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The path towards a socially just learning design

by Keith Heggart , Camille Dickson-Deane, and Kae Novak

Introduction

Ensuring that our education practice is socially just is a challenging prospect at any time; when confronted with the current challenges of unprecedented bushfires and a global pandemic, it can seem an almost impossible consideration – yet perhaps it has never been more important to design learning to be socially just in the midst of these challenges. Before discussing how to design in a ‘socially just’ way, it would be pertinent to provide a definition: social justice is a concept which describes the relationships between an individual and society.  It proposes that these relationships be fair and just behaviours as measured by choice, distribution, opportunities, privileges, indeed, any form of activity (Boyles, Carusi and Attick, 2009).  When addressing these behaviours from a learning design perspective, this suggests we need to consider how we design our learning and teaching strategies. By designing these interventions carefully we can narrow educational inequalities and thus ensure a socially just education for all.

What is socially just learning design?

The first, and most important point, is that any approach to learning design that claims to be socially just needs to be inclusionary more than exclusionary. Too often, conversations about ensuring learning and teaching is socially just become too narrow, focusing on the needs of one particular group over another. While meeting the needs of marginalised learners is important, specifically focusing on one group in such a narrow way ignores the compounding challenges presented by the intersectional nature of disadvantages (Crenshaw, 2017), as well as risking marginalizing other groups. This approach is in keeping with definitions like that proposed by Clare Hocking, who argues that a truly socially just education is one that ‘embraces a wide range of differences and explores their effects on individual learning’ (Hocking, 2010: p2) – basically a positive acknowledgement of individual differences (Cronbach and Snow, 1969; Jonassen and Grabowski, 1993).

Instead of focusing on a particular group within a class as the site for improving learning outcomes, it is possible instead to focus on the learning experience as a whole, and in doing so make it an accessible and fulfilling experience for all learners. This is the kind of approach advocated in Universal Design for Learning or UDL (Meyer, Rose and Gordon, 2014). UDL is drawn from the broader ideas in architecture which calls for a shift from focusing on the deficits of individuals, and instead arguing that the deficit lies within society, and that is where we should focus our efforts. In the education context, this means that, regardless of a learner’s characteristics, once they are registered to pursue a course or program, the learning content should have relevance to the learner’s disposition within society.  Not considering how the learner will integrate any learnings into their own experience world is counterproductive.

There are additional benefits to such an approach to learning: by designing learning experience with this level of inclusivity, we meet the needs of all learners, but also allow a greater degree of flexibility and choice within learning – and that leads to greater learner engagement with the material. For example, one of the principles of UDL calls for providing multiple means of representation. In terms of video content, this might include providing captions, and an audio only version, and also a transcript as well as the  video content. While the audio only content might be of value to visually impaired learners, it might also be of value to learners who want to listen to the material while driving, or exercising. Equally, the captions might be of value to hearing impaired learners, but also to those where English language is not their first language.

Interactivity … what it means to me (the learner)

Another key principle behind UDL relates to providing multiple means of engagement for all learners. One way of doing this is by providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their interpretation through interactions. While this can be seen as a relatively straightforward pedagogical activity (although one that must still be carefully planned), instructors can be myopic in fully comprehending how this can be actioned. Most instructors adhere to their own somewhat accidentally developed pedagogical practice and are apprehensive about change. Adjusting a pedagogical approach to one where all learners are acknowledged and given the opportunity to respond can be difficult especially when looking at different modes of delivery.

We are still developing an understanding of interactivity in the online space – especially in terms of new secondary school learners and their engagement with different learning materials. This group, in particular, has grown up with digital and mobile technologies, and hence has different expectations about interactivity from previous cohorts. In trying to engender interactivity which demonstrates active learning,  institutions often allow users to do relatively simple things: liking a post, for example, or commenting on an article. These are both examples of so-called ‘interactive’ elements that are often utilised by instructors within learning management systems. While they have a place, these are often not what learners today consider to be ‘interactive’ and perhaps do little to boost engagement with learning materials.

Instead, learners are more likely to consider interactivity as something that affords them an element of control over the resources at hand. A good framework to understand this level of control is David Wiley’s 5Rs of Open Education Infrastructure. Wiley (2014) suggests that there are five key elements in how technology can be used in this way. Students can

  1. Retain material: make, own, and control a copy of the resource (eg, download and keep your own copy)
  2. Revise material: edit, adapt, and modify your copy of the resource (e.g., translate into another language)
  3. Remix material: combine an original or revised copy of the resource with other existing material to create something new (eg, make a mashup)
  4. Reuse material: use your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource publicly (eg, on a website, in a presentation, in a class)
  5. Redistribute material: share copies of your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource with others (eg, post a copy online or give one to a friend)

While these might not all be possible within the proprietary constraints of an institutions learning management systems, some of them should be – for example, students are more than capable of sharing work they’ve created more widely than within the class, and they are also capable of contributing to co-created resources, or being actively included as prosumers rather than only consuming pre-created materials (de Alvarez and  Dickson-Deane, 2018).

Bringing it all together

What does this mean for socially just learning design? Perhaps not surprisingly, Wiley’s ideas about open educational resources bear some similarity to Nancy Fraser’s (2007) three dimensional theory of social justice education. In even more ‘R’s, Fraser suggests that socially just education can be enacted through redistribution (increasing access to education for all), recognition (by reconsidering what is taught) and representation (developing authentic partnerships between students and teachers in decision-making processes). Combining these ideas with the principles of UDL, it is possible to develop a framework for socially just learning design (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Framework for socially just learning design activities

The examples below explain how such a framework might be operationalised.

1. Creating relevance by adding context to an existing OER

It’s common practice for students to be assigned a particular textbook as part of any course. Related to or based upon their reading of this textbook (and other activities as part of the course) students complete some form of summative assessment, often in the form of a written essay or report. However, using the framework above, it’s possible to make this activity both more engaging and more socially just. For example, by allowing the students to contribute or create an open source textbook on the topic, the task is automatically more authentic (as it’s a real world problem) and the future course materials are more representative towards the specific needs of the learner, their cohort and their immediate interaction within their societal base.

2. Adjusting rubrics to accommodate for any media-delivery

Another way of ensuring more socially-just approaches of learning design is by assessing student responses based on the communication of the assessment content and not on the foundational base of medium in which assessed content is delivered.  Whilst this can be difficult for some course content, if we restrict students to only provide responses to learning objectives within one medium this actively creates hurdles for students. If understanding of the content is what matters, then allow them to communicate it in the best way they know how. We can develop the above example about contributing to a textbook further: by allowing students to submit a different form of assessment (a short video, a webpage, an interactive learning object), it is also possible to allow students to make use of multiple means of expression. In this way, we have allowed greater representation, more means of expression, and made use of the revise and redistribute principles from Wiley (2014).

3. Giving learners choices in assessments

Learners have to manage their times differently.  Either redesigning assessments that can provide the opportunity to students to be selective in submission (phased submission in parts or delivery all at once) or a choice of three out of five assessments to complete allows learners to regain control of their own learning and customise it to themselves whilst still adhering to course intended outcomes.  Focusing the assessment to all students to fully access the disciplinary knowledge within their own context allows for redistribution of relevant and vital knowledge (Fraser, 2007).

Conclusion

In short, socially just learning design has significant potential to improve outcomes – not just for students in marginalised groups, but for all students. By combining Fraser’s 3D social justice model with aspects of UDL and the 5 R’s for Open Education into a cohesive framework, it is possible to design learning in such a way that all students have the opportunity and resources required to succeed.

Dr Camille Dickson-Deane is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education Learning Design, Faculty of Science, University of Technology, Sydney (E: Camille.dickson-deane@uts.edu.au). Dr Keith Heggart is a Lecturer in the School of International Studies and Education, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney (E: keith.heggart@uts.edu.au). Kae Novak ABD is a doctoral student in the School of Education and Human Development, University of Colorado-Denver (E: novak.kae@gmail.com).

References

Boyles, D, Carusi, T, and Attick, D (2009) ‘Historical and critical interpretations of social justice’ Handbook of social justice in education  New York, NY: Routledge pp30-42

Crenshaw, KW (2017) On intersectionality: Essential writings New York: The New Press

Cronbach, LJ, and Snow, RE (1969) Individual Differences in Learning Ability as a Function of Instructional Variables Final Report Stanford, CA: School of Education, Stanford

Fraser, N (2003) ‘Social justice in the age of identity politics: redistribution, recognition and participation’ in Fraser, N and Honneth A (eds) (2003) Redistribution or Recognition: A Political-Philosophical Exchange London: Verso pp7-109

Fraser, N. (2007). Reframing justice in a globalizing world. Global inequality: Patterns and explanations, 252-272

Hocking, C. (2010). Inclusive Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: a Synthesis of Research. York: Higher Education Academy.

Jonassen, DH and Grabowski, B (1993) Individual differences and instruction New York: Allen and Bacon

Meyer, A, Rose, DH, and Gordon, DT (2014) Universal design for learning: Theory and practice Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing

de Alvarez, MS and Dickson-Deane, C (2018) ‘Avoiding educational technology pitfalls for inclusion and equity’ TechTrends 62(4): 345-353

Wiley, D (2014) ‘The Access Compromise and the 5th R.’ in An Open Education Reader https://openedreader.org/chapter/the-access-compromise-and-the-5th-r/


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Connections, Collage and Collaboration during Covid19 and beyond…

by Suzanne Culshaw

Earlier this year I became aware of an SRHE sponsorship opportunity, which, if successful, would allow me to attend an Early Career Researcher’s conference in Hamburg, organised by the GfHf (SRHE’s German ‘sister’ association). I submitted my proposal and crossed my fingers. It turned out that my application – to lead a methodological workshop using collage, a method I used in my PhD research – had sparked some interest and I was being offered an all-expenses trip to Germany! But then Covid19 crept onto the scene and I received the sad news that the trip couldn’t go ahead and the ECR conference was on hold. A few months later and my contact in Germany, Lisa Walther, got in touch asking whether I’d still like to present my work, this time within an Ideas Forum, online. I jumped at the chance, and, as a fluent German speaker, even found myself offering to do the presentation in German!

Early August soon came around and I joined the Zoom room, to find about 15 other people all looking forward to a stimulating afternoon of presentations, discussion and networking. Having only ever presented my research in German once, I was perhaps more nervous than usual, but was glad to have the chance to ‘warm up’ by listening to and engaging with the earlier presenters before launching into mine.

The focus of my presentation was a provocation that struggling is a particularly English phenomenon. It isn’t, of course, but I wanted to demonstrate that struggling isn’t easily translatable into German, which is interesting in its own right. I outlined the main findings of my PhD research – the various dimensions of the experience of struggling as a teacher – and spent some time sharing my methodological approach. My research participants had the opportunity to express their experience of struggling by creating a collage, using arts and crafts materials which could be placed and moved as their thinking developed (Culshaw, 2019a and 2019b).

I shared the challenges I faced when intermingling the verbal (interview) and visual (collage) data, highlighting the ambiguities and inconsistencies in the complex stories which were shared with me.

With the presentation over, I fielded a number of questions, with some focussing on the method and whether I had considered videoing the process of collage-creation. Others asked about whether struggling is a phenomenon experienced by educators in higher education (my research is situated in the secondary school context). This is something I am hoping to explore in the coming months, as part of a new research proposal. I was also recommended people to follow on twitter, whose work resonates with mine.

On the following day, I received an email from Lisa Walther, inviting me to lead an online workshop in the autumn. I’ve also been approached by a colleague in Luxembourg who is interested in a collaborative project, focussing on the experience of struggling in the light of the current pandemic. I am thrilled to have made these connections and embrace the opportunities that are emerging! Whilst I’d still like to have visited Hamburg in person, connecting online with a group of German academics has been a real highlight of my nascent ECR career.

So, if you’re wondering whether to apply for a sponsorship or a grant, or similar, then what’s stopping you? Look at what my application has led to … and who knows what else might come of these connections I’ve made. I’m very grateful to SRHE for supporting my proposal and to the German team for making me feel so welcome in their ECR – #HoFoNa – community. My next step is to try to write a similar blog in German – wünscht mir viel Glück!

Dr Suzanne Culshaw is a part-time Research Fellow in the School of Education, University of Hertfordshire, where she held a PhD scholarship. Her doctoral research explored what it means to be struggling as a teacher; Suzanne’s conceptualisation of struggling takes it out of the capability and performativity arenas and places it well and truly in the wellbeing domain. She is a qualified languages teacher and until recently was teaching part-time in Suffolk. She has a keen interest in wellbeing, educational leadership and professional learning. Suzanne is particularly drawn to creative and arts-based research methods, especially collage. She is currently working on an Erasmus+ project exploring the use of arts-based and embodied learning approaches to leadership development. She tweets at @SuzanneCulshaw.

References

Culshaw, S (2019a) An exploration of what it means to be struggling as a secondary teacher in England. University of Hertfordshire. https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/handle/2299/22082

Culshaw, S (2019b) ‘The unspoken power of collage? Using an innovative arts-based research method to explore the experience of struggling as a teacher’ London Review of Education, 17(3): 268–283 https://doi.org/10.18546/LRE.17.3.03


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More important than ever: the school perspective on outreach in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic

By Neil Raven

In recent months the attention of those working to widen university access has been directed towards understanding and responding to the impact of the pandemic-enforced closure of schools and colleges. However, there is now a need to look further ahead. It seems increasingly unlikely that the new school year will witness the resumption of traditional outreach activities. Indeed, it is possible that those engaged in widening access may be crowded out, as schools and colleges focus on catching up on months of missed work, and as restrictions placed on external visitors and visits by groups of pupils limit opportunities to interact with students. Drawing on the findings from a recent virtual workshop held with teaching and careers professionals at one school, a proportion of whose pupils come from educationally deprived areas, this blog explores the role that widening access could play when the new school term starts and how outreach could be effectively delivered.

The focus on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people from under-represented backgrounds has been reflected in recent reports and studies. Responding to the lockdown and the closure of schools and colleges has been a necessary first step. However, we also need to look further ahead. It seems unlikely that the new school year will mark a return to more ‘normal’, pre-pandemic conditions, including the resumption of outreach activity as ‘traditionally’ practised.

When the new school term starts, widening participation could be crowded out (displaced) for two reasons. First, with many young people having been away from school – and formal education – for the best part of six months, the need to concentrate on the curriculum and catch up on what has been missed is likely to be uppermost in teachers’ minds. Should they decide to ‘circle the wagons’, as one teaching contact put it, then outreach might be viewed as a luxury, perhaps even a distraction from the core mission.

The second reason is more practical, in terms of delivering outreach. As Savage suggests, schools are very unlikely to ‘fully re-open’ in September. There may be restrictions on external visitors and outside visits by parties of pupils. Even if external visitors are allowed, the way classes are organised – in peer group bubbles with limits on the numbers congregating in any one place – may well hamper outreach efforts. The threat of sudden local, regional or even national closures should new coronavirus outbreaks occur, would see a halt to any face-to-face and school-based encounters.

However, this is speculation: we need to gather the teaching professionals’ perspective. They are busy individuals facing an unprecedented set of challenges in preparing for the new term, but I was able to arrange a meeting with a small group from one secondary school, a proportion of whose pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds. That this could be done virtually was a significant advantage, with two of the three participants working from home. It was also conducted on an online platform that these teaching professionals have become very familiar with over recent months. Our discussion took the form of a small workshop with those who could bring a strategic as well as operational perspective. All three had remits that encompassed careers and progression in their roles as deputy head, head of careers, and careers co-ordinator respectively. In addition, the classroom viewpoint was covered since one of the participants was also a teaching member of staff. Consequently, we were able to consider the school’s perspective on outreach, the nature of the outreach challenge faced by its pupils, and what a realistic outreach response might be.

The first reaction of the group was to reject the idea that the objectives of widening access would have to be set aside. Indeed, it was argued that the need to raise awareness and interest in higher education remained highly relevant. In this 11-16 school, this was seen in the context of ensuring students were as ‘prepared as possible’ in terms of the ‘skills and knowledge’ needed for making a successful transition to post-16 study, as well as in being aware of their options at 18. Whilst this was an institutional obligation, it also chimed with a wider ‘social responsibility’, given the ‘make up of our students and the [lower socio-economic] backgrounds some come from’. There was an imperative to ‘get them to aim high’ and support them in fulfilling their ambitions. ‘Without the input from externals’ this was likely to be a harder task.

Similarly, in reply to the suggestion that there would be a considerable opportunity cost to pay for engaging in outreach activity, in terms of the time and energy diverted away from ‘getting on with the curriculum’, reference was made to Gatsby benchmark 4. There is a regulatory requirement that schools and colleges deliver independent careers guidance and the eight Gatsby benchmarks constitute a recommended framework for doing this. This particular benchmark is concerned with embedding careers into the curriculum. In this respect, it was noted that if ‘you are asking staff to spend [a few] minutes saying this will be useful because it can lead you into this job and that job’, then that would not represent a distraction but an important component of their education.

These teaching professionals felt that the need for outreach will become more acute:  the start of the new term would probably reveal additional challenges, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The school staff referred to the impact of the pandemic on student wellbeing, something also recognised in recent studies. Some students, it was argued, will ‘definitely need emotional support, including in cases where parents have been shielding, or where parents who have lost their jobs’.

Another potential issue concerned students’ ‘ability to study’. Some, it was argued, may have lost their ‘sense of routine’ and it is going to be a ‘challenge to get [them] back into [a] work ethic, [especially] if they have not done much’, or have not been able to do much ‘outside school’. Linked to this were concerns over levels of motivation. Some year 10s (14 year olds) may be questioning how they can ‘pass their exams when they have missed so much work’, whilst there was also a concern that some students could, potentially, have become ‘disengaged’. A study by the Education Endowment Foundation discussed a similar ‘risk’ associated with ‘high levels of absence after schools formally reopen’, especially amongst disadvantaged pupils.

It might be claimed that to address such issues represents a case of mission drift for widening access practitioners whose main concern is to support HE progression. The counter argument is that these additional challenges are likely to fall disproportionately on those groups of young people targeted by outreach initiatives. Moreover, the impact of those challenges may not only hinder their educational engagement but negatively affect their progression prospects.

There is also the question of whether delivering outreach might in practice be crowded out. The reality of this challenge was recognised by the group, with reference made to the improbability of being able to engage in the outreach interventions the school has received in the past, whilst ongoing ‘projects’ targeting various under-represented groups were judged unlikely ‘to happen any time soon’ due to social distancing restrictions. However, a revised and blended approach that included some face-to-face engagement but where greater emphasis was placed on online provision, could work.

Regarding the former, it was suggested that any visitors would need to engage with small groups (or bubbles) of learners, and to work within the classrooms pupils will be assigned to for all their lessons. Turning to virtual initiatives, the school was already exploring placing their post-16 options evening – which includes input from local colleges and universities – online, as well as providing ‘extra information’ on the school’s website for parents and carers, including those with older learners. This would include advice on how parents can support year 11s (15 year olds) in preparing for their next post-16 steps, and that could ‘mirror’ the guidance this year group receive in school about college and sixth choices and the accompanying application processes.

The group also discussed how the virtual outreach offer could be developed. Here reference was made to the value of both universities and colleges (including those with HE programmes) providing videos of what higher-level study would be like. These, it was suggested, could include ‘a day in the life of a student’ and outline the range and types of courses available. Such insights and information were likely to be especially appealing if the students profiled were interviewed and if the videos also showed them attending their classes, as well as illustrating the social activities available and what ‘living in halls is like’.

There was also a need for ‘positive role models’ who, if they were not able to visit the school in person, could do so virtually. Those ‘who have had to cope with [challenging] situations and come through them’ were, it was suggested, likely to have particular appeal. Developing this idea, reference was made to ‘someone who could talk about their difficult journey to university and how they had triumphed over adversity’. That, it was added, ‘would be really useful’ since it is ‘about making positive choices’, especially if these individuals were close to the age of the students they would be talking to.

Mentoring was singled out as a particularly valuable intervention that could, if required, be conducted online. If the sessions took place in school and were supervised by a member of staff, safeguarding measures could be more easily met. Indeed, it was suggested that the challenge could be in securing enough mentors to meet the demand, especially if what was offered included elements of subject enrichment and study support.

Similarly, an online option for embedding careers into the curriculum was identified. Short 3-4 minute videos could be shown in class featuring those in graduate-level occupations talking about what their roles involve and how they trained to do their jobs. These would be especially welcomed if they related to the subjects the students were studying. Such videos could provide a ‘360 degree view of where’ their subjects work. In addition, longer versions of these videos could be shown during registration period, when ‘we do job of the week’. Being aired in class or during registration could also overcome issues around digital access at home and, the ‘digital divide’ that means some learners, often those from poorer backgrounds, have comparatively limited access to the internet, due to a lack of laptops and other devices, as well as the necessary and often expensive data.

Finally, whilst pre-recorded video content had a number of advantages, notably in being accessible whenever required, there could be a role for live links, as long as the technology was in place. Motivational speakers telling their story in real time was likely to have a greater impact than if their message was recorded. Live coverage also offered the chance for interaction with presenters.

In closing, the group emphasised the imperative for outreach practitioners to listen to schools and colleges. Whilst this has always been the case, the need to pay careful attention is perhaps more critical than ever, given that individual institutions are likely to vary in the arrangements they make for the new school year. A small, virtual workshop of the type adopted here may offer a suitable mechanism for gathering these insights and in facilitating the co-production of an effective outreach response to the challenges (both old and new) facing those from under-represented backgrounds.

Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at neil.d.raven@gmail.com

My thanks to Suzanne Whiston, Deputy Head, Jan Woolley, head of careers, education and guidance, and Tim Taylor, careers lead, at Murray Park School, Derby, for their time, insights and expertise.

References

Armour, S (2020) ‘Young men most likely to break lockdown rules, mental health study shows’ (7 May) University of Sheffield https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/young-men-most-likely-break-coronavirus-lockdown-rules-psychology-mental-health-study-1.888316

Booth, S (2020) ‘Heads reissue calls for a plan B as PM says September reopening a ‘national priority’’ (31 July)  Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/heads-reissue-calls-for-a-plan-b-as-pm-says-september-reopening-a-national-priority/.

The Careers and Enterprise Company (2020) Gatsby Benchmark,https://www.careersandenterprise.co.uk/schools-colleges/gatsby-benchmarks/gatsby-benchmark-8.

Cornforth, C (2014) ‘Understanding and combating mission drift in social enterprises’, Social Enterprise Journal, 10 (1): 3-20, https://oro.open.ac.uk/39882/1/SEJ%20paper%202013%20revised-final.pdf.

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Rapid evidence assessment Impact of school closures on the attainment gap,https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/REA_-_Impact_of_school_closures_on_the_attainment_gap_summary.pdf.

DfE (2018) Careers guidance and access for education and training providers. Statutory guidance for governing bodies, school leaders and school staff  Department for Education,https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/748474/181008_schools_statutory_guidance_final.pdf.

Helm, T and McKie, R (2020) ‘Teachers and scientists sound alarm over plans to reopen schools in England’ (2 August The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/01/now-teachers-sound-alarm-over-plans-to-reopen-schools.

Helm, T, McKie, R and Sodha, S (2020) ‘School closures ‘will trigger UK child mental health crisis’’ (20 June) The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/20/school-closures-will-trigger-uk-child-mental-health-crisis

Horrocks, S (2020) ‘Bridging the digital divide: evidence and advice on remote learning and digital equality’, Education Development Trust

https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/our-research-and-insights/commentary/bridging-the-digital-divide-evidence-and-advice-on.

O. Khan. 2020. ‘Covid-19 must not derail efforts to eliminate equality gaps’, WonkHE, https://wonkhe.com/blogs/covid-19-must-not-derail-efforts-to-eliminate-equality-gaps/

Machin, S, and Murphy, R  (2014) ‘Paying Out and Crowding Out? The Globalisation of Higher Education’, Centre for Economic Performance, Discussion Paper No 1299http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/60451/1/dp1299.pdf.

Moss, G (2020) ‘5 reasons to be cautious about estimates of lockdown learning loss’ (1 August) Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/5-reasons-to-be-cautious-about-estimates-of-lockdown-learning-loss/.

National Foundation for Educational Research. 2020. Schools’ Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/media/4073/schools_responses_to_covid_19_pupil_engagement_in_remote_learning.pdf (accessed: 22 June 2020).

Office for Students (2020) Uni Connect https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/uni-connect/.

Ørngreen, R, and Levinsen, K (2017) Workshops as a Research Methodology

Rainford, J (2020) ‘Moving widening participation outreach online: challenge or opportunity?’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education (online 30 June 2020)

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13603108.2020.1785968?needAccess=true.

Raven, N (2018) ‘The development of an evaluation framework’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 22 (4), 134-140

Raven, N (2020) ‘Covid-19 and outreach: the challenge and the response’, Widening participation and lifelong learning, 22(2) 255-263.

Roach, P (2020) ‘The digital divide affects teachers as well as their pupils’ (4 May) Schools Week

Robinson, G (2020) ‘The digital divide continues to disadvantage our students’ (29 May) Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/the-digital-divide-continues-to-disadvantage-our-students/

Savage, M (2020) ‘Full September return unlikely, with schools warning: ‘it’s not business as usual’ (31 May) The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/31/full-september-return-unlikely-with-schools-warning-its-not-business-as-usual.

Speck, D (2020) ‘Exclusive: Covid-19 ‘widens achievement gap to a gulf’’ ((29 May) Times Educational Supplement https://www.tes.com/news/coronavirus-widens-achievement-gap-gulf


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Time to take the issue of China into our hands

by Paul Temple

Before it was transferred to The British Museum in 2009, the Percival David collection of Chinese porcelain was displayed in one of the Bloomsbury houses of the University of London, on the corner of Gordon Square. I once asked the SOAS curator for an idea of how important the collection was: he considered for a moment and then said that the only comparable one was in the Summer Palace in Beijing.

I thought about this when reading the recent HEPI report, UK Universities and China, which, perhaps naturally enough, is located in the here-and-now in terms of Sino-British university relations. But we should recall that China has been on the agenda for British universities from at least the late nineteenth-century, with SOAS’s predecessor, the School of Oriental Studies, being founded in 1916.

What new insights on this long-standing relationship does this HEPI collection of essays offer? It almost seems as if the editor provided his authors with a template for their chapters on the lines of:

  1. Remind readers of China’s growing global importance economically and in scientific research.
  2. Mention China’s ancient cultural traditions; more recently, changes within China from the 1980s gave some cause for optimism.
  3. Unfortunately though, Xi Jinping has not turned out to be the enlightened social democratic leader we had hoped for.
  4. In particular, nasty things seem to be happening in Xinjiang, and Hong Kong’s future doesn’t look too bright either.
  5. Meanwhile, many western universities have allowed themselves to become dependent on Chinese money: who knew?
  6. Even so, we must defend our academic values of free speech and fearless investigation, even at the cost of upsetting President Xi.
  7. Problem is, how to reconcile (5) and (6): no easy answers – or actually answers of any sort.
  8. So UK universities maybe need to develop a common strategy towards China. No, seriously.

Does this list – which is of course completely unfair to the authors involved – depress you as much as it depresses me? The essential tension that underlies most of the chapters is that between (5) and (6) in my list – acknowledged more by some authors than others. How have we got ourselves into this situation?

In an SRHE blog of mine which appeared in December 2019, I charted the way public policies in Britain had shifted in the post-war decades from central planning models – whether in utilities, transport, health, education at all levels, and more – to market-based models. Our present “China syndrome” in universities is a direct result of this policy shift: British governments and universities have created the problem – it is not simply because of the global geopolitical changes described by several of the authors here.

It is noteworthy that all the authors in the HEPI study appear to take it for granted that UK universities (actually, the chapter on Australian universities by Salvatore Babones paints an even more concerning picture of the situation there) must receive income from Chinese student fees to survive. But it wasn’t like this once, and doesn’t have to be like it now. This is a recent development: if say twenty years ago you had predicted that British university teachers would soon routinely be lecturing to majority-Chinese classes of maybe a hundred students, people would have thought you were crazy. This situation has arisen entirely because universities were instructed by successive governments to behave as if they were commercial entities, seeking to maximise income from all possible sources, seemingly regardless of the risks involved.

When universities and the then polytechnics were funded through central planning models they did of course admit students from abroad, but in limited numbers. There was no financial incentive to expand numbers, and the planning models assumed certain total student numbers that were funded from various public sources. In some places, international students were in effect funded partially by the host university, after the Thatcher government stopped public funding of their fees in 1980. The assumption until then was that Britain had a responsibility to help poorer countries by providing subsidised education to their nationals and that there would be long-term benefits all round as a result. I’m not arguing that this was a perfect model – simply that there are alternatives to the present arrangements, that once upon a time did actually work.

Don’t get me wrong: China is a fascinating place and I’ve been privileged to meet many Chinese academics in their own universities and to teach Chinese students in London. I’m all in favour of engagement with Chinese peoples and their cultures. But if the nature of British universities is going to change as a result of this engagement, then there should be a frank and open discussion about it. It should not be allowed to happen as if by accident.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546


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Curating Academic Knowledge

by Emil Toescu

We live in interesting times in higher education. In the immediate, the pandemic imposed the use of distance learning, leading to a different educational experience and a very different dynamic in the relationship between students and lecturers. And so academic teaching goes on, just displaced from the physical to the virtual space.

But there is another, more fundamental development in European academia: the initiation of a range of multi- or cross-discipline courses. These range from the now fashionable Liberal Arts and (Natural) Sciences 3-4 year degree course (developed mainly in The Netherlands and the UK), developed from the more established US educational model, to a variety of term- or year-long optional courses that aim to provide a multidisciplinary and sometimes interdisciplinary perspective on a particular theme. As an example, for two years I have run for Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences students in Birmingham, UK, a course titled ‘Emerging Modernity’ that aims to provide a wider understanding of what ‘modernity’ is by looking at what it means from a variety of perspectives (historical, philosophical, sociological) and how it came about in a range of disciplines (biology, physics, sociology, economics). 

These initiatives acknowledge, de facto, that beyond the traditional disciplines, the real world is complex, full of interlinked problems, that do not easily yield to reductionist approaches, They require a capacity for engaging with multiple perspectives. Examples frequently used in such discussions are sustainability, climate change or gender studies. Nearer to the present moment, the global economic and other consequences of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the policy responses required can be best understood via the lenses of: philosophy (utilitarian theory – what is good for the most of people); history (past plagues); geography (spatial human interaction patterns); politics (government and power structures). We can also user basic science approaches (understanding scientific research methodology and protocols) while taking into account the issues of the limitation of technology (assuming it will solve all our problems). 

Beyond the crucial importance of specialisms, and paying attention to the smallest details, we also  need to see the bigger picture. Like anything else, this capacity to move focus from the wood to the trees and back, this experience in zooming in and out with grace and fluidity, requires training.

Dealing with the intricate issues of today also requires an ability and willingness to view issues from different angles and to scan for multiple perspectives. This is akin to developing a conceptual tri-dimensional vision, rotating and inspecting an issue from various planes. Such an ability requires, again, training and exercise.

Interdisciplinarity is a key concept in approaching these topics. There are many definitions of the concept, that are applicable both to interdisciplinary research (IDR) activities and interdisciplinary education in academia (IDEA) [1], all starting from the view that interdisciplinarity describes an “interaction that may range from simple communication of ideas to the mutual integration of organising concepts, methodology, procedures, epistemology, terminology, data, and organisation of research and education in a fairly large field.” [2] One way to avoid the possible, and frequent, confusion between the terms multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, is to point to the integrative nature of the interdisciplinary efforts, rather than the simpler, but still important and relevant, juxtapositions that characterise the multidisciplinary approaches. 

Because of its potential for integration of different perspectives and approaches, interdisciplinarity has been a buzz word in academia for some time. In research, in the UK, the REF framework for assessment of the quality of academic output has many examples of such efforts in the impact cases submitted for assessment (also illustrated by striking infographics [3]). The REF in 2021 will have a whole section, Area Studies, dedicated to IDR [4]. In academic education, interdisciplinarity is by now a keyword on most UK Universities’ prospectuses, reviewed in a lengthy report by the Higher Education Academy [5].

There is one important teleologic characteristic that features in many discussions: interdisciplinarity is not an end in itself, but instead an approach, a tool to be used to answer specific, identifiable questions of needs [6]. While this perspective is immediately relevant for the research activity, it also has consequences for delivering interdisciplinarity in academic education. An interdisciplinary course should be organized, ideally, based on a theme: an issue, an idea, a topic, an era. [7] The point is that different disciplinary perspectives on the theme are integrated and provided as readings and assignments. In such courses, the lectures will reflect a balanced mixture between the specialist and visionary perspectives and show a mutual respect between these two approaches, a respect frequently missing as one view is considered too narrow-minded and the other one too superficial. This purpose can be achieved by taking a different approach to academic education: curating academic knowledge

The concept of ‘curating’ is rather fashionable. Until recently its use was restricted to a category of museum professionals who were in charge of maintaining museum collections and organising exhibitions. The job title has its origins in the Latin cura meaning ‘care’ and designating a person that ‘has care of’ or ‘takes care’, not only in the physical but also in the spiritual sense. 

The meaning evolved, as OED notes, from the stricter “one who cares for the souls” (1432) to a more practical “manager or steward” (1632) and “keeper or custodian” (1661). As the parish curate looks after the parishioners and their spiritual well-being, so a museum curator takes care of the museum collections and also perhaps the visitor’s well-being. 

Since the mid-1990s, curating started to have another dimension and be seen as a creative activity, and the curator is, more and more, an auteur who  proposes an idea for exploration and experiments with different formats, different ways of experiencing the art, and creating different meanings. Old views and formats are challenged and new forms are invented and proposed.

In the wake of this development of meaning, curating has become a buzz word in popular culture, and nowadays one can curate almost anything, from web content, or experiences, to performances, music or even food. Thus curating becomes more akin to conceptualising ideas and selecting, juxtaposing and interpreting items to provide an illustration of a central idea. It is time, maybe, to extend this curatorial concept to education and use it in the development of the new multi- and cross-disciplinary academic courses, in which the course organiser becomes a curator. 

In universities, any course organiser is, by definition of his or her terms of employment, a specialist in one particular discipline or field of learning. As such, in erecting the scaffolding of a new cross-disciplinary course, s/he cannot provide the texture and the fine grain of other disciplines, neither of concepts or methodologies, and a specialist in that topic will be required. This is even more relevant when the courses attempt to bridge the science-humanities divide. Humanities, with their softer and fuzzier discipline boundaries provide a better environment for the development of interdisciplinary approaches, and it is not surprising that most of the liberal arts and interdisciplinary courses in various universities are in humanities. Disciplinary boundaries in sciences are arguably more defined and the methodologies working within those field are perhaps more specific, but all these should not detract from the effort to create interdisciplinary modules.

The academic curator will thus provide the theme, the guiding lines and the cross-disciplinary perspective and from this position will interact with academic colleagues, or other necessary contributors, to bring to life the proposed academic theme and give students the opportunity to engage with the subject from a variety of perspectives. 

At the very least this will provide a multi-disciplinary context, in which the various contributors will engage with the central theme from their specialist perspective. But such an approach has also the potential to provide a true interdisciplinary experience. The presenting specialist is now able to engage with another discipline, and the students will get a feel for how to integrate knowledge into a more inclusive framework of analysis.

Museums are places of learning and recently became more active spaces: through smart curating they are creating an environment that fosters making new connections and encourages discoveries of new perspectives. Through a similar creative academic curation, academia can create a new student-centred environment, helping the development of the professionals of the 21st century. 

Dr Emil C Toescu is Honorary Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at the University of Birmingham, UK, and Deputy Director, Institute of Transdisciplinary Discoveries, Medical School,  at the University of Pecs, Hungary. He is working on researching the interfaces between science and humanities as seen from a science perspective, and can be reached at emiltoescu.ac@gmail.com.

References

[1] Klein, JT (2017) ‘Typologies of Interdisciplinarity: the Boundary Work of Definition’, in Frodeman, R, Klein, JT and Santos Pacheco, R (eds) (2017) The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity

[2] Heckhausen, H (1972) ‘Discipline and interdisciplinarity’ in: Apostel, L, Berger, G, Briggs, A and Michaud, G (eds) Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities Paris: OECD

[3] interactive graph: https://www.digital-science.com/visualizations/ref-case-study-similarity-network/; background presentation of analysis: https://www.digital-science.com/resources/digital-research-reports/digital-research-report-the-diversity-of-uk-research-and-knowledge/. 

[4] https://www.ref.ac.uk/about/blogs/a-disciplinary-perspective-on-interdisciplinary-research-area-studies/ 

[5] Lyall, C, et al (2015) Interdisciplinary provision in higher education: current and future challenges https://documents.advance-he.ac.uk/download/file/4604

[6] Council of Graduate Schools (2014) University Leaders Issue Statement on Interdisciplinarity in Graduate Education and Research https://cgsnet.org/university-leaders-issue-statement-interdisciplinarity-graduate-education-and-research

[7] Encyclopedia of Education (2020) Interdisciplinary Courses And Majors In Higher Educationhttps://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/interdisciplinary-courses-and-majors-higher-education


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Welcome to the new second class: Covid negative with underlying health conditions

by Katherine Deane

HE staged a joint seminar with the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) on 21 July 2020, after NADSN published a Position Paper on “COVID-19 Post-Lockdown: Perspectives, Implications and Strategies for Disabled Staff” on 21 May 2020. The paper provides a list of 12 recommendations for higher education institutions to consider when planning for reopening campuses. Seminar participant Katherine Deane (East Anglia) gave her take in this, the first of two blogs.

First please understand the risks – you are given a bowl with 100 sweets in it. You are invited to pick one to eat. But, you are warned two of those sweets will kill you, 18 of them will make you so ill you will be hospitalised, but most people find their sweets OK.

Have a sweet.

No? These are the risks the average person runs with Covid-19.

Now, let’s make you over 70, or with an ‘underlying health condition’, so your bowl of sweets has up to 15 that will kill you and most of the rest will hospitalise you. I hope you’ll agree no sane person would voluntarily eat those sweets.

But I can guarantee in weeks to come I will be gaslighted; told I am over-reacting, being over-cautious as I continue to self-isolate. You see I am at higher risk because I have multiple disabilities which mean my capacity to be resilient in the face of Covid-19 is reduced. I’m not at highest risk, but I would expect to be hospitalised at least with Covid-19.

So, when the lockdown is released and you can “get back to normal” spare a thought for people like me. We will be staying indoors, working from home (where we can), and hoping to not pick up Covid-19 as it sweeps through our communities again and again. Yes, the numbers of those infected will be lower, the risk reduced, but would you want to risk eating even a single sweet from that second bowl? Every trip outside, every meeting, every class, every hospital appointment, will offer people like me another chance to catch Covid-19. And until we have a vaccine – likely to be at least 2 years away – this will be our life. We will be living in ‘splendid isolation’.

This will affect people who previously would never have identified as disabled – asthmatics, diabetics, anyone over 70. Their lives will be disabled by the need to not catch Covid-19. For up to 2 years. We have lives to lead even if they are restricted by Covid. So, we hope that you remember us and continue to offer to get our shopping. We hope that friends will still call us. That theatres and bands will still offer us virtual viewings. For those in education, whether at school or university, we hope that these institutions continue to support online learning for students who fear returning to the large crowded classrooms and lecture theatres.

We hope (probably against hope) that the government will protect workers’ rights to not take a sweet from that toxic bowl, and that whether we are in the highest risk group or just have ‘underlying health conditions’ we are allowed to work remaining isolated if we choose to. We may wish to work from home, and we would like that to be a right where possible. We may need retraining if our previous work role can’t be performed virtually. We would love it if working from home was not implied to be shirking. We would love everyone to remember how difficult ‘splendid isolation’ is to live in.

And remember this is likely to affect huge numbers of people – I guesstimate at least 20% of the working population. With skills and talents and value that should not be wasted just because of a virus. Covid-19 is going to have massive impact on society. Let’s not allow it to create a new disabled underclass isolated and having to make invidious choices between poverty and health.

Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here https://embed.org.uk/covid-19-reopening


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Don’t call me vulnerable

by Katherine Deane

SRHE staged a joint seminar with the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) on 21 July 2020, after NADSN published a Position Paper on “COVID-19 Post-Lockdown: Perspectives, Implications and Strategies for Disabled Staff” on 21 May 2020. The paper provides a list of 12 recommendations for higher education institutions to consider when planning for reopening campuses. Seminar participant Katherine Deane (East Anglia) gave her take in this, the first of two blogs.

Covid-19 came along and suddenly we had a whole new dictionary of terms to learn. Social distancing, social isolating, shielding. But some of the terms were already ‘known’ and came with their own baggage. Some people were told they were vulnerable and should shut themselves away – shield themselves from the virus. But as my 79 year old fiercely independent mother said: “I’m not vulnerable, I’ve never been vulnerable in my life.” And she was right – she was at high risk of poor medical outcomes if she were to catch the virus – but she wasn’t vulnerable – she was in a vulnerable situation.

Disabled people, people with underlying health conditions, older people, have the same rights to life as anyone else. We are not vulnerable. But this virus – and the governmental response to it – does place us at higher risk. But risks are something that can be reduced, mitigated, done something about. Risks are the responsibility of all of us to manage, whereas vulnerability lies with the person – and there is nothing that can be done about that.

These labels – vulnerable, elderly, frail, with underlying health conditions, disabled – became an excuse to dismiss the deaths. Oh well, what could you expect – they were already ill and then they got Covid-19, so of course they died. The government reassures the public still – it’s only if you are ‘vulnerable’ that you need fear this virus. But it’s become clearer and clearer that this has allowed a great toll of unnecessary deaths to be excused. The language has prevented criticism and deeper examination of why these people died. After all, they were vulnerable – so they must have contributed less, been a burden on society. The responsibility for their response to the virus was laid upon their shoulders. These people are vulnerable – there is little we can do – so let’s shrug our shoulders. Should they even expect them to have the same access to healthcare, social support, or respect even, as a fit healthy young person does? Their deaths are ‘to be expected’.

But what if the tables were turned – if the virus took the young and fit preferentially. Would there still be stories of the deaths of ‘vulnerable young people’ dying – so sad, but what can you expect? Would they be told off for going outside? Would they be expected to shut themselves away for potentially years on end as they wait for a vaccine? Doesn’t sound so ‘reasonable’ or ‘expected’ now, does it?

We are now seeing that this virus highlights many of society’s inequalities. That it is more likely to kill you if you are black, poor, live in an area of high air pollution. Are these ‘vulnerabilities’ too? Or are they risks? This virus has placed a magnifying glass on some of the structural biases within our society. Are we seeing institutionalised eugenics by neglect?

So, watch your language. As a disabled person I am at risk of an early death from many things, including this virus. We can do – and need to do – something about these risks. Don’t ignore your responsibility for calling for change by calling us vulnerable.

Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here https://embed.org.uk/covid-19-reopening

Ian Mc Nay


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Some reflections on learning during lockdown…

by Ian McNay

This is a listing of thoughts that came over 3 months of isolation when learning was in a different context.

  •  Policy based on science becomes policy blamed on science in the hands of politicians, who rarely, if ever, admit being at fault, which they see as weakness.
  • Researchers therefore need to be very sure of what they publish or advice they give, because the nuances of conditionality of research findings do not transfer easily to a political mindset. Do not rush to publish when data are still emerging in a fluid situation. Rigorous peer review becomes even more important, but seems to have been neglected by The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine over hydroxychloroquine. The reputation of the Imperial group and their influential model was also called in to question when examined by the excellent Radio 4 programme, More or Less, and later in Private Eye (19 June) which discovered that their forecast about the rate at which infections doubled – 5 days – neglected data from Italy and the early days of the UK experience – which gives nearer to 3 days – and therefore led to a delay in lockdown. Maybe not a 4* rating for impact, after all. The cherry picking by ministers and the pressures to edit findings from those in a draft (I have experienced both) may have been a learning experience for some.
  • The definition of ‘world leading’ adopted by government in reviewing its own policy in operation over Covid-19 must use criteria even lower than those in REF derided by Johnston (Ron, that is – ex-VC of Essex, then professor emeritus at Bristol)
  • Presentism was shown to be less essential than Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks. I won’t comment much on the teaching experience since most of mine has been at a distance for some years. Some research approaches – interviews, focus groups – needed to be adapted by my students, whose field work was disrupted. Anthropological immersion in a community for study purposes was challenging – but there is a lot of material being gathered virtually and more to follow when retrospective work is done. Anthropologists and ethnologists may have a field day examining how societies and communities changed – norms, habits, rituals, relationships, communications – and how quickly they responded to crisis: better locally than when driven from the centre. Outside the academic, meetings were shorter with more respect for others in terms of interruptions. Some international conferences had higher attendances than at times in the past when the time and cost of travel was a deterrent. This has been true of SRHE, where some events offered by Networks have had over 100 participants, when the room they were held in BC (Before Covid) could hold a maximum of 50. A higher proportion were from overseas. Currently, therefore, some people, less advantaged because of geography or funding, may get access they could not previously afford. Fees for non-members have also been suspended, though this has led to a drop in the number of members joining or renewing. Please do pay membership fees – they give value for money.
  • The opposite is true for some students where they do not have home technology, and so inequality of opportunity has increased. Universities need to reflect on this and recall that in the first years of the Open University students were provided with not only home experiment kits (including a rotor arm which one postal worker left outside the door of a 7th floor flat in Toxteth: I had to argue hard with the administration to stop the student being charged), but with home computers, so all had access.
  • Working from home had its challenges. As someone who has always gone to work to work, with the journey allowing a role transition from place to place, entering the dining room to work at the table does not have the same liminal impact. The morning walk to the newsagent, which allowed thoughts to organise themselves and next paragraphs and passages to be planned, has been suspended. Papers are now delivered. Lockdown has had a differential impact by gender. Submission rates of journal articles have gone down for women, up for men, with a knock on consequence for REF submissions.
  • The ‘unknown knowns’ of inequality, prejudice and discrimination are now out in the open and, if continued are deliberate and systemic, done knowingly, not some deterministically ‘systemic’ feature about which we can do nothing. The claim that Covid-19 hit high and low alike was based around two people – the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister – neither of whom died. The figures I quoted on deaths of clinical staff last time became even more alarming, with 94% of doctors killed by Covid-19 reported as being from BAME backgrounds. The interconnection of class and race in the distribution of infection and deaths shows that responsibility rests with policies on disadvantage of the poor increasing exposure. We should also have absorbed another ‘known’, that value is not reflected in wage/salary levels, but should be. Humanity and decency should mean that policy seeks to redress inequality, and universities have roles to play in this and need to commit to performing them, beyond looking at their own patterns of discrimination. Especially, perhaps, those running police training courses, who need to review them as economists needed to review their courses after the 2008 crash (some even did so) and those leading MBA programmes after the report from CIPD that only 8 per cent of managers thought about the relevance of values. The history curriculum at all levels needs examining for balance. One of my newspapers surveyed decolonisation and found only 20% of universities had done anything and even fewer on a whole university basis. The ubiquitous media academic de nos jours, David Olusonge, who as I write, as well as appearing on the news, has just started a BBC4 programme on Black British History to sit alongside one on BBC2 about a house in Guinea Street , Bristol, built by a likely slave trader, could be the person to lead on it.
  • Of course universities are not racist; senior managers have issued statements saying so, not after the glaring picture of the statistics but by joining the Black Lives Matter bandwagon of corporate guilt, denial and claimed commitment following recent police killings and decades of discrimination. The heads of Oxford colleges did it most publicly through a high profile letter in The Guardian; others were less limelight-seeking. I did not see any comment from David Lammy, but the next day the Guardian had a report of racist language and harassment in election hustings at an Oxford college … for a cake representative (I kid you not; this is Oxford, remember). More seriously, the day after that came a report that BAME student societies had withdrawn involvement in Oxford’s outreach programme because of the perceived lack of support following student entry. Lessons for us all there. Only three percent of Rhodes scholarships go to those from Africa. The governors of Oriel College have now decided to remove the statue of Rhodes: sometimes people power can achieve things mainstream processes of deliberation do not.
  • Lessons, too, on leadership, where what has emerged during the crisis echoes work by myself and others. What people want is: clarity of policy, so there is certainty about expectations; consistency and continuity rather than constant change, which makes us feel like experimental guinea pigs where different things are tested on us (REF 2021 has 12 major changes); and confidence in leaders, which the first two will help promote, but which also needs a sense of common identity, where we are visibly and evidentially ‘all in it together’. There is a Leadership Foundation in HE report saying exactly that https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/828871 . (Thanks to Rob C for digging that out) The involvement of those at devolved level with expertise is also essential; driving from the centre, with autocratic control, is neither efficient nor effective, and, in some cases not economic. True at university institutional level, too.
  • We have learned that the crisis, like others, offers opportunities. HEPI had a report outlining possibilities for enhancing access; for many, the exposure to distance learning has stimulated broader thinking about curriculum process, and there will be strategic thinking about the portfolio of provision, though English government decisions on extra undergraduate numbers give them to elite universities whatever their TEF grade and ignores many judged excellent by TEF judgements. Yet the elite universities are dropping down international league tables because of, say the compilers (according to a report in…The Guardian 10 June) ‘poor teaching and declining research impact’. Of the 84 in the rankings (very few were modern universities, though Greenwich made it) 66 had a drop in SSRs, 59 a drop in research citations, and 51 a drop in international student numbers, who, for them, will now be replaced by extra domestic students.
  • Finally, we have learned that some academics are market sensitive and see a promotional opportunity when it comes. For those on television, bookshelves became advertising hoardings, with their latest output showing, cover to the front, not spine, just over their shoulder and very legible. In one case, a blown up photograph had been framed and hung on the wall.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich

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On not wasting a good crisis

by Rob Cuthbert

Editorial from SRHE News Issue 41 (July 2020)

It seems that in English higher education, some people have been determined not to waste the Covid19 crisis, either as an opportunity or as a threat. How well have they done? Consider the efforts of the Office for Students, Universities UK, and the government in England.

The Office for Students

The OfS were quick off the mark with their ‘Consultation on the integrity and stability of the English HE system’. They had not hitherto seemed too concerned about integrity and stability, given the government’s advertised willingness to let universities close as a consequence of the market established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA). Nevertheless the OfS drafted proposals to prevent “any form of conduct which, in the view of the OfS, could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector.”

The proposals, aimed at controlling the behaviour of HE institutions, brought an instant storm of criticism. They were condemned as draconian, excessively broad, vague and retrospective. OfS Chair Michael Barber claimed to the House of Commons Select Committee that they were an appeal to universities’ ‘generosity of spirit’, but no-one was convinced. Indeed, in terms of the original proposals there did seem to be breaches of good conduct, but they were mostly by Government, the media and the OfS itself, not by HE institutions.

As governments of different parties introduced progressively higher fees, students taking out loans for fees and living expenses began to graduate and begin their careers with large debts. Did this “have a material negative effect on the interests of students”? Quality assurance shows that the overwhelming majority of HE provision has been and remains satisfactory or better; government has encouraged new ‘alternative providers’, but a significant number of these new entrants provided inappropriate courses of dubious quality. Did these market initiatives destabilise the HE system and jeopardise its integrity and quality?

Recent HE ministers have repeatedly referred to ‘low quality courses’. Jo Johnson called for: “… the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” (The honourable exception to this ministerial failure is Chris Skidmore, who tweeted on 16 April 2020: “Might invent Skidmore’s law- anyone who mentions low quality/value in HE without specific reference to a real institution/course are themselves creating low quality/value arguments which should therefore be discounted.”) Most mainstream media reinforced the ‘low quality courses’ narrative, with The Times prominent: an egregious example by Ross Bryant, ‘Underperforming universities should be allowed to fail’, on 27 April 2020;  Alice Thomson on 31 March 2020: “Institutions panicking about finances have to shift their focus away from expansion and back to gold-standard teaching”. Camilla Turner in The Daily Telegraph on 10 May 2020 fuelled the narrative: ‘’Mickey Mouse’ degrees could be weeded out as universities face financial crisis”. Some would say the narrative has “a material negative effect on the interests of students”, whose academic credentials are called into question, and jeopardises the “stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”.  It might even involve “Making false or misleading statements (including comparative claims) about one or more higher education providers with a view to discouraging students (whether or not successfully) to accept offers from, or register with, those higher education providers.”

The Office for Students itself has still not completed its Register of Providers. OfS said in February 2020 the 2019-2020 Register was still incomplete “so if a provider is not registered at the moment, no conclusions should be drawn about it based upon that fact.” Could that “reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”? At government insistence the OfS has promoted the Teaching Excellence Framework and its advantages for students, presumably on the grounds that it helped their interests. More recently it postponed the next TEF indefinitely, even though there are dramatic changes to the quality of the student experience everywhere – up-to-date information about Teaching Excellence matters as never before. Dropping the TEF at this stage “could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector” – unless TEF never had anything to do with teaching quality in the first place, in which case pursuing it had already damaged the stability and integrity of the system.

The OfS proposals said it was inappropriate for anyone to be “Reacting to a major crisis or emergency affecting the UK in ways which may take advantage of behavioural biases”. However it reacted to the crisis by proposing obligations on individual behaviour, obligations to predict or anticipate the behaviour of others, and sanctions if even in retrospect a pattern of behaviour by others emerges which could not have been predicted. This was indeed to “take advantage of behavioural biases” which might induce people to tolerate, in an emergency, measures which would be unthinkable under normal circumstances. In the event the OfS withdrew and confined itself to outlawing ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, and perhaps unconditional offers more widely. By overreaching itself, OfS seemed to have wasted the crisis.

Universities UK

Universities UK also moved early, in April 2020 making proposals to government for a £2billion crisis package to support universities through the pandemic and beyond. UUK said: “Without government support some universities would face financial failure, others would come close to financial failure and be forced to reduce provision. Some will be in places where they are the only local higher education provider with damaging impact on the local community and economy. Many of those institutions most affected have higher levels of external borrowing, lower levels of cash reserves, and higher proportions of BAME students.” Former UCAS head Mary Curnock Cook blogged for HEPI on 15 April 2020 about ‘A student-centric bailout for the universities’, with a piercing critique of the soft spots and gaps in the UUK proposals. David Kernohan crunched numbers on the UUK proposals in his blog for Wonkheon 10 April 2020. He noted that doubling research funding would do little for many universities, and that the student number proposals would still enable selective universities to create major problems for those lower down the pecking order.

The DfE website reported on 4 May 2020 that “Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced a package of measures to protect students and universities, including temporary student number controls, £2.6bn of forecast tuition fee payments for universities being bought forward and an enhanced Clearing system. … to stabilise admissions, support students and allow universities to access financial support from the Government where it is necessary.” The DfE headline was ‘Universities need our help – we must maintain education’s jewel in the crown’, echoing a 2012 Russell Group publication, but the measures fell well short of the UUK proposals. This made clear the potentially devastating effects on many universities outside the Russell Group, with a probable shortfall in student numbers. It was hard to credit that UUK had suggested student number controls in its own proposals, and even harder to believe that all universities had agreed to the UUK’s skewed package in the first place. Chris Cook wrote a long and careful analysis of the perilous situation facing UK universities for TortoiseMedia  on 26 May 2020.

Here was Wonkhe’s immediate assessment. David Kernohan of Wonkhe  took a look at ‘Clearing Plus’, which was being presented as (but was not) a way for applicants to trade up to a ‘better class of university’. Nick Hillman of HEPI said: ” While we need time to digest the finer details, this seems like a carefully-calibrated package that delivers much of what the higher education sector called for without over-exposing taxpayers.” Well, he probably would, wouldn’t he, as a former special adviser to David Willetts. Former minister Jo Johnson, popping up as President’s Professorial Fellow at King’s College London, said that after the pandemic: “The Office for Students will need to design and put in place a multi-billion pound stabilisation fund to prevent the collapse of scores of vulnerable English universities. Access to this fund should be subject to strict non-negotiable conditions, including the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” Shadow Minister Emma Hardy’s open letter to HE on ResearchProfessional News on 6 May 2020 didn’t add much beyond her disappointment that the government package didn’t accept UUK’s proposals.

A second round of support simply shored up the bail-out of the Russell Group. The support package announced by government on 27 June 2020 provided extra research funding: a mixture of grants and loans for up to 80% of income lost because of a shortfall of international students in 2020-2021, and £280million for stated research priorities. That will be little consolation to the many vulnerable universities less blessed with research funding and less dependent on overseas student fees.

Judged by the effects on all of its members, UUK not only wasted the crisis, they may well have made it worse. 

Government

The long-running ‘low quality courses’ narrative and the almost-forgotten Augar report proved to be groundwork for a series of government initiatives still unfolding, beginning with a blunt Ministerial statement abandoning the 50% HE participation target and proposing to expand technical and vocational provision elsewhere. Jim Dickinson had blogged for Wonkhe on 11 May 2020 that: “… the headlines in the DfE package were all about treating the issues facing the higher education sector as a liquidity crisis rather than a solvency crisis. Optimists figure this is because it’s only Part One of any plan, and Numbers 10/11 of Downing Street prefer to sort things in terms of impacts of immediate problems than assessing the size and scope of modelled/potential problems which they assume a) might not be as bad as they look, and b) discourage efficiencies and sacrifices if “cushioned” too early, or for too long. … And then, as if by magic, David “somewheres or anywheres” Goodhart appears – with a Policy Exchange report that’s officially on “skills”, but is really on reorganising tertiary. … Research funding for the “best”; mergers, shorter strings and localism for the “rest”.”

Jack Grove in THE on 11 May 2020 wrote: “English universities at risk of financial collapse will receive significant government assistance only if they agree to merge or to accept a “further education future”, vice-chancellors have predicted. … some university leaders … fear that the reintroduction of student number controls − which allow universities to recruit 5 per cent more this autumn than they did last year − signals the Treasury’s intention to intervene far more in higher education, which might include denying some institutions access to research funding.”

The doomsayers were vindicated when Minister Michelle Donelan made a speech on 1 July 2020, in the grossly inappropriate context of an online conference about improving HE opportunities for disadvantaged students. Richard Adams reported for The Guardianon 1 July 2020 on her speech: “Since 2004, there has been too much focus on getting students through the door, and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go on to graduate jobs. Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market,” Donelan said. “Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of, particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense. … And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses. We have seen this with grade inflation and it has to stop.”

The government is poised to offer new policies on skills and qualifications for school-leavers in England, rebalancing away from universities and emphasising social mobility through skilled, well-paid jobs secured through further education and apprenticeships. A white paper on further education is promised, along with a green paper on higher education that will limit courses where a high percentage of students drop out or where few go on to graduate-level employment. Donelan’s comments appeared to repudiate her own government’s guidance to the Office for Students. Asked about the use of contextual admissions by universities to help under-represented groups gain entry, Donelan said: “To be frank, we don’t help disadvantaged students by levelling down, we help by levelling up.”

Chris Husbands (VC, Sheffield Hallam) spoke for many in a powerful rejoinder in The Guardian on 2 July 2020: ‘University changed my family’s life. So why do ministers want fewer people to go?’ As Alison Wolf, now once again a government adviser, pointed out long ago, the oft-mooted expansion of non-university technical education is always regarded as a good thing – ‘for other people’s children’. We must wait and see whether this time the government initiative will be any different from the many other times similar things have been attempted. This time her daughter Rachel Wolf, another long-term adviser to the Prime Minister who co-wrote the 2019 Conservative manifesto, is also making the running. Whether the government has wasted the crisis remains to be seen.

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


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Literature reviews and how to do them: an SRHE webinar in the time of Corona

by Akmarzhan Nogaibayeva

For some PhD students attending conferences, research seminars and so on means getting a break from research and it means leaving the library or the lab. During the pandemic everyone has started working remotely and has become only virtually accessible. Cancelling planned face to face events to avoid social contact has made our life extremely quiet and isolated. However, this unusual situation has given me time to reflect on the importance of attending conferences, seminars and other events related to my field. Since the lockdown I have had the chance to attend webinars organized by SRHE. I was lucky to listen to talks on different topics and this  opened new ways of thinking about a topic, giving me access to new ideas that I had previously never thought about. This blog reflects on a webinar I attended recently on ‘Undertaking Literature Reviews’ which took place on 29 April 2020, hosted by SRHE. Even though I had attended a seminar on Literature Reviews (LR) two years earlier, during my first year of study, I still had some remaining questions: What type of review did I carry out in my study? And, Where does my voice come into my review? Hoping to get answers to these questions from the presenter as well as from other researchers I was happy to attend the online webinar without wasting time travelling long distances.

Before the start of the webinar we were provided with slides and articles to discover different approaches to the literature review, which can either shape the chapter for the proposed study or provide a background for an academic article. The material suggested three broad approaches: narrative, systematic and theoretical. The Narrative approach is a review that tries to tell a story, reviewing the extant literature as a way of attempting to summarise what has been written on a particular topic. The systematic approach is a way of reviewing literature by using more objective criteria with a goal of summarising enormous amounts of research, scientifically tracking them for quality control. The theoretical approach is a review that covers the history of different meanings given to key terms in a study that has accumulated evidence in regard to concepts, theories or phenomena. The overall aim of the LR is to persuade other scholars in the field of your command of the relevant literature. My own original LR had been a narrative review in a more traditional way that most doctoral researchers tend to follow, mixing concepts and case studies, organising them under big themes followed by subthemes. I chose this approach to show the research committee what I know about my topic. This type of  narrative LR helped me to understand my topic by focusing precisely on the context of my research and in establishing  the theoretical framework of  the study.  

From the beginning of the seminar I noticed how the presenter warmly welcomed attendees, letting them introduce themselves by asking the reasons for attending this webinar and their expectations. Even though we were all connected online maintaining physical distance, by introducing ourselves and reflecting on the question ‘why we are attending this online seminar’ we softened the boundaries. Participants came from different backgrounds: experienced supervisors; university lecturers; PhD students like me; and people interested in pursuing a PhD in the future. They all had different reasons to join this online event; some of them had professional interests and wanted to get some suggestions for dealing with their own students` questions; some like myself were undertaking doctoral research of their own and were returning to LR in that context. The webinar description on the website was a clear prospectus: by attending this webinar we would be able to answer questions on the objectives of LR, examine epistemological assumptions about LR and engage in discussion by comparing the types of LR.

The facilitator of the webinar, Dr Michael Hammond (Warwick), started his talk by inviting participants to think about the question, ‘Why do we do LR?’ The answer to this question was a major theme that would guide us through the whole seminar. One answer was that it is a way of knowing where you fit in. The LR must not only demonstrate that I understand debates and conversations, but how my research will contribute to the field. In other words I should be able to create an argument as to why my work is relevant to my field by evaluating conversations surrounding my work describing their weaknesses and strengths.

We also discussed finding the gap that our research addresses, and the importance of finding models of methodology to orient oneself – in carrying out a literature review can you find a study that follows a methodology that you want to use? A literature review should be a critical examination of what has come earlier. I was inspired by thinking about the value and status of literature and we all got the chance to ask questions. One participant wanted to understand where the researcher’s voice comes in the review and shared her view that the voice of the researcher comes from what you choose to cite. Another participant raised the question of what to do if the researcher finds that an existing literature review has already covered the things that you want to discuss. The presenter explained you can re-present past reviews in ways that are more relevant for your particular research question but there was always the opportunity to update any review. 

Later we were invited to discuss LR in  groups. It was an enjoyable experience, with Zoom creating space for individuals to share their views and experiences of doing reviews. After a while we returned to our main group space. I felt because of this that online events could follow some of the processes common to face to face working. Thanks to the questions raised during the discussion and by sharing my own experience I gained more understanding of LR and had some answers to the questions that I had in my mind.

In conclusion the presenter showed us ways of organising the literature review by using different tools like Endnote and Mendeley. I noticed how the facilitator of the webinar could present his own thoughts, reflecting back again to the questions posed at the beginning of the seminar. As a doctoral researcher I had found answers to my own questions. This event helped me to reflect on my own literature review, carried out two years ago. When I return to it again I will have in the front of my mind the question of how my work will add to the knowledge in my field. 

When I first started writing my LR I tried to briefly point out debates and conversations in what has been published about my topic. As my research is looking at the use of technologies in language teaching and learning I discussed the use of technologies chronologically, organizing them under themes, basically looking at the key ideas and theoretical approaches. However, after attending this webinar I have understood the importance of organizing the LR from the beginning around the key ideas and concepts or theoretical approaches. As the presenter explained, making an example of his students` work, organizing your LR from the beginning might be very useful in setting up a coding process of your interview analysis at the later stages of your proposed work.


Akmarzhan Nogaibayeva is a third-year PhD student at the University of Warwick, researching language teachers` ICT use through the lens of ecological theory, in higher education in Kazakhstan.