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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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SRHE News on academic freedom and freedom of speech

by Rob Cuthbert

One of the benefits of SRHE membership is exclusive access to the quarterly newsletter, SRHE News, www.srhe.ac.uk/publications/srhe-newsletter

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 April 2021 issue which covers Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech.

A global academic freedom index

The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), an independent non-profit think tank based in Berlin, has published a report on academic freedom globally, arguing for it to be used to moderate global university rankings. Authors Katrin Kinzelbach, Ilyas Saliba, Janika Spannagel and Robert Quinn have shown all their working and include this map:

“The AFi 2020 includes scores for 175 countries and territories. In this map, the states’ AFi scores are grouped in ranges, with A representing those countries with the highest levels of academic freedom (green on the map) and E representing those with the lowest academic freedom scores (red on the map).”

Free speech in the US

A free speech case on campus reached the US Supreme Court on 8 March 2020, which decided in favour of the student. Chike Uzuegbunam, a former student at Georgia Gwinnett College, had tried while a student to hand out pamphlets sharing his religious views with fellow students. He was stopped twice by campus police, first to be told he could only do that in a designated ‘free speech zone’. When he tried with official permission to do so, he was prevented because other students had objected. The College eventually rescinded its policy on ‘free speech zones’ but the case went to the Supreme Court to prevent it becoming moot, that is not cited as a precedent, since Uzuegbunam had graduated. The Court ruled that he was nevertheless entitled to nominal damages of $1, which was what he had sought. Elizabeth Redden told the story for insidehighered.com on 9 March 2021.

Is debate under threat on UK campuses?

Jim Dickinson asked the question in his Wonkhe blog on 20 January 2021. Unlike the culture warriors, he referred to a lot of evidence suggesting the answer is not what most people are encouraged to think. He pointed out that outgoing OfS chair Michael Barber, about to give a speech on this, was actually sitting on a lot of relevant evidence, held but not published by the OfS, which would give the lie to the current narrative. MP David Davis introduced a private member’s Bill in the House of Commons on 21 January 2021 because, according to David Williamson in the Daily Express on 17 January 2021, he “wants to stop “cancel culture” taking root in centres of higher education and is alarmed at resistance to hearing “uncomfortable opinions”.” Well, no doubt no-one had thought to legislate on that since the 1980s, but there is quite a lot of advice and guidance about.

Our radical student-led proposals will secure and champion campus free speech

There was a well-argued blog from three SU Presidents – Patrick O’Donnell (York), Lizzie Rodulson (Surrey) and Kwame Asamoah Kwarteng (Manchester) –  for Wonkhe on 1 February 2021: “our new report recommends the creation of a code for students’ unions which establishes and reinforces important principles on campus of political diversity and freedom of expression. We propose to substantially adopt widely used principles within the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago to send a clear signal – that our campuses and unions are open for debate.” The NUS VP for HE, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, and two more SU presidents –  Sunday Blake (Exeter) and Meg Price (Worcester) – followed up on WonkHE on the same day with an equally persuasive piece saying that the real free speech problem was the imbalance between the proportion of high-profile speakers visiting Russell Group universities rather than others: “we’d like to see a new focus – where universities, sector agencies and the government work together with students’ unions, guilds and associations in all types of university to attract speakers, put on events, generate debate and expose students to new ideas, thinking, policy and people.”

How should the OfS regulate the exercise of academic freedom?

Gavin Williamson announced his free speech initiative with a column in The Telegraph, where else, on 16 February 2021: ‘Turning the tide on cancel culture will start with universities respecting free thought’. Williamson wrote to all universities on 16 February 2021: “The current legal framework imposes on those concerned in the governance of providers a legal duty to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure free speech within the law is secured … A growing number of reports of concerns in relation to freedom of speech on campus, however, suggest that this duty is not being fully complied with …”. The White Paper, running to no less than 42 pages, was published on 17 February 2021.

Evan Smith (Flinders) blogged for HEPI on 16 February 2021 about the history of previous such initiatives. The popular opinion was probably that articulated by Mick Fletcher (independent) in West Country Bylines on 15 February 2021: “You could hardly make it up.  At the same time as government plans to appoint a ‘free speech tsar’ to stop students cancelling controversial speakers it also intends to summon heritage groups to be told by a minister what they can and cannot say about British history. It’s ludicrous but at the same time deeply sinister.” Andrew Whiting (Birmingham City) reported on his research into the Prevent Duty placed on universities, on the LSE Impact Blog on 16 February 2021, which raises “serious questions about necessity and proportionality”.

Smita Jamdar, Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau, offered guidance on the Secretary of State’s guidance to OfS on 11 February 2021: “this is in our view bad guidance: bad because of the very great problems entailed in implementing it and bad because producing guidance that cannot really be implemented and so must ultimately be withdrawn or modified undermines public trust and confidence in the authority of the office of Secretary of State. … upholding academic freedom is already part of the public interest governance principles and so where there is evidence of a provider’s governing body failing to take appropriate steps, the OfS could treat that as a breach of the registration conditions relating to management and governance. However, that is very different to adjudicating on individual cases and disputes in the way that the Secretary of State appears to want. Finally, it is notable and alarming to recall that when the institutional autonomy provisions were introduced by way of amendment into HERA, they were designed to protect institutions from excessive interference by politicians and regulators. Interestingly they are being used here, on the curious and questionable basis that the government believes institutions need protection from their own autonomy, to justify a potentially significant erosion of autonomy by those very politicians and regulators.”

Hugo Rifkind of The Times was also unconvinced, in his 16 February 2021 tweets: “Williamson’s free speech thing is a mess … if you’re saying unis must preserve challenging speech while also being against re-examining history while ALSO having insisted only 3m ago that all unis adopt the IHRA definition on antisemitism, then I think you need to be quite deft on your feet in explaining wtf is going on and what exactly you think about everything, with reference to what everybody else does, too.” Political commentator Ian Dunt blogged for politics.co.uk on 17 February 2021 that the proposals were ‘a Trojan horse for authoritarianism’: “The problems with the plans are as follows: They are cynical, nonsensical, internally contradictory, functionally implausible and work to perpetuate the exact phenomenon which they claim to undermine.” LSE student Jason S Reed wrote in The Independent on 16 February 2021 ‘The government’s obsession with provoking culture wars is embarrassing – and I say that as a Tory student’. However Arif Ahmed (Cambridge), blogging for HEPI on 17 February 2021, gave a measured welcome: “So these proposals give valuable support to principles that everyone ought to defend. Of course in practice everything will depend on whether the regulator will use these powers impartially and with vigour. But that is true when the state gives any powers to an independent regulator of anything. Still, it is clear to me that in this case doing so addresses a real problem, and does it in more or less the right way.”  

There were constructive comments from Alison Scott-Baumann (SoAS) in The Guardian on 17 February 2021: “In Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter-Terrorism, my book with Simon Perfect, I recommend two simple principles for building what we call a “community of inquiry” – a space where difficult issues can be discussed. First it’s necessary to accept bravely the need to debate and disagree upon matters of urgent importance to young people. Difficult, even intractable, issues such as climate change, environmental disasters, migration, race, gender and identity and a failed economic model need to be discussed. But they are dynamite. So, secondly, in order to defuse potential flash points, we recommend adoption of “procedural values” – by which I mean an etiquette of argument that we all say we adhere to but rarely do: active listening, distinguishing between the person and their arguments, and settling upon some sort of outcome that can be achieved in the real world. These need to be agreed upon, with the backing of university authorities and union representatives, and closely monitored. There needs to be a general compact that, in any forum designated as a “community of inquiry”, these procedures apply – and that people will not be targeted outside them for what they say inside, so long as they have also observed the same principles.”

Jack Harvey (Coventry University SU) had perhaps the most thoughtful piece of all, for WonkHE on 19 February 2021, analysing the nuances of respect and tolerance for other people’s views. Bahram Bekhradnia, HEPI President, made a welcome return to the fray with his HEPI blog on 18 March, in coruscating form: “This is a rushed and unnecessary White Paper, intellectually flimsy, badly thought out and poorly argued with little evidence to support its conclusions. It is full of typos … its inconsistent – Anglo-American – spelling betrays the influence on its thinking, if not its drafting, of the American far right. … if indeed there is a nut to be cracked, it certainly does not need this sledgehammer with which to crack it.”

After Michele Donelan’s article in The Sunday Telegraph on 28 February 2021, Jim Dickinson of WonkHE was at the end of his tether on 28 February 2021, and SRHE member Julian Crockford had clearly lost all patience in his WonkHE blog on 1 March 2021. Jonathan Simons of Public First tweeted: “Front page of the Tel: universities are censoring history by only telling a partial story. Later in the Tel: the National Trust should be investigated because it wants to tell the whole story of history. Pick a ******** lane, guys”. Anna Fazackerley in The Guardian on 27 February gave chapter and verse on the ‘research’ that Gavin Williamson had relied on for his policy paper, and Policy Exchange suffered further damage when its retrospective and would-be secret corrections were exposed. The Policy Exchange paper had conducted a survey based on the alleged ‘no-platforming’ of Germaine Greer – who had in fact spoken at an event organised at Cardiff University, a fact ignored in the original but retrospectively corrected by a new footnote after the original had been cited in the government policy paper. Adam Bychawski wrote for OpenDemocracy on 19 February 2021 that: “British government proposals for strengthening free speech at universities cite an American anti-LGBT ‘hate group’ and a British ‘dark money’-funded think tank that has recommended no-platforming Extinction Rebellion.”

David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson interpreted the policy paper as a complete breakdown of trust and confidence by politicians in the HE sector, in their 16 February 2021 blog for WonkHE.

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.

Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes…

by Ian McNay

My main concern in this post is about academic freedom, free speech and surveillance. I write as one who worked on Open University courses in the 1980s (under a previous Conservative administration) which were investigated for alleged Marxist bias.

Bahram Bekhradnia, in a recent HEPI blog, has identified the small number of complaints about free speech on campus which have provoked a government response, and the ideological base of those making them. The same was true in my experience – single figure numbers of complaints about courses with 5,000 students a year in some cases and many more thousands of ‘drop-in’ viewers and listeners for OU/BBC programmes. The allegations were found to be unjustified, but led to significantly increased levels of internal monitoring and accountability. The BBC staff were very scared of possible government sanctions.

For one radio programme, Rosemary Deem, an SRHE notable, was barred from contributing because she was, as I then was, a member of the Labour party. Two was too many. I was forced to accept a distasteful right-winger, who insisted that his contribution – denying Tory cuts to education budgets – could not be criticised, questioned, commented upon, nor edited. The new rules said that all elements of a course had to be internally balanced – not one programme putting one point of view and a second with another. Ditto for course units. The monitoring group said the programme was biased, lacked balance, and should not be broadcast. I said that students were intelligent enough to recognise his ‘pedigree’ and it went out.

In 1988, another programme, on the Great Education Reform Bill, was broadcast at 2am. We arrived later that morning to a phone message from DES demanding a right of reply. The programme had featured John Tomlinson’s comments/critique. He was the Chief Education Officer of Cheshire, hardly a hotbed of revolution. We pointed out that DES staff had been sitting in our ‘classroom’ and that comments could be made to their tutor, discussed with fellow students in self-help groups, and used, if evidenced, in assessments.

My concern is that, as someone who writes on policy and its impact, my work can be seen as ‘disruptive’ [a basic element of much research and education] and ‘causing discomfort and inconvenience’ to some people – mainly policy makers. Those terms are from the current draft bill on police, crime, sentencing and courts, which aims to limit public demonstrations of dissent. Given trends in other countries, and government resistance to a more balanced view of history, I wonder how long it will be before there is more overt intrusion – by OfS? – into controlling the curriculum and suppressing challenging, but legitimate views. In the OU, Marxist critique disappeared for years, as self-censorship operated to avoid recurrent problems of justification. It could happen again.

That goes alongside recent developments with Microsoft surveillance which are intrusive and irritating. The university has just had an ‘upgrade’. In my experience, such upgrades, like restructuring, rarely improve things, and often do the opposite. I now get daily emails from Cortana, a Microsoft offshoot, saying things like ‘Two days ago you were asked a question by X. Have you replied?’ The answer is that ‘if you are reading my emails, you will know the answer to that question’. Undeterred, this AI avatar offers me advice on how to organise my coming week, blithely ignorant that I have only a 0.2 contract. When it says I have 85% of my time ‘spare’, that implies that of my 20% load, only 5% that week was not observable. Its daily plan for me is to spend 2 hours in the morning, ‘focus time…to get your work done’.

The rest is spent not getting my work done, but on email and chats, taking a break and lunchtime and two hours to learn a new skill and develop my career. Wow! Do those in charge of the balanced academic workload know about this prescription? It also believes that all emails are ‘developing your network … you added 23 new members to your networks last week’. A computer network must be much less demanding than my criteria require for the term. Its autonomous, unaccountable and unexplained treatment of my emails includes frequently deleting when I click to open one, and designating as ‘junk’ PDF journal articles relevant to my work sent by Academia. I then have to spend time digging around to find both of these. It also merges emails into a stream so that finding one of them needs a memory of the last one in the stream – often an automatic reply. More time spent digging around.

Then there are the constant disruptive phone calls to verify my sign in. The automated voice advises me that ‘if you have not initiated this verification, you should press such-and-such a key’. I did that, twice, once when two such calls came within 50 seconds of one another, which I thought suspicious. How simple minded I was! The ‘solution’ was to bar me from access until the systems administrators had sorted things. That meant a full day or more in each case. The two most recent calls even came when I had not moved to laptop based work, and I now no longer log out, so I do not sign in, but leave the machine on all day every day which may not be good ecologically, but it helps my mental health and state of mind.

I accept the need for computer security, with university generated messages warning about emails from sources outside the university, such as OfS, AdvanceHE, or HEPI and Research Professional through a university subscription, asking if I trust them. Up to a point, Lord Copper. But balance is the key. I knew there was surveillance – in a previous institution a NATFHE e-mail was held up to allow management to get its reply in simultaneously with its being sent. This, though, is blatant and overt. I suppose that is better than it being hidden, but it is neither efficient nor effective. Am I the only one experiencing this, a human being balancing Marvin, the paranoid android, or do others have similar experiences? If the latter, what are we going to do about it? It has implications for research in terms of the confidentiality of email interviews, for example.

And, finally, on a lighter note … my local optician has a poster in the window advertising ‘Myopia Management’. That sounds like a module to include in the leadership programmes that some of us run.

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

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Cronyism, academic values and the degradation of debate

by Rob Cuthbert

The pandemic has accelerated many trends which were already apparent, such as the switch away from the high street to online purchasing, and in HE the move to on-line, remote and asynchronous learning. The influence of social media has also accelerated, partly or wholly replacing the normal policy business of face-to-face discussion and debate. But perhaps the most significant change of all for HE has been the accelerating decline in the quality of regulation, governance and policy debate.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 may come to be seen as the high water mark of a particular kind of policymaking which has been ebbing rapidly ever since: the tide has gone out on deliberative and measured debate. A majority in HE strongly opposed marketisation, but the Act was the culmination of a long period of debate which at least gave credence to opposing views and saw them represented in discussion inside and outside Parliament. The market ‘reforms’ were promoted by ministers – David Willetts and Jo Johnson in particular – who had at least grudging respect from many in the system, because of their own respect for academe, however partial it sometimes seemed. And much though we might regret the marketisation changes and seek their reversal, we might also accept that they were enacted by a government which had a mandate for change explicitly endorsed by the electorate. But that was then.

In 2019 the government was returned with a sufficient majority to ‘get Brexit done’, which it did, much to the dismay of most in higher education. HE’s dominant Remainer sentiment no doubt helped to fuel disregard in Whitehall for HE opinion. What is often wrongly still called ‘debate’ has been polarised, accentuated by social media’s echo chambers during the lockdown. In the ‘culture war’ both sides have dug their trenches and hoisted the ‘no surrender’ flags. In HE this has diverted attention away from the real and massive problems of the student experience in the pandemic, and towards the misrepresented and overstated issue of free speech, academic freedom and diversity of opinion. The supposed justification for recent free speech initiatives in HE has been amply covered elsewhere, and is summarised in SRHE News 44 (April 2021).

In this culture war academics and academic institutions have their share of blame. The Policy Exchange ‘research’, cited in support for the Secretary of State’s recent announcements, shoddy though it was, nevertheless pointed to the issue of Remainer conformism in much British academic culture, in which some staff have self-censored their support for Brexit. I tried much earlier to parody this conformism, arguing that “perhaps the best thing to do was to accept the will of the people, freely expressed”. But democracy depends on the willing consent of the governed, and the governed in HE are increasingly unwilling to consent to changes in which their views are simply ignored. There is no shortage of comment on new policy initiatives; the HE sector is comparatively well-served by think tanks such as HEPI and WonkHE, as the recent CGHE seminar on ‘Universities in Medialand’ suggested. But there is little sign that government takes note of policy commentary which contradicts its current narrative, even when obvious contradictions are pointed out. Thus, for example, market forces must rule, except when students choose the ‘wrong’ universities. The student experience is paramount, except  when students report high levels of satisfaction – so the National Student Survey, until yesterday a crucial element for teaching excellence, must today be rubbished.

Nowhere has the contempt for opposing views been more obvious than in the appointment of a new Chair for the Board of the Office for Students. The notes to the 2017 Act establishing the OfS explained that: “This Act creates a new non-departmental public body, the Office for Students (OfS), as the main regulatory body, operating at arm’s length from Government, and with statutory powers to regulate providers of higher education in England.” (emphasis added). The first OfS chair was Sir Michael Barber. It was rumoured that Barber sought a second term but was denied. Who might be appropriate to take on the role? Another respected figure with experience of HE and of working with government, able to sustain that arm’s length role for the Office? Former UUK chair Sir Ivor Crewe (former VC, Essex) was interviewed, as Sonia Sodha and James Tapper reported for The Observer on 14 February 2021: “Perhaps it was the long passage in Professor Sir Ivor Crewe’s book The Blunders of Our Governments about the way ministers’ mistakes never catch up with them that led Gavin Williamson to reject the expert as the new head of the Office for Students. Or maybe the education secretary was put off by the section of the 2013 book, written with the late Anthony King, dealing with how ministers put underqualified, inexperienced people in charge of public bodies. The job of independent regulator of higher education in England was instead handed to James Wharton, a 36-year-old former Tory MP with no experience in higher education who ran Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.” The selection panel had been criticised for its dominant reliance on government supporters rather than HE expertise, but the chair-designate was nevertheless still to have his appointment endorsed by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee.

The Committee’s approval was very likely but could not be taken for granted, and Nick Hillman made some sensible proposals in his HEPI blog on 12 January 2021 on ‘How to grill the prospective chair of OfS’. We’d have suggested grilling on both sides, but presumably Boris Johnson’s campaign manager only has one side. The Education Select Committee duly questioned Lord Wharton of Yarm on 5 February 2021 and endorsed his appointment, which was announced by OfS on 8 February 2021. Rob Merrick reported for The Independent on 2 February 2021 that Lord Wharton had been subject to ‘hard questioning’, in the course of which he said he didn’t see why he could not retain the whip, nor why his role as Boris Johnson’s campaign manager should raise any conflict of interest issues.

So the ‘independent’ regulator was to have a partisan chair who proposed to retain the government whip. Conflict-of-interest issues raised themselves almost immediately, with wider ripples than expected. Lord Wharton had just been installed as Chair when he was revealed to be a paid adviser to a company seeking to build a cable connection through land at the University of Portsmouth. The company, Aquind, has a £1.2billion project to connect the electricity grids of the UK and France. It wants to put a cable across University of Portsmouth land, which the University opposes because of the disruption it would cause. Portsmouth Council and local Conservative and Labour MPs all oppose the project. Aquind director Alexander Temerko is a Conservative Party donor, whose website has several pictures of him with Lord Wharton, and also pictures him with the Prime Minister and Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. The planning dispute, involving possible compulsory purchase, has reached the Secretary of State for Business, but the previous incumbent Alok Sharma had to recuse himself from the case because his constituency party had received £10,000 from Temerko. Sean Coughlan told the story for the BBC on 19 February 2021, noting also that: “Conservative MP David Morris, another recipient of a donation, had to apologise to the House of Commons for a breach of paid advocacy rules after asking a question in support of the Aquind cable project.”

Lord Wharton’s appointment was greeted with incredulity in HE, but attracted little interest more broadly; in macropolitical terms the chair of OfS is a small bauble. And there were of course already many higher-profile reports of cronyism in government. The difficulty for HE is that the regulator may now be driven further and faster to unrealistic extremes. OfS, obediently pursuing its statutory responsibilities and ‘having regard to ministers’, is already in danger of leaving HE realities behind:

  • On 14 January 2021 the OfS wrote to universities and other HE providers, hard on the heels of a DfE letter to OfS, saying that the regulator expected institutions “to maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of their provision and to inform students about their options for refunds or other forms of redress where it has not been possible to provide what was promised.” Universities are losing tens of millions every week during the lockdown, without the kind of support provided for many other sectors, and on student hardship “the government can never quite resist overselling the multiple purposes to which the money might meaningfully be put”, as David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson argued in their WonkHE blog on 2 February 2021.
  • The OfS consultation document issued on 26 March 2021 put into practice the ‘instructions’ received earlier from Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. It proposed to steer more funds to STEM subjects and, among other things, halve additional funding for performing arts, media studies and archaeology courses. WonkHE’s David Kernohan was quick off the mark with his critical analysis on 26 March 2021.
  • OfS announced on 30 March 2021 that after the first phase of a review of the NSS, commissioned by Universities Minister Michele Donelan, there would be ‘major changes’ including dropping all references to ‘student satisfaction’. Of course, consistent reports that 85% or more of students in most universities are satisfied with their experience would be embarrassing for a government determined to prove otherwise.
  • OfS Director Regulation Susan Lapworth blogged for WonkHE on 31 March 2021 about a new condition of registration which would allow OfS to step in where a provider was at risk of failure, not to rescue the provider but to prevent a ‘disorderly’ closure. OfS had consulted on the proposal, which was not supported by most respondents, but went ahead anyway. The condition affects only the failing provider. Two obvious problems: (1) failing providers might not be inclined or well-placed to take the protective measures which OfS deems necessary; (2) previous experience shows that students need help from other institutions to facilitate transfers, but the Condition is silent on other institutions. They will often be willing, but might be unable to help without further support.

In the past funding councils were statutorily responsible for in effect providing a buffer between HE and government, to regulate excesses on either side. There is no danger of ‘provider capture’ in the new framework, the risk now is that the arm’s-length relationship with government has very short arms. Recent US experience shows the danger of such closeness. The Obama administration’s tighter regulation of for-profit HE after well-publicised shortcomings were swiftly reversed by Donald Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but Joe Biden is now progressively restoring Obama’s closer regulation. Such to-ing and fro-ing simply creates a more disorderly system for students to navigate.

We can learn a better lesson from the US: Michelle Obama’s dictum “when they go low, we go high”. We need to reinforce our support for academic values across the sector by continuing to show respect for opposing views, and to win cases by argument rather than by seeing who can shout loudest on social media. We have examples in the way that, for example, Eric Lybeck (Manchester) has offered to debate free speech with the authors of the Policy Exchange report. We also need to broaden the base of explicit opposition, and not leave it to the usual suspects: in particular, we need university leaders to step up and speak out more than they do.

It is often true that leaders can be more persuasive in private conversations than public speeches, but in current circumstances leaders, especially vice-chancellors, need to be more concerned that they will lose the confidence of staff and students if they fail to speak out publicly. There are honourable exceptions, but too many vice-chancellors seem to be more interested in avoiding blame than speaking out about real problems. It is certainly not easy, operating in the space between government, staff or student disapproval and social media pile-ons from the left or right; just one past or present remark or action, if uncovered or reinterpreted, could be career-ending. But that is why our leaders are well paid – to pursue the best interests of the institution and the people in it, not to be silenced just because the  problems are very difficult, nor out of fear or self-interest. We have recently seen research leaders not hesitating to speak out about proposed cuts in research funding – and those cuts have now been reversed. We need more people, leaders and staff on all sides, to speak truth to power – not just playing-to-the-gallery ‘our truth’, but a truth people inside and outside HE will find persuasive.

Rob Cuthbert is an independent academic consultant, editor of SRHE News and Blog and emeritus professor of higher education management. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and of SRHE. His 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.

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