Internationalizing the REF: a health warning

As a result of my posts on this blog last year relating to Britain’s Research Excellence Framework (see especially here and here), I was invited to write a short book to inaugurate the new “Sage Swifts” series.

Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF will be published on December 3, 2014: a couple weeks before HEFCE is due to publish the REF results.

But today’s announcement that HEFCE is actively “exploring the benefits and challenges of expanding … the Research Excellence Framework (REF), on an international basis” with a view to “an extension of the assessment to incorporate submissions from universities overseas” suggests some advance publicity might not be untimely.  For the REF should come with a health warning.

What I find most chilling in today’s HEFCE announcement is the bald assertion (in the accompanying survey) that “The UK’s research assessment system has a positive international reputation, built on a methodology developed over more than 20 years.”

Rank Hypocrisies shows on the contrary that the procedures used to evaluate outputs by Britain’s REF panels make a mockery of peer review as understood within the international academic community.  Among the issues discussed are the narrow disciplinary remit of REF panels and their inability to evaluate interdisciplinary research, the risks of replication of entrenched academic hierarchies and networks inherent in HEFCE’s procedures for appointment of panel members, the utterly unrealistic volume of work expected of panelists, the perversity of excluding all external indicators of quality from many assessments, and the lack of competence of REF panels to provide sufficient diversity and depth of expertise to evaluate the outputs that fall under their remit.

The REF is a system in which overburdened assessors assign vaguely defined grades in fields that are frequently not their own while (within many panels) ignoring all external indicators of the academic influence of the publications they are appraising, then shred all records of their deliberations.  That HEFCE should now be seeking to extend such a “methodology” beyond Britain’s shores is risible.

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Derek Sayer’s book is essential reading for all university researchers and research policy makers. It discusses the waste, biases and pointlessness of Britain’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), and its misuse by universities. The book is highly readable, astute, sharply analytical and very intelligent. It paints a devastating portrait of a scheme that is useless for advancing research and that does no better job at ranking research performance than do the global indexes but does so for a huge cost in time, money, duplication, and irritation. Anyone interested in research ranking, assessment, and the contemporary condition of the universities should read this book.

Peter Murphy, Professor of Arts and Society, James Cook University

Rank Hypocrisies offers a compellingly convincing critique of the research auditing exercise to which university institutions have become subject. Derek Sayer lays bare the contradictions involved in the REF and provides a forensic analysis of the problems and inconsistencies inherent in the exercise as it is currently constituted. A must read for all university academic staff and the fast multiplying cadre of higher education managers and, in particular, government ministers and civil servants in the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.

Barry Smart, Professor of Sociology, University of Portsmouth

Academics across the world have come to see the REF – and its RAE predecessor – as an arrogant attempt to raise national research standards that has resulted in a variety of self-inflicted wounds to UK higher education. Derek Sayer is the Thucydides of this situation. A former head of the Lancaster history department, he fell on his sword trying to deal with a university that behaved in an increasingly irrational manner as it tried to game a system that is fundamentally corrupt in both its conception and execution. Rank Hypocrisies is more than a cri de coeur. It is the best documented diagnosis of a regime that has distorted the idea of peer review beyond recognition. Only someone with the clear normative focus of a former insider could have written this work. Thucydides would be proud.”

Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, Warwick University

Sayer makes a compelling argument that the Research Excellence Framework is not only expensive and divisive, but is also deeply flawed as an evaluation exercise. Rank Hypocrisies is a rigorous and scholarly evaluation of the REF, yet written in a lively and engaging style that makes it highly readable.

Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology and Wellcome Principal Research Fellow, University of Oxford

The REF is right out of Havel’s and Kundera’s Eastern Europe: a state-administered exercise to rank academic research like hotel chains – 2 star, 3 star – dependent on the active collaboration of the UK professoriate. In crystalline text steeped in cold rage, Sayer takes aim at the REF’s central claim, that it is a legitimate process of expert peer review. He provides a short history of the RAE/REF. He critiques university and national-level REF processes against actual practices of scholarly review as found in academic journals, university presses, and North American tenure procedures. His analysis is damning. If the REF fails as scholarly review, how can academics and universities continue to participate? And how can government use its rankings as a basis for public policy?

Tarak Barkawi, Reader in the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics

  More details of the book (which will be available in hardback and electronic formats) may be found here.


Call for Papers: Academic Freedom and the Contemporary Academy

In 2015 it will be thirty years since Philip Corrigan and I published The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution (Blackwell, 1985), a book that did much to popularize the concept of moral regulation as a category of political analysis. The birth of the Journal of Historical Sociology, which Philip and I co-founded, was bound up with the political project of that book. It seems appropriate to mark this anniversary by attending to present-day forms of moral regulation that gravely threaten everything an open interdisciplinary scholarly journal like the JHS stands for.

In December 2013 the Kansas Board of Regents empowered universities to dismiss faculty whose “improper use” of social media was “contrary to the best interests of the university.” Months later Steven Salaita was “de-hired” before he could take up a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of tweets criticizing Israel for its actions in Gaza. Meantime the University of Saskatchewan in Canada dismissed Robert Buckingham, dean of its School of Health Sciences, because his public challenge to the budget-setting process constituted “egregious conduct and insubordination” that “damaged the reputation of the university.” On the other side of the Atlantic Thomas Docherty, a prominent critic of UK higher education, has been suspended from his position at Warwick University since January 2014 charged with “undermining the authority of his head of department” and allegedly banned from any contact with his colleagues or students—a Kafkan state of affairs whose acceptance within the sector might be taken as a mark of how abject contemporary British academia has become.

We believe these well-publicized recent cases are symptoms of a much wider crisis of regulation in universities, in which neoliberal university managers concerned to advance the institutional “brand” run up against assumptions of academic freedom that were the bedrock of the liberal university. Attempts to regulate communication in a world in which communication is potentially freer than ever before, however, are merely the tip of a very large iceberg. What lies beneath the surface is less visible but no less dangerous: an arsenal of regulatory routines whose cumulative effect is to reduce the academic profession to a docile workforce that can be relied upon to police itself. The progressive “adjunctification” of university teaching on both sides of the Atlantic and the increasing “management” of research through regimes like Britain’s REF are important aspects of this process and no less corrosive of academic freedom.

The Journal of Historical Sociology is planning a special double issue on Academic Freedom and the Contemporary Academy. As always with the JHS, our hope is to use particular instances to focus the bigger picture. We welcome submissions from all disciplines and any standpoint. Contributions should be either regular articles (max. 7000 words) or briefer pieces that document experiences or develop positions (2500-3000 words). We are also open to other forms of contribution (e.g. interviews) but please contact us first. Please send abstracts/proposals by October 31, 2014.

Please direct all inquiries and contributions to Derek Sayer (d.sayer@lancaster.ac.uk) or Yoke-Sum Wong (y.wong@lancaster.ac.uk).

Derek Sayer
14 September 2014


Getting your teeth stuck into High Performer Misconduct

One for the odorous comparisons department.

I was intrigued to come across (via a Facebook friend) an article comparing “outspoken” and “insubordinate” academics to the Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez, who was kicked out of the World Cup for biting an opponent.

The article is by one David Browne, who is a Senior Associate on the Employment Team for SGH Martineau, “a full-service UK law firm with global reach.”  “We pride ourselves,” the firm says on its website, “in providing exceptional legal advice which is client-focused—our approach of immersing ourselves in our client’s sectors and businesses ensures we are best placed to provide pragmatic and pro-active solutions to achieve excellent results.”

The core of Browne’s comparison is as follows:

“Universities and colleges may, equally, encounter high performing employees who, although academically brilliant, have the potential to damage their employer’s brand. This could be through outspoken opinion or general insubordination. Irrespective of how potentially valuable these employees may be to their institutions, the reality is that, in consistently accepting unacceptable behaviour, institutions may be setting dangerous precedents to other employees that such conduct will be accommodated. From a risk perspective, it is also much harder to justify a dismissal, or other sanction, if similar conduct has gone unpunished before.

As much as employers may hope that unacceptable behaviour from key employees will be curbed without sanction, in reality the problems will persist, needing to be addressed further down the line. It remains to be seen whether Suarez is right when he says that he will never bite another player again, but he has made similar statements before.”

Never mind that biting an opponent is (a) contrary to the rules of the game of football and (b) an assault under most systems of criminal law.  I am sure university managers will find Mr Browne’s advice a “pragmatic and proactive solution” to the sorts of problems that arise when “academically brilliant” people open their mouths in ways their employers find “unacceptable.”  Once upon a time this was known as academic freedom.

The full article can be found here:

Getting your teeth stuck into High Performer Misconduct.

UPDATE.  Since I posted the above, SGA Martineau have issued a clarification to Browne’s original article.  It reads as follows:

This blog has attracted rather a lot of attention on twitter, and has been interpreted by some as suggesting that the exercise of academic freedom might amount to misconduct. That was never the intention of the piece and we are happy to clarify that the lawful exercise of academic freedom does not amount to misconduct. However there may be circumstances where opinions and/or behaviour fall outside the lawful exercise of academic freedom and in these cases questions of misconduct may arise. Appropriate clarifications have been made to the text below.

So that’s alright, then.

For more on this see John Holmwood’s excellent commentary, which goes to the heart of the matter: http://publicuniversity.org.uk/2014/07/04/academic-freedom-and-the-corporate-university/


Five light pieces on a serious subject: why we want the university president’s job | openDemocracy

The witty campaign of mass applications by groups of four mostly junior or adjunct faculty for the $400,000 a year job of President of the University of Alberta has served to highlight much that is disturbing about the way universities are headed internationally.  The conjunction of ever-rising numbers of overpaid managers, cuts to tenured or permanent faculty positions, and greater and greater reliance on a reserve army of adjuncts is a transatlantic phenomenon.  It would be nice to see similarly spirited and intelligent resistance in the UK.  In this piece two of those involved in the Alberta action explain their thinking more fully.

Five light pieces on a serious subject: why we want the university president’s job | openDemocracy.

The debate has also been taken up in the New York Times.  Kathy Causey, the associate professor of English at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, who inaugurated the U of A mass application campaign, concludes her “Room for Debate” piece:

“If the compensation for university presidents should reflect their credentials, backgrounds and the jobs they do, then surely the compensation for the many adjuncts they employ should likewise reflect their credentials (Ph.D.’s), backgrounds (years of teaching) and jobs (the same work as tenured faculty). If universities are the “marketplace,” we should be able to decide what cost the marketplace will bear. The leaders of universities, in these times of austerity, need to lead by example.”


Update: The Situation at the University of Saskatchewan and the Academic Freedom of Academic Administrators

dereksayer:

More on Robert Buckingham’s firing/unfiring and the disturbing implications that remain for academic freedom. Another excellent analysis from Carolyn Sale at the University of Alberta.

Originally posted on Arts Squared:

Yesterday the University of Saskatchewan partly reversed the decision its Provost, Brett Fairbairn, took on Wednesday morning in regard to the position and tenure of the Dean of the School of Public Health, Robert Buckingham. On Wednesday morning, Buckingham was deprived of his position as Dean, fired from his position as a tenured professor, and apparently informed he could never return to campus for a letter that he had written to members of the Government of Saskatchewan and others the day before. The letter charges the University of Saskatchewan’s President with subjecting administrators, especially Deans, to a regime of silence in regard to the restructuring process, “TransformUS,” underway at the University of Saskatchewan. Yesterday, asserting that the principle of tenure is “sacrosanct,” the President declared in interviews that the University had “blundered” and Professor Buckingham would now freshly be “offered a tenured faculty position.”

With this decision, the President of the University of Saskatchewan…

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Why I Love the Prague Coffee House Kafka Didn’t Frequent

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Some time back I was asked to contribute a piece on any location in Prague for the “Where I go” feature of the internet magazine Zocalo Public Square.  I chose to write (again) about the Grand Cafe Slavia.  It finally came out earlier this week.  Here it is.


U Sask climbs down, Buckingham unfired, questions remain

The Saskatchewan Star-Phoenix reports that the University of Saskatchewan has hastily reversed parts of its decision to fire Director of the School of Public Health Dr Robert Buckingham for publicly criticizing the administration and given him his tenure (though not his Deanship) back.  This is welcome news.

Serious questions remain.

University of Saskatchewan president Irene Busch-Vishniac has issued a statement complaining that the U of S received “inaccurate and undeserved” criticism from across Canada after Buckingham’s firing.

“The debate that is raging,” she says, “confuses Dr. Buckingham’s former role as executive director of the School of Public Health with the academic freedom associated with of a tenured faculty member. In his role as an administrator at a level that removes him from the faculty association, Dr. Buckingham is not only permitted but encouraged to have opinions that might disagree with those developed by top administrators.  However, once a decision is made at the institutional level, all senior leaders must publicly conform to that decision or resign their leadership role.”

No, Dr Busch-Vishniac, it was you and your cronies who “confused” Professor Buckingham’s roles by depriving him of tenure as a punishment for stepping out of line as an administrator.  And the whole world knows it.  Thanks to social media.

Perhaps you and others in universities tempted to use disciplinary procedures to close down free and open debate over issues of public concern might think twice next time.

 

 


Fairbairn’s Firing of Buckingham Must Not Go Unanswered

dereksayer:

Update, May 15.  The whistleblowing document “Silence of the Deans” that got Dr Buckingham fired can be found here.  Fuller background, including CAUT reaction, can be found here.

This is a deplorable, almost unbelievable instance of hubris on the part of university management that deserves worldwide publicity and worldwide condemnation. I am reblogging here an article by colleagues at the University of Alberta, where I am a Professor Emeritus.  I am also concerned as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, whose duty as the country’s national academy is to do the utmost to protect academic freedom–including the freedom of deans, heads of department, and others occupying administrative positions to speak their minds on matters of legitimate public concern even when (and perhaps especially when) doing so may bring them into conflict with their own university management.  Academic leadership requires academic integrity and the exercise of judgment, not blind obedience to authority on the model of Leninist party discipline.  What is of concern here is not simply Professor Buckingham’s firing, but the attempted “gag” orders on deans discussing the university’s plans with colleagues, students or the public–that is to say, the main “stakeholders” involved–that he courageously defied.  I would urge other FRSCs to condemn the University of Saskatchewan’s action in the strongest possible terms.  Unfortunately I do not believe such administrative high-handedness or threats to academic freedom are confined to Canada or the University of Saskatchewan. Please publicize as widely as possible.

Originally posted on Arts Squared:

When I first saw the letter below circulating on Twitter as of mid-day, seemingly issued on the letterhead of the office of the Provost and VP Academic at the University of Saskatchewan and signed by the current occupant of those positions, Brett Fairbairn, I paused for a moment to question whether it was real. Could any Provost or VP Academic in Canada truly believe that s/he can charge a colleague with “egregious conduct and insubordination” for his or her expression of concern about decisions being taken by administrators at his or her institution, and issue the kind of summary judgment to which this letter speaks?

USask Provost Letter to Dr. Buckingham 14May14The presumption of this letter and the decision taken by the University of Saskatchewan’s Provost and VP Academic is that members of the administration of a public university in Canada are not members of a collegium responsible to the public, but rather members of a secretive corporate elite that is free to require…

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Clay Ellis: Weaners, Culls and Divvies

I have known Clay Ellis for years.  Clay and his wife Michelle are what I miss most about living in Alberta.  Their hospitality, their generosity, their grace.  His work, somewhere in a zone of his own between painting, sculpture, and video, abstract and concrete, conceptual and figurative art, conjures up a sense of time and a spirit of place like little else I know.  We have had many drunken conversations about Picasso, country music and the meaning of it all over the years, and I look forward to many more.  He is one of Canada’s greatest living artists.  These are some shots from his most recent exhibition at the stunning new Art Gallery of Grande Prairie.  

The text is from the gallery website.  The photographs were taken by Rob Ganzeveld.

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Clay Ellis: Weaners, Culls and Divvies

January 17, 2014 – April 6, 2014

Art Gallery of Grande Prairie (Alberta, Canada)

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Born and raised on a ranch in Southern Alberta, Clay Ellis explores his connection with the landscape, referring to images, the temperament and gestures of his past.

“I think that the focus behind this exhibition is equal parts of reflecting on the experiences of growing up on the ranch, considering the reality of no longer being a part of it, and pondering what the land means to the individuals that currently live on the property.”

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The transformation of the ranch itself, from homestead to ranching company, marked by the restructuring of out-buildings, the parceling of land, and the move towards automation, has happened in only a few generations.

For most operations, it is no longer necessary or practical to house a workforce, a shift that replaced hired hands and displaced extraneous family members. Usable tack turned to relic, and family members became guests to a property that had once been their home.

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It is from the perspective of guest that Ellis makes his observations. While the works are informed by the changing perspectives of land use and ranching practices from one generation to the next, it has been his yearly visits over a 45 year period that have allowed him to see changes to the landscape that may escape those embedded in the rigors of the day to day.

Ellis neither condones nor prescribes ideology but rather suggests that to assess change we must first see it.

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“Art has much more important things to do than change the world”–Clay Ellis, in one of those aforementioned conversations.


Talking Czech surrealism, chlebíčky with the author of Prague: Capital of the Twentieth Century

I am very pleased to see that a recent interview I did with Lisette Allen for the Prague-based English-language website Expats.cz on my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century has now been published.  Anybody interested in how I got into Czech history in the first place, where I would go if I had just one day to spend in Prague, and such, can find the full interview (along with some nice images) here.

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