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Landscapes of learning for unknown futures: presenter responses to audience questions (Assemblages Symposium)

by Karen Gravett and Tim Fawns

SRHE’s ‘Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: prospects for space in higher education’ symposium series, delivered with Professor Sam Elkington and Dr Jill Dickinson, aims to foster continuous dialogue around learning spaces. Here, two of our presenters Dr Karen Gravett and Tim Fawns, reflect on some of the ideas and issues raised during the third symposium on ‘Assemblages’. This blog has been compiled by Sam Elkington, Jill Dickinson, and Rihana Suliman (SRHE Conferences and Events Manager.)

What is the role for human agency in these types of assemblages with human and non-human actors, so as not to feel helpless or a “cog” while respecting the need to de-centre the human?

Karen: Humans still have a key role within assemblages but the perspective is shifted from thinking about the relational connection between humans and nonhumans or materials. This enables us to ask new questions, for example with respect to teaching in a classroom, we might notice not just what the teacher is doing or student is doing, but how the space and objects within the class interrelate and entangle to shape learning in different ways. How do bodies and spaces work together and connect? How are relations shaped by object-space arrangements in classrooms and what inclusions or exclusions are produced as a result?

Tim: Agency is always relational, contingent on the agency of other elements. The agency of humans is constrained by the people, technologies and materials we are bound to or surrounded by. However, a complex understanding of constraint also allows for more agency, because by understanding how they are constrained, humans have more possibilities for action. We can more clearly where we can act on entangled relations. For example, by better understanding our place within a system, we can more easily see the different places where we might be able to reconfigure things to free up space to move.

The teaching approach at many HE institutions is heavily lecture-based. How does this lack of interaction with students affect the conversation we’re having around assemblages and learning space more broadly?

Karen: Teaching that does not include interactions between students and teachers or students and peers and that is transmission focused suits many of the traditional tiered teaching spaces that still dominate UK universities today. This is how we often assume teaching should ‘be done’ to students. If we think about these kinds of object-space arrangements we can see that they may not be conducive to creating meaningful dialogue, to fostering relationships, to engaging a diversity of learners, or to enabling innovative teaching to happen. Fortunately, there is also a lot of creative teaching that is happening both within and beyond these spaces that teachers can learn from. Teachers have always found ways to be subversive and also institutions are increasingly creating new and more flexible learning spaces.

Tim: I am wary of assumptions that there is no interaction in lectures. There is always interaction (and intra-action) in any educational activity; that is one of the premises of an assemblage. In this question, the lack of interaction is seen from the teacher’s point of view. It is important that we focus on what students are actually doing rather than what we assume they must be doing according to a particular teaching method. Spaces are always complex; there are always many things going on, many of which will divert from our expectations. However, the material configuration of a space (e.g. tiered lecture seating and a podium), and the scheduling of time, do impose real constraints on the activity that is likely to manifest. Within any method, we can tinker with these parameters of material and temporal configuration and, thereby, open up more possibilities for agency.

Where does collaborative learning happen in our future learning landscapes? We still seem to work in a very individualist learning mode, through assessment practices to curricula and beyond…

Karen: Yes there is a real need to move beyond values of individualism that are present within both academia and society, and to think about our relational connections and how these matter. Collaboration can happen everywhere and anywhere – via a student-staff partnership project; via dialogic modes of teaching, via group work, via walking and other creative pedagogies. Online and offline. We just have to value it and make it happen.

Tim: That our assessment processes and practices, and our formal structures of higher education, are so tightly configured around individualist learning is a challenge. However, it doesn’t change the fact that collaborative learning is inevitable and, to me, the primary form of learning, particularly if we are thinking of assemblages. As we continue to embed more collective and collaborative practices in education, such as student co-design, group work, and the integration of artificial intelligence technologies, alternative narratives will emerge that fit better with our experiences of collective learning and education. It will be fascinating to see if we adapt practices, policies and structures in response, and how the different narratives – collective and individual – will co-exist in tension and negotiation.

Some universities have created a lot of flexible collaborative classroom spaces – we find that when we create them at my institution, faculty either don’t know how to utilise them or prefer to still use them as lecture halls continuing the individualist learning.  How can we create a space that ‘entangles’ both?

Karen: I find really helpful what Diane Mulcahy (2018, p 13) says about space, that “Thinking the term ‘learning spaces’ as something we do (stage, perform, enact), rather than something we have (infrastructure) affords acknowledging the multiplicity, mutability and mutual inclusivity of spatial and pedagogic practices”. In this case educators may need support to think about how they can make and enact the classroom to become an inclusive space. In my institution this happens via conversations for example as part of our PGCLTHE or other peer observation and mentoring practices. Perhaps teachers could be supported to see different ways to teach and to learn from others who are innovating and experimenting in the classroom.

Tim: The configuration of those spaces is actually a big step forward, even if practice and culture are slow to adapt to the new possibilities. A large part of what we need to do now is share practice and engage in open conversations about new possibilities. Individualist teaching may be the bigger barrier here: if we teach as individuals not as teams, and if we don’t talk enough about what we are all doing, we will have less exposure to alternative ways of educating. I think we are then less likely to develop practices that attune to wider contexts and possibilities.


Mulcahy, Dianne (2018) ‘Assembling Spaces of Learning ‘In’ Museums and Schools: A Practice-Based Sociomaterial Perspective.’ in Spaces of Teaching and Learning, Understanding Teaching-Learning Practice, edited by Ellis, E and Goodyear, P 13–29. Singapore: Springer

Dr Karen Gravett is Associate Professor and Director of Research at the Surrey Institute of Education at the University of Surrey, UK, where her research focuses on the theory-practice of higher education, and explores the areas of student engagement, belonging, and relational pedagogies. She is Director of the Language, Literacies and Learning research group, a member of the SRHE Governing Council, and a member of the editorial board for Teaching in Higher Education, and Learning, Media and Technology. Her work has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Society for Research in Higher Education, the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education, the British Association for Applied Linguistics, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her latest books are: Gravett, K. (2023) Relational Pedagogies: Connections and Mattering in Higher Education, and Kinchin, IM and Gravett, K (2022) Dominant Discourses in Higher Education.

Tim Fawns is Associate Professor at the Monash Education Academy, Monash University, Australia. Tim’s research interests are at the intersection between digital, clinical and higher education, with a particular focus on the relationship between technology and educational practice. He has recently published a book titled Online Postgraduate Education in a Postdigital World: Beyond Technology. Personal website: Twitter: @timbocop

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Responsibilities and gatekeeping in using language certificates for HE admission

by Jana Berg, Michael Grüttner, Stefanie Schröder

With the exception of a few master’s degree programs, the German higher education system is dominated by monolingual organizations. Therefore, language certificates are a key element of access to German higher education for international students. Trust in language certificates is critical, both for international student applicants and for university staff as well. However, in admission practice, there might be a tension between professional responsibilities and a lack of trust in the validity of standardised language certificates.

From 2017 to 2021, we conducted the study “Refugees’ pathways to German higher education institutions (WeGe)” on study preparations for refugee students in German higher education at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), which was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research under grant number 16PX16015. Our interview partners included staff of HE institutions as well as preparatory colleges that have to decide about admission to study preparation courses for international students. Those courses often include language instruction, but an at least intermediate level of German proficiency is usually mandatory for enrolment.

Our interview partners demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility. On the one hand, to fulfil their perceived role in the context of quality assurance by selecting capable and motivated students. And on the other hand, to prevent students from wasting their time with futile endeavours. This responsibility was embedded in their role, but also reflected in their perception of tasks and priorities. At the same time, we found notable insecurities regarding the quantitative evaluation of language skills. Standardised language certificates, even though formally recognized on an institutional level, were commonly perceived as no representation of actual language proficiency. Interview partners referred to their practical experience that language skills of applicants with the same language certification varied widely.

This insecurity between institutional quality conventions and formal access criteria raises problems for the perceived responsibility to ensure a maximum chance of success for students. We illustrate this with qualitative interview material from one case that emphasised the perceived lack of reliable documentation of skills by standardised language certificates. The interviewee strongly identified with the role of keeping up quality conventions. However, he perceived a strict formal protocol based on paperwork as insufficient, as his professional experience had shown that language certificates do not always match his expectations in an applicant’s language proficiency. He emphasised: “I don’t really care about documents, the skills have to back them up”. His strategy to deal with this lack of trust was his personal, informal language test: “Whenever it is possible, if the people are present, I do an assessment test. It is 100 tasks with 40 minutes, like a snapshot. It is supposed to show what people can access spontaneously”. Theoretically speaking, a tension arises between two quality conventions, a first concerned with an evaluation that takes into account the local circumstances and personal responsibility for the individual purpose of the international student applicants, and a second concerned with an evaluation that treats every international student applicant as equal and self-reliant (Imdorf & Leemann, 2023). As a compromise between these two quality conventions, university staff invent localised, self-designed short language tests to address this tension.

After high dropout numbers and bad experiences with a lack of language proficiency in the past, our case study participant reported that his now more selective and rigorous procedure had improved the course results of participants. However, it was still very much based on his individual perception of potential participants, as one exception he had made emphasises: “A prime example is a woman from Sudan, South Sudan, with two small children. […] she got up at four in the morning to study before the children were awake. […] And I don’t know why, I looked her in the eye, and she wanted to. And went through with it, mercilessly. So really, as a prime example. And is now studying electrical engineering.”

This case emphasises how professional insecurities can cause the development of professional strategies that devalue institutionalised procedures and increase the relevance of subjective impressions. However, it is not an issue only related to this case, even though this interviewee was especially explicit in addressing his insecurities and his coping strategies. Our findings imply that this divergence between perceived professional responsibilities and institutional conventions on the one side, and the quality and reliability of even internationally recognized certificates on the other side, is causing a lack of direction. This void is met with strategies of additional support, individual assessment criteria, and sometimes a stronger emphasis on personal perceptions of applicants. This has implications not only for HE professionals, but also for accessibility and equity in higher education. When practitioners perceive documents as unreliable and adapt their selection measures accordingly, application procedures become unreliable and less than transparent to applicants. However, all HE application procedures should transparently respond to one question: what counts?

On a practical level, we recommend addressing such insecurities with HE practitioners, by offering practical training and creating opportunities for exchange and supervisions. Additionally, a closer look at the perceived insufficiencies of language certificates could and should also be used to further develop standardised language tests, best in a dialogue between test providers, teaching professionals and course participants. Further research in the area of study preparation on conditions conducive to the acquisition of German language skills at the university level could also usefully contribute to improvement.

Dr Jana Berg is a postdoctoral researcher at the German Center for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW). She holds a Dr. in Sociology from the Leibniz University of Hanover. Her main research is on widening participation, the governance of HE internationalization, and climate science communication.

Dr Michael Grüttner received his Dr in sociology from Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany. He conducts research at the DZHW with a focus on social inclusion, migration, lifelong learning, and higher education.

Stefanie Schröder, MA, is the coordinator for continuing higher education at the Hochschulallianz Ruhr at Bochum University of Applied Sciences. Previously, she worked as a researcher at the DZHW. Her research focuses on educational inequalities, alternative access to higher education, and anti-discrimination data.

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How professional digital ePortfolios can enhance employability and professional identity

by Jodie Pinnell

Graduate employability helps UK universities to attract students, so strategies to connect learning to employment are increasingly valuable. One proven method encouraging undergraduate students to consider life beyond graduation is to build employability into summative assessment, and digital ePortfolios are one such approach. An ePortfolio is an online resource created by students that details professional experiences linked to academic study. It culminates in a structured collection of learner work that is primarily framed by reflection and serves as an online record of achievement, showcasing skills, professional experiences and credentials. My research investigated digital ePortfolios in the undergraduate curriculum in Childhood Studies at the University of Portsmouth.

Closely related to employability, ePortfolios showcase applicant credentials and digital competence, allowing universities to assess students creatively, and allowing hiring organisations to determine applicants’ skills for entering the job market (Ring et al, 2017[RC1] ). This is relevant in a climate where graduates compete for jobs, and degree programmes are perceived as a ‘product’ with an emphasis on value for money with students as customers (Modell, 2005). As pressure mounts for universities to compete for student recruitment, action is needed to improve graduate employability metrics.

Although ePortfolios may not be a novel approach in undergraduate programmes, their integration as a central element of curriculum and assessment has not been fully explored. My study investigated how ePortfolios affected students’ interactions with their university experiences by enhancing professional identities and reflective, lifelong learning. Data collected for the project relied upon students’ perceptions through recorded online interviews, adopting a phenomenological approach, eliciting meaning through reflective, subjective understandings. Findings showed that reflective work in ePortfolios can be challenging through exposing vulnerabilities, whilst also positively playing a role in the ‘bigger picture’ of students’ development – ePortfolios facilitated digital skill development and evolving professional identities.

In the data collection process, discussions encompassed ePortfolio development linked to students’ compulsory work placements embedded in Childhood Studies degree programmes. Participants were in 2 groups; current students and graduates, with data collection focused on specific contexts and circumstances (Willig, 2008[RC2] ) and reflective, subjective understandings (Finlay, 1999[RC3] ). I took an idiographic stance (Burrell and Morgan, 1999[RC4] ), collecting data covering the perceiver’s angle of perception (Willig, 2008[RC5] ). Participants in the study were in 2 groups; 5 current students and 4 graduates, sampled voluntarily. The interviews conducted were semi structured and the key themes of the findings were employability, reflection, professional identity, digital skills and the student experience.

ePortfolios “develop engaged, reflective, lifelong learners” by collecting valuable evidence of career-based skills, and promoting “professional digital identities” (McKay & Watty, 2016[RC6] ). This study recognised this shift in identity for students, with findings outlining how ePortfolios “help you to reflect and develop as a professional person,” and that students did not “feel like a student when […] writing this” (Graduate Participant).This is arguably caused by the facilitated connections between practical learning and reflective summative assessment: “I’ve got this theory and understanding of things from uni and I can apply that. And everything makes so much more sense which moving forward has meant Oh, my gosh! I can work even better now” (Graduate Participant). As students reflected on professional experiences they valued the connections between theory and practice, with ePortfolios aiding reflection on an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. This in turn improved the quality of work and addresses multiple identities (Ring et al, 2017, p 226[RC7] ). Embedding ePortfolios in the curriculum as a summative assessment enforced accountability for students’ professionalism, leading to an increased level of perceived value from degree study. The requirement for students to write reflective accounts and build connections between experiential and theoretical learning leads to “heightened awareness and preparation for professions” (Svyantek, Kajfez & McNair, 2015, p137[RC8] ). When students had an idea of their professional trajectories, this led to valuable consideration of career plans: “You’ve got clarity in your writing as well, which is probably a nice feather to the bow when you were reflecting on [your career]” (Student Participant). As ePortfolios prompted students to present their professional personas for large audiences to “intentionally curate their digital presence” (Svyantek et al, 2015, p 146[RC9] ), the development of professional identity aided career planning.

Reflection is key for undergraduate Childhood Studies degrees, with a need to embed this in the curriculum to be effective. “Danger lies in [reflection] being a separate curriculum element with a set of exercises” (Bolton & Delderfield, 2018[RC10] , p 1), and with ePortfolios, reflective writing characterises their creation. The meaning of this reflection was evident in the findings: “This is the only assessment that you go and do something real, and then you have to bring it back to our lovely, fluffy theory of ‘Oh, this is how things should be,’ and no one else really makes you do that” (Student Participant). This recognised integrative thinking for students, encouraging the management of complexity and problem-solving by connecting ideas akin to professional experiences (Svyantek, et al, 2015[RC11] ). Reflection brings challenges, however, with vulnerability associated with articulating learning from experience. Findings showed: “[There was a] vulnerability that you felt when you submitted those reflections” (Graduate Participant); the cause arguably in revealing more of the ‘self’ than other assessment methods (Lewis & Gerbic, 2017). Accompanying this is the requirement to adopt alternative ways of thinking that encompass purposeful goal-directed tasks that personalise the learning experience (Lewis, 2017).

The integration of ePortfolios in undergraduate Childhood Studies degree programmes positively affected students’ perceptions of their professional identities, employability and digital competence. Reflecting on work placement experiences was challenging for participants and vulnerability was exposed in recounting experiences for assessment purposes. ePortfolios have made a positive impact on undergraduate Childhood Studies degree programmes, taking into account wider university contexts and individual learning experiences.

Jodie Pinnell is a Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies in the School of Education, Languages and Linguistics at the University of Portsmouth. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK. Follow Jodie on Twitter @jodieEdu

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Radical proposals in leader’s conference speech

by Rob Cuthbert

The leader’s speech to Conference was expected to include far-reaching proposals for higher and further education. We obtained this leaked text of an early draft:

“It is time for radical change. We will introduce the new rigorous, knowledge rich Advanced British Standard which will bring together A-Levels and T-Levels into a new, single qualification for our school leavers. At the next level, what we used to call further and higher education will be swept away to create a new Higher Skills curriculum. The first part of this (HS1) was achieved some years ago through investment in infrastructure connecting the UK with the rest of Europe. But now we need to change course. We committed to a second phase of the project (HS2) through legislation in the Higher Education and Research Act in 2017. The first part of HS2 is progressing but if we are to create change and drive growth across our country, then we must get our infrastructure right. HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus. The result is a project whose costs have more than doubled, which has been repeatedly delayed.

Universities are overcrowded, because too many students want to be in higher education. The Labour government pursued the false dream of 50 per cent of children going to university … one of the great mistakes of the last 30 years. We now have an Office for too many Students – student choice must be paramount, but only if they are the right students. The previous government’s efforts (well, alright, it was this government, but that was three prime ministers ago) to transfer most of the cost of HE to the students has been thwarted by the Office for National Statistics, which forced us to account for fees and loan repayments properly, and of course by the previous government’s mistakes in changing repayment thresholds (well, alright, it was this government, but that was two prime ministers ago). We have of course now changed repayments to ensure that loan repayments will cost graduates a lot more, which should help in choking off demand from poor students.

Our country’s economic competitiveness demands that we now cut back on higher education and graduate skills. Our Secretary of State for Education has pointed out that “people go to university because they don’t know what else to do”. We already lead the world in tuition fee levels for public universities, and we can also be world-leading by slashing student numbers, which will differentiate us from every one of our major competitors, indeed, probably the whole world (apart from Afghanistan). In this way we can also prevent further recruitment to rip-off courses which prepare students for their future employment in our low-wage economy [Speechwriter’s note: you may need to rephrase this bit]. Identifying rip-off courses has been a bit tricky, but I have asked the Office for Students to redouble its efforts to find them by concentrating the search on universities in unlikely places in the North and the Midlands. If all else fails we can rely on the OfS Proceed metric, which generally avoids  drawing attention to courses in London and the South East where graduate salaries are much higher. Of course the cost of living is much higher there too, which ensures that graduates still have virtually no chance of buying a house, unless they enjoy inherited wealth. To support the housing market I am therefore considering abolishing inheritance tax.

Student accommodation is a problem for many universities, but I welcome the innovative solution of universities like Bristol, which has decided to house some students in a different country. A similar approach has also been mooted for our prison population, and this has led us to consider extending our agreement on migrants with Rwanda. At our expense, naturally, they are willing to construct a series of new universities to accommodate students unable to gain admission to our own elite institutions. The Rwanda Institutions Providing Offshore Courses (RIPOff Courses) project should drastically reduce demand and the pressure on our universities in the same way that for immigration, with the prospect of Rwanda, small boat crossings are, for the first time since the phenomenon began, down 20 per cent this year. In some disciplines Rwanda may have a problem recruiting sufficient staff with the necessary expertise, but we propose to offer them the staff from places north of London which really shouldn’t have a university. We can also re-use the small boats abandoned by people traffickers to provide free cross-Channel transport for socioeconomically disadvantaged would-be students who prefer to take their chances in Europe. This will further enhance our student support measures.

HS2 has of course reinforced the golden triangle, in line with longstanding bipartisan government policy, but that means it has so far only reached as far north as Oxford and Cambridge. I welcome the new challenger institutions, almost all innovatively offering business courses in London, which have done so much to drive up the pay of their senior managers and their profits or surpluses from student tuition fees. However the number of institutions willing to provide such cheap courses has overall been disappointing, and therefore the cost of the HS2 project has continued to rise. The result is a project whose costs have more than doubled, which has been repeatedly delayed and for which the economic case has massively weakened. I say, to those who backed the project in the first place, the facts have changed. And the right thing to do when the facts change, is to have the courage to change direction. And so, I am ending this long running saga. I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project.

In its place, we will reinvest every single penny (of what’s left after deducting the costs of RIPOff) in hundreds of new projects in the North and the Midlands, and across the country. We are putting in infrastructure improvements in selected places to form a new Network North. Durham, of course. York, probably. A bit for Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds, if we must. Nothing for Liverpool, except where there are people in marginal constituencies unable to travel to anywhere better. Nothing at all for Bradford, because my vice-Chairman says no-one wants to get there.

My main funding priority in every spending review from now on will be education. No more rip off degrees; no more low aspiration; no more denigration of technical education. Just the best education system in the Western world. But we will go further towards this vision. The pernicious effects of arts and humanities, and I might add social sciences, have already received one welcome corrective with the decision of the Arts and Humanities Research Council to cut PhD studentships by 25%. We will therefore extend the proposals on smoking for younger people, because if we are to do the right thing for our kids we must try and stop teenagers taking up arts and humanities in the first place. Because without a significant change thousands of children will start studying arts, humanities and social sciences in the coming years and have their future prospects cut short as a result.

People take up these subjects when they are young. Four in five sociologists have started by the time they are 20. Later, the vast majority try to quit. But many fail because they are addicted and they wish had never taken up the habit in the first place. If we could break that cycle, if we could stop the start, then we would be on our way to ending the biggest cause of preventable left-leaning wokery in our country. So, I propose that in future we raise the age at which young people are allowed to enrol on any arts, humanities or social science degree by one year, every year. That means a 14 year old today will never legally have access to any knowledge that doesn’t have Maths in it, and that they – and their generation – can grow up free of any understanding of culture and society.

Be in no doubt: it is time for a change. And we are it.” Editor’s note: the italicised text survived unchanged in the final version.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics Twitter @RobCuthbert

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Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: Reflections on the Assemblages Symposium

by Sam Elkington and Jill Dickinson

Wednesday September 13th was the final instalment of the three-part 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 final symposium in the series following on from the inaugural symposium event (in April 2023), which used the lens of ‘Networks’ to discuss contemporary evidence of how HE learning spaces are becoming increasingly connected, permeable, and interwoven (both physically and digitally), revealing increasingly adaptive learning environments. A second symposium event (in June) took up the lens of ‘Flexibilities’, engaging the idea of flexibility as a critical and prevalent aspect of how learning is situated relative to the demands of students for greater control in fitting their studies around their learning needs and preferences, as well as other aspects of their lives outside education.


In this final symposium, we shifted the focus by using the lens of ‘assemblages’ to examine the expanding range of contemporary HE learning spaces and the heterogenous collection of material and non-material, human and non-human elements that compose them. Through this lens we can glimpse how, as educators, we must work with a larger amalgam of discourses, bodies, ideas, objects, tools, technologies, and institutional structures and processes to negotiate and construct practice and meaning for the purposes of learning. Such a view offers leverage on contemporary learning spaces without making totalising claims about their character and form, and without demanding arbitrary distinctions in service of some simplified conceptualisation of their functionality – the ‘lecture’ space, the ‘social’ space, the ‘personal’ study space. Instead, the idea of assemblage contrasts such simplification with complexity, a distinction each of our presenters sought to interrogate and elaborate in their own way.

In her keynote address (“Posthuman pedagogic assemblages: Reconceptualising how objects, bodies, materialities, affects and spaces come to matter in higher education landscapes of learning”), Professor Carol Taylor (Bath) wove together an array of theorical perspectives to present a ‘working’ framework for better understanding emerging posthuman pedagogic assemblages, as a means of pushing back against unsettled current and ongoing conditions. Combining insights from her own investigations of posthuman materialities with critical contributions by Braidotti (2019), Barad (2007), Delanda (2006) and Bennett (2010), Carol moved to trouble normalised and common sense ideas about knowledge-making and space. She argued for the need to pay new attention in profoundly changed (and not yet post-) pandemic times to the entangled, productive, and ever-changing constellations and configurations – assemblages – of objects, bodies, spaces, materialities and affects, and how they come to matter in contemporary HE. Considered from this perspective, assemblages help us understand how things happen – as a process, rather than a stable or static enactment ‘in space’.

For Carol, this renders explicit the importance of humans as ‘beings-in-relation’ and pushes beyond a view of space as a container to one of direct material engagements in the world, of unfolding ‘material moments’ and of ‘affective flows’ where digital, physical, and biological boundaries are blurred. Carol provided compelling examples to illustrate the analytic value of transdisciplinary theoretical assemblages in the creation of new knowledge of, and for, landscapes of learning in HE. Assemblages are complex, concurrently emergent and convergent. They make us think outside  hierarchical ways of working. This opens the way to a radical reconceptualisation of the learner-as-assemblage, and of pedagogy as a spatial-material praxis comprising material and expressive properties. That shapes how we tune into everyday HE spaces, as well as our own complexities in shaping and perpetuating educational practices that comprise them.

In his presentation (“Mutually navigating the messy, postdigital spaces of education: entangled design, practice, and knowledge”) Tim Fawns (Monash) drew together ideas from postdigital education, and his own work exploring entangled pedagogy, to consider some of the pressing and ‘messy’ tensions around learning and space design, practice, policy, infrastructure, and relational knowledge and expertise across different institutional levels. Tim challenged the conventional attitude that holds learning spaces as fixed ideas; instead, he suggests all spaces are postdigital, comprised of an ongoing (re)shaping of purposes, context, values, methods, and technologies. Technologies for learning are multiple and contingent, assembled by their (intra)actions and potential for meaning-making in that moment, for those individuals and/or groups involved. Amidst such complexity, Tim showed how our actions acquire more meanings and resonances, such that our movements in and through spaces are not easily summarised or simply presented. All agency in these assemblages is distributed, it is relational and contingent – it is entangled. This should move us past fixed conceptions of how things are and how things are done. This includes the dominant mindset of context last, (pedagogical) method first . It reveals the practical importance of developing and honing a relational expertise – the ability to configure and orchestrate pedagogical assemblages as a means of negotiating spaces for learning. From this entangled perspective, there are always more spaces going on. Physical spaces overlay arbitrary concepts of structure and control to reveal borders that are blurred and porous, where learning leaks out, and in, from ‘other’ connected spaces, offering different meaning(s) depending on what is happening. For Tim, the goal here is to show that the apparent immediacy of space is always mediated, more complex than it appears – linked to, and made what it is by, relations to other people, objects, and spaces. It exists within an ongoing process that sustains and recreates it.

Karen Gravett (Surrey), in her talk (“Assemblages of belonging in the digital university”) continued along a relational plane of inquiry, approaching ideas of materiality and human connection in digital educational environments through her research examining student engagement, belonging, and mattering in higher education. Karen used the lens of assemblages to animate the many (inter)connections students have with different spaces within the digital university, and how these spaces are at once shaped by and situated within a multiplicity of things, both human and non-human, material and non-material. By examining the situated character of spaces experienced by students, Karen’s research has shown the importance and value of better understanding how the (inter)relationships within those spaces work, and how students go about designing and curating different components of space to create their own spaces, that belong to them. Crucially, this is a relational and processual belonging – it is not a static quality of space – connected to a variety of different objects and materialities that move and change with the students themselves. For Karen, paying attention to how such relations work, to affective encounters and the situatedness of students’ experiences of belonging, encourages us to think about, and actively focus on, equity issues and the plausible (dis)continuities of assemblages in shaping student belonging. This raises important questions around who can and cannot curate assemblages of belonging. Karen’s research has revealed that students’ sense of belonging is experienced in many different ways (even in the same spaces), supporting and connecting to multiple communities. In response, we must develop environments and practices that attend to the inherent complexity of students’ situated experiences of belonging, built upon values of openness, flexibility, and honesty.  

In the final presentation (“Picturing Places for Learning – how photographs tell stories about where learning happens”), Harriet Shortt (UWE, Bristol) shared work exploring the affordances of visual methods for providing rich new ways of seeing and understanding spaces and places for learning. Harriet drew together insights from a variety of research projects that have used participant-led photography to investigate user experiences of different buildings and the materiality of work amidst a drive towards more ‘open’ learning spaces. Greater openness might, on the one hand, permit opportunities for a shared transparency and grounds on which to hone relational expertise (as discussed by Tim Fawns and Karen Gravett). On the other hand, it can lead to feelings of exposure and lack of privacy for students and staff. Harriet’s research provides insights into how people organically manage the lack of privacy that such spaces present, by creating their own spaces that are intentionally sheltered from (over)exposure through the (re)organisation of space, objects, and things. Exposure to increasingly open spaces can invite spontaneous interactions and unscheduled conversations that might be desirable, from an organisational perspective, for encouraging connections between stakeholders. However, according to Harriet’s research, the lived experience of constant connection and always being seen can erode any sense of privacy or personal space which can, in turn, be detrimental for the quality of experience had by students and staff alike. Harriet used the analogy of ‘den building’ as a provocative means of illustrating how many people in her studies have resorted to seeking out or creating ‘just-for-me’ spaces where they can detach from others and determine routines and limits that are personal their circumstances and needs. Harriet’s work asks important questions around whether we should be redesigning learning spaces and wider campus infrastructure to allow for what she termed ‘being alone together’ spaces to emerge and exist, spaces where people (students and staff) can be alone but also maintain a sense of connection.

Following this formal part of the session, we invited the keynote speaker and the presenters to engage in a panel discussion. Chaired by Professor Sam Elkington, this provided opportunities to highlight, and focus in on, some of the cross-cutting themes that had started to emerge from the earlier discussions. It also provided space for more collaborative and reflective discussion and Q&A with the audience. Key points included:

  • a need for collaborative approaches to instigating a ‘values-based institutional reinvigoration’ around learning spaces
  • the disconnect between the architectural trend towards ‘homogenised’ learning spaces and the values that we, as educators, seek to instil in teaching and learning
  • the increased transparency of learning spaces, and the consequent need to find, and perhaps claim, less-exposed learning spaces, and ‘alone-together spaces’, particularly given well-documented issues around mental health and wellbeing, and sense of belonging
  • potential options for ‘disrupting’ pre-allocated spaces by arranging and/or using them in different ways, by bringing in different materials, or by restriking the power dynamic between tutor and students, by encouraging students to explore the spaces available for themselves
  • the important role that visual methods can play in encouraging engagement with research findings around this theme and a need for meaningful, collaborative stakeholder engagement, and from start-to-finish, in the future development of learning spaces

The keynote, the presentations, and the panel discussion in this third and final symposium encouraged the speakers and the audience to engage not only with the thoughts and ideas presented in this session but also draw links with the earlier symposia around the themes of Networks and Flexibilities to develop more holistic understandings given the multiplicities and complexities that characterise learning spaces.

From the outset we envisaged this Symposia Series as an integral part of a longer-term project that continues to push to the fore conversations about the future possibilities for learning spaces within HE. We want to bring together, and engage, a range of key stakeholders in meaningful discussions and debate to help support evidence-based decision making. When we designed the series we also saw it as an opportunity to test options around multimodality for continuing conversations where everyone with an interest could engage with the range of synchronous and asynchronous elements on offer. These included traditional ‘conference-style’ formats such as key notes and presentations, sketch notes, social media discussions, and reflective blogs.

We’re looking forward to reporting on the findings from the project at this year’s Annual Society for Research into Higher Education International Conference. As part of that presentation, we will also be asking the key question ‘So what, now what?’ and outlining our plans for the next stage of the project and calls for others to get involved in the community of practice we have developed around this theme.


Barad K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Half-way. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

Braidotti, R. (2019). A theoretical framework for the critical posthumanities. Theory, culture & society, 36(6), 31-61.

DeLanda, M. (2019). A new philosophy of society: Assemblage theory and social complexity. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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 a Reader of Law at Leeds Beckett University. As an 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 research focuses on 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 multidisciplinary collection entitled Professional Development for Practitioners in Academia: Pracademia and co-founded communities of practice around this theme.


Must do better:  making the Office for Students accountable

by GR Evans

The House of Lords Committee on Industry and Regulators pulls no punches in Must do better. This Report on its Inquiry on the Office for Students published on 13 September finds the OfS to be underperforming in a number of respects. It criticises its ‘prescriptive regulatory requirements and time-consuming processes’ and its  ‘inappropriate micromanagement’, with ‘little regard to the need to protect institutional autonomy’. Institutions are found to be reluctant to engage with it ‘for fear of a punitive regulatory response’.

‘The student interest’ in which it was set up is described as ‘defined by the OfS in line with the political priorities of Ministers rather than the priorities of students’. In comparison with its  threatening mass of detailed rules for providers the OfS definition of  required ‘outcomes’ affecting students (student continuation beyond a first year; progression to completion; gaining employment) is found to be ‘simplistic and narrow’.

The Office for Students is a non-departmental ‘arm’s length’ public body with executive functions. These are far more extensive than HEFCE possessed in its role of ‘buffer’ between Government and providers of higher education and Must do Better is concerned that the OfS has been adding to them. Moreover Must do better says that the lack of close attention to the underlying objectives of his statutory duties ‘makes it difficult for the OfS to be held accountable’.

The OfS is a regulator. Must do Better says it ‘should improve its adherence to best regulatory practice through closer alignment with the Regulators’ Code’ dating from 2014. It should do so ‘with respect to how it implements its policies and procedures, as well as how it develops them’. The Regulators’ Code has ‘accountability’ as its overall aim, and emphasises reciprocal and mutual responsibilities between regulator and regulated, a point on which the OfS is now found conspicuously wanting.

The provisions for its accountability seem inadequate to address the potential abuse of power arising from a failure of the OfS to engage appropriately with the providers it regulates. If it decides a provider ‘must do better’ in meeting its ‘outcomes’ requirements, the Office for Students can remove it from its Register, take away its degree-awarding powers and its university title or impose a monetary penalty, with the provider paying the costs of its investigation, with internal appeal only against the scale of the costs.

Appeal against an OfS decision on such matters lies to the First-tier Tribunal Health, Education and Social Care Chamber (Care Standards). It must be made within 28 days of the issue of the decision by the OfS, on the grounds that the decision was based on an error of fact; was wrong in law, or unreasonable, except where the decision was to revoke degree-awarding powers or University title. In that case the grounds of appeal are not specified and the decision may be made afresh. The Tribunal will take into account evidence that was not available to the Office for Students when it made its decision.

A landmark case was brought by Bloomsbury Institute Ltd, formerly the London School of Business and Management, after its application for Registration was refused by the OfS in May 2019 under Registration Condition B3, namely  that ‘student continuation rates from year one to year two (“continuation rates”) and rates of progression to professional employment or post-graduate study (“progression rates”). First came an attempt at judicial review on a several grounds. That was unsuccessful but an appeal succeeded on two grounds, ‘delegation’ and the failure of ‘publication and consultation’. Bloomsbury is now on the Register subject to an Ongoing Condition about student ‘continuation’ (R. v. Bloomsbury Institute Ltd. and The Office for Students [2020] EWCA Civ 1074).

Must do better points to the agreed accountability ‘framework’, not between OfS and providers but between OfS and Government. The current Framework document between the Department for Education and the Office for Students is dated January 2023. This promises ‘reviews’ to ‘ensure intra alia that the OfS is delivering effectively’ against the ‘aims and objectives’ of the Public Bodies Review Programme, but ‘The date of the next review is yet to be determined’. 

It may take some time to arrange. Must do Better notes the National Audit Office’s recent criticism in its Central Oversight of Arm’s Length Bodies that ‘review programmes’ had ‘failed to meet their ambition of reviewing every ALB [Arms Length Body] within a Parliament’. Must do better notes ‘that the Government is committed to a public body review of the OfS’, but calls for that to go beyond the ‘considering whether the OfS’ work remains useful and necessary’ by placing ‘ its work in a wider context, focusing on the strategic issues facing the sector’.

In any case the Office for Students’ Framework Document provides accountability only through the Secretary of State (ultimate accountability to Parliament) and the Minister for Higher Education (day-to-day responsibility). The DfE’s Senior Sponsor for OfS will ‘hold quarterly performance reviews with the leadership of the OfS as part of performance monitoring and accountability’. These do not seem to be on published record. Government ‘recognition of the problems created by regulatory duplication in the higher education sector’ is welcomed but Must do better  wants  the DfE to ‘set out in further detail the steps it is taking to streamline regulatory responsibilities within the sector, including its proposed timetable for this’.

There is published self-criticism. The OfS’s Annual Report for 2022-3 took stock of its own performance expressly in terms of the requirements of its Framework relationship with the DfE:

This year we experienced some resource challenges, which had implications for some business plan activities. Our Performance analysis report identifies where this was the case.

OfS accordingly tracked its ‘performance against’ its eleven Key Performance Measures and Operational Measures and ‘reported to the DfE’ on its ‘progress’. KPM 11 covers ‘Efficient Regulation’ and lists under the headings: ‘Minimum and maximum number of OfS data and information returns for providers’; ‘Average number of OfS conditions of registration subject to enhanced monitoring per registered provider’; Amount of regulatory fees paid by providers per student’. The Operational Measures count Reportable Events; Notifications; Registration; Degree awarding powers, and time taken to resolve these. The OfS Annual Report adds that its ‘performance against budget’ is ‘monitored and reported each month’ and its ‘performance against financial target’ on an in-year basis. It has monitored  its performance in paying its creditors, ‘greening’, the Cabinet Office’s Functional Standards for Counter Fraud and salaries.

Must do better makes recommendations but it is far from clear how accountability can be insisted on. Must do better finds it ‘worrying that some institutions would be unwilling to engage with the OfS’ particularly ‘in the early stages of falling into financial difficulty for fear of a punitive regulatory response’. The 2022-3 Annual Report looks towards the  individual providers with which the OfS has a regulatory relationship, but chiefly in terms of their ‘Financial sustainability and governance’. It had required 250 providers to complete their annual financial return for the 2020/2021 financial year:

Of these, 117 were subject to further assessment, there was informal monitoring of 51 providers, of which 31 were subject to additional formal monitoring. Three providers were subject to Student Protection Directions, which enable the OfS to intervene “quickly and in a targeted way” where there is a material risk of market exit. One provider exited the market.

 It was recognised before the burden was increased with the creation of the OfS that already  ‘the accountability burden in the higher education sector is out of proportion to the risk of financial or academic mismanagement.’ This may no longer be true, and if so that matters in connection with the full title of Must do better: the Office for Students and the looming crisis facing higher education.  The Report outlines this crisis in terms of the diminishing value of the tuition fee against the expanding institutional cost of teaching an undergraduate and the growing reliance on income from international students.

It expresses concerns about the adequacy of OfS’s checking of financial sustainability especially with reference to the latter. It finds it too trusting, which is especially a concern in the light of the recognition that providers in financial difficulties are afraid to raise their concerns with the OfS. The OfS Register defines the providers whose students are entitled to loans from the Student Loans Company. It currently lists 425, in two categories, those which may charge fees up to £9,250 and those without a ‘fee cap’ to which the SLC will lend only £6125, less if the provider has no TEF rating. There is perhaps a further growing concern which Must do better fails to pick up and that is the multiplication of alternative providers not all of which have degree awarding powers or university title and not all of which are offering courses above Levels 4 and 5.

How badly is the Office for Students failing? Can it improve sufficiently to help protect the future of English higher education? It has been publishing reassurance that it is making efforts to connect better with the providers of higher education it now regulates. It has published the findings of two assessment visits on Business and Management courses and celebrates ‘positive engagement’ from local graduates on an OfS programme. It is ‘advising’ on ‘what works in supporting disabled students’. This is all a warrant of a wish to repair flaws and to improve what it does but the criticisms of Must do Better may not be easy to meet piecemeal.

A letter to the Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee from the chief executives of the Russell Group, GuildHE, MillionPlus and the University Alliance in January 2023, suggesting that the OfS was failing to comply with the Regulators Code  helped to prompt concerns that this was encouraging providers to resort to litigation. That led to further concerns in March about the lack of ‘basic safeguards around transparency, fairness and accountability’ in the conduct of the OfS.

The Lords’ Industry and Regulators Committee began its inquiry in March and the now published evidence submitted to it fully supports the conclusions of Must do Better. If the Office for Students is beyond reform could it be abolished? That would require fresh legislation. The Higher Education and Research Act (2017) depends heavily on the belief that, with the block grant shrunk to vanishing point for teaching and tuition fees a chief source of university income, HEFCE’s allocation of a block grant in the capacity of a buffer between Government and providers would no longer be enough. When providers were attracting their funding directly, institutional autonomy was no longer to be trusted without a new Regulator. The drawbacks of this policy change are now apparent. Perhaps it is time for a radical rethink.

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