An Uncertain World

Credit Ratings

In an uncertain world, one thing you can rely on is WonkHE’s Monday summary of HE policy impacts. As per many commentators it’s not pretty reading… UK Universities need to dig deep to hang on to our hard won reputation for excellence; and face up to new realities with optimism and self-confidence.

Here’s what WonkHE has to say:

Economic fallout widens

“We have now had over a week to assess at least a small portion of the effect that Brexit will have on universities and the wider country. Past the initial market shock, the underlying economic impact is beginning to be projected. Brexiteers have pointed to the revival of the FTSE to pre-referendum levels as a sign that all will be well, but more thorough analyses suggest a less rosy picture.”

“The Economist Intelligence Unit projects that investment will decline by 8% and consumption by 3% in the next year, leading to an overall GDP contraction of 1% in 2017. More generous forecasters still believe that economic growth will stall at or around 0.2% in 2017. Either scenario will lead to a decline in tax revenues and an increase in government borrowing, torpedoing the government’s hopes to continue cutting the deficit and run a surplus by 2020/21. It was therefore not much of a surprise to see George Osborne and several Conservative leadership candidates announce that the UK’s previous fiscal targets will be abandoned. If the government continued at its present rate of spending cuts, it would fail to make a dent in overall borrowing.”

“Monetary policy will also have to adjust. The Economist forecasts the pound will continue to fall and level-off at $1.24, a 16% reduction from pre-referendum levels. Mark Carney announced on Thursday that the Bank of England’s response to all this would be a cut, rather than a hike, in interest rates. This will come as some relief to borrowers, including universities, but the Bank is fast running out of stimulus levers. Debt is about to become very cheap. Government bond yields are also falling sharply despite the UK’s downgraded credit rating as volatility and the likely rate cut make fixed-return assets appealing. The Bank and other forecasters appear confident that inflation will not spike despite the massive fall in the value of the pound.”

“All this will have a major impact on universities. A revision of fiscal policy by a new chancellor will spark a review of the size and shape of the student loan book, research grant funding, and staffing levels at BIS and its associated agencies. If the new Chancellor wishes to keep the promises made by the Vote Leave campaign, the SMF estimate they would need to find an extra £25.8 billion to cover commitments to the NHS, cutting VAT on fuel, and maintaining agricultural subsidies and research spending. Only £14 billion will be saved from the end of the UK’s EU contributions. It is more likely that some of these commitments will be rowed back, which should make research funding a top priority for sector lobbyists, who will have to argue why they should be seen as more important than motorists, farmers and the regions.”

“The government wasn’t alone in having its credit rating downgraded last week. The ratings agency Moody’s downgraded six universities’ status as a result of the “potential loss of EU funding for research as well as any immigration curbs affecting student demand and staffing” and said that the ratings followed that of the central government because of the close financial links between the government and universities. They are De Montfort, Cardiff, Keele, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. However, the University of Cambridge retained its Aaa rating for the time being as a result of its “extraordinarily strong market position, higher revenue diversification, significant liquid assets, strong governance structure and low debt levels.”

“In Whitehall, BIS has had one of the worst deals of any department from previous rounds of cuts but will now become a key player in Brexit negotiations. Were spending on the NHS and schools to continue to be protected, BIS and the Treasury might find themselves with some very difficult budget decisions indeed. The UK currently has only 40 trade negotiators compared to the EU’s 550. Employing more will eat into resources required for other government business, perhaps including higher education reform.”

“Philanthropy may also be negatively affected although fundraising from overseas donors could see a boost as their money will go further due to the weak pound. The further volatility in the equity markets and low gilt returns may also negatively impact on the sector’s pension schemes.”

“We are about to undergo a comprehensive economic and fiscal realignment, and it’s difficult to predict how the pieces could settle. Old rules may not apply.”

“Beyond the economy, universities are beginning to get a sense of the real impact of Brexit for research, collaboration and student recruitment. Jo Johnson attempted to calm nerves with a speech to the Wellcome Trust on Thursday, arguing that “it is business as usual for Horizon 2020” and that he is “in close touch with Commissioner [Carlos] Moedas on these issues”. But leading sector figures are far less optimistic. Sir Paul Nurse has pleaded with the government to preserve free movement of labour to maintain research collaboration. As with so many things, doing so will depend on the terms of negotiation with the EU, which might not even start for months or years. In the meantime, uncertainty reigns.”

Re-Blog: Peacock or perish? Prestige and gender in academia

An excellent blog to mark #internationalwomensday

Women dominate higher education studies, enrolling in higher numbers at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Men and women are equally represented at lecturer level, but thereafter things start to get worse: women hold only one-third of senior lecturer and senior manager positions, a quarter of professorships and less than a fifth of VC jobs.

Why do women succeed in higher education—but only to a certain point? To explore this situation, we interviewed 30 mid-career academic women at universities in London, a project funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

What we found was prestige was key to promotions at the mid-career stage, and women felt that men accumulated prestige more easily and were more visible—and louder—in portraying it.

Communicating success

Academics have been marketised—you now have to sell yourself, your ‘brand’ and your work. Many women academics struggled with communicating their successes. To some it seemed like a game, others were too busy with students and teaching duties, while many felt it was not in their nature. The last point was particularly true for women from backgrounds where female modesty is praised and expected—in our study this included women with a Catholic upbringing, East Asian heritage and from working class families.

Women felt men were on a constant PR exercise: “Hi how are you?” “I’m great, just got a £50K grant and two papers published”.


The confidence in self-promotion extended to going for promotion. Women felt men were more comfortable putting themselves forward for jobs, and fine with an ‘aspirational’ CV. The women we interviewed felt they should wait until they met all of the criteria for a post, and often expected their boss or head of department to put them forward for promotion. On a job application, one woman was given the advice: ‘don’t be too feminine about it’, referring to women’s habit of under-selling achievements.

If women did get the next job up the ladder, they rarely negotiated a higher salary or other perks, such as a reduced teaching load or research support. If they did not get the job, it felt like a personal attack and judgement. Women noticed when the same happened to men, they treated it like an injustice and were more likely to appeal.

Getting the job done

When it comes to doing the job, the same pattern continues. Women wrote research bids specifying precisely what could be achieved, whereas they felt men were more comfortable promising the moon, sun and stars, and delivering less. Within the institution, women felt that men prioritised their own research, and the women were left the bulk of the teaching, administrative and support roles. As prestige follows research, the men accrued more at the expense of others in the department.

We noticed a gendered ‘exchange rate’ of prestige, with more accruing more and less accruing less. A few prestige marks, such as sitting on high-profile panels, giving keynote speeches, holding editorial positions, leads to more and more. Conversely, investing time in teaching, being readily available to students and doing the grunt jobs to run a department lead to more of the same.

One woman, simultaneously building a strong international research career and burdened with childcare responsibilities, was told to turn up to more departmental drinks events and meetings to build her ‘local reputation’. This is key for getting plum roles and recommendations, but often happens outside of the 9-5. The ‘schmoosing’ and ‘PR games’ were also important as many large grants are by invitation to tender—you have to be known to able to get ahead.

What is valued

Women were not victims of the prestige cycle, rather many felt they prioritised what they felt was important—doing high-quality respectable research, supporting PhD students and junior staff and ensuring a functioning department. What they felt was skewed was what the institution valued—the bragging, the gloss and shine over substance. They also noted not all males succeeded either, particularly those who did not fit the loud, proud stereotype.

Rather than enter a gendered arms race for self-promotion, women academics felt that a greater valuing of the collective work done in a department and within the institution was needed. Acknowledging that managing large teaching programmes, running research labs and supporting students all had benefits for the institution—and rewarding those involved—would help balance things out. Greater recognition of all the work of the academic role, not only the high-profile peaks, in hiring and promotions is needed.

On an individual level, mentors and managers play a key role in supporting, nudging and pushing women academics to advance. One woman was coached by her mentor into saying ‘I’m going to be a prof’, which she felt would become a self-fulling prophecy. Although not all were comfortable with it, many felt social media offered new ways to share work and connect with others to build a profile. Some felt new modes of communication continued to promote those who shouted the loudest, or tweeted the most.

But for International Women’s Week, do a favour—share an article, tweet a link, post a blog, if not of your own work than that of another. Get out and celebrate the great women out there.

In support of International Women’s Day, Wonkhe is posting a series of blogs from 7-11th March to explore the issue of women in wonkery. Find them here

Hefty letter for HEFCE

 Rosetta Stone

According to the ever excellent WonkHE this morning, last week’s BIS letter to HEFCE ‘revives the art of letter writing.’ 

At 42 paragraphs, it was the longest grant letter since 2003. But good to see these three things:

  • HEFCE asked to protect, in real terms, the total amount of funding for STEM and other high cost subjects.
  • HEFCE asked to target Student Opportunity funding more effectively to support participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • HEFCE asked to take responsibility for the second year of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) towards a single coherent system for quality assessment and teaching excellence.

Three good things for UK HE, in my humble opinion.