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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Is it possible to bring back the block grant?

by GR Evans

The Government’s latest plan for university funding in England makes depressing reading for future students and universities alike. Students will be paying off their student loans (albeit with slightly reduced but still compound interest), for forty years not thirty. Universities will have the tuition fees funded by their loans capped at £9,250 a year until 2025, making seven years since they were last (slightly) increased.  Yet this can be no more than a holding move in the face of a current student loan-book total of more than £160bn.

The scale of that student debt was not supposed to matter. When loans for student fees began they were considered to be a mere supplement to the Government ‘grant’ of public funding for universities. The write-off of unpaid student debt after 30 years would not count as a loss to the tax-payer in the eyes of the Treasury.

The Coalition Government’s decision in 2010 to triple student fees to £9,000 and  shrink the ‘block grant’ to vanishing point made that view of things impossible to sustain after 2012.  In 2019 the Office for National Statistics redesignated the write-off of student loans as public spending. The now only too visibly mounting £billions have become a major embarrassment. The current proposal to limit student numbers by imposing minimum entry qualifications for students is designed to ensure that fewer loans are taken out, but the system is clearly not sustainable in the long-term.

The ‘block grant’ imposed no debt upon students until tuition fees were introduced in 1998, and until they rose to their current levels the debt was not crippling. Now it is, and it weighs on the taxpayer as well as the student. The Government ‘grant’ was clearly taxpayer money spent, but it could be measured out year by year, was a known quantity, and once spent could not still be costing the taxpayer unforeseen amounts decades later. It was regularly grumbled that fixed annually it gave universities little chance to plan ahead, but that problem has not been removed by leaving universities to gather what fees they can by admitting students.

Funding by Government grant served universities for almost a century from 1919, The call for it began in earnest at the beginning of the twentieth century, once half a dozen new universities had been founded and needed it. In 1918 the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University, Sir Oliver Lodge, set about organizing a deputation ‘for the purpose of applying to the Government for greatly increased financial support’.

One point of principle quickly became important. In 1919 Oxford’s scientists wrote directly to H.A.L. Fisher, President of the Board of Education, to press for money for salaries for demonstrators and scholarships in science and mathematics. The very future of science was at stake, they cried. This prompted a clarification. Fisher explained that:

‘each University which receives aid from the State will receive it in the form of a single inclusive grant, for the expenditure of which the University, as distinguished from any particular Department, will be responsible’ (Oxford University Gazette (1919), p475).

This established the ‘block’ character of the grant’.

The second important principle was that Governments must not be able to attach conditions to the grant however they pleased. As Lord Haldane argued, there must be a buffer or intermediary. From 1919 until the creation of the statutory funding bodies under the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 that took the form of the universities-led University Grants Committee. After 1992 HEFCE always received a guidance letter from the Secretary of State at the beginning of the year, giving a steer about the way in which the block grant should be allocated, but it continued to take its ‘buffering’ duty seriously.

In Times Higher Education on 24 February Aaron Porter told the story of the shrinking of the ‘block grant’ by the Coalition Government and its almost total replacement since 2010 by greatly enlarged student tuition fees. Those of course were in principle payments for teaching,  but there were soon complaints that they were being used to fund research.

The Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 made a decisive separation between teaching and research by creating the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation. The equivalent of the old ‘grant letter’ now comes to the Office for Students from the Department for Education. The most recent of these is dated 9 August 2021. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA s.2(3)) empowers the government to give ‘guidance’, ‘setting out the principles which should be followed in distributing the funding’.  UKRI, which bundles together a number of entities, takes the form of a non-departmental government body, under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Its funding by the Secretary of State preserves the ‘buffer’ or Haldane principle, as defined in HERA s.103, but not the principle that such funding should go in a ‘block’ to each university.

This means there would now be a significant structural difficulty in restoring a ‘block grant’ as the principal source of funding for universities, because it could under current legislation affect only the cost of ‘teaching’. But legislation can be amended and there is unfinished business, because the separation of teaching and research has left research students inadequately supported.

What is the alternative? The present adjustments are unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. Freezing tuition fees cannot continue indefinitely, or even for the period to 2025 now proposed by government, without causing some universities to collapse. In a report on 9 March 2022 the National Audit Office warned that OfS and the DfE had to improve trust in their regulatory processes, with ten institutions already subject to ‘special monitoring’ because of doubts about their financial sustainability. Whether students will be willing to pay off their loans for longer and longer periods remains to be seen. (The possibility of restoring ‘free tuition’ was a prominent issue in the recent US presidential election. Although it remains unlikely at present, it suggests that such a change might come back onto the policy agenda in England.) The 40-year repayment period now adopted by government is in effect a ‘graduate tax’; the revenue from loan repayments might be more efficiently and progressively collected via tax simplification, rather than the imposition of what appears to graduates to be a significant debt to be repaid throughout their working lives. It might be time to give serious consideration to the restoration of a true block grant.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.


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Writing a Book Proposal

by Rachel Brooks, Sarah O’Shea and Zoe Thomson

Professor Rachel Brooks and Professor Sarah O’Shea (editors of the SRHE/Routledge Book series) recently ran a Professional Development Programme event on ‘Writing a Book Proposal’. As well as sharing some tips from Zoe Thomson (Education Editor at Taylor and Francis), Sarah and Rachel offered their insights as authors and editors, discussing some questions frequently asked by those thinking of putting a book proposal together.

Publishing a book is a significant undertaking – so why do it? Writing a book is a means for researchers to provide an in-depth and coherent account of their work, that often isn’t possible in shorter articles or other formats. Books are accepted in social sciences (including higher education research) as appropriate outputs, and provide opportunities to reach a larger, sometimes international, audience for your work.

Before embarking on such a project, it is important to consider the different options available for disseminating your research, and the advantages and limitations of each. Firstly, you may wish to weigh up the distinctions between edited books and monographs:

  • The labour of producing a co-edited book is distributed across a group authors and editors, and the format can facilitate a greater range and diversity of perspectives around a single topic or theme. At the same time, co-edited volumes demand a lot of time and project management from the editor(s), who must also ensure the overall quality of the finished product.
  • Monographs, on the other hand, are generally sole-authored or sometimes involve a small author team, such that the writing can be well-integrated, with ideas and arguments explored in significant depth. A sole-authored book involves a great deal of time, energy, and labour, but is an excellent addition to your CV.

Some of the most innovative books in the field of higher education research are based on doctoral research. However, turning your PhD thesis into a book often requires a substantial amount of work, and there are some specific considerations worth bearing in mind during this process:

  • Thesis chapters do not automatically translate to book chapters – restructuring, rewriting, revision, and addition is often required. Books typically do not, for example, tend to feature the same level of detail around methodological decisions and process as is found in a doctoral thesis. You may also need to ‘slice’ your thesis and explore a specific area or theme more deeply.
  • Consider any overlaps with previously published journal articles. Some publishers may be concerned about what will be novel or original about your book if you have already published extensively from your PhD research, while for others this may not be a significant issue. It’s therefore worth discussing this topic with your target publisher at an early stage, to establish what kind of changes or developments may be expected for a book proposal to be successful.
  • Discuss your publication plans (and/or draft proposal) with your current or former supervisor, or other experienced academics in your department or field. The transition from publishing works in progress and journal articles to publishing books can seem like a big leap, but supervisors – who know your work very well – are generally happy to discuss and advise on this process.

With your initial preparation complete, you may feel ready to approach a publisher. What are the next logical steps?

  • Research your publishing options, and consider not only what would best suit your field and specific topic, but also your motivation for writing the book. Are you, for instance, trying to apply for a job or promotion? If so, which publisher is highly regarded in your field?
  • Once you have decided on your publisher of choice, consider sending an informal e-mail to the editor(s). Your e-mail should provide a brief overview of your idea or focus and seek to gauge some feedback on whether this would appeal to the series – the response you receive can help you to quickly establish whether a publisher is the right fit for your work.
  • Check the different publication options offered – is a paperback option available? Hard copies can be prohibitive in terms of cost to the prospective reader, and so a paperback option could be a key selling point down the track. Are there options for open access – and if so, what are the fees and charges? Some contracts or research projects include funding for these costs.

Once you have conducted this initial research, a publisher may invite you to write a proposal – this is a formal expression of what you hope your book will contain, which provides the basis for the publisher (and others) to make a final decision regarding a potential book contract.

Usually there is a form or template available on the publisher’s website or which they can send you, which must be carefully followed. These forms vary across publisher, so it is important to access this early in your process to tailor your proposal to what the publisher is asking for. While completing this form:

  • Consult examples of successful proposals – colleagues in your department or wider network will often be happy to share.
  • Provide details of your writing or editing experience – this is an opportunity to outline what you have already published from your PhD.
  • The proposed timeline for someone drawing on their finished thesis will be much shorter than that of someone starting from scratch with a new research project. It is important to be realistic about how much writing you have done already, and your existing commitments. A typical timeline may be around one year from the date on which the book contract is signed, but this varies greatly depending on individual circumstances.
  • Many publishers prescribe a minimum and maximum length for the finished book (normally around 80,000 words) but this varies between publishers, and there is increasing variety in length.
  • A book proposal should also include a concise overview expressing the unique selling point of your book, a chapter-by-chapter summary, a list of competing titles in the same area as your proposed book (and what makes your book distinct from these) and the potential market for your book (academics, students, researchers, others?). Some of this can be more challenging with edited collections if you are planning a call for proposals, but both publishers and peer reviewers need to see what you are planning to include to assess the proposal fully.

Some further writing advice from a publisher’s perspective is:

  • Take your time writing

It is obvious to those assessing a proposal if it has been rushed. Use the proposal as an opportunity to best advertise yourself, your author voice, and your ideas. Ensure you answer all questions on the template provided by the publisher or series editor fully – missing out on questions can imply to the publisher that your idea is not fully developed.

  • Be clear and accessible in your language

While the editor you submit your proposal to at the publisher will work within your subject area, e.g. education, they are unlikely to be an expert in your specific topic. Make sure you spell out acronyms or technical terms the first time you use them and reference the work you are building upon.

  • Think about the market/intended audience for the book

Publishers need to know that there is a clear route to market for your book, in addition to its academic merit. Make sure you express who you think your reader will be and how they are going to use your book. What are the key objectives of your book, and why is it needed? Making this clear in your proposal shows that you are serious about writing a book and that you have a good awareness of your key market and what else has published in the area.

  • Recommend potential reviewers

The publisher may ask you to recommend peer reviewers as part of the proposal stage, generally requesting that they are at a different institution to you and spanning a range of locations if you are aiming at an international audience. Routledge does not guarantee to contact all of these people – and their peer review process is anonymised so you won’t know this for definite – but they provide another indication of who you are writing for. This can help the publisher search for other potential reviewers and ensure your book is correctly positioned within their publishing programme.

If you are considering proposing a book for inclusion in the SRHE/Routledge Book Series Research in Higher Education, please contact Rachel Brooks (r.brooks@surrey.ac.uk), Sarah O’Shea (sarah.oshea@curtin.edu.au) or Helen Perkins (SRHE Director, hsperkins@srhe.ac.uk).

Professor Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research and Innovation at the University of Surrey, UK. As well as being co-editor of the Routledge/SRHE book series, she is editor-in-chief of Sociology and an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education. She has published widely in the sociology of higher education. Recent books include Student Migrants and Contemporary Educational Mobilities (with Johanna Waters); Reimagining the Higher Education Student (with Sarah O’Shea) and Sharing Care (with Paul Hodkinson).

Professor Sarah O’Shea is the Director, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and a national and international recognised educator and researcher. Sarah’s particular expertise in educational inclusion and equity issues has resulted in invitations to present keynotes, symposia, and workshops globally as well as providing contributions across media including print, television and radio. She is a prolific writer, with over 80 publications including books, book chapters, scholarly journal articles, media articles and commissioned reports produced in the last decade.

Zoe Thomson is Commissioning Editor for Education at Routledge. She publishes books in the areas of Higher Education (covering both the study of Higher Education itself and practical books that will help academics teach more effectively), Study Skills (including Academic Writing) and Educational Research Methods. She also commissions Social and Emotional Wellbeing books under the Speechmark imprint.


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Digital platforms and university strategies: tensions and synergies

by Sam Sellar

This blog is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

In a lecture delivered to Stanford University in 2014, which was provocatively titled Competition is for losers, Peter Thiel argued that ‘[m]onopoly is the condition of every successful business.’ Thiel’s endorsement of monopoly over competition has become business strategy orthodoxy for Big Tech firms, which, as Birch, Cochrane and Ward (2021, p6) argue, have ‘often been willing to accept low revenues in the short- to medium-term with the longer term goal of capturing markets and monopoly rents through their expected future control over data’. Assets are replacing commodities in contemporary capitalism, and an asset can be defined as ‘something that can be owned or controlled, traded, and capitalised as a revenue stream … [and] the point is to get a durable economic rent from them’ by limiting access to the asset (Birch and Muniesa, 2020, p2). We can see these assetisation dynamics emerging in EdTech markets serving UK higher education, and in this article I offer early insights into how these dynamics, driven by the growth in use of digital platforms during the Covid-19 pandemic, are shaping university strategies and practices.

This article reports on findings from the second phase of the Universities and Unicorns: building digital assets in the higher education industry project. The project is led by Dr Janja Komljenovic at Lancaster University and it aims to investigate new processes of value creation and extraction-assetisation-in the HE sector as it increasingly digitalises its operations. In Phase 2 of our project, we are conducting a series of university case studies in the UK, along with the investor and the company case studies. The university case studies are designed to help us understand how universities work with their commercial partners and what are the synergies and tensions. We are also curious about how universities view changing business models that focus on assetisation.

Importantly, we are not evaluating the use of EdTech in the context of teaching and learning or evaluating the strategies of individual institutions. Our concern is with how the HE sector is evolving in connection with EdTech markets. We are interviewing senior leaders, academic staff, directors of IT departments, IT developers and staff working in procurement, commercialisation and legal departments. We are also collecting a range of documents relating to digital strategy, business and data management plans, technical reports, financial records, and contracts with EdTech companies.

Our fieldwork with universities is a work in progress, and in this blog post I will outline three of our emerging findings, which relate to: (1) the ways that universities think about digital strategy; (2) the value of data from a university perspective; and (3) emerging processes of assetisation.

Digital strategy

None of the universities that we have studied so far have had formal and distinct digital strategies. Rather, digital strategy is embedded in IT, teaching and learning (T&L) and library strategies. In most cases, universities appear to be ‘between’ official strategy documents that cover this area. COVID-19 clearly shifted the short-term focus to tactics – working urgently to adjust and develop digital ecosystems to accommodate new demands of large-scale shifts online – and these universities are just now catching their breath and starting to update their strategies. However, despite this lack of formal strategy, some universities are very clear regarding the use of digital platforms to lead the sector and create value. In these cases, there clearly is an overarching strategy, it just isn’t described or formally presented as such.

Universities see themselves as developing institutional digital ecosystems by joining up platforms and focusing on the interoperability of their systems. Decisions about specific platforms are increasingly shaped by their potential integration into these ecosystems, and how data can be managed and integrated across platforms.

Interestingly, digital strategy is being driven by teaching and research strategy rather than shaping it. In one case, the point was made very strongly that digital is not separate, but rather a way of delivering the core business. Digital platforms are largely being used to deliver existing activity in digital form, rather than to create new forms of economic activity and new sources of value. However, questions are being raised about the relationship between IT and teaching and learning. For example, should IT departments simply support other business functions, or might they lead on digital strategy to enable new possibilities for the university?

The value of digital data

The primary value of digital data for universities appears to be reputational, and responses from our participants thus far have been remarkably consistent in this regard. Digital platforms can help to enhance the university’s brand and extend the business over a wider geographic range. This primacy of reputational, rather than financial, value is a distinctive feature of university perspectives on digital platforms, in contrast to companies.

Engagement with digital platforms was also seen to be valuable insofar as it generates market intelligence, supports student recruitment, changes perceptions of teaching and learning (eg blended approaches); and change perceptions of students (eg enabling particular cohorts to engage in new ways with benefits for their learning outcomes). Most interviewees are not thinking about the data generated by digital platforms as an asset, but it is clear that digital content (eg recorded lectures) are being seen in these terms insofar as they can be controlled by intellectual property rights and re-used over time.

Interestingly, our participants clearly hold the view that there is more potential for universities to make use of the digital data generated by platforms they use. However, in the case of learning analytics there is also scepticism regarding what it promises and its true value at this time. Despite a number of trials and experiments, many in UK universities are yet to see the benefits beyond what can be achieved using more prosaic approaches to data analytics.

Assetisation

The universities that we have studied so far do not appear to be using data to develop new products or services that generate value through economic rents; this kind of activity appears limited to commercial providers of digital platforms. However, universities increasingly understand the potential value of the data generated by their staff and students, and they are actively pursuing access to these data in their contractual negotiations with partners.

This is where we are seeing the emergence of assetisation dynamics in EdTech markets, which reflect the business strategies that Thiel promotes in his celebration of monopolies. Even if universities are able to negotiate favourable terms in individual contracts, providing rights to access and use data generated by university users on a given platform, they do not have access to aggregated data collected by companies through the use of this platform by other universities.

There is thus concern about the assetisation of data by commercial providers, for example, in relation to the use of aggregated data sets to develop new products and services that automate aspects of academic work (eg assessment). Turnitin is a primary example that came up in many of our discussions. The monopoly created by Turnitin leaves universities with little choice but to use their platform and pay whatever is asked, and relationships with Turnitin have become strained in many cases. The value of Turnitin is based on the data they have collected, and this data could be used to develop new services that automate, and thus substitute for, aspects of teaching currently delivered by lecturers. Work is being pursued through industry bodies to negotiate fairer distribution of the potential value generated by digital platforms in such cases.

Conclusion

While our university case studies are a work in progress, these three themes are already emerging quite consistently across our research sites. The value of data for universities is primarily reputational, extending the reach of teaching and learning functions, enhancing recruitment and supporting innovation in teaching and learning. Universities see digital strategy and the use of digital platforms as a way to extend their core business, not as a means to create new kinds of economic activity. In this respect, tech sector business strategies focused on creating value from data as an asset are not yet evident in the strategies of universities. However, we are seeing early signs that data is being assetised by EdTech companies, in an effort to extract monopoly rents by locking-in users through subscriptions to digital platforms. In this sense, we are curious to see whether monopoly will be a condition of every successful business in the burgeoning HE EdTech space.

Sam Sellar is Dean of Research (Education Futures) and Professor of Education Policy at the University of South Australia. Sam’s research focuses on education policy, large-scale assessments and the datafication of education. Sam also works closely with teacher organisations around the world to understand the impact of digitalisation on teachers’ work. His most recent book is titled Algorithms of education: How datafication and artificial intelligence shape policy (University of Minnesota Press), co-authored with Kalervo N Gulson and P Taylor Webb. Contact here: sam.sellar@unisa.edu.au

References

Birch, K, Cochrane, DT, and Ward, C (2021) ‘Data as asset? The measurement, governance, and valuation of digital personal data by Big Tech’ Big Data & Society8(1), 20539517211017308.

Birch, K, and Muniesa, F (eds) (2020). Assetization: turning things into assets in technoscientific capitalism Boston: MIT Press

Thiel, P (2014) ‘Competition is for losers’ The Wall Street Journal Available from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/peter-thiel-competition-is-for-losers-1410535536

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Sir Gavalad, the Knight of the Wholly Failed

by Rob Cuthbert

There was a time when knighthood meant something. It started out as a career path for the elite, for those headed for the cavalry, but: “As knighthood evolved, a Christian ideal of knightly behaviour came to be accepted, involving respect for the church, protection of the poor and the weak, loyalty to one’s feudal or military superiors, and preservation of personal honour.” The concept may have peaked in medieval times, but myths and legends continue to frame the knight as someone whose exemplary conduct has won them distinction. The “most perfect of all knights” was Sir Galahad, one of the three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table who achieved the Holy Grail.

Knighthood continues as a reward bestowed by the monarch for supposedly meritorious service. The British Honours system has many faults and some would like to abolish it completely. Its structure and nomenclature still embodies class privilege and explicit echoes of empire, even in HE, where VCs and professors of ‘elite’ universities aspire to knighthoods while the best of the rest will usually go no higher than CBE. But with the announcement of a knighthood for Gavin Williamson the government has once again plumbed depths which would not long ago have seemed unimaginable.

There might be some embarrassment involved, even for this apparently shameless government, given that the announcement was sneaked out as the war in Ukraine was dominating newspapers and airwaves. For years Williamson had been by a country mile the least respected, least popular and least successful member of the Cabinet – and that was the view of the Conservative Party. He finally lost his ministerial post in the reshuffle in September 2021. For reasons known only to himself, the Prime Minister decided at the time to soften the blow of Williamson’s dismissal by giving him a knighthood, as Camilla Tominey’s column in The Telegraph on 5 March 2022 made clear. Presumably he could not be given a peerage, either because he did not have enough roubles, or because, against all reasonable expectation, the 46-year-old harboured ambitions of yet another political comeback. So a knighthood was the sweetener of choice. But what did he do to ‘merit’ it?

Gavin Williamson had risen without trace to become Chief Whip in Theresa May’s Cabinet. When Sir Michael Fallon resigned as Secretary of State for Defence in November 2017 the Prime Minister followed standard practice and turned to the Chief Whip for suggestions about his replacement. Williamson, to widespread astonishment, proposed himself and May, weakened after the 2017 general election, agreed. He was not successful, not respected by senior service personnel, and attracted widespread ridicule for telling Russia to “go away and shut up” in 2018. Vladimir Putin obviously took careful note. He was fired as defence secretary in 2019 for allegedly leaking details from a National Security Council meeting about Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G network, which he denied.

He then supported Boris Johnson’s campaign for leadership of the Conservative Party and was rewarded by a return to Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. It was, then, the education sector that bore the brunt of his incompetence at a time in the pandemic when effective leadership was desperately needed. Williamson stumbled from one disaster to the next, issuing vague or ambiguous advice to schools, or clear instructions just hours before they were meant to take effect, making school staff scramble to work out their implications. He announced that schools must stay open and then reversed his decision just days later. And, worst of all, he made the difficult problem of handling national examinations in 2020 far worse than it needed to be, with profound effects on schools, HE, individual students and their future careers. Policymaking in a pandemic needed to be decisive, transparent and inclusive. Instead it was indecisive, obscure and included only those outside the DfE who would be later blamed for getting it wrong. Higher education institutions did the best they could to cope with the flood of proportionately much better-qualified applicants, with no thanks to the flipflopping by the Secretary of State for Education and Ofqual which repeatedly changed the admissions arithmetic, right up to the last minute. Even so tens of thousands of young people were dissatisfied or destroyed by the results that finally emerged from the abandoned algorithm and centre-assessed grades, and denied any realistic chance of appeal. The surge in numbers in unexpected places changed institutional strategies for several years and immediately jeopardised the prospects of the next cohort of applicants.

The gratuitous damage to so many students brought to mind the last time a senior Cabinet minister had made a major promise affecting higher education and then completely reversed his decision. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg pledged before the general election in 2010 to abolish student fees, then went into coalition with the Conservatives, He did not simply abandon his pledge – as Deputy Prime Minister he was party to the decision to treble student fees instead. A ‘National Scholarships Scheme’ was supposed to be some compensation but was, unsurprisingly, an insignificant damp squib; it had to be quietly abandoned. Mealy-mouthed protestations about the ‘compromises’ necessary in coalition did not dissuade the electorate from destroying the Liberal Democrats at the next general election. Clegg’s complete failure led, naturally, to a knighthood; he became Sir Nick and departed to make his fortune in the Metaverse.

It was perhaps the most egregious example of a complete failure in HE policy leading to ennoblement – until now, as Sir Gavalad becomes the second Knight of the Wholly Failed. This is not just failure, it is Massive and Shameful (M&S) Failure. But some politicians have no shame.

Such knighthoods deserve a special ceremony. Perhaps Prince Andrew could be persuaded to do the honours.

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.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.


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Critically analysing EdTech investors’ logic in business discourse

by Javier Mármol Queraltó

This blog is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

In the context of the current SARS-COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing process of digitalisation of education has become a prominent area for social, financial and, increasingly, (critical) educational research. Higher education, as a pivotal social, economic, technological and educational domain, has seen its activities drastically affected, and Universities and the multitude of people involved in them have been forced to adapt to the unfolding crisis. HE researchers agree both on the unpreparedness of countries and institutions faced by the pandemic, and on its potential lasting impact on the educational sector (Goedegebuure and Meek, 2021). In as much as educational technologies (EdTech) have been brought to the fore due to their pivotal role in the enablement and continuation of educational practices across the globe, EdTech companies and investors have also become primary financial beneficiaries of these necessary processes of digitalisation. The extensive use and adoption of EdTech to bridge the gap between HE professionals and students due to the application of strict social distancing measures has been welcomed by investors as an opportunity for EdTech to establish themselves as key players within an educational landscape under a process of assetisation (Komljenovic, 2020, 2021). Investors and EdTech are scaffolding new digital markets in HE, reshaping the conceptualisation of universities, HE and the sector itself more generally (Williamson, 2021; Komljenovic and Robertson, 2016). In this brief entry, I focus on EdTech investors’ discourses, owing to the potential of such discourses to shape the future of educational practices broadly speaking.

Within the ‘Universities and Unicorns’ ESRC-funded project, this exploratory research (see full report) aimed at unveiling the ideological uses of linguistic, visual and multimodal devices (eg texts and charts) deployed by EdTech investors in a variety of texts that have the potential, due to their circulation and goals, to shape public understandings of the role of Educational Technologies in the unfolding crisis. The research was conducted deploying a framework anchored in Linguistics, specifically cognitive-based approaches to Critical Discourse Studies (CL-CDS; eg Mármol Queraltó, 2021b). A central assumption in this approach is that language encodes construal: the same event/situation can be alternatively linguistically formulated, and these can have diverse cognitive effects in readers (Hart, 2011). From a CL-CDS perspective, then, texts can potentially shape the way that the public think (and subsequently act) about social topics (cf Watters, 2015).

In order to extract the ideologies underlying discourse practices carried out by HE investors, we examined qualitatively a variety of texts disseminated in the public and semi-private domains. We investigated, for example, HolonIQ’s explanatory charts, interviews with professionals and blog entries (eg Charles MacIntyre, Alex Latsis, Jan Lynn-Matern), and global financial reports by IBIS Capital, BrightEye Ventures, and EdTechX, among several others. Our main goal was to better understand how EdTech investors operationalised discourse to shape the imageries of the future in the relationship between HE institutions, EdTech and governance. In line with CDS approaches, we examined the representations of social actors in context using van Leeuwen’s (2008) framework, and more in line with CL-CDS, we also operationalised the analysis of metaphorical expressions indexing Conceptual Metaphors, and Force dynamics. Force-dynamics is an essential tool deployed to examine how the tensions between actors and processes within business discourse are constructed (see Oakley, 2005).

Our study yielded important findings for the critical examination of discourse processes within the EdTech-HE-governance triangle of influences. In terms of social actor representation (whose examination also included metaphor), the main findings are:

  • EdTech investors and companies are rendered as opaque, abstract collectives, and are positively represented as ‘enablers’ and ‘disruptors’ of educational processes.
  • Governments are rendered as generic, collective entities, and depicted as necessary funders of process of digital transformation.
  • Universities or HE institutions are mainly negatively represented as potential ‘blockers’ of processes of digital transformation, and they are depicted as failing their students due to their lack of scalability and flexibility.
  • Individuals within HE institutions are identified as numbers and increasing percentages within unified collectives, students routinely cast as beneficiaries in ‘consumer’ and ‘user’ roles, while educators are activated as ‘content providers’.
  • Metaphorically, the EdTech sector is conceptualised as a ‘ship’ on a ‘journey’ towards profit, where HE institutions can be ‘obstacles along a path’ and the global pandemic and other push factors are conceptualised as ‘tailwinds’.
  • The EdTech market is conceptualised as a ‘living organism’ that grows and evolves independent of the actors involved in it. The visual representations observed reinforce these patterns and emphasise the growth of the EdTech market in very positive terms.

The formulation of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors is also essential to understand the discursively constructed ‘internal tensions’ within the sector. In order to examine these factors, we operationalised Force-dynamics analysis and metaphor, which allowed us to arrive to the following findings:

  • Push factors identified by investors driving the EdTech sector include the SARS-COVID19 global pandemic, the digital acceleration being experienced in the sector prior to the pandemic, the increasing number of students requiring access to HE, and investors’ actions aimed at disrupting the EdTech market.
  • Pull factors encouraging investment in the sector are conceptualised in the shape of financial predictions. The visions put forward by EdTech investors become instrumental in the achievement of those predictions.
  • The representation of the global pandemic is ambivalent and it is rendered both as a negative factor affecting societies and as a positive factor for the EdTech sector. The primary focus is on the positive outcomes of the disruption brought about by the pandemic.
  • Educational platforms are foregrounded in their enabling role and replace HE institutions as site for educational practice, de-localising educational practices from physical universities.
  • Students and educators are found to be increasingly reframed as ‘users’ and ‘content providers’, respectively. This discursive shift is potentially indicative of the new processes of assetisation of HE.

On the whole, framing business within the ‘journey’ metaphor entails that any entities or processes affecting business are potentially conceptualised as ‘obstacles along the path’, and therefore attributed negative connotations. In our case, those entities (eg governments and HE institutions) or processes (eg lack of funding) that metaphorically ‘stand in the way of business’ are automatically framed in a negative light, potentially affording a negative reception by the audience and therefore legitimising actions designed to remove those ‘obstacles’ (eg ‘disruptions’). EdTech companies and investors are represented very positively as ‘enablers’ of educational practices disrupted by the SARS-COVID19 pandemic, but also as ‘push factors’ in processes of digital acceleration within the ‘speed of action is speed of motion’ metaphor. In the premised, ever-growing EdTech sector, those actors and processes that ‘slow down’ access to profits (or processes providing access to profit) are similarly negatively represented. The conceptualisation of the SARS-COVID-19 global pandemic in this context reflects ‘calculated ambivalence’. This ambivalence was expected, as portraying the pandemic solely as a relatively positive factor for the HE sector would be in extreme detriment to EdTech investors’ activities. Our findings reflect that, while the global pandemic is initially represented as a very negative factor greatly disrupting societies and businesses, those negative impacts tend to be presented in rather vague ways and in most occasions the result of the disruption brought about by the pandemic is reduced to changes in the modality of education experienced by learners (from in-person to online education). We have found no significant mention of social or personal impacts of the pandemic (eg deaths and scenarios affecting underrepresented social groups), where the focus has been mainly on the market and the activities within it. Conversely, while the initial framing of the pandemic is inherently negative, we have seen in several examples above that the pandemic is subtly instrumentalised as a ‘push factor’, which serves to accelerate digital transformation and is hence a positive factor for the EdTech sector. In a global context of restrictions, containment measures and vaccine rollouts, it is especially ideologically relevant to find the pandemic instrumentalised as a ‘catalyst’, or as an important player in a ‘experiment of global proportions’. Framing the pandemic in such ways detaches the audience from its negative connotations, and serves to depict EdTech companies and investors as involved in high-level, complex processes that abstract the millions of diverse victims to the pandemic. Ultimately, in the ‘journey’ towards profit, the SARS-COVID-19 is a desired push factor, also realised as a ‘tailwind’, which facilitates the desired digital acceleration.

On the whole, our research demonstrated that social actor representation and the distinction between push/pull factors are crucial sites for the analysis of EdTech discourse. EdTech’s primary focus is on the positive outcomes of the disruption brought about by the pandemic. In this context, educational platforms are foregrounded in their enabling role and replace HE institutions as site for educational practice, de-localising educational practices from physical universities. Subsequently, students and educators are found to be increasingly reframed as ‘users’ and ‘content providers’ respectively. We argue that this subtle discursive shift is potentially indicative of the new processes of assetization of HE and reflects more broadly a neoliberal logic.

Javier Mármol Queraltó is a PhD candidate in Linguistics in Lancaster University. His current research deals with the multimodal representations of discourses of migration in the British and Spanish online press. He advocates a Cognitive Linguistic Approach to Critical Discourse Studies (CL-CDS), and is working on a methodology that can shed light on how public perceptions of social issues might be influenced by both the multimodal constraints of online newspaper discourse and our shared cognitive capacities. He is also interested in the multimodal and cognitive dimensions of discourses of Brexit outside the UK, news discourses of social unrest, and the marketisation/assetisation processes of HE.


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Understanding the value of EdTech in higher education

by Morten Hansen

This blog is a re-post of an article first published on universityworldnews.com. It is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

EdTech companies are, on average, priced modestly, although some have earned strong valuations. We know that valuation practices normally reflect investors’ belief in a company’s ability to make money in the future. We are, however, still learning about how EdTech generates value for users, and how to take account of such value in the grand scheme of things.


Valuation and deployment of user-generated data

EdTech companies are not competing with the likes of Google and Facebook for advertisement revenue. That is why phrases such as ‘you are the product’ and ‘data is the new oil’ yield little insight when applied to EdTech. For EdTech companies, strong valuations hinge on the idea that technology can bring use value to learners, teachers and organisations – and that they will eventually be willing to pay for such benefits, ideally in the form of a subscription. EdTech companies try to deliver use value in multiple ways, such as deploying user-generated data to improve their services. User-generated data are the digital traces we leave when engaging with a platform: keyboard strokes and mouse movements, clicks and inactivity.


The value of user-generated data in higher education

The gold standard for unlocking the ‘value’ of user-generated data is to bring about an activity that could otherwise not have arisen. Change is brought about through data feedback loops. Loops consist of five stages: data generation, capture, anonymisation, computation and intervention. Loops can be long and short.


For example, imagine that a group of students is assigned three readings for class. Texts are accessed and read on an online platform. Engagement data indicate that all students spent time reading text 1 and text 2, but nobody read text 3. As a result of this insight, come next semester, text 3 is replaced by a more ‘engaging’ text. That is a long feedback loop.


Now, imagine that one student is reading one text. The platform’s machine learning programme generates a rudimentary quiz to test comprehension. Based on the students’ answers, further readings are suggested or the student is encouraged to re-read specific sections of the text. That is a short feedback loop.


In reality, most feedback loops do not bring about activity that could not have happened otherwise. It is not like a professor could not learn, through conversation, which texts are better liked by students, what points are comprehended, and so on. What is true, though, is that the basis and quality of such judgments shifts. Most importantly, so does the cost structure that underpins judgment.


The more automated feedback loops are, the greater the economy of scale. ‘Automation’ refers to the decoupling of additional feedback loops from additional labour inputs. ‘Economies of scale’ means that the average cost of delivering feedback loops decreases as the company grows.


Proponents of machine learning and other artificial intelligence approaches argue that the use value of feedback loops improves with scale: the more users engage in the back-and-forth between generating data, receiving intervention and generating new data, the more precise the underlying learning algorithms become in predicting what interventions will ‘improve learning’.


The platform learns and grows with us

EdTech platforms proliferate because they are seen to deliver better value for money than the human-centred alternative. Cloud-based platforms are accessed through subscriptions without transfer of ownership. The economic relationship is underwritten by law and continued payment is legitimated through the feedback loops between humans and machines: the platform learns and grows with us, as we feed it.


Machine learning techniques certainly have the potential to improve the efficiency with which we organise certain learning activities, such as particular types of student assessment and monitoring. However, we do not know which values to mobilise when judging intervention efficacy: ‘value’ and ‘values’ are different things.


In everyday talk, we speak about ‘value’ when we want to justify or critique a state of affairs that has a price: is the price right, too low, or too high? We may disagree on the price, but we do agree that something is for sale. At other times we reject the idea that a thing should be for sale, like a family heirloom, love or education. If people tell us otherwise, we question their values. This is because values are about relationships and politics.


When we ask about the values of EdTech in higher education, we are really asking: what type of relations do we think are virtuous and appropriate for the institution? What relationships are we forging and replacing between machines and people, and between people and people?


When it comes to the application of personal technology we have valued convenience, personalisation and seamlessness by forging very intimate but easily forgettable machine-human relations. This could happen in the EdTech space as well. Speech-to-text recognition, natural language processing and machine vision are examples of how bonds can be built between humans and computers, aiding feedback loops by making worlds of learning computable.


Deciding on which learning relations to make computable, I argue, should be driven by values. Instead of seeing EdTech as a silver bullet that simply drives learning outcomes, it is more useful to think of it as technology that mediates learning relations and processes: what relationships do we value as important for students and when is technology helpful and unhelpful in establishing those? In this way, values can help us guide the way we account for the value of edtech.

Morten Hansen is a research associate on the Universities and Unicorns project at Lancaster University, and a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Hansen specialises in education markets and has previously worked as a researcher at the Saïd Business School in Oxford.