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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Why not HE? The reasons those from under-represented backgrounds decide against university

by Neil Raven

Efforts to widen higher education access have tended to focus on the provision of information and supportto those from under-represented backgrounds. This is perfectly understandable given the deep inequalities in HE progression rates that persist. However, such a focus can mean that insufficient attention is given to the student voice, and to listening to what they have to say.

The opportunity to do just this was presented in two small research projects I recently worked on (Raven, 2021a and 2022). In both instances, the principal aim was to understand better the challenges to HE progression faced by those on advanced level applied and professional courses (including BTECs) at a Midlands based further education (FE) college. The first study sought the views of those on two different courses. The follow-up focused on two further subject areas. For context, progression rates are generally lower from FE colleges than sixth forms. Moreover, compared with their A-level counterparts, a noticeably smaller proportion of those on what are sometimes referred to as ‘vocational courses’ go onto higher-level study (Baldwin et al, 2020). Focus groups were used to capture the student voice. All participants were in the final year of their level 3 programmes and on courses that would qualify them for university entry, if they chose this option. The numbers were necessarily small (14 in total), given the emphasis on gathering in-depth insights. Whilst the discussions addressed the main focus of the research, they also provided an opportunity to explore the reasons why some had decided against HE.

As would perhaps be expected, a number of the reasons offered related to factors that were pushing them away from HE as an option. They included concerns over the cost of university-level study. These were not confined to the initial outlay (including student fees) but also to the implications. ‘You are’, it was argued, going to ‘get into debt’ if you choose HE. Also referenced was the potential time and effort involved in ‘sort[ing] out student finances and funds’, as well as the strains that would be placed on their social networks. You will, it was observed, be ‘away from friends and family.’ In addition, focus group members talked about the associated workloads. ‘It is the effort’ of doing assignments, one participant noted and, it was added, ‘you get loads of them at university.’ For one group in particular reference was made (correctly) to there being no obvious, or direct higher-level qualifications they could go onto. ‘There is not a natural overarching progression’, it was observed.

However, whilst they expressed reservations about HE, an equal if not greater emphasis was placed on the attractions (the pull) of their non-HE choices. Those planning on employmenttalked about the appeal of ‘getting a job’ and wanting to leave full-time education behind. ‘Now I feel like I just want to be in work’, one participant noted. There was also the prospect of ‘earning money’ and the chance to ‘feel more independent’, and to ‘leave the rules behind and progress my life under my set of conditions.’ Some also observed that for their chosen sector and career ambitions a level 3 qualification was sufficient to offer a number of options, including setting up their own business.

Three observations emerge from these two studies. The first concerns the value of research to the field of widening participation. Here a contrast can be made with evaluation which, understandably, has become a preoccupation for the sector. Indeed, on those occasions when the voices of learners are sought, the emphasis tends to be on capturing their views about the support they have received. Yet, stepping back from the focus associated with outreach evaluation and taking time to the talk with – and listen to – the same learners can be a very enlightening experience and, as Levin-Rozalis (2003) notes, lead to ‘new insights’.

The second observation concerns the means by which these voices can be captured. Whilst surveys and questionnaires have been mentioned in this role, focus groups have greater potential since discussions can be participant-led and are able to capture the views and experiences of learners in their own words and language. Significantly, those deployed in the two profiled studies were conducted online. This was largely out of necessity, since the research was conducted during the pandemic when in-person access to students was very limited. However, one feature of online focus groups is that they tend to run with smaller numbers than their face-to-face equivalents. Those deployed in the two studies profiled were made up of between three to five participants. Whilst smaller numbers are recommended in enabling effective management of virtual groups, this also meant (fortuitously) that more was learned about the ambitions and motivations of each participant.

The third observation relates to how the findings from the two studies can be interpreted. In almost every case, the decision not to pursue full-time higher education did not mean abandoning the idea of further training. Instead, reference was made to the attractions of securing an apprenticeship, including the opportunity this pathway presented for ‘learning on the job and getting paid.’ Participants also talked about other work-based training opportunities, including specific job-related schemes offered (and paid for) by employers. For some who were already in part-time work, these related to their current employers. In other words, these students were interested in advancing their education on terms that met their needs and interests, including in relation to how, where and when training would take place, and what it would entail. More research is certainly needed, with focus groups offering one way of capturing the learner voice. However, the findings from these two small studies suggest that if we are to widen access in the transformative way that the Office for Students, as the HE regulator for England, has alluded to, then perhaps the sector needs to respond to what those it seeks to recruit want, rather than expect students to be the ones having to adapt.

Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at neil.d.raven@gmail.com.

References

Anon (2022) ‘Research Guidance Note 9. Research versus evaluation activities.’ Code of Practice on Research Integrity, Edinburgh Napier University, https://staff.napier.ac.uk/services/research-innovation-office/policies/Documents/Research%20Guidance%20Note%209%20Research%20Verus%20Evaluation%20Activities.pdf.

Baldwin, J, Raven, N and Weber-Jones, R (2020) ‘Access ‘Cinderellas’: further education colleges as engines of transformational change’, in Broadhead, S, Butcher, J, Davison, E,, Fowle, W, Hill, M, Martin, L, Mckendry, S, Norton, F, Raven, N, Sanderson, B, and Wynn Williams, S (eds) Delivering the Public Good of Higher Education: Widening Participation, Place and Lifelong Learning, London: Forum for Access and Continuing Education, 107-126.

Connor, H, Dewson, S, Tyers, C, Eccles, J, Regan, J, and Aston, J (2001) Social class and higher education: Issues affecting decisions on participation by lower social class groups, Institute for Employment Studies, https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/4621/1/RR267.pdf.

Daniels, N, Gillen, P,Casson, K, and Wilson, I (2019) ‘STEER: Factors to Consider When Designing Online Focus Groups Using Audiovisual Technology in Health Research,’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18: 1–11, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1609406919885786.

Galbraith, G (2021) ‘What do students think and how do universities find out?, in Natzler, M (ed) (2021) What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say. Higher Education Policy Institute Report 140, https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/What-is-the-student-voice_HEPI-Report-140_FINAL.pdf, 17-23.

Gibbs, A (1997) ‘Focus groups’, Social Research update 19, University of Surrey. [Online] Available at: https://sru.soc.surrey.ac.uk/SRU19.html.

Glass, GV and Worthen, BR (1972) ‘Educational evaluation and research: similarities and differences’, Curriculum Theory Network, 8/9: 149-165. https://www-jstor-org.bris.idm.oclc.org/stable/pdf/1179200.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A8f6b7387a14e827d49538c0c853c1c70&ab_segments=&origin=&acceptTC=1.

GOV.UK (2022a) Academic year 2020/21. Widening participation in higher education, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/widening-participation-in-higher-education.

GOV.UK (2022b) ‘Free school meals – gap’ from widening participation in higher education’, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/data-tables/permalink/fdadb846-2cc2-4bb5-a8fb-9c7dc1ece5bd.

Hailat, K, and Alsmadi, S (2021) ‘An investigation of the push-pull factors influencing student selection of higher education: the case of Arabian Gulf students in the UK’, Journal of Public Affairs.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349930292_An_investigation_of_the_push-pull_factors_influencing_student_selection_of_higher_education_The_case_of_Arabian_Gulf_students_in_the_UK.

Leung, FH, and Savithiri, R (2009) ‘Spotlight on focus groups’, Canadian Family Physician, 55 (2): 218-19. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2642503/ (accessed: 11 January 2022).

Levin-Rozalis, M (2003) ‘Evaluation and research: differences and similarities’, The Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 18:2, 1-31,https://evaluationcanada.ca/secure/18-2-001.pdf.

Natzler, M (ed) (2021) What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say. Higher Education Policy Institute Report 140, https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/What-is-the-student-voice_HEPI-Report-140_FINAL.pdf.

Office for Students (2022) Evaluation in access and participation,

https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/evaluation/

Office for Students (2020) Transforming opportunity in higher education An analysis of 2020-21 to 2024-25 access and participation plans, https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/2efcda44-8715-4888-8d63-42c0fd6a31af/transforming-opportunity-in-higher-education.pdf

Raven. N (2021a) Realising ambitions. Supporting the HE progression of level 3 college students, unpublished report, Shire Grant Community Grant, Leicestershire County Council.

Raven, N (2021b) ‘Widening HE access from FE colleges: the key role played by subject tutors’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13603108.2021.1961173.

Raven. N (2022) Realising ambitions 2. Supporting the HE progression of level 3 college students. Findings from a follow-up study, unpublished report, Shire Grant Community Grant, Leicestershire County Council.


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REF 2021: reflecting on results, rules and regulations, and reform (again)

by Ian McNay

Research Excellence Framework 2021

The irritations researchers experience when working with secondary data are exemplified in looking at the REF 2021 results and comparing with 2014.  The 2021 results by Unit of Assessment (UoA)  on screen are laid out with all four profiles in one line across the page. Four are fitted on to one page. When you try to print, or, at least when I do, they are laid out in a single column, so one UoA takes a full page. To add to that, the text preceding the tabulations takes just enough space to put the name of the HEI at the bottom of the page and the profiles on the next page. I know, I should have checked before pressing ‘print’. So they take 80+ pages, lots of paper, lots of ink, but I can’t work with screen based data. My bad, perhaps.

When I access the 2014 results the four profiles – overall, outputs, impact, environment – are listed on four separate documents, within which English HEIs are listed first, then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The 2021 listings take a unionist view, starting with Aberdeen rather than Anglia Ruskin. Clicking to get to UoA pages pops up a message saying ‘this page is not currently available’. I do find another route to access them.

I will first give the summary of results, set alongside those from 2014, against advice, but one role of the REF is to demonstrate more and better research. Encouraging that has never been set as an objective – the sole purpose for a long time was ‘to inform funding’ – but the constant improvement implied by the figures is the basis for getting more money out of the Treasury. One of the principles the funding bodies set way back was continuity, yet there has never been an exercise that has replicated its predecessor. This time, following the Stern Report, there were at least 12 major changes in requirements and processes. More are promised after the Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP) consultation reports. One of those changes was to give greater recognition to inter-disciplinary research. The report of the Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel (IDAP) at the end of June claimed that treatment was more visible and equitable, but that much still needs to be done. Panels are still learning how to treat work beyond their boundaries and institutions are reluctant to submit work because of its treatment in getting lower grades for the disciplines that constitute its elements.

Procedural propriety

A coincidence of timing led to a disturbing voice in my head as I read the reports from Main Panel C, covering Social Sciences, and the Education panel. The Main Panel asserts that “throughout the assessment process Main Panel C and its sub-panels ensured adherence to published ‘Panel criteria and working methods’ and consistency in assessment standards through a variety of means [and so] has full confidence in the robustness of the processes followed and the outcomes of the assessment in all its sub-panels.” The mantra was repeated in different forms by the Education sub-panel: “Under the guidance and direction from the main panel and the REF team, the sub-panel adhered to the published REF 2021 ‘Panel criteria and working methods’ in all aspects of its processes throughout the planning and assessment phases.” “The protocol requiring sub-panel members [with declared conflicts of interest] to leave panel meeting discussions was strictly followed for all parts of the REF assessment.” “A transparent process on the reconciliation of grades and conversion of grades to the status of panel agreed grades was documented and signed off by panel members”. And so on again and again. The voice in my head? “Any gatherings that took place, did so observing the Covid protocols and regulations at all times. There were no breaches.” Work within Neyland et al (2019),  based on interviews with 2014 panel members, suggests that all records were destroyed at the end of the processes and that reconciliation was used to ensure conformity to the dominant view of the elite power holders who define both what research is and what constitutes quality. The brief description of the moderation process in Education suggests that this may have been repeated. There were four members from modern universities on the Education panel, out of 20; and one out of 13 assessors. There were none on Main Panel C, just as there had been none on the Stern Committee, despite a commitment from HEFCE early in the last decade that diversity of membership would reflect institutional base.

Executive Chair of Research England David Sweeney was confident that universities had ‘behaved responsibly’ and also ‘played by the rules’ preventing importing of highly rated researchers from around the globe, and requiring all staff with significant responsibility for research to be submitted. (I should declare an interest: David claims his participation in a programme I ran resulted in his changing the course of his career and led him to HEFCE and now UKRI. I accept the responsibility, but not the blame.)

It is surprising, then, that one easily spotted deviation from the framework, not commented upon by the panels (despite a footnote on intent in the ‘Summary Report across the four main panels’) was on that requirement that ‘all staff with a significant responsibility for research’ should be submitted. I took that to be mandatory, and it led to many staff being moved to ‘teaching only’ contracts. Yet, in Education, only 42 UoAs, out of 83, met that criterion; eight being modern universities. 4 submitted more than 50%, a mix of Liverpool Hope, the OU, Ulster, and Leeds (at 95%). 25 fell between 25% and 49%, and 24 had 24% or below. All those in the last two groups are post-92 designations. Special mention for the University of the Highlands and Islands with … 605%. There were other overshoots: in History, Cambridge submitted 170%, Oxford 120%, perhaps linked to college staff not based in a department. UHI submitted 110%, but that was only 7.3 people.

The commitment to equity was also not met according to the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Panel: “Although many institutions had successfully implemented several gender-related initiatives, there was much less attention given to other protected groups. The panel therefore had little confidence that the majority of institutional environments would be sufficiently mature in terms of support for EDI within the next few years”.

 Statistics: ‘key facts’20142021
HEIs154157
FTE staff52,15076,132
Outputs191,150185,594
Impact case studies6,9756,781
Quality %4*3*2*1*
Overall
20143046203
20214143142
Outputs
201422.449.523.93.6
202135.946.815.41.6
Impact
20144439.9132.4
202149.737.510.81.7
Environment
201444.639.913.22.2
202149.636.911.61.9

So, more submissions and many more staff submitted fewer outputs and case studies, reducing the evidence base for judging quality. At Main Panel level, Panel C was the only one to have more UoA submissions, more outputs and more case studies. It had the biggest increase in staff submitted – 63%. The other 3 panels all received fewer outputs and case studies, despite staff numbers increasing by between 34% and 47%.

The Main Panel C feedback acknowledges that the apparent increase in quality can be attributed in part to the changes in the rules. It also credits the ‘flourishing research base’ in HEIs, but a recent report from DBEIS making international comparisons of the UK research base shows that between 2016 and 2020, the UK publication share declined by 2.7% a year, its citation share by 1.4% a year, its field-weighted impact by 0.2% a year and its highly-cited publication share by 4.5% a year. The 2020 QS league tables show elite UK universities drifting downwards despite favourable funding and policy preferentiality aiming to achieve the exact opposite. I suggest that better presentation of REF impact case studies and investment in promoting that internally contributed to the grade inflation there.

Note that 4* overall grades are significantly enhanced by ratings in impact and environment, confirming the shift to assess units not individuals. Ratings in both impact and environment are in multiples of either 12.5% (one eighth) or 16.7% (one sixth) in contrast to outputs, where they go to decimal points. The 2014 approach to impact assessment attracted serious and severe criticism from Alis Oancea (Oxford) and others because of the failure to do any audit of exaggerated claims, some of them to an outrageous extent. This time seems to have been better on both sides. There is still some strategic management of staff numbers – the units submitting just under 20 or 30 staff were many times higher than submitting one more, which would have required an extra case study. Some staff may, then, have lost out and been re-classified as not engaged in research.

Education

I won’t claim things leap out from the stats but there are some interesting figures, many attributable to the many changes introduced after Stern. The number of staff (FTE) submitted went up by over 50%, to 2168, but the number of outputs went down by 4.5%, from 5,526 to 5,278. Under the new rules, not all those submitted had to have four outputs, and for 2021, in Education, 1,192 people – 51% of the headcount of 2330 – submitted only one. 200 submitted four, and 220, five. The gaming was obvious and anticipated – get the most out of your best staff, prune the lower rated items from middle ranking output and get the best one from people not previously submitted to get the average required of 2.5 per FTE, and get close to 100% participation. Interestingly, in Education, output grades from new researchers had the same profile as from more longstanding staff though more – 65% – submitted only one, with 21 – 7% – submitting four or five. Across all panels there was little or no change in the numbers of new researchers. 199 former staff in Education also had output submitted, where similar selectivity could operate; 28 had four or five submitted.

Within Main Panel C, Education had the poorest quality profile: the lowest % score of 3* and 4* combined, and by far the highest 1* score  (7%), when the Panel C average was 3%. Where it did score well was in the rate of increase of doctoral degree awards where it was clearly top in number and ‘productivity’ per FTE staff member. Between 2013-4 and 2019-20, annual numbers went up from 774 to 964, nearly 20%. I postulate that that links to the development of EdD programmes with admission of students in group cohorts rather than individually.

Profiles20142021
UoAs7683
FTE staff1,441.762,168.38
Outputs5,5265,278
Impact case studies218232
Quality %4*3*2*1*
Overall    
20143036267
20213735207
Outputs    
201421.739.929.57.8
202129.838.123.77.6
Impact    
201442.933.616.76.0
202151.129.014.34.8
Environment    
201448.42518.17.8
202145.127.517.19.9

Environment obviously posed problems. Income generation was a challenge and crowded buildings from growth in student numbers may have reduced study space for researchers. In 2014 the impact assessors raised queries about the value for money of such a time consuming exercise and their feedback took just over a page and dealt with organisation structures and processes for promoting impact not their outcome. This time it was much fuller and more helpful in developmental terms.

Feedback

Learn for next time, when, of course, the panel and its views may be different…

Two universities – Oxford and UCL – scored 100% 4* for both impact and environment, moving the UCL 4* score from 39.6% for output to 62% overall quality. That is a big move. Nottingham, which had 2×100% in 2014, dropped on both, to 66.7% in impact and 25% for environment. The total number of 100% scores was seven for impact, up from four; four for environment, down from eight. The two UoAs scoring 0% overall (and therefore in all components) in 2014 moved up. Only two scored zero at 4* for impact, and not other components, one being a pre-92 institution. 17 got their only zero in environment, five being pre-92ers, including Kent which did get 100% … at grade 1*, and Roehampton, which, nevertheless, came high in the overall ratings. Dundee, Goldsmiths and Strathclyde had no 4* rating in either impact or environment, along with 30 post-92 HEIs.

Outputs

Those getting the highest grades demonstrated originality, significance and rigour in diverse ways, with no strong association with any particular methods, and including theoretical and empirical work. A high proportion of research employing mixed methods was world leading or internationally excellent.

Outputs about professional practice did get some grades across the range, but (as in 2014) some were limited to descriptive or experiential accounts and got lower grades. Lower graded outputs in general showed ‘over-claiming of contribution to knowledge; weak location in a field; insufficient attention to the justification of samples or case selection; under-development of criticality and analytical purchase’. No surprises there.

Work in HE had grown since 2014, with strong work with a policy focus, drawing on sociology, economics and critical policy studies. Also strong were outputs on internationalisation, including student and staff mobility. The panel sought more work on this, on higher technological change, decolonisation and ‘related themes’, the re-framing of young people as consumers in HE, and links to the changing nature of work, especially through digital disruption. They encouraged more outputs representing co-production with key stakeholders. They noted concentrations of high quality work in history and philosophy in some smaller submissions.  More work on teaching and learning had been expected – had they not remembered that it was banned from impact cases last time, which might have acted as a deterrent until that was changed over halfway in to the period of the exercise? – with notable work on ICT in HE pedagogy and professional learning. What they did get, since it was the exemplification of world class quality by the previous panel, were strong examples of the use of longitudinal data to track long-term outcomes in education, health, well-being and employment, including world-class data sets submitted as outputs.

Impact

The strongest case studies:

  • Provided a succinct summary so that the narrative was strong, coherent and related to the template
  • Clearly articulated the relationship between impact claims and the underpinning research
  • Provided robust evidence and testimonials, judiciously used
  • Not only stated how research had had an impact on a specific area, but demonstrated both reach and significance.

There was also outstanding and very considerable impact on the quality of research resources, research training and educational policy and practice in HEIs themselves, which was often international in reach and contributed to the quality of research environments. So, we got to our bosses, provided research evidence and got them to do something! A quintessential impact process. Begin ‘at home’.

Environment

The panel’s concerns on environment were over vitality and sustainability. They dismissed the small fall in performance, but noted that 16 of the 83 HEIs assessed were not in the 2014 exercise – implying scapegoats, but Bath – a high scorer – was one of those. The strongest submissions:

  • Had convincing statements on strategy, vision and values, including for impact and international activities
  • Showed how previous objectives had been addressed and set ambitious goals for the future
  • Linked the strategy to operations with evidence and examples  from researchers themselves
  • Were analytical not just descriptive
  • Showed how researchers were involved in the submission
  • Included impressive staff development strategies covering well-being (a contrast to reports from Wellcome and UNL researchers among others about stress, bullying and discrimination)
  • Were from larger units, better able to be sustained
  • Had high levels of collaborative work and links to policy and practice.

But… some institutions listed constraints to strategic delivery without saying what they had done to respond; some were poor on equity beyond gender and on support for PGRs and contract researchers. The effect of ‘different institutional histories’ (ie length of time being funded and accumulating research capital) were noted but without allowance being made, unlike approaches to contextual factors in undergraduate student admissions. The total research funding recorded was also down on the period before the 2014 exercise, causing concern about sustainability.

Responses

The somewhat smug satisfaction of the panels and the principals in the exercise was not matched by the commentariat. For me, the most crucial was the acknowledgement by Bahram Bekhradnia that the REF “has become dysfunctional over time and its days must surely be numbered in its present form”. Bahram had instituted the first ‘full-blown’ RAE in 1991-2 when he was at HEFCE. (Another declaration of interest, he gave me a considerable grant to assess its impact (!) on staff and institutional behaviour. Many of the issues identified in my report are still relevant). First he is concerned about the impact on teaching, which “has no comparable financial incentives”, and where TEF and the NSS have relatively insignificant impact. Second, in a zero sum game, much effort, which improves performance, gets no reward, yet institutions cannot afford to get off the treadmill, which had not been anticipated when RAE started, so wasted effort will continue for fear of slipping back. I think that effort needs re-directing in many cases to develop partnerships with users to improve impact and provide an alternative source of funding. Third, concentration of funding is now such that differentiation at the top is not possible, so risking international ratings: “something has to change, but it is difficult to know what”.

Jonathan Adams balanced good and bad: “Assessment has brought transparent direction and management of resources [with large units controlling research, not doing it], increased output of research findings, diversification of research portfolios [though some researchers claim pressure to conform to mainstream norms], better international collaboration and higher relative citation impact [though note the DBEIS figures above]. Against that could be set an unhealthy obsession with research achievements and statistics at the expense of broader academic values, cutthroat competition for grants, poorer working conditions, a plethora of exploitative short-term contracts and a mental health crisis among junior researchers”.

After a policy-maker and a professor, a professional – Elizabeth Gadd, Research Policy Manager at Loughborough, reflecting on the exercise after results day, and hoping to have changed role before the next exercise. She is concerned that churning the data, reducing a complex experience for hundreds of people to sets of numbers, gets you further from the individuals behind it. The emphasis on high scorers hides what an achievement 2*, “internationally recognised” is: it supports many case studies, and may be an indication of emergent work that needs support to develop further, to a higher grade next time or work by early career researchers. To be fair, the freedom of how to use unhypothecated funds can allow that at institutional level, but such commitment to development (historic or potential) is not built in to assessment or funding, and there are no appeals against gradings. She agonised over special circumstances, which drew little in rating terms despite any sympathy. The invisible cost of scrutinising and supporting such cases is not counted in the costs on the exercise (When I was a member of a sub-panel, I was paid to attend meetings. Time on assessing outputs was unpaid; it was deemed to be part of an academic’s life, paid by the institution, but as I was already working more hours than my fractional post allowed, I did my RAE work in private time).

There are many other commentaries on WonkHE, HEPI and Research Professional sites, but there is certainly an agenda for further change, which the minister had predicted, and which the FRAP committee will consider. Their consultation period finished in May, before the results came out – of course – but their report may be open to comment. Keep your eyes open. SRHE used to run post -Assessment seminars. We might have one when that report appears.

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


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The Helen Perkins era

by Rob Cuthbert, SRHE News Editor

Helen Perkins was appointed as Director of the Society for Research into Higher Education in 2004. In December 2021, after another very successful Research Conference, she gave notice of her intention to retire. Her last day of office was 30 June 2022, fittingly coinciding with a meeting of SRHE Council, which was able to congratulate and thank her[1] for her outstanding contribution to the Society in her 18-year tenure.

Arriving in turmoil

Helen Perkins

Before Helen’s appointment the Society was facing serious challenges, with parlous finances, uncertainty over its office accommodation, and a limited range of activities for members, despite its established annual conference, its leading journals and a respected book series. The annual SRHE Conference had traditionally been hosted each year by a different university, each time with a new conference organising committee and a new chair: that mode of operation was creaking and no longer fit for purpose. The Society’s financial difficulties were amplified when the new owners gave notice of termination  of SRHE’s lease of its office premises in Devonshire Street, London. In 2002 the chairs of SRHE’s main committees had reached the end of their terms of office, but SRHE glitterati Maria Slowey and Rosemary Deem had been persuaded to chair Research Committee and Publications Committee, respectively. Maria Slowey took charge of the annual conference and immediately started work on the quality and quantity of submissions, while Rosemary Deem began the process of restoring SRHE’s finances by negotiating a new contract with long-term publishing partner Taylor & Francis. Director Heather Eggins had announced her retirement but secured new premises for the Society, which became a tenant of the Institute of Physics in Portland Place, just around the corner from its previous perch.        

Nevertheless in 2004, as Ron Barnett took the SRHE Chair, there was still great uncertainty about the long-term academic and financial future of the Society. His first major task was to recruit a new Director, and the minutes of the 50th meeting of SRHE’s Governing Council, held on Thursday, 28 October 2004 at 76 Portland Place, London W1B 1NT record that: “The Chair (Professor Ron Barnett) introduced the new Director, Helen Perkins to the members of Council and informed them that she would be beginning her term in January 2005.”

Steadying the ship

Helen Perkins had held senior posts in British Steel and then as Head of Human Resources at Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC). While at PWC she also served for several years as Chair of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS). Arriving with both senior managerial experience and a knowledge of HE, she knew from the start how to achieve a workable compromise between the academic desire to argue to a conclusion (however long it took) and the managerial need to reach a timely decision. As Ron Barnett led the rewriting of the SRHE’s mission statement, Council happily endorsed a series of improvements in how the Society was governed and how its activities were managed; its location, staffing and finances became increasingly secure, as successive Chairs – George Gordon, Yvonne Hillier, Jill Jameson, Chris Pole, Pauline Kneale – would testify. In all these changes Helen Perkins was of course centrally involved, and behind the scenes she put together a superb staff team which, although it remains small, now oversees a range of publications, conferences, workshops and network activities which were unimaginable 20 years ago.

44 Bedford Row

The Institute of Physics decided in 2009 to reclaim its sublet premises, and the Society’s offices moved for two years to Bedford Row, an Open University building, before the move to Collier Street, which for 11 successful years facilitated the burgeoning range of membership activities. The pandemic prompted a rethink on working from home and some retrenchment, with the Society eventually moving to its present offices in All Saints Street, part of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations building. 

73 Collier Street

The annual Conference continued to gain strength, but until 2008 it continued its peripatetic existence, in Edinburgh, Brighton (twice) and an unforgettable experience in Liverpool, where the Adelphi Hotel more than lived up to the reputation forged in an earlier fly-on-the-wall TV documentary. Helen sought a new approach to the Conference and her unrivalled negotiating skills secured an affordable slot at the Celtic Manor Hotel in Newport, which proved an instant hit and became the venue for every Conference from 2009 to 2019. As the Research & Development Committee took full charge of the event it became possible to expand the Newer Researchers Conference and also accommodate it at Celtic Manor, end-on with the main Research Conference. The pandemic interrupted this sequence, but the staff team led by Helen excelled themselves in creating from scratch a week-long online conference for 2021. This did more than almost any other academic conference to recreate online many of the conference features most valued by Celtic Manor participants, spawning many attempted copycat events by other learned societies.

Reaching new heights

Meanwhile Helen’s negotiating skills were also put to good use in successive new long-term contracts with publishers Taylor & Francis and Wiley, achieving for the Society a level of financial security unimaginable only a few years earlier. The benefits were such that the Society was able to introduce its now established series of annual research grants. Since 2005 SRHE has made 82 Research and Scoping Awards and 35 Newer Researcher Awards, with grants totalling more than £750,000 of direct support for research into higher education.

The range, scope and quality of SRHE’s journals have continued to grow. SRHE News was rethought and relaunched in 2010 as a service to members, and since 2014 has developed an associated blog which is now read by researchers, policymakers and managers in more than 110 countries worldwide. Despite the apparently crowded field of journals covering research into HE, Helen Perkins was a prime mover and innovator in establishing a new journal, Policy Reviews in Higher Education, which has showed that there was indeed a gap in the market for the distinctive opportunities which the new journal offers. Helen would insist we also acknowledge publishers Taylor & Francis and in particular the support and encouragement of Ian White, for many years the Society’s main contact. Appointing new editors for journals and the book series can often be problematic, demanding a balance between the interests of the Society, the publishers and the academic needs of the journal and its editors. Publications Committee is responsible to Council for all such appointments. The Committee’s Chairs, most recently Sue Clegg and Rob Cuthbert, recognise and greatly value Helen’s skill in bringing so many editorial appointments to a successful conclusion.

For so many SRHE members, Helen Perkins and the Society have been inseparable and it will be hard to imagine SRHE without her. But the academic and financial health of the Society have never been better, and the staff team she created but now leaves behind is a strong guarantee that SRHE will continue to develop and prosper. Helen leaves with our thanks, our congratulations and our best wishes for her next steps as she develops a new portfolio of activities to refute any idea of ‘retirement’.


[1] Images and statistics here are taken with permission from Rob Gresham’s splendid tribute to Helen, in his presentation at the lunch attended by many friends and colleagues following the Council meeting.

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


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Memo to Universities UK: don’t let this crisis go to waste

by Rob Cuthbert

Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero[1]

Our text is from Boris and Horace. Boris Johnson had Churchillian aspirations, and it was Churchill who supposedly first said in the 1940s: “never let a good crisis go to waste”, in the context of the formation of the United Nations. And it was Horace much longer ago who urged us to seize the day, and put little faith in the future.

As we survey the present carnage[2] in government, what are vice-chancellors to do? First, take stock of the damage to the machinery of government, both in the Department for Education and the Office for Students. At government level we had three Secretaries of State in the space of just 48 hours. Nadhim Zahawi, the last-but-two incumbent, had shown some signs of common sense, although admittedly his predecessor Gavin Williamson had set the bar very low. Nevertheless Zahawi had done nothing to rein in his universities minister Michele Donelan, who seemed to prefer fighting the culture wars to addressing the real problems of English HE – declining levels of funding, an epidemic of student mental health problems, profound staff dissatisfaction and the threat of mass redundancies and even insolvencies in too many universities. She had taken to telephoning individual vice-chancellors to question some aspect of university management or student behaviour, while enthusiastically pursuing the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which at the time of writing is at the committee stage in the House of Lords, procedurally close to its establishment in statute – perhaps. Her reward as the resignation carnage unfolded was a big promotion to Zahawi’s job, as he moved to be Chancellor of the Exchequer on Rishi Sunak’s resignation. But as the ministerial resignations surged past 50 on Thursday 7 July, Donelan obviously thought that it was safer to join in than to be, perhaps, buried in an eventual massacre of the survivors. But her timing was bad. Her letter of resignation was made public less than an hour before the news emerged that Boris Johnson had bowed to the inevitable and agreed to step down as leader of the Conservative Party – but to continue as Prime Minister, possibly until the Autumn party conference. For a brief period the DfE had no ministers at all, but the Donelan resignation made no difference to the outcome. Had she stayed, she would probably have remained in post and the outcomes for HE might have been different. Instead James Cleverly is the new Secretary of State. He has previously served in the Cabinet, but his views on Education have been “mainly confined to a yearly jeremiad on how A levels were getting easier”, according to David Kernohan’s instant appraisal for Wonkhe on 8 July 2022. At the time of writing the new Universities Minister has yet to be named.

The tsunami of ministerial changes will make waves for the regulator too. While that would be true of any ministerial change, in these peculiar circumstances the waves may reach storm heights. The chair of the Office for Students owes his position to his closeness to Boris Johnson. Baron Wharton of Yarm, as he now is, was simply a former MP when he took on the role of campaign manager for Boris Johnson’s successful bid to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party. (In the past there has been some dispute about whether he really was ‘the’ campaign manager, but no doubt there are now fewer claimants to that ‘honour’.) Wharton was rewarded first with a peerage, and then with the chair of the Office for Students. Controversially, he has continued to take the Conservative whip in the House of Lords although the OfS is by statute an independent regulator. It comes as no surprise that the OfS is fulfilling the prediction made before OfS was established by Director of Fair Access Les Ebdon, when he said “the OfS will do whatever the government of the day wants it to do”.

One of many ministerial letters of ‘guidance’ went to the OfS from the then Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi and the then Universities Minister Michele Donelan on 31 March 2022. It said in effect that they like the way the OfS is doing the government’s bidding, but they want it done quicker and better. The interim OfS Chief Executive, Susan Lapworth, tried to defend the position in her HEPI blog on 13 June 2022: “ministers are not ‘politicising’ the work of the OfS when they make use of these lawful mechanisms to express their priorities and expectations. Rather, they are making proper use of the powers Parliament gave to them and that feels entirely democratic to me.” She noted that “ministers appoint the members of the OfS board: the OfS chair, independent members, the Chief Executive, the Director for Fair Access and Participation, and, subject to the passage of the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill, another future director. These are all subject to the normal processes for public appointments. It is, though, hardly a surprise that ministers would wish to appoint people broadly aligned with the policy preferences of the government of the day. And a democratically elected government gets to make those decisions.”

Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan in their 1 June 2022 blog for Wonkhe noted: “… the first meeting for a new [OfS] board member announced by the Department for Education (DfE) as one Rachel Houchen. She’s the wife of Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, who “lives in Yarm with his wife Rachel” and who until recently was assistant headteacher and governor of a local school, making her arguably more qualified than James Wharton to be on the board. No problem – according to the OfS interim chief executive, it’s OK to appoint the wife of your good friend and neighbour (and Conservative MP) to a seat on the board, if you’re the Chair who still takes the party whip in the House of Lords, because, “once appointed, we all ensure that OfS decisions are taken independently”.  

Now all bets are off. It remains to be seen whether the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill will be enacted; it might depend on the kind of drubbing it gets in the Lords at committee stage, and whether a limping government has the inclination for a fight on that particular hill. That will determine whether we get a higher education free speech ‘tsar’, directly appointed by the Secretary of State (whoever that is by then). But the Donelan-pleasing initiative announced on 26 May 2022 is already looking more uncertain. The OfS launched investigations into eight universities and colleges to decide whether they meet the OfS’s conditions for quality, which had just come into effect. “Other factors to be considered include whether the delivery of courses and assessment is effective, the contact hours students receive, and whether the learning resources and academic support available to students are sufficient. To support this work the OfS is recruiting a pool of experienced academics to lead the investigative work.” OfS warned that they would be putting ‘boots on the ground’. But on what grounds? Diana Beech (London Higher) was in combative form in her HEPI blog  on 16 June 2022: “In sum, it appears that before implementation of the B3 risk framework, we have moved to a process of investigation based on undefined thresholds or metrics, accepted a subject-based evaluation rather than sector or institution, and accepted that volume balances against scale of variance. Consequently, questions must be asked about the timings, approach and motives for this announcement, which comes before the new Chief Executive of the OfS has been announced and also before a much-anticipated ministerial reshuffle.” Beech, of course had no inkling then of the scale of the ‘reshuffle’, but those questions must be asked with even more urgency now. Will the new DfE ministerial team wish to persist with such an ill-founded venture?

The situation poses existential challenges not just for government and the OfS, but perhaps also for Universities UK. There is an unprecedented opportunity for UUK to reset the terms of engagement between government and universities, by asserting a new and better interpretation of what the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 should mean. There is a chance to put an end to unproductive top-down meddling and reinstate constructive dialogue. But will UUK seize the day?

Some recent signs are not hopeful. OfS have repeatedly criticised ‘unexplained’ increases in the proportion of first class and 2:1s degrees, most recently in a report published on 12 May 2022, readily spun as ‘grade inflation’. In response Universities UK and GuildHE jointly announced on 5 July 2022 their plans to return to pre-pandemic levels of first class and 2:1 degrees being awarded over the next two years. The UUK ‘commitment’ is carefully worded, so the details of how the new arrangements will work are yet to be determined. However UUK accepted the language of ‘unexplained’ increases in the proportions of first class and 2.1s, even though the possible explanations include ‘better teaching’ and ‘students working harder and better’ – for which there is some research evidence. In principle the UUK announcement can only be seen as a shift to norm-referencing and away from criterion-referencing. There is no reference in the UUK announcement to the value of academic autonomy, or the need to be mindful of that autonomy. There must be a danger that UUK will continue to be reactive rather than assert more vigorously the value and the values which underpin the excellence of the English HE system.

But there are encouraging signs too. On 9 May 2022, while Michele Donelan was still fighting the culture wars as Minister for Further and Higher Education, UUK issued a strongly-worded rebuttal of government proposals to cap student numbers and introduce minimum entry requirements: “proposed reforms to post 18 education and funding in England would turn back the clock on social mobility while limiting the government’s own levelling up agenda. … UUK strongly opposes the introduction of student number caps, which would hurt those from disadvantaged backgrounds the most. As well as limiting student choice, student number caps entrench disadvantage because students who are unable to move location to attend university have fewer opportunities to apply and be accepted to university, making them more likely to choose a path with poorer employment outcomes. Limiting educational opportunities is also counterproductive as the UK looks to upskill and meet the growing need for graduate skills. There were one million more graduate vacancies than graduates in 2022. As part of its response to the consultation, UUK has also raised issues with using minimum entry requirements. The universities most likely to be most affected by minimum entry requirements recruit high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

This is the kind of robust response which UUK will need to maintain and strengthen. The clear statement of values which underpins the statement is the best way to show in practice how UUK will stand up for HE’s best interests and the ‘brand’ that is British (not just English) higher education. Zeenat Fayez (The Brand Education) wrote in a HEPI blog on 11 July 2022: “Brand is a comparatively new concept for universities and can be an intimidating commercial term; but, distilled to an essence, it is simply the reputation of an institution. Marty Neumeier encapsulated the concept best in his description: ‘a brand is not what you say it is. It is what they say it is.’ A brand can therefore be said to be a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or company. Consequently, brand management is the management of differences, not as they exist on data sheets, but as they exist in the minds of people.”

There are profound differences within HE, not least between staff and vice-chancellors, thanks to the long-running dispute over pay, pensions and conditions in USS institutions, and the equally severe problems facing many other universities as student numbers have shifted upmarket, away in particular from Million+ universities towards those Russell Group universities which have chosen to expand. This jeopardises opportunities for many potential students unable to move beyond their local institution, especially across arts and humanities subjects, as the reported redundancies in too many universities demonstrate. In some cases vice-chancellors have been tin-eared in response, as in the case of one VC announcing redundancies to a mass staff audience online, simply making a statement and not taking questions, and another threatening to stop recruitment to a programme where staff are currently taking industrial action. However a number of individual VCs swiftly and robustly disagreed when Michele Donelan wrote to all English HE providers on 27 June 2022 about “growing concern that a ‘chilling effect’ on university campuses leaves students, staff and academics unable to freely express their lawful views without fear of repercussion.” As for the Race Equality Charter and Athena Swan: “I would like to ask you to reflect carefully as to whether your continued membership of such schemes is conducive to establishing such an environment. On that note, I would draw to your attention that, in May 2022, the interim CEO of the Office for Students, warned that universities, should “be thinking carefully and independently about their free speech duty when signing up to these sort of schemes.” Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe on 27 June 2022 was quick to note there had been no ceasefire in the culture wars.

It is time for the sensible tendency in UUK to reassert itself. That would enable UUK to reset how people inside and outside HE think about the management of differences, especially those between HE staff, UUK, OfS and DfE. It might even enable UUK to give a lead in the broader culture wars. By asserting its position vigorously and properly, and by being proactive on some issues rather than simply responding to another government initiative, UUK has an unprecedented opportunity to restore some faith and trust in its capacity to represent the sector’s interests.

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.


[1] “Seize the day, put little faith in the future” Horace Odes 1.11

[2] After pausing to be grateful that carnage for once refers to somebody else’s mess, rather than commercially-inspired student drunkenness.


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Doctoral Borderlands: an exploration of doctoral education and its possible futures

by Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein, Rille Raaper, Harry Rolf, Karen Gravett, Karen Smith, Neil Harrison and Susan Carter

At the SRHE conference 2021, we (Karen S, Neil and Susan) facilitated a symposium in two parts on Doctoral Borderlands. Together, the parts gave a guided tour through doctoral borderlands, the metaphor underpinning the Teaching in Higher Education Special Issue: ‘Working in the borderlands: Critical perspectives on doctoral education’ (Carter, Smith & Harrison, 2021). The reference to borderlands, drawing from Gloria Anzaldúa’s (1987) work, emphasised the transitionary and liminal nature of doctoral education, the crossings into the unknown, and the emergence or surfacing of (multiple) identities. In the symposium, ten authors shared overviews of seven of the Special Issue articles as starting points for open discussion around doctoral education and its future possibilities.

This blog post picks up three doctoral borderland trajectories taken by some of the SRHE symposium presenters. First, Karen Gravett starts by looking at how the form of the doctorate is changing and its impact on perceptions of the doctoral journey. Then Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein and Rille Raaper discuss being, becoming and belonging, particularly in the context of precarity. After this, Harry Rolf considers power in doctoral education, from the starting point of doctoral publishing.

Karen Gravett

Critical perspectives on doctoral education are needed now more than ever. It is increasingly apparent that the prevalence of new routes and possibilities for study, including professional and publication-led doctorates, combined with a competitive academic landscape, have reshaped the doctoral experience in new ways (Gravett, 2021). What it is to be a doctoral student and what it means to do a doctorate is evolving, and traditional stereotypes, of young, full-time, funded students are no longer fit for purpose.

And yet, the literature on doctoral education is rich with metaphors that describe doctoral study as a pathway or trajectory, while institutional rhetoric often evokes ideas of linearity and regularity. In my recent work (Gravett, 2021), I explore the power of these tropes and depictions, in order to ask: what do spatial narratives do? Are conceptions of linear journeys, or pathways from student to academic, from novice to expert, still fit for purpose? I invite readers to think with two of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) theoretical concepts, rhizome and becoming, to foreground the multiple and messy becomings that researchers experience, as they evolve throughout a doctorate and beyond.

In reconsidering narratives of the doctoral journey, I offer an irruption to widely accepted notions of learning as a linear pathway with a fixed end-point, and reflect on how new and traditional forms of doctoral study might be understood differently. Thinking differently about doctoral study offers new opportunities for writing: offering spaces to disrupt the traditional monograph that has dominated the doctorate to date, and openings for intertextuality and connection.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Just as the form of the doctorate and the pathway through it are changing, the context in which doctorates are done and the impact on doctoral students’ identities are also changing, picked up by Namrata, Anesa and Rille.

Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein and Rille Raaper

The marketisation of higher education (HE) has seen a growing number of HE staff being employed on short term hourly paid contracts, which has also triggered much of the recent University and College Union (UCU) Four Fights Campaign in the UK. Our paper (Rao, Hosein & Raaper, 2021) explored doctoral students engaged in HE teaching in an era of precarity; within this context of increasing casualisation, the doctoral students, ‘the budding academics’, are seeking ways of getting their foot in the door and ‘becoming’ an academic. This desire for ‘belonging’ in the academy has seen them take up casualised contracts with the hope that they would one day land up a permanent contract.

Aside from the damage often caused by such casualised contracts to their developing professional identity, there is a growing concern that the precarious employment circumstances lead to them developing a fractured ‘cleft’ teacher identity, where they are continuously straddling the demands of being a researcher (as a doctoral student) and being a teacher negotiating the uncertainties created by such working conditions. Doctoral students’ understandings of university teaching are often framed by their own experiences of being a university student. We suggest their teaching should be shaped by a professional development programme. Access to such programmes is limited due to the nature of their casualised contracts and often very disparate depending on the institutional context.

These structural inequalities and precarious support practices compromise candidates’ holistic development as researchers and teachers. It’s more difficult for them to be fully productive university teachers, which in turn has a knock-on impact on the quality of university teaching and their experience as doctoral students. Therefore, there is a pressing need for universities to consider ways in which doctoral students can belong to and become and be (remain) active citizens who are aware of their responsibilities, but whose rights are addressed both as students and aspiring academics.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Doctoral student engagement with and in the academy is underpinned by power, a theme continued by Harry.

Harry Rolf

The landscape of doctoral education is contradictory and conflicting, shaped by invisible power structures and taken-for-granted practices arising from research performance and productivity measures. An emphasis on publishing in doctoral pedagogy means that this is increasingly a landscape that doctoral students must cross to achieve academic and future career success.

My analysis (Rolf 2021), applying a lens of data feminism to publications by doctoral students at an Australian university, shows a borderland where crossings by students and supervisors were frequent but where few stayed for long. Travellers crossed in teams which over time exhibited different approaches to the practice of publication, from teams led by a strong ego-centric researcher to teams where publication was a collaborative effort, but where power was not evenly distributed. Travelling with an experienced guide provided doctoral students with greater access to networks, and if they travelled frequently, more opportunities to publish along the way.

The analysis raises important questions about power and experience in doctoral supervisory and publishing teams, including questions that go beyond the scope of publication data; for example, what does good collaboration look like in doctoral supervisory teams, how are those doctoral supervisory teams formed, what practices do those supervisors bring, and are more diverse expertise or experience brought to supervisory teams and properly recognised? And looking beyond the immediate supervisory team, how can doctoral students find other networks and teams with the knowledge and tools to help them find safe passage, and success, on their borderland crossing?

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Our 2021 SRHE conference symposium managed to cover many of the uncertainties, transitions, dangers and hopes of doctoral borderlands, doing pretty well at representing the Special Issue, which houses thirteen full articles and two Points of Departure (think-piece provocations) covering a range of topics relating to doctoral education. The Teaching in Higher Education Special Issue, the stimulus papers and the discussion in the SRHE symposium that followed demonstrated the changing landscape of doctoral education in terms of the different forms and format of the doctorate, the context of doctoral study, the nature of doctoral research with research that crosses disciplines and professions, the roles and responsibilities that doctoral students have and the expectations that are placed upon them, and the different backgrounds and multiple identities that doctoral researchers bring to their studies. This changing landscape means that doctoral students have different challenges to negotiate, and that the guides through the landscape, and the guidance and support for doctoral students needs also to change. Such changes can open up new possibilities for future doctoral education, which, as the SRHE symposium showed, will benefit from productive professional conversations about doctoral pedagogy and its development.     

For more information, please contact Dr Karen Smith, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire, email: k.smith27@herts.ac.uk

References

Anzaldúa, G (1987) Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute

Carter, S, Smith, K, & Harrison, N (2021) Working in the borderlands: Critical perspectives on doctoral educationTeaching in Higher Education, 26 (3): 283-292 doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1911098

Deleuze, G, and Guattari, F (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia London: Continuum

Gravett, K (2021) ‘Disrupting the Doctoral Journey: Re-imagining Doctoral Pedagogies and Temporal Practices in Higher Education’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 293–305 doi:10.1080/13562517.2020.1853694

Rao, N, Hosein, A & Raaper, R (2021) ‘Doctoral Students Navigating the Borderlands of Academic Teaching in an era of Precarity’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 454–470 doi:10.1080/13562517.2021.1892058 

Rolf, HG (2021) ‘Navigating Power in Doctoral Publishing: A Data Feminist Approach’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 488–507 doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1892059


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The Doorknob and the Door(s): Why Bayes Matters Now

By Paul Alper

When I was young, there was a sort of funny story about someone who invented the doorknob but died young and poor because the door had yet to be invented. And, perhaps the imagery is backwards in that the door existed but was useless until the doorknob came into being but I will stick with the doorknob coming first in time. Bear with me as I attempt to show the relevance of this to the current meteoric rise of Bayesianism, a philosophy and concept several centuries old. 

In a previous posting, “Statistical Illogic: the fallacy of Jacob Bernoulli and others,” I reviewed the book, Bernoulli’s Fallacy by Aubrey Clayton.  He shows in great detail how easy it is to confuse what we really should want

Prob(Hypothesis| Evidence)                                       Bayesianism

with

Prob(Evidence | Hypothesis)                                       Frequentism

A classic instance of Bayesian revision in higher education would be the famous example at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. In the 1970s, it was alleged that there was discrimination against females applying to graduate school.  Indeed, male admission rate overall was higher than female admission rate.  But, according to https://www.refsmmat.com/posts/2016-05-08-simpsons-paradox-berkeley.html, the simple explanation

“is that women tended to apply to the departments that are the hardest to get into, and men tended to apply to departments that were easier to get into. (Humanities departments tended to have less research funding to support graduate students, while science and engineer departments were awash with money.) So women were rejected more than men. Presumably, the bias wasn’t at Berkeley but earlier in women’s education, when other biases led them to different fields of study than men.”

Clayton’s examples, such as the Prosecutor’s Fallacy and medical testing confusion, give no hint of how analytically difficult it was to perform the calculations of Bayes Theorem in complicated situations. Except for a paragraph or two on pages 297 and 298 he makes no reference to how and why Bayesianism calculations can now be done numerically on very complicated, important, real-life problems in physics, statistics, machine learning, and in many other fields, thus the proliferation of Bayesianism.

For the record, the one and only picture of the reverend Thomas Bayes is generally considered apocryphal; ditto regarding the one and only picture of Shakespeare.   Bayes died in 1761 and his eponymous theorem was presented to The Royal Society in 1763 by Richard Price, an interesting character on his own.

What has changed since the inception of Bayes Theorem more than two centuries ago, the door knob if you will, is the advent of the door: World War II and the computer. At Los Alamos, New Mexico, the place that gave us the atom bomb, five people were confronted with a complicated problem in physics and they came up with a numerical way of solving Bayes Theorem via an approach known as MCMC, which stands for Markov Chain Monte Carlo. Their particular numerical way of doing things is referred to as the “Metropolis Algorithm” named after Nicholas Metropolis, the individual whose name was alphabetically first.

To give the flavour but not the details of the Metropolis algorithm, I will use a well-done, simple example I found on the web which does not use or need the Metropolis algorithm but can be solved simply using straightforward Bayes Theorem; then I show an inferior numerical technique before indicating how Metropolis would do it. The simple illustrative example is taken from the excellent web video, Bayes theorem, the geometry of changing beliefs (which in turn is taken from work by Nobel prize-winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky).

The example starts with ‘Steve’, a shy retiring individual. We are asked to say which is more likely – that he is a librarian, or a farmer? Many people will say ‘librarian’, but that is to ignore how many librarians and how many farmers there are in the general population. The example suggests there are 20 times as many farmers as librarians, so we start with 10 librarians and 200 farmers and no one else.  Consequently,

Prob(Librarian) is 10/(10 +200) = 1/21.

Prob(Farmer) is 200/(10 +200) = 20/21

The video has 4 of the 10 Librarians being shy and 20 of the 200 farmers being shy; a calculation shows how the evidence revises our thinking:

Prob(Librarian| shyness) = 4/(4+20) = 4/24 = 1/6

Prob(Farmer| shyness) = 20/(4+20) = 5/6

‘Steve’ is NOT more likely to be a librarian. The probability that ‘Steve’ is a librarian is actually one in six. Bayesian revision has been calculated and note that the results are normalised.  That is, the 5 to 1 ratio, 20/4, trivially leads to 5/6 and 1/6.  Normalisation is important in order to calculate mean, variance, etc. In more complicated scenarios in many dimensions normalisation remains vital but difficult to obtain.

The problem of normalisation can be solved numerically but not yet in the Metropolis way.  Picture a 24-sided die.  At each roll of the die, record whether the side that comes up is a number 1,2,3 or 4 and call it Librarian. If any other number, 5 to 24, comes up, call it Farmer.  Do this (very) many thousands of times and roughly 1/6 of those tosses will be librarian and 5/6 will be farmer.  This sampling procedure is deemed independent in that a given current toss of the die does not depend on what tosses took place before.  Unfortunately, this straight-forward independent sampling procedure does not work well on more involved problems in higher dimensions.

Metropolis does a specific dependent sampling procedure, in which the choice of where to go next does depend on where you are now but not how you got there, ie  the previous places you visited play no role.  Such a situation is called a Markov process, a concept which  dates from the early 20th century. If we know how to transition from one state to another, we typically seek the long-run probability of being in that state. In the Librarian/Farmer problem, there are only two states, Librarian and Farmer. The Metropolis algorithm says begin in one of the states, Librarian or Farmer, toss a two-sided die which proposes a move.  Accept this move as long as  you do not go down. So, moving from Librarian to Librarian, Farmer to Farmer or Librarian to Farmer are accepted. Moving from Farmer to Librarian may be accepted or not; the choice depends on the relative heights – the bigger the drop, the less likely the move is to be accepted.  Metropolis says: take the ratio, 4/20, and compare to a random number between zero and one. If the random number is less than 4/20, move from Farmer to Librarian; if not, stay at Farmer. Repeat the procedure (very) many, many times.

Typically, there is a burn-in period so the first bunch are ignored and we count from then on the fraction of the runs that we are in the Librarian state or in the Farmer state, to yield the 1/6 and 5/6.

Multiple thousands of iterations today take no time at all; back in World War II, computing was in its infancy and one wonders how many weeks it took to get a run which today, would be done in seconds.  But, so to speak, a door was being constructed. 

In 1970, Hastings introduced an additional term so that for complex cases, the proposals and acceptances would better capture more complex, involved “terrain” than this simple example. In keeping with the doorknob and door imagery, Metropolis Hastings is a better door, allowing us to visit more complicated, elaborate terrain more assuredly and more quickly.  An even newer door, inspired by problems in physics, is known as the  Hamiltonian MCMC.  It is even more complicated, but it is still a door,related to previous MCMC doors.  There are many web sites and videos attempting to explain the details of these algorithms but it is not easy going to follow the logic of every step.  Suffice to say, however, the impact  is enormous and justifies the resurgence of Bayesianism.

Paul Alper is an emeritus professor at the University of St. Thomas, having retired in 1998. For several decades, he regularly contributed Notes from North America to Higher Education Review. He is almost the exact age of Woody Allen and the Dalai Lama and thus, was fortunate to be too young for some wars and too old for other ones. In the 1990s, he was awarded a Nike sneaker endorsement which resulted in his paper, Imposing Views, Imposing Shoes: A Statistician as a Sole Model; it can be found at The American Statistician, August 1995, Vol 49, No. 3, pages 317 to 319.


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Can coaching bring back the joy to academic work?

By George Callaghan

Pause for a moment and jot down how many tasks and projects are currently at the front of your mind? You might already be thinking, “hold on, am I asked to pause, to stop thinking, stop doing, even for a moment? Does he not know how much I’ve got to do!” I would encourage you to give it a go.

Here are mine: write this blog, check work emails, check personal emails, re-read my Career Development Staff Appraisal Form for meeting later today, check train is going to be on time for said meeting, check if Waverley station has moved bike storage area since lock-down, check today’s to-do list I made yesterday, send the two qualitative interviews which have been transcribed to the printers…” OK, I will stop there – quite a long list which only took about 30 seconds to come up with. It also does not include other University work or general life stuff such as parenting, being in a relationship, owning pets, shopping and so on. The distinction between the private and professional life of academics is becoming increasingly blurred – and the pressure of work is becoming increasingly intense.

Then think back to when you embarked on your academic career, most likely full of excitement and joy at being able to pursue your intellectual passion for a subject, enthuse students, write papers, and successfully present at conferences.

What happened between the early excitement and present overload? How did our academic lives become so busy we barely have time for a coffee break, never mind time to think clearly and analytically? And crucially, what might we do about it?

While the answers to the changing nature of demands will be multi-factorial and include the marketisation of higher education and the pressure of research and teaching metrics, I argue in this blog that coaching offers a route-map to creating a more balanced and enjoyable professional life. It is an invitation to self-reflect, to recognise strengths, to develop insights, and to allow obstacles to be identified and overcome. This makes it a tremendously powerful staff development intervention.

Coaching can take several forms. For example, academic leaders and managers might use training to develop a coaching mindset. Here they would be using skills such as active listening and reflective inquiry to deepen the quality of their communication with colleagues. Alternatively, academic and professional staff might take dedicated one to one sessions with a trained and qualified coach.

Here, I begin to tell the story of how we are using coach training and coaching sessions to develop a coaching culture amongst academic staff within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University. The project is still in its early stages but is showing great promise.

The initial idea was sparked by some coach training I engaged with as part of my professional development. I had a lightbulb moment when I realised that the constant curiosity, invitation to self-reflect and absence of judgement which underpin coaching conversations fit wonderfully well with the academic labour process. Many of us are drawn to work as university academics because we value agency, autonomy, and self-direction. As we know only too well, the current intensification of academic work militates against these, produces feelings of frustration and can be overwhelming. Coaching, with its focus on open questions and reflective inquiry, signposts new ways forward. Open questions and reflective inquiry may even lead to insights where we remember the joy and love of our work.

The project involves an external coach organisation providing introductory coaching skills training to academic leaders and managers. The positive early feedback led to expanding this offer of training coaching skills and to set up an internal coaching service where one to one coaching supports colleagues through career transitions.

We are presently working on an evaluation project using grounded theory methodology to analyse the impact of the coach skills training. The data is presently being collected and analysed and our aim is to offer a paper on this evaluation to Studies in Higher Education later in the year. Here, I offer my own reflections on what appears to be working – as well as some thoughts on what I might have done better.

In terms of what’s worked I am both refreshed and relieved to find that informal feedback and my own observations indicate that coaching adds value to the academic working life. One of these is the invitation to leaders and managers to self-reflect. To “listen more and talk less”.

As part of my own self-reflection, I began to pay attention to how I behave in meetings. Not how I thought I behaved, but what I do. I thought I consistently listened intently to others before making my own contribution. In fact, I was half listening to comments while internally formulating my own ‘excellent, articulate and very powerful’ contribution! I barely waited for others to stop speaking before I started. Acceptance of this embarrassing revelation led to a change in my listening. I began to concentrate on what others were saying. Not just to the words, but also the emotion behind the words. I began to pause before replying or I invited someone else to come in first. These are particularly challenging changes to make when one is chairing meetings or in a leadership and management position. Interestingly, once I let go of feeling responsibility for being the one with ‘the answer’ I felt more calm – and better ideas emerged.

In group or one to one meetings, taking the time to really listen generates new insights and opens the door to new possibilities. For leaders this can also be rather humbling as one realises others have equally (or more) valid ideas and solutions. This type of facilitative as opposed to directive leadership is particularly suited to academia, where the apprenticeship for the job involves independent thinking and the development of critical questioning.

This shift to leadership habits which draw on coaching, for example moving from ‘telling’ to ‘listening’, has the potential to motivate and energise colleagues. This takes time but offers substantial returns. Telling and directing is quicker in the short term – perhaps you are familiar with colleagues hesitating before making decisions, looking to first run it past a head of department, research lead or some other authority figure? While this style of management and leadership works to some extent (courses still get taught and research still gets done), it can create a dependent relationship. Leading through coaching invites colleagues to take more responsibility for their own – and consequently the university’s – development and growth.

What might I have done better? What immediately comes to mind is that I could have been much more patient. As I became convinced of coaching’s effectiveness, I set high expectations of uptake and the pace of change. The take up of coach training by leaders and managers did pick up, but over months and years as opposed to weeks. The habit of self-reflection I am (still) learning to practise has been of great assistance. The realisation that I must meet colleagues where they are now, not where I am.

Please consider how adopting a coaching mindset may be of service in improving the leadership and management in your own institution. You might reflect and think it is all working fine, but if you realise there is room for improvement then coaching may very well be of service. In the meantime, stay curious!

SRHE member George Callaghan is Professor of Personal Finance and Economics in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the Open University. He is also a qualified coach with the International Coaching Federation and the Institute of Leadership and Management. If you would like to discuss any points in this blog, please email George.callaghan@open.ac.uk


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Overcoming Built-In Prejudices in Proofreading Apps

by Ann Gillian Chu

As I am typing away in Microsoft Word, the glaring, red squiggly underline inevitably pops up, bringing up all the insecurities I have with academic English writing, as an ethnically Chinese, bilingual Chinese-English speaker. So what if I speak English with a North American accent? So what if English has been my medium of instruction for my entire life? So what if I graduated with a Master of Arts with honours in English Language from the University of Edinburgh? My fluency in Chinese somehow discredits my English fluency, as if I cannot be equally competent in both. Because I am not white, my English will always somehow be inadequate.

The way others, and I, perceive my English ability reflects how ‘standard English’ as an idea is toxic to the identity-building of those who are not middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, white men from the Anglophone world. April Baker-Bell talks about the concept of linguistic justice, arguing that promoting a type of ‘correct English’ has inherent white linguistic supremacy. Traditional approaches to language education do not account for the emotional harm, internalised linguistic racism, or the consequences these approaches have on the sense of self and identity of non-white students. Extending Baker-Bell’s theory, how would this apply to the use of proofreading apps?

Apps are created by people who have their own underlying assumptions and worldviews, even if these assumptions are not explicitly written in any of the apps’ documentation. When using these tools, users need to have a sense of the kind of assumptions these apps carry into their corrections. More importantly, as programmes are written by people and applied in a formulaic way, they should not have the power to define their users’ sense of identity, or even their ability to communicate in English. Algorithm-based tools will always fall short in understanding the nuances and eccentricities that make human writing exciting and intriguing. The app should not have authority over its users, and its feedback should never be taken uncritically.

However, proofreading apps could be used as a pedagogical tool when thoughtfully and critically engaged. Evija Trofimova created a resource titled ‘Digital Writing Tools: Spelling, Grammar and Style Checkers,’ which investigates how different proofreading apps can or should be used. Trofimova’s project assesses how each app can be used for best didactic experiences, with exercise suggestions and classroom activities available for users to begin to see these proofreading apps as a possible pedagogical tool, rather than law enforcement of sorts. Users of proofreading apps should always treat each ‘error’ as a learning opportunity, investigate the rule behind the correction, and actively consider whether it is indeed a correction they want to take up in their writing. If a correction is unexpected, users should be encouraged to investigate why the app suggested it and what is the underlying principle. Crucially, app users need to have a sense of where to draw the fine line between what is conventional (rather than right) and what makes writing comprehensible to readers, and what expresses the unique voice and identity of a writer. Writers should explore more ways to communicate within and outside of conventions, in a way that best represents them. This sort of creativity will go beyond simply relying on the algorithm of a proofreading app.

It needs to be said more often that English as an academic lingua franca is no one’s first language (see Marion Heron and Doris Dippold, Meaningful Teaching Interaction at the Internationalised University). Just because someone is a monolingual English speaker does not necessarily mean that they are good at academic English writing. Just because someone writes in an unexpected or unconventional way does not necessarily mean that they are wrong. An essential purpose of writing is to communicate. As academics, we need to ask ourselves, how much can someone deviate from a standard and still be comprehensible? How much room can we leave to allow students to be themselves and express themselves fully in their writing? How much are proofreading apps stifling their ability to flourish as writers? We are not teaching students to become machines. There is no point in having different students write the same essay in the exact same way. Rather, it is precisely their unique and different voices that should be celebrated.

In ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about her childhood in Nigeria, reading books about white, blue-eyed characters who played in the snow, ate apples, and talked a lot about the weather, which does not reflect her experience of the world at all. Growing up, Adichie struggled with characters in novels being made up of white foreigners from the West alone, as if the Western world is a cultural ground zero. She and other Nigerians are not represented in the literary works she read. Non-white proofreading app users may easily fall into the same impressionable and vulnerable position as Adichie did. These prescriptive ‘corrections’ made by proofreading apps, just like the children stories that Adichie read, implies an ideological position that a specific language standard, such as standard British or American English, is somehow superior and ‘correct.’ However, the West is not a cultural ground zero, nor is English a neutral medium of communication. Other varieties of English used in non-Western worlds, far from being inappropriate or incorrect, should be celebrated for their ability to reflect the culture and experiences of non-Western writers. The attempt to make a piece of written work meet certain linguistic standards should not be above rhetoric, creativity, and cultural expression.

What makes proofreading apps dangerous is that their underlying assumptions remain invisible to their users. A ‘correct’ grammar may reinforce existing biases in our society, creating linguistic violence, persecution, dehumanisation, and marginalisation, which non-standard English speakers endure when using their own language in schools and everyday life. One thing that stuck with me the most from my undergraduate degree is that proper English changes throughout the ages. What is now deemed suitable was once upon a time a deviant use of the language. And what is deviant now may become mainstream in the future. People have always reacted badly to these linguistic changes, but the changes in usage stick nonetheless. As users of proofreading apps and teachers of students who use these apps, it is important to encourage everyone to think about who the apps were built for and what purposes they were meant to serve. What spelling and grammatical rules do they enforce, and why? In After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, Willie James Jennings pushes against (theological) education that is ultimately set up for white self-sufficient masculinity, a way of organising life around a persona that distorts authentic identity. This way of being in the world forms cognitive and affective structures that seduce people into its habitation and its meaning-making. When a white Anglophone world is presumed as a norm, and others somehow have to cater to its expectations, it strangles intellectual pursuits from the perspectives of the other. It is the freedom of expression between interlocutors that will create a space for students from all backgrounds to flourish.

Ann Gillian Chu (FHEA) is a PhD (Divinity) candidate at the University of St Andrews. She has taught in higher education contexts in Britain, Canada, and China using a variety of platforms and education tools. As an ethnically Chinese woman who grew up in Hong Kong, Gillian is interested in efforts to decolonise academia, such as exploring ways to make academic conferences more inclusive.


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Covid-19 won’t change universities unless they own up to the problems that were already there

by Steven Jones

At a national level in the UK, two Covid narratives vie for supremacy. The first positions the government response to the pandemic as successful, pointing to a world-leading vaccine development and roll-out, a well-received furlough scheme, and an accelerated return to ‘normal’. The second positions the government response as calamitous, pointing to recurring misspends, accusations of corruption, and a death rate among the highest in Europe.

Within UK higher education, two parallel narratives have arisen. On one hand, sector leaders and institutional managers claim against-the-odds victory because most universities emerged reputationally and commercially unscathed from the most unforeseeable of global challenges. On the other hand, for many students and staff, Covid-19 further exposed the limits of market-based approaches to funding universities, and the harm done by corporate governance cultures.

Discursively, Covid-19 laid bare a higher education sector fluent in the language of competition but mostly unable to articulate its underlying value to society. Senior management teams continued to pore over league table performance indicators and rejoice in individual ‘excellence’, but struggled to co-create a narrative of common good and humanity in the face of a deadly virus.

Yet at the local level there was much of which to be proud: university staff listened to their students and put their needs first, recognising that welfare now took priority over academic outcomes. Learning persisted, even during the depths of lockdown, with pedagogies adapting and curricula evolving. The question now is how to reconcile a renewed spirit of collegiality and creativity with top-down policy wedded to the idea that universities are ‘providers’ and their students little more than consumers of a premium product.

The starting point may be to accept that UK universities were struggling long before Covid-19 struck. Many of the sector’s underlying problems were simply brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. This slower-burning crisis in higher education means that: 

  1. Relations between senior managers and their staff are broken. During Covid-19, university staff wondered why their efforts appeared to be appreciated more by their students than their employers. For those in positions of authority, the successful response of front-line personnel seemed almost to threaten their authority. Top-end remuneration had raced ahead of median campus pay for decades because governing bodies were convinced that the university’s most important work was undertaken by its executive. Suddenly, it appeared that collegiality at the disciplinary level was what mattered most. Institutional managers would no doubt retort that running a university by consensus is impractical, not least during a worldwide emergency, and that the financial sustainability of the sector was secured by their swift pre-emptive action. But to those on the outside, the simmering resentment between employers and employees remains unfathomable: how can those who lead the university be so far adrift of those who work for the university?
  • Relations between senior managers and students are also badly damaged. Partly this was the fault of policy-makers, for whom students were at best an afterthought. But instead of fashioning an alternative narrative, institutional management teams mostly followed the lead of a cynical government and framed students as potential individual rule-breakers rather than a vulnerable cohort of young people facing an extraordinary mental health challenge. One vice-chancellor foolhardily suggested that where students were forced into self-isolation it might engender a ‘Dunkirk spirit’. At times, international students were treated like cargo. In August 2021, over fifty UK universities clubbed together to charter flights and import students from China. Home students were also lured back on to campus prematurely, the risks to local communities apparently secondary to income from accommodation, catering and other on-site spending.
  • Ministers don’t listen to sector leaders. Despite institutional managers and their representative bodies dutifully following the marketisation road-map that policy-makers laid out, Covid-19 exposed a sector that had remarkably little sway over government strategy. Ministers showed no interest in University UK’s proposed bail-out package, with one Conservative peer pointedly suggesting that institutions show ‘humility on the part of those vice-chancellors who take very large salaries.’ This undermined the soft-power strategies of which sector leaders had boasted for decades. Some ‘wins’ for students did emerge, but they were invariably overstated: the government’s announcement of a £50m package of support in February 2021 was met with enthusiasm by sector representatives, leaving it to mental health charities like Student Minds to point out that this amounted to barely £25 per head. Ironically, when the government botched its A-levels algorithm, universities stepped in to bail-out policy-makers.
  • The business model on which universities operate is brittle. No-one would deny the reliance on overseas student income leaves the sector financially exposed. Many would go further and say that there’s something unethical – neo-colonial even – about charging sky-high fees to foreign students so that other university activity can be cross-subsidised. The most principled long-term approach would be for university leaders to reassert the common value of higher education, and seek to persuade the public that a system funded through progressive general taxation, akin to that of other nations, would be fairer and more robust. With graduates of English universities facing interest charges of 9-12% over four decades, there has never been a better time to make this argument.

In 2020, I wrote an upbeat piece in The Guardian suggesting that Covid-19 could change universities for the better. This is still just about possible. However, recent evidence suggests that there is no great eagerness on the part of management to seize the opportunity. Indeed, Covid-19 could change next to nothing, allowing sector leaders and institutional managers to distract from previous failings and double down on a failed corporate leadership model. At the national level, campuses have become battlefields for unwinnable ‘culture wars’, as right-wing politicians and media commentators take pot-shots at a sector lacking the confidence or guile to defend itself. At the institutional level, the cost-of-living crisis is already being used to vindicate new survivalist discourses that will later be used to rationalise further reconfigurations and cuts.

Covid-19 exposed the vulnerability of a heavily marketised university sector. As student loan interest rates rocket and staff pensions crumble, our sector leaders say almost nothing. Markets in higher education do more than monetise students’ learning; they co-opt and silence those whose primary duty it is to defend the universities that they manage.

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester. Steven’s new book, Universities Under Fire: hostile discourses and integrity deficits in higher education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) will be published in the summer.


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Working class and working in higher education?: Transition(s) from a sociology PhD

by Carli Rowell

Carli Rowell won an SRHE Newer Researcher’s Award to explore working-class early career researchers lived experiences of moving through a Sociology PhD and into the academic workforce. It makes visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. The full report from this research award is available from the 2019 reports at Newer Researcher Awards | Society for Research into Higher Education (srhe.ac.uk)

This blog arises from a project which explores the lived experience of being working-class and moving through doctoral study into the academic workforce. It was motivated by the fact that higher education has historically existed for the working classes as a site of exclusion from participation, from knowledge production and from leadership. Despite the global massification of education, HE continues to operate as a classed pathway and bastion of classed knowledge (Walkerdine, 2021) especially so given academia’s classed ceiling. The project explored the lived experiences of 13 working-class early career researchers (ECRs) in moving through doctoral study into (and out of) the academic workforce. It sought to make visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. I reflect here on some of the key emerging findings (in depth analysis continues) and sketch out early recommendations based on project findings.

The project was underpinned by the following research questions:

  1. In what ways, if at all, do first-generation working-class ECRs perceive their working-class background as affecting their experiences of and progression through doctoral study and into academia?
  2. How do they generate and navigate their own ‘strategies for success’ in their working context?
  3. What are the wider implications of these strategies for success, for example in their personal lives and/or their imagined futures in the academy?
  4. What can be done, if at all, by stake holders of UKHEs to address working-class doctoral students and early career researchers journey to and through a social-sciences PhD and into academia?

A Bourdieusian approach to social class was adopted. Whilst participants self-identified as coming from a working-class background and as being a first-generation (at the undergraduate level), class background and first-generation status were further explored and confirmed through in-depth interviews. All participants were UK domiciled doctoral students and ECRs across a range of university types. Initially the project sought to explore working-class doctoral and ECRs from across the social sciences, but participant recruitment soon revealed a skewedness towards the discipline of sociology. Thus, the decision was taken to adopt a disciplinary case study approach, focusing upon the discipline of sociology. In total, ten of the 13 participants were working in academia and the remaining three were working in the third sector. 12 had completed their PhD’s and one participant had made the decision to leave academia prior to completing the PhD. 12 participants identified as White British, and one participant identified as North African.

What challenges do working-class doctoral researchers and early career researchers face? How, if at all do they overcome such challenges and what can be done to support them in their journeys to and through academia?

The Important of Working-Class ‘Others’ in Academic and Navigating Funding

In journeying to the PhD receiving scholarship funding was foundational to participants’ possibility of progressing to doctoral study. All of my participants received full funding and without this they would not have been able to pursue a PhD. In addition to funding, working-class ‘Others’ (or what I have termed to be very important persons (VIPs) in academia were also central to participants experiences of successful navigating the transition to doctoral study. The VIP, often academic points of contact, who are mostly (though not always) from a working-class background served an important function as a kind of ‘gatekeeper’ to post-graduate study and academia. VIPs often sparked the notion that doctoral study was a possible pathway and provided a window into academia, demystifying academia and the postgraduate applications/scholarship process.

Participants’ accounts showed a range of barriers. Participants rejected the need to be geographically hyper-mobile in order to secure academic employment; they wanted and needed to care for family members and wished to remain connected to their working-class home and community. They spoke at length about the precarious nature of navigating the academic job market and academia per se; this alone was a key barrier to successful progression within academia. Participants also spoke about the multitude of skills and experiences they were required to demonstrate in order to navigate the academic job market. For working-class students who are the first in their family to study at university, knowing which endeavours to seek out and prioritise was a great source of confusion and anxiety. Uncovering how to play the game was not always easily identifiable.

Recommendations

This study leads to recommendations for institutions, funding bodies, and those working in academia in their recruitment, engagement and support with doctoral scholars and early career researchers from working-class backgrounds. These recommendations include, but are not limited to:

(a) schemes aimed at demystifying academia and supporting working-class aspiring doctoral researchers through their doctoral applications and funding process;

(b) funding bodies recognising the precarious financial position of doctoral students, especially so for those from working-class backgrounds and thus financially supporting doctoral students during times of ill health and exceptional circumstances and providing funding to doctoral students for the period immediately following the submission of the PhD; and

(c) Academic hiring committees and funders, postdoctoral or otherwise, should not look more favourably on those applications where the applicant holder is moving to another university, and should accept that some applicants might just prefer to stay, without having an exceptional reason such as caring commitments, or other exceptional academic reasons.

The current academic landscape is marked by precarity and rampant competition for an ever diminishing pool of academic jobs, often short-term, temporary contracts that demand geographical mobility. This in turn has significant impacts upon the knowledge being produced within and across UK universities (and globally). Working-class doctoral students and early career researchers face considerable barriers in their journeys to and through a PhD and into academia. Whilst there has been considerable debate and discussion of the gendered and ethnic makeup of UK higher education there is no equivalent commentary or critique concerned with illuminating, calling into question and critiquing the absence of working-class persons from academia. The future of UK HE, its leadership and scholarship are currently under threat. The values of diversity, accessibility and inclusivity, especially that of class diversity, that universities are quick to espouse should be at the centre of HE policy and practice, especially at the postgraduate level.

Institutions and funding bodies need to take into account, and take action to address, the specific challenges facing working-class doctoral researchers and early career academics. Working-class people should be actively encouraged and supported in their journeys to and through doctoral study and into higher education. As part of this project, a workshop aimed at demystifying the post-PhD post-doctoral funding application process and academic labour market will be run in Autumn 2022.

SRHE member Carli Rowell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is currently an executive member of Gender and Education Association and convenes the British Sociological Associations Social Class Study Group.