Stolen Time

Liam Shaw

‘An Election Entertainment’ by William Hogarth, the first of the four paintings that make up ‘The Humours of an Election’ (1755), held by the Soane Museum.

In Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment, depicting the 1754 Oxfordshire by-election, a placard lies on the floor: ‘Give us our Eleven Days’. The slogan refers to the adoption of the Calendar (New Style) Act, which caused eleven days in September 1752 to be removed from the calendar. The idea that there were actual riots over the erasure bobs up like a historical beachball no matter how often it is punctured. It’s all too easy to imagine people taking to the streets in outrage at the bureaucratic theft of time.

UK universities were invited to begin their submissions to REF2021 in February 2020. Less than a month later, the chaos of Covid-19 meant the process was put on hold. It seemed almost possible it might be cancelled altogether. But as with Euro 2020, scrapping it was never a serious option. It was simply deferred to the following year without changing its name – which could be read as a sign that the bureaucratic fiction matters more than reality.

The universities touting their ‘world leading’ credentials don’t mention that huge cuts to the main pension scheme for UK universities came into effect last month. Or that pay disparities persist – for women, for disabled staff and for BME workers. Or that workloads have climbed as pay has declined, and the sector is built on casualised labour. (As an ‘early career’ academic on a temporary contract, at least I don’t have to sacrifice much time to the REF: all I have to do is remember to upload my papers to an additional repository. The heavy bureaucratic lifting is done by senior academics and administrators, who devote hours to preparing submissions.) This year has already seen industrial action by the University and College Union UCU at more than sixty universities. Further action is being discussed. None of this context is captured by the REF.

Supporters of the REF argue that it is both a fair condition for the receipt of public money and an essential tool for determining where funding goes in the future. To its detractors, it demonstrates all the worst features of higher education: the boiling down of its activities to metrics that seem designed to convey as little information as possible, which are then used to justify policies driven by market forces.

An internal email from my department last week urged us not to compare ourselves ‘to any other department in any communications’. Yet one of the three explicit purposes of REF is to ‘inform the selective allocation of funding’. The façade of collegiality is maintained only in public. Universities don’t maintain departments that don’t deliver the right metrics. There were 28 fewer submissions to the ‘arts and humanities’ section of the REF than seven years ago.

The REF’s predecessor was the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), instigated by the Thatcher government in 1986. The same approach is now applied to other aspects of higher education: we also have the Teaching (TEF) and Knowledge (KEF) Excellence Frameworks. These aren’t just paper exercises – reality bends around them in response. In 2014, universities were able to pick and choose which staff they submitted to REF. This time they had to submit everyone with ‘research’ or ‘teaching and research’ contracts, which probably contributed to a rise in ‘teaching only’ contracts.

Almost a third of UK academics are now employed on such contracts, despite many universities being signatories of the Magna Charta Universitatum of 1988 which states that ‘teaching and research in universities must be inseparable’. Teaching itself has changed focus. Analysis of 2017 TEF submissions concluded that success – a ‘gold’ ranking – was associated with such concerns as ‘employment’ and ‘employability’.

In theory, academics are in charge of their time. In practice, administrative work with a deadline always trumps open-ended research. Demonstrating that something is ‘excellent’ requires time –time that might otherwise be spent doing‘excellent’ things. And yet, even as more time is expended on efforts to measure excellence, there can be no reduction in the amount of excellence that is expected.

Academics may complain about stolen time, but they always make sure to fill in the forms. The late David Graeber often told a story from the time of the student fees protests in 2010. He had tried to persuade colleagues to cause disruption by refusing to fill in forms that were ‘obviously meaningless’: ‘People stared at me as if I were insane. What, not fill out the form? You have to fill out the forms! Otherwise, someone will suffer. It’s never quite clear who.’


  • 17 May 2022 at 5:52pm
    Phil Edwards says:

    "If you see a document about ‘excellence’ or ‘quality,’ just ignore it, don’t fill it out, I said. People stared at me as if I were insane. What, not fill out the form? You have to fill out the forms!", etc

    Not for the first time, I've no idea what Graeber was talking about. I've been in HE since 2010 (and not in any exalted role), and - while I wouldn't swear that I've never completed a survey for work - I'd be hard put to remember the last one. The only data-entry I've carried out on anything like a regular basis is entering student grades and feedback.

    It's not hard to fill the day without bullshit, though; teaching and assessment are extraordinarily time- and energy-consuming, for a start. Once they're out of the way, I find there's an odd sort of trade-off between research/reading, free time, ambition and "good citizenship" (taking on voluntary roles etc); essentially you can perm any two from four. (Which makes life particularly difficult for anyone whose (ambitious) pursuit of research grant funding is successful, as they're expected to do the said research and to look for the next grant.)

    Is any of it "bullshit"? Maybe some, but I think that would be the wron target. At least in my experience, the main problem is simply that student numbers have ballooned, teaching/research staff numbers have crept up or stayed static, and admin support has gone from slim to negligible. No wonder there's never enough time.

  • 18 May 2022 at 9:43am
    XopherO says:
    The RAE was farcical, so it had to be replaced with something equally farcical. It distorts the whole of HE and generates loads of pretty meaningless research, where researchers scratch each others backs in papers to to gain citations for the indexes - indeed some clever sociologists once demonstrated this by publishing a sequence of 'fake' journals. Even more ludicrous is the idea that doing RE-search, not re-SEARCH as it was in my day, contributes to good teaching. A moment's reflection dismisses this idea as any research covers a very narrow portion of a field, whereas a good teacher needs to range widely and stay up-to-date in developments not just in but over the edges of the subject, but also to understand how to communicate and develop understanding not just 'knowledge'. This is also my experience being taught by incompetent lecturers, not just unable to communicate but actually bored by the whole process because it interfered with their research, to the point where many universities use inexperienced postgrads to teach first year students, even second, so the staff have more time to do RE-search. Of course with the sudden need to expand online teaching and learning, lecturers pedagogic skills were and are severely tested to destruction. No wonder students feel so short changed, but sadly in many cases they would not have a better experience with more face-to face, though it might seem better. OK there is some good practice, but no nearly enough. And of course the spivs of UUK wouldn't know what good teaching and learning, or significant research is, or how to promote it, if they spent their lives trying to find out.

    • 18 May 2022 at 4:58pm
      Rory Allen says: @ XopherO
      The teaching/research question is an old one, but no less interesting for that. Can I offer one personal anecdote. I was lucky enough to be taught at uni by John Conway, one of the greatest mathematicians of his generation. His course, on mathematical logic, was probably the best by a long way of that year. So you can combine first class research with first class teaching: it is possible, but perhaps not common.

    • 18 May 2022 at 9:27pm
      XopherO says: @ Rory Allen
      I had the same revelatory experience with one or two brilliant researchers/teachers, but as you say, it is not common. The problem is that not only is it not common but most of the time totally dull and uninspiring with no proper preparation, connection to to other perspectives or thought about how to communicate to the uninitiated or to prior learning. Given the fees, it is nothing but theft, in which UUK and successive governments are complicit!

    • 25 May 2022 at 8:47pm
      Vicky Brandt says: @ XopherO
      I'd say that being able to "range widely and stay up-to-date in developments not just in but over the edges of the subject, but also to understand how to communicate and develop understanding not just 'knowledge'" is precisely what makes a great teacher AND a great researcher, speaking from experience in the biomedical sciences. Not that the researcher doesn't need depth and focus, but the ability to communicate understanding to a broad audience is what enables some researchers to regularly inhabit the pages of the Cell, Science, Nature and the like. Moreover, acquiring both depth and breadth takes years, even for the most talented: a strong argument for letting faculty get on with their academic pursuits instead of bogging them down in misguided efforts to quantify the unquantifiable.