A Theory of (British) University Business Cycles

Put simply, the theory of political business cycles goes like this: in the run up to elections, governments increase public spending or/and lower interest rates (if they can control them) in order to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment. They supply voters with more goods or cheap credit as a way to make them happy so that they will re-elect them. After the elections, however, governments have to implement drastic austerity to pay for all the goodies they supplied to voters, or increase interest rates to slow down inflation triggered by cheap credit. As a whole, political business cycles can lead to phases of booms and busts, and reduce certainty for investors in a way that is ultimately damageable for the economy. This idea was one of the reasons that led central banks to become independent in most countries. By taking away monetary tools away from governments, one could make sure that they couldn’t use them for electoral purposes.

The evidence for the actual existence of political business cycles is at best mixed. However, the overall reasoning can be useful to understand the cycles that – some – British universities go through in the context of the Research Excellence Framework, the giant bureaucratic exercise set up by the government to assess its universities and allocate funds based on research quality. Essentially, the REF can fulfill the same function as elections in the theory of political business cycles, leading to cycles of boom and bust that are ultimately damageable for research and teaching. Universities in the last REF cycle were assessed based on their research output in the 5 year period before the 31st of December 2013. While universities have spent massively in research in the run-up to the last REF, many of them are now downsizing or refocusing strongly on teaching in the direct aftermath of the period of evaluation. In a very stylized way, the REF business cycle would look a little bit like this:

The Pre-REF spending boom

The motto is “research, research, research”. Universities spend significant resources on research and new hires with established track records of publications, partly by “poaching” star researchers who carried out research funded by other institutions. Part of this expansion, however, consists in fixed-term or precarious contracts that can be disposed of after the REF deadline. This touches both research and teaching. As to research, the Times Higher documents a 63% increase in 0.2 FTE (full time equivalent) contracts in the year that preceded the REF, allowing universities to submit the publications of these short-term hires in their REF submission. Universities may have offered such positions to hitherto retired academics or academics based abroad (who are not submitted to the REF by their university) as “visiting” or “research professors” as a way to buy their publications. But this also concerned increasing spending in teaching staff on irregular contracts (teaching assistants; teaching fellows) in order to free universities’ core workforce from part of their teaching duties (seminars of marking) to increase their research output. As a result, student evaluations that are so central to league tables and student enrollments suffer, as students are taught mostly by casual or junior staff. Casual or junior staff are often better and more dedicated teachers, but students may want to actually interact with the renowned researchers at their universities.

The post-REF austerity

The motto is “teaching teaching teaching”. Once the REF is over, universities re-focus on teaching as their main source of revenue, especially since it seems that there will be much less money to be distributed than anticipated after BIS blew its budget. The fixed-term teaching and research “industrial reserve army” is disposed of and teaching duties are reallocated to the core academic workforce, who is asked to teach more and mark more. Marina Warner, who resigned from the University of Essex in 2014, reports being enthusiastically encouraged to take part in the jury of the Man Booker prize in the pre-REF phase focused on “impact”, and then being told that she’d eventually have to take unpaid leave in the post-REF phase, where the things that were so praised a few months before were being flushed down the drain. However, much of the new focus on teaching does not translate in more teaching staff, but rather in increased investment in facilities and services. My own university, once the REF was over, set about to carry out a vast downsizing of its school of biomedical sciences and medicine to invest in new buildings. Emblematically, what was a cosy senior common room reserved for staff on the second floor of the King’s building has now been converted into an “informal learning space” for students. This is partly related to the format of the student surveys that have become so central as a way to assess and rank the quality of teaching: a large share of the questions in the survey actually deal with the “service” dimension (staff was accessible; timetable worked; IT resources were appropriate) rather than the actual content of courses. In line with the idea that “unleashing the forces of consumerism is the best single way we’ve got of restoring high academic standards”, student surveys are essentially like consumer surveys. What is assessed is the service that is provided rather than the quality of the content. It is a bit like writing a book or movie review where you’d give equal weight to the solidity of the cover or the comfort of the seats in the cinema as to the actual story being told.

One thought on “A Theory of (British) University Business Cycles

  1. Lee Jones

    Interesting, and it obviously captures something of the subjective experience over the last couple of years, but this is flawed. For most universities, including most in the Russell Group, “QR” income from the REF is a tiny proportion of total income. Student fees are always more important. Of course one may argue that research rankings influence student enrollment, but (a) whether that is true (rather than just something managers believe) is open to question and (b) if you are pursuing REF scores to get student bums on seats, the binary division here makes no sense, because one pursues “research, research, research” to fuel the income from “teaching, teaching, teaching”. A second limitation of your model is that there has not been a post-REF spending freeze in all universities. In fact there has been a recruitment blitz, at least in my field (politics/ IR). This is because many good universities are exploiting the lifting of the cap on student numbers to expand their market share and capture more fees income. Your model doesn’t capture this because it ignores the new fees regime as a driver of university behaviour. Third, the binary research/teaching time periods proposes a temporal allocation of resources: in researching, staff time is pushed towards research, adjuncts do teaching, student enrollment suffers, so staff are then redirected towards teaching. This misses three things. First, the push for so many universities to prove they are “research intensive” means there is a permanent trade-off with teaching, such that the role of adjuncts is now structurally entrenched and rising – it does not vary with the “business cycle”. Second, assuming that students rationally quit institutions where they cannot be taught by top researchers is wrong – just look at the LSE, where permanent academics (in my field) do not teach any undergraduate seminars, NSS scores are persistently bad, but people still enroll to get the corporate LSE seal of approval on their CVs. Third, insofar as staff are pushed to increase student satisfaction and teaching income, this does not occur through the redirection of their efforts from research to teaching; rather, staff are expected to do this *on top of* their existing 3* or 4* research, i.e. it involves the intensification of the exploitation of academic labour, not its redirection. For me this was a significant missed opportunity when the Willetts reforms came along; we ought to have responded that, fine, we can spend more time and resources on students, but that means we can spend less time on research and administration. Instead we are left spending more time on everything. The “cycle” is really just a cycle for senior managers and research administrators, who cascade their stress and anxiety onto others; most academics are engaged constantly (and increasingly) with both research and teaching.

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