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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Mobilities and the ‘international academic’ in higher education

by Vera Spangler, Lene Møller Madsen, and Hanne Kirstine Adriansen

December marks the month of the International SRHE Research Conference. It was an interesting week full of presentations and discussions around the theme of Mobilities in Higher Education. In the opening plenary talk, Emily Henderson invited us to reflect critically on the different ways in which mobilities of academics and students in higher education are discursively constructed. She debated how discursive constructions of mobility may influence who can access academia/higher education, who can gain recognition, and who can establish a feeling of belonging. Emily’s presentation set an interesting and highly relevant ground for the week to come, opening space for critical thought about  academic mobility and experiences of mobility, subjectivities, and power. Our presentation about who is considered ‘the international academic’ addressed similar ideas and observations, which we would like to share in this blog post in order to open the conversation with a larger audience.

Never has the higher education sector been so mobile, particularly as internationalisation occupies a central position on the global agenda of policymakers. Over the past decade we can observe a significant increase in academic mobility. This is partly due to the fact that the academic profession is becoming exceedingly internationalised and globalised, often involving some sort of travel on the part of the academic throughout their career. In the academic sector, having international staff is often seen as integral to the institution’s reputation and recognition. Likewise, international mobility is perceived as inherently beneficial for the individual and as a valuable asset for academic research careers. Professional stays abroad can function as a mark of distinction or valuable international capital.

Mobility and, notably, internationalisation are often used with many positive connotations, presented as neutral and unconditionally good. Internationalisation is often deemed instrumental in enhancing the quality of research and education. Universities put increasing effort into attracting international academics, seeking their contribution in establishing an international research and teaching environment to promote the status of the faculty and their position internationally. Particularly for universities outside Anglo-America, international scholars constitute an important element in creating a so-called ‘international university’. However we often see a uniform, unidirectional, and unproblematic description of how to attract and retain international academics in higher education strategies and mainstream policy documents. There is a dominant prominence in university strategies of attracting ‘global talent’ and ‘the best and the brightest’, promoting a specific idea of the ‘international academic’. Yet questions remain about how academics of different national and social backgrounds understand the role of being an ‘international academic’ and how their understandings are consonant with those sought, promoted and shaped by higher education institutions.

Our paper for the SRHE conference tried to unpack ‘the international’ in international academic mobility based on interviews with international academics (varying in age, nationality, and academic position) living and working in Denmark. The data stem from the larger research project Geographies of Internationalisation, which explores how internationalisation affects the perception of quality, relevance and learning in higher education and how these perceptions travel with mobile academics. Our conference presentation examined what it means to be an international academic, who the ‘international’ is, and how the academics’ ‘international-ness’ is being used and/or neglected by institutions.

During the interviews, interesting conversations emerged as to when one is considered international – do you have to be recruited as ‘an international’ or can you just be a ‘love migrant’ who then gets employment at a university? Others pondered how long one could live in Denmark and still be considered ‘an international’. Our analysis shows that ‘the international’ is not a neutral concept, but often ‘international-ness’ is associated with those from the centre (the Anglo-American academy), while academics from the (semi-)periphery are viewed as less international, perhaps just ‘foreign’ as one interviewee stated. Language is an important factor in this context. As we have shown elsewhere, English is often conflated with the international, for instance internationalisation may simply mean English Medium Instruction. This may explain why academics from the Anglo-American academy can appear to possess more of that universal character that is international. In this way, we point to the uneven geographies of internationalisation, and how universities in the (semi-)periphery can end up mimicking the Anglo-American academy in their attempt to internationalise.

While internationalisation can bring many social, material and professional benefits concerning, for instance, intercultural competencies and employability, there is a diversity in geographical patterns, constraints, demands, privileges and motivations that are to a large extent silenced in prominent policy documents and discourses. Hidden behind its neutralising and universalising discourse, internationalisation is a multi-dimensional, highly uneven process; a plural landscape of possibilities for some, and disadvantages for others. For some years now, critical scholarship on internationalisation has been growing. There is increasing concern that internationalisation practices and mainstream policies reproduce global inequalities and already uneven relations and geographies. There are a number of different ways to avoid this. Along with other scholars of critical internationalisation studies, we encourage efforts to rethink and critically explore consequences, practices and discourses of internationalisation both in scholarship and in academic conversations to open up questions for a renewed focus and to find ways forward.

Vera Spangler is a PhD student at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England. Her research project is a comparative study between England, Denmark and Germany with focus on knowledge legitimacy and the role of student mobility in the re/production of global hierarchies.

Lene Møller Madsen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen. She is part of the research project Geographies of Internationalisation, responsible for the WP on academic mobility. She holds a PhD in human geography, and have worked with pedagogical training of staff for many years including international academics.  

Hanne Kirstine Adriansen is Associate Professor and academic international coordinator at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark. Originally trained as a human geographer, her research concerns mobility, space, and education. Since 2019 PI of the research project Geographies of Internationalisation with 14 affiliated international scholars and master students.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


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A pantomime without a happy ending

The year-long pantomime that was government in 2022 started trying to be managerial and serious, just as the true pantomime season got into full swing and TV started showing the usual repeats specials. Rather too much sherry and mince pies before the pantomime highlights compilation meant that I fell asleep during A Christmas Carol – so I’m not sure if this was just a dream (or a nightmare) …

This year every university and college is putting on its own pantomime. What’s showing near you? We offer these plot summaries to help you choose what to watch.

Cinderella

Higher Education Cinderella has been condemned to a life of servitude, enforced by the ugly sisters DfE and the Office for Students (you can’t usually tell them apart). Life is only tolerable for HE Cinderella thanks to all the friendly student mice, and UUK, an apparently kindly character in the service of the household, but with suspiciously shiny Buttons. There is much excitement in the land as Parliament decides to stage a magnificent Election Ball to find a suitable person to be the government Prince. Cinderella would love to go but has no well-paid staff to wear; the DfE and OfS ugly sisters prepare eagerly by appointing more recruitment consultants. Suddenly the UCU Fairy Godmother appears and declares “You shall go to the Election Ball”. The USS pumpkin is miraculously transformed into a golden pension and the student mice turn into horses, although there do seem to be fewer of them. Best of all, Cinderella’s pay rags turn into a shimmering and apparently permanent contract, and her glass ceiling is transformed into slippers. Cinderella climbs into her pension, pulled by all the student horses, to attend the Election, but her Fairy Godmother warns her that she must return home before the election result is announced. At the Election Ball there are several wannabe Princes: none appear to be very Charming, but nevertheless they pay her close attention, making all kinds of promises. Some even make pledges. Suddenly the first exit poll appears and Cinderella rushes back home, losing a glass slipper in her haste. The pension turns back into a pumpkin, and the Fairy Godmother has disappeared and seems unable to work her magic. However there is a new Prince after the Election Ball, who has announced that he will scour the kingdom to find the person who can wear the glass slipper. He visits the household and cries with delight that Higher Education Cinderella is the one for him, but since there is only one glass slipper there must be a cutback in student numbers. Cinderella goes back to sit on the pumpkin with her low pay, weeping over the lost mice. She realises the glass slipper thing was all cobblers.

Dick Whittington

Higher Education Dick has lost more and more income as his student fees were eroded by inflation, but he hopes that if he strikes out for a better life he might find somewhere the staff are paid with gold. He travels hopefully and reaches what might have been the golden triangle, but it seems no better than the old place. He spends years trying to make his fortune, without success. His Admissions Cat catches lots of home student mice, but he is forced to send it abroad in the hope of making his fortune from lots of international students. In despair Dick strikes out again, accompanied by Freedom of Speech Bill.

Dick (suspiciously):                     “Is there somebody following us?

Bill:                                                 ”Let’s ask the audience. Is there anybody following us?”

Audience (shouting excitedly): “It’s the minister!”

Bill:                                                 “Where is she?”

Audience (still excitedly):           “She’s behind you!”

Bill:                                                 “Oh no she’s not”

Audience:                                      “Oh yes she is!”

And they were right, the minister was right behind the Bill. Bill trudges on but suffers so many proposed amendments he slows down until he eventually gets passed. On the road Dick hears the sound of UCU bells saying to him “Your turn again, Whittington” and he goes back to his place on the picket line.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Jack lived in desperately poor circumstances with his departmental colleagues, until one day all he had left was one research grant. He decided to take his research to the conference market to see if he could generate any more funds. But even before he got to the conference he met a pro vice-chancellor (Research) who said if he handed over his grant as a contribution to overheads the PVC would give him a handful of sabbatical beans. He went back excitedly to his department to tell them the good news, but they pointed out that by giving the grant away the whole department was doomed. Jack was distraught and he threw the sabbatical beans into the departmental workload model. The next day when he woke up he was astonished to see that everywhere he had thrown a sabbatical, a research grant application had sprung up. Pretty soon the grant applications had grown into a full-fledged research grant money tree which stretched right up into the UKRI. Jack started to climb and when he got to the top he discovered a land where there lived a giant called Russell G. He crept into the giant’s home, sneaked away with some more research grants and went back to his department. That kept them going for a while, but soon they needed more funds and Jack had to climb the money tree again. This time the giant was waiting for him, and roared “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of a teaching institution.” Jack raced back to the money tree with the giant close behind, scrambled back down to the ground and hacked at the money tree until it toppled over. Unfortunately the giant was already halfway down. It fell right on the top of the department and squashed it flat, leaving only a handful of the most research-active staff, which Russell G picked up before leaving.

Sleeping Beauty

A Higher Education princess is warned that if she pierces her tuition with a student fee she will die. She tries to rid the kingdom of all traces of tuition fees, but still they slip in and gradually get bigger until they become impossible to avoid. At last she succumbs and as the fee takes effect she falls into a deep sleep, becoming lost because she is, like almost everyone else, beyond the reach of Test and Trace. Nothing will wake her until one day a prince arrives on a pantomime horse and vows to rescue her from her slumbers. The horse is played by the twins REF and TEF: no-one is quite sure which end is which, until the front half confirms the protection of the research budget and all the talk about low quality courses comes out of the rear end. Before the Prince can rescue the princess he decides, out of an abundance of caution, to commission a review by the Office of Budget Responsibility. (In the past this had, unwisely, been deemed unnecessary for a pantomime with a short run.) The OBR review shows that waking the princess will cost almost as much each year as Covid PPE contracts, whose benefits are mostly still being sought long after the VIP lane was closed. So the prince decides to leave her asleep.

In every case the performance ends with the audience singing a seasonal favourite, “The 2022 days of government”, ending with the chorus:

“On the last day of 2022, the PM sent to me:

five Secretaries of State

four DfE reshuffles

three HE Ministers

two pension schemes

and an HE (Freedom of Speech) Bill)”

… then I woke up, and I wasn’t sure whether this was Christmas Past, Christmas Present or Christmas Future. You decide.

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.


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Fostering a sense of safety in higher education

by Lauren McAllister, Luke Ward, and Lauren Young

From left to right: Lauren Young, Lauren McAllister, and Luke Ward

As three lecturers who have taught on a postgraduate course for several years that covers topics around race, gender, identities, parenting, development, disabilities, mental health, wellbeing, and the associated experiences of managing these oppressive and regulatory discourses – we began to question how we can keep ourselves, and our students ‘safe’. We had reflected that we were not talking about a physical sense of safety here, but rather a felt sense of feeling understood, or perhaps even contained.

Having spoken to colleagues and other lecturers who similarly teach some topics that may be deemed ‘challenging’ or ‘sensitive’, we found that there was very little agreement with regards to how to approach some of these topics and discussions.

What does it mean to feel ‘safe’ within the higher education classroom?

Historically, this idea of a feeling of being ‘safe’ derived from feminist movements where a physical space was created for like-minded individuals to meet and explore their experiences (Flesner and Von Der Lippe, 2019). Within UK universities, safe space is also explored in the context of addressing sexual violence, harassment and discrimination (see: Anker and Von der Lippe, 2018; Uksaysnomore.org, 2022).  Research which did explore safety in the context of a relational sense in the classroom, either positioned the achievement of safety as unrealistic (Du Preez, 2012) or as necessary to ensure both educators and students feel comfortable unpacking difficult dialogues (Nolan and Roberts, 2021). Despite this discrepancy, there was a general agreement that lecturers felt anxious and ill-equipped when teaching sensitive/contested/difficult topics – often leading to them avoiding or minimising engagement in the teaching of such topics (Sue et al, 2010; Warde et al, 2022). We also noted that there was not a clear sense of agreement with regards to what is considered ‘sensitive’ in teaching. In fact, some pedagogical researchers argue that students experience topics differently, and assuming students homogenously feel safe fails to consider this diversity (Barrett, 2010).

As a result, we felt we had several core unanswered questions which drove our research, including: how then as educators do we manage the complexity of experiences, when topics are differently experienced? How do we balance our own anxieties around teaching topics that are differently experienced, and morally/ethically ensuring are students are feeling ‘safe’? And finally, are we as educators responsible for this management of the classroom space?

Our research: What did we do and what did we find?

Our research used collaborative methods to explore both students’ and lecturers’ experiences of ‘safety’ within the HE classroom. We conducted our project in four clear stages to ensure that lived experience was at the heart of any recommendations we established.

Firstly, we conducted five focus groups with students, unpacking the notion of safety and jointly creating a vignette which would be used to scaffold the lecturers’ focus group discussions. We then conducted four lecturer focus groups in which we similarly explored this notion of safety, before using the collaboratively created vignette. This vignette was presented in four stages, with discussion encouraged at each stage. The vignette anchored discussions and enabled lecturers to explore how they prepared for difficult topics; the management of an in-class disclosure; the impact of a dominant voice; and finally, how they end their sessions. Following the focus groups, both groups were thematically analysed separately, before themes were established across the groups, with the support of two students from the student focus groups. The final stage of the project was then to establish some useable recommendations in the form of a workbook/resource for lecturers, which was similarly created with the support of students.

Within the focus groups we found that both the students and the lecturers focused less on whether a topic was deemed ‘sensitive’ or not, and more so on the space ‘between’. Students for example talked about the need to feel heard, the trust between the group and the worry about how their contributions could be perceived. Lecturers noted the impossibility of being able to prepare students for challenging discussions, and many explored the need for students to feel uncomfortable and uncontained, as part of their learning.

Our findings raised two core areas of focus which we used as basis for the development of our workbook: the development of the foundation of relational trust, and the scaffolding of discussions. Building on scholars who positioned relationality as core to teaching and learning (Hobson and Morrison-Saunders, 2013), we developed the concept of ‘relational trust’. We conceptualised relational trust as this shared or mutual understanding between all members of the group (students and lecturers), of an expectation of disagreement, misunderstanding and challenge. We also recognised that this foundation was not a set or established entity, rather it was relationally created and needing to be continually nurtured through considered teaching and learning activities/experiences. In the implementation of our findings, we therefore began to focus less on the framing of a particular topic (ie as inherently safe, or not), and more so on ways through which conversations could be scaffolded within our teaching.

Ok, but what can I ‘take away’ from this and use within my teaching?

Based on the discussions with the students and staff, we can make several usable recommendations to support educators:

  1. Development of a classroom agreement: Firstly, we explored the importance of this foundation of relational trust, whilst also acknowledging that this foundation is never truly ‘set’ or done – rather it is something that needs to be continually nurtured (and revisited). Lecturers and students explored the benefits of a ‘class contract’ during the induction of a new group, whilst also acknowledging some key barriers to the effectiveness of this contract. We explored the importance of needing to revisit this class contract, acknowledging that this relational trust changes with the introduction of new members to the group, changes in topic, general changes in dynamic etc.
  2. Clear expectations of roles: Both lecturers and students lacked clarity with regards to the role of the lecturer – and in turn, the student – in the classroom space. In particular, there was a clear blurring of expectation of what was expected of the lecturer when engaging in discussions that may be considered challenging.  Lecturers generally have multiple roles within higher education, but our findings suggest there is an expectation for lecturers always to fulfil all these roles within the classroom, and that lecturer roles are not neatly compartmentalised into ‘teaching’, ‘module coordination’, ‘office hours’, ‘dissertation supervision’, ‘personal academic tutor sessions’ etc. Therefore, we explored the importance of having a discussion/activity where you actively engage with your students, considering the different expectations of the student, lecturer, and other facilities – to ensure that there is a mutual and shared understanding of roles.
  3. Scaffolding of discussions: Using ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1992) and trauma-informed pedagogical practices (Carello and Butler, 2013; Dana, 2018; Perry and Hambrick, 2008), as a basis, we recognised the multiple layers of comfort and safety and how these could be scaffolded within classroom discussions (see Figure 1). We have therefore provided a framework below through which lecturers can frame their discussions, enabling students to contribute and be heard in spaces that gradually feel more comfortable, negotiating possible language and elements of disclosure. For this activity, it is useful to consider an element of teaching, eg a core topic, an activity, discussion, skills practice, and reflect on/plan out how this might look, starting at the ‘individually’ zone and working your way towards ‘wider group/class’. For example, the activity might be a discussion point on ‘what childhood means to you’, which you may then ask students to (1) reflect on individually for a few minutes, and note this down on a post-it, before then (2) discussing this with the person next to them, noting areas of similarity and difference. Later, the students are then tasked with (3) forming small groups and assigning a particular developmental stage, asking them to mind-map the main themes of childhood for particular developmental stages. Before then (4) bringing the class together, asking each group, in turn, to share their discussions, starting with the group who was assigned the youngest developmental stage, working up to early adulthood, to produce a co-constructed developmental trajectory.

Figure 1: Zones of Comfort

Four circles all within each other showing how a task can gradually include more people (individual, pairs, small groups, and wider group)

Beyond these useable recommendations, we also argue that there needs to be more of a systemic shift within the university culture where work that involves caring for students needs is often undervalued or unseen (Baker et al, 2021). For example, some universities do not provide hours for staff to prepare and undertake course inductions which promote this relational trust, nor are they given time throughout the course delivery to consider activities that purposefully consider inter-class relationships.

Want to hear more? You can find us on Twitter: @Lauren8McA, @Lukewrd, @Laurenyoungcbt

Dr Lauren McAllister is a senior lecturer and programme lead for the MSc Child and Adolescent Mental Health course at the University of Northampton.

Dr Luke Ward is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health and a registered therapist working with children, young people, and families who have experienced trauma.

Lauren Young is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health, a registered cognitive behavioural therapist, and a registered children’s nurse.

References

Anker, T and Von der Lippe, M (2018) ‘Controversial issues in religious education: How teachers deal with terrorism in their teaching’ in Schweitzer, F and Boschki, R (eds) Researching religious education: classroom processes and outcomes  Waxmann Verlag GmbH

Bronfenbrenner, U (1992) Ecological systems theory Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dana, D (2018) The Polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation WW Norton & Company

Perry, BD and Hambrick, EP (2008) ‘The neurosequential model of therapeutics’ Reclaiming children and youth 17(3): 38-43


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Will universities fail the Turing Test?

by Phil Pilkington

The recent anxiety over the development of AI programmes to generate unique text suggests that some disciplines face a crisis of passing the Turing Test. That is, that you cannot distinguish between the unique AI generated text and that produced by a human agent. Will this be the next stage in the battle of cheating by students? Will it lead to an arms race of countering the AI programmes to foil the students cheating? Perhaps it may force some to redesign the curriculum, the learning and the assessment processes.

Defenders of AI programmes for text generation have produced their own euphemistic consumer guides. Jasper is a ‘writing assistant’, Dr Essay ‘gets to work and crafts your entire essay for you’, Article Forge (get it?) ‘is one of the best essay writers and does the research for you!’.  Other AI essay forgers are available. The best known and the most popular is probably GPT-3 with a reported million subscribers (see The Atlantic, 6/12/2022). The promoters of the AI bots make clear that it is cheaper and quicker than using essay mills. It may even be less exploitative of those graduates in Nepal or Nottingham or Newark New Jersey serving the essay mills. There has been the handwringing that this is the ‘end of the essay’, but there have been AI developments in STEM subjects and art and design.

AI cannot be uninvented. It is out there, it is cheap and readily available. It does not necessarily follow that using it is cheating. Mike Sharples on the LSE Blog tried it out for a student assignment on learning styles. He found some simple errors of reference but made the point that GPT-3 text can be used creatively for students’ understanding and exploring a subject. And Kent University provides guidance on the use of Grammarly, which doesn’t create text as GPT-3 does ab initio but it does ‘write’ text.

Consumer reports on GPT-3 suggest that the output for given assignments is of a 2.2 or even 2.1 standard of essay, albeit with faults in the text generated. These seem to be usually in the form of incorrect or inadequate references; some references were for non-existent journals  and papers, with dates confused and so on. However, a student could read through the output text and correct such errors without any cognitive engagement in the subject. Correcting the text would be rather like an AI protocol. The next stage of AI will probably eliminate the most egregious and detectable of errors to become the ‘untraceable poison’.

The significant point here is that it is possible to generate essays and assignments without cognitive activity in the generation of the material. This does not necessarily mean a student doesn’t learn something. Reading through the generated text may be part of a learning process, but it is an impoverished form of learning. I would distinguish this as the learning that in the generated text rather than the learning how of generating the text. This may be the challenge for the post AI curriculum: knowing that is not as important as knowing how. What do we expect for the learning outcomes? That we know, for example, the War Aims of Imperial Germany in 1914 or that we know how to find that out, or how it relates to other aims and ideological outlooks? AI will provide the material for the former but not the latter.

To say that knowing that (eg the War Aims of Imperial Germany, etc) is a form of surface learning is not to confuse that memory trick with cognitive abilities, or with AI – which has no cognitive output at all. Learning is semantic, it has reference as rule-based meaning; AI text generation is syntactic and has no meaning at all (to the external world) but makes reference only to its own protocols[1]. As the Turing Test does not admit – because in that test the failure to distinguish between the human agent and the AI is based on deceiving the observer.

Studies have shown that students have a scale of cheating (as specified by academic conduct rules). An early SRHE Student Experience Seminar explored the students’ acceptance of some forms of cheating and abhorrence of other forms. Examples of ‘lightweight’ and ‘acceptable’ cheating included borrowing a friend’s essay or notes, in contrast to the extreme horror of having someone sit an exam for them (impersonation). The latter was considered not just cheating for personal advantage but also disadvantaging the entire cohort (Ashworth et al, ‘Guilty in Whose Eyes?’). Where will using AI sit in the spectrum of students’ perception of cheating? Where will it sit within the academic regulations?

I will assume that it will be used both for first drafts and for ‘passing off’ as the entirety of the student’s efforts. Should we embrace the existence of AI bots? They could be our friends and help develop the curriculum to be more creative for students and staff. We will expect and assume students to be honest about their work (as individuals and within groups) but there will be pressures of practical, cultural and psychological nature, on some students more than others, which will encourage the use of the bots. The need to work as a barista to pay the rent, to cope as a carer, to cope with dyslexia (diagnosed or not), to help non-native speakers, to overcome the disadvantages of a relatively impoverished secondary education, all distinct from the cohort of gilded and fluently entitled youth, will all be stressors for encouraging the use of the bots.

Will the use of AI be determined by the types of students’ motivation (another subject of an early SRHE Student Experience Seminar)? There will be those wanting to engage in and grasp (to cognitively possess as it were) the concept formations of the discipline (the semantical), with others who simply want to ‘get through the course’ and secure employment (the syntactical).

And what of stressed academics assessing the AI generated texts? They could resort to AI bots for that task too. In the competitive, neo-liberal, league-table driven universities of precarity, publish-or-be-redundant monetizing research (add your own epithets here), will AI bots be used to meet increasingly demanding performance targets?

The discovery of the use of AI will be accompanied by a combination of outrage and demands for sanctions (much like the attempts to criminalise essay mills and their use). We can expect some responses from institutions that it either doesn’t happen here or it is only a tiny minority. But if it does become the ‘untraceable poison’ how will we know? AI bots are not like essay mills. They may be used as a form of deception, as implied by the Turing Test, but they could also be used as a tool for greater understanding of a discipline. We may need a new form of teaching, learning and assessment.

Phil Pilkington’s former roles include Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, and CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union. He is an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE. He chaired the SRHE Student Experience Network for several years and helped to organise events including the hugely successful 1995 SRHE annual conference on The Student Experience; its associated book of ‘Precedings’ was edited by Suzanne Hazelgrove for SRHE/Open University Press.


[1] John Searle (The rediscovery of the mind, 1992) produced an elegant thought experiment to refute the existence of AI qua intelligence, or cognitive activity. He created the experiment, the Chinese Room, originally to face off the Mind-Brain identity theorists. It works as a wonderful example of how AI can be seemingly intelligent without having any cognitive content.  It is worth following the Chinese Room for its simplicity and elegance and as a lesson in not taking AI seriously as ‘intelligence’.


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Reflecting on a second virtual conference…and looking ahead

by Camille Kandiko Howson

I had the honour of being asked to give some closing remarks at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s Annual Conference this year, alongside Prof Chris Millward and the SRHE team. ‘Mobilities in Higher Education’ was the theme of the Society’s second virtual conference. First some reflections.

Mobilities in higher education refer to the movement of students, faculty, and staff within and across national borders for the purpose of pursuing education and research opportunities. This phenomenon has increased significantly in recent years, driven by factors such as globalization, advances in technology, and the growing demand for a highly skilled workforce.

The impact of mobilities on higher education institutions (HEIs) is complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, mobilities can bring benefits such as diversity and internationalization, enhanced research and teaching capabilities, and increased funding and partnerships. On the other hand, mobilities can also pose challenges such as language and cultural barriers, issues with accreditation and recognition of qualifications, and unequal access and participation.

To address these challenges and maximize the benefits of mobilities, HEIs need to develop strategies and policies that support the mobility of students, faculty, and staff. This includes providing adequate support services, facilitating credit transfer and recognition of qualifications, and promoting intercultural competence and global citizenship.

In conclusion, mobilities in higher education are a crucial aspect of the contemporary global education landscape. HEIs need to carefully consider the opportunities and challenges posed by mobilities and develop strategies to support and enhance this phenomenon.

I’ll pause here, because I did not write the previous four paragraphs. I put the title into the ChatGPT open AI chatbot and it spit out the abstract above instantly. This tool launched during the conference week, exciting many delegates and kicking off worries about the future of assessment and feedback in higher education. The possibilities also reminded me why we like to meet up as a community -virtually and physically – to share what is happening and how we can actively shape the future. The conference theme was widely adopted across presentations, showing our desire to come together to learn, teach and research higher education. Now on to my (human) thoughts.

Last year in summarising the conference I highlighted the following:

  • the focus on belonging
  • the increased internationalisation of the programme
  • lack of research on policy in HE in England

The second and third of these themes seemed strong again, and in addition I would note the dominance of the conference theme of ‘Mobilities’ (irony not lost for an on-line conference!). The pandemic has not stopped academics collaborating across institutions. I also noticed powerful research and focus on researchers in conflict-afflicted regions. There was also increased interest in international students – across UG, PGT and PRG levels. Topics included notions of quality and murmurings of geopolitical influences for international students.

Some other themes of note were researchers drawing on contemporary theories (eg the ‘Ideal Student’ research by Billy Wong and Tiffany Chui), moving beyond a Bordieusian dominance. In this vein, I was pleased to see the strength of research involving liaising with target student groups, as partners, in steering groups and in evaluating research.

In credit to the SRHE team, there were great links between papers in sessions, with many feeling more like symposia than separate research papers. It was also amazing to see so many outputs from SRHE-funded research projects being presented.

Reflecting on some of the specific sessions I was able to attend, in Session 2d I was intrigued by the term ‘studiability’: the ability to complete courses on time and with appropriate workload. This is not addressed much in the UK and it would be interesting to see more on this. Another paper explored the recursive relationship between public policy degrees and the jobs graduates go on to do. There were different histories and trajectories across countries – always fascinating insights from comparative research.

A theme across a number of sessions came out in 3b exploring racialised impostor phenomenon, and the importance of role models for students. Similarly, in 11f the impostor phenomenon and explorations of race and gender arose, alongside the importance of students (and others) in self-identifying themselves versus being categorised in identity research. Session 12a had a focus on care leavers, care experienced students and those with caring responsibilities and the challenges working across institutions and social services. This topic was explored in a number of sessions – which is really important in an under-researched area.

These sessions really highlighted the passion researchers have and the change people want to see from their research. And to mention what I did not see much of, there was a lack of research on climate change and cost of living – maybe these current issues have not caught up with the pace of research, or maybe they do not fit well with current research paradigms.

I also did a word cloud analysis of the programme. Interestingly, ‘Students’ trumps ‘Research’ but ‘Academics’ beat ‘Learning’. Make of that what you will. Closing on the theme of mobilities, the top three cities listed in the programme were London, Manchester and Birmingham, and the second most common country in the programme was Australia.

As was mentioned throughout the conference, many of us missed getting together in person. We hope to manage that in some form next year, continuing to build our connections (physical and virtual). And to finish, I asked the ChatGPT bot for the theme for next conference and it suggested: “Innovation, equity and the future of higher education.” Another one to go in the mix, and further (human) ideas welcome.

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London. Follow Camille on Twitter @cbkandiko


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What do students think about value for money?

by Kristina Gruzdeva

In 2022, the cost of living crisis meant communities across the UK had to adjust their behaviours and their spending. Many needed to learn to navigate within a complex energy market. Prospective university students were in a similar position, being expected to make a cost-conscious decision about their degree education with limited understanding of their options. In research conducted for my PhD, I invited first-year students to participate in focus groups to explore their orientations to their degree. Students were recruited through online and on-campus campaigns that were run in the autumn of 2019/20. The overall sample consisted of 51 participants (39 female, 10 male and 2 non-binary; 28 from ethnic minority groups; 14 were ‘first in family’ students). All participants were first-year students who started their degree at a Russell Group University, with a balance across all five faculty groupings in the university. I developed a typology to show how students perceive their degree, their beliefs about the financial implications of going to university and how they define value for money. In England, undergraduate fees of £1000 were introduced more than 20 years ago, raised to £3000 in 2006, and to £9000 more than ten years ago. My findings suggest that even now, five years after the Higher Education and Research Act legislated for an HE market, it is problematic to rely on informed student choice as a basis for the market’s operation.

Students in the first category of the typology view their degree as an essential requirement for their career. Students in this category are enrolled in STEM or Medicine courses and have a clear idea of what they would like to do upon graduation. Their family background is diverse, with some choosing to follow their parents’ footsteps, and others being first in their family to go to university. Students in this category hold shared views on employability, graduate salaries, and value for money. The data show that employability and career aspirations are important to first-year students transitioning into HE (Mullen et al, 2019). Metrics of graduate employability gave these students some reassurance and helped them to narrow down their options in choosing courses. These students did not look for information about graduate salaries and explained this by studying for a degree that leads to in-demand jobs. They comment that information about graduate salaries was “already there” when they looked for other kinds of information about their degree. Students who view their degree as an essential requirement report that their degree provides good value for money.

The second category of students described their degree as an investment. These students also had a career-oriented approach to their education, but their career plans were less defined compared with the plans of students in the first category. They studied a wide range of degree courses and came from diverse backgrounds. When asked about their awareness around employability, some students reported that they had come across information about it, whereas others said that they did not know much. When prompted to explain why they did not search for such information, these students suggested their career plans had not crystallised yet, so they were not sure how to interpret such information and to what extent it would be relevant to them. As in the first category, these students reported that they did not look for information about graduate salaries. They assumed such information would not be relevant because they had not yet decided what to do upon graduation. They had a mix of views on value for money. Some believed that their degree would offer good value for money because it would open doors to many opportunities, whereas others had a different opinion. Perceptions of poor value for money were related to instances when students’ expectations had not been met. For example, a few students had expected more contact hours. Others had expected that their maintenance loan would cover the costs of their accommodation.

The third category of students described their degree as a desirable experience. These students were enrolled in Social Sciences and Humanities courses. Importantly, these students came from families where at least one parent holds a degree. Their decision to study at university was driven by their academic interests or a belief that getting accepted onto a course would be easy. When asked about whether they considered employability metrics, these students said that they did not. They also did not look for information related to graduate salaries. One student, reflecting on her decision to study at university, suggested that prospective students had tunnel vision and were not concerned about their career prospects. Two individuals commented that education is not about jobs and appeared to look down on the other members of their discussion groups, who shared the view that their education offered knowledge and skills for work. There was a mix of views on value for money. The social and wider personal benefits of studying for a degree were attributed to good value for money. In this category it was rare to find perceptions of poor value for money; such perceptions came from unfulfilled expectations related to contact hours.

Student career aspirations, or lack thereof, played a dominant role in shaping students’ views on their education and how they perceived value for money. Most students in my study did not actively search for information related to employability or graduate salaries; rather, they assumed the economic value of their degrees. These findings challenge the consumer-oriented approach to HE because focus group participants did not appear to act as informed consumers, which is problematic in an HE sector supposedly driven by market imperatives.

Kristina Gruzdeva is a Research Facilitator at the University of Birmingham. Kristina’s research interests are in higher education policy, mainly in relation to student finance, student choices, and marketisation. This blog is based on a chapter from her recently completed PhD. Email: k.gruzdeva@bham.ac.uk


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#AcWriMo: Getting into the writing habit

by John Parkin

As I look back on Academic Writing Month, I reflect on what went well, what I could have done better and what I will try to carry on. For those who do not know, Academic Writing Month (or #AcWriMo) is held annually in November and gives academics and doctoral students the permission and focus to concentrate their efforts on academic writing in whatever form that may take.

I am a Senior Lecturer Practitioner in Education and also completing my EdD part-time, so it always a challenge trying to balance teaching and research commitments. Over the summer, I had managed to find some time to write, but with a busy term starting in September I really struggled to find the time for the academic writing I knew I needed to do. I was getting worried that I would only be able to find time to write in the summer and my EdD would never be finished!

The SRHE sent out a newsletter which mentioned Academic Writing Month activities they were organising over the month of November. I thought I would give it a try and see if it could help me develop some better writing habits.

I joined the first online session organised by the SRHE and run by Gillian Chu (who also blogged for SRHE recently) which I found to be really useful. We talked about what #AcWriMo and the importance of setting targets, both on a weekly basis in terms of either words or time spent writing and outputs I would like to achieve by the end of the month. I was also introduced to a shared Excel document where I could record my targets and the number of words I had written. The session also had time for attendees to work on some academic writing. Earlier in the year, I had attended some SRHE Power Hour of Writing sessions. I find this sort of online writing session really useful as I tend to find writing a solitary task and that I benefit from writing with other people in a community.

Over the month, I managed to get some writing for my EdD – I managed to write a positionality statement and part of my literature review. I really benefited from having some clear targets and some for how much I wanted to write each week. For a few weeks over the month, my aims were far too optimistic! However, taking part in #AcWriMo got me writing again and not worrying about when I was going to find time to write.

Overall, I found it really useful to participate in #AcWriMo. It managed to get me doing some academic writing this academic year and helped me carve out time to do this. If I can manage to do it for a month, then I feel more optimistic I can find time during the rest of the year too. I am looking forward to joining other SRHE writing events in the future such as the Power Hour of Writing. Having tried #AcWriMo for the first time, I will definitely be doing it next year as well!

John Parkin is a Senior Lecturer Practitioner in Education at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in Peterborough. He is also the Course Leader of the BA Primary Education Studies course. Before becoming an academic in 2018, John was an assistant headteacher and primary teacher. Most of his teaching experience has been as an Early Years teacher. John is also a doctoral researcher exploring the experiences of men training to become primary teachers.


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Research co-creation may be the key to impact

by Finley Lawson

I have been using a design-based implementation approach to co-creating educational research since 2019 at Canterbury Christ Church University, where a cross-institutional team of teachers, researchers, and school senior leaders grapples with where and how to provide opportunities for students to become ‘epistemically insightful’ (equipped with an understanding of the nature of knowledge within disciplines and across disciplinary boundaries). Previous research by the Centre discovered that pressures within schools dampen students’ expressed curiosity in questions about the nature of reality and human personhood and limit the development of their epistemic insight into how science, religion and the wider humanities relate. We developed the Epistemic Insight Initiative to understand the kinds of interventions, tools, and pedagogies that would address the current challenges posed by a compartmentalised curriculum. The challenge we faced was how we could transform whole-school curriculum practice without removing teacher agency. We wanted to ensure that the intervention(s) met the needs and experiences of each school community, without becoming so contextualised that that the findings and approaches couldn’t be generalised to have wider applicability (and ultimately impact).

Part of our role as universities is to produce (and facilitate the production of) knowledge. As the REF puts it we should be “illustrating the benefits research delivers beyond academia, including how it brings tangible changes to aspects of society and life, and the public value it delivers”. Yet within educational research there is a perceived disjunct between the research undertaken by universities (or professional research organisations) and the research used and undertaken by teachers and practitioners in schools and other educational settings. This is highlighted in practitioner-focused literature where evidence-informed practice is often divided between desk based ‘research’ by teachers as separate from ‘academic research’ conducted by universities or research organisations – a model which emphasises the teachers’ role as a consumer rather than creator of research (Nelson and Sharples, 2017). This divide can also border on a dismissal of teachers’ ability to engage with academic research, by insisting for example that we shouldn’t “expect teachers to learn to read research” and our role as researchers should be to create “teacher-friendly research”, with the implication that this is somehow ‘less than’ academic research (Miller et al, 2010). Why is this divide important for SRHE? We are after all focused on higher education so, apart from a call to consider broader dissemination avenues for our research, why does it matter?

My answer is impact. Not solely, or even primarily, in terms of a ‘REF-able’ impact, but because we know that education research has the power to transform students’ experiences of learning and thus broaden their aspirations for higher education. Whilst there is a wealth of literature on the importance of research engagement within initial teacher education and professional development (for example see Hine, 2013; Hagger and Mcintyre, 2000; Murray et al, 2009), the question of how to ensure that the research ecosystem is reciprocal (i.e. that teachers/practitioners are viewed as knowledge producers not just consumers) is still relatively under discussed. A research ecosystem can be seen as analogous to a natural ecosystem where knowledge is transferred between stakeholders in a process that leads to the emergence of systemic change. The current challenge is to ensure that knowledge flows from teachers/practitioners into the system; Pandey and Pattnaik (2015) discuss this within a university and Godfrey and Brown (2019) within a school but there is less research on bringing these “micro-systems” together into a mutually enriching “macro-system” (although research by Connelly et al (2021) in the Irish context is promising). Educational research is about improving the opportunities and outcomes for those in education. For this to happen the change/intervention must continue to be implemented beyond an individual project, and often within the constraints of existing curricula and assessment frameworks. This means that teachers and educators need to be seen not as a resource for ‘local expertise’ but as a crucial part of the research ecosystem.

The establishment and development of a co-creation relationship across a diverse group of primary and secondary schools has taken about three years and has been led by both teachers and school senior leaders. The linchpin for these relationships has been a shared recognition of the challenges identified within the previous research, and an interest in examining how school students can be better equipped to navigate disciplinary and curricula boundaries. This shared goal means that the school and research centre aims are aligned and therefore the core data collected can be standardised across the schools, but with the addition of contextualised questions that address the specific questions of each school. These local questions alongside school-level data for the core questions are shared with the school to support their practice and development plans. As a research centre we analyse data from across the partner schools, with the advantage that, as the research addresses shared concerns, teacher engagement with the research is high. This ensures a 95% plus response rate across multiple data collection points for each cohort. Teachers and school leaders receive training on the philosophical framework underpinning the research and the learning tools but work in collaboration with the centre to develop lessons and curricula that meet the aims of the research. As researchers we act in a quality assurance role during the intervention development, which means that the teachers are at the forefront of shaping the intervention for their students and within their institutional constraints. This close collaboration means that we address two of the key features required in building research in schools (a) “a willingness to embed the research activity into existing school systems” and (b) “access to sources of expertise and advice” (Sanders et al, 2009). In one school this saw a movement from 10 teachers being involved in the initial curriculum design (plus delivery by 7 members of the senior team) to, in the second year, the entire professional development programme being restructured around research-engaged Professional Learning Communities, where staff undertook their own action-research projects.  Now, in the third year, all staff including support staff are in mixed research teams as part of their professional development.

Sharp et al identify a range of benefits to schools in being research engaged, including teacher retention, raised standards and school development. The biggest impact we have noticed, shared by our partner schools, has been the combined impacts on teacher development/practice and their epistemic agency to investigate the educational questions that matter to them, empowered by an ethos that acknowledges that not every intervention will succeed. 80% of participating teachers in one school agreed that it has improved their understanding of disciplinary methods of their own discipline in relation to one they don’t teach. Across the schools, teachers have changed practice within their teaching and have been empowered to signpost students better to links with other subjects. As researchers, we have seen our work embedded in ways and places that we could not have envisioned and seen a genuine interest from schools to engage in research that required the time and expertise of sometimes the whole staff body (particularly in primary schools). This kind of impact with whole year groups, even whole schools, taking part in research-engaged curriculum interventions and redevelopment would not be possible were we using a ‘traditional’ research model that excluded co-creation. The power of co-creation is that these ‘interventions’, if they can still be called that, will continue far beyond the directly funded projects that started them, because those involved have ownership of what is taking place.

Our role now, outside the continued partnership, is to understand how we, in HE, can use our position to amplify practitioner voices, to share this practitioner research widely within the research landscape. We are still looking for the best way to support those teachers to share their research-engaged practice into teacher education directly (through knowledge exchange opportunities with students on QTS programmes) and with educational researchers. In placing practitioner research within the research landscape, we truly recognise its value within the research ecosystem and can share how generalised interventions/findings can be implemented in practice, in schools or other settings every day. We must ensure that our HE practice includes acting as a knowledge broker, supporting, and enabling the production of knowledge by the communities which HE serves and feeding that back into the wider research environment.

Finley Lawson is the Lead Research Fellow for Outreach and Schools’ Partnership, at the LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion) Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent. His recently-submitted PhD examines the implication of scientific metaphysics for incarnational theology (Christ, Creation, and The World of Science: Beyond Paradox). He is interested in the dialogue between STEM, Religion, and the wider humanities, and how this can be fostered in school curricula. Finley is the Lead Researcher on the OfS-funded Inspiring Minds Project. The co-created research with schools discussed here has been funded by the Templeton World Charitable Foundation and forms part of the wider Epistemic Insight Initiative. As a centre we would like to thank all the schools who have been actively involved in our research but in particular the staff and students at Astor School, Bromstone Primary School, and Wilmington Grammar School for Girls, who have been case study schools during the project and have been involved in publicly sharing their work and experiences.

Email: finley.lawson@canterbury.ac.uk; Twitter: @FinnatCCCU



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Research with international students: reflecting on an SRHE 2022 symposium

by Jenna Mittelmeier, Sylvie Lomer, and Kalyani Unkule

We were pleased to lead a symposium of international authors at the 2022 SRHE conference, focusing on Research with International Students: Conceptual and Methodological Considerations. This was an early session linked for our upcoming open access book of the same name, which we aim to publish in late 2023. This book, as well as our research resource website which led to it, focuses on developing critical considerations for researchers who focus their work on international students and their experiences in higher education.

Research with international students is a significant and growing area of research about higher education. This coincides with and derives from the exponential growth in international student numbers worldwide, making more visible an interest in their lived academic and social experiences. This is also an area that continues to attract newer researchers, particularly doctoral and student researchers who may have a vested interest in this topic as current or former international students themselves, and practitioner researchers who teach and support international students in their professional roles. Research on this topic is interdisciplinary (as with most other higher education research topics), attracting researchers from disciplines including education, sociology, psychology, human geography, business, and beyond.

Despite this growing interest, we note that there have been limited conversations about developing research with international students as a distinct interdisciplinary subfield. Similarly, there have been limited methodological guidance and considerations for how research might critically approach the wide-ranging topics that are being researched in this area. We have written previously about how these omissions perpetuate problems for this subfield and, ultimately, diminish the potential impact of research.

The most significant problem with research in this area is that it tends to frame international students through a deficit lens, depicting them as lower quality students who ‘lack’ skills necessary for success. This is seen through the large numbers of studies which attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘integrate’ international students into expected norms of study in their host institutions, making assumptions about their perceived lack of skills in areas such as critical thinking, language, or writing. International students are also often depicted through research as only experiencing challenges or problems, frequently described as vulnerable rather than capable, managing, or coping. At the same time, research tends to homogenise international students as a collective group or deduce their diversity only to nationality and macro-level cultures. These are among other conceptual concerns we have previously highlighted, which are rooted in limited criticality and nuance through research.

With these issues in mind, our aim in the symposium, as well as through our website and book, was to start a conversation about how research with international students might be designed better, more critically, and more ethically. In particular, we considered the nexus between conceptual criticality and practical methodological designs which can reposition and encourage new discourses about international students. Each of the four presentations highlighted how, within the book, we encourage researchers to develop stronger research designs in the future.

The first paper in the symposium was by Kalyani Unkule, whose presentation represented chapters in our upcoming book where authors re-conceptualise an idea or term that is often taken for granted in research with international students. Here, we argue for the ways that certain ideas within this research topic are often assumed to have a shared, collective meaning, which actually might be more nuanced or complex. Kalyani reflected on the meaning of the word ‘global’ and the tendency for binaries of local and global to limit our thinking in research and practice about international higher education. This is an important critique about the ways that ‘home’ and ‘international’ are seen as opposing binaries in research with international students, ultimately limiting the conceptual nuance of where students’ experiences and histories might intersect these two areas and be more ‘glocal’ in nature.

The second paper was by Tang Heng, whose presentation represented chapters which highlight problematic discourses that shape and frame research with international students. Her chapter focuses on stereotyping and how stereotypes about international students, often through methodological nationalism, are endemic in the ways that research is developed and designed. Tang focused particularly on how theoretical frameworks can perpetuate or relate to stereotyping, but in the book we also focus on other problematic threads through research on this topic: othering, dehumanisation, coloniality, and deficit narratives, among others. This highlights the issues that hold the research subfield back and represent areas for more critical development and reflection in future research.

This was followed by a paper from Vijay Ramjattan, whose presentation represented chapters in the book which show how common stereotypes and discourses about international students might be shifted away from individual deficiencies towards recognition of structural inequalities. Vijay’s presentation focused on deficit framings of language, where international students are often positioned as ‘lacking’ linguistic skills. However, this might be shifted instead to focus on structural oppression of multilingualism and multiple Englishes within institutions. This gives us one example of how researchers can conceptually move away from issues like biases, stereotyping, and deficit narratives by centring the structural roots that cause them.

Finally, the presentation by Samridhi Gupta and Thuy-Anh Nguyen shifted the focus towards practical research designs, demonstrating the section in our book which focuses on how research design choices can purposefully resist existing problems in knowledge creation with (rather than on or about) international students. Their presentation focused on co-designing research with international students, giving practical examples of two research methods which can be designed with students as partners. This demonstrates the ways that methodological choices are fundamentally intertwined with conceptual criticality, highlighting how the method we choose can resist and deconstruct the existing problems set out by previous presenters.

Together, our symposium aimed to open up new reflections and considerations for the historical trajectory of research with international students, considering new ways forward for the research subfield. Both the symposium and our upcoming book aims not to give answers for how to move that path forward, though, but rather to open up questions for individual researchers and the research community more broadly about where we might like to go from here. We ask, then: what should the epistemic space of research with international students look like?

More research resources on this topic can be found at https://researchintlstudents.com/. ‘Research with international students: Critical conceptual and methodological considerations’ will be published open access by Routledge, aiming for late 2023.

Jenna Mittelmeier is Senior Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focuses on the experiences and treatment of international students within the broader internationalisation of higher education.

Sylvie Lomer is Senior Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedagogy and policy enactment. 

Kalyani Unkule is Associate Professor at OP Jindal Global University in India. Her research complements her practice in intercultural dialogue and impact-driven projects in higher education internationalisation and spiritual learning.


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Research ethics committees should rethink risk

by Jacqueline Stevenson, Tom Power and Alison Fox

There are good reasons why institutional human research ethics committees (RECs) or research ethics boards (REBs) are needed in higher education institutions – namely, to ensure research participants are treated in accordance with a set of agreed standards and principles. This includes, for example, avoiding harm, ensuring informed consent, clarifying how any data collected will be stored and used, and ensuring transparency in relation to gaining access to participants through gatekeepers. There is also an ethical imperative to ensure a certain level of quality so that research has the potential to be of benefit to individuals, and society.  

There has been growing concern over the last twenty years, however, that some RECs have become such powerful regulatory bodies that they have almost complete control over what institutional research is conducted, as well as how and where it is undertaken. The ways in which RECs approach the approval of research ethics can seem antithetical to many of the other prevailing discourses of higher education (in the UK in particular), such as the need to decolonise research, the commitment to enhancing equity and inclusion, the focus on the co-creation of knowledge, and the push for greater co-collaboration with external stakeholders. 

In 2004, Haggerty drew attention to the worrying trend of what he coined ‘ethics creep’, where ethics committees have been afforded significant levels of institutional power above and beyond that for which they were initially tasked – including bringing within their scope and oversight those forms of activity which were historically not considered research, such as on-campus surveys, or in-class student research. Moreover, concerns have been levelled at RECs for being secretive in the ways in which they work, inconsistent in their approach to applying their own guidelines, and prioritising a box-ticking approach over any exploration of more meaningful ethical considerations (see Allen, 2008 for an overview).  

A further concern for many educational researchers is that approaches to ethical review, initially developed in relation to biomedical sciences, have largely been positivist. Such approaches can be detrimental to more qualitative research – particularly research which is collaborative in nature, involves participatory methodologies, or is exploratory in approach – where methods may evolve over time (Guta, Nixon and Wilson, 2013). This, as we have written elsewhere, has implications for empowerment and equitable participation, and limits possibilities for challenging the power, dominance, and colonial practices of the global north (Fox and Busher, 2022) . 

Such concerns about the ways in which RECs operate are not, for us, purely hypothetical. We have each grappled with the complexities, vagaries, frustrations and ‘emotional vicissitudes’ (Monaghan, O’Dwyer and Gabe, 2013) of gaining ethical approval. We have done this as educational researchers, as members of RECs trying to influence our own ethics committees, and as supervisors supporting doctoral researchers, including those raising concerns at the SRHE’s professional development events about their struggles to gain ethical approval for planned projects. This is particularly problematic since the “de-risking” of research plans can stifle innovation, limiting possible contributions to existing knowledge and the development of new knowledges.  

The privileging of research ethics approvals for projects which are quasi-scientific in approach, rather than those that draw on innovative qualitative methodologies, can significantly limit our understanding of the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ of global concerns, such as educational disadvantage, poverty, climate change, or global health issues. 

It is eminently possible, however, for RECs to approve projects which are methodologically innovative, participatory in nature, collaborative in approach, and which involve external stakeholders – including from countries where approaches to research ethics may be thought of differently to how they are thought about in the global north. To do so, however, requires RECs to accept a significant level of trust in their academic researchers. Such trust is demonstrated by some RECs but is by no means universal.  

Despite these complexities we recently gained ethical approval for the 3MPower (Mobile Learning for the Empowerment of Marginalised Mathematics Educators) project at The Open University, UK, achieving an outcome which may not only offer hope to other researchers of what is possible, but which might also act as an exemplar to other research ethics committees of what can be achieved if they are prepared to put faith in their own researchers. 

The 3MPower project, funded by the EdTech hub, is a collaborative project generating evidence on technology use for Teacher Professional Development in Bangladesh, with a particular focus on children’s foundation numeracy skills in schools serving marginalised, low-income, rural communities. The project brings together researchers from the Open University and Dhaka University, Bangladesh, and involves a broad range of national stakeholders including government policymakers, policy implementers, teacher educators, rural education officers, and rural teachers. It also enables early career researchers working with PEER (Participatory Ethnographic Evaluation Research) researchers in Bangladesh to elicit the voices and experiences of marginalised teachers in rural communities.  

Inherent in the methodology are several approaches which are at odds with the normal requirements of RECs. 

First is the commitment of the project team to empower all those involved in the research, and to share power equitably between and across both researchers and other stakeholders. This has required institutional acceptance that the locus of control over the research activities cannot rest solely with The Open University and that research approaches need to reflect both the global north and the global south. 

Second is the commitment to trusting researchers in the field to behave with appropriate respect, integrity, and trustworthiness without the need for written information sheets to be provided to research participants or to have written consent elicited from them (these were considered both epistemologically or culturally inappropriate and thus a barrier to participation). 

Third, although the project’s broad methodological approach had been explicated in the ethics application, the methods being used are organic and constantly evolving dependent upon emerging findings from the field. For this reason, specifying detailed interview or survey questions was accepted as not possible before the research started.  

The REC was therefore required to trust its researchers to act with integrity. However, it is important to note that the researchers were also required to keep the REC updated about the developing research by submitting amendments to the REC application in response to iterations of the collaborative design. This allows ongoing dialogue between the research team and the REC – ensuring that the processes of ethical approval go beyond the ‘tick box’ activity critiqued above. 

In short, the REC agreed to the team delivering a research project underpinned by a set of principles which are at the heart of all good educational research! These include empowerment and power sharing; decolonising research by recognising and valuing the experiences, voices, and knowledges of others, especially those from the global south; and trusting in the skills and experiences of others, including those working in different countries and with different cultural beliefs. However, because the project team could not specify and submit all the artefacts normally required by a REC at the outset (consent forms, information sheets, survey tools, interview protocols), it is likely that the project would have not gained approval in many other HEIs – or certainly not in the form it has done.  

The 3MPower project team had several advantages. Not only did Tom, as the Principal Investigator, have extensive experience of working on similar projects but all of the research leadership team had prior research experience in Bangladesh. Moreover, as the then Deputy Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee Alison had extensive understanding of qualitative, education-related research ethics, drawn not only from her institutional experiences but also from work reviewing and developing research ethics frameworks including with the British Educational Research Association (BERA). The project team therefore had a key advocate and a team of researchers who were already trusted.  

So, with support and through dialogue, ethical approval was granted, and the door was opened for ongoing support and mutual learning between the research team and REC about what is considered worthwhile and culturally appropriate research in Bangladesh. This is likely to be different for researchers in a less privileged position or where those involved in RECs have less experience (and this is often the case). Certainly, those PhD students who attend our SRHE professional development events tell a very different story.  

If we are to respond to society’s key challenges then it is time for RECs to become more risk-tolerant rather than risk-averse. This might involve re-evaluating risk through the eyes of gatekeepers and participants in the research context, giving greater weight to their voice during the ethics approval processes. RECs need to enable and not suppress innovation, and to both empower and trust higher education researchers and their research teams. This requires a rethinking of positionality, perspective, and philosophical beliefs about the way in which research can be conducted.  

Such rethinking of ethical practices can disrupt prior assumptions and contribute to learning about other ways of knowing and valuing within RECs. However, change needs to take place more broadly and more consistently across the sector. This needs to be done and done soon. The SRHE can, and should, be a key driver in pushing for change. 

Jacqueline Stevenson is a research associate on the 3MPower project at the Open University, visiting professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Leeds, and chair of the SRHE’s Research and Development Committee.

Tom Power is the Principal Investigator of the 3MPower project, a member of the Edtech Hub’s Building EdTech Evidence and Research (BETER) advisory group, and a Deputy Associate Dean for Knowledge Exchange at the Open University.

Alison Fox is Associate Head of School for Research and Knowledge Exchange for the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport, Chair of The Open University Human Research Ethics Committee and a member of British Educational Research Association Council.