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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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How poster competitions can support postgraduates

by Ben Archer and Jill Dickinson

The challenges presented by the higher education environment, including students’ mental wellbeing and doctoral completion rates (Cage et al, 2021; Rooij et al, 2019), have been compounded by Covid-19. Pre-existing concerns around the potential isolation of the doctoral journey have become more prevalent since the pandemic (Börgeson et al, 2021; Pollak, 2017). Within such an environment, opportunities for building postgraduate students’ communities of practice, networks, and self-efficacy have become even more important (Lamothe et al, 2018; Lui et al, 2020; Wazni et al, 2021). In this blog, we examine one such opportunity, a Postgraduate Research Showcase and Poster Competition. After outlining the event, we identify some of the challenges around managing the event, explore the benefits of the event for key stakeholders, and consider the potential for further developing the event both in-house and in collaboration with other institutions.

Presenting research via a poster at the Society for Research into Higher Education Conference inspired Jill Dickinson to apply for funding to devise a new Postgraduate Research Showcase and Poster Competition. The aim was to provide an accessible space for students at all stages of their postgraduate studies to share their research, discuss their ideas, prepare for assessments, develop their employability skills (Disney et al, 2015), and build networks. Jill secured internal funding through both the Graduate School and through her role as a Fellow of the Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies, and worked with a colleague from the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Politics (PSP) to launch the event. Recognising the importance of creating opportunities for postgraduate researchers to develop their research profiles, Jill also secured external funding from key organisations, including Oxford University Press, Palgrave, and Blackwells.

Following the trend towards interdisciplinary collaborations (Bridle et al, 2013), students from the Departments of Law and Criminology, Natural and Built Environment, and PSP, and the Centre for Regional, Social and Economic Research were invited to participate. To reflect the conference process, students were asked to submit abstracts for review. Fourteen students presented their work to an audience that included external organisations, doctoral research supervisors, and fellow students. The posters were judged by a panel who awarded prizes for both academic significance and potential impact. One of the winners noted ‘unlike formal conferences, the SIPS PhD Student Poster Event gave presenters the opportunity to engage with attendees on a relaxed one-to-one level. I received plenty of invaluable advice and suggestions which have shaped my PhD going forward.’ After 93% of delegates rated the event as either good or excellent, the initiative became established as an annual event in the Graduate School’s programme.

Since its launch, the event has been developed:

  • with additional funding provided by other organisations, including Emerald and Policy Press;
  • to provide opportunities for all postgraduate researchers from all disciplines across the University;
  • to include a programme of workshops to provide support for students in developing their posters;
  • to encourage the audience to vote on their favourite poster for a Delegates’ Choice Award; and
  • to become a self-perpetuating initiative that is led by, and for, postgraduate researchers.

Over the past five years, the event has provided notable benefits for those involved, including the development of skills, knowledge and experience around: consolidating and presenting ideas in a creative way (Etter and Guardi, 2015; Rowe and Ilac, 2009); explaining research findings in an accessible format for a lay audience; and strengthening confidence in public speaking, which can be particularly helpful for supporting newer student researchers with their teaching responsibilities. Furthermore, postgraduate students have described the event as a key milestone for developing their self-efficacy, particularly around helping them to prepare for their confirmation and viva stages. More broadly, the event recognises the longevity and challenges of postgraduate studies and provides an opportunity for the wider research community to celebrate research success through encouraging positive reflections on what student researchers have done, not what obstacles remain (Batty et al, 2019; Pyhältö , 2012; Sverdlik et al, 2018).

In line with the Students as Partners model (Healey, Flint and Carrington, 2014), Jill invited postgraduate students who have participated in the event to join the organisational team. For example, Ben Archer, co-author of this blog post and winner of the 2019 Delegates’ Choice Award, co-organised the event in 2020. Ben has since led on the arrangements for the 2021 event, inviting other postgraduate student researchers to join him, and the team are already planning next year’s event.

Navigating the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years has, however, proven tricky. The April 2020 showcase had been thoroughly planned, with poster submissions received, rooms booked and display boards pre-ordered, but the organisation team worked quickly to identify and realise an opportunity to incorporate the event within the University-wide Creating Knowledge online conference programme. Following the success of this format, and given the continuing uncertainties presented by the pandemic environment, the organisational committee decided to retain, and further develop, the event within this virtual format. For example, the team extended the time for this year’s event from one hour to three hours to encourage more discussions between the presenters and all members of the audience. In addition, the posters were made available on the SIPS website for two weeks prior to the event to maximise opportunities for receiving feedback and development of profiles. Against a backdrop of reduced networking opportunities necessitated by the pandemic, the continuation of this event facilitated peer-interaction and community-building which can be particularly important given the potential issues identified earlier around postgraduate students’ feelings of  isolation, lack of confidence, and mental health (Hazell et al, 2020).

Building on the event’s sustained success, and despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the organisational team are exploring opportunities for its further development. One idea is to host a blended event that combines an on-campus poster display with online, follow-up presentations. The aim would be to maximise accessibility and engagement with an increased audience that could further build postgraduate researchers’ confidence, employability skills, networking opportunities, and profiles. Additionally, the organisational team are looking to collaborate with other institutions to host a larger scale event that further recognises the breadth and value of social policy research within higher education.

If you are interested in finding out more about the event and ways within which you could get involved, we would really like to hear from you!

Benjamin Archer is a Lecturer in Law at Sheffield Hallam University. He is a Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies and Doctoral Training Alliance joint-funded PhD student, examining the introduction of Public Spaces Protection Orders. Ben’s research interests include anti-social behaviour and the management of greenspaces and high streets. Twitter @benjaminarcher_

Dr Jill Dickinson is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Sheffield Hallam University, who is currently on secondment with the Student Engagement, Evaluation and Research Team. As a Senior Fellow of the HEA, Jill’s research interests include professional development and employability, and she sits on the England Committee for the International Professional Development Association. Twitter @jill_dickinson1


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The Chair

by Paul Temple

The best novel about university life – and I’m afraid this isn’t up for debate – is John Williams’ Stoner. Published in 1965, its setting is the micropolitics of the English department of a US Mid-Western university, from the 1920s to the 1950s: “A terrific novel of echoing sadness” is how Julian Barnes sums it up on the cover of my edition.

The Netflix series The Chair, with the Korean-American actor Sandra Oh (you may have seen her in Killing Eve) as the newly-elected chair of the English department of a “lower-tier Ivy”, has some similarities with Stoner. The story here also revolves around the micropolitics of an English department, exposing the tensions between older academics whose professional lives have centred on a single narrow (but is it?) topic – Melville in one case – and younger ones, notably Bill Dobson, whose popular classes play around with modish themes. (I assume his use of chalk on an actual blackboard – do they really still exist? – is intended to demonstrate iconoclasm.) But whereas the departmental chair in Stoner is creepily vile, in The Chair she exhausts herself with emotional labour (“playing nice” as an exasperated colleague puts it) trying to help everybody, even when that isn’t possible (Dobson’s joke Nazi salute in class doesn’t go down well).

TV dramas set in workplaces such as police stations or hospitals tend to take a single case which absorbs the characters involved to the exclusion of all other business (Line of Duty or Unforgotten, say), sidestepping what must actually be the complex, confusing reality of these settings. That sort of dramatic plotting can’t easily work with universities, which perhaps helps to explain why campus TV adaptations tend to be satire (The History Man) or knockabout comedy (A Very Peculiar Practice). The Chair, though having elements of both satire and comedy, is more nuanced, with the Sandra Oh character having to deal with declining enrolments, preventing Dobson becoming his own worst enemy (unsuccessfully), supporting a black woman in her struggle to gain deserved tenure, as well as coping with single parenthood. In that it portrays the “one damned thing after another” aspect of university management, The Chair is perhaps a more accurate reflection of university life than Line of Duty is of police work, but what do I know? (The issue of faculty tenure, which features significantly in The Chair, interestingly seems to assume quite a lot of prior knowledge of university processes on the part of the viewer: perhaps the producers think that graduates will be the main audience.)

Departmental chairs, or heads of departments in the UK, are classic middle-management jobs, an insulation layer between senior management and the workforce, but usually without the authority or resources to respond effectively to the needs of those for whom they’re supposedly responsible. It’s significant that in both Stoner and The Chair the university top brass feature only as distant, vaguely threatening, entities, divorced from the action at the departmental battlefronts. The main exception in The Chair is the man from Communications, sent over to the department to deal with the “reputational management” issues that Dobson has supposedly created: Dobson here shows hitherto unexpected reserves of restraint by not punching him in the face.

The Chair can be viewed as a case-study of institutional change, with structural pressures of declining enrolments, changing expectations of academic life, and student activism coming into sharp focus at the micro-level of the department. The chair herself becomes the personification of all this, the point around which swirl the conflicting pressures of institutional structures, power distribution, and individuals’ goals. In university life, it’s the detail that counts, and The Chair gets this brilliantly.

They’re apparently thinking of a second series: I’ll be watching.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His latest paper, ‘The University Couloir: exploring physical and intellectual connectivity’, will appear shortly in Higher Education Policy.


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Generous scholarship: a vision for academic life

by Ruth McQuirter Scott, Dragana Martinovic, Snežana Obradović-Ratković and Michelle K McGinn

The life of a scholar is often portrayed in popular culture as one of lonely struggle and pressure. It starts at the postgraduate level, when students work to meet the expectations of their programs and supervisors, jumping one hurdle after another until they complete their studies. If they are fortunate enough to land an increasingly rare full-time academic position, they discover a new set of expectations to fulfill. In application and renewal processes, most universities favour single-authored publications in tier-one journals, along with a research record that shows how the scholar is carving out a unique niche in their respective field. This portrayal of academic life is supported by studies that report pressure to publish, competition, isolation, and managerial influences on academic work (eg Castro-Ceacero and Ion, 2018; Dakka and Wade, 2019; Kyvik and Aksnes, 2015; McCarthy and Dragouni, 2020).

We believe there is a better way of living as academics, one that nurtures the strengths of colleagues and leads to mutual growth for novice and seasoned scholars.

Our group of four academics from two Canadian universities has been collaborating as writers for over 10 years. We represent a variety of roles in academia: professors, a research officer, and a university senior administrator. Since 2007 (until interrupted by the pandemic), we have facilitated residential academic writing retreats, bringing together new and experienced academics, postgraduate students, and outside experts for a week-long writing experience in a rural setting.

At our first writing retreat, we were introduced to the term “generous scholarship” as proposed by Constance Russell (2006). We were intrigued and excited by this term, which we felt captured a central component of the writing retreat and resonated with our approach to scholarly life. Sally Stewart Knowles, a retreat co-facilitator from Australia, was also inspired by the conversation at that 2007 retreat to argue that residential writing retreats foster generous scholarship (Knowles, 2017). Although neither Russell (2006) nor Knowles (2017) provides a clear definition of generous scholarship, we continued to be enticed by the term’s potential. This emerging concept seemed to suggest an intentional, collegial approach to scholarly endeavours that departs from the market-driven, individualistic view of scholarship so commonly present in academia.

To understand what generous scholarship could mean, we systematically examined these and other publications in which “generosity” was mentioned in the context of academia and elicited five key principles that characterize generous scholarship: social praxis, reciprocity, generous mindedness, generous heartedness, and agency.

To illustrate these five principles of generous scholarship, we use the example of our residential academic writing retreats. We provide a short overview of our writing retreat structure, define the five principles, and discuss the ways in which retreat participants enact these principles.

Writing Retreat Structure

Inspired by Barbara Grant’s (2008) model of residential academic writing retreats, our retreats consist of five days dedicated to individual writing projects, workshops, work-in-progress groups, and one-on-one consultations with shared meals and informal gatherings in a natural environment. Although most of the days are spent writing, we carve out time for discussions, reviewing each other’s work, and socializing. Accountability and on-site collegial support are embedded in the retreat structure, which promotes writing process and productivity, fosters learning with and from others, and builds a community (McGinn et al, 2019; Ratković et al, 2019).

Principles of Generous Scholarship

The five working principles frame generous scholarship as intentional, reflective, and collegial academic praxis.

Social praxis. Generous scholarship emerges within collaborative and collegial communities of scholarly practice. Our writing retreats enable participants to live and work together in a shared space. A sense of community is built through scheduled work-in-progress groups and workshops as well as meals, informal conversations, and walks in nature. Many new connections, relationships, and collaborative research and writing teams are established as people meet colleagues at various career stages and from different disciplines, departments, and institutions.

Reciprocity. Interrelations within generous scholarship are based on reciprocity through peer-to-peer learning and non-hierarchical mentoring. A key component of our writing retreats is the work-in-progress groups that meet each evening to present and respond to written work. The groups are mixed in terms of fields of expertise, academic roles, and career stages to provide multiple perspectives and rich discussions. When a writer’s work is being featured, another participant acts as a note taker, enabling the writer to focus on comments and suggestions from the others. Participants take turns over subsequent evenings, with each participant serving as writer, contributor, and note taker. The participatory and interactive workshops provide further evidence of reciprocity in action as participants exchange ideas, knowledge, and experiences.

Generous mindedness. Generous scholarship involves acknowledging other people’s situations or perspectives and committing cognitive resources to advance those individuals and their scholarly work. The workshops during our writing retreats foster generous mindedness as workshop facilitators and participants draw from their varied backgrounds and disciplines to inspire and inform each other’s academic practice. During work-in progress groups, writers are asked what type of feedback they wish to receive. Readers are asked to focus on specific aspects of the draft, or to respond to the overall piece. This practice helps readers to focus their responses and to make their feedback meaningful.

Generous heartedness. Generous scholarship requires empathy and emotional support for others. Generous heartedness has been a key feature of our writing retreats. We are open to adapting workshop content and the retreat structure to the needs of participants, and are flexible in expectations (eg participants spend parts of each day in ways that they deem most useful: reading, resting, or taking walks in nature). Emphasis is placed upon the importance of careful listening and attending to the emotional needs of writers as they share unfinished work during work-in-progress groups. A generous spirit is also fostered among participants through communal meals, informal walks, and evening activities.

Agency. Generous scholarship involves deliberately choosing and taking action to contribute to the scholarly community, the field, and society. It demands consciously embracing and modelling all the principles of generous scholarship. As organisers, we use our agency to structure and facilitate the writing retreats. We also engage as writers and participate in all workshops and work-in-progress groups. Many retreat participants demonstrate their commitment to generous scholarship by returning year after year to this community of scholars. Participants often report creating their own writing groups and retreats. Some have published scholarly work about writing retreats (Winters et al, 2019).

Conclusion

We acknowledge that following the principles of generous scholarship may challenge institutional structures that reward individualistic, competitive approaches; it can be difficult to navigate the logistical and human factors inherent in building a community of scholars. Our own writing retreats face an annual financial challenge, as we must repeatedly convince internal funding providers of their value. However, we are determined to overcome such barriers to enact and enable generous scholarship, and we look forward to returning to our residential writing retreats when pandemic restrictions allow. We have also found that following the principles of generous scholarship enhances, rather than undermines, academic productivity and personal satisfaction (Ratković et al, 2019). Furthermore, we are encouraged by the structures recently built into academia that might provide opportunities and spaces for enacting generous scholarship, such as open-access publishing and knowledge mobilization.

We invite you to consider generous scholarship in your own academic life and to share with SRHE blog readers examples of generous scholarship already present in your practice.

Ruth McQuirter Scott is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada, where she is Assistant Director of Teacher Education and teaches Junior/Intermediate Language Arts. Ruth’s research interests are in the effective infusion of technology in education. Connect via rmcquirter@brocku.ca or on Twitter @wordstudy

Dragana Martinovic is a Professor at University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and a Fields Institute Fellow. In her research, Dragana explores knowledge for teaching mathematics, ways in which technology can assist in teaching and learning of mathematics, and epistemologies of STEM disciplines in relation to teacher and K–12 education. Connect via dragana@uwindsor.ca

Snežana Obradović-Ratković is Research Officer and Instructor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada. Her research interests include migration, indigeneity, and reconciliation; transnational teacher education; research education; decolonizing arts-based methodologies; mindfulness and well-being in higher education; academic writing and publishing; and generous scholarship. Connect via sratkovic@brocku.ca

Michelle K McGinn is Associate Vice-President Research and Professor of Education at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Her primary interests include research collaboration, researcher development, scholarly writing, and ethics in academic practice. She is a co-investigator for Academic Researchers in Challenging Times. Connect via Twitter @dr_mkmcginn or mmcginn@brocku.ca

References

Grant, B (2008) Academic writing retreats: A facilitator’s guide. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia

Knowles, SS (2017) ‘Communities practising generous scholarship: Cultures of collegiality in academic writing retreats’ in McDonald, J and Cater-Steel, A (eds), Implementing communities of practice in higher education (pp 53–80) Springer

McGinn, MK, Ratković, S, Martinovic, D, and McQuirter Scott, R (2019) ‘Creating and sustaining a community of academic writing practice: The multi-university residential academic writing retreat model’ in Simmons, N and Singh, A (eds) Critical collaborative communities: Academic writing partnerships, groups, and retreats (pp 136–148) Brill/Sense

Winters, K-L, Wiebe, N, and Saudelli, MG (2019) ‘Writing about writing: Collaborative writing and photographic analyses from an academic writing retreat’ in Simmons, N and Singh, A (eds), Critical collaborative communities: Academic writing partnerships, groups, and retreats (pp 149–168) Brill/Sense.

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge Jeanne Adèle Kentel for first introducing us to Russell’s (2006) use of the term “generous scholarship.” We extend our thanks to the many colleagues who have practised generous scholarship alongside us during the writing retreats and in other academic spaces. Details about our analysis process and an elaborated discussion of the principles of generous scholarship are presented in a paper currently under review for publication. Authorship of this blog and the associated paper has been shared equally.

Ian Mc Nay


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Critical management studies

by Ian McNay

My thanks to Rob Cuthbert in the July issue of SRHE News for his generous comments in trailing a (possibly) forthcoming article treating TEF and, mainly, REF through a triple lens of capitalism, competition and competence in policy making and implementation. Some newer researchers may find some consolation in its history. Given that I have led workshops on ‘Getting in to print’ for SRHE, it has been a salutary and frustrating/irritating experience, for someone whose recent writing and publication has been mainly by invitation.

It started, as many articles do, in a presentation to an SRHE research seminar in the autumn of 2019. My procrastination, and demands from other work, delayed crafting that in to an article, which was submitted in early summer 2020. It took a second reviewer over 4 months to submit a report dismissing it as ‘bold and bombastic’, adding nothing to existing knowledge. The other reviewer was kinder and more constructive but the editor rejected it in October. One blow to the self-esteem, but ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself off…’. I accepted the second reviewer’s view that there was a need for a clearer message and tighter structure.

Submission of a revised version went to a different journal in early March 2021. Again, there were two reviewers. One I quote in full:

“Thank you for the opportunity to review your article. I found your argument carefully crafted and supported. It is a captivating read and throws a very strong light on the distortions created by unintended (and intended!) consequences of the ‘research game’. I think it will be very well received by an international audience, especially by those institutions wondering why their high quality research is undermined.”

The second said:

“Your topic … would be of interest to international readers, many of whom will be experiencing similar issues in their own institutions. Your conception of the article is exciting and it is well worth writing about … [it] has the potential to add to the body of knowledge and be of value to readers. However…”

They then made useful criticisms, comments and suggestions on improving it.

That was in May, with the overall judgement that it needed ‘minor modifications’; I revised and re-submitted in early June. Towards the end of July, I got a second lot of feedback, from two people not previously involved, so with no continuity of engagement. One thought it had ‘few references to specific policies or policy documents’ – 14 are cited – and needed more underpinning to support the argument and give balance. Nevertheless, they thought the article ‘an interesting one which raises important issues and deserves to be published’. The second, I again quote in full:

“Thank you for the opportunity to review your article. It packs a punch and boy, is it needed! I sincerely enjoyed your paper, reads like an express train – loved it! I think it will stir up the debate – I shall look forward to it! :)”

I submitted a slightly amended script in early August and, at the end of the month, was told there would be a final decision within two weeks. It is now October, and two referees, as well as Rob, and Rajani Naidoo, who chaired the original seminar, think highly of it. I had been worried that the latest REF results would appear before it is published, but they will now come out on May 22nd, so there is time. A dilemma – do I contact the busy editor again and risk it being seen as harassment, or wait for the process to grind through?

Briefly, on content, the use of Lisa Lucas’s ‘research game’ leads to comparisons with soccer, where the Guardian’s top 100 footballers in December had 32 who play in the English Premier league, but only 6 are qualified for England, and one for Scotland. In HE, over half of full time research students are international and according to UUK 48% of ‘research-only staff’ in 2018 were not born in the UK, where graduates are loaded with debt. As with truck drivers, we have imported to cover a lack of development (as in soccer and in county cricket), but post Brexit entry conditions, particularly visa controls and minimum salary, will reduce that possibility considerably. As with cricket, concentration on the short form, where the money is, may have prevented the development of longer form – blue skies research or five day tests – because of deadlines and targets. Rugby union coach Eddie Jones was quoted in 2018 saying that the team captain ‘can captain England with a rule of fear’.

In some HEIs, that seems to be the approach to research and the REF. One press comment on the subsequent match – defeat by France – said that the reason the team underperformed was that ‘they lacked autonomy and freedom from external control … it all feels overly managed’. Researchers, too, have lost control of the means of research production and distribution (publication). In my article a final comparison was made with the European Song Contest – not strictly a game, but a competition – where some panels tend vote for ‘people like us’ and assessment of quality gets entangled with tribal loyalty.

My elder son is also having trouble with senior managers over researchers and research students. He heads the Behavioral Neuroscience Area in a federal state university in the USA, where the comparable stipend for comparable students in other institutions within the federal university is up to 50% higher, creating low morale and difficulties in recruiting the best students, which will affect the university’s rating as a level 1 institution. Even students in the same lab have higher stipends because they are classified as STEM students, though both groups do similar work, often together. After 18 months of trying to engage with senior management, he took the decision to stop recruiting. That finally got an email response, which appeared to be simply: ‘if you do that you will have to do more undergraduate teaching’.

Finally and briefly, I anticipate that 18 months of home working will lead senior managers to try to save on estate costs and have teaching staff timetables structured to allow ‘Box and Cox’ arrangements with paired staff sharing a single desk and computer – much worse than the UEA situation reported in the recent Private Eye. There will be 2-3 days designated as ‘presentism’ days and 2-3 designated as ‘home-based’.

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

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English higher education policy: hope and pay

by Rob Cuthbert

The long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle offers a faint hope for some improvement in HE policymaking in England: there is of course plenty of room for it. Former Secretary of State Gavin Williamson never recovered from the A-levels debacle of 2020, having already been held in low esteem before then. His standing in the HE sector was at a record low after a series of increasingly frenetic measures which seemed more like attempts to curry favour with the Conservative Party and the right wing press than coherent policy initiatives. Those measures included T-levels in post-16 education, a consultation on initial teacher training reform, the Free Speech Bill working its way through Parliament, comments on post-Covid behaviour by universities, rumoured moves on HE tuition fees, and various initiatives taken by the Office for Students in response to the Secretary of State’s frequent ‘guidance’ letters.

Announcing his departure on Twitter, Williamson said it had been a pleasure to serve in the role and that he was proud of the “transformational reforms” he had led in post-16 education. FE and schools begged to differ. A coalition of influential education bodies had written to Gavin Williamson about his T-level proposals on 29 July 2021 saying: “It is impossible to square the government’s stated ambition to ‘level up’ opportunity with the proposal to scrap most BTECs, including all larger versions of the qualifications that are deemed to overlap with A levels or T levels (86% of respondents to the review disagreed with your proposal to remove funding for qualifications on this basis) … Many young people will be adversely affected by this proposal, but disadvantaged students have the most to lose, a conclusion that your Department’s own equalities impact assessment supports.” We can hope that the new DfE team will think again.

Similarly, the consultation on ITT has been universally criticised. Oxford and Cambridge suggested in response that they might pull out of ITT provision, and two senior former inspectors savaged the recent Ofsted inspections purporting to justify proposed reforms. Anna McKie reported for Times Higher Education on 3 August 2021, and Terry Russell and Julie Price Grimshaw blogged about ITT inspections in July 2021 for Teach Best: “The reports show that the evidence base for the judgements made are flimsy in the extreme, repetitive, poorly written, hyper-critical, demoralising and humiliating. It is totally unacceptable that programme leaders across the whole sector, who have turned themselves inside out for two years in order to ensure that trainees get the best possible deal, can be treated like this. We know that some course leaders have suffered illness and extreme anxiety as a direct result of these inspections. Already we are seeing providers taking the decision to close.” A strongly negative response from MillionPlus on 20 August 2021 called for the ‘reform’ to be ‘paused’: “If change is forced through in spite of a near-unanimous sector backlash, it is likely that numerous modern universities, currently the backbone of initial teacher training, will re-consider their provision in this area. This could critically damage the pipeline of new teachers into the profession, potentially hitting hardest the very regions and communities the government has pledged to level up.” Caroline Daly (UCL) blogged for UCL on 13 August 2021: “This is no time for a mass experiment on teacher education”. We might hope that the new DfE team will quietly let this one disappear.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill currently before Parliament embodies the culture wars so popular in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and is reported on more fully elsewhere in this issue of SRHE News. Whatever its supposed merits, we can but hope that the slavish desire to cater to right wing prejudice will be tempered somewhat in the new DfE team.

The installation of Lord Wharton as chair of the Office for Students, and his refusal to stop taking the Tory whip in the Lords, meant that OfS was never going to be the kind of independent regulator required by statute; recent OfS initiatives have reinforced those feelings. The preliminary OfS consultation on a range of quality and standards issues during the winter of 2020-21 was followed by a further consultation published on 21 July 2021. This made detailed proposals about new regulatory requirements, saying: “the UK Quality Code, including its common practices, advice and guidance, risks creating a homogeneous approach to quality and standards assurance that stifles innovation and overly focuses on policy and process rather than outcomes for students. By contrast, our intention is to establish an approach to regulation that protects all students through the articulation of a clear minimum baseline for quality and standards in the regulatory framework, while enabling competition, student choice, provider autonomy and innovation to develop freely above the baseline.”

Picking their way through the weasel words, David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson of WonkHE summed up (on 20 July 2021) its intention as being to sweep away the existing Quality Code, “a longstanding agreed sector standard developed by the Quality Assurance Agency … on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (kind of the sector’s representative body on quality assurance). The code is short, clear, comprehensible … Everybody knows where they are with it (from PSRBs to providers), it is popular, UK-wide, and internationally recognised. And it’s symbolic – insofar as it is a piece of co-regulation.” The first consultation spoke of “up-to-date” content and “effective” assessment. Perhaps this was, as Kernohan and Dickinson said, “meant to give providers flexibility to make their own decisions  … [but] in practice it made them concerned that their definitions of these terms may not match the regulator’s own impressions.”

The Teaching Excellence Framework was evaluated in unflattering terms by the independent review reluctantly accepted by DfE as part of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. That review, completed long ago but published much more recently, seemed to have put TEF in the deep freeze, but OfS now envisages a new-style TEF as an enforcement mechanism for its new ‘definitions’ of quality and standards. The WonkHE writers conclude: “As usual, there’s little on making students feel more powerful – but plenty for OfS.” The attempted reassurance in the OfS blog by Director of Regulation Susan Lapworth on 20 July 2021 failed to persuade, and the THE pronouncement on the same day by OfS chair Lord Wharton that “Good universities have nothing to fear from the OfS’ quality crackdown” smacked more of loyalty oaths than higher education standards.

Those suspicions were fuelled, to put it mildly, when OfS issued on 7 October 2021 probably its most fatuous review to date, about spelling, punctuation and grammar. This followed a series of media scare stories earlier in 2021 about universities supposedly being told that ‘cutting marks for bad spelling is elitist’, as the Mail on Sunday headline had it on 11 April 2021. Minister Michele Donelan duly deplored such alleged behaviour in the House of Commons, as Jim Dickinson noted in his WonkHE blog on 7 October 2021. OfS then conducted a review over Summer 2021 in “a small number of higher education providers … focused on spelling, punctuation and grammar in written assessment” identifying a “cause for regulatory concern”. There will always be stories and cases of daft behaviour by some universities, on issues like spelling, just as on issues like freedom of speech. They need to be dealt with proportionately and the regulator must decide whether there is a substantive case to answer for the whole sector. Here the OfS jumped to the remarkable conclusion that “The common features we have seen in the small number of cases in this review suggest that the practices and approaches we have set out in the case studies may be widespread across the sector.” This is not an independent regulator, this is a body in a hurry to do what it thinks the Minister wants. We can hope that the new DfE team might discourage such excessive compliance, led as it now is by someone who made a success of asking different people for their opinions.

Williamson’s last turn in HE was his speech at the Universities UK conference in Newcastle in September, when he urged universities to get back to in-person face to face teaching – speaking by videolink (!) as Times education editor Nicola Woolcock reported on 9 September 2021. Richard Adams, The Guardian’s education editor, described his speech as ‘combative’: Williamson “accused some universities of being more interested in “cancelling national heroes” and bureaucracy than improving the lives of students and staff, telling vice-chancellors they risk undermining public confidence in higher education.” He went on to attack universities with high drop-out rates and announced that “in the future institutions in England would not be able to count disadvantaged students enrolled on courses with high non-continuation rates towards meeting their access targets.” The Secretary of State’s willingness to take on the universities, albeit remotely, was not of course sufficient to save his job. We can hope that the faux outrage of the culture wars and the faux consultations on decisions already made might give way in future to something more approaching evidence-based policy and proper consultation.

The signs are that real politics might be re-emerging. The restructuring of the DfE entailed the abolition of the role of Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills. This seemed to run contrary to levelling up, as the FE News report on 15 September 2021 noted, with Toby Perkins, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Further Education and Skills, quoted as saying: “Skills shortages are holding our economy back. For all his warm words, the Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the dedicated skills minister shows he isn’t serious about reskilling our workforce for the future.” But the SoS has a track record in this area, so this at least sounds like a reasonable difference of opinion about how to achieve a policy objective.

More fundamentally, we are expecting what the media call an ‘overhaul’ of HE funding, as Richard Adams wrote in The Guardian on 9 July 2021. The options might include tuition-fee cuts, a cap on student numbers for some courses and minimum qualifications for HE entry, in a much-delayed response to the Augar review of tertiary funding. After Covid the government, of course, needs to find or save a great deal of money and the student loan system is a prime target. After long-running disagreements between No 10, DfE and the Treasury over how to achieve savings, there were straws in the wind as first Nick Hillman for HEPI on 10 June 2021 and then David Willetts (in HEPI Report 142) on 30 September 2021 spelt out the possibilities for savings, supposedly while ‘boosting HE spending’ according to Willetts. Consider these – however unpalatable – as the centrist Tory case for savings: it amounts to ‘make graduates pay more’. A different position would involve fee reductions, meaning funding cuts for institutions, student number caps and/or minimum entry qualifications, restricting access and HE numbers. The latter was more likely to have been adopted by the former DfE regime. We can hope there are higher chances now of the more ‘moderate’ course.

The new Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi arrives with a better reputation than his predecessor, and there have been significant ministerial changes at DfE, not least the departure after a very long tenure of Nick Gibb as schools minister. However Michele Donelan remains and has been promoted as Universities Minister, adding post-16 responsibilities to her brief, and she will in future attend Cabinet. She remains something of a blank canvas, having until now loyally followed her SoS’s lead. More worryingly, former Gavin Williamson special adviser Iain Mansfield tweeted on 2 October 2021: “Delighted to be able to confirm that I will be staying on in Government, as Special Adviser to Michelle Donelan, Minister for Higher and Further Education”, as ResearchProfessionalNews had divined some weeks earlier. Mansfield was formerly a DfE civil servant known principally as the architect of the first version of TEF, later as an evidence-defying supporter of grammar schools. And of course Lord Wharton remains as chair of the OfS.

We can only hope that there will at least be something of a return to more sensible politics as the new ministerial team settles in. We can be fairly sure that hard times are coming for HE funding in the government spending review, with institutions, staff, students and graduates paying the price. So there it is, the short term future for higher education policy in England: hope and pay.

SRHE News Editor Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com. Twitter @RobCuthbert

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Professor Gareth Williams – his contribution to British higher education

Gareth Williams came from a family of Welsh schoolteachers – both parents, brother and sister. At age 11 he won a scholarship to Framlingham College in Suffolk, from where he later won a place at St John’s College, Cambridge to read economics. On graduation, as the result of an undergraduate paper on the economics of education contributed to the Cambridge Political Economy Society, he was appointed to a research post at the Agricultural Economics Research Unit at Oxford. From there he moved on to his first love, the economics of education, in a post in OECD working on econometric models of education, including the application of forecasting models. In 1968 he became Joint Director of the Higher Education Research Unit, the group which had worked under Claus (Lord) Moser on the statistics and forecasts of the Robbins Committee which had now transferred to LSE. Five years later at the age of 37 he was appointed at Lancaster as Professor of Educational Planning and Director of the Institute for Research and Development in Post Compulsory Education. In 1984 he accepted an invitation to join the Institute of Education (now part of UCL) as Professor of Educational Administration where he established the Centre for Higher Education Studies (CHES) which became a leading centre for research and policy studies in the field. On his retirement Ron Barnett, Paul Temple and Peter Scott edited a festschrift, Valuing Higher Education (UCL Institute of Education Press 2016) which brought together contributions from academic colleagues from around the world stimulated by his work.

Gareth’s move from OECD to LSE gave him the opportunity to broaden his interests in higher education policy from the more technical work on which he was engaged in Paris. A good example of this was his keynote chapter, ‘The scale of expansion to come’ written with Richard (now Lord) Layard in the enormously influential Penguin Special, Patterns and Policies in Higher Education (Brosan, G, Carter, C, Layard, R and Williams, G 1971). A single passage on the value of forecasting – the chapter was mainly concerned with the Department of Education and Science’s (DES) failure in this – captures Gareth’s authentic voice as an economic generalist and policy scholar:

“Forecasting is not an academic pursuit to be judged by whether it gives rise to true or false propositions. It is an operational exercise to be judged by whether it gives rise to better decisions than would have been taken without it. So long as there is planning, that is to say an organised attempt to achieve consistency between the activities of different agents, there must be forecasting.”

While at LSE he also produced, in conjunction with Tessa Blackstone and David Metcalf, the influential The Academic Labour Market. Economic and social aspects of a profession (Elsevier 1974) a far cry from the econometric modelling of countries like Greece which he had undertaken at OECD. Years later his inaugural lecture at the Institute, ‘New Ways of Paying the Piper’ again illustrated how he could employ an exploration of policy, informed by economics, to stimulate fresh ideas.

The editors of the Valuing Higher Education festschrift bring out effectively the extent to which his work extends beyond a narrow economic approach ‘to take a broad and inter connected view’ of policy issues and they list a series of quotations from Gareth’s works which are well worth recalling both from the perspective of when written and from the travails of today:

“The main weakness of the market model results from its possible effects on the supply of educational services ….unrestricted competition can lead to reductions in quality as institutions indulge in price competition and hard selling tactics” (in Clark, BR (Ed) Perspectives in Higher Education, University of California Press 1984, p 97).

“The relationship between higher education institutions and the society which surrounds them is a reciprocal one. It is a partnership … any government that attempts to use its control of the purse as a way of controlling academic life risks having a very mediocre intellectual elite and graduates who are unable to take initiatives” (Williams, G Changing Patterns of Finance in Higher Education Open University Press 1992 p 85).

“A university that divorces itself entirely from society rapidly becomes an irrelevant ivory tower [but] equally, one that only responds to outside pressures cannot perform its proper function of disinterested scholarship, research and criticism….[However] there is no single correct balance between the two extremes” (ibid).

One of Gareth’s great abilities was a facility to disentangle long range policy issues, a skill well demonstrated in the book quoted from above. His views were frequently sought by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee and a good example of his understanding of the issues surrounding system change can be found in a paper he wrote for the Committee in 2000 setting out his thoughts on these long term questions:

“The critical public policy challenges for the next decade are:

  • To set acceptable ground rules for institutional differentiation so as to continue to meet the claims of international recognised excellence in research and teaching while increasing social inclusion and encouraging lifelong learning.
  • To seize the opportunities offered by information technology to improve the quality of learning and reduce unit costs further while maintaining and enhancing appropriate standards across the sector.
  • To improve the funding arrangements and to promote better understanding of the relationship between public and private funding.”

(House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Employment, paper HE27, 2000)

Looking back from a standpoint of now 20 years or so it is difficult to fault his analysis and its continuing relevance.

As a major figure both in the UK and the international scholarly community it was natural that Gareth would play a leading role in the affairs of SRHE. He was chair of the Society for two periods, 1977-79 and 1986-88, served for a period as General Editor of the Higher Education Quarterly and became an Honorary Fellow of the Society. For 15 years (1984-1999) he and I jointly chaired a bi-monthly SRHE Policy Forum which Gareth hosted at the Institute. But undoubtedly his largest contribution was as Director of the Leverhulme Programme of Study into the Future of Higher Education 1980-1983. This was conceived by Gareth who also took responsibility for leading the campaign to resource the Study.

By 1980 the furthest extension of the Robbins student number forecasts had been reached and the latest publication from the Department of Education and Science had suggested a fall thereafter; the government was showing no interest in any follow up inquiry. Persuaded by Gareth, the Society took up the challenge, an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking for it to have contemplated. The Study, funded by the Leverhulme Foundation with some contribution from the Gulbenkian Foundation, consisted of a series of seminars, each chaired by someone senior from outside higher education, with invited speakers who for a fee presented well researched findings in the specialist topic of the seminar. The Study extended over two and a half years and was concluded by a single policy meeting which made a wide ranging set of recommendations. Each seminar was the subject of a full report in the Times Higher Education Supplement and in book form in the name of the seminar convenor. The success of the Programme lay in the seminars and their related publications, the product of what one American participant described as ‘the rolling Leverhulme crap game’, rather than in the final recommendations, because what it did was to open higher education policy issues to wider discussion and induct a range of participants into the practice of debating them. Peter Brooke, the Minister for Higher Education called it ‘probably the most systematic review of [UK] higher education policy by an organisation outside government that has ever been undertaken’ (Shattock M, SRHE, 1990).

The Leverhulme process of expert seminars showed Gareth at his best. A superb lecturer and teacher, his reputation also depended on his interventions from the audience in conferences, colloquia and seminars up and down the country and internationally. An accomplished debating agent provocateur he was never happier than putting forward alternative and plausible arguments against those advanced by the speaker, and always with good humour, suggesting contrary points of view. He had the unique ability to turn a rather plodding address into a lively discussion bristling with further questions and counter propositions. He brought a sense of intellectual challenge which the higher education community will very much miss.

Gareth was responsible for my invitation to a visiting position at the Institute in 1999. One outcome was the MBA in Higher Education Management in 2002 of which we were Joint Directors and Paul Temple was a key member of the team (and a later Joint Director of the programme with David Watson) The MBA differentiated itself from MA programmes in higher education because it approached topics via a management perspective while retaining a strong scholarly approach. We wanted it to breathe some new life into the running of institutions and higher education systems in these difficult times. As a programme it flourished, with many of its participants going on to high ranking positions in the system. Gareth brought to the programme just those characteristics of robust questioning of established nostra and the need for open discussion of issues that he brought to his academic life as a whole.

The British higher education community has lost a key scholar and communicator of ideas with a unique impact on research, teaching and policy in higher education.

Michael Shattock

Michael Shattock is a Visiting Professor at the UCL Institute of Education and an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Education at Oxford. His latest book, with Aniko Horvath, is ‘The Governance of British Higher Education: The impact of governmental, financial and market pressures’.


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Quality teacher educators for the delivery of quality education

by Desiree Antonio

A spectrum of interesting critical issues related to ‘quality’ were brought to light during the SRHE Academic Practice Network conference on 22-23 June 2021. The conference Qualifying the debate on quality attracted my attention and I was keen to share my perspectives on the implications of having quality teacher educators in order to produce quality classroom teachers.

 My substantive work as an Education Officer, supervising principals and teachers in our schools and secondly as an Adjunct Lecturer teaching student teachers in a Bachelors of Education Programme, positioned me an inside observer and participant in this phenomenon. My doctoral thesis (2020) explored teacher educators’ perceptions about their continuing professional development and their experiences as they transitioned into and assumed roles as teacher educators. Hence, I am quite pleased to write this blog that captures the essence of my presentation from the conference.  

Ascribing the label of “quality” to education has different meanings and interpretations in different conditions and settings. ‘Quality’ depends on geographical boundaries and contexts, with consideration given to quality assurance, regulations and established standards using certain measures (Churchward and Willis, 2018). Attaining ‘quality’ can therefore be elusive, especially when we try to address all the layers within an education system. The United Nations sustainable development goal number 4 is aimed at offering ‘quality’ education for all in an inclusive and equitable climate. But this quality education is to be provided by teachers, with no mention (as is generally the case) of the direct input of teacher educators who sit at the apex of the ‘quality chain’. These teacher educators work in higher education institutions and are tasked with the responsibility of formally preparing quality classroom teachers. The classroom teachers in turn would ensure that our students receive this inclusive equitable quality education within schools and other learning institutions.

Although the lack of attention to teacher educators’ professional development is now receiving more attention, as reported in the literature, this once forgotten group of professionals who make up a distinct group within the education sector need to receive constant support and continuous professional development. This attention will enable  them to offer improved quality service to their student teachers.  Without giving teacher educators the support and attention they deserve, quality education cannot be realised in our classrooms. Sharma (2019) reminds us that every child deserves quality classroom teachers.

Responsibilities of teacher educators

An understanding of what teacher educators are expected to do is therefore critical, if we are to recognize their value in the quality chain. Darling-Hammond (2006) opines that teacher educators must have knowledge of their learners and their social context, knowledge of content and of teaching. Furthermore, Kosnik et al (2015) explain that they should have knowledge of pedagogy in higher education, research and government initiatives. Teacher educators must also have knowledge of teachers’ lives, what it is like to teach children and also the teachers of children; they therefore should have had the experience of being teachers (Bahr and Mellor, 2016). In essence, they should be equipped with teachers’ knowledge and skills, in addition to what they should know and do as teacher educators. It appears that the complexity of teacher educators’ work is usually underestimated and devalued. This is evidenced especially when it is taken for granted that good classroom teachers are suitably qualified to become teacher educators and that they do not require formal training and continued differentiated support as they transition and work as teacher educators in higher education.

Improving the quality of teacher educators’ work   

Targeted continuing professional development (CPD) of different types and forms that address different purposes according to teacher educators’ needs and that of their institutions is suggested. I have recommended (Antonio, 2019) a multidimensional approach to teacher educators’ CPD. This approach takes into consideration forms of CPD (informal, formal and communities of practice); types of CPD (site-based, standardised and self-directed); and purposes of CPD – transmissive, malleable and transformative proposed by Kennedy (2014). Teacher educators must have a voice in determining the combination and nature of their CPD. Notwithstanding, there needs to be a ‘quality barometer’ which gives various stakeholders the opportunity to assist in guiding their development. Their CPD must have relevance in this 21st century era.

Interventions as a necessity

The idea that teacher educators are self-made, good classroom teachers who can transmit these skills and knowledge into higher education institutions without formal training as teacher educators should be examined decisively. Systems need to be established for teacher educators to be formally trained at levels beyond that of ordinary classroom teachers. However, their CPD should be fostered under the experienced supervision of professors who themselves have been proven to be 21st Century aware in the areas of technological pedagogical content knowledge, as well as other soft skills. No one should be left untouched in our quest to providing quality education for all. We must be serious in simultaneously addressing the delivery of quality education at every level of education systems. Our children deserve quality classroom teachers and quality teacher educators hold the key.

Desirée Antonio is Education Officer, School Administration within the Ministry of Education, Sports and Creative Industries, Antigua and Barbuda. She has been an educator for nearly 40 years. Her current work involves the supervision of teachers and principals, providing professional development and contributing to policy development. She has a keen interest in Continuing Professional Development as a strategy that can be used to assist in responding to the ever-changing challenging and complex environment in which we work as educators.

As an Adjunct Lecturer, University of the West Indies, Five Islands Campus, Desirée teaches student teachers in a Bachelors of Education Programme. Her doctoral thesis explored the continuing professional development of teacher educators who work in the region of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States. Her involvement over the past year in many webinars and workshops with SRHE inspired her to develop and host an inaugural virtual research symposium on behalf of the Ministry of Education in May 2021, with the next to be held in 2022.

References

Antonio, D (2019) Continuing Professional Development (CPD) of Teacher Educators (TEs) within the ecological environment of the island territories of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) PhD thesis submitted in accordance with the requirements of the University of Liverpool

Bahr, N and Mellor, S (2016) ‘Building quality in teaching and teacher education’ in Acer, ACER Press. https://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=aer

Churchward, P, and Willis, J (2018) ‘The pursuit of teacher quality: identifying some of the multiple discourses of quality that impact the work of teacher educators’ Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 47(3): 251–264 https://doi.org/10.1080/1359866X.2018.1555792

Darling-Hammond, L (2006) Constructing 21st-Century Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 57(3), 300–314. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022487105285962

Kennedy, A (2014) ‘Understanding continuing professional development: the need for theory to impact on policy and practice’ Professional Development in Education, 40(5), 688–697 https://doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2014.955122

Kosnik, C., Menna, L., Dharamshi, P, Miyata, C, Cleovoulou, Y, and Beck, C (2015) ‘Four spheres of knowledge required: an international study of the professional development of literacy/English teacher educators’ Journal of Education for Teaching, 41(April 2015): 52–77 https://doi.org/10.1080/02607476.2014.992634

Sharma, R (2020) ‘Ensuring quality in Teacher Education’ EPRA International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research (IJMR) 5(10)


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Caring Chairing: Tips for Effective Chairing in Online Spaces

By Dr Sinéad Murphy

Whatever your degree of experience in chairing meetings, discussions, or conference sessions, the last 18 months or so have likely been a learning curve as we moved rapidly into managing these exchanges in online spaces. We at SRHE have moved all our events, seminars, and training workshops online as of March 2020, and have worked hard to ensure our online sessions are engaging, inclusive, and productive.

With our first ever virtual edition of the annual SRHE International Conference coming up on 6th – 10th December, we would like to share some of the best practice we have learned about chairing. We intend to put this in place at our conference, and look forward to supporting those who may be new to chairing conference sessions, whether online or otherwise. We would love to hear your own tips and ideas on effective chairing in the comments.

Before the session

  • Chairing online sessions is a far more enjoyable experience when you are not distracted by technical difficulties: we advise meeting your speakers in advance of the session start time to check any audio-visuals and screen-sharing functionality. Ensure that you have some familiarity with the platform you are using, and that you have some knowledge of basic troubleshooting or some technical support available (at SRHE, for instance, one or more staff members are always on hand to provide this during online sessions). For more presenting tips, you might like to take a look at our previous post on online academic presentations here.
  • Liaising with your speakers on the schedule and session format and factoring in well-timed comfort breaks will help you to run a session which is both punctual and relaxed for everyone involved.
  • Ensure that you are pronouncing your speakers’ names correctly, and have given them an opportunity to let you know how they prefer to be introduced and addressed.
  • Decide on the availability of presentation materials in advance, and ensure speakers are aware of and in agreement with this policy.
  • Taking notes in a session may be useful for participants to reflect on later. Decide in advance whether you as chair have capacity to do this, or if you would prefer to draw on a colleague for support. Could the session be recorded and/or written up afterwards and shared on the relevant website or other virtual platform?

During the session

  • Begin the session by clearly communicating the format and structure of the event, and the rules of engagement – ensure that participants know how and when they are welcome to turn their cameras/microphones on and off, how and when they can interject or ask for help, and how to address the speakers.
  • Timekeeping is essential to effective chairing. Although online formats present a promising opportunity to overcome the barriers some participants face in attend some events in person, it’s important to remember that most participants will be juggling competing responsibilities and working from shared or confined spaces. The chair should lead the way in ensuring that both speakers and attendees respect and adhere to the session schedule. Wherever possible, any changes to timings and format should be communicated ahead to all participants.
  • Managing the discursive aspects of an online session is a key element of productive chairing. In online spaces, the chair will often be required to monitor the written chat as well as being alert to raised hands and other forms of interjection – ensure that you seek support or a co-chair in advance of the session if this is too much juggling for you, or if you are leading a session with a large number of participants. As chair, adding a question to the chat box early on in the session can help to mitigate any reticence among participants about contributing to the discussion.
  • During discussions, the chair should take the initiative to redirect questions where necessary, whether to engage all the speakers, to avoid the discussion becoming too niche or exclusionary, or to encourage participants to reframe comments into questions. Consider the diversity of the session attendees when you select people to answer questions – for example, if women or BAME attendees are in the minority, try to ensure their voices are heard.
  • Take care to use gender-neutral language for anyone whose form of address is not known to you.
  • Software such as Slido or Mentimeter can be useful to facilitate questions in a way that does not require participants to speak individually/aloud.
  • If a participant elects to use the chat box, avoid calling on them to ask their question aloud; likewise, it’s advisable not to mandate that attendees participate in the discussion with their camera turned on.
  • Although discussions in online space can be fast-paced and require focussed attention, they also provide opportunities for collaboration. You might consider encouraging participants to share contact information, generate a collaborative reference list, or continue the discussion on social media or other platforms.

Ending the meeting

  • You may find that there are attendees who feel unable to fully participate at the time for whatever reason, or who require time to process the content of the session and formulate their contribution. These attendees can benefit from mechanisms which allow the discussion to continue beyond the event. The chair might consider collating unasked or unanswered questions and communicating them to the speaker(s) by e-mail, to make the responses available to participants later.
  • Provided the speakers are comfortable with this, the chair should ensure that attendees are aware of how they can contact the speakers outside of the session.
  • Closing the session with a summarising statement or a comment which draws the different insights offered during the discussion is a very effective way to leave attendees with food for thought about what could follow from the session.
  • As well as thanking everyone, you might consider signposting attendees to the next session on the programme, or a subsequent event on the same topic or by the same speaker(s).
  • Ensure that participants are aware of how they can offer feedback about the session. At SHRE, we circulate an evaluation form after each of our events and these help us to understand what our membership and wider community would benefit from.

We hope you find these guidelines helpful in preparing for our conference and for the online activities you will engage in this coming academic year. We are looking forward to seeing what new opportunities our virtual conference will provide – it takes place 6th – 10th December and registration is open here. We will be updating our conference pages with more information about the programme in the new academic year. If you have your own ideas for a contribution to the blog, we would love to hear from you!

Sinéad Murphy is the Manager, Conferences and Events for the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) and is responsible for SRHE’s events, workshops, professional development programme, and annual international conference. She holds an AHRC-funded PhD in Comparative Literature from King’s College London, and is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.


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Extracurricular activities: does paid work count?

by Teri-Lisa Griffiths, Dr Jill Dickinson, and Catherine Day

The continued diversification of the student body means that students are engaged with a range of extracurricular activities, both on and off-campus. Our recently published research explores how these experiences impact student self-efficacy, that is participants’ perceptions of their ability to carry out a range of tasks associated with academic success. Here we discuss some of the key findings from the research and pose additional questions in the context of recent events.

Context

With the continued focus on graduate employability and outcomes, the benefit of extracurricular activity (‘ECA’) engagement is often promoted as a way for students to strengthen applications for opportunities following graduation. ECAs are considered useful for the development of students’ ‘soft skills’; those skills which are transferable, and which may help at the beginning of students’ graduate careers. The authors’ previous research illustrated how students have absorbed this message, and they often seek out opportunities which they perceive as valuable for their future career as a result. Students tend to be engaged in a variety of ECAs including: student activist and representative activity, work experience and internships, sport, and special interest groups. Following calls to expand understanding of what constitutes a legitimate ECA, and to include those who engage with activities necessitated by their personal circumstances, our study accepted any activity undertaken outside of timetabled classes as an ECA. To expand on this approach, we will explore the activity of paid work in some detail in this blog, as well as outlining some of the key findings of our study.

Student self-efficacy

Our study drew on the concept of self-efficacy, a person’s own belief in their ability to carry out particular tasks within specific domains, to understand more about how ECAs might confer benefits to students in higher education. Utilising and adapting a measure by Bandura, we asked respondents to rank their ability to carry out tasks related to success at university, including academic self-efficacy (eg I can get myself to study when there are more interesting things to do), external reach (I can make contact with professionals working in careers which interest me), relatedness (I can work well in a group) and help seeking (I can get tutors to help me when I get stuck on coursework). Although self-efficacy is believed to be restricted to specific domains, there is a hypothesis that high self-efficacy in one domain may positively influence self-efficacy in other domains, provided that the individual sees similarities between the activities carried out within each. We measured respondents’ student self-efficacy at two separate points in the academic year to understand more about how ECA engagement may influence student self-efficacy beliefs over time.

The impact of extracurricular activities on student self-efficacy

Our findings demonstrated a moderate relationship between higher self-efficacy and engagement with ECAs. All respondents experienced an increase in their student self-efficacy over the two time points, which is to be expected as they progressed through their studies. However, when comparing the engaged and non-engaged groups, those who engaged with ECAs reported higher self-efficacy at both points. We were unable to draw conclusions regarding causation from the results. We cannot be sure if engagement in ECAs supports the development of student self-efficacy or if those with higher student self-efficacy are more likely to be engaged with ECAs. For example, we found evidence of a small number of participants who were engaged with several ECAs and reported very high levels of student self-efficacy. Bringing together evidence from previous studies, it may be that those students who are already assured in their academic ability are the most likely to be comfortable with introducing additional responsibilities into their student experience. Furthermore, the authors have previously explored students’ conceptions of ECAs and found that worries about negative impacts on studies were one of the reported barriers to engagement.

Problematising paid work

The inclusion of paid work as a recognised ECA was important to this study for a number of reasons. Our previous research demonstrated that students tend to trivialise their paid work experience in the context of their graduate ambitions and the potential for skill development. There are also social justice implications which merit their inclusion, as most students from lower socio-economic backgrounds may find it necessary to undertake paid work to fund living expenses.

The results of our study strengthen the evidence that students undervalue paid work experiences. First, there were two questions on the survey which pertained to paid work. One question asked how many hours respondents engaged in paid work, and the second asked respondents to indicate whether they were involved with ECAs. Seventy-five respondents in total answered that they were engaged with paid work but did not subsequently give an affirmative response to the question of ECA engagement, even though paid work was explicitly included on the list of example ECAs on the survey. This gives a clear indication of respondents’ attitudes to their paid work experiences (and perhaps an insight into how closely respondents read survey questions!).

Second, part-time work participation had no impact on student self-efficacy overall, or on any of the domains we measured, including external reach. As a result of this, we can assert that respondents did not perceive the domains of their paid work activities to be sufficiently similar to their student tasks to have an impact on their reported self-efficacy. Some of the external reach questions included, ‘I would feel confident arranging to meet a professional’ and ‘I would feel confident applying to a new opportunity’, but the results demonstrate that respondents did not feel that their paid work experiences prepared them sufficiently for external reach tasks.

Implications

Our research demonstrates the importance of student self-efficacy to the wider student experience. Regardless of whether engagement with ECAs results in, or relies on, high student self-efficacy, we recommend that universities explore ways within which they can explicitly support students to develop their student self-efficacy to take advantage of the range of benefits to the student experience. Furthermore, we believe that the topic of paid work warrants further exploration. It is our intention to undertake an additional study to understand how universities might support students to make the connections between paid work experiences and their personal and professional development.

Teri-Lisa Griffiths is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology. As a former careers adviser, her teaching is focused on the development of employability and academic skills. Her research interests are centred on the student experience and professional development.

 Jill Dickinson is a Senior Lecturer in Law and Senior Fellow of Advance HE. After spending 10 years working as a solicitor in private practice, Jill moved into academia. Alongside various Course and Research Leadership roles, she has collaborated with both internal and external partners to develop student employability initiatives.

Catherine J. Day is Principal Lecturer in Psychology. She is departmental lead for student experience, engagement and employability. Her teaching portfolio includes personality and psychometrics at undergraduate level and individual differences at postgraduate. Her research interests focus on individual differences and personality, and student well-being. She is a qualified personality and ability Test User registered by the British Psychology Society.


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More roadworks on Quality Street

by Paul Temple

Trust is the magic ingredient that allows social life to exist, from the smallest informal group to entire nations. High-trust societies tend to be more efficient, as it can be assumed that people will, by and large, do what they’ve agreed without the need for constant checking. Ipsos-MORI carries out an annual “veracity index” survey in Britain to discover which occupational groups are most trusted: “professors”, which I think we can take to mean university academic staff, score highly (trusted by 83% of the population), just below top-scoring doctors and judges, way above civil servants (60%) – and with government ministers playing in a different league on 16%. So most people, then, seem to trust university staff to do a decent job – much more than they trust ministers. It’s therefore a little strange that over the last 35 years the bitterest struggles between universities and governments have been fought in the “quality wars”, with governments claiming repeatedly that university teachers can’t be trusted to do their jobs without state oversight. Disputes about university expansion and funding come and go, but the quality wars just rumble on. Why?

From the mid-1980s (when “quality” was invented) up to the appearance of the 2011 White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, quality in higher education was (after a series of changes to structures and methods) regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency, which required universities to show that they operated effective quality management processes. This did not involve the inspection of actual teaching: universities were instead trusted to give an honest, verifiable, account of their own quality processes. Without becoming too dewy-eyed about it, the process came down to one group of professionals asking another group of professionals how they did their jobs. Trust was the basis of it all.

The 2011 White Paper intended to sweep this away, replacing woolly notions of trust-based processes with a bracing market-driven discipline. The government promised to “[put] financial power into the hands of learners [to make] student choice meaningful…[it will] remove regulatory barriers [to new entrants to the sector to] improve student choice…[leading to] higher education institutions concentrating on high-quality teaching” (Executive Summary, paras 6-9). On this model, decisions by individual students would largely determine institutional income from teaching, so producing better-quality courses: trust didn’t matter. Market forces can be seen to drive forward quality in other fields through competition, why not in universities?

Well, of course, for lots of reasons, as critics of the White Paper were quick to point out, naturally to no avail. But having been told that they were to operate in a marketised environment where the usual market mechanisms would deal with quality (good courses expanding, others shrinking or failing), exactly a decade later universities find themselves being subjected to a bureaucratic (I intend the word in its social scientific sense, not as a lazy insult) quality regime, the very antithesis of a market system.

We see this in the latest offensive in the quality wars, just opened by the OFS with its July 2021 “Consultation on Quality and Standards”. This 110-page second-round consultation document sets out a highly-detailed process for assessing quality and standards: you can almost feel the pain of the drafter of section B1 on providing “a high quality academic experience”. What does that mean? It means, for example, ensuring that each course is “coherent”. So what does “coherent” mean? Well, it means, for example, providing “an appropriate balance between breadth and depth”. So what does…? And so on. This illustrates the difficulty of considering academic quality as an ISO 9001 (remember that?) process with check-lists, when probably every member of a course team will – actually, in a university, should – have different, equally valid, views on what (say) “appropriate breadth and depth” means.

Government approaches to quality and standards in university teaching have, then, over the last 30 or so years, moved from a largely trust-based system, to one supposedly driven by market forces, to a bureaucratic, box-ticking one. In all this time, ministers have failed to give convincing examples of the problems that the ever-changing quality regimes were supposed to deal with. (Degree mills and similar essentially fraudulent operations can be dealt with through normal consumer legislation, given the will to do so. I once interviewed an applicant for one of our courses who had worked in a college I hadn’t heard of: had there been any problems about its academic standards, I asked. “Not really”, she replied brightly, “it was a genuine bogus college”.)

Why, then, do the quality wars continue? – and we can be confident that the current OFS proposals do not signal the end of hostilities. It is hard to see this as anything other than ministerial displacement activity. Sorting out the social care crisis, or knife crime, will take real understanding and the redirection of resources: easier by far to make a fuss about a non-problem and then be seen to act decisively to solve it. And to erode trust in higher education a little more.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His latest paper, ‘The University Couloir: exploring physical and intellectual connectivity’, will appear shortly in Higher Education Policy.