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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Marcia Devlin


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Making space for compassion

by Marcia Devlin

As is the case in many countries, the COVID pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Australian universities. While many universities are now beginning to experiment with ‘hybrid’ models that combine online and face-to-face teaching and learning, efforts are tentative. Executives and staff are nervous about committing to what many students are increasingly telling us they want – a ‘normal’ university student experience with on-campus components.

This nervousness is well-founded. Our vaccine rollout is not rolling, the federal and state governments are blaming each other, and we have had to have another snap lockdown just this week. Ensuring ‘COVID-safe’ campuses in these circumstances is tricky and, not to put too fine a point on it, connected to potential life and death scenarios.

International borders remain closed. International students – so important to Australian universities and their finances – are not allowed into the country. The current Education Minister gave a speech about the future of international students this week. It was invitation only but from what can be gleaned from social media commentary from those fortunate enough to secure an invitation, it didn’t leave audience members brimming with confidence about the immediate future.

In this set of circumstances, it is challenging to focus on the core university ‘businesses’ of teaching and research. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that those providing the education and research are human beings who are themselves living in and through the pandemic. The work of academics and professionals in universities is complex, messy, deeply human and relies on individual passion and goodwill as well as qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience.

I attended a seminar recently at one of my alma maters, Macquarie University, led by a well-known Australian author, Hugh McKay: the importance of compassion was central. Arguing that the most significant thing about us as people is that we share a common humanity, that we humans all belong to a social species, that we are “hopeless” in isolation and that we need others to nurture and sustain us, McKay underscored the importance of compassion, kindness and simply being nice to one another in our current shared pandemic context.

I’m not sure about other SRHE readers, but compassion and kindness aren’t topics I’ve often heard discussed in universities in my 30 years in the sector. McKay suggested the pandemic has been a mass experiment around what happens to people when they are isolated. The results have included more anxiety, more suicidal ideation, more domestic violence, among many other negative outcomes. But also more time for introspection and for deep consideration of what is important to us. Many of us have more clearly understood how crucial our social and personal connections are.

McKay proposes that many of us have previously found useful hiding places in ambition, IT devices and consumerism, which have promoted individualism and competitiveness and a greater focus on ourselves than on our role in families, communities and society. As I reflected on university life, and life more generally, I couldn’t help but think he had a point.

As we co-create the ‘COVID-normal’ university, I wonder if we might all find a bigger space for our humanity, our compassion and our kindness to each other. Not only might that bring a better experience of work in universities for ourselves and those around us, the quality and impact of our education and research might also improve as a result.

Former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor Marcia Devlin is a Fellow of SRHE and an Adjunct Professor at Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia.


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Dupery by Design

by Petar Jandrić

Since the election of a number of right-wing populist governments across the world, there have been increasing concerns that fake news in online platforms is undermining the legitimacy of the press, the democratic process, and the authority of sources such as science, the social sciences and qualified experts. The global reach of Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms has shown that they can be used to spread fake and misleading news quickly and seemingly without control. In addition to their power and reach, these platforms operate, and indeed thrive, in what seems to be an increasingly balkanised media eco-system where networks of users will predominantly access and consume information that conforms to their existing worldviews. Conflicting positions, even if relevant and authoritative, can be suppressed, discredited or overlooked as a result of filter bubbles and echo chambers.

Digital technologies have contributed to the prolific spread of false information, encouraged ignorance in online news consumers, and fostered confusion about how to determine fact from fiction. These same technologies have, however, permitted marginalised voices to be heard (transgender and autistic communities, victims of street harassment, for example), encouraged diversity, facilitated error detection and investigative accountability, and challenged privilege and prejudice. This opens up myriad questions such as:

  • How are online platforms designed to exploit particular vices such as close-mindedness, epistemic nihilism, insouciance, etc. and contribute to the power and dissemination of deception?
  • Deception: what is it? Is there anything peculiar about the times in which we live that should raise special concerns about the proliferation of fake news, lies, bullshit and other such vices online?
  • How do our individual and collective epistemologies interact with digital technologies to produce deceit?
  • How can we counter epistemic vices online, and protect ourselves and our institutions from their potentially baneful effects?
  • Can deception ever be justified? Is there anything to be learned from mass propaganda and deceit in other historical periods?

The epistemology of deceit in a postdigital era

To address these and related questions, Alison MacKenzie, Jennifer Rose, and Ibrar Bhatt have edited a book The Epistemology of Deceit in a Postdigital Era: Dupery by Design. The book offers strong theoretical and philosophical insight into how digital platforms and their constituent algorithms interact with belief systems to achieve deception, and how related vices such as lies, bullshit, misinformation, disinformation, and ignorance contribute to deception. This inter-disciplinary collection explores how we can better understand and respond to these problematic practices.

Continuing editors’ earlier work in the Special Issue of Postdigital Science and Education, ‘Lies, Bullshit and Fake News Online: Should We Be Worried?’, the contributors to the collection discuss the diverse ways in which deception is a pervasive feature of our communicative lives. Among the issues explored are how the design and infrastructure of digital platforms enable (or disable us from distinguishing between) what is true and truthful; fake or real; informative, disinformative or misinformative, malinformative, and other such information disorders. The scale of the dupery impacts on human rights, individual freedoms and dignity, agency and autonomy, in addition to the harms mentioned above.

The role of higher education is critical within this context, as universities have traditionally been regarded as sites of epistemic authority where knowledge is created and disseminated through the work of academics and theoretically grounded systems of teaching. Recent trends have shown that universities market the idea that an education through them will create ‘future-ready’, ‘globally-aware’ and ‘critically-thinking’ graduates, equipped with the relevant skills and knowledge to deal with issues facing our modern world, including public health crises, climate change and conflict.

The book was launched at a successful SRHE event held on 16 March 2021, in which editors, authors, and more than 100 members of the public engaged in a vivid discussion.

What is next?

These days, there is really interesting research taking place in different fields about post-truth and online deceit. Closer to higher education, and interesting example is Michael A Peters, Sharon Rider, Mats Hyvönen, and Tina Besley’s popular book Post-Truth, Fake News: Viral Modernity & Higher Education, which discusses the meaning and purpose of higher education in a ‘post-truth’ world.

Aided by a unifying postdigital theoretical framework which holds that human beings are systematically embedded in digital infrastructures, Alison MacKenzie, Jennifer Rose, and Ibrar Bhatt in The Epistemology of Deceit in a Postdigital Era: Dupery by Design make a unique contribution by reaching interdisciplinary boundaries to explore, examine and counter online deception, and analysing the power of social platforms and their role in the proliferation of epistemic harms. This line of inquiry is in its early days, and it will be very interesting to see where it will develop in the future.

Petar Jandrić is a Professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Zagreb (Croatia), Visiting Professor at the University of Wolverhampton (UK), and Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Zagreb (Croatia). His research interests are focused to the intersections between critical pedagogy and information and communication technologies. He co-authored the chapter ‘Scallywag Pedagogy’ with Peter McLaren (Chapman University, California) in Post-Truth, Fake News: Viral Modernity & Higher Education. pjandric@tvz.hr


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Widening participation, student engagement, alienation, trauma and trust

Caroline S Jones and Zoë Nangah

Social mobility target setting and progression data collection have long been on the agenda for UK HE policy makers and are widely documented, debated and researched (Connell-Smith and Hubble, 2018; Donnelly and Evans, 2018; Social Mobility Commission 2017, 2019; Phoenix, 2021). Widening Participation (WP) policy underpins much Government target setting, dressed up as a key factor in improving the nation’s social mobility issues.  Much of the work undertaken in this field focuses upon the recruitment of students from the WP demographic onto Higher Education (HE) programmes, with data tracking at key points of the student’s journey as a measuring tool (Vignoles and Murray, 2016; Robinson and Salvestrini, 2020; Phoenix, 2021).  However, there appears to be a distinct lack of focus on the student as an individual human being, who arrives into the HE world with prior lived experience, and a lack of consideration of the impact of future life experiences aligned to the student’s individual psychological status.

This omission can have a profound effect on a student’s ability to engage in their programme of study, thus affecting their ability to progress and succeed, contributing to barriers to engagement (Jones and Nangah, 2020). On-entry assessment currently does not capture the presence of traumatic histories, and students may not feel able to fully disclose their experiences until they have established a tutorial connection. Furthermore, HE systems may not have access to information, either on-entry or during studies, that enables appropriate tutorial support and adequate referral, due to GDPR (2018) restrictions and confidentiality principles. Therefore, academic tutorial expertise and understanding how to support students from a psychological perspective might need to be considered using specific relational elements in a humanistic manner. At system level, internal and external support for students focusing on their holistic needs might also improve access and progression.

These ideas led us to conduct a deeper investigation into the psychological needs of students, to seek out methods, practices and potential policy changes which might reduce barriers to student engagement. This new knowledge could enable policy makers, HEIs, HE staff and departments to improve their current practice and  strengthen progress in terms of the national social mobility agenda (Augar, 2019). Examining barriers to student engagement for the WP demographic and specifically focusing on the links between psychological alienation theory (Mann, 2001), trauma and trust (Jones, 2017) in the HE context, led us to this new angle on the conundrum of meeting social mobility targets. Furthermore, recent neurological research, such as brain and amygdala responses to threat within specific groups (Fanti et al, 2020), could be explored further within HE student populations. Students who are affected by trauma could be better supported by using research-informed practices that can then be embedded in HE, focused on individual requirements.

To making a difference to current social mobility rates and targets we need to explore new concepts to inform and drive change in the sector. Our systematic literature review (Jones and Nangah, 2020) focused on the analysis of links between alienation theory (Mann, 2001; Jones, 2017), experiences of prior, existing or present traumatic experiences and the student’s ability to trust in the academic systems within which they are placed. The presence of traumatic emotional experiences in WP student populations connected to psychosocial and academic trust alienation theory contributes to understanding engagement barriers in HE. Using PRISMA guidelines, 43 publications were screened based on inclusion/exclusion criteria. Our review identified students’ experiences of trauma and how this had affected their HE educational engagement. It documented support strategies for student success and improvements in HEIs’ commitment to meeting WP agendas. This underlined the need for HEIs to commit to the social mobility agenda in a way which is aligned with barriers to student engagement. Current tracking and support systems may need to be augmented by tutorial systems and training for academic staff in relational tutorial systems, emphasising the presence of a consistent tutor. Jenkins (2020) suggests a single-session approach for addressing student needs within a short-term counselling model, but recognises this may not be suitable for students with more complex requirements. Thus, longer-term interventions and individualised counselling support approaches are arguably needed to support this demographic. 

To decrease barriers to student engagement we need to focus on psychological well-being and collaborative HEI strategies to improve recruitment, retention and ultimate success. Our systematic review argued that deeper understanding of the complexities of student needs should be embedded within HE teacher training programmes and curriculum delivery. Extending teaching skills to embed psychological understanding and practice delivery skills would not only work to meet Government targets but also raise aspirations: ‘ …with the right approach, the transmission of disadvantage from one generation to the next can be broken’ (Social Mobility Commission, 2017: 8).  Fulfilling the moral and corporate responsibility of HEIs to support the success of WP students might need new insights. Focusing on student engagement in HE with a better understanding  of psychological alienation theory, trauma and trust could be used by multiple HE audiences and across countries to improve practice and drive both political and educational change for the most disadvantaged individuals. It is time to view HE students from WP backgrounds as individuals, to respect their aspirational aims and value their experiences in a way that best suits their subjective requirements, so that they may progress and  succeed, helping to improve social mobility.

SRHE member Caroline S Jones is an applied social sciences professional with extensive experience in the children and young people field and HE programme leadership. She is a Tutor in the Education Faculty at Manchester Metropolitan University and was previously a Lecturer at the University Campus Oldham and at Stockport University Centre. Twitter: @caroline_JonesSFHEA. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/caroline-jones-1bab40b3/

SRHE member Zoe Nangah has been a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in HE for 16 years across Psychology, Social Sciences, Counselling and Childhood Studies disciplines. She is currently a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader at the University of Chester for the MA Clinical Counselling course. Zoe is a qualified counsellor and supervisor and has conducted research into emotional experiences within student populations and explored perceptions of the support services. Twitter @zoenangah 

References

Fanti, KA, Konikou, K, Cohn, M, Popma, A and Brazil, IA (2020) ‘Amygdala functioning during threat acquisition and extinction differentiates antisocial subtypes’ Journal of Neuropsychology, Volume 14, Part 2. (June 2020) 226-241, British Psychological Society

Jenkins, P (2020) ‘Single session formulation : an alternative to the waiting list’ University and College Counselling Volume 8, issue 4, November 2020

Mann, SJ (2001) ‘Alternative Perspectives on the Student Experience: Alienation and Engagement’ Studies in Higher Education 26 (1): 7–19

Robinson, D and Salvestrini, V (2020) The Impact of Interventions for Widening Access to Higher Education London: Education Policy Institute: TASO

Social Mobility Commission (2017) State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain London: Social Mobility Commission

Social Mobility Commission (2019) State of the Nation 2018-2019: Social Mobility in Great Britain London: Social Mobility Commission