The Society for Research into Higher Education

Paul Ashwin

David Watson’s Scholarly Legacy: Towards a Conscience for Higher Education Research

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By Paul Ashwin

I am offering this reflection on David Watson’s scholarly legacy partly on behalf of the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE). David was president of the SRHE from 2005-20012 and partly as someone whose thinking has been strongly influenced by David’s work.

I have always been suspicious of lists. They make me wonder about the relations between the different items and how together they form a coherent whole. I wonder about whether the items are mutually exclusive or if they overlap and how. I carried this suspicion with me into David Watson’s brilliant SRHE presidential addresses, as David outlined ‘Eight Category Mistakes in Higher Education Discourses’, the ten commandments of the ‘Oath for Contemporary Higher Education’ and ‘The Ten Laws of Academic Life’. Despite my suspicion, these lists captured something fundamental about contemporary higher education experience. They were wise, thoughtful and always challenging. So in reflecting on and celebrating David’s scholarly legacy, it seemed fitting that this seemed to form itself as a list. In revisiting David’s work and thinking about where it takes us, my sense was that it gives us much of the work that is needed to form a conscience for higher education research.

1. Know your history

David was an historian and his scholarly work often contains phrases such as “If you look at the long sweep of history” or “If you take the historical view”, which always preceded the demolishing of some supposedly truly original policy or research idea. David’s work would carefully show how in some respects we have been here before and how there were some new aspects to the situation. He would be damning of the refusal to learn from history: whether this was the refusal to learn the lessons from Individual Learning Accounts when removing the cap from student numbers or to learn from DipHE when introducing foundation degrees.

As higher education researchers we equally need to know our history and to be fully aware of how our research relates to what has gone before so that we do not over claim and thus undermine our contributions to knowledge.

2. Know yourself

David’s work is clear that as higher education researchers we need to understand the position that we are arguing from and the ways in which are arguments are informed by our own interests. David was a passionate advocate of the power of higher education to transform lives but he was equally passionate that if we are going to claim that higher education is personally transformational then we need genuinely to know how this works. What is the nature of this transformation? Why does it take place? Is higher education a necessary condition for this transformation? Is it a sufficient condition? Do all forms of higher education lead to this transformation?

3. Ask but also answer the difficult questions

David often wrote about how we are compelled by an authentic higher education to practise answering difficult questions. He also often answered such questions himself: Is there still a higher education sector? What does post-institutional higher education look like? The key here is the focus on answering these questions. Critique on its own is not enough. We need as higher education researchers to offer realistic and workable alternatives rather than simply saying what is wrong with current arrangements and policies.

4. Be symmetrical

David’s work is clear that, in answering these difficult questions, we can have no special pleading. As higher education researchers we need to demand of ourselves what we demand of others and to be as self-critical as we are critical of others. This symmetry is crucial because it gives our arguments power and means that we do not look self-indulgent when we attempt to speak truth to power.

5. Beware nostalgia and golden age narratives

Related to the need for symmetry, is the need to avoid the temptation of falling into the trap of the nostalgia of golden age narratives. David’s work is highly critical of those who express distaste for the opening up of the opportunity of higher education to a wider range of people. For example, he criticised Frank Furedi for “being disappointed by everything” and Stefan Collini of bad history and bad analysis of higher education generally, whilst recognising the strength of his analysis of the humanities. The problem with golden age narratives is that they end up suggesting that the expansion of higher education is a disaster and ends up arming those who want to use social privilege to measure academic excellence

6. Don’t let prestige and reputation blind you

One of the great challenges of contemporary higher education is that institutional prestige is often mistaken for institutional quality. David was dismissive of the self-selecting gang of the Russell Group and the way in which the Sutton Trust positioned not attending a Russell Group university when you could as ‘wasted talent’. Similarly he was critical of the tendency to focus on the ‘royal route’ of 18 year olds to higher education rather than understanding the power of lifelong learning and the importance of credit transfer. He was critical because the blindness encouraged by prestige and reputation limits the potential power of higher education to transform lives.

 7. Think collectively and internationally

In undertaking higher education research we need to be focused on what we can achieve together. The issues facing higher education and higher education research will be solved collectively rather than individually. Therefore, we need to ignore the pressures towards individualism that are so strongly supported by the reward systems of contemporary higher education. We also need to recognise that we tend to experience a very particular version of higher education. David’s work drew attention to how higher education looked from the Global South and how this offered possibilities for seeing our own situation in new ways. Thinking internationally allows us to know ourselves more fully.

8. Take things seriously but never preciously

The view from the Global South also helps us to realise how important debates about higher education are. Rather than being blasé about people gaining access to higher education, we need to recognise that there are many people around the world who are desperate for the opportunities that are offered by a university education. We need to passionately defend higher education but we must also not be precious and cling to excluding traditions for tradition’s sake.  David’s work asks us to think very seriously about what a higher education system that offered lifelong learning for all those who could benefit from it would look like.

9. Be ambitious, assertive and yet humble

Thinking in this way requires ambition and being assertive about what we know about the power of higher education. It also involves being honest and humble about what we do not know. As David argued “At their best the researchers can bring a strong historical sensibility, understanding of the wider role of universities and colleges, and novel insights. At their worst they can be defensive, apologetic, self-serving and repetitive” (p.410. David Watson 2011 Cassandra and the politicians: higher education and policy memory. Educational Review, 63:4, 409-419, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2011.603824).

10. Never forget that it is a privilege.

David’s work is very clear that despite the very difficult challenges we face, contemporary higher education still offers something that can transform people’s lives in remarkable ways. A key message of his scholarly legacy is that the privilege and joy of researching higher education give us a tremendous responsibility to do it to the utmost of our abilities.

Professor Paul Ashwin is Head of the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.  Paul is also an SRHE Council Member, and a Member of the SRHE Research & Development Committee. 

The above talk formed part of a seminar to reflect on David Watson’s many and varied contributions to higher education policy, scholarship, and practice held at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London on 12 November 2015.The principal speakers were Paul Ashwin, Bahram Bekhradnia, Mike Boxall, Rob Cuthbert, Brenda Gourley, Alison Kennell, and Peter Scott. A  summary of their talks, collated and edited by Paul Temple from the UCL Institute of Education is available from 

Author: SRHE News Blog

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

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