Implications of turning UK Higher Education Institutions into profit-oriented Enterprises

These are some personal observations from my work experience in a UK university. I started working in a UK research-focused university in 2000. Since then – and even before, gradual changes to funding for the sector and a host of associated developments such as New Public Management and the introduction of performance measures in HE have significantly changed working conditions in this and practically all other higher education (HE) institutions throughout the UK (see e.g., Teichler and Höhle, 2013). This applies for academics involved in teaching and research as well as those involved primarily in research.

The system is becoming increasingly performance-oriented with goals set for all aspects of academic work ranging from publications to be produced per annum and research grant money acquisition to student evaluation scores. The question that needs to be raised is whether such high-pressured work conditions are conducive to creativity and high quality expected in academic work output. Are performance indicators that measure a university’s service (quality) in terms of student/employer satisfaction, and student output (e.g. number of graduates in shortest time etc) the right measures in these cases? Should we look at number of publications or quality? But quality will not immediately reveal itself – but typically reveals itself over time via citation counts. There have been adjustments in recent years to account for this, but citation counts alone can be misleading too as the size of the field and subject area inevitably influences these counts.

Already from the mid-1980s in response to justifying government funds for the HE sector, a national systems to evaluate and value university research was established (see Bence and Oppenheim, 2006). A so-called Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), recently relabeled as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) served and serves to establish the value of research (production/output in terms of quality of journal articles/quantity of journal articles and impact on society/solving problems). The results of the exercise have implications for the grants institutions get. The higher the ranking the greater the grant; this approach introduces considerable competition but also stress into the sector. The exercise is conducted in intervals of 7-8 years and involves the peer review of research output (mostly journal papers). The cost of preparing and monitoring the activity is considerable. The exercises are for one enormously time consuming and distracting with mock evaluations and pressure on academics to perform/write more/get more external funding etc. but also employing and paying a host of administrators to compile documents and manage the process.

Tuition fees were first introduced in HE across the UK in 1998 and since then gradually increased evidencing a growing (hidden) ‘privatisation’ of the sector. The last major increase occurred in 2007/8 with the government setting a cap at 9000 GBP per annum for (home and EU) undergraduate tuition fees. Tuition fees for non-EU foreign students can be double that. At masters level even higher tuition fees incur depending on the institution and field of study. With the introduction of tuition fees and particularly the height of the tuition – students are increasingly conceived as ‘customers’ or consumers (see e.g. Bunce, Baird and Jones 2016). The tuition issue changed the game plan for universities; more students means more income, but in turn they also have to be treated well (i.e. educators need to make sure they are ‘satisfied’). As the number of students equates to income, a competition for students ensued meaning that institutions quantified the number of contact time students would get when studying at Institution x versus Institution y. In turn this meant that educators had to spent more time and effort to tend to students to ensure teaching quality (more feedback to students/ more interaction etc). For good measure – in England a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was introduced akin to the Research Excellence Framework. The performance is being measured by teaching scores as well as other indicators. Ensuring teaching quality is a good thing in principle, however, educators teaching topics that are difficult, tend to be given lower scores and there has been a rising notion that student failure is linked to poor performance of the educator.

In order to perform well in all respects (teaching, outreach, research) many academics work many more hours than indicated in their contracts. This can lead to burnout and health issues. Naturally, the two tasks of teaching and research are in competition in terms of work time and institutions started to step in to increasingly manage this particularly from 2010 onward. They started to develop workload models to manage academics time. In principle, again, this is a positive measure. However, streamlining and harmonization of workload models across different subject disciplines under the mantle of equity across an institution has led to the introduction of unrealistic expectations.

Educators are now given guidance (or targets) for marking exams and papers, and how long they need to prepare a lecture. However, marking and giving feedback for a well-written essay from a native speaker takes less time than for poorly written essay. In this light, assignments from foreign students often require extra care (and perhaps they deserve this having to pay more tuition?). In return, having 80% foreign students in a cohort will starkly increase the time spent on marking, but there is no differentiation in terms of time allocation or pay at individual level (the added income goes to the institution). Furthermore there is typically less time involved to prepare for a math lecture for first year than for a lecture on politics or policy for master level where context changes on a monthly basis….But again a lecture is treated the same in terms of the workload model.

Performance reviews have been introduced to help academics advance their careers – in line what happens in large companies – with processes and workflows developed with the help of expensive consultants who have no understanding of how the HE sector works – creating tensions and mistrusts by employees. More and more administrative staff members are being employed to manage the institution and academics performance – leading to educators spending more time on administrative tasks rather than research and teaching – further enhancing stress levels and pressures.

As stress induced health issues are now rising amongst the academic work force – institutions have begun to manage and encourage work life -balance in HE. Educators are asked to take all their holiday to recover… but often there is no space and time to really ‘take time off’. Under pressure to perform some colleagues have resorted to register their annual leave to take time to write book chapters, research reports or journal articles. A truly twisted effect.

Andrea Frank
Teaching Fellow, School of Geography,
Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, UK
& Honorary Research Fellow, School of Geography and Planning,
Cardiff University, UK


Bence, V. and C. Oppenheim (2006) The Evolution of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercie: Publications, Performance and Perceptions. Journal of Educational Administration and History 37 (2): 137-155.

Bunce, L., Baird, A. and S.E. Jones (2017) The student-as-consumer approach in higher education and its effects on academic performance. Studies in Higher Education 42 (11): 1958-78.

Teichler, U. and E.A. Höhle (eds) (2013). The work situation of the Academic Profession in Europe: Findings of a Survey in Twelve Countries, The changing Academy – The changing Academic Profession in international Comparative Perspective 8, Springer Science and Business Media.

Ce billet est publié avec d’autres textes, en réponse à l’Appel à billets : Nos conditions de recherche dans le champ de l’urbanisme : témoignages internationaux :