Tories to chain university research even more tightly to business

Science for people not profitBy Ben Towse, UCL, NCAFC Postgrad Co-Rep

Universities minister Jo Johnson announced plans this month to develop a “Knowledge Exchange Framework”, to measure and incentivise universities’ commercialisation of research in England.

Johnson says he wants universities to do more to ensure that their knowledge and research is being put to use in the wider world. But of course, he’s thinking of a narrow set of social applications. Subversive or radical work that seeks to critically examine the powers-that-be, to transform the society we live in, to give a voice to the voiceless and to equip us with the understanding and the intellectual tools to dismantle capitalism and oppression, is hardly going to be at the top of the Tories’ agenda.

Serving capital

Instead the KEF will focus on ranking institutions, and rationing funding, according to how closely they serve private business. That means conducting research programmes under contract for businesses (who direct the research and own its product), offering paid consultancy services, and spinning out new discoveries and inventions for sale to the highest bidder.

Johnson can spout rhetoric about serving society, but what he wants is for universities to serve the needs of one small layer of society: the capitalist class. The KEF follows in the footsteps of the recently-introduced Teaching Excellence Framework, which demands that universities churn out graduates trained and prepared to generate more profit for their future employers, and the longer-standing Research Excellence Framework, which has already ramped up its weighting of research “impact” in such a way as to deprioritise “blue-sky” research and bring commercial interests to the fore.

Dictating priorities

What will be the impacts on universities and research?

First, it will obviously be easier for institutions with a stronger focus on science and technology to compete in these rankings, than those prioritising the arts and humanities.

But we should also worry about the sciences. The drive for business-friendly research outputs favours particular areas of scientific research over others, and it favours particular ways of applying discoveries in the wider world. For instance, rationing funding according to what research can be easily and rapidly commercialised might support the development of new building materials, but it is less likely to value uncovering the mysteries of the big bang.

“Knowledge transfer”: people or profit?

Finally, even in fields where business is keen to see advances, we have to ask – is commercialisation the best way to ensure that knowledge developed in academia is transferred to the real world to improve lives and improve society?

Johnson cites an example of “knowledge exchange” he wants our universities to emulate: Remicade, a medicine discovered at New York University in the 1990s. This one drug earned NYU more in one year than all UK universities made together.

Remicade is one of a class of modern medicines that mimic natural antibodies – the complex molecules used by the body’s immune system to target disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites  – and it is used to treat a number of disorders like Crohn’s disease and types of arthritis. Like most such breakthroughs invented by researchers in non-profit universities, this drug was sold off to the private sector. It is now manufactured and sold by two pharmaceutical giants: Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) in the US and Merck in Europe.

In 2013, it accounted for about 10% of JNJ’s revenues. That’s not surprising, because the treatment costs £12,500 per year. Patients in the US face hundreds of dollars a month in excess charges on top of their insurance (and that’s if the insurance company will sign off on it: some penny-pinching providers are shunting patients to older drugs with worse side-effects). In the UK, before Remicade’s European patent finally expired, it was the NHS’s fifth costliest drug, with nearly £200m per year going into Merck’s pocket for it. On top of all this, now that expiring patents mean two decades of monopoly are over, JNJ has been accused of dirty tricks trying to squash competitors selling “biosimilar” drugs mimicking Remicade.

Artificial antibody drugs like Remicade are an example of incredible human ingenuity that can change lives. But as long as the means to produce and distribute such medicines on a large scale rest in private hands, the only way for public and non-profit research institutions to translate their discoveries into wider-world benefit is selling them to those for-profit businesses, which ration and limit access to the product, and charge extortionate costs, in order to turn a profit.

Jo Johnson wants us to believe that the only way we can benefit from scientific advances is by going further down this route and whipping universities harder to gear themselves to the desires of capitalists.

Instead, we should be talking about taking those capitalists’ businesses, and the vital infrastructure like pharmaceutical factories that they jealously guard, into collective ownership and democratic control. No longer would public health services (or individuals struggling with health insurance bills) have to hand over millions to big pharma for medical treatments that could only have been produced with knowledge developed in public and non-profit institutions. Instead, science could genuinely serve society, not shareholders.

Next steps

The immediate task facing us is to stop the roll-out of the KEF. A crucial force will be the precarious early career research workers for whom this will mean yet more fetters and hoops to jump through in an already highly-pressured workplace.

Beyond this, we need to set our sights on a socialist alternative. We should be raising the call within Labour and elsewhere for big pharma and similar industries that leech off public research to be nationalised, and for them and research institutions like universities to be placed under the control of their workers, students and the communities they ought to be serving.

The “Teaching Excellence Framework”: exploiting staff, raising fees and marketising education

Tory Minister for Universities & Science, Jo Johnson

Tory Minister for Universities & Science, Jo Johnson

James Elliott, NUS NEC Disabled Students’ Rep & NCAFC Disabled co-rep

Usually when governments say that something, whether students, quality, or access is ‘at the heart of the system’, that is when the student movement needs to pay close attention. Recent statements by the new Universities Minister Jo Johnson and the 2015 budget from George Osborne have confirmed this – we are not ‘at the heart of the system’, but capital definitely is.

Following in the footsteps of David Willetts’ Higher Education White Paper “students at the heart of the system”, new Tory Universities Minister Jo Johnson has announced “teaching at the heart of the system” – which seems to mean a further round of teaching casualisation, institutional funding linked directly to graduate earnings, and even higher tuition fees.

What Jo Johnson proposed is to introduce a new ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF) to parallel the ‘Research Excellence Framework’, which uses a set of metrics to rank universities every five years and award them funding based on the results. This will include ‘outcome-focused’ metrics, and Johnson’s original speech included the phrase, “clear financial and reputational incentives to make ‘good’ teaching even better.”

Johnson was asked by the London South Bank Vice-Chancellor if this was to be “linked to pricing of courses”, which he evaded and refused to rule out. In the Commons, Johnson was asked by Labour MPs, including the former Blairite President of NUS Wes Streeting, to rule out a fee rise and refused. Then this week, in his budget, George Osborne announced fees would be able to rise in line with inflation at institutions with measures that, “include allowing institutions offering high teaching quality to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, with a consultation on the mechanisms to do this.”

What does this ‘TEF’ mean?

The Times Higher Education’s John Morgan has analysed what this might mean, predicting that once the Conservatives have passed “English Votes for English Laws”, they may be in a better position to get a rise in fees for English universities through Parliament, and then those that do well in the TEF may be allowed to raise fees.

This will be set out in an autumn Green Paper, usually a precursor to legislation – and an Act of Parliament could be a sign that the TEF will be linked to a fee hike, or at least a variation in the cap. I explained how this might work for NCAFC this week.

The TEF has ramifications beyond just tuition fees, however, and is another logical step in the marketisation of higher education. The ‘outcome-focused’ metrics are likely to measure things such as graduate salaries which clearly have nothing to do with the quality of one’s education. This will hugely disfavour teaching staff who train students who go into low-paid public sector work, like becoming the next generation of casualised academic workers. It will also fail to take into account that people with higher-earning parents will go into higher-paying graduate jobs, not necessarily through good teaching but through personal contacts or early advantages in life.

What is the Research Excellence Framework, and what is wrong with it?

The Teaching Excellence Framework follows in the footsteps of the Research Excellence Framework. Described by Peter Scott, Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education, as “a Minotaur that must be appeased by bloody sacrifices”, where, “universities’ main objective is to achieve better REF grades, not to produce excellent science and scholarship”. The REF is the governments method of allocating research funding to institutions. For 2014, 1,100 academics graded 191,232 research outputs submitted to REF, where sometimes just one assessor will grade your research. The system is erratic, and unpredictable, and could see departments closing from a loss in funding. In one half-joking Guardian piece advising academics how to do well in the REF, they are told, “Don’t write a book or extended monograph: the REF makes no distinction between research outputs, so there is no incentive to undertake long-term projects. Also don’t bother with risky, visionary or imaginative projects unless you can be absolutely certain that you will get a publication out of it. No publication means no impact.”

Sound like the sort of thing that university teaching could do with? No, us neither.

What did Jo Johnson actually say?

Let’s take a closer look at what Johnson actually said. He claimed his focus will be on three key manifesto pledges, which are lifting the cap on student numbers, delivering the TEF, and finally, “driving value for money both for students investing in their education, and taxpayers underwriting the system”. Johnson says he plans to, “assess the employment and earnings returns to education by matching Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Department for Education (DfE) education data with HMRC employment and income data and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefits data.”

This will likely mean that the outcome-focused metrics are all about graduate earnings and employment. A ‘good teacher’ is no longer someone who enriches your understanding of a subject, or enhances your critical thinking, they are now a glorified careers service – and their success will be measured by your paycheque.

Johnson also talked up the National Student Survey (NSS), a continued irritant for education workers who are pitted against one another in a quantitative survey. These kinds of metrics hurt workers in education, facilitating their exploitation, as quality of education is not something that can be polled, quantitatively measured or bottled up and weighed. These bogus metrics are then used to justify redundancies, funding cuts, and drive workers to striver harder and harder to ‘outperform’ their colleagues, fostering antipathy and a competitive spirit among staff that divides them.

What is particularly damaging is the repeated references to the Competitive Markets Authority, and polls conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute, which seem to indicate students are increasingly thinking of themselves as consumers buying a product – and that their teachers must be graded on their ‘customer service’.

Unsurprisingly for such an ardent Thatcherite, Johnson notes, “competition will also be central to our efforts to drive up standards”, a continuation of a policy which has seen almost half of academics pressured into giving higher grades and struggle with unmanageable workloads.

While paying lip service to the notion that, “education is about more than just wage returns”, Johnson went quickly back on course by reminding students that, “it is also important to remember that higher lifetime graduate earnings provide benefits to society – including higher tax revenues and faster and fuller repayment of student loans.” Johnson has redefined ‘education as a public good’ to mean ‘work hard for the bosses and pay off your debts’.

There are further references to making sure higher education matches the needs of big business, including the very explicit statement that, “we are not yet rising to the challenge of ensuring that enough young people are choosing courses where there are skills shortages and strong employer demand”. While this technocratic, business-led approach to higher education is not dissimilar from what Labour were offering before the general election, Johnson may outline in more detail what this means in his Autumn Green Paper.

Then comes the final explanation of what his ‘TEF’ will look like. In a mission to “drive up standards in teaching”, Johnson will, “stimulate a diverse HE market and provide students with the information they need to judge teaching quality”. This explicit marketisation will give students indicators of which course suits them best, to be provided by his TEF. In neoclassical market economics, ‘pricing signals’, are required to indicate a product’s worth. Demand goes up, so does the price. Given this (unexpectedly, and probably deliberately) failed in higher education with so many institutions charging £9,000 straightaway, there is of course nothing to differentiate between – except for things the government wouldn’t imagine we would value, such as the course content, who’s teaching, the location and any number of other, non-monetary factors. Part of Johnson’s justification for the ‘TEF’ thus appears to be that it will help you, as future students, pick your course. Kind of like a Which? for HE, but where the poor performers face job cuts and closures.

Reassuringly and honestly, Johnson finishes by reminding us that this TEF, “goes with the grain of our reforms since 2010 and aims to accelerate positive changes already underway in the sector.”

Most worryingly, Johnson then talks about ‘incentives’, and says that they will be published in the Green paper in the autumn. What better way to make potential applicants aware of what the best institutions are than by allowing those universities to ‘price’ themselves somewhere above the current £9,000 cap? And what better way to reward such ‘teaching excellence’ than to allow those (likely already very rich) institutions to bring in more cash though higher fees? It’s a win-win for the bosses, and a lose-lose for students who pay more and the staff who are pressurised.

What are the politics behind this?

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which universities sits under, is in financial trouble. They have to make the same austerity commitments as other departments, and in 2010 that meant replacing all the lost funding from central government (the grant for humanities teaching was all but abolished) by trebling fees. Higher fees, and the move by almost all universities to charge the maximum, has meant that huge amounts of public money are having to be loaned out to an increasing number of students – 45% of which is expected to not get paid back. This has created a huge strain, and led to the move to sell-off student loans.

BIS are now being asked to find another £450m of cuts from somewhere, hence Osborne’s cuts to maintenance grants, and making universities rather than the state responsible for Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) from 2016/17.

Now in order to provide some relief to the Vice-Chancellors and the sector, Johnson is throwing them the promise of some extra cash (in the form of higher fees) if they jump through the hoops in his new TEF. If institutions offer the right courses for business (in other words, fund science at the expense of the humanities), and students play ball by looking to pay off their enormous debts, then everyone at the institution will win the reward of a tuition fee hike.

How does the student movement fight back?

We need to start fighting now against the potential threats, not wait until the government explains things in more detail, by which time it will be too late. This has always been a failure of the student movement and often the NUS, in playing the waiting game and merely ‘consulting’, when it should be protesting and picketing. We need to get the word out quickly that this is bad news, and defeat the Green Paper before it is even published. That means mobilisation, linking students’ unions up with UCU branches, and building for the national demonstration in November.

We must present our alternative which is democratic control of teaching, in the interests of students, communities but also teachers and workers themselves. When the government consult, we must simply tell them they are wrong as loudly as possible, not try and get a seat at the table.

There may well be attempts to integrate students’ unions and the NUS into the process of drawing up this system, and running it, in order to give a sheen of legitimacy and make ‘students as consumers’ feel ‘empowered’ by the TEF, like we are finally getting our ‘value for money’ by reviewing our teachers. We should be totally opposed to this.  The fundamental basis of these policies is anathema to us – they can’t be fixed so they must be smashed – and the stance of the student movement should be no collaboration. Just as UCU is advising its branches to not comply with the Islamophobic Prevent programme (which is also the Conference policy of the NUS), our SUs should not contribute to the implementation or governance of this system except to say it should be stopped outright, that we reject markets in education, and that we will not be tricked into thinking these policies empower students.

“Students and workers, unite and fight” is not just a slogan, but a principle. The government that is going to raise our fees and cut our grants is not only the same that is cutting staff pay and introducing metrics to discipline the workforce – but these policies are inextricably linked. We must fight them both, together.