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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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SRHE News on research and publishing

by Rob Cuthbert

One of the benefits of SRHE membership is exclusive access to the quarterly newsletter, SRHE News, archived at https://www.srhe.ac.uk/publications/. SRHE News typically contains a round-up of recent academic events and conferences, policy developments and new publications, written by editor Rob Cuthbert. To illustrate the contents, here is part of the January 2021 issue which covers Research and Publishing.

Research integrity

George Gaskell (LSE) wrote on the LSE Impact Blog on 16 October 2020 about the multi-authored Horizon 2020 study which distilled findings about research integrity into three areas and nine topics:

  • Support: research environment; supervision and mentoring; research integrity training
  • Organise: research ethics structures; dealing with breaches of research integrity; data practices and management
  • Communicate: research collaboration; declaration of interests; publication and communication

Eight common problems with literature reviews and how to fix them

Neal Haddaway (Stockholm Environment Institute) wrote for the LSE Impact Blog on 19 October 2020.

How to write an academic abstract

PhD student Maria Tsapali (Cambridge) offered some advice on the Cambridge Faculty of Education Research Students’ Association blog. Top of the list: avoid spelling or grammatical mistakes …

How to reward broader contributions to research culture

Elizabeth Adams and Tanita Casci (both Glasgow) explained on the LSE Impact Blog on 8 December 2020 how they designed and implemented a programme “for recognising often unseen work that colleagues do to build a positive research culture? Supporting careers, peer reviewing grant applications, mentoring and running skills development workshops for ECRs, championing open and rigorous research practices…”.

The following is an excerpt from SRHE News, the SRHE newsletter and Higher Education digest. Issue 43 of SRHE News was published in January 2021. SRHE News is a members only publication and can be downloaded from the Members Area. To become a member of SRHE visit the SRHE website.

The synthesiser’s synthesiser

SRHE Fellow Malcolm Tight (Lancaster) climbed even higher on the mountain he has largely built himself, assembling research into HE, with his new book, Syntheses of higher education research, published by Bloomsbury on 24 December 2020: “… systematic reviews and meta-analyses give an account of where we are now in higher education research. Malcolm Tight takes a global perspective, looking beyond Anglophone originating English Language publishing, particularly Africa, East and South Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, bringing together their findings to provide an accessible and practical overview. Bringing together over 96 systematic reviews and 62 meta-analyses focusing on … key topics: teaching and learning, course design, the student experience, quality, system policy, institutional management, academic work, and knowledge and research.”

Academic development in times of crisis

The International Journal for Academic Development has issued a call for proposals for a special issue to be published in 2022, inviting research, theory, and reflection on academic development in times of crisis. “We encourage scholarly and creative submissions that offer insights, methodologies, and practices that are firmly grounded in a particular context and crisis but that also have implications for academic development more broadly. … We encourage submission of a 500 word proposal by 1 February 2021 … full manuscripts to be submitted by 1 June 2021 … For inquiries about this Special Issue, please contact Henk Huijser, h.huijser@qut.edu.au.”

Theories of academic identity

Mark Barrow, Barbara Grant and Linlin Xu (all Auckland) analysed how academic identity had been theorised in their article in Higher Education Research and Development (online 30 November 2020): “Our analysis of 11 works suggests a small set of related (constructivist) theories provides the core resources for academic identities scholarship, although somewhat varied understandings of agency and power/politics surface in the discussions and implications advanced by different authors.” 

Governance and freedom in British academia

That was the title of SRHE member Rosalind MO Pritchard’s (Ulster) review for Higher Education Quarterly (online 18 December 2020) of The governance of British higher education: the impact of governmental, financial and market pressures, the 2020 book by SRHE Fellow Michael Shattock (UCL) and Aniko Horvath (Oxford) arising from their Centre for Global Higher Education research: “Two ideas permeate the content and are stated at the outset: the British state is playing a much more proactive role in higher education than in the past; and the uniformity of the higher education system is fragmenting under the impact of devolution and market pressures”.

From marketisation to assetisation

The article by Janja Komljenovic setting out her arguments for reframing the HE debate about markets and digitisation was in Higher Education (online 5 October 2020): “… we urgently need public scrutiny and political action to address issues of value extraction and redistribution in HE.”.

Theory and Method in Higher Education Research

Volume 6 of the Emerald series was published on 9 November 2020, edited by SRHE Fellows Jeroen Huisman (Ghent) and Malcolm Tight (Lancaster). Chapters: Prelims; Theorising Practices of Relational Working across the Boundaries of Higher Education; Uses of Corpus Linguistics in Higher Education Research: An Adjustable Lens; Dialogues with Data: Generating Theoretical Insights from Research on Practice in Higher Education; The Use of Instrumental Variables in Higher Education Research; Participatory Pedagogy and Artful Inquiry: Partners in Researching the Student Experience; Rolling Out the Mat: A Talanoa on Talanoa as a Higher Education Research Methodology; Rethinking Diversity: Combining Sen and Bourdieu to Critically Unpack Higher Education Participation and Persistence; Deleuzian Approaches to Researching Student Experience in Higher Education; Investigating Policy Processes and Discourses in Higher Education: The Theoretical Complementarities of Bernstein’s Pedagogic Device and Critical Discourse Studies; Framing Theory for Higher Education Research; Research into Quality Assurance and Quality Management in Higher Education; Knowledge with Impact in Higher Education Research

Literature reviews

Perspectives: Policy and Practice had two literature reviews in Vol 24(4): Orla Sheehan Pundyke on change management and Kelli Wolfe (Roehampton) on service design.

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

Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes…

An interesting follow-up to the item last time on research into not doing something. The German government put out a TV message featuring two couch potatoes…doing nothing, and advocating staying on the couch as a contribution to not spreading the Covid-19 infection. Somebody has a sense of humour.

On the pandemic, one group that has emerged with credit is the research community, the speed of decision making and the extent of international co-operation in sequencing the genetic code of the virus, using the code to design a vaccine and then developing it in record time. I suggest that by the end of 2021 the number of lives saved by the actions of researchers will be greater than the number lost through the actions and inactions of politicians. Experts have gained in respect. On the other hand, in this country…

On a (perhaps) less contentious issue, closer to members’ interests, I recommend the book edited by Stephen Gorard and published by Routledge: Getting Evidence into Education. Evaluating the routes to policy and practice. He has a salutary listing in the final chapter of barriers to the widespread use of high quality evidence. First is the regrettable lack of quality in research, with the growth of work he identifies as ‘small-scale, uninventive, journalistic or [only] purportedly theoretical work’ lacking scientific replicability. Second is the low ability or willingness to communicate findings to users, which is now improving, possibly because of the impact factor in REF funding. On the other side, he questions whether users really appreciate and want to use good evidence, particularly when it runs counter to values that underpin ideology. Finally, ‘teachers are still largely unaware of the availability of good evidence’ or lack the authority or resources to make changes in practice, and ‘school leaders often appear content to plan school improvement without referring to robust evidence. In my experience, much of that is also true in higher education, as well as in government policy making for the sector.

The latest data on membership of REF panels, issued in December, show that, despite government commitment to diversity and levelling up, the academic capitalists among the elite universities still control the commanding heights of the research economy. On the main panels, pre-92 universities have 46 full members, post-92 institutions have one – Kingston on Panel D. International universities have 15, which shows where competition in Lisa Lucas’s research game is focussed. On the sub-panels the figures are 636 to 87, with assessor members at 112 and 24. This affects grading. I make no accusation of crony capitalism, but there may be an unconscious bias of common cultural identity, as in the Eurovision Song Contest, where votes go to ‘people like us’, so the same old same old may be rewarded ahead of new approaches and findings challenging the established corpus of work done by members. That in turn affects funding. A parliamentary reply on 17 November listed overall government research funding (much of it QR funding from REF) to the 13 universities in the West Midlands. Between 2015 and 2019, Birmingham and Warwick (33 members) got an increase of 21% to £256m, mainly attributable to Warwick gaining an immediate £16 after the 2014 REF and a similar amount over the period; Aston and Keele (8 members) had no increase on £30m – Aston gained £1m, Keele had a matching reduction; Coventry gained £3m to £9m after a good REF. The other 8 institutions had £12 m among them. So two universities, dominating regional representation, got 83% of the funds distributed in 2018/9.

Amanda Solloway, Minister for HE in England, at a recent HEPI webinar, committed to reviewing the nature of excellence in research, acknowledged the need for diversity on interpretations and a need to link to ‘levelling up’. There may be a lesson from the Covid pandemic, where approaches by elite western countries failed; under-regarded countries did better. In 2019 the Johns Hopkins Global Health Security Index ranking capacity to deal with outbreaks of infectious disease ranked the USA first and the UK second; New Zealand came in at 35th and South Korea at 9th. The article in the Guardian from which I took those figures (Laura Spinney on 30 December) quotes Sarah Dalglies in the Lancet – ‘The pandemic has given the lie to the notion that expertise is concentrated in, or at least best channelled by, legacy powers and historically rich states’. Maybe that applies to research, too. REF panels, and Amanda Solloway, please note.

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

For answers to Ian’s SRHE News Quiz 2020, they are now online here.

Marcia Devlin


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Let’s not waste any more time

by Marcia Devlin

Last year, I was sent a satirical article about how to sabotage the productivity of your organisation by using a CIA manual from 1944.  It contained advice such as:

  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration’. Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five;
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions; and
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

There’s more and it’s worth a read.

Reflecting on my time in higher education over three decades, the article was both funny and depressing. Funny, because it precisely describes daily life working in a university, which is peculiar and amusing and many of us would have it no other way. Depressing, because it precisely describes daily life working in a university, which is highly bureaucratic and inefficient and often a profound waste of talent, goodwill and time.

The COVID-19 crisis has provided many opportunities to rethink what we have always done and to do things differently. I’m wondering whether universities might eventually benefit from this terrible crisis, including in ways that could be permanent.

Following the scrambling, adjustments and re-learning required for the global mass uptake of online and digital forms of education, our attention has begun to turn to the implications of this move.

Always of interest, academic integrity and the quality and standards of learning are now the subject of increased interest and scrutiny. As the ubiquitous, supervised, closed book exam en masse became impossible, along with other forms of assessment that require physical supervision of students, less frequently used assessment approaches have been considered and deployed.

Academic integrity is having a day or two in the sun as educators in universities consider how to ensure it, when they can’t always see what students are doing, including during electronic classes. Approaches that are being considered and used include: more gentle and/or educative interpretations of existing assessment and academic integrity policies; the use of technological proctoring tools, including homemade solutions using student phones; and so-called ‘alternative’ assessment.

In Australia, assessment policies have been changed, or waived in part, including through the granting of special power to a senior officer of the University in some places. All of these shifts have occurred with the aim of enabling to practical solutions to challenging and sudden changes.

New and streamlined governance arrangements have been created and enacted to ensure appropriate oversight of teaching, learning and assessment changes in the very short timeframes possible at the time. This one might confound any current CIA operatives in universities who are intent on slowing us down.

Considerations of academic matters that used to take one or two long Academic Board discussions and a fair amount of angst, not to mention tension and in some cases ongoing resentments between parties with different views, gave way, at least momentarily.  They were replaced by shorter, more focused considerations, often in single, brief meetings of key people. As far as I observed at my own University and elsewhere, we have made sensible and defensible positions and enacted them, with broad acceptance and little or no negative ripple.

Of course, we were forced to move quickly by the sudden onset of the COVID-19 crisis, which is the defining feature of most of the world’s experience in 2020. As we enter 2021, a ‘new normal’ is emerging in every aspect of human existence. It is understandable that we should hope things to return to the ‘old normal’, at least in some respects. But I’d argue that academic governance is one area in which we should try to retain the new normal, at least to some extent.

Imagine what might be possible if university staff were freed up, even just a little, from the at times tortuous dance of academic consideration that unnecessarily uses up precious talent, goodwill and time.

What if, post this terrible world crisis, we emerged with a commitment to do things differently in universities and in ways that maintained integrity, but did not steal our precious resources?

What if, instead of us doing as a CIA operative would recommend, such as: “Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences”, we simply didn’t do that anymore?

What if we all became more conscious of the time of others that we use up in the pursuit of ancient but no longer purposeful traditions? And what if we all committed to stopping doing this and trying something more respectful instead?

That we have moved many millions of university students to profoundly different ways of learning, teaching and assessment, and created new and efficient ways to consider and govern effectively with academic integrity apparently intact, tells us that anything is possible in the university sector.

When we finally emerge from COVID-19, the world will be a different place and human contact will be more deeply appreciated in many ways. Why don’t we try to respect that contact in our universities by not wasting each other’s talent, goodwill and time any further?

Marcia Devlin is a Fellow of SRHE and former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, now Adjunct Professor at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. An earlier version of this article appeared in Campus Review.

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Quality and standards in higher education

By Rob Cuthbert

What are the key issues in HE quality and standards, right now? Maintaining quality and standards with the massive transition to remote learning? Dealing with the consequences of the 2020 A-levels shambles? The student experience, now that most learning for most students is remote and off-campus? Student mental health and engagement with their studies and their peers? One or more of these, surely, ought to be our ‘new normal’ concerns.

But not for the government. Minister Michele Donelan assured us that quality and standards were being constantly monitored – by other people – as in her letter of 2 November to vice-chancellors:

“We have been clear throughout this pandemic that higher education providers must at all times maintain the quality of their tuition. If more teaching is moved online, providers must continue to comply with registration conditions relating to quality and standards. This means ensuring that courses provide a high-quality academic experience, students are supported and achieve good outcomes, and standards are protected. We have worked with the Office for Students who are regularly reviewing online tuition. We also expect students to continue to be supported and achieve good outcomes, and I would like to reiterate that standards must be maintained.”

So student health and the student experience are for the institutions to worry about, and get right, with the Office for Students watching. And higher education won’t need a bailout, unlike most other sectors of the market economy, because with standards being maintained there’s no reason for students not to enrol and pay fees exactly as usual. Institutional autonomy is vital, especially when it comes to apportioning the blame.

For government, the new normal was just the same as the old normal. It wasn’t difficult to read the signs. Ever since David Willetts, ministers had been complaining about low quality courses in universities. But with each successive minister the narrative became increasingly threadbare. David, now Lord, Willetts, at least had a superficially coherent argument: greater competition and informed student choice would drive up quality through competition between institutions for students. It was never convincing, but at least it had an answer to why and how quality and standards might be connected with competition in the HE market. Promoting competition by lowering barriers to entry for new HE providers was not a conspicuous success: some of the new providers proved to be a big problem for quality. Information, advice and guidance were key for improving student choice, so it seemed that the National Student Survey would play a significant part, along with university rankings and league tables. As successive ministers took up the charge the eggs were mostly transferred to the Teaching Excellence Framework basket, with TEF being championed by Jo, now Lord, Johnson. TEF began in 2016 and became a statutory requirement in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which also required TEF to be subject to an independent review. From the start TEF had been criticised as not actually being about teaching, or excellence, and the review by Dame Shirley Pearce, previously VC at Loughborough, began in 2018. Her review was completed before the end of 2019, but at the time of writing had still not been published.

However the ‘low quality courses’ narrative has just picked up speed. Admittedly it stuttered a little during the tenure of Chris Skidmore, who was twice briefly the universities minister, before and after Jo Johnson’s equally brief second tenure. The ‘Skidmore test’ suggested that any argument about low quality courses should specify at least one of the culprits, if it was not to be a low quality argument. However this was naturally unpopular with the narrative’s protagonists and Skidmore, having briefly been reinstalled as minister after Jo Johnson’s decision to step down, was replaced by Michele Donelan, who has remained resolutely on-message, even as any actual evidence of low quality receded even further from view. She announced in a speech to Universities UK at their September 2020 meeting that the once-praised NSS was now in the firing line: “There is a valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding the subject knowledge and intellectual skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace. These concerns have been driven by both the survey’s current structure and its usage in developing sector league tables and rankings.”

UUK decided that they had to do something, so they ‘launched a crackdown’ (if you believe Camilla Turner in The Telegraph on 15 November 2020) by proposing, um, “a new charter aimed at ensuring institutions take a “consistent and transparent approach to identifying and improving potentially low value or low quality courses.” It’s doubtful if even UUK believed that would do the trick, and no-one else gave it much credence. But with the National Student Survey and even university league tables now deemed unreliable, and the TEF in deep freeze, the government urgently needed some policy-based evidence. It was time for this endlessly tricky problem to be dumped in the OfS in-tray. Thus it was that the OfS announced on 17 November 2020 that: “The Office for Students is consulting on its approach to regulating quality and standards in higher education. Since 2018, our focus has been on assessing providers seeking registration and we are considering whether and how we should develop our approach now that most providers are registered. This consultation is taking place at an early stage of policy development and we would like to hear your views on our proposals.”

Instant commentators were unimpressed. Were the OfS proposals on quality and standards good for the sector? Johnny Rich thought not, in his well-argued blog for the Engineering Professors’ Council on 23 November 2020, and David Kernohan provided some illustrative but comprehensive number-crunching in his Wonkhe blog on 30 November 2020: “Really, the courses ministers want to get rid of are the ones that make them cross. There’s no metric that is going to be able to find them – if you want to arbitrarily carve up the higher education sector you can’t use “following the science” as a justification.” Liz Morrish nailed it on her Academic Irregularities blog on 1 December 2020.

In the time-honoured way established by HEFCE, the OfS consultation was structured in a way which made it easy to summarise responses numerically, but much less easy to interpret their significance and their arguments. The core of the approach was a matrix of criteria, most of which all universities would expect to meet, but it included some ‘numerical baselines’, especially on something beyond the universities’ control – graduate progression to professional and managerial jobs. It also included a proposed baseline for drop-out rates. The danger of this was that it would point the finger at universities which do the most for disadvantaged groups, but here too government and OfS had a cunning plan. Nick Holland, the OfS Competition and Registration Manager, blogged on 2 December 2020 that the OfS would tackle “pockets of low quality higher education provision”, with the statement that “it is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes.” At a stroke universities with large proportions of disadvantaged students could either be blamed for high drop-out rates, or, if they reduced drop-out rates, they could be blamed for dropping standards. Lose-lose for the universities concerned, but win-win for the low quality courses narrative. The outrider to the low quality courses narrative was an attack on the 50% participation rate (in which Skidmore was equally culpable), which seemed hard to reconcile with a ‘levelling up’ narrative, but Michele Donelan did her best with her speech to NEON, of all audiences, calling for a new approach to social mobility, which seemed to add up to levelling up by keeping more people in FE. The shape of the baselines became clearer as OfS published Developing an understanding of projected rates of progression from entry to professional employment: methodology and results on 18 December 2020. After proper caveats about the experimental nature of the statistics, here came the indicator (and prospective baseline measure): “To derive the projected entry to professional employment measure presented here, the proportion of students projected to obtain a first degree at their original provider (also referred to as the ‘projected completion rate’) is multiplied by the proportion of Graduate Outcomes respondents in professional employment or any type of further study 15 months after completing their course (also referred to as the ‘professional employment or further study rate’).” This presumably met the government’s expectations by baking in all the non-quality-related advantages of selective universities in one number. Wonkhe’s David Kernohan despaired, on 18 December 2020, as the proposals deviated even further from anything that made sense: “Deep within the heart of the OfS data cube, a new plan is born. Trouble is, it isn’t very good.”

Is it too much to hope that OfS and government might actually look at the academic research on quality and standards in HE? Well, yes, but there is rather a lot of it. Quality in Higher Education is into its 26th year, and of course there is so much more. Even further back, in 1986 the SRHE Annual Conference theme was Standards and criteria in higher education, with an associated book edited by one of the founders of SRHE, Graeme Moodie (York). (This was the ‘Precedings’ – at that time the Society’s practice was to commission an edited volume in advance of the annual conference.) SRHE and the Carnegie Foundation subsequently sponsored a series of Anglo-American seminars on ‘Questions of Quality’. One of the seminar participants was SRHE member Tessa, now Baroness, Blackstone, who would later become the Minister for Further and Higher Education, and one of the visiting speakers for the Princeton seminar was Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker. At that time the Council for National Academic Awards was still functioning as the validating agency, assuring quality, for about half of the HE sector, with staff including such SRHE notables as Ron Barnett, John Brennan and Heather Eggins. When it was founded SRHE aimed to bring research and policy together; they have now drifted further apart. Less attention to peer review, but more ministers becoming peers.

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


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Visualizing the COVID-19 pandemic response in Canadian higher education: An extended photo essay

by Amy Scott Metcalfe

This blog is a short summary of the author’s paper for a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. This issue is currently free to access and includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020. Many of the authors featured in the Special Issue spoke about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar held on 27 January 2021. The paper presented the author’s account of the COVID-19 pandemic from a Canadian perspective, utilising an extended photo essay method and narrative response to document changes seen in the local university environment during the months of April through September 2020. Emerging literature and survey results concerning the Canadian academic condition during the pandemic are discussed in the article alongside research diary entries and policy excerpts. The images included here in this blog post are additional views from the extended photo essay, and were not reproduced in the author’s piece for the Special Issue.

Attempting to make sense of the 2020 pandemic can be understood, meta-cognitively speaking, as academia’s quintessential response to the unknown, coupled with a sector-wide existential crisis. For Studies in Higher Education’s special issue on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives, personally and professionally, I took a conscious approach toward self-expression and ‘research creation’ as a way to channel my mind/body reactions into something productive during this particularly stressful time. In selecting a photo essay format, augmented by ethnographic data collection and my research diary, my contribution to the special issue on “The impact of a pandemic – a global perspective” focuses on the changes the pandemic has brought to my work-life, my institution, and the Canadian university sector as a whole.

The impact of the pandemic on Canada’s higher education sector is yet to be extensively measured, but early indicators of the largely negative effects for students and faculty are coming to light (Firang, 2020; CAUT, 2020a). Fiscally, the mainly public Canadian higher education sector may encounter a cycle of retrenchment, as provincial governments face pandemic-related deficits and as previously anticipated tuition revenues might not be forthcoming (CAUT, 2020b). The negative effects of the pandemic on individual Canadian academics may endure for some time, potentially increasing inequality within a sector already beleaguered by gender disparities and racialization (Johnson and Howsam, 2020; Oleschuk, 2020).

In the article, I presented three consecutive photo essays that describe the conditions within the campus environment at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver between April and September 2020. Sequenced according to our local seasons (spring, summer, fall) and our institutional academic calendar (Winter 2, Summer, Winter 1), the images simultaneously portray moments in time/place and my somatic experiences. Each photo essay contains ten images, although due to space constraints just three per essay were reproduced in the article (nine overall). The complete photographic essays are available online (http://www.amyscottmetcalfe.com/). Within each section I offered temporal contextualisation in the form of narrative description, contemporaneous policy texts, dated excerpts from my research diary, and recently released preliminary findings from institutional and national surveys of faculty with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on academic life and work in Canada. The intent was to create a multimodal diary that collates my experiences as a Canadian academic during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.

In this blog post I share three photos that were not reproduced in the article, but which are included in the online photo essays. These images are from the essay titled “Prepping,” which documented some of the visible changes to the campus that occurred over the summer months of 2020, as various campus units prepared for an uncertain fall semester. The larger photo essay includes images of signage and visual cues like floor stickers that were installed that summer to direct our movements throughout the campus to promote physical distancing. With some international and domestic students residing on campus, essential services such as food outlets were open, albeit in a limited fashion. To direct a one-way flow through these open buildings, some doors were locked, with “Do Not Enter” signs affixed to the exterior (Figure 1), to direct students and staff to other entrances. The cumulative effect of these large signs prohibiting entry is that of a campus environment that is both provisional and conditional—not the expected openness or enduring continuity we typically find in our public academic institutions.

Figure 1. Do Not Enter. Photo: Author.

The centre of student life on many North American campuses is the student services building, where young people gather for recreation, entertainment, mealtimes, and student club meetings. At my employing institution, the UBC Life building is a newly renovated space for student services, including International Student Advising and UBC’s Go Global program for study abroad opportunities. At present, the UBC Life building is partially open to provide limited food services and restricted use of a weight room and gym. From the exterior, the building exclaims “UBC Life” in large lettering (Figure 2), in sharp contrast to the largely vacant interior.

Figure 2. UBC Life. Photo: Author.

Figure 3. The Best Thing in Life is Life. Photo: Author.

Walking amongst the unused tables and chairs within the UBC Life building, adjacent to the dark windows of closed advising offices, a mural reminds us that “the best thing in life is life” (Figure 3). In the shadowy background, behind the overturned chairs, we can see the marquee of the now-closed student movie theatre still announcing film showings from March 2020, including a Vancouver International Film Festival viewing of “The World is Bright” (March 9, 6PM), a documentary that describes the grief of an elderly Chinese couple who travel to Canada to try to understand the death of their son, an immigrant who died on foreign soil. The showing of this film at UBC in March 2020 would soon be followed by the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic. Taken together, we might read the phrases from this institutional still life as a prefiguration of the hope and despair brought by COVID-19 in the 2020-2021 academic year. Even now, in early 2021 with vaccine delivery underway, Canadian universities are in a holding pattern, having put in place the mechanisms by which we might operate in suspended animation online into the (un)foreseeable future.

Dr Amy Scott Metcalfe is a Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Her research focuses on higher education in Canada and the North American region, including (post)critical approaches to internationalisation, academic labour and mobility, and critical policy studies in education. Dr Metcalfe has a particular interest in visual research methods in education, with an emphasis on photographic methodologies, art historical approaches, and visual analysis.

Works Cited

Firang, D (2020) ‘The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on International Students in Canada’ International Social Work, 1-5 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0020872820940030

CAUT  (2020a) Post-Secondary Staff Concerned about Remote Teaching, Research, Health and Safety and Jobs  Ottawa: Canadian Association of University Teachers. 20 August 2020 https://www.caut.ca/latest/2020/08/post-secondary-staff-concerned-about-remote-teaching-research-health-and-safety-and.

CAUT (2020b) Post-Secondary Educators Issue Urgent Call for Support to Offset Impacts of COVID-19 Ottawa: Canadian Association of University Teachers 1 May 2020 https://www.caut.ca/latest/2020/05/post-secondary-educators-issue-urgent-call-support-offset-impacts-covid-19.

Johnson, GF and R Howsam (2020) ‘Whiteness, Power and the Politics of Demographics in the Governance of the Canadian Academy’ Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique, 1–19 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/canadian-journal-of-political-science-revue-canadienne-de-science-politique/article/whiteness-power-and-the-politics-of-demographics-in-the-governance-of-the-canadian-academy/E203CC4FD2A80D1B9E5E4B21D2989600

Oleschuk, M (2020) ‘Gender Equity Considerations for Tenure and Promotion During COVID-19’ Canadian Review of Sociology 57 (3): 502–515. 


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The post-coronial future of higher education: Utopian hopes and dystopian fears at Cambridge University

by Simone Eringfeld

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

You’re asking about my perfect post-Covid dystopian University? Imagine everyone’s got really nice VR headsets and virtual reality has exponentially gotten better and better. We can now host the entire experience online, so you wake up in the morning, you put your headset on and then you ‘go to’ university, you go to lectures … You sort of simulate what life is. I think that’s the worst-case scenario. I think if it was like how it is now but online – because you could just do it cheaply online – the University of Cambridge would be like a network, or a file. It wouldn’t even be a place anymore. That seems hellish to me. I think that’s my perfect dystopia.

– Peter, Cambridge undergraduate student

If I asked you to describe your ‘perfect dystopia’ of a post-pandemic university, what kind of scenario would emerge? And which images arise when you try to picture the opposite, an ideal utopian outcome? When I interviewed students and academics at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education about hopes and fears for the future of HE, responses included scenes that could inspire even the gloomiest science fiction scripts. It is clear that Covid-19 has raised critical questions addressing the existential core of HE institutions and their futures. By imagining best and worst-case scenarios, this time of crisis becomes an opportunity to pause and reflect: what kind of university do we ultimately want, and what is it we absolutely don’t want?

This research project focuses on the following thought experiment: how can we reimagine the post-coronial university? I introduce the term ‘post-coronial’ here as

“… a temporally evocative notion indicating both the university after Covid-19 and its evolvement as a consequence of Covid-19 in the here and now, during the pandemic. In addition, the term speculatively indicates the emergence of a new school of thought that might result from the impact of Covid-19 on societies and educational systems; that is, the possibility of future ‘post-coronial theory’ or ‘post-coronial education’ in a more conceptual and less time-bound sense” (Eringfeld, 2021).

Prior to conducting private interviews with students and faculty members, I started the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats’, where I invited members of the Cambridge community – from undergraduates to senior professors – to share their own experiences of education in the time of Covid-19 and to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the University. This podcast became an important component of my research methodology, with interviewees listening in advance to selected fragments of podcast conversations in order to sonically elicit their own imagination. I wrote about my podcasting methodology in another blog post here.

The most prominent fear that emerged from the research interviews is that of a complete and indefinite shift to online education. Such a dystopian university would become a ‘placeless’ institution, with the university now being ‘located’ inside desktop files and Zoom rooms. Such a university would be a disembodied institution, where screens and virtual reality replace the ‘real world’. Participants described a dystopia in which education would no longer be a social experience, where communal learning would be lost and where loneliness and isolation would exponentially be on the rise. A third theme that resurfaced across dystopian accounts given by students and faculty members is the fear that education would become ‘dehumanised’, with increased marketisation and bureaucratisation leading to a drastic reduction of precisely that which gives meaning to educational practices for many: interpersonal, human contact.

Yet when asked about their utopian visions for the future, not a single participant suggested a full return to pre-pandemic HE. Instead, many described a utopian post-coronial university with at least some elements of online education as part of the new normal. As one academic reflects:

I do want to go back to some of the college dinners and conversations, the late-night sessions and seminars, the music … But I would also want some of my supervisions to be able to happen online and I would want to be able to integrate what I’ve benefited from through this period of lockdown and isolation to become part of my ‘new normal’, because I can see there are huge benefits for me and I think for the students as well.

Advantages of online education that participants reported include a sense of enhanced freedom and agency, less performance pressure, more quality time with family, improved ability to focus on studying due to reduced FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) and more space for creativity and artistic expression. Others noted the potential for online education to expand access to a larger audience by reducing the costs of HE, offering more open access resources, designing more MOOCs and including other multi-media formats of education such as video recordings, audio podcasts and improved virtual learning environments. Such flexibility would allow university experiences to be tailored to the varying needs of students and staff. One graduate student pointed out that the availability of distance learning options would enable students based in different countries, or in different life phases, to still attend Cambridge.

At the same time, developing blended learning approaches that combine in-person with virtual education will bring about new challenges. One academic points to dystopian dangers connected to large-scale massification, the loss of personalized interaction and strengthened ‘echo chambers’ when students remain at home. Another student shared his fear that extreme commodification of education could turn even the most casual everyday aspects of student life into ‘sellable bite-sized experiences’, like student society meetings or visits to the college buttery. Many of these hopes and fears do not exclusively exist in the imagination; instead, they build on pre-existing issues in HE such as marketisation, individualisation and exclusivity. While some of the dystopian scenarios may seem far removed from reality, they connect to HE tendencies already visible today.

What emerges from these interviews is in no way a singularly defined vision for the future, but rather a widely shared view that neither a fully online university nor a complete return to pre-pandemic HE is desirable. For “while a fully online format is seen as dystopian due to the loss of education as an embodied and communal experience connected to the ‘real world’, moving some teaching activities online may increase flexibility and improve access to HE for an expanded community in ways that a purely face-to-face university would not be able to” (Eringfeld, 2021). Universities will need to embrace flexibility and adaptability by fostering a blended approach to education that safely involves both online and face-to-face education. Importantly, this blended post-coronial university will need to think creatively about new ways to construct and maintain a sense of belonging for both students and staff, so as to ensure that HE remains a communal, humanized and embodied experience.

This blog is based on my article for Studies in Higher Education:

Eringfeld, S. (2021): Higher education and its post-coronial future: Utopian hopes and dystopian fears at Cambridge University during Covid-19. Studies in Higher Education, 46:1, 146-157, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1859681Simone Eringfeld is a recent Education MPhil graduate from the University of Cambridge. She is the co-Chair of the Cambridge Peace and Education Research Group (CPERG) and hosts the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats, which explores possible futures of post-Covid HE. She tweets: @SimoneEringfeld


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A lockdown journal from Catalonia

by Alicia Betts

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

Uncertainty has become the new normal, affecting our family lives and routines, our professional goals and activities and our relationship with local, regional and national governments. We have seen, in just a few months, how our freedom to move and associate has been challenged and restricted, or even forbidden. In Spain we lived a severe version of lockdown for over a month and a half. I wrote down my personal journey from the beginnings of the pandemic to September 2020 noting how I lived it, as an individual, a mother, a worker and a citizen.

We all expected some sort of lockdown by early March, but nobody really understood how harsh or how long it would actually be. On a Thursday we were told schools would not open the next day, and by Monday the whole country was locked in their houses. We are a family of four, and have two children ages 8 and 4, both enrolled in school. We adults work in the university sector full-time and our daily normal life involved quite a lot of commuting for all four of us. We live in a flat with a small balcony, very close to nature, parks and playgrounds, so we have never missed having our own little piece of outdoors.

I admit that total lockdown was a shock. I could not quite believe that we would not be allowed outside our flat and even less that children would not be permitted outdoors, not even in the fields and forest behind our house, or for some daily outdoor exercise. Meanwhile dog owners could walk their dogs. I think all of us without dogs hated them and/or envied them. There were few voices calling out for children’s rights and well-being under lockdown. The police patrolled the neighbourhoods. We had to organize two working schedules all while home-schooling two children (one of them very physically active). The beginning was stressful to say the least.

I had started a new position at the Universitat de Girona, just six weeks before lockdown. I worried that it would affect my productivity, my integration into this institution where human relations are very valued and important, and what would happen to my contract once the economic crisis that is bound to follow kicked in.

The university sent everybody home for 15 days asking for collaboration, flexibility and understanding in the complex situation. As a member of staff, I felt I was duly informed at all moments and that I was a part of a community that was undergoing a major challenge and managing all right with appropriate solutions and good timing. I think that being a medium-small institution (about 15000 students) helped in creating this sense of community while facing the challenge together. There were frequent emails from the Rector and from the leadership on the next steps and what was to be done and taken into account. The leadership shared their crisis strategy with the staff and students which included different phases and scenarios.

It was, however, very difficult to concentrate and get work done in the first few weeks, with all the uncertainties, the terrible daily news, having the children home and indoors all day. I struggled a lot, feeling very unproductive (in my new position) and guilty for not being able to be more professional and get all the work done at the usual rhythm, and also guilty for not meeting the demands of the children, who were also suffering from the situation and missed their school and friends. 

At the end of March several organizations like the European Association for International Education (EAIE) started to have open webinars on higher education hot topics. These sessions helped to generate a sense of community, a space to learn and share with peers around the globe, and a connection to the outside world. Being used to travel often and work with international peers, I enjoyed them very much. These webinars and meetings became something to look forward to every week and were intellectually and professionally refreshing.

By April, lockdown in a flat was beginning to have some serious physical consequences. Our bodies hurt, loss of muscles and strength, difficulty sleeping, cravings, anxiety … We had been locked in a three bedroom flat for a month and a half by the end of April. Only one of us adults went out once every ten days for grocery shopping.

On the upside, our lockdown work routine was now the new normal. I managed to get back into productive mode and worked towards my previously set objectives. Projects picked up and I felt that work life was back to a “nearly-normal” rhythm despite having all meetings and work done from home. The number of virtual open events multiplied in such a way that it was impossible to follow them and the sense of community that I felt the previous month slowly faded with the rising number of online activities.

There was a lot of discussion on what easing the lockdown meant for the university and what measures should be taken. Who should be allowed back first to their offices , classrooms or labs? In what conditions? How to ensure safety at the workplace and what material should be handed out?

In May, children were finally allowed outdoors for exercise for an hour a day close to the family home and, a few weeks later, adults were permitted out for exercise and sport in the municipality. The first day we went outdoors with the children they touched the ground, the earth, the grass and marvelled at the smell of nature, we had missed it so much! We had all lost physical strength, endurance and agility (despite all our efforts to keep us active indoors). It was quite shocking and painful to see how much lockdown had affected the children physically.

Work really picked up this month and all the events we had planned had to be transformed into virtual events. There were tons of meetings, emails and webinars organized. I began to feel there were two worlds: the hectic online screen world and the slow-paced world outside my computer. I was definitely missing a morning coffee break with colleagues.

Student mobility for the next academic year was still in debate. Should we let our students go abroad? In what conditions? Should they sign a document stating that it is under their responsibility and that they have to abide to the host institution’s guidelines? What can we offer incoming students? How many can we host if classrooms will have smaller numbers of students? What are other institutions deciding? Can we agree on a decision as a university system (all the universities in Catalonia)? All these questions on the next academic year had little to no answer and the leadership struggled with taking a clear decision.

In June we gradually expanded our social life, with facemasks and social distancing, but letting the children play freely outdoors. And by July administrative staff were required to go back to the office one or two times per week. Meetings had to be via videoconferences. But since cafes were open, staff often met outdoors for a coffee instead (just as an example of the incoherencies brought by this “new normal”).

The first days of this “new normal” in the office surprised me because I worked so much more and so much better from home. No time lost in traffic, no time lost getting to meetings in other parts of the campus … I am not one who considers speaking to colleagues as “lost time” but it is time away from the computer, and that did not happen from home. But it felt good to be physically at the university and have a sense of belonging to a community and a space beyond the computer screen. I was also finally getting an understanding of the work dynamics, the who is who inside the institution.

Despite all the enormous amounts of change and uncertainties, humans adapt and find ways to create new routines, new dynamics. Surprisingly, once our basic needs are met and we feel relatively safe, we also forget what life used to be like. To me the new normal looks like an ever changing palette of adaptations and regulations, not a stable linear path towards a COVID-19 free world. I do not see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, and I do not believe we will simply “pick up where we left off”.

In this context, universities have both a huge opportunity and a challenge. Opportunity because their research and teaching missions require them to be up-to-date in contributing to unravelling how best to proceed, providing governments and policymakers with evidence and analysis, and by finding medical and scientific solutions to the public healthcare crisis we are facing. In addition, it is also an ideal setting for transformative change, in some areas, much needed. It is also a challenge because most universities are not online institutions, but have rather based their organizational model on face-to-face interactions. We all know that coffee machine conversations are very important, often more than formal meetings. Videoconferences hinder spontaneity, silences in conversations and the innovation that stems from these type of informal interactions. Trading face-to-face teaching for teaching via a computer is not an easy process, for anyone involved.

Leadership at the Universitat de Girona has been bold, brave and positive, but also human and considerate. The crisis is affecting each and every one in a diverse way at different moments. Higher education institutions need to find the right balance for their own resilience and to continue being relevant in today’s very rapidly changing context.

Alicia Betts is responsible for International Strategic Projects at the Universitat de Girona since February 2020. Before she worked for the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi) and the Catalan Association of Public Universities as Head of Projects for over ten years. Her professional and research interests lie in internationalisation of higher education, community engagement and higher education and sustainable development. She is also a member of the EAIE steering group Cooperation for Development. Check her latest publication “A lockdown journal from Catalonia” here.


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Redesigning global hybrid education now that everything’s changed

by Hamish Coates, Xie Zheping and Xi Hong

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

In July 2020, my nine-year-old daughter picked my 1968 edition of Funny Jokes and Foxy Riddles from the shelf and asked me: “Why did the girl catch a plane to school?”. I paused, wondering if this was fantasy, folly, fantastic, foresight, fortune, futuristic or just funny. “So she could get a higher education”, my daughter answered, signalling how comfortable today’s children of faculty have grown up feeling about international university study.

In 1968, the idea that millions of young middle-income people mainly from Asia would swirl around the globe for undergraduate study, financially turbocharging research at major universities, was fanciful. A one-hour trunk call might cost more than a 2019 trans-Pacific plane ticket; the 747, the monumental whale which lifted globalisation, was fresh from the hangar; only very high elites in largely developing Asian economies were thinking about university, and such study was barely a prerequisite for a fantastic and fulsome or even a professional life.

My ideas wandered before my daughter pitched the punchline, but one gnawing anxiety pulsed stubbornly in my imagination. In this year of pandemic-induced accelerated global transformation, with 747s scuttled, billions carved from university budgets, and 14-day hotel quarantine dwarfing the pain of even 14-hour flights, what, I thought, would higher education be like in 2030 for my daughter’s generation? The nomenclature of qualifications and credentials proliferates but scares about ‘over-education’ and diminishing returns from degrees have, paradoxically, led to more people spending more time in more study. Promulgating the promise of technology has seen the campus flourish into sacred learning places. Higher education will continue to grow in value. I have learned that forecasting the future is fraught with failure, but also that failing to plan means planning to fail.

Such observation helped to frame analysis of how engaging with transformed fundamentals is necessary to design global hybrid higher education. The point of our recent Studies in Higher Education paper, and my broader book on Higher Education Design, was not to dramatize contentious political contingencies, polish pedagogical pedantries, earmark technological solutions, or cast policy prescriptions. The point, rather, has been to clarify multidimensional tectonic rumbles, make clear often hidden but non-ignorable innovation underway, and frame constructive narratives and perspectives for considering the shape of things to come. Given that higher education does change, slowly, then suddenly, let’s get ready and be prepared.

Our Studies in Higher Education essay starts by charting recent experiences of me and co-authors. Like many in higher education, our lives have been filled with what felt like ‘free flowing globalism’, with myriad experiences pounding rhythms of seemingly unstoppable growth. Then, swiftly, in January 2020, the world got acutely personal and unusual.

This gave time and remit to question what shocks or changes have been evident, how have these registered, and what implications they carry. Our analysis is framed in terms of system-level shifts, education reconfigurations, research developments, and the movement of people.

Notable system shifts included the re-assertion of government power, notable in terms of border closures, health priorities, and emboldened regulatory structures. Myriad shock vectors arising from the pandemic also appear to have grounded the ‘isomorphic ivy striving’ fixations of plushily renumerated executives, directing their attention to more local communities and concerns. “Teach local students like your job depends on it”, one top-university president told his professors, sharply diverting from the entrenched ‘world-class university’ rhetoric of publishing and patenting to pump up the rankings. Such fundamental re-orientation around local communities generates novel futures for education and engagement, and carries broader implications for sectoral and institutional structure. At the other end of the geographic spectrum, the pandemic shock spurred reconfiguration of important cross-border engagements. Such reconfiguration of cross-border education, student mobility, faculty work, and research fundamentals will leave a lasting impact on higher education. For instance, there will be greater need for global coordination around education regulation and quality assurance, particularly education which is broadcast online.

The global shift to ‘emergency online learning’ caused by the shuttering of campuses is likely to be one of the biggest ever changes to education. In 2020 there were estimates that more than 90 per cent of the world’s learners, more than 1.5 billion people, were confined to their homes. As I articulate in Higher Education Design, online learning emerged from these emergency conditions as a plinth undergirding future higher education. Tellingly, however, online learning was relegated as a servant of in-person provision, not as the triumphant master, as long expounded by techno-zealots. The maturation of hybrid forms of education was made possible by the consolidation of very sophisticated education service firms. Such partnerships carry step-change implications for future higher education. Clearly, these education-related changes and reconfigurations merely scratch the surface. While ‘change rhetoric’ runs rampant in higher education commentary and scholarship, realistically education plays out across decades through large systems with long pipelines. It is too soon to calculate the effects of contemporary disruptions on students who have been preparing their whole lives for dreamlike university futures. While the shape of the post-pandemic recovery remains ‘a question mark’, the magnitude of disruption has already reconfigured education in ways which will ricochet for years to come.

Personal experiences, media stories and discussions with colleagues all conveyed major shifts in academic research. Trapped at home, all academics and consultants found more time to write, surely ensuring that, through essays like ours, 2020 will be one of the most highly documented yet. Such inquiry has raised fresh questions about the overall direction of our field. The year 2020 has required higher education research to deliver in robust and relevant ways. We became convinced, as outlined below, of the need for the field to engage with fundamental forms of higher education design. Beyond higher education studies, it was hard not to project that abrupt changes to academic research will reap enduring consequences. Governments stepped in to subsidise fields not independently viable. Through writing, investigative and editorial work we noted swift changes with publishing. Fuelled by the vaccine quest, medical researchers cemented decades of debate into collaborative ways for expediting and strengthening peer review, which will carry universal implications. The swing towards open-access publications was accentuated, potentially to help faculty working from home, certainly affirming growing interest in open science and, related to this, establishing momentum towards citations and other impact-related metrics. New global realisation emerged of the role of research in Asia, not just in supporting more established systems, but in pioneering frontiers and innovations.

Higher education is about people, and changes regarding people have already had the most profound impact and implications. Across Asia, travel which used to take six hours and six hundred dollars, in 2020 took six weeks and six thousand dollars, considering costs for visas, health certificates, flights and quarantine. It has been impossible to ignore the impact of the pandemic on students, on faculty, and on broader global flows. It does not take too much acumen or courage to foresee that transnational education will look very different over the next 25 years. The pandemic has flattened ‘international education’ and fuelled evolution of the new ‘global era’. As our essay conveys, the conditions and arrangements built up since the mid-1990s to sustain ‘international higher education’ have cracked, sometimes in irreparable ways. The ‘emergency’ arrangements patched in to sustain education across the first half of 2020 cranked important ratchets which will prove hard or unpleasant to reverse. Emergent changes reveal the need for new transnational perspectives, partnerships, practices.

As our essay articulates, we started 2020 researching global higher education futures, sustained academics through pandemic-induced turbulence, then realised that contemporary changes had reconfigured fundamentals. A volatile, exciting and thought-provoking time. Far from muting or stalling the initial research, we realised that our experiences in 2020 has presaged the shape of things to come. A constructive way to engage, we conclude, is to engage in fresh forms of higher education design. Higher education has never been more important.

Hamish COATES, XIE Zheping and XI Hong are at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education.

Hamish COATES is a Tenured Professor, Director of the Higher Education Research Division, and Deputy Director of the Tsinghua University Global Research Centre for the Assessment of College and Student Development. He was Professor of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, Founding Director of Higher Education Research at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and Program Director at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Leadership and Management. He concentrates on improving the quality and productivity of higher education. hamishcoates@outlook.com

With a PhD in political science, Dr XIE Zheping is an Associate Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, as well as the Deputy Director of Policy Research Office at Tsinghua University. She also serves as an academic board member of the Chinese National Commission for UNESCO. Before joining Tsinghua she worked at Renmin University of China, and was a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has published several papers and books on education and international cooperation. Her current research focuses on higher education and global governance.

Xi HONG is a PhD student at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education. Xi is the recipient of the ‘Future Scholar Scholarship of Tsinghua University’. She specialises in the field of higher education, focusing in particular on student development, higher education policy, higher education assessment, and minorities.


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Support for doctoral candidates during the pandemic at the University of Melbourne

by Ai Tam Le

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

There is little doubt that doing a PhD can be hard; doing a PhD during a pandemic certainly makes it harder. But the diversity of PhD projects, the resources required to undertake them, and the differences in our situations mean that each PhD candidate has faced a rather different set of challenges and experienced varying degrees of disruption due to the pandemic. In my university, the University of Melbourne (henceforth the university), for some students, the pandemic has made little impact on their progress; for others, however, the lack of access to lab facilities or fieldwork means that their project came to a halt.

In a recent paper for a Special Issue of the Studies in Higher Education, I took a closer look at the support provided to doctoral candidates at the university and discussed some of the arising issues. In this blog, I summarise the situation and highlight two major issues with the university’s approach to supporting doctoral students.

University’s support and graduate researchers’ Open Letter

When the pandemic was escalating in March 2020, alongside advising students to work from home, the university gradually introduced different support measures in terms of finance (emergency funds), psychological well-being (counselling services) and candidature (extension of candidature and stipend). Yet the following months saw a rising uneasy sentiment among a group of graduate researchers (masters and doctoral candidates) at the university who then drafted and sent an Open Letter to the university outlining their requests for ‘real’ support. The letter has been signed by more than 640 graduate researchers and academics.

What was requested in the letter? Two major requests were put forward: a special category of leave (a period of non-active enrolment) for reasons related to COVID-19; and a six-month universal extension for all students. Six months was requested because, I suppose, there was an expectation at the beginning of the pandemic that it would take at least six months to be back to ‘normal’. (The reality has proven that this expectation was overly optimistic.) Similarly, the Graduate Student Association at the university at first advocated for three-month universal extensions and later ‘the commitment to six-month extensions as standard or more where needed’.

The university did not respond – and has not, according to my understanding, officially responded –  to the Open Letter; however, their support measures have addressed these concerns to a large extent. Specifically, a new category of leave was created to support students who were not able to continue their research due to the pandemic. Extension of stipend from 3 to 3.5 years was automatically granted to students at a certain stage of their candidature*.  Stipend beyond 3.5 years (up to 26 weeks of extension) can also be requested given that the student can provide sufficient documents to support their case.

The ‘hidden’ issues

It is fair to say that, overall, these measures have accommodated the needs of most students. But there are some ‘hidden’ issues as highlighted below.

First, the university’s ‘business-as-usual’ expectation could create undue pressure for doctoral students. While the university’s commitment to supporting its students to make progress was well-intentioned, the expectation of ‘business-as-usual’ in an unusual time could be misinterpreted as a pressure to work, which was not possible for some students. Failing this expectation can be seen as a sign of weakness by the students, hence creating further stress.

Second, the application process for leave or extension was deemed as bureaucratic by some students. In the application, a student must demonstrate the ‘exceptional circumstance’ under which their research has been disrupted. Some students argued that the existence of the pandemic itself constituted an ‘exceptional circumstance’ that would qualify all students for leave or universal extension. The requirement to demonstrate ‘exceptional circumstance’ was deemed as just another layer of documentation and reporting. Moreover, some changes and disruptions can be documented and quantified such as days of lacking access to lab or fieldwork; other disruptions are not quantifiable such as lack of appropriate workspace or psychological stress due to isolation and the pandemic threat. For example, it would be challenging to quantify and document the loss of productivity due to sitting on a dining chair instead of an ergonomic chair, or due to distractions caused by homeschooling kids. There could be students falling through the cracks by not being able to accumulate ‘sufficient’ documents to support their case for leave or extension.

Looking back, these issues were hidden – acquired by inside knowledge and detail – and seemed trivial compared to the support provided; they can easily be forgotten as time goes by. With the advantage of hindsight, it is now easier to make sense of the contestation between the university’s support and the students’ demands. On the one hand, constrained by financial resources, mostly due to the loss of revenues from international students, the university had to strike a balance between, among other things, organisational survival and doctoral students’ needs. The mechanisms set up – bureaucratic as they could be – were necessary for allocating limited resources for those deemed most in need. On the other hand, research students did not know what situation they were getting into and how or when they were getting out of it, so that any barrier to getting support – regardless of how small it was – added to the existing chaos and would seem significant to the students.

Concluding thoughts

Even though the situation has improved in Australia and some parts of the world, the pandemic is not over yet. No one can confidently say when things are going back to ‘normal’ and how that ‘normal’ would look like. As many PhD candidates are still unable to go back to campus and go about conducting their daily business, the question of how effective these supports are in the long-term remains open.

Moreover, given that research students make a significant contribution to research and development in Australia (ABS 2020), there is a need for further monitoring and reporting on how research students have been affected by the pandemic. This would provide a nuanced understanding of the impact of the pandemic on research workforce capacity in Australia.

*In a recent announcement, the extension has reverted to standard procedures through which students must have approval from their supervisory committee instead of being granted automatically.

Ai Tam Le is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Centre for the Study in Higher Education and Melbourne Graduate School of Education (University of Melbourne, Australia). Her PhD project explores aspiring academics’ understanding of the academic profession in Australia. She is a contributor to the Early Career Researchers in Higher Education Blog (echer.org). She tweets @aitamlp.


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Leading a university out of the pandemic

by Warren Bebbington

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

Faced with COVID-19’s array of challenges, the role of leadership in a university has never been more taxing. Many university leaders facing enrolment declines in 2020 move quickly to deal with  immediate financial threats: to delay capital works, to cancel unviable courses, to curtail non-core expenditure and administrative costs, to consolidate management roles, reduce executive remuneration, and to cooperate with unions in introducing salary and recruitment freezes.

But increasingly the minds of university leaders are occupied with the future. For in the shadow of the pandemic, they have a pivotal opportunity to rethink their institutions. Can a university continue with multiple aims of research, professional education, job training, economic advice and community engagement, or should it instead identify and focus more on its most distinctive, most outstanding activity? Would this be on its strongest fields of research? Or on excellent teaching? Or on community engagement?

The pandemic’s consequence of having suddenly drawn online learning from the fringe to the centre of delivery will profoundly affect this consideration of the way forward. With online learning now at the core of teaching, a new balance between physical and online modes will need to be identified across the campus offerings. A university needs to identify the full array of activities needed for instruction and how they might blend f2f and online in a hybrid delivery mode. It has been said lab experiments are impossible online, yet many secondary schools in the pandemic used virtual experiment software in science subjects with success. Methods need developing to better manage staff-student interaction, class discussion, group projects, data sharing, and fieldwork. Even the extra-curricular campus life can be drawn in, as there are ways student clubs, societies, perhaps even sporting fixtures can develop with online components.

Moreover, the financial plight of so many universities makes the traditional but fundamentally inefficient calendar for use of campus facilities less defensible. Universities should consider adopting genuinely year-round operations, beyond the marginal use of summer semesters – to three full semesters, from which student could choose two to enrol in, or accelerate their progress through all three. Full-time faculty should be able to elect whether they teach a full load across two semesters or reduce their load across all three.

A changed F2F/remote balance of delivery will also involve reconceiving the physical university:  abandoning the construction of more new lecture theatre and classroom buildings and instead repurposing existing buildings to interactive learning commons, innovation hubs with industry, or student-led learning spaces. Moreover, it may be that sessions for students off-campus at rented neighborhood schools or community centres should be added, where small groups of students can come together locally rather than travelling to campus,  a far less costly arrangement than providing new campus buildings. Meetings in rented space off-shore might be needed in significant quantity too.

Undeniably, all teaching faculty will need enhanced development programs in pedagogical skills, covering instructional design blending F2F and technology, introducing online learning practices and current digital tools, and considering the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous modes for each subject. These development programs will need to consider how to motivate students online, how to promote deeper rather than superficial understanding of content, and how to develop online assessment and feedback. It is also time to promote research in cognitive learning more broadly, gathering empirical data for different methods of instruction, and developing a reflective future teaching practice for the hybrid environment.  IT development and support of a campus’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) will need expansion, and staff support networks in online pedagogy will need incentivising.

A university’s  increased complexity may now be a weakness, as it strives to serve too many aims—to educate for the professions, to train for jobs, to conduct research, to offer expertise to local and national governments, and to aid the economic development of each university’s local region or the nation. Trying to satisfy a “multi-varsity” set of goals adds costs and increased size of a kind that is now demonstrably unsustainable. And slavishly tailoring a campus offering to the rankings might be questioned: better for a university to define its mission more sharply, then choose its own suite of appropriate performance measures.

Narrowing a university’s mission leads to the question of right-sizing the university itself. The future is likely smaller than the large, complex multi-varsity of the past – each university should focus on carving out more sharply a truly distinctive character and appropriate size for its future. Universities will need to play to their greatest strengths – to focus on a limited array of first-class research areas; or on distinction in teaching and learning, graduate or undergraduate (not necessarily both).

Prospectively, there is no stronger principle for restoring financial sustainability than a focus on a smaller core; reducing administration costs to match; and freeing up capital, not just by abandoning new building programs by selling property no longer essential in a hybrid learning environment, but also by repurposing existing buildings, renting local or offshore space where F2F teaching demands it, while instead investing strategically in online infrastructure, in digital staff upskilling, and in blended course development.

Despite the unprecedented disruption it brought, the 2020 pandemic signalled a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a strategic transformation in universities, toward more differentiated character and missions for each university, and a resizing of each university and its resources to fit new, more focused goals.  COVID-19’s wrenching of online learning and digital tools to the core of delivery methods should begin a development towards a menu of hybrid learning modes on most campuses, supported by much more sophisticated preparation for teaching staff in blended learning pedagogy and digital tools.  With bold thought and a clear vision, there is every reason for optimism about the future of the university as an enduring institution.

Warren Bebbington is a Professorial Fellow at the L.H. Martin Institute, University of Melbourne, and former Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide. This blog follows a paper presented at the L.H.Martin October Webfest 2020; a fuller treatment of this subject is Warren Bebbington, “Leadership Strategies for a Higher Education Sector in Flux”, Studies in Higher Education (Dec 2020).