The Real Rising Cost of English Universities

Smart Title: 
Tuition will exceed government's estimates, leading to more questions about direction of higher education.

New Competition in the UK

Smart Title: 
Many British universities plan to recruit more top students under government's plans.

The Proctor's Life Across the Pond

This tasteful bit of signage accessorizes the Student Administration Office at Queen Mary College in London:

Important Message to Invigilators [exam proctors to you and me]

Candidates attempting to cheat in an exam by writing on a part of their body must be reported to the chief invigilator immediately.

Please speak to an exam attendant who will contact the student administration office. Keep the students under close observation to ensure that they do not attempt to erase the evidence.

The chief invigilator will arrange for a member of staff with a camera to come to the exam room to photograph the evidence to present to the examinations offences panel.

Trust in students doesn’t come easily to the folks in administration at Queen Mary, and it doesn’t come at all during final exam time, a just-concluded, month-plus-long interregnum in which I did the invigilator thing. By the lights of American testing, the raft of anti-cheating strictures enforced by Queen Mary may suggest a university under siege; but for the British students who take the exams, the scenario is all rather routine.

I write as a native of New York City who’s taught at a number of metropolitan-area colleges, at which the operative regulatory ethos for testing goes something like this: It’s your class, cowboy – deal with it. And of course that open-ended desideratum provides for no final at all, if the instructor is so moved.

But you’ll see nothing of the sort at Queen Mary, a branch of the University of London in the city’s proletarian Mile End quarter. Here the scrutiny begins before students make their way into the testing room: an attendant - usually a graduate student - sits hard by the door and inspects photo IDs (upon which student names are titled, a quaintly decorous British touch; men are Mr. and unmarried women are Miss, though I’ve also seen a few Drs.).

Once having been waved through that checkpoint, test-takers proceed to prominently-numbered desks, to which they’ve been assigned by student ID number. No fewer than two invigilators stand watch in the classroom, the actual number proportioned to room population. The students are immediately ordered to stow their jackets and other paraphernalia in the front or the side of the room, a time-honored stratagem in the UK that’s deployed in the lower grade levels as well. Once seated, the senior invigilator circumnavigates the classroom and inspects the IDs anew, cross-referencing these to table number. (They take their outlaws seriously here; a student in a final at the University of York was recently apprehended - by the police -- for posing as the student who had hired him.).

Cell phones are silenced and consigned to the floor at the feet of their owners, and students are forbidden from bringing bottled water to the exam, for fear they may strip the bottle labels, inscribe crib notes upon them, paste them back, and espy the notes through the plastic. But because that interdiction is routinely flouted, we resort to Plan B -- invigilators peruse the labels, or request they be peeled off the bottles. Those law-abiders who actually comply (aqua-esce?) with the liquid ban are furnished with Queen Mary’s own water supply, served up upon request by the invigilators in plastic cups. It’s one more reason why we make the big money.

There’s more. Transparent pencil cases may be poised atop tables, but the opaque varieties must be shunted to the floor, neighboring the cell phones. Pencils are distributed for multiple-choice exams, but these must be returned. Ringing phones during exams are deemed offenses and reported, though without reprisal. Test takers may not leave the room during the exam’s first 30 minutes, in order to thwart rendezvous with latecomers in the halls craving a test preview (students are likewise officially barred from leaving during the final 15 minutes, but leniencies are extended here). And Queen Mary’s heavily Muslim student body has touched off an at least a theoretical concern with veiled women - of whom there are a very small number - perpetrating an impersonation scam, though no incidents of this kind seem to have been reported. (The college’s by-the-book invigilator’s marching orders are on view here.)

And, needless to say, all visits to the bathroom are accompanied (and recorded, in theory), usually by the attendant (depending on the demographics on hand, a male attendant or invigilator may escort a woman, and vice versa; but in any case, the staffer pulls up short by the door); and it is by that tiled threshold where biological impulsion, real or alleged, trumps Queen Mary’s best efforts to flex the strong-arm of probity against its students. Short of the most up-close-and-personal surveillance here -- and even Queen Mary hasn’t gone that far -- there is nothing the college can do to preempt the most low-tech of cheating expedients, i.e., notes cached in a student’s jeans and the like, to be reviewed in the loo. And while that irremediable vulnerability is granted, the college does what it can, sometimes commanding attendants to conduct post-test sweeps of bathrooms, and sometimes recovering stashes of notes. If nature calls simultaneously, an invigilator and an attendant may each chaperone an urge-seized student -- but the room is never wholly abandoned, a doomsday scenario to be forestalled at all costs. Simply put, then, the honor code is not an option at Queen Mary.

Of course, I’ve yet to explain exactly what I’m doing at Queen Mary, invigilating someone else’s exams. People like me invigilate because instructors here don’t anymore, for whatever reason. One professor told me some of his colleagues brought such scant rigor to the invigilation task that students would take to cheating in plain sight, while an administrator allowed that instructors use their newfound hours to consecrate that much more time to research, though I still don’t know if he really meant that. One suspects in addition that certain subsidiary expectations of the role -- e.g., flight-attendant beverage duties, interpolating slivers of paper between jittery tables and the floor, sectioning off ribbons of toilet paper--tissues for runny-nosed students, and the inevitable bathroom detail -- fail to comport with the professorial self concept. To lift a locution from London’s streets, it seems instructors can’t be bovvered to invigilate, thus clearing the runway for Hessians like me who can be expected to bring at least some measure of attentiveness to the task (a query of mine about the invigilation waiver for instructors, put to the UK’s UCU university teacher union, has gone unanswered).

And it’s here where the process can get a little messy. Instructors usually (but not always) make cameo appearances at the outset of exams, entertaining student questions about the test before disappearing, sometimes rather quickly. They are, however, expected to remain at the ready throughout the final at a reachable number, and may be asked to revisit the test site should additional issues emerge. Attendants are (supposed to be) issued with cell phones so that medical staff can be dialed when events so compel, in addition to the ostensibly on-call instructors, who might, or might not, be available. If they’re not, big problems can result, and sometimes do, but students are at least afforded a notable bit of recourse: they can submit a post-test form on which they explain why the feel a question was ambiguously or errantly worded. And in fact a certain inadvertent wisdom informs the instructor-less process; if, after all, I’m invigilating the Physics of Galaxies final -- quite possibly the flat-out scariest test I’ve ever seen -- I can’t coyly drop any helpful hints to students, even if I want to. My doctorate in sociology qualifies me as an abject, and guileless, layman here.

Does the system work? I would say that by and large it does, though no one harbors any illusions about zero tolerance here. One of the people in charge tells me that infractions are down this year, after a “bumper crop” of students behaving badly in 2006. Bomb scares -- a classic finals diversionary tactic -- appear to have had their day here, and we’re prepared believe the unexploded World War II device discovered not far from the campus last week was a coincidence. For the most part, the students on my watch have conducted themselves with all due rectitude, but significant constraints are in place, after all. One could sociologize about the matter all day, but the inarguable reality is that for certain social settings deterrence works, and it seems to work here.

But the incipient question -- whether the lockdown practices described above could work in the United States -- is hard to answer. American students might chafe at the trammels the UK clamps atop its system and give loud voice to their irritation; and while many American instructors could be expected to cheer the release from test oversight to which Queen Mary treats its staff, other academics might blast the idea as an encroachment on their academic freedom. British students, habituated to a national curriculum and inhabiting similar exam environments throughout their schooling, don’t seem to mind; American students might, at least at first.

But if nothing else, the invigilation experience stokes the reverie, flashing me back to my finals at Queens College in New York -- my very own finals, proctored before my very own classes by my very own solitary self, when I used to literally dash to the bathroom whenever nature called, racing back to quell the anomie loosed upon my unattended students during those three terrifying minutes. What happened during those anarchic intervals, I cannot know. But it doesn’t matter, now; it can’t happen here. And if you think it can, check out the sign in Student Administration.

Abbott Katz
Author's email:

When he’s not invigilating, Abbott Katz is registrar/examinations officer at MST College, in London.

Why the Boycott Should Outrage All Academics

At last week’s annual conference of the main faculty union in Britain, leaders of the University and College Union (UCU) voted to support a resolution calling for the boycott of Israeli academics and universities. On a practical level the resolution will not do much to actually impose an effective boycott. Individual faculty members will make up their own minds about what to do, and plenty will continue their ties with Israel, although for a minority seeking to kick Israelis off of panels or journal boards, this resolution will provide the cover they seek. Regardless of the impact, by voting to adopt the resolution, the union has given a substantial political victory to a small group of extreme activists dedicated to the marginalization of Israel, if not for its outright demise. All scholars -- and especially American academics who consider themselves part of a worldwide community of people committed to free expression of ideas – need to take note of exactly what is going on. This is not about protesting some policy of Israel’s government, which occurs intensely in Israel’s vibrant university setting and free press, but something much more invidious.

With a vote of only 158 to 99, the UCU which boasts a membership of approximately 120,000 members may have actually made history by setting the stage for some of the most blatant forms of anti-Semitism in the post-World War II era. With a fraction of less then 1 percent of its membership participating in the vote, the UCU has set an example for other unions and professional associations to follow suit. It must be understood that the architects of the UCU boycott campaign are not merely concerned with promoting a two- state solution with both Israel and a Palestine state living in peace side by side, thus ending the occupation of the territories seized by Israel in 1967. Rather, its intent is to support a radical marginal movement to begin the process of dismantling Israel.

Subsequently, it is critical that the British academic community understand what is being said in their name, and that the American academic community be aware of what is going on at universities that have close ties to our institutions. This is especially true since scholarship is intended to be based on an honest search for truth which examines all sides of a given issue and context. The fact that the UCU voted to reject this basic premise and boycott Israeli scholars and academic institutions goes against the very nature of real scholarship. The UCU decision is based on a one-sided view of the Middle East conflict. It undermines academic freedom and sets different standards for people based on their origin rather than on their scholarship or ideas. All Israeli professors are being punished by British scholars, regardless of their views. Not only does the boycott single out Israelis, it also raises concern about the implications this resolution will have on Jewish students and faculty at universities throughout Britain. How will the campus atmosphere be affected, an issue identified by the All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Anti-Semitism commissioned by the Blair Government in 2006, as an area of concern.

Why are the architects of the UCU boycott movement focused so determinedly only on Israel? Why was there no UCU resolution on the manner in which the British military is conducting itself in Basra, Iraq? Why was there never a resolution on Srebrenica where more Muslims were massacred in a given week then has been killed during the 40 years of the Arab-Israel conflict? How about Chechnya, where Russia carpet bombed civilian areas and massacred tens of thousands if not more? How about Darfur, where there is agreement that there is an on going genocide at this very moment, in which hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered and the killing reportedly appears to be accelerating. In the Democratic Republic of Congo the estimates are that three to four million have been killed. Why single out Israel? Why has Israel become the incarnation of evil, of colonialism and even apartheid? Why are there not calls for the boycotting of the Hezbollah controlled southern Lebanon or Saudi Arabia where the levels of the repression of woman boggles the mind. How about issues of human rights violations by China and Syria? What about questions of citizenship of migrants to Europe? Do these issues not warrant any UCU consideration? I dare not even question why the deliberate and regular shelling of Sapir College in Sderot, well inside the green line, from Gaza which Israel withdrew and no longer occupies has not been condemned by the UCU? My point is not to suggest that British professors or others broaden boycotts to colleges all over the world. Rather, one has to consider if standards are applied in any sort of consistent way – and when they are not, as is evident in this case, one can not avoid questioning what the real motives are.

Many in the anti-Israel campaign compare Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, where boycotts helped to bring about change. However, it is important to remember that apartheid was a legal system designed to exclude the vast majority of its inhabitants from basic rights, citizenship, membership and participation in institutions of its society based on racial categories. The purpose of the anti-apartheid movement was to enfranchise its citizens based on a Freedom Charter which guaranteed equal rights to all of its citizens regardless of race, gender, political affiliation, not to destroy or dismantle South Africa. Israel is a democracy under the rule of law, all of its citizens vote and enjoy enfranchisement, while the Knesset has representation for all sectors of society, including all of its minorities. I do not remember any individual member, let alone organization, of the mainstream anti-apartheid movement calling for genocide or advocating the recruitment to massacre as many civilians as possible, an accepted and advocated principle of the leading member of the Palestinian Authority Government Hamas, and other organizations within the Palestinian political spectrum, in which the UCU resolution becomes an enabler of sorts. None of this is to say that the Palestinians do not have real grievances, however, there ought to be a more nuanced view of the conflict.

It is particularly incredible that some are attempting to de-legitimize Israel, the only democracy in the region, while a significant radical social movement, Hamas, gains strength that is anti-Enlightenment, genocidal in its anti-Semitism, not to mention anti-democratic, sexist and homophobic, and in fact governs Israel’s neighboring Palestinian Authority. Can one imagine an academic group in any other circumstance lending support to those who would send basic human rights backwards in the support of reactionary forces? Those who call for the marginalization of the State of Israel or for its demise are also enablers for those reactionary forces that not only threaten liberal democratic forces in the Middle East, women and minority rights, but all that the UCU perceive itself to support and stand for.

It is becoming evident that those engaged in the attempt to marginalized and criminalize Israel do so in a manner that defies their own logic and values. For the first time in Europe’s post-World War Two era, the rhetoric of what was once on the fridges of the political spectrum has now entered into the mainstream of political and academic discourse. It is incumbent upon all members of the UCU and the academic community generally, to stand up to the resurgence of this oldest of hatred. The passing of the UCU resolution could mark the beginning of a new era of virulent anti-Semitism. We ought to be mindful that under the Nazi regime, also elected, that the universities were the first institutions in society to discriminate against Jewish people. If we learned anything from this tragic history we know that double standards and the deligitimitzation of an entire group must be confronted -- even at the level of resolutions and boycotts -- and is contrary to notions of education.

Charles Small
Author's email:

Charles Small is director of the Yale University Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Previously, he has taught at universities in both Britain and Israel.

Why Middlesex Matters

The past three weeks have seen an international outcry at the decision by the administration of Middlesex University in London to close its small but very highly regarded philosophy program. Why were so many American academics, many of them besieged by budget crises at their own universities, so upset at this decision made so far away? Why did Middlesex matter to those thousands who so quickly became involved, and why should it matter to all American academics, even those who are only just now hearing of it?

First, it matters because the administration’s decision wasn’t just meekly accepted. The resistance to it by faculty and students at Middlesex is remarkable, and their courage and organizing skill serve as an inspiring model to academics here suffering from years of the "death by a thousand cuts" of reduced hiring and operating budgets, larger classes, increased teaching loads, and more use of precarious adjunct labor – all delivered with top-down administrative arrogance more or less fig-leafed with talk of "shared governance."

Let me sketch the outline of events at Middlesex. The decision was communicated to the philosophy faculty at a meeting on Monday, April 26. Early reports of the decision quoted the dean of arts and education, Ed Esche, as saying that the decision was "simply financial." The Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign was launched the next day. A meeting between students and university officials was scheduled for Tuesday May 4, but when the students showed up for the meeting, the officials were nowhere to be found; the meeting had been postponed. The students, many of whom had not heard of the postponement, then occupied the building and stayed until a court ordered them out this weekend. The students created a "Transversal Space" in the occupied building, in which they studied, read papers, invited speakers, discussed film and poetry, and in general went about educating themselves despite the administration. Any academic who has dreamed of having self-motivated students was green with envy and realized that whatever the Middlesex philosophers had been doing to attract and develop this kind of student – well, that deserves support!

Word of the decision and subsequent occupation spread quickly. By Monday May 10, two weeks after the decision, over 14,000 people had signed an online protest petition. Letters of protest and supportive Web posts came pouring in from national and specialist philosophical associations: a joint letter from the British Philosophical Association (BPA), the American Philosophical Association (APA), and the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP); the Société Française de Philosophie; the Canadian Philosophical Association; and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). The Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie (FISP) circulated a link to the petition to all member societies. (A remarkable point about the national associations’ support is that Middlesex is known for specializing in modern European or "continental" philosophy, which we can safely say is not exactly at the center of the APA’s concern. But I think we should be heartened by this show of solidarity: philosophers may be notorious for squabbling about philosophical method and aims, but one thing that can unite us is resistance to administrative overreach!)

Many individual and group letters were sent and/or published, including a notable one in Times Higher Education, signed by some 30 prominent intellectual figures, among them Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Gayatri Spivak, and Slavoj Zizek. The blogosphere sprang into action, with Brian Leiter’s influential philosophy blog Leiter Reports helping spread the word and taking a strong stance against the decision; Facebook networks fired rapidly, with the Save Middlesex Philosophy group page quickly soaring to over 10,000 members.

But is there any real content to this response? Is it just boomer nostalgia (hey, a student occupation, cool!), the power of memes gone viral (once it gets on Facebook, there’s no resisting the wave!)? No. It’s not just bandwagon jumping, nor is it just admiration for the students and staff who are resisting. It’s also disgust at the venality and short-sightedness of the administration.

Philosophy at Middlesex received the highest rating of any program in the university in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), a periodic exercise conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which determines disbursement of government funds for research. Middlesex Philosophy had 65 percent of its research activity rated "world-leading" or "internationally renowned." This put Middlesex philosophy 13th of 41 programs in the UK, at the top of all the other ex-polytechnics or "post-1992 universities," and ahead of established heavyweights such as Sussex, Warwick, York, Durham, and Glasgow. To cut such a program, while bragging on its Web site about its commitment to research excellence – that was just too much administrative hypocrisy for even many hardened American academics to bear.

When word got out that at Middlesex from 2008 to 2009 academic staff had fallen from 748 to 733, while administration had risen from 888 to 890; that the number of senior staff with total compensation above £100,000 increased from 7 to 13; and that total compensation for the VC increased from £223,000 to £246,000 – all these facts rang an all-too-familiar note with American academics as well. And it certainly didn’t help the administration’s image when people learned that consultant fees increased from £2,321,000 to £3,122,000 in that time period. (Details on these figures may be found here, in the university's financial statement.)

Another outrage was learning that philosophy produced a yearly revenue of some £173,260 for the university from its excellent results in the 2008 RAE. Incredibly, the university will continue to receive that sum yearly until the next RAE, to be held in 2014 or perhaps even 2016, even if it has closed the philosophy program! This was an all too blatant case of ripping off the labor of the philosophers. Then it came out that the "subject group" composed of philosophy (six faculty members) and religious studies (one member) contributed 53 percent of its revenue to central administration in 2009-10 and was projected to contribute 59 percent in 2010-11. The central administration requires 55 percent, so it is willing to cut its most highly rated research program for a temporary 2 percentage point shortfall. Veterans of penny-pinching, short-sighted, and arbitrary administrations winced with sympathetic familiarity at this sort of "reasoning."

Those are the immediately resonating factors for American academics. There are some differences, of course, the lack of an American version of the RAE being the most important. But that just made the situation all the more galling. After all, Middlesex philosophy was not just teaching the full-time equivalent (FTE) in 2009-10 of 112.5 undergraduate and graduate students, it was also bringing in the holy grail of "outside funding" – besides the RAE money, another grant, from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, had brought in £230,000 in 2006-9. In light of these figures, the administration’s position came to seem more like extortion than anything else: “[more of] your money or your program.”

Here American academics had a clear case of what we had been complaining about for years. For all the talk about how humanities programs cost money, the reality is that through teaching so many tuition-paying students (and/or providing cheap labor teaching assistants in the form of graduate students), humanities programs contribute significantly to the overall financial well being of their institutions. Not just breaking even, but sending money to the central administration – just not enough for the Middlesex administration’s acquired taste for spending millions in consulting fees! When a philosophy program that not only generates tuition but also brings in considerable outside funding – something that is like unto a dream for many American humanities scholars – can be pushed over the edge like this, then here we had a case of administrative greed that even the most blinkered academic couldn’t ignore.

Having laid out these immediately resonating factors, let’s pull back a little and consider the less immediate, but no doubt influential, factors that have led the Middlesex situation to be a "perfect storm" of academic resistance.

Adapting some of the points that the University of Southern Maine's Jason Read makes in his well-argued commentary, we can see that underlying the reaction to Middlesex are three fundamental factors.

First, for some there is frustration that administrators seem stubbornly not to accept (well-documented) evidence that humanities study in general and philosophy study in particular really does make economic sense, that it does contribute to producing the “ideas” people of the future that business, government, and nonprofits do in fact want, that philosophy grads get good-paying jobs and become good taxpayers, etc. A 2008 New York Times piece about the popularity of the philosophy major and the employability of philosophy graduates enjoyed wide publicity in American academe; why didn’t administrations seem to know it was a whole new ballgame when it came to the “real world” applicability of philosophy study?

Not everyone shares this “accommodationist” viewpoint though. Among the traditionalists, then, we find the second aspect, anger that administrators want to have their cake and to eat it too when it comes to the name "university." They are happy to use the centuries of association, dating to the 13th century founding of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, of philosophy study and the name "university," but it seems they only want the prestige of the title, and not the content of the course of study. They want access to the market niche, but are happy to cut the philosophers loose once their "brand name" is assured. In the face of this rank hypocrisy many protest letters to Middlesex officials proclaimed that "a university without philosophy study isn’t worthy of the name."

Third, among the more radicalized faculty, there’s awareness that more is at stake in the Middlesex struggle than meets the eye. We've been told for many years – by administrators in fact more so than by leftists – that we have to tear down the ivory tower, that we have to acknowledge the integration of the university into the economy. "Accountability" to taxpayers demands no less. Well then, Read argues, let’s take them at their word: "[I]f we are living through a knowledge economy then there is no separation between the struggle over knowledge, who gets to learn, who benefits, etc., and the general struggle for the economy, for the production and circulation of wealth. To put it briefly the contemporary university is an object lesson in the inseparability of the economic and the political."

So part of the reason for the international resistance is that Middlesex has come to symbolize a high stakes battle over not "merely" education, but over the very real world of political economy. With Middlesex, we have seen to the heart of the present university – fat cat administrators, who, ironically enough, embody a top-heavy 1950s corporate structure while using 21st century slogans of "flexibility" and "relevance" to gut the humanities – and we won’t accept it. Another university, another future is there for us to build, not outside political economy, but at the center, where we find ourselves whether we like it or even realize it. Read’s piece is entitled “De te fabula narratur”: “the story is about you, my friend.” I like the demotic version: "You might say you’re not interested in politics, but you can be damn sure politics is interested in you."

Taking that to heart, let us work together so that the Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign and its superb "Transversal Space" is only the beginning of a new university, a new university we can build when faculty and students strongly resist and imaginatively organize on an international scale and in full awareness of all the stakes involved. Let’s make “Middlesex” be the name for the end of the corporate university and the beginning of the democratic university.

John Protevi
Author's email:

John Protevi is professor of French studies at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.

Boycott Backlash

Smart Title: 
AAUP condemns boycotts -- and faces criticism for invitations to backers of sanctions against Israeli universities.

Boycott Debate Is Back

Smart Title: 
Some British academics again try to isolate colleges and professors in Israel -- and other academics see the movement as offensive.

British Professors Seek to Cut Ties to Israeli Scholars

Smart Title: 
Union vote proceeds despite intense lobbying from American faculty groups, who see a serious violation of academic freedom.

Making Sense of 'Bologna Degrees'

Smart Title: 

In the early 1990s, the then-presidents of Oberlin College and Stanford University floated the idea that the standard time for an undergraduate degree might be better at three years instead of four. The idea went nowhere -- at least in the United States.

Point of No Return to Bologna

Smart Title: 
With deadline approaching for unifying higher ed system, European universities pick up pace on aligning degrees.


Subscribe to RSS - Britain
Back to Top