The Society for Research into Higher Education

Image of Rob Cuthbert

Leave a comment

Universities reel after Hexit vote

By Rob Cuthbert

The referendum result shocked the universities, going against all the expectations that ‘Remain’ would triumph and that the status quo would be preserved. The campaign had become increasingly frenetic as the date for the referendum approached, with claims about the consequences for ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ ever more inflated. But even on the day of the vote no-one, least of all the opinion pollsters, had really expected that ‘Leave’ would win. It was only as voters left polling stations across the country’s campuses that the realisation dawned, with exit polls immediately showing unexpectedly high votes for ‘Leave’, especially in crucial constituencies like Sheffield. As the results came in it was clear that Sunderland, one of the earliest to report a ‘Leave’ majority, had established a pattern that would be replicated everywhere except in parts of London and a few other cities.

It had all seemed so different only a year earlier. Among the mass of ordinary university staff there had long been some dissatisfaction that the system worked mainly to preserve the upper echelons in the comfort to which they had been accustomed. Universities UK was used to batting these concerns aside, on the grounds that plainly the advantages of the single HE market outweighed any other consideration. At first the small group of academics seeking more independence had been easy to dismiss as ‘fruitcakes and loonies’, even when they became organised in the Universities Claiming Independence Programme (UCIP). But support for the idea of independence grew – even, shockingly, among some of the proper universities. More people started to think that the universities where – after all – most of the people worked and studied might be better off outside a unified university sector, rather than paying most of the price for a system which seemed mainly to benefit the ‘leading universities’. Their numbers swelled as the 1994 group collapsed, dividing between defectors to the Russell Group and those refusing to pay the steep entry fees, or denied entry as not proper enough. The media looked for an easy handle for those disaffected with the UUK and started calling them Exists for Universities in Russell-Group Only Sceptics (Eurosceptics).

The Eurosceptics complained that the government of UUK was undemocratic, and deals affecting all universities were done in the inaccessible recesses of London clubs from which most vice-chancellors were excluded. Defenders of the status quo proclaimed the virtues of a unified system which could expand student enrolment from the single market and attract lots of low-paid staff from elsewhere to keep the country’s universities globally competitive. They pointed to the history of fringe institutions from poorer places desperately seeking membership of UUK, with colleges still queuing to meet the conditions for entry. They reminded their members that even the poorest institutions could send their representatives to UUK with pay and expenses packages worth £200-300,000 or more. Such figures were of course justified by UUK on the grounds that all institutions needed to compete for the best staff in the market. Competitiveness also naturally required keeping pay as low as possible for all the university staff who struggled to maintain a teaching and research lifestyle. But, in the areas which had been left behind, the complaint was less about low pay, more about the burden of regulation which seemed to flow endlessly from the top in quality control and key indicator sets. The single market had turned all the learners into customers.

When even some of the normally docile and compliant vice-chancellors changed allegiance and went over to UCIP, the UUK administration decided it had to resolve the issue once and for all, and promised to call a referendum with a simple question: do you think that all universities should stay in a single system, governed from the Athenaeum?

Opinion polls at first suggested a majority for ‘Remain’. As the campaign developed the rhetoric of the ‘Remainers’ became increasingly hysterical, especially about how much the ‘Leave’ side was telling lies to mislead the unthinking and ignorant masses who only had their own experience to go on. UUK told universities that to leave the single system would expose them to the same fate as FE colleges, which had already suffered funding cuts unthinkable to the refined sensibilities of HE and would do anything to get their money back. The media dubbed this Project FEAR (FE Are Rapacious). The polls shifted and it became clear the vote could go either way. UUK said that the expanding student enrolment economy would be destroyed overnight, that the UK’s HE credit rating would be permanently downgraded, security on campuses would break down, and a vote to Leave would mean the immediate emergency imposition of massive emergency fee increases, salary cuts and job losses – not one word of a lie. Leavers said the subscriptions to UUK would be better spent on student health and welfare in the institutions, and universities should take back control of their own affairs, but Remainers pointed out that UUK subscriptions were actually not as large as people thought, and in any case the end of civilisation as we know it would mean much greater losses for all. Some Leavers said that uncontrolled student enrolment would swamp the poorer institutions and drive down educational standards, leaving the richer areas relatively unaffected. ‘Remain’ campaigners took to the campuses and sought to persuade ‘Leave’ voters to change their allegiance by insulting their intelligence, telling them that they had not thought it through and they were racist isolationists: strangely, these arguments did little to help. As the day of the vote approached both sides resorted to shrieking ‘Liars’ and reasoned debate left the stage, a situation familiar to anyone who has sat through an Academic Board debate about car parking.

As the votes were counted UUK was forced to face the unthinkable: ‘Leave’ had triumphed. There had not been a plan B, but various groups of ‘Remainers’ cobbled together a range of desperate ideas. First was the rubbishing of the ‘Leave’ voters, as too old to care about the future, too poor, and too ignorant. The slightly more refined but no less offensive line was that ‘Leavers’ had not understood the arguments because they had been lied to in the campaign. Many ‘Remainers’ were outraged at the thought that anyone should disagree with their evidently superior understanding of the situation, and simply argued that the referendum should be rerun until the people gave the right answer. Then the serious logic-chopping began, with constitutionalists arguing that the vote was not valid until UUK had endorsed it in a full meeting. As it became clear that most vice-chancellors would not be willing so obviously to oppose the wishes of their constituents, the argument shifted to the hopefully arcane complexities of the implications of the vote. It was said that UUK could only endorse ‘Leave’ if it spelt out the implications and had another vote involving the whole university population. Events forestalled these half-baked ideas; after much mayhem among the previous leadership a sensible tendency emerged, recognising that perhaps the best thing to do was to accept the will of the people, freely expressed.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England, Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics, and Chair, Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service

Ian Kinchin

Leave a comment

Why do we need to consider pedagogic frailty?

By Ian Kinchin

For some colleagues, the idea of pedagogic frailty (see post on 20th January 2016) provides a challenging concept. Why focus on what’s wrong (frailty) rather than what’s right (e.g. excellence, resilience etc.)? A good question, and I certainly do not hold the copyright to the correct answer to this. However, I feel there are a number of good reasons to explain why a consideration of pedagogic frailty can be helpful:

  • After talking with various colleagues across the disciplines, the idea of frailty appears to resonate. As I am not using the term to refer to an individual’s characteristics, but with reference to the quality of connections across the wider ‘teaching system’, it has not been perceived by them to be a threatening term.
  • The clinical analogy from which I have drawn heavily provides a starting point that colleagues can relate to. Everyone has either been ill, or knows someone who has, and recognises that the clinical professions are dedicated to promoting health rather than illness. Nonetheless, medicine knows more about disease than it does about health. This is the focus of medical studies. In order to promote health, you need to understand the indicators of illness and the consequences of inappropriate treatment.

Continue reading

Paul Temple

Leave a comment

Comparing teaching and learning: enough, already?

By Paul Temple

Where did the obsession with comparisons in education come from? In his 1997 book The Audit Society, Michael Power identifies the causes of what he calls “the audit explosion” and the related demands for public-sector performance measurement in the 1980s and 1990s. The shock-wave of this explosion ripples on.

But one recent case, the OECD’s AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes) project, shows there may be limits to the comparison industry’s growth. This project seems to have stalled following concerns about its proposed methodology and likely costs: England said last year it wouldn’t take part, and American and Canadian universities have also said no. The OECD’s Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE) programme recommended in 2012 that the project be halted after seeing the results of a large-scale feasibility study. But the OECD’s Director of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, is apparently undeterred, if his HEPI lecture (Value-Added: How do you measure whether universities are delivering for their students? HEPI 2015 Annual Lecture. HEPI Report 82) last December is anything to go by.

Schleicher thinks that his plans are being blocked by Continue reading


Leave a comment

Gesellschaft für Hochschulforschung – the German Society for HE Research

By Richard Budd

Given that my PhD compared German and English HE, I was thrilled to be awarded SRHE funding to attend their counterpart’s annual conference in München. It gave me a chance to gen up on the hottest topics in German-speaking HE research, to catch up with a few people I already knew from a stint as a visiting doctoral researcher, and to build some new bridges. It didn’t disappoint, and the only dark cloud was that I was unable to stay for the whole event due to prior commitments.

The early career researcher day started with a workshop on publication strategies, and was mostly directed towards doctoral students who might be unfamiliar with the publishing landscape. Many of the tips such as identifying the original contribution of your paper, an eye-catching title, and listening to the editor’s /reviewers comments were (recent) old hat, although some of this I’d had to learn the hard way. Of particular interest was the array of German language journals that either focus entirely on HE or are amenable to HE-oriented pieces. A number of German academics do publish in the more familiar English language journals, but there is a great deal of interesting research that happens away from the ‘English eye’. I struggle to keep up with the volume of my ‘must-reads’ in English at the best of times, and would welcome suggestions on how to manage this (on a postcard, please). I am conscious that I somehow need to keep my finger on the German language pulse, too.

The main event of the early career researcher day was Continue reading


Leave a comment

Research and Policy in Higher Education: the implications of new research published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS)

By Michael Shattock

In April 2016 the IFS published its long awaited Working Paper (W16/06): ‘How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background’ authored by Britton, J, Dearden, L, Shephard, N and Vignoles, A. The research and its findings are likely to be immensely influential in the UK and probably internationally, both in higher education studies and in respect to policy.

A month later the UK Government published its White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, May 2016, Cm 9258 which made several references to the Working Paper’s findings and confirmed that they were ‘at the heart of delivering our reform agenda’(para 34).

The originality of the IFS paper lies primarily in the methodology adopted to offer data on the earning levels of English graduates 10 years from graduation and the precision which it gives to analysing  it against a given set of variables. Hitherto, economists have been able, using rate of return analysis, to calculate the value of degree study as against non-entry to higher education but the absence of national data, apart from the notoriously suspect employment data collected by careers offices six months after graduation, has proved to be a severe limitation on any assessment of the employment outcomes of UK higher education. Continue reading


1 Comment

The Annual Conference of the German Association for HE Research

By Susi Poli

It was by chance that I sent my application for a sponsored delegate place at the Annual Conference of the German Association for Higher Education Research (GfHF), held in Munich in April. SRHE had called for a student/early career researcher, fully sponsored by GfHF, to engage in their panel discussion at the pre-conference on making the connection between HE research and practice. Surprisingly or not, I was shortlisted and I got the place!

Before leaving for the conference I became aware that there is a distinction to be made between ‘early stage researcher’ as defined by the EU, and ‘early career researcher’ (ECR) based on UK terminology. The first refers to the European Commission’s Charter for Researchers, which clearly states the professional status of the researcher from the early stage, ie from the doctoral phase onwards. In contrast the UK considers its doctoral candidates as ‘students’ and doesn’t afford them professional status (Hancock et al, 2015). However, I was happy to be seen as an early career/stage ‘something’ or researcher, appreciated even more as a woman and an experienced/mature (or both) professional in her mid-40s.

The leading questions in preparation for the panel discussion were: Continue reading

Image of Rob Cuthbert

Leave a comment

The Thirty Years Quality War

By Rob Cuthbert

Ten years ago David Watson[1] (2006 p2) said that in England since the 1980s: “the audit society and the accountability culture have collided (apparently) with academic freedom and institutional autonomy”. He called this clash between accountability and autonomy the ‘Quality Wars’ and identified five major casualties: the shrinking of higher education’s sectoral responsibilities; truth – managers mistaking criticism for resistance, staff mistaking resistance for criticism; solidarity – because of the rise of the ‘gangs’ – the Russell Group and others; students, as quality assurance became ever less effective at delivering enhancement; and the reputation of UK HE abroad, as our determination to label things unsatisfactory advertised the few deficiencies of our sector and obscured our strengths.

Ten years on, the hostilities continue and the casualties mount. Continue reading


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 114 other followers