The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay

Ian McNay writes…

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By Ian McNay

How many Eleanors can you name? Roosevelt, Marx, Bron, Aquitaine, Rigby…add your own. Why am I asking this? Because it is a new metric for widening access. The recent issue of People Management, the journal of CIPD, reports that in 2014 the University of Oxford admitted more girls named Eleanor than students who had received free school meals. Those who were taught at private schools were 55% more likely to go to Oxbridge than student who received free school meals. Those two universities have even reduced the proportion of students they admitted who came from lower socio-economic groups in the decade from 2004=5, from 13.3% to 10% at Oxford and from 12.4% to 10.2% at Cambridge. Other Russell Group universities also recorded a fall, according to HESA data. So, second question: how many people do you know who have had free school meals or whose children have had? Not a visible/audible characteristic: they do not wear wristlet identifiers. But your university planning office will have the stats if you want to check its record.

The mention of free school meals links to an item in my local paper: students at the University of Buckingham (fees £17,000 a year) are receiving handouts from MK food bank because they cannot afford to eat. In the past year the charity has delivered around 2,000 items of donated food to the student welfare office. Not healthy – the most popular foodstuffs are Pot Noodles, tinned soup, cereal pots, crisps, peanuts and fizzy drinks.

Cleansed is a play by Sarah Kane recently revived at the National Theatre. It is the story of a university, but not in the tradition of David Lodge. It has turned into a totalitarian, sadistic institution (I wonder where she had in mind?) Some scenes were so violent that five people fainted in the first week of the run.

And, I promise, some short items on the REF. The HEFCE review was to propose a new 5* grade. So, what label would it have to be higher than ‘world-leading’? Ron Johnson had derided the standards applied to that grade when it became evident how much work satisfied panels’ criteria, He had expected revolutionary work, shifting paradigms in a discipline. Perhaps 5* will allow that standard to be acknowledged. So, if it deserves five stars, an overused hyperbole might be imported from the USA – ‘stellar’. Maybe it will not matter. The Green Paper, in paragraph 35 of the introduction says ‘the excellence of the UK’s research base is internationally recognised’. So, that is only a 2* rating, and no funding.

Jonathan Adams has done some very good work on the REF, and has a new report out. He has several times demonstrated that concentration of funding is counterproductive, excluding alternative approaches and risking lack of challenge to existing paradigms (or 5* work) and isomorphic drift. He comments wryly that the concentration of funding may not have produced the concentration of quality excellence that government expected. So, what did the English government do? It increased concentration of funding even further, reminiscent of the English abroad: if they do not understand, SHOUT LOUDER.  No wonder that a consultation in Sweden proposing to move towards the UK model led to a rejection by 31 out of 34 HEIs.

The most frequent claim in impact case studies in the 2014 REF was to have influenced policy. That has now become harder for some of us, since those receiving funding from state   be subject to conditions aimed at preventing public funding from supporting ‘activity intended to influence or attempt to influence parliament, government or political parties’. Evidence based policy needs evidence, but those producing rigorous evidence will not just be ignored, as ideology trumps rationality, but classed as a third monkey in the simian trilogy – see no evidence, hear no evidence, speak no evidence.

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

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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