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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Customer Services

by Phil Pilkington

“…problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para 38 (original emphasis)

The paradigm shift of students to customers at the heart of higher education has changed strategies, psychological self-images, business models and much else. But are the claims for and against students as customers (SAC) and the related research as useful, insightful and angst ridden as we may at first think?  There are alarms about changing student behaviours and approaches to learning and the relationship towards academic staff but does the naming ‘customers’ reveal what were already underlying, long standing problems? Does the concentrated focus on SAC obscure rather than reveal?

One aspect of SAC is the observation that academic performance declines, and learning becomes more surface and instrumental (Bunce, 2017). Another is that SAC inclines students to be narcissist and aggressive, with HEI management pandering to the demands of both students and their feedback on the NSS, with other strategies to create iconic campus buildings, to maintain or improve league table position (Nixon, 2018).

This raises some methodological questions on (a) the research on academic performance and the degree of narcissism/aggression prior to SAC (ie around 1997 with the Dearing Report); (b) the scope and range of the research given the scale of student numbers, participation rates, the variety of student motivations, the nature of disciplines and their own learning strategies, and the hierarchy of institutions; and (c) the combination of (a) and (b) in the further question whether SAC changed the outlook of students to their education – or is it that we are paying more attention and making different interpretations?

Some argue that the mass system created in some way marketisation of HE and the SAC with all its attendant problems of changing the pedagogic relationship and cognitive approaches. Given Martin Trow’s definitions of elite, mass and universal systems of HE*, the UK achieved a mass system by the late 1980s to early 1990s with the rapid expansion of the polytechnics; universities were slower to expand student numbers. This expansion was before the introduction of the £1,000 top up fees of the Major government and the £3,000 introduced by David Blunkett (Secretary of State for Education in the new Blair government) immediately after the Dearing Report. It was after the 1997 election that the aspiration was for a universal HE system with a 50% participation rate.

If a mass system of HE came about (in a ‘fit of forgetfulness’ ) by 1991 when did marketisation begin? Marketisation may be a name we give to a practice or context which had existed previously but was tacit and culturally and historically deeper, hidden from view. The unnamed hierarchy of institutions of Oxbridge, Russell, polytechnics, HE colleges, FE colleges had powerful cultural and socio-political foundations and was a market of sorts (high to low value goods, access limited by social/cultural capital and price, etc). That hierarchy was not, however, necessarily top-down: the impact of social benefit of the ‘lower orders’ in that hierarchy would be significant in widening participation. The ‘higher order’ existed (and exists) in an ossified form. And as entry was restricted, the competition within the sector did not exist or did not present existential threats. Such is the longue durée when trying to analyse marketisation and the SAC.

The focus on marketisation should help us realise that over the long term the unit of resource was drastically reduced; state funding was slowly and then rapidly withdrawn to the point where the level of student enrolment was critical to long term strategy. That meant not maintaining but increasing student numbers when the potential pool of students would fluctuate – with  the present demographic trough ending in 2021 or 2022. Marketisation can thus be separated to some extent from the cognitive dissonance or other anxieties of the SAC. HEIs (with exceptions in the long-established hierarchy) were driven by the external forces of the funding regime to develop marketing strategies, branding and gaming feedback systems in response to the competition for students and the creation of interest groups – Alliance, Modern, et al. The enrolled students were not the customers in the marketisation but the product or outcome of successful management. The students change to customers as the focus is then on results, employment and further study rates. Such is the split personality of institutional management here.

Research on SAC in STEM courses has a noted inclination to surface learning and the instrumentalism of ‘getting a good grade in order to get a good job’, but this prompts further questions. I am not sure that this is an increased inclination to surface learning, nor whether surface and deep are uncritical norms we can readily employ. The HEAC definition of deep learning has an element of ‘employability’ in the application of knowledge across differing contexts and disciplines (Howie and Bagnall, 2012). A student in 2019 may face the imperative to get a ‘degree level’ job in order to pay back student loans. This is rational related to the student loans regime and widening participation, meaning this imperative is not universally applied given the differing socio-economic backgrounds of all students.

(Note that the current loan system is highly regressive as a form of ‘graduate tax’.)

And were STEM students more inclined toward deep or surface learning before they became SAC?  Teaching and assessment in STEM may have been poorand may have encouraged surface level learning (eg through weekly phase tests which were tardily assessed).

What is deep learning in civil engineering when faced with stress testing concrete girders or in solving quarternion equations in mathematics: is much of STEM actually knowing and processing algorithms? How is such learnable content in STEM equivalent in some cognitive way to the deep learning in modern languages, history, psychology et al? This is not to suggest a hierarchy of disciplines but differences, deep differences, between rules-based disciplines and the humanities.

Learning is complex and individualised, and responsive to, without entirely determining, the curriculum and the forms of its delivery. In the research on SAC the assumptions are that teaching and assessment delivery is both relatively unproblematic and designed to encourage deep, non-instrumental learning. Expectations of the curriculum delivery and assessment will vary amongst students depending on personal background of schooling and parents, the discipline and personal motivations and the expectations will often be unrealistic. Consider why they are unrealistic – more than the narcissism of being a customer. (There is a very wide range of varieties of customer: as a customer of Network Rail I am more a supplicant than a narcissist.)

The alarm over the changes (?) to the students’ view of their learning as SAC in STEM should be put in the context of the previously high drop-out rate of STEM students (relatively higher than non-STEM) which could reach 30% of a cohort. The causes of drop out were thoroughly examined by Mantz Yorke(Yorke and Longden, 2004), but as regards the SAC issue here, STEM drop outs were explained by tutors as lack of the right mathematical preparation. There is comparatively little research on the motivations for students entering STEM courses before they became SAC; such research is not over the long term or longitudinal. However, research on the typology of students with differing motivations for learning (the academic, the social, the questioning student etc) ranged across all courses, does exist (a 20 year survey by Liz Beatty, 2005). Is it possible that after widening participation to the point of a universal system, motivations towards the instrumental or utilitarian will become more prominent? And is there an implication that an elite HE system pre-SAC was less instrumentalist, less surface learning? The creation of PPE (first Oxford in 1921 then spreading across the sector) was an attempt to produce a mandarin class, where career ambition was designed into the academic disciplines. That is, ‘to get a good job’ applies here too but it will be expressed in different, indirect and elevated ways of public service.**

There are some anachronisms in the research on SAC. The acceptance of SAC by management, by producing student charters and providing students places on boards, committees and senior management meetings is not a direct result of students or management considering students as customers. Indeed, it predates SAC by many years and has its origins in the 1960s and 70s.

I am unlikely to get onto the board of Morrisons, but I could for the Co-op – a discussion point on partnerships, co-producers, membership of a community of learners. The struggle by students to get representation in management has taken fifty years from the Wilson government Blue Paper Student Protest (1970) to today. It may have been a concession, but student representation changed the nature of HEIs in the process, prior to SAC. Student Charters appear to be mostly a coherent, user-friendly reduction of lengthy academic and other regulations that no party can comprehend without extensive lawyerly study. A number of HEIs produced charters before the SAC era (late 1990s). And iconic university buildings have been significantly attractive in the architectural profession a long time before SAC – Birmingham’s aspiration to be an independent city state with its Venetian architecture recalling St Mark’s Square under the supervision of Joseph Chamberlain (1890s) or Jim Stirling’s post-modern Engineering faculty building at Leicester (1963) etc (Cannandine 2002).

Students have complex legal identities and are a complex and often fissiparous body. They are customers of catering, they are members of a guild or union, learners, activists and campaigners, clients, tenants, volunteers, sometimes disciplined as the accused, or the appellant, they adopt and create new identities psychologically, culturally and sexually. The language of students as customers creates a language game that excludes other concerns: the withdrawal of state funding, the creation of an academic precariat, the purpose of HE for learning and skills supply, an alienation from a community by the persuasive self-image as atomised customer, how deep learning is a creature of disciplines and the changing job market, that student-academic relations were problematic and now become formalised ‘complaints’. Students are not the ‘other’ and they are much more than customers.

Phil Pilkington is Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, a former CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union, an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE.

*Martin Trow defined an elite, mass and universal systems of HE by participation rates of 10-20%, 20-30% and 40-50% respectively.

** Trevor Pateman, The Poverty of PPE, Oxford, 1968; a pamphlet criticising the course by a graduate; it is acknowledged that the curriculum, ‘designed to run the Raj in 1936’, has changed little since that critique. This document is a fragment of another history of higher education worthy of recovery: of complaint and dissatisfaction with teaching and there were others who developed the ‘alternative prospectus’ movement in the 1970s and 80s.

References

Beatty L, Gibbs G, and Morgan A (2005) ‘Learning orientations and study contracts’, in Marton, F, Hounsell, D and Entwistle, N, (eds) (2005) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education, 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

Bunce, Louise (2017) ‘The student-as-consumer approach in HE and its effects on academic performance’, Studies in Higher Education, 42(11): 1958-1978

Howie P and Bagnall R (2012) ‘A critique of the deep and surface learning model’, Teaching in Higher Education 18(4); they state the distinction of learning is “imprecise conceptualisation, ambiguous language, circularity and a lack of definition…”

Nixon, E, Scullion, R and Hearn, R (2018) ‘Her majesty the student: marketised higher education and the narcissistic (dis)satisfaction of the student consumer’, Studies in Higher Education  43(6): 927-943

Cannandine, David (2004), The ‘Chamberlain Tradition’, in In Churchill’s Shadow, Oxford: Oxford University Press; his biographical sketch of Joe Chamberlain shows his vision of Birmingham as an alternative power base to London.

Yorke M and Longden B (2004) Retention and student success in higher education, Maidenhead: SRHE/Open University Press


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Redrawing research methods and rewriting data

by Kate Carruthers Thomas

The call for papers for the SRHE 2019 Conference slid into my inbox not so long ago, marking the point in the year when the mind must focus in the short-term, in order to benefit from all things Celtic Manor in the longer term! The conference theme: Creativity, Criticality and Conformity in Higher Education invites debate on transcending the traditional and building an innovative research culture. The theme is timely in view of my own recent experiments involving graphics and poetry in social sciences research.

One year ago, I sat with a mass of rich qualitative data I’d collected for Gender(s) At Work, a research project investigating gendered experiences of work and career trajectory in higher education (HE). I’d interviewed 50 members of staff, identifying as female, male and gender non-binary, working in academic and professional services roles within one UK university. I set about analysing the data using Massey’s theory of geographies of power operating within space. I wanted to explore ways in which gender operates as a ‘geography of power’ within HE and the extent to which participants’ diverse and complex lived experiences trouble the prevailing career narrative of linear, upward trajectory.

Clear space soon emerged between the rhetoric of gender equality and lived experiences in the workplace and throughout working lives. Despite decades of equal opportunities legislation and institutional equality policies, the glass ceiling remains a feature of our sector. Elements of less familiar career archetypes: the glass cliff (Ryan and Haslam, 2005; Bruckmuller et al, 2014); the glass escalator (Williams, 2013; Budig, 2002) and the glass closet (Merriam-Webster, 2018) also surfaced in the transcripts.  These metaphors, archetypal and architectural – were something of a gift to a researcher concerned with the relationship between space and power. I found myself experimenting – you might call it doodling – with visual representations of the glass ceiling,  escalator, cliff and closet.

Using the visual was not completely new territory for me; as a doctoral student I had employed visual mapping as a research tool (Carruthers Thomas, 2018a) and tentatively used abstract diagrams as aids to explaining my theoretical framework and findings (Thomas, 2016), but I hadn’t picked up a pencil with intent since school art lessons. Nevertheless, four cartoon characters emerged from my doodles; embodiments of gendered dis/advantage in the HE workplace.

Throughout the Gender(s) At Work project, I had been disseminating emerging findings through conference papers and PowerPoint presentations. I had written a chapter about my research methodology (Carruthers Thomas, 2019a). As academics we anticipate and reproduce such formats; they keep the academic wheels turning and form the building blocks of academic credibility. With data collection complete however, I was unsure that the temporal and structural constraints of these conventions were going to do justice to the volume of complex personal narratives entrusted to me by research participants. I was also becoming increasingly drawn towards McLure’s argument for

immersion in and entanglement with the minutiae of the data … an experimentation or crafting … a very different kind of engagement with data from the distanced contemplation of the table that is the arrested result of the process.

(McLure, 2013: 174-175).

In March 2018, the Sociological Review explicitly invited unconventional contributions to its conference: Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges. Still enjoying my experimentation with cartooning, I decided to explore the possibilities of communicating my research findings through a ‘graphic essay’ entitled My Brilliant Career? An Investigation. This would be in the format of a large-scale, hand-drawn comic strip conforming to the structural conventions of an essay or article. My proposal was accepted and the work began! The learning curve was precipitous!

 In June 2018, I exhibited My Brilliant Career? An Investigation at Undisciplining (Carruthers Thomas, 2018b) in the impressive surroundings of BALTIC Gateshead. The four A2-sized panels remained on display throughout the three days of the conference. It was strikingly different, communicating my research this way rather than hothousing it in a 20 minute Powerpoint presentation. Many delegates returned to the exhibit several times to look, bring colleagues, take photographs, ask questions. I engaged in discussions not only about the medium, but about the research process and findings too. And I myself engaged anew with the work, as an exhibit, rather than a cherished work in progress. I later translated the four panels into an A1-sized academic poster, displayed at the SRHE 2018 Annual Conference.

Meanwhile, another call for unconventional conference contributions in the form of poetic and performative work, had come from the Art of Management and Organisation (AoMO). This triggered a second experiment in creative criticality resulting in Glass, a long poem also based on the Gender(s) At Work data. Unlike graphic art, in poetry I do have a track record (Carruthers Thomas, 2018c), but had not considered blurring the boundary between poetry and academia until this call. Yet, as an academic my research practice involves collecting, analysing, distilling and presenting data. My research is a form of enquiry seeking enhanced intelligence and evidence to advocate organisational, structural and cultural change. As a poet, I follow a similar process to create a poem. More, or less, consciously I collect data: ideas, questions, emotions, sense phenomena, then manipulate language and sound to distil the data into poetic form. Glass brings these practices together.

To write it, I returned yet again to the interview transcripts, creating a poem comprising four sections – ceiling, escalator, closet and cliff – using participants’ words and a narrative framework featuring the researcher’s voice, using original poetry. Glass was deliberately written as a piece to be performed, another first, as I had only previously written poems for the page.

Even now, even now in my meetings

I’m still faced with wall to wall suits.

And I still hear my colleagues repeating

the proposal I tried to get through weeks ago

Great idea!

                                                                                (extract from Cliff, Glass 2018)

Glass and My Brilliant Career were created independently of one another, in different media but they draw on the same research data. This is not all they share. Both involved an extended process of analysis and representation; repeated revisiting of the data and work in painstaking detail. Both explicitly draw on and draw in, the affective, bringing the potential for surprise, humour, anger and pain into the room without apology. Finally, both also required me to allow myself to be vulnerable to audience resistance, discomfort, critiques on multiple levels and questions of academic validity.

Largely positive responses to the graphic essay and the research poem at those conferences set me thinking about ways to signpost the potential of creative approaches in social science research more widely and led to another experiment in academic practice.  I designed a multi-modal dissemination programme to take the findings of Gender(s) At Work out to UK universities and research institutes.  The programme featured six ‘options’ from which host institutions could select, mix and match: the exhibit My Brilliant Career? An Investigation; the research poem Glass; a conventional Powerpoint presentation of the research findings: The Workplace Glassed and Gendered and another giving an illustrated account of my emerging graphic social science practice: The Accidental Cartoonist. Building on both the research findings and visual methods, I also designed two participative workshops. Mapping Career challenged participants to develop meaningful visual alternatives to the reductive metaphors of career ladder and pipeline and On The Page explored the way simple visual and graphic methods might be used in research and teaching. I publicised the programme via email across the UK HE sector.

The response was extraordinary. Since November 2018 I’ve visited universities and research institutes from Edinburgh to London; Cambridge to Bangor. Audiences have included academics in all disciplines, professional services staff, senior management, conference delegates, Athena SWAN teams, women’s networks and mentoring groups, postgraduate and undergraduate students. I called the initiative the ‘gword tour’ after my blog the g word (that’s g for gender).   Six months, 30 ‘gigs’ – all that’s missing is the T-shirt!

One day I might be discussing Gender(s) At Work aims, research methods and findings to Athena SWAN leads and women’s networks; on another I’ll be delivering the Mapping Career workshop at a staff conference. I’ve presented The Accidental Cartoonist to academic developers and EdD students and encouraged academics to experiment with visual methods in their research and teaching practices in the On The Page workshop. Glass has been performed at some unlikely venues, including the Wellcome Sanger Genome Campus, the Stansted Airport Novotel – and to audiences somewhat larger than those at the average poetry reading!

How will you crack the glass enclosing some,

exposing some, blinding others

to their privilege?

Reflect on it.

                                                                                (extract from Epilogue, Glass 2018)

Throughout the gword tour I have diligently handed out structured feedback forms (in return for a free postcard), providing me with a continuous feedback loop and resulting in adaptation and tweaking of individual sessions throughout. Now the tour has concluded, a large pile of completed forms await me and I’m looking forward to getting the bigger picture. Meanwhile I’m already musing on two questions which have arisen throughout the past year. Firstly, whether and how addressing familiar topics through unfamiliar media can disrupt audience expectations and dislodge habitual responses to tricky subjects such as gender equality; secondly, whether what I have described in this blog constitutes being ‘differently academic’. 

By ‘differently academic’ I mean taking the opportunity to sit with our data for longer, deliberately to approach it from different angles, to explore its creative dimensions. I mean bringing data to diverse audiences, in diverse ways over an extended period, a process which has only further energised and deepened my engagement in the original research questions. Audience after audience has grilled me on my research rationale, process, findings, limitations and implications. Each time, their questions, comments and challenges have pushed my analyses further and opened new lines of enquiry.

I fully intend to publish my reflections on these questions in conventional academic formats: papers, articles and chapters.It may be that creative, critical work in our field can only gain academic legitimacy through this route.Meanwhile, other opportunities have arisen. Glass was published in the Sociological Fiction Zine in May 2019 (Carruthers Thomas, 2019b). I am currently working on a set of visuals for a new academic research centre and will be poet-in-residence at an academic conference in November 2019. The SRHE call for papers defines creativity as ‘transcending traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships’. I hope to continue to be creative and critical in my academic work, not for transcending’s sake, but ‘to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, and interpretations’.

SRHE member Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas is Senior Research Fellow and Athena SWAN Project Manager at Birmingham City University  kate.thomas@bcu.ac.uk  @drkcarrutherst Blog: – the g word https://thegword2017.wordpress.com/

References

Bruckmüller, S, Ryan, M, Rink, F and Haslam, SA (2014) ‘Beyond the Glass Ceiling: The Glass Cliff and its Lessons for Organizational Policy’, Social Issues and Policy Review, 8(1): 202-232

Budig, M (2002) ‘Male Advantage and the Gender Composition of Jobs: Who Rides the Glass Escalator?’, Social Problems 49(2): 258-277

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018a) Rethinking Student Belonging in Higher Education: From Bourdieu to Borderlands, Abingdon: Routledge

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018b) My Brilliant Career? An Investigation. Graphic Essay exhibited at Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges Sociological Review, Gateshead, BALTIC.  June 2018

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018c) Navigation, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Cinnamon Press. 

Carruthers Thomas, K (2019a) ‘Gender as a Geography of Power’ in G Crimmins (ed) Resisting Sexism in the Academy: Higher Education, Gender and Intersectionality, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Carruthers Thomas, K (2019b) Glass. Sociological Fiction Zine, Edition #5 www.sofizine.com.

McLure, M (2013) ‘Classification or Wonder? Coding as an Analytic Practice in Qualitative Research’, In Coleman, R and Ringrose, J (eds) Deleuze and Research Methodologies, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.  Chapter 9. pp.164-183.

Merriam-Webster (2019). [online] Available from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/glass%20closet Accessed 28 May 2019.

Ryan, M and Haslam, A. (2005) The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions, British Journal of Management, 16(2): 81-90

Thomas, K (2016). Dimensions of belonging: rethinking retention for mature, part-time undergraduates in English higher education, PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London

Williams, M (2013) ‘The Glass Escalator, Revisited. Gender Inequality in Neoliberal Times’, Gender & Society 27 (5): 609–629


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‘Care-free at the top?’ Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers

by Marie-Pierre Moreau

Over the years I have expressed a keen interest in the relationship between care and academia. This interest was triggered by my personal circumstances when, in 2008, as a research fellow and PhD student, I took my newborn daughter to the local university nursery and mused on the lack of research exploring the relationship between studying and parenting. What I did not know at the time was that, a decade later, I would be writing about this particular episode and that this thought would lead to the development of a range of research projects, initially focusing on student parents and, lately, on academics with a range of caring responsibilities. Earlier work I conducted with Murray Robertson on the latter group suggested that, at senior levels of the academic hierarchy, academic cultures are experienced as being particularly ‘care-free’, with one participant in particular describing care as ‘glossed over’ in senior academic cultures (Moreau and Robertson, 2017). Winning a 2017 SRHE Research Award enabled us to further explore the in/visibility and mis/recognition of care at that level of the academic hierarchy, as we embarked on the ‘Care-free at the top’? Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers project (Moreau and Robertson, 2019).

It is worth reminding here that very little is known about academics with caring responsibilities, and even less so about those carers who are in senior academic positions. So far, most research in this field has focused on ‘balancing’ motherhood and academic work and has ignored those with caring responsibilities other than the parenting of a healthy, abled child. Likewise, research on those in leadership and management roles has concentrated on their academic lives, usually in isolation of their more ‘personal’ commitments. Drawing on a post-structuralist feminist perspective and a corpus of 20 semi-structured interviews with ‘senior academics’ based in England, the research team explored how members of this group experience and negotiate their hyphenated identity, as senior academics who are also carers. In the stories they told us, participants went to great length to keep care ‘at bay’, drawing on a discourse of separateness which has been a long-lasting feature of academic cultures, in Europe and beyond. Think, for example, of Descartes’ philosophical proposition ‘cogito ergo sum’ and of one of its underpinnings, ie the view that our intellect suffices to define who we are. Despite considerable cultural changes over the centuries, the association of academic excellence with White, middle-class and ‘care-free’ masculinity subsists to this day (Leathwood and Read, 2008).

Yet it is also clear that, despite these discursive attempts to keep care ‘at bay’ and embody the subject position of the ‘care-free’ academic, participants’ narratives simultaneously highlighted the entanglements of care and paid work in their lives – a slightly expected finding in a context where the family and academia have been described as ‘greedy institutions’ which demand full availability and loyalty (Coser, 1974). In particular, this discursive construction of the academic as care-free appears highly gendered, as well as classed and ‘raced’, with considerable variations across this group of academics in terms of who can occupy the positional identity of the ‘care-free’ academic. Those who were the more likely to fit the default figure of the ‘bachelor boy’ (ie a white, middle-class, heterosexual academic) were less likely to experience the tensions arising from combining care and paid work than those belonging to marginalised groups. Women academics, and women academics from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in particular, often described their experience of combining the demands of paid and care work as a ‘struggle’ – a narrative broadly absent from the stories told by their male counterparts. It is also clear that those identifying as LGBTQ were exposed to additional difficulties in their attempt to perform a senior academic and a carer identity, in the context of academic cultures which remain predominantly heteronormative. Likewise, those with responsibilities other than the parenting of a healthy, abled child were, overall, the more dissatisfied with the support received from their institution on a formal basis, and the more pessimistic about significant improvements to this support in the future. Thus, there are considerable hierarchies and intersectionalities at play in the lives of senior academic carers, with their ability to swiftly perform a senior academic identity depending on their location at the intersection of multiple discourses and relations of power.

Such inequalities are maybe best illustrated by the contrast between Jeremy’s and Rosie’s narratives (both names are pseudonyms, with limited detail provided to protect participants’ identities). Jeremy (a professor and a father) talked about feeling ‘relentlessly positive’ about his job, with academic life constructed as eminently flexible and allowing him to care for his children. Combining caring and academia was, in his own words, ‘a very natural experience’. He did not identify any negative impact from being an academic carer, nor did he think there were any senior roles which might be challenging for carers to hold:

… but is any post not attainable?  No, I don’t think that’s correct at all, I think all senior management posts are entirely compatible with having a very active family life or indeed, a very active life without a family outside work.

In contrast, Rosie (professor, caring for parents) alluded to the multifaceted dimensions of caregiving (Lynch et al, 2009) and to its significant impact on her life:

… even when professional services are involved and are supposedly responsible for the person you were caring for, I am still responsible for my mum (…) So this issue affects your day-to-day living, your life, your working life, because if there’s a problem they ring you, she’s refusing personal care, she’s locking herself in her room, she’s throwing things, she’s abusing staff, and you’re the one responsible. It all comes back to you.

Also significant was the finding that some senior positions appear more open to carers. Managerial routes were viewed as particularly hostile to this group due to expectations of full availability and to the ‘ever present’ culture they were linked with, while a research professorship route was deemed highly demanding but more flexible and thus more ‘carer-friendly’. Managerial positions that still involved academic work (ie a pro vice-chancellor or a faculty dean) were deemed the most problematic for carers, due to the multiple demands on those occupying these positions and the resulting workload (eg when individuals have significant management responsibilities and are also expected to be research active).

In the context of an ageing and feminised academic workforce (HESA, 2018), the combination of paid and care work is likely to remain a key concern for the sector for many years to come. To challenge the status quo, we need to move away from a conception of carers as ‘encumbered’ and of care as ‘getting in the way’ of performing the neoliberal dream of the care-free, globally mobile and fully available academic. Instead, care needs to be conceptualised as a part of life that calls for recognition, with the figure of the carer normalised, in senior academia as elsewhere. This requires challenging care-free academic cultures – something individualised practices cannot achieve and even help to maintain. 

Based on the findings from this project, we made the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1: There is a considerable dearth of data regarding carers, including in senior academic positions. HESA and individual institutions should consider collecting data on academic staff’s caring responsibilities in intersection with other identity markers (e.g. position, gender and ethnicity).

Recommendation 2: The sector and individual institutions should mainstream care in university policies and practices so as to ensure that senior leadership roles are compatible with caring responsibilities. While this study highlights particular issues at this level of the hierarchy (eg mobility requirements, a ‘long hours’ culture, heavy workloads), these are likely to vary across institutions and subject areas. Thus, the views of carers should be sought before reviewing extant policies and developing new ones.

Recommendation 3: Institutions need to acknowledge the diversity, intersectionality and fluidity of care. This means a ‘one fits all’ solution is unlikely to be satisfactory. Policies should be flexible enough so that they can be tailored to suit the needs of various groups of carers, particularly women and those with caring responsibilities other than parenting, whose careers and well-being are more likely to be affected by their dual roles.

While the project is now completed and the final report published, the team continues to research this area, with the recent publication of an article on individualised practices of care in academia. Engaging with HE policy-makers and practitioners, as well as with the general public, is another ongoing aspect of our work. This has involved working closely with various HE institutions and national HE bodies; producing a short film on academic caregivers; and developing two briefing papers (to be published in the summer). In doing so, the team aims to raise awareness and encourage the development of policies which recognise and value the presence and contribution of carers in academia.

SRHE member Professor Marie-Pierre Moreau, School of Education and Social Care, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. Contact details: marie-pierre.moreau@anglia.ac.uk. Marie-Pierre and Murray would like to thank the SRHE for their generous support, Prof. Nicky Le Feuvre, Université de Lausanne, who acted as critical friend on this project, our colleagues at Anglia Ruskin University, and the participants to this research who shared their life stories with us.

The following policy briefings may also be of interest:

Academic Staff as Caregivers

Students as Caregivers

References

Coser, L (1974) Greedy institutions New York, Free Press

HESA (2018) Who’s working in HE?: Personal characteristics.

Available online: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he/characteristics

Leathwood, C and Read, B  (2008) Gender and the Changing Face of Higher Education: A Feminised Future? London: SRHE/Open University Press

Lynch, K and Ivancheva, M (2015) ‘Academic freedom and the commercialisation of universities: a critical ethical analysis’, Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 15: 6-20

Lynch, K, Baker, J and Lyons, M (2009) Affective equality: Love, care and injustice Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Moreau, MP (2016) ‘Regulating the student body/ies: University policies and student parents’, British Educational Research Journal 42(5): 906-925

Moreau, MP and Robertson, M (2019) ‘Care-free at the top’? Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers London: SRHE

Moreau, MP and Robertson, M (2017) Carers and careers: Career development and access to leadership positions among academic staff with caring responsibilities London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education