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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay


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The REF: Digging beyond the headlines

By Ian McNay

Recent headlines on the Research Excellence Framework (REF) were  a bit over the top when the scores are scrutinised closely, particularly in Education, as detailed in my earlier blog post back in February. So, I won’t take long, but want to add to what I said then to emphasise the impact of the three elements of scoring and the discontinuities between exercises. Andrew Pollard, chair of the Education panel, concentrates on ‘research activity’ in his comment on the BERA website, where 30 percent was at 4* level. However, output had only 21.7 per cent at that level; the scores were boosted by scores of over 40 per cent for impact and environment.

If you look hard you can find a breakdown of scores by element for 2008, and these show how things have changed. For environment, in 2008, 5 units scored 50 per cent or higher at 4*, with a top score of 75 per cent; 19 scored 50 per cent or more when 3* and 4* are combined. This time, at 4* 18 units scored 50 per cent or more and 8 scored 100 per cent. Combining 3* and 4* shows that 52 units scored more than 50 per cent with 23 scoring 100 per cent across those top two levels.  That grade inflation suggests either considerable investment for development or less demanding criteria.

On impact there is no precedent. In 2008 the third element was esteem indicators, where the top score for 4* was 40 per cent, by only two units, with a further 10 getting 30 per cent. For impact in 2014, 13 units scored more than 50 per cent – well above the highest score for esteem. Perhaps we judged our peer academics more harshly than users of research did. Or, perhaps, they were less obsessed with long term, large scale, statistical studies using big data sets which successive panels have set as the acme of quality work, and more concerned with ’did it make a difference?’ Continue reading

Ian Kinchin


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Digital technology amplifies the obvious

By Ian Kinchin

Digital technology in various forms is now well embedded into teaching at university. The use of PowerPoint seems ubiquitous – barely a lecture goes by without the support of a slide presentation. And what is interesting is the way in which the projection of PowerPoint slides also projects the lecturer’s views on teaching. It bares all, whether you intend it or not.

Lecturers who claim to be interested in student engagement have their bluff called when they then have a slide presentation without any room for questions because they are so full of content. The structure of the knowledge within the presentation is also transparent, with linearity usually dominating (Kinchin et al., 2008). Use of technology gives signals about you as a teacher that will be interpreted by students. Continue reading


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David Watson 1949-2015 : A tribute

By Paul Temple

In his first few days working at the Institute of Education in London, David Watson, who died on 8 February this year after a short illness, was drafted in to chair the exam board for an MA programme about which he knew nothing, and which involved some tricky procedural matters. Afterwards, I overheard the experienced course administrator for that programme say to our own course administrator, ‘Your David Watson – he’s awfully good, isn’t he?’ David would have relished the compliment, coming from one of the ordinary members of staff who keep universities running, and would almost certainly have valued it at least as much as the many tributes paid to him in the days immediately after his death by grand figures in the higher education world.

This was because David appreciated that leadership involved understanding the details of how organisations work, the nuts and bolts that hold them together Continue reading