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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Let them eat data: education, widening participation and the digital divide

by Alex Blower and Nik Marsdin

The quest for an answer

As an education sector we like answers, answers for everything, right or wrong. Sometimes we’re more concerned with arriving at an answer, than we are with ensuring it tackles the issue addressed by the question.

Widening HE participation is led by policy that dictates which answers we provide to what questions and to whom. All too often this leads to practitioners scrambling for answers to questions which are ill fitting to the issue at hand, or looking for a quick solution in such haste that we forget to read the question properly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again laid bare the stark inequality faced by children and young people in our education system. With it has been an influx of new questions from policy makers, and answers from across the political and educational spectrum.

A magic ‘thing’

More often than not, answers to these questions will comprise a ‘thing’. Governments like tangible objects like mentoring, tutoring, longer days, boot camps and shiny new academies. All of which align to the good old fashioned ‘fake it till you make it’ meritocratic ideal. For the last 40 years the Government has shied away from recognising, let alone addressing, embedded structural inequality from birth. It’s difficult, it’s complicated, and it can’t readily be answered in a tweet or a soundbite from a 6pm press conference.

The undesirable implications of a search for an ‘oven ready’ answer can be seen in the digital divide. A stark example of what access to the internet means for the haves and have-nots of the technological age.

‘So, the reason young people are experiencing extreme inequality and not becoming educationally successful, is because they don’t have enough access to technological things?’

‘What we need is a nice solid technological thing we can pin our hopes on…’

‘Laptops for everyone!’

Well, (and I suspect some voices in the back know what’s coming) access to technology alone isn’t the answer, in the same way that a pencil isn’t the answer to teaching a child to write.

Technology is a thing, a conduit, a piece of equipment that, if used right, can facilitate a learning gain. As professionals working to widen HE participation, we need to challenge these ‘oven ready answers’. Especially if they seem misguided or, dare I say it woefully ignorant of the challenges working-class communities face.

After distribution of the devices, online engagement didn’t change

Lancaster University developed the ‘Connecting Kids’ project during the first wave of COVID-19, as a direct response to calls for help by local secondary schools. The project achieved what it set out to in that it procured over 500 brand new laptops or Chromebooks, and free internet access for all recipients. Every child who fell outside of the Department for Education scheme who was without a suitable device in the home would now have one. Problem solved, right?

Not quite. Engagement in online learning environments prior to the DfE scheme and Connecting Kids initiative in years 8 and 9 was hovering at about 30% of students engaging daily, and 45% weekly. After the distribution of devices, engagement remained at nearly exactly the same level. Further inspection of the data from the telecom’s provider demonstrated that of the 500 mobile connections distributed, only 123 had been activated. Of those 123 only half were being regularly used. Of the 377 ‘unused’ sim and mi-fi packages around 200 showed ‘user error’ in connection status.

Again, this may come as no surprise to the seasoned professionals working with children and young people at the sharp end of structural inequality, but it turned out the ‘thing’ wasn’t the answer. Who would have thought it?

Understanding communities and providing resources

Fast forward 6 months and monthly interviews with participating school staff (part of the project evaluation, not yet complete) show that online engagement in one school is up to 92%. The laptops have played a valuable role in that. They have enabled access. What they haven’t done however, is understand and make allowances for the circumstances of children, young people and families. That has taken a commitment by the schools to provide holistic wrap around services in partnership with other organisations. It has included short courses on connecting to the internet, and provision of basic learning equipment such as pencils, paper, and pens. It has included the school day and timetable being replicated online, live feedback sessions with teachers and learning assistants, and drop-in sessions for parents and carers. Most importantly, it has included a recognition of the difference between home and school, and the impact it has on the education working-class of young people.

Back to policy and widening participation. If we are to make our work truly meaningful for young people, we must critically engage with a policy narrative which is built around a desire for quick fixes, soundbites and ‘oven ready things’. We owe it to the young people who are being hit hardest by this pandemic to take a step back and look at the wider barriers they face.

To do this we may need to reconceptualise what it means to support them into higher education. This starts with challenging much of the policy that is designed to improve access to higher education built upon a premise of individual deficit. The repetitive waving of magical policy wands to conjure up laptops, mentors and days out on campus will only serve to leave us with ever increasing numbers of students and families who are left out and disengaged. Numbers that will continue to rise unless we take the time to engage critically with the complex, numerous and damaging inequalities that working-class young people face.

Reshaping university outreach

This leaves us with something of a conundrum. As HE professionals, what on earth can we do about all of that? Is it our place to address an issue so vast, and so intimately tied to the turning cogs of government policy and societal inequality?

Well, if recent conversations pertaining to higher education’s civic purpose are anything to go by, the answer is undoubtedly yes. And we need to do it better. Within our mad scramble to do something to support young learners during the first, second, and now third national lockdown, our ‘thing’ has become online workshops.

For many of us the ramifications of the digital divide have been acknowledged, but we have shied away from them in work to widen HE participation. We’ve kept doing what we’ve always done, but switched to a model of online delivery which restricts who has the ability to access the content. Can we honestly say, given the disparity in digital participation amongst the most and least affluent groups, that this is the right answer to the question?

Rather than an online workshop series on ‘choosing universities’, would our time and resource be better spent by organising student ambassadors from computing subjects to staff a freephone helpline supporting young people in the community to get online? Could we distribute workbooks with local newspapers? Could we, as they did at Lancaster, work in partnership with other local and national organisations to offer more holistic support, support which ensures that as many students are able to participate in education digitally as possible?

For us, the answer is yes. Yes we should. And we can start by meaningfully engaging with the communities our universities serve. By taking the time to properly listen and understand the questions before working with those communities to provide an answer.

Currently based at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Alex Blower has worked as a professional in widening access to Higher Education for the last decade. Having completed his doctoral research in education and inequality last year, Alex’s research interests focus around class, masculinity and higher education participation. Follow Alex via @EduDetective on twitter.

Nik Marsdin is currently lead for the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden North Project) at Lancaster University. Nik worked in children’s social care, youth justice and community provision for 12 years prior to moving into HE.  Research interests are widening participation, school exclusion, transitions in education and alternative provision. Follow Nik via @MarsdinNik on Twitter.


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Blue-skies thinking

by Paul Temple

A few years ago, a recently-retired Permanent Secretary talked to our MBA group at the Institute of Education, on a Chatham House rule basis, about policy-making in government. One of his remarks which stayed with me was about the increased speed of policy change during his professional lifetime. The key word here was “change” – as an end in itself. A newly-appointed Secretary of State, he explained, after a week or so in the job, would be invited to pop in to Number 10 for a cup of tea. “How’s it going, then?” he or she would be asked. If the answer was, “Oh, fine, thanks, everything seems to be running smoothly”, then they were toast. The correct answer was, “Well, I expected a few problems in taking over from X, but, really, I was shocked to discover how bad things are. But I’ve got a grip on it, and I’ll be making big changes.” Status around the Cabinet table depended on the boldness and scope of the policy changes your Department was pursuing. Effectiveness was a secondary matter.

The March 2020 budget included the commitment for the Government to “invest at least £800m” in a “blue-skies” funding agency, to support “high risk, high reward science”[1]. This seems to be the one possibly lasting legacy of Dominic Cummings’ reign in Downing Street: as I noted in my blog here on 6 February 2020, one of his stated goals was to create a UK version of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), famous for initiating the internet. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reported on the Government’s plans on 12 February 2021[2], expressing puzzlement about the lack of detail on the proposed Agency’s remit since the proposal was unveiled in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech: “a brand in search of a product” was the Committee’s acid summing-up of the position. (Perhaps Cummings is being missed more than was predicted.) The Committee recommended that the “Haldane principle should not apply to how UK ARPA’s overall focus is determined. Ministers should play a role in shaping ARPA’s initial focus” but after that, it should be able “to pursue ‘novel and contentious’ research without case-by-case Ministerial approval” (p45). Which Minister(s) will have this focus-shaping responsibility is not yet clear.

The Committee obviously struggled to see what precisely an ARPA could do that UKRI, with perhaps some amended terms of reference, could not do. But of course the big difference is that an ARPA will be change – a shiny new initiative – and so much better for the Minister involved than tinkering with existing bits of governmental machinery. I expect they’ll find a way to launch the ARPA involving the Minister standing next to some fancy scientific kit wearing a hi-vis jacket and a hard hat.

As David Edgerton has pointed out[3], the so-called Haldane principle – that government should decide on overall research funding but that decisions on individual projects should be made by researchers – was never actually formulated by Haldane himself (Viscount Haldane, 1856-1928) and has a somewhat chequered history in science policy. Nevertheless, for much of the twentieth century, what was considered to be the Haldane principle underpinned the funding of UK research, with the idea of academic freedom so central to research funding that, as Edgerton says, it was “a principle that didn’t need to be written down”. That was then.

This began to change with the 1971 report by Lord Rothschild on The Organisation and Management of Government R&D[4], which, controversially, introduced the client/contractor relationship into public funding of research. This began the long and winding journey, via the Research Assessment Exercises, starting in in 1986, which led to the “impact statements” of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework in order to demonstrate proposals’ value for money. As Susan Greenfield once remarked[5], this was like saying that you’re only going to back winning horses.

Lyn Grove, whose PhD research[6] cast a fascinating light on why and how researchers approached their topics, quoted one of her respondents as saying, “the main thing is that you should try to do research that answers a question that is troubling you, even if it’s not yet troubling the rest of the world”: a pretty good summary of what blue-skies research should do. Is the ARPA blue-skies proposal going to take us, at least in part, back to a lost world, where researchers could pursue troubling ideas without considering their possible “impact” and where failure was accepted as an unavoidable aspect of research work? Has research policy, almost inadvertently, really run full-circle, driven by the incessant demand for novelty in policy-making? In the context of increasingly intrusive interventions by government into everyday university life (the idea of a university “woke warden”[7] would until recently have been a good joke), it somehow seems implausible. But we can always hope.

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 https://doi.org/10.18546


[1] House of Commons Science and Technology Committee website, visited 13 February 2021

[2] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmsctech/778/77803.htm

[3] Research Fortnight 12 December 2018

[4] Published with other material as HMSO (1971) A Framework for Government Research and Development Cmnd 4814. London: HMSO

[5] Greenfield, S (2011) ‘Research – the current situation and the next steps’ in The future of research in the UK – value, funding and the practicalities of rebalancing the UK economy London: Westminster Education Forum

[6] Grove, L (2017) The effects of funding policies on academic research Unpublished PhD thesis London: UCL Institute of Education

[7] briefing@wonkhe.com, 15 February 2021

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SRHE News on teaching and learning

By Rob Cuthbert

One of the benefits of SRHE membership is exclusive access to the quarterly newsletter, SRHE News, archived at https://www.srhe.ac.uk/publications/. SRHE News typically contains a round-up of recent academic events and conferences, policy developments and new publications, written by editor Rob Cuthbert. To illustrate the contents, here is part of the January 2021 issue which covers Teaching and Learning.

Academic development and Pro VC roles can go together

Fiona Denney (Brunel) reported her research in International Journal of Academic Development (online 13 December 2020) based on interviews with four Pro VCs with academic development backgrounds: “Over the past two years, four research-intensive universities in the UK have appointed senior academic leaders from academic development backgrounds, a new phenomenon in this sector of UK higher education that may suggest a changing pattern. This study interviewed these four leaders to explore what the appointment means for their academic identity. The interviewees identified internal and external drivers for change and noted their backgrounds as academic developers made their routes into these senior roles different from their peers. For this reason, their ‘academic credibility’ was critical in order to implement culture change effectively.”

How metrics are changing academic development

Roni Bamber (Queen Margaret University) blogged for Wonkhe on 18 December 2020 about her monograph for SEDA, Our days are numbered. Great title, good read.

SoTL in action

The 2018 book edited by Nancy Chick was reviewed by Maik Arnold (University of Applied Sciences, Germany) for Arts and Humanities in Education (online 12 October 2020).

Innovations in Active Learning in Higher Education

The new book by SRHE members Simon Pratt-Adams, Uwe Richter and Mark Warnes (all Anglia Ruskin) grew out of an Active Learning conference at Anglia Ruskin University, leading to a book which, in the words of the foreword by Mike Sharples (Open University) “shows how to put active learning into practice with large cohorts of students and how to grow that practice over many years. The authors come from a variety of institutions and discipline areas … What they have in common is a desire to improve student engagement, experience and outcomes, through active learning approaches that work in practice and are scalable and sustainable.” Free to download from the publishers, Fulcrum.

Now that’s what I call a publishing event

The new book by Keith Trigwell (Sydney) and Mike Prosser (Melbourne) Exploring University Teaching and Learning: Experience and Context, was launched on 10 December 2020, more than 20 years since Understanding Learning and Teaching appeared in 1999. The book focuses on university teachers’ experience of teaching and learning, discussing the qualitative variation in approaches to university teaching, the factors associated with that variation, and how different ways of teaching are related to differences in student experiences of teaching and learning. The authors extend the discussions of teaching into new areas, including emotions in teaching, leadership of teaching, growth as a university teacher and the contentious field of relations between teaching and research.

Psychological contract profiling for managing the learning experience of higher education students

László Horváth (ELTE Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest) used a service marketing approach for his article in the European Journal of Higher Education (online 27 January 2020): “Combining … six factors for expectations (personalization, development of soft skills, competent teachers, labour market preparedness, support, flexibility) and three factors of obligations (performance and activity, preciseness and punctuality, obedience and respect), we created Psychological Contract Profile Clusters (outcome-centred, teacher-centred, learner-centred, learning-centred, content-centred and self-centred students).”

“Grade inflation remains ‘a significant and pressing issue’”

That was how the OfS chose to present its analysis of degree outcomes published on 19 November 2020, quoting OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge. The report itself said the rate of increase in ‘grade inflation’ had slowed in 2018-2019, and buried in the text was this: “It is not possible to deduce from this analysis what factors not included in the modelling (such as improvements in teaching quality, more diligent students or changes to assessment approaches) are driving the observed changes in degree attainment.” No recognition by OfS of the research by Calvin Jephcote (Leicester), SRHE members Emma Medland and Robin Lygo-Baker (both Surrey) published in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, which concluded: “The results suggest a much more positive and proactive picture of a higher education system that is engaged in a process of continuous enhancement. The unexplained variables, rather than automatically being labelled as grade inflation, should instead point to a need to investigate further the local institutional contextual factors that inform grade distribution. The deficit lens through which ‘grade inflation’ is often perceived is a damaging and unhelpful distraction.” Perhaps Nicola Dandridge was auditioning for Queen of Hearts in the OfS Christmas panto: “Sentence first, verdict afterwards”.

Jephcote, Medland and Lygo-Baker had also blogged for Wonkhe on 14 October 2020 about their research: “Evidence for why grades are trending upwards, or the less loaded phrase of grade improvement, reveal a complex landscape. According to our recent research, the most influential determinants of grade improvement were shown to be the geographic location of an institution, research output quality and the increasing quality of student cohorts – although even this variable was determined on grade entry points, which the recent A Level debacle in the UK has pulled into question. … What this evidence reveals is that a combination of student aptitude, and changes to the structure and quality of UK higher education, appear to be largely accountable for graduates attaining higher grades. It also, importantly, points to the problems associated with our criterion-referenced approaches to assessment being critiqued using a norm-referenced rationale.”

Peer review of teaching in Australian HE: a systematic review

The article by Alexandra L Johnston, Chi Baik and Andrea Chester (all Melbourne) was in Higher Education Research and Development (online 18 November 2020) “A thematic synthesis revealed teaching development outcomes gained through peer review of teaching span factors at organisational … program … and individual … levels. Organisational factors included disciplinary context, program sustainability, collegiality and leadership. Program factors included framework, program design, basis of participation, observation, feedback and reflective practice. Factors at the individual level included prior experience and participants’ perceived development requirements.”

What do undergraduate students understand by excellent teaching?

SRHE member Mike Mimirinis (West London) published the results of his SRHE-funded research in Higher Education Research and Development (online 21 November 2020): “This article explores undergraduate students’ conceptions of what constitutes excellent teaching. … semi-structured interviews with students at two English universities yields five qualitatively different conceptions of excellent teaching. In contrast to the current intense policy focus on outcome factors (eg graduate employability), students predominantly discern process factors as conducive to excellent teaching: how the subject matter is presented, what the lecturer brings to the teaching process, how students’ personal understanding is supported, and to what extent the questioning and transformation of disciplinary knowledge is facilitated. More importantly, this study demonstrates that an expansion of students’ awareness of the nature of teaching is internally related to the expansion of their awareness of the nature of disciplinary knowledge.”

The German sense of humour

The article in Studies in Higher Education (online 3 June 2019, issue 2020:12) was based on two large surveys of how teachers used humour in their teaching, and how students responded. It seems to come down to what the teachers meant by using humour. The research was by Martin Daumiller and three other colleagues at Augsburg.

Teaching in lifelong learning: A guide to theory and practice

The third edition was published in 2019, edited by James Avis, Roy Fisher and Ron Thompson (all Huddersfield).

A conceptual framework to enhance student learning and engagement

Alice Brown, Jill Lawrence, Marita Basson and Petrea Redmond (all Southern Queensland) had an article in Higher Education Research and Development (online 28 December 2020) about using course learning analytics (CLA) and nudging strategies, based on “a 12-month research project, as well as by the theoretical perspectives presented by communication and critical literacies. These perspectives were applied to develop a conceptual framework which the authors designed to prioritise expectation management and engagement principles for both students and academics. The article explains the development of the framework as well as the elements and key communication strategies it embodies. The framework contributes to practice by explaining and justifying the accessible, time-efficient, student-focused approaches that can be integrated simply into each course’s online learning pedagogy to support both academics’ and students’ engagement.”

Rob Cuthbert is the editor of SRHE News and Blog, emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China. He is current chair of the SRHE Publications Committee.

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SRHE News on research and publishing

by Rob Cuthbert

One of the benefits of SRHE membership is exclusive access to the quarterly newsletter, SRHE News, archived at https://www.srhe.ac.uk/publications/. SRHE News typically contains a round-up of recent academic events and conferences, policy developments and new publications, written by editor Rob Cuthbert. To illustrate the contents, here is part of the January 2021 issue which covers Research and Publishing.

Research integrity

George Gaskell (LSE) wrote on the LSE Impact Blog on 16 October 2020 about the multi-authored Horizon 2020 study which distilled findings about research integrity into three areas and nine topics:

  • Support: research environment; supervision and mentoring; research integrity training
  • Organise: research ethics structures; dealing with breaches of research integrity; data practices and management
  • Communicate: research collaboration; declaration of interests; publication and communication

Eight common problems with literature reviews and how to fix them

Neal Haddaway (Stockholm Environment Institute) wrote for the LSE Impact Blog on 19 October 2020.

How to write an academic abstract

PhD student Maria Tsapali (Cambridge) offered some advice on the Cambridge Faculty of Education Research Students’ Association blog. Top of the list: avoid spelling or grammatical mistakes …

How to reward broader contributions to research culture

Elizabeth Adams and Tanita Casci (both Glasgow) explained on the LSE Impact Blog on 8 December 2020 how they designed and implemented a programme “for recognising often unseen work that colleagues do to build a positive research culture? Supporting careers, peer reviewing grant applications, mentoring and running skills development workshops for ECRs, championing open and rigorous research practices…”.

The following is an excerpt from SRHE News, the SRHE newsletter and Higher Education digest. Issue 43 of SRHE News was published in January 2021. SRHE News is a members only publication and can be downloaded from the Members Area. To become a member of SRHE visit the SRHE website.

The synthesiser’s synthesiser

SRHE Fellow Malcolm Tight (Lancaster) climbed even higher on the mountain he has largely built himself, assembling research into HE, with his new book, Syntheses of higher education research, published by Bloomsbury on 24 December 2020: “… systematic reviews and meta-analyses give an account of where we are now in higher education research. Malcolm Tight takes a global perspective, looking beyond Anglophone originating English Language publishing, particularly Africa, East and South Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, bringing together their findings to provide an accessible and practical overview. Bringing together over 96 systematic reviews and 62 meta-analyses focusing on … key topics: teaching and learning, course design, the student experience, quality, system policy, institutional management, academic work, and knowledge and research.”

Academic development in times of crisis

The International Journal for Academic Development has issued a call for proposals for a special issue to be published in 2022, inviting research, theory, and reflection on academic development in times of crisis. “We encourage scholarly and creative submissions that offer insights, methodologies, and practices that are firmly grounded in a particular context and crisis but that also have implications for academic development more broadly. … We encourage submission of a 500 word proposal by 1 February 2021 … full manuscripts to be submitted by 1 June 2021 … For inquiries about this Special Issue, please contact Henk Huijser, h.huijser@qut.edu.au.”

Theories of academic identity

Mark Barrow, Barbara Grant and Linlin Xu (all Auckland) analysed how academic identity had been theorised in their article in Higher Education Research and Development (online 30 November 2020): “Our analysis of 11 works suggests a small set of related (constructivist) theories provides the core resources for academic identities scholarship, although somewhat varied understandings of agency and power/politics surface in the discussions and implications advanced by different authors.” 

Governance and freedom in British academia

That was the title of SRHE member Rosalind MO Pritchard’s (Ulster) review for Higher Education Quarterly (online 18 December 2020) of The governance of British higher education: the impact of governmental, financial and market pressures, the 2020 book by SRHE Fellow Michael Shattock (UCL) and Aniko Horvath (Oxford) arising from their Centre for Global Higher Education research: “Two ideas permeate the content and are stated at the outset: the British state is playing a much more proactive role in higher education than in the past; and the uniformity of the higher education system is fragmenting under the impact of devolution and market pressures”.

From marketisation to assetisation

The article by Janja Komljenovic setting out her arguments for reframing the HE debate about markets and digitisation was in Higher Education (online 5 October 2020): “… we urgently need public scrutiny and political action to address issues of value extraction and redistribution in HE.”.

Theory and Method in Higher Education Research

Volume 6 of the Emerald series was published on 9 November 2020, edited by SRHE Fellows Jeroen Huisman (Ghent) and Malcolm Tight (Lancaster). Chapters: Prelims; Theorising Practices of Relational Working across the Boundaries of Higher Education; Uses of Corpus Linguistics in Higher Education Research: An Adjustable Lens; Dialogues with Data: Generating Theoretical Insights from Research on Practice in Higher Education; The Use of Instrumental Variables in Higher Education Research; Participatory Pedagogy and Artful Inquiry: Partners in Researching the Student Experience; Rolling Out the Mat: A Talanoa on Talanoa as a Higher Education Research Methodology; Rethinking Diversity: Combining Sen and Bourdieu to Critically Unpack Higher Education Participation and Persistence; Deleuzian Approaches to Researching Student Experience in Higher Education; Investigating Policy Processes and Discourses in Higher Education: The Theoretical Complementarities of Bernstein’s Pedagogic Device and Critical Discourse Studies; Framing Theory for Higher Education Research; Research into Quality Assurance and Quality Management in Higher Education; Knowledge with Impact in Higher Education Research

Literature reviews

Perspectives: Policy and Practice had two literature reviews in Vol 24(4): Orla Sheehan Pundyke on change management and Kelli Wolfe (Roehampton) on service design.

SRHE News is edited by Rob Cuthbert. Rob is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com.

Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes…

An interesting follow-up to the item last time on research into not doing something. The German government put out a TV message featuring two couch potatoes…doing nothing, and advocating staying on the couch as a contribution to not spreading the Covid-19 infection. Somebody has a sense of humour.

On the pandemic, one group that has emerged with credit is the research community, the speed of decision making and the extent of international co-operation in sequencing the genetic code of the virus, using the code to design a vaccine and then developing it in record time. I suggest that by the end of 2021 the number of lives saved by the actions of researchers will be greater than the number lost through the actions and inactions of politicians. Experts have gained in respect. On the other hand, in this country…

On a (perhaps) less contentious issue, closer to members’ interests, I recommend the book edited by Stephen Gorard and published by Routledge: Getting Evidence into Education. Evaluating the routes to policy and practice. He has a salutary listing in the final chapter of barriers to the widespread use of high quality evidence. First is the regrettable lack of quality in research, with the growth of work he identifies as ‘small-scale, uninventive, journalistic or [only] purportedly theoretical work’ lacking scientific replicability. Second is the low ability or willingness to communicate findings to users, which is now improving, possibly because of the impact factor in REF funding. On the other side, he questions whether users really appreciate and want to use good evidence, particularly when it runs counter to values that underpin ideology. Finally, ‘teachers are still largely unaware of the availability of good evidence’ or lack the authority or resources to make changes in practice, and ‘school leaders often appear content to plan school improvement without referring to robust evidence. In my experience, much of that is also true in higher education, as well as in government policy making for the sector.

The latest data on membership of REF panels, issued in December, show that, despite government commitment to diversity and levelling up, the academic capitalists among the elite universities still control the commanding heights of the research economy. On the main panels, pre-92 universities have 46 full members, post-92 institutions have one – Kingston on Panel D. International universities have 15, which shows where competition in Lisa Lucas’s research game is focussed. On the sub-panels the figures are 636 to 87, with assessor members at 112 and 24. This affects grading. I make no accusation of crony capitalism, but there may be an unconscious bias of common cultural identity, as in the Eurovision Song Contest, where votes go to ‘people like us’, so the same old same old may be rewarded ahead of new approaches and findings challenging the established corpus of work done by members. That in turn affects funding. A parliamentary reply on 17 November listed overall government research funding (much of it QR funding from REF) to the 13 universities in the West Midlands. Between 2015 and 2019, Birmingham and Warwick (33 members) got an increase of 21% to £256m, mainly attributable to Warwick gaining an immediate £16 after the 2014 REF and a similar amount over the period; Aston and Keele (8 members) had no increase on £30m – Aston gained £1m, Keele had a matching reduction; Coventry gained £3m to £9m after a good REF. The other 8 institutions had £12 m among them. So two universities, dominating regional representation, got 83% of the funds distributed in 2018/9.

Amanda Solloway, Minister for HE in England, at a recent HEPI webinar, committed to reviewing the nature of excellence in research, acknowledged the need for diversity on interpretations and a need to link to ‘levelling up’. There may be a lesson from the Covid pandemic, where approaches by elite western countries failed; under-regarded countries did better. In 2019 the Johns Hopkins Global Health Security Index ranking capacity to deal with outbreaks of infectious disease ranked the USA first and the UK second; New Zealand came in at 35th and South Korea at 9th. The article in the Guardian from which I took those figures (Laura Spinney on 30 December) quotes Sarah Dalglies in the Lancet – ‘The pandemic has given the lie to the notion that expertise is concentrated in, or at least best channelled by, legacy powers and historically rich states’. Maybe that applies to research, too. REF panels, and Amanda Solloway, please note.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.

For answers to Ian’s SRHE News Quiz 2020, they are now online here.

Marcia Devlin


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Let’s not waste any more time

by Marcia Devlin

Last year, I was sent a satirical article about how to sabotage the productivity of your organisation by using a CIA manual from 1944.  It contained advice such as:

  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration’. Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five;
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions; and
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

There’s more and it’s worth a read.

Reflecting on my time in higher education over three decades, the article was both funny and depressing. Funny, because it precisely describes daily life working in a university, which is peculiar and amusing and many of us would have it no other way. Depressing, because it precisely describes daily life working in a university, which is highly bureaucratic and inefficient and often a profound waste of talent, goodwill and time.

The COVID-19 crisis has provided many opportunities to rethink what we have always done and to do things differently. I’m wondering whether universities might eventually benefit from this terrible crisis, including in ways that could be permanent.

Following the scrambling, adjustments and re-learning required for the global mass uptake of online and digital forms of education, our attention has begun to turn to the implications of this move.

Always of interest, academic integrity and the quality and standards of learning are now the subject of increased interest and scrutiny. As the ubiquitous, supervised, closed book exam en masse became impossible, along with other forms of assessment that require physical supervision of students, less frequently used assessment approaches have been considered and deployed.

Academic integrity is having a day or two in the sun as educators in universities consider how to ensure it, when they can’t always see what students are doing, including during electronic classes. Approaches that are being considered and used include: more gentle and/or educative interpretations of existing assessment and academic integrity policies; the use of technological proctoring tools, including homemade solutions using student phones; and so-called ‘alternative’ assessment.

In Australia, assessment policies have been changed, or waived in part, including through the granting of special power to a senior officer of the University in some places. All of these shifts have occurred with the aim of enabling to practical solutions to challenging and sudden changes.

New and streamlined governance arrangements have been created and enacted to ensure appropriate oversight of teaching, learning and assessment changes in the very short timeframes possible at the time. This one might confound any current CIA operatives in universities who are intent on slowing us down.

Considerations of academic matters that used to take one or two long Academic Board discussions and a fair amount of angst, not to mention tension and in some cases ongoing resentments between parties with different views, gave way, at least momentarily.  They were replaced by shorter, more focused considerations, often in single, brief meetings of key people. As far as I observed at my own University and elsewhere, we have made sensible and defensible positions and enacted them, with broad acceptance and little or no negative ripple.

Of course, we were forced to move quickly by the sudden onset of the COVID-19 crisis, which is the defining feature of most of the world’s experience in 2020. As we enter 2021, a ‘new normal’ is emerging in every aspect of human existence. It is understandable that we should hope things to return to the ‘old normal’, at least in some respects. But I’d argue that academic governance is one area in which we should try to retain the new normal, at least to some extent.

Imagine what might be possible if university staff were freed up, even just a little, from the at times tortuous dance of academic consideration that unnecessarily uses up precious talent, goodwill and time.

What if, post this terrible world crisis, we emerged with a commitment to do things differently in universities and in ways that maintained integrity, but did not steal our precious resources?

What if, instead of us doing as a CIA operative would recommend, such as: “Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences”, we simply didn’t do that anymore?

What if we all became more conscious of the time of others that we use up in the pursuit of ancient but no longer purposeful traditions? And what if we all committed to stopping doing this and trying something more respectful instead?

That we have moved many millions of university students to profoundly different ways of learning, teaching and assessment, and created new and efficient ways to consider and govern effectively with academic integrity apparently intact, tells us that anything is possible in the university sector.

When we finally emerge from COVID-19, the world will be a different place and human contact will be more deeply appreciated in many ways. Why don’t we try to respect that contact in our universities by not wasting each other’s talent, goodwill and time any further?

Marcia Devlin is a Fellow of SRHE and former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, now Adjunct Professor at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. An earlier version of this article appeared in Campus Review.

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Quality and standards in higher education

By Rob Cuthbert

What are the key issues in HE quality and standards, right now? Maintaining quality and standards with the massive transition to remote learning? Dealing with the consequences of the 2020 A-levels shambles? The student experience, now that most learning for most students is remote and off-campus? Student mental health and engagement with their studies and their peers? One or more of these, surely, ought to be our ‘new normal’ concerns.

But not for the government. Minister Michele Donelan assured us that quality and standards were being constantly monitored – by other people – as in her letter of 2 November to vice-chancellors:

“We have been clear throughout this pandemic that higher education providers must at all times maintain the quality of their tuition. If more teaching is moved online, providers must continue to comply with registration conditions relating to quality and standards. This means ensuring that courses provide a high-quality academic experience, students are supported and achieve good outcomes, and standards are protected. We have worked with the Office for Students who are regularly reviewing online tuition. We also expect students to continue to be supported and achieve good outcomes, and I would like to reiterate that standards must be maintained.”

So student health and the student experience are for the institutions to worry about, and get right, with the Office for Students watching. And higher education won’t need a bailout, unlike most other sectors of the market economy, because with standards being maintained there’s no reason for students not to enrol and pay fees exactly as usual. Institutional autonomy is vital, especially when it comes to apportioning the blame.

For government, the new normal was just the same as the old normal. It wasn’t difficult to read the signs. Ever since David Willetts, ministers had been complaining about low quality courses in universities. But with each successive minister the narrative became increasingly threadbare. David, now Lord, Willetts, at least had a superficially coherent argument: greater competition and informed student choice would drive up quality through competition between institutions for students. It was never convincing, but at least it had an answer to why and how quality and standards might be connected with competition in the HE market. Promoting competition by lowering barriers to entry for new HE providers was not a conspicuous success: some of the new providers proved to be a big problem for quality. Information, advice and guidance were key for improving student choice, so it seemed that the National Student Survey would play a significant part, along with university rankings and league tables. As successive ministers took up the charge the eggs were mostly transferred to the Teaching Excellence Framework basket, with TEF being championed by Jo, now Lord, Johnson. TEF began in 2016 and became a statutory requirement in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which also required TEF to be subject to an independent review. From the start TEF had been criticised as not actually being about teaching, or excellence, and the review by Dame Shirley Pearce, previously VC at Loughborough, began in 2018. Her review was completed before the end of 2019, but at the time of writing had still not been published.

However the ‘low quality courses’ narrative has just picked up speed. Admittedly it stuttered a little during the tenure of Chris Skidmore, who was twice briefly the universities minister, before and after Jo Johnson’s equally brief second tenure. The ‘Skidmore test’ suggested that any argument about low quality courses should specify at least one of the culprits, if it was not to be a low quality argument. However this was naturally unpopular with the narrative’s protagonists and Skidmore, having briefly been reinstalled as minister after Jo Johnson’s decision to step down, was replaced by Michele Donelan, who has remained resolutely on-message, even as any actual evidence of low quality receded even further from view. She announced in a speech to Universities UK at their September 2020 meeting that the once-praised NSS was now in the firing line: “There is a valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding the subject knowledge and intellectual skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace. These concerns have been driven by both the survey’s current structure and its usage in developing sector league tables and rankings.”

UUK decided that they had to do something, so they ‘launched a crackdown’ (if you believe Camilla Turner in The Telegraph on 15 November 2020) by proposing, um, “a new charter aimed at ensuring institutions take a “consistent and transparent approach to identifying and improving potentially low value or low quality courses.” It’s doubtful if even UUK believed that would do the trick, and no-one else gave it much credence. But with the National Student Survey and even university league tables now deemed unreliable, and the TEF in deep freeze, the government urgently needed some policy-based evidence. It was time for this endlessly tricky problem to be dumped in the OfS in-tray. Thus it was that the OfS announced on 17 November 2020 that: “The Office for Students is consulting on its approach to regulating quality and standards in higher education. Since 2018, our focus has been on assessing providers seeking registration and we are considering whether and how we should develop our approach now that most providers are registered. This consultation is taking place at an early stage of policy development and we would like to hear your views on our proposals.”

Instant commentators were unimpressed. Were the OfS proposals on quality and standards good for the sector? Johnny Rich thought not, in his well-argued blog for the Engineering Professors’ Council on 23 November 2020, and David Kernohan provided some illustrative but comprehensive number-crunching in his Wonkhe blog on 30 November 2020: “Really, the courses ministers want to get rid of are the ones that make them cross. There’s no metric that is going to be able to find them – if you want to arbitrarily carve up the higher education sector you can’t use “following the science” as a justification.” Liz Morrish nailed it on her Academic Irregularities blog on 1 December 2020.

In the time-honoured way established by HEFCE, the OfS consultation was structured in a way which made it easy to summarise responses numerically, but much less easy to interpret their significance and their arguments. The core of the approach was a matrix of criteria, most of which all universities would expect to meet, but it included some ‘numerical baselines’, especially on something beyond the universities’ control – graduate progression to professional and managerial jobs. It also included a proposed baseline for drop-out rates. The danger of this was that it would point the finger at universities which do the most for disadvantaged groups, but here too government and OfS had a cunning plan. Nick Holland, the OfS Competition and Registration Manager, blogged on 2 December 2020 that the OfS would tackle “pockets of low quality higher education provision”, with the statement that “it is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes.” At a stroke universities with large proportions of disadvantaged students could either be blamed for high drop-out rates, or, if they reduced drop-out rates, they could be blamed for dropping standards. Lose-lose for the universities concerned, but win-win for the low quality courses narrative. The outrider to the low quality courses narrative was an attack on the 50% participation rate (in which Skidmore was equally culpable), which seemed hard to reconcile with a ‘levelling up’ narrative, but Michele Donelan did her best with her speech to NEON, of all audiences, calling for a new approach to social mobility, which seemed to add up to levelling up by keeping more people in FE. The shape of the baselines became clearer as OfS published Developing an understanding of projected rates of progression from entry to professional employment: methodology and results on 18 December 2020. After proper caveats about the experimental nature of the statistics, here came the indicator (and prospective baseline measure): “To derive the projected entry to professional employment measure presented here, the proportion of students projected to obtain a first degree at their original provider (also referred to as the ‘projected completion rate’) is multiplied by the proportion of Graduate Outcomes respondents in professional employment or any type of further study 15 months after completing their course (also referred to as the ‘professional employment or further study rate’).” This presumably met the government’s expectations by baking in all the non-quality-related advantages of selective universities in one number. Wonkhe’s David Kernohan despaired, on 18 December 2020, as the proposals deviated even further from anything that made sense: “Deep within the heart of the OfS data cube, a new plan is born. Trouble is, it isn’t very good.”

Is it too much to hope that OfS and government might actually look at the academic research on quality and standards in HE? Well, yes, but there is rather a lot of it. Quality in Higher Education is into its 26th year, and of course there is so much more. Even further back, in 1986 the SRHE Annual Conference theme was Standards and criteria in higher education, with an associated book edited by one of the founders of SRHE, Graeme Moodie (York). (This was the ‘Precedings’ – at that time the Society’s practice was to commission an edited volume in advance of the annual conference.) SRHE and the Carnegie Foundation subsequently sponsored a series of Anglo-American seminars on ‘Questions of Quality’. One of the seminar participants was SRHE member Tessa, now Baroness, Blackstone, who would later become the Minister for Further and Higher Education, and one of the visiting speakers for the Princeton seminar was Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker. At that time the Council for National Academic Awards was still functioning as the validating agency, assuring quality, for about half of the HE sector, with staff including such SRHE notables as Ron Barnett, John Brennan and Heather Eggins. When it was founded SRHE aimed to bring research and policy together; they have now drifted further apart. Less attention to peer review, but more ministers becoming peers.

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