The Society for Research into Higher Education

Marcia Devlin


Reconsidering university education. Again

by Marcia Devlin

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to higher education being moved en masse to remote and online learning in a compressed timeline. Limited returns to on campus learning are evident in Australia depending on disease outbreak levels and health advice in local areas, but the bulk of current university learning continues via digital means for now. This shift has challenged universities and educators to think about how best to facilitate digitally-mediated learning. We also have an opportunity to reconsider university education a little more broadly.

The pandemic is occurring in the context of: increasing global political tensions; shifting economic powers; prevailing societal inequalities; significantly changing social norms; and climate change and environmental and ecological damage that puts our very existence as human beings at risk. Higher education is occurring in the same context.

Having a keen eye on the grand challenges and wicked problems of our times, and on our global context is – or should be – central to the purpose of a university and to its core activity of education. We’re probably all too busy and exhausted from the demands of coping with the pandemic to think this through carefully right now but I have begun to wonder whether we should at least try to make a start. Questions in my mind include: Why do universities exist? Do our purposes need to be tweaked or redefined What should we be doing while we wait for things to return to ‘normal’? Do we want things to return to ‘normal’? If not, what are we doing about changing the course of history?

In 2016, Schleicher suggested we needed to prepare graduates for jobs that have not been created, to use technologies not yet invented and to solve new social problems that have not yet arisen. The potency of ideas like these seems to have been heightened as we watch global movements of various kinds take place and we choose which ones to support and which to resist.

The rapid and ongoing development of new knowledge drives our knowledge-based world. Since it is no longer possible to offer students everything they need to know for the future, some innovative educators have conceptualised new pedagogies that leverage modern technologies to engage and interact with current and emerging knowledge. These new pedagogies help students to find, analyse, evaluate and apply what is relevant to them at the time and for the task or question at hand. These
new ways of educating have at their core an increased sharing of power between educator and student. Methods and approaches deployed include discussion groups, peer assessments, using social media and feedback opportunities including students supporting students. Not a lecture in sight. Or if so, it’s pre-recorded and offered as optional background digital material.

These future-focused pedagogies are a lot about educators about becoming innovative and entrepreneurial in the face of our collective large-scale, complex problems as a globally connected set of societies and economies. They are about developing in students the spirit of risk-taking, creative problem-solving and learning from failure so that learners can: be prepared for a complex world; purposefully make judgements and decisions; base these judgements and decisions on changing situations, evolving, incomplete evidence and unpredictable situations; manage their own learning throughout life; and contribute to creating their own futures.

And now all of the above needs to be done online, at least for the moment.

In 2018, the UK Joint Information Systems Committee outlined the required digital capability of educators as incorporating: ICT proficiency; information, data and media literacies; creation, problem solving and innovation ability; the ability to communicate, collaborate and participate, a commitment to learning and development; and an understanding of identity and wellbeing in the digital space.

Simple? Hardly.

And impossible for even the most outstanding educator to undertake and achieve on their own, even with the plethora of existing and new resources on offer to help improve online teaching and learning.

To do all that is required, for the future that is so much more uncertain than it was even a few short months ago, university educators will increasingly need to collaborate. Collaboration with peers in team-teaching, with external associates who bring up-to-date industry, workplace and professional understanding and with librarians, educational designers, digital systems experts, students and work integrated learning specialists will be increasingly necessary to effectively design, build, teach and assess useful university courses.

As the pandemic effects paradoxically appear to shrink and expand time concurrently and many of us begin to think deeply about why we are all here, I’d suggest the fundamental purpose of higher education needs an airing and some re-consideration. We have the necessary resources, incentives and best minds to do this work – it’s a matter of turning our attention to it now.

Marcia Devlin is a former University Senior Vice-President and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, current Adjunct Professor and was named as one of The Educator Higher Education Top 50 educators for 2020.

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Building a Sustainable Future: Higher Education Institutions and the United Nations Global Goals (2015-2030)

by Maryna Lakhno

The idea of sustainability in higher education has been around for a long time. It started with early international discussions in the 1990s, continued during the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2004-2015) and is currently embodied in the global engagement of higher education institutions (HEIs) within the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 

The SDGs Puzzle

The SDGs are not primarily oriented towards higher education. There is nothing in this initiative that binds HEIs to act, let alone placing legal oblations on them. So it may seem puzzling that many universities worldwide, from New Zealand to Mexico, voluntarily decided to work with the Agenda 2030. Some have altered their institutional strategies and behaviors in fundamental ways in pursuit of the SDGs, even though this requires significant financial and organizational efforts. Those diverse and multifaceted changes include sustainability shifts in campus operations, curricula, ways of teaching/learning, outreach activities as well as research. Why are the SDGs so attractive for universities?

The SDGs as ‘agents of change’

First of all, education institutions in general are frequently seen as inevitable drivers for sustainable solutions:

Sustainable development cannot be achieved by technological solutions, political regulation or financial instruments alone. Achieving sustainable development requires a change in the way we think and act, and consequently a transition to sustainable lifestyles, consumption and production patterns. Only education and learning at all levels and in all social contexts can bring about this critical change.

UNESCO (2011)

Their ‘agent of change’ function incorporates numerous angles. In general, universities are created for public good and have crucial influence on humankind, as they spread knowledge and participate in governance nationally and locally (Sedlacek, 2013). HEIs have the potential to become platforms of innovation and have a direct influence on future decision makers. Being a centre of knowledge, these “institutions have the responsibility for preparing their graduates for entry into government, business and industry sectors” (Thomas and Nicita, 2002).

HEIs go beyond their walls

Furthermore, universities are frequently associated with the crucial stakeholders of regional development, which allows them to support their “faculty and administrators to regional boards” (Goldstein, 2009). This process can be of a great benefit to both sides, making educational institutions serve as “bridging organizations between societal and other institutional actors” (Sedlacek, 2013). A university does not end inside its walls and includes multiple stakeholder groups which are governments, international organizations, NGOs, businesses, faculty, administrative employees, students and their parents (Hussain et al, 2019).

The SDGs are universal

In fact, the SDGs touch numerous aspects of central concern to the university. Their multifaceted nature makes it possible to unite pre-existing policies under one umbrella. If we look at the main messages of SDGs, we see that their core values are all-inclusive, be it in terms of gender equality, poverty reduction, climate protection or education quality.

Building bridges between continents and research traditions

Goal 17, namely Partnerships for the Goals, is one of the stimuli that asks HEIs to act beyond national borders. University networks play a key role, acting as facilitators of information exchange, SDGs good practice models and source of empowerment for further action. This can be done at any level of the university, starting from inclusion in the curriculum of an HEI and ending in its sustainable investment strategies.

The Global Goals are ‘affordable’ for all HEIs

To conclude, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved by HEIs with smaller endowments. Their universal and non-binding nature does not require an HEI to follow all the goals at once. Additionally, they give space for institutional creativity, which is so valued in times of limited resources yet offers unlimited prospects for a better future.

Maryna Lakhno is a doctoral research fellow in the Yehuda Elkana Center for Higher Education at the Central European University in Vienna. The preliminary title for her dissertation is Universities: Local Agents of Global Changes. The SDGs as a Policy Framework for Higher Education.’ By scrutinising the UN SDGs from both actional and ideational perspectives, she aims to contribute to higher education policy by pointing to the existence of a new and consequential, although unexpected, global policy framework.


Goldstein, HA (2009) ‘What we know and what we don’t know about the regional economic impacts of universities’ in Varga, A (2009)  Universities, knowledge transfer and regional development: geography, entrepreneurship and policy. Cheltenham: Elgar, pp 11–35

Hussain, T, Eskildsen, J, Edgeman, R, Ismail, M,  Shoukry, AM, Gani, S (2019) ‘Imperatives of sustainable university excellence: A Conceptual Framework’ Sustainability 11 (19): 5242. DOI: 10.3390/su11195242.

Sedlacek, Sabine (2013) ‘The role of universities in fostering sustainable development at the regional level’ Journal of Cleaner Production 48:  74–84  DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.01.029

Thomas, I, and  Nicita, J (2002) ‘Sustainability Education and Australian Universities’ Environmental Education Research 8 (4): 475–492  DOI: 10.1080/1350462022000026845

UNESCO (2011) From Green Economies to Green Societies: UNESCO’s Commitment to Sustainable Development Retrieved from UNESCO:

Image of Rob Cuthbert

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Policymaking in a pandemic

By Rob Cuthbert

Policymaking in a pandemic must be decisive, transparent and inclusive (1)

After Secretary of State Gavin Williamson announced in March that there would be no GCSE or A-level examinations in Summer 2020, higher education focused at first on whether it would be desirable or even possible for students to begin the new year in Autumn 2020, with particular doubts over international students’ ability and willingness to travel. With the number of UK 18-year-olds in a demographic trough we expected extreme pressure on universities at the exposed end of the market, and there was much talk about the ten or 12 or 14 institutions said to be already especially financially vulnerable. The response of a number of institutions was to make tens of thousands of conditional offers unconditional, reducing uncertainty for themselves and also for their potential students. But ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, even in the market decreed by the government, never seemed to respect the integrity of student choice; it seemed reasonable that they should be outlawed, but government and the OfS went much further.

OfS published its regulation on unconditional offers on 4 May (updated on 17 August 2020, after A-level results by algorithm were announced), enabling OfS to take “… action against higher education providers that use offer-making practices which would not be in the interests of students and the wider higher education sector in these exceptional circumstances.” These included: “Other unconditional offers to UK students that could materially affect the stability and integrity of the English higher education sector …”, which in theory might have threatened selective institutions aiming to hoover up home students to compensate for a possible shortfall of international students, regardless of the effects on universities less well-placed in the market. But after the government imposed temporary student number controls no-one was in much doubt that the target was precisely those less well-placed, in case students dared to choose them rather than those higher up the league tables. Government policy is that student choice is paramount, but only if students choose the institutions which the government think they should choose.

On 16 July the DfE announced a ‘restructuring regime’ in response to Covid19, a mixture of University Strategic Planning 101 and oddly selective messages about the specific requirements to be satisfied by the minority of universities expected to need ‘support’. The Secretary of State’s foreword said: “Public funding for courses that do not deliver for students will be reassessed. … all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy. … The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns. Vice-chancellor pay has for years faced widespread public criticism … equally concerning is the rapid growth over recent decades of spending on administration more broadly, which should be reversed.”

The announcement was much criticised but it receded from view as the threat of ‘restructuring’ diminished. Demand for HE with a 2020 start remained strong, with UCAS numbers higher than expected. The intentions of international students were still in doubt, but attention shifted to the slow-motion shambles of A-levels, and the hardly less shambolic, though less remarked, handling of International Baccalaureate and technical and vocational qualifications. Ofqual and DfE remained committed to their A-levels algorithm, doubling down on the assertion that it was the fairest way to determine grades in this unprecedented situation. This was despite the growing clamour of expert opinion pointing out the many faults and unfairnesses in the approach determined by Ofqual. The DfE/Ofqual response might have seemed resolutely decisive, but was neither transparent nor inclusive. A series of blogs from HEPI and many others provided more transparency than the government and Ofqual statements which had led most people to believe wrongly that ‘teachers are determining grades’ and ‘there is a robust appeal system’.

Scottish Higher assessments followed a similar approach to the English but were announced on 6 August, a week ahead of A-levels. Facing mass public protest, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted on 10 August they had got it wrong; education minister John Swinney the next day announced they would abandon their algorithm and use only Centre-Assessed Grades (CAGs), a reaction which ticked the decisive/transparent/inclusive boxes, albeit after the last minute. The Scots decision sent the English DfE into panic mode. Gavin Williamson had repeatedly nailed his colours to the this-algorithm-is-robust-and-fair mast; he would not follow Scotland’s lead, and there was no sensible alternative. So he went for something that wasn’t sensible – the announcement late on Tuesday night (11 August, just 36 hours before students would get their grades) that students could use mock grades under certain circumstances instead of the algorithm’s grades. It was a decision made without consultation with anyone, so not at all inclusive, and certainly less than decisive, but at least it seemed transparent.

For thousands of students who had taken mocks, it sounded like blessed relief. Not only could they apparently now make an individual appeal (something previously ruled out), they knew it would succeed. But that was late Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning Ofqual, Schools Minister Nick Gibb and Universities Minister Michelle Donelan were doing their best to dilute and obscure the message, saying only that mocks might form part of the grounds for an appeal and even suggesting that not many appeals were expected. Schools and colleges, who had only that day received their students’ grades with shock and horror, pointed out the huge variability and complete lack of standardisation of mocks even within one school, let alone across the whole sector. Williamson stood firm on his ‘triple lock’ – mocks or algorithm grades or Autumn exams. It was presented as a solution for all, when it was nothing of the sort. He had announced that Ofqual (who had not been consulted in advance) would issue guidance on how the new appeals system would work; Ofqual understandably said they would need a few days to work out how to operationalise the process. They issued advice on the amended appeals process by early afternoon on Saturday, suggesting (correctly) that CAGs were a more reliable basis for judgment than mock exams. Then very late on Saturday evening Ofqual withdrew its advice, saying that the Ofqual board would review it and another statement would follow ‘in due course’. Speculation centred on the suspicion that it was the mention of CAGs that might have caused the Department for Education to tell Ofqual to change tack, mostly because of a report in The Sunday Telegraph by the well-briefed Camilla Turner. This was the position at midday on Sunday.

The next day (Monday 17 August) came the final climbdown, as Williamson confirmed that England would follow Scotland in using CAGs rather than the grades determined by the algorithm. Universities were left scrambling to cope with the U-turn, and many students were left wondering whether they still had the place they originally wanted, as many in-demand courses had naturally been filled as usual very soon on the day of the announcement of results, 13 August. Former NUS President and chair of BPP University Aaron Porter wrote for Schoolsweek on 18 August 2020 about the consequences of government ‘passing the buck’ to universities to sort out the A-levels fiasco, and Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon called for the abolition of Ofqual.

Universities minister Michele Donelan wrote to universities on 20 August 2020 confirming the lifting of all student number controls and the establishment of a task force to oversee clearing and admissions for 2020. She said: “The interests of students were at the heart of the change in awarding results … we all agree that providers should: (1) Honour all offers accepted to date. (2) Honour all offers made and met through the new arrangements for both firm and insurance offers where students would like to take them, wherever this is possible.” That ‘wherever this is possible’ gave everyone a get-out clause, while doing its best to shift the blame away from government and onto the universities, but the blame game picked up speed. A VC’s diary in The Guardian on 21 August 2020 accused government ministers of incompetence and lack of compassion, and it was clear that universities could hardly be blamed for the A-levels mess. Ofqual’s attempts to shift the blame onto schools and colleges were equally unconvincing. It had emerged that the Royal Statistical Society had much earlier offered Ofqual the services of the redoubtable Guy Nason (Imperial) and the statistically legendary Sharon Witherspoon, but the RSS had declined to sign the non-disclosure agreement which Ofqual had proposed. Roger Taylor, chair of Ofqual, wrote to the RSS on 21 August 2020 saying “nothing to see here, you were being much too picky” (we paraphrase), but the next morning Stian Westlake of the RSS was on Radio 4 Today saying the NDA was far too broad and vague to be acceptable.

The first head rolled: Ofqual chief executive Sally Collier stepped down on 25 August with immediate effect; Collier’s predecessor Glenys Stacey was drafted as an interim replacement. Ofqual were summoned to an Education Select Committee hearing on 3 September, and Roger Taylor released a statement just hours before the hearing, memorably summed up by Committee chair Robert Halfon as saying “Not me, guv”. Taylor, it emerges, is also chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which advises the government on artificial intelligence – presumably not including what the Prime Minister called Ofqual’s ‘mutant algorithm’. Taylor made various promises to the Committee of transparency, of which some remain unfulfilled. It was reported that Taylor had kept his chair’s role because he threatened to publish all the correspondence between DfE and Ofqual, showing how much DfE had known all along about the algorithm and its effects.

Samantha Booth reported for SchoolsWeek on 21 August 2020 that Susan Acland-Smith, “has been appointed as second permanent secretary at the DfE for six weeks, temporarily leaving her role as chief executive of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service. The government said she will work “closely” with permanent secretary Jonathan Slater and “support” the department’s response to this year’s exam results.” Slater’s position was said to be under threat, and sure enough, Slater’s departure was confirmed on 26 August, with Acland-Smith becoming his permanent successor.

Taylor, against the odds, remains as Ofqual chair. In an unusual step, the respected Institute for Government Director Bronwen Maddox called for Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson to resign, in her 27 August 2020 blog. “The misjudgements in education have been some of the worst the government has made since the start of the pandemic. They were avoidable, given the time available to plan … they are serious in their impact on children’s education, the gap in achievement between social groups and the ability of the nation to get back to work. At the heart of these misjudgements are decisions that could only be made by politicians, not civil servants.” Senior Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin said Williamson had “lost the trust of his officials to such an extent that he can no longer serve effectively in the cabinet”, according to a report by Toby Helm and Michael Savage in The Observer on 23 August 2020. My HEPI blog on 16 August 2020 about the A-levels debacle said: “for five months the Government and Ofqual have been too secretive, made bad choices, refused to listen to constructive criticism, tried to tough it out and then made the wrong concessions too late.” Not decisive, not transparent, not inclusive, and not how to make policy in a pandemic.

  1. That was the view of Ramathi Bandaranayake and Merl Chandana (both at LIRNEasia, a regional digital policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka) on the LSE Impact Blog on 1 October 2020.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics

Paul Temple


Why don’t other people’s children become plumbers?

by Paul Temple

Nearly 60 years ago, the Robbins Committee (1963) set out the case for university expansion in Britain. Robbins was part of the zeitgeist: just a few weeks before the report was published, Harold Wilson, en route to his 1964 election victory, presented his vision for a new “Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this [scientific] revolution” (Pimlott, 1992: 304). The “knowledge economy” wasn’t then an idea in common currency or Wilson would surely have worked it into his speech, but he emphasised the importance of higher education in creating economic and social change. University development was key.

Robbins’ historic task was to clear the path intellectually for university expansion by driving a stake through the heart of the “more means worse” argument – though like one of the undead in a cheap horror movie, it still emerges regularly from its grave. What Robbins’ research showed about “the so-called pool of ability” was that entry to university largely depended not on some measure of innate ability but on your father’s occupation: the better your dad’s job, the more likely you were to go to university.

The case that David Goodhart wants to make in his new book Head Hand Heart (2020) is that the Robbins agenda has over-reached itself, causing a “headlong rush into mass academic higher education” (p93). Universities have produced an “expanded cognitive class” allowing “smart people [to] become too powerful” (p4). Robbins, then, on Goodhart’s reckoning, has surely been vindicated: the “pool of ability”, if not limitless, has proved capable of steady enlargement. But this is Goodhart’s problem: whereas once people could have satisfying and worthwhile careers on the basis of “hand” (that is, craft) or “heart” (that is, caring) skills, university expansion, Goodhart claims, has meant that academic qualifications have become the main determinant of career success. (Much of Goodhart’s case here follows Ronald Dore’s “diploma disease” argument from the 1970s and 1980s – though Dore is not mentioned in the book.)

Goodhart’s argumentation relies significantly on “straw man” methods, illustrated with anecdotes about friends’ children. So we have the lad who really wants to be a professional footballer who somehow finds himself studying physics, unhappily, at university; or the university dropout who develops a successful career as a car technician. But who has ever claimed that university education suits everyone, or that there aren’t worthwhile careers that don’t demand a degree? Goodhart has a particular beef about nursing becoming a graduate profession: there is, he says, “quite widespread popular hostility” (p133) to the change. (I’d like to be present, incidentally, when the nurses at my GP surgery are ticked off for their lack of “real-life experience” (p134).)

Quite a lot of Goodhart’s argument assumes that there is such a thing as “a graduate job”; but “A graduate job”, a careers service director once told me, “is a job a graduate does.” Most employers value graduates not for their knowledge of medieval history or whatever, but because their degree attests to a range of transferable skills – analysing data, drawing conclusions, presenting an argument, and the rest of it. So the Café Rouge junior purchasing manager who is “very unlikely to use [at work] anything they have learned doing a three year bachelor’s degree” (p246) would probably do a better job in preparing a report on, say, trends in wine consumption than her non-graduate colleagues: she has spent three years learning from experts the craft of report-writing. When promotions come round, we can imagine someone at head office saying, “Oh yes, she’s the woman who did that great report on drinking habits.” Her envious colleagues might then read Goodhart and conclude that her promotion merely reflected corporate bias in favour of the cognitive class.

Which brings us, I’m afraid, to Brexit, largely brought about, Goodhart thinks, by “cultural-education divides in politics” (p158) caused by the values and priorities of our Café Rouge junior purchasing manager being implemented at the expense of those without the advantages of her gilded career. (Or formerly gilded: the group that owns the Café Rouge chain went into administration in July 2020.)

As I’ve suggested, Goodhart sets out to challenge positions that hardly anybody holds. Of course there are worthwhile careers that don’t need degrees: becoming expert at a craft is a serious undertaking, and you’re not a bad person because you don’t fancy student life. What bothers me is that the people who will be encouraged to think that university isn’t for them will not generally be from middle-class families, unable to decide between physics and football: they will be mainly from families with no experience of higher education and from schools where relatively few students go on to university. I’m therefore uneasy about advantaged people promoting a view that others should settle for “skills and qualities other than cognitive-analytical intelligence” (p4). Goodhart would take us back to pre-Robbins days, where family circumstances framed the emancipatory possibilities of higher education.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at


Committee on Higher Education (1963) Higher Education: Report (Cmnd 2154) London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Goodhart, D (2020) Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century London: Allen Lane/Penguin Books

Pimlott, B (1992). Harold Wilson London: HarperCollins

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Higher Education Research, What Else?

by Ulrich Teichler, in conversation with Rob Cuthbert

Read the German language version here.

Hochschulforschung, was sonst? (Higher Education Research, What Else?) is an autobiographical book by and about Ulrich Teichler, one of the foremost scholars in and founders of the field of research into higher education in Europe.

Two young academic scholars, Anna Kosmützky (Teichler’s former colleague at Kassel, now professor in Methodology for Higher Education and Science Studies at Leibniz University, Hannover) and Christiane Rittgerott (International Centre for Higher Education Research, Kassel), talked with Ulrich Teichler – the first full professor of higher education in German – in a series of dinner meetings to develop a book which is in effect an outline of the development of the whole field of research into higher education in Germany, and much more widely.

Teichler looks back over the five decades of his academic career, which began at a time when the traditional German term “Ordinarius” for a full professor was not popular anymore in Germany and when doubts had grown whether the university was “basically healthy” (“Im Kern gesund”). Suddenly systematic information about the state of higher education was called for. Teichler answered the call.

Direct and blunt questions from his interlocutors guided the autobiographical self-reflection. Why did you opt for an academic career? Why did you choose the almost unknown field of higher education was chosen? Why did you go to the newly founded university in Kassel without any established reputation, instead of accepting the offer from the University of Chicago? Which “elephants of higher education research” were important for your path?

How was it possible that the institute could develop from modest beginnings to eventually become a centre with such an international reputation? How could you combine pioneering work in the field with substance and coping with the managerial challenges involved in establishing and developing the institute? How did you get the idea that international comparison can be so important for higher education research, even though higher education systems may seem to be so look very nation-specific?

Why should higher education research watch the grassroots growing and why should one “look at the mouth of the people”? How can one strive for the highest academic quality, if so much attention is paid in research to practitioners’ problem-based questions? How could you combine the hard work of producing more than 1,400 publications and more than 2,000 professional trips – to more than 80 countries – with and a rewarding family life?

How did you happen to meet Yoko – your wife who accompanied your academic life with so much empathy? Many responses took the form of anecdotes. Yoko, for example, said: “You have no friends with whom you regularly spend leisure time, but somehow you might have a thousand friends all over the world”. Ulrich Teichler tells the story of historical upheavals in universities, politics and society as a witness and unrivalled analyst.

As his interviewers say: “Typical Ulrich Teichler: amusing, complex, surprising.” The title of the book is ambivalent. It could be misunderstood as “Higher Education Research, and What Else?”. But the message of the book is clear: “Higher Education Research, Not Anything Else”!

Ulrich Teichler, born 1942, was full professor from 1978 to 2013 at the International Centre for Higher Education Research Kassel and at the Department for Social Sciences of the University of Kassel. He was Director of the International Centre for Higher Education Research Kassel for 16 years, and has held academic posts in the USA, Japan China, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria.

Hochschulforschung, was sonst? Von Ulrich Teichler, im Gespräch mit Rob Cuthbert

„Hochschulforschung, was sonst?“ ist ein autobiographisches Buch des Autors, das aus Interviews bei einer Reihe von Abendessen mit Ulrich Teichler herausgewachsen ist – einem der herausragenden Wissenschaftler und Gründer des Gebiets der Hochschulforschung in Europa.

Zwei junge Wissenschaftlerinnen, Anna Kosmützky (Teichlers frühere Kollegin in Kassel, die jetzt Professorin für Methoden der Hochschul- und Wissenschaftsforschung an der Leibniz-Universität Hannover ist) und Christiane Rittgerott (International Centre for Higher Education Research Kassel) quetschten Ulrich Teichler  – den ersten Professor für Hochschulforschung in Deutschland – bei einer Reihe von Abendessen aus und trugen damit zur Entstehung eines Buches bei, das tatsächlich die Entwicklung des gesamten wissenschaftlichen Themengebiets Hochschulforschung in Deutschland und weit darüber hinaus aufzeigt.

Teichler schaut fünf Jahrzehnte seines wissenschaftlichen Weges zurück, der zu der Zeit begann, als der traditionelle Begriff „Ordinarius“ seine Selbstverständlichkeit verlor und der Glaube ins Wanken geriet, dass die Universität „im Kern gesund“ sei. Plötzlich wurde systematische Information zur Lage des Hochschulwesens nachgefragt. Teichler hat darauf reagiert.

Direkte und bohrende Fragen seitens der beiden Interviewerinnen tragen das ganze Buch: Warum überhaupt die Wahl von Wissenschaft als Beruf? Warum ausgerechnet Hochschulforschung? Warum die Entschediung für die gerade erst gegründete Universität in Kassel ohne gewachsene Reputation, obwohl die Tür zur University of Chicago offen stand? Welche „Elefanten der Hochschulforschung“ waren für den wissenschaftlichen Weg wichtig?

Wie konnte aus so kleinen Anfängen so ein international so bekanntes Forschungszentrum entstehen? Wie verträgt sich Pioniertätigkeit auf einem Forschungsgebiet mit den Managementanforderungen im Alltag? Wie kamst Du darauf, dass internationaler Vergleich für die Hochschulforschung so wichtig ist, wo doch Hochschulsysteme so viele nationale Spezifika haben?

Wieso sollen Hochschulforscher versuchen, bei der Planung ihrer Forschungstätigkeit früh „das Gras wachsen zu sehen“ und „den Leuten aufs Maul schauen“? Wieso kann für wissenschaftliche Qualität zentral sein, dass Wissenschaftler so sehr die Fragen der praktischen Akteure zum Anlass für Analysen nehmen? Wie lässt sich so großer Einsatz für den Beruf, der zu über 1.400 Publikationen und zu über 2.000 berufliche Reisen – sogar in mehr als 80 Länder – geführt hat, mit einem lebendigen Familienleben vereinbaren?

Wie kam es dazu, dass Du Yoko kennengelernt hast – Deine Frau, die Dein berufliches Leben so einsatzbereit begleitet hat? Viele Antworten sind als Anekdoten erzählt. So sagte Yoko: „Ulrich, Du hast keine Freunde, mit denen man wöchentlich Freizeitaktivitäten nachgeht, aber irgendwie hast Du vielleicht tausend Freunde in der ganzen Welt“.

Ulrich Teichler erzählt die Geschichte der Umbrüche in Hochschule, Politik und Gesellschaft als Zeitzeuge und als unbestechlicher Analytiker. Wie die Interviewerinnen sagen: „Typisch Ulrich Teichler: Amüsant, komplex, überraschend“. Der Titel des Buches ist ein wenig ambivalent; er könnte verstanden werden als „Hochschulforschung, und was noch?“. Aber die Botschaft des Buches ist klar: „Hochschulforschung, nichts anderes!“

Ulrich Teichler, geboren 1942, war von 1978 bis 2013 Professor am International Centre for Higher Education Research Kassel und am Fachbereich Sozialwissenschaften der Universität Kassel. Er war 16 Jahre lang Geschäftsführender Direktor des Zentrums und war für Forschungs- und Lehrzwecke in den USA, Japan, China, Belgien, den Niederlanden und Österreich tätig.

Paul Temple

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A stress-test of the physical university

by Paul Temple

The impact of technological change on the continuation of the university as a physical entity, as it has been known in Europe for the last nine hundred or so years, has regularly come up for debate throughout much of the last century. Every development in communications technology – telephone, radio, TV, computers, email, the internet – has led to confident assertions that the days of the university as then understood were numbered. Why should students bother to turn up at a distant university when the teaching on offer there could be delivered readily and cheaply using the new technology of the day? (On the other hand, the transformative communications technologies of the nineteenth century – the railway and the steamship – were turned to advantage by the new University of London when it created its distance-learning operation in 1865.)

A favourite work of mine in this declinist genre is John Daniel’s Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media (1998), where the then-VC of the UK’s Open University confidently predicts that the growth of university student numbers in countries such as China and India will mean that only “mega” virtual universities will be able to cope with national demands. Even the Chinese, Daniel then argued, would not be able to expand physical university capacity at the rate required: to which one can now respond, “Oh yes they could”.

The pandemic lockdown in the UK, which has completely closed university campuses for (at the time of writing) about six months has shown what can be done in terms of online teaching when there’s no alternative. All the university teachers I know have become overnight experts on the use of Zoom and Teams for both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, for doctoral examinations, and more: exactly the direction in which Daniel thought higher education should move. But I haven’t heard any calls for this to continue indefinitely, and for campuses to be mothballed. My friend Jane, who teaches a large, mainly Chinese, postgraduate group at UCL, tells me that her students say that they would find online learning less appealing if they did not already know their peers and teachers from previous time working on the campus. Without this prior group-building to give the basis for informal peer support, Jane thinks that her learners could easily become isolated and would struggle. Everyone, especially it seems, students, wants to get back to the physical university.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. I have previously (Temple, 2018) noted the complex relationships between academic work and the physical environments within which it takes place. Just as the current lockdown has led people in all kinds of jobs to re-evaluate their work environments, so the temporary campus closures should have prompted thinking about how university built environments contribute to their outputs. The relationships between people and the built environments in which they live and work is an under-remarked factor in all manner of social and economic activities: Richard Sennett, for example, has over many years investigated these relationships in different settings, most recently in his book Building and Dwelling (2018). The idea that an activity as complex and deeply personal as higher learning can be completely divorced from its physical context seems improbable: Sennett analyses this complexity by using the term cité to represent ideas of belonging and consciousness, and ville to indicate physicality, the dynamics of space, and how elements of the built environment fit together. We might think of online teaching during the lockdown as taking the cité out of the ville: it might work initially, but eventually the ville infrastructure starts to be missed. Although Jane’s students liked the increased availability of recorded material, even live online interactive sessions were not for them adequate substitutes for a seminar room discussion. Other aspects of the physical university will be missing too: studies have shown how students value a working environment shared with other students – a library or study centre – even when they are personally unknown to one another. The enormous popularity of UCL’s new 1100 seat student study centre, in use (pre-Covid) around the clock, is a good example of what Nørgård and Bengtsen have called “the placeful university” (2016) – their way of thinking about the interactions between people and places.

The Covid-19 lockdown has given us a stress-test of university teaching without the campus. Teachers and students have worked hard to make it a success, usually helped – as with Jane’s students – by being part of a learning community with a pre-lockdown history. We need in future to give the ville aspects of university life the credit they deserve.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at


Daniel, J (1998) Mega-universities and knowledge media: technology strategies for higher education London: Kogan Page

Nørgård, R and Bengtsen, S (2016) ‘Academic citizenship beyond the campus: a call for the placeful university’. Higher Education Research and Development, 35 (1): 4-16

Sennett, R (2018) Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City London: Allen Lane

Temple, P (2018) ‘Space, place and institutional effectiveness in higher education’ Policy Reviews in Higher Education 2 (2): 133-150