The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Yes, but what about the academic research?

by Steven Jones

Review of Influencing Higher Education Policy: A Professional Guide to Making an Impact, edited by Ant Bagshaw and Debbie McVitty (London: Routledge, 2020)

“The existence of Wonkhe won’t save us,” suggests Debbie McVitty (p13), “but it could be a good place to start.”

And so the tone is set for a new Routledge collection about HE ‘wonkery’, a relatively recent phenomenon that has doubtless changed the way in which the sector operates. Wonks are policy analysts, planners and strategists, and HE is blessed with more than its fair share. New policy development? Expect multiple ‘hot takes’ straight to your inbox. HE story in the mainstream media? Expect a range of insider perspectives that allow every possible angle to be explored. No more waiting for trade publications to drop through the letterbox, let alone for academic critiques to satisfy a journal’s peer review process. Thanks mostly to Wonkhe, we now have real-time analysis of everything that ever happens in HE.

In such a context, a book that explores the sector’s influence on policy is timely. Important questions need to be confronted. How can universities maintain integrity in an increasingly hostile regulatory and media environment? What does meaningful policy ‘impact’ look like? Which individuals or groups are most legitimately entitled to advocate on behalf of the sector? And, crucially, how can academic research evidence be communicated to those who most need to engage with it?

This collection, edited by Ant Bagshaw (Nous) and Debbie McVitty (Wonkhe) takes on some of these questions. It’s at its best when mapping legislative processes and regulatory frameworks, as William Hammonds and Chris Hale (both Universities UK) do, or comparing policy contexts, as Cathy Mitchell (Scottish Funding Council) does in relation to performance measurement. Anna Bradshaw (British Academy) and Megan Dunn (Greater London Authority) theorise the relationship between evidence and policy in valuable new ways, while Adam Wright (British Academy) and Rille Raaper (Durham University) perceptively characterise students’ framing within HE policy. Clare Randerson (University of Lincoln) enlightens readers on the OECD’s under-acknowledged role in HE policy-making, while Diane Beech’s (University of Warwick) chapter offers a useful guide to think-tanks, until spiralling into an advert for the Higher Education Policy Institute.

However, many questions remain unanswered. Partly, this is because some of the book’s contributors spend more time celebrating their own influence than critically evaluating the assumptions that underpin their proposed solutions. Indeed, many university staff will feel perplexed by McVitty’s opening assertion. Who is the ‘us’ that the existence of Wonkhe won’t save? What then makes Wonkhe a good place to start? And why does the ‘us’ need saving anyway?

This is not the sort of detail on which the book’s contributors tend to dwell. Rather, the style is choppy and pacey. In many chapters, soundbites are favoured over deeper reflection. Blunt recommendations (often bullet pointed and emboldened) are ubiquitous, generally urging ‘us’ to do things differently.

As usual in HE wonk discourses, academics hold a strange and curious place. Often we’re problematised. Sometimes we’re patronised. But mostly we’re just ignored. Rarely is it acknowledged that academic research might actually have anything useful to contribute. Universities are assumed to be desperately in need of some wonk savviness to overcome their policy naivety. Why would any institution turn to its own academic expertise when it can commission all-knowing external consultants? Scholarship isn’t part of the solution. If anything, it’s part of the problem.

Take Iain Mansfield’s (Policy Exchange) list of the “additional constraints” (p87) that he argues make policy influence tougher in HE than in other sectors. Among the subheadings presented is ‘left-leaning’. Here, academics and students are homogenised as anti-consumer, anti-rankings and generally difficult. There’s even a censorious mention of “cultural attitudes to issues such as class, race and gender” (p88). Another of Mansfield’s subheadings is ‘non-independence of research’. Here, the focus is academics’ perceived partiality. With so few scholarly sources cited, it is difficult to know on what evidence suspicion rests. However, the implication is clear: academics can’t be trusted to research themselves or their professional environment with objectivity. “Although any sector is subject to vested interests and unconscious bias,” Mansfield snipes, “only in HE are those same people writing the research” (p90).

Elsewhere in the collection, Josie Cluer (EYNews) and Sean Byrne (Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College) make the case that “only by understanding, predicting, and being ready for the Politics – with a capital P – will [wonks] be able to influence the policies that will support the sector to thrive.” Among the few examples offered is that of vice-chancellors’ pay. Here the implication is that the sector should have better managed recent negative media coverage that resulted in “a series of uncomfortable moments” (p22). While brand management matters greatly, and while the authors are right to suggest that some universities are suboptimal when it comes to shielding their reputation, the issue of senior pay is surely more nuanced than the single-paragraph analysis suggests. Being ‘ready for the Politics’ (with or without a capital P) requires universities to develop carefully thought-out internal policies, consistent with their claimed civic role and open to public scrutiny. The message implied by this book, in places, is that HE can continue its merry march toward the market, just so long as it remembers to buy in the right kind of spin.

Granted, the editors pre-empt some of these criticisms, emphasising that engagement with academic literature is not their priority, and that the collection essentially functions as a “professional guide” (p xvii). However, the analysis presented is often alarmingly thin. The first of Colette Fletcher’s (University of Winchester) five ‘lessons’ on how to influence policy – “have the confidence to be yourself” (p134) – captures something of the book’s tendency to drift into feelgood self-help rhetoric where close-up, critical analysis might be more appropriate.

Nonetheless, contributors are clearly satisfied that they have what it takes to save the sector. Everyone should get behind the wonks’ solutions, not least us pesky, prejudiced academics. Indeed, what Influencing Higher Education Policy arguably does best is highlight the growing challenge to the ways in which scholarly work is undertaken and disseminated. Wonkhe’s central role in bringing multiple perspectives to HE debates, usually in super-fast time, should be welcomed. But in such an environment, the book reminds us how easily academics and their research can be marginalised.

Without question, the UK HE sector needs to become better at influencing policy. Bagshaw is right to say we’ve relied on “benign amateurism” (p169) for too long. And without question, this collection includes several chapters’ worth of considered reflections and constructive recommendations. But elsewhere the book lapses into glib strategising where it could be reconnecting with universities’ core purpose. The best way to improve the sector’s standing is to ensure that it operates according to the highest possible ethical standards, and makes policy recommendations firmly grounded in empirical evidence.

One of the book’s contributors quotes Richard Branson to illustrates a policy point: “it’s amazing what doors can open if you reach out to people with a smile” (p139). But who knows, perhaps it’s even more amazing what doors can open if you reach out to people with rigorous academic research?

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at the Manchester Institute of Education. His research focuses on equity issues around students’ access, experiences and outcomes. Steven is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and he teaches on the University of Manchester’s PGCert in Higher Education. The views expressed here are his own.

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

Reviewed by James Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All you need to know about how to write a literature review

Book Review by James Hartley

Onwuegbuzie, A.J. and Frels, R. (2016). Seven steps to a comprehensive literature review: a multi-modal and cultural approach, London: Sage

ISBN 978-1-4462-4898 (pbk) 424pp. £26.99

With over 400 pages, this book is a comprehensive and weighty tome. But who is it for? Possibly final year and PhD students, but it is really for full-time researchers assessing and reporting on the strengths and weaknesses of the whole of previous research in a particular field in order to advise others what to do (or not to do) next.

The text is divided into four sections, following a brief Introduction – Overview (4 chapters), Exploration (5 chapters), Integration (3 chapters), and Communication (2 chapters, plus 5 exemplars, general conclusions, and final thoughts).

The Overview (60 pages) covers the history and the methodology of several different types of literature review, including narrative, systematic, and combined. Exploration (150 pages) describes how to initiate a literature search, store and organise the results, determine the main findings, and expand the search into related areas. Integration (44 pages) considers how to pool the results from different approaches – qualitative, quantitative and mixed, and Communication (100 pages) outlines different ways of planning and writing the final document.

Each chapter within each of these main sections is filled – sometimes overfilled – with diagrams, charts, examples and summary checklists. We see how computer-based techniques and tools (described in detail) are essential for the modern reviewer, with copious (but possibly some dated) examples. With so much detail, different parts of this book will be more appropriate for different researchers at different stages than others. And not everyone will agree with all of the advice given. I found, for example, the advice to aim at a Flesch readability score of 30 and below for reports to be disconcerting. To my mind this should read 30 and above. Reviews need to be readable.

Seven Steps is generally readable and useful – but it is a door stopper.

SRHE Member James Hartley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Keele University. He is the author of ‘Designing Instructional Text’ (3rd ed. 1994, Kogan Page) and ‘Academic Writing and Publishing’ (Routledge, 2008). 

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Writing fast and slow

Book Review by James Hartley

Berg, M. & Seeber, B. K.  (2016) The Slow Professor: Changing the Culture of Speed in the Academy, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

ISBN 978-1-4426-4556-1

128pp  £15-00

In the USA and Canada there is a movement to reject ‘Fast Food’ in favour of something more nutritious – apparently called ‘Slow Food’. The title of this book is built on this analogy.  The authors, two Canadian Professors of English, reject the language and the common currency of commercially framed universities in favour of something more substantive.

The Slow Professor has 4 chapters encased in an Introduction and Conclusion.  The first chapter reviews the literature on academic time management.  The authors prefer a slow-baked meal to the fast-food currently on offer – where overworked academics are taught extraordinary techniques to get on and publish their research (which often amounts to getting others – especially postgrads – to do your work for you).  Readers are persuaded to enjoy their teaching and research – rather than to delegate it.

The authors provide many useful tips.  Research with others often emerges from good conversations – working together can be more pleasurable than working alone – difficulties will be withstood and issues better discussed together – partners will trust each other – research topics will emerge rather than being imposed by funding models. In short, ‘Slow professors act with purpose, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience to the effects of corporatization in higher education’.

All of this seems a bit odd or nostalgic in today’s climate – but what’s the harm in that? This text reminds us of what universities are (were?) for and where, gadarene-like, we are going.

James Hartley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Keele University. He is the author of ‘Designing Instructional Text’ (3rd ed. 1994, Kogan Page) and ‘Academic Writing and Publishing’ (Routledge, 2008).