The Society for Research into Higher Education

Leave a comment

Painting and shaping Learning Landscapes with Assemblages in mind

by Peter Goodyear

This third SRHE Landscapes of Learning symposium – Assemblages – was a deeply engrossing and thought-provoking event. In this response, I want to do three things: pick and connect some particularly fruitful points from each talk – there were many, so this is hard; comment on assemblages and assemblage thinking in relation to current and future learning arrangements, and segue into the practical work of realising better spaces for learning in better universities. Landscapes are both depicted and made. An alertness to relations and flux can sharpen our perception, but can an assemblage sensibility inform better architecture?

Points plucked from the talks

Carol Taylor’s keynote made a persuasive case for connecting Deleuzian thinking about assemblages with a broad set of posthuman perspectives. She went on to offer an impressive array of spatially and materially-grounded example studies, illustrating her approach and also inspiring further research. Assemblage thinking helps us to see things that would otherwise be invisible, to give (almost?) simultaneous attention to questions of how, why, when and what, and to refuse sharp distinctions between bodies, things, words, ideas and feelings – to start with relations between things, rather than with the things themselves. Forming better ways of understanding the circumstances in which things happen is important for students of all fields and disciplines. It is important for teachers and other education workers in a second sense, because it helps set up situations for valued learning and for inducting students into practices of knowledge-making, including the practices of shaping convivial epistemic environments for themselves.

Tim Fawns used ideas of entanglement to reconcile hackneyed arguments about “technology in the service of pedagogy” vs “technology as driving and constraining pedagogy”. Pedagogy first or technology first? In most cases of educational innovation, pedagogical practices and technological infrastructures already exist and are used to justify, explain and constrain one another. They are already assembling or, one might even say, co-constituting one another. This argument is even stronger if one looks more broadly at the personal aims and technologies that students bring with them, and when one takes properly into account the complicated learning places that students configure, furnish and equip for themselves and their peers. 

Karen Gravett’s talk made clear that very little is known about how students’ activities are distributed in space, how students find, make and curate places for learning and what this means for matters of belonging (to a university). Certainly, university teachers and leaders cannot claim to know this in any representative, well-theorised or systematic way. Indeed, it emerges that there are many ways of belonging, no one way of managing campus spaces to afford inclusion and no simple metric connecting qualities of place with feelings of belonging, such as might be useful for an estates director’s KPIs.

Harriet Shortt researches relations between places, artefacts and organizational life, including places we might too-simply tag as “for work” or “for learning”. The main research site she spoke about was a newly-built Business School, though she was using this to advocate for participant-led visual methods: getting the users of buildings to photograph places of significance to them and share their annotated images. This is very useful for post-occupancy evaluation but also raises lots of deeper questions about place-making, including how people reconfigure places to resolve tensions between privacy and community, or collaboration and interruption.

The four talks illustrate the importance of understanding study activities through students’ eyes and experiences, with a capacious framing – so that what students curate and contribute isn’t simply missed – and then weaving more elaborate descriptions that catch multiple entanglements (place, tools, tasks, bodies, minds etc) so that all participants and stakeholders can agree a shared understanding of how things are being achieved, sufficient to improve the circumstances in which joint work is done. Subtle observation and an openness to complexity are important when making descriptions of how things are coming to be as they are. Then provisional simplifications are needed to agree on collective action.            

Assemblages and assemblage thinking

At several points in the “Assemblages” symposium, a leitmotif emerged: an allusion to using theoretical language at Academic Board. This recognisable shorthand conjures up our shared frustrations, as scholars of higher education, with the conceptual and linguistic gaps between research, policy and practice and with a paradox at the heart of educational work in universities: the insistence on discussing education in a vernacular language, unpolluted with exotic terms-of-art.

I am academic enough to value fine-grained disputes between knowledgeable scholars over what Deleuze and Guattari were trying to say when they wrote about rhizomes, lines-of-flight, segmentarity or assemblage. I also endorse something Carol Taylor said about the dangers of extracting ideas and terms from their intellectual homes and deploying mangled versions of them to serve dubious ends.  

But, in my own practice, I am deeply invested in understanding how knowledge, ways of knowing and ways of coming to know, that emerge in our work as scholars of education, can be made useful to other teachers and to students.  I have a practical interest in this occurring, coupled with an intellectual interest in how people actually do this work; I study epistemic practices at the boundaries of disciplines and professions. I try to understand what happens when (say) university managers in education, campus infrastructure and IT try to create better learning spaces or when people try to help design ideas travel. In thinking about “assemblage”, I am interested in how clusters of ideas migrate and become useful – to students, when they are tackling challenges that matter to them – and to teachers, architects, technologists and others involved in shaping educational spaces. So, I would say:

  • Whatever disciplines, professions or roles our students might be preparing themselves for, they will need subtle and sophisticated tools for understanding the world and acting ethically and effectively with others. Posthuman and postdigital perspectives can help students analyse the complex (learning) situations in which they find themselves, and reflect more deeply about how good work is accomplished.   
  • Scholarly teaching must acknowledge the complexities and risks involved when ideas move outside the domain of specialist scholarly debate. It is one thing to induct students into academic life by modelling scholarly disputation. It is quite another to maim or kill a half-grasped idea while it is in flight. There is a time and a place for correcting other people’s use of the term “assemblage” – but perhaps not at meetings of Academic Board.  

It’s also worth noting that “assemblage” exists somewhat independently as a technical term in fields such as archaeology, ecology, data science and art practice. One can use the noun “assemblage” to speak about the toolset of an ancient culture, the animals and plants typically inhabiting an area, a complex data set or a three-dimensional collage of objets trouvés, though these usages don’t normally have strong connotations of flux and evolution, such as we find when assemblage is understood as a verb. Moreover, there are lines of analysis within organisational science and science and technology studies (STS) that talk cogently about sociomaterial and sociotechnical assemblages, free from any visible Deleuzian mooring. I’m thinking, for example, of writing by Wanda Orlikowski, Susan Scott and Lucy Suchman on  technology in organisations and sociomaterial entanglements in working practices: productive resources for thinking about educational technology, technology in higher education, current and future learning spaces.

In sum, “assemblage” helps us notice and depict sociomaterial relations and change, but it is not the sole preserve of Deleuzian scholarship.

Learning landscapes: making places for coming-to-know

“A key element of placemaking is thus its open-ended and contingent nature. Placemaking is a dynamic experience, through which people, practice and the materiality of place undergo constant change.” (Sweeney et al, 2018, 582).

Harriett Shortt asked why so many new campus buildings mirror corporate head offices. Why do estates directors and architects impose these giant glazed voids upon us? She asked us to think of other more congenial forms: galleries and museums, for example. I think we should also be bolder and think how it might become possible for everyone involved in university life to engage in intentional place-making. We see what can be done in course and curriculum design through movements such as “Students as Partners”. We get other glimpses of what’s possible in the place-making events captured in the images our speakers shared. Beyond that, I suggest, we might try to make a scholarship of learning places that works in symbiosis with much more organic, bottom-up developments: less concerned with space-efficiency metrics and enabling the corporate; more invested in giving biophilic form to the market-place of ideas. There’s a well-established strand of work in architecture, urban planning and place-making on which we can draw. Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Marwa al-Sabouni and Thomas Heatherwick spring to mind.

It can be helpful to make a distinction, in educational work, between analysis and design. The first tries to depict and understand an existing state of affairs. The second involves steps to protect or improve upon it. The two depend upon one another, but work upon different objects. They require a dual ontology. In reflecting upon past and present educational events, we do well to acknowledge that tasks, tools and people are deeply entangled – considering assemblages or agencement helps here. But in thinking about what we can change (eg for the next time a course is run, or for the layout of a new learning space), we must break tangled realities into components over which we have some control. By “we” I don’t just mean teacher-designers or learning space researchers. Everyone has a role in this kind of place-making.

Collectively shaping material instances of what Raewyn Connell calls the “Good University” or Ron Barnett calls the “Ecological University” involves some tricky challenges. How do we form coalitions around images of what universities should be doing? How do we identify zones in which we have power to make change – including changes that give us more power to make other changes? How do we consolidate incremental changes so that we don’t dissipate our strength in perpetual defensive work? How do we co-create the infrastructure and reshape the landscapes that afford more socially responsible, sustainable and just ways of working and learning together?

Some of this may still be in our DNA. Jane Jacobs closed her great book on the organized complexity of cities with the following words. I like to think we can apply them to universities.

“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” (Jacobs, 1961, p448)

Peter Goodyear is Emeritus Professor of Education at The University of Sydney. His research on place, space and learning has appeared in a number of books, including “The Education ecology of universities: integrating learning, strategy and the academy” (Routledge/SRHE, with Rob Ellis, 2019); “Spaces of teaching and learning: integrating research and practice” (Springer, with Rob Ellis, 2018) and “Place-based spaces for networked learning” (Routledge, with Lucila Carvalho & Maarten de Laat, 2017).

Leave a comment

Responsibilities and gatekeeping in using language certificates for HE admission

by Jana Berg, Michael Grüttner, Stefanie Schröder

With the exception of a few master’s degree programs, the German higher education system is dominated by monolingual organizations. Therefore, language certificates are a key element of access to German higher education for international students. Trust in language certificates is critical, both for international student applicants and for university staff as well. However, in admission practice, there might be a tension between professional responsibilities and a lack of trust in the validity of standardised language certificates.

From 2017 to 2021, we conducted the study “Refugees’ pathways to German higher education institutions (WeGe)” on study preparations for refugee students in German higher education at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), which was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research under grant number 16PX16015. Our interview partners included staff of HE institutions as well as preparatory colleges that have to decide about admission to study preparation courses for international students. Those courses often include language instruction, but an at least intermediate level of German proficiency is usually mandatory for enrolment.

Our interview partners demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility. On the one hand, to fulfil their perceived role in the context of quality assurance by selecting capable and motivated students. And on the other hand, to prevent students from wasting their time with futile endeavours. This responsibility was embedded in their role, but also reflected in their perception of tasks and priorities. At the same time, we found notable insecurities regarding the quantitative evaluation of language skills. Standardised language certificates, even though formally recognized on an institutional level, were commonly perceived as no representation of actual language proficiency. Interview partners referred to their practical experience that language skills of applicants with the same language certification varied widely.

This insecurity between institutional quality conventions and formal access criteria raises problems for the perceived responsibility to ensure a maximum chance of success for students. We illustrate this with qualitative interview material from one case that emphasised the perceived lack of reliable documentation of skills by standardised language certificates. The interviewee strongly identified with the role of keeping up quality conventions. However, he perceived a strict formal protocol based on paperwork as insufficient, as his professional experience had shown that language certificates do not always match his expectations in an applicant’s language proficiency. He emphasised: “I don’t really care about documents, the skills have to back them up”. His strategy to deal with this lack of trust was his personal, informal language test: “Whenever it is possible, if the people are present, I do an assessment test. It is 100 tasks with 40 minutes, like a snapshot. It is supposed to show what people can access spontaneously”. Theoretically speaking, a tension arises between two quality conventions, a first concerned with an evaluation that takes into account the local circumstances and personal responsibility for the individual purpose of the international student applicants, and a second concerned with an evaluation that treats every international student applicant as equal and self-reliant (Imdorf & Leemann, 2023). As a compromise between these two quality conventions, university staff invent localised, self-designed short language tests to address this tension.

After high dropout numbers and bad experiences with a lack of language proficiency in the past, our case study participant reported that his now more selective and rigorous procedure had improved the course results of participants. However, it was still very much based on his individual perception of potential participants, as one exception he had made emphasises: “A prime example is a woman from Sudan, South Sudan, with two small children. […] she got up at four in the morning to study before the children were awake. […] And I don’t know why, I looked her in the eye, and she wanted to. And went through with it, mercilessly. So really, as a prime example. And is now studying electrical engineering.”

This case emphasises how professional insecurities can cause the development of professional strategies that devalue institutionalised procedures and increase the relevance of subjective impressions. However, it is not an issue only related to this case, even though this interviewee was especially explicit in addressing his insecurities and his coping strategies. Our findings imply that this divergence between perceived professional responsibilities and institutional conventions on the one side, and the quality and reliability of even internationally recognized certificates on the other side, is causing a lack of direction. This void is met with strategies of additional support, individual assessment criteria, and sometimes a stronger emphasis on personal perceptions of applicants. This has implications not only for HE professionals, but also for accessibility and equity in higher education. When practitioners perceive documents as unreliable and adapt their selection measures accordingly, application procedures become unreliable and less than transparent to applicants. However, all HE application procedures should transparently respond to one question: what counts?

On a practical level, we recommend addressing such insecurities with HE practitioners, by offering practical training and creating opportunities for exchange and supervisions. Additionally, a closer look at the perceived insufficiencies of language certificates could and should also be used to further develop standardised language tests, best in a dialogue between test providers, teaching professionals and course participants. Further research in the area of study preparation on conditions conducive to the acquisition of German language skills at the university level could also usefully contribute to improvement.

Dr Jana Berg is a postdoctoral researcher at the German Center for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW). She holds a Dr. in Sociology from the Leibniz University of Hanover. Her main research is on widening participation, the governance of HE internationalization, and climate science communication.

Dr Michael Grüttner received his Dr in sociology from Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany. He conducts research at the DZHW with a focus on social inclusion, migration, lifelong learning, and higher education.

Stefanie Schröder, MA, is the coordinator for continuing higher education at the Hochschulallianz Ruhr at Bochum University of Applied Sciences. Previously, she worked as a researcher at the DZHW. Her research focuses on educational inequalities, alternative access to higher education, and anti-discrimination data.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Radical proposals in leader’s conference speech

by Rob Cuthbert

The leader’s speech to Conference was expected to include far-reaching proposals for higher and further education. We obtained this leaked text of an early draft:

“It is time for radical change. We will introduce the new rigorous, knowledge rich Advanced British Standard which will bring together A-Levels and T-Levels into a new, single qualification for our school leavers. At the next level, what we used to call further and higher education will be swept away to create a new Higher Skills curriculum. The first part of this (HS1) was achieved some years ago through investment in infrastructure connecting the UK with the rest of Europe. But now we need to change course. We committed to a second phase of the project (HS2) through legislation in the Higher Education and Research Act in 2017. The first part of HS2 is progressing but if we are to create change and drive growth across our country, then we must get our infrastructure right. HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus. The result is a project whose costs have more than doubled, which has been repeatedly delayed.

Universities are overcrowded, because too many students want to be in higher education. The Labour government pursued the false dream of 50 per cent of children going to university … one of the great mistakes of the last 30 years. We now have an Office for too many Students – student choice must be paramount, but only if they are the right students. The previous government’s efforts (well, alright, it was this government, but that was three prime ministers ago) to transfer most of the cost of HE to the students has been thwarted by the Office for National Statistics, which forced us to account for fees and loan repayments properly, and of course by the previous government’s mistakes in changing repayment thresholds (well, alright, it was this government, but that was two prime ministers ago). We have of course now changed repayments to ensure that loan repayments will cost graduates a lot more, which should help in choking off demand from poor students.

Our country’s economic competitiveness demands that we now cut back on higher education and graduate skills. Our Secretary of State for Education has pointed out that “people go to university because they don’t know what else to do”. We already lead the world in tuition fee levels for public universities, and we can also be world-leading by slashing student numbers, which will differentiate us from every one of our major competitors, indeed, probably the whole world (apart from Afghanistan). In this way we can also prevent further recruitment to rip-off courses which prepare students for their future employment in our low-wage economy [Speechwriter’s note: you may need to rephrase this bit]. Identifying rip-off courses has been a bit tricky, but I have asked the Office for Students to redouble its efforts to find them by concentrating the search on universities in unlikely places in the North and the Midlands. If all else fails we can rely on the OfS Proceed metric, which generally avoids  drawing attention to courses in London and the South East where graduate salaries are much higher. Of course the cost of living is much higher there too, which ensures that graduates still have virtually no chance of buying a house, unless they enjoy inherited wealth. To support the housing market I am therefore considering abolishing inheritance tax.

Student accommodation is a problem for many universities, but I welcome the innovative solution of universities like Bristol, which has decided to house some students in a different country. A similar approach has also been mooted for our prison population, and this has led us to consider extending our agreement on migrants with Rwanda. At our expense, naturally, they are willing to construct a series of new universities to accommodate students unable to gain admission to our own elite institutions. The Rwanda Institutions Providing Offshore Courses (RIPOff Courses) project should drastically reduce demand and the pressure on our universities in the same way that for immigration, with the prospect of Rwanda, small boat crossings are, for the first time since the phenomenon began, down 20 per cent this year. In some disciplines Rwanda may have a problem recruiting sufficient staff with the necessary expertise, but we propose to offer them the staff from places north of London which really shouldn’t have a university. We can also re-use the small boats abandoned by people traffickers to provide free cross-Channel transport for socioeconomically disadvantaged would-be students who prefer to take their chances in Europe. This will further enhance our student support measures.

HS2 has of course reinforced the golden triangle, in line with longstanding bipartisan government policy, but that means it has so far only reached as far north as Oxford and Cambridge. I welcome the new challenger institutions, almost all innovatively offering business courses in London, which have done so much to drive up the pay of their senior managers and their profits or surpluses from student tuition fees. However the number of institutions willing to provide such cheap courses has overall been disappointing, and therefore the cost of the HS2 project has continued to rise. The result is a project whose costs have more than doubled, which has been repeatedly delayed and for which the economic case has massively weakened. I say, to those who backed the project in the first place, the facts have changed. And the right thing to do when the facts change, is to have the courage to change direction. And so, I am ending this long running saga. I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project.

In its place, we will reinvest every single penny (of what’s left after deducting the costs of RIPOff) in hundreds of new projects in the North and the Midlands, and across the country. We are putting in infrastructure improvements in selected places to form a new Network North. Durham, of course. York, probably. A bit for Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds, if we must. Nothing for Liverpool, except where there are people in marginal constituencies unable to travel to anywhere better. Nothing at all for Bradford, because my vice-Chairman says no-one wants to get there.

My main funding priority in every spending review from now on will be education. No more rip off degrees; no more low aspiration; no more denigration of technical education. Just the best education system in the Western world. But we will go further towards this vision. The pernicious effects of arts and humanities, and I might add social sciences, have already received one welcome corrective with the decision of the Arts and Humanities Research Council to cut PhD studentships by 25%. We will therefore extend the proposals on smoking for younger people, because if we are to do the right thing for our kids we must try and stop teenagers taking up arts and humanities in the first place. Because without a significant change thousands of children will start studying arts, humanities and social sciences in the coming years and have their future prospects cut short as a result.

People take up these subjects when they are young. Four in five sociologists have started by the time they are 20. Later, the vast majority try to quit. But many fail because they are addicted and they wish had never taken up the habit in the first place. If we could break that cycle, if we could stop the start, then we would be on our way to ending the biggest cause of preventable left-leaning wokery in our country. So, I propose that in future we raise the age at which young people are allowed to enrol on any arts, humanities or social science degree by one year, every year. That means a 14 year old today will never legally have access to any knowledge that doesn’t have Maths in it, and that they – and their generation – can grow up free of any understanding of culture and society.

Be in no doubt: it is time for a change. And we are it.” Editor’s note: the italicised text survived unchanged in the final version.

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

1 Comment

Interest rate changes could challenge universities, student loans and post 16 and vocational education

by Sir Adrian Webb

The publication on 13 September 2023 of the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee report on the Office for Students drew attention to the financial challenges facing universities in the UK and to the challenges associated with regulating and overseeing these risks.  

This week we look set to see these challenges increase with the possible increase in the  base interest rates by the Bank of England (the “Bank Rate”) to 5.5% when the Monetary Policy Committee next meets on Thursday 21st September (Guardian, Financial Times, 24 August 2023 ). If there is another 0.25% increase in the base rate, as is widely anticipated, this will place government and university finances under further pressure over the next few years with significant negative implications for HE students, the UK Government’s education budget in general and the further education college budget in particular. Furthermore, this anticipated rise in the Bank Rate may not be the last of these increases if Government spending remains high and inflationary pressures persist through the winter months. 

The most immediate and direct effect will be on the interest payments that universities need to pay on short term loans. According to HESA, average HE provider debt as a proportion of turnover stands at 0.16%, but with highs of 454% and lows of 0%, with unrestricted reserves of 204% of income (HESA, 2023). Of course, financial indicators expressed as a percentage of income for institutions of very variable sizes give no feel for the absolute amount of cash owed, or the annual cost of repayments.  

The top 13 higher education providers by percentage of debt are all small private institutions; most have recorded deficits in recent years and appear to have low levels of cash available to cover running costs. The next 35 institutions by scale of debt all have debt levels of over 50% of turnover. Among these institutions there are 22 large pre- and post-92 universities in all parts of the UK.  

The challenges presented by potential increases in interest payments will be exacerbated over the next two years by the continued decline in the real value of student tuition fees, limitations on the recruitment of overseas students with dependants and a decline in the proportion of students applying to low and mid-tariff universities.  

When student tuition fees were first introduced, HE providers were encouraged to set fees at between £6,000 and £9,000 per annum. Some price competition between institutions was expected but in practice the vast majority set their fees at the higher level. Recent analysis by Mark Corver of DataHE, an independent higher education consultancy, indicates that the real level of fees that higher education providers charge students as tuition fees has dropped below £6,000 if the value is deflated by the Retail Prices Index (RPI), slightly higher if other measures of inflation are used.

Over the last five years, many HE providers have been attempting to cover the reduced value of undergraduate home tuition fee income by recruiting larger number of international students, particularly from China, India and Nigeria. This approach has attracted large numbers of students to the most selective universities and those in major cities; many universities now have more than 25% of their students recruited from these sources. The announcement of restrictions on the release of temporary visas to support the dependents of international students has already had an impact on the recruitment of people from overseas who want to study at UK universities.. This impact looks set to continue and increase in 2024. 

To illustrate the issues faced by the more highly indebted institutions with a significant number of international students, consider the composite case of the University of Camberwick Green, with net debt of circa £200m and current loans with a weighted average debt cost of 3.5%. If this institution needed to renew all of its existing debt obligations this would likely double the costs of debt servicing from £7million to at least £14million. This would mean an additional annual outlay as a proportion of turnover in excess of 5%, dependent on the interest rates agreed with lenders and the term of their loan (e.g. revolving credit facility, private placement, bond or bank lending).  For a university like Camberwick Green, which has also recorded large operating deficits in recent years, additional debt is likely to be more expensive and so the short-term options are likely to focus on selling assets or laying off staff; these are not easy or attractive options. Changes to course portfolios and/or increased international student recruitment and transnational operations are unlikely to produce the necessary returns quickly and without undue financial or reputational risk.  

The more prestigious and selective universities in the more affluent parts of the UK are unlikely to face pressures that are likely to bear down hard on those which are, by conventional measures, less prestigious and less selective, in parts of the UK that engaged in levelling up activities with significant HE involvement. The impacts of high indebtedness, declining student recruitment and operating deficits are already being felt with significant redundancies planned at ten universities. 

The next most significant impact of higher interest rates will be on student loan repayments and the arrangements for funding this activity. The student loan book currently stands at £206bn with an additional £20bn of loans being issued each year. The internal real interest rate charged on these loan arrangements by HM Treasury, i.e. the real discount rate (excluding inflation), was set at -0.7% in 2021 at the height of the Covid crisis and remains the rate proposed in the Plan 5 changes scheduled to come into place during 2024. The nominal discount rate taking account of inflation is 1.9%. If Bank of England interest rates and by consequence HM Treasury bond/gilt rates move to 6.25% in 2024, as has been forecast, and the student loan rate is changed as a consequence, this will create an adverse upward movement in real interest rate charges on the loan book of circa 5%. Dependent on the scheduling of the loans this will then feed through into the calculation of the principal debt students are required to repay and also the Resource Allocation Budget (RAB) charge paid by the UK Government on loans that are forecast not to be repaid. Under revised accounting rules introduced in 2021, a proportion of this increased RAB charge will need to be accounted for in the national deficit in the year it is incurred and cannot be delayed until the loan matures. With forecast increases in the scale of the student loan book through to the next decade there are likely to be powerful voices in the Treasury wishing to pay down this debt or reduce the scale of its growth. This in turn is likely to mean a need to revisit the current arrangements in advance of the next HM Treasury Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in 2025. 

The current loan book is financed in part by the spread (difference) between the notional interest rate charged to students on loans they have taken out, which is currently set with some reference to the Prevailing Market Rate (PMR) for commercial loans, and the lower rate paid by the Treasury for its borrowings. The PMR was set at 7.3% in February 2023 and confirmed at this level for the period between September and November 2023 on 11th August. . At present the Bank of England Bank Rate is 5.3% and so the spread between the student loan rate and the Bank Rate was 2%. If a similar spread is expected if  the base rate rises further to 6.25% the PMR could be 8.25% or even higher. Interest rates at this level would make almost all student loans un-repayable, effectively converting the loan system into a graduate tax confined to new students and also potentially introducing a significant element of “moral hazard” as many students would face little incentive to do anything other than maximise their student loans. Given that they will never repay them; they will face an additional marginal loan repayment (tax) rate of 9% on undergraduate loans and 6% on postgraduate loans, so why not take out as much loan as possible and complete a postgraduate taught or research degree, even when the economic returns to them individually and to the public purse are negative. Beyond this “moral hazard” argument there is also arguably a “moral outrage” argument to be had about imposing an age-related differential income tax rate on younger people who are recent graduates. 

The problems outlined above are then likely to be heightened by forecast increases in the number of prospective undergraduate students entering the system over the next seven years.  In 2021/2022 there were 2.16 million U.K. domiciled students in UK HE institutions and a further 0.68 million students from the EU and other overseas countries. By 2030 the number of UK domiciled students is expected to increase by between 200,000 and 400,000 as a consequence of increases in the number of people in the relevant age groups. This would be at an average additional cost per student of at least £60,000 per three-year undergraduate degree, based on loans for tuition fees of 3 x £9,250 and for maintenance of 3 x up to £13,022 for students living away from home in London. Many students study for longer than three years on foundation and/or masters programmes, hence the forecast of £60,000 per student. This is an additional annual cost of loan outlay of £12bn or more. This seems unlikely to be fundable. 

The implication of these cost pressures would be serious enough if they were confined to HE, but they are not. Far from it. At present the growing costs of HE are being paid for by other parts of the UK Government’s education budget, resulting in real terms cuts to the further education budget, consequent low rates of pay for FE college staff, and cuts to the adult education budget. In adult education, FE and apprenticeship provision pay rates are set locally rather than nationally and so reductions in institutional budgets in this part of the education sector have tended to be accommodated by falling wages and unfilled vacancies rather than through redundancies as has been the case in the university sector. These different parts of the post-school education system are making greater use of part-time and temporary contracts and precarious jobs. This at a time when the need for more and better vocational education is increasingly widely recognised and the need for “industry standard” staff capable of delivering the new and upgraded skills required by rapid technological change has never been greater.  

Across the UK 70% of adults have not been to university, but like many older graduates they would benefit from the opportunity to take a course at a local college or other adult education provider. With 20% of the adult working age population (5 million people) currently economically inactive and with chronic skills shortages in all parts of economy it is very worrying that the pay of college lecturers in catering, construction, digital, engineering, health and social care is considerably below the rates paid to comparably skilled people working in the private sector. Employers in the UK spend on average 50% less than their counterparts in mainland Europe on workforce education and training. The combination of reductions in employer spending on training and cuts in UK Government funding for FE and apprenticeships has led to a reduction of over 1 million student places in adult education, apprenticeships and FE per year in the last ten years. This is not the position the UK needs to be in to improve productivity. Indeed, it is the very opposite of what is required to support such mission – let alone to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth.  

Who is responsible for monitoring and governing this system? At the moment the financial position of individual universities is overseen by their governing bodies, aided by internal and external auditors predominantly drawn in combinations of two of the big four audit firms. The Office for Students (OfS) monitors the financial position of individual higher education providers as part of its regulatory function, but it is not formally required to intervene financially at an early stage to support institutions in difficulties. It may issue a requirement to improve the plans for protecting students, but it is not required to prevent an institution from failing. The Student Loan Company (SLC) is overseen by an independent board and supported by a representative from the sponsoring departments in the UK’s national governments (i.e. Department for Education, Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Office in the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive). Whether the OfS, national regulators in the devolved nations or the SLC have modelled the scenarios outlined in this note is a moot point. Indeed, it is more of a mute point because no one is publicly talking about these issues and the problems that go with them in a joined-up way with a long-term perspective. It would be helpful if they did, and if there was a debate about the consequences for higher and further education providers and student loans of the return to real interest rates more in-keeping with the long run historical average. Given the commitment of central banks around the world to move in this direction after 15 years of ultra-low interest rates there is a pressing need for a comprehensive review of where we are heading and what needs to be done about it. 

As we approach a General Election in 2024, now is the time for the major political parties in the UK to commit to the appointment of a Royal Commission or equivalent to look at these issues with an impartial, sector neutral and critical eye.  Over the last hundred years all major changes of this type have proceeded in this way (i.e. Smith Report 1919, White Paper on Education 1943, Robbins Review 1964, Dearing Review 1997 and Browne Review 2011). Indeed, in 1997 Gillian Sheppard (Conservative minister) and David Blunkett (prospective Labour minister) agreed in the run up to the General election to respect the Dearing Committee proposals. A similar arrangement was reached regarding the Browne Review between Peter Mandelson (Labour Minister) and George Osborne (prospective Conservative Minister) in the run up to the general election in 2010.  The settlements in 1944 and 1963 were similarly effectively cross-party. This is a fundamental issue for the future of the UK and deserves to be made non-political with recommendations for the long term. Previous reviews have produced long term plans which have been implemented when they had cross-party support and straddled a General election. 

Sir Adrian Webb was an academic at the London School of Economics and Loughborough University; he was Deputy Vice Chancellor at Loughborough and Vice Chancellor at the University of Glamorgan. As well as holding a number of senior management positions and a wide range of public service/consultancy roles in local and central government (including HM Treasury, DHSS, Home Office, DFES, and the Ministry of Justice) and in Wales, he has also held many roles in the Third Sector. Sir Adrian was a member of the Dearing Review committee in the late 1990s and chaired a review of further education colleges and funding in Wales in 2007. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organisation with which the author is affiliated.  

Leave a comment

New Higher Education Institutions in England: A real chance to innovate?

by Katherine Emms

The 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) enabled new and innovative HE providers to enter and establish themselves, with the aim of diversifying the HE sector. The HERA reforms enabled institutions to apply to register as HE providers, obtain their own degree awarding powers (DAPs) and finally secure university title and status through a supposedly more streamlined and flexible process overseen by – the then new body – the Office for Students (OfS). At this unique time when many providers have been seizing this opportunity to enter the market, the Edge Foundation wanted to capture the experiences of setting up and developing new HEIs in England. Our subsequent research therefore aimed to explore how vision, pedagogies and approaches to learning are being developed, and what are some of the challenges these HEIs are experiencing in establishing themselves.

To investigate this we conducted a series of semi-structured interviews focusing on six newly established HEIs across England. At the time of the interviews some were in the process of recruiting their first intake of undergraduate students, while others were in their first few years of programme delivery. We spoke to founders, directors, senior leadership team members and those involved in setting up a new university and developing the first programmes. Policymakers were also interviewed.

We found that all the new HEIs set out clear and purposeful visions for their establishment. Many regarded the opportunity as a chance to break the mould of the traditional HE landscape and to help provide solutions to some global issues through preparing students sufficiently for a varied portfolio career in a complex world. Some HEIs were responding to more local needs, whether that be local skills shortages or offering HE opportunities for young people in their locality to help tackle local economic issues and widen participation.

Across many of the institutions’ organisational structures, administrative and academic processes, and physical spaces, they looked to break away from normalised HE structures. For instance, admissions policies and procedures aimed to move away from academic grades as the primary judgement for admitting students. Instead they consider personal attitudes and the potential of the applicant important. They assessed this through use of broader admission measures eg interviews and submission of ‘selfie’ videos. The scalability of such approaches however is uncertain as applications to the new HEIs grow. One of the reasons behind these approaches was to ensure they widened participation to more disadvantaged and diverse groups of students who may struggle to have previously entered HE.

For their staff body, new HEIs wanted to ensure that they recruited not just pure academics but also those with a background in industry. In order to recruit the right staff, they went beyond standard interviewing processes for recruitment, instead using a broader set of methods, such as running a test class. They were particularly looking for engaging and excellent teachers who also have the ethos, creativity and impetus for working in a start-up environment.

All the new HEIs in this research took non-traditional approaches to programme design and delivery, particularly by not relying on lectures and exams to teach students. Instead they wished to use more student-centred approaches to learning and make connections to the real-world through pedagogies such as problem-based learning, whereby students work primarily in teams to tackle issues whilst drawing on knowledge from multiple disciplines. Employers and external partners also are key role players in the design and delivery of these new HEIs, from designing the curriculum to offering real-world and authentic projects for students to work on. Importantly students also interact with these employers whether that be through presenting their ‘product’ from the team projects to the employer or through such interactions as expert lectures or work placements. A disinterest in traditional pedagogies and enthusiasm for external collaboration were understood as key to ensuring the authenticity otherwise suggested to be lacking in some existing HE provision.

Setting up a new HEI was not an easy feat, with participants reporting a number of challenges including funding and attracting new students. One particular challenge was the registration process and navigating the regulatory system. The process from registering as a HE provider to gaining DAPs was often seen as a slow and, for some, complicated process. Furthermore despite the impetus behind the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) endorsing ideas of innovation, new HEIs felt that external factors restricted the degree to which they could truly be ‘innovative’. For instance, the regulatory frameworks that new HEIs had to work within to register as a provider were based on assumptions about the traditional model of a university. One provider described the experience as ‘trying to fit a square peg into a round hole’. Likewise, some new HEIs discussed similar restrictions applying when working in partnership with existing universities, meaning they were restricted within the parameters of their awarding university. In both cases, some new HEIs stated that this led to mission-drift or a watering down of their ‘innovative’ approaches. 

Nevertheless, these new HEIs were ambitious and keen to achieve their visions through wielding and deploying unorthodox means, whether that be reimagining organisational structures and processes or combining pedological practices that would not necessarily be considered innovative by themselves, such as problem-based learning, interdisciplinary teaching and learning and student-centred teaching. But through presenting these practices together or in different combinations and in new contexts HEIs made ambitious attempts to generate different student outcomes.

The HEIs featured in this research were still in the early stages of conception or delivery. It is difficult therefore to judge their success as HEIs. It is yet to be seen whether many of their current practices, such as their innovative and personable approach to recruitment, are manageable when student applications and intake grows, or whether relationships with employers can be sustained and courses kept up to date. For the new HEIs of today, many of them consider the markers of their success will be in their student numbers over the coming years and the success of their graduates once they enter the workplace. Yet, despite the attention of policymakers looking to clamp down on “low-value degrees”, we may need to look beyond graduates’ salaries as a marker of success and instead delve further into learners’ experiences of HE, innovative and otherwise.

Katherine Emms is a Senior Education and Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation. You can read the research New Higher Education Institutions in England: A real chance to innovate? here.

Image of Rob Cuthbert

1 Comment

Editorial: The End of the Year Show

by Rob Cuthbert

The UK HE academic year 2022-2023 is coming to an end, or not, amid disputes, unrest and polarised attitudes which seem unprecedented. Recent years have seen previous strikes, days of action, marking and assessment boycotts and more, but nothing quite like this. At the time of writing there seems little prospect of rapprochement between the employers and the Universities and Colleges Union. So the marking and assessment boycott continues, as ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS). Many students – no-one knows how many – have not received their degrees on time, and there are many reports of swingeing deductions of pay for those involved in the boycott – many, but we don’t know how many, staff and institutions are affected. 

For the students who should by now be graduates this is an unhappy end to a repeatedly troubled period of study in HE and beforehand. Those who took GCSEs in 2018 are the most-assessed school cohort ever, after repeated government policy changes affecting their primary as well as secondary education. They then experienced the disastrous shambles of the A-level algorithm in 2020, before embarking on a mostly locked-down higher education experience which for many was also punctuated by academic staff strikes prompted by low pay, poor conditions and huge reductions in the USS pension entitlement. And then at the end of their three disrupted years of study comes this final blow, as some will not receive marks and therefore final awards before September, October or who knows when. Their progression to further study or employment may also be on hold, if as so often it depends on final results. To make things even worse, universities, under pressure from government, the media, and the regulator OfS, have cut back sharply on the proportion of first class honours to be awarded. Even graduands with first class results for their first two years may be in for future disappointment.

Universities were at pains throughout the lockdowns to argue that the alternative on-line provision they made was of equal value and maintained the same standards; it was convenient and inevitable that government would agree. Many staff worked wonders in redesigning their teaching for lockdown, almost overnight, so that much teaching might indeed have maintained standards. But universities’ marketing in most cases promotes a much broader vision of the student experience involving a range of curricular and extracurricular activities, many of which require physical attendance on campus. The legal situation is unclear, not least because there is no generic university-student contract, despite the best efforts of leading authority and OfS board member David Palfreyman, who has long argued for just such a contract in his definitive work with Dennis Farrington, The Law of Higher Education.

Nevertheless collective action by students is gathering momentum. On 16 March 2023 lawyers Farrer & Co issued advice to universities trying to deal with UCU action in the ongoing dispute. They noted that “… Student Group Claim is already seeking to recover financial compensation for students from leading universities for disruption to academic degrees caused by Covid-19 and strikes by university staff. With the level of industrial action taking place now, it would not be surprising to see similar claims being brought, potentially both in relation to strike action and ASOS.”

Universities face the uncertain but possibly costly outcome to that action as they try to cope with a rapid and massive loss of real income. Mark Corver (DataHE/THE) tweeted on 19 April 2023 about the March 2023 inflation figures, showing a 12-month change of 14%. The real value of fees has fallen 32% since 2012, when £9000 fees were introduced. In 2023 prices, fees should now be £13530; in 2012 prices they are actually now worth only £6150. Universities have lost the equivalent of £2.6billion in less than 18 months. At the same time the USS revaluation implied big cuts for staff and further massive costs for employers, until the latest changes suggested some relief. However universities’ TPS pension bill soared by £125million and Tom Williams reported for Times Higher Education on 30 May 2023 that universities were seeking Treasury relief for the steep increase in TPS payments from April 2024. The government seems disinclined to offer any relief, and is even doubling down by proposing to tighten the rules on international students and their dependants, which seems targeted at limiting the income of universities probably most in need of financial support.

UCU continues to assert that universities could afford a more generous pay increase than the offer on the table, but as David Kernohan explained for Wonkhe on 30 January 2023, most of the surpluses for the HE sector as a whole are confined to a handful of elite institutions. The system and structures are hugely complex: “There is a national pay bargaining system in higher education, though not all providers are party to it. National bargaining is fair because it supports equal pay for equal work, but as a consequence it constrains the overall offer to that which can be afforded by the most precarious employer and it can struggle to accommodate specific local issues.” There are arguments on both sides about whether ‘shiny new buildings’ should have been preferred to better staff pay in recent years, but the decline in HE staff pay has gone in step with the much broader decline in public sector pay over the last ten years. The current widespread unrest, with strikes by such improbably militant groups as schoolteachers, nurses, junior doctors and even hospital consultants, is a stark reminder of the precipitous decline in public spending, with its impact on not only pay but the quality of public services and working conditions for public servants. Many, it seems, have simply had enough of putting up with it and decided to draw a line, especially after so many had gone the extra mile to keep things going during the pandemic.

Even in early July the exchange of letters between employers and unions did not suggest that a resolution of the dispute was close. Tom Williams reported for Times Higher Education on 16 May 2023 on the growing pressures on managers, staff and students as the UCU marking and assessment boycott spread. David Kernohan provided a superb explanation on 26 June 2023 of where we are, how we got there, and what might happen next: “What is beginning to emerge at a local level – as exemplified by the joint statement between the UCU branch executive and vice chancellor at the University of York Charlie Jeffery – is a position where it is agreed that staff deserve to be paid more, and the universities need more money to be able to do so. Here we also find a focus on longer term thinking about pay, with both sides of the dispute keen to avoid annual industrial action.”

That may be a necessary precursor to actual negotiation to resolve the dispute, but such resolution still seems distant, and attitudes seem to be hardening as the marking and assessment boycott hits the target and explodes. Jim Dickinson’s blog for Wonkhe on 20 April 2023 speculated about the consequences of universities’ withholding pay for partial performance of academic contracts, and whether notional allowances for marking could be deemed reasonable, in a legal sense. Since then there have been horror stories about universities making very large deductions from pay, 50% or even 100%, for many months. We are in Ashes-Bairstow-stumping territory: deductions may be legal, but would you want to win a dispute this way? Is this the way to treat staff who only very recently moved mountains to keep the show on the road during Covid lockdowns?

The impact of the boycott is not just on staff incomes, nor even just on delays for students in getting their final marks and awards. The situation is a test for university management everywhere in how they respond. There are reports of universities making alternative arrangements for marking which seem to fall well short of a commitment to maintaining academic standards. In some universities some students have not received final grades. Others are reported to be resorting to apparently less-qualified staff or PhD students to mark students’ work to avoid graduation delays. If this is happening it suggests a reckless disregard not only for the long-term maintenance of academic standards, but also for long-term relationships with staff who will think their values are being trashed along with their pay and working conditions.

The producers of those end-of-the-pier shows knew what would play well. The government has produced higher education’s end of the year show and it should have known better, because none of the audiences find it popular or entertaining. Nevertheless, this show might run and run …

Paul Temple

1 Comment

No, it doesn’t make sense to me, either

by Paul Temple

I recently gave a cat-oriented friend a framed copy of a New Yorker cartoon showing a vet’s waiting room. A vet is saying to a man sitting there, “About your cat, Mr Schrödinger, there’s good news and there’s bad news…” Linda put the cartoon in her downstairs loo, and says that half her visitors think it’s hilarious while the rest are completely baffled.

The cartoon really summarises the totality of my knowledge of quantum mechanics, but as it seems to be one of those topics where if you think you understand it, you almost certainly don’t (and you’d be in pretty good company, see below), then my almost boundless ignorance doesn’t feel too bad. But as ideas borrowed from quantum mechanics seem to be colonising areas of discourse that were until recently understandable (we thought) to those of us without doctorates in the subject, perhaps we’d better make an effort.

A recent example of its spread is the paper by our colleague Ron Barnett, ‘Only connect: designing university futures’ in Quality in Higher Education, in which Ron uses the idea taken from quantum mechanics of “entanglement” to consider the university’s relationship with other entities. (And this is where it starts to get tricky.) As Ron notes, entanglement implies that the entities involved are mutually constitutive: one entity cannot be understood without examining the other entities with which it is entangled: “It may be true that one cannot give a description of the modern university without also referring to the economy but the reverse situation also holds: one cannot give a proper description of the economy without referring to a society’s universities. The economy is constitutive of universities, certainly; but universities are also constitutive of the economy”.

So far, so just about OK, yes? But the entanglement idea leads us into territory that is beyond weird: Einstein apparently wrote that “no reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit” what entanglement implies, but – assuming that quantum computing is going to work, and there are some big bets on it doing so – it turns out that even he was mistaken. What Einstein couldn’t accept, it seems, was that two entangled objects, wherever in the universe they may be, become in effect one, after at first assuming opposite states.

Yes, this is way past anything that we’ve learned to accept as normal. One suggestion of how to think about entanglement asks us to imagine you and a friend tossing entangled coins. (How did they become entangled in the first place? Pass.) If, when you look at your coin, it’s heads, then your friend’s coin will, necessarily, be tails. But if your friend now looks at their coin, it will be heads, which means that your coin will now be tails: back to Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously both dead and alive. (While the bits in normal computing have a value of either zero or one, qubits in quantum computing can have values of zero and one: Schrödinger’s cat is at the computer keyboard, which incidentally needs to be at a temperature close to absolute zero.)

With Einstein, perhaps, you may think this makes no sense, but earlier this year Google announced a breakthrough in creating an “error correction quantum computer”, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the project (Microsoft, Amazon, the Chinese, and others are also on the case), so they obviously think this stuff will work, regardless of the normal rules of the universe.

So, to pursue Ron’s suggestion about the university and the economy being mutually constitutive, it seems to follow that they will be – must be, following the theory – in opposite states. If you were looking for an argument for universities needing to be independent of government, might this be it? Next time a minister inveighs about universities being nests of woke, perhaps someone should explain the quantum aspects of the situation to them: the more regressive government policies become, universities will necessarily become more radical – it can’t be helped, it’s just to do with entanglement and the structure of the universe. I’m sure they’d appreciate the clarification.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.

Leave a comment

The ongoing saga of REF 2028: why doesn’t teaching count for impact?

by Ian McNay

Surprise, surprise…or not.

The initial decisions on REF 2028 (REF 2028/23/01 from Research England et al), based on the report on FRAP – the Future Research Assessment Programme – contain one surprise and one non-surprise among nearly 40 decisions. To take the second first, it recommends, through its cost analysis report, that any future exercise ‘should maintain continuity with rules and processes from previous exercises’ and ‘issue the REF guidance in a timely fashion’ (para 82). It then introduces significant discontinuities in rules and processes, and anticipates giving final guidance only in winter 2024-5, when four years (more than half) of the assessment period will have passed.

The second surprise is, finally, the open recognition of the negative effects on research culture and staff careers of the REF and its predecessors (para 24), identified by respondents to the FRAP consultation about the 2028 exercise. For me, this new humility is a double edged sword: many of the defects identified have been highlighted in my evidence-based articles (McNay, 2016, McNay, 2022), and, indeed, by the report commissioned by HEFCE (McNay, 1997) on the impact on individual and institutional behaviour of the 1992 exercise:

  • Lack of recognition of a diversity of excellences including work on local or regional issues because of the geographical interpretation of national/international excellence (para 37). Such local work involves different criteria of excellence, perhaps recognised in references to partnership and wider impact.
  • The need for outreach beyond the academic community, such as a dual publication strategy – one article in an academic journal matched with one in a professional journal in practical language and close to utility and application of a project’s findings.
  • Deficient arrangements for assessing interdisciplinary work (paras 60 and 61)
  • The need for a different, ‘refreshed’, approach to appointments to assessment panels (para 28)
  • The ‘negative impact on the authenticity and novelty of research, with individuals’ agendas being shaped by perceptions of what is more suitable to the exercise: favouring short-term inputs and impacts at the expense of longer-term projects…staying away from areas perceived to be less likely to perform well’. ‘The REF encourages …focus on ‘exceptional’ impacts and those which are easily measurable, [with] researchers given ‘no safe space to fail’ when it came to impact’.
  • That last negative arises in major part because of the internal management of the exercise, yet the report proposes an even greater corporate approach in future. The evidence-based articles and reports, and innovative processes and artefacts that arise from our research will have a reduced contribution to published assessments on the quality of research, though there is encouragement of a wider diversity of research outputs. More emphasis will be placed on institutional and unit ‘culture’ (para 28), so individuals disappear, uncoupled from consideration of culture-based quality. That culture is controlled by management; I spent several years as a Head of School trying to protect and develop further a collegial enterprise culture, which encouraged research and innovative activities in teaching. The senior management wanted a corporate bureaucracy approach with targets and constant monitoring, which work at Exeter has shown leads to lower output, poorer quality and higher costs (Franco-Santos et al, 2014).

At least 20 per cent of the People, Culture and Environment sub-profile for a unit will be based on an assessment of the Institutional Level (IL) culture, and this element will make up 25 per cent of a unit’s overall quality profile, up from 15 percent from 2021. This proposed culture-based approach will favour Russell Group universities even further – their accumulated capital has led to them outscoring other universities on ‘environment’ in recent exercises, even when the output scores have been the other way round. Elizabeth Gadd, of Loughborough, had a good piece on this issue in Wonkhe on 28 June 2023. The future may see research-based universities recruiting strongly in the international market to provide subsidy to research from higher student fees, leaving the rest of us to offer access and quality teaching to UK students on fees not adjusted for inflation. Some recognition of excellent research in unsupportive environment would be welcome, as would reward for improvement as operated when the polytechnics and colleges joined research assessment exercises.

The culture of units will be judged by the panels – a separate panel will assess IL cultures – and will be based on a ‘structured statement’ from the management, assessing itself, plus a questionnaire submission. I have two concerns here: can academic panels competent to peer-assess research also judge the quality and contribution of management; and, given behaviours in the first round of impact assessment (Oancea, 2016), how far can we rely on the integrity of these statements?

The sub-profile on Contribution to Knowledge and Understanding sub-profile will make up 50 per cent of a unit’s quality profile – down from 60 per cent last time and 65 per cent in 2014. At least 10 per cent will be based on the structured statement, so Outputs – the one thing that researchers may have a significant role in – are down to only 40 per cent, at most, of what is meant by overall research quality (the FRAP International Committee recommended 33 per cent). Individuals will not be submitted. HESA data will be used to quantify staff and the number of research outputs that can be submitted will be an average of 2.5 per FTE. There is no upper limit for an individual, and staff with no outputs can be included, as well as those who support research by others, or technicians who publish. Research England (and this is mainly about England; the other three countries may do better and certainly will do things differently) is firm that the HESA numbers will not be used as the volume multiplier for funding (still a main purpose of the REF), though it is not clear where that will come from – Research England is reviewing their approach to strategic institutional research funding. Perhaps staff figures submitted to HESA will have an indicator of individuals’ engagement with research.

Engagement and Impact broadens the previous element of simply impact. Our masters have discovered that early engagement of external partners in research, and 6 months attachment at 0.2 contract level allows them to be included, and enhances impact. Wow! Who knew? The work that has impact can be of any level to avoid the current quality level designations stopping local projects being acknowledged.

The three sub-profiles have fuzzy boundaries and overlap. Not just in a linear connection – environment, output, impact – but, because, as noted above, for example, engagement comes from the external environment but becomes part of the internal culture. It becomes more of a Venn diagram, that allows the adoption of an ‘holistic’ approach to ‘responsible research assessment’. We wait to see what those both mean in practice.

What is clear in that holistic approach is that research has nothing to do with teaching, and impact on teaching still does not count. That has created an issue for me in the past since my research feeds (not leads) my teaching and vice versa. I use discovery learning and students’ critical incidents as curriculum organisers, and they produce ‘evidence’ similar to that gathered through more formal interview and observation methods. An example. I recently led a workshop for a small private HEI on academic governance. There was a newly appointed CEO. I used a model of institutional and departmental cultures which influence decision making and ‘governance’ at different levels. That model, developed to help my teaching is now regarded by some as a theoretical framework and used as a basis for research. Does it therefore qualify for inclusion in impact? The session asked participants to consider the balance among four cultures of collegial, bureaucratic, corporate, entrepreneurial, relating to the degrees of central control of policy development and of policy delivery (McNay, 1995).  It then dealt with some issues more didactically, moving to the concept of the learning organisation where I distributed a 20 item questionnaire, (not yet published, but available on request for you to use) to allow scoring out of 10 per item, of behaviours relating to capacity to change, innovate and learn, leading to improved quality. Only one person scored more than 100 in total and across the group the modal score was in the low 70s, or just over 35%. That gave the new CEO an agenda with some issues more easily pursued than others and scores indicating levels of concern and priority. So my role moved into consultancy. There will be impact, but is the research base sufficient, was it even research, and does the use of teaching as a research transmission process (Boyer, 1990) disqualify it?

I hope this shows that the report contains a big agenda, with more to come. SRHE members need to consider what it means to them, but also what it means for research into institutions and departments to help define culture and its characteristics. I will not be doing it, but I hope some of you will. We need to continue to provide an evidence base to inform decisions even if it takes up to 20 years for the findings to have an impact.

SRHE itself might say several things in response to the report:

  • welcome the recognition of previous weaknesses, but note that a major one has not been recorded: the impact of RAE/REF on teaching, when excellent research has gained extra money, but excellent teaching has not, leading to an imbalancing of effort within the HE system. The research-teaching nexus also needs incorporating into the holistic view of research. Teaching is a major element in dissemination of research (Boyer, 1990) and so a conduit to impact, and should be recognised as such. That is because the relationship between researcher/teacher and those gaining new knowledge and understanding is more intimate and interactive than a reader of an article experiences. Discovery learning, drawing on learners’ experiences in CPD programmes can be a source of evidence, enhancing the knowledge and understanding of the researcher to incorporate in further work and research publications.
  • welcome the commitment to more diversity of excellences. In particular, welcome the commitment to recognise local and regionally directed research and its significant impact. The arguments about intimacy and interaction apply here, too. Research in partnership is typical of such work and different criteria are needed to evaluate excellence in this context.
  • welcome the intention to review panel membership to reflect the wider view of research now to be adopted.
  • urge an earlier clarification on panel criteria to avoid another 18 months, at least, trying, without clarity or guidance, to do work that will fit with the framework of judgement within which that work will be judged.
  • be wary of losing the voice of the researchers in the reduction of emphasis on research and its outputs in favour of presentations on corporate culture.


McNay, I (1997) The Impact of the 1992 RAE on Institutional and Individual Behaviour in English HE: the evidence from a research project Bristol HEFCE

Leave a comment

The health of higher education studies – cause for optimism?

By Rachel Brooks

How healthy is the area of higher education studies? When we look at the extant literature, there seems to be cause for concern. Scholars have noted: the frequent absence of theory and short-term focus of such research; the proximity of researchers to policy-makers which, it is argued, can make critical distance hard to achieve; and the fragmentation of the field. Higher education research has also been critiqued for occupying a relatively marginal place within the wider discipline of educational research. Nevertheless, I suggest that an analysis of recent data paints a rather different, and more optimistic, picture.

Indeed, there is mounting evidence that higher education research is an increasingly vibrant area of enquiry. In relation to research funding, for example, data from the UKRI’s Gateway to Research on the number of grants awarded from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) (Figure 1) indicate that, since the turn of the century, higher education-focussed projects have regularly been funded, albeit still not to the same extent as those that are schools-orientated. The grants from these bodies are relatively large (for the arts, humanities and social sciences), and are typically expected to make a theoretical, not only empirical, contribution.

Figure 1. Number of ESRC and AHRC grants awarded by ESRC and AHRC, with higher education or school in title, 2006-2022, by date of award*

Source: UKRI Gateway to Research database

*The data show only the date of the award, not the years over which the award was spent.

NB Data are available from 2004, but no education grants are recorded for either 2004 or 2005.

Vibrancy within the field of educational studies is also evidenced in data from the most recent national research assessment exercise in the UK (REF2021). As the exercise allowed researchers to be much more selective about the work they submitted for assessment than in previous exercises (ie they were required to submit a minimum of one research output and, across submissions as a whole, an average of 2.5 such outputs per full-time member of staff, compared with a minimum of four submissions per staff member in REF2014), the work submitted is clearly only a relatively small proportion of the overall research conducted within the area. Nevertheless, the data do facilitate comparative judgements over time, as well as giving a good sense about what is considered, by both individuals and institutions, to be high quality work within education. As Table 1 shows, the percentage of outputs submitted to the Education unit of assessment for REF2021 that focussed on higher education, at 14 per cent, was markedly higher than the corresponding proportion in the previous exercise, at nine per cent. A similar increase was evident in relation to the impact case studies submitted for both exercises, with the number of higher education-focussed impact case studies increasing from 15 per cent of all those submitted to the Education unit of assessment in REF2014 to 21 per cent in REF2021 (see Table 2). The increased vibrancy of higher education scholarship was also noted within the final report for the Education unit of assessment, which explicitly remarked on the growth in this area since REF 2014.   

Table 1. Submission to REF2021 Education sub-panel: outputs

 Total number of outputsHE-focussed outputsPercentage

Source: REF2021 database; REF2014 analysis from Cotton et al 2018

Table 2. Submission to REF2021 Education sub-panel: impact case studies (ICS)

 Total number of ICSHE-focussed ICSPercentage

Source: REF2021 database; REF2014 analysis from Cotton et al 2018

The third source of evidence for the vibrancy of higher education within educational research is individual journals. The British Journal of Sociology of Education is a well-established international journal, based in the UK, which publishes work across many areas of education from pre-school to adult education and workplace learning. A comparison of the content of articles published in this journal since the turn of the century indicates that the proportion of work focussed on higher education has seen a steady growth, with a particularly large number of articles published over the most recent period (see Figure 2). Alongside this, new higher education journals have emerged over recent years. Policy Reviews in Higher Education, for example, was launched in 2017, with the remit of publishing articles that engage explicitly with topical policy questions and significant areas of higher education policy development.

Figure 2. Percentage of articles focussing on higher education published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, by issue number: 20 (1999) to 43 (2023)

Source: British Journal of Sociology of Education website

Evidence from these three sources – research funding bodies, the UK’s national research assessment exercise, and education journals – indicates that higher education research now occupies an important place within the wider educational research landscape, and has grown in vibrancy over the past ten to twenty years. Moreover, it appears to have successfully addressed some of the weaknesses identified by scholars a decade or so ago, which were outlined above. The success of higher education researchers in securing grants from prestigious funding bodies suggests that they are no longer dependent on the short-term grants from policy organisations, enabling the exploration of issues in more depth across longer timescales. All three sources of evidence discussed above also indicate that the ‘absence of theory’ is no longer an accurate characterisation of the field. As noted above, UKRI grants typically require grant-holders to make a theoretical contribution, as well as an empirical one, through their work, while a robust conceptual framework is obviously important to work published in high status journals (such as the British Journal of Sociology of Education) and likely to be a consideration for work selected for submission to REF2021, given the relatively low number of submissions required per individual.

The vibrancy of higher education research can be explained by factors at a variety of levels. First, despite the points above about the ‘critical distance’ between researchers and policymakers, it seems very likely that much higher education research is related to the wider national policy context in the UK (and other parts of the world), in which politicians and policymakers have shown a high level of interest in the higher education sector, and taken up an increasingly interventionalist stance. Researchers are likely to be, in part, responding to this political prioritisation. The ongoing massification of higher education in the UK, with around 50 per cent of each cohort going on to degree-level study, may also have driven research activity in this area – with researchers cognisant of the importance of the sector to many people’s lives. As scholars have noted previously, higher education research is also encouraged at the institutional level – not only through the work of academic development units (or similar) – but also through the funding made available by universities to their academic staff to better understand their student populations and/or to pursue pedagogical research, with the aim of improving processes of teaching and learning. Often these are bound up quite closely with the wider policy environment: a desire to use research to improve ‘the student experience’ may be underpinned by market imperatives – for example, to improve an institution’s performance in the National Student Survey. Increased support from professional organisations (such as the SRHE and the network of Early Career Higher Education Researchers) is likely to have also played a role in the stimulation of higher education research. Finally, the ease and low cost of access to research participants (ie students and higher education staff) may also have driven enquiry in this area, in a context where research funding has become extremely competitive. While there are many reasons to be concerned about the focus of researchers’ gaze (ie the state of UK higher education itself), the current vibrancy of higher education studies is, in many ways, to be celebrated.

This blogpost is based on an article that has recently been published in the British Journal of Educational Studies.

Professor Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research and Innovation at the University of Surrey, UK. As well as being co-editor of the Routledge/SRHE book series, she is editor-in-chief of Sociology and an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education. She has published widely in the sociology of higher education. Recent books include Student Migrants and Contemporary Educational Mobilities (with Johanna Waters); Reimagining the Higher Education Student (with Sarah O’Shea) and Sharing Care (with Paul Hodkinson).