Monthly Archives: March 2022

Where do viscounts come from, Mummy?

Being on strike, again, I have time to write. This post has a silly title but a serious question, as became clear to me late in 2018 when, at that point still working on the book of Borrell II, I decided that I needed to know more about the viscounts of Narbonne into whose family his elder niece, with whom he may have grown up, married.1 Looking for work on them turned up a fairly recent essay volume edited by Hélène Débax, who knows a thing or two about viscounts, and with grim determination I realised I’d have to read all of it, a luxury or necessity that modern-day academia rarely allows me.2 By the look of my Zotero files, that took place over October 2018 to January 2019 – because yes, by then I needed four months to read a book on work time – and revealed several things to me. For one, I’d assumed that pretty much everywhere had viscounts, while being aware that they basically don’t occur in England; but actually, the vicecomital dignity or office was pretty constrained in both space and time, in the former being largely confined to the peripheral areas of what became the kingdom of France, including most of the Midi, and in the latter to the ninth to twelfth centuries. Both of these things mean that the viscount is, like many things, a Carolingian and post-Carolingian phenomenon. But this is one of the ways in which Catalonia and its northern-neighbouring territories were Carolingian and its western neighbours were not. That is, however, not to say that Catalan viscounts were like other viscounts, and that’s where the stub for this post came from.

Cover of H&eacutelène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l'Occident médiéval (Toulouse 2008)

The book and the colloquium that Débax put it together from both wisely distinguished viscounts and viscounties, “vicomtes et vicomtés”, the kind of distinction I use to point out to monolingual and xenophobic students why accents count as spelling. Not everywhere had both viscounts and viscounties; several sets of viscounts existed without developing an associated territory, either because their tenures were too discontinuous or because they worked under the shadows of counts, one or two places had viscounties from earlier on which were later run by other people who didn’t use the title, and several places developed viscounts first and then they developed viscounties later.3 Catalonia, interestingly, had viscounts from really quite early, albeit perhaps not continuously, and the eventually established families mostly did get themselves viscounties but these were almost always located outside their official jurisdictions, which remained counties with counts (apart from Conflent, which we’ve already discussed and is weird).4 So Catalonia may not exactly have fitted the pattern, but Débax and colleagues thought they had a pattern, albeit one not universal and open to variation. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any of them except Henri Dolset, speaking for my patch alongside the already-discussed Élisabeth Bille, there is a different pattern in use in the Catalan scholarship to explain the emergence of these major nobles. And then there’s me. So it seems meet to set up the two competing patterns in the scholarship first and then comment with what I can bring to the question.

So what is the ‘vicomtes et vicomtés’ pattern? For Débax herself and most of her contributors, viscounts were a symptom of comital weakness. They popped up where there were no active counts, taking over unattended jurisdictions, and some of them effectively became counts under a lesser name, with no superior officers between them and a very distant king. This was what happened at Narbonne, where I started, and at Castillon in the Dordogne among other places.5. Some viscounts who set up in such a fashion even managed to become counts, by obscure processes in most cases; we see this at Millau, whose viscounts managed to inherit the comital dignity of Rouergue, and in la Marche, where there had never been a county as far as we know until the viscounts managed to upgrade.6 Even viscounts who had a count to whom they were notionally subordinate often managed to achieve quasi-independence in parts of their territories, unaffected for the most part by their relations with their bosses at bosses’ courts; such were the viscounts of Trencavel whom Débax has made her own, Auvergne, Thouars and Marseille in its third round of vicecomitogenesis, as well as in Béarn with some special conditions.7 A strong count, however, didn’t let this happen in his core territories (best shown in these studies by the viscounts of Tursan, just too close to the biggest counts in the south at Toulouse) and even where it had, once in the general revival of civil government in twelth-century France the counts were powerful enough again, they put a stop to it (as at Bruniquel, Marsan and indeed eventually Narbonne).8 This often followed on an equally-revived Church mobilising the force of Gregorian reform to push these upstart officers out of the Church properties and revenues which were often a major prop to their standing.9 Nonetheless, it was not a universal that wherever the counts couldn’t assert themselves, viscounts sprang up; some noble families occupied what was far as we can see were positions just as powerful (and some northern viscounts, especially, were not major players in their areas) and never took such a title, prime examples in the south being the Castelnau of Cahors.10 So there remains something unusual about the title which the pattern developed in these studies doesn’t overall explain.

Map of the Catalan counties c.950, by Philip Judge and Jonathan Jarrett

Map of the Catalan counties c. 950, by Philip Judge and myself. We’ve not seen this for a while, have we? But now it helps. Of these counties, Empúries and Roussillon were usually both ruled by one count, Barcelona, Girona and Osona by another (though only after 898), Urgell by a third and Besalú, and Cerdanya by a fourth family, usually providing plural counts. Pallars and Ribagorça started with one count for both and finished up with several for each. The rest of the areas never had named counts, but did sometimes have viscounts, most obviously Conflent. But so did the counties with counts!

The Catalan scholarship that I know best on these matters kind of comes at the question of origins from the other direction, which the more voluminous but also locally-specific evidence from the area partly explains, but not as much as the good old feudal transformation narrative does.11 Under that rubric, of course, we’re supposed to move from a fully-functional public system via a period of upheaval to an exploitative one of private jurisdiction which everyone’s happy to call ‘feudal’ that is slowly brought under control by the powers-that-were over the eleventh or twelfth centuries but which remains the new basis for power till the Age of Revolutions. Accordingly, the Catalan scholarship points at ninth-century viscounts who appear sporadically, but sometimes with counts, as being the public system working and the viscounts as official delegates of the counts, and mostly argues this for the tenth-century ones as well, though as we’ve seen I have my doubts.12 The delegation was necessary because there were more counties than counts: a count of Barcelona, Girona and Osona couldn’t be everywhere at once, so someone had to hold the fort or forts while he was elsewhere. This idea is echoed in the Débax volume in a few places, for Rouergue before the Millau swallowed it, for example, but in general they have too many viscounties springing up out of nowhere for the idea of delegation to look normal.13

That suits me fine, because I’ve never liked the delegation argument, which goes back to Ramon d’Abadal but wasn’t up to his usual standard of analysis.14 In the first place, the plurality of comital holdings really doesn’t reach back to the ninth century, when one county per count was much more normal, but there were viscounts already then. In the second place, a count couldn’t be everywhere in a county either, so what makes those quite big units the natural level at which jurisdiction does not need dividing or delegating? And in the third place, to which I’ll come in a bit, other than sometimes presiding over courts, which was a thing that many sorts of person could do, viscounts don’t seem to have done the same jobs as counts in many ways. The only place where we arguably do see viscounts behaving like delegates of the counts is in Osona, a county that was created ex novo by a count in the 880s; the best example is the rights given to Viscount Ermemir II over Cardona in its franchise of 986, but we see older members of the family doing things at comital bidding too.15 That’s harder to find where the jurisdiction was older; there, the counts don’t seem to have had this kind of systematic direction of their viscounts. There is also some echo of this in the Débax volume: in Marseille and the Limousin the counts of Toulouse acquired these areas as new concerns and then set up viscounts there, and in Poitou a different family did, because they had no immediate local basis of power themselves and other places they needed to be, so they had to. But it’s clearly not where the idea of viscounts comes from.

My own copy of my book, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), available from at least some good booksellers!

For me, it’s actually that idea that is crucial. In 2010, in my so-far-only monograph, I had a section entitled ‘Power with a name’ that I think still bears some weight. The thing is, you see, if Duby and the other feudal transformationists demonstrated anything they demonstrated that a local magnate who was beyond the control of a higher authority did not need a title for his power; he (or indeed she) could just appropriate revenues and turn them into custom by means of threat and force.16 But to call yourself a ‘vicescomes’ was to emphasise that there was in fact an officer called a ‘comes’ who you weren’t; in fact, you stood in place of him in a way that uncomfortably suggested responsibility to him. ‘Vicarius’ was even worse, but essentially meant the same thing. As with the counts themselves, these were all claims to exercise power on behalf of someone else, not by your own hand. So there must have been substance to such a claim which made that potential liability worth
admitting.17 The old Carolingan legislation that people in all these areas, Catalan or not, occasionally copied up, give some ideas from what it forbids viscounts to do to those whom the kings had given immunities: it might have included demanding labour services from people on roads or fortifications, calling out militarily-liable people or charging them not to, taking fines and penalties at court, and a good few other things probably.18 But these rights can only have been restricted to such ‘public’ officials as long as the public power existed, so in that sense the very existence of viscounts tells us that there were rights that people still recognised as being restricted to people who had certain sorts of power only, and not others.

So in 2010 I suggested that the viscounts in Catalonia were best understood as powerful independents who had, for one reason or another, decided to engage with the effective takeover of royal powers by the counts, recognising perhaps that they could not, or could not yet, be counts themselves but could retain command in their key areas by pretending that they were comital delegates, and acting that part when required.19 Then their descendants were stuck with the legacies of that choice, which often allowed them room for powerful expansion but on someone else’s agenda. I’m not sure if that was true of all of them, but I think it works as an explanation for the ones I know best. And it also fits with some of the Débax team’s cases: Auvergne, predictably covered by Christian Lauranson-Rosaz, had viscounts whose origins he couldn’t explain as anything other than independents who coralled themselves a piece of the surviving public power, and André Constant, for all that his chapter floats what seems to me a quite unjustifiable theory that all his viscounts were also archdeacons in the Church by right till reform stopped that, sees the same thing in the bits of Catalonia I know less well.20

It seems clear that one size won’t fit all here. Even in Catalonia viscounts seem to have had diverse origins, with the Osona family who became the Cardonas presumably having some prominence that made them locally useful but then relying on comitally-driven expansion to turn that into anything substantial, whereas as far as we can see the family that emerged as viscounts of Conflent and sometimes Urgell owed nothing to the counts and were basically irremovable.21 No-one seems to be sure where the Girona viscounts who became the Cabrera developed, and the picture is complicated by the fact that it’s much easier to see them outside their county than within it because there are far fewer surviving documents from Girona than from the frontier counties where they show up as landowners.22 Barcelona has had much more work done on it, partly because it’s the capital but also because one viscount and his brother the bishop ended up besieging the count in his palace at one point, so there’s a story to explain; I haven’t read all that work yet, so I won’t try and guess how they fit.23 But if there’s a pattern there, it seems to me that it is the one of powerful independents accepting a space in a hierarchy which they could work to advantage that explains most cases, and in that case the dignity has still to have meant something that wasn’t just ‘I’m in charge now’. It’s not clear to me how far this applies north of the Pyrenees, given the even greater variety of circumstances plotted by Débax and colleagues, but as so often I wonder what happens if rather than taking France as normal and wondering why Catalonia looks weird we start by looking at Catalonia and then seeing if it explains France.

1. Her name was Riquilda, and the relationship is made clear in her will, which is printed as Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Documents 1, 5 fascs (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 346, and also in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I haven’t internalised that reference yet and this post is already late, so the old one will have to do.

2. Hélène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l’Occident médiéval, Tempus 37 (Toulouse 2008), Freemium version online here.

3. Viscounts who never got viscounties in Bas-Quercy and the Toulousain, as described by Didier Panfili, “Bas-Quercy et Haut-Toulousain, un kaléidoscope à vicomtes – IXe à XIIe siècles”, ibid., pp. 73–86; viscounty only developing after some time at Béziers, covered by Claudie Amado, “Les vicomtes de Béziers et d’Agde : Deploiement lignager et bipolarité du pouvoir”, ibid., pp. 21–31.

4. A point made in Roland Viader, “Conclusions”, ibid. pp. 319-333 at pp. 326-327.

5. The overall pattern is asserted in Hélène Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes, des vicomtes aux vicomtés : Introduction”, ibid. pp. 7-19; Narbonne is covered in Jacqueline Caille, “Vicomtes et vicomté de Narbonne des origines au début du XIIIe siècle”, ibid. pp. 47–60, and Castillon by Frédéric Boutoulle, “Les vicomtes de Castillon et leur dominium (XIe–début XIIIe siècle)”, ibid. pp. 103–113.

6. Millau: Jérome Belmon, “Aux sources du pouvoir des vicomtes de Millau (XIe siècle)”, ibid. pp. 189–202; la Marche, whose viscounts began as castellans and finished up as counts, is covered by Didier Delhoume and Christian Remy, “Le phénomène vicomtal en Limousin, Xe – XVe siècles”, ibid. pp. 237–250 at Annexe p. 228.

7. For the Trencavel, see most obviously Hélène Débax, La feodalité languedocienne XI-XII siècles : serments, hommages et fiefs dans le Languedoc des Trencavel (Toulouse 2003), but if you have only the volume under discussion then an extremely brief summary is in Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes”, p. 15, and they also come into Amado, “Vicomtes de Béziers et d’Agde” at pp. 26-30 and Pierre Chastaing, “La donation de la vicomté d’Agde (1187) ou les vicissitudes du vicecomitatus aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 33–45. Auvergne is covered by, who else, Christian Lauranson-Rosaz, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Auvergne et dans ses marges (IXe-XIe s.)”, ibid., pp. 213–222; Thouars is covered in Géraldine Damon, “Vicomtes et vicomtés dans le Poitou médiéval (IXe-XIIe siècle) : Genèse, modalités et transformations”, ibid. pp. 223–235 at pp. 224-235 and Annexe pp. 200-201; Marseille in Florian Mazel, “Du modèle comtal à la « chatelainisation » : vicomtes provençaux aux Xe–XIIIe siècles”, ibid. pp. 251–264 at pp. 253-257 & 260. For Béarn see Bénoît Cursente, “Les Centulles de Béarn (fin Xe siècle-1134)”, ibid. pp. 129–142. Their special circumstances were the availability of the counts then kings of Aragón as an alternative source of patronage, culminating in one of the line dying at Fraga next to Alfonso I the Battler, but that didn’t stop them coming to the court of the Duke of Aquitaine when summoned, it seems.

8. On that revival of governmental strength see now most easily Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton NJ 2015), but it’s present in all the studies in the Débax volume whose viscounts survived long enough, and it’s really interesting how independent lords got squeezed between it and Church reform, without any necessary coincidence of interests between those two pressures. On the individual cases see Jeanne-Marie Fritz, “Marsan et Tursan : deux vicomtés Gasconnes”, in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 115–127, Tursan at pp. 122-127 and Marsan at pp. 115-118; Bruniquel in Panfili, “Bas-Quercy et Haut-Toulosain”, pp. 75-79 & 83-84 and Laurent Macé, “Le nom de cire : Jalons pour une enquête sur les sceaux vicomtaux du Midi (XIIe-XIIIe siècles)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 305–317 at pp. 311-312; Narbonne in Caille, “Vicomtes et vicomté”, pp. 56-59.

9. Reform as the enemy in Mazel, “Du modèle comtal à la « chatelainisation »”, pp. 258-261;, Jacques Péricard, “Les vicomtes de Bourges (IXsup>e-XIIe siècle) : une éphemère émancipation” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 279–289 at p. 288, and Viader, “Conclusions”, pp. 329-330, and also in André Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone : Essor des chapitres et stratégies vicomtales (IXe-XIe siècle)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 169–187 at pp. 178-186, but that goes to heroically unsustainable lengths to associate the viscounts with Church office in the first place, which for the period I know I’m pretty sure are faulty, and admits that the viscounts managed the Augustinian reform very well, so in general I have doubts about this as a case.

10. On viscounts in the north see Jean-François Nieus, “Vicomtes et vicomtés dans le nord de la France (XIe-XIIIe siècles) : Un monde d’officiers au service du pouvoir princier”, in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 291–303; on Castelnau see Florent Hautefeuille, “Une vicomté sans vicomte : les Gausbert de Castelnau”, ibid. pp. 61–72.

11. The people who’ve been following me a while will know the classic references by now, but they are Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : Croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, and Josep M. Salrach, El procés de feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), now updated somewhat by the lighter but no less interesting Salrach, Catalunya a la fi del primer mil·lenni, Biblioteca de Història de Catalunya 4 (Lleida 2005).

12. Here I principally mean Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngia en la pre-Catalunya del segle IX” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 1 (Barcelona 1964), pp. 29–75, reprinted in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents 13 & 14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I pp. 181–226, and reprised and updated in Abadal and José María Font i Rius, “El regímen político carolingio” in José Manuel Jover Zamora (ed.), La España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, volumen II: Los nucleos pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. Manuel Riu i Riu, Historia de España Menéndez Pidal 7 (Madrid 1999), pp. 427–577. The Catalan perspective in the Débax volume comes from Henri Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière aux Xe-XIIe siècles (Barcelone, Gérone, Osona, Tarragone) : territoire et pouvoir” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 157–168 and Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone”, as well as Élisabeth Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne : du fidèle du comte au seigneur féodal (IXe-XIIe siècle)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 143–155, which was discussed in a previous post.

13. Belmon, “Aux sources du pouvoir des vicomtes”, Annexe pp. 179-181.

14. Abadal, “La institució comtal carolíngia”.

15. The Cardona franchise is printed in Antoni Galera i Pedrosa (ed.), Diplomatari de la Vila de Cardona (anys 966-1276): Arxiu Parroquial de Sant Miquel i Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Arxiu Abacial de Cardona, Arxiu Històric de Cardona, Arxius Patrimonials de les Masies Garriga de Bergús, Palà de Coma i Pinell, Diplomataris 15 (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 7 – again, it’s in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I don’t right now have the space to look it up. On the creation of the county see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, La Plana de Vich en els segles VIII i IX (717 – 886), Estudis d’història vigatana (Vich 1954), reprinted as “La reconquesta d’una regió interior de Catalunya: la plana de Vic (717-886)” in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans (Barcelona 1969), I pp. 309–321. An earlier instance of the family’s cooperation with the counts is Viscount Ermemir I’s attendance at Count Sunyer’s marriage, seen in Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: Estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Barcelona 1951), doc. no. 9; again, it will be in the Catalunya Carolíngia too but I haven’t looked on this occasion.

16. The locus classicus here obviously Georges Duby, La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans le région mâconnais, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études, VIe Section (Paris 1971), but, as with the Nestorians, the founder of the doctrine has been surpassed by his followers, by whom in this instance I mainly mean Jean-Pierre Poly and Éric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation: 900-1200, trans. Caroline Higgitt, Europe Past and Present (New York City NY 1991). In both cases I cite the editions I’ve used, but there are updated ones.

17. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 129-133.

18. For example, see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 1 & 2 (Barcelona 1926-1952, repr. 2007), 2 vols, Particulars VII: “Et nullus comes, nec vicarius, nec juniores eorum, nec ullus iudex publicus illorum homines, qui super illorum aprisione habitant, distringere nec iudicare presumant.” Thus spoke Emperor Louis the Pious to Joan of Fontjoncouse in 815. It doesn’t specifically mention viscounts, I admit – in fact none of the royal legislation for the area does even though they were sporadically there – but it would be hard for one to argue they weren’t included in the ban, I reckon.

19. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 133-135.

20. See nn. 7 and 9 above respectively.

21. M. Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249–260, online here, covers both families, and I add some details on Conflent in Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 136-141; cf. Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”.

22. Three pretty much incompatible views of the membership and relationships of this family can be found between Jaume Coll i Castanyer, “Els vescomtes de Girona” in Annals de l’Institut d’Estudis Gironins Vol. 30 (Girona 1989), pp. 39–98, online here, Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière”, and Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone”.

23. Obviously I have read Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière”, but behind him there’re Francesc Carreras y Candi, “Lo Montjuích de Barcelona” in Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vol. 8 (Barcelona 1902), pp. 195–451, and now José Enrique Ruiz-Domènec, Quan els vescomtes de Barcelona eren: història, crònica i documents d'una familia catalana dels segles X, XI i XII, Textos y documents 39 (Barcelona 2006), both of which have had exciting differences from my views wherever I’ve dipped into them and so need proper treatment some time in a mythical future.

Name in Print XXVIII: a large parcel from China

Although for the most part I enjoy the distance this blog usually occupies from the present, which means that I have a good safe perspective on what I cover, it is occasionally awkward to be detailing things that happened to me years ago, as for example when something that is immediately worth reporting comes about from earlier events I haven’t yet reported. Such a one is this, a paper that resulted from my second trip to China. So far I have been to China twice and each time, though it wasn’t my explicit plan, it’s resulted in a publication: the conference at Changchun on which I reported has made up a supplement to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations and I will eventually report on a conference I went to the next year in Beijing, entitled ‘The Influence and Change of Coins from an International Perspective’. The convenors of that conference asked me for a text of my paper, which I sent, and then just got on with it. The editors of the JAC, meanwhile were in frequent touch about the lengthy progress of the volume to press, and finally, a little while ago, let me know that it existed both digitally and in print, enclosing copies of the former and promising copies of the latter, which were to be shipped any day. Meanwhile, I was assured by one of these same people that the other conference was also in press, but since I’d heard nothing from the actual editors, seen no proofs and so on, when I received a large parcel from China with an ISBN prominently printed on the packaging, I fairly naturally assumed it was the JAC supplement, perhaps in more copies than I’d been expecting. But in fact it was the other one.

Cover of 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (Beijing 2021)

Cover of 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (Beijing 2021)

It is an extremely handsome and heavy volume, and after spending some time with Google Translate I’m fairly sure it contains not quite all the papers presented and another eleven that weren’t. But the extra ones fill up range very usefully. If you read Chinese – and I don’t, though I have a few words of the language such as a foreigner can learn by online tuition – this is actually a pretty good review of most aspects of currency as it has been known in China and its neighbours up till at least the Ming era. Almost everything in it is by Chinese scholars, or at least scholars with Chinese-viable names in Chinese institutions. The four foreigners involved come from Azerbaijan (1), France (1) and the United Kingdom (2), and 1 of those 2 is me, explaining what I think about the coin reform by which Emperor Anastasius I brought in marked-denomination multiple-value copper coins to end the reliance of market transactions in the Roman-or-Byzantine Empire on notionally-slightly-silver coins of such tiny effective value that they had to be used in bagged-up bundles valued by weight. What I think is, very summarily, that this was an unpopular measure that probably inserted a fiduciary currency into a system that still notionally ran on bullion value, and it was not intended to make market transacting easier, as some scholars seem to believe, but to make paying the army, or rather the army’s paying for things, easier, at the cost mostly of the poorest in the empire.

Title page of 乔纳森加莱特, ‘拜占庭帝国的市场交易与阿纳斯塔修斯一世的货币改革’, in 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (北京 2021), pp. 266–276

Title page of 乔纳森加莱特, ‘拜占庭帝国的市场交易与阿纳斯塔修斯一世的货币改革’, in 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (北京 2021), pp. 266–276

Now, I’d say that if you want to know more you can read the paper, but if you look at that quickly you will see that the text is in Chinese, so even if you can, I can’t.1 I didn’t know that was going to happen, though apparently I have one Zhāng Yuè to thank for it and such bits as I’ve run through Google suggest that I have been pretty clearly understood. If you look closer, though, you will see that the footnotes remain in English, which was apparently the policy for all the foreigners. I guess that they thought that so much of it was non-Chinese citations that there was no point rendering the discursive content into Chinese around it. But as it is, I do wonder how many people in the world can read all of it, and consequently I have put the English-language draft up on my publications webpage here, in case anyone should be interested.2

Nonetheless, I’m delighted by it. At this point, Chinese scholars have a reason to think of me as one of the current thinkers about early Byzantine coinage. I probably don’t deserve that renown but even to have it undeserving among a catalogue of Chinese luminaries of numismatics is pretty cool.

1. So, citation as it appears on the page is 乔纳森 加莱特, “拜占庭帝国的市场交易与阿纳斯塔修斯一世的货币改革”, transl. 张 月 in 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (北京 2021), pp. 266–276. If, like me, you can do something in Pinyin but not in Hanze, then it’s Qiáonàsēn Jiā Láitè, “Bàizhàntíng dìguó de shìchǎng jiāoyì yǔ ā nà sī tǎ xiū sī yīshì de huòbì gǎigé’, and in English that would be Jonathan Jarrett, “Market exchange in the Byzantine Empire and the currency reforms of Anastasius I”.

2. The draft bears the original title, “‘He will ruin many from among the people’: market exchange in the Byzantine Empire and the reform of Emperor Anastasius I.”


Quick thread about governance changes at the University of Leeds, and the removal of the 1997 UNESCO governance recommendations here that have been incorporated into our processes, and until now protected. — Mark Taylor-Batty (@cupofassam) March 19, 2022 I’m sorry … Continue reading

So Universities Are Not… The Probable Shape of the Future

I’ve now foisted five posts upon you about how the current economics of the university in England make no flipping sense and explain some of the problems the sector is currently experiencing. In this last one of the series (barring a possible response to myself I’m brewing over), I want to try and delineate where I think things have to go if nothing is done. This involves taking a step backwards as well as trying to look forwards.

A long long time ago – I can still remember – how the university used to be funded. Students got grants for their maintenance and their fees were paid by their Local Education Authority. I don’t know where that budget came from, whether local or national, but it was paid at county, district or city level. External funding was obtainable, but there were block grants to support both research and teaching, the support which became the modern QR funding. Cost to the actual student was potentially nil. I came out of my undergraduate education about £1500 in debt, almost all of which I had spent on music, out of my M.Phil. about the same (this time on childcare) and out of my Ph.D. down by about 4 grand all told, mostly overdraft and personal debt and paid back, out of my own wages, over the next two years. It’s not like that now. Of course, there were also fewer universities then and I don’t think that anyone except the National Union of Students thinks we can go back to that; whatever the failures of the student loan system to lift that expenditure off Westminster (all slightly horrifying links, those), it was adopted because Westminster no longer thought it could afford the student grant.1 I can’t imagine any travel backwards in that direction in our current political climate; although Jeremy Corbyn promised it and Sir Keir Starmer has so far held to that promise, his chance to act on it doesn’t look to be coming any time soon. So where are we going instead?

Any answer to this must admit that, while the government may be wrong about what the university is, their policies make it fairly clear what they think it should be, which is employment training, and especially in obviously remunerative disciplines like engineering, applied sciences and medicine (the ‘STEM’ subjects, which they will subsidise when they will subsidise nothing else). As part of that trend we have seen not just the increased powers given to the Office for Students – which it still hasn’t really ever used, just turned into a still greater burden of data collection – and the occasional mutterings about restoring vocational colleges and polytechnics, apparently oblivious to the fact that we do actually have a Further Education sector too and that it also is in repeated throes of industrial action due to staff wage cuts and cruel management practice. But however badly it is provided for, we can see what it is that they want: employment-ready workers in the areas the country stands to make the most money from, and not much else. And that does not require a fully-fledged university sector to deliver.

Some parts of the government may also think of universities as centres of innovation, but until the fall of Special Agent Dominic Cummings the plan seemed to be to try and place any such support of innovation in a new central state research centre, a kind of UK DARPA (the USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and not in universities. There was never a clear promise of extra money for the Research Councils that administer most UK research funding, and indeed at one point threatened budget cuts (in the end postponed, but not reprieved) had them firing staff from ongoing projects as their budget disappeared. Neither was that new: I remember myself when the government withdrew funding for the Arts and Humanities Data Service, the digital archive into which all projects funded by the erstwhile Arts and Humanities Research Board for the previous few years had had to deposit their digital production so that it would never be lost. That was while I was doing my Ph. D., which I started with that deposit requirement and finished without it, because there was no longer a repository into which to deposit. The archaeology section was saved by JISC and the University of York and everything else went into an archive which for some reason Kings College London maintain (see the AHDS link previously), to what benefit to them I can’t imagine. That’s what state-funded research planning looks like in the UK. So the central projects agency always seemed an odd choice for a Conservative administration, compared to trying to encourage the private sector to do it instead, and now the pandemic has wiped away all memories of Boris Johnson’s promises to increase the country’s R&D spend, it seems much more likely that what is going to happen is the worst of both worlds; innovation will be looked for in the private sector, there will be no R without associated D and universities will be expected to find their own money from external bodies, ideally not the UK’s, which are being shrunk, but Europe’s, to whose research competitions we have now been allowed to continue applying, but only after a year of hiatus. So universities can get on with what they can still manage like that but fundamentally, it seems that if the state is to pay for research it is going to concentrate on research with a quick economic return, which it may try and manage centrally or may hope to get done by industry. And universities don’t need to form part of this plan either, though they will need to try in order to retain their reputations, and will therefore probably do it without cost to the government, a win-win for Westminster.

There is, admittedly, some political recognition that our universities are internationally prestigious and contribute to local and national economies, both because of employment and also because of graduates who often stay in the universities’ areas and earn money for a while after graduation. But I don’t think it’s clear to such persons why vocational colleges wouldn’t have the same effect on the economy, or that the most prestigious universities wouldn’t be able to carry on on the basis of their prestige by recruiting internationally. And that may not even be wrong. But it doesn’t look like a university sector staying at its current size. It looks, rather, like Oxbridge and a few other really big hitters managing to stay afloat, even affluent, on international fees and research grants, albeit in all except Oxbridge’s case probably minus a few low-return departments and subjects, and most of the rest either transitioning into FE colleges with degree-awarding powers (and thus driving real FE colleges out of business) or going to the wall. Research in engineering, medicine and industrial subjects will be funded through companies who produce the results of that research; research in anything else will occasionally be funded by grants and mostly be a matter of amateur curiosity. Medieval history will, I forecast, not do well in this prospective era.2

So is there an alternative? I would love to think that it is the NUS’s fully free higher education, but I don’t see, as the Western sun begins to sink towards the horizon, where the money’s coming from for that; the Occident can only snobbily starve the rest of the world of international recognition for its university provision for so long, and even that only protects revenue, it doesn’t grow it.3 Otherwise, I have to admit, it doesn’t look good. These posts have pointed at some of the problems with the current system, and some of those contain within them the seeds of solutions. Why, for example, is a graduate tax – which is effectively what student loans repayments have become, except less progressive than a planned tax might have been – why is that tax levied on the employee rather than the employer, or on both like pensions? (Not that pensions are a good model for survivable strategies just now…) Could a universities chest not be funded by levies on those who want to employ graduates?4 This would also shrink the university sector, no doubt, as employers decided that actually maybe this job or that job didn’t actually require graduate employees, but it might once again differentiate the functions of Higher and Further Education. Likewise, we could cease allowing publication of someone’s work for profit without paying them. If that means ending incentives based on publication, well, that’s the price of keeping the show on the road, albeit again probably a smaller show.

But these are only patches. They might not be enough and even if they were, the political will to adopt them—a tax on business for employing people? What are you trying to do to the economy?—isn’t there. And it’s not all that’s needed. There also needs to be adequate National Health Service welfare provision to which universities can outsource the deepest of their student support and mental health needs (and should, too, because of their vested interest in keeping the students at university and paying fees whatever their state). There need to be reforms to the school system, carried out in conjunction with academic advice from universities about what that should mean a curriculum looks like. These would let schools and HE + FE actually join up and represent coherent developmental pathways towards individual futures (a bit like the system they have in the Netherlands but maybe a bit less deterministic?). But each one of these things is a huge and expensive project to deliver a future far beyond the term of any elected government. It would require our politicians to invest in the future of the country, not the present.

So I’ve been on strike and I will be on strike again, because I think the current situation is unfair and unsustainable, but I’m not surprised that that failed. Escalation will now be the only choice for both sides, sides that could, however, be working for the same goals if they all wanted. I believe that UCU offered a workable solution to the pensions situation, as the pension scheme itself agreed, but Universities UK unanimously rejected it. This could actually be solved without serious cost, if university leaders actually wanted to solve it. The gender pay gap, admittedly, is not so simple because of equalities legislation (ironically), but there are ways to solve it which don’t have to cost anything overall; universities’ human resources departments just need to sit down and plan it out.

Solving casualisation and the declining value of pay, however, both mean making the same money go further, by cancelling either infrastructural stuff or else investment which may each in turn have effects on the university’s income. So, if we get those conditions agreed, we must understand that it will mean fewer jobs overall, albeit those more secure. And if there are fewer of us total, then the workload issue will get worse not better. While the universities’ incomes are so restricted, and the future of them so uncertain, there is no scope to solve all of these problems at once. It’s tempting to say that the solution is for all universities to go private and manage their own destinies, but that would surely only increase the marketisation of the university and its formation as business, deprioritise all non-remunerative activity still further and probably still not pay for anything but a rather smaller sector. But we really can’t do more with less any longer. The available solutions all seem to involve fewer doing the same or less, but with more. But with that, and the associated dim hopes for improvement on at least some fronts, I shall leave it. I would, of course, be very interested in your comments on any and all of these posts, not least because in many places I’d quite like to be wrong! In the meantime, this has been useful in sharpening my thinking and I think I have one more, short piece I could write, addressed to the politicians (refusing to get) involved. But I may see if anyone wants to put that somewhere it will be more widely seen first…

1. You can see the government’s own assessment of the problems, but also of the money to be clawed back from passing those problems on rather than solving them, in The sale of student loans by Amyas Morse, HC 1385 (London 2018), online here.

2. Though it’s always salutary and encouraging to remember that once, giants walked the earth and told politicians exactly why they needed medieval history: see Jeevan Vasagar and Rebecca Smithers, “Will Charles Clarke have his place in history?” in The Guardian 10 May 2003, UK news, online here.

3. Obviously, I don’t really have a platform from which to say such things, being on the happy side of it; but Race MoChridhe, “Linguistic equity as open access: Internationalizing the language of scholarly communication” in Journal of Academic Librarianship Vol. 45 (Amsterdam 2019), pp. 423–427, DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2019.02.006 and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “Decolonising the Mind” in Diogenes Vol. 46 (New York City NY 1998), pp. 101–104, DOI: 10.1177/039219219804618409, kind of do and you can read them instead of me. Some more informed perspectives also in Derek Peterson and Giacomo Macola, “Introduction: Homespun Historiography and the Academic Profession” in eidem, (edd.), Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa (Athens OH 2009), pp. 1–28, online here.

4. As noted previously, I was not the first person to think of this idea: see Fairer funding: the case for a graduate levy by Johnny Rich, HEPI Policy Note 10 (Oxford 2018), online here.

Universities Are Not… Like Businesses

With the previous posts, I may not have proved, but I’ve shown why I think, that the modern UK university is not really a business. It doesn’t offer a product to consumers, or rather it does, but it doesn’t charge market rate for it and it’s not the end consumers who pay for the product; furthermore, the product isn’t measurable or quantifiable like a normal business’s product. Given all this, therefore, it’s really quite peculiar that the direction of travel over the last few decades, probably, but accelerating fast since the introduction of tuition fees in 2005 has been to try and either turn them into, or at least run them like, businesses.1

This tends to be described pejoratively as ‘marketisation‘ or ‘managerialism‘, and it’s worth being just a bit more explicit. The UK’s universities indubitably do now operate in a market: tuition fees are around half their income, those fees come from students (even if they don’t usually quite pay for those students – but apparently economies of scale still make it better to have more students than fewer) and there are only a finite number of students entering the system, for whom therefore universities compete. But it’s a closed market: the fees universities can charge are limited, sometimes the places they are allowed to offer are limited (until it becomes clear there’s a crisis and the cap is suddenly lifted with only just enough time to hire the temporary staff to replace the ones laid off because of the cap, and hire the spare accommodation to fit all the students in… but that is a this-government problem, not a system problem). Furthermore the tools universities have to influence those choices are very limited: basically building facilities, investing in workplace placement schemes and support services (for some reason not an option usually pursued by the big universities despite the likely returns and the fairly low cost, presumably because it is expected that their graduates will sort themselves out without the help), free lunches and good talks at open days and, perhaps most of all, changing their course offerings.

That last is a minefield, however, as what students appear to like is wide choice of modules, which implies a consequently large staff pool to teach them, who have to be paid. So it is in the university’s operating interest to keep that offering as narrow and standardised as possible but its recruiting interest to make it look otherwise (or, in extremis, actually to provide the choice and breadth the students appear to want, but actually don’t always use). By analogy with business, then, stocking a wide range of goods hurts this particular sort of shop, because they must then be stocking more than people will actually buy and they can’t even necessarily let any more customers in to buy them. Oh yeah, and every product costs the same irrespective of its quality, but there are tests that settle whether or not customers can buy them. If one of these shops doesn’t have enough customers, though, it may have to let more people buy its product, and this actually costs it prestige, which the shopkeepers seem to fear will actually stop people coming in. Let’s do that again: allowing more people to shop there is thought likely to drive customers away. So there is a fight to allow as few customers as possible to choose each shop, and then to get as many as are allowed through the door anyway. As an analogy to business this is insane; but these actually are the economics of student recruitment to universities in England.

There are other tools of the modern business that don’t work very well in universities, too. Performance reviews are one such, because of how immeasurable the product of university work is. If someone’s students consistently do better than someone else’s, that looks indicative; but is it because their teaching is better and more inspiring, or because their subject is more familiar to the students? If their feedback is better than someone else’s, is that because their classroom is more inclusive and effective, or because they are white or male or both, or because they give the students an easier ride?2 Challenging students can really hurt one’s ratings, even though it makes their results better; it’s been proved in tests.3 But that is, as we’ve said, the nature of the product, which is to say, intangible.4

Research outputs don’t work very well either. Quantity and quality don’t have a clear relationship, for a start.5 If someone produces lots of research, is that good or bad? The Research Excellence Framework used only to require four submissions per seven-year assessment period; I usually average two outputs a year so have quite a lot to choose from when the census comes. As a result, I have before now been told to produce less and spend the time on making it better. Of course, this is not based on anyone deciding whether my work is good enough or not; it must just not be as good as it could be, because I still had time to do other stuff as well. (I don’t any more, though, so that must be OK!) We don’t, after all, have good measures for what’s better, because universities don’t usually maintain two people who work in the same field together, so who can evaluate the work of the ones they have? And the humanities are pretty uncertain about what quality actually is in the first place.6 Since then, of course, the last REF abandoned numbers per researcher and instead set quotas per unit of assessment, i. e. department. Now we need some people who over-produce, to make up for those who under-produce; but the worry still remains that this will dilute the quality we can’t measure. When you add in the fact that the REF consumes an immense amount of staff time, enough to chew up most of the money that is awarded on its basis, and that experiment has suggested you could get basically the same rankings using publically-available metrics data in a matter of hours, it is fair to ask what business would ever put itself through such a nonsense.7 Any reasonable business would use the cheap quick metric of how they’re doing that gets nearly the same results, rather than cost themselves so much working time. But English universities are not in a position to behave reasonably, because they all have to respond to the same central dictats about how they assess themselves or abandon a decent slice of their income as the price of efficiency.

So not only are we not very clear about what we do, we’re not really able to measure it; but we still spend vast amounts of time trying to do so, in order to secure income from people who are not our customers or using our product that may just about constitute a profit on the costs of those vast amounts of time. We also can’t charge prices that cover our costs, and all the other points I’ve made. This ain’t no real business.

In fact, of course, it’s not a business, or even a service; like the railway system, the energy sector, the National Health Service, and most of the other things which were once nationalised government concerns and have since been entirely or partly privatised by both Conservative (mainly) and (New) Labour governments, it’s actually a public utility. You can tell this, because the government doesn’t dare deregulate it or stop subsidising it. It believes that it must still control and allocate universities’ income, even as it tries to make the private sector, in the form of the student customer, bear the burden of their actual operation. If universities were businesses like any others, they would not need their money run through Westminster or their operations overseen by a Westminster-based office, rather than the normal array of consumer watchdogs and the usual operation of the law. The burden of regulation on all such utilities, but perhaps universities most of all, indicates that the government knows that really, they are national concerns that can’t be allowed to work in a free market, because they might then become unaffordable to all but the affluent and lots of them would go out of business, shrinking provision to just those unaffordable places. No government wants to be seen letting that happen either to higher education or to energy provision, but they also don’t want to pay for either of them, so they try to make the private sector or the customers do so (though the student loan has proven again and again to be a bad way to offload those costs). And of course, such concerns are also not supposed to make (too much) money. If a supermarket or a car manufacturer or whatever records huge profits, that’s a triumph for them; but if universities, rail companies or energy providers do, that’s profiteering and exploitation. That moral judgement shows that what the latter are doing is not running a business; it’s providing a service for the good of the country, which it’s therefore government business to watch over.

So while they are sometimes run like businesses, and obviously would ideally be able to cover their own costs, it’s perhaps no wonder that universities have not really got better for the introduction of business expertise to their management, because they aren’t anything like real businesses. I suspect that no business expertise can adequately prepare you for the constraints on both revenue and operation and the burden of centralised regulation under which such a ‘company’ must operate. The natural response is towards ‘agility’ and cost-cutting in operation and capital investment with the savings to attract students; but these things tend to hurt the generation of the university’s actual product, that knowledge stuff we mentioned, a product which however isn’t paid for from our income streams. These are not problems business acumen can solve. It must be very frustrating to be asked to do so using it. Whether the old-style, and disappearing, form of academic governance by democratic bodies of actual academics, recognised as the people who know best what it is they do and what its value is—which goodness knows I sometimes doubt myself, as even in these posts—is the best alternative, I don’t know; but it’s not clear to me that boards of external directors with no real stake in the success of the venture or experience in its customer-facing environment were ever likely to work better.8

But the problems don’t, sadly, end there. In the next post I want to look to the future and see where all this is probably taking us. And then I want to hope I’m wrong.

1. Examples of lamentation of this are too numerous to mention; as well as the two linked, there’s Rajani Naidoo, “Universities in the Marketplace: The Distortion of Teaching and Research” in Roland Barnett (ed.), Reshaping the university: new relationships between research, scholarship and teaching (Maidenhead 2005), pp. 27–36, Alessandra Lopez y Royo, “Free market principles have changed (and ruined) the academy” in Times Higher Education no. 2115 (22nd August 2013), pp. 24–25; and meta-study in Mark Erickson, Paul Hanna and Carl Walker, “The UK higher education senior management survey: a statactivist response to managerialist governance” in Studies in Higher Education Vol. 46 (London 2020), pp. 2134–2151 (which shows that staff don’t, in general, think their managers are any good). Some more serious analysis in Sarah Amsler, “Beyond All Reason: Spaces of Hope in the Struggle for England’s Universities” in Representations Vol. 106 (Berkeley CA 2011), pp. 62–87, or Vik Loveday, “The Neurotic Academic: anxiety, casualisation, and governance in the neoliberalising university” in Journal of Cultural Economy Vol. 11 (Abingdon 2018), pp. 154–166. A speech for the defence in Terry Young, “An industry-style focus on teaching costs is vital to survive the pandemic” in Times Higher Education (THE), 11th September 2020, online here.

2. The recognised problems with student feedback are now so numerous that one can resort to meta-studies about it, such as Anne Boring, Kellie Ottoboni and Philip Stark, “Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness” in ScienceOpen Research (2016), DOI: 10.14293/S2199-1006.1.SOR-EDU.AETBZC.v1, Y. Fan, L. J. Shepherd, E. Slavich, D. Waters, M. Stone, R. Abel and E. L. Johnston, “Gender and cultural bias in student evaluations: Why representation matters”, ed. Heidi H. Ewen, in PLoS ONE Vol. 14 (San Francisco 2019), e0209749, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0209749, or Troy Heffernan, “Sexism, racism, prejudice, and bias: a literature review and synthesis of research surrounding student evaluations of courses and teaching” in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education Vol. 47 (Abingdon 2022), pp. 144–154, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2021.1888075; and reportage such as Susan Bassnett, Katie Eichhorn, Peter Solomon, Emily Michelson, Andrew Moore, Jessica Welburn Paige and John Tregoning, “Is student course evaluation actually useful?” in Times Higher Education (THE), 16th April 2020, online here; and John Ross, “Student evaluations of teaching ‘methodologically flawed'” in Times Higher Education (THE), 8th April 2021, online here. Even the UK government has now begun to realise that its student feedback data from the National Student Survey is junk and may be having deleterious effects on the sector: witness Simon Baker, “‘Radical’ review for NSS as ministers say it drives down standards” in Times Higher Education (THE), 10th September 2020, online here.

3. Here I think especially of Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan and Greg Kestin, “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 116 (Washington DC 2019), 19251, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821936116, which finds that students prefer modules where they have to work less hard even though they demonstrably learn more from working harder.

4. While searching for links for this post, I came upon an excellent article about this from an Australian perspective, Tony Aspromourgos, “The managerialist university: an economic interpretation” in Australian Universities’ Review Vol. 54 (Perth 2012), pp. 44–49. For obvious reasons this doesn’t feature the particular insanities of the English regulatory situation, but it does add one more obvious problem with the business analogy that is worth including here. As part of a lengthy comparison of competition in the market for the manufacturers of beer and for university degree providers, he points out:

A further impediment to competition between universities being capable of beneficially shaping the degree product is that the quality of the product is to a considerable extent opaque, or non-transparent, even after it has been consumed. This is not only because it is a one-off consumption item, but also because it is in the nature of knowledge- or information-rich products and services that they entail an information asymmetry between supplier and consumer. The potential consumer, in making a choice, is reliant upon the advice of the potential suppliers, causing thereby also an asymmetry of power. This asymmetry between the ‘demander’ and the supplier is intrinsic to the situation. Most consumers of car repairs cannot know precisely what service has been provided, and whether it was required. When one attends a medical doctor with an ailment, one asks this supplier of medical services: what do I need to purchase? Similarly, to a considerable extent, the one-off consumers of degrees will never know if it was worth it. Whatever degree of satisfaction graduates may record concerning their degrees – one, five or ten years after graduation – they will not have any very clear and definite conception of what their education could have been, better than that which they received.”

The similarities of this case to the one developed here are coincidental, and therefore comforting to me; but of course, here we are a decade later and it doesn’t appear that anyone running these systems paid any attention to views like these or we wouldn’t be where we are.

5. Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel Paul O’Donnell and Damian Pattinson, “‘Excellence R Us’: university research and the fetishisation of excellence” in Palgrave Communications Vol. 3 (London 2017), 16105, DOI: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.105; Yves Gingras and Mahdi Khelfaoui, “Why the h-index is a bogus measure of academic impact” in The Conversation, 8th July 2020, online here.

6. Michèle Lamont, How professors think: inside the curious world of academic judgment (Cambridge MA 2009), online here.

7. Again, indictments of the REF or its predecessor the Research Assessment Exercise are so rife as to be impossible to collect here, but two especially sharp ones are Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF (New York City NY 2015) and James Tooley, “A fitter rival would soon make the REF extinct” in Times Higher Education (THE), 11th April 2019, online here, both arguably beaten by Anne-Wil Harzing, “Running the REF on a rainy Sunday afternoon: Do metrics match peer review?”, White Paper, Research in International Management, 2017, online here, which came close to predicting the REF outcomes using only publically-available data in a weekend’s work by a single person.

8. A statement for the old model is Terence Kealey, “Only academics can run universities effectively” in Times Higher Education (THE), 21st January 2021, online here; but it is also arguable that administration of a university in this regulatory environment became a job that effectively precluded academic activity long ago. In this respect, Sue Shepherd, “There’s a gulf between academics and university management – and it’s growing” in The Guardian, 27th July 2017, Education section, online here, seems to have had it right to me. I would love to see our vice-chancellors undertake to teach just one module a year – under someone else’s management! – to keep in touch with the ground level provision like that, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever see it happening.

Universities Are Not… Manufactories

This sounds ideological, I know, but it’s actually more economical. I also know that economics is itself an ideology (though naturally enough some disagree), but bear with me and see what I’m doing. In the previous post, having already looked at university income, I used the idea of universities’ production and its consumers quite heavily. But of course universities don’t produce in the way that a business with a saleable product that you find on shop shelves produces. You can put some of what they produce on bookshelves, of course, but increasingly digital publication makes even that intangible. Even digital publications are a countable object proxy for academic production, admittedly, but they aren’t the thing itself, because that is knowledge, which we are told is power though those in power don’t seem to set much store by it any more.

Now, whether this is knowledge of or knowledge how that we’re talking about, or content or skills as you might otherwise see it, it doesn’t move like other products of different processes. There is no production line. There are tools, sure, and even laboratories with things going on in them that can look a lot like factory processes in some cases, but the processes’ ultimate aim is not their physical product but the knowledge enabled by its making and use. For example, I used to know some of a team at UCL that had a robotic production system for making samples of nanomaterials in their lab. But they weren’t in the ‘business’, word choice intentional, of making nanomaterials; they were hoping to find a new catalyst for water-based fuel cells and thus solve the energy crisis, and the robot was to let them make as many different ones up at once as possible. There was an even bigger robot under construction at that point, to test them once they were made. I imagine patents arisin from success there would have been worth something, but success wouldn’t have been the best kit or the method, it would have been the formula of something they’d tested that had come good, which someone else would then have made.1

Another peculiarity of what universities produce is that it is brought into being into the minds of both customers and workers. It is transmitted, we hope, but not lost at site. This is not a good, therefore, in the economic sense, and it’s not really a service; there is a service involved, but that isn’t an adequate characterisation of the benefit from using the service. Perhaps it’s the differences between a man who has a gift of fish for a day, one who knows where he can reliably buy fish, and one who actually knows how to catch them, but there’s still more to it.

And, the hardest thing for market-based analyses to deal with, not all of what universities produce is quantifiable, or even valuable, in terms of skills gain or utility. For the Humanities this is an especially sharp point, on which indeed we frequently injure ourselves by invoking the moral or ethical value of our subjects.2 It’s not clear that we solve problems, rather than making them more complicated; it’s not clear that people are happier, rather than sadder or angrier, for knowing what we can tell them; and it’s not always clear what good it does; yet people do keep wanting to know it.3 I don’t think that’s just some Bourdievan process of cultural capital accumulation, or only the most useful subjects of knowledge in which one could distinguish oneself would survive; some of it has to be that people, for whatever contextual reasons, just find this stuff cool.4

For all these reasons, while the best analogy in business terms for the Academy is more likely a gym than a manufactory, in which we train people to be more highly-featured and able versions of themselves (or, if you believe some critics, pale imitations of us), it’s still not a perfect one.5 You can measure someone’s increased ability after weeks of physical training. You can, of course, measure someone’s increased knowledge after weeks of university study – we certainly try to, anyway – but you can’t as easily measure what they can now do better, though we do try to do that too, and you especially cannot guess what situations they will be able to employ that skill in. They themselves famously do not realise this until later.6 Even vocational degrees like law or medicine where there is a more obvious set knowledge requirement also supply the transferable skills and ability to get more knowledge. It’s like teaching a man to fish, and then finding he can now also navigate by constellations, because of time spent on boats; you can see how it happened, but it would hardly have been part of the assessment on a fishing course.

So this is a strange beast we have: an institution which operates in a competitive market but is denied most of the means of competition (such as the setting of its own prices or incentives), which does not derive its money from its customers, whose primary economic beneficiaries do not pay for that benefit, and which makes nothing that can be adequately counted but which people still seem to value. What is it that the university is? I still don’t know, but in the next post I will argue that nothing with these characteristics can sensibly be called, or more importantly run like, a business, and still perform these functions.

1. I mean, the ‘someone else’ might have been a company they themselves started; but the university in question wouldn’t have turned its labs into a factory for it. But actually, their successes were in the area of method, as witness Kathryn Thompson, Josephine Goodall, Suela Kellici, John A. Mattinson, Terry A. Egerton, Ihtesham Rehman and Jawwad A. Darr, “Screening tests for the evaluation of nanoparticle titania photocatalysts” in Journal of Chemical Technology & Biotechnology Vol. 84 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1717–1725.

2. See Jon Marcus, “Look at the evidence: history is not bunk” in Times Higher Education no. 2092 (14 March 2013), pp. 24–25, which sadly ought not to convince anyone. Cf. a scientist’s defence in Keith Burnett, “Universities’ humanities provision should never become history”, ibid., 12th May 2021, online here. But the message that the return is not the important thing still fails to draw much investment; funny that… This makes the better tactic perhaps once again an Oxford one: Humanities Graduates and the British Economy: the hidden impact, by Philip Kraeger (Oxford 2013), online here, followed up to an extent by John Ross, “Decline in soft skills ‘driven by trivialisation of humanities'” in Times Higher Education (THE), 13th June 2019, online here.

3. Attempts have of course been made to explain this, as social mission for the future of humanity, no less, in Eileen A. Joy and Christine M. Neufeld, “A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism” in Journal of Narrative Theory Vol. 37 (Baltimore MD 2008), pp. 161–190, or Neil Badmington, “Cultural Studies and the Posthumanities” in Gary Hall and Clare Birchall (edd.), New cultural studies: adventures in theory (Edinburgh 2006), pp. 260–272, or as more mundane social benefit in Zoe Bulaitis, “Measuring impact in the humanities: Learning from accountability and economics in a contemporary history of cultural value” in Palgrave Communications Vol. 3 (London 2017), 7, though it’s by no means a new battle, as witness Abraham Flexner, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” in Harper’s Magazine, November 1939, pp. 544–552.

4. Referring to Pierre Bourdieu, “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital” in Reinhard Kreckel (ed.), Soziales Ungleichheiten, Soziales Welt Sonderheft 2 (Göttingen 1983), pp. 183-198, trans. by Richard Nice as Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital” in J. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York City NY 1986), pp. 241-258, whence online in the Marxists Internet Archive here, and seriously, if you’re in education of any kind and have never read this do it now, the scales will drop from your eyes I promise.

5. Actually the best analogy I’ve seen might be to sports clubs: see Richard Oliver, “Universities are more like sports clubs than businesses” in Times Higher Education (THE), 15th January 2020, online here.

6. There is a huge literature on how what we as academics assess in our students often isn’t what we actually want them to learn, or else what they are supposed to learn from doing a degree, mostly from government offices, and an equally huge but much much more consistent one from actual academic publications on how students’ own evaluations of how they’re doing are faulty. Witness for the former Dimensions of Quality by Graham Gibbs (York 2010), online here; Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a Market Environment by Graham Gibbs (York 2010), online here; The drivers of degree classifications by Ray Bachan (London 2018), online here; and reportage in Anna McKie, “Does university assessment still pass muster?” in Times Higher Education (THE), 23rd May 2019, online here. On the latter front see a small sample in the form of Michael Hast and Caroline Healy, “Higher Education Marking in the Electronic Age: Quantitative and Qualitative Student Insight”, edd. Josep Domenech, M. Cinta Vincent-Vela, Raúl Peña-Ortiz, Elena de la Poza and Desemparado Blasquez in Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences Vol. 228, 2nd International Conference on Higher Education Advances, HEAd’16, 21-23 June 2016, València, Spain (Amsterdam 2016), pp. 11–15, DOI: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2016.07.002; Anne Boring, Kellie Ottoboni and Philip Stark, “Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness” in ScienceOpen Research (2016), DOI: 10.14293/S2199-1006.1.SOR-EDU.AETBZC.v1; Susan Bassnett, Kate Eichhorn, Peter Solomon, Emily Michelson, Andrew Moore, Jessica Welburn Paige and John Tregoning, “Is student course evaluation actually useful?” in Times Higher Education (THE) 16th April 2020, online here; and most of all Troy Heffernan, “Sexism, racism, prejudice, and bias: a literature review and synthesis of research surrounding student evaluations of courses and teaching” in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education Vol. 47 (Abingdon 2022), pp. 144–154, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2021.1888075.

Universities Are Not… Paid by their Main Beneficiaries

Having so far looked at university income, next I want to look at university’s relationships with the consumers of their production. I don’t mean the students here, although it is clear that the students are customers even if we resist the term: they pay universities fees for a service that we deliver and there are actually two separate government watchdog offices ensuring that we do it up to an intangible immeasurable standard.1 But while in income terms they’re our primary customer base, and hopefully do benefit from the education they’re largely eventually paying for, the students are not actually the main consumers of what we produce. And the actual consumers, crucially, don’t pay for what universities make for them.

This may sound silly, but consider what universities actually produce. I think there are three things: research publications, intellectual capital (or ideas, basically) and employable graduates. Now, it is a long-established woe of academia that we do not, mostly, get paid for our publications; in fact, increasingly, we have to pay to publish them at the standard to which we are held by those who pay for the research, i. e. open access.2 Despite early optimism and a few persistent advocates, open access has not so far proved capable of paying for itself except via unpaid goodwill, which doesn’t scale very well.3 But academic publishers do notoriously well out of the regular system, and yet apart from Oxford University Press, which contributes, unsurprisingly, only to Oxford, they don’t pay universities a thing for the product which we supply to them.

Of course, the situation is peculiar, since academics are also the publishers’ main customers. It is often said that this means that we can be induced to pay twice for the same product, once in our labour for making it and again to read it once we have, but obviously that’s not what’s actually happening, as people don’t in fact pay to read their own research; money is simply following the channels dug for it by the movement of knowledge between academics. But the situation does mean that there’s probably no way to make this into a source of income for the academy; if the academy didn’t pay more to read publications than it charges to make them there would be no survival margin for the publishers. So there’s not a lot of hope here to support a failing academy.4

The Nexus Collaboration Centre, University of Leeds

The Nexus Collaboration Centre, University of Leeds, picture from the site of Associated Architects, who built it for £40,000,000, roughly one quarter of the whole UK university sector’s income from commercialisation of ideas in 2014-15 (see below)

Intellectual capital is a fuzzier area, because unlike publishing it can actually make universities money. A few good ideas which have been highly marketable have certainly come out of universities – the best recent example is again an Oxford one, which I’m not doing deliberately I swear, but I mean the Astrozeneca vaccine – and taking research employment with a university accordingly means draconian and probably unenforceable intellectual property terms in case you should be the one who comes up with another one.5 In 2014-15, however, which are the most recent figures I can find, the total income for the UK’s university sector from commercial development of research was £155 million. That certainly isn’t nothing, though it spreads quite thin between all the UK’s universities, but the Higher Education Financial Council for England report which provided that figure estimated the general gain to the economy of that knowledge exchange work as £3.2 billion, more than 20,000 times more, so very disproportionate a ratio that I almost wonder if they were using American billions (which would make it only 20 times).6 If not, universities really didn’t see very much of a return for generating that revenue, and the article in which I first found these figures suggested that they would see less of it in future, as the trend seemed to be for academics who had such an idea to leave and set up their own companies.7 Indeed, anecdotal though it is, I know two people myself who’ve done just that. Furthermore, that year HEFCE itself distributed more than ten times that money in QR funding (on which see the previous post). That puts the amounts into perspective somewhat, but not as much as the fact that in 2017-18 (I can’t find figures for 2014-15, but let’s assume it didn’t change massively), the total UK university income was £37.2 billion, of which about half was tuition fees.8 So revenue from comercialising ideas really is a drop in the ocean, and for our purposes we can disregard it.

That leaves employable graduates. Here the economics are also a bit twisty, because of course, the graduates themselves pay fees before they’re graduates and they do so, says the logic of the funding system, because they hope – although this hope grows fainter – later to be earning more than they would have done without the degree.9 But the primary beneficiary of that university education must, therefore, be their employer, who must obviously be making more from it than is the graduate, or they wouldn’t be able to pay them. But do the employers pay the universities for this great good? Only in the very indirect way that their taxes form a part of the government revenue we receive a part of as funding, not directly. Now, I am not the first person to make this observation. In fact, although I missed it at the time, in 2018 one Johnny Rich, who was at the time a Director of the Higher Education Academy, as it then was, put out a paper for HEPI making much the same point and proposing a levy on graduate employers to rebalance the budget.10 As we can see, that sadly made no difference at all to the actual government’s intent – it must be very frustrating to be HEPI, really – but it also gave rise to an article of his in Times Higher Education that puts things more sharply than I just have, and is worth quoting:

“This is not a delicate balancing act, after all. It’s a cart with three horses – taxpayers, students and universities – all hitched to different sides. The only way it can go anywhere is if one horse loses or the cart is pulled apart.

“There is a fourth horse, however – a steely stallion that has been just quietly chewing its bit for fear of being noticed: graduate employers. Businesses benefit from higher education as much as graduates or the wider economy. Like dissatisfied customers, they bemoan skill shortages and the job-readiness of graduates, but their principal financial contributions to the system are through corporate taxes and paying salaries at a graduate premium.”11

And obviously, you as employer wouldn’t pay a graduate premium if the graduate employee weren’t making you more money than you pay them even with that premium included, and weren’t worth paying that for even though you could hire a non-graduate for less. So this is another of the problems that the university faces in the UK. As well as having no real possibility of meaningfully expanding their income without will and action from government in their favour, they do their greatest benefit to people and organisations which don’t pay for it, not the ones which reluctantly do. The implications of this are numerous, especially as to what should be done about it – which is ground I’m actually mostly not going to tread, myself – but one of them is the damage it does the idea of the university as business. In the next post I’m going to point out some other problems with that idea. And I should end by reiterating that these are, except where referenced elsewhere, my own views and they do not represent the views of my employers.

1. Of late, even the government has had to admit that some of its measures of university quality are broken – see Simon Baker, “‘Radical’ review for NSS as ministers say it drives down standards” in Times Higher Education (THE), 10th September 2020, online here – but that is the recognition of a long series of complaints such as Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a Market Environment by Graham Gibbs (York 2010), online here, or Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel Paul O’Donnell and Damian Pattinson, “‘Excellence R Us’: university research and the fetishisation of excellence” in Palgrave Communications Vol. 3 (London 2017), 16105.

2. On the various perverse features of academic publishing, other than the introductions linked, serious explanation can be found in Untangling academic publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research, by Aileen Fyfe, Kelly Coate, Stephen Curry, Stuart Lawson, Noah Moxham and Camilla Mørk Røstvik (St Andrews 2017), online here, or Carolyn Caffrey Gardner and Gabriel J. Gardner, “Fast and Furious (at Publishers): The Motivations behind Crowdsourced Research Sharing” in College & Research Libraries Vol. 78 (Chicago IL 2017), pp. 131–149.

3. This is an area with a huge literature of debate. The obvious starting points now are Nigel Vincent and Chris Wickham (eds), Debating Open Access (London 2013), online here, and Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds and Chris Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science: a British Academy research project (London 2014), but for different views see, as a small sample, Daniel J. Cohen, Stephen Ramsay and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Open Access and Scholarly Values: A Conversation” in Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (eds), Hacking the academy: new approaches to scholarship and teaching from digital humanities, Digitalculturebooks (Ann Arbor MI 2013), pp. 39–47, online here; Richard Hoyle, “Pipe-Dream Believers” in Times Higher Education no. 2106, 20th June 2013, p. 30; Open access and monographs: Where are we now?, The British Academy, Position paper (London 2018), online here; and Keith McNaught, “The Changing Publication Practices in Academia: Inherent Uses and Issues in Open Access and Online Publishing and the Rise of Fraudulent Publications” in Journal of Electronic Publishing Vol. 18 (Ann Arbor MI 2015), DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0018.308.

4. That all said, there are definitely debates about how much publishers should get away with charging their unpaid workforce and probably ways to turn author discounts into an institutional incentive to value research publication as an activity; but there would be perverse outcomes too (see for example Jaksa Cvitanic, “Reliance on journal rankings is undermining academic integrity” in Times Higher Education (THE) 21st May 2021, online here) and because of the basic economics it’s never going to be more than an exercise in cutting losses, rather than making gains. I’ve had to think harder about that this than I did in my first attempt thanks to a conversation with Paul Jump of Times Higher Education, and I owe him thanks for helping me not to miss some obvious aspects of the money flows involved.

5. For discussion see Linda S. Bergmann, “Higher Education Administration Ownership, Collaboration, and Publication: Connecting or Separating the Writing of Administrators, Faculty, and Students?” in Carol Peterson Haviland and Joan A. Mullin (edd.), Who Owns this Text? Plagiarism, Authorship, and Disciplinary Cultures (Logan UT 2009), pp. 129–155.

6. Annual Report and Accounts, 2014-15, Higher Education Funding Council for England, HC5 (London 2015), online here.

7. Scott Carey, “How UK universities are leveraging their intellectual property to benefit from the tech boom” in Computerworld 7th July 2016, online here.

8. “Higher education in numbers” in Universities UK 16th December 2021, online here.

9. Fading hopes: David Matthews, “Busted flush? Research shows worsening odds on university study ‘gamble'” in Times Higher Education no. 2102, 23rd May 2013, pp. 6–7; idem, “Inflated premium: Russell Group earnings boost ‘statistically insignificant'” in Times Higher Education no. 2115, 22nd August 2013, pp. 6–7; The Impact of University Degrees on the Lifecycle of Earnings: some further analysis, by Ian Walker and Yu Zhu, BIS Research Papers (London 2013), online here; Tristram Hooley, “Does the postgraduate premium really exist?” in Times Higher Education (THE), 9th September 2019, online here; The earnings returns to postgraduate degrees in the UK by Jack Britton, Frank Buscha, Matt Dickson, Laura van der Erve, Anna Vignoles, Ian Walker, Ben Waltmann and Yu Zhu, (London 2020), online here.

10. Fairer funding: the case for a graduate levy, by Johnny Rich, HEPI Policy Note 10 (Oxford 2018), online here.

11. Johnny Rich, “When employers invest in education, everyone is working together” in Times Higher Education (THE), 29th November 2018, online here. Because of the strikes and IT complications, I don’t currently have my usual access to THE, so have to extend thanks to Paul Jump again first for alerting me to the existence of this article, which allowed me then to find the policy paper, and then for sending me the article text.

Universities Are Not… Really Supposed to Make Money

So here we go with the first of my analyses, for whatever they’re worth, of the negative characteristics of the current English university that help explain why their operations and staffing seem to have come to such a complete impasse just now. Let me start by saying that I don’t mean, by the title of this post, that I consider it illegitimate for a university to make a profit on its business. Rather, I mean that the current UK system has been set up in such a way as to make it almost impossible for a university to do that. This post is for explaining that contention, which underpins the logic of the subsequent posts and helps explain why the current strike action is achieving so little despite its continuing escalation. (Executive intransigence has got to take some of the blame as well, of course, and there are plenty of things that could be done that are more than the current nothing, but I think there is an economic explanation for why we are seeing so little exploration of that possibility.) I should say again before I begin that these are my own views and do not represent those of my exployers and that they’re only true for the UK, and to be honest, for England and Wales within the UK, though Scotland will, on present trajectory, end up here too.1

So. There are three main sources of income for a UK university: ‘home’ student fees, research grants and international student fees, plus a certain amount of block funding from the government known as QR. The last is allocated by ranking in the infamous Research Excellence Framework, an eight-yearly count-up and grading of research outputs.2 We also have to do a painstaking annual account of all our activity called TRAC (Transparent Resource Allocation and Costing) to be allowed to receive it, so the administrative burden of receiving this money is really quite high, and some have argued that it doesn’t in fact pay for itself. This must be truer at universities which win less of that funding than the ones who are ranked higher in the whole process, but has been argued even at Oxford, which is usually at or close to the top.3 So this is a difficult income to value, and the first three I mentioned are pretty clearly more important. Some, older, places, also reap quite a lot out of estate and investment revenues and there is an increasing role for alumni donations, but for most universities the big three streams are the ones I’ve outlined.

The trouble is that these streams are limited and don’t actually cover the costs towards which they are paid. At this time, tuition fees in the UK are capped at £9,250 per (undergraduate) student per year. That hasn’t changed since late on in David Cameron’s rule (remember him?). But a report by KPMG in 2019 established that the average cost of teaching a degree to the institution was just over £10,372 per student per year.4 Some subjects were on average a little cheaper than the fees – including history – but many were not; more than two-thirds of students were enrolled on courses which cost more than the fees. And of course, some universities put more money than others into their provision – Oxford, while I was there nearly a decade before, estimated its costs per student per year as more like £15,000, and the History Faculty sold its own library building to offset the deficit rather than adjust its teaching methods. Most places find themselves in difficulties that are different from that one. But the basic point is that universities can’t charge what their provision costs actually are, because the fees are capped, expressly to stop them from making too much money. And every now and then the government talks about reducing them, which when they’re half the sector’s income, obviously throws every financial officer in a university into a panic and people on precarious contracts lose their jobs.

As far as research goes, we’ve already seen that there are questions about whether the QR funding that supports general research activity is actually worth the cost of receipt. Of course there are external grants, and in some fields they pay for most research activity. But a report by Oxford thinktank HEPI in 2017 set out a good basis for believing that research grants don’t in fact offset the full cost of research.5 That is not least because they are almost never awarded with money in hand for administration, but whether the recipient university ‘top-slices’ it (thus defunding the project by that amount, and making it impossible for the researchers to do it without working partly unpaid) or not, that management cost is still being paid. Most universities are thus subsiding their research activity, presumably because they need it to look credible, but it doesn’t make them money, and no funding body is going to increase their grants to help with universities’ running costs, because they want, understandably, only to pay for the research.6 Once again, the university is not supposed to make money here.

Postgraduate student fees, I should add, don’t really help here unless the student is privately funded. If the funding comes from a project, it’s really research funding and works like the above. If the student obtains a scholarship, that is money the university already has, or has had allocated to it by means of what is now called a doctoral training partnership or centre for doctoral training. In these arrangements, a block of money is assigned to a group of supposedly-collaborating universities who then have to fight for it with each other on the basis of whose students look like the best prospects. It’s a microcosm of the ugly way that funding shortage turns universities into competitors, and has to be administered through a whole system of committees and meetings which chew up hours of staff time that is not, of course, paid for by the actual scholarships, which are only supposed to pay for the students’ tuition and maintenance. So even those lose universities money overall and they would actually make more by not awarding them and earning interest off the capital, except that then of course that would be taken away, because universities are not supposed to make money.

This only leaves international student fees, therefore, which because they are not a matter of public concern for the UK government can be whatever the institution likes. As a result, that HEPI report reckoned that each international student in the UK was probably subsidising research activity to the tune of £8,000 each.7 But Covid has obviously wrecked that market, and while it probably also for a while saved universities a load of infrastructure costs (as long as their IT set-up was ready for a challenge), that bonus is now gone and the international student market has not fully recovered.8 And of course, international students do not arrive equally distributed; some places have many, on certain courses at least, and some places hardly any, so even when it was fully operational this survival strategy was open only to some universities.

This, then, is the context for the proposed cuts to pensions provision, the persistent below-inflation pay offers and the refusal to acknowledge problems like workload, casualisation and the gender pay-gap. English universities struggle to pay for themselves at the best of times, because they’re not supposed to make money. One of their main sources of income has been frozen against inflation for six years (and now, in the course of writing these posts, for a further two), so the money they’re not making has got smaller, while research awards have also been cut back, especially with a whole year of inaccessibility of European funding. That revenue source is also shrinking. And none of this is secure: tuition fees have been under threat of revision downwards for years now (and still are despite the freeze), grants are obviously not guaranteed, QR funding was cut away from the arts and humanities only last year. No-one can plan more than two years ahead, let alone five, so from the top the only sensible strategy looks like accumulating a safety cushion and stockpiling revenue. But all the ways of doing that are shrinking relative to costs. With international student fees also now fewer, savings therefore have to be found somewhere, especially with the financial exhaustion of the pandemic. And since usually between half and two-thirds of a university’s budget is staff costs, the biggest savings can be made there. And saving there, of course, means paying staff less. And so we find ourselves here.

In the next of these posts I’ll argue that not only do UK universities not have very much flexibility in their income, but that the constituencies whom they serve most are not the ones who pay for their existence. That post and this present critical problems for the frequent analogy between universities and businesses, and from that other implications follow. Stay tuned!

1. Though for the complexities of the differences between English and Scottish funding régimes, see The Comparative Funding of Higher Education Teaching in Scotland and England: A Step by Step Calculation, ELC 03-01–34 ELC (Edinburgh 2003), online here. I do realise that was a while ago but I bet it hasn’t got simpler.

2. Most thoroughly condemned in Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF, SAGE Swifts (New York City NY 2015), online here.

3. For example, Anne-Wil Harzing, “Running the REF on a rainy Sunday afternoon: Do metrics match peer review?”, White Paper in Research in International Management, 2017, online here; Dorothy Bishop, “Is the benefit of the REF really worth the cost?” in Times Higher Education (THE) 28th April 2021, online here, and for Oxford, Tim Horder, “Performance Indicators” in Oxford Magazine Noughth Week, Michaelmas Term 2012, pp. 1–3. It should probably be noted that the government do have TRAC and its burdens under review.

4. Understanding costs of undergraduate provision in Higher Education, KPMG LLP, Costing study report (London 2019), online here; the figures I’ve given are not themselves in the report, but can be calculated from the figures they give per subject on p. 18.

5. How much is too much? Cross-subsidies from teaching to research in British universities, by Vicky Olive, HEPI Reports 100 (Oxford 2017), online here.

6. Though, it should be said, while they existed the Higher Education Funding Council for England seem to have accepted that top-slicing would happen to their awards and to have been fine with it, because they saw their business as keeping the whole system of universities running: see A Review of QR Funding in English HEIs: Process and Impact. Report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) by PACEC Public and Corporate Economic Consultants and Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge, by Barry Moore, by Nil Djan Tackey, by Rod Spires, by Alan Hughes and by Alberto García Mogollón (London 2014), online here, with interested references to the different approaches taken by different universities almost throughout. Of course, now HEFCE is gone, so they proved less sustainable than the institutions they aimed to sustain.

7. Olive, How much is too much?.

8. I have to admit that the most recent figures I can find suggest that actually, the pandemic has made much less difference to student choices and enrolments than anyone expected: see Lucy Van Essen-Fishman, “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 2020/21 Student data” in HESA, 25th January 2022, online here, but that is only comparing with 2019/20 data, which had already been hit pretty badly by Brexit and tension with China, neither of which have gone away.

Universities Are Not…: A Series of Strike Posts

As mentioned the other day, when we went on strike again this time, somewhat despairing, I thought I would try and write down what I think is going wrong in the university sector in the UK. Now that we reach the end of those strikes, with nothing achieved and more strikes therefore announced, I feel that I should do something with the results. I don’t pretend to be the first, or probably even the hundredth, to do this, and I haven’t read most of the others to be honest, so this is probably nothing new; but some of the places it got me were new to me, so I thought it was worth an audience.1 I wrote these all offline as one piece, then broke them into a sequence, making six posts including this one. They’re short, honest, or at least shorter than my regular posts. I intend to run them one a day starting today, and then, I promise, get back to medieval content that is safely in the past. But the present is weighing on me just now…

So. I’ve been working in the university sector for just under twenty years now, one way or another. I probably began with a fairly idealised view of what that world was, because of being a post-graduate working in the Golden Triangle of Cambridge-London-Oxford, and because of being the very last intake to be able to come through undergraduate study on grants all the way; even if I was on the breadline, I was mostly debt-free and living among and working with some of the best academic facilities in the world on a project of my own conceiving. I also started teaching in an institution like no other, where adult learners with world experience had signed up because they genuinely wanted to know about our subjects. So I had a long way down for disillusion to carry me. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’m alone in seeing a change in the sector since 2003, when I taught my first classes, and numerous opinion pieces and even some peer-reviewed literature seem to back me up.2 Now I’ve been on strike again, for the umpteenth time since I got the job at Leeds five-and-a-bit years ago, over the same unresolved issues as the last three times, which remain unresolved, and consequently have been wondering quite hard what it is that I am fighting to do on better terms, and whether it is actually possible. I find I struggle to articulate what I think the 21st-century university is for, and while I might argue that a big part of its problem is that neither can the people who run or who fund it, I do at least have some fairly clear ideas about what it isn’t.

So, what follows may not be the only or even the most widely-read vision of the 21st-century university, even among those emanating from my organisation, at the moment; but what, indeed, is a university that does not speak in diverse voices? That said, it’s probably more important than usual to emphasise that these are my views only and do not represent the views or position of my employers in any way. I should also say that the series relates only to universities in the UK; I don’t know any other system from the inside and our funding regime is so peculiar that the economics that drive our system probably don’t apply anywhere else in the same way. I’m very happy to hear comparisons though! But let me see if I can put my case…

1. A decade or so back, my default cite for this would have been Stefan Collini, What are universities for? (London 2012), but firstly I see that even then he was reviewing all the other people doing the same thing – see Stefan Collini, ‘Sold Out’ in London Review of Books Vol. 35 no. 20 (London 2013), pp. 3–12 – and secondly, sadly, it obviously didn’t convince anyone in a position to do so to change anything. Since then, of course, even the person Collini was then fighting has weighed in against what is happening, partly of course as a result of his policies, to the sector, in the form of David Willetts, A University Education (Oxford 2017), but that is hardly the point of view of a practitioner! The most recent academic thing I have in my folder of cites of this kind of thing is Resourcing Higher Education: Challenges, Choices and Consequences by Margarita Kalamova, by Simon Roy, by Cláudia Sarrico and by Thomas Weko (Paris 2020), DOI: 10.1787/735e1f44-en, but it cannot be said that I have surveyed the sector. On the other hand, when I already have a folder containing a thousand cites of woe, perhaps I shouldn’t…

2. Some significant examples: Adrian Barnett, Inger Mewburn and Sara Schroter, “Working 9 to 5, not the way to make an academic living: observational analysis of manuscript and peer review submissions over time” in British Medical Journal Vol. 367 no. 8227 (London 2019), l6460; Mark Erickson, Paul Hanna and Carl Walker, “The UK higher education senior management survey: a statactivist response to managerialist governance” in Studies in Higher Education Vol. 46 no. 11 (Abingdon 2020), pp 2134–2151; Troy A. Heffernan, “Reporting on vice-chancellor salaries in Australia’s and the United Kingdom’s media in the wake of strikes, cuts and ‘falling performance'” in International Journal of Leadership in Education Vol. 24 no. 5 (Abingdon 2021), pp. 571–587.