Cold callers in the academy

I blogged recently about the publisher of Science Omega Review. In fairness to the company, I should now add that the compliance officer phoned this morning to offer an apology for the behaviour of an employee who was damaging the company’s reputation. Make of that what you will.

But the blog clearly touched a nerve. One comment, from Neuroskeptic, pointed out that a number of companies have spotted opportunities in the academic market. Dead right. I routinely receive emails alerting me to calls for papers for conferences and journals that I have never heard of.

As Neuroskeptic says, it’s not a sign of a quality event or journal when you get invited out of the blue. Another dodgy signal is that they usually have a generic email address.

This morning’s bunch, for example, included an email from someone called Kristian Hodko (with a Hotmail address), inviting me to contribute  to the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. According to its website, the journal is ‘under the indexing process’ with ISI and Scopus. The website also names several UK academics as members of the editorial board. Its FAQ section says it charges authors $200 per paper.

I don’t find myself tempted to write something for this journal, but some people clearly do. It may even be a good or a young, emerging journal. I simply don’t know. And more importantly, a lot of people who are less experienced than I am, and at a much earlier stage of their scholarly careers, won’t know either.

How can we bring a little clarity into what has started to become a crowded and increasingly noisy market? Because if we don’t do something soon, the whole open access movement will be tainted.

A constitutional right to free education?

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, has called for a constitutional guarantee of ‘free education’. Speaking to the BBC, he described a written constitution as integral to a ‘modern democracy’, which would enshrine a number of civic rights. So far as education is concerned, he stated that:

Scotland pioneered free education hundreds of years ago. We have a policy that has restored free education, but it should be a constitutional protection.

Before anyone accuses me of extreme gullibility, let me make it clear that I am award that Salmond is a politician, and his main priority at present is building support ahead of the 2014 referendum. No one has ever accused him of spending too much time contemplating the finer points of democratic legitimacy, and I am not about to start. But he clearly thinks that the idea of ‘free education’ is an appealing one, and it is therefore worth exploring it a little further.

The first thing to note is that a number of opposition politicians in Scotland have recently called for a new debate over tuition fees in higher education. For example, Labour’s Scottish leader Johann Lamont last year claimed that the current arrangement, whereby Scottish undergraduates are funded by the state, was financially unsustainable and likely to erode ‘excellence’. She also claimed that it was unfair, as university graduates not only get ‘higher lifetime returns’, but a ‘disproportionate number’ are from more privileged backgrounds, making the current system ‘essentially regressive’. So this is a hot political topic, and the parties – Lamont as much as Salmond – are looking for political returns.

The second thing that I’d say is that if a constitution enshrines a right to free education, then the law courts will need to test what is included and what is not.  Even in Scotland’s universities, most postgraduate students expect to pay a fee, and at the top end many companies pay premium fees for executive education programmes. Local councils in Scotland charge adults for community courses. In Stirling, for example, a typical class – beginners’ IT or creating writing – costs £71.40. And then there is a vast mass of commercially provided education, from teach-yourself materials through to study tours.

Third, and somewhat pedantically, Mr Salmond has rewritten the past. For most of their history, Scottish universities charged students to matriculate (or enrol), then they paid a fee to the professor for each course that they studied, and again to sit the exams and graduate. When Adam Smith won a scholarship to Balliol College, he complained that his Oxford professors were uninterested in teaching, because they were paid from endowments and not by their students. (The serious-minded Presbyterian and Unionist Smith also detested the political and religious sympathies of Balliol, where many staff were inclined towards Jacobitism and Catholicism).

Fourth, public funding involves trade-offs. In the case of Scotland, the government has decided to use public funding to support the universities, and to reduce dramatically its support for colleges. It has required the funding council to concentrate its cuts on part-time study, so that participation by adult learners – particularly women – has fallen dramatically. It is simply not the case that ‘free education’ has no implications – we have learned in Scotland this year that ‘free education’ for university undergraduates means ‘no education’ for many others.

So basically, I’m suggesting that it is unrealistic to expect that all education can be free. A constitutional right to free education will need to be highly qualified, and will be subjected to legal challenges. And I confidently expect it to be rewritten every time there is a change of government. Little wonder that other ‘modern democracies’ like Germany do not enshrine this right in their constitution. I admire the intention, but it’s unworkable.

Then there’s the specific question of higher education. Do we really believe that a mass higher education system can be funded today on the same basis as a much smaller system that used to cater for a tiny elite in the past? Whether fees should be charged is essentially a question of morality. Those who believe it morally right for the state to fund the system through taxation should be willing to argue openly for higher taxation, or for lower quality. Those who believe state-funded higher education is socially regressive, and produces stronger private returns than public goods, will presumably argue for fees much more explicitly and openly than Johann Lamont has done so far.

And do I expect our leading politicians to take these morally justifiable but politically unpopular positions any time soon? Let the clichés roll, from melting rocks to flying pigs.

The issue of gender in higher education is always controversial. Add social class to the mix, and throw in a gender perspective that focuses on males, and you can guarantee to generate heat, but not necessarily light. I liked this thoughtful and careful approach, at least as a way of opening up the issues for debate.

The Elbow Patch

It is difficult not to be cynical about the Universities Minister’s recent exhortation to institutions to address the underrepresentation of white working-class boys in higher education. It may have coincided with the release of a depressing downturn in applications in the 2013 UCAS cycle, but the timing was surely no coincidence as BIS looked to deflect attention from another indication of the unfolding tragedy befalling English HE post-Browne. Timing aside though, David Willetts has a point: white working-class boys are one of the most under-represented groups among undergraduate entrants and his intervention prompted some very interesting responses. Conor Ryan of the Sutton Trust gave a summary of the research evidence in his blog and pointed out that only half as many boys as girls apply to Sutton Trust summer schools. Patrick McGhee, VC of the University of East London, outlined seven practical steps which would help improve working-class boys’ higher…

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Have you heard of “Science Omega Review”?

I’ve just taken a cold call from a young man claiming to be from Science Omega Review. He was offering me the opportunity to publish a paper on research in lifelong learning. Apparently the Review was just about to go to the printers, with an editorial on Michael Gove’s policies towards lifelong learning research. Would I be interested in writing a companion article?

We agreed that I knew about the topic, and that I would be willing in principle to write something. At that stage, it emerged that the Review wanted to be paid for carrying the article. I said that I wasn’t willing to proceed on that basis. ‘So’, he said, ‘you don’t believe in open access?’

The conversation didn’t last much longer. As I’d never heard of the Science Omega Review, I searched a few websites, and found an organisation called Public Service. Along with conferences and other commercial services, it publishes a magazine called Public Service Review, which included papers by a number of decent academics, so presumably they or their institutions listened to the same sales pitch that I interrupted, and decided it was worth their while to pay in order to get their research to a wider audience.

I’d be very interested to hear what other people think about this. My own judgement is that it’s a potentially worrying development, as academics under pressure to engage with ‘research users’ will be wondering how best to communicate their findings with policy makers and other non-academic audiences. Sales calls might sound appealing to some researchers – but surely there are better options, like blogs?

Meanwhile, who is behind this company, and does it really offer a quality service? And who actually reads its publications?

The year of the educated citizen?

This week, the Irish Government – which holds the presidency of the EU – is launching the European Year of Citizens. According to the European Commission,

The better the men and women of Europe understand their rights as EU citizens, the more informed the decisions they can take in their personal lives, and the more vibrant democratic life in Europe can be at all levels.

Throughout the year, the EU and its member states will organise a series of events, nationally and locally as well as at European level, aimed at giving people information about their rights, and encouraging them to exercise them.

 One justification for this focus is the finding from an opinion poll, commissioned by the EU, which found that under half of those surveyed felt they knew what these rights were. In the case of the UK, six out of ten feel they do not know what their rights are as European citizens. The figures are even higher in several countries, including France and Italy, though in Ireland the proportion who thought they were familiar with their citizenship rights was slightly above the EU average. 

Six out of every ten people across Europe said that they wanted to know more about their rights as EU citizens.  So there is plenty of demand for greater information and understanding. The Commission has set aside a budget of a million Euros to fund Europe-wide activities and resources. Its main concern is with the right to free movement, under which people can live and work in any EU member state. This is potentially controversial across Europe, with resentment against immigrants on the rise everywhere. 

On the other hand, while complaining about others who move to their own country, most people are very pleased to be able to work or retire in other people’s countries. By 2010, the Commission estimates that over 12 million Europeans were living in another member state – not counting tourists and other short-stay movers, like ERASMUS students. 

In response to the Commission’s designation of 2013, some 50 non-governmental bodies formed a European Year of Citizens Alliance. These are mostly European-level federations such as the European Woman’s Lobby, the European Disability Forum, the European Federation of Older People and the European Anti-Poverty Network. They also include the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. Few of the Alliance come from the world of education, though they do include a society for former ERASMUS students. None – rather to my surprise – comes from adult education. 

As well as promoting the Year of Citizens and supporting activities, the Alliance has also campaigned for a wider and more generous understanding of citizenship. It is difficult to disagree with their view that the gap between citizens and EU institutions is vast; more arguable is their belief that it is possible to bridge the gap without a major overhaul of what the EU is and how it decides its business. And this, of course, would require exactly what no-one much wants – such significant constitutional reform that it amounts to a new Treaty. 

I find myself slightly torn about all this. There’s more than a whiff of self-interest about the European Commission’s role. After all, if citizens decide that the EU is a bunch of shysters who are up to no good, then what business has a transnational state in persuading them otherwise? And I dream of seeing Ireland’s President attacking the hypocrisy of Europe’s governments in promoting a Year of Citizens, after decades of increasing surveillance, obsessive secrecy, declining political trust, and diminishing voting levels – not forgetting recurrent corruption scandals. 

At the same time, the Year opens up a space for debate over what it means to be a citizen of the EU in our times. And this is of enormous interest to anyone in higher education and lifelong learning. Our universities are full of innovative programmes for active learning in the community, where students learn new capacities and develop their understanding of citizenship by working with voluntary groups. In adult education, the Workers Educational Association continues to lead the field in democratic practice.

The irony, as Mark Ravenhall pointed out in Adults Learning recently, is that elsewhere in the system there is barely any connection between the efforts of those who run and work in public education institutions, and the range of democratic processes that produce the policy-makers who fund them. I don’t think that a European Year of Citizens on its own will do much to change that, but at least it creates opportunities for debate, and prompts connections between different actors. Genuinely educated citizens – now, there’s a goal worth striving for!

The official website of the European Year of Citizens is at:

Pity me – I’m a professor

A recent article in Forbes magazine suggested that academics face a lot less stress than most professional workers. Based on some admittedly rather slender evidence, the author reckoned that being an academic must rate as the least stressful professional career of the year. As an academic, I managed a weary smile over some of the lazy stereotypes, but otherwise found little of interest in an article, most of which was hardly news to me. What did tickle my interest was the howl of pain that followed.

Over 150 outraged academics wrote on Forbes’ website, complaining bitterly about the stresses and strains of their work. You can probably guess what most of them said. As a group, we work long hours (sixty hour weeks are common); our students are increasingly demanding; those of us who do research have to present conference papers, write for journals who may refuse our work, and spend hours drafting funding proposals that may be rejected. At key stages of our careers, we may be denied promotion or placed under pressure because we have not done these things, or have not done them successfully.

And this is not all. In a typical week, I do most of the following: write a reference or two for an ex-student or colleague; correct proofs for a paper, or provide an index for a book; read a manuscript for a publisher; attend a conference advisory committee; review a paper for a journal; answer questions from a journalist; attend a committee or two; work on a report or strategy paper; read and advise on a colleague’s grant proposal; supervise doctoral students; and, as an empirical researcher, I have to gather data, with all the practical arrangements that entails, and then find some moments of peace to analyse it. I also contribute to a learned society and a professional association.

So I understand that we do a lot of work, in fact that it never seems to stop. I ‘get it’ that rejection hurts (I could paper a large wall with letters from journals and research funders telling me my work is not good enough). I know there are deadlines (and as soon as I stop writing this, I will be putting the final touches to a research bid that is due in next week). But does this make my job stressful? And to return to the original point of the Forbes article, does it make my work more stressful than most other people’s? Hardly.

Fortunately, some serious evidence does exist. To take one example, an article in the Journal of Managerial Psychology in 2005 compared UK stress levels among twenty-six occupations. In terms of physical health symptoms that are related to stress, it placed academic researchers thirteenth; the worst stress indicators were found among ambulance drivers. Academic researchers were tenth in respect of psychological well-being, with social care staff showing the lowest levels of well-being. And academics had the sixth highest levels of job satisfaction, with prison officers coming last.

The reasons why academics fare relatively well should be obvious. In the 2005 study, six occupations consistently ranked poorly in all three indicators: ambulance workers, teachers, social care workers, customer service staff in call centres, prison officers and the police. These are jobs where you are likely to experience verbal and physical threats, a high probability of injury, lack of control, high levels of intensity combined with periods of boredom, and considerable emotional labour. The lowest stress indicators were found among school dinner supervisors, analysts and – ironically, given how they laughably justify their rewards – managing directors/directors in the private sector.

On the basis of this study, academics are neither the most stressed nor the least stressed professionals, and that sounds to me about right. We still have a lot of discretion, and we still enjoy a lot of what we do. But over time, I think it likely that working in higher education has become more stressful for more people in the last twenty years, if not for all of us. This is unsurprising, as while higher education instsitutions have been cushioned from the worst excesses of managerialism and resource-scarcity, they face similar pressures to other public services.

I also think that younger and newer staff experience more demanding expectations than my generation did, and I know that in most countries junior staff will probably include more women and minority groups. And overall, the salary differences between academics and other professions have declined.

It seems even more likely that job pressures will intensify in the future. Three main factors suggest this may be the case: (1) new types of institution will be offering more and more higher education programmes, and their employees will not be traditional academics; (2) economic globalisation will intensity the social expectations on universities to help deliver higher competitiveness; and (3) political globalisation will sharpen pressures on research-led institutions to elbow their way into the world premier league.

So I am not complacent, and I do not argue that we all live in a cosy, cosseted ivory tower. But I do suggest that we do ourselves no favours by indulging in hyperbole and self-pity, nor by pleading that we are worse off than other professions – which anyway is surely a particularly self-deluding form of divide and rule.


You can find the Forbes article here (but be warned that their website can be very clunky):

Fat cats or in it together? Vice Chancellors’ salaries in the recession – update

Since my initial post last week on this topic, the University of Huddersfield has posted its annual accounts on its website. During the recession, based on comparisons between 2007-8 and 2011-12, the Vice-Chancellor’s salary at Huddersfield rose by 6.2%. This is well below the rate of inflation, and more or less half the average for all VCs in Yorkshire, which now stands at 12.7%.

Another way of looking at senior salaries is to count the number of staff paid £100,000 a year or more (not counting the VC). Across Yorkshire, the number of university staff at this level rose from 242 to 268 people, but at Huddersfield the number of highly-paid staff fell by one person. By contrast, the number at York rose from 11 to 30, probably due mainly to the growth of the medical school (the presence of a medical school always transforms senior university salary levels).

In a future post I will publish comparable figures for Scotland (where several universities have still not published their accounts for 2011-12); I will also update the Yorkshire analysis when I finally see the outstanding set of accounts. 

Meanwhile, this update confirms the general tendency during the recession for most Yorkshire university leaders to enjoy relatively modest salary rises, or even accept a small drop. The exceptions remain the VCs for Leeds Trinity (a rise of 26.7%, but from a relatively low base) and Sheffield (a stonking 36.5%).

Fat cats or in it together? Vice Chancellors’ salaries in the recession

How are Vice Chancellors’ salaries holding up at a time when universities have made far-reaching savings? I’m interested in the way that senior managers in the public sector are separating themselves out from the mass of the public sector workforce, and earnings are the simplest way of examining this. So I checked on the universities of Yorkshire – England’s largest county, with a population only slightly smaller than that of Scotland or Denmark.

I looked at the financial reports for 2007-8 and 2011-12 of nine universities between the Tees and the Hull. Two more universities have yet to post financial reports for 2011-12 and were excluded, along with Bradford College and two very small specialist institutions. I’ll update this blog when the finance officers of Sheffield Hallam and Huddersfield post their accounts, but overall this gives us a clear enough picture of trends.

The broad pattern is that while some VCs enjoyed rises well above the rate of inflation, they are a minority, and two have taken a cut.  Across Yorkshire, VC salaries have risen, but at a level – 13.5% over five years – that looks rather modest.

This average, of course, hides much variation. Leeds Trinity University’s top salary rose by nearly 27%, admittedly from a relatively low base; from a much higher base, the University of Sheffield rewarded its Vice Chancellor (who also received a New Year knighthood) with a rise of 36.5%.

At the other end of the scale, the VC’s salary at Bradford fell by 4%, while at Leeds Metropolitan University the drop has been a remarkable 11.2%. Susan Price has headed Leeds Metropolitan University since 2010, since when the University has frozen all senior management salaries, partly with the aim of setting an example to their colleagues.

There is also a relatively modest rise in the number of other university staff who earn above £100,000. One average, their number rose by 11.4% over the five years. Their numbers fell at Hull and Bradford, and rose slightly at Sheffield and Leeds. Most of the growth came at York, which is probably an effect of NHS salaries in its medical school.

What can we conclude from this mixed picture? I can’t see any evidence that VCs as a group think that ‘we’re all in this together’, nor that they have at present the will or capacity to lead by example. Some seem unaffected by political concern with senior management salaries in the public sector, as evidenced in the Treasury’s 2011 Hutton Report.  At a time when university budgets are being squeezed, only one VC in this major English region has held out against the tendency for VCs to increase the gap between their incomes and those of their staff. 

But in Yorkshire at least, most VCs don’t resemble the ‘fat cats’ of popular mythology. Most have settled, at a time of crisis in both the public and private sectors, and widespread cuts for other public sector workers, for a small but steady rise in their salaries. Will this continue once the new tuition fees bed in? I am inclined to doubt it: the new fees regime will encourage those who believe that universities are not really public services any longer, and who compare their rewards with the silly salaries of bankers rather than the more modest incomes of lecturers or lab technicians.