The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Exploring British Muslim transitions to PGT studies

by Zain Sardar and Amira Samatar

The social mobility charity, the Aziz Foundation, has published a major new report examining the progression challenges encountered by British Muslims aspiring to PGT studies. We consider this a timely intervention, in the context of a rapidly changing student demography, indicated in the popular usage of such terms as ‘hyper-diversification’ (Atherton and Mazhari, 2020) within HE policy discourse, and corroborated in recent projections by the professional membership body, Advance HE. In the wake of these demographic trends, a recent TASO publication (Andrews et al, 2023) reports that the sector is gripped by a high degree of uncertainty over the most expedient institutional approaches to adopt in dealing with disparities in progression and attainment. 

Transitions: British Muslims between UG and PGT studies will be of benefit to HE practitioners, researchers and forward thinking institutions willing to engage in an analysis of the granular experiences of discrete, minoritised communities. That is, decision and policy makers open to targeted interventions, as opposed to the one-size fits all, universal approach that delineates the current comfort zone in HE. We are particularly concerned with the direction in which the widening participation agenda will seek to evolve, encouraging the better incorporation of the access needs of faith communities in any future trajectory.

The progression challenge

The policy exceptionalism that discounts British Muslims from HE regulatory frameworks and formulas helps to sustain the equality gaps that hinder academic progression. To expand on this theme: recently there has been a greater regulatory focus on disparities in relation to ethnicity, which is certainly welcome. For example, there is a consensus that the most pressing sector wide challenges centre on the degree-awarding gap, as mentioned above, and access to doctoral studies for minoritised communities (OfS, 2020). However, a lacuna is still visible: the disadvantages that accrue around faith – as an operative dimension of the British Muslim identity – are still not part of the ‘intersectional mix’ making it onto the regulatory agenda (although we should acknowledge that the new ‘Equalities of Opportunity Risk Register’, established to regulate the student experience, does make mention of Muslim students) (OfS, 2023).

The progression challenge, however, is very evident and borne out in the Office for Students’ (OfS) own data dashboard. It indicates a drop off in British Muslim participation between the undergraduate and postgraduate taught level (from 12% to 8%)(OfS, 2021-22). Furthermore, this is not replicated amongst those from non-faith backgrounds or other control groups, such as Christian students.

We can thus detect in national datasets the contours of an entrenched social mobility fault line. The sector’s response to this is critical, as dealing with these disparities will necessitate enhancing the current access regime. It will need to build in more responsiveness to the forms of disadvantage that holds back intersectional communities – such as British Muslims – from participation at the postgraduate level.

An intersectionality of disadvantage

Transitions centres the testimonies of British Muslims, deploying a Critical Race Theory (CRT) methodology and qualitative analysis to examine the lived experiences of candidates for the Aziz Foundation’s flagship Masters Scholarship programme.

The charity has awarded over 560 scholarships since its inception in 2016, and commenced surveying its candidates in 2019/20, subsequently undertaking this exercise on an annual basis. In having access and utilising the Foundation’s rich seam of data, we would like to position the report as a form of community-based research. From our perspective, participating survey respondents are co-producers of knowledge, supporting an investigation into the factors that inhibit educational progression, as well as shining a light upon the reasons why British Muslims wish to pursue PGT study. 

Moreover, the key concept of ‘intersectionality’ is deployed in order to explore the British Muslim identity through the testimonies (or autoethnographies, in which respondents are invited to reflect on their own condition within HE) of scholarship candidates. As both faith and ethnicity, and the interaction between the two, determines the experiences of, and hardships faced, by British Muslims, this is a crucial focus area. We emphasise this as a ‘hidden’ dynamic, as this type of intersectional disadvantage – in its granularity – is rarely acknowledged in its complexity by HEIs within institutional strategies. 

Pipeline issues and recommendations

Transitions explores why the transition to PGT is of so much significance for British Muslims, as well as the wider sector. It has ramifications beyond the low number of this demographic who progress all the way into academia as researchers and members of the professoriate. For instance, Masters programmes are thought of as a way to redress imbalances in social capital, providing minoritised communities with opportunities to widen networks for professional development. This is important in relation to labour market outcomes, taking into account the underrepresentation of senior leaders across professions and industries of a British Muslim heritage.   

More widely, we would like to ask institutions to reflect on ways in which they can mend the ‘broken bridge’ of PGT – and so fortify the academic and education-to-work pipeline. Some of our report recommendations for institutions and the sector provide a starting point:  

  • Amongst HEIs, there ought to be parity of esteem and financial resources between pre-entry widening participation and postgraduate widening participation
  • HEIs to be proactive in incorporating ‘British Muslim students’ as a disadvantaged group in Access and Participation Plans (APPs), considering institutional context
  • The ‘broken pipeline’ at PGT ought to be bridged with appropriate funding opportunities such as ring fenced scholarships

We urge institutions and practitioners to read our report carefully and consider our full set of recommendations.

Ultimately we believe that the future of the widening participation agenda can be effectively shaped through institutions that take the initiative, developing innovations and extending access to constituencies at the sharp end of the intersectionalities of disadvantage. 

Transitions: British Muslims between undergraduate and PGT studies can be accessed here

Dr Zain Sardar is a joint programme manager at the Aziz Foundation. He leads on the Foundation’s engagement with its university partners and higher education stakeholders. As well as completing his PhD in law at Birkbeck, University of London, he has previously worked in higher education administration and policy. Zain also currently sits on the Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Doctoral Education external advisory board.

Amira Samatar, MA Ed., AFHEA, is a postgraduate researcher whose academic interests centre around the educational experiences and journeys of racially minoritised students in British universities, with a specific focus on Black British women’s experiences beyond the postgraduate level. Amira is an associate at MA Education Consultancy and is committed to progressing social justice agendas within the higher education sector and to this end, increasing opportunities for Black and Muslim students


Andrews, S, Stephenson, J. Adefila, A et al (June 2023) Approaches to addressing the ethnicity degree awarding gap, TASO Atherton, G and Mazhari, T (2020) Preparing for hyper-diversity: London’s student population in 2030 Access HE


Follow my leader? I don’t think so.

by Paul Temple

The team that ran the MBA in Higher Education Management at the Institute of Education in London would meet each July for a year-end review and to think about what improvements we might make to the programme in the coming year. In most years, someone would suggest re-naming the programme as “the MBA in Higher Education Leadership”, or perhaps “Leadership and Management”. I always objected to the change, on the grounds that while I could say what I thought “management” was and had some ideas about how it might be taught, I had no idea what “leadership” actually was and even less of an idea about how we might teach it. Of course, everyone has examples of great leadership being enacted: my own favourite is Ernest Shackleton addressing his crew standing around on the Antarctic pack-ice in October 1915: “The ship and stores have gone – so now we’ll go home”. But telling us what outstanding leaders say and do isn’t the same as telling us what leadership is.

Actually, though, the real reason for my objection was the thought of having to present the case for a change of course title at Institute committee meetings at which, I foresaw with perfect clarity, those present, having no special knowledge of the subject and no responsibility for the decision’s outcome, would obey Watson’s First Law of Higher Education: that an academic’s degree of certainty on any given topic is directly proportional to its distance from their actual field of expertise.

I was reminded of all this by a review of the “managers vs leaders” debate in a recent issue of The Economist (28 October 2023). One distinction noted there from Kotter in 1977 was that management is a problem-solving discipline aiming to create predictability, whereas leadership is about change and the unknown. This is close to the aphorism which we sometimes used when asked about the distinction: management is about doing things right, whereas leadership is about doing the right things. (Shackleton was certainly leading his crew into the unknown, but he had people with him who were excellent problem-solvers.) The Economist review quotes research by Bandiera et al at the LSE that suggests that CEOs “who displayed the behaviour of leaders were associated with better company performance overall”, although some firms, the researchers concluded, would be better off with “manager” CEOs. Helpful, eh? What the review notes, though, is that the success of the leadership-oriented CEOs’ companies may depend on top-class managers sitting with them round the boardroom table. In other words, as you might have guessed, successful organisations need both good leaders and good managers in their top jobs.

Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, Helen MacNamara, his deputy, and Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, are civil servants working at the very pinnacle of British public service. It is, I think, a safe bet that their annual appraisals consistently identified their outstanding leadership qualities: if they had been seen merely as excellent managers they would be working at somewhere like DVLA in Swansea, not in the Cabinet Office or 10 Downing Street.

And yet, as the Covid inquiry has revealed in awful detail, in the worst British peacetime crisis in modern times this group of supposedly brilliant leaders were collectively unable to ensure that the centre of government operated with even an ordinary level of effectiveness. Yes, they had to deal with a catastrophically useless Prime Minister and the – how shall I put it? – difficult Dominic Cummings (I blogged about him here in February 2020), but – look, guys – sorting out problems like these are what you’re there for. Leaders, as opposed to poor old plodding managers, are there to deal with impossible situations (OK, so I do have a definition of “leadership” after all): Shackleton didn’t say to his crew, “Well, sorry, but I’ve no idea about what to do now.” This is actually more or less what Case – just to remind you, the head of the Civil Service – says: “Am not sure I can cope with today. Might just go home.” Well, you and I have probably felt the same sometimes, but we weren’t supposed to be running the country during a crisis.

Other failings of this group of supposed top leaders? A notable one was when the rest of us were wondering if it would be OK to meet a friend in the park, MacNamara was taking a karaoke machine into work to ensure the party went with a swing. And of course there was “Party-Marty” Reynolds, sending an email inviting staff to a bring-your-own-booze party at Number Ten. Meanwhile, my next-door neighbour was dying alone in hospital, his family and friends unable to say goodbye to him. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of a rethink about leadership.

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

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Why do vocational FE students choose to go to HE?

by Neil Raven


In a previous blog, I explored the reasons why some students on level 3 (advanced) professional and applied courses decide against higher education. Those whose views were sought came from a further education college (FEC) located in the East Midlands. FECs are significant providers of such (vocational) courses in England (Archer, 2023, UCAS, 2023). Yet, their HE progression rates are typically lower than those reported by schools and sixth form colleges (GOV.UK, 2023). Indeed, the desire to address this differential has been highlighted by the Office for Students (OfS, 2022), including through the work of the Uni Connect programme (Raven, 2023). It also chimes with the government’s levelling up scheme, and the view that FECs are key players in addressing inequalities in regional skills levels (OfS, 2022). However, acknowledging the rationale amongst FE college students for rejecting HE provides only half the picture. Any initiative that seek to widening higher education (HE) participation should also take account of the drivers for progression amongst the same groups of learners, since a good number of FE college students doing vocational programmes go on to some form of higher-level study, although many more have the potential to do so. This was one of the key areas explored in a recent research project and discussed in a book chapter from which the findings in this blog are taken (Raven, 2023).

Method and approach

This research gathered the views of students in the second (and final) year of their level 3 professional and applied courses. The sample comprised 110 students from two FE colleges: one in the Midlands (60 participants), the other in Eastern England (50 participants). In addition to gaining insights into their motivations for pursuing higher-level study, the research looked at the support these students had received. A questionnaire was used for this purpose, with answers captured in a one-to-one meeting between my fellow researcher and each participant. Whilst these meetings required time to organise, this approach to the administration of the questionnaire ensured that all the questions would be understood and considered by those who volunteered to take part in the study (Raven, 2023: p59). To facilitate comparison – and draw out common themes – we chose participants who were pursuing the same three subject areas at each college. These comprised sport, animal management and child care, which were amongst the most popular options offered and where the ambition at both institutions was for more students to take the HE route.


Three broad sets of motivations for progressing onto higher-level study were voiced by participants across both colleges and amongst the three subject areas. The first set concerned the learning opportunities HE presented. These included gaining more skills, ‘furthering and improving one’s knowledge,’ and acquiring a higher-level qualification (Raven, 2023: p64). The second set of drivers related to ‘the experience’ a university education would offer. Here, participants talked about the social aspects of HE life, including the chance to make friends, gain greater independence, and acquire ‘new life skills.’ The third group of responses focused on the improved ‘employment prospects’ arising from going to university (Raven, 2023: p64). A higher education, it was argued, would open up ‘better job opportunities’, and enhance one’s chances of securing a well-paid job. In addition, it would enable the pursuit of a chosen career and help secure access to sought after professions (Raven, 2023: pp64-65).

Participants also provided insights into the ‘sources of next-step guidance’ that had proved valuable in their decision to pursue a higher education (Raven, 2023: p70). Five sources were discussed, although not every participant alluded to all of these. They comprised the support provided by family members, including ‘parents, sisters and brothers, [along with] extended family members and relatives’, as well as ‘friends.’ (Raven, 2023: p70). Online sources of information were also discussed, including the UCAS website. In addition, a number of participants talked about ‘the insights gained from the work experience’ component of their courses. The guidance and encouragement provided by college staff was also highlighted, in particular that offered by tutors and careers teachers (Raven, 2023: p70). However, surprisingly few made reference to outreach activities, including campus visits and university open days.


Whilst these findings are from a small study, the consistency in responses amongst participants who came from three different subject areas and were studying at two separate colleges suggests that they are of significance. Moreover, the motivations identified are consistent with those that have been discussed in other studies (Wiseman et al, 2017). The Uni Connect programme is seeking to raise progression rates from FE colleges (OfS, 2022). These findings suggest the value of ensuring any support offered considers and engages with the drivers likely to facilitate participation. They also draw attention to a gap that could be filled through the provision of outreach interventions (Raven, 2023).

That said, more research is needed. The questionnaire used in this study proved an efficient way of gathering the views of the majority of students on the designated courses. However, the deployment of focus groups, or semi-structured interviews, with a sample of the same students would enable a more detailed exploration of HE drivers, and a closer consideration of the nature and effectiveness of the support they received, and the types of outreach that would be of greatest benefit to them and their peers.

Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at


Thank you to the students at both colleges who participated in this study. Thank you also to Dr John Baldwin for overseeing the questionnaire survey.

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Painting and shaping Learning Landscapes with Assemblages in mind

by Peter Goodyear

This third SRHE Landscapes of Learning symposium – Assemblages – was a deeply engrossing and thought-provoking event. In this response, I want to do three things: pick and connect some particularly fruitful points from each talk – there were many, so this is hard; comment on assemblages and assemblage thinking in relation to current and future learning arrangements, and segue into the practical work of realising better spaces for learning in better universities. Landscapes are both depicted and made. An alertness to relations and flux can sharpen our perception, but can an assemblage sensibility inform better architecture?

Points plucked from the talks

Carol Taylor’s keynote made a persuasive case for connecting Deleuzian thinking about assemblages with a broad set of posthuman perspectives. She went on to offer an impressive array of spatially and materially-grounded example studies, illustrating her approach and also inspiring further research. Assemblage thinking helps us to see things that would otherwise be invisible, to give (almost?) simultaneous attention to questions of how, why, when and what, and to refuse sharp distinctions between bodies, things, words, ideas and feelings – to start with relations between things, rather than with the things themselves. Forming better ways of understanding the circumstances in which things happen is important for students of all fields and disciplines. It is important for teachers and other education workers in a second sense, because it helps set up situations for valued learning and for inducting students into practices of knowledge-making, including the practices of shaping convivial epistemic environments for themselves.

Tim Fawns used ideas of entanglement to reconcile hackneyed arguments about “technology in the service of pedagogy” vs “technology as driving and constraining pedagogy”. Pedagogy first or technology first? In most cases of educational innovation, pedagogical practices and technological infrastructures already exist and are used to justify, explain and constrain one another. They are already assembling or, one might even say, co-constituting one another. This argument is even stronger if one looks more broadly at the personal aims and technologies that students bring with them, and when one takes properly into account the complicated learning places that students configure, furnish and equip for themselves and their peers. 

Karen Gravett’s talk made clear that very little is known about how students’ activities are distributed in space, how students find, make and curate places for learning and what this means for matters of belonging (to a university). Certainly, university teachers and leaders cannot claim to know this in any representative, well-theorised or systematic way. Indeed, it emerges that there are many ways of belonging, no one way of managing campus spaces to afford inclusion and no simple metric connecting qualities of place with feelings of belonging, such as might be useful for an estates director’s KPIs.

Harriet Shortt researches relations between places, artefacts and organizational life, including places we might too-simply tag as “for work” or “for learning”. The main research site she spoke about was a newly-built Business School, though she was using this to advocate for participant-led visual methods: getting the users of buildings to photograph places of significance to them and share their annotated images. This is very useful for post-occupancy evaluation but also raises lots of deeper questions about place-making, including how people reconfigure places to resolve tensions between privacy and community, or collaboration and interruption.

The four talks illustrate the importance of understanding study activities through students’ eyes and experiences, with a capacious framing – so that what students curate and contribute isn’t simply missed – and then weaving more elaborate descriptions that catch multiple entanglements (place, tools, tasks, bodies, minds etc) so that all participants and stakeholders can agree a shared understanding of how things are being achieved, sufficient to improve the circumstances in which joint work is done. Subtle observation and an openness to complexity are important when making descriptions of how things are coming to be as they are. Then provisional simplifications are needed to agree on collective action.            

Assemblages and assemblage thinking

At several points in the “Assemblages” symposium, a leitmotif emerged: an allusion to using theoretical language at Academic Board. This recognisable shorthand conjures up our shared frustrations, as scholars of higher education, with the conceptual and linguistic gaps between research, policy and practice and with a paradox at the heart of educational work in universities: the insistence on discussing education in a vernacular language, unpolluted with exotic terms-of-art.

I am academic enough to value fine-grained disputes between knowledgeable scholars over what Deleuze and Guattari were trying to say when they wrote about rhizomes, lines-of-flight, segmentarity or assemblage. I also endorse something Carol Taylor said about the dangers of extracting ideas and terms from their intellectual homes and deploying mangled versions of them to serve dubious ends.  

But, in my own practice, I am deeply invested in understanding how knowledge, ways of knowing and ways of coming to know, that emerge in our work as scholars of education, can be made useful to other teachers and to students.  I have a practical interest in this occurring, coupled with an intellectual interest in how people actually do this work; I study epistemic practices at the boundaries of disciplines and professions. I try to understand what happens when (say) university managers in education, campus infrastructure and IT try to create better learning spaces or when people try to help design ideas travel. In thinking about “assemblage”, I am interested in how clusters of ideas migrate and become useful – to students, when they are tackling challenges that matter to them – and to teachers, architects, technologists and others involved in shaping educational spaces. So, I would say:

  • Whatever disciplines, professions or roles our students might be preparing themselves for, they will need subtle and sophisticated tools for understanding the world and acting ethically and effectively with others. Posthuman and postdigital perspectives can help students analyse the complex (learning) situations in which they find themselves, and reflect more deeply about how good work is accomplished.   
  • Scholarly teaching must acknowledge the complexities and risks involved when ideas move outside the domain of specialist scholarly debate. It is one thing to induct students into academic life by modelling scholarly disputation. It is quite another to maim or kill a half-grasped idea while it is in flight. There is a time and a place for correcting other people’s use of the term “assemblage” – but perhaps not at meetings of Academic Board.  

It’s also worth noting that “assemblage” exists somewhat independently as a technical term in fields such as archaeology, ecology, data science and art practice. One can use the noun “assemblage” to speak about the toolset of an ancient culture, the animals and plants typically inhabiting an area, a complex data set or a three-dimensional collage of objets trouvés, though these usages don’t normally have strong connotations of flux and evolution, such as we find when assemblage is understood as a verb. Moreover, there are lines of analysis within organisational science and science and technology studies (STS) that talk cogently about sociomaterial and sociotechnical assemblages, free from any visible Deleuzian mooring. I’m thinking, for example, of writing by Wanda Orlikowski, Susan Scott and Lucy Suchman on  technology in organisations and sociomaterial entanglements in working practices: productive resources for thinking about educational technology, technology in higher education, current and future learning spaces.

In sum, “assemblage” helps us notice and depict sociomaterial relations and change, but it is not the sole preserve of Deleuzian scholarship.

Learning landscapes: making places for coming-to-know

“A key element of placemaking is thus its open-ended and contingent nature. Placemaking is a dynamic experience, through which people, practice and the materiality of place undergo constant change.” (Sweeney et al, 2018, 582).

Harriett Shortt asked why so many new campus buildings mirror corporate head offices. Why do estates directors and architects impose these giant glazed voids upon us? She asked us to think of other more congenial forms: galleries and museums, for example. I think we should also be bolder and think how it might become possible for everyone involved in university life to engage in intentional place-making. We see what can be done in course and curriculum design through movements such as “Students as Partners”. We get other glimpses of what’s possible in the place-making events captured in the images our speakers shared. Beyond that, I suggest, we might try to make a scholarship of learning places that works in symbiosis with much more organic, bottom-up developments: less concerned with space-efficiency metrics and enabling the corporate; more invested in giving biophilic form to the market-place of ideas. There’s a well-established strand of work in architecture, urban planning and place-making on which we can draw. Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Marwa al-Sabouni and Thomas Heatherwick spring to mind.

It can be helpful to make a distinction, in educational work, between analysis and design. The first tries to depict and understand an existing state of affairs. The second involves steps to protect or improve upon it. The two depend upon one another, but work upon different objects. They require a dual ontology. In reflecting upon past and present educational events, we do well to acknowledge that tasks, tools and people are deeply entangled – considering assemblages or agencement helps here. But in thinking about what we can change (eg for the next time a course is run, or for the layout of a new learning space), we must break tangled realities into components over which we have some control. By “we” I don’t just mean teacher-designers or learning space researchers. Everyone has a role in this kind of place-making.

Collectively shaping material instances of what Raewyn Connell calls the “Good University” or Ron Barnett calls the “Ecological University” involves some tricky challenges. How do we form coalitions around images of what universities should be doing? How do we identify zones in which we have power to make change – including changes that give us more power to make other changes? How do we consolidate incremental changes so that we don’t dissipate our strength in perpetual defensive work? How do we co-create the infrastructure and reshape the landscapes that afford more socially responsible, sustainable and just ways of working and learning together?

Some of this may still be in our DNA. Jane Jacobs closed her great book on the organized complexity of cities with the following words. I like to think we can apply them to universities.

“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” (Jacobs, 1961, p448)

Peter Goodyear is Emeritus Professor of Education at The University of Sydney. His research on place, space and learning has appeared in a number of books, including “The Education ecology of universities: integrating learning, strategy and the academy” (Routledge/SRHE, with Rob Ellis, 2019); “Spaces of teaching and learning: integrating research and practice” (Springer, with Rob Ellis, 2018) and “Place-based spaces for networked learning” (Routledge, with Lucila Carvalho & Maarten de Laat, 2017).