|Alex: Well, it’s been a big year, hasn’t it? The UK has had three prime ministers, five secretaries of state for education, and I think three ministers for higher education. Did you actually get anything done this year as a country or did everyone just spend their time briefing up new ministers?
David: I did personally spend a lot of time in newspaper archives looking up exciting facts about this latest clutch of ministers every single time…. it’s been the same political party. So, it’s been broadly speaking, the same kinds of people pushing the same kinds of policies. Even though at the top we’ve seen a large number of massive convulsions and there’s been a lot of speculation, especially as we’ll get to about international students and that kind of thing. In practice, the direction of travel has been the same.
Alex: So, what are the key elements of that direction? What’s the overriding agenda of a conservative government in its 13th year of office?
Jim: The macro level is really [that] the current agenda is spend as much as needs to be spent to get through the energy crisis that is currently hitting Europe in general and the UK very specifically. That means that no government department has got any money to spend, even if it wanted to spend anything. So, to the extent to which there’s a government agenda, it’s all that sort of stuff that doesn’t cost any money. So, things like, for example, in higher education, the culture war continue to be something the government is pursuing because there’s no money around other than to spend on getting people to have their heating on for an hour a day.
Alex: The government has a free speech bill in parliament right now, what’s that all about? Are there many differences between the conversations of free speech on UK campuses and US campuses?
Sunday: I don’t think that they’re significantly different. I think you see a lot of the same sort of characters and commentators popping up on both sides. This has been going on for easily 50 years. For example, it’s called a culture war at the moment, but like previously you would’ve been calling it political correctness, right? …Now, the issue that happens is with the freedom of speech bill is they’re trying to look at issues around free speech. So, things like guest speakers, student events, student union events, and that sort of thing. But they’re also looking at academic freedom…[and] obviously that person’s employment rights come into it as well. So, it becomes a bit of a complex issue because there’s all these sorts of different issues at play…The legislation is claiming to be able to solve these, at WonkHE as editors we’re all bit more skeptical of that.
Alex: Let me ask you about one other thing: in some people’s views, it would be part of the culture wars is a whole issue of immigration and how international students have been caught in that discussion. I can’t put it more bluntly than this: why is your government so hostile to international students? Is this going to continue?
Jim Dickinson: A massive issue in [Brexit] was immigration and the winning side kind of promised to control immigration in a way that the predecessor governments kind of hadn’t. Last week’s kind of economic figures show we’ve now got a million vacancies in the economy… most people are putting down to the fact that we can’t get free movement or cheap labor from the rest of Europe… and one of the things that, that therefore means is that even though probably somewhere deep in the treasury, people are thinking it’s actually not unhelpful for there to be a significant number of international students who might in the end up on a kind of skilled migration route to fill some of those vacancies. They can’t say it out loud because what politicians have to say out loud is, “no, no, no, no, no, we must control the number of immigrants.” … We’ve got this massive student accommodation crisis for students from the biggest growth country, which is Nigeria, and again, no one wants to talk about that in the sector because they worry that that it will encourage the government to clamp down on the number of international students. So, you’ve got this inability to have a sensible conversation about immigration that makes it really difficult then to talk about nuances or numbers or markets or regulation or basically anything.
Alex: One of the things that the UK is most famous for in the world of higher education is an incredibly heavy-handed way of looking at research. The Research Excellence Framework (REF)is a fascinating way to think about quality and measure quality of research, but it does certainly take a lot of time to produce. So why do you keep doing, especially if the results haven’t changed much on each exercise. What was different about this REF if anything, did you learn something new about the sector?
David: Every six or seven years we as a nation get together a sample of the kinds of research outputs that are coming out at universities in particular subject areas. These are reviewed by academic peers. We don’t use citation metrics, we don’t look at journal impact factors, nothing like that. It is literally old school academics looking at academic work and seeing what they make of it. These ratings are primarily used to direct what’s called quality related research funding. So, in this year’s REF, the REF 2021, we made some big methodological changes. The consensus was building that the REF was particularly subject to gameplay. It used to be that you only submitted research from a certain proportion of staff and everybody would choose the absolute best staff they could get. The changes were that every single academic that’s had any responsibility for research had a piece of their work assessed, a part of that subject area in that institution. So, I think what’s fascinating with the REF is even though we changed the methodology, we saw a similar result, which suggests to me that the REF is a reasonably good way of understanding whatever it is that the REF measures.
Alex: to wrap up, what’s the UK higher education story of the year?
Sunday: I think for me it’s the Suella Braverman coming out swinging against international students. Not just because of that in itself, but… all the conversations that it’s initiated since… The sector had a reasonable, but… disappointing response because the main sort of cacophony of voices was that, “well, international students bring billions of pounds into the economy and therefore we should carry on inviting them here.” But actually, internationalization of our campuses brings a lot more than just income… I thought there was a lot of benefits that were missed out of that conversation. We haven’t quite yet learned how to articulate how good it is to have an internationally diverse campus and I hope that in 2023 we can learn to articulate that.
Jim: We’ve moved from pandemic to a massive cost of living crisis and literally every other group of people in society have had some financial support except students. And in fact, the only thing the Westminster government has done for students is relatively quietly change the terms and conditions of the student loans they took out. So, they’ll end up paying more back across the course of their lifetime. At some point when the conservatives find it really difficult to get back into power because they’ve neglected young people, this is one of the years that people will be quoting as the source of really, really long-term dissatisfaction.
David: Obviously not as like earth-shattering as either of those two, which probably would both have been my choices, but I’ll come up with something else: The Quality Assurance Agency, the independent academic led body that assures the quality and standards of higher education in England, literally walked away from its role because it and was unable to work with our regulator at the Office of Students and continue to meet the standards expected of it as an international quality assurance agency. The fact that we have moved so far from international norms in thinking about the quality of higher education and the fact that absolutely nobody has talked about this or incredibly few people have talked about this. I think that is another one that will stick in my mind.