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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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The post-coronial future of higher education: Utopian hopes and dystopian fears at Cambridge University

by Simone Eringfeld

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

You’re asking about my perfect post-Covid dystopian University? Imagine everyone’s got really nice VR headsets and virtual reality has exponentially gotten better and better. We can now host the entire experience online, so you wake up in the morning, you put your headset on and then you ‘go to’ university, you go to lectures … You sort of simulate what life is. I think that’s the worst-case scenario. I think if it was like how it is now but online – because you could just do it cheaply online – the University of Cambridge would be like a network, or a file. It wouldn’t even be a place anymore. That seems hellish to me. I think that’s my perfect dystopia.

– Peter, Cambridge undergraduate student

If I asked you to describe your ‘perfect dystopia’ of a post-pandemic university, what kind of scenario would emerge? And which images arise when you try to picture the opposite, an ideal utopian outcome? When I interviewed students and academics at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education about hopes and fears for the future of HE, responses included scenes that could inspire even the gloomiest science fiction scripts. It is clear that Covid-19 has raised critical questions addressing the existential core of HE institutions and their futures. By imagining best and worst-case scenarios, this time of crisis becomes an opportunity to pause and reflect: what kind of university do we ultimately want, and what is it we absolutely don’t want?

This research project focuses on the following thought experiment: how can we reimagine the post-coronial university? I introduce the term ‘post-coronial’ here as

“… a temporally evocative notion indicating both the university after Covid-19 and its evolvement as a consequence of Covid-19 in the here and now, during the pandemic. In addition, the term speculatively indicates the emergence of a new school of thought that might result from the impact of Covid-19 on societies and educational systems; that is, the possibility of future ‘post-coronial theory’ or ‘post-coronial education’ in a more conceptual and less time-bound sense” (Eringfeld, 2021).

Prior to conducting private interviews with students and faculty members, I started the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats’, where I invited members of the Cambridge community – from undergraduates to senior professors – to share their own experiences of education in the time of Covid-19 and to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the University. This podcast became an important component of my research methodology, with interviewees listening in advance to selected fragments of podcast conversations in order to sonically elicit their own imagination. I wrote about my podcasting methodology in another blog post here.

The most prominent fear that emerged from the research interviews is that of a complete and indefinite shift to online education. Such a dystopian university would become a ‘placeless’ institution, with the university now being ‘located’ inside desktop files and Zoom rooms. Such a university would be a disembodied institution, where screens and virtual reality replace the ‘real world’. Participants described a dystopia in which education would no longer be a social experience, where communal learning would be lost and where loneliness and isolation would exponentially be on the rise. A third theme that resurfaced across dystopian accounts given by students and faculty members is the fear that education would become ‘dehumanised’, with increased marketisation and bureaucratisation leading to a drastic reduction of precisely that which gives meaning to educational practices for many: interpersonal, human contact.

Yet when asked about their utopian visions for the future, not a single participant suggested a full return to pre-pandemic HE. Instead, many described a utopian post-coronial university with at least some elements of online education as part of the new normal. As one academic reflects:

I do want to go back to some of the college dinners and conversations, the late-night sessions and seminars, the music … But I would also want some of my supervisions to be able to happen online and I would want to be able to integrate what I’ve benefited from through this period of lockdown and isolation to become part of my ‘new normal’, because I can see there are huge benefits for me and I think for the students as well.

Advantages of online education that participants reported include a sense of enhanced freedom and agency, less performance pressure, more quality time with family, improved ability to focus on studying due to reduced FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) and more space for creativity and artistic expression. Others noted the potential for online education to expand access to a larger audience by reducing the costs of HE, offering more open access resources, designing more MOOCs and including other multi-media formats of education such as video recordings, audio podcasts and improved virtual learning environments. Such flexibility would allow university experiences to be tailored to the varying needs of students and staff. One graduate student pointed out that the availability of distance learning options would enable students based in different countries, or in different life phases, to still attend Cambridge.

At the same time, developing blended learning approaches that combine in-person with virtual education will bring about new challenges. One academic points to dystopian dangers connected to large-scale massification, the loss of personalized interaction and strengthened ‘echo chambers’ when students remain at home. Another student shared his fear that extreme commodification of education could turn even the most casual everyday aspects of student life into ‘sellable bite-sized experiences’, like student society meetings or visits to the college buttery. Many of these hopes and fears do not exclusively exist in the imagination; instead, they build on pre-existing issues in HE such as marketisation, individualisation and exclusivity. While some of the dystopian scenarios may seem far removed from reality, they connect to HE tendencies already visible today.

What emerges from these interviews is in no way a singularly defined vision for the future, but rather a widely shared view that neither a fully online university nor a complete return to pre-pandemic HE is desirable. For “while a fully online format is seen as dystopian due to the loss of education as an embodied and communal experience connected to the ‘real world’, moving some teaching activities online may increase flexibility and improve access to HE for an expanded community in ways that a purely face-to-face university would not be able to” (Eringfeld, 2021). Universities will need to embrace flexibility and adaptability by fostering a blended approach to education that safely involves both online and face-to-face education. Importantly, this blended post-coronial university will need to think creatively about new ways to construct and maintain a sense of belonging for both students and staff, so as to ensure that HE remains a communal, humanized and embodied experience.

This blog is based on my article for Studies in Higher Education:

Eringfeld, S. (2021): Higher education and its post-coronial future: Utopian hopes and dystopian fears at Cambridge University during Covid-19. Studies in Higher Education, 46:1, 146-157, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1859681Simone Eringfeld is a recent Education MPhil graduate from the University of Cambridge. She is the co-Chair of the Cambridge Peace and Education Research Group (CPERG) and hosts the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats, which explores possible futures of post-Covid HE. She tweets: @SimoneEringfeld


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A lockdown journal from Catalonia

by Alicia Betts

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

Uncertainty has become the new normal, affecting our family lives and routines, our professional goals and activities and our relationship with local, regional and national governments. We have seen, in just a few months, how our freedom to move and associate has been challenged and restricted, or even forbidden. In Spain we lived a severe version of lockdown for over a month and a half. I wrote down my personal journey from the beginnings of the pandemic to September 2020 noting how I lived it, as an individual, a mother, a worker and a citizen.

We all expected some sort of lockdown by early March, but nobody really understood how harsh or how long it would actually be. On a Thursday we were told schools would not open the next day, and by Monday the whole country was locked in their houses. We are a family of four, and have two children ages 8 and 4, both enrolled in school. We adults work in the university sector full-time and our daily normal life involved quite a lot of commuting for all four of us. We live in a flat with a small balcony, very close to nature, parks and playgrounds, so we have never missed having our own little piece of outdoors.

I admit that total lockdown was a shock. I could not quite believe that we would not be allowed outside our flat and even less that children would not be permitted outdoors, not even in the fields and forest behind our house, or for some daily outdoor exercise. Meanwhile dog owners could walk their dogs. I think all of us without dogs hated them and/or envied them. There were few voices calling out for children’s rights and well-being under lockdown. The police patrolled the neighbourhoods. We had to organize two working schedules all while home-schooling two children (one of them very physically active). The beginning was stressful to say the least.

I had started a new position at the Universitat de Girona, just six weeks before lockdown. I worried that it would affect my productivity, my integration into this institution where human relations are very valued and important, and what would happen to my contract once the economic crisis that is bound to follow kicked in.

The university sent everybody home for 15 days asking for collaboration, flexibility and understanding in the complex situation. As a member of staff, I felt I was duly informed at all moments and that I was a part of a community that was undergoing a major challenge and managing all right with appropriate solutions and good timing. I think that being a medium-small institution (about 15000 students) helped in creating this sense of community while facing the challenge together. There were frequent emails from the Rector and from the leadership on the next steps and what was to be done and taken into account. The leadership shared their crisis strategy with the staff and students which included different phases and scenarios.

It was, however, very difficult to concentrate and get work done in the first few weeks, with all the uncertainties, the terrible daily news, having the children home and indoors all day. I struggled a lot, feeling very unproductive (in my new position) and guilty for not being able to be more professional and get all the work done at the usual rhythm, and also guilty for not meeting the demands of the children, who were also suffering from the situation and missed their school and friends. 

At the end of March several organizations like the European Association for International Education (EAIE) started to have open webinars on higher education hot topics. These sessions helped to generate a sense of community, a space to learn and share with peers around the globe, and a connection to the outside world. Being used to travel often and work with international peers, I enjoyed them very much. These webinars and meetings became something to look forward to every week and were intellectually and professionally refreshing.

By April, lockdown in a flat was beginning to have some serious physical consequences. Our bodies hurt, loss of muscles and strength, difficulty sleeping, cravings, anxiety … We had been locked in a three bedroom flat for a month and a half by the end of April. Only one of us adults went out once every ten days for grocery shopping.

On the upside, our lockdown work routine was now the new normal. I managed to get back into productive mode and worked towards my previously set objectives. Projects picked up and I felt that work life was back to a “nearly-normal” rhythm despite having all meetings and work done from home. The number of virtual open events multiplied in such a way that it was impossible to follow them and the sense of community that I felt the previous month slowly faded with the rising number of online activities.

There was a lot of discussion on what easing the lockdown meant for the university and what measures should be taken. Who should be allowed back first to their offices , classrooms or labs? In what conditions? How to ensure safety at the workplace and what material should be handed out?

In May, children were finally allowed outdoors for exercise for an hour a day close to the family home and, a few weeks later, adults were permitted out for exercise and sport in the municipality. The first day we went outdoors with the children they touched the ground, the earth, the grass and marvelled at the smell of nature, we had missed it so much! We had all lost physical strength, endurance and agility (despite all our efforts to keep us active indoors). It was quite shocking and painful to see how much lockdown had affected the children physically.

Work really picked up this month and all the events we had planned had to be transformed into virtual events. There were tons of meetings, emails and webinars organized. I began to feel there were two worlds: the hectic online screen world and the slow-paced world outside my computer. I was definitely missing a morning coffee break with colleagues.

Student mobility for the next academic year was still in debate. Should we let our students go abroad? In what conditions? Should they sign a document stating that it is under their responsibility and that they have to abide to the host institution’s guidelines? What can we offer incoming students? How many can we host if classrooms will have smaller numbers of students? What are other institutions deciding? Can we agree on a decision as a university system (all the universities in Catalonia)? All these questions on the next academic year had little to no answer and the leadership struggled with taking a clear decision.

In June we gradually expanded our social life, with facemasks and social distancing, but letting the children play freely outdoors. And by July administrative staff were required to go back to the office one or two times per week. Meetings had to be via videoconferences. But since cafes were open, staff often met outdoors for a coffee instead (just as an example of the incoherencies brought by this “new normal”).

The first days of this “new normal” in the office surprised me because I worked so much more and so much better from home. No time lost in traffic, no time lost getting to meetings in other parts of the campus … I am not one who considers speaking to colleagues as “lost time” but it is time away from the computer, and that did not happen from home. But it felt good to be physically at the university and have a sense of belonging to a community and a space beyond the computer screen. I was also finally getting an understanding of the work dynamics, the who is who inside the institution.

Despite all the enormous amounts of change and uncertainties, humans adapt and find ways to create new routines, new dynamics. Surprisingly, once our basic needs are met and we feel relatively safe, we also forget what life used to be like. To me the new normal looks like an ever changing palette of adaptations and regulations, not a stable linear path towards a COVID-19 free world. I do not see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, and I do not believe we will simply “pick up where we left off”.

In this context, universities have both a huge opportunity and a challenge. Opportunity because their research and teaching missions require them to be up-to-date in contributing to unravelling how best to proceed, providing governments and policymakers with evidence and analysis, and by finding medical and scientific solutions to the public healthcare crisis we are facing. In addition, it is also an ideal setting for transformative change, in some areas, much needed. It is also a challenge because most universities are not online institutions, but have rather based their organizational model on face-to-face interactions. We all know that coffee machine conversations are very important, often more than formal meetings. Videoconferences hinder spontaneity, silences in conversations and the innovation that stems from these type of informal interactions. Trading face-to-face teaching for teaching via a computer is not an easy process, for anyone involved.

Leadership at the Universitat de Girona has been bold, brave and positive, but also human and considerate. The crisis is affecting each and every one in a diverse way at different moments. Higher education institutions need to find the right balance for their own resilience and to continue being relevant in today’s very rapidly changing context.

Alicia Betts is responsible for International Strategic Projects at the Universitat de Girona since February 2020. Before she worked for the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi) and the Catalan Association of Public Universities as Head of Projects for over ten years. Her professional and research interests lie in internationalisation of higher education, community engagement and higher education and sustainable development. She is also a member of the EAIE steering group Cooperation for Development. Check her latest publication “A lockdown journal from Catalonia” here.


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Redesigning global hybrid education now that everything’s changed

by Hamish Coates, Xie Zheping and Xi Hong

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

In July 2020, my nine-year-old daughter picked my 1968 edition of Funny Jokes and Foxy Riddles from the shelf and asked me: “Why did the girl catch a plane to school?”. I paused, wondering if this was fantasy, folly, fantastic, foresight, fortune, futuristic or just funny. “So she could get a higher education”, my daughter answered, signalling how comfortable today’s children of faculty have grown up feeling about international university study.

In 1968, the idea that millions of young middle-income people mainly from Asia would swirl around the globe for undergraduate study, financially turbocharging research at major universities, was fanciful. A one-hour trunk call might cost more than a 2019 trans-Pacific plane ticket; the 747, the monumental whale which lifted globalisation, was fresh from the hangar; only very high elites in largely developing Asian economies were thinking about university, and such study was barely a prerequisite for a fantastic and fulsome or even a professional life.

My ideas wandered before my daughter pitched the punchline, but one gnawing anxiety pulsed stubbornly in my imagination. In this year of pandemic-induced accelerated global transformation, with 747s scuttled, billions carved from university budgets, and 14-day hotel quarantine dwarfing the pain of even 14-hour flights, what, I thought, would higher education be like in 2030 for my daughter’s generation? The nomenclature of qualifications and credentials proliferates but scares about ‘over-education’ and diminishing returns from degrees have, paradoxically, led to more people spending more time in more study. Promulgating the promise of technology has seen the campus flourish into sacred learning places. Higher education will continue to grow in value. I have learned that forecasting the future is fraught with failure, but also that failing to plan means planning to fail.

Such observation helped to frame analysis of how engaging with transformed fundamentals is necessary to design global hybrid higher education. The point of our recent Studies in Higher Education paper, and my broader book on Higher Education Design, was not to dramatize contentious political contingencies, polish pedagogical pedantries, earmark technological solutions, or cast policy prescriptions. The point, rather, has been to clarify multidimensional tectonic rumbles, make clear often hidden but non-ignorable innovation underway, and frame constructive narratives and perspectives for considering the shape of things to come. Given that higher education does change, slowly, then suddenly, let’s get ready and be prepared.

Our Studies in Higher Education essay starts by charting recent experiences of me and co-authors. Like many in higher education, our lives have been filled with what felt like ‘free flowing globalism’, with myriad experiences pounding rhythms of seemingly unstoppable growth. Then, swiftly, in January 2020, the world got acutely personal and unusual.

This gave time and remit to question what shocks or changes have been evident, how have these registered, and what implications they carry. Our analysis is framed in terms of system-level shifts, education reconfigurations, research developments, and the movement of people.

Notable system shifts included the re-assertion of government power, notable in terms of border closures, health priorities, and emboldened regulatory structures. Myriad shock vectors arising from the pandemic also appear to have grounded the ‘isomorphic ivy striving’ fixations of plushily renumerated executives, directing their attention to more local communities and concerns. “Teach local students like your job depends on it”, one top-university president told his professors, sharply diverting from the entrenched ‘world-class university’ rhetoric of publishing and patenting to pump up the rankings. Such fundamental re-orientation around local communities generates novel futures for education and engagement, and carries broader implications for sectoral and institutional structure. At the other end of the geographic spectrum, the pandemic shock spurred reconfiguration of important cross-border engagements. Such reconfiguration of cross-border education, student mobility, faculty work, and research fundamentals will leave a lasting impact on higher education. For instance, there will be greater need for global coordination around education regulation and quality assurance, particularly education which is broadcast online.

The global shift to ‘emergency online learning’ caused by the shuttering of campuses is likely to be one of the biggest ever changes to education. In 2020 there were estimates that more than 90 per cent of the world’s learners, more than 1.5 billion people, were confined to their homes. As I articulate in Higher Education Design, online learning emerged from these emergency conditions as a plinth undergirding future higher education. Tellingly, however, online learning was relegated as a servant of in-person provision, not as the triumphant master, as long expounded by techno-zealots. The maturation of hybrid forms of education was made possible by the consolidation of very sophisticated education service firms. Such partnerships carry step-change implications for future higher education. Clearly, these education-related changes and reconfigurations merely scratch the surface. While ‘change rhetoric’ runs rampant in higher education commentary and scholarship, realistically education plays out across decades through large systems with long pipelines. It is too soon to calculate the effects of contemporary disruptions on students who have been preparing their whole lives for dreamlike university futures. While the shape of the post-pandemic recovery remains ‘a question mark’, the magnitude of disruption has already reconfigured education in ways which will ricochet for years to come.

Personal experiences, media stories and discussions with colleagues all conveyed major shifts in academic research. Trapped at home, all academics and consultants found more time to write, surely ensuring that, through essays like ours, 2020 will be one of the most highly documented yet. Such inquiry has raised fresh questions about the overall direction of our field. The year 2020 has required higher education research to deliver in robust and relevant ways. We became convinced, as outlined below, of the need for the field to engage with fundamental forms of higher education design. Beyond higher education studies, it was hard not to project that abrupt changes to academic research will reap enduring consequences. Governments stepped in to subsidise fields not independently viable. Through writing, investigative and editorial work we noted swift changes with publishing. Fuelled by the vaccine quest, medical researchers cemented decades of debate into collaborative ways for expediting and strengthening peer review, which will carry universal implications. The swing towards open-access publications was accentuated, potentially to help faculty working from home, certainly affirming growing interest in open science and, related to this, establishing momentum towards citations and other impact-related metrics. New global realisation emerged of the role of research in Asia, not just in supporting more established systems, but in pioneering frontiers and innovations.

Higher education is about people, and changes regarding people have already had the most profound impact and implications. Across Asia, travel which used to take six hours and six hundred dollars, in 2020 took six weeks and six thousand dollars, considering costs for visas, health certificates, flights and quarantine. It has been impossible to ignore the impact of the pandemic on students, on faculty, and on broader global flows. It does not take too much acumen or courage to foresee that transnational education will look very different over the next 25 years. The pandemic has flattened ‘international education’ and fuelled evolution of the new ‘global era’. As our essay conveys, the conditions and arrangements built up since the mid-1990s to sustain ‘international higher education’ have cracked, sometimes in irreparable ways. The ‘emergency’ arrangements patched in to sustain education across the first half of 2020 cranked important ratchets which will prove hard or unpleasant to reverse. Emergent changes reveal the need for new transnational perspectives, partnerships, practices.

As our essay articulates, we started 2020 researching global higher education futures, sustained academics through pandemic-induced turbulence, then realised that contemporary changes had reconfigured fundamentals. A volatile, exciting and thought-provoking time. Far from muting or stalling the initial research, we realised that our experiences in 2020 has presaged the shape of things to come. A constructive way to engage, we conclude, is to engage in fresh forms of higher education design. Higher education has never been more important.

Hamish COATES, XIE Zheping and XI Hong are at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education.

Hamish COATES is a Tenured Professor, Director of the Higher Education Research Division, and Deputy Director of the Tsinghua University Global Research Centre for the Assessment of College and Student Development. He was Professor of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, Founding Director of Higher Education Research at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and Program Director at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Leadership and Management. He concentrates on improving the quality and productivity of higher education. hamishcoates@outlook.com

With a PhD in political science, Dr XIE Zheping is an Associate Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, as well as the Deputy Director of Policy Research Office at Tsinghua University. She also serves as an academic board member of the Chinese National Commission for UNESCO. Before joining Tsinghua she worked at Renmin University of China, and was a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has published several papers and books on education and international cooperation. Her current research focuses on higher education and global governance.

Xi HONG is a PhD student at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education. Xi is the recipient of the ‘Future Scholar Scholarship of Tsinghua University’. She specialises in the field of higher education, focusing in particular on student development, higher education policy, higher education assessment, and minorities.


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Support for doctoral candidates during the pandemic at the University of Melbourne

by Ai Tam Le

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

There is little doubt that doing a PhD can be hard; doing a PhD during a pandemic certainly makes it harder. But the diversity of PhD projects, the resources required to undertake them, and the differences in our situations mean that each PhD candidate has faced a rather different set of challenges and experienced varying degrees of disruption due to the pandemic. In my university, the University of Melbourne (henceforth the university), for some students, the pandemic has made little impact on their progress; for others, however, the lack of access to lab facilities or fieldwork means that their project came to a halt.

In a recent paper for a Special Issue of the Studies in Higher Education, I took a closer look at the support provided to doctoral candidates at the university and discussed some of the arising issues. In this blog, I summarise the situation and highlight two major issues with the university’s approach to supporting doctoral students.

University’s support and graduate researchers’ Open Letter

When the pandemic was escalating in March 2020, alongside advising students to work from home, the university gradually introduced different support measures in terms of finance (emergency funds), psychological well-being (counselling services) and candidature (extension of candidature and stipend). Yet the following months saw a rising uneasy sentiment among a group of graduate researchers (masters and doctoral candidates) at the university who then drafted and sent an Open Letter to the university outlining their requests for ‘real’ support. The letter has been signed by more than 640 graduate researchers and academics.

What was requested in the letter? Two major requests were put forward: a special category of leave (a period of non-active enrolment) for reasons related to COVID-19; and a six-month universal extension for all students. Six months was requested because, I suppose, there was an expectation at the beginning of the pandemic that it would take at least six months to be back to ‘normal’. (The reality has proven that this expectation was overly optimistic.) Similarly, the Graduate Student Association at the university at first advocated for three-month universal extensions and later ‘the commitment to six-month extensions as standard or more where needed’.

The university did not respond – and has not, according to my understanding, officially responded –  to the Open Letter; however, their support measures have addressed these concerns to a large extent. Specifically, a new category of leave was created to support students who were not able to continue their research due to the pandemic. Extension of stipend from 3 to 3.5 years was automatically granted to students at a certain stage of their candidature*.  Stipend beyond 3.5 years (up to 26 weeks of extension) can also be requested given that the student can provide sufficient documents to support their case.

The ‘hidden’ issues

It is fair to say that, overall, these measures have accommodated the needs of most students. But there are some ‘hidden’ issues as highlighted below.

First, the university’s ‘business-as-usual’ expectation could create undue pressure for doctoral students. While the university’s commitment to supporting its students to make progress was well-intentioned, the expectation of ‘business-as-usual’ in an unusual time could be misinterpreted as a pressure to work, which was not possible for some students. Failing this expectation can be seen as a sign of weakness by the students, hence creating further stress.

Second, the application process for leave or extension was deemed as bureaucratic by some students. In the application, a student must demonstrate the ‘exceptional circumstance’ under which their research has been disrupted. Some students argued that the existence of the pandemic itself constituted an ‘exceptional circumstance’ that would qualify all students for leave or universal extension. The requirement to demonstrate ‘exceptional circumstance’ was deemed as just another layer of documentation and reporting. Moreover, some changes and disruptions can be documented and quantified such as days of lacking access to lab or fieldwork; other disruptions are not quantifiable such as lack of appropriate workspace or psychological stress due to isolation and the pandemic threat. For example, it would be challenging to quantify and document the loss of productivity due to sitting on a dining chair instead of an ergonomic chair, or due to distractions caused by homeschooling kids. There could be students falling through the cracks by not being able to accumulate ‘sufficient’ documents to support their case for leave or extension.

Looking back, these issues were hidden – acquired by inside knowledge and detail – and seemed trivial compared to the support provided; they can easily be forgotten as time goes by. With the advantage of hindsight, it is now easier to make sense of the contestation between the university’s support and the students’ demands. On the one hand, constrained by financial resources, mostly due to the loss of revenues from international students, the university had to strike a balance between, among other things, organisational survival and doctoral students’ needs. The mechanisms set up – bureaucratic as they could be – were necessary for allocating limited resources for those deemed most in need. On the other hand, research students did not know what situation they were getting into and how or when they were getting out of it, so that any barrier to getting support – regardless of how small it was – added to the existing chaos and would seem significant to the students.

Concluding thoughts

Even though the situation has improved in Australia and some parts of the world, the pandemic is not over yet. No one can confidently say when things are going back to ‘normal’ and how that ‘normal’ would look like. As many PhD candidates are still unable to go back to campus and go about conducting their daily business, the question of how effective these supports are in the long-term remains open.

Moreover, given that research students make a significant contribution to research and development in Australia (ABS 2020), there is a need for further monitoring and reporting on how research students have been affected by the pandemic. This would provide a nuanced understanding of the impact of the pandemic on research workforce capacity in Australia.

*In a recent announcement, the extension has reverted to standard procedures through which students must have approval from their supervisory committee instead of being granted automatically.

Ai Tam Le is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Centre for the Study in Higher Education and Melbourne Graduate School of Education (University of Melbourne, Australia). Her PhD project explores aspiring academics’ understanding of the academic profession in Australia. She is a contributor to the Early Career Researchers in Higher Education Blog (echer.org). She tweets @aitamlp.


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Leading a university out of the pandemic

by Warren Bebbington

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

Faced with COVID-19’s array of challenges, the role of leadership in a university has never been more taxing. Many university leaders facing enrolment declines in 2020 move quickly to deal with  immediate financial threats: to delay capital works, to cancel unviable courses, to curtail non-core expenditure and administrative costs, to consolidate management roles, reduce executive remuneration, and to cooperate with unions in introducing salary and recruitment freezes.

But increasingly the minds of university leaders are occupied with the future. For in the shadow of the pandemic, they have a pivotal opportunity to rethink their institutions. Can a university continue with multiple aims of research, professional education, job training, economic advice and community engagement, or should it instead identify and focus more on its most distinctive, most outstanding activity? Would this be on its strongest fields of research? Or on excellent teaching? Or on community engagement?

The pandemic’s consequence of having suddenly drawn online learning from the fringe to the centre of delivery will profoundly affect this consideration of the way forward. With online learning now at the core of teaching, a new balance between physical and online modes will need to be identified across the campus offerings. A university needs to identify the full array of activities needed for instruction and how they might blend f2f and online in a hybrid delivery mode. It has been said lab experiments are impossible online, yet many secondary schools in the pandemic used virtual experiment software in science subjects with success. Methods need developing to better manage staff-student interaction, class discussion, group projects, data sharing, and fieldwork. Even the extra-curricular campus life can be drawn in, as there are ways student clubs, societies, perhaps even sporting fixtures can develop with online components.

Moreover, the financial plight of so many universities makes the traditional but fundamentally inefficient calendar for use of campus facilities less defensible. Universities should consider adopting genuinely year-round operations, beyond the marginal use of summer semesters – to three full semesters, from which student could choose two to enrol in, or accelerate their progress through all three. Full-time faculty should be able to elect whether they teach a full load across two semesters or reduce their load across all three.

A changed F2F/remote balance of delivery will also involve reconceiving the physical university:  abandoning the construction of more new lecture theatre and classroom buildings and instead repurposing existing buildings to interactive learning commons, innovation hubs with industry, or student-led learning spaces. Moreover, it may be that sessions for students off-campus at rented neighborhood schools or community centres should be added, where small groups of students can come together locally rather than travelling to campus,  a far less costly arrangement than providing new campus buildings. Meetings in rented space off-shore might be needed in significant quantity too.

Undeniably, all teaching faculty will need enhanced development programs in pedagogical skills, covering instructional design blending F2F and technology, introducing online learning practices and current digital tools, and considering the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous modes for each subject. These development programs will need to consider how to motivate students online, how to promote deeper rather than superficial understanding of content, and how to develop online assessment and feedback. It is also time to promote research in cognitive learning more broadly, gathering empirical data for different methods of instruction, and developing a reflective future teaching practice for the hybrid environment.  IT development and support of a campus’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) will need expansion, and staff support networks in online pedagogy will need incentivising.

A university’s  increased complexity may now be a weakness, as it strives to serve too many aims—to educate for the professions, to train for jobs, to conduct research, to offer expertise to local and national governments, and to aid the economic development of each university’s local region or the nation. Trying to satisfy a “multi-varsity” set of goals adds costs and increased size of a kind that is now demonstrably unsustainable. And slavishly tailoring a campus offering to the rankings might be questioned: better for a university to define its mission more sharply, then choose its own suite of appropriate performance measures.

Narrowing a university’s mission leads to the question of right-sizing the university itself. The future is likely smaller than the large, complex multi-varsity of the past – each university should focus on carving out more sharply a truly distinctive character and appropriate size for its future. Universities will need to play to their greatest strengths – to focus on a limited array of first-class research areas; or on distinction in teaching and learning, graduate or undergraduate (not necessarily both).

Prospectively, there is no stronger principle for restoring financial sustainability than a focus on a smaller core; reducing administration costs to match; and freeing up capital, not just by abandoning new building programs by selling property no longer essential in a hybrid learning environment, but also by repurposing existing buildings, renting local or offshore space where F2F teaching demands it, while instead investing strategically in online infrastructure, in digital staff upskilling, and in blended course development.

Despite the unprecedented disruption it brought, the 2020 pandemic signalled a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a strategic transformation in universities, toward more differentiated character and missions for each university, and a resizing of each university and its resources to fit new, more focused goals.  COVID-19’s wrenching of online learning and digital tools to the core of delivery methods should begin a development towards a menu of hybrid learning modes on most campuses, supported by much more sophisticated preparation for teaching staff in blended learning pedagogy and digital tools.  With bold thought and a clear vision, there is every reason for optimism about the future of the university as an enduring institution.

Warren Bebbington is a Professorial Fellow at the L.H. Martin Institute, University of Melbourne, and former Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide. This blog follows a paper presented at the L.H.Martin October Webfest 2020; a fuller treatment of this subject is Warren Bebbington, “Leadership Strategies for a Higher Education Sector in Flux”, Studies in Higher Education (Dec 2020).


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The impact of COVID 19 on private higher education: the Ethiopian experience

by Wondwosen Tamrat

This blog is a short summary of the author’s paper for a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. This issue is currently free to access and includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020. Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021. The paper presented the findings of a study that sought to examine the impact of the pandemic on the private higher education (PHE) sector in Ethiopia. It employed a mixed-methods design using a weekly diary of significant events kept between the months of April and August,2020, and two online surveys conducted between the months of April and May, 2020, and at the end of August, 2020, respectively. Among 110 private higher education institutions contacted for the purpose of the study, ninety-seven institutions (89%) responded to the first survey while 77 (70%) institutions gave back their answers during the second survey.

Together with tourism and travel, higher education has been identified as one of the major sectors upended by the COVID-19 pandemic (The Economist 2020). Despite the lack of research on the area, anecdotal evidence suggests that the effect of the pandemic may be more pronounced in the private higher education (PHE) sector whose resource base and capacity are too limited to withstand the impact of a crisis of this magnitude.

Arguably, in many systems, private colleges are over-reliant on student tuition and do not count on direct government support or emergency grants to keep them afloat. The search for external support is also not easy at a time when institutions are losing their selling points due to the pandemic which has indeed presented an unprecedented challenge such as reduced admissions, cash flow problems, inability to pay salaries, and furloughing of staff. 

Initial experiences and reactions

The first confirmed case in Ethiopia, reported on 7 March, was a Japanese advisor employed to provide technical assistance to Ethiopian schools. Things moved quickly after the Ministry of Health reported the case in public media. Ethiopia’s 30 million learners in schools and nearly a million in its 50 public universities and more than 250 private academic institutions were identified as high potential transmission sites. On 16 March, the Prime Minister announced that schools and universities would halt classes for 2 weeks. On 17 March, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education gave further directions on how universities should act during the closure.

In the immediate aftermath of the closure, the Ethiopian government set up a national task force that mobilized the public towards combatting the impacts of the pandemic. Most higher education institutions (HEIs), including the privates, responded to the call by donating money, sanitary items, essential supplies, and even their buildings to be used for quarantine and storage purposes. According to a figure obtained from the Ethiopian TVET and Private Higher Education Institutions’ Association, donations worth more than ETB 30 million (nearly US$ 1 million) were raised by private institutions for the cause. Private medical colleges also enlisted nearly 4000 of their medical students to be deployed by the government to combat the pandemic.

Government also made further interventions in the form of declaration of a state of emergency and providing support to the private sector. Whereas the initial government shutdown had a largely common impact across sectors, the declaration of a state of emergency loomed as potentially disastrous for many private institutions. The limited assistance provided to private enterprises by government went mostly to manufacturing, hotel, horticulture, floriculture, and others labeled most affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, PHE was not on that priority list and as a consequence, the only workable benefits extended to PHEIs were a 4-month employee income tax exemption, the postponement of pension payments for a few months, and regulation that bans landlords from increasing rents and evicting tenants including PHE institutions.

The challenges of shifting online

Shifting to online delivery was difficult in the Ethiopian context for many reasons. Poor internet access, cost, availability of computers and related technology, little previous preparation, and students’ and teachers’ twin problems of limited technical knowhow and negative attitudes towards the use of information and communication technology stood out as the most prevalent problems both for public and private HEIs.

Most institutions used social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp, and Google Classroom in their program delivery, a few struggled to develop their own learning management systems more recently. Despite such efforts, not much is known about the most disadvantaged students who are being left behind. Mechanisms such as creating zero-rated access to specific educational websites, universities, digital libraries and online knowledge hubs, and offering free data bundles to students, that were observed in some African countries have not been practised in Ethiopia.

Impact on income

Ethiopian PHEIs rely entirely on student tuition and fees. An overwhelming majority had the practice of collecting fees on a monthly basis which immediately put many of them in jeopardy immediately after the official closure of the sector. Government policy that crippled undergraduate finance has been a weightier problem for private than public since PHE depended almost solely on tuition from its undergraduates.

The strain of paying monthly rent, staff salaries, and other expenses was also a serious challenge. Under normal circumstances, along with salary, rent accounts for more than three-fourth of PHE’s monthly expenses. PHEIs were forced to ask for the postponement of payment periods, abandon some of their branches, and/or settle their rents by taking loans from other sources. While a limited number of institutions continued to pay salaries, the majority faced the increasing difficulties of meeting this responsibility. Making late payments, salary reductions and entering into litigations due to failure to pay such expenses were challenges faced by many HEIs.

Impact on employment

Many institutions have frozen new employment and stopped employing part-time workers who constitute a significant portion of the workforce in the private higher education sector which relies heavily on such staff. Another impact has been the reduction of the productivity of workers compared to the earlier days. Institutions also claim that the output of their employees has been reduced significantly after the disruption of classes. The pandemic is further expected to have a significant impact on the future employability of graduates (around 150,000 per annum) across both the public and private sectors.

Leadership challenges

The leadership in the private sector carried huge burdens in combating the impact of COVID 19 which was exacerbated by the sadness of the pandemic and the little preparation they had. Institutional limitation in collecting fees and paying salary and rent has created a condition whereby leaders had to abandon their normal plans and attend to day-to-day challenges. The declining work ethics and their failure to provide enough information about the fate of their institutions was another challenge. The struggles to convince students to pay and employees to share the financial strains they are going through were the major occupations of institutional leaders for the past several months.

Leaders were also perturbed by a high level of uncertainty and hopelessness as regards the fate of their institutions. Although they are hopeful about the start of classes in the last two months, the feeling of uncertainty still appears to linger in their disposition as adjusting to the ‘new normal’ cannot be an easy task. Further, the limited help obtained from the government so far appears to have worsened the feeling of hopelessness compounded by the fear of the unknown which still appears to haunt most of the leaders.

Conclusion

It is possible to envision a post-COVID future in which PHE has lost much bad as well as some good from its long-unbridled expansion and in which some of the fitter not only survive but improve their organizational management and certainly their use of technology in educational provision.

Private institutions still expect meaningful interventions in areas that include tax exemptions, long-term loans, rent waiver or reduction, direct financial support from the government, assistance with online platforms, reduced internet costs, facilitating student access to computers with reduced costs, etc.

It is understandable that the government is overwhelmed by a multitude of social, political, and economic pressures unleashed by COVID-19 as it is preparing for the reopening of higher education institutions. However, unless a substantial intervention is made in terms of assisting the PHE sector and/or influencing financial institutions to provide meaningful assistance, this sector, which boasts the largest number of students in Africa (Tamrat and Levy, 2017) and caters to the needs of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians will be significantly weakened.

While solving the challenges of the economy remains a key to addressing anticipated problems caused by COVID-19, the findings of this survey strongly point to the need for close monitoring of PHE to curb the continued impact of the pandemic. Further, continuous and fruitful dialogues are needed between the government and sector representatives in order to maintain the confidence of PHE institutions in government policy aimed at ensuring their survival.

Wondwosen Tamrat is an Associate Professor and Founding President of St. Mary’s University in Ethiopia. He is an affiliate scholar of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE) headquartered at the State University of New York at Albany, US. He coordinates the Sub-Cluster for Private Higher Education in Africa under the African Union’s Higher Education Cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa, CESA 2016-25.


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Bayes, Keynes, King and Fritz: fake news and academics with fixed ideas

By Paul Alper

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” – John Maynard Keynes

On the Fritz – Unknown. Attested from 1902, originally meaning “in a bad way” or “in bad condition”, malfunctioning of an appliance. Perhaps from German name Fritz, or by onomatopoeia (here, imitating the sound of electric sparks jumping).

In statistics, Bayesianism plays an important role.  According to Wikipedia, Thomas Bayes was an English statistician, philosopher and Presbyterian minister who is known for formulating a specific case of the theorem that bears his name: Bayes’ theorem. Bayes never published what would become his most famous accomplishment; his notes were edited and published after his death.

Bayes’ theorem is the way of combining what one currently believes with the new data in order to come up with an updated belief. In fact, this is how things like machine learning and weather forecasting are done successfully. Eventually, enough new data can override/supplement initial beliefs. Keynes was thus a Bayesian, albeit a couple of hundred years after Bayes.

Giving up a previous position is never easy – people are not machines – and note that the Keynesian quotation is, in fact, apocryphal. To illustrate further how resistant to updating humans are, consider Karen King, a distinguished Harvard professor, as discussed in Ariel Sabar’s book, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

Karen King would seem to me to be a classic case of someone, who despite (because of?) being very accomplished, just cannot accept that her idée fixe – Mary Magdalen was both wife and lead disciple of Jesus – could be wrong. In passing, I should note that my long-standing personal idée fixe is that academics in general suffer the same affliction. She is also typical in that when evidence arises that counters her convictions, she actively attempts to dismiss its importance. For details regarding her (mis)weighing of the data, see Mark Oppenheim’s review of Sabar’s book in the New York Times.

The other main character in the book is the con man, Walter Fritz, who may indeed for all I know, be an expert on Bayesianism. He seems to be knowledgeable in Egyptology, papyrology, sex video productions and, for good measure, he was the head of the Stasi museum in Berlin. More importantly, he knew how to exploit the weakness of his mark. He delivered to King precisely what she wanted to be true. Sabar expends a great deal of shoe-leather journalism to find the gaps in Fritz’s storyline and King’s willingness to be a believer.  Almost right to the end, she never was onto Fritz or heard the electric sparks jumping.

But apparently this failure to hear the sparks jumping also afflicts the half of the US who believe deeply, truly and incorrectly that the 2020 election was rigged by The Deep State, an entity so shadowy that finding no evidence of its existence is further proof of its existence. Currently, because of the mob raid on the United States Capitol, Republican legislators are in a Bayesian quandary as to if, when and how to leave the Trump ship. The new data really aren’t all that different from the old data but after a while, as they say, enough is enough, especially when fascist-type behavior is captured on video immediately after deep-south Georgia elected two Democrats to the United States Senate. I am tempted to repeat my favorite quotation from a TV program of my youth:

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time—and them’s pretty good odds.”

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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Guiding principles for supporting BTEC students

by Chris Bayes

At an SRHE ‘Student Access and Experience Network’ online conference on 19 November 2020, I and colleagues who lead the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) Working Group on ‘Supporting BTEC students’ were privileged to speak about the development of our Group. We also introduced colleagues to the Guiding Principles publication we have recently produced in partnership with Pearson, the UK’s largest awarding body, whose vocational qualifications include Edexcel NVQ and BTEC from entry level to Higher National Diplomas. This blog provides an overview of the development of the Group, our publication and our proposed next steps to support BTEC learners’ progression into higher education.

The beginnings of the Group: NEON, why BTEC learners, and how we developed Guiding Principles

Our Group is one of a number of Working Groups co-ordinated by NEON. NEON is a professional organisation supporting those involved in widening access to higher education. Its Working Groups are led by members and bring colleagues from the widening participation (WP) sector together to take forward a specific agenda or area of practice.

The ‘Supporting BTEC Students’ Working Group was formed in 2018, following a successful initial conference hosted that summer by Brunel University. The conference sought to explore issues around the progression, retention and success of students accessing HE via the BTEC pathway. At our first meeting in September 2018, we invited guest speakers from Association of Colleges, Pearson and UCAS, who gave contrasting views on the post-16 qualifications landscape in England and the role of the BTEC qualification within this. The meeting itself was extremely well attended with around 70 colleagues present. As a NEON Executive member, I was particularly pleased to see the number of teacher colleagues taking part in this meeting – our membership has historically consisted of WP practitioners based in institutions and those working on the UniConnect collaborative outreach programme.  This showed that we were covering an issue which was hugely topical across the sector.

The last decade has seen an increase in the number of learners progressing to higher education having studied a BTEC qualification. One in four students currently gaining access to HE have taken a BTEC National, about 100,000 students. There is a clear correlation between students studying BTEC qualifications and socio-economic status; research undertaken in 2016 by the Social Market Foundation showed 47% of students entering higher education from the most disadvantaged areas (Q1) are BTEC holders.

As a Group, we wanted to work to support the access, progression and success of BTEC students.  Over the course of the past two years, we have refined our focus to developing our Guiding Principles publication, written for colleagues working with BTEC students at each stage of the student lifecycle.

Our Guiding Principles

Following our first meeting, we developed some terms of reference for the Group. Our initial thinking was to develop resources to support teachers and advisors for student progression and to capture the scope of activity taking place to support BTEC learners at each point of the student lifecycle. We are still compiling this information and so if you have an example of practice you would like to share, please let us know!

As the group evolved, we decided to focus on our meetings as opportunities to share practice with invited guest speakers and have used this knowledge to shape our Guiding Principles.  Abstracts of each of these principles are provided below.

  • Championing fair higher education admissions practices for BTEC learners – Dr Alex Blower (University of Portsmouth)

One of the guiding tenets of the NEON Supporting BTEC Students Working Group is to champion fair admissions practices by universities. The group contends that BTEC students, who are often first in their family to attend university, should not have to dig for information about course entry requirements or face additional barriers. It argues that BTEC qualifications should feature as prominently as A levels in prospectuses, and websites, as they are the second most common qualification used for university entrance in the UK. The Group campaigns to make entry requirements/eligibility criteria clear and accessible to BTEC students at all UK HE providers, including Russell Group institutions and those with higher entry tariffs. BTEC learners should be able to establish their eligibility for an undergraduate degree quickly and easily, without the need for them to make further enquiries. If BTEC qualifications aren’t accepted due to course content, the group argues that this should be clearly indicated. The group believes that uniformity and transparency in admissions practices across the sector is a prerequisite to equitable access to Higher Education for BTEC students.

  • Conducting meaningful outreach activity with BTEC learners in schools and colleges – Rebecca Foster (University of East Anglia)

One of the biggest barriers to vocational students entering HE is that pre-entry activity run by Recruitment and Outreach professionals is targeted towards A level students, rather than being focused on their needs. The pre-entry guiding principle champions the need for staff working with students’ pre-entry to be inclusive of vocational learners. This is especially important as learners studying vocational qualifications are often from the most underrepresented backgrounds. Therefore an inclusive approach is paramount, especially from a widening participation perspective. Through raising awareness of the important but sometimes nuanced differences between BTEC and A level learners such as curriculum, learning style, learner identity and learning environment, important changes in promotional language, bespoke events and CPD for college staff can be put in place. The group hopes this will culminate in more vocational learners being aware of HE as an opportunity to them and for practitioners to be equipped to provide appropriate advice and guidance to support their progression.

  • Supporting the transition and student success of BTEC students in higher education – Rebecca Sykes (University of Leeds)

Research shows that BTEC students entering university are more likely to be from a widening participation background, have lower progression and retention rates, be at different starting points in terms of academic preparedness and understanding assessment expectations in HE, and that a sense of belonging is one of the biggest challenges facing this cohort. Our third guiding principle, focusing on transition, attainment and retention, uses the core principles of identify, evaluate, share and embed, to create an environment where BTEC students succeed during their studies and beyond. Valuable, informative and engaging conversations in the group meetings and across conference sessions, has allowed open discussions about the barriers facing this cohort of students, enabling us to recognise how practitioners can be instrumental in their own institutions to help overcome these challenges.

  • Understanding the needs of BTEC students through engagement with research – Chris Bayes (Lancaster University)

There is a lack of effective knowledge exchange between policy makers, practitioners and researchers active in the field of widening participation.  With reference to the progression, retention and success of students accessing university via a BTEC pathway, we have identified gaps in terms of knowledge transfer between practitioners and teachers working with applicants prior to university, and academics working with these students when they are at university. Some traditional universities have been guilty of reinforcing a deficit model perception of BTEC students. For many degree programmes, BTEC students’ prior learning has better prepared them for the progression into HE. By supporting the development of reflective practitioners across the sector, our Working Group is ensuring that staff are able to support today’s increasingly diverse student population, regardless of their prior academic background.

Further information

PDF copies of our Guiding Principles publication can be found via the NEON website – https://www.educationopportunities.co.uk/resources/research/. To find out more about Working Group, please visit https://www.educationopportunities.co.uk/programmes/working-groups/supporting-btec-students/ or join our LinkedIn Group – https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8805592/

The Department of Education is undertaking a consultation exercise to review post-16 qualifications at level 3 in England. The consultation proposes a new system for Level 3 qualifications that creates a dual route based on A Levels and T Levels. This proposed new landscape does not therefore see a separate role for BTEC qualifications, which at present offer learners a route into either higher education or employment. If you care about safeguarding the future of the BTEC, you can access this consultation via the following link: https://consult.education.gov.uk/post-16-qualifications-review-team/review-of-post-16-qualifications-at-level-3/. The deadline for this consultation is 15th January.  We will be working with Pearson to deliver a practice-sharing event showcasing case study examples of how the BTEC qualification supports learners at each stage of the student lifecycle.  Should you wish to be involved in this, please get in touch via c.bayes@lancaster.ac.uk .

SRHE member Chris Bayes has worked in the field of Widening Participation (WP) since 2007, holding practitioner and managerial roles in WP teams at a number of universities and previously leading a number of collaborative partnerships in NW England.  Chris is a research-active practitioner and his research paper ‘Blurred Boundaries – Encouraging greater dialogue between Student Recruitment & Widening Participation’ appeared in the Forum for Access & Continuing Education (FACE)’s 2019 Conference publication. Chris has been an Executive Board member of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) since 2015 and has acted as Chair of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC students’ Working Group since this was established in 2018.


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Reimagining higher education in the post-pandemic world

by Anastasia Olga Tzirides, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope

Anastasia Olga Tzirides
Mary Kalantzis

Bill Cope

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. This statement can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic led higher education institutions to rethink the way that instruction can occur under the newly established circumstances. Many universities in the US and around the world have resumed instruction in hybrid format that is based to face-to-face instruction, coupled with online portions. In the case both of fully remote and hybrid learning, the gold-standard for learning remains traditional face-to-face, where online is modelled on the pedagogical processes and instructional artefacts of face-to-face. In this post, we are presenting the main characteristics of a hybrid format in a big US Mid-Western University and we are providing five ways that could transform it to a completely online format. Not only would this address the current needs set by the COVID-19 crisis; it would also change the concept of higher education by addressing in new ways the needs and the characteristics of contemporary students.

In the selected case of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, given that the health safety circumstances would allow it, the hybrid format of instruction was chosen, considering the significant value of the residential experience for the growth and development of undergraduate students, the training and advancement of graduate students and the production of new knowledge and research.

For the modified on-campus delivery format, the administrators of this institution had to rethink classroom capacities, to accommodate less than 50 students, and better utilisation of the spaces in order to aim for safe instruction with social distancing. They also had to re-evaluate time schedules, by taking advantage of irregular times (eg Friday evenings) and days (eg Saturdays), as well as passing periods, between the start and the end of classes. Online sections were an inevitable addition to the courses, as most lectures would be delivered online and the discussion parts were aimed to be face-to-face. Moreover, the administrators re-structured the calendar of the 2020-2021 academic year, ending the semester remotely to minimize the returns of students on campus after break periods. In the area of course development, instructors were provided with professional development training in order to develop new course modalities deploying different techniques and approaches to online education.

As it can be understood, this is an example where the institution selected to use online education as supplementary to face-to-face by trying to migrate their traditional practices online without really taking advantage of the possibilities that online education can offer. We argue that online can be completely different, and with the right tools, potentially superior to in-person teaching. To reap the benefits of online learning, we need to abandon the current generation educational technologies—systems and processes that mostly do little more than reverse-engineer traditional classrooms. At the University of Illinois, we’ve been researching the transformation of in-person learning and developing and testing online learning solutions (Montebello et al, 2018;  Cope, Kalantzis and Searsmith, 2020)

Here are five reasons why we choose to teach online and why we would never choose to teach in-person again.

1. Scale Up Higher Education and Scale Down Its Costs

In order to make higher education available to all, even workers and people with domestic caring responsibilities, we need to reduce the costs of teaching and learning, by providing access to it without the necessity for the student to leave their communities and homes. This can only be achieved with online education as a thoroughly renovated version of distance learning, which would be affordable to people from all social and economic conditions.

2. Develop Pedagogies of Social Knowledge and Collaborative Intelligence

In-person instruction is considered so valuable by its supporters, due to the element of human interaction. Nevertheless, in lecture theatres we hardly ever see interaction among students and even in classroom discussions, only one person is talking, and the rest have to listen. On the other side, with online learning and specifically with simple video lectures that contain prompts, students can engage in synchronous or asynchronous interactions below the videos in the platform used. Therefore, every student can comment and be part of the classroom discussion in this format. Moreover, learning analytics can track every learner’s engagement and this format is simply a far superior communication and pedagogical architecture than traditional in-person classroom interactions.

3. Create Pedagogies of Intense Engagement

In traditional models, learners are knowledge consumers and they demonstrate the acquired knowledge though end-of-course, summative assessments. In online learning architectures, it is possible to position learners as knowledge producers and co-contributors to knowledge communities. A simple way to do this is to have students research and make posts into the class activity stream that exemplify themes prompted by instructors. Another is to create peer-reviewed projects, where interim feedback in the knowledge production process comes from multiple perspectives: peer, instructor and machine feedback. Then projects can be published and shared by the instructor to the community as collective knowledge. Embedded, on-the-fly formative assessments can track community engagement and personal progress (Haniya et al, 2020). An example: in one of our recent 8-week courses with 54 students, using our CGScholar platform there were 14,500 pieces of actionable feedback on 3.3m datapoints, giving students and instructors a far richer and more reliable picture of learning than ever possible with a traditional test.

4. Focus on Higher Order Thinking

In the current world, the digital devices that we use everyday function as cognitive prostheses. They remember things for us, and they can provide us with a vast amount of knowledge that we don’t have to remember. So, the foundational objectives of education change. In reality, learning should be about careful navigation of at-hand knowledge resources and appropriate application of machine-supported procedures. Thus, the goal of education should be higher order thinking, including critical, creative and design thinking. Online environments can uniquely achieve this, by leveraging collaborative knowledge processes. Instead of individual minds, the social mind is acknowledged in the provenance of knowledge and the collaborative contributions of peers in the learning process. Artificial intelligence can track and offer suggestions on the basis of what we term “complex epistemic performance”. Machine learning works synergistically with human learning.

5. Lifelong and Lifewide Learning

Online learning, by contrast to the monastic origins of the residential experience of university and college education, can be embedded in the real world. It can be continuous, lasting for as long as life and stretching as wide as social and personal needs. The students in our online courses are in the world, contributing as partners in our knowledge communities and testing live in real-world contexts, the new things they have learned in our classes.

We argue that online instruction can be completely different, and with the right tools, it can potentially be superior to in-person teaching. The real problem is that none of the commercial or open source learning management systems can do what we have just outlined (check here for a comparison of the most popular learning management systems). Thus, in this time of crisis, we must seize the day and imagine a different future for higher education, by abandoning the back-to-the-future learning management systems and looking for or designing alternatives that address the future of education. With focused investment in people and technology we can renew and revitalize our pedagogical and social values. If nothing else, this crisis should lead to that.

Anastasia-Olga (Olnancy) Tzirides is a PhD candidate in the Learning Design and Leadership Program at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on exploring the potential of using digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence combined with a multimodal and translanguaging approach to language learning. Currently, she is as a teaching assistant for online graduate courses in the Learning Design and Leadership Program at the College of Education. In the past, she has worked as a graduate assistant designing online courses for the International Studies Program at the College of Education and as an instructor at the Modern Greek Studies program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Anastasia-Olga holds a master’s degree in “Teaching of Multilingualism and Linguistic Policies: Language and Culture Dissemination in Multilingual Settings” from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and Université du Maine, France, and a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.  

 Mary Kalantzis is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She was from 2006 to 2016 Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Before this, she was Dean of the Faculty of Education, Language and Community Services at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, and President of the Australian Council of Deans of Education. With Bill Cope, she has co-authored or co-edited: New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education, Cambridge University Press, 2008 (2nd edition, 2012); Ubiquitous Learning, University of Illinois Press, 2009; Towards a Semantic Web: Connecting Knowledge in Academic Research, Elsevier, 2009; Literacies, Cambridge University Press 2012 (2nd edition, 2016); A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies, Palgrave, 2016; and e-Learning Ecologies, Routledge, 2017.

Bill Cope is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include theories and practices of pedagogy, cultural and linguistic diversity, and new technologies of representation and communication. His and Mary Kalantzis’ recent research has focused on the development of digital writing and assessment technologies, with the support of a number of major grants from the US Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The result has been the CGScholar multimodal writing and assessment environment.


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Digital agility: how a Humanities department’s pre-Covid strategy enabled lockdown operations

by Nathan Loewen

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The author’s statement can be found here.

My department was ready for “2020”. Not because we anticipated a pandemic in 2019. Nor because our courses were all online. A more pertinent reason was the matter of brand identity. ‘Religious Studies’ is not a US high school subject. College applications rarely include religious studies as the planned major. To retain its place in the pre-COVID university, my department started making a shift in the study of religion over a decade ago (see Implicit Religion). Some of the tacit knowledge and skills base required for the post-pandemic university were cultivated in part by sharing the tasks of creating media that point to and from the department website.

Going Public Online

What does it mean for academia to be ‘online’ in the sense of being public? Some sort of stable, unified entity is probably essential for most academics to continue their employment. Solidarity can be found in all sorts of places. Most social theories explain, however, the fragility of allegiances without institutional structures. But if higher education institutions are in crises of enrolment (pre-2020), endowments, much less a pandemic, Quit-Lit might not be the best collective way forward. There’s an opportunity for departments to think about modalities of coalescence. This piece focuses on the practical advantages of a department going public online as a measure towards securing the futures of its academics. “REL,” the term used for the department, adopts claims from theorists like Francois Bayart to purposely fabricate its public identity.

The constituency of a university is not limited to students and their parents. The University of Nebraska English Department isn’t likely alone in the political scrutiny of their website. At REL, there is pointing back and forth between the website and the department’s Facebook, TwitterInstagramVimeo, and SoundCloud (as well as projects such as Culture on the Edge and American Examples). Service responsibilities for these platforms are distributed across the department. Elected representatives and the general public can easily find what’s going on in the classroom and faculty research. The University’s shift to ‘limited business operations’ on March 17 was handled in stride partly due to the department’s identity fabrication approach to online platforms and digital tools. While monthly meetings through the summer established a consistent approach to teaching remotely, the stable location to advertise this approach was already in-play.

Publicly pragmatic

The above suggests there are pragmatic advantages to going online in order to go public. While ‘public humanities’ has a 50-year history in the United States, principles discovered there haven’t made it to department websites. Content should be written strategically to develop an audience. Jessie Stommell’s remarks about public humanities may be applied to the departmental website: doing public work is different from making academic work public. Online presence may be more than quick blurbs about courses, images of plucky students and faculty bios with informal photos from faraway places. XKCD made this point a decade ago. Post-pandemic academic departments might reconsider its point

It’s not just that departments ‘need social media.’ Rather, establishing an online presence may help academics and their departments realize a public-centred pedagogy that pays off in strategic planning. There is likely a correlation between the potential to engage the public and cultivating positive relationships with university administrators. An active online presence and online teaching are rarely paired together. Administrators likely think that ‘going online’ likely means ‘online teaching,’ where conventional higher-ed wisdom sees online teaching as an alternate revenue stream critical to their long-term strategic plans (eg 2013 Babson Report).

Broadly speaking, that thinking structurally alienates academics. Online courses – and their revenues – are usually housed outside departments. Online FTEs are rarely counted in faculty course loads or promotion. In the 2020-2021 academic year, however, the term “massive” is no longer connected to “online” via wishful thinking for university revenues. Overcoming the 75% faculty resistance to teaching online isn’t a stroke of managerial genius or a book about disruption (I used to think I was innovative to urge making use of our classroom portals through collaborative, globally-networked pedagogy. That moment of novelty is over). The urgency of this semester is an opportunity for academics within departments to make use of their new skills to develop an active online presence that supports their teaching.

Hacking Education

How might the shift to remote teaching be gamed and hacked to drive the interests of a department? Audrey Watters’ Hack Education blog continually reminds us to take a critical approach to education and technology. One answer is to employ those new skills to shift emphasis towards a public-oriented, online pedagogical strategy. A useful location to do so is through the department website.

Individual scholarly websites are not likely to serve the long-term interests of post-pandemic academia. They do have the advantage of developing a personalised approach to research and teaching. When maintained with a regular workflow, there is much potential for dynamic content development that serves an individual’s teaching. Their liabilities include issues of narrow topical focus and significant costs of individual time and money. Department websites, on the other hand, have the same potential to situate all the above in a wider context of that can more easily reference each other. Additionally, departmental websites can be useful to protect its people who invest in public scholarship, too.

We will survive

When the shift to remote learning took place, REL’s faculty already had shared, basic skills applying their knowledge of critical cultural theory to web design, image manipulation, layout, audio and video production, network and cloud file sharing and collaborative project work. They were already teaching themselves and their students how to engage a variety of publics. The department had long been asking the questions posed in James M Van Wyck’s 2018 review of English department websites:

  • Who is our audience?
  • What does this page need to say and do?
  • What kind of writing is called for in the moment? That is, how do we engage a skeptical public, members of which walk our halls, perhaps as they consider majoring in [X area of study]?

The original objective of REL’s going online remains. The website is a resource to shape the department’s academic persona. Linking that site to other online platforms increases the ability to reach a variety of audiences with specific narratives. We now teach this approach as a core course in our recently-launched graduate program. By March 2020, that history of faculty participation in online, public pedagogy developed a collective knowledge and skills base that simplified the shift to remote teaching. The take-away here for other departments may be the importance of leveraging their websites as an internal strategy for academic continuity.

Nathan RB Loewen is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, USA. Loewen teaches on philosophy of religion, Asian studies, and digital/public humanities. Loewen co-organizes the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project. His current research applies machine learning to support qualitative scholarship on cross-cultural religious studies.