Category Archives: Institutions

Seminars CCLXIX & CCLXX: From opposite ends of the Mediterranean

I’ve just had a look through my seminar notes from March 2019 and decided that two still bear the telling. As ever, it is good of those who still read here to bear with my efforts to reduce the backlog in the face of the fact that things continue to occur meanwhile… But back then when my backlog is, at the beginning of the month I was present on the 4th when Professor John Moreland addressed Leeds’s Institute for Medieval Studies Medieval Group with the title, “Sheffield Castle: archives, excavations, and augmented reality, 1927-2018”, and then I was around again on the 27th when Dr Helen Birkett addressed the IMS Medieval History Seminar with the title, “News, Current Events, History: The Preservation of News Texts from 1187/8”. I’ve got no way to tie these together except that they were in the same month in the same university and I saw them both, but why should we need more, eh?

Poster for seminar by John Moreland at the University of Leeds

Seminar poster by Thomas Smith

So to begin with Professor Moreland’s paper, I have to admit that I did not previously know that Sheffield had had a castle. But there was one, and a recent bequest had enabled the University’s then-untroubled archaeology department to start a partnership up with the contract organisation Wessex Archaeology (who for reasons unexplained have an office in Sheffield) and the university’s department of Computer Science, to go over the work that had been done on it and try to synthesize the results of old and new digs. The castle has been dug quite a lot, apparently, being located, under what was between the 1960s and very recently the city market, by an amateur archaeologist in the 1920s and then dug for a decade, with some more work on its perimeter in the 1950s and new work just beginning at the date of this paper. The paper was as much about why what had been done had been done as what it actually was, but the basic story was that some kind of castle was probably put here in the 12th century by one William de Loyelote, built up rather with a gatehouse after license was given to crenellate in 1258, and then possibly burnt in a sack of the city of 1266 by a man really genuinely called John De Eville. There was some rebuilding thereafter and it was still a going concern in the 16th century, and indeed in the English Civil War though perhaps not going enough as it fell to siege in 1644 and 1646 and was slighted in 1649-1650.

Archaeological digging at the site of Sheffield Castle in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s

Archaeological digging at the site of Sheffield Castle in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s – sadly, Sheffield’s website doesn’t say which

The question that now arises is what bits of this actually survive. The 1920s-30s digs found lots, and some of that was photographed in situ, very luckily for such old archaeology, but that archaeologist, Leslie Armstrong, tended to date what he found from known history, such as the 1266 burning, so that various wooden structures showing destruction by fire he considered to be pre-1266 and everything above them to have been the 13th-17th-century building, which Professor Moreland though would likely prove wrong given the relative depths of stratification. In that case, this fire must have happened earlier and the 1266 sack of the city may not have hurt the castle at all. Another point of difference was over the material that Armstrong considered to have been ‘Saxon’, an alleged cruck-built building in the central courtyard and some of the material culture. Professor Moreland, however, thought that there was no pre-Conquest material at all, and that Armstrong was just after pushing his native city’s origins back to when it could be ‘Germanic’ rather than ‘French’, this mattering rather more in the atmosphere of the 1930s, though not always that way round… The oldest remains Professor Moreland had been able to date were late 11th-century, at which point there seems to have been a Norman motte with maybe a wooden gatehouse. But by this stage he had five minutes left to talk, so we didn’t get all the details of that I might have wanted, and the promised ‘augmented reality’ ironically never materialised, then or now. However, you can find out more! Wessex Archaeology have a good web-page on the digs, including their 602-page site report which, I admit, I didn’t read for this post (or at all), and a video by Professor Moreland explaining what the augmented reality stuff would have been like.1 Also, not very long after this paper, there emerged a book, so it is certainly possible for you to learn more.2

Dr Birkett’s paper was a very different sort of thing, not just because it completed within the time allowed but also because it was a proper old-fashioned text-mining medievalist study, which as I only now find out, had already been published at the point when she gave it to us.3 The object of the search was to find out how people in the West found out about the recapture of Jerusalem by the forces of Islam, under the famous Saladin, in 1187. We know that it created enough of a furore that eventually King Richard I of England, King Philip II Augustus of France and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa all went out to try and get it back – but how did the news actually get to their royal ears?

Poster for seminar by Helen Birkett at the University of Leeds

Poster again by Thomas Smith

Obviously, the answer was probably letters, but what I hadn’t expected was firstly that we would have any such letters surviving, and secondly where they turn up. These were surprises because actually, there are 13, but none are actual autographs by people of 1187; instead, such texts were later copied into chronicles and histories, or just copied; we have some loose copies which got used as bindings, and one rather mystifying copy of a letter from Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (the Latin patriarch, despite his name) that now survives in the Arxiu Parroquial of Cardona, of which town we heard only a couple of posts ago so you know it’s in Catalonia. In fact two such letters made it to Catalonia, but it doesn’t seem to have raised the same response as other places… But from the image I was pretty sure it was a local copy – I know the scripts! – so there was a kind of response even so.

But that is a whole book’s worth of study and for someone else. Better questions to ask might be, as did Alan Murray, of course present, whether multiple copies of such letters were being sent, or whether one was sent and then copied for dissemination, and Dr Birkett thought the latter. There is a particular one by a Templar called Terricas (apparently) which exists in more copies than any other, and Dr Birkett thought that the actual man’s journey westwards to seek help could be tracked. I don’t, myself, see why that precludes him fetching up in, say, Genoa, and then writing his letter and having copies sent hither and thither; but of course, I haven’t seen it, and either solution does explain why what we have is not the original letters, and reminds us that in this era (and to be honest, our one too) a letter only arrives because someone or a chain of someones physically brings it; that process also attracted questions, but answers are hard to provide. Dr Birkett herself was more interested in why these texts were still being copied up long after they were ‘news’, because outside the chronicle texts the preservation rarely seems to have been part of a plan; their homes were often blank folios in manuscripts made for other purposes. It is possible that, since Jerusalem was never recaptured (unless we count Emperor Frederick II’s attempt, which because the Church judged him to be a bad guy we seem never to do), this was ‘news’ that never got old. But the samples are very small, and I was myself wary of any generalisation of plotting trends of 2-4 manuscripts. But the questions are still interesting to ask, and maybe there are more answers to be found.

That will have to do you for this week. Next post will be some more current news and then I have an old musing that never before got written up about the role of the blog in/as scholarship, so please stay tuned for those, and if that’s not enough I hope to have more critique of a certain historian of early medieval military matters ready to go after that, surely therefore something for all tastes. Stay well and safe till then!


1. It is Sheffield Castle, Sheffield, South Yorkshire: Final Archaeological Evaluation Report, by Ashley Tuck, 201540.05 (Sheffield 2020), online here.

2. John Moreland, Dawn Hadley and Ashley Tuck, Sheffield Castle: Archaeology, Archives, Regeneration, 1927–2018 (York 2020), online here.

3. Helen Birkett, “News in the Middle Ages: News, Communications, and the Launch of the Third Crusade in 1187–1188” in Viator Vol. 49 (Turnhout 2018), pp. 23–61, DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.5.119573.

Name in Print XXX: the other parcel from China

A short bonus post for the celebratory weekend, celebrating, well, me again I’m afraid, plus ça change… You remember a few posts ago I wrote about receiving a fairly unexpected Chinese translation of one of my conference papers in the post? If you do remember, one of the reasons it was unexpected was that while I heard nothing about its progress into print, I had heard lots about the progress of another conference paper I’d given in China some time before, in a story I have already told. Well, a few weeks ago that one also arrived with me.

Cover of Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. Papers Read at the International Conference in Changchun, China, 23‒26 June 2017, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021)

Cover of Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. Papers Read at the International Conference in Changchun, China, 23‒26 June 2017, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021)

Although it’s not as much of a shock as the previous one was, this too has wound up looking rather different from what I’d expected. The original plan was for the papers we’d all presented in Changchun to emerge as a special issue of the Journal of Ancient Civilizations which is edited in the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations that had hosted us.

Covers of Cover of Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. Papers Read at the International Conference in Changchun, China, 23‒26 June 2017, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021) and Journal of Ancient Civilizations 32/1 (Changchun 2017)

The same volume next to vol. 32/1 of the Journal of Ancient Civilizations, like large child with small parent

The actual year of appearance, however, was originally to be 2020, which unhappily coincided with that pandemic of which you may have heard tell, and of course that fell on China first. So everything there became difficult, and not just for that reason. In any case, the perpetual shuffling of this special issue was messing up the journal timetable, it was also a lot more material than they usually publish in an issue, and there is also a series of supplements to the journal. So, at some point very late on in the process, it became clear to me that that is what would be happening with ours, that the covers would be red and cloth not blue and paper, and this is what I now have.

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation" in Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021), pp. 31–74

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation" in Günther, Qiang, Lin and Sode, Constantinople to Chang’an, pp. 31–74

Now, this doesn’t necessarily make the paper more accessible; the book is more expensive than the journal would be and even if your library has a subscription to the JAC – which some do, don’t be like that nowthey probably don’t get the supplements. And yet I do want people to be getting hold of this, because the paper I wrote I wrote fully intending it to be nothing less than an up-to-date, thought-provoking, student-accessible and copiously-illustrated guide to what happened to coinage in the various zones of the Roman Empire over the period about 400 to 700 CE which I could set to my own students (and you could set to yours!). It checks in on the coinage at the turn of the years 400, 500, 600 and 700, observes changes descriptively, and then addresses major issues like continuity and imitation, and there are seventy-odd illustrations, for which I laid out an entire year’s research expenses, in order to create the for-now-definitive one-stop article-length introduction to coinage in the late and post-Roman worlds. Mad, they called me, mad, I who have created numismatics! And so on. But dammit, it is rather good.1

Figures 49–60 of Jonathan Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation" in Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying & Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021), pp. 31–74 at pp. 70–71

Figures 49–60 of Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World", pp. 70–71

So, if this sounds like a thing you would want to read, or to make others read that you might educate them, and you have an institutional budget to support you, please try and get hold of the book; I am far from the only interesting thing in there, especially if you care about Byzantine (or Sasanian) coinage out of place, and IHAC does good work, including supporting foreign scholars and encouraging East-West dialogue, in an area of China far from Beijing or Shanghai.2 If you just have spare cash and like well-made books of interesting content, consider buying it too maybe, because the country which invented paper does make pretty nice books (and this is one). But if you don’t have the money and feel you might still benefit from my dubious expertise here, you can also find the article in a reduced-quality version on my Academia.edu page, with IHAC’s permission, so do feel free to enjoy that instead (or as well!). I’m pretty pleased with it and hope you will be too.


1. Full citation, as per, is Jonathan Jarrett, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021), pp. 31–74. Of that, a slightly frightening pp. 52-61 is bibliography and pp. 62-74 are figures, so it’s not as frightening a read as that makes it sound. I owe tremendous thanks to many people for making images available, but especially Maria Vrij at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, whence came most of them, and to the British Museum, CGB Monnaies, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Harvard College and Ruth Pliego for not charging for their images.

2. Admittedly, right now I admit I can’t find any way that you can buy it, but hopefully that situation will ease and if people want it I can try and find out how that can be done in present circumstances; leave a comment or send me mail and I’ll do what I can. Meanwhile, other tempting highlights might be Pagona Papadopoulou, “The Gold of the Emperor: Imitations of Byzantine Gold Coins in the Mediterranean (5th-7th Centuries), pp. 1–30, Rebecca Darley, “Byzantine Gold Coins and Peninsular India’s Late Antiquity”, pp. 135–169, Li Qiang, “Trends and Dynamics in the Study of Byzantine Coins and their Imitations Unearthed in China: 2007‒2017”, pp. 193‒206, Guo Yunyan, “Classification of Byzantine Gold Coins and Imitations Found in China”, pp. 207‒240, Lkhagvasuren Erdenebold, “East-West Relations and Nomads: a Short Introduction to the Tomb of Shoroon Bumbagar, Bayannuur Soum, Mongolia”, pp. 241–257 for those Sasanian finds, or Brigitte Borell, “Coins from Western Lands Found in Southeast Asia”, pp. 277–314.

Seminars CCLXVII & CCLXVIII: the Normans return to Leeds

As usual, apologies are owed to you, dear readers, for a long absence; sorry. We stopped working to contract at about the time all my marking came in, and the result of marking arriving was as usual disappearance from civilisation. This last weekend that was compounded by a breakdown and impromptu eight-hour stop in Brecon, as well, which cut back my blogging chances somewhat. But quite a lot else has been happening and I have news as well as olds to report. I had some olds half-set-up to go, however, so that’s where we’ll start, with two papers from two successive days at the University of Leeds in 2019, both on the Normans in Sicily.

Now, for those in on the medieval scene it may not be surprising to hear of work on Norman Sicily at Leeds; in fact the main thing that might be surprising is that we were bussing it in, because is Leeds not after all the seat of Graham Loud, doyen of the field and supervisor of many protégés therein? And this was true even then, but Graham was at this point in the second of three years of a research project which would take him neatly up to retirement, and his students had pretty much all completed. Furthermore, because of his absence, we weren’t even really teaching Norman Sicily any more. The thing that can happen when a specialist retires, where a whole section of the library quietly ceases to be used, was already in progress. But this did not mean that there was no audience when firstly, on the 19th February, Jeremy Johns hauled up from Oxford to give an Institute for Medieval Studies Open Lecture with the title, “Documenting Multi-Culturalism in Norman Sicily”, and then the very next day Francesca Petrizzo, one of those completed students of Graham Loud’s indeed, spoke to the Medieval History Seminar with the title “‘Normans Don’t Cry’: grief, anger and the Hautevilles”.

Medieval scribes from three Sicilian traditions in Peter of Eboli's Liber in honorem Augusti

The masthead image of the project Documenting Multiculturalism: Co-existence, law and multiculturalism in the administrative and legal documents of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily, c.1060-c.1266, which although they don’t identify it on the website turns out to be from Peter of Eboli’s Liber ad honorem Augusti sive de rebus Siculis, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 120 II, fo. 101r, online here. Really, academic websites should do better than this, but never mind, let’s move on…

Professor Johns was introducing us to a then-new project, Documenting Multiculturalism: Co-Existence, Law and Multiculturalism in the Administrative and Legal Documents of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily, c. 1060-c. 1266, funded by the European Research Council in a way that had just become rather political. The project probably also looked rather political to some, in so far as it was engaged in that most dangerous of things, attempting to check facts behind a cliché about religious, racial and cultural interaction. The cliché in question was that of Norman Sicily as a multicultural paradise of tolerance and shared artistic cultures; it is, now that Islamic Iberia is a bit more widely contested, almost the last of those we have left, but obviously it’s not everyone’s idea of paradise, and not everyone believes that it can have been possible despite certain signal memorials of it, because those are more or less by definition from élite; social strata deeply concerned in the success of the governmental project.1

Tombstone of Anna in St Michael's Palermo

The tombstone of Anna in St Michael’s Palermo, lettered in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew, commonly used as an emblem of Sicilian medieval multiculturalism; but Anna was mother of a priest of King Roger II, so may not have been precisely typical…

Well, this is a thing on which, to a certain extent, we can put numbers and for which we can find data, because the Normans arrived as French-speakers in a Sicily which had an Arabic administration and tax system, with older less Arabic components, staffed in part by Greek-speakers, and although survival of these systems’ documents is not what you’d call great (at least not by Catalan standards!), there are roughly 500 Latin, 350 Greek, 125 Arabic and 25 Judaeo-Arabic chancery records, quite a lot of inscriptions which at this point they had yet to count, and a good few other references that can be factored in.2 The difficulties or not that these documents describe are themselves qualitative instances of how these different cultural strata interacted, but also, and this was the main point of the paper, so is the choice and change of language in them. For example, one of the things coming out of this project will hopefully be the first ever study of Sicilian Arabic, because unsurprisingly it was a bit different. Ibn Hawqal, an Baghdadi merchant and probably Egyptian spy visiting in the 950s, thought it lamentably bad and ungrammatical; but the documents will tell us how it was actually written, and perhaps even spoken.3 Eventually, too, though this hasn’t happened yet, all the documents, in all languages of record, will be online in facsimile, transcription and translation, and that will be a fabulous resource to have.

What seems unlikely to emerge, however, is a simple narrative. The one we have at the moment is more or less that initially, the Normans needed the administration in working order so badly that they maintained it and its operators, thus practising tolerance by necessity and making a virtue of it while it did them good; but, after a century or so, partly because support for their endeavours from the Latin world was so necessary and partly just because the Normans did not naturalise very far, Latin tended to push out the other tongues and Christianity the other religions.4 What the project was already showing was that Arabic might have gone quiet, but had not completely gone, even in documents from close to the end of their sample, where boundary clauses might still sometimes be given in very local dialects of it in documents otherwise fully Latin.5 Who was the audience for that, nearly two centuries after Latin conquest? Likewise, it seems as if while the Normans may not have Arabised, they certainly naturalised to the extent that even by the 1190s, no-one seems to have been writing French on the island, rather than a local Romance more like that which would become Italian. Between Sicilian Arabic and Sicilian Romance, the most obvious outcome from the Norman period may actually have been, well, Sicily, admittedly not for the first time in its history, but ever reinvented as each wave washing over it dried into its shores.

Poster for the Medieval History Seminar, Institute for Medieval Studies, 20 February 2019

Poster for the seminar, designed by Thomas Smith

Francesca Petrizzo, meanwhile, had been one of my advisees while she was Graham Loud’s doctoral student, and so, disclaimer, can always be sure of a good write-up here, but I think more people than just me thought hers was a fun paper. Her doctoral thesis was on the political value of kinship among the most successful of the Norman families who made southern Italy and Sicily the new home for their endeavours in the eleventh century, by a process of hiring themselves into military disputes and slowly emerging as the masters of the situations into which they were hired, to the ultimate extent of becoming Kings of Sicily and counts of numerous other places nearby.6 However, what her thesis had not covered was emotional bonds, and this paper was an attempt to sound the evidence for that, and was therefore as much a methodological exercise as an empirical one: how can we get at emotions and feelings from the sources we have, and how can we ever be sure that they were what the subjects of report felt? There are some cases where it seems clear enough, relatively speaking: when Elvira of Castile, the wife of King Roger II of Sicily, died we are told by Alexander of Telese that Roger hid in his chambers for weeks, so that a rumour spread that he had died too and then his brother-in-law raised a revolt against his counsellors, whereupon Roger had to emerge in vengeful fashion and kill quite a few people. He then didn’t remarry for a decade, until he was down to one male heir. Love, grief and anger don’t seem unreasonable to attribute here, though one would like the hiding story to occur in more than one source.

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa, with tombs of the Hauteville family visible beneath the floor, photo by Anna Nicoletta MenzellaOwn work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The main emotional outlet of the Hautevilles does seem to have been anger and venegance – the title quote came from a report by Amatus of Montecassino about a band of Normans whose lord was killed in a fray, who, he says, did not waste time on tears but went straight through the stages of mourning to vengeance without waiting (not his language, obviously, but the title quote is: “Normanni non plorent”, ‘the Normans don’t cry’).7 But seeing other emotions in the sources is hard: we can see patronage as an expression of affection, especially when it was extended to people who repeatedly caused trouble (though that was a lot of the Hautevilles, and there may just not have been much choice); we can also, however, therefore see a preference for kin over outsiders, despite how troublesome a kindred it was.8 And then there are memorials that show us some level of mourning, of which we have two above, though of course these are the public expression of mourning rather than a private one. Many of these emotional pathways, interestingly, occasionally let women through into what would normally be men’s roles; women counts regnant, several powerful consorts, daughters who witnessed charters, patronesses of chronicles, and so on.

The examples involving women may be the most powerful ones, for me, because they sit against the otherwise obvious possibility that these actions of violence, inclusion, patronage or dispute may have been pragmatic and political rather than emotional (in so far as the two spheres separate). Obviously female kinship ties had political value as well, but Tancred of Conversano having his daughter witness charters probably didn’t help anything except her sense of being a nobleman’s offspring. Nonetheless, most of the questions were about how results of an enquiry like this could be made reliable, with one person saying it simply couldn’t be done, as all we were getting was the emotions that the agent of record thought would have been appropriate, and another wondering if the chroniclers’ emotions weren’t the thing we should study here instead. Joanna Phillips, also of this parish, wondered if it might be more reliable to track responses to emotion than records of its expression. More interesting to me was the question that asked if this emotional profile was a Norman thing or more generally medieval, to which Francesca said that it wasn’t even general to the Normans; few other families had this kind of internal cohesion and, apparently, trust. But also, in most other cultures and kingroups of the era crying was a perfectly legitimate display of sincerely felt emotion; if these Normans didn’t cry, then they were modelling a different, less emotive kind of masculinity than was the fashion with others. That kind of relative history of emotions might work better for me; the chroniclers in question are still individual lenses which need to be gauged, of course, as are any non-chronicle sources (of which there were some) involved, but at least once we can say, this story presents appropriate emotions thus but this one elsewise, we can start to dig into why. The material for that seemed to be abundant here!


1. This is a lot to substantiate in one footnote, so maybe I can just give examples. For example, Iberia maybe not a multicultural paradise even if some current hate speechifiers go too far in denying it: Anna Akasoy, “Convivencia and its Discontents: Interfaith Life in al-Andalus” in International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol. 42 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 489–499. Sicily still in the frame: Sarah C. Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (Ithaca NY 2017). Critical reevaluation (maybe too critical): Brian A. Catlos, “Accursed, Superior Men: Ethno-Religious Minorities and Politics in the Medieval Mediterranean” in Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 56 (Cambridge 2014), pp. 844–869. Lots more could be cited, often with quite different views.

2. See Hiroshi Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, The Medieval Mediterranean 5 (Leiden 1993), and indeed Jeremy Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily: The Royal Diwān, Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization (Cambridge 2002).

3. Professor Johns didn’t mention Ibn Hawqal, but the geographer’s peroration on Sicily is one of my favourite tenth-century sources, and can be found in French, at least, in Ibn Hauqal, Configuration de la terre (Kitab surat al-Ard) : Introduction et traduction, avec index, ed. J. H Kramers and trans. G. Wiet, Collection UNESCO d’œuvres représentatives : Série arabe, 1st edn (Paris 1964), 2 vols, I pp. 117-130. The only English version I know is a teaching translation of my own from that French, rather than the Arabic.

4. This is the picture you’d get from, for example, Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 1992), which was the first thing I ever read on the subject (and was new then…).

5. The example here was a 1242 document by King Frederick II’s administrator Obbertus Fatamongelia, apparently the first charter in their sample to use Arabic for a space of forty years, but I’m afraid I have no tighter reference than that. When their website’s finished, though, we’ll all be able to find it from that I hope!

6. That thesis was, for the record, Francesca Petrizzo, “Band of Brothers: Kin Dynamics of the Hautevilles and Other Normans in Southern Italy and Syria, c. 1030-c. 1140” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds, Leeds, 2018), online here.

7. Again, I don’t have a detailed reference here, but one can read Amatus in Amatus of Montecassino, The History of the Normans, trans. Prescott N. Dunbar, rev. Graham A. Loud (Woodbridge 2004).

8. As well as Petrizzo, “Band of Brothers”, see now Francesca Petrizzo, “Wars of our fathers: Hauteville kin networks and the making of Norman Antioch” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 48 (Abingdon 2022), pp. 1–31.

(Why) Universities Are Not… Giving Way to their Staff

I initially wrote this in the middle of ten more days of industrial action over pensions, pay and terms of work in the English university sector, those following ten days last month and three days at the end of last year, and plenty more in previous years. Then I thought it’d better wait till people weren’t actually on the picket lines (though there are still some places where, for different reasons, they are.) But there have never before been such serious strikes in UK higher education. It’s been quite a long time since I got to deliver one of my own modules without losing classes. Obviously my pay and savings have taken a dent, and I’m one of the fortunate ones in still being basically OK. But it has got us nothing; not only have there been no concessions but the employers’ bodies have simply refused to negotiate, as if a 17% gender pay gap wasn’t just a basic ethical concern as well as a financial problem. What response we have seen is moves to run around the unions by promising to address the problems by new schemes and initiatives in which the unions are not consulted. Of course, where a union is recognised that’s illegal, but P & O Ferries have just shown us how the accounting maths works out on that score.

All the same, just because the university managements probably can ignore the unions doesn’t straight away explain why they want to – why staff goodwill is worth so little, why staff welfare is of so little concern and why this much disruption is worth just weathering out. In my previous posts on these issues I accordingly set out some plausible reasons why at least some of the problems we’re fighting about, specifically pay rises and causalisation, are actually hard for the employers to address, and how their resolution would tend to result in fewer jobs in the sector overall. The short version of those reasons would be because university income in the UK is actually zero-sum, so if you reallocate any of it there have to be losses somewhere else. Nonetheless, the Universities and Colleges Union is not wrong that many universities are stacking away considerable profit and surpluses at the moment, even if they ignore that some others are running in persistent deficit and may soon go to the wall. So one might argue that at least some employers could reallocate the sums needed out of their own bank accounts. But it seems that they won’t, despite the best we can do by way of argument.

Now, emotionally I will happily accept the idea that the whole sector’s management just don’t care, and that their only strategies are to pretend to act via working groups and consultations while actually progressively removing any mechanisms of contact or feedback between them and the people to whom they give orders so as to make not caring easier. It certainly feels like that from here! But you might hope that there was at least some reason why everyone above a certain level of authority is willing to look that way to the public and their staff, despite what it means for the effective functioning of their institutions. In this post, therefore, I want to do two things: firstly I want to acknowledge and include some points my original thinking missed, which I found during the work on my posts on the disputes and which help explain a few more things. Then secondly I want to explain why I think we’re losing and what would have to happen to change that.

Points I missed

In the first place comes a change of direction that I partly managed to make in the original posts, because my starting hypothesis didn’t seem to be justified by the figures. It still doesn’t; to my surprise, it doesn’t seem as if the global pandemic has actually made terribly much difference to international student recruitment in the UK. The detail of the ebb and flow from place to place differs quite widely, and there was definitely a thin patch in early 2020 with lots of people understandably deferring their places, but between online teaching and then eased restrictions it seems that a lot of that revenue has been rescued. That meant that there was a period of panic and the great digital pivot and so on, and everywhere reset their budgets on the basis of panic. Then the disaster didn’t come and the part of the university sector that wasn’t already in trouble has found that it can more or less carry on like this now, for a while at least. And, for reasons we’ll come to under the final heading, ‘for a while at least’ is all anyone is thinking about right now. So the revenue crisis is now not so imminent as to make change necessary, but still remains potential enough to make change look very dangerous. It’s not the biggest brake on change – as I say, I’ll come to that – but it’s probably a significant one and I had it facing the wrong way round in the metaphorical circuitry of my analysis.

But seriously, pensions

Secondly, however, and more revelatory, the thing I have found hardest to understand in these disputes is why the employers won’t take easy wins when they appear. The one of these that was confusing me most was the pensions situation. I don’t want to run through the whole thing in detail here, but you have to understand what the problem initially was to understand what I mean. The problem initially was that, largely because of new rules set up by England’s Pensions Regulator, a valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme in 2017 or 2018, I now forget, came out showing a worrying deficit against future liabilities. It wasn’t losing money or anything: it was just unable right then and there to make all the payments that would be due if every single member university in the country suddenly went bust. Counter-arguments from the Universities and College Union included the one that this was utterly unlikely, but it was the eventuality against which the Pensions Regulator now required the scheme to be secure. There were also questions about whether this deficit would exist were the scheme not also trying to ‘derisk’ by moving its investments progressively into low-yield, but predictable, bonds, rather than the more profitable but less reliable funds that generated most of its current revenue. UCU also had arguments with the methodology used to do the valuation, however, arguments about necessary ‘levels of prudence’, and on that basis the only thing, really, that the first serious round of national strike action in 2019 won was an agreement to wait until USS had done a new valuation to decide on next steps, which everyone was going to agree on first.

Unfortunately, the new valuation occurred during the high point of panic over Covid-19. The figures came out much worse, of course, and the fund went unilaterally into carefully-managed emergency measures, triggered automatically by its charter and raising contributions across the board from both employees and employers. Unsurprisingly, therefore, new proposals rapidly emerged from the employers’ side about how to cut pay-outs and contributions to a level that they and the scheme found sustainable, and it’s these proposals that have now been pushed through in the teeth of our strikes. But the thing is, at the same time not only has every university in the country not simultaneously closed; the fund’s investments have also been doing far, far better than their gloomy maximum-prudence predictions during 2020 forecast. By all the calculations anyone outside can do with the available figures, two years of big investment return have probably actually wiped out the scheme’s deficit. There’s no longer any immediate financial need to make these cuts, and there’s another valuation due in 2023 anyway. So why not, to end these strikes, just give UCU what it wants, revert the cuts, let things simmer down and then start again in 2023? Why not now just let the staff have their hope of a reasonable retirement by changing nothing? In most other respects changing nothing appears to be what the managements want, so it seems like an easy concession to buy space to do whatever other worsenings they have planned. But no.

I couldn’t understand this until, in the course of writing the previous posts and looking for cites on managerialism in the university, I found an excellent blog post from 2019 by Lee Jones of Queen Mary University of London, for which institution I once worked and who have now earned themselves the ignominious honour of being the first university to try to dock pay from staff for not rescheduling classes lost due to strikes, i. e. fining them twice for not doing work once.1 Whether this is legal remains to be seen – the rest of the sector, having threatened it, is now waiting with bated breath to see if QMUL get away with it – but in any case, I digress. Dr Jones ends his post with a call for a full-on end to free-market economics as the only solution, which I can’t see coming, but his analysis of the actual economics of the situation seems to me very sharp indeed, and includes something I didn’t think of, universities’ increasing reliance on borrowing to finance their competition with each other. There, he says this (with all his links gratefully copied):

“The turn to capital markets happened very quickly after 2011. During 2015 alone, universities issued $1.39bn in private bonds, typically at around 3% interest over a long time period: 50 or even 100 years. From 2013–18, university bond issues totalled £4.4bn. Oxford has borrowed £750m over 100 years at 2.5%; Cardiff, £300m at 3.1% over 50 years; Cambridge, £300m at an inflation-linked rate and £300m at 2.35% over 60 years; even Portsmouth has raised £100m through issuing bonds.

“Raising private finance depends on assuring investors that the institution is financially sound and their money will be returned with the stated rate of return. To keep the ratings agencies sweet (yes, Standard and Poor, Moodys, et al. now rate universities, just as they rate governments), universities must show financial probity. That involves two things: first, they must demonstrate that revenue (i.e. students) will continue to flow to the institution, which requires a solid competitive positioning in the market place. Portsmouth’s investment prospectus, for example, makes direct reference to its league table position to reassure bond-purchasers. This reinforces the managerialist turn to gaming the league tables and degrading higher education, as described above. Secondly, universities must show a determination to suppress costs, to show that they can generate the required surplus to repay the bond when it matures. That entails bearing down on staff pay and especially ‘pensions liabilities’, which are always a concern for private investors. The desire to shrink these liabilities was a key factor behind employers’ attempt last year to cut USS pensions a third time [since] 2011, which drove staff out on strike en masse.”

That is a piece of the puzzle I did not have and which now fits all too well. Of course, the cutting of pensions is a long-term plan, or at least, has been happening over the long-term, and this helps explain why. Rather than the employers choosing change of plan over stability, what the concession I suggested above would mean in this light is the abandonment of a much longer-running plan to which the pandemic gave unexpected opportunity, under that old and disgraceful banner, used by more than one vice-chancellor in 2020, “never let a crisis go to waste“.2 And so I now hope for rather less success for the university workers in this area than the figures suggest should be possible.

A Private-Sector Problem

But the other reason my hopes have shrunk badly since this round of industrial action began is that there has been almost no action from the government. You might well say that this is an industrial relations problem, not a national problem, and why should the government be expected to act? But my earlier posts made the argument that when the government controls more than half the university sector’s income, between tuition fees and the mysterious QR funding, and imposes upon the sector a massive regulatory burden in order to be allowed to receive it, and then also imposes hard limits on what that income can be, it is actually the government that creates the framework within which these problems cannot be resolved.

Neither is it just that because of this level of state control, university finances are statically constrained. We exist as a sector under an ongoing and semi-permanent threat of defunding. Until just last month, the shape of this Sword of Damocles was the Augar Review, which began in early 2018, reported in the very last days of Teresa May’s premiership in 2019, and has only now received a proper government response. I’ll come to that response in a minute – because I literally only found out about it while writing the post – but since Augar initially recommended cuts to tuition fees, in order to reduce the growing liability on state finance created by their 40%+ non-repayment, it created a panic in the sector which in some places saw people literally being fired that month to save money. Then nothing happened, and a global pandemic set other priorities for all parties, plus which Augar himself no longer thinks cutting fees would be a good idea.3 Still, it was only a few weeks ago that any assurance came to the university sector that they were not, in fact, facing a crippling cut to their majority source of income which might come at any time, when the government announced that the current cap on tuition fees would be frozen for a further two years. And even that, of course, only gives two years’ security, and that in the form of a source of revenue which has been shrinking against inflation ever since 2012 when the current cap was set. Since other revenue in the sector is also very hard to increase, and with the upheaval caused by the pandemic to cope with as well, it is understandable that anyone who sees their principal job in a university as, not even to maximise profit, but just to keep the whole thing financially afloat, has been stockpiling income, trying to cut spending as much as possible and getting ready to borrow huge amounts if necessary.

As it is, from what I can see on the basis of a report on the response to the review – not having had time and probably not having the will to read the actual thing – the response does not remove this problem. Instead, it mainly does two things, one being to make repayment thresholds for the students who have loans lower, so as to decrease that massive non-repayment figure, and the other being to open up lifelong access to loans so as to encourage reskilling and retraining. This is kind of patching one hole while opening up another: it may get more loan money back into the Student Loans Company’s bank accounts, but will be pouring more money out at the same time, and to people who will not have as long to pay it back or salaries as high from which to do so. Those loans will have to be unpleasant to have if they’re to escape becoming a new version of the exact same problem the current ones face. The response also freezes current tuition fees for two years, but makes no promises about them after that. Meanwhile, it demands that universities make their ‘graduate premium’ more public by advertising employment rates for graduates from their courses, another reporting requirement which universities will learn how to game; and it threatens the future defunding of courses which don’t reach a certain, unspecified, level on that score, as well as potentially courses that don’t serve the national interest as much as others. To me this mainly looks like a win for the Further Education sector, and goodness knows it needs one, but this can also fit with my earlier forecast that universities will use their greater size and capacity to start taking over the vocational and FE sector and pushing smaller dedicated providers out of it – expect lots of mergers of local colleges with their local big universities and an end to non-degree-level teaching at them. What this does not do is give universities any basis on which they can securely plan their finances for more than two years ahead. That is made worse because, even this long after Augar actually reported, a great many things in the response seem to be kicked down the road for later consideration or, typically for the Cameron-and-post-Cameronian administration, left as threats that may or may not be carried out, depending on unspecified things. This kind of failure to make policy is exactly why for the last ten years or so no-one in the sector has dared plan anything but capital projects intended to secure more certain revenue.

For this reason, while I didn’t then know that it was being said on the basis of this response being about to appear, it was when I saw the above that I knew these strikes weren’t going to get us anywhere. Bim Afolami may be right, and UCU may be right, that the universities do, currently, in most cases, have the spare money to address some of their staff’s grievances and, as I say above, the pensions situation has eased to the point where it needn’t even cost them very much to address. But there is no reassurance that things will stay that way, and while as a result they are still the prisoners of the wavering international student market for any kind of ongoing financial security, they’re not going to start spending out reserves they could well need very badly just a couple of years down the line.

So what needs to happen if this is ever to get better? Well, I think it’s nothing less than a team from Universities UK, a team from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and one from the Universities and Colleges Union sitting down with the three, no less, ministers of government who currently have responsibilities in the sector (the Secretary of State for Education, the Minister for Universities and the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills) for a couple of days and arguing out what it is they collectively think universities should do, for whom. Then, and only then, they should concoct a way to tap the money made by those things that would establish a steady ongoing foundation for them which can continue without need of further interference. Then we might be able to look to a future. We’ve seen that there probably are ways that funding could be arranged, and possibly even with less of a burden on the state than there is now – on which basis at least one former Universities Minister might want to be in the room too, since he already thinks he knows how to do this – so it’s not impossible that this would produce a mutually satisfactory outcome.4 Since UCU tends to get outvoted in such meetings, however, it’s also possible that this would just produce an acceleration of the current direction of travel towards vocational, marketised, industry-facing training and research-only-with-development. But since I dare not hope that that meeting will ever happen, maybe, in the words of Gil Scott Heron, “Unfortunately, the world is just going to drag on and on.”5 Two questions then seem to remain: one is whether we, the actual workers of knowledge, are going to be able to drag it in any particular direction, even back towards the past, or will in the end be dragged by it. And the other, I suppose, is whether it’s worth remaining knowledge workers so as to see.


1. Lee Jones, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education” in Medium, 28th November 2019, online here. I should also mention Luke Martell, “The marketisation of our universities: Economic criteria get precedence over what’s good in human terms”, in British Politics and Policy at LSE, 23 November 2013, online here, as making some of the same points more briefly and presciently six years previously, although not the one I’m running with here.

2. I can’t name the ones I actually heard of saying it, as I suspect that would get me and others into trouble, but Peter D. Burdon, ‘Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste’: The Impact of COVID-19 on Legal Education, SSRN Scholarly Paper, Social Science Research Network ID 3938681 (Rochester NY 2021), online here, is kind of a metastudy. It should be noted that the phrase is seen positively by many ed-tech evangelists, who are presumably not interested in the reasons why the resistance to change which the use of the phrase bespeaks exists: witness Wayne Camara, “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste: Large-Scale Assessment and the Response to COVID-19” in Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice Vol. 39 (Chichester 2020), pp. 10–18, DOI: 10.1111/emip.12358, and Jeffrey Lancaster, “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste” in EduCause Review, January 11 2021, online here.

3. A lot of my details in this paragraph, including that last one, come from Nick Hillman, “In the years of waiting for a full response, it’s become clear the Augar review is a smörgåsbord not a prix fixe. But while policymakers have been deliberating, universities have been delivering” in HEPI, 1 February 2022, online here, though I can’t but think Dr Hillman must have been quite annoyed when the response followed on his heels by only a month. On that response I have mainly relied on James Higgins, “Augar review: government reveals student finance shake up” in University Business, 24th February 2022, online here.

4. See David Willetts, Boosting higher education while cutting public spending, HEPI Report 142 (London 2021), and indeed David Willetts, A university education (Oxford 2017).

5. Gil Scott Heron, “Brother”, on A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (RCA 1970).

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, Harzing.com: 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 Harzing.com: 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.