By Ceredig Jamieson-Ball
Conducting research into how different parts of the higher education sector have responded to policy developments can help us develop better support for academics and institutions as they seek to ensure that students have the best possible learning opportunities. The same evidence-base, gathered now, will provide vital data when it comes to influencing future policy and understanding how changes might affect those at the centre of higher education – students.
Over the last few years reform of higher education in the UK has provided a discussion point for everyone with an interest in the sector, from parents to policy-makers, from academics to administrators. It’s now three years since the Browne report, and there is still plenty of discussion about what the upper limit on tuition fees in England should be and how the devolved governments around the rest of the UK are financing higher education. More broadly, debate around the impact of various policies on widening access and participation in HE continues to rage, and the lifting of the cap on student numbers in England is likely to provoke another long session of debate.
Whatever the impact of these reforms on the debt carried by graduates or the financial viability of HE providers (old or new, public or private), it is crucial that there is an informed discussion on what the impact of reforms is on the student academic experience. After all, that is the main area that HE reforms have sought to improve.
Speaking at the inaugural Higher Education Academy (HEA) research and policy seminar series in November 2012, Roger Brown set out his view that the reforms of HE in England, as set out in the Government’s 2012 White Paper, could result in ‘a series of behaviours on the part of staff, students and institutions that are essentially about protecting or advancing their position in the marketplace, rather than about improving teaching and learning’. He went on to call for sound research to provide evidence as to whether there was any substance to fears about the impact of consumerism on education. And the evidence base is now starting to emerge, as shown by the recent research undertaken by King’s College London for the QAA that found students have a ‘consumerist ethos towards higher education, wanting value for money’.
Over the coming months, the HEA will publish the outcomes of three research projects that have sought to develop a better understanding of how students, academics, managers and institutions are responding to reform of higher education across the UK.
Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University will examine how institutional managers are responding to the change in student number controls and student finance arrangements and how these changes are affecting the student profile in order to get a sense of how this will impact ‘in the classroom’. As well as examining traditional universities, this research has extended its work into the college sector to better understand how HE delivered in further education colleges is now being managed.
As institutions position and market themselves differently, frequently trying to define their core offer, or unique selling point (for example ‘the enterprise university’), an HEA-funded research project being led by Leeds Metropolitan University, looks at how this institutional positioning intersects with teaching and learning. We will get a sense of how institutional self-identity is feeding into how notions of teaching excellence and the student experience are conceptualised amongst front-line teaching staff.
And while institutions are re-forming their identity in response to the shifting landscape, research being conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton will take an in-depth look at the attitudes and approaches of students, across the UK, to learning. We will start to understand whether the emphasis placed by policy-makers on choice for students and competition amongst providers is changing the way students seek to learn.
These projects will present their findings in consecutive HEA research & policy seminars from March to May 2014, delivering that initial body of sound evidence about student, staff and institutional behaviours that Roger Brown called for back in November 2012. And for the HEA there will be good evidence, as students, academics and institutional managers respond to policy changes, on which to target support for future learning and teaching in the sector. We hope that the evidence and ensuing debate will result in a better understanding by institutions and academics as to, in Roger Brown’s words again, ‘how we can best protect and advance the quality of student learning’.
Ceredig Jamieson-Ball is Policy Manager at the Higher Education Academy