UK HE: Markets Are Good for Everyone – Except Academics….


Doesthe huge transfer fee paid so Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. can move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain give any ideas as how to deal with itchy-footed vice chancellors?

It seems that markets are good for higher education in England. The government is anxious to encourage new entrants to compete with established universities. Students are to be encouraged to behave more like consumers with new metrics, data sets and rights to sue for failure to deliver the desired upper second. Vice chancellors need to be well paid because that’s the market rate for running a corporation of the size and complexity of a university. But none of this applies to academics. They must be prevented at all costs from moving to further their careers, to get salaries that reflect their value or to escape dysfunctional managements.

Lord Stern’s review of the REF proposed to affix a ball and chain by decreeing that outputs should be credited to the institution where they were produced – should not be portable in the jargon – in order to clamp down on the transfer market. Academics could no longer make themselves available to the highest or most favored bidder as the REF census date approached. The good – and no doubt well-remunerated – Lord sneered at this as ‘rent-seeking behavior.’ As I pointed out in a previous blog post, this suggests that, for all his social eminence, his Lordship does not have a very good gasp of the fundamentals of his discipline. Moral disapproval of this kind is not supposed to enter into economists’ analyses of the impersonal workings of the market. If you have a talent that the market values, you are entitled to the rewards that flow from that, especially the talent is scarce.

We may be morally appalled by the transfer fee paid by Paris St Germain’s owners for Neymar but we cannot deny his right to earn it in recognition of his unique abilities. An established or rising star academic may not command the same rewards but they represent a similarly limited resource. There is no particular reason why universities should not use the same contractual devices as major sports teams if they do have retention issues, with agreements not to move for a specified period in exchange for loyalty payments. ECRs might be dealt with in a similar fashion to academy players, with the original university being compensated for their investments. Vice chancellors may not like it, according to David Sweeney’s HEFCE blog post, but surely sauce for the geese is also sauce for the ganders – and the goslings.

Instead we see a fall back on the direction of labor – for at least as long as HEFCE and its agents are players in the system. The REF rules must be structured in such a way as to bolster central planning and constrain mobility. David Sweeney declares HEFCE’s continuing commitment to the implementation of the Stern model, where the non-portability of outputs will suppress the transfer market and tie academics to their institutions for all but a brief period in every REF cycle. But, like St Augustine’s prayer for chastity, not just yet. For the present cycle, there will be one last glorious fudge: either both institutions will receive credit or a transfer deadline will be set at some point prior to the REF census date.

Who knows, in fact, whether the HEFCE model will survive the transition to Research England or what the English university system will look like at some point in the late 2020s if the REF wheel creaks round again. This proposal reinforces the worst aspects of the current fashion for command and control management in UK universities. That approach is fatal to innovation. Innovators are unruly and difficult to manage precisely because their work disrupts existing rules, conventions and assumptions. If UK universities start to select staff for deference and compliance with performance management, they must expect to decline, whatever rhetorical hyperbole is produced by politicians and system leaders. The prospect of Brexit is bad enough but the Stern proposals inevitably compound the growing unattractiveness of working in England. Who wants a career where there are no pressures to counter bullying managements and where organizations try to get talent on the cheap?

By its nature the UK HE and science policy community is not well placed to comment on the deficiencies of a central planning model to which many of its members are committed, or to which they owe their employment. The REF is not all bad. It has squeezed a lot of indolence and free-riding out of the academic profession. It has also encouraged a market where universities have been forced to raise their game in staff development and salary competition. These have provided an ecological check on the worst management abuses and protected some spaces for innovation. Markets work for academics too.

We have rubbed the magic lamp and found a friendly genie. Lord Stern and HEFCE want to stuff him back in the bottle in order to unleash an evil djinn. They should be opposed.


Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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