Canada and the Anglo World—the Brexit Edition

Mother, stepmother, perfidious Albion—whatever metaphor one prefers to employ, Britain has always been important to Canada. But what is Canada to Britain? It depends on whom you ask.

This post originally appeared on Open Canada.

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The Marking Boycott And Its Aftermath

Justice League Super Hero Strike

In the face of a UK higher education marking boycott due to start in 11 days time, universities have come forth with a new pay offer. Having unilaterally imposed a 1% rise (read: real terms cut) for 2013/14, they are now proposing 2% for 2014/15, with a small bonus for those on the lowest band to bring them up to a living wage level (at Sussex, that’s an increase on the existing annual pay of £13,621). A consultative ballot is open to union members, and the boycott is delayed. It seems likely that there will be appetite for the deal, given the general tone of despondency and how drained staff are by repeated small scale actions and by mounting work pressures. There had, after all, been doubts that a boycott could compete with aggressive tactics from management (including threats to deduct full pay from anyone who participated in the boycott).

We might be emboldened by this concession from UCEA (the employers’ association). It shows, as more ‘militant’ elements had predicted, that greater returns would be achieved with the threat of a marking boycott than with all the 2-hour and single day strikes put together.[1] A first offer, before the boycott has even begun. Could we not win more than these peanuts (only just a real terms increase, following five cuts in a row, going by Consumer Price Index)?

Sort of.

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Open Access: Time for Action

This is the last in our recent series of posts this week on open access. Pablo covered the big questions and rationales for open access; Colin explored the potential consequences of the current policy direction; David raised serious questions about its fit for social sciences; Nivi highlighted the implications for early career academics and Nathan extended the discussion to the broader problems of academic precarity.


What do we do now? I will not labour over diagnostic points made eloquently and at length elsewhere on this blog (and also in the comments sections). In part, because there just isn’t time. At least in the UK, right now, we are facing a critical juncture where open access policy is being solidified by the Finch ‘Implementation Groups’, and solidified in the wrong direction. Indeed, there is a Academy of Social Sciences Conference in London on 29th and 30th November on the implementation of OA policy, which will likely further reinforce the direction of travel laid out by the Finch Report. Dame Janet Finch is the keynote on the first day, and the second day is ‘aimed at’ publishers, learned societies and their representatives. I am also somewhat concerned at the speed of travel on this, which suggests that Government have not taken the time to seriously reflect on it, and that most wider academic ‘stakeholders’ are being left behind on discussions and decisions which seriously affect all of our futures.

Briefly, though, my concerns around an endorsement of Article Processing Charges mirror questions raised by Colin. Having said that, I am rather more certain/pessimistic than him that these pose a very substantial threat to academic freedom and the overall integrity of the journal system. I am also concerned that they will increase the costs of research without increasing its quality, and waste a lot of academic time as Universities and Departments try to administer them (as will have to happen for most Arts/Humanities/Social Science research which is not funded by grant-money). Finally, I am highly disappointed that nowhere does the Finch Report seriously reflect on possible Government action to further protect copyright over the Version of Record.

So, what is to be done?  Continue reading

Open Access Publishing: Potential Unintended Consequences of the Finch Proposals

The second in our series on open access in IR and social science (first post here, third here, fourth here, fifth here, sixth here), this time from Colin Wight. Colin is a Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney (having previously been based at Aberystwyth) and is also Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Relations. His work has primarily been in the philosophy of social science (and particularly critical and scientific realism) as applied to IR, and he is currently writing on terrorism, violence and the state. He is the author of Agents, Structures and International Relations Theory: Politics as Ontology and very many articles, including ‘MetaCampbell: The Epistemological Problematics of Perspectivism’‘The Agent-Structure Problem and Institutional Racism’ and ‘A Manifesto for Scientific Realism in IR: Assuming the Can-Opener Won’t Work!’.


The recommendations of Dame Janet Finch in relation to ‘open access’ (OA), seem to represent the first steps in what looks to be an inexorable trend towards a major reform of academic publishing. The OA movement has been gathering momentum and the academic boycott of major Dutch publisher Elsevier, was simply the latest in a series of initiatives aimed at forcing governments, academics and publishers to rethink, not only how research outputs are handled, but also how they are funded.

That the UK Education Secretary, David Willetts, moved so quickly to implementation after the publication of the Finch report, suggests that advocates of OA were knocking at an open door. Most academics are in favour of OA. It makes sense. After all, why should government funded research not be publically available and why should commercial publishers be allowed to fill the coffers of their shareholders on the back of taxpayer funded research?

As a journal editor, I’m also aware of the slow pace of the publishing world in terms of getting pieces to the point of publication after submission. Most journal editors do what they can to speed this process up, but does the publishing system itself, structurally imped the swift publication of research, and if so will OA help speed up this process?

I too am a strong supporter of OA, but the Finch proposals do not deal with all the issues and may, in fact, create more problems than they solve. The swift move to implement the Finch proposals leaves means that there has been a surprising lack of debate between governments, academics and publishers over the potential consequences.

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‘You, Decorous Bureaucrats Of Angelic Leagues’: A Brief Review of ‘I Melt The Glass With My Forehead’ (2012)

I’ve just seen Martin McQuillan and Joanna Callaghan‘s ‘I Melt The Glass With My Forehead’: A Film About £9,000 Tuition Fees, How We Got Them, and What To Do About It.[1] It does pretty much what it says on the tin, charting the issues talking-heads style. Readers not already deeply involved in the UK higher education system and its various problems will find it particularly enlightening, and the parade of would-be-Ministers making promises soon to be broken is worth the anger-energy alone.

Two things struck me. The first was LSE Public Policy Professor Nick Barr, who, despite making a lonely case for some of the fee changes, nevertheless foregrounded a few crucial issues. Most obviously neglected by higher education activists, there’s the importance of pre-university education, which remains much more important in determining entry, ‘success’ and social mobility than any fee/loan/tax increase. Moreover, as we’ve seen before, there’s the uncomfortable truth that the Browne proposals were more redistributive than the old system, although the Government’s decision to cap fees removed this potential. Linking these dimensions is the fundamental tension of contemporary higher education, which is of matching mass participation with high quality. On Barr’s account, this cannot happen from general taxation alone without something giving. Of course, this only remains a challenge of public policy under certain comparatively narrow parameters, and, as Howard Hotson reminds us, the system being ‘reformed’ for its own good was actually the best in the world when viewed as the combination of overall quality and parity across institutions (and if you haven’t yet read Hotson on the Ivy League, do).

Second, and relatedly, the focus of our reflections seems already to have congealed around fees, and fees alone. Even on the narrow topic of student finances, the question of living costs is almost totally absent. A few voices from another age mention it, but there seems no place in our moral calculus for considering the differential between those who must support themselves and those who have the supporting done for them. But there’s also something evidently arbitrary in discussing fees without a whisper about the REF, or the impact agenda, or the generalised role of the university as a producer of public goods (and I don’t just mean Ancient Norse) in an age of austere retrenchment. Notwithstanding the manifold critiques of Browne and Willetts (charlatanism being primary among them, at least for McQuillan and Callaghan), all this misses the critical perspective provided by Andrew McGettigan, placing the fees SNAFU within a wider ecology of political economy and long-term transformation. We learn just this week of the next stage of this process at London Met, where all in-house admin is being offered for private bidding and where 229 ‘posts’ (read: jobs) are to be abolished across seven faculties (this coming after the closure of 70% of undergraduate courses).

This all matters because the public discussion of the future university is increasing, even amidst our wholesale crisis of economy. In typical academic style, it’s coming too late for the bait-and-switch, but if the renewal of energy around the idea of a public university is to mean anything, it cannot be a mere retreat. Barr’s argument that teaching grant must be restored in the next Parliament seems both commonsensical and strangely unimaginable, but there are other stagnant pits of the old to avoid alongside the risks of the new.


[1] The title is borrowed from a banner at an anti-fees demo, quoting a 1915 poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky mentioned by Dan Hancox in the film. I borrowed ‘You, Decorous Bureaucrats Of Angelic Leagues’ from the same place. It seemed somehow more appropriate.

The AHRC Writes Back (Kind Of)

Today the Arts & Humanities Research Council responded to yesterday’s piece in The Observer claiming that the government had readjusted the rules (specifically The Haldane Principle) to increase their control over the direction of research in the UK within the state’s ‘national priorities’. Shorter version: the Tories didn’t pressure us, we’re completely independent and the funding to ‘The Big Society’ is coincedental.

Iain Pears is on the case. As he notes, it’s simply not convincing that the approved language suddenly appeared in the relevant documents unconnected with the political agenda of the governing party. The pressure may have been implicit, and the relationship might have been more informal and complicit than hierarchical, but the consequences for research are much the same.

But the AHRC not only wants to defend itself from these specific charges but also to maintain the legitimacy of the government setting overall priorities. Once again, the exact mechanics are expected to be taken on trust. Indeed, in 2009 a Commons Select Committee (Innovation,  Universities, Science and Skills, since you asked) addressed this exact point. While agreeing ‘in theory’ that the government had a role in setting overarching strategy, the relevant MPs (hardly a selection of Parliamentary rebels) put their collective figure on the aspects of policy that still concern us most:

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The Meaning of David Willetts: The Future University Between State & Market

One of the principle battle-cries of the education movement has been that the coalition’s plans amount to a privatisation of the university system. This conclusion is arrived at by a focus on the withdrawal of teaching funding and the increased role given to ‘good relations’ with the private sector. These criticisms stand, but they repeat a common misunderstanding of the neo-liberal project as merely removing the state (call it the laissez-faire fallacy), rather than reorientating the state in a particular way to benefit certain sections and classes of society. The government is obviously complicit in promoting such tropes, which reinforce its narrative of supporting the grassroots and entrepreneurs and civil society and volunteers and champagne and candy for everyone. Hence their frankly playgroup standards of messaging. The Big Society is yellow and smiley-face! The Big Government is red and angry-sad-face!

But we now learn that the government has settled on a rather interventionist approach to all the lovely knowledge we are tasked to produce. ‘Two-minds’ Willetts has decided that the Arts & Humanities Research Council will be allowed to distribute £100 million in research monies each year, but only on condition that it accepts a ‘revision’ of the Haldane Principle (“that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review”) and so spends a ‘significant’ amount of that money on research into the Big Society. Under the new ‘understanding’, the government continues to ‘value’ and ‘recognise’ the importance of academic independence, but wishes only to propose the merest of commonsensical adjustments:

At the other end of the spectrum there are decisions that ultimately must be for Ministers, albeit informed by external advice; these include the overall size of the funding for science and research and its distribution between the Research Councils, the National Academies and Higher Education research funding. In addition, every Government will have some key national strategic priorities such as addressing the challenges of an ageing population, energy supply or climate change. The research base has an important role to play in addressing such priorities and the Research Councils, with the support of independent advice, have proposed research programmes to tackle them. It is also appropriate for Ministers to ask Research Councils to consider how best they can contribute to these priorities, without crowding out other areas of their missions. But it is for the Research Councils to decide on the specific projects and people to fund within these priorities, free from Ministerial interference. Similarly, Ministers have a legitimate role in decisions that involve long term and large scale commitments of national significance.

The overall mood is civil-service vague, but elements of the language are importantly precise. Continue reading