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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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What works for you? The choice of titles for academic articles in higher education

By James Hartley

The range of possible forms of titles available to authors in higher education is considerable, but few styles are actually used. An analysis of over 250 titles shows that authors employ colons most, short sentences next, and questions least of all. In Academic Writing and Publishing (Hartley, 2008) I distinguished between thirteen types of titles used in academic articles and I provided examples for each one (see Appendix). But disciplines vary and some types of titles are more common than others in different subjects.

In this note I report on the types of titles used in 260 articles on research in higher education published in the SRHE’s Research into Higher Education Abstracts, Vol 50, No. 1, 2017. I categorised these titles into three groupings as follows:

1. The most popular format: the colon (60%)
a) Title with colon (short: long) N = 73
Example: Divergent pathways: the road to higher education for second-generation Turks in Austria.
b) Title with colon (long: short) N = 47
Example: The influence of curricula content on English sociology students’ transformations: the case of feminist knowledge.
c) Title with colon (equal: equal) N = 30
Example: Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria.

2. The next most popular format: the single sentence (30 %) Continue reading

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Academic freedom and freedom of speech

By Rob Cuthbert

In universities worldwide the debate about academic freedom and free speech continues, which is just as it should be. Meanwhile journalists in the popular press seem to have decided that political correctness and the ‘snowflake generation’ have made it impossible for anyone to debate anything in universities any more. But for those journalists, ‘research’ usually consists of looking at other journalists’ opinion pieces and referring to an alleged ‘free speech’ ranking from Spiked. This greatly exercised Registrarism’s Paul Greatrix, whose vituperative blog on 16 February 2017 said that as usual the new ranking was “sure to grab the headlines as examples of shocking repression in the higher education sector are paraded in the quality press”. As if to prove his point, a report from the Adam Smith Institute on alleged left-wing bias in academia was attacked by Aidan Byrne (aka Plashing Vole), aiming to debunk what he called this sinister new addition to the debate. The report was called Lackademia, though the URL was blunter: it read “Left Wing Bias Paper”.

Beyond the mass media there is a more informed debate. A faculty committee at the University of Minnesota Continue reading

Paul Temple


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Steering Column

By Paul Temple

The SRHE Blog hasn’t featured a motoring column before – and actually it’s a bit late to start: if you’ve recently bought a new-ish car, it may well be your last one. That’s because the car makers and the big tech companies are betting the farm on driverless (“autonomous”) cars being the future of road travel – not in some “weekend breaks on Mars”-type sci-fi scenario, but in the next couple of years. At the end of February, an autonomous Nissan Leaf drove six miles around East London, including negotiating a roundabout on the A13 that scares me. It’s generally assumed that these cars mostly won’t be owned by individuals, but will be driverless taxis, summoned to your door (at least, in towns). Most new cars are already at or near what the industry calls “Level 3”, with sensors for parking, automatic braking, lane guidance and so on; “Level 4” cars will add all this to artificial intelligence and so do away with the human driver. The computer won’t make the stupid mistakes that all human drivers do – so one effect that’s already been noted will be the “nice to have” problem of a reduction in the number of transplant organs available.

It’s the combination of the scale and the imminence of this revolution that makes it so interesting social scientifically: this won’t be a gradual evolution, but a big bang – one year, cars like we’ve always known them; a year or two later, a transformation. Like an avalanche, unnoticed high up on the mountain, it is about to sweep down. (Look at one of the many blogs on this, such as “Connected Cars”, to get a sense of how fast things are moving.)

Why should this be of interest to higher education researchers? Continue reading

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What’s wrong with management in higher education?

By Rob Cuthbert 

Matthew Reisz reported for Times Higher Education on 30 March 2017 that ‘the results beginning to come in from the National Senior Management Survey are both startling and dismaying.’ He said: ‘Early data from the National Senior Management Survey, which is being developed by academics at eight universities, find that barely one in 10 (10.4 per cent) respondents is satisfied with the way their institution is managed; 76.5 per cent are not.’

This is fake news: take a look at the National Senior Management Survey. It has grand aims but asks a series of leading questions, and its self-selecting sample is likely to be all those who want to complain about senior management in their institution. There is something wrong with the methods of this survey, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing wrong with senior management in HE. Indeed, the progenitors of the National Senior Management Survey seem to have been motivated by despair at the apparently irresistible rise of managerialism and the equally irresistible rise of senior managers’ salaries, even while university staff salaries are held down. So what’s wrong with senior management?

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Ian Mc Nay


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The higher education business and alternative providers.

By Ian McNay

The sale of two recently designated ‘for-profit’ universities to owners outside the UK is one indication of the government’s market approach to higher education. I return to this below, after covering another piece of evidence.

Those who do not read the financial pages of the Guardian will not have seen an article by Rupert Neate Cannes on student accommodation as giving ‘first class returns to investors’ (17 March 2017, p33). It included two things that shocked me. ‘Last month, the value of contracts awarded to build student housing projects in the UK totalled more than the deals to build care homes, housing associations, local authority housing and sheltered housing added together’, and flats in ‘some student blocks… in London cost as much as £650 a week’. In Reading, there is one block where prices are £300 per week, and the UK average for one builder was £175 a week. Rents for university owned properties already constitute a supplementary fee and exceed the level of the maintenance loan, adding another financial obstacle to equity of access.

That may be one reason why, paradoxically, students are turning to private HE – alternative providers as they were called by government in last year’s White Paper, and now the subject of an enquiry by the Higher Education Commission, to which Ron Barnett and I were recently invited to give evidence. I did some digging around and the picture that emerged surprised me, and moved me from my initial stance of total opposition. Continue reading

Holly Henderson


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Possible selves: One concept, many conversations

By Holly Henderson

One of my favourite things to do is to hear passionate people in dialogue about their research. At the second joint network SRHE event on possible selves earlier this month, it was impossible not to be excited by the quality of this dialogue. The event’s joint hosting by the Post-Compulsory Education and Access and Widening Participation networks set the tone for collaboration across boundaries; speakers included early career researchers and established professors, from the UK and abroad, and from sociological and psychological disciplinary perspectives[1]. Perhaps it is unusual to have a series of events on a single concept, like the possible selves concept[2]. But to see these events as singular in focus would be to misunderstand the complexities of educational research. In fact, thinking about this particular concept has enabled us to bring out the concept’s relationship to discussions of methodological approaches, data analysis, diverse research contexts within the field of Higher Education Research, and different disciplinary perspectives.

The possible selves concept seems, at first glance, disarmingly simple. It accords with an instinctive understanding of the future and its influence on the present, particularly in educational contexts. The concept suggests that we have multiple imagined future selves, which influence and structure our behaviour in the present. In educational terms, the most straightforward way of seeing this is to think about the ways that courses of study, chosen in the present, are seen to lead towards a future goal, whether that is course completion, further study or a career. Look further into the literature Continue reading


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Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good

Reviewed by James Hartley

Daniels, J and Thistlethwaite, P (2016) Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good  London: Policy Press, ISBN 978-1-4473-2926-8 (pbk), 170pp  £19.99

Being a scholar in the digital era is an interesting book, but who is it for? Presumably not for people like me, retired academics from the mainly pre-digital era,  so it must be for current academics, or for people who want to read about what academics do today. Authors Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite are professors of sociology at the City University of New York (CUNY). The book describes a course they developed in 2013 for academics, activists and journalists, designed to encourage academics to change how they communicate amongst themselves and with others. ‘Our experiment sought to leverage the reciprocal power of social activism and the connected platforms of digital media to meet demands for accessible and impactful information that retains the integrity and authority of scholarly research’ (p18).

The text has five main chapters between an Introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 2 describes what it is like to be ‘a scholar activist’, then and now, discussing the effects of new digital media on teaching, writing and researching, journalism and film making. The authors describe several ‘summits’  in which they brought together scholars, journalists, film-makers and activists, on themes including ‘Re-imagining Scholarly Communication for the 21st century’, and ‘Resisting Criminalisation through Academic-media-activist Partnerships’. Materials for these summits were posted in online blogs and podcasts and reproduced in e-books.

Chapter 3 criticises massive online open courses (MOOCS) as a way of providing instructional materials for those people who cannot afford to go to university or college and have to study at home. As the authors see it, commercial MOOCs are designed to work well for people who are already skilled at learning, and who can afford to pay for them. Further, they are an administrator’s dream: ‘The ratio of two faculty to nine-thousand students is the sort of ‘productivity’ that administrators want to see realised in the academy through the use of digital technologies’(p46). In contrast the authors describe their ‘POOCs’ – much smaller participatory online courses – designed to open the CUNY campus to students in East Harlem.

Chapter 4, ‘Acting up, Opening up Knowledge’, comments that ‘the way scholarly publishing works is difficult to explain to anyone outside the system, because it makes so little sense’. Authors are not paid for publishing and people without university affiliations (and former students) have sharply limited access to academic research. The major publishers take most of the profits and control access to journals and scholarly societies. According to the authors the price of textbooks has risen 812% since 1978 and ‘The College Board in 2015-16 advised students attending US public two-year institutions to budget a whopping $1,364 for books and supplies’.

Open access is seen as at least a partial answer to this dilemma,  aiming to make texts and learning freely available to as many people as possible. In this study this is done via a series of e-books tied to the summits, and through ‘POOCs’. In addition research communities such as ResearchGate and Kudos share information and provide access to members’ publications.

In Chapter 5, ‘Training scholars for the digital era’, doctoral training at CUNY is described as ‘somewhat unique’ in that there are several programs that emphasize and teach the use of digital technology for PhD students and mid-to-late career academics. The authors describe how they organised MediaCamp workshops free of charge for faculty and graduate students, academic administrators, non-governmental organisations, and community activists. During the first year of operation MediaCamp featured more than 40 sessions, most with 10 to 20 participants, covering a range of topics – including television interviewing techniques, writing for a general audience , creating a podcast, blogging, using twitter, and making sense of web analytics. The authors report that their MediaCamps met with resistance from some and enthusiasm from others, and that it was best to teach individually or in small groups. They say that such training is important as academic institutions now have a vested interest in the use of digital media by both faculty and administrators.

Until recently, engagement with the public has not generally been rewarded in universities. Chapter 6 thus turns to a new concern, that of measuring scholarly impact. Here a good deal of attention is given to ‘impact factors’, and their strengths and limitations: the general picture (rightly in my view) is negative. The authors conclude (following Boyer) in favour of broader measures of impact that involve social justice.

Nonetheless, the argument used in this chapter illustrates the difficulties for authors of relying on hearsay and blog-dependent sentences. In my view, neither of the following sentences is true:

 ….and the way it works in British Universities, the JIF (Journal Impact Factor) is regarded as a      valid and reliable measure of scholarly impact. (p113)

It is common practice among journal editors, once an article is accepted for publication, to ask authors to add a few citations from that particular publication… (p113)     

Chapter 7 ends with a brief discussion on the future of being a scholar that includes some optimistic speculations about the effects of new technology on teaching, learning and research. The authors argue that scholars will be more collaborative, share their research in the social media, and boost the profile and reputation of universities. They also foresee the end of the commercial domination of universities and their research. Such optimism belies the research discussed in earlier chapters.

The book is driven by the view that academics are – or should be – concerned with the public good. Daniels and Thistlethwaite argue that using new media is the way to achieve it. Many of the references in this text are to blogs rather than scholarly publications, but such sources are not always scholarly; bloggers are not always careful or detailed in their analyses or reports, and may make statements without supporting references. Being a scholar in the digital era: transforming scholarly practice for the public good offers some useful and interesting perspectives on what it is like to be an academic today but leaves two key questions unanswered: who decides what needs transforming, and who decides what is the public good?

SRHE Member James Hartley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Keele University.