Monday, June 09, 2008

Nick on academe

There's a lot to agree with in Nick's latest. He's right that the government has incentivized research in universities at the expense of teaching, and that this isn't necessarily in the public interest. He's also right that the current RAE doesn't work too well and that the proposed employment of metrics in the future may result in some perverse outcomes.

Nick being Nick, however, he can't write the thing without screwing up in various ways. Partly this is because, being lazy, he hasn't done his own research but has simply recycled what Jonathan Bate says in the new conservative magazine Standpoint.

Picky commentary:

Britain has a university system in which the last measure the government uses to judge the quality of academics is their ability to teach. Instead, tortuous bureaucracies assess the merits of the research produced by every department in all the 200 universities.

Actually, government recognized that the incentivization of research risked damaging teaching, and introduced a parallel system for assessing teaching via the QAA. However, the Subject Review process that was carried out around 1999-2000ish didn't work very well. A serious journalist would (a) have known this and (b) thought about some alternative.

If I sit down with builders, dentists or accountants, I have no way of knowing what their opinions will be. Within seconds of talking to an academic, I guess their views on every major political issue.

Wow. Decent telepathy at work. No-one could say that Nick doesn't wear his prejudices openly. FWIW, as an academic, I'm continually amazed by he bizarre and unpredictable views of my colleagues. Some of them even agree with Nick.

Luckless workers at a Bristol warehouse are sending 200,000 scholarly books and papers to the 1,000 or so professors who adjudicate on 70 panels like the judges of beauty contests.

Why luckless? I'd have thought that the whole miserable exercise was a stroke of luck for them, if for no-one else.

City firms give lavish bonuses because they don't want to lose staff to rivals (prestige), because they dealt on insider information (cheating) or because they pulled out of the sub-prime market just in time (luck).

Hmm, I think I'll leave Bruschetta Boy to comment on the coherence of that sentence.

Finally, Nick's last para:

Labour should not be happy with helping those that hath. If it wants to reform education, it should begin by noticing that working-class students are dropping out and middle-class students are paying fees for substandard courses, because the first concern of the universities isn't teaching. Ministers would do better to redirect public money to make sure that it is.

So Nick thinks that government should use its funding power to micromanage public services? Well maybe it should, but I seem to recall Nick deploring this kind of thing in earlier columns (control-freak New Labour etc.).

17 Comments:

Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

A serious journalist would (a) have known this and (b) thought about some alternative.

It's pretty damning for Nick that this sort of criticism can be applied to pretty much all his recent work. As usual (just like Andrew Anthony) he seems content to read one person's view, which he considers well-argued, and which fits in with his prejudices, and then simply parrots it, doing no actual research, and throws in a few of his weird obsessions and prejudices as well.

I had to read the piece about 3 times before I worked out the point he was making with his 'all academics think alike' point, but it's clearly bollocks. One of the reasons why Bate's point about English is partly true (inter-departmental assessment results in backbiting) is that 'Eng Lit' (and not language?) is a very divided subject, with theory-heavy departments being unlikely to rate departments they see as 'anti-theory' highly, and vice versa. A department which has several people practising ecocriticism - Bate's invention, pretty much - would doubtless get a more ringing endorsement from him.

And since Bate is at one of the top departments in the country, Nick really needs to have researched the opinions at someone at a far more financially stretched institution too.

And just to agree with Capt. Cabernet, I'm always surprised by the myriad opinions you find on everything in an academic department. The reason why it took me so long to work out why he decided to describe the academic hive mind with its set of uber-predictable opinions is that it goes directly against the implications of the only article he seems to have read as research - that of Jonathan Bate. I have always been shocked that the majority of academics I know approved of top-up fees, for example. I doubt Bate would have the same set of political opinions as Terry Eagleton. The consensus he's describing doesn't exist, and even if it did, the RAE wouldn't be to blame, since the vast majority of academics were in the job long before the RAE came along.

And then Nick seems to be suggesting that actually, this is all about mutual backscratching, even though his only source is saying the exact opposite:

the thousands of first novels each year, the few that are reviewed make the literary pages because the author is already well known in another field (prestige), the author is a friend of the literary editor (cheating)

not sure how someone who is such a fan of Standpoint (staff including one Louis Amis, whose own father got a job at the NS suspiciously easily) can possibly be harping on about this issue. Or does a suspiciously 'old school tie' system become a meritocracy only when Nick approves of the field it's happening in? What about Private Eye's suspiciously partisan accounts of the Cohen-Hari feud?

it should begin by noticing that working-class students are dropping out and middle-class students are paying fees for substandard courses, because the first concern of the universities isn't teaching

the 'because' there is crucial. In this revision of history, top-up fees were introduced in order to make the standard of teaching worse in univerisites. Orwellian plain style working wonders yet again.

and working-class students aren't dropping out because the first concern of the universities isn't teaching - they're dropping out because being at university is too expensive. I'm a relative newcomer to all of this so can i ask what the Decent approach to tuition and top-up fees was?

This point is indeed correct:

He's right that the government has incentivized research in universities at the expense of teaching, and that this isn't necessarily in the public interest.

It's almost impossible to get a job at any university now without a book deal in the bag, no matter how good your teaching.

The problem is that his suggestion - making sure teaching is the first priority of departments - will not only involve a lot of the 'best' people (including Bate, almost certainly) upping sticks for America, it will also involve another peer-reviewed system of assessment, exactly the thing he's meant to be condemning. As I said in the comments to the other post, students couldn't possibly be the ones doing the assessing - they have no experience of any other university teaching and undergrads are in any case usually very positive about their teaching. It couldn't be government beancounters. So it would have to be... yes, academics doing the assessing. Great work Nick.

6/09/2008 08:20:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

To be as fair as possible. Cohen isn't saying that all academics have the same views, but that once he had listened to any given individual for a few minutes we would know what their views on all the major issues were. Well, I wonder if you would, Nick. I wonder.

6/09/2008 09:41:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I think you're being too fair on him ejh.

a second failing of the system is that it creates conformism in supposedly independent minds. There are many honourable exceptions, but as a herd, academics are the most predictable of beasts. If I sit down with builders, dentists or accountants, I have no way of knowing what their opinions will be. Within seconds of talking to an academic, I guess their views on every major political issue.

not only does this mean that Nick will probably not be listening to what they're saying, instead guessing to his own amusement that they opposed the war in Iraq, but the use of the words 'conformism' and 'herd' muddies the water, and leaves me - for one - with the overall impression that he's suggesting that academics have a tendency to agree on certain political issues in a way that accountants or builders rarely do. i find this really difficult to believe - yet again this is Nick using wishy-washy personal impressions and prejudice as 'proof'.

Maybe the herd mentality in question is simply united by being easily analysed by Nick's foolproof decent telepathy.

In any case, this paragraph is far from convincing, and looks suspiciously like it is a remnant of an earlier draft in which he would have brought up the UCU... again to the detriment of his overall argument.

I'm not sure how you can link 'sucking up to editors of learned journals' with a general conformity in political views. As i said up there, if you're sucking up to the editor of a journal which publishes cutting-edge literary theory, you're unlikely to conform to the political views of the people in charge of Essays in Criticism.

6/09/2008 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

Yeah, student feedback is pretty useless. They tend to think any technique that they didn't encounter at school is about cutbacks. There were loads of complaints at Sussex about they're being asked to mark each others work - even though this is currently one of the recommended approaches/best practice, etc (and actually a really good way to get them to think critically - something in short supply). And any lecturer whose course is a bit harder can expect loads of complaints. Student feedback is definitely useful, but it needs a lot of filtering.

6/09/2008 11:49:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

I'm not sure how you can link 'sucking up to editors of learned journals' with a general conformity in political views.

I was baffled by this. Does this happen in English? I can think of all kinds of problems with the peer review process, but that's not one I've come across. The usual problem is that you've offended one of the "anonymous" reviewers as you didn't cite enough of their work, or they simply couldn't be bothered to read it properly (the negative comments where you can't actually work out what they could possibly be referring to).

6/09/2008 11:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The problem is that his suggestion - making sure teaching is the first priority of departments - [...] will also involve another peer-reviewed system of assessment,"

Or Ofsted?

Shudders

[redpesto]

6/09/2008 12:24:00 PM  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

By far the weirdest thing about it is surely the claim that prioritising research over teaching is what is redistributing from the poor to the wealthy - unless he means from comparatively poor universities to comparatively wealthy ones and perhaps then hence from the comparatively poor to the comparatively wealthy, but that's not obviously what he says.

"It's almost impossible to get a job at any university now without a book deal in the bag, no matter how good your teaching."

I can think of a couple of my contemporaries who have either post-docs or lectureships without having a book deal that I'm aware of, not counting scientists of course who seem to get post-docs thrown at them for fun. But it may be different elsewhere.

I'm also a bit sceptical about the critique of the RAE. Although obviously there are going to be exceptions, someone who produces good research will be someone who is a pretty good teacher, because they'll know the material reasonably well; they have to, in order to be able to produce good research which properly locates itself in the field and so on. Equally, I'd like to see evidence that the general quality of papers has declined since the RAE came in.

6/09/2008 12:29:00 PM  
Blogger Captain Cabernet said...

_omeone who produces good research will be someone who is a pretty good teacher,_

Well, often, yes. But the RAE has meant that those people aren't the ones who get to teach much, anyway.

I certainly don't think that the RAE has led to a decline in the quality of research. Very much to the contrary, in fact. It has, in some disciplines, led to the marginalization of heterodoxies (economics for example).

6/09/2008 12:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work for the biggest and best university in the UK. The single most important govt intervention is not the RAE, which only really accounts for about 3-4% of our income. The QAA assessment of teaching, and the National Student Survey are important, although paradoxically they don't loom large because we always come top.

No, there are two important things:
(1) HEFCE targets for undergraduate recruitment and retention. Meet them, and the block grant stays intact. Fail to do so, and it shrinks disproportionayely.
(2) The fact that we're about to lose 45 million quid a year, which Nick's Blairite chums will cut from our HEFCE grant.

No story, there's no story here, nothing to see . . . move along now.

Chris Williams

6/09/2008 01:40:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Does this happen in English? I can think of all kinds of problems with the peer review process, but that's not one I've come across.

no, it doesn't happen very much. There are a lot of journals where there is obviously an in-crowd, but they tend to not be that good, and thus probably are not what Nick means by 'learned journals'. Then there are journals where peopel often get their friends to contribute stuff, but compared to, i dunno, Nick's profession, the amount of favouritism is pretty minmal. and incidentally, i wonder where Democratiya fits in...

any lecturer whose course is a bit harder can expect loads of complaints.

yeah this is a relly frustrating aspect of student feedback, especially when the students seem to have chosen it because it looks hard and therefore impressive. students invariably prioritise niggly little things they have problems with as opposed to the vast majority of the stuff which they like, which is why it always has to be heavily filtered like you say.

i know quite a few people who have permanent jobs without book deals, but they're becoming increasingly rare. Though i am quite bitter about the job market...

just as a last note, Nick is usefully vague about what assessments he's actually referring to in the piece. Is it the RAE? it looks like it, but most of his points make little sense to anyone who's experienced the RAE.

6/09/2008 02:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work for the biggest and best university in the UK.

That would be Hull, would it? (thanks to Blackadder Goes Forth)

On a more serious note, the HEFCE targets are a killer - and the decision by the government to lift the 'cap' on student numbers for each university meant the inevitable 'musical chairs' regarding recruitment: each uni takes more qualified students until there's one left with a massive drop in recruitment, and hence funding.

[redpesto]

6/10/2008 08:45:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Are they doing it like the NFL draft?

6/10/2008 09:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ejh, if you meant me, it goes like this (bear in mind that the principle is now students=money):

Russell Group University 'A' takes all the students with straight A's it can (including some it might have turned down in the past, if only because of lack of capacity)

Wannabe Russell Group University 'B' takes all the students with slightly less than straight A's who meet its entry requirements (as with Uni 'A'; besides, it needs to keep its numbers up)

Ex-Poly Uni 'C' finds that a lot of the qualified students it used to get are going to Uni 'B' (or another Uni 'C'). It either takes more on students in the same manner as the others, or it starts taking less well-qualified students.

Brand New Ex-College/Institute Uni 'D' (or another Uni 'C') finds that it has no students for some courses because the other Uni's have hoovered them all up.

(Note: This is one, but not the only, explanation of why the number of undergraduate Physics, Chemistry and Modern Languages courses have shrunk over the last decade or so.)

[redpesto]

6/10/2008 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

You probably can't generalise about the RAE process. It seems to vary according to the university and subject. In the sciences/engineering its pretty important. I don't plan to experience one myself (I'm returning to industry as soon as i've completed my thesis - the money's better, and you have more control over your career), and I agree with it in theory, but the execution does seem pretty fucked up.

6/10/2008 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Slightly off-topic, but on the subject that all academics think alike see Obama’s Presidency: Victory in the Culture Wars (via John Cole).

The conservative traditions and beliefs, in contrast, are rarely to be found in college syllabi and high school textbooks. Obama connects with [student] audiences because they have been primed for him and his message.

This is a standard US wingnut talking point. Universities are brain-washing institutions which discriminate against conservatives. Michale Berube wrote a book about these people.

6/10/2008 02:17:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

There is a grain of truth in this one; the culture wars are over and the right side won.

6/10/2008 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A colleague who'd taught at an ex-poly told me the most soul-destroying part of it was that, thanks to fees, you didn't even get a wider social intake - just 'thick middle-class kids'.

6/10/2008 02:31:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home