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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy New Year

I wish you all a happy, peaceful and prosperous 2015.  I hope it brings better tidings than seems generally to have been the case in 2014.

Friday, 19 December 2014

The State We're In, Part 3.b: Two Billion Pounds!!!

In my post yesterday I said that the government had slashed funding for research in UK HE to 'more or less zero'.  "But, hold on there, Grumpy", you might say, "I read in the papers that the money awarded to UKHE from the REF is two billion pounds per an. - two Billion POUNDS - two thousand million pounds!  How do you call that more or less zero?"  To which I say, yup, it's a fair cop.  Two billion pounds is an unimaginable amount of cash to you or me, readers.  In fact, it's shitloads.  Why, even the highest paid man in the UK would take nearly 23 years to earn that much.


Hang on...


So what we're saying is that one person could earn in twenty three years what the entire nation is willing to spend per an on the higher educational research activity of over fifty thousand academics (see below) across the entire country. (Actually, given that that salary is two years old, he probably earns more now so it'd take less time.) Let's reflect on that for a moment.  Put another way, assuming there are other people earning that sort of amount, or even slightly less, five of them would earn the same, over the next five years, as the entire nation is going to spend (per an) on higher educational research.  Or we can look at it another way. Any one of the twenty-five richest people (or people 'and family' - tax dodge) in the UK (as of May this year) could dip into their fortune and pay for the whole country's annual higher education research bill, and still leave themselves with a fortune of between 1.43 and 9.9 billion pounds. 1.43 billion quid, by the way, is 53.9 times the average wage in the UK.  In other words the average UK wage-earner would take nearly 54 years to accumulate that amount of money, and even that would assume that s/he was able to save up 100% of their salary!  As yet another abstract formulationA 10% levy on the estates of only the *twenty-five* wealthiest people in the UK (leaving them only with fortunes of between £3bn and nearly £11bn...) would yield £17.1 billion, a sum that would match the government's spending on the research activities of over 54,000 UK academics for the next eight years.   I'm just sayin'.  But let's reflect on that a little.  That tells us quite a lot, doesn't it, about wealth difference and the economic priorities of neo-liberal capitalist economics.  Is that the sort of country we really want to live in?

Anyway, let's leave that to one side for now.  Two billion quid goes to universities to pay for research.  That still can't be bad.  How does that work out?  By my reckoning, there were 54,893 academics entered into the REF.  I don't think that one researcher could be entered into more than one panel but even if they could it would be a minority.  Let's round the number down to 50,000 to be on the safe side.  £2,000,000,000 divided by 50,000 works out at £40,000 each.  That sounds OK.  At first.  But £2,000,000,000 per an won't even cover the wage bill of the academics submitted (even at 2011 rates).  Of course, academics are not only paid to research, but to teach and administer too.  The common formula for research active staff in older universities at least is 40% time on research, 60% on teaching and admin. At that rate, then, the 2 billion will cover the relevant wage bill of the full time researching academics.   But we also have to factor in the wages of fairly numerous essential lab staff in the science departments, as well research librarians and research assistants in arts, humanities and social sciences, administrative support staff and the temporary lecturing staff bought in to cover for full-time staff on research leave.  That means that the budget is unlikely to contribute even one penny to the cost of research equipment, or 'plant costs' (maintenance of buildings, electricity, etc.), which in science departments are understandably astronomical.  Even cheap humanities departments require annual library and computing budgets to maintain any kind of research viability.  All of that now has to be financed from other sources.  That means student fees to a large extent, but even then £9k per an is not far above the cost price of a university education (including teaching resources which admittedly can sometimes double for research) leaving very little for research.  Well, fair enough, you might say, if you buy into the US-style neo-liberal propaganda, why should I pay, through my taxes for someone else's university education?  Why? Because culture, civilisation ('m not even going to be drawn into the economic benefits etc).

All this is one reason that everything has begun to turn on research grant income, at the expense of research quality, the thing that drove ICL's Professor Grimm evidently to take his own life (on that subject I can recommend nothing better than this post by the Plashing Vole).

I am also assuming, in all the above, that the money would be divided equally.  But obviously the point of the REF is that it isn't.  It is moderated to some degree by a department's place in the league. Therefore, for every person or department whose research is only adequately funded, let alone those few whose budget is enlarged, there is another department, or someone else, who is correspondingly underfunded, whose institution is no longer able to pay for them to research.  This may drive those people out of the profession, force them to teach more and research less or even force them onto teaching only contracts with no time to research at all (and while we are on that subject, you can't say, that's OK - academics should spend their time teaching the paying student: if you want to teach someone how to be, say, a historian you have to be a practising historian), force them out of the country to work elsewhere, force departmental closures, and so on.  All this seriously diminishes UK culture.

Let's look at it a third way. As of 12 September 2011, the UK had spent £123.9 bn on the bank bailout (but had planned on spending - and been exposed to the risk of spending - one and a half trillion pounds (£1,500,000,000,000).  By comparison, then, the bankers received what, at current rates (assuming our £2bn is an annual budget), the UK would be willing to pay for all of higher academic research for the next sixty-two years.  As I have said, £2 bn does not cover the cost of research.  Let's assume that the actual cost of UK academic research is three times that.  It still means we have spent on the bank bail-out enough to cover two decades of top-level research in all disciplines right across the UK (and stood ready to shell out the equivalent of full funding all university research in the UK for, at current rates, over two centuries...).  And one might want to ask what would be a better use of the money: bailing out irresponsible unregulated money-launderers who hold the country to ransom (we allegedly can't touch them because they'd all leave and now - post Thatcher - our entire economy is supposed to be dependent upon the financial wild west that the City has become), or people who work hard to improve, in all sorts of ways, the quality of life (leaving aside the economy etc etc) of the nation.  Well, you decide.  Maybe tell your MP...

But either way, two billion quid is really not a lot for what the nation as a whole gets back.  You have to ask whether, as a reward, it is worth the financial and cultural costs (not to mention the stress, the suicide) that come with the REF.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The State We're In, Part 3.a: Listmania

So.  The results of the REF (Research Excellence Framework for non-academics, or non-UK academics or UK academics that have been hiding in a cave for eight years) are in (or out, depending on your preferred idiom).  Consult the lists to your heart’s desire.  They will be spun one way or another, stressing one performance index over another, on every university website across the country for months to come.  This seems as good a time as any to resume my thoughts on ‘The State We’re In’ (Part 1; Part 2; plus search for the 'State we're in' label for other scattered interim thoughts on various issues)

Well, there’s (I suppose) good news, bad news and (actual) good news.

First the (I suppose) good news.  My department came 2ndout of the 83 history departments in the exercise.  Yay, woo!  And actually this is in some important ways good news.  It is good news because some of my colleagues, notably our chair of the research committee and our head of department put in very long hours of tedious work, not always helped enormously by somewhat thuggish ‘powers that be’ higher up in the university, and it is very good news that that hard work gets some sort of serious recognition.  It is also good news in that it represents in some ways the culmination of a process that has been under way for ten years and in which I think I have played a significant part, of turning the department from one that had for decades had no ambition (other than to be some sort of Oxford feeder college) and had more or less institutionalised mediocrity, into a serious player in historical research in the UK.  This provides some reward to all the people who have contributed to that.  It is also good news because we are a very good history department.  I have some very good and interesting colleagues, especially at the younger end, doing good work in new areas.  It is good to have some sort of public indication of that fact; it is good to get some reward for the hard research work we have all put in.  It is, furthermore, good news to see some departments who are somehow supposed to be ipso facto the best in the country slither down to something approximating their actual intellectual worth, though only because it might (though actually it won’t) make them think twice before assuming that anyone graduating from or working at another university is somehow some kind of lesser intellect, and about instilling that misplaced sense of intellectual superiority in their students.  It might make someone in the general non-academic world realise that there is a disjuncture between privilege and prestige on the one hand and merit on the other.  It might even make prospective students (graduate and undergraduate) realise that going to those gilded places will not necessarily get them the best tuition, or expose them to the best historical minds. 

It is also, and I think this is very important, good news– indeed an excellent outcome – given the generally humane way in which my department (and our university management on the whole) have managed the whole REF business, compared with horror stories from elsewhere.  There have been no threats or other bullying strategies, and I hope that perhaps university management culture might make a note of this.  Sadly that wasn’t the case in the institution which produced the top placed history department, which drove at least one fine historian out of the profession altogether.

[Personally – and I take no pride in this but I have to be honest here – I also take some unedifying satisfaction in seeing departments that drove me out through bullying, or which have serially considered me to be beneath them, or which contain other people who have actively hindered my career, come out many places lower than the department where I work. This, the 'ha, fuck you then' response, is the natural response; it is the response encouraged by the system; it is the wrong response.]

But (the Bad News) this all comes at a cost. 

I am happy for my colleagues that they have got a serious reward for their hard work. I am happy that we have serious recognition as a good history department.  Don’t get me wrong about any of that.  

But I am very wary indeed of the bragging that might ensue, wary of suggesting that this means we really are better than (almost) anyone else, even contingently, temporarily, even taking (as I said in part 1) the exercise to be a sort of FA Cup contest, as though historical scholarship were like a race or FA Cup contest where one side definitively could be better than another.  I am wary of suggesting that my colleagues in other departments might be worse than us on this basis.  The risk of suggesting the above is serious and inherent in the league table culture.  We must work hard to counter it (though we won’t for the reasons I set out in Part 1)

Then, where is the real reward?  When the REF (or RAE as it was then) started, the point of the exercise was to divvy up the money the government gave out to universities to fund research.  Now of course, the government (and indeed the last Labour government – let’s be clear) has basically cut that to more or less zero.  So where do the rewards lie for all the hard work put in by chairs of department, chairs of research committees, and the ordinary rank and file researchers? The reward is located first and foremost in university bragging rights (‘we did better than you, ha ha ha’ [see italicised paragraph above!]), league table positions and so on.  This is good news for Vice Chancellors looking for an excuse to increase their pay packet yet further (while putting a brake on that of all the people who did the hard work) but not so much for the rest.  Why?  Because now there is precious little government funding so universities have to find other means of finding money.  And those means put them all in competition with each other.  To get funding we have to attract students, in a zero-sum game, and the league tables’ only value is in that game.  Or we have to get grants (in a situation that has led to at least one suicide in recent months), in a climate where grant income counts for more than actual research value.  All this ends (well, it ended some Time ago) the situation which ought to exist, where academics see themselves as collaborative, cooperative, fellow seekers after knowledge rather than members of competing cells.  Second the participation, the general gloating and publicity all strengthens the whole dynamic that I discussed in Parts 1 and 2, which produces the situation where any government can get the HE sector to dance to any tune: that, in other words, produces the state we are in.  This is all a high price to pay.  It is bad news.  I feel that someone in a department that (deservedly) did well in the exercise and who has put in good submissions in the last two exercises is best placed to make that criticism.

The other bad news is that proportionately far less goes on recognising actual quality research than it used to.  On the one hand part of the submission in terms of research environment concerns research income (see above).  But research income is not a valid recognition of research quality.  For one thing it is what comes out of a project that should count, not the amount of money that went in (however much the latter delights university accountants).  Secondly, what gets the money very often constitutes intellectually pretty lame projects, listing things and putting them on line.  On the other hand, a large part goes on ‘Impact’ – the many drawbacks with which have been pointed out over and over (not least by science departments, who have done best by the system and thus are best placed to make the critique) and hardly need repeating.  As far as history is concerned though, one additional problem is that the system provides little benefit to those who do not work on British or modern (or preferably modern British) history.

A third piece of bad news concerns the numbers themselves, which are entirely subjective judgements made by small panels, not always of the most respected or research productive academics within fields.  Some would say that the data are not robust.  More to the point, the fact that the numbers can be arranged sequentially is highly misleading.  Look at the history list and you will see that Lancaster University comes in twenty-three places below my department.  “Woo”, you might say, “the Lancaster historians must be loads worse than those at Poppleton.”  But look again at the evidence (and essentially to be a historian is to master the art of looking again).  If you count the GPA of Birmingham (in 1st place) as 100%, then Lancaster came in with 94%, whereas we got 99.6%.  That is a pretty fine difference for twenty-three places in the league (or visually, on the page or computer screen, a big drop of the eye).  Indeed by the same reckoning, the history department that came in thirtieth was still scoring near enough 91%.  So all these league tables, all this listmania, have a seriously misleadingeffect, in addition to all the other detrimental effects the league table culture has on higher education, scholarship and research.  Yet, those big visual drops of the eye (rather than the actual numbers) are what will put some people's jobs under pressure.

But here I want to shift tack again and spin this a slightly different way to end on what I think is some (actual) good news.  One bit of good news is that the table does at least shake things up a bit and suggest that the many good universities of the UK are all really pretty similar – that it is not a case of Oxbridge and a couple of others versus the rest of the pre-‘92s and then all of them against the post-‘92s.  What I would hope is that this shaking up might make research students apply to the university where the scholar best –placed to supervise them is working, rather than according to established institutional prestige.

More importantly than that, using the criteria mentioned above, even the bottom-placed history department scored 58% compared with the top.  The departments at the bottom of the top 51 were scoring 85%.  What I would like to suggest this means, and what I would like to suggest would be the best, the most humane, conclusion that the British historical profession ought to take away from the REF league table is that historians working in UKHE – across the board, from the top to the bottom of the list are producing significant amounts of good work.  That is actual good news and I want to end on this point, for now.  This is what as a profession we should be proud of, not institutional bragging rights.  Or, as Young Mr Grace used to say, “you’ve all done very well.”

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

A Review of Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West

[I was recently sent this very kind review by Professor Hal Drake of Barbarian Migrations... Sadly this never made it into press as apparently the journal to which was sent went bankrupt.  I hope you will not mind me posting it here.  It means a lot to me, as someone trained essentially as an early  medievalist and who then drifted backwards into Late Roman history,* to receive these words of approval from a highly-respected specialist scholar of the late Roman Empire.

(*I think it is still true to say that most late antique specialistare trained as classicists and drift forwards.)]

Guy Halsall. Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. NewYork: Cambridge, 2008. Pp.xvi, 591. $41.99 (US), paper.

Of the many debates that perennially swirl around the topic of the Fall of Rome, none is more enduring than the one between those who blame it on internal problems (corruption, decay) and those who cite external pressures (barbarian invasions). The latter view was memorably formulated by AndrĂ© Piganiol in the 1940s: 'Rome did not die a natural death; it was assassinated.' In this refreshing, detailed, and highly informative look at the period of Rome’s fall in the West, Guy Halsall comes down decidedly on the side of the internalists, but with a new twist. The depredations caused by the arrival of new peoples receive short shrift in his pages, but old-fashioned moralizing is replaced by a keen understanding of the role patronage networks, political structures, and social identity played in binding provincials to the imperial center By blending detailed local analysis with the traditional high politics, Halsall depicts the fall as the 'cumulative effect of myriad choices by countless people' who were 'frequently, if not always, trying to do the opposite' (168-9). Far from passive and dissolute, the empire did not die quietly: 'It went down kicking, gouging, and screaming' (281). The result is a Solomon-like contribution to this debate: 'The Roman Empire was not murdered and nor did it die a natural death; it accidentally committed suicide' (283).

Halsall divides his study into three major parts. The five chapters in Part I, 'Romans and barbarians in the imperial world,' bring readers up-to-date on the debates and issues surrounding this period, which saw the Roman empire in the west replaced by numerous successor kingdoms. The central part, 'A world renegotiated: Western Europe, 376-550,' covers the period frequently characterized by the 'barbarization' of the Roman army and the depredations of barbarian invaders. In these seven chapters, Halsall meticulously surveys changes in the provinces as well as the imperial center. Part III, 'Romans and barbarians in a post-imperial world,' moves beyond the immediate question of Rome's Fall to consider the means by which new states were formed out of territories formerly ruled by Rome. Overall, his aim is to show how Rome dominated the prestige market in the early centuries, and through patronage and gift-giving made barbarians as much as provincials eager to identify themselves with Roman government. This Roman monopoly broke up in later centuries, leaving the way open for new identities to form around the nascent kingships in the western territories.

If all of this sounds like simply another way of saying 'Rome fell,' it is because no summary can do justice to the richness of Halsall's presentation. He demonstrates complete mastery of issues old and new, and puts advances in archaeology to especially good use. Particularly important is his use of processes of identity formation that have been developed in recent decades to counter 19th century notions of a static ethnicity produced by inherent racial characteristics. He is withering in his critique of this outdated concept, which underlies most of the standard accounts of 'barbarian invasions' and 'Germanic kingdoms.' In his pages, ethnicity is an acquired, not a hereditary, trait, something that is continually changing and adapting to new circumstances. In line with much recent scholarship, Halsall also disputes long-held theories of Rome's military decline, arguing that 'barbarization' was actually the result of conscious decisions by Romans to adopt such a persona (90). Instead of focusing on population decline, Halsall points out that the empire continued to possess 'considerably greater resources of manpower than the barbarians' (144).

Halsall's gift for capturing dense issues through an apt analogy helps the reader grasp the import of his findings. At one point he likens the emperor to 'a small, and not especially powerful, light-bulb' (141) to explain the importance of patronage; at another, he conveys the political and permeable nature of the northern frontier by likening it to an 'Iron Curtain' (141). As these and the quotations in this review indicate, Halsall is a vigorous stylist. Although he uses the newest techniques, he is not a slave to them, and while he is judicious, he does not mince words. Migration theory, he points out, 'has yet to be employed to explain anything' (418), and a new fascination with DNA evidence reflects a 'current vogue for forcing modern archaeological science to yield answers to old-fashioned and crudely formulated historical questions' (452).

Efforts to minimize the impact of the invasions produce some tortured reasoning, such as his argument that the barbarians amounted to no more than 'a small percentage of Europe's population' and their movements no more disruptive than that produced by the transfer of a few Roman regiments (455-6), or his argument that the constant squandering of resources in internal disputes proves that Romans themselves did not think these incursions significant (chs. 7, 8). If there is a whiff of special pleading in such assertions, it is a small price to pay for a book that contains so many treasures. Halsall has pulled off the difficult trick of writing a textbook that can be read with profit by anyone interested in this large and enduring question.  
H.A. Drake University of California, Santa Barbara

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Thank you!

At some point this evening, HotE passed the half a million hits mark.  I appreciate that the number of what one might call 'genuine' hits (i.e. by people actually looking for this site or the articles on it) will be considerably fewer but it is still a milestone, so I would like to say thank you to everyone who has been interested in or has engaged positively with this blog in the four and a half years or so since I started maintaining it properly.  Cheers!