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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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The potential of automated text analysis for higher education research

by Stijn Daenekindt

Together with Jeroen Huisman, I recently published an article in which we mapped the field of research on higher education. In a previous blogpost we reflected on some key findings, but only briefly mentioned the method we used to analyze the abstracts of 16,928 research articles (which totals to over 2 million words). Obviously we did not read all these texts ourselves. Instead, we applied automated text analysis. In the current blogpost, I will discuss this method to highlight its potential for higher education research.

Automated text analysis holds tremendous potential for research into higher education. This because, higher education institutions—ie our research subjects— ‘live’ in a world that is dominated by the written word. Much of what happens in and around higher education institutions eventually gets documented. Indeed, higher education institutions produce an enormous amount and variety of texts, eg grant proposals, peer reviews and rejection letters, academic articles and books, course descriptions, mission statements, commission reports, evaluations of departments and universities, policy reports, etc. Obviously, higher education researchers are aware of the value of these documents and they have offered a lot of insightful case studies by closely reading such documents. However, for some types of research questions, analysing a small sample of texts just doesn’t do the job. When we want to analyse huge amounts of text data, which are unfeasible for close reading by humans, automated text analysis can help us.

There are various forms of automated text analysis. One of the most popular techniques is topic modelling. This machine learning technique is able to automatically extract clusters of words (ie topics). A topic model analyses patterns of word co-occurrence in documents to reveal latent themes. Two basic principles underlie a topic model. The first is that each document consists of a mixture of topics. So, imagine that we have a topic model that differentiates two topics, then document A could consist of 20% topic 1 and 80% topic 2, while document B might consist of 50% topic 1 and 50% topic 2. The second principle of topic modelling is that every topic is a mixture of words. Imagine that we fit a topic model on every edition of a newspaper over the last ten years. A first possible topic could include words such as ‘goal’, ‘score, ‘match’, ‘competition’ and ‘injury’. A second topic, then, could include words such as ‘stock’, ‘dow_jones, ‘investment, ‘stock_market’ and ‘wall_street’. The model can identify these clusters of words, because they often co-occur in texts. That is, it is far more likely that the word ‘goal’ co-occurs with the word ‘match’ in a document, then it is to co-occur with the word ‘dow_jones’.

Topic models allow us to reveal the structure of large amounts of textual data by identifying topics. Topics are basically a set of words. More formally, topics are expressed as a set of word probabilities. To learn what the latent theme is about we can order all the words in decreasing probability. The two illustrative topics (see previous paragraph) clearly deal with the general themes ‘sports’ and ‘financial investments’. In this way, what topic models do with texts actually closely resembles what exploratory factor analysis does with survey data, ie revealing latent dimensions that structure the data. But how is the model able to find interpretable topics? As David Blei explains, and this may help to get a more intuitive understanding of the method, topic models trade off two goals: (a) the model tries to assign the words of each document to as few topics as possible, and (b) the model tries, in each topic, to assign high probability to as few words as possible. These goals are at odds. For example, if the model allocates all the words of one document to one single topic, then (b) becomes unrealistic. If, on the other hand, every topic consists of just a few words, then (a) becomes unrealistic. It is by trading off both goals that the topic model is able to find interpretable sets of tightly co-occurring words.

Topic models focus on the co-occurrence of words in texts. That is, they model the probability that a word co-occurs with another word anywherein a document. To the model, it does not matter if ‘score’ and ‘match’ are used in the same sentence in a document or if one is used in the beginning of the document while the other one is used at the end. This puts topic modelling in the larger group of ‘bag-of-words approaches’, a group of methods that treat documents as …well … bags of words. Ignoring word order is a way to simplify and reduce the text, which yields various nice statistical properties. On the other hand, this approach may result in the loss of meaning. For example, the sentences ‘I love teaching, but I hate grading papers’ and ‘I hate teaching, but I love grading papers’ obviously have different meanings, but this is ignored by bag-of-words techniques.

So, while bag-of-word techniques are very useful to classify texts and to understand what the texts are about, the results will not tell us much about how topics are discussed. Other methods from the larger set of methods of automated text analysis are better equipped for this. For example, sentiment analysis allows one to analyze opinions, evaluations and emotions. Another method, word embedding, focusses on the context in which a word is embedded. More specifically, the method finds words that share similar contexts. By subsequently inspecting a words’ nearest neighbors — ie which are the words often occurring in the neighborhood of our word of interest — we get an idea of what that word means in the text. These are just a few examples of the wide range of existing methods of automated text analysis and each of them has its pros and cons. Choosing between them ultimately comes down to finding the optimal match between a research question and a specific method.

More collections of electronic text are becoming available every day. These massive collections of texts present massive opportunities for research on higher education, but at the same time they present us with a problem: how can we analyze these? Methods of automated text analysis can help us to understand these large collections of documents. These techniques, however, do not replace humans and close reading. Rather, these methods are, as aptly phrased by Justin Grimmer and Brandon Stewart, ‘best thought of as amplifying and augmenting careful reading and thoughtful analysis’. When using automated text analysis in this way, the opportunities are endless and I hope to see higher education researchers embrace these opportunities (more) in the future.

Stijn Daenekindt is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Ghent University (Department of Sociology). He has a background in sociology and in statistics and has published in various fields of research. Currently, he works at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent. You can find an overview of his work at his Google Scholar page.


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The (future) state of higher education research?

by Stijn Daenekindt and Jeroen Huisman

Parallel to the exponential growth of research on higher education, we see an increasing number of scientific contributions aiming to take stock of our field of research. Such stock-taking activities range from reflective and possibly somewhat impressionistic thoughts of seasoned scholars to in-depth reviews of salient higher education themes. Technological advancements (such as easy electronic access to research output and an increasingly broader set of analytical tools) obviously have made life easier for analysts. We recently embarked upon a project to explore the thematic diversity in the field of research in higher education. The results have recently been published in Higher Education. Our aim was to thematically map the field of research on higher education and to analyse how our field has evolved over time.

For this endeavour, we wanted our analysis to be large-scale. We aimed at including a number of articles that would do justice to the presumed variety in research into higher education. We did not, however, want the scale of our analysis to jeopardize the depth of our analysis. Therefore, we decided not to limit our analyses to, for example, an analysis of citation patterns or of keywords. Finally, to forestall bias (stemming from our personal knowledge about and experience in the field), we applied an inductive approach. These criteria led us to collect 16,928 journal articles on higher education published between 1991 and 2018 and to analyse each article’s abstract by applying topic modelling. Topic modelling is a method of automated text analysis and a follow-up blogpost (also on srheblog.com) will address the method. For now, it suffices to know that topic modelling is a machine learning technique that automatically analyses the co-occurrence of words to detect themes/topics and to find structure in a large collection of text.

In this blogpost, we present a glimpse of our findings and some additional thoughts for further discussion. In our analysis, we differentiate 31 research topics which inductively emerged from the data. For example, we found topics dealing with university ranking and performance, sustainability, substance use of college students, research ethics, etc. The bulk of these research topics were studied at the individual level (16 topics), with far fewer at the organisational (5) and system level (3). A final set of topics related either clearly to disciplines (eg teaching psychology) or to more generic themes (methods, academic writing, ethics). This evidences the richness of research into higher education. Indeed, our field of research certainly is not limited in terms of perspectives and unleashes “the whole shebang” of possible perspectives to gain new insights into higher education.

The existence of different perspectives also comprises potential dangers, however. Studies applying a certain approach on higher education — say, a system-level approach — may suffer from tunnel vision and lose sight of individual- and organization-level aspects of higher education. This may be problematic as processes on the different levels are obviously related to one another. In our analysis we find that studies indeed tend to focus on one level. For example, system-level topics tend to be exclusively combined with other system-level topics. This should not come as a big surprise, but there is potential danger in this and it may hamper the development of a more integrated field of research on higher education.

In our analysis, we also find a certain restraint to combine topics which are located at the same level. For example, topics on teaching practices are very rarely combined with topics on racial and ethnic minorities — even though both topics are situated at the individual level. To us, this was surprising as the combination of ethnicity and educational experiences is a blossoming field in the sociology of education. The fact that topics at the same level are only rarely combined is less understandable then the fact that topics on different levels are rarely combined. We hope that our analysis aids others researchers to identify gaps in the literature and that it motivates them to address these gaps.

A second finding we wish to address here relates to specialisation. Our analysis suggests that there is a trend of specialisation in our field of research. We looked at the number of topics combined in articles and we see that topic diversity declines over time. This is, on the one hand, not that surprising. Back in 1962, Kuhn already argued that the system of modern science encourages researchers towards further specialisation. So, it makes sense that over time, and parallel to the growth of the field of research on higher education, researchers specialise more and demarcate their own topic of expertise. On the other hand, it may be considered a problematic evolution as it can hamper our field of research to develop towards further maturity.

But what should we think of the balance between healthy expansion and specialization, on the one hand, and inefficient fragmentation, on the other? We lean towards evaluating the current state of higher education research as moving towards fragmentation. Other researchers, such as Malcom Tight, Bruce Macfarlane and Sue Clegg have similarly lamented the fragmented nature of our field of research. Our analysis adds to this by showing the trends over time: we observe more specialisation (not necessarily bad), but there are also signs of disintegration over time (not good). Other analyses we are currently carrying out also indicate thematic disintegration and suggest clear methodological boundaries. It looks like many researchers focusing on the same topic remain in their “comfort zone” and use a limited set of methods. For sure, many methodological choices are functional (as in fit-for-purpose), but the lack of diversity is striking. Moreover, we see that many higher education researchers stick to rather traditional techniques (survey, interviews, case studies) and that new methods hardly get picked up in our field. A final observation is that we hardly see methodological debates in our field. In related disciplines we often see healthy methodological discussions that improve the available “toolkit” (for example here). In our field, it appears that scholars shy away from such discussions and it suggests methodological conservatism and/or methodological tunnel vision.

There are still many things to investigate to arrive at a full assessment of the state of the art. One important question is how our field compares to other fields or disciplines. But if we were to accept the idea of fragmentation, it is pertinent to start thinking how to combat this. Reversing this trend is obviously not straightforward. But here are a few ideas. Individual scholars could try to get out of their comfort zone by applying other perspectives to their favourite research object and/or by applying their favourite perspective to new research topics. Related, researchers should be encouraged to use techniques less commonly used in our field and see whether they yield different outcomes (vignettes, experimental designs, network analysis, QCA/fuzzy logic, [auto-]ethnography and – of course – topic models). In addition, journal editors could be more flexible and inclusive in terms of the format of the submissions they consider. For example, they could explicitly welcome submissions in the format of ‘commentaries/ a reply to’. This would stimulate debate and open up the floor for increased cross-fertilisation of research into higher education and, in general, signal the maturity of research into higher education. Finally, there is scope for alternative peer review processes. Currently, only editors (and sometimes peer reviewers seeing the outcome of a peer review process) gain full insight in feedback offered by peers. If we would make these processes more visible to a broader readership – e.g. through open peer review, which still can be double-blind – we would gain much more insight in methodological and theoretical debates, that would definitely support the healthy growth of our field.  

This post is based on the article: Daenekindt, S and Huisman, J (2020) ‘Mapping the scattered field of research on higher education. A correlated topic model of 17,000 articles, 1991–2018’ Higher Education, 1-17. Stijn Daenekindt is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Ghent University (Department of Sociology). SRHE Fellow Jeroen Huisman is a Full Professor at Ghent University (Department of Sociology).

Paul Temple


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Weirdos and misfits? I’ve met a few…

By Paul Temple

Perhaps, like me, you’ve had some harmless fun recently in drawing up a mental list of the “weirdos and misfits…with odd skills” you know in university life who might work with Dominic Cummings at Number 10. (In a few cases, I couldn’t decide who I’d feel sorriest for.) Now that Brexit has been “done”, it seems that Cummings plans to “turn the UK into a leading centre for science, putting it at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, robotics and climate change” and needs some hired help. (This and other quotes come from a Financial Times profile of Cummings of 18/19 January 2020, said to have been fact-checked by its subject.)

The irony here, presumably unintended, would be almost funny if it wasn’t completely maddening. I’d be surprised if you could find a single working research scientist in the country who doesn’t view Brexit, so far as science is concerned, somewhere on a spectrum from “unfortunate” to “utter disaster”. Certainly, if there are any Brexiteer scientists working at UCL they’ve kept a very low profile indeed over the past few years. And now the man who has done as much as anyone to damage UK academic work by destroying our links with European partners calmly tells us that his “new agenda” – sensibly distancing himself from the tedious details of working out a new trade deal with the EU – is to achieve a scientific renaissance.

But Cummings, it seems, is thinking beyond the UK merely becoming better at science than it has so far managed when working collaboratively with European science networks. Cummings, an Oxford ancient and modern history graduate, clearly considers that he possesses the skills to apply science “to understanding and solving public policy problems”. This is probably what most social scientists, if pressed, would say they are trying to do, but I don’t think that the humdrum problems that most of us work on are what Cummings has in mind. Instead, “his inspiration is the US government’s Manhattan Project…[and how] the failing NASA bureaucracy [became] an organisation that could put a man on the moon…[he also plans] to set up a civilian version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency”. Big, shiny projects are what he wants.

I’ve used the Manhattan Project as a case study in my teaching, and I’ve no doubt that much can be learned from it. It helped that J Robert Oppenheimer was both a world-class physicist and, as it turned out, a world-class project director, who was able to work with a multi-national group of scientific egoists in a collection of army huts in the New Mexico desert and produce the world’s first atomic explosion within 28 months of starting work. But Oppenheimer knew what he had to do, had a fair idea about how to go about it, and could call on all the resources of the world’s scientific and engineering superpower. It doesn’t at all detract from his achievements to say that the Manhattan Project was in a certain sense straightforward compared to, say, improving health care or reducing crime for a large population. Leaving aside resource limitations, knowing “what works” in these and other areas of social policy has a different meaning to knowing “what works” in nuclear engineering or rocket design. Habermas described this difference in terms of “the ideology of technique”. Even defining what “improved health care” might look like will be contested, as will its measures of success. Nobody doubted that they’d know a nuclear explosion when it happened. (Actually, Oppenheimer might have agreed that quantum mechanics and problems in social policy do have something in common: if you think you understand what it is you’re observing, you’ve got it wrong.)

So my guess is that the clever Oxford humanities graduate, with no formal training in either natural or social science, is going to become very frustrated in attempting to apply methods from the former to try to solve complex problems in the domain of the latter. Paradoxically (or maybe not), this puts me in mind of the education research that I had some acquaintance with in the afterlife of the old Soviet Union. There, the necessary assumption was that if enough data were collected, and the precepts of scientific Marxism-Leninism were correctly applied to them, then a definitive solution to whatever the problem was would be found. There had to be a “scientific” answer to every question, if only you did enough work on it. To suggest otherwise would be, literally, unthinkable in a Marxist worldview.

Still, perhaps Cummings will show that answers to problems in big science do in fact read across to social policy: after all, compared to making Brexit the tremendous national success story that we’ve been assured it will be, it should be quite easy.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17(2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546


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Why we should care about comparative higher education?

by Ariane de Gayardon

In contrast to comparative education, whose history dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, comparative higher education is a relatively recent construct of research originating in the 1970-1980s. This early period gave us the first comparative instruments, still widely used today, as lenses to analyse national higher education systems. These include Clark’s triangle of coordination (1983), Altbach’s use of the concept of centre and periphery (1981) and Trow’s definition of elite, mass and universal systems (1973). Therefore, early on, comparative higher education proved very successful in increasing our understanding of higher education globally. But, since then, what has it accomplished?

While there are many users of comparative higher education – that is, researchers whose research could be considered comparative – there is still little written critically on comparative higher education research. The debate is alive, led by individual researchers, including Kosmützky, Bleiklie, and Valimaa. However, there is little acknowledgment of their efforts by users of comparative research, showing a clear divide between efforts to conceptualise and theorise comparative research in higher education and actual research practice. As a result, the field of comparative higher education is lacking rigour, as exemplified by the lack of appropriate rationales for sampling choices – why countries are included – in the vast majority of comparative papers (Kosmützky, 2016). This puts comparative higher education at odds with comparative studies in other disciplines, that have been focused on the comparative method as a way to reach causality or improve generalisation.

What researchers in comparative higher education have failed to achieve in the past 40 years is to elevate comparative studies in higher education to a (sub-)field of study. An academic field is built on the emergence of two dynamics: an intellectual debate and an institutional structure (Manzon, 2018). The debate around comparative higher education has been focused on proposing conceptual and theoretical frameworks, but it remains marginal. Additionally, questions that are still to be raised and answered include the objectives and purpose of comparative higher education, as well as what unites researchers undertaking comparative projects. At the same time, there is a lack of academic space for this debate to happen. Comparative higher education lacks specific journals – with the exception of the Journal of Comparative and International Higher Education, societies and associated conferences, and research centres. Unlike comparative education, it has not yet permeated into the teaching function of higher education, with an absence of textbooks and dedicated degrees (although some courses do exist). Comparative higher education therefore remains on the margins, a practice of research that is still to be properly understood.

This deficit of reflective and critical thinking on comparative higher education matters. The use of comparative higher education for cross-country comparisons remains essential in understanding higher education systems. It provides unique settings to deepen our knowledge of higher education phenomena through the way they manifest in different environments and in contact with different cultures. This leads to improved theorisation of higher education phenomena that transcends borders, helping to fight assumptions and opening new avenues for conceptualising higher education. Consequently, it helps us understand our own higher education system better, through knowledge of the ‘other’ and combatting “comparative chauvinism” and “comparative humility” (Teichler, 2014). And because comparative higher education is not limited to international comparisons, it provides an opportunity to increase our knowledge of within-system variations through tools to analyse both the local and the global in higher education.

Comparative higher education research is also of tremendous importance to evidence-based policy. Higher education policies remain decided at the country (state) level in most countries around the globe, which means that comparison is essential to understand the consequences of different policies. Policy evaluation in higher education needs comparative studies, internationally and historically in particular. Understanding higher education policies beyond the national context is also important in a world where policy-borrowing and lending is prevalent. Knowledge of the ways different policies adapt in different environments helps prevent the spread of seemingly successful policies that would have detrimental consequences if translated elsewhere.

Finally, higher education research already evolves in an international context. Higher education stakeholders – students and faculty in particular – are mobile beyond borders, while knowledge does not know national boundaries. As a result, the vast majority of researchers in higher education have frames of reference that extend beyond their national context. This means that most higher education research might be unintentionally comparative. This is problematic in two ways. First, the way you do research is important to recognise and understand to reach research rigor. Second, researchers might not be acknowledging properly their positionality and bias, by not reflecting on what they know and don’t know about higher education globally.

After 40 years of existence, it might be time to stop and reflect on comparative higher education research and decide what its mission is. To do so, we can rely on endless research and debate in the field of comparative education, as well as a robust literature on comparative studies, that would provide strong basis for the construction of a field of comparative higher education. This reflection will help strengthen the higher education research done comparatively, leading to a tremendous increase in our knowledge of higher education generally.

References

Altbach, PG (1981) ‘The university as center and periphery’ Teachers College Record, 82(4): 601-621

Clark, B (1983) The higher education system : Academic organization in cross-national perspective Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

Kosmützky, A (2016) ‘The precision and rigor of international comparative studies in higher education’ in Theory and Method in Higher Education Research (pp 199-221) Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Manzon, M (2018) ‘Origins and traditions in comparative education: challenging some assumptions’, Comparative Education, 54(1): 1-9

Teichler, U (2014) ‘Opportunities and problems of comparative higher education research: The daily life of research’ Higher Education, 67(4): 393-408

Trow, M (1973) Problems in the transition from elite to mass higher education Berkeley, CA: Carnegie Commission on Higher Education

Ariane de Gayardon is a Senior Research Associate in the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education and is Assistant Editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education

Marcia Devlin


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Reimagining the lecture

By Marcia Devlin

The research around university learning and teaching shows that didactic teaching and passive reception do not result in deep, lasting or meaningful learning for most students. It is curious, then, that despite knowing this, we persist with lecturing at students in large groups in most universities. Worse, one of the most common lecturing practices is to ‘stand and deliver’ notes and/or PowerPoint slides.

It is important to acknowledge that lectures probably worked as a form of teaching for many academics – who were, as students, particularly intellectually able, intrinsically motivated and keenly focused and clear on their educational and vocational goals, that is, to continue to pursue knowledge throughout their career through research and teaching. But it is equally important to acknowledge that this approach is not effective for the majority of students, who go on to fill other roles and pursuits outside of academia. The challenge is that the lecture persists and is assumed to be the basis of effective teaching practice when it may or may not be, depending on the student and context.

If you doubt my argument, take the time to stand at the back of a typical lecture theatre (if many – or any – students have turned up at all past Week 5) and scan the students’ screens. You’ll see Facebook, Messenger and other social media channels getting a good workout, along with search engines and search terms that may or may not be related to the lecture topic. That kind of workout happens much less often in smaller classes where the teaching is interactive and the students are co-creating their learning through being engaged and active.

It should be said that not all lecturing is bad. A lecture hall can be led by a gifted, enthusiastic, well organised teacher with outstanding communication skills, who builds and maintains rapport, shows respect for students and their learning, engages all present in activities and critical thinking, enables collaborative approaches to problem solving within the class, provides stimulus for deep thinking during and after the lecture, makes concepts come alive through examples and the use of various media, provides ‘aha’ moments for those in the room, and so on.

The challenge is that the vast majority of lecturing is not like that, which is why students generally don’t bother coming and instead either watch it online (at double speed – ask a current student) or skip the class altogether.

At Victoria University (VU) in Melbourne, Australia, we are acutely aware of the massification of higher education, the worldwide widening participation movement and the increased student diversity that this brings. We know that students’ lives are increasingly characterised by multiple and competing priorities in a distracting and at times overwhelming digital context. We understand that students want personalised, flexible learning opportunities that enable them to manage their multiple work, family, social and other commitments outside of university, while getting the most out of the financial and time investments they have made in study.

With all of this in mind, VU has radically and successfully reimagined our approach to learning and teaching by drawing on the evidence base of what works. We have, therefore, done away with large, passive lectures in first and second year and will do the same in third year in 2020. We have replaced semester-long units of study with a structure where students focus on and study one unit at a time over an intensive four-week period, in small classes of no more than 30 students, and through active, engaged, collaborative and deep learning with their teacher and fellow students. This is supplemented by both high quality online materials and wrap around, just in time, study and learning support. We call this The VU Way.

The focus is on the individual learner and their success. The impact has been extraordinary, with pass rates, grade distributions and retention dramatically improving in the units where this model has been introduced in both first and second year. This approach helps us address both our promise to be the University of Opportunity and Success, and the increasing accountability inherent in measurements of teaching and learning and in performance-based funding being introduced in Australian higher education. We hope that this approach and its extraordinary successes in terms of learning will continue to help us be competitive in a global tertiary education marketplace where transnational and globalised approaches to education are growing.

As the Australian economy moves, albeit very slowly, from a reliance on mining and manufacturing, to a new era in which new knowledge and ideas are precious commodities, universities have a critical role to play. Internationally, the role of universities is even more important as innovation, the transformation of businesses, technology and access to knowledge and education take place amid prevailing inequalities, political tensions, environmental challenges and huge economic changes.

While we tend to revere research that creates new knowledge in universities – and there is good reason to do so – we are significantly less enthusiastic about sharing that new (and existing) knowledge through our other core business of teaching. We need to be cognisant of the tendency to chase the prestige of research at the cost of effort and resource being put into university teaching quality and into university teachers.

Sharing knowledge more effectively

Many universities will be hesitant to move away from traditional modes of learning and teaching. Institutional culture, an undervaluing of teaching compared to research and the effort and the volume and breadth of the resources required to make a major transformational change in learning and teaching all probably play a part in the sector’s reluctance to significantly change teaching practices.

Of course, there are many alternatives to didactic, PowerPoint-driven stand-and-deliver lecturing that are currently used across the sector to great effect by individual teachers and teaching teams, including:

  • Blended learning, incorporating the integration of modern and interactive eLearning;
  • Flipped classrooms;
  • Problem-based learning;
  • Work-integrated and work-based learning of a wide range of types;
  • Simulations and other opportunities to develop practical skills; and
  • Collaborative approaches to constructing and sharing knowledge, incorporating multidisciplinary contributions from: internal colleagues (‘peeragogy’); external MOOCs; industry educational offerings; and formal recognition of prior and concurrent student real-life learning outside the classroom.

Much of what I have listed in this incomplete list will be familiar to many. There is, of course, significant innovation and outstanding teaching practice going on in pockets of the sector by individuals and small and larger teams. However, VU is the only tertiary institution in Australia to completely throw out the old way – including lectures – and truly transform university teaching and learning.

The VU Way won’t suit all institutions, and for those who would benefit from using it, the change may simply be too hard (it is certainly very hard). What is important is that the approaches to teaching used in universities must align and keep pace with the disrupted and changing contexts in which university education takes place and with the changing needs and preferences of students.

The lecture has never been recognised as the best way for the modern university student cohorts to learn. As the global, digital and societal upheavals we are experiencing continue, and we begin to see more examples of ‘the student-free lecture’ where no-one but the well-meaning, well-prepared lecturer turns up, the lecture as the staple approach to university teaching should probably start to go the way of the once ubiquitous handwritten overhead transparency. Both have probably had their day.

Professor Marcia Devlin is Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University, Australia and a Fellow of SRHE.  An earlier version of this article appeared in Campus Review in September, 2019.

Ian Mc Nay


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A period of reflection

By Ian McNay

At the beginning of what some people mistakenly think of as the beginning of a new decade – who counts to ten by starting at zero and finishing at nine? – the pressure is to reflect on the past and project for the future. I am going to mainly eschew the former, but do have concerns for the next five or ten years. In other countries where a populist government has been elected, and moved to authoritarianism, such as Hungary, Turkey, or even the USA, the auguries are not good for higher education. I am not claiming that the new UK administration is as extreme as those examples, but the indications are there about its attitude to dissenting voices – the BBC and Channel 4 coverage of the election, elected parliamentarians defying the party whip, and even the supreme court, to whose rulings the government has twice had to conform, reluctantly, in the interests of constitutional democracy. The manifesto commitment to reviewing the organs of government and the judiciary has been seen by some as ominous.

Whatever the politics, there are other reasons to be concerned for HE. The eight years since fees were last tripled, to £9,000, have been fairly comfortable, financially, for most universities, if not their staff at the sharp end of operations. Marginal costs per student will often be low, especially in non-STEM subjects, so surpluses expand with every expansion of numbers. The Augar Report recommendations, if accepted, may lower fees with little guarantee that government will cover the loss of income. The cost of student loans, some of which now comes within current public spending, will increase dramatically with the demographic bulge in 18-year-olds, starting now, unless the cap on numbers in England is re-imposed, as seems likely, given views on ‘useless’ degrees, unnecessary experts, and pressure to prefer apprenticeships and FE recovery over investing in people who, on graduation, are less likely to vote Conservative than those without a university education. Graduates move to cities where there are jobs, leaving their home communities to an ageing population with different political predilections, made evident in December, and considerable resentment against what they see as graduate elitists in Westminster disregarding their needs and views. That may then convert to resentment against the universities that produce them and whose students affect the availability of property to rent and ‘studentify’ sections of a community. If the low rate of HE access of white working class males, and ‘over-representation’ of British BAME students is added to the mix, there is a base for Powellite stirring in a search for somebody to blame.

HE will not, then, be a high priority among competing, vote-winning, initiatives. Savings from not having to give EU students access to UK loans may not be re-invested. Even for research, where specific protective commitments have been made, the loss of EU funding and the greater difficulty in recruiting and partnering internationally because of visa restrictions, the prospects are not good. UK universities have already begun to drop down international league tables, and there is little reason to believe that that trend will stop. If income becomes tight, consider where funds might come from and the political risks of dependence on Chinese students and partnerships, or grants from oil rich regimes in the Middle East, or big pharma to a greater extent than now. Governors and senior managers will be faced with moral issues, testing the robustness of asserted values.

If universities are to overcome being seen as part of the problem, what has to change? Over the end of year break, I have been reading a collection of essays arising from an event 50 years after Chomsky published ‘The responsibility of intellectuals’. . That is the book’s title; it is edited by Nicholas Allott, Chris Knight, and Neil Smith, published by UCL Press. For us, as individuals who might be regarded as intellectuals, the three responsibilities set out by Chomsky remain: ‘to speak truth and expose lies; to provide historical context, and to lift the veil of ideology’ (Allott et al, 2019:7). The context has changed in 50 years: we ‘speak’, as do others, on social media, where regulation is lax; truth must be told to the powerless as well as the powerful, needing a different level of discourse; there is recognition that ‘the elite need to have an accurate idea of what is going on’ (p10) which means listening to others’ legitimate and valid truths derived from an experience, a background and axioms that differ from those of the people in power; and there is need for active engagement with that alternative reality, not just commentary from a distance, however sympathetic. This may lead to a better informed and value-oriented set of intellectuals.

At institutional level, that applies within universities, too. The gap between the governors, including the senior managers, and the governed is dysfunctional – can you name, say, three lay governors? When did you last speak with one? Some years ago, I reviewed the work of the Greenwich governing body, as recommended in the Dearing Report. It was clear that there was no communication with the governed, either up or down, no communication with ‘constituencies’, since governors could not identify their constituency. There was only an oral report on Academic Board meetings, by the VC, with all other information for the governors coming from the SMT, sometimes incomplete, at times misleading. SMT/staff communication has improved, but is still poor and unsystematic, avoiding anything that might highlight negatives.

As with many modern universities, there are two seats on Academic Board for professors elected by and from the professoriate; this year, as too often in the past, there were no nominations, nobody willing to stand, for a body that has no power beyond ‘advising’ the CEO and where the 1988/92 laws require there to be a majority of people with management responsibilities … on an academic board. My work with staff in many universities suggests that disengagement is widespread: academics have reverted to being what Hoyle labelled ‘restricted professionals’ – classroom based and classroom bound, by choice, since there is a fear of repercussions/reprisals if there is any expression of dissent. So compliance produces conformity, not the creative diversity essential to a healthy academic community. That may also develop at corporate level with the increasingly intrusive regulation by the Office for Students. Interviewing vice chancellors some years ago, even then there was a fear of speaking against ministerial policy, which might result in financial discrimination against their university. There might also be targeted supplementary ‘regulation’ (=control) from the Office for Students. Only in England, of course, which already has more surveillance from government and its agencies than other parts of the UK, as shown by Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath in their 2019 book The Governance of British Higher Education. Possibly as a factor of size, but only partly, I suspect, transferring Chomsky’s concern over ideology to this context, there is also – Shattock and Horvath, again – less solidarity among the different mission groups, who act like ideological factions in a political party. Perhaps some reflections on common values (echoing urgings in one such party) might bring them together. I recommend reading chapter 5 of the Dearing Report as a basis for a period of reflection on values in an academic (and political) community.

I wish you a good new year, with hope that my concerns prove to be unfounded.

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

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Happy New Year? If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here

By Rob Cuthbert

As the new year begins there is news of balloting for more industrial action by university staff. The continuing dispute between university staff and their employers is deep-rooted and deeply worrying. It may not be like previous disputes, and the employers may not be well-equipped to resolve it, for two reasons. First, because the roots of the dispute are in the marketisation of HE, the result of political initiatives which university employers cannot easily remedy. And second, because too many university employers have done too little to ameliorate the precarity and increased workload which quasi-markets encourage.

Staff at 60 universities across the UK announced in early November their intention to stage an eight-day strike at the end of November over pensions, pay and conditions. Universities UK and UCEA, the employers’ association, wrote an open letter to all staff on 19 November 2019 setting out their arguments, headed ‘letter to staff impacted by the UCU pensions and pay disputes’. The heading blaming UCU (begging the question: ‘who started it?’) may be a misjudgment, but is perhaps only what one side of the disputants would say. Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, wrote for The Guardian on 7 November 2019 that “University staff don’t want to strike for fair pensions and pay, but we’re being forced to”, a statement which the employers objected to. Both sides accuse the other of refusing to come to the table to negotiate. So far, so completely normal in any employment dispute. But then …

“Universities accused of using ‘strong-arm tactics’ to undermine strike action”, wrote Sally Weale and David Batty for The Guardian on 24 November 2019. Cheche Spencer, Students’ Union Women’s Officer at Liverpool University, on 22 November 2019 tweeted her disgust at the University’s message to students, which said it was ‘unlawful’ for students to join pickets. The message said the university would make no allowances for non-attendance when it comes to assessment, and warned international students that failure to attend might jeopardise their visa status. This went well beyond the more measured USS employers’ advice to students during the strike.

Sheffield Hallam University invited students to complete a form stating which of their classes had been disrupted and naming the member of staff concerned. After a student backlash the university removed the section asking for staff names. Students condemned the move as ‘a surveillance tool’ – perhaps a misunderstanding, since the identities of the strikers are hardly a secret, but symptomatic of a misguided managerial mindset. It is also reported that universities have warned staff not to speak to students about the dispute.

These things tend to happen in any dispute: excesses of local zeal going beyond a difficult-to-maintain national party line. But Liverpool and Sheffield Hallam have VCs whom some might regard as members of the sensible tendency, in Janet Beer and Chris Husbands. Beer, as a former chair of UUK, might  be expected to be impeccable in holding the line. Husbands is a leading figure in the hardly popular TEF, but has nevertheless seemed able to sustain reasoned debate and argue the case for improvement from within the TEF regime. If these are the zealots, what is going on? It seems as if the employers are deliberately taking a hard line.

The current dispute brings together two arguments, one about pensions and one about pay and conditions. But there is really only one grievance, and that is the growing alienation of staff, increasingly fixed-term, part-time and precarious, in an excessively marketised and too often managerialist higher education regime. As Liz Morrish observed in her blog after the Spring 2018 dispute on 8 June 2018: “The pensions issue seemed to be a conductor for a whole host of other grievances about marketization, financialization, audit culture, management by metrics and the distortions of league tables and concern with university ‘reputation’.” The UCEA/UUK letter said: “While the collective employers’ view is that a fair and realistic outcome has been reached on pay, they acknowledge however that UCU pursued its campaign on three other themes around workload, gender pay/equality and casual employment arrangements, and that these are important matters that their members, and indeed other colleagues, feel strongly about.”

The earlier dispute over USS benefits saw increased militancy and unionisation among many staff who had previously eschewed industrial action; the action succeeded in overturning the threat to move away from a defined-benefits scheme. (Meanwhile a change to TPS employers’ contributions raised the rate to 23.68% from September 2019, which was said to be enough to give UCU what they are asking for from USS employers.) Since the first dispute the UCU-nominated USS trustee Jane Hutton (Warwick) has been dismissed by the USS Board for “breaches of her duties as a director under company law and contract”. An independent investigation led to a report which USS relied on for her removal, but this has not been published in full despite Hutton’s request that it should be. Hutton, a professor of medical statistics and long-term critic of mistakes in USS calculations, had become a whistleblower writing to the Pensions Regulator. She had been denied data by USS executives and could not persuade the USS board to budge from what the Pensions Regulator called a mistake in its earlier controversial valuation. Clearly not everyone is convinced that USS does what it claims:

As the UCEA/UUK letter said, there has been some movement and learning by the employers since the earlier dispute. But not enough for UCU, and in particular nothing offering hope of enough change in the regime which exploits the goodwill of too many committed staff. Some universities (eg the University of Reading) are planning to withhold up to 100% of pay for ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS), which involves working for contracted hours without the normal unpaid overtime – the irony of which seems to be lost on the universities concerned.

In normal times everyone might regard the hours stated in contracts as an acceptable fiction, knowing that professionally committed staff will do what is needed for a proper job, and professional leaders will not exploit their commitment. But these are not normal times. Marketisation in HE goes hand in hand with attempts at deprofessionalisation and growing workloads. In HE, just as in schools and in the health service, employers are discovering that contractualisation of what was once seen as professional obligation means that less of it gets done, and/or it ends up costing more. UCEA/UUK may complain that “The focus of the negotiations was almost entirely on the pay uplift”, but this is common in disputes, and market regimes drive that focus. What makes it much worse for UCEA is that in any pay dispute the employers’ position is fatally undermined. That UCEA/UUK letter might in different times have been more persuasive, but the credibility of vice-chancellors themselves has vanished as for too many years their own pay rises outstripped those of their staff, and universities relied increasingly on lower-paid, part-time, fixed term staff .

The employers are between a rock they did not create and a hard place which they have brought on themselves. The hard place is the deep concerns of many staff about their workload and working conditions, the precarity of their employment, their pay and pensions. (The results of a UCU survey on ‘Counting the costs of casualisation in higher education’ were published by UCU in June 2019.) The rock is the certainty that students collectively will begin to seek compensation from universities for disruption to their studies, even though many, perhaps most, students will at the same time sympathise with and support staff in their campaign. That compensation might turn out to be ruinously expensive and trigger a downward spiral for all concerned.

The UCEA/UUK letter no doubt aimed to win the hearts and minds of staff, perhaps encouraged by the failure of strike ballots in some institutions to cross the threshold needed for authorised action, but the signs are not good and the tactics seem misjudged. Universities need also to win the hearts and minds of students, but using threats about students’ assessment and international students’ visa status is an odd way to go about it. Some university employers in a hole are still digging: Liverpool UCU tweeted on 5 December 2019: “Here we go. @livuni have today asked staff to “recover” (‘make good’!) missed teaching asap. We will not “recover” work we’re not being paid for and our refusal is lawful under ASOS. With yet another intimidating email, the Uni has withdrawn its goodwill. We have withdrawn ours.” It may be that a few overzealous or overexposed institutions are undermining the employers’ argument, but in any dispute the employers’ side will be a coalition reflecting a wide range of opinion: now is the time for the moderates to assert themselves. Anna McKie for Times Higher Education reported on 25 November 2019 that: “At the University of Bristol … the vice-chancellor Hugh Brady … was seen on the picket line. It could be a further sign of university leaders starting to break ranks, after Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, said last week that his institution would be willing to pay more into pensions.”

After the long-running press furore over VCs’ pay the Office for Students has begun to survey and report on pay levels, although the Times Higher Education has gathered and published such data for many years. The OfS said on 19 February 2019: “where pay is out of kilter, or salary increases at the top outstrip pay awards to other staff, vice-chancellors should be prepared to answer tough questions from their staff, student bodies and the public. It is good to see signs of pay restraint at some universities, with some vice-chancellors refusing a salary increase. A number of governing bodies have reduced the basic pay of their vice-chancellor, though we acknowledge that it can be difficult to revisit contractual obligations while a vice-chancellor is in post. We expect to see further progress next year.”

Perhaps it is time for a different kind of leadership, and a different kind of leadership pay. The Committee for University Chairs (CUC) published The Higher Education Staff Remuneration Code in June 2018, full of worthy sentiment and careful drafting, but the only potential limit on pay was this: “Institutions must publish the multiple of the remuneration of the Head of Institution and the median earnings of the institution’s whole workforce annually. This should be accompanied by sufficient explanation and context to enable useful comparison.” Salaries are decided by Remuneration Committees, too often full of people whose yardsticks are drawn from the private sector. In the current dispute, as always, UUK has trotted out the line about needing to pay the best to attract the best talent in a global market, an argument that seems to apply in every case to the field marshals, but much less frequently to the poor bloody infantry. And the VC population is not noticeably more global than the staff themselves. We need a different kind of leadership from governors too. A national formula to guide VCs’ pay may be impracticable, even though it has been achieved for other groups of staff. But putting a staff member of the governing body on the Search/Remuneration Committee for VC appointments would be more straightforward. Such staff governors would naturally be obliged to maintain strict confidentiality, as with so many other issues for all governors. Advertise an explicit salary range for every vacancy of VCs and perhaps others in the senior management team, and apply the same annual uplift as the weighted mean of the uplift for all staff in the university. Allow those presently overpaid to continue to the end of their hopefully fixed terms, then reboot. Then institutional leaders might be able to restore some credibility as leaders in discussions about pay and conditions. The UCU has its own difficulties in seeking to swing its diverse set of members behind any effective collective action. In the present dispute the employers are making it easy for UCU, by appearing to ignore or deny the realities that their highly committed, intelligent, articulate and analytical staff confront every day.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics


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Yes, but what about the academic research?

by Steven Jones

Review of Influencing Higher Education Policy: A Professional Guide to Making an Impact, edited by Ant Bagshaw and Debbie McVitty (London: Routledge, 2020)

“The existence of Wonkhe won’t save us,” suggests Debbie McVitty (p13), “but it could be a good place to start.”

And so the tone is set for a new Routledge collection about HE ‘wonkery’, a relatively recent phenomenon that has doubtless changed the way in which the sector operates. Wonks are policy analysts, planners and strategists, and HE is blessed with more than its fair share. New policy development? Expect multiple ‘hot takes’ straight to your inbox. HE story in the mainstream media? Expect a range of insider perspectives that allow every possible angle to be explored. No more waiting for trade publications to drop through the letterbox, let alone for academic critiques to satisfy a journal’s peer review process. Thanks mostly to Wonkhe, we now have real-time analysis of everything that ever happens in HE.

In such a context, a book that explores the sector’s influence on policy is timely. Important questions need to be confronted. How can universities maintain integrity in an increasingly hostile regulatory and media environment? What does meaningful policy ‘impact’ look like? Which individuals or groups are most legitimately entitled to advocate on behalf of the sector? And, crucially, how can academic research evidence be communicated to those who most need to engage with it?

This collection, edited by Ant Bagshaw (Nous) and Debbie McVitty (Wonkhe) takes on some of these questions. It’s at its best when mapping legislative processes and regulatory frameworks, as William Hammonds and Chris Hale (both Universities UK) do, or comparing policy contexts, as Cathy Mitchell (Scottish Funding Council) does in relation to performance measurement. Anna Bradshaw (British Academy) and Megan Dunn (Greater London Authority) theorise the relationship between evidence and policy in valuable new ways, while Adam Wright (British Academy) and Rille Raaper (Durham University) perceptively characterise students’ framing within HE policy. Clare Randerson (University of Lincoln) enlightens readers on the OECD’s under-acknowledged role in HE policy-making, while Diane Beech’s (University of Warwick) chapter offers a useful guide to think-tanks, until spiralling into an advert for the Higher Education Policy Institute.

However, many questions remain unanswered. Partly, this is because some of the book’s contributors spend more time celebrating their own influence than critically evaluating the assumptions that underpin their proposed solutions. Indeed, many university staff will feel perplexed by McVitty’s opening assertion. Who is the ‘us’ that the existence of Wonkhe won’t save? What then makes Wonkhe a good place to start? And why does the ‘us’ need saving anyway?

This is not the sort of detail on which the book’s contributors tend to dwell. Rather, the style is choppy and pacey. In many chapters, soundbites are favoured over deeper reflection. Blunt recommendations (often bullet pointed and emboldened) are ubiquitous, generally urging ‘us’ to do things differently.

As usual in HE wonk discourses, academics hold a strange and curious place. Often we’re problematised. Sometimes we’re patronised. But mostly we’re just ignored. Rarely is it acknowledged that academic research might actually have anything useful to contribute. Universities are assumed to be desperately in need of some wonk savviness to overcome their policy naivety. Why would any institution turn to its own academic expertise when it can commission all-knowing external consultants? Scholarship isn’t part of the solution. If anything, it’s part of the problem.

Take Iain Mansfield’s (Policy Exchange) list of the “additional constraints” (p87) that he argues make policy influence tougher in HE than in other sectors. Among the subheadings presented is ‘left-leaning’. Here, academics and students are homogenised as anti-consumer, anti-rankings and generally difficult. There’s even a censorious mention of “cultural attitudes to issues such as class, race and gender” (p88). Another of Mansfield’s subheadings is ‘non-independence of research’. Here, the focus is academics’ perceived partiality. With so few scholarly sources cited, it is difficult to know on what evidence suspicion rests. However, the implication is clear: academics can’t be trusted to research themselves or their professional environment with objectivity. “Although any sector is subject to vested interests and unconscious bias,” Mansfield snipes, “only in HE are those same people writing the research” (p90).

Elsewhere in the collection, Josie Cluer (EYNews) and Sean Byrne (Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College) make the case that “only by understanding, predicting, and being ready for the Politics – with a capital P – will [wonks] be able to influence the policies that will support the sector to thrive.” Among the few examples offered is that of vice-chancellors’ pay. Here the implication is that the sector should have better managed recent negative media coverage that resulted in “a series of uncomfortable moments” (p22). While brand management matters greatly, and while the authors are right to suggest that some universities are suboptimal when it comes to shielding their reputation, the issue of senior pay is surely more nuanced than the single-paragraph analysis suggests. Being ‘ready for the Politics’ (with or without a capital P) requires universities to develop carefully thought-out internal policies, consistent with their claimed civic role and open to public scrutiny. The message implied by this book, in places, is that HE can continue its merry march toward the market, just so long as it remembers to buy in the right kind of spin.

Granted, the editors pre-empt some of these criticisms, emphasising that engagement with academic literature is not their priority, and that the collection essentially functions as a “professional guide” (p xvii). However, the analysis presented is often alarmingly thin. The first of Colette Fletcher’s (University of Winchester) five ‘lessons’ on how to influence policy – “have the confidence to be yourself” (p134) – captures something of the book’s tendency to drift into feelgood self-help rhetoric where close-up, critical analysis might be more appropriate.

Nonetheless, contributors are clearly satisfied that they have what it takes to save the sector. Everyone should get behind the wonks’ solutions, not least us pesky, prejudiced academics. Indeed, what Influencing Higher Education Policy arguably does best is highlight the growing challenge to the ways in which scholarly work is undertaken and disseminated. Wonkhe’s central role in bringing multiple perspectives to HE debates, usually in super-fast time, should be welcomed. But in such an environment, the book reminds us how easily academics and their research can be marginalised.

Without question, the UK HE sector needs to become better at influencing policy. Bagshaw is right to say we’ve relied on “benign amateurism” (p169) for too long. And without question, this collection includes several chapters’ worth of considered reflections and constructive recommendations. But elsewhere the book lapses into glib strategising where it could be reconnecting with universities’ core purpose. The best way to improve the sector’s standing is to ensure that it operates according to the highest possible ethical standards, and makes policy recommendations firmly grounded in empirical evidence.

One of the book’s contributors quotes Richard Branson to illustrates a policy point: “it’s amazing what doors can open if you reach out to people with a smile” (p139). But who knows, perhaps it’s even more amazing what doors can open if you reach out to people with rigorous academic research?

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at the Manchester Institute of Education. His research focuses on equity issues around students’ access, experiences and outcomes. Steven is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and he teaches on the University of Manchester’s PGCert in Higher Education. The views expressed here are his own.


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How are the Office for Students and the sector bodies getting along?

by GR Evans

An article in Times Higher Education on 5 December 2019 quoted an unpublished report by Universities UK and the Association of Heads of University Administration. The THE says the report is ‘highly critical’ of the way the Office for Students is working with providers. UUK (the Vice-Chancellors) and AHUA (the Registrars) are both UK-wide organisations so it would be helpful to know how the gathering of information for this report  on the England-only OfS  was done, the methodology designed and the conclusions drawn.

Universities UK and AHUA are composed respectively of the Vice-Chancellors and the Registrars of only a modest proportion of the 389 providers admitted to the OfS Register by early December 2019.  UUK lists a scattering of alternative providers amongst mainly traditional universities.  AHUA says it has 190 members though one must be a member to see who they are.   It is not clear whether other bodies with an interest were involved in the consultation, for example GuildHE with its array of English alternative providers among its 50 published membership. 

Most notable among the bodies apparently not involved in the consultation which produced this report is the Committee of University Chairs, another UK-wide body, but of supreme importance in that these Chairs represent the governing bodies of their member institutions.  The CUC publishes its membership list of 135 including ‘a small number of alternative providers’.

The CUC revised its Higher Education Code of Governance in 2014, providing guidelines strongly endorsed by HEFCE. The CUC is now consulting on a proposed review. Its consultation questions, seeking to address changes of expectation in the sector since 2014, are online. It notes some points emphasised by OfS:

The OfS has also given renewed emphasis to the importance of robust academic governance and the relationship between Board and Academic Board/Senate. There has also been increasing media attention to academic standards and the use of unconditional offers. CUC guidance in this area is set out in Illustrative Practice Note 3: Academic Governance .

The OfS has drawn up its own guidance.

More transparency and some rethinking of the best way to pool expectations must surely be in the interests of OfS and the ‘sector bodies’ if they are to learn to work together for the common good as the UUK/AHUA report apparently desires. There is of course always a case for allowing sensitive consultations to take place in sufficient privacy to permit free and frank discussion.  But there comes a time when the public interest in publication is strong enough to demand transparency. 

The THE says UUK explained that the report was: ‘not published formally, but we did share it with our members to support the development of their own processes and practices under the new approach’. Presumably AHUA’s members got a copy too? THE suggests the UUK/AHUA report has been ‘seen within Government’. Does this mean by the Secretary of State, the Minister for Higher Education, civil servants and advisors? If it had been published that might be less of a puzzle.

And did OfS itself get a copy? At the time of writing the OfS website does not seem to have anything to say about the UUK/AHUA report though perhaps future Board papers will fill that gap. The papers from the 26 September meeting mention a paper from the National Audit Office ‘setting out the key observations and recommendations arising from their audit of the OfS’s financial statements for 2018-19’. Those included a request for ‘more information on the impact of the OfS’s work as a regulator in the 2019-20 performance report’, on which the UUK/AHUA report will clearly be relevant. For the UUK/AHUA report appears to be concerned chiefly with the working relationship OfS is establishing with the providers for whose registration is it responsible.

From HEFCE buffer to OfS Regulator: the transition

For the most part HEFCE took seriously its role as a ‘Haldane’ buffer between universities and Government. Its normal response to the emergence of a serious problem in a provider’s conduct of its affairs was to seek to support the institution to mend matters. This is did informally and constructively, offering guidance to autonomous institutions. It favoured a ‘light touch’. Its operation of conditions of grant sanctions proved to be vanishingly rare. 

OfS has begun its working life with some fierce and threatening  statements and the repeated assertion that failing providers must simply be allowed to collapse. The setting for this heavier ‘touch’ will have to be adjusted to get it right,  and this UUK/AHUA Report could form a useful starting-point for consideration.

If so, there must be a case for publication of the UUK/AHUA report. But what of the performance of UUK, AHUA and other sector bodies in reviewing their own performance in response? Keeping their cards close to their chests would not be a good look at a time when the performance of UUK, AHUA and other sector bodies, statutory (like OfS) or in the form of ‘clubs’ (such as UUK itself) or semi-professional bodies (AHUA?) is also a proper concern. An objective assessment of the performance and very approach of the OfS surely demands a similar transparency about the way the various sector bodies are responding to it. 

Wales is engaged in a review of its own arrangements ahead of new legislation of its own. It retained its own Funding Council in the Higher Education (Wales) Act of 2015 but times and expectations have changed and it is now expected that Wales may move towards a new structure closer to that which allows more active Government control of policy and practice in England  through direction of the OfS as a Regulator through increasingly frequent letters of guidance from the Secretary of State.

It may be too much to hope that any Government will join with the sector bodies and OfS in a dispassionate review if that is for the best for higher education. Too much political investment went into the creation of OfS for such fearlessness to be likely. But at least let the documents in the discussion come out in the open for everyone to read.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the former Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).

Paul Temple


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Policy amnesia? – sorry, remind me again…

By Paul Temple

Burton Clark, considering ‘The Problem of Complexity in Modern Higher Education’ (reprinted in On Higher Education, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), says: “With each passing decade a modern or modernizing system of higher education is expected … to do more for other portions of society … from strengthening the economy … to developing individual talents and personalities and aiding the pursuit of happiness … This steady accretion of realistic expectations cannot be stopped, let alone reversed” (p386). But – and although one naturally hesitates to disagree with Clark on anything – perhaps not all “the system’s bundle of tasks” have to be accepted without asking some hard questions.

One of these tasks is considered by Lee Elliot Major and Pallavi Amitava Banerjee in HEPI’s Policy Note 20 (December 2019), which presents their thoughts on access to what they variously call “elite” and “highly-selective” universities in England. They describe how independent schools have got this more or less sewn up: over 60% of A-Level students at independent schools go to “highly-selective” universities, compared with 22% from state schools. (About 7% of English school students are in the independent sector.) Their proposed measures to deal with this undoubted social justice challenge require what Clark, in the section noted above, put nicely as the meshing of individual desires and institutional capabilities. So they argue that universities need to use contextual admission policies more effectively; they need to apply differential “standard” and “minimum” entry requirements to applicants from different backgrounds; they may need to apply random allocation policies; and more.

All of these policy ideas probably have much to be said for them. My problem with the whole approach, though, is that it lets central government direction of the English school system over recent years completely off the hook. Instead, we are asked to accept another accretion to expectations of universities, another task to add to the bundle, demanding that they address a problem created in – at least, certainly not solved by – another area of governmental responsibility.

What was once a locally planned and accountable system of “maintained” schools (of different types) is now a patchwork of academy chains and their schools; so-called free schools; and maintained schools (of different types) overseen by local authorities. Academies and free schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum, but maintained schools do. It’s a complete organisational dog’s breakfast, but, as with all the best government policies, it allows ministers to blame others for its failings by distributing responsibilities but not powers. Central government policies since 2010 (with, yes, Michael Gove in the frame as Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014, though previous Labour governments are not without blame here) were supposed to liberate school leaderships through these structural changes, thereby driving up standards. Most academic observers of the school system and the teaching in it never thought that structural changes would do this, but naturally government didn’t listen to them.

So here we now are, at the beginning of another period of Conservative rule, with the privileged independent school sector, with its spending per pupil about three times that of state schools (many of which are anyway in financial difficulties after years of falling budgets), naturally dominating access to elite universities. We must not now succumb to policy amnesia: the Conservative-led 2010 government and its Conservative successors destroyed the locally-accountable school system because of (we must assume) their hostility to local authorities as alternative sources of legitimacy. So, a decade later, the shiny new structure is producing no better results (to put it at its most generous) than what went before: “freeing” schools from local accountability wasn’t the problem, and so couldn’t be the answer.

But the Elliot Major and Banerjee proposals give ministers a handy escape route. They can say: “You see, even professors working in universities say they’re not doing enough to help disadvantaged young people: that’s where the problem lies, not in schools. I demand immediate action to end this scandal!”

When UUK – well-known for its bold statements on politically sensitive topics – next meets ministers to discuss access to higher education, my suggestion is that the UUK team adopt an air of baffled concern. “Minister, I’m afraid you’ll have to help us here: surely young people taking A-Levels now, having had all the benefits of the school system your predecessors designed, must be achieving far more than under the old system. So we don’t quite understand why you think universities now need to do more to accept people from disadvantaged backgrounds, when their schools will have done all the levelling-up that’s needed. Are we missing something, Minister?”

As civil servants say, I hope that’s helpful, UUK.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546