The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Exploring a ‘Sense of Belonging’ and Why It Matters in Higher Education

By Gill Mills and Caroline Jones

This was the first time we had attended an SRHE Event: we were optimistic and excited to experience and develop new knowledge aligned to the subject area of, ‘A sense of belonging within Higher Education’ and we were not disappointed. The SRHE venue provided an intimate but not intimidating environment where we were exposed to speakers covering a range of different elements that linked into the common theme. There was initial insight into the issues of admissions; clearing and contextual data from research delivered by Mansor Rezaian, from the Queen Mary University, then a qualitative exploration of non-traditional students’ journey into an elite university from Debbi Stanistreet of the University of Liverpool. Following these opening speakers there were opportunities for participant questions and answers and whilst we did not pose questions we found great value in listening to the elaborate and interesting discussions that took place. This part of the event created an academic community feel with professionals from across institutions, faculties and disciplines debating contextual dilemmas and experiences.

The latter part of the day explored the construction of ‘spaces’ of student friendship, with an in-depth delivery from Mark Holton of the University of Plymouth followed by some thoughtful ideas on how to use innovative approaches to research for under-represented students in urban settings, courtesy of speakers from the Queen Mary University. There was an extremely thought-provoking presentation by researcher Daniel Hartley and students from Queen Mary University – Dushant Patel and Nadia Hafedh – who are undertaking participatory action research relating to the recruitment of a sensitive community and implications of employing qualitative methodology in generating institutional change. Capturing the students’ voice and listening to their experiences as part of this research brought to life the importance of collaborative research and we found the idea of capturing data using a ‘long table’ approach fascinating. It was also refreshing to hear honest and frank discussions relating to the difficulties that the researchers had encountered thus far, with participating academics offering solutions and suggestions for resolutions or alternative approaches.

The day culminated in small group discussion on key issues affecting a sense of belonging and analysing why this matters in higher education. The opportunity to share ideas and knowledge through these professional networking discussions provided a valuable and timely end to this academic research collaborative event.

The style of the presentations was relaxed, thorough, informative and we found them insightful, enabling us to consider the impact of how the different pieces of research would sit within the context of our own institution. The day gave us valuable time to reflect and develop our professional knowledge based on evidence gained through the sharing of the work of others within academic research and across a range of institutions. We are already looking at the calendar to see which event we can book next! Thank you to SRHE for this opportunity; an exceptionally enjoyable day which helped us develop our own ‘sense of belonging’ to the SRHE community of researchers into HE.

Gill Mills is Course Leader for the Foundation Degree in Health and Social Care and Caroline Jones is Lecturer in Health and Social Care at University Campus, Oldham, which supports their SRHE membership.

Paul Temple

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Mind the Knowledge Gap

By Paul Temple

I teach an MA session at the Institute of Education called “The University in the Knowledge Economy”. We canter through the history, starting with a few reflections on the medieval university, going on to consider the development of science in nineteenth-century Germany, noting Bush’s 1945 Science – the Endless Frontier report, examining Bell’s seminal 1973 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and coming up to date with references to theorists such as Stehr and the policy statements to be found in any British White Paper on higher education in recent decades, or in any comparable European Commission report. My no doubt predictable thesis is that the university has steadily assumed an increasingly dominant place in knowledge production and transfer in modern societies; and that this has certain implications for the ways in which universities should be planned and managed.

But I’m now beginning to think that this rather Whig approach is looking painfully complacent. The development of knowledge economies seems to have had the effect of producing deep social divisions that are only now becoming obvious – the Brexit vote here, Trump in the US, Le Pen in France, and so on. What was widely thought to be an unarguable good – more knowledge, used in new ways – is turning out to have some troubling consequences. It doesn’t have to be like this, of course, but the understandable grievances of those left behind by the knowledge economy – stuck in the knowledge gap, between old ways of working and the new economy – have been both overlooked by otherwise progressive politicians and then ruthlessly exploited by cynical ones. Do we now have “knowledge Britain” and an “anti-knowledge Britain”, to set alongside the “locals vs cosmopolitans” and the “somewheres vs anywheres” divisions? Have those of us working in knowledge businesses assumed too easily that most people were seeing the world from a vaguely similar vantage point to our own?

Universities have got some questions to answer here. If they have done such a wonderful job in creating and transmitting knowledge, then how come the quarter-baked ideas about how a modern economy works (“balancing the books” and so on, as if the national economy were a corner shop) have the currency that they apparently do? How come that the benefits of a single market for goods and services, explained in shelves-full of economics textbooks, have so little political traction? How come that the intellectually discredited idea of grammar schools is still thought to be worth even discussing? (The bitter irony here is that the idea does rest on research – mistaken when not actually bogus – on IQs.)

The idea of the knowledge economy or society seemed not to figure at all in the recent general election campaign. Actually, you could argue that the Conservative campaign’s vision of taking Britain back to the 1950s – Brexit, grammar schools, fewer foreigners, fox hunting – was an anti-knowledge one, designed to cut Britain off from the cultural and economic links on which its knowledge base (and much else) depends while at the same time deepening internal divisions. Accordingly, my feelings towards my fellow citizens became markedly warmer in the early hours of 9 June, when it became apparent that this approach had met with something less than universal acclamation.

At HEPI’s “Policy Briefing Day” in April, a former ministerial special adviser apparently suggested that “universities tailor their priorities to fit the Government’s expressed goal of ensuring the UK’s departure from the EU is a success” (translation: don’t cause trouble, get on side, or else). I suggest that the task confronting universities goes beyond helping the government to manage its Brexit damage-limitation project: it is about working to close the national knowledge gap and in doing so saying, loudly and clearly, that some ideas are just plain wrong.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.