The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay

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Applications to UK universities: digging beyond the headlines…

By Ian McNay

‘Record numbers apply to enter higher education’ was the good news reported at the end of the first application period in January by most papers – I have not seen one to query this, but I have not checked them all. The March figures are now out, almost unreported, and confirm what was true in January: applications are up on last year, by just over 2 per cent. The increase for the UK is lower than that, at about 1.6 per cent.

That is good, but the claim of a record depends what you count and compare with. The secondary headline was that this record showed that high fee levels had had no impact, implying that the record applied where fees had been raised. Not true. If we go back to before the fees were mooted, to applicants for 2010 entry, over the six years since then applicants from England have gone down by 3 per cent; from Northern Ireland have gone up by 8 per cent; from Scotland have gone up by 14 per cent and in Wales are down only by about 0.5 per cent. So, UK applications are not at record levels, but still 6,000 below the figures for 2010 entry; for England, the figure is down 13,000. The record claim is true only by including EU and international applicants. For the latter group, entry has been difficult because of visa policies, so applications may increase but that is no guarantee of extra students at the end of the cycle.

The second feature to note is that applicants from England aged 18 have increased, though only marginally for men. That increase is more than outweighed by all other age groups which have declined.  In Northern Ireland and Scotland they have gone up in all older age groups. The obvious conclusion is that high fees in England have had an effect, particularly on older potential applicants, so that the English government is frontloading higher education and has abandoned support to lifelong learning, again. Older students have to rely on themselves. That is true, too, for part-time students where the withdrawal of funding for second qualifications resulted in a drop in numbers, and the introduction of loans towards higher fees, for which many are not eligible, was followed by reduction in employer support, and reductions in numbers of older entrants to apprenticeships as the latest joint seminar on widening access and participation heard on April 13th.

The third thing to note is that, despite entry requirements being lowered, about half the 30,000 extra places allocated by the English government remained empty, which suggests that uncapping student numbers in England may have very little effect.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.

Ian Kinchin

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Research-teaching links: what do students think?

By Ian Kinchin

Looking at university web sites, it is clear that many institutions are offering “unique” student experiences for identical reasons. In particular a research-informed teaching and learning environment. The convergence on this particular selling point is quite striking despite the lack of clarity on what this means or what the evidence is for this being the best way forward. It seems that universities are all heading along the same road without questioning whether there are alternative perspectives.

I find the comments made nearly 50 years ago by West (1966: 767) particularly interesting in this regard, suggesting an alternative model for university teaching. He states:

Most teachers understand the importance of developing the students’ capacity for critical thinking and self-education, but most of us are too busy telling them what we know to get around to showing them how we learn. Possibly they would gain more from watching us learn than from watching us teach.”

Imagine a university without a “teaching curriculum”, but a “learning curriculum” in which the students study the activities of particular researchers in order to piece together the nature of their chosen subject. Clearly students would need some guidance and the researchers would have to be encouraged to make their practice transparent to facilitate study. But wouldn’t this make teaching and research the same activity so that “links” between the two wouldn’t need to be contrived. Undoubtedly there would be problems to be overcome, but doesn’t this sound like an interesting prospect?

The present situation (where teaching and research are seen as two often conflicting activities) is confusing to all, and in particular to those stakeholders who are supposed to benefit from a research-teaching nexus: the students. Student-constructed research narratives into the issue are quite revealing. Cleary (2013: 19) makes the observation that universities tend to be “self-proclaimed research-led teaching centres”, with no real way of evaluating the veracity of the claim, or even what the claim means. Whilst some academics appear to be using their students in a one-way relationship, “My PhD students are making my research … they are generating all of my data.” (Cleary, 2013: 25), others see it as an increasingly reciprocal arrangement as students move from undergraduate to postgraduate studies, “I collaborate with students … they have more part to play within my research and I in theirs” (Hall, 2013: 85), whilst others see a clear relationship between their teaching and research at all levels, “I learn through teaching… [it] is actually quite important to me in terms of my own research.” (Abrahamsson, 2013: 94).

The link between teaching and research is not universally acknowledged with some academics feeling that undergraduates are not theoretical enough (Abrahamsson, 2013: 94), or that they lack the knowledge to influence what you are doing (Wickenden, 2013: 71). This diversity of view may, in part, be accounted for by disciplinary differences, though the students found that opposing views could exist even within a single department. Evidently the picture is not clear. How do teaching and research complement each other? Wouldn’t it be easier if they were just the same thing?


  • Abrahamsson, B-E. (2013) Acquiring and sharing knowledge: Exploring the links between research and teaching in Social Science and Public Policy. Higher Education Research Network Journal, 6: 92 – 101.
  • Cleary, S. (2013) Perceptions of collaboration in research and teaching in a School of Biomedical Sciences. Higher Education Research Network Journal, 6: 19 – 28.
  • Hall, R. (2013) Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery: From university intention to student perception. Higher Education Research Network Journal, 6: 83 – 91.
  • Wickenden, J. (2013) Investigating research-teaching links in an undergraduate School of Medicine: Ownership as a means of rebalancing student objectives. Higher Education Research Network Journal, 6: 61 – 74.
  • This collection of student-authored papers is available online at:
  • West, K. M. (1966). The case against teaching. Journal of Medical Education, 41(8), 766–771. Available online at:

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.


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Policy and Funding in Australia : If you repeat something often enough, can it become ‘the truth’?

By Marcia Devlin

In his poem, ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, Lewis Carroll points out that if you repeat something often enough, it can become ‘the truth’.

     ‘Just the place for a Snark!’ the Bellman cried,

As he landed his crew with care;

Supporting each man on top of the tide

                                                    By a finger entwined in his hair.

                                                    Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:

                                                    That alone should encourage the crew.

                                                    Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:

                                                   What I tell you three times is true.’

I wonder whether some Australian media commentators and politicians have a copy of this poem next to their beds. It is possible that this poem is where they got the idea to repeat statements and assumptions related to a connection between low Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) scores and lower university education standards over and over again until they become accepted, unquestioned knowledge.

The ATAR is a numerical relative ranking of academic performance in senior secondary school. Students are awarded a rank out of 100 that indicates their rank against peers completing school in the same year. The assumptions are that a ‘low’ ATAR (and definitions of this vary) indicates the student is stupid, lazy or both and that institutions that accept students with low ATARs are of inferior quality and have low standards.

By endlessly repeating such assumptions, what is being exhibited is what former University of Queensland Professor of Education, Eileen Byrne, defined as the Snark Syndrome.
The Snark Syndrome is the repeated assertion of an alleged truth that proves to have no credible base in sound empirical research or accredited theory. In simple terms, something is repeated again and again until it is accepted as fact, or as what Byrne calls ‘received wisdom’.

There is no evidence that low ATAR scores inexorably lead to lower standards or poorer university academic outcomes. There is no proof that excluding students with lower ATARs from university programs will raise standards or improve outcomes. The ‘received wisdom’ that high ATARs for everyone will ‘save the day’ is based on assumption, belief and prejudice, and not on evidence or fact.

The evidence and facts do indicate that ATAR scores are correlated with socioeconomic status and social capital. For example, in Australia, poor people in rural areas generally have lower ATARs than rich people in metropolitan areas. But poor people are not stupid and do not compromise educational standards or outcomes. They just have less of the social and cultural capital that counts for school education outcomes (and ATARs).

Does repeating ‘low ATARs means low university standards’ often enough justify the inherent, implicit criticism and demonising of students who do not get high ATARs? No matter how hard they or their teachers work, no more than ten per cent of students’ scores will be in the top ten per cent of scores. That’s how ranking works. However much we might wish it, not everyone can have a high ATAR.

University education is now open to more students than in the past when it was just available to white, upper-class men. This is good for students, their futures, their families, the economy and society. So why do we metaphorically beat up the students who have responded to this opportunity to improve their minds and lives, and the universities who offer them the opportunity to do so?

As far as I am aware, and as Tim Pitman from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education has recently emphasised, the point of university education is not to validate entry standards but to educate, value-add and ensure high quality outcome standards. So why is there a focus on repeating negative assumptions and inferences about low entry standards, the universities that set them and the people who meet them?

We all know that elements of effective university education and high quality learning outcomes go far beyond the supposed standard at which the students enter the university. Teaching quality, the curriculum, learning support and student support are just some of the most obvious. Yet some continue to be obsessed with entry standards.

In the context of looming federal policy changes for higher education in Australia, simplistic ideas can be seductive. They bring us together and unite us against a perceived common evil. But if we hear them often enough, and they fit with our assumptions, beliefs and prejudices, we may find ourselves uncritically nodding along, muttering about the beginning of the end of civilisation being brought about by low ATAR university entry scores.

In the longer term, simplistic ideas are likely to distract us from evidence-based policy and practice and getting on with the important work of ensuring the highest quality graduate outcomes possible for all students. Surely this should be our focus, rather than Snark-based nonsense?

Marcia Devlin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) and Professor, Learning Enhancement at Federation University, Victoria, Australia and an SRHE Fellow. A longer version of this article appeared on the website of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education in Australia.

Ian Mc Nay

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REF outcomes: Some comments and analysis on the Education Unit of Assessment

By Ian McNay

A recent report to the Leadership Foundation for HE (Franco-Santos et al, 2014) showed that ‘agency’ approaches to performance management favoured by managers, which ‘focus on short-term results or outputs through greater monitoring and control’ are ‘associated with …lower levels of institutional research excellence’. A small project I conducted last summer on the REF experience showed such approaches as pervasive for many institutions in the sample. Nevertheless, the main feature of the 2014 REF was the grade inflation over 2008.

Perhaps such outstanding global successes, setting new paradigms, are under-reported, or are in fields beyond the social sciences where I do most of my monitoring. More likely ‘strategic entry policies’ and ‘selectivity in many submissions’, noted by the panel, have shifted the profile from 2008. A second successive reduction of 15 percent in staff numbers submitted, with 15 institutions opting out and only nine coming in since 2008 will also have had an effect. Welcome back to Cardiff, hidden in a broad social sciences submission last time. The gain from Cardiff’s decision is that it will scoop all of the QR funding for education research in Wales. None of the six other institutions making submissions in 2008, with some 40 staff entered, appeared in 2014 results. That may be a result of the disruptions from mergers, or a set of strategic decisions, given the poor profiles last time

What has emerged, almost incidentally, is an extended statement of the objectives/ends of the exercise, which now does not just ‘inform funding’. It provides accountability for public investment in research and evidence of the benefit of this investment. The outcomes provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks for use within the HE sector and for public information. Still nothing about improving the quality of research, so any such consequence is not built in to the design of the exercise, but comes as a collateral benefit.

My analysis here is only of the Education Unit of Assessment [UoA 25]. More can be found at .

Something that stands out immediately is the effect of the contribution of scores on environment and impact on the overall UoA profile. Across all submissions, the percentage score for 4* ratings was 21.7 for outputs, but 42.9 for impact and 48.4 for environment.  At the extreme, both the Open University and Edinburgh more than doubled their 4* score between the output profile and the overall profile. Durham, Glasgow and Ulster came close to doing so, and Cardiff and the Institute of Education  added 16 and 18 points respectively to their percentage 4* overall profile.

Seven of the traditional universities, plus the OU, had 100 per cent ratings for environment. All submitted more than 20 FTE staff for assessment – the link between size and a ‘well found’ department is obvious. Several ‘research intensive’ institutions that might be expected to be in that group are not there: Cambridge scored 87.5 per cent. Seven were judged to have no 4* elements in their environment. Durham, Nottingham and Sheffield had a 100 per cent score for impact in their profile, making Nottingham the only place with a ‘double top’.

In England, 21 traditional universities raised their overall score; 6 did not. Among the less research intensive universities, 29 dropped between the two, but there were also seven gains in 4* ratings: Edge Hill went from 2.1 per cent [output] to 9 percent [overall] because of a strong impact profile; Sunderland proved King Lear wrong in his claim that ‘nothing will come of nothing’: they went from zero [output rating] to 5 per cent overall, also because of their impact score. Among the higher scoring modern universities, Roehampton went down from 31 to 20 at 4*, but still led the modern universities with 71 percent overall on the 3*/4* categories.

I assume there was monitoring of inter-assessor comparability, but there appears to have been those who used a 1-10 scale and added a zero, and those who used simple fractions, for both impact and environment. Many do not get beyond 50/50. For output, it is different; even with numbers submitted in low single figures, most scores go to the single decimal point allowed.

For me, one of the saddest contrasts was thrown up by alphabetic order. Staffordshire had an output rating of 25 percent at 4*; Southampton had 18 percent; when it came to overall profile, the rankings were reversed: Staffordshire went down to 16 because it had no scores at 3* or 4* in either impact or environment; Southampton went up to 31 percent. There is a personal element here: in 2001 I was on the continuing education subpanel. In those days there was a single grade; Staffordshire had good outputs – its excellent work on access was burgeoning, but was held down a grade because of concerns about context issues – it was new and not in a traditional department. Some other traditional departments were treated more gently because they had a strong history.

The contribution of such elements was not then quantified, nor openly reported, so today’s openness at least allows us to see the effect.  I believed, and still do,that, like the approach to A level grades, contextual factors should be taken account of, but in the opposite direction. Doing well despite a less advantaged context should be rewarded more. My concern about the current structure of REF grading is that, as in 2001, it does the exact opposite. The message for units in modern universities, whose main focus is on teaching, is to look to the impact factor. A research agenda built round impact from the project inception stage may be the best investment for those who wish to continue to participate in future REFs, if any. There is a challenge because much of their research may be about teaching, but the rules of the game bar impact on teaching from inclusion in any claim for impact. That dismisses any link between the two, the Humboldtian concept of harmony, and any claims to research- led teaching. As a contrast, on the two criticisms outlined here, the New Zealand Performance –Based Research Fund [PBRF] has, among its aims:

  • To increase the quality of basic and applied research
  • To support world-leading research-led teaching and learning at degree and postgraduate level.

Might the impending review of REF take this more integrated and developmental approach?

Reference: Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M.(2014) Performance Management in UK Higher Education Institutions, London, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.

Paul Temple

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The student experience in England: changing for the better and the worse?

By Paul Temple

When the present English tuition fee regime was being planned, there were plenty of voices from inside universities warning that it would change the nature of the relationship between students and their universities for the worse. Students would, it was feared, become customers, rather than junior partners in an academic enterprise. Indeed, this was what the Government’s 2011 White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, seemed to look forward to: “Better informed students will take their custom to the places offering good value for money” (para 2.24) – in other words, they would, it was hoped, act like normal consumers. Has this happened? Continue reading

David Watson

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Professor Sir David Watson 1949-2015

SRHE President 2005-2012

It is with great sadness that the Society announce the death of Professor Sir David Watson, SRHE President from 2005-2012, who passed away on Sunday 8 February after a very short illness.

Throughout his career David sought to develop an understanding of higher education through research. He strongly supported the idea that higher education was a social good. As President of SRHE, David’s annual address to conference (always the best attended keynote) explored the relationship of higher education and society in ways that urged members of the research community to search for evidence on how current policies and practices were affecting society more generally as well as on students and staff in the sector.

David was a staunch supporter of the work of the Society for Research into Higher Education and the Society’s President from 2005 to 2012, standing down at his own insistence, as was typical of David, otherwise we would never have let him go. He felt that his seven years as President (two more than he signed up for) was, in his own words, “enough from me”.

He was wrong of course, as there could never be enough of what David had to say, the way that he said it and the breadth of knowledge, understanding, weight of compassion and sheer humanity that imbued everything he said and wrote about higher education.

We will not see his like again.

His legacy in terms of his written work will remain with us. What his colleagues will remember most is the friendship and support he gave to everyone, the way he touched so many lives and supported so many careers. He believed absolutely in collegiality within the academy and fostering respect between colleagues at all times. In this regard he led by supreme example.

Professor Yvonne Hiller, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Brighton and Chair of the Society during David’s tenure as President was also a personal friend and has summed up for us how we felt about him perfectly:

“Sir David was one of the few truly honest men who combined intellectual prowess with genuine concern and friendship for colleagues. He was particularly self-effacing when encouraging newer researchers to engage with examination of higher education. His genuine warmth for colleagues in the research community was much appreciated by newer and fully established researchers alike”.

Continue reading

Vikki Boliver

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Universities must act collectively to remedy lower offer rates for ethnic minority applicants

By Vikki Boliver

The Runnymede Trust has just launched its publication Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy which shines a spotlight on ethnic inequalities in UK universities. The report brings together 15 short essays written by academics and policy makers which make clear that radical change is needed to address ethnic inequalities in university admissions, student experiences, degree attainments, graduate labour market outcomes, and access to academic positions especially at senior levels.

In my contribution to the Runnymede publication (see chapter 5) I focus on the issue of ethnic inequalities in university admissions chances. Although British ethnic minorities are more likely to go to university than their White British peers, some ethnic minority groups – notably the Black Caribbean, Black African, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups – remain strikingly underrepresented in the UK’s most academically selective institutions including Russell Group universities. Of course this is partly due to ethnic inequalities in secondary school attainment which means that members of these groups are less likely to have the high grades required for entry to highly selective universities. But we also know, from analysing university admissions data that British ethnic minority applicants are less likely to be offered places at highly selective universities even when they have the same grades and ‘facilitating subjects’ at A-level as White British applicants. Continue reading


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