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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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

David  Watson


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David Watson 1949-2015 : A tribute

By Paul Temple

In his first few days working at the Institute of Education in London, David Watson, who died on 8 February this year after a short illness, was drafted in to chair the exam board for an MA programme about which he knew nothing, and which involved some tricky procedural matters. Afterwards, I overheard the experienced course administrator for that programme say to our own course administrator, ‘Your David Watson – he’s awfully good, isn’t he?’ David would have relished the compliment, coming from one of the ordinary members of staff who keep universities running, and would almost certainly have valued it at least as much as the many tributes paid to him in the days immediately after his death by grand figures in the higher education world.

This was because David appreciated that leadership involved understanding the details of how organisations work, the nuts and bolts that hold them together Continue reading

Charlotte Mathieson


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A Culture of Publish or Perish? The Impact of the REF on Early Career Researchers

By Charlotte Mathieson

This article aims to highlight some of the ways in which the REF has impacted upon early career researchers, using this as a spring-broad to think about how the next REF might better accommodate this career group.

In my role at the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Warwick I work closely with a community of early career researchers and have experienced first-hand the many impacts that this REF has had on my peer group; but I wanted to ensure that this talk reflected a broader range of experiences across UK HE, and therefore in preparation I distributed an online survey asking ECRs about their experiences and opinions on the REF 2014.

Survey overview

– 193 responses collected between December 2014 and March 2015
– responses gathered via social media and email from across the UK
– 81.3 % had completed PhDs within the last 8 years
– 41.5 % were REF returned
– 18.7% were currently PhD students
– 10.9% had left academia since completing a PhD

5 main points emerged as most significant from among the responses: Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

MarciaDevlin


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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. Continue reading

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