Good for Business

Ross McKibbin

In January last year a directive from John Denham, secretary of state in what was then the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, announced that research funding for universities was going to be rethought.[*] The new system should ‘continue to incentivise research excellence’ and reward ‘the quality of researchers’ contribution to public policy-making and to public engagement’. It shouldn’t create ‘disincentives to researchers moving between academia and the private sector’, as by implication the present system does. In September the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) produced its plan, The Research Excellence Framework: Second Consultation on the Assessment and Funding of Research, a document written in a bureaucratic vocabulary that reflects little credit on those who commissioned it or those who wrote it. That this vocabulary is now dominant is no excuse: it’s also the language of the response to the proposals by Universities UK, an organisation whose membership consists of the heads of every British university. The proposals have been widely discussed and some of them widely criticised, but much of their point and many of their failings have been missed.

According to the Hefce document, the new Research Excellence Framework (REF) will have three elements. First, ‘Outputs’ (research is invariably termed an ‘output’ unless it is an ‘outcome’ or a ‘unit of assessment’): ‘The primary focus of the REF will be to identify excellent research … This will be assessed through a process of expert review, informed by citation information in subjects [science, medicine] where robust data are available.’ Second, ‘Impact’: ‘Significant additional recognition will be given where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life. Impacts will be assessed through a case-study approach that will be tested in a pilot exercise.’ Third, ‘Environment’: ‘The REF will take account of the quality of the research environment in supporting a continuing flow of excellent research and its effective dissemination and application.’

Hefce will use these three criteria to rate university departments on a five-point scale and funding will be given according to a department’s position on the scale. A department chooses which members of staff should submit work for assessment. It tells us, in a good example of Hefce-speak, what it expects from a ‘submitted unit’: ‘An excellent submitted unit’ will be characterised by the ‘production of a portfolio of high-quality, original and rigorous research, including work which is world-leading in moving the discipline forward, innovative work pursuing new lines of inquiry, and activity effectively building on this to achieve impact beyond the discipline, benefiting the economy or society’. There should be an ‘effective sharing’ of ‘research findings with a range of audiences’. The unit should build ‘effectively on excellent research through a range of activity leading to benefits to the economy and society, including engagement with a range of stakeholders in developing and conducting its research and applying findings’. It should be conducted in a ‘high-quality, forward-looking research environment conducive to a continuing flow of excellent research and to its effective dissemination and application’. And it should make ‘significant contributions to the sustainability and vitality of the research base’. Accordingly, Hefce suggests that 60 per cent of a department’s rating should be based on the intrinsic merit of its ‘output’, 25 per cent on its ‘impact’ and 15 per cent on the quality of the research environment from which it emerges and which it should encourage.

Hefce and the government insist they continue to support ‘curiosity’-driven research and recognise that not all excellent research has an immediate ‘impact’ on either the economy or our quality of life, but the document doesn’t back up this claim. Assessment of research will be, as it is now, based on peer review – to be renamed ‘expert’ assessment – but the freedom of the experts to make judgments will be severely circumscribed. A ‘menu of indicators’ will be drawn up by Hefce; there will also be ‘generic templates’, still to be refined. And then there is ‘impact’. Although ‘only’ 25 per cent of the final rating will be derived from this, it is the tail that wags the dog. That a department’s rating will be so dependent on a measure that is so sketchily thought out can only be alarming. The assessment of impact will be made by panels the ‘majority’ of whose members will come from the ‘user community’: the people the enterprising researcher must find and persuade to make use of her output. Although Hefce says it understands that the fruits of research might take ten or 15 years to ripen, it adds that the impact of any research ‘must have become evident’ within the period covered by the REF – presumably four years, like its predecessor, the Research Assessment Exercise. The REF is apparently intended to do away with the manipulation which disfigured the RAE and made some of its findings questionable. But the ‘impact’ provision is so misconceived that it will make manipulation and distortion a characteristic of the system.

There is everything wrong with Hefce’s notion of impact. It is clear that for those who wrote this document, science is something begun and finished by Friday, or at worst Friday week. The researcher, if she wants to please Hefce, first has to find a user and persuade him that what she has to offer is in his economic interest. It isn’t enough for the outputter to wait for a user to come to her: the researcher must suggest the link. ‘We do not envisage,’ the Hefce document says, ‘that a unit could claim credit for impact which was based on research undertaken in the unit but which was exploited or applied through the efforts of others.’ As a model of the way science progresses, it is a parody. For those in the humanities the position is even worse. It is perfectly fair to argue that research in the humanities should, so far as possible, be made widely available, and in the end it usually is. But the way it is made available is usually very indirect. Historical series on television usually – though perhaps not often enough – draw on work done by someone other than the producer. Without that someone, there would be no series at all. The document suggests that government advisory panels, or institutions dealing with public policy, might give shelter to an arts outputter seeking a user. But how can such activity be measured? And how does the would-be public intellectual – as every academic must become – find a user? She could offer herself to the government, but the number of advisory panels, royal commissions and so on is limited. She could write for a journal like the Times Educational Supplement or the London Review of Books. But do they constitute user communities in Hefce’s terms? Probably not. And if the would-be public intellectual is critical of government penal policy (which is more than likely), would the Home Office be a friendly user? Probably not. She might try to contribute to ‘culture’ but the document, not surprisingly, gives no examples of what this might involve.

In any case, all of this is camouflage. What Hefce (or its political master) really wants is to encourage ‘research mobility’ between universities and the private sector, with scant regard, it seems, for the teaching functions of higher education. Here, for once, the document is quite clear. Universities are to be subordinated to the perceived needs of ‘business’ and the private sector is to colonise the universities. These proposals are the latest, and the most thoroughgoing, in a long line of reforms that go back to Keith Joseph. What has typified all these reforms is that the universities have been treated as the only variable. ‘Business’ and its needs are simply a given. It is the universities that have let the side down; they, not business, must change. The document doesn’t use the term ‘ivory tower’, but it does say the universities must in future look more to ‘real-world’ problems – as if the universities deal with anything other than ‘real-world’ problems. This analysis of the relationship between the universities and the economy is flawed in at least two ways, the first of which must surely be apparent even to Hefce or Lord Mandelson. Hefce’s proposals are aimed at increasing Britain’s international economic competitiveness. But what is the country’s most competitive industry in international terms? Answer: the universities, which are cheap, efficient, have high intellectual standards, high standards of teaching and ‘research outputs’ exceeded only in the United States. In other contexts the government is happy to admit all this.

The second flaw is that these proposals are entirely unhistorical. You would never guess from reading them that the relationship between Britain’s educational system and its economic performance has been much debated for at least the last 130 years, driven originally by the economic and technical progress of Germany and the United States in the late 19th century. Even if Hefce has made a mess of the answer, how far the educational system should be designed to promote economic success is a perfectly legitimate question. In the late 19th century the problem seemed to be the lack of technical education of the workforce – as compared with, say, Germany – and the apparent unwillingness of British management to respond to scientific advances as the Germans had. (That Dreadnought had to be armoured with Krupps steel was a particular cause of angst.) As well as the inadequacies of technical education, the universities were too few in number and too narrow intellectually. The Victorians and Edwardians probably exaggerated the failings of British management and education, however, and it is doubtful whether university ‘research’ played a significant part in economic progress or ‘business’, even in Germany. Certainly Harvard didn’t drive the American economy; or Berlin University the German. And few would have expected them to.

As the university and tertiary system expanded in Britain, the new institutions often had close ties to local industry and to some extent acted as feeders, offering courses and degrees appropriate to their hinterlands: Sheffield in metallurgy, Leeds in chemistry. They often had a research relationship with local industry, usually of a practical kind. Some civic universities, like Birmingham University, were designed as ‘business’ universities, explicitly opposed to the Oxford and Cambridge model. These local relationships, however, tended to decay, partly because the universities themselves increasingly became national institutions, detached from their localities, but more because of the decline, especially in the second half of the 20th century, of Britain’s manufacturing industry. The universities may have played some part in this decline; but a greater part was played by Britain’s business culture. It is a curiosity of this document – and of the attitudes of successive British governments – that the relationship between business and the universities is thought to be one-way. But what if business isn’t interested in the universities’ research? The culture of much of the manufacturing sector was (and is) philistine: averse to innovation, to investment, to outsiders. The British motor industry was notorious for its refusal to employ university graduates, as was the shipbuilding industry. It was this culture Keynes had in mind when he joked at the end of the Second World War that the best thing the US air force could do for Britain, the Luftwaffe being no longer up to it, would be to bomb the factories of the North of England at lunchtime, when only the directors were inside. Universities cannot force business to make use of research. Nor can the government. (If legislation were passed requiring every public limited company to have at least one academic on its board of directors we might think the government was seriously interested in the relationship between business and the universities.) Furthermore, it ill becomes a government that, like its predecessor, has connived at, indeed encouraged, the decay of manufacturing while favouring banking and finance to complain that the universities have in some way let business down.

Despite what Hefce seems to suggest, the relationship between the universities and what survives of British industry is close. And, again despite what it suggests, there aren’t any obvious disincentives to ‘research mobility’ between the universities and the private sector. Experience indicates the reverse. Pharmaceuticals, advanced electronics, high-precision engineering, the defence industries: all of these fields are heavily dependent on the universities and their lavishly equipped science parks, not least in Oxford and Cambridge. Many universities now have huge research incomes from the private sector. I would guess that with the exception of the United States no other national university system has more involvement with business than the British, and I very much doubt that there is much untapped business money left. Since Hefce provides no serious examples of how humanities departments might increase the ‘impact’ of their members’ research, the conclusion must be that universities do all that can legitimately be expected of them.

Why then has Hefce proposed a funding arrangement which can only be destructive? In part, its proposals are the result of an attempt to establish tighter political control of the universities, in much the same way as virtually all legislation since 1979 on primary and secondary education has aimed at establishing tighter political control of the school system – mainly by distancing schools from local education authorities. The government claims it wants to enable ‘diversity’ and ‘choice’ in schools, but there is no real choice at all. You can put whatever school you want at the top of your list, but that doesn’t mean your child will get a place there. Hefce insists that its proposals are designed to be flexible, but it’s pretty clear that the ‘menu of indicators’ and ‘generic templates’ are not designed to encourage flexibility. Indeed, one has a strong sense of a bureaucratic machine running out of control.

Such coherence as these proposals have comes from New Labour’s belief in the superiority of business and the private sector over the public. But the proposals are also the product of a social democracy which still has some social democratic aspirations while rejecting its traditional techniques – especially any serious redistribution of income. Thus the universities are under constant pressure to reduce the number of students they take from independent schools, though the government has no idea how this might be done legally and certainly has no plans to enforce quotas, which would appear to be the only solution. Among the impacts Hefce deems desirable is the more or less social democratic one of ‘quality of life’. The government is inflicting on schools and universities the burden of meeting social democratic targets it is not prepared to do anything about itself. One of the best examples of this is an almost absurd piece of legislation now meandering through Parliament which through a formal contract would ‘guarantee’ to parents of children in state schools that their children will receive as desirable a form of education as the government can imagine. The government will not do anything materially or politically to achieve this: it will merely instruct the schools to do it. There are cynics who suggest that the bill is simply intended to embarrass an incoming Conservative government. If so, it will serve Labour right if it wins the next election and has to live with it. Meanwhile, David Willetts, the shadow minister for universities and skills, has said that the Conservatives will delay the REF ‘by up to two years to establish whether a sound and widely accepted measure of impact exists’.

It is no accident that since 1979 there have been as many education bills and funding proposals as there have been criminal justice and immigration bills. In the same period there have been – depending how you count them – 13 secretaries of state for education. Few of them have had much interest in education and even fewer have had any knowledge of it. They have averaged little more than two years in the job. For most of them the legislation they promoted was designed to demonstrate that they were ‘on message’ and fit for promotion. Sometimes legislation drafted by different departments clashes. In its struggle against terrorism and ‘illegal’ migration the Home Office has been making it increasingly difficult for students outside the EU to get entry visas. (The latest turn of the screw was announced a few days ago.) Thus at the moment when public funding of the universities is to be heavily cut, when Hefce is demanding that the universities find research funding from a private sector pot that is almost empty, the home secretary, laying down his ideological marker, is making it even harder for the universities to make up the shortfall from the (very large) fees paid by non-EU overseas students.

This melancholy story has a more general implication. Britain now has a ministerial elite who have largely divorced the art of politics from the art of government. All politicians, of course, have to practise the art of politics, but at some point, the needs of government, which are usually long-term and based on accumulated knowledge, have to override the needs of politics, which are usually short-term and based on anything but accumulated knowledge. It has been characteristic of British political life in the last 30 years, not least under New Labour, that the art of politics has vanquished the art of government. MPs who wish to become ministers are obliged to repeat what they do not believe (or perhaps they do not know or care what they believe), and they have been taught that that is what politics is about. In the case of education, though not education alone, such behaviour has produced a political vacuum filled by ill-considered and often mutually incompatible pieces of legislation. Unfortunately, while our constitutional and electoral apparatus remains as it is, there is no reason to suppose this will change.

[*] The universities are now in the safe hands of Peter Mandelson at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – we’ve been warned.