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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Virtually inaccessible

by Dai O’Brien

With the current climate of everyone working from home, remote meetings and dashing to move all teaching and course materials online, there seem to be two schools of thought opening up in discussions on social media. One is a response of almost resentment and caution, a feeling of being rushed into something that most academics are not trained for and have no experience of. The other is a feeling of almost relief, a ‘finally!’ moment from those who are more willing or able to embrace the online teaching classroom and virtual meetings.

However, what neither of these two camps seems to engage with are the problems of access for deaf and disabled people. There seems to be an assumption from many that placing resources online magically makes them accessible to all, and that technology will solve all ills. I’m sure that many of us are quickly finding out that this isn’t necessarily the case. In this blog post I will focus on deaf access to this move online for academics working in HE, not only for teaching, but also for professional, collegiate matters.

Many of the insights of this blog post are from research I conducted as part of my SRHE Newer Researchers Prize funded project, The Spaces and Places of Deaf Academia (2017-2019). This project focused on the experiences of deaf academics working in HEIs in the UK, exploring their experiences of the workplace on both a physical and social level. While this research obviously was conducted before the current pandemic, there are useful lessons that can be taken from the findings which are worth bearing in mind during the current migration to online and remote working and teaching.

If anything, this move to online working exacerbates rather than resolves many of the problems deaf academics face. While it was often difficult before to find BSL/English interpreters or other communication support workers at short notice to attend meetings and to interpret or provide access for everyone to those meetings, it can be even more difficult now to find interpreters and other communication support workers who have the technological ability and resources to provide the access that deaf academics need. Even when they do have the right technology and skills, meetings held over apps such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom require pre-meeting meetings between the interpreter, the meeting chair and the deaf academic to ensure that all parties know how to use the technology, the chair understands how to run a remote meeting, and new ground rules are established and upheld to ensure access for all. This is all extra labour required from the deaf academic to ensure that they can participate on a level playing field. Sometimes these pre-meeting meetings last longer than the meeting itself! If one is to consider a similar situation arising where a deaf student needs access to a seminar or lecture live-streamed online, power imbalances in the student-lecturer relationship may lead them to feeling unable to insist on such a pre-lecture meeting to iron out any potential problems, resulting in them missing out on vital contact hours.

In the first couple of weeks of remote working, I have found myself sometimes inundated with meeting requests from colleagues, managers and students. During a normal working week I would have felt confident and comfortable in re-scheduling these meetings for a time when I had interpreters booked. But the immediacy of the need to navigate the sudden change in working conditions, and the relaxing of usual work boundaries and time frames that working from home seems to impose, have meant that this has not always been possible. Remote working comes with an implicit expectation that you are always available to meet, anywhere, so long as you have an internet connection. This isn’t true for those of us who need communication access provided by BSL/English interpreters. We are still restricted by the availability of the interpreters, and our ability to pay them. Luckily, I work with colleagues who understand this. However, similar restrictions apply to students. They may have limited funds to pay for communication access, access which is required not just for face-to-face or streamed teaching, but also any podcasts, uncaptioned videos or other resources that we feel able or compelled to share in this new virtual teaching space.

Some of this technology offers automatic captions or other automatic access options. But very often the output of these automatic functions is extremely poor, if they work at all. For deaf students (and academics) these disjointed, context free, incorrect captions are often more of an additional barrier than an access solution. It is not enough to rely on technology, or to expect it to act as a saviour. We all need to be considerate and critical of our new online remote approaches and consider whether or not they are truly accessible.

Dr Dai O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies in the School of Languages and Linguistics, York St John University. Read his 22 November 2019 blog What are the experiences of deaf academics working in UK HEIs’ here, with BSL interpretation.

References

O’Brien, D (2020) ‘Mapping deaf academic spaces’ Higher Education DOI: 10.1007/s10734-020-00512-7

O’Brien, D (2020) ‘Negotiating academic environments: using Lefebvre to conceptualise deaf spaces and disabling/enabling environments’ Journal of Cultural Geography 37(1): 26-45 DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2019.1677293


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The Office for Students and ‘successful outcomes’

by GR Evans

In March the Office for Students press release welcomed a ‘landmark victory’ which ‘sets an important precedent’ in the  recent judicial review of the Office for Students’ decision not to register Bloomsbury Institute Ltd. The OfS warns that:

The OfS will not hesitate to defend its decisions robustly where they are in the interests of students and will seek to recover its costs in doing so …

Nevertheless, it is likely that this will not be the end of the matter, with other challenges from disappointed providers in the pipeline.

What exactly has been decided and what demands further clarification? The question answered by the judgment was not  whether the decision was right. It was whether the Office for Students had acted ‘lawfully’. That depended on whether the OfS Conditions of Registration were themselves lawful and whether they had been properly applied.

The main hurdle at which Bloomsbury’s application for registration fell was its failure to satisfy OfS Condition B3, which includes the requirement to secure ‘successful outcomes for all of its students’ (‘continuation rates’). This includes an expectation that the ‘successful’ student will be one who enters into well-paid employment on graduation (‘progression rates’) and thus  arguably gets ‘value for money’ for the student fee. These were the two criteria on which Bloomsbury was deemed to have failed.

The judgment considered how OfS had actually applied condition B3. It did not attempt to explore the boundaries of the grey area in which the definition of ‘continuation’ and ‘progression’  continue to sit. It simply concentrated on what the OfS had done to set detailed rules to be applied case by case. It just asked whether they were ‘lawful’.

The problem OfS faces is that providers do not all have the same or similar ranges of students forming a typical body. Bloomsbury had made that point very energetically, explaining that 85%, of Bloomsbury’s students were mature students; 66% were BAME; 16% were disabled; 90% came  from families earning less than £25,000 per annum;  and 88% began with a Foundation year because 80% did not not have A Levels. The OfS explained that it had dealt with this problem pragmatically and that:

this had already been taken into account in the selection of the baselines, ie the baselines were lower than they might have been to take this into account.

In other words, the expectations had been set low so as to accommodate these outliers. That was potentially perfectly reasonable and unlikely to be unlawful.

But Bloomsbury argued that that the OfS erred in law because it had created secret ‘thresholds’ in ‘confidential Decision-Making Guidance’. It said these should have been  published in advance and the attention of applicants for registration should have been drawn to them. It added that they were contrary to the OfS’s published Regulatory Framework and the guidance provided by the Secretary of State for Education. Bloomsbury also pointed to the fact that these ‘thresholds’ had been ‘drawn up by the OfS’s Director of Competition and Registration’,who did not have the necessary authority under the  OfS’s scheme of delegation.

The judgment considered all this and held that the Director for Competition and Regulation had been ‘entitled to take responsibility for the drafting and circulation of the Decision-Making Guidance’, because it counted as an ‘operational decision-making function’. That leaves these ‘thresholds’ not only deemed to be lawful but open to further amendment ‘operationally’. And it does nothing to address the question whether they are satisfactory or fair, and the bigger question whether there can be accurate quantification of degrees of compliance so that setting ‘thresholds’ is appropriate.

It is not the first time quantifications of higher education performance – of students or providers – have been attempted. Under the previous rules, Bloomsbury had been ‘designated’ for Student Loan Company purposes since 2009. In 2015 it had been one of only two alternative providers commended by the QAA and the QAA had been ‘complimentary’ in 2016 and 2017. However, its failure to perform to the standard expected on the numbers of its students who ‘continued’ beyond their first year had brought it an ‘improvement notice’ in February 2106 and again in August 2018. In March 2019 the Department for Education had ‘noted’ the failure to mend Bloomsbury’s performance on continuation rates but this was merely a warning that action might be taken in future if things did not improve.

Bloomsbury argued that the OfS should not have relied on these thresholds without consulting the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher or taking into account the outcomes of reviews and investigations by the QAA in its previous incarnation before it became the OfS Designated Body under Higher Education and Research Act 2017 s.27. It said that it had been unreasonable of the OfS to refuse to grant registraton when it ‘had been granted on previous occasions on the basis of essentially the same data’.

Here the court relied on an important OfS paper which had considered whether the OfS ought to rely on previous QAA assessments.  This had drawn a key distinction. The OfS’s ‘primary aim is to ensure providers are delivering positive outcomes for students’. The task of the OfS  was to form a ‘regulatory judgment’ about that. By contrast, ‘previous QAA review activity’ was considered ‘not relevant to the assessment of student outcomes for condition B3’ because it  had a different purpose. It did not ask about ‘outcomes achieved by the provider’s students’ but ‘focused on the design and operation of a provider’s systems and processes.

The court thought that was clearly correct from the point of view of ‘lawfulness’ in being faithful to the OfS conditions in the decision-making, providing the thresholds were themselves lawful.  In any case, Condition B3 is excluded from the list of conditions on which the OfS is to consult its Designated Quality Body. The Regulatory Framework makes it clear that the OfS itself is alone responsible for assessing Condition B3.

In this connection the judgment makes a clear separation of responsibility for ‘quality’ and for ‘standards’:

The effect of [HERA] section 27 is that when a body is designated as the DQB, only that body can be responsible for assessment of standards. The OfS is, therefore, not responsible for standards. However, section 27(3)(b) makes clear that the OfS is still responsible for the exercise of assessment functions which do not relate to standards. Condition B3 is concerned with quality of education, not with standards, and so the effect of section 27 is not that only the QAA can assess compliance with Condition B3. There was no requirement in section 27, or anywhere else in HERA, for the QAA to play a part in the OfS’s assessment of quality criteria.

Here too there seem to be points which need to be returned to, not in litigation, which cannot easily address them, but in policy-discussion and wider consultation. If there is to be a ladder of quantification of provider performance in setting which the QAA can have no say its existence and the placing of its rungs demand as much. Otherwise how can those ‘successful outcomes’ ultimately be defined?

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).


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Exploring notions of ‘good’ academic leadership in challenging times

by Alan Floyd

Due to the nature of academic work it is accepted that leaders cannot be effective without the support of their departmental colleagues. Consequently, academic leadership is seen as more of a collective responsibility. Arguably, ‘distributing’ and sharing leadership is even more important in universities than in other organisations as academics are well educated, largely autonomous, and trained to be highly critical, so are more likely to oppose and challenge traditional leadership models and behaviours and may need a subtler form of leadership than other occupational groups. This perceived shift in leadership power, moving from people in formal positions to the whole academic body, is important for universities as it has been shown that the leadership activity of academics outside formal leadership roles can be very influential in effecting organizational change. Such a power shift may also allow academics to discuss and decide on leadership issues in a more collegial manner, a practice more in line with the shared value systems of the academy. But what are academics’ expressed notions of ‘good’ leadership within this context?  This blog explores these issues by drawing on data from research that has explored more flexible ‘distributed’ and ‘collaborative’ models of leadership, crucially focusing on data from both leaders and the led (see Floyd, 2019; Floyd and Fung, 2017; Floyd and Fung, 2018).

From this work, it appears that academics construct ‘good’ leadership predominantly in terms of understanding and supporting others, empathy, the ability both to act with integrity and as a role model, and the willingness to engage in genuine dialogue.  Academics apparently want to see in their leaders all of these personal qualities and knowledge and understanding of the whole ecosystem of higher education and the ability to make tough decisions to make that successful when needed.

The data suggest that academics understand the need for strong academic leadership in the current higher education landscape and there is a lot of empathy for the complexities of leadership practice in these turbulent times. In addition, academics are clear that individuals cannot just ‘plough their own furrow’ without considering the overall needs of the department or institution overall. Thus, academic leadership was seen as being a collective act (Bolden et al, 2009). Shared understandings of good academic leadership included words like ‘respect’, ‘feeling valued’, ‘fairness’, ‘being realistic’, and being ‘open’ and ‘communicative’. In relation to distributed leadership practice then, it seems that academics are happy to work with leaders in achieving shared institutional goals as long as they perceive the decisions taken to be in the best interests of the group, that all people involved (those whose roles are teaching-focused as well as those who are research-focused) are treated fairly and with respect, and that leaders show effective communicate skills and engage in genuine dialogue with academics rather than just transmitting information.

In their personal accounts about the characteristics of ‘good’ academic leadership, some leaders stress the importance of having the right set of skills, while others emphasize a set of underpinning values. There is some difference in emphasis between those whose roles are predominantly focused on research and those whose main focus is student education, but interviewees typically construct a sense of needing to respect both research and teaching as vital strands of academic practice. Most also see academic leadership as necessarily negotiating the sometimes-differing needs of the institution itself and the individuals being led.

There were many similarities in our findings between the two groups. For example, from the leaders’ point of view, good academic leadership was characterised by holding ‘shared underpinning values’, ‘good listening and communication skills’, being ‘understanding’, ‘supportive’, and ‘even handed’, and ‘human’ in their relationships with academic staff.  There also appeared to be a shared understanding from both groups of the need and difficulty in ‘balancing’ institutional and individual needs.

One key theme that emerged from our data was the perceived need for appropriate career support from leaders in relation to academics’ chosen career paths. This finding suggests that the focus of development training and support activities for academics who take on leadership roles may need to be widened from traditional activities (for example, linked to managing conflict and finance) to include more discussions on individual staff development needs. Such a finding reflects the move towards more portfolio based careers for academics, with career development responsibility seemingly shifting from the institution to the individual (Floyd, 2012), and an accompanying shift in associated developmental needs for academic leaders (Floyd, 2016). More fundamentally, it also suggests the need for academic work, including research and education, to be seen as a scholarly whole (Fung, 2016), and for university leadership to be seen as a special form of academic endeavour directed at strengthening the synergies between these different areas – for the good of both the individuals themselves and their institutions. The tensions between what is deemed good for the individuals (both leaders and those who are led) and what is good for the institution lie at the heart of the challenge, and our data suggest that all parties appreciate explicit discussion about these tensions, so that shared solutions and indeed shared values and goals can be developed.

Acknowledgments

The research on which this blog is based was funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and undertaken with Professor Dilly Fung. I gratefully acknowledge their support. Interpretations and errors remain my own.

SRHE member Alan Floyd is Professor of Education at the University of Reading where he is also the EdD Programme Director.

References

Bolden, R, Petrov, G and Gosling, J (2009) ‘Distributed leadership in higher education: rhetoric and reality’ Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 37(2): 257-277

Floyd, A (2012) ”Turning points’: the personal and professional circumstances that lead academics to become middle managers’ Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 40(2): 272-284

Floyd, A (2016) ‘Supporting academic middle managers in higher education: do we care?’ Higher Education Policy, 29(2): 167-183

Floyd, A (2019) ‘Investigating the PDR process in a UK university: continuing professional development or performativity?’ Professional Development in Education, 1-15

Floyd, A, and Fung, D (2017) ‘Focusing the kaleidoscope: exploring distributed leadership in an English university’ Studies in Higher Education, 42(8): 1488-1503

Floyd, A, and Fung, D (2018) ‘Stories of leading and being led: developing collaborative relationships in an English research-intensive university’ in Gornall, L, Thomas, B and Sweetman, L (eds), Exploring consensual leadership in higher education London: Bloomsbury Academic

Fung, D (2016) ‘Strength-based scholarship and good education: the scholarship circle’ Innovations in Education and Teaching International 54(2): 101-110


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Leadership in a changing landscape: the role of heads of department

by Jane Creaton and Claire Gordon

This blog post draws on research conducted as part of an ongoing study of the role of heads of department (HoDs) in universities in the UK. In particular, we are interested in the key factors influencing how the role of HoD is experienced and enacted, including disciplinary contexts, institutional structures and type of university. The project is concerned with the extent to which current leadership and management programmes provide adequate preparation and support for the role, which may be particularly vulnerable to work-related stress. It is also concerned with the creative and critical leadership responses that HoDs are adopting in response to the present changing and uncertain higher education environment. Our findings are based on a sector-wide survey and 18 in-depth interviews conducted in 2019, but are also informed by two earlier research projects that explored the role of HoD in teaching-focussed and research-intensive universities (Creaton and Heard-Laureote, 2019).

Uncertainty, change and lack of preparation: becoming a HoD

It is a particularly challenging time to become a HoD in UK higher education. In the external environment, HoDs have to grapple with growing sectoral-level demands and new forms of accountability – while the REF has been in place in one form or another since 1986, TEF, APP and KEF have brought new demands and targets. These are compounded by huge financial uncertainty given the possibility of a change to fee structures following the Augar review and continuing uncertainty over Brexit. The latter is likely to have consequences in future for: the presence of European staff and students at UK universities; the possibilities for student  mobility under Erasmus+; and European research funding. Within institutions, HoDs spoke of experiencing continuous restructuring and centralising, an exponential rise in demands from above and below, limited institutional power and authority compared to the past, and tensions between their academic and managerial identities. It is also worth noting that markers of esteem (Kandiko-Howson and Coate, 2015) – prior to taking on the headship – had been based on academic success indicators which do not translate easily into necessary skill-sets and areas of expertise required for the role. Some HoDs had received no preparation or training for the role and there was considerable variation in what had been received. One HoD took part in an innovative co-created developmental programme with other new HoDs, some participated in generic leadership programmes (which were generally considered to be ill-suited to the specific HE context), and others in formal or informal coaching and mentoring arrangements.

Wellbeing and work-related stress: the lived experience of being a HoD

The importance of staff and student mental health and wellbeing has been a high profile issue in the HE sector over the past few years. Reports from Universities UK, Healthy Universities, Wellcome Trust, and HEPI have indicated high levels of depression, stress and anxiety in universities and recommended institution-wide approaches to tackle support the mental health of their students and staff. In response, many institutions have developed mental health and wellbeing strategies. However, for many HoDs, this has simply added another layer of responsibility for staff and students within their department without addressing the issues which may affect their own mental health and wellbeing. Our interviewees identified the sheer quantity and breadth of daily demands on today’s HoDs. At the micro-level, HoDs were booking rooms, arranging chairs and chasing up Estates and at the macro-level, HoDs were contributing to high-level management committees and strategy development. And for many the most time-consuming and stressful elements of their role related to managing challenging colleagues, which took up inordinate amounts of time and energy.

The HoD job specification often seemed to include responsibility for everything that happened within the department. An expectation that the HoD is also responsible for the mental health and wellbeing of all their students and staff may locate the deficit with the HoD rather than with some of the wider structural and societal factors. While some were able to thrive in this environment, others could not help but be affected by the huge pressures they were operating under.

“There’s an emoticon on Skype for Business which is banging my head against a brick wall. … But it’s not always like that” (Interview with HoD, 2019)

Some HoDs had clearly developed effective coping strategies and support networks inside and outside their university, others spoke of loneliness and isolation including wakeful periods in the night and the constant flow of emails at every hour of the day and night.

‘The sense of shouldering the burden in the sense that it’s all consuming never goes away. You occasionally get called up in the middle of the night …’ (Interview with HoD, 2019)

What might we mean by creative and critical leadership in challenging times?

A quick Google search yields a range of approaches under the ill-defined notion of creative leadership. The fluidity of the term clearly allows rather liberal interpretation. At one end of the spectrum, we see evidence of the notion of creative leadership being co-opted as part of the discourse of the neoliberal university, providing a smokescreen for ever increasing demands on HoDs in face of the increasing metrification of higher education. A different approach to creative and critical leadership also came through in our research, where creativity lay in finding effective ways to subvert institutional expectations and norms. Some HoDs spoke of gate-keeping and others translating up and down the messages that were coming from the senior leadership as well as their departments, others made choices as to what to do and what to ignore.

‘There’s a translational bit, where I speak two languages, and then on either side they only speak one.” (Interview with HoD, 2019)

One of our HoDs highlighted their commitment to emphasising the intrinsic values of higher education and community as a counter to the ever-greater focus on metrics and accountability, with another purposefully prioritising relationship-building over emails. And finally, perhaps the most radical of all were the HoDs who insisted on prioritising self-care, modelling good work-life balance and ensuring informal support networks for themselves to enable them to flourish in their roles.

Jane Creaton is Associate Dean (Academic) for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a Reader in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth. She has been a member of the SRHE Governing Council since January 2019. Claire Gordon is Director of the LSE Eden Centre for Education Enhancement at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

References

Creaton, J and Heard-Laureote, K (2019) ‘Rhetoric and reality in middle management: the role of heads of academic departments in UK universities’, Higher Education Policy https://doi.org/10.1057/s41307-018-00128-8

Kandiko-Howson, C and Coate, K (2015) The Prestige Economy and Mid-career Academic Women: Strategies, Choices and Motivation, Paper presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Research Conference, Newport, UK. 

This is the second in a ‘virtual symposium’ series which began on with Jane Creaton’s blog on 28 February 2020: Leadership in a Changing Landscape.

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Asserting the nation: the dominance of national narratives in policymakers’ constructions of higher education students

by Rachel Brooks

In 2010, the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) came into being. It represents an attempt to standardise many aspects of higher education across the continent to facilitate the movement of staff and students across national borders, and ensure that the region of Europe is a competitive player in the global market for higher education. Scholars have suggested that it has tended to foreground values more commonly associated with an Anglo-American model of higher education (such as marketisation and competition) rather than those that have traditionally underpinned higher education in continental Europe (including collegial structures of governance and the autonomy of academic staff). It is thus often argued that higher education systems across Europe are becoming more similar, with greater homogeneity observed in their approaches to teaching, methods of governance, and underpinning values.

This blog draws on interviews with policy influencers in six countries (Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain) to consider the extent to which convergence is evident among the policy community within Europe, particularly in relation to how they understand higher education students. Do they, for example, see all higher education students, wherever they study in the EHEA, as broadly similar, or do they differentiate between those in their own nation-state and other parts of the continent? Analysing such discourses employed by policy actors is important, not only in teasing out the extent to which European higher education is indeed homogenising and whether distinctions are made between students of different national origins, but also because the language used by policymakers can have a significant impact on the ways in which social groups are understood and society more generally is shaped.

It was striking in many of the interviews that distinct ‘national narratives’ were drawn upon quite frequently by policy influencers to explain what were believed to be key characteristics of higher education students from their particular country – even if the available empirical evidence suggests that the characteristics were, in practice, shared by students in many other parts of Europe. An example of this is the construction of students as employment-focussed.

A common theme across the dataset was that, over recent decades, students had become increasingly employment-focussed. This was evident, for example, in national policy documents where the construction of the higher education student as a ‘future worker’ was a common trope across all six countries. Policy influencers also talked at length about how the role of the student had increasingly come to be understood in relation to the labour market, and how steps had been taken to provide better information to prospective students about employment destinations and earnings of graduates from their chosen discipline, with the intention of guiding them towards degrees perceived as having better economic returns. However, while such themes were common across the six countries, they were typically discussed and explained in national terms, often with reference to very specific national histories.

In Ireland, for example, the close relationship between higher education and employment was discussed by several interviewees. In the first extract below, a civil servant responsible for higher education policy explains this in terms of Ireland’s experience of unemployment:

Ireland’s very big on employment [within higher education policy] you see because we’ve had such a long history of unemployment and under-employment, it’s deep in the policy DNA here, in a way it mightn’t be in other countries.  Like we are all about how do we get jobs, how do we keep jobs, how do we fill jobs! How do we … that’s our central core mission.

Notable here is the comment she makes about the likely difference from other nations. She goes on to say that this relationship between education and work is not contested in Ireland because of the manner in which it has been viewed historically, and the national consensus about the labour market gains that follow from higher education. These sentiments were echoed by others. Two other Irish interviewees emphasised the way in which education was a key part of the nation’s history and culture, not least because it was seen as the most effective route out of poverty and into well-paid employment. The perceived distinctiveness of the Irish experience was thus often explicit in many of these narratives.

The Polish respondents also commented on the close relationship between higher education and employment but, in this case, it was not always evaluated entirely positively. A government interviewee believed that Polish students focussed primarily on the labour market outcomes of their study, and that this differentiated them from their Western European counterparts:

I think that the Polish student population, perhaps along with the student populations of other post-Communist countries, are markedly different than their counterparts in, in Western Europe where the markets, you know, this whole capitalism thing has been for hundred … for decades! And [in Western countries] … this attitude towards finding your … your success on the labour market perhaps is not as pronounced. 

He believed that Poland’s relatively late embrace of capitalism explained the keenness of Polish students to secure well-paid jobs on graduation and think of their higher education almost exclusively as a period of labour market preparation. Another government interviewee drew on a somewhat similar comparison to explain Polish students’ attitudes. As far as he was concerned, students’ expectations about the jobs they should be taking up on graduation were far too high, and they were often reluctant to work their way up within organisations. These were again attributed to Poland’s recent economic and political history:

In my opinion, the[ir] demands are too high. It might be because of the opening of the Polish borders after the fall of the Communist regime. When I was a student in the 1990s, it was not so easy to cross the border as a student and to spend one year or six months abroad. Now it is, and the living standard is of course much higher in Western countries, and being able to look at a better life – it might be the reason why students have become more demanding.

Thus, while Irish and Polish interviewees remarked upon very similar trends among their student populations – trends that were evident in the other four nations, too – these were explained through national narratives, emphasising the distinctiveness of their particular historical trajectory. Discussion of wider transnational influence was notably absent.

The recourse to ‘national narratives’ such as these (of which we have several other examples in our dataset), is significant because of the light it sheds on understandings of the EHEA. Despite assertions about the increasing convergence of higher education systems across Europe, the policy actors’ narratives suggest that, in some cases, national frames of reference have not yet been usurped by European ones. They are also significant because of the ways in which they conceptualise students. Words do more than name things, they impose limits on what can be said, and construct certain possibilities for thought. Thus, the emphasis on students as distinct from those in other parts of Europe may have a bearing on how they are understood by other social actors, and by students themselves.

Rachel Brooks is Professor of Higher Education in the Institute of Education at University College London. She is an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, a member of the Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and a member of the assessment panel for REF 2021 (sub-panel 23: Education).

This blogpost is based on an article recently published in Sociological Research Online. It draws on data from the Eurostudents project, funded by the European Research Council, through a Consolidator Grant to Rachel Brooks (grant number: 681018_EUROSTUDENTS).


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How literature puts a spark into university access debates

by Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Colin McCaig

“The greatest competition to the establishment of social science was literature” observed one of our undergraduate lecturers many moons ago. If you wanted to know about the conditions of Victorian England, would you like to read a report detailing the diet and housing conditions of members of different social groups or read Charles Dickens?

As scholars in the field of widening participation and social mobility we were implicitly challenged to reconsider this question: is it literature or is it social science that touches us, and motivates us to change policy or even our own actions? Unsurprisingly, we argue that there is room for both genres, but literature wins hands down in terms of instilling passion and allowing us to consider issues with our hearts rather than heads.

We are talking here about Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, that ‘went viral’ in the United States and beat Michelle Obama’s autobiography to become the Goodreads Choice Award 2018. Among the over 50,000 reviews of the book is one from Bill Gates and the book was on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.

Reviews and talk-shows featuring the memoir have focused primarily on the family story and the often disturbing relationships between family members, which led to the ultimate schism between Tara and her parents. But reading the book as social scientists, we did not only see  a memoir of bizarre familial dysfunctionality, we found ourselves reading this book as the ‘ultimate widening participation’ story.

Born in Idaho to a Mormon survivalist father opposed to public education (indeed, any government activity), Tara never attended school or saw a doctor. She spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. While one of her siblings taught her to read, another frequently attacked her violently with the parents looking away. Her story of transformation through education began when Tara taught herself the numeracy skills required to pass the standardised entrance test for universities, the ACT. This set her on an education journey to Brigham Young University (a Mormon university in Utah), Harvard and to her PhD at Cambridge, England, on The family, morality and social science in Anglo-American cooperative thought, 1813-1890.

Reading Tara’s story with the eyes of social mobility scholars, it offered much reassurance for academics committed to the access agenda. Tara is admitted to higher education despite her lack of traditional (school) credentials. She receives a partial fee waiver by the institution. When, eventually, she applies for federal financial aid help, she receives help from the state. Her tutor encourages her to apply for a study abroad opportunity at Cambridge. Not only this, but when she is not selected, he uses his knowledge of her and her context to advocate for her and succeeds in getting her a place. Other tutors spot her talent and encourage and advocate for her to obtain a scholarship – the Gates scholarship – to undertake her PhD work at Cambridge. There are also wider support networks: when she first enters higher education, a Mormon Bishop supports her though conversation and, at Cambridge, she is able to enrol at the University Counselling Service.

We read this as a partial redemption story for those working on access and increasing opportunities. We are often frustrated by slow progress and continued inequities in access, progression and success in higher education, or we see HE institutions struggling to change as fast as society to be fully inclusive. There is always a feeling that more could be done: our outreach programmes sometimes don’t reach the most disadvantaged. There can be inadequate regional coverage of opportunities. Higher education may not be the right choice for everyone. Our institutional timetables don’t always allow for students to have part-time jobs they need to fund themselves or their caring responsibilities. We have to make the same arguments year after year to keep widening participation as a core consideration of the daily activities of our institutions. Universities are all fishing for the same ‘diamonds in the rough’ which, in the UK, is often solely defined as a disadvantaged student, however measured, with unusually high grades given their opportunities and context. We need to work on widening access and funding for postgraduate study. And all this is not for lack of social science evidence of what the issues are, or ideas of what needs to be done to achieve greater evidence – it’s just that it is hard to do it all the time. So, it is easy sometimes to be frustrated.

And then along comes Tara and tells the story of how it is all worth it in the end. How she encounters academics who are fundamentally decent human beings, who can contextualise her knowledge and lack thereof, who care and make a difference. And she tells of a state government that does actually offer funding (if modest), of institutions that offer scholarships (if modest), of scholarship panels that are thoughtful – perhaps even wise – and of professional service parts of the university successfully working to support students.

But there are also questions the book leaves us with, that emphasise the need for further research: Tara was able to compensate for an almost complete lack of education by passing a college entrance test. This would not be possible in the English system – save for, perhaps the Open University, institutions respond to market drivers and want young people from a traditional trajectory of having been to school, taken exams (especially A-levels in favoured subjects) and demonstrated prior success. Tara would have been denied the  opportunities of higher education in the UK and we would have lost out on a PhD – and, more importantly, her book.

We can also ask how people who share some of Tara’s ‘educational disadvantages’, such as rurality and home-schooling, could be reached and inspired to change their journeys. It is clear that Tara is an incredibly resilient and reflective woman; it would be unreasonable to infer that everyone in her circumstances could have taken the path she did. How can we support more people who share some of Tara’s characteristics to enter higher education?

We also wonder about the role of academic discretion, one of the greatest aspects of being a professional in higher education. The academics in the book put their discretion to good use to support Tara, creating a powerful story of individual academic success and opportunities. But how can we create more structures that enable more of such individual success stories? For example, we don’t know – from the book – whether there are established links between universities with a specific religious focus – such as Brigham Young – and favoured entry to her subsequent institutions, Harvard and Cambridge. Was her discretion-enabled journey really about her specific talents, or was she just the Mormon applicant with the most harrowing backstory? Access work is all about equalising opportunities for progression into HE, but the implication is that Tara was helped on her way because of her initial church affiliation and subsequent links between institutions with Christian foundations. In essence, the access question is: would an uneducated rural girl from the mountains of Idaho have the same opportunity if she didn’t have familial links with the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? Discretion, when it is essentially discrimination, can be more structural than personal.

Social science can give us good questions, good evidence, answers and facts. Literature can put the soul and heart into the stories and inspire more thinking, research and action. Dr Westover may not have intended to create new lines of research in social mobility, but she has nonetheless succeeded in doing so perhaps to a greater level than recent scholarly books in the field.  So we end with a big thank you to Dr Tara Westover for sharing her fantastic story!

SRHE member Anna Mountford-Zimdars is Professor of Social Mobility and Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter. SRHE member Colin McCaig is Professor of Higher Education Policy in the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University.

Which books beyond social science have influenced your academic practice? Write us a blog about it, or if you prefer discuss an idea first with editor rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk.