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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Mobilities and the ‘international academic’ in higher education

by Vera Spangler, Lene Møller Madsen, and Hanne Kirstine Adriansen

December marks the month of the International SRHE Research Conference. It was an interesting week full of presentations and discussions around the theme of Mobilities in Higher Education. In the opening plenary talk, Emily Henderson invited us to reflect critically on the different ways in which mobilities of academics and students in higher education are discursively constructed. She debated how discursive constructions of mobility may influence who can access academia/higher education, who can gain recognition, and who can establish a feeling of belonging. Emily’s presentation set an interesting and highly relevant ground for the week to come, opening space for critical thought about  academic mobility and experiences of mobility, subjectivities, and power. Our presentation about who is considered ‘the international academic’ addressed similar ideas and observations, which we would like to share in this blog post in order to open the conversation with a larger audience.

Never has the higher education sector been so mobile, particularly as internationalisation occupies a central position on the global agenda of policymakers. Over the past decade we can observe a significant increase in academic mobility. This is partly due to the fact that the academic profession is becoming exceedingly internationalised and globalised, often involving some sort of travel on the part of the academic throughout their career. In the academic sector, having international staff is often seen as integral to the institution’s reputation and recognition. Likewise, international mobility is perceived as inherently beneficial for the individual and as a valuable asset for academic research careers. Professional stays abroad can function as a mark of distinction or valuable international capital.

Mobility and, notably, internationalisation are often used with many positive connotations, presented as neutral and unconditionally good. Internationalisation is often deemed instrumental in enhancing the quality of research and education. Universities put increasing effort into attracting international academics, seeking their contribution in establishing an international research and teaching environment to promote the status of the faculty and their position internationally. Particularly for universities outside Anglo-America, international scholars constitute an important element in creating a so-called ‘international university’. However we often see a uniform, unidirectional, and unproblematic description of how to attract and retain international academics in higher education strategies and mainstream policy documents. There is a dominant prominence in university strategies of attracting ‘global talent’ and ‘the best and the brightest’, promoting a specific idea of the ‘international academic’. Yet questions remain about how academics of different national and social backgrounds understand the role of being an ‘international academic’ and how their understandings are consonant with those sought, promoted and shaped by higher education institutions.

Our paper for the SRHE conference tried to unpack ‘the international’ in international academic mobility based on interviews with international academics (varying in age, nationality, and academic position) living and working in Denmark. The data stem from the larger research project Geographies of Internationalisation, which explores how internationalisation affects the perception of quality, relevance and learning in higher education and how these perceptions travel with mobile academics. Our conference presentation examined what it means to be an international academic, who the ‘international’ is, and how the academics’ ‘international-ness’ is being used and/or neglected by institutions.

During the interviews, interesting conversations emerged as to when one is considered international – do you have to be recruited as ‘an international’ or can you just be a ‘love migrant’ who then gets employment at a university? Others pondered how long one could live in Denmark and still be considered ‘an international’. Our analysis shows that ‘the international’ is not a neutral concept, but often ‘international-ness’ is associated with those from the centre (the Anglo-American academy), while academics from the (semi-)periphery are viewed as less international, perhaps just ‘foreign’ as one interviewee stated. Language is an important factor in this context. As we have shown elsewhere, English is often conflated with the international, for instance internationalisation may simply mean English Medium Instruction. This may explain why academics from the Anglo-American academy can appear to possess more of that universal character that is international. In this way, we point to the uneven geographies of internationalisation, and how universities in the (semi-)periphery can end up mimicking the Anglo-American academy in their attempt to internationalise.

While internationalisation can bring many social, material and professional benefits concerning, for instance, intercultural competencies and employability, there is a diversity in geographical patterns, constraints, demands, privileges and motivations that are to a large extent silenced in prominent policy documents and discourses. Hidden behind its neutralising and universalising discourse, internationalisation is a multi-dimensional, highly uneven process; a plural landscape of possibilities for some, and disadvantages for others. For some years now, critical scholarship on internationalisation has been growing. There is increasing concern that internationalisation practices and mainstream policies reproduce global inequalities and already uneven relations and geographies. There are a number of different ways to avoid this. Along with other scholars of critical internationalisation studies, we encourage efforts to rethink and critically explore consequences, practices and discourses of internationalisation both in scholarship and in academic conversations to open up questions for a renewed focus and to find ways forward.

Vera Spangler is a PhD student at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England. Her research project is a comparative study between England, Denmark and Germany with focus on knowledge legitimacy and the role of student mobility in the re/production of global hierarchies.

Lene Møller Madsen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen. She is part of the research project Geographies of Internationalisation, responsible for the WP on academic mobility. She holds a PhD in human geography, and have worked with pedagogical training of staff for many years including international academics.  

Hanne Kirstine Adriansen is Associate Professor and academic international coordinator at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark. Originally trained as a human geographer, her research concerns mobility, space, and education. Since 2019 PI of the research project Geographies of Internationalisation with 14 affiliated international scholars and master students.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


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A pantomime without a happy ending

The year-long pantomime that was government in 2022 started trying to be managerial and serious, just as the true pantomime season got into full swing and TV started showing the usual repeats specials. Rather too much sherry and mince pies before the pantomime highlights compilation meant that I fell asleep during A Christmas Carol – so I’m not sure if this was just a dream (or a nightmare) …

This year every university and college is putting on its own pantomime. What’s showing near you? We offer these plot summaries to help you choose what to watch.

Cinderella

Higher Education Cinderella has been condemned to a life of servitude, enforced by the ugly sisters DfE and the Office for Students (you can’t usually tell them apart). Life is only tolerable for HE Cinderella thanks to all the friendly student mice, and UUK, an apparently kindly character in the service of the household, but with suspiciously shiny Buttons. There is much excitement in the land as Parliament decides to stage a magnificent Election Ball to find a suitable person to be the government Prince. Cinderella would love to go but has no well-paid staff to wear; the DfE and OfS ugly sisters prepare eagerly by appointing more recruitment consultants. Suddenly the UCU Fairy Godmother appears and declares “You shall go to the Election Ball”. The USS pumpkin is miraculously transformed into a golden pension and the student mice turn into horses, although there do seem to be fewer of them. Best of all, Cinderella’s pay rags turn into a shimmering and apparently permanent contract, and her glass ceiling is transformed into slippers. Cinderella climbs into her pension, pulled by all the student horses, to attend the Election, but her Fairy Godmother warns her that she must return home before the election result is announced. At the Election Ball there are several wannabe Princes: none appear to be very Charming, but nevertheless they pay her close attention, making all kinds of promises. Some even make pledges. Suddenly the first exit poll appears and Cinderella rushes back home, losing a glass slipper in her haste. The pension turns back into a pumpkin, and the Fairy Godmother has disappeared and seems unable to work her magic. However there is a new Prince after the Election Ball, who has announced that he will scour the kingdom to find the person who can wear the glass slipper. He visits the household and cries with delight that Higher Education Cinderella is the one for him, but since there is only one glass slipper there must be a cutback in student numbers. Cinderella goes back to sit on the pumpkin with her low pay, weeping over the lost mice. She realises the glass slipper thing was all cobblers.

Dick Whittington

Higher Education Dick has lost more and more income as his student fees were eroded by inflation, but he hopes that if he strikes out for a better life he might find somewhere the staff are paid with gold. He travels hopefully and reaches what might have been the golden triangle, but it seems no better than the old place. He spends years trying to make his fortune, without success. His Admissions Cat catches lots of home student mice, but he is forced to send it abroad in the hope of making his fortune from lots of international students. In despair Dick strikes out again, accompanied by Freedom of Speech Bill.

Dick (suspiciously):                     “Is there somebody following us?

Bill:                                                 ”Let’s ask the audience. Is there anybody following us?”

Audience (shouting excitedly): “It’s the minister!”

Bill:                                                 “Where is she?”

Audience (still excitedly):           “She’s behind you!”

Bill:                                                 “Oh no she’s not”

Audience:                                      “Oh yes she is!”

And they were right, the minister was right behind the Bill. Bill trudges on but suffers so many proposed amendments he slows down until he eventually gets passed. On the road Dick hears the sound of UCU bells saying to him “Your turn again, Whittington” and he goes back to his place on the picket line.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Jack lived in desperately poor circumstances with his departmental colleagues, until one day all he had left was one research grant. He decided to take his research to the conference market to see if he could generate any more funds. But even before he got to the conference he met a pro vice-chancellor (Research) who said if he handed over his grant as a contribution to overheads the PVC would give him a handful of sabbatical beans. He went back excitedly to his department to tell them the good news, but they pointed out that by giving the grant away the whole department was doomed. Jack was distraught and he threw the sabbatical beans into the departmental workload model. The next day when he woke up he was astonished to see that everywhere he had thrown a sabbatical, a research grant application had sprung up. Pretty soon the grant applications had grown into a full-fledged research grant money tree which stretched right up into the UKRI. Jack started to climb and when he got to the top he discovered a land where there lived a giant called Russell G. He crept into the giant’s home, sneaked away with some more research grants and went back to his department. That kept them going for a while, but soon they needed more funds and Jack had to climb the money tree again. This time the giant was waiting for him, and roared “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of a teaching institution.” Jack raced back to the money tree with the giant close behind, scrambled back down to the ground and hacked at the money tree until it toppled over. Unfortunately the giant was already halfway down. It fell right on the top of the department and squashed it flat, leaving only a handful of the most research-active staff, which Russell G picked up before leaving.

Sleeping Beauty

A Higher Education princess is warned that if she pierces her tuition with a student fee she will die. She tries to rid the kingdom of all traces of tuition fees, but still they slip in and gradually get bigger until they become impossible to avoid. At last she succumbs and as the fee takes effect she falls into a deep sleep, becoming lost because she is, like almost everyone else, beyond the reach of Test and Trace. Nothing will wake her until one day a prince arrives on a pantomime horse and vows to rescue her from her slumbers. The horse is played by the twins REF and TEF: no-one is quite sure which end is which, until the front half confirms the protection of the research budget and all the talk about low quality courses comes out of the rear end. Before the Prince can rescue the princess he decides, out of an abundance of caution, to commission a review by the Office of Budget Responsibility. (In the past this had, unwisely, been deemed unnecessary for a pantomime with a short run.) The OBR review shows that waking the princess will cost almost as much each year as Covid PPE contracts, whose benefits are mostly still being sought long after the VIP lane was closed. So the prince decides to leave her asleep.

In every case the performance ends with the audience singing a seasonal favourite, “The 2022 days of government”, ending with the chorus:

“On the last day of 2022, the PM sent to me:

five Secretaries of State

four DfE reshuffles

three HE Ministers

two pension schemes

and an HE (Freedom of Speech) Bill)”

… then I woke up, and I wasn’t sure whether this was Christmas Past, Christmas Present or Christmas Future. You decide.

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is 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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Fostering a sense of safety in higher education

by Lauren McAllister, Luke Ward, and Lauren Young

From left to right: Lauren Young, Lauren McAllister, and Luke Ward

As three lecturers who have taught on a postgraduate course for several years that covers topics around race, gender, identities, parenting, development, disabilities, mental health, wellbeing, and the associated experiences of managing these oppressive and regulatory discourses – we began to question how we can keep ourselves, and our students ‘safe’. We had reflected that we were not talking about a physical sense of safety here, but rather a felt sense of feeling understood, or perhaps even contained.

Having spoken to colleagues and other lecturers who similarly teach some topics that may be deemed ‘challenging’ or ‘sensitive’, we found that there was very little agreement with regards to how to approach some of these topics and discussions.

What does it mean to feel ‘safe’ within the higher education classroom?

Historically, this idea of a feeling of being ‘safe’ derived from feminist movements where a physical space was created for like-minded individuals to meet and explore their experiences (Flesner and Von Der Lippe, 2019). Within UK universities, safe space is also explored in the context of addressing sexual violence, harassment and discrimination (see: Anker and Von der Lippe, 2018; Uksaysnomore.org, 2022).  Research which did explore safety in the context of a relational sense in the classroom, either positioned the achievement of safety as unrealistic (Du Preez, 2012) or as necessary to ensure both educators and students feel comfortable unpacking difficult dialogues (Nolan and Roberts, 2021). Despite this discrepancy, there was a general agreement that lecturers felt anxious and ill-equipped when teaching sensitive/contested/difficult topics – often leading to them avoiding or minimising engagement in the teaching of such topics (Sue et al, 2010; Warde et al, 2022). We also noted that there was not a clear sense of agreement with regards to what is considered ‘sensitive’ in teaching. In fact, some pedagogical researchers argue that students experience topics differently, and assuming students homogenously feel safe fails to consider this diversity (Barrett, 2010).

As a result, we felt we had several core unanswered questions which drove our research, including: how then as educators do we manage the complexity of experiences, when topics are differently experienced? How do we balance our own anxieties around teaching topics that are differently experienced, and morally/ethically ensuring are students are feeling ‘safe’? And finally, are we as educators responsible for this management of the classroom space?

Our research: What did we do and what did we find?

Our research used collaborative methods to explore both students’ and lecturers’ experiences of ‘safety’ within the HE classroom. We conducted our project in four clear stages to ensure that lived experience was at the heart of any recommendations we established.

Firstly, we conducted five focus groups with students, unpacking the notion of safety and jointly creating a vignette which would be used to scaffold the lecturers’ focus group discussions. We then conducted four lecturer focus groups in which we similarly explored this notion of safety, before using the collaboratively created vignette. This vignette was presented in four stages, with discussion encouraged at each stage. The vignette anchored discussions and enabled lecturers to explore how they prepared for difficult topics; the management of an in-class disclosure; the impact of a dominant voice; and finally, how they end their sessions. Following the focus groups, both groups were thematically analysed separately, before themes were established across the groups, with the support of two students from the student focus groups. The final stage of the project was then to establish some useable recommendations in the form of a workbook/resource for lecturers, which was similarly created with the support of students.

Within the focus groups we found that both the students and the lecturers focused less on whether a topic was deemed ‘sensitive’ or not, and more so on the space ‘between’. Students for example talked about the need to feel heard, the trust between the group and the worry about how their contributions could be perceived. Lecturers noted the impossibility of being able to prepare students for challenging discussions, and many explored the need for students to feel uncomfortable and uncontained, as part of their learning.

Our findings raised two core areas of focus which we used as basis for the development of our workbook: the development of the foundation of relational trust, and the scaffolding of discussions. Building on scholars who positioned relationality as core to teaching and learning (Hobson and Morrison-Saunders, 2013), we developed the concept of ‘relational trust’. We conceptualised relational trust as this shared or mutual understanding between all members of the group (students and lecturers), of an expectation of disagreement, misunderstanding and challenge. We also recognised that this foundation was not a set or established entity, rather it was relationally created and needing to be continually nurtured through considered teaching and learning activities/experiences. In the implementation of our findings, we therefore began to focus less on the framing of a particular topic (ie as inherently safe, or not), and more so on ways through which conversations could be scaffolded within our teaching.

Ok, but what can I ‘take away’ from this and use within my teaching?

Based on the discussions with the students and staff, we can make several usable recommendations to support educators:

  1. Development of a classroom agreement: Firstly, we explored the importance of this foundation of relational trust, whilst also acknowledging that this foundation is never truly ‘set’ or done – rather it is something that needs to be continually nurtured (and revisited). Lecturers and students explored the benefits of a ‘class contract’ during the induction of a new group, whilst also acknowledging some key barriers to the effectiveness of this contract. We explored the importance of needing to revisit this class contract, acknowledging that this relational trust changes with the introduction of new members to the group, changes in topic, general changes in dynamic etc.
  2. Clear expectations of roles: Both lecturers and students lacked clarity with regards to the role of the lecturer – and in turn, the student – in the classroom space. In particular, there was a clear blurring of expectation of what was expected of the lecturer when engaging in discussions that may be considered challenging.  Lecturers generally have multiple roles within higher education, but our findings suggest there is an expectation for lecturers always to fulfil all these roles within the classroom, and that lecturer roles are not neatly compartmentalised into ‘teaching’, ‘module coordination’, ‘office hours’, ‘dissertation supervision’, ‘personal academic tutor sessions’ etc. Therefore, we explored the importance of having a discussion/activity where you actively engage with your students, considering the different expectations of the student, lecturer, and other facilities – to ensure that there is a mutual and shared understanding of roles.
  3. Scaffolding of discussions: Using ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1992) and trauma-informed pedagogical practices (Carello and Butler, 2013; Dana, 2018; Perry and Hambrick, 2008), as a basis, we recognised the multiple layers of comfort and safety and how these could be scaffolded within classroom discussions (see Figure 1). We have therefore provided a framework below through which lecturers can frame their discussions, enabling students to contribute and be heard in spaces that gradually feel more comfortable, negotiating possible language and elements of disclosure. For this activity, it is useful to consider an element of teaching, eg a core topic, an activity, discussion, skills practice, and reflect on/plan out how this might look, starting at the ‘individually’ zone and working your way towards ‘wider group/class’. For example, the activity might be a discussion point on ‘what childhood means to you’, which you may then ask students to (1) reflect on individually for a few minutes, and note this down on a post-it, before then (2) discussing this with the person next to them, noting areas of similarity and difference. Later, the students are then tasked with (3) forming small groups and assigning a particular developmental stage, asking them to mind-map the main themes of childhood for particular developmental stages. Before then (4) bringing the class together, asking each group, in turn, to share their discussions, starting with the group who was assigned the youngest developmental stage, working up to early adulthood, to produce a co-constructed developmental trajectory.

Figure 1: Zones of Comfort

Four circles all within each other showing how a task can gradually include more people (individual, pairs, small groups, and wider group)

Beyond these useable recommendations, we also argue that there needs to be more of a systemic shift within the university culture where work that involves caring for students needs is often undervalued or unseen (Baker et al, 2021). For example, some universities do not provide hours for staff to prepare and undertake course inductions which promote this relational trust, nor are they given time throughout the course delivery to consider activities that purposefully consider inter-class relationships.

Want to hear more? You can find us on Twitter: @Lauren8McA, @Lukewrd, @Laurenyoungcbt

Dr Lauren McAllister is a senior lecturer and programme lead for the MSc Child and Adolescent Mental Health course at the University of Northampton.

Dr Luke Ward is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health and a registered therapist working with children, young people, and families who have experienced trauma.

Lauren Young is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health, a registered cognitive behavioural therapist, and a registered children’s nurse.

References

Anker, T and Von der Lippe, M (2018) ‘Controversial issues in religious education: How teachers deal with terrorism in their teaching’ in Schweitzer, F and Boschki, R (eds) Researching religious education: classroom processes and outcomes  Waxmann Verlag GmbH

Bronfenbrenner, U (1992) Ecological systems theory Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dana, D (2018) The Polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation WW Norton & Company

Perry, BD and Hambrick, EP (2008) ‘The neurosequential model of therapeutics’ Reclaiming children and youth 17(3): 38-43


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Will universities fail the Turing Test?

by Phil Pilkington

The recent anxiety over the development of AI programmes to generate unique text suggests that some disciplines face a crisis of passing the Turing Test. That is, that you cannot distinguish between the unique AI generated text and that produced by a human agent. Will this be the next stage in the battle of cheating by students? Will it lead to an arms race of countering the AI programmes to foil the students cheating? Perhaps it may force some to redesign the curriculum, the learning and the assessment processes.

Defenders of AI programmes for text generation have produced their own euphemistic consumer guides. Jasper is a ‘writing assistant’, Dr Essay ‘gets to work and crafts your entire essay for you’, Article Forge (get it?) ‘is one of the best essay writers and does the research for you!’.  Other AI essay forgers are available. The best known and the most popular is probably GPT-3 with a reported million subscribers (see The Atlantic, 6/12/2022). The promoters of the AI bots make clear that it is cheaper and quicker than using essay mills. It may even be less exploitative of those graduates in Nepal or Nottingham or Newark New Jersey serving the essay mills. There has been the handwringing that this is the ‘end of the essay’, but there have been AI developments in STEM subjects and art and design.

AI cannot be uninvented. It is out there, it is cheap and readily available. It does not necessarily follow that using it is cheating. Mike Sharples on the LSE Blog tried it out for a student assignment on learning styles. He found some simple errors of reference but made the point that GPT-3 text can be used creatively for students’ understanding and exploring a subject. And Kent University provides guidance on the use of Grammarly, which doesn’t create text as GPT-3 does ab initio but it does ‘write’ text.

Consumer reports on GPT-3 suggest that the output for given assignments is of a 2.2 or even 2.1 standard of essay, albeit with faults in the text generated. These seem to be usually in the form of incorrect or inadequate references; some references were for non-existent journals  and papers, with dates confused and so on. However, a student could read through the output text and correct such errors without any cognitive engagement in the subject. Correcting the text would be rather like an AI protocol. The next stage of AI will probably eliminate the most egregious and detectable of errors to become the ‘untraceable poison’.

The significant point here is that it is possible to generate essays and assignments without cognitive activity in the generation of the material. This does not necessarily mean a student doesn’t learn something. Reading through the generated text may be part of a learning process, but it is an impoverished form of learning. I would distinguish this as the learning that in the generated text rather than the learning how of generating the text. This may be the challenge for the post AI curriculum: knowing that is not as important as knowing how. What do we expect for the learning outcomes? That we know, for example, the War Aims of Imperial Germany in 1914 or that we know how to find that out, or how it relates to other aims and ideological outlooks? AI will provide the material for the former but not the latter.

To say that knowing that (eg the War Aims of Imperial Germany, etc) is a form of surface learning is not to confuse that memory trick with cognitive abilities, or with AI – which has no cognitive output at all. Learning is semantic, it has reference as rule-based meaning; AI text generation is syntactic and has no meaning at all (to the external world) but makes reference only to its own protocols[1]. As the Turing Test does not admit – because in that test the failure to distinguish between the human agent and the AI is based on deceiving the observer.

Studies have shown that students have a scale of cheating (as specified by academic conduct rules). An early SRHE Student Experience Seminar explored the students’ acceptance of some forms of cheating and abhorrence of other forms. Examples of ‘lightweight’ and ‘acceptable’ cheating included borrowing a friend’s essay or notes, in contrast to the extreme horror of having someone sit an exam for them (impersonation). The latter was considered not just cheating for personal advantage but also disadvantaging the entire cohort (Ashworth et al, ‘Guilty in Whose Eyes?’). Where will using AI sit in the spectrum of students’ perception of cheating? Where will it sit within the academic regulations?

I will assume that it will be used both for first drafts and for ‘passing off’ as the entirety of the student’s efforts. Should we embrace the existence of AI bots? They could be our friends and help develop the curriculum to be more creative for students and staff. We will expect and assume students to be honest about their work (as individuals and within groups) but there will be pressures of practical, cultural and psychological nature, on some students more than others, which will encourage the use of the bots. The need to work as a barista to pay the rent, to cope as a carer, to cope with dyslexia (diagnosed or not), to help non-native speakers, to overcome the disadvantages of a relatively impoverished secondary education, all distinct from the cohort of gilded and fluently entitled youth, will all be stressors for encouraging the use of the bots.

Will the use of AI be determined by the types of students’ motivation (another subject of an early SRHE Student Experience Seminar)? There will be those wanting to engage in and grasp (to cognitively possess as it were) the concept formations of the discipline (the semantical), with others who simply want to ‘get through the course’ and secure employment (the syntactical).

And what of stressed academics assessing the AI generated texts? They could resort to AI bots for that task too. In the competitive, neo-liberal, league-table driven universities of precarity, publish-or-be-redundant monetizing research (add your own epithets here), will AI bots be used to meet increasingly demanding performance targets?

The discovery of the use of AI will be accompanied by a combination of outrage and demands for sanctions (much like the attempts to criminalise essay mills and their use). We can expect some responses from institutions that it either doesn’t happen here or it is only a tiny minority. But if it does become the ‘untraceable poison’ how will we know? AI bots are not like essay mills. They may be used as a form of deception, as implied by the Turing Test, but they could also be used as a tool for greater understanding of a discipline. We may need a new form of teaching, learning and assessment.

Phil Pilkington’s former roles include Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, and CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union. He is an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE. He chaired the SRHE Student Experience Network for several years and helped to organise events including the hugely successful 1995 SRHE annual conference on The Student Experience; its associated book of ‘Precedings’ was edited by Suzanne Hazelgrove for SRHE/Open University Press.


[1] John Searle (The rediscovery of the mind, 1992) produced an elegant thought experiment to refute the existence of AI qua intelligence, or cognitive activity. He created the experiment, the Chinese Room, originally to face off the Mind-Brain identity theorists. It works as a wonderful example of how AI can be seemingly intelligent without having any cognitive content.  It is worth following the Chinese Room for its simplicity and elegance and as a lesson in not taking AI seriously as ‘intelligence’.


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Reflecting on a second virtual conference…and looking ahead

by Camille Kandiko Howson

I had the honour of being asked to give some closing remarks at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s Annual Conference this year, alongside Prof Chris Millward and the SRHE team. ‘Mobilities in Higher Education’ was the theme of the Society’s second virtual conference. First some reflections.

Mobilities in higher education refer to the movement of students, faculty, and staff within and across national borders for the purpose of pursuing education and research opportunities. This phenomenon has increased significantly in recent years, driven by factors such as globalization, advances in technology, and the growing demand for a highly skilled workforce.

The impact of mobilities on higher education institutions (HEIs) is complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, mobilities can bring benefits such as diversity and internationalization, enhanced research and teaching capabilities, and increased funding and partnerships. On the other hand, mobilities can also pose challenges such as language and cultural barriers, issues with accreditation and recognition of qualifications, and unequal access and participation.

To address these challenges and maximize the benefits of mobilities, HEIs need to develop strategies and policies that support the mobility of students, faculty, and staff. This includes providing adequate support services, facilitating credit transfer and recognition of qualifications, and promoting intercultural competence and global citizenship.

In conclusion, mobilities in higher education are a crucial aspect of the contemporary global education landscape. HEIs need to carefully consider the opportunities and challenges posed by mobilities and develop strategies to support and enhance this phenomenon.

I’ll pause here, because I did not write the previous four paragraphs. I put the title into the ChatGPT open AI chatbot and it spit out the abstract above instantly. This tool launched during the conference week, exciting many delegates and kicking off worries about the future of assessment and feedback in higher education. The possibilities also reminded me why we like to meet up as a community -virtually and physically – to share what is happening and how we can actively shape the future. The conference theme was widely adopted across presentations, showing our desire to come together to learn, teach and research higher education. Now on to my (human) thoughts.

Last year in summarising the conference I highlighted the following:

  • the focus on belonging
  • the increased internationalisation of the programme
  • lack of research on policy in HE in England

The second and third of these themes seemed strong again, and in addition I would note the dominance of the conference theme of ‘Mobilities’ (irony not lost for an on-line conference!). The pandemic has not stopped academics collaborating across institutions. I also noticed powerful research and focus on researchers in conflict-afflicted regions. There was also increased interest in international students – across UG, PGT and PRG levels. Topics included notions of quality and murmurings of geopolitical influences for international students.

Some other themes of note were researchers drawing on contemporary theories (eg the ‘Ideal Student’ research by Billy Wong and Tiffany Chui), moving beyond a Bordieusian dominance. In this vein, I was pleased to see the strength of research involving liaising with target student groups, as partners, in steering groups and in evaluating research.

In credit to the SRHE team, there were great links between papers in sessions, with many feeling more like symposia than separate research papers. It was also amazing to see so many outputs from SRHE-funded research projects being presented.

Reflecting on some of the specific sessions I was able to attend, in Session 2d I was intrigued by the term ‘studiability’: the ability to complete courses on time and with appropriate workload. This is not addressed much in the UK and it would be interesting to see more on this. Another paper explored the recursive relationship between public policy degrees and the jobs graduates go on to do. There were different histories and trajectories across countries – always fascinating insights from comparative research.

A theme across a number of sessions came out in 3b exploring racialised impostor phenomenon, and the importance of role models for students. Similarly, in 11f the impostor phenomenon and explorations of race and gender arose, alongside the importance of students (and others) in self-identifying themselves versus being categorised in identity research. Session 12a had a focus on care leavers, care experienced students and those with caring responsibilities and the challenges working across institutions and social services. This topic was explored in a number of sessions – which is really important in an under-researched area.

These sessions really highlighted the passion researchers have and the change people want to see from their research. And to mention what I did not see much of, there was a lack of research on climate change and cost of living – maybe these current issues have not caught up with the pace of research, or maybe they do not fit well with current research paradigms.

I also did a word cloud analysis of the programme. Interestingly, ‘Students’ trumps ‘Research’ but ‘Academics’ beat ‘Learning’. Make of that what you will. Closing on the theme of mobilities, the top three cities listed in the programme were London, Manchester and Birmingham, and the second most common country in the programme was Australia.

As was mentioned throughout the conference, many of us missed getting together in person. We hope to manage that in some form next year, continuing to build our connections (physical and virtual). And to finish, I asked the ChatGPT bot for the theme for next conference and it suggested: “Innovation, equity and the future of higher education.” Another one to go in the mix, and further (human) ideas welcome.

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London. Follow Camille on Twitter @cbkandiko


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What do students think about value for money?

by Kristina Gruzdeva

In 2022, the cost of living crisis meant communities across the UK had to adjust their behaviours and their spending. Many needed to learn to navigate within a complex energy market. Prospective university students were in a similar position, being expected to make a cost-conscious decision about their degree education with limited understanding of their options. In research conducted for my PhD, I invited first-year students to participate in focus groups to explore their orientations to their degree. Students were recruited through online and on-campus campaigns that were run in the autumn of 2019/20. The overall sample consisted of 51 participants (39 female, 10 male and 2 non-binary; 28 from ethnic minority groups; 14 were ‘first in family’ students). All participants were first-year students who started their degree at a Russell Group University, with a balance across all five faculty groupings in the university. I developed a typology to show how students perceive their degree, their beliefs about the financial implications of going to university and how they define value for money. In England, undergraduate fees of £1000 were introduced more than 20 years ago, raised to £3000 in 2006, and to £9000 more than ten years ago. My findings suggest that even now, five years after the Higher Education and Research Act legislated for an HE market, it is problematic to rely on informed student choice as a basis for the market’s operation.

Students in the first category of the typology view their degree as an essential requirement for their career. Students in this category are enrolled in STEM or Medicine courses and have a clear idea of what they would like to do upon graduation. Their family background is diverse, with some choosing to follow their parents’ footsteps, and others being first in their family to go to university. Students in this category hold shared views on employability, graduate salaries, and value for money. The data show that employability and career aspirations are important to first-year students transitioning into HE (Mullen et al, 2019). Metrics of graduate employability gave these students some reassurance and helped them to narrow down their options in choosing courses. These students did not look for information about graduate salaries and explained this by studying for a degree that leads to in-demand jobs. They comment that information about graduate salaries was “already there” when they looked for other kinds of information about their degree. Students who view their degree as an essential requirement report that their degree provides good value for money.

The second category of students described their degree as an investment. These students also had a career-oriented approach to their education, but their career plans were less defined compared with the plans of students in the first category. They studied a wide range of degree courses and came from diverse backgrounds. When asked about their awareness around employability, some students reported that they had come across information about it, whereas others said that they did not know much. When prompted to explain why they did not search for such information, these students suggested their career plans had not crystallised yet, so they were not sure how to interpret such information and to what extent it would be relevant to them. As in the first category, these students reported that they did not look for information about graduate salaries. They assumed such information would not be relevant because they had not yet decided what to do upon graduation. They had a mix of views on value for money. Some believed that their degree would offer good value for money because it would open doors to many opportunities, whereas others had a different opinion. Perceptions of poor value for money were related to instances when students’ expectations had not been met. For example, a few students had expected more contact hours. Others had expected that their maintenance loan would cover the costs of their accommodation.

The third category of students described their degree as a desirable experience. These students were enrolled in Social Sciences and Humanities courses. Importantly, these students came from families where at least one parent holds a degree. Their decision to study at university was driven by their academic interests or a belief that getting accepted onto a course would be easy. When asked about whether they considered employability metrics, these students said that they did not. They also did not look for information related to graduate salaries. One student, reflecting on her decision to study at university, suggested that prospective students had tunnel vision and were not concerned about their career prospects. Two individuals commented that education is not about jobs and appeared to look down on the other members of their discussion groups, who shared the view that their education offered knowledge and skills for work. There was a mix of views on value for money. The social and wider personal benefits of studying for a degree were attributed to good value for money. In this category it was rare to find perceptions of poor value for money; such perceptions came from unfulfilled expectations related to contact hours.

Student career aspirations, or lack thereof, played a dominant role in shaping students’ views on their education and how they perceived value for money. Most students in my study did not actively search for information related to employability or graduate salaries; rather, they assumed the economic value of their degrees. These findings challenge the consumer-oriented approach to HE because focus group participants did not appear to act as informed consumers, which is problematic in an HE sector supposedly driven by market imperatives.

Kristina Gruzdeva is a Research Facilitator at the University of Birmingham. Kristina’s research interests are in higher education policy, mainly in relation to student finance, student choices, and marketisation. This blog is based on a chapter from her recently completed PhD. Email: k.gruzdeva@bham.ac.uk