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What do artificial intelligence systems mean for academic practice?

by Mary Davis

I attended and made a presentation at the SRHE Roundtable event ‘What do artificial intelligence systems mean for academic practice?’ on 19 July 2023. The roundtable brought together a wide range of perspectives on artificial intelligence: philosophical questions, problematic results, ethical considerations, the changing face of assessment and practical engagement for learning and teaching. The speakers represented a range of UK HEI contexts, as well as Australia and Spain, and a variety of professional roles including academic integrity leads, lecturers of different disciplines and emeritus professors.

The day began with Ron Barnett’s fierce defence of the value of authorship and the concerns about what it means to be a writer in a Chatbot world. Ron argued that use of AI tools can lead to an erosion of trust; the essential trust relationship between writer and reader in HE and wider social contexts such as law may disintegrate and with it, society. Ron reminded us of the pain and struggle of writing and creating an authorial voice that is necessary for human writing. He urged us to think about the frameworks of learning such as ‘deep learning’ (Ramsden), agency and internal story-making (Archer) and his own ‘Will to Learn’, all of which could be lost. His arguments challenged us to reflect on the far-reaching social consequences of AI use and opened the day of debate very powerfully.

I then presented the advice I have been giving to students at my institution using my analysis of student declarations of AI use which I had categorised using a traffic light system for appropriate use (eg checking and fixing a text before submission); at risk use (eg paraphrasing and summarising); and inappropriate use (eg using assignment briefs as prompts and submitting the output as own work). I got some helpful feedback from the audience that the traffic lights provided useful navigation for students. Coincidentally, the next speaker Angela Brew also used a traffic light system to guide students with AI. She argued for the need to help students develop a scholarly mindset, for staff to stop teaching as in the 18th Century with universities as foundations of knowledge. Instead, she proposed that everyone at university should be a discoverer, a learner and producer of knowledge, as a response to AI use.

Stergios Aidinlis provided an intriguing insight into practical use of AI as part of a law degree. In his view, generative AI can be an opportunity to make assessment currently fit for purpose. He presented a three-stage model of learning with AI comprising: stage 1 as using AI to produce a project pre-mortem to tackle a legal problem as pre-class preparation; stage 2 using AI as a mentor to help students solve a legal problem in class; and stage 3 using AI to evaluate the technology after class. Stergios recommended Mollick and Mollick (2023) for ideas to help students learn to use AI. The presentation by Stergios stood out in terms of practical ideas and made me think about the availability of suitable AI tools for all students to be able to do tasks like this.

The next session by Richard Davies, one of the roundtable convenors, took a philosophical direction in considering what a ‘student’s own work’ actually means, and how we assess a student’s contribution. David Boud returned the theme to assessment and argued that three elements are always necessary: assuring learning outcomes have been met (summative assessment), enabling students to use information to aid learning (formative assessment) and building students’ capacity to evaluate their learning (sustainable assessment). He argued for a major re-design of assessment, that still incorporates these elements but avoids tasks that are no longer viable.

Liz Newton presented guidance for students which emphasized positive ways to use AI such as using it for planning or teaching, which concurred with my session. Maria Burke argued for ethical approaches to the use of AI that incorporate transparency, accountability, fairness and regulation, and promote critical thinking within AI context. Finally, Tania Alonso presented her ChatGPTeaching project with seven student rules for use of ChatGPT, such as proposing use only for areas of the student’s own knowledge.

The roundtable discussion was lively and our varied perspectives and experiences added a lot to the debate; I believe we all came away with new insights and ideas. I especially appreciated the opportunity to look at AI from practical and philosophical viewpoints. I am looking forward to the ongoing sessions and forum discussions. Thanks very much to SRHE for organising this event.

Dr Mary Davis is Academic Integrity Lead and Principal Lecturer (Education and Student Experience) at Oxford Brookes University. She has been a researcher of academic integrity since 2005 and has carried out extensive research on plagiarism, use of text-matching tools, the development of source use, proofreading, educational responses to academic conduct issues and focused her recent research on inclusion in academic integrity. She is on the Board of Directors of the International Center for Academic Integrity and co-chair of the International Day of Action for Academic Integrity.

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When tending learning landscapes, what matters most?

by Pippa Yeoman

Wednesday June 14 saw the second instalment of the SRHE ‘Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: prospects for space in higher education’ symposia series, delivered in partnership with series co-convenors Professor Sam Elkington and Dr. Jill Dickinson.

Sam drew the second session to a close with a question, “What matters most?”

I wanted to have my say then and there but I was watching delayed at a distance and in that moment, I wanted to say: “It is the care with which we anticipate what is to come and prepare accordingly that matters most”.

The session had been framed in terms of flexibilities. It was an opportunity for us to consider the myriad forces shaping the spaces in which we teach and learn including broadening participation, shifting patterns of attendance, mixed motivations for enrolment, and the blurring of boundaries in which polycontexturality and multi-chronicity now shape a university education.

To flex is to possess physical properties affording bending, a willingness to yield to the opinions of another, or to be characterised as capable of adapting to new or changing circumstance (Merriam-Webster, nd)

The choice of the plural — flexibilities — was intended to invoke multiplicities or an opening up to possibilities. This is an orientation I am ordinarily at home with but in this instance I must confess a reticence based on my preference for avoiding the use of the singular — flexible — when speaking of the built environment for learning. In my role at the University of Sydney, I am tasked with ensuring more than 900 learning spaces support our educational aspirations in the teaching of over 70,000 students and I have grown weary of calls for flexible furnishings and future-proof spaces. Rooms of requirement, however much they may delight our imaginings, are a fiction. At some point, decisions based on underlying educational purposes must be made and a single chair, table, or room cannot be all things to all people concurrently.

Reflecting on the purpose of a university education, Jeremy introduced us to Biesta’s (2012) categories of qualification or the acquisition of knowledge and skills, socialisation or enculturation into existing social practices, and subjectification or the individual process of becoming. Applying them to the learning landscape immediately multiplies the contexts in which we can be intentional about supporting students in becoming part of a community, developing as individuals, and working towards a qualification.

But to move from high-level educational purposes to practical plans, we need more than a stable design orientation or purpose. We need clarity about what is open to alteration through design and capable of supporting activity that we value, everything from quiet introspection and still imaginings to strident debate and active co-creation.

Framing activity in terms of emergence is helpful in this regard. Alexander (2001) explains emergence with the help of a whirlpool; a momentary vortex produced by the flow of water through a particular configuration of riverbed, banks and rocks. The vortex is not part of the river in the same way the riverbed, banks and rocks are. Rather, it is induced in the action of the whole. But if this analogy is to be of any use to us, we must identify the educational equivalents of the riverbed, banks and rocks.

We must ask, what are the underlying structures that support what students do, how they do it, and who they do it with on any given day? The framing of this question deliberately references the three dimensions of the Activity-Centred Analysis and Design framework (Goodyear & Carvalho, 2014; Goodyear, Carvalho & Yeoman, 2021) that are open to alteration through design. They are the epistemic design (task eg interview for a report), the set design (tools eg Bring Your Own Device), and the social design (people eg group roles). The fourth is not open to alteration through design. Instead, it is emergent. It is acts of co-creation and co-configuration or what is done with what has been proposed.

I have found this framing helpful in identifying the underlying structures of learning and in tracing students’ responses to them when they are free to do what they must in order to learn (Ilich, 1973). And this is not to mention the freedom that educators experience when they are able to respond to the needs of their students based on their understanding of what really matters and is within the realm of their influence on any given day. Learning to work with these ideas has produced some practical tools (Yeoman & Carvalho, 2019; Carvalho et al, 2023) that offer just enough, but not too much, structure.

Biesta’s (2012) core purposes of education make the task of tending the learning landscapes of unknown futures less fraught by providing a clear and steady orientation. The three purposes persist; it is how we anticipate and support them that varies, all the while honouring their singular multiplicity qualification-socialisation-subjectification. And the analogy of the whirlpool brings us closer to understanding what it means to say that place is produced in the interaction of the whole, neither fully determined in advance nor unyielding to perturbations in the doing.

Thinking through ‘flexibilities’ with the aim of supporting diverse cohorts to flourish as they make their way through the learning landscapes of unknown futures has certainly been productive and, based on my reflection, I will add to my initial response to Sam’s question,

“It is the care with which we anticipate what is to come and prepare accordingly — building the structure and yielding to the flow — that matters most.”

Pippa is a committed educational ethnographer and academic developer, with a deep-rooted passion for instructional and architectural design. As a Senior Lecturer (Learning Spaces) on the Educational Innovation team at the University of Sydney, she takes a central role in translating and implementing strategic initiatives related to the university’s built environment.

Her primary focus lies in the design and development of spaces that support diverse student cohorts throughout the day, across semesters, and throughout various degree programs. Pippa’s ambition is to contribute to the creation of a convivial learning environment – a campus that not only welcomes but also serves a purpose for every student. Her expertise is built on a comprehensive body of observational research, which she enriches through cross-disciplinary collaborations with academic and professional peers.


Alexander, C. (2001). The nature of order: an essay on the art of building and the nature of the Universe. Oxford University Press.

Illich, I. (1973). Tools for conviviality. Calder and Boyars.

Further resources from this event including sketch illustrations and a summary of discussions are also available from

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Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: Prospects for Space in Higher Education – Reflections on Flexibilities Symposium, June 14th, 2023

by Sam Elkington and Jill Dickinson

Wednesday June 14 saw the second instalment of the SRHE ‘Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: prospects for space in higher education’ symposia series, delivered in partnership with series co-convenors Professor Sam Elkington and Dr. Jill Dickinson.

This was the second symposium in the series following on from the April launch, where the inaugural symposium event utilised the lens of ‘Networks’ to elucidate a view of higher education (HE) learning spaces in terms of how such spaces are becoming increasingly connected, permeable, and interwoven (both physically and digitally), revealing increasingly adaptive learning environments.


The second symposium looked to shift focus, this time utilising a lens of ‘Flexibilities’ as a means of grasping the increasing complexity of learning spaces emerging amidst the flux and flows of contemporary digital educational environments. From this perspective, the framing idea of flexibility was positioned as a critical aspect of how learning is situated relative to the demands of students seeking greater control in fitting their studies around their learning needs and preferences, as well as other aspects of their lives. The presentations and work shared offered a range of theoretical and applied interpretations and perspectives as a basis for generating collaborative, reflexive discussions, and debate.

In his keynote address, Dr Jeremy Knox looked to push beyond the more conventional interpretations of the idea of flexibility in HE settings, with a focus on efficient performance and accessible models of delivery, to a way of thinking about space in terms of its interrelationship with digital technologies that are interwoven into the fabric of the university learning environment, and that constantly shape educational practices. When viewed from this perspective, and drawing on Biesta’s (2013) tenets for democratic education in a globally networked society, Jeremy argued that space is, in practice, ‘enacted, turbulent, entangled and hybrid’ (Edwards et al., 2011) and cannot be productively viewed only in terms of settings for ‘qualification’ (knowledge and skill acquisition). In addition, contemporary spaces for learning are also important vehicles for ‘socialisation’ and the ways in which individuals become part of society through networks for learning and becoming, or ‘subjectification’. In HE, we tend towards the purpose of qualification and how we can design spaces for better learning outcomes at the expense of thinking deeply about how different configurations of spaces can support the more peripheral, but no less important, purposes of socialisation and subjectification. Jeremy drew on his extensive experience of facilitating online courses at scale, particularly MOOCs, to think critically about spatial configurations across different modalities and to point to the underestimation of the complexities of inequalities and structural issues of online learning. We cannot assume that we can deploy digital education and technologies without risk or concern. Indeed, there are certain spatial flexibilities that emerge when institutions are required to be supple in how they respond to an increasingly uncertain and changing HE landscape; modifying what is done to suit the multiple purposes of effective provision through greater student involvement and how teachers negotiate and manage change, amidst shifting ideas of a boundaried university experience.  

In his talk, ‘Spatial fluencies – more than spaces, more than literacies’, Dr. Andrew Middleton made calls for ‘place’ to be moved up the HE agenda through marrying values and philosophies with practical innovation. Andrew defined the underpinning concept of spatial fluencies as ‘an individual’s ability to confidently and critically navigate and negotiate spaces for learning, for professional life, and for lifewide experiences’. He suggested how we can survive and thrive within HE through self-determination, self-responsibilisation, and learned processes around agency, affinity, autonomy, association, agility, and adaptability. Andrew also advocated for multimodal thinking in terms of how we can use, experience, and develop learning environments, recognising how we might occupy liminal spaces and/or cross boundaries as we navigate the transitions within, and between, different spatial ecosystems within HE, and their particular formalities, informalities, non-formalities, and incidentals.

Dr Kevin Merry then gave a talk on ‘Universal Design for Learning Spaces’, suggesting how notions of learner variability, and the removal of environmental barriers, need to be cornerstones in developing future narratives around multimodal learning landscapes. He noted how goals of accessibility, inclusivity, and equitability can only be achieved through the adoption of hyflex approaches. Drawing some alignment with Andrew’s previous talk, Kevin called for students to be provided with meaningful options around UDL principles of engagement, representation, action, and expression. He also noted the impact that particular spatial configurations can have on pedagogical approaches, how some spaces are inherently limited in terms of their adaptability and flexibility to achieve multiple ends, and the need to make the most of multimodal opportunities offered by different spatial configurations to emphasise key messages.

Finally, Dr. Namrata Rao  and Dr. Patrick Baughan  gave their talk on ‘Blurring the Pedagogical Boundaries in the Postdigital University’. They presented findings from a research project that drew on digital-visual methodology and sociomateriality to explore staff experiences of navigating the complexities and uncertainties presented by emerging HE landscapes. In their talk, Namrata and Patrick highlighted the key role that space and place can play in developing trust, enabling myriad affective connections, fostering wellbeing, encouraging personal development, and creating hope, and illuminated the power and value that such interactions can hold. They also explored some of the differences between pre- and post-pandemic spaces, blurred and muddled private/public spatial boundaries, the significant role that materiality plays, and the value of informal interactions.

Following networking opportunities over the lunch break, both the keynote speaker and the presenters were invited to engage in a panel discussion to continue the conversation through identifying and exploring key themes that had emerged from the morning’s presentations. Chaired by Professor Sam Elkington and framed by a broader concern for the prospects of space in higher education, the discussion was structured around reflections and questions from the audience. Key points arising included:

  • adopting a students-as-partners approach to co-create and co-produce learning spaces.
  • recognising the holistic nature of the student experience that is broader than studying for particular qualifications, and can include a range of formal and informal, physical and digital spaces, and both on- and off-campus.  
  • the potential for reimagining presentee-ism through monitoring different forms of engagement in different ways, through a range of spatial contexts, and using a wide variety of tools, technologies, and platforms.

The keynote, talks, and panel discussions from this second symposium helped to further drive discussions forward around the need for, and the complexities around, working collaboratively to design and use future learning landscapes in ways that best meet individual needs and preferences and at particular points of time.

Within the third, and final, symposium of this series, we will be continuing these conversations through focusing on the theme of ‘Assemblages’. In this event, we will be exploring the expanding spectra of learning spaces (including their architecture and materiality) and the pedagogical approaches that are being adopted within them, against the backdrop of challenges that are presented by traditional decision-making in terms of strategic, long-term, estate planning, resources, and the need for agility in responding to a dynamic HE environment.

Register to attend Symposium 3 (selecting either in-person or remote participation) online: please click here for the booking page.

Alongside driving forward conversations around the future of learning landscapes, the other key purpose of the Symposia Series is to explore the potential for embedding multimodality to foster accessibility and inclusivity and encourage meaningful engagement. Alongside the live streamed keynote, presentations, and panel session, the event was also recorded, and captured through live sketchnoting and social media posts. All of the outputs produced from the Symposia Series so far are available here.

Sam Elkington is Professor of Learning and Teaching at Teesside University where he leads on the University’s learning and teaching enhancement portfolio. Sam is a PFHEA and National Teaching Fellow (NTF, 2021). He has worked in Higher Education for over 15 years and has extensive experience working across teaching, research and academic leadership and policy domains. Most recently Sam worked for Advance HE (formerly the Higher Education Academy) where he was national lead for Assessment and Feedback and Flexible Learning in Higher Education. Sam’s most recent book (with Professor Alastair Irons) explores contemporary themes in formative assessment and feedback in higher education: Irons and Elkington (2021) Enhancing learning through formative assessment and feedback London: Routledge.

Dr Jill Dickinson is an Associate Professor in Law at the University of Leeds. As a SFHEA, Jill was also selected as a Reviewer for the Advance HE Global Teaching Excellence Awards, and she has been shortlisted for National Teaching Fellowship. A former Solicitor, specialising in property portfolio management, Jill’s dual research interests are around place-making and professional development, and her work has been recognised in the Emerald Literati Awards for Excellence. Jill holds a number of editorial roles, including board memberships for Teaching in Higher Education and the Journal of Place Management and Development. She has recently co-edited a collection entitled Professional Development for Practitioners in Academia: Pracademia which involves contributions from the UK and internationally, and is being published by Springer. Jill has also co-founded communities of practice, including Pracademia in collaboration with Advance HE Connect.

Further resources from this event including sketch illustrations and a summary of discussions are also available from

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Editorial: The End of the Year Show

by Rob Cuthbert

The UK HE academic year 2022-2023 is coming to an end, or not, amid disputes, unrest and polarised attitudes which seem unprecedented. Recent years have seen previous strikes, days of action, marking and assessment boycotts and more, but nothing quite like this. At the time of writing there seems little prospect of rapprochement between the employers and the Universities and Colleges Union. So the marking and assessment boycott continues, as ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS). Many students – no-one knows how many – have not received their degrees on time, and there are many reports of swingeing deductions of pay for those involved in the boycott – many, but we don’t know how many, staff and institutions are affected. 

For the students who should by now be graduates this is an unhappy end to a repeatedly troubled period of study in HE and beforehand. Those who took GCSEs in 2018 are the most-assessed school cohort ever, after repeated government policy changes affecting their primary as well as secondary education. They then experienced the disastrous shambles of the A-level algorithm in 2020, before embarking on a mostly locked-down higher education experience which for many was also punctuated by academic staff strikes prompted by low pay, poor conditions and huge reductions in the USS pension entitlement. And then at the end of their three disrupted years of study comes this final blow, as some will not receive marks and therefore final awards before September, October or who knows when. Their progression to further study or employment may also be on hold, if as so often it depends on final results. To make things even worse, universities, under pressure from government, the media, and the regulator OfS, have cut back sharply on the proportion of first class honours to be awarded. Even graduands with first class results for their first two years may be in for future disappointment.

Universities were at pains throughout the lockdowns to argue that the alternative on-line provision they made was of equal value and maintained the same standards; it was convenient and inevitable that government would agree. Many staff worked wonders in redesigning their teaching for lockdown, almost overnight, so that much teaching might indeed have maintained standards. But universities’ marketing in most cases promotes a much broader vision of the student experience involving a range of curricular and extracurricular activities, many of which require physical attendance on campus. The legal situation is unclear, not least because there is no generic university-student contract, despite the best efforts of leading authority and OfS board member David Palfreyman, who has long argued for just such a contract in his definitive work with Dennis Farrington, The Law of Higher Education.

Nevertheless collective action by students is gathering momentum. On 16 March 2023 lawyers Farrer & Co issued advice to universities trying to deal with UCU action in the ongoing dispute. They noted that “… Student Group Claim is already seeking to recover financial compensation for students from leading universities for disruption to academic degrees caused by Covid-19 and strikes by university staff. With the level of industrial action taking place now, it would not be surprising to see similar claims being brought, potentially both in relation to strike action and ASOS.”

Universities face the uncertain but possibly costly outcome to that action as they try to cope with a rapid and massive loss of real income. Mark Corver (DataHE/THE) tweeted on 19 April 2023 about the March 2023 inflation figures, showing a 12-month change of 14%. The real value of fees has fallen 32% since 2012, when £9000 fees were introduced. In 2023 prices, fees should now be £13530; in 2012 prices they are actually now worth only £6150. Universities have lost the equivalent of £2.6billion in less than 18 months. At the same time the USS revaluation implied big cuts for staff and further massive costs for employers, until the latest changes suggested some relief. However universities’ TPS pension bill soared by £125million and Tom Williams reported for Times Higher Education on 30 May 2023 that universities were seeking Treasury relief for the steep increase in TPS payments from April 2024. The government seems disinclined to offer any relief, and is even doubling down by proposing to tighten the rules on international students and their dependants, which seems targeted at limiting the income of universities probably most in need of financial support.

UCU continues to assert that universities could afford a more generous pay increase than the offer on the table, but as David Kernohan explained for Wonkhe on 30 January 2023, most of the surpluses for the HE sector as a whole are confined to a handful of elite institutions. The system and structures are hugely complex: “There is a national pay bargaining system in higher education, though not all providers are party to it. National bargaining is fair because it supports equal pay for equal work, but as a consequence it constrains the overall offer to that which can be afforded by the most precarious employer and it can struggle to accommodate specific local issues.” There are arguments on both sides about whether ‘shiny new buildings’ should have been preferred to better staff pay in recent years, but the decline in HE staff pay has gone in step with the much broader decline in public sector pay over the last ten years. The current widespread unrest, with strikes by such improbably militant groups as schoolteachers, nurses, junior doctors and even hospital consultants, is a stark reminder of the precipitous decline in public spending, with its impact on not only pay but the quality of public services and working conditions for public servants. Many, it seems, have simply had enough of putting up with it and decided to draw a line, especially after so many had gone the extra mile to keep things going during the pandemic.

Even in early July the exchange of letters between employers and unions did not suggest that a resolution of the dispute was close. Tom Williams reported for Times Higher Education on 16 May 2023 on the growing pressures on managers, staff and students as the UCU marking and assessment boycott spread. David Kernohan provided a superb explanation on 26 June 2023 of where we are, how we got there, and what might happen next: “What is beginning to emerge at a local level – as exemplified by the joint statement between the UCU branch executive and vice chancellor at the University of York Charlie Jeffery – is a position where it is agreed that staff deserve to be paid more, and the universities need more money to be able to do so. Here we also find a focus on longer term thinking about pay, with both sides of the dispute keen to avoid annual industrial action.”

That may be a necessary precursor to actual negotiation to resolve the dispute, but such resolution still seems distant, and attitudes seem to be hardening as the marking and assessment boycott hits the target and explodes. Jim Dickinson’s blog for Wonkhe on 20 April 2023 speculated about the consequences of universities’ withholding pay for partial performance of academic contracts, and whether notional allowances for marking could be deemed reasonable, in a legal sense. Since then there have been horror stories about universities making very large deductions from pay, 50% or even 100%, for many months. We are in Ashes-Bairstow-stumping territory: deductions may be legal, but would you want to win a dispute this way? Is this the way to treat staff who only very recently moved mountains to keep the show on the road during Covid lockdowns?

The impact of the boycott is not just on staff incomes, nor even just on delays for students in getting their final marks and awards. The situation is a test for university management everywhere in how they respond. There are reports of universities making alternative arrangements for marking which seem to fall well short of a commitment to maintaining academic standards. In some universities some students have not received final grades. Others are reported to be resorting to apparently less-qualified staff or PhD students to mark students’ work to avoid graduation delays. If this is happening it suggests a reckless disregard not only for the long-term maintenance of academic standards, but also for long-term relationships with staff who will think their values are being trashed along with their pay and working conditions.

The producers of those end-of-the-pier shows knew what would play well. The government has produced higher education’s end of the year show and it should have known better, because none of the audiences find it popular or entertaining. Nevertheless, this show might run and run …

Paul Temple

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No, it doesn’t make sense to me, either

by Paul Temple

I recently gave a cat-oriented friend a framed copy of a New Yorker cartoon showing a vet’s waiting room. A vet is saying to a man sitting there, “About your cat, Mr Schrödinger, there’s good news and there’s bad news…” Linda put the cartoon in her downstairs loo, and says that half her visitors think it’s hilarious while the rest are completely baffled.

The cartoon really summarises the totality of my knowledge of quantum mechanics, but as it seems to be one of those topics where if you think you understand it, you almost certainly don’t (and you’d be in pretty good company, see below), then my almost boundless ignorance doesn’t feel too bad. But as ideas borrowed from quantum mechanics seem to be colonising areas of discourse that were until recently understandable (we thought) to those of us without doctorates in the subject, perhaps we’d better make an effort.

A recent example of its spread is the paper by our colleague Ron Barnett, ‘Only connect: designing university futures’ in Quality in Higher Education, in which Ron uses the idea taken from quantum mechanics of “entanglement” to consider the university’s relationship with other entities. (And this is where it starts to get tricky.) As Ron notes, entanglement implies that the entities involved are mutually constitutive: one entity cannot be understood without examining the other entities with which it is entangled: “It may be true that one cannot give a description of the modern university without also referring to the economy but the reverse situation also holds: one cannot give a proper description of the economy without referring to a society’s universities. The economy is constitutive of universities, certainly; but universities are also constitutive of the economy”.

So far, so just about OK, yes? But the entanglement idea leads us into territory that is beyond weird: Einstein apparently wrote that “no reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit” what entanglement implies, but – assuming that quantum computing is going to work, and there are some big bets on it doing so – it turns out that even he was mistaken. What Einstein couldn’t accept, it seems, was that two entangled objects, wherever in the universe they may be, become in effect one, after at first assuming opposite states.

Yes, this is way past anything that we’ve learned to accept as normal. One suggestion of how to think about entanglement asks us to imagine you and a friend tossing entangled coins. (How did they become entangled in the first place? Pass.) If, when you look at your coin, it’s heads, then your friend’s coin will, necessarily, be tails. But if your friend now looks at their coin, it will be heads, which means that your coin will now be tails: back to Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously both dead and alive. (While the bits in normal computing have a value of either zero or one, qubits in quantum computing can have values of zero and one: Schrödinger’s cat is at the computer keyboard, which incidentally needs to be at a temperature close to absolute zero.)

With Einstein, perhaps, you may think this makes no sense, but earlier this year Google announced a breakthrough in creating an “error correction quantum computer”, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the project (Microsoft, Amazon, the Chinese, and others are also on the case), so they obviously think this stuff will work, regardless of the normal rules of the universe.

So, to pursue Ron’s suggestion about the university and the economy being mutually constitutive, it seems to follow that they will be – must be, following the theory – in opposite states. If you were looking for an argument for universities needing to be independent of government, might this be it? Next time a minister inveighs about universities being nests of woke, perhaps someone should explain the quantum aspects of the situation to them: the more regressive government policies become, universities will necessarily become more radical – it can’t be helped, it’s just to do with entanglement and the structure of the universe. I’m sure they’d appreciate the clarification.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.

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The ongoing saga of REF 2028: why doesn’t teaching count for impact?

by Ian McNay

Surprise, surprise…or not.

The initial decisions on REF 2028 (REF 2028/23/01 from Research England et al), based on the report on FRAP – the Future Research Assessment Programme – contain one surprise and one non-surprise among nearly 40 decisions. To take the second first, it recommends, through its cost analysis report, that any future exercise ‘should maintain continuity with rules and processes from previous exercises’ and ‘issue the REF guidance in a timely fashion’ (para 82). It then introduces significant discontinuities in rules and processes, and anticipates giving final guidance only in winter 2024-5, when four years (more than half) of the assessment period will have passed.

The second surprise is, finally, the open recognition of the negative effects on research culture and staff careers of the REF and its predecessors (para 24), identified by respondents to the FRAP consultation about the 2028 exercise. For me, this new humility is a double edged sword: many of the defects identified have been highlighted in my evidence-based articles (McNay, 2016, McNay, 2022), and, indeed, by the report commissioned by HEFCE (McNay, 1997) on the impact on individual and institutional behaviour of the 1992 exercise:

  • Lack of recognition of a diversity of excellences including work on local or regional issues because of the geographical interpretation of national/international excellence (para 37). Such local work involves different criteria of excellence, perhaps recognised in references to partnership and wider impact.
  • The need for outreach beyond the academic community, such as a dual publication strategy – one article in an academic journal matched with one in a professional journal in practical language and close to utility and application of a project’s findings.
  • Deficient arrangements for assessing interdisciplinary work (paras 60 and 61)
  • The need for a different, ‘refreshed’, approach to appointments to assessment panels (para 28)
  • The ‘negative impact on the authenticity and novelty of research, with individuals’ agendas being shaped by perceptions of what is more suitable to the exercise: favouring short-term inputs and impacts at the expense of longer-term projects…staying away from areas perceived to be less likely to perform well’. ‘The REF encourages …focus on ‘exceptional’ impacts and those which are easily measurable, [with] researchers given ‘no safe space to fail’ when it came to impact’.
  • That last negative arises in major part because of the internal management of the exercise, yet the report proposes an even greater corporate approach in future. The evidence-based articles and reports, and innovative processes and artefacts that arise from our research will have a reduced contribution to published assessments on the quality of research, though there is encouragement of a wider diversity of research outputs. More emphasis will be placed on institutional and unit ‘culture’ (para 28), so individuals disappear, uncoupled from consideration of culture-based quality. That culture is controlled by management; I spent several years as a Head of School trying to protect and develop further a collegial enterprise culture, which encouraged research and innovative activities in teaching. The senior management wanted a corporate bureaucracy approach with targets and constant monitoring, which work at Exeter has shown leads to lower output, poorer quality and higher costs (Franco-Santos et al, 2014).

At least 20 per cent of the People, Culture and Environment sub-profile for a unit will be based on an assessment of the Institutional Level (IL) culture, and this element will make up 25 per cent of a unit’s overall quality profile, up from 15 percent from 2021. This proposed culture-based approach will favour Russell Group universities even further – their accumulated capital has led to them outscoring other universities on ‘environment’ in recent exercises, even when the output scores have been the other way round. Elizabeth Gadd, of Loughborough, had a good piece on this issue in Wonkhe on 28 June 2023. The future may see research-based universities recruiting strongly in the international market to provide subsidy to research from higher student fees, leaving the rest of us to offer access and quality teaching to UK students on fees not adjusted for inflation. Some recognition of excellent research in unsupportive environment would be welcome, as would reward for improvement as operated when the polytechnics and colleges joined research assessment exercises.

The culture of units will be judged by the panels – a separate panel will assess IL cultures – and will be based on a ‘structured statement’ from the management, assessing itself, plus a questionnaire submission. I have two concerns here: can academic panels competent to peer-assess research also judge the quality and contribution of management; and, given behaviours in the first round of impact assessment (Oancea, 2016), how far can we rely on the integrity of these statements?

The sub-profile on Contribution to Knowledge and Understanding sub-profile will make up 50 per cent of a unit’s quality profile – down from 60 per cent last time and 65 per cent in 2014. At least 10 per cent will be based on the structured statement, so Outputs – the one thing that researchers may have a significant role in – are down to only 40 per cent, at most, of what is meant by overall research quality (the FRAP International Committee recommended 33 per cent). Individuals will not be submitted. HESA data will be used to quantify staff and the number of research outputs that can be submitted will be an average of 2.5 per FTE. There is no upper limit for an individual, and staff with no outputs can be included, as well as those who support research by others, or technicians who publish. Research England (and this is mainly about England; the other three countries may do better and certainly will do things differently) is firm that the HESA numbers will not be used as the volume multiplier for funding (still a main purpose of the REF), though it is not clear where that will come from – Research England is reviewing their approach to strategic institutional research funding. Perhaps staff figures submitted to HESA will have an indicator of individuals’ engagement with research.

Engagement and Impact broadens the previous element of simply impact. Our masters have discovered that early engagement of external partners in research, and 6 months attachment at 0.2 contract level allows them to be included, and enhances impact. Wow! Who knew? The work that has impact can be of any level to avoid the current quality level designations stopping local projects being acknowledged.

The three sub-profiles have fuzzy boundaries and overlap. Not just in a linear connection – environment, output, impact – but, because, as noted above, for example, engagement comes from the external environment but becomes part of the internal culture. It becomes more of a Venn diagram, that allows the adoption of an ‘holistic’ approach to ‘responsible research assessment’. We wait to see what those both mean in practice.

What is clear in that holistic approach is that research has nothing to do with teaching, and impact on teaching still does not count. That has created an issue for me in the past since my research feeds (not leads) my teaching and vice versa. I use discovery learning and students’ critical incidents as curriculum organisers, and they produce ‘evidence’ similar to that gathered through more formal interview and observation methods. An example. I recently led a workshop for a small private HEI on academic governance. There was a newly appointed CEO. I used a model of institutional and departmental cultures which influence decision making and ‘governance’ at different levels. That model, developed to help my teaching is now regarded by some as a theoretical framework and used as a basis for research. Does it therefore qualify for inclusion in impact? The session asked participants to consider the balance among four cultures of collegial, bureaucratic, corporate, entrepreneurial, relating to the degrees of central control of policy development and of policy delivery (McNay, 1995).  It then dealt with some issues more didactically, moving to the concept of the learning organisation where I distributed a 20 item questionnaire, (not yet published, but available on request for you to use) to allow scoring out of 10 per item, of behaviours relating to capacity to change, innovate and learn, leading to improved quality. Only one person scored more than 100 in total and across the group the modal score was in the low 70s, or just over 35%. That gave the new CEO an agenda with some issues more easily pursued than others and scores indicating levels of concern and priority. So my role moved into consultancy. There will be impact, but is the research base sufficient, was it even research, and does the use of teaching as a research transmission process (Boyer, 1990) disqualify it?

I hope this shows that the report contains a big agenda, with more to come. SRHE members need to consider what it means to them, but also what it means for research into institutions and departments to help define culture and its characteristics. I will not be doing it, but I hope some of you will. We need to continue to provide an evidence base to inform decisions even if it takes up to 20 years for the findings to have an impact.

SRHE itself might say several things in response to the report:

  • welcome the recognition of previous weaknesses, but note that a major one has not been recorded: the impact of RAE/REF on teaching, when excellent research has gained extra money, but excellent teaching has not, leading to an imbalancing of effort within the HE system. The research-teaching nexus also needs incorporating into the holistic view of research. Teaching is a major element in dissemination of research (Boyer, 1990) and so a conduit to impact, and should be recognised as such. That is because the relationship between researcher/teacher and those gaining new knowledge and understanding is more intimate and interactive than a reader of an article experiences. Discovery learning, drawing on learners’ experiences in CPD programmes can be a source of evidence, enhancing the knowledge and understanding of the researcher to incorporate in further work and research publications.
  • welcome the commitment to more diversity of excellences. In particular, welcome the commitment to recognise local and regionally directed research and its significant impact. The arguments about intimacy and interaction apply here, too. Research in partnership is typical of such work and different criteria are needed to evaluate excellence in this context.
  • welcome the intention to review panel membership to reflect the wider view of research now to be adopted.
  • urge an earlier clarification on panel criteria to avoid another 18 months, at least, trying, without clarity or guidance, to do work that will fit with the framework of judgement within which that work will be judged.
  • be wary of losing the voice of the researchers in the reduction of emphasis on research and its outputs in favour of presentations on corporate culture.


McNay, I (1997) The Impact of the 1992 RAE on Institutional and Individual Behaviour in English HE: the evidence from a research project Bristol HEFCE