulatory mechanisms are the handmaiden of marketing campaigns. Good scores = good marketing = good recruitment. But marketization produces its own pressures on the removal of contingencies: closure of whole departments like philosophy, concentration on popular subjects like IT or Business, not to mention the blinkered drive for ‘STEM’ as universities confuse science with textbook-performances of useless sums. Alongside these pressures to remove academic contingencies is an attempt to remove contingencies in academic and pedagogical practice. The contingencies of university life are deeply interconnected: the contingencies of pedagogy have been eroded by learning outcomes, disciplinary reductionism, competency frameworks, and the various indicators of ‘academic quality’. The recently-announced Teaching Excellence Framework amounts to a renewed assault on the contingencies in the classroom. An institution not recognised by the REF might nevertheless claim success in teaching, but if this success can only be defined through recognition in metrics, the TEF will reduce diversity of teaching practice, drive out experimentation, and bureaucratise the process to produce outcomes that fit locally-defined criteria aimed at gaming success with national inspection. One university I know, its ear close to Westminster, announced its new strategy of being “Teaching Intensive, Research Informed” in a bid to find favour with the new regulatory climate: in a stroke, fearless pedagogical experimentation, diversity, freedom and flexibility become subsumed into ‘intensive teaching’ driven by metrics on teacher performance and ‘student satisfaction’, accompanied with implicit threats of redundancy, with the only real desire that students stay on the course and continue to pay their fees.

The REF and the TEF are two sides of the same coin. Following a ‘business-oriented’ logic, their effect is to reduce contingencies in the University. But universities are unlike businesses precisely in their relationship to contingency: if universities lose contingencies they cease to be universities but (at best) schools. What should we do?

We can and should be measuring the contingencies of the higher education system, and allocating funding according to a much broader conception of a higher education ecology. Ironically, bibliometric approaches partly used in the REF take us half-way there. Typically, bibliometrics measure the ‘mutual information’ in discourses: those topics which recur across different contexts – those areas where contingency is lost. Contingencies sit in the background to this ‘mutual information’. In effect they operate as the “constraints” which produce repeated patterns of practice, which if probed, can unlock new research potential. New discoveries are made when we see things that we once thought were analogous to be fundamentally different, and then start to explore these differences.

The contingencies of pedagogy are also measurable: if we took all the learning outcomes, all the assignment briefs, subject handbooks and so on in the country, we would see high degree of ‘mutual information’ (of course, our ‘quality regime’ depends on this!). What are the constraints which produce this? (apart from the QAA or its successor) Why is there not more diversity? How can funding be targeted to generate more variety in pedagogic practice? If we are to get the balance between contingency and coherence in our Universities, a much broader, but also more analytical approach is required. Most importantly it has to sit outside marketization – at the level of government: marketization is one of many constraints which currently serve to reduce contingency. At the moment, the REF and the TEF both feed marketisation producing a positive feedback loop. Higher Education is out-of-control. The monitoring of levels of contingency would show where things are going wrong. We might hope that it also helps us to steer our higher education system to maximise, not reduce, its contingency. At the very least, we should aim to produce the conditions within which Stefan Grimm would still be alive thinking new ideas. 

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