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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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’ ………..

References

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, https://profkinchinblog.wordpress.com 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


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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

Ian Mc Nay


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The REF: Digging beyond the headlines

By Ian McNay

Recent headlines on the Research Excellence Framework (REF) were  a bit over the top when the scores are scrutinised closely, particularly in Education, as detailed in my earlier blog post back in February. So, I won’t take long, but want to add to what I said then to emphasise the impact of the three elements of scoring and the discontinuities between exercises. Andrew Pollard, chair of the Education panel, concentrates on ‘research activity’ in his comment on the BERA website, where 30 percent was at 4* level. However, output had only 21.7 per cent at that level; the scores were boosted by scores of over 40 per cent for impact and environment.

If you look hard you can find a breakdown of scores by element for 2008, and these show how things have changed. For environment, in 2008, 5 units scored 50 per cent or higher at 4*, with a top score of 75 per cent; 19 scored 50 per cent or more when 3* and 4* are combined. This time, at 4* 18 units scored 50 per cent or more and 8 scored 100 per cent. Combining 3* and 4* shows that 52 units scored more than 50 per cent with 23 scoring 100 per cent across those top two levels.  That grade inflation suggests either considerable investment for development or less demanding criteria.

On impact there is no precedent. In 2008 the third element was esteem indicators, where the top score for 4* was 40 per cent, by only two units, with a further 10 getting 30 per cent. For impact in 2014, 13 units scored more than 50 per cent – well above the highest score for esteem. Perhaps we judged our peer academics more harshly than users of research did. Or, perhaps, they were less obsessed with long term, large scale, statistical studies using big data sets which successive panels have set as the acme of quality work, and more concerned with ’did it make a difference?’ Continue reading

Ian Kinchin


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Digital technology amplifies the obvious

By Ian Kinchin

Digital technology in various forms is now well embedded into teaching at university. The use of PowerPoint seems ubiquitous – barely a lecture goes by without the support of a slide presentation. And what is interesting is the way in which the projection of PowerPoint slides also projects the lecturer’s views on teaching. It bares all, whether you intend it or not.

Lecturers who claim to be interested in student engagement have their bluff called when they then have a slide presentation without any room for questions because they are so full of content. The structure of the knowledge within the presentation is also transparent, with linearity usually dominating (Kinchin et al., 2008). Use of technology gives signals about you as a teacher that will be interpreted by students. Continue reading

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