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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes…

By Ian McNay

Good to see action being taken on gender-based pay inequality after all the talk and all the evidence. Congratulations to Essex and, recently, LSE where women will get rises to close the gap of over 10% between their salaries and those of men with equal rank, length of service, research outputs and age. Essex earlier gave a one-off boost to female professors.

But … way to go fellas! I saw little coverage of the Women in Science Fellowships (we need a different title, surely). There were five awards of £15,000 to be spent in any way the winners choose in order to help them continue research in their chosen fields. What, then, did they choose?

  1. Help with childcare and some conference travel
  2. Flexible childcare arrangements to allow the further development of key collaborations and partnerships
  3. Childcare to allow an early return to work
  4. Practical help with childcare fees, with some on equipment and conferences
  5. Resolving the tough decision between my research and looking after my son

I cannot imagine a group of five male winners having such unanimity about such a ‘choice’. Thank you to the Evening Standard for its coverage and editorial stance.

Holiday reading

I spent some time over the summer copying Ulysses and cruising, less excitingly, the northern Mediterranean, Aegean and Adriatic seas. The ship’s library, for 1800 passengers, had about 120 books, including a history of Test Match Special. More relevant to readers here was one by Jonathan R Cole (2016) Toward a More Perfect University, NY, Public Affairs. One can criticise the title for thinking that ‘perfect’ can be susceptible to gradations, and for implying that the top 300 US research universities – the author’s basic starting point, are already perfect. Indeed, he criticises Johns Hopkins for distorting their mission to overstate research. Among his recommendations are a reduction in doctoral students; more emphasis on undergraduates – the quality of teaching and academic standards; and a compulsory one-year training programme for new members of governing bodies, Boards of Regents or their counterparts, to include a module on the nature of a university and its place in USA society. Good luck with that one.

The second one was a surprise. It was a John Grisham imitation, a courtroom drama. The following comes when the defence lawyer is about to cross-examine and discredit an academic expert. He sends his assistant to dig out his publications from 2008, 2004 and 2000.

‘If you’re cross-examining an academic witness, you have to look at their publications. Those years were the ARAE: the American Research Assessment Exercise. The more articles published by academic staff in the ARAE, the more money comes to their university and the more money those nerds take home. During those years everybody writes like crazy, and probably reasonable academics write crap things they would not dream of writing ordinarily. Writing for volume does not promote good theories, and pretty soon they’re writing papers on fairies and UFOs. Back then, articles meant cash. So, if there’s anything out there that will give us something on [him] that’s where we’ll find it.’

Steve Cavanagh (2016) The defense, NY, Flatiron Books, p51

And there was, and they did, and attacked the credibility of the witness to distract from the credibility of his evidence. Successfully.

There is, by the way, no such thing as the ARAE. It was, after all, a work of fiction, but bearing an uncanny resemblance to reality. The author’s details give no obvious connection to a background in higher education.

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

Paul Temple


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Crossing the Threshold

By Paul Temple

When education students are taught about the difference between norm-referenced and criterion-referenced assessment, the example often given of criterion referencing is the driving test. The skills you need to demonstrate in order to pass the practical test are closely defined, and an examiner can readily tell whether or not you have mastered them. So you have to do a hill start without the car running backwards, reverse around a corner without hitting the kerb or ending up in the middle of the road, and so on. The driving test could then, in principle, have a 100% or a 0% pass rate. (A non-education example of a norm-referenced examination is the football league: to stay in the Premier League, a team doesn’t have to be objectively brilliant, just fractionally better than that year’s weakest three teams.) But the driving test is also a threshold assessment: the examiner expects the candidate to be able to negotiate the town centre one-way system competently, but not to show that they can take part in a Bond movie car-chase. You have to cross the threshold of competent driving: you don’t have to show that you can go beyond it.

This seems a clear enough distinction: so why do so many academics apparently have difficulty with it? Continue reading


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The number of graduates in non-graduate jobs is still high

By Heike Behle

A recent IER report prepared for HEFCE and SRHE shows that the proportion of employed graduates working in non-graduate jobs during their first year after graduation has remained high. Fifteen months after graduation, approximately 36 per cent of all employed graduates from three year courses and 30 per cent of all employed graduates from four year courses were still working in non-graduate jobs, defined as jobs for which a graduate level education is inappropriate.

The definition and empirical classification of occupations in non-graduate or graduate jobs is contested and there is a plethora of different ways to measure the amount of graduates in non-graduate jobs. This report uses a definition from Elias and Purcell (2004 )[1], based on the type of work typically performed in a job and the extent to which such work makes use of the skills and knowledge gained through higher education. This classification varies from that of the recent White Paper [2]  where occupations of the first three major SOC groups are identified as professional jobs.

new-picture-1The report compares the early pathways of graduates from two leaving cohorts: those who graduated in 1999 (‘class of 1999’) and those who graduated from three year courses in 2009 and from four year courses in 2010 (‘class of 2009/2010’) as illustrated in the graph opposite.

On average, all graduates in both cohorts were employed for approximately ten months, in total. However, the proportion of graduates from the class of 2009/2010 who never entered employment during the first fifteen months after graduation was between 26 per cent and 29 per cent, nearly twice the proportion, compared to those who graduated ten years earlier (class of 1999). One explanation could be that many graduates enter further study in order to avoid unemployment or employment in non-graduate jobs.

Age, social background, specific subjects, type of HEI and the class of degree were significant influences in both cohorts while differences existed with regards to gender, mobility and work experience. In line with other current reports (the Shadbolt Review of Computer Sciences degree accreditation and graduate employability, the Wakeham Review of STEM degree provision and graduate employability, and HEFCE analysis of differential outcomes of graduates) , the increasing relevance of work experience was highlighted. For the class of 1999 work experiences did not have a significant impact on the likelihood to work in a graduate job. However, this was the case for those who graduated ten years later.

This was also reflected in a brief qualitative research study in which many graduates reported that employers expected them to have work experience but were not prepared to offer opportunities for graduates. Also, many graduates reported the negative impact of being stuck in non-graduate roles which they defined as a vicious circle, in which their current employment had implications for their self-confidence, which might lead to a degrading of skills and knowledge. As a result, their capacity to leave the non-graduate job and find employment in a graduate position might be limited.

[1] Elias, P. and Purcell, K. (2004) SOC (HE): A classification of occupations for studying the graduate labour market. http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/research/completed/7yrs2/rp6.pdf

[2] BIS (2016) Higher education: success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility, and student choice. Can be downloaded here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-success-as-a-knowledge-economy-white-paper

Heike Behle is a Research Fellow at the Warwick Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick (http://www.warwick.ac.uk/ier). Heike is also a co-convenor of the SRHE’s Employability, Enterprise and Work-based Learning Network

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May in October: a climate change for HE?

By Rob Cuthbert

Since Britain voted to leave the European Union in June it is getting harder and harder to know which way the wind is blowing for higher education, and the outlook is no clearer after Theresa May’s first Conservative Party conference as Prime Minister.

The last Conservative government, the one that was only elected a year ago, had a manifesto commitment to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework. Although it was rumoured that the Higher Education and Research Bill might have to make way in the Parliamentary timetable for EU referendum business, the Cameron government made HE a high priority and the Bill survived. No doubt this owed something to Minister Jo Johnson’s close links to No 10, where he had been head of the Policy Unit. The Bill followed the lines which had been clear for some time in the White Paper and before, continuing the drive to turn students into consumers, making it ever easier for new for-profit institutions to enter the market, and aiming to push universities and other providers into ever more intense commercial competition with one another.

Then came Brexit, and (some) things changed dramatically. Jo Johnson, despite his closeness to Cameron, his friendship with George Osborne, and his Eton-Oxford-Bullingdon Club history, survived the cull of ‘Cameron’s cronies’, and survived the split of his responsibilities between two new government departments. He remains Minister for Universities and Science but must now divide his time between the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the new Department for Education, with universities restored to the Education fold. Did this signal no change for HE? Continue reading

Vicky Gunn


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The latest TEF Assessment Framework, automated analysis of data, and some Scottish anxiety

By  Vicky Gunn

I had the good fortune to be in Rio for the Paralympics this September. My step-daughter was competing in an endurance road race. For her, the most important thing was improving on previous race times, but she’d hoped to get a medal as well (even though this was not predicted by her ‘metrics’). At the end of September, the Westminster Government through HEFCE, published the TEF2 Technical Specification[i] and I found, to my astonishment that the original differentiating phrases (meets expectations, excellent, outstanding) were to be replaced with medals: Bronze, Silver, Gold. All of this got me thinking about the Teaching Excellence Framework, built like British Cycling on the idea that we can differentiate excellence for competitive purposes and this is a good in itself. I find this comparison deeply troubling. I, like many involved in quality and teaching development in Scottish Higher Education, have invested several years of my professional life to fostering cultures of enhancement. Indeed, the distance travelled to improvement in teaching provision has been a mantra within the totality of Scottish higher education’s stakeholders (academic, government, student bodies alike). In the Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF), we have been more interested in seeing all Scottish institutions getting ‘personal bests’ (hence demonstrating continuous improvement from within their own context), rather than doing better than all the others (final outcome measure).

However, now that we have the first set of TEF indicative metrics, I (like a cycling coach) am assailed with a few doubts about the laudable concentration of raising the quality of the whole Scottish sector. This is an aim of the QEF. This resulted in engaged participants of a quality system which steadfastly refused the divisiveness associated with differentiated institutional quality review outcomes. Yet, if we individually enter it, the TEF will now demand this of us.  Should Scotland then change its QEF substantially with its aspirational collectivism to be consigned to being a phantasm of a previous era? How long can such a discourse last in the face of going for gold? Should I, as an institutional Head of Learning and Teaching, now focus on competing with HEIs, so my institution is seen as outstanding in comparison to all the others and place the sector’s aspirational culture in a box marked ‘soppy idealism’? To put it in British Cycling’s inelegant but superlatively economic phrasing: how will my small specialist institution medal when facing larger, wealthier institutions?  Continue reading