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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Examining the Examiner: Investigating the assessment literacy of external examiners

By Dr Emma Medland

Quality assurance in higher education has become increasingly dominant worldwide, but has recently been subject to mounting criticism. Research has highlighted challenges to comparability of academic standards and regulatory frameworks. The external examining system is a form of professional self-regulation involving an independent peer reviewer from another HE institution, whose role is to provide quality assurance in relation to identified modules/programmes/qualifications etc. This system has been a distinctive feature of UK higher education for nearly 200 years and is considered best practice internationally, being evident in various forms across the world.

External examiners are perceived as a vital means of maintaining comparable standards across higher education and yet this comparability is being questioned. Despite high esteem for the external examiner system, growing criticisms have resulted in a cautious downgrading of the role. One critique focuses on developing standardised procedures that emphasise consistency and equivalency in an attempt to uphold standards, arguably to the neglect of an examination of the quality of the underlying practice. Bloxham and Price (2015) identify unchallenged assumptions underpinning the external examiner system and ask: ‘What confidence can we have that the average external examiner has the “assessment literacy” to be aware of the complex influences on their standards and judgement processes?’ (Bloxham and Price 2015: 206). This echoes an earlier point raised by Cuthbert (2003), who identifies the importance of both subject and assessment expertise in relation to the role.

The concept of assessment literacy is in its infancy in higher education, but is becoming accepted into the vernacular of the sector as more research emerges. In compulsory education the concept has been investigated since the 1990s; it is often dichotomised into assessment literacy or illiteracy and described as a concept frequently used but less well understood. Both sectors describe assessment literacy as a necessity or duty for educators and examiners alike, yet both sectors present evidence of, or assume, low levels of assessment literacy. As a result, it is argued that developing greater levels of assessment literacy across the HE sector could help reverse the deterioration of confidence in academic standards.

Numerous attempts have been made to delineate the concept of assessment literacy within HE, focusing for example on the rules, language, standards, and knowledge, skills and attributes surrounding assessment. However, assessment literacy has also been described as Continue reading


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Restructuring of the Irish Institutes of Technology sector

The SRHE Blog is now read in more than 100 countries worldwide, and we have therefore decided to introduce publications in more than one language. Click on ‘Version en español below to jump to the Spanish language version of this post. In the next few months we hope to post blogs in French, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese and more. SRHE members worldwide are encouraged to forward this notification, especially to non-English-speaking colleagues. 

New contributions are welcome, especially if they address topical issues of policy or practice in countries other than England and the USA. Submissions may be written either in English or in the author’s native language. Please send all contributions to the Editor, rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk

La Reestructuración de los Institutos de Tecnología en Irlanda Version en español

By Tanya Zubrzycki

Consistent with global trends, the expansion of higher education in Ireland is occurring at a rapid pace, with a pressing need to make the system more efficient and responsive to the needs of society. Continue reading

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Nonsense on stilts

By Rob Cuthbert

How does government think Britain’s higher education can be improved? The government legislated in 2017 to expand competition in a statutory higher education market. We may think this is a consistent policy narrative for public services, but consider the experience of transport. How does government think Britain’s transport system can be improved? After years of debate the government finally announced in October 2016 that it would expand Heathrow rather than Gatwick. And in recent months government has considered reopening some railway lines closed in the Beeching cuts 50 years ago. These policy choices in HE and transport differ considerably in how they have been framed.

50 years ago government set up the Roskill Commission to examine alternatives for London’s third airport; it relied heavily on an economic perspective. Peter Self’s (LSE) famous article in Political Quarterly in 1970 said: ‘Nonsense on stilts … Bentham’s unfair description of natural rights, is a phrase which might more fairly be used of the gigantic cost-benefit exercise which is currently being carried out by the Roskill Commission’ It was academic economists who helped to dismantle the primacy of economic arguments. In 2017-2018 the government is consulting on proposals for the third runway at Heathrow, with new legal objections coming from the local councils around the airport. Politicians losing the political argument are resorting to law. Economics no longer frames the argument.

50 years ago drastic cuts in the rail network followed the ‘notorious’ Beeching report: ‘ Continue reading


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Please can we actually do something to arrest the decline in the number of disadvantaged adult learners in universities?

By John Butcher

As the UK higher education sector contemplates its New Year resolutions, let me put in an urgent plea for universities to address an unequivocal failure in attempts to widen participation: the potential disappearance of adult learners from English HE. HESA (2017) report a 61% decline in numbers of mature part-time and full-time learners in HE since 2010. Since adult learners are disproportionately likely to be from disadvantaged or under-represented groups, this should be deeply worrying for university leaders committed to widening participation, as well as to a government espousing social mobility. Imagine the furore if female student numbers dropped by 61%, or BME numbers… Continue reading


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Spanish Science and Education in turbulent times

The SRHE Blog is now read in more than 100 countries worldwide, and we have therefore decided to introduce publications in more than one language. The first is Michele Girotto’s analysis of the prospects for Catalonian universities in the turbulent Spanish context – click on ‘Version en español below to jump to the Spanish language version of this post. In the next few months we hope to post blogs in French, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese and more. SRHE members worldwide are encouraged to forward this notification, especially to non-English-speaking colleagues. 

New contributions are welcome, especially if they address topical issues of policy or practice in countries other than England and the USA. Submissions may be written either in English or in the author’s native language. Please send all contributions to the Editor, rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk

La educación y la ciencia en épocas turbulentas  Version en español

Media platforms show many experts reflecting on the need for a new journalism capable of facing the challenges of a turbulent environment. The role of journalism is to tell the truth as faithfully as possible, which is a greater challenge in complex times. The role of the press is also essential for public management accountability. However, citizens’ trust in mainstream media is shrinking, especially when they are looking for independent and trustworthy information. The Edelman Trust Barometer for Spain,[1] published at the beginning of this year, acknowledged that Spaniards’ decline in trust also involved companies and governments, besides the media. There is a widespread decline in citizens’ trust across the world. The Barometer recognised a downturn in 21 of the 28 countries analysed, with an average level of 47 per cent. Spain’s level of trust declined from 46 to 44 percent. In the light of conspiracy theories and the abundance of barely verified information – ‘fake news’ – many people do not know for certain what or whom to believe. The easiest option involves believing whatever you want, with clear adverse effects.
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‘Academics in the arena’ – showcasing conferences research at SRHE 2017

Emily Henderson writes on fulfilling her dream of convening a symposium on conferences research at the Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference.

This post was first published on Emily’s blog, https://conferenceinference.wordpress.com and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

When we set out to create an academic blog on conferences, it was in part because conferences research is so disparate – in terms of discipline and geographical location. The Conference Inference blog has provided us with a wonderful platform to share research and comment on conferences over the course of 2017, including from a fantastic array of guest contributors – and we will be thinking more about this first year in our 1-year anniversary celebrations in early 2018. However this post reports back from a very special treat – namely, five papers on conferences grouped together in the same room at a conference! The symposium, entitled ‘Academics in the Arena: Foregrounding Academic Conferences as Sites for Higher Education Research’ (see information here, pp. 25-27) brought together a variety of critical perspectives on conferences, along with a discussant contribution from Helen Perkins, Director of SRHE (Society for Research in Higher Education).

The first paper presented early analysis from an ongoing research project on fictional representations of conferences by Conference Inference co-editor Emily F Henderson and guest contributor Pauline Reynolds (see Pauline’s guest post). The paper, entitled ‘“Novel delegates”: representations of academic identities in fictional conferences’, focused in particular on academic identities at conferences as they are portrayed in novels, short stories and graphic novels. Fictional conferences act to both equalise and reproduce academic hierarchy; delegates are homogenised as masses and crowds, uniformly badged and seated, just as delegate-professors are singled out for VIP treatment and delegate-students are denied access to certain spaces and conversations. Continue reading