The Society for Research into Higher Education

Simon Marginson

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Equality of opportunity: the first fifty years

By Simon Marginson

The article below is abridged from the keynote address given at the SRHE’s 50th Anniversary Colloquium at Church House, London on June 26th 2015.  The full text of this keynote address is available via 

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century (2014) clarifies  the distinction between (1)  societies in which incomes are relatively equal and/or there is a high degree of middle class growth and social mobility, which includes (albeit in different ways and for rather different reasons) both the Scandinavian countries and emerging East Asia; and (2) societies like the United States or the UK that are relatively closed in character, with highly unequal wage structures, growing capital concentrations, and static middle classes that are under considerable pressure to defend their past-gained economic and status positions. Arguably, in societies of type (1), in which social stratification is looser, higher education has a greater potential to shape the pattern of social opportunities and outcomes. Piketty’s contribution is to explain the political economic mechanisms that shape social openness and closure, in different parts of the world and over time, and to demonstrate that between the 1950s-1970s the USA and UK were relatively open in terms of elite formation and social mobility, as open as Denmark, Netherlands or China today. The 1950s-1970s were the high-time of the formation of modern mass higher education, and of the key ideas that shaped that system formation—above all in the ‘Californian Model’ the promise of equality combined with excellence in a meritocratic society, as epitomized in the 1960 California Master Plan, in a related jurisdiction the 1963 Robbins report in the UK, and the scholarship of Clark Kerr (1963) and Martin Trow (1974). Human capital theory also evolved at its time, embodying the meritocratic premises that educated attributes constitute productivity, and marginal productivity drives wages.

We have long known that inequalities in families and in schooling pattern tertiary opportunities, that unequal social agency plays out again in the transition to work, and that wage determination is shaped by industrial power and gender stratification, but the assumption that education is accountable for an end-on transition from higher education to work, within as system in which everyone goes to the starting blocks with an equal chance, still shapes policy and public expectations—though presumably, City of London bankers and hedge fund managers no longer look to the universities (if they ever did) before giving themselves another bonus and sending it to the offshore tax haven of their choice. It has become increasingly difficult to secure greater greater social equality through higher education, not just because the 1960s equality of opportunity project has been rearticulated through neo-liberal policy settings, or even because social democracy has faltered in the English-speaking countries (though Scandinavian equality policies would help), but because as Piketty shows, capital has accumulated, grossly unequal wages are furthering the concentration process, unequal wage income for ‘meritorious’ managers turns into unequal traditional wealth in the next generation, and the private fortunes are protected by finance sector capture of tax and spending policies. In short, there is less room at  the top, the middle cannot grow, and there’s not much the selection function of higher education alone can do in the face of class and power.

Questions of inequality and education are central to the work of many of us, as emancipationist democrats as well as educators and researchers. The keynote reviews the approach to equality of opportunity in higher education, and in relations between education and work, in the context of societies in which there are formidable and increasing social and political obstacles to the achievement of greater social equality and the meritocratic dream of fairer social inequality.

Simon Marginson is Professor of International Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education, University of London

Image of Rob Cuthbert

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Valuing Research into Higher Education

By Rob Cuthbert

It was an occasion to celebrate in every sense when the Society staged a Colloquium at Church House in Westminster on 26 June 2015, to celebrate its formation 50 years earlier. As part of the preparations SRHE Fellow Michael Shattock had been commissioned to write a study of SRHE over its first 25 years. He explained that:

The SRHE was born out of the ferment in the world of British HE that had been generated by the Robbins Report … [but] it was not the intellectual driver. This came from a different source, a concern about the health and welfare of the student body. … Dr Nicholas Malleson, the University of London Student Medical Officer and Director of Research in Student Problems … the acknowledged inspirer and founder of SRHE … stated that he wanted to create an organisation “to bring together the researchers [in higher education] and those who were users of research, whether as teachers, administrators or civil servants”.

Higher education research in the UK was at that time the pursuit of a very few academics in what was still a small elite HE system, but the researchers into HE came together in the Society’s first governing body, packed with luminaries including Continue reading

Ian Kinchin

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Survival in extreme environments

By Ian Kinchin

When I was actively researching biology (rather than education), a high point for me was when I was able to contribute to the naming of a new species (Bertolani and Kinchin, 1993). That was quite a buzz, and i still have a strange affection for Ramazzottius varieornatus – even though almost nobody has ever heard of it.

The Tardigrada is a particularly fascinating group of invertebrate animals. Whilst tardigrades are basically aquatic animals, they are able to survive periods of drought by desiccating their bodies. When in this dry, dormant state, their bodies are extremely resistant to environmental extremes that would normally be fatal. The animals can stay in this state of suspended animation – described as anhydrobiosis (life without water) or cryptobiosis (hidden life) – for months or even years (see Mobjerg et al, 2011; Welnicz et al, 2011). Once favourable environmental conditions are restored, the animals are able to rehydrate and continue their lives.

A while ago I discovered that ‘my’ species had been the subject of research by others working in association with NASA, looking at biology in space (Horikawa, 2008). So perhaps I hadn’t been involved in rocket science, but in some tenuous way, my work was linked to work that might one day contribute to intergalactic space travel – well you have to dream a little.

What this has made me think about is the possible analogy of the survival of universities in inhospitable environments. What do universities do when the economic or political environment becomes less favourable? Do they behave like tardigrades and enter a dormant state of cryptobiosis, or do they evolve with the environment? What are the environmental selection pressures that make universities change? How have universities changed in response to the environment? When is the pace of university change the greatest – during the ‘hard times’ or the ‘good times’?

One of the results of the tardigrade strategy of avoiding environmental extremes is that they have changed little over time – fossil tardigrades are almost identical to their modern relatives. So how has the modern university changed from its ancestral relative? Illuminated manuscripts depicting the medieval university show the teacher with the book standing at a lecturn and reading to a large gathering of students sitting passively in rows. If a student from those times had been cryptobiotic for the past four hundred years and suddenly awoke in a modern university what would be the ten biggest changes they would notice?

Answers on a postcard to ‘cryptobiotic university competition’ ………..


Bertolani, R. and Kinchin, I.M. (1993) A new species of Ramazzottius (Tardigrada, Hypsibiidae) in a rain gutter sediment from England. ZoologicalJournal of the Linnean Society, London, 109: 327 – 333.

Horikawa, D.D. (2008) The tardigrade Ramazzottius varieornatus as a model animal for astrobiological studies. Biological Sciences in Space, 22(3): 93 – 98.

Mobjerg, N., Halberg, K.A., Jorgensen, A., Persson, D., Bjorn, M., Ramlov, H. and Kristensen, R.M. (2011) Survival in extreme envioronments – on the current knowledge of adaptations in tardigrades. Acta Physiologica, 202: 409 – 420.

Welnicz, W., Grohne, M.A., Kaczmarek, L., Schill, R.O. and Frohme, M. (2011) Anhydrobiosis in tardigrades – The last decade. Journal of Insect Physiology, 57: 577 – 583.

Professor Ian Kinchin is Head of the Department of Higher Education at the University of Surrey, and is also a member of the SRHE Governing Council. This post was first published on Ian’s personal blog, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Ian Mc Nay

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Post election, Post budget: The shifting landscape of Higher Education in the UK

By Ian McNay

It says something about the Guardian and its reader profile when it builds a crossword round knowing the names of the chancellors of Russell Group universities, as it did on 27 June. I also liked its headline the previous day: ‘New dinosaur found in university store cupboard’. It has now been re-united with older colleagues in the department of economics.

My serious considerations here concern the post-election agenda – what I called Jo-Jo’s in-tray issues in a recent workshop at Coventry (to where/whom, congratulations on their Guardian league table ranking on student views on teaching quality: second only to Cambridge, and, more importantly, above Warwick). That system level policy focus will be balanced by treatment of emergent concerns at institutional level in a later piece.

The most immediate issue is a cut of £450m in the DBIS budget, which may be followed by further longer-term cuts as the failed austerity project continues. Nick Hillman at Coventry suggested an easy step was to convert grants to loans, which reduces the deficit but still increases the debt. I am writing before the budget, but I expect a loosening of fee limits, not ruled out during the election and possibly linked to teaching excellence, with high scorers being allowed to increase fees, as UUK want. Then there will be the sale of further tranches of the loan book, possibly to universities for their own alumni. Research Fortnight expects science to be protected Continue reading

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Special Issues of Studies in Higher Education

Mary-Louise Kearney

Mary-Louise Kearney

Dan Lincoln

Dan Lincoln

The intention of Special Issues is to tackle questions –the thornier the better -arising from the global Higher Education agenda (as defined by both policy-makers and researchers).  Priority domains include governance and leadership, R&D and innovation management, the academic profession, the changing demographics  of international students, financing, innovative approaches to teaching and learning and the concerns of specific groups such as students, women graduates and the challenges faced by certain regions and national contexts due to socio-economic change or the instance of disruptive  social conflict.These areas and topics of interest are then shaped into working titles, which provide the specific orientation of each issue.

We are calling this the Global Agenda because Tertiary/Higher Education has long been a key part of the global  economy and  all countries are facing similar challenges to ensure that they are performing with optimal competitiveness in this fast-moving environment. When a nation fails to keep pace with this situation, this is extremely detrimental to the social and equitable advancement of its citizens.

The process from the negotiation of a priority topic or area to the actual Special Issue title aims to ensure that the focus is both current and forward-looking in order to generate maximum interest and readership.

Authors are typically recruited via: Continue reading

Ian Kinchin


Enhanced PowerPoint with concept maps

By Ian Kinchin

The problems associated with the poor use of PowerPoint in lectures have been well documented – in particular, the over-reliance of bullet points which misrepresent the content being delivered and often result in tedious lectures in which the lecturer just reads the slides to the audience. Concept maps have a very different underlying philosophy and their use in PowerPoint can help to overcome some of the issues raised by bullet points: Continue reading

Alison Le Cornu

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MOOCs: Uncovering the learning experience

By Alison Cornu

There has been an enormous amount of hype around MOOCs since they first entered the UK HE arena roughly five years ago. That tens of thousands of students from around the world could enrol and study simultaneously was something both to marvel at and question.  Two big issues have dominated discussions about the future of MOOCs on the HE landscape: first, what business case can support them; and second, what evidence is there that students learn? Today, with much water under the bridges of both experience and research, we are in a better position to put forward a view of what we think about MOOCs.

At the outset, the notion that so many students from so many backgrounds could all learn together, and learn ‘properly’ and effectively, seemed to some impossible. As a society we have consistently had drilled into us the fact that learning best occurs in small groups. One-to-one is perhaps the crème de la crème, but groups of four to six adults offer an excellent environment for learning one from another, epitomised in the traditional Oxbridge style. Parents are keen to see their children in smaller classes and governments hasten to reassure them that everything is being done to ensure that is a reality. The paradox with MOOCs, of course, is that while at one level thousands learn together, at another, in typical distance learning fashion, each student is a lone individual working away in isolation, miles from any peers whom they don’t know and are unlikely ever to meet.

So are these initial reservations merited? What do we now make of them pedagogically? Continue reading


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