Tag Archives: politics

(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… 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.

Aside

It has been more than a month since I last put text to blog, and though I’m sure this isn’t a complete surprise given what the world and its people, and universities specifically, are up against just now, it might … Continue reading

I found this coin, 3: imperial violence

I had intended to follow the last post, which was quite heavy, with something lighter-weight—specifically, about three and a half grams—by picking something out of the coins photography I was still doing in late 2016 and telling its story in that way that I sometimes do. And yet, without my having planned this, it functions rather well as an epilogue. So here’s three coins…

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Reverse of the same coin, with the imagery that’s important for this post, under the legend Virtus Exercitus, ‘strength of the army’

In one of the previous ones of these posts I remarked on a well-known but still interesting fact, that the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (306-337) to Christianity, however loudly his biographer Bishop Eusebius of Cæsarea wanted to tell us about it, shows up almost nowhere on Constantine’s absolutely prolific coinage, which retained the pagan imagery of his immediate colleagues and predecessors. The other favourite subject, however, was by now the Roman army. And above there you see the ideal results of its operations, two unlucky captives bound below a military standard, a reasonably simple visual message to parse.

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

And the reverse of the same coin, showing as you can probably see a Roman soldier skewering a fallen horseman with his spear

The three of Constantine’s sons who eventually succeeded him, Constantine II (317-340), Constantius II (324-361) and Constans I (333-350), were all, we suppose, raised Christian, and there is a bit more Christian imagery on their coins but mainly they stuck to the same theme. It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that the Roman army was the primary user base for new coinage, since they received it as pay, or in the case of pieces like these, as exchange for a low enough part of the value of their pay, which was made in gold, that they could actually spend it. So messages that say how great and fearsome the army was make sense on Roman coinage, but still, this imagery of violent and unequal battle and, let’s face it, death, was also the general circulating medium of exchange in the empire.

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of the same coin, showing the new emperor (admittedly then operating as junior to Constantius II still) maintaining the same imagery

Now, it seems to me that this is one of those lines our culture (by which I mainly mean the Anglophone liberal one in which I currently write) has set up between the past and us; we wouldn’t put imagery of our state employees killing the state’s opponents on our money. But where does the past start that we have chosen to mark ourselves off from in the manner I was describing last post?

Colin Gill, 'King Alfred's Longships Defeat the Danes', 1927, London, House of Commons, WOA-2600

Colin Gill, ‘King Alfred’s Longships Defeat the Danes’, 1927, London, House of Commons, WOA-2600, used under the Open Parliament License

Maybe not all that long ago, huh? We all know that the 1914-1918 Great War was not in fact ‘the war to end all wars’, but in 1927 the UK’s governing establishment was apparently still pretty proud of its previous wars, and of course this is still there now, part of the normal backdrop to the entry and exit of our ruling class from their place of daily responsibility. Not just them, either; the last time I was in the London auction house Spinks, there was on display there a, how shall I put it? ‘dramatic’, I think is the word, a ‘dramatic’ diorama of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, made in 1979. It eventually sold for £2,100 (lot 666, indeed). And we could go on piling up examples.

Which of us in the UK can, after all, honestly say that they have never uttered a line from this film? Not many! And yet it is the same message being delivered: this empire’s army surely does (did?) kill its enemies. Obviously, it surprises no-one to say that empires rest on violence. The Romans as a people knew this, not least because their state used means like these coins to tell them so. We would not put that on coins. But you can make a lot of money passing the message all the same. Funny, isn’t it, where our scruples now lie compared to theirs?

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Ein schlechter Tag für Europa

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Leaving my own politics out of it, I wake this morning to the likelihoods that two funding bids I’m involved in will now collapse, that all our current European doctoral students are now going to have to rush to finish before the conditions of their residency in the UK change in unpredictable fashion, that working in Catalonia, Spain or France is shortly to get more expensive and hostile and that my chosen sector of employment will now see yet another shrinkage of income, with presumably resultant cuts in jobs. I am also going to have completely respin the next lecture I give on Charlemagne. The longer-term consequences… who knows?

Anglo-Saxon England and the European Union

It is a time of weighty decisions in this part of the world right now. I don’t just mean in the Academy, although today and tomorrow much of the UK one is on strike because of pay that has not kept pace with inflation for some years and personally I am in the middle of quite a lot of marking, some of which will affect people’s fates in ways I can’t foresee but can still worry about. No, I mean that on June 23rd the UK will be turning out to express its opinion about whether it should be in the European Union any longer, even on the rather specialised terms we currently enjoy. As with every political issue these days this has become a matter of men in suits insulting each other and making up random stuff to frighten their electorates, and in some cases other people’s electorates: the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of Canada have both weighed in effectively to threaten Britain, apparently not realising how much of the ‘Leave’ campaign is being driven exactly by a resentment at other countries seemingly intervening in Britain’s decisions. Perhaps they’re actually trying to make sure the ‘Leave’ vote wins. In any case, it all has me wondering what perspective a historian can take on it all. Sheffield’s excellent History Matters blog has a Brexit category but so far only one post under it, and I feel as if more can be said.

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

It seems to me that this is one of the rare episodes where the most relevant parallels are from the early Middle Ages, because there is really only one point prior to the twentieth century when Europe could be considered a single political entity and, importantly, its ruler had not declared an intent to add the British Isles to that (as in the times of Carausius, Napoleon or the guy with the moustache and the painting qualification). That time is the period of the Carolingian Empire, albeit with some pre-echoes under the Carolingians’ Merovingian predecessors, and actually there are some thought-provoking parallels. There’s nothing really new in what follows except its application to now, but I still think that’s worth doing.1

A silver penny of King Offa

Obverse of a silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, struck in London by Ethelwald around 785

For a start, we can look at English-European relations in a time of breakdown here and see what happened. In around 796 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans, had a letter sent to King Offa of Mercia.2 At this point in time Offa was pretty much number one king in England; not only did his Midland kingdom stretch from the Welsh border and the Hwicce (around Gloucestershire) to Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire) but he also held control over Essex, East Anglia (just about), the south-eastern Home Counties and the city of London and had marriage alliances with both King Beorhtric of Wessex and King Æthelred of Northumbria.3 This put him in charge of quite a chunk of the Channel coast and its ports, and whether either side liked it or not that put him in contact with Charlemagne.

A Mayen quernstone

A Mayen quernstone, of the sort that Charlemagne probably refers to in his letter to Offa

In that letter Charlemagne was responding to one of Offa’s that we no longer have, and had a number of queries to answer. The letter is thus very revealing about the kind of things that kings dealt with in this era: the free movement of pilgrims from England through Francia, and how to distinguish them from merchants who disguised themselves as pilgrims to escape paying toll; the proper treatment of merchants who admitted as much, and should be protected by the Frankish king according to an old agreement; a renegade priest whom Offa feared had come to Charlemagne to spread accusations about Offa at the Frankish court, but whom Charlemagne had sent on to the pope at Rome; and black quernstones which had until recently been imported into England and which would now be again, as long as Offa would make sure that those exporting English wool cloaks to Francia made them at the old, full length rather than a new shorter one that the Franks didn’t like.4 Charlemagne also sent ceremonial clothing to both Offa and Æthelred with which their churchmen could hold memorial services for the recently-deceased Pope Hadrian I, whose death had, we know, grieved Charlemagne deeply.5

Charlemagne's epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, on display in San Pietro di Roma

More black stone, Charlemagne’s epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, still on display in San Pietro di Roma

A lot of this doesn’t seem too far from the modern day, suggesting that some issues keep coming up: we have a kind of Schengen Agreement for certain kinds of travellers, but not those with goods to declare; a certain sort of acceptance of responsibility for foreign nationals; some controversy over appeals to the European court system (here manifest as the king and the pope, but still); and fine-detailed specifications of goods with which, just like the fabled EU regulations on the curvature of certain vegetables, one is surprised and even dismayed to see the European world’s top legislators wasting their time when warfare, migrants and agricultural crisis all needed dealing with.6 We know from other letters that Offa and Charlemagne had at one point been sufficiently at odds for Charlemagne actually to close the Frankish Channel ports to traders from Offa’s territories, which will hopefully remain unparalleled whatever happens but reminds us that access is not guaranteed, and Offa was also persistently bothered about Charlemagne playing host to powerful exiles from England, either from Kent or from Northumbria (where King Æthelred would be killed later in 796, making Charlemagne extremely cross with the Northumbrians).7 Offa himself would die later that year, indeed, which reminds us that the people who make such treaties tend not to last as long as the consequences, but if you remember the furore about Julian Assange taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London you can probably understand that people being protected from vengeance by foreign powers is not a phenomenon that’s stopped nowadays.

Map of England in the time of Offa's rule, c. 795

Map of England in the time of Offa’s rule, c. 795; I think we could argue about Sussex, but it gives you the idea…

There are also plenty of things that damage the comparison, of course. One of the other things that Offa and Charlemagne seem to have argued about was a possible marriage pact between their children, in which the problem was which side got the other’s daughter for their son.8 The UK still has its royalty, of course, but if one of them married into a European royal line (if they could find one with whom they aren’t already consanguineous) it would no longer make a massive difference to the UK’s relations with Europe. That should serve to remind us that whatever the things the early medieval situation shares with the current one, democracy was not one of them; not only would Offa and Charlemagne both have been bewildered by the concept of a referendum, but once you’d explained it they would have thought it subversive and dangerous, and maybe even illegal, and there the modern parallel is really elsewhere in Europe. There’s also important differences in the scale of trade revenue involved, which for our kings might have been significant but was still only a tiny part of their kingdoms’ economy.9 And finally, of course, among many other objections that could be raised, the England of Offa was a patchwork of uncomfortably allied rival kingdoms of varying size and strength, all of whom could negotiate with the Franks separately as our letters show, and so is almost more like the European Union of now in structure than like the unified, monarchic and hardly-devolved kingdom of Charlemagne, despite the rough territorial match.

So does the parallel I’ve set up actually tell us anything about the current situation? I think that it does, at least, bring some particular aspects of the situation out that are perhaps not as obvious as they should be. The first of these has already been mentioned, that whatever the outcome is on June 23rd it’s hard to believe the arrangement it sets up will last for long before being modified; all the people who made it will be out of power before very long, and the new lot will have a choice about how much continuity they want. The UK has tinkered with its relationship to Europe every few years for as long as I can remember, after all. The second thing we might take from all this is the reminder that even if the UK does leave the EU, relations with Europe will not just stop dead; the migrant crisis, the continuing importance of NATO, and the simple fact of Europe’s being right there and linked to the UK by a tunnel and high-speed rail link all mean that some kind of relationship between the UK and most of the Continental European states must continue. The referendum will help decide what kind of relationship that will be, but it won’t end it any more than Charlemagne closing the Channel ports ended trade relations between the two powers. That did, however, apparently make quernstones impossible to get for a few years and some parallel to that is very easy to imagine. What European foods do you currently eat you’d be sorry to go without?

Buffalo mozzarella cheese

My personal candidate: looks horrible, tastes magnificent. By Luigi VersaggiFlickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=397091.

But the last thing we might not think of without this prompt is the rôle of Northumbria. Obviously, now that’s part of England, but Scotland is not, and while in Charlemagne’s time the Picts were a whole separate quantity (albeit also in contact with the Continent) now we might be reminded by Offa’s rival kings that Scotland may yet be in a position to reach its own agreements with Europe, when the current alliance falls apart as did that between Mercia and Northumbria and the campaign for secession heats up again.10 What would that mean? When Scotland looked like devolving properly last time many people talked about moving there to benefit from various more friendly aspects of its fiscal system and so on; if the UK left the EU and then a subsequently separated Scotland rejoined, I think a lot of businesses might look to relocate, and Scotland’s economic case for devolution start to look a lot more survivable. I can’t quite imagine it doing to England what Wessex eventually did to Mercia, but this, and the other points above, might all serve to remind the uncertain voter that there are more voices in this dispute than just UK voters and Brussels.11 Whatever your own priorities are, it might be worth thinking before you vote about Offa, Charlemagne, pilgrims, exiles and even quernstones, and considering just which bits of history we’re about to repeat.


1. There are two obvious books that cover this theme, Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures, 1943 (Oxford 1946) and Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-870 (Aldershot 2003); both of them offer much more context for all of what follows than I can give here.

2. The letter was probably written by the Northumbrian cleric and teacher Alcuin, since it survives in collections of his other letters, but it went out in Charlemagne’s name. It is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), “Alcuini sive Albini Epistolae” in Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae in quarto) IV (Berlin 1895, repr. Hannover 1994), online here, pp. 1-481 at no. 100, and translated in Steven Allott (transl.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804: his life and letters (York 1974), ep. 100, and in Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 197.

3. For background on Offa see most quickly Simon Keynes, “The kingdom of the Mercians in the eighth century” in David Hill & Margaret Worthington (edd.), Aethelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia. Papers from a conference held in Manchester in 2000, Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon studies, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 383 (Oxford 2005), pp. 1-26.

4. On the black stones, see Meinrad Pohl, “Quern-Stones and Tuff as Indicators of Medieval European Trade Patterns” in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology Vol. 20 (London 2010), pp. 148-153, DOI: 10.5334/pia.348, whence the illustration (fig. 1).

5. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard tells us of the king’s grief at this event in his Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1965), online here, trans. David Ganz in idem (ed.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2009), pp. 17-44, III.19. I’m not sure where the memorial is edited, but it is translated in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2005), no. 9.4.

6. Admittedly, the obvious migrants, the Vikings, hadn’t really started migrating as yet, though as we have seen here they were a danger; as to the agricultural crisis, 792 and 793 had been famine years in the Carolingian Empire, as is recorded in the Royal Frankish Annals, printed as Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), online here, transl. in Bernard Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), online here, pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21, s. aa 792 & 793.

7. In addition to the works in n. 1 above see here Janet L. Nelson, “Carolingian Contacts” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Ann Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe (London 2001), pp. 126-143.

8. The source here is the Gesta Abbatum Fontellanensium, printed as Fernand Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1936), but I don’t have a detailed cite, only the knowledge that the relevant extract is translated in Whitelock, English Historical Documents doc. no. 20.

9. Opinions differ here, of course: see Chris Wickham, “Overview: production, distribution and demand” in Inge Lyse Hansen & Wickham (edd.), The Long Eighth Century: production, distribution and demand, The Transformation of the Roman World 11 (Leiden 2000), pp. 345-377.

10. On Scotland’s connections to Europe in this era see Patrick Wormald, “The emergence of the ‘Regnum Scottorum’: a Carolingian hegemony?” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Britain: the proceedings of a day conference held on 18 February 1995, St John’s House Papers 5 (St Andrews 1996), pp. 131-160; Edward James, “The Continental Context” in Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St. Andrews sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 240-249.

11. Simon Keynes, “Mercia and Wessex in the ninth century” in Brown & Farr, Mercia, pp. 310-328.

Link

“They have chosen ignorance”

I found this a year or so ago, but you might still want to look at it. It’s an open letter by a number of scientists protesting about the defunding of research in higher education contexts, with a number of significant institutions (especially Spanish ones, perhaps not surprisingly) supporting them, and they are (still) looking for signatures.

http://openletter.euroscience.org/open-letter/

With a year’s perspective on this (and the all-important transition into an established post, no doubt) I find my views on this slightly less similar to theirs. I am still horrified at some inner level about the continuing pressure to cut and cut, but I understand where it’s coming from; we in the UK have been in an era where politicians see declaring actual policy as exposing vulnerability since about 1997, and since Blair at least that’s been not least, I think, because they know they don’t actually have any joined-up policy scheme. Making budgets balance, however, they understand as an aim (if not a skill) and believe the electorate will understand as well. In any case, no-one for ages has had a solution for where the money comes from for higher education that isn’t one way or another raising taxes, which no politician now has the courage to admit they need to do, so if it is solved it will be solved by stealth anyway. In recent months we seem at last to be moving into a position for UK higher education at least where the relevant bits of the state actually have something like an idea what they’d like to see, and I don’t like all of it but it’s not quite what the letter above is seeing. We’re still supposed to achieve excellence without money, of course, but the person in charge (an ex-historian, which I’d love to think helps) seems to understand that some kind of underlying structure is necessary to support that, even if it apparently has to run on less resource.* But there isn’t much less it can run on without losing either quantity or quality, given the decreasing rewards for students in terms of a graduate premium in salary, which means that making the voice of that letter louder may still do some good even if its detail doesn’t fit our particular case as well as it did when they wrote it and I saw it.


* I really would like sloganeers to look up the word ‘excellence’ at some point and realise that semantically it cannot apply to a majority. To excel is to be distinguished by quality; if everyone’s quality levels up, there is no distinction and therefore no excellence. This sounds like bad word choice, but I think it’s worse, it’s the hope that despite a general expressed wish to raise standards there will still be élite institutions, like those to which policy-makers largely go, that will remain worth more in social and career terms. You can aim for excellence, in other words, but their very use of the word shows that they hope most don’t attain it…

Seminar CXV: making a state in tenth-century England

I am sorry about the sporadic nature of posting here in recent months. There was Leeds, and either side of that I had house guests, and through all of this I’ve been processing new charter information, which inevitably takes daily time or it doesn’t get done and which, shall we say, starts more projects than it finishes. These things are now all winding down and I hope to spend August determinedly clearing backlogs, among which the posts I have been intending here, lo these many months. This must, I think, require some fairly tough decisions about what seminars to cover, but one that I don’t want to miss is the one that was already next up, when George Molyneaux spoke to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 23rd January with the title, “The formation of the English kingdom in the tenth century”.

The point at which one can sensibly talk about a single English kingdom in the Middle Ages has been a long debate, and actually quite a lot of that debate has been led from Oxford. Names like James Campbell and Patrick Wormald come up, who were in post here when they published the things on this subject which have been influential, or Michael Wood, who started here before going on to greater things, and Sarah Foot, who was not here when she took her place in this historiography, now is.1 One might expect the next step in the debate to be taken elsewhere, therefore, but in actual fact George, one of the scary Prize Fellows at All Souls College, has led the charge from the inside. In the previous stage of the debate King Alfred tended to loom large; George’s first published step into this started the process of diminishing the responsibility of Alfred’s court (itself another Oxford pursuit) and now he is in the process of turning his doctoral thesis into a book which may even finish the job.2 This paper was, I think, more or less a pitch for that book, and it made it sound extremely necessary; I shall try and do the same.3

Sketch-map of England and its parts in the 10th century by George Molyneaux

The hand(out) of George: sketch-map of England and its parts in the tenth century, with added information

I had a very slight advantage over some of the audience for this paper, in as much as George kindly lectures on a course I convene here so I’d already heard some of what he might say. So, what’s the argument? Well, an elevator pitch of it would be fairly simple: it is that the really big work of setting up and structuring a kingdom of the English should be placed in the later tenth century and not before; before that is only a military unity, periodically fractured by a resurgent Viking York or whatever cause it may be, but by 1000 one has structures like shires (only apparent north of the Thames in the last third of the tenth century or so), hundreds (on sites that had often had a focal role from much longer ago but now doing something new, as George qualified in questions), and the courts at both of those levels, fortified towns (as opposed to just fortresses that would later become towns), mints (with a number of new mints set up by King Edgar (959-975), who then got all active mints striking the same sort of coin at once) and many other things. George stressed that he didn’t want to make Edgar into a new Alfred here, not least because for some of this King Edmund (939-946) may also have to bear some blame and presumably there’s also room to rehabilitate Eadred (946-955) and Eadwig (955-959) at least a little bit too, but the opportunity given Edgar by the temporary cessation of Viking attacks must have counted for a great deal, it seems to me; Eadred deserves more recognition than he gets for defeating every, considerable, military threat that arrived but it can’t have left him a lot of time for civil reform.

Obverse of silver penny of King Edgar of the Stamford mint, 973x5, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R Reverse of silver penny of King Edgar of the Stamford mint, 973x5, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R

A silver penny of the Stamford mint from after Edgar's 973 coinage reform, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R

What George ended up pitching here, by means of a comparison of how he saw royal government before and how he saw it after his identified change, was a shift of emphasis from extensive to intensive government, from a peripatetic court with an essentially military and seigneurial dominion to one that commanded through law and through a devolved and consistent structure of administration, as far as local variation would admit anyway. He put this down to an end to the possibilities of expansion now that all the Viking kingdoms were conquered, to the reform ideology of the period pressuring the king to take control for the good of his people and his own salvation, and to the economic growth that was going on everywhere at the time and the intensification of lordship that it fuels, the first argument not unlike that put forward by Timothy Reuter for the Carolingian Empire of course and the last one that readers here will likely recognise though George was getting it from Rosamond Faith, not from anyone I tend to cite.4

First page of the lawcode IV Edgar, King Edgar's laws issued at Wihtberodestan, Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 265, p. 216

First page of the lawcode IV Edgar, King Edgar’s laws issued at Wihtberodestan, Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 265, p. 216

The result – if George is right about this – was that for the first time the kingdom and the realm of the English were relatively close to being the same thing, as opposed to a people with many kings. It also made England different from its neighbours in a way that was hard to undo: to be under the rule of the English king was a different kind of experience of power, involving a more regimented access to judgement, to markets, to warranty, to protection and (I’m sure John Blair would have added) to the sacred than one found outside its borders, which one might now therefore have been able to define. In England, royalty ruled not just by charisma and self-presentation, but now also by routine. And this, you see, is one of the reasons why the tenth century is where it’s at. It will not be long, I suppose, before the full version of this story as George sees it is available, and I think it’s going to be necessary reading not just for Anglo-Saxonists but for anyone who believes similarly in the importance of the tenth century or wants to know how one goes about forming a state in the early Middle Ages. Because you see, by the end of it that is what we’re talking about and just making that clearer will not be the least of this work’s impact.5

I asked one of my wooliest questions ever after this paper, because at that time I had hundreds on the brain and was still unable to get away from the antiquity of many of the sites where hundred courts were held. By the time I’d stumbled the words out, it all seemed rather obvious and yet it’s not, perhaps, often enough stated: quite a lot of what underlies these processes must, it seems to me, be men (and even women) in power seeing the possibility of turning existing structures to their agenda and converting them into part of the government. I kind of hate this argument because it rings of Foucault, but when you have kings apparently giving the hundred moots, whatever they did beforehand, new jobs and new jurisdictions and limits probably but often on the old sites, or Alfred (yes, I will keep him in this at least this little bit) using the Viking threat to put areas of his kingdoms under obligations to build fortresses and do military service that had maybe before only run in detail in Mercia, I think that these changes have to be seen this way.6 The coinage system must be another thing that can be fitted into that template; Offa of Mercia and indeed Alfred were obviously able, at a push, to call in the whole coinage or at least decree that an old one would cease to be acceptable; Æthelred the Unready, whatever his failings, could do this frequently. (I’m sure George will cover this last in the book, indeed.)

Visible remains of the burh wall at Wallingford, from Wikimedia Commons

Visible remains of the burh wall at Wallingford, from Wikimedia Commons

In each of these cases, a structure or process that had been occasional or reserved for emergencies wound up serving a new, governmental purpose and becoming a routine operation. I don’t mean to say that Edmund and Edgar and their advisors didn’t think of anything new, not at all, but that the things they carried out were in part dictated by the possibilities of what already existed. If I’m right about this – sorry – there are two important implications, one of which is that those who managed to lay down the precursors should be credited with assisting the later creation of that state we’re talking about, but the other of which is that encroachments on liberty by government can be sincerely meant to be one-off but still open up possibilities for successors who don’t see the constraints so clearly. I’ve been worried about this ever since the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was passed in England, and the Terrorism Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act only made those worries worse. It seems unlikely, from here, that people in tenth-century England saw the institution of regular shire and hundred courts as a nosey and potentially dangerous intervention by tyrannical higher-ups that removed their personal liberties, though the attempts of the Anglo-Saxon kings to restrict trade to places where royal reeves could witness it probably seemed more like that sort of thing despite the obviously sensible purpose of limiting the possibility for disputes. And, then as now, if there was opposition, it certainly wasn’t unified, coherent or resourced enough to resist these changes. All the same, there are two ways to see the building of an England in this period, quite apart from the debate over whether it happened thus and then, and I find that contemporary politics make it harder to see the positive side that was perhaps more apparent to those who remembered the Second World War firsthand.7 It may be a thousand years ago and more that George is writing about, but the reasons people may care are very current. It’s not actually necessary, to drive those arguments, that the picture we have of the formation of England be correct, but I take some comfort anyway in thinking that with George’s work we’re a step closer to being correct about it all the same.


1. James Campbell, “Was it Infancy in England? Some questions of comparison” in Michael Jones & Malcolm Vale (edd.), England and Her Neighbours, 1066-1453. Essays in Honour of Pierre Chaplais (London 1989), pp. 1-17; Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a Maximum View” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1995), pp. 39-65, both repr. in his The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 179-199 & 1-30 resp., and several other chapters of that volume; Patrick Wormald, “Engla Lond: the making of an allegiance” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 7 (Oxford 1994), pp. 1-24; Michael Wood, In Search of England (London 1999), pp. 91-106; Sarah Foot, “The making of Angelcynn: English identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 6 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 25-50, repr. in Roy M. Liuzza (ed.), Old English literature: critical essays (New Haven 2002), pp. 51-78; cf. Susan Reynolds, “What do we mean by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxons’?” in Journal of British Studies Vol. 24 (Chicago 1985), pp. 395–414 and Pauline Stafford, “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, identity and the making of England” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 19 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 28-50.

2. George Molyneaux, “The Old English Bede: English Ideology or Christian Instruction?” in English Historical Review Vol. 124 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1289-1323; see also Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23 and cf. Janet Bately, “Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited”, ibid. 78 (2009), pp. 189–215.

3. Part of me wishes also for the book that Chris Lewis might write on this, as has been recorded here before, but perhaps the existence of George’s will provoke him!

4. Rosamond Faith, The English peasantry and the growth of lordship (London 1997).

5. Rees Davies, “The Medieval State: the tyranny of a concept?” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 16 (Oxford 2003), pp. 280–300, vs. Susan Reynolds, “There Were States in Medieval Europe – a reply to Rees Davies” ibid. pp. 550-555.

6. What I know about legislation around the hundred, I confess, I get principally from Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents vol. I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 39. On military service, see Nicholas Brooks, “The development of military obligations in eighth and ninth-century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69-84, repr. in David Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings (New York 2000), pp. 83-105 and in Brooks, Communities and Warfare, 700-1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47, but to see this in action (or not!) see Asser, De rebus gestis Ælfredi, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), cap. 91 (ed.); for more recent assessment, David Hill & Alexander Rumble (edd.), The Defence of Wessex: the Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon Fortifications (Manchester 1996).

7. For sharp comparanda for this kind of assessment, see Catherine Hills, Origins of the English (London 2003), pp. 21-39.