The Society for Research into Higher Education

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A work in progress: support for refugees on their way to German higher education

by Jana Berg

Before 2015 it can be assumed that (some) refugees had already been studying in Germany, but they were generally not addressed by specific offers. This changed after 2015, when the number of asylum applications peaked in Germany. Continue reading


“Well, if you knows of a better university…”

By Paul Temple

The centenary of the 1918 Armistice will have caused us all to reflect on the almost incomprehensible catastrophe of the First World War. One of its unanticipated effects – perhaps relatively minor at first, but of growing significance – was to change British higher education.

SRHE member John Taylor has published his meticulously-researched account of British universities in this period – The Impact of the First World War on British Universities: Emerging from the Shadows (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) – at exactly the right moment. Most students of British higher education are aware that the First War marked a turning point; for me, John’s most important contribution is to identify that turning point precisely: Saturday 23 November 1918, the date of almost certainly the most important single meeting in the history of British higher education. (Perhaps SRHE should hold an annual commemoration.)

It took place between Sir William McCormick, the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on University Grants (advisory to the Treasury, dating from 1906), and its influential Secretary, Alan Kidd, and a group of 32 institutional heads (representing most of the existing universities and university colleges), with the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Bonar Law) and the President of the Board of Education (Herbert Fisher). Kidd’s briefing paper for the meeting covers issues that would not look out of place in a similar document today: the scale of university expansion; the balance between science and technology and the humanities in an expanded system; how to widen access to higher education; and how to increase the number of university staff. The two groups meeting Ministers that day would in the following year form, respectively, the University Grants Committee (UGC) and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), both bodies becoming central to British higher education for the remainder of the twentieth-century.

The study of history usually involves identifying continuities and discontinuities. Continuities are certainly present in John Taylor’s account, but as he observes, the men (and of course they were all men) sitting around the table in London on that November Saturday, just 12 days after the Armistice, had no doubt that the Britain of 1918 was not the country it had been four years earlier – and that higher education needed to reflect this. As well as a new awareness about the significance of science and technology brought about by the War, Kidd’s briefing paper argued that: “There is accordingly a demand that university education should be made accessible to a much larger proportion of the population…by providing scholarships and maintenance allowances…” (134). More broadly, Taylor notes that the War had created new expectations of the state, both within government itself and in the wider country. From 1916/17, as understanding of the horrors of the Western Front grew, a view developed that there should be, as Taylor puts it, “no return to the status quo ante” (329).

What emerged from the 23 November meeting was an acceptance that a significant and continuing degree of public funding of universities was both desirable and necessary: as the Principal of the University of Edinburgh put it, “the development of the Universities, no less than their maintenance, is a national duty … and it is a national benefit” (147). The War had highlighted the links between universities and economic activity: as the Principal of Edinburgh put it in closing his speech – showing that Cardinal Newman’s mid-nineteenth-century “idea of a university” had run its course – “The Universities should be sustained and developed because they are potential creators of national wealth” (149). This must be a very early statement of this argument: can anyone point to an earlier one?

In 1914, most universities had some German members of staff, who had often spent most of their careers in Britain. In at least some cases, the university authorities tried their best to treat these colleagues humanely, even, in one case, in the face of what could have become a lynch mob outside the house of a German professor at University College Aberystwyth. While not proposing lynching, the University of Edinburgh Court hardly distinguished itself in 1914 by informing staff with German nationality that it was “desirable that [they] should resign the posts held by them in the University” (42). At Leeds, the professor of German discovered that becoming a British citizen did not protect him from being in effect run out of town, with the University reluctantly acquiescing: it did not help that the events in question coincided with the Battle of the Somme. Today, the position of staff members with foreign nationalities – the Prime Minister’s “citizens of nowhere” – has sadly once again become a live issue in British universities. May we hope for better behaviour this time around?

Future researchers on British universities during the First War period will be deeply indebted to John Taylor for his tireless work in sifting through years of university council and senate minutes and presenting to us the nuggets of gold which he has found. While most of us appreciated that important changes were brought about by that War, this book, by giving us the texts of reports, detailed accounts of decisions, and the actual words of many of the participants, brings these changes to life. Modern British higher education began in November 1918.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. 

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Discussing the Discussant – a Queer-ish Role?

SRHE member Emily Henderson (Warwick) runs the ConferenceInference blog with Jamie Burford (La Trobe), offering a unique gateway to research about HE conferences. Her most recent post is on the role of the discussant, and is reblogged with permission here. Other recent posts include:

Discussing the Discussant – a Queer-ish Role?

Receiving the invitation to act as discussant or respondent at an academic event can be accompanied by all kinds of emotion – excitement, relief at not having to prepare a paper, fear of not having anything to say… Recently, Conference Inference editor Emily was invited to act as a discussant for a one-day colloquium at the SARChI Higher Education and Human Development Research Programme, University of the Free State, South Africa. This was a new experience, as previously she had taken on this role at smaller events with one or just a few papers. As usual, being a conference researcher meant that the lived experience of this role took on the added intensity of reflexivity. Following the event, Emily and James (the other editor of Conference Inference) reflected further on the experience and decided that a fuller discussion on the discussant role – and its queerness – may be of use.

The discussant role is simple in name, queer in nature. The basic definition of a discussant is someone who participates in a discussion, particularly a prearranged discussion. In practice, acting as a discussant does not exactly match its name, in that a discussant tends to have to come up with a set of ideas based on the seminar or conference papers, which acts as a sort of impromptu paper in its own right. Dialogue may follow, but more often than not being a discussant involves something of a monologue. Sometimes, the presentation/s may even be supplied in advance so that the discussant can literally write a paper on the paper. There is a lot of variety in this role, and the format varies hugely, but we have brought together our thoughts on the topic to give experienced discussants some further things to think about, and to introduce this somewhat queer phenomenon to novice conference goers. Continue reading

Image of Rob Cuthbert

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Fake Research and Trust in the Social Sciences

By Rob Cuthbert (Editorial from SRHE News, October 2018)

In 1996 physics professor Alan Sokal (New York/UCL) submitted a hoax article to Social Text, a postmodern cultural studies journal. ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ argued nonsensically that quantum gravity was a social and linguistic construct. The journal did not at that time practise peer review and the article was not submitted for expert consideration by any physicist. Sokal revealed his hoax on the day of publication and it was understandably seized on by conservative science academics as evidence that some social science academics are predisposed to accept arguments that fit their ideological preferences, a thesis put forward by biologist Paul Gross (Virginia) and mathematician Norman Levitt (Rutgers), in their 1994 book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, which Sokal said had inspired his hoax.

The Sokal affair prompted much comment, ranging from support of his hoax as a legitimate exposure of academic shortcomings to severe criticism of the questionable ethics of his manoeuvring. Social Text editors at Duke University, Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, wrote a long response in attempted justification, which variously said the piece had at first been rejected, that it had been accepted in the sense of being a well-meaning attempt by a scientist to engage in an outdated way with a different discipline, that their journal was more like a magazine than an academic journal, and that it was ethically unacceptable for Sokal to behave as he had.

Twenty years on, Continue reading

Lewis Elton


Lewis Elton 1923-2018

By Ian McNay

Lewis died on 29 September. I have missed him, as have many people, since he withdrew from public life when he spotted the early symptoms of dementia a few years ago. What follows is not an obituary but more a written memorial service, a celebration of the admiration and affection we had for him, with contributions from Society members influenced by him.

The first contribution is from Harriet Croft (formerly Greenaway) whose period as Vice-Chair of the Society overlapped with Lewis’s period as Chair, at a challenging time. She also gives some basic background for younger members who may not be familiar with it. So, new readers start here.

Lewis Elton

Lewis Elton, who has died at the age of 95, was one of the founders of the SRHE. He was Chair for 1976 and 1977.  He had an interesting history. His German Jewish father had obtained a post in the UK shortly before the Second World War and, after some difficulty, the rest of the family also made it to London. Lewis and his brother Geoffrey also became academics.

Lewis was a physicist, working at the Battersea College of Advanced Technology. When it became the University of Surrey, he moved to Guildford where he later shifted his career emphasis and set up an Institute for Educational Technology. He defined ‘educational technology’ as ‘research-based practice’ and it was from this base that his work on teaching methods developed.

Lewis was short of stature but large of personality. He could always be relied upon to be the first person to ask a question, or make a comment, when that awkward pause came at the end of a presentation of a paper. His observations were always thoughtful. For instance, at the SRHE Annual Conference in December 1971 when Innovation in Higher Education was the theme, he drew on analogies of both nuclear physics and then on his Jewish awareness. The conference report states that ‘he thought that a university might well be compared to a factory housed in a country house in a kibbutz’. Commenting on another paper, on educational technology, he argued Continue reading