srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


Leave a comment

How are the Office for Students and the sector bodies getting along?

by GR Evans

An article in Times Higher Education on 5 December 2019 quoted an unpublished report by Universities UK and the Association of Heads of University Administration. The THE says the report is ‘highly critical’ of the way the Office for Students is working with providers. UUK (the Vice-Chancellors) and AHUA (the Registrars) are both UK-wide organisations so it would be helpful to know how the gathering of information for this report  on the England-only OfS  was done, the methodology designed and the conclusions drawn.

Universities UK and AHUA are composed respectively of the Vice-Chancellors and the Registrars of only a modest proportion of the 389 providers admitted to the OfS Register by early December 2019.  UUK lists a scattering of alternative providers amongst mainly traditional universities.  AHUA says it has 190 members though one must be a member to see who they are.   It is not clear whether other bodies with an interest were involved in the consultation, for example GuildHE with its array of English alternative providers among its 50 published membership. 

Most notable among the bodies apparently not involved in the consultation which produced this report is the Committee of University Chairs, another UK-wide body, but of supreme importance in that these Chairs represent the governing bodies of their member institutions.  The CUC publishes its membership list of 135 including ‘a small number of alternative providers’.

The CUC revised its Higher Education Code of Governance in 2014, providing guidelines strongly endorsed by HEFCE. The CUC is now consulting on a proposed review. Its consultation questions, seeking to address changes of expectation in the sector since 2014, are online. It notes some points emphasised by OfS:

The OfS has also given renewed emphasis to the importance of robust academic governance and the relationship between Board and Academic Board/Senate. There has also been increasing media attention to academic standards and the use of unconditional offers. CUC guidance in this area is set out in Illustrative Practice Note 3: Academic Governance .

The OfS has drawn up its own guidance.

More transparency and some rethinking of the best way to pool expectations must surely be in the interests of OfS and the ‘sector bodies’ if they are to learn to work together for the common good as the UUK/AHUA report apparently desires. There is of course always a case for allowing sensitive consultations to take place in sufficient privacy to permit free and frank discussion.  But there comes a time when the public interest in publication is strong enough to demand transparency. 

The THE says UUK explained that the report was: ‘not published formally, but we did share it with our members to support the development of their own processes and practices under the new approach’. Presumably AHUA’s members got a copy too? THE suggests the UUK/AHUA report has been ‘seen within Government’. Does this mean by the Secretary of State, the Minister for Higher Education, civil servants and advisors? If it had been published that might be less of a puzzle.

And did OfS itself get a copy? At the time of writing the OfS website does not seem to have anything to say about the UUK/AHUA report though perhaps future Board papers will fill that gap. The papers from the 26 September meeting mention a paper from the National Audit Office ‘setting out the key observations and recommendations arising from their audit of the OfS’s financial statements for 2018-19’. Those included a request for ‘more information on the impact of the OfS’s work as a regulator in the 2019-20 performance report’, on which the UUK/AHUA report will clearly be relevant. For the UUK/AHUA report appears to be concerned chiefly with the working relationship OfS is establishing with the providers for whose registration is it responsible.

From HEFCE buffer to OfS Regulator: the transition

For the most part HEFCE took seriously its role as a ‘Haldane’ buffer between universities and Government. Its normal response to the emergence of a serious problem in a provider’s conduct of its affairs was to seek to support the institution to mend matters. This is did informally and constructively, offering guidance to autonomous institutions. It favoured a ‘light touch’. Its operation of conditions of grant sanctions proved to be vanishingly rare. 

OfS has begun its working life with some fierce and threatening  statements and the repeated assertion that failing providers must simply be allowed to collapse. The setting for this heavier ‘touch’ will have to be adjusted to get it right,  and this UUK/AHUA Report could form a useful starting-point for consideration.

If so, there must be a case for publication of the UUK/AHUA report. But what of the performance of UUK, AHUA and other sector bodies in reviewing their own performance in response? Keeping their cards close to their chests would not be a good look at a time when the performance of UUK, AHUA and other sector bodies, statutory (like OfS) or in the form of ‘clubs’ (such as UUK itself) or semi-professional bodies (AHUA?) is also a proper concern. An objective assessment of the performance and very approach of the OfS surely demands a similar transparency about the way the various sector bodies are responding to it. 

Wales is engaged in a review of its own arrangements ahead of new legislation of its own. It retained its own Funding Council in the Higher Education (Wales) Act of 2015 but times and expectations have changed and it is now expected that Wales may move towards a new structure closer to that which allows more active Government control of policy and practice in England  through direction of the OfS as a Regulator through increasingly frequent letters of guidance from the Secretary of State.

It may be too much to hope that any Government will join with the sector bodies and OfS in a dispassionate review if that is for the best for higher education. Too much political investment went into the creation of OfS for such fearlessness to be likely. But at least let the documents in the discussion come out in the open for everyone to read.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the former Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).

Paul Temple


Leave a comment

Policy amnesia? – sorry, remind me again…

By Paul Temple

Burton Clark, considering ‘The Problem of Complexity in Modern Higher Education’ (reprinted in On Higher Education, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), says: “With each passing decade a modern or modernizing system of higher education is expected … to do more for other portions of society … from strengthening the economy … to developing individual talents and personalities and aiding the pursuit of happiness … This steady accretion of realistic expectations cannot be stopped, let alone reversed” (p386). But – and although one naturally hesitates to disagree with Clark on anything – perhaps not all “the system’s bundle of tasks” have to be accepted without asking some hard questions.

One of these tasks is considered by Lee Elliot Major and Pallavi Amitava Banerjee in HEPI’s Policy Note 20 (December 2019), which presents their thoughts on access to what they variously call “elite” and “highly-selective” universities in England. They describe how independent schools have got this more or less sewn up: over 60% of A-Level students at independent schools go to “highly-selective” universities, compared with 22% from state schools. (About 7% of English school students are in the independent sector.) Their proposed measures to deal with this undoubted social justice challenge require what Clark, in the section noted above, put nicely as the meshing of individual desires and institutional capabilities. So they argue that universities need to use contextual admission policies more effectively; they need to apply differential “standard” and “minimum” entry requirements to applicants from different backgrounds; they may need to apply random allocation policies; and more.

All of these policy ideas probably have much to be said for them. My problem with the whole approach, though, is that it lets central government direction of the English school system over recent years completely off the hook. Instead, we are asked to accept another accretion to expectations of universities, another task to add to the bundle, demanding that they address a problem created in – at least, certainly not solved by – another area of governmental responsibility.

What was once a locally planned and accountable system of “maintained” schools (of different types) is now a patchwork of academy chains and their schools; so-called free schools; and maintained schools (of different types) overseen by local authorities. Academies and free schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum, but maintained schools do. It’s a complete organisational dog’s breakfast, but, as with all the best government policies, it allows ministers to blame others for its failings by distributing responsibilities but not powers. Central government policies since 2010 (with, yes, Michael Gove in the frame as Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014, though previous Labour governments are not without blame here) were supposed to liberate school leaderships through these structural changes, thereby driving up standards. Most academic observers of the school system and the teaching in it never thought that structural changes would do this, but naturally government didn’t listen to them.

So here we now are, at the beginning of another period of Conservative rule, with the privileged independent school sector, with its spending per pupil about three times that of state schools (many of which are anyway in financial difficulties after years of falling budgets), naturally dominating access to elite universities. We must not now succumb to policy amnesia: the Conservative-led 2010 government and its Conservative successors destroyed the locally-accountable school system because of (we must assume) their hostility to local authorities as alternative sources of legitimacy. So, a decade later, the shiny new structure is producing no better results (to put it at its most generous) than what went before: “freeing” schools from local accountability wasn’t the problem, and so couldn’t be the answer.

But the Elliot Major and Banerjee proposals give ministers a handy escape route. They can say: “You see, even professors working in universities say they’re not doing enough to help disadvantaged young people: that’s where the problem lies, not in schools. I demand immediate action to end this scandal!”

When UUK – well-known for its bold statements on politically sensitive topics – next meets ministers to discuss access to higher education, my suggestion is that the UUK team adopt an air of baffled concern. “Minister, I’m afraid you’ll have to help us here: surely young people taking A-Levels now, having had all the benefits of the school system your predecessors designed, must be achieving far more than under the old system. So we don’t quite understand why you think universities now need to do more to accept people from disadvantaged backgrounds, when their schools will have done all the levelling-up that’s needed. Are we missing something, Minister?”

As civil servants say, I hope that’s helpful, UUK.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546

Paul Temple


Leave a comment

From ‘predict and provide’ to ‘mitigate the risk’: thoughts on the state and higher education in Britain

by Paul Temple

January 2020 marks the second year of the Office for Students’ (OfS) operations. The OfS represents the latest organisational iteration of state direction of (once) British and (now) English higher education, stretching back to the creation of the University Grants Committee (UGC) in 1919. We therefore have a century’s-worth of experience to draw on: what lessons might there be?

There are, I think, two ways to consider the cavalcade of agencies that have passed through the British higher education landscape since 1919. One is to see in it how higher education has been viewed at various points over the last century. The other way is to see it as special cases of methods of controlling public bodies generally. I think that both perspectives can help us to understand what has happened and why.

In the post-war decades, up to the later 1970s, central planning was almost unquestioningly accepted across the political spectrum in Britain as the correct way to direct nationalised industries such as electricity and railways, but also to plan the economy as a whole, as the National Plan of 1965 showed. In higher education, broadly similar methods – predict and provide – were operated by the UGC for universities, and by a partnership of central government and local authorities for the polytechnics and other colleges. A key feature of this mode of regulation was expert judgement, largely insulated from political pressures. As Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath observe in The Governance of British Higher Education (Bloomsbury, 2020), “In the 1950s it had been the UGC, not officials in the ministry, who initiated policy discussions about the forecast rate of student number expansion and its financial implications, and it was the UGC, not a minister, that proposed founding the 1960s ‘New Universities’” (p18).

Higher education, then, was viewed as a collective national resource, to be largely centrally planned and funded, in a similar way to nationalised industries.

The rejection of central planning methods by the Thatcher governments (1979-1990) affected the control of higher education as it did other areas of national life through the ‘privatisation’ of public enterprises. Instead, resource allocation decisions were to be made by markets, or where normal markets were absent, as with higher education, by using ‘quasi-markets’ to allocate public funds. Accordingly the UGC was abolished by legislation in 1988, and (eventually) national funding bodies were created, the English version being the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Whereas the UGC had a key task of preserving academic standards, by maintaining the ‘unit of resource’ at what was considered to be an adequate level of funding per student (as a proxy for academic standards), HEFCE’s new task, little-noted at the time, became the polar opposite: it was required to drive down unit costs per student, thereby supposedly forcing universities to make the efficiency gains to be expected of normal market forces.

The market, then, had supplanted central planning as an organising principle in British public life (perhaps the lasting legacy of the Thatcher era); and universities discovered that the seemingly technical changes to their funding arrangements had profoundly altered their internal economies.

HEFCE’s main task, however, as with the UGC before it, was to allocate public money to universities, though now applying a different methodology. The next big shift in English higher education policy, under the 2010 coalition government, changed the nature of central direction radically. Under the full-cost fees policy, universities now typically received most of their income from student loans, making HEFCE’s funding role largely redundant. So, after the usual lag between policy change and institutional restructuring, a new agency was created in 2018, the Office for Students (OfS), modelled on the lines of industry regulators for privatised utilities such as energy and telecoms.

In contrast to its predecessor agencies, OfS is neither a planning nor a funding body (except for some special cases). Instead, as with other industry regulators, it assumes that a market exists, but that its imperfect nature (information asymmetry being a particular concern) calls for detailed oversight and possibly intervention, in order to ‘mitigate the risk’ of abuses by providers (universities) which could damage the interests of consumers (students). It has no interest in maintaining a particular pattern of institutional provision, though it does require that external quality assurance bodies validate academic standards in the institutions it registers.

As with utilities, we have seen a shift in Britain, in stages, from central planning and funding, to a fragmented but regulated provision. The underlying assumption is that market forces will have beneficial results, subject to the regulator preventing abuses and ensuring that minimal standards are maintained. This approach is now so widespread in Britain that the government has produced a code to regulate the regulators (presumably anticipating the question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?).

Examining the changing pattern of state direction of higher education in England in the post-1945 period, then, we see the demise of central planning and its replacement, first by quasi-markets, and then by as close to the real thing as we are likely to get. Ideas of central funding to support planning goals have been replaced by reliance on a market with government-created consumers, overseen by a regulator, intervening in the detail (see OfS’s long list of ‘reportable events’) of institutional management.

Despite every effort by governments to create a working higher education marketplace, the core features of higher education get in the way of it being a consumer good (for the many reasons that are repeatedly pointed out to and repeatedly ignored by ministers). Central planning has gone, but its replacement depends on central funding and central intervention. I don’t think that we’ve seen the last of formal central planning in our sector.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Leave a comment

Wonkfest – where people know policy backwards

by Rob Cuthbert

Wonk A person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of political policy

The etymology of ‘wonk’ is uncertain: I like to think (with no corroborating dictionary evidence whatsoever) that a wonk is someone who will ‘know’ something backwards. Unlikely to be etymologically true, but nevertheless a good description of the 600 or so participants at the third Wonkfest on 4-5 November 2019, the annual event organised by WonkHE (“the home of HE policy, bringing the sector together through expert analysis”). The assembled wonks came from HE institutions and hundreds of other organisations with an interest in HE policy. SRHE is one such organisation, with an SRHE-supported session considering ‘How do we build a research agenda for HE policy?’.

Wonks may know policy backwards, but how well do they know the research? The answer lies on a spectrum stretching from zero to hero in research terms. As the designated explorer from the SRHE enterprise I boldly went looking for research awareness, seeking stars as I trekked the Wonkfest venue. Policy conferences are always prey to political emergencies, and the just-announced general election, along with Parliament’s election of a new Speaker, robbed the conference of not only Wes Streeting, NUS leader turned Labour MP, billed for the opening panel session, but also HE Minister Chris Skidmore, unable to attend as the mid-conference star turn. But Wonkfest is a cavalcade of networking opportunities with a galaxy of talent, and the Minister’s absence caused hardly a hiccup, with John Kingman talking about UKRI, Shirley Pearce saying as much as she could about TEF, given continuing delay in laying her long-finished report before Parliament, and US statistics legend Nate Silver causing a flurry of excitement among the worshipping wonks in the closing session.

The Wonkfest programme featured, as you might expect, a decent diet of data-driven sessions, some primers on pay and pensions, finance, marketing and governance, and a healthy set of sessions posing diversity challenges – Kehinde Andrews (Birmingham City) leading ‘I’m not racist, but …’, sessions on ‘Tackling on-line harassment’, ‘Building a trans-inclusive education’ and more. Globalisation, the value of a university and university education, digital learning, the student experience and student wellbeing were all present and to be expected as features of the policy landscape. Artificial intelligence at work in universities sat uneasily alongside the perhaps toxic environment for the research workforce, with the almost surprising ‘I, vice-chancellor: exploring humanity in HE leadership’ even more surprisingly fronted by a headhunter.

Where was the research in all this? Pushing through everywhere, but often in unexpected places. Best of all the sessions I attended, for its high-level theorised and research-informed approach, was ‘Is “fake news” fake news? And what should universities be doing about it?’, led by Helen Beetham, Jennifer Jones and Penny CS Andrews, three academics all billed as independent researchers, without institutional affiliations, and enjoying the different freedoms that independence confers. This seemed significant, coming for example after Bristol University earlier this year distanced itself from the now-challenged claims of ‘honorary research associate’ Gerard Cheshire about decoding the Voynich manuscript – fake news? – after first proudly claiming the discoverer as its own. Perhaps I was unduly sensitised after the Wonkfest session on the ethics of marketing …

As for ‘How do we build a research agenda for HE policy?’, those attending thought they could see gaps in research: on the hostile environment created by those three stooges REF, TEF and KEF; on the student voice and how to give it due weight; on student expectations of university, and employer expectations of graduates, and more. Whether there are indeed gaps in research, or rather gaps in how the research is communicated, is a moot question. The usual lament of researchers into HE is that policy makers are not taking enough account of the research evidence, but it may be that HE as a policy sphere is comparatively blessed in this respect, thanks in no small way to the work of WonkHE and think tanks like HEPI, whose director Nick Hillman was much in evidence at the Fest. However it may also be that wonks bringing research and policy together are, like politicians, unduly focused on the short term, with blogs and briefing notes as the wonks’ weapons of choice. For a more balanced perspective you can always rely on the SRHE Research Conference – at Celtic Manor, December 11-13 2019.

What do you call someone who knows the research backwards? Oh yes, an academic.

Academic (n) A person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of a subject (adj) of no practical importance.

Rob Cuthbert is emeritus professor of higher education management and editor of SRHE News and the SRHE Blog. He has worked in colleges, universities, national agencies and government as an academic, manager, consultant and policy adviser.


Leave a comment

The Impact of TEF

by George Brown

A report on the SRHE seminar The impact of the TEF on our understanding, recording and measurement of teaching excellence: implications for policy and practice

This seminar demonstrated that the neo-liberal policy and metrics of TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) were not consonant with excellent teaching as usually understood.

Michael Tomlinson’s presentation was packed with analyses of the underlying policies of TEF. Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka considered  the theme of students’ perceptions of excellent teaching. Her research demonstrated clearly that students’ views of excellent teaching were very different from those of TEF. Stephen Jones provided a vibrant analysis of public discourses. He pointed to the pre-TEF attacks on universities and staff by major conservative politicians and their supporters. These were to convince students and their parents that Government action was needed. TEF was born and with it the advent of US-style neo-liberalism and its consequences. His final slide suggested ways of combating TEF including promoting the broad purposes of HE teaching. Sal Jarvis succinctly summarised the seminar and took up the theme of purposes. Personal development and civic good were important purposes but were omitted from the TEF framework and metrics.

Like all good seminars, this seminar prompted memories, thoughts and questions during and after the seminar. A few of mine are listed below. Others may wish to add to them.

None of the research evidence supports the policies and metrics of TEF (eg Gibbs, 2018). The indictment of TEF by the Royal Statistics Society is still relevant (RSS, 2018). The chairman of the TEF panel is reported to have said “TEF was not supposed to be a “direct measure of teaching” but rather “a measure based on some [my italics] of the outcomes of teaching” On the continuum of neo-liberalism and collegiality, TEF is very close to the pole of neo-liberalism whereas student perspectives are nearer the pole of collegiality which embraces collaboration between staff and between staff and students. Collaboration will advance excellence in teaching: TEF will not. Collegiality has been shown to increase morale and reinforce academic values in staff and students (Bolden et al, 2012). Analyses of the underlying values of a metric are important because values shape policy, strategies and metrics. ‘Big data’ analysts need to consider ways of incorporating qualitative data. With regard to TEF policy and its metrics, the cautionary note attributed to Einstein is apposite: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that is counted counts.”

SRHE member George Brown was Head of an Education Department in a College of Education and Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology of Education in the University of Ulster before becoming Professor of Higher Education at the University of Nottingham.  His 250 articles, reports and texts are mostly in Higher and Medical Education, with other work in primary and secondary education. He was senior author of Effective Teaching in Higher Education and Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education and co-founder of the British Education Research Journal, to which he was an early contributor and reviewer. He was the National Co-ordinator of Academic Staff Development for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (now Universities UK) and has served on SRHE Council.

References

Bolden, R et al (2012) Academic Leadership: changing conceptions, identities and experiences in UK higher education London: Leadership Foundation

Gibbs, G (2017) ‘Evidence does not support the rationale of the TEF’, Compass: Journal of Learning and Teaching, 10(2)

Royal Statistical Society  (2018) Royal Statistical Society: Response to the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework, subject-level consultation


Leave a comment

Beyond TEF Cynicism: Towards a New Vocabulary of ‘Excellence’?

By Steven Jones

One might expect that asking a room full of diverse stakeholders to discuss ‘teaching excellence’ would result in all kinds of quarrels and disagreement. In fact, the SRHE’s September 2019 event (The impact of the TEF on our understanding, recording and measurement of teaching excellence: implications for policy and practice) was a refreshingly convivial and creative affair.

Everyone present agreed that the TEF’s proxies for excellence were wholly inappropriate. In fact, there was surprisingly little discussion of existing metrics. We all felt that the consumerist language of ‘value for money’ and the instrumental lens of ‘employability’ were inadequate to capture the nuanced and complex ways in which curiosity can be sparked and orthodoxy challenged in the HE classroom.

Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka spoke about the absence of the student voice in TEF policy, noting that conceptualisations of ‘excellence’ tend to overlook the very moral and critical components of transformative teaching that students value most highly. Michael Tomlinson drew attention to student-as-consumer framings within the ‘measured market’, noting the inevitability of institutional game-playing, status leveraging and brand promotion in such a relentlessly competitive environment. Both speakers suggested that students were misleadingly empowered, lacking the agency that policy discourses attribute to them.

I tried to push this idea further, beginning my talk by asking whether any lecturer had ever actually changed the way they teach because of government policy. There was broad agreement that while excellence frameworks influenced professional cultures and co-opted university managers, they barely touched academic practice. Lecturers know their own students – and know how to teach them – better than any White Paper.

But is the TEF actually about university teaching at all? Or do too many barriers sit between policy and practice for that to be a realistic aim? Policy enactment in HE is interrupted by institutional autonomy, by academic freedom and, increasingly, by lecturers’ professional identity. The TEF’s real purpose, I would argue, is more about manipulating the discourse. It manufactures a crisis, positioning intractable academics as the problem and students as the victim, thus allowing competition to come along and save the day.

Grade inflation is one area in which the contradictions of top-down policy discourse are laid bare. The market demands that lecturers mark students’ work generously (so that ‘value added’ columns in league tables don’t hold back institutional ranking). Then policymakers wade in, attacking institutions for artificial increases and threatening fines for those who persist. The logic is inconsistent and confused, but this matters little – the discourse persuades voters that their own hard-won education successes are being devalued by a sector overprotective of its ‘snowflake’ customer base.

TEF provider statements offer the opportunity for universities to fight back, but evidence suggests they’re bland and indistinct, tending towards formulaic language and offering little additional clarity to the applicant.

But despite such missed opportunities, 73 Collier Street was full of new ideas. Opposition to metrics wasn’t based on change-resistance and ideological stubbornness. Indeed, as respondent Sal Jarvis noted, we urgently need to measure, understand and close differential attainment gaps in many areas, such as ethnicity. But there was consensus that current proxies for ‘excellence’ were incomplete, and creative thoughts about how they could be complemented. What about capturing graduates’ long-term well-being instead of their short-term satisfaction? Or encouraging institutions to develop their own frameworks based on their specific mission and their students’ needs? How about structural incentives for collaboration rather than competition? And a focus on teaching processes, not teaching outcomes?

The argument that the TEF is less about changing pedagogies than manipulating wider discourses shouldn’t bring any comfort to the sector. I tried to show how the dominant logic of teaching excellence primes the sector for more fundamental policy shifts, such as for-profit providers receiving taxpayer subsidy on pedagogical grounds. One delegate spoke to me at the end of the event to offer another example, explaining how employability-minded managers within his institution were squeezing out critical engagement with cultural theory to allow for further skills-based, professional training. The TEF may not change practice directly, but it retains the power to nudge the sector away from its core public roles towards more privatised and instrumental practices.

The challenge for us is to articulate a confident and robust defence of all kinds of university teaching. We need to explain how our pedagogies bring lifelong gains both to our students and to wider society, even if initial encounters can be difficult and unsettling. Policy has taken us a long way down the market’s cul-de-sac, but what’s reassuring is that we’re now moving on from TEF-bashing towards a coherent counter-narrative. This event confirmed that universities have more meaningful things to crow about than their fleeting goldenness against a bunch of false proxies.

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. He teaches on the University of Manchester’s PGCert in Higher Education. The view expressed here are his own.


Leave a comment

“A market exit…with a material negative impact”

by Paul Temple

Our late and much-missed friend David Watson used to say that every government department should have an office marked “Cassandra”. Whenever a new policy was proposed, someone had to poke their head round the door and say, “Cassandra, what went wrong when we last tried this?”. David went on to point out that, just as the mythological Cassandra was cursed to make accurate predictions that were never believed, so policy-making would plough ahead regardless of what the Cassandra down the corridor told them about last time’s mistakes. Still, he thought, it would be nice to know in advance in just what respect a policy was going to fail.

A number of Cassandras predicted, in general terms, the disaster – or “material negative impact” [1] , in OfS-speak – that has now overtaken the 3,571 students of for-profit GSM in London. This was one of the “alternative providers”, so enthusiastically promoted by David Willetts following the 2011 White Paper. In my chapter on private sector higher education in Claire Callender’s and Peter Scott’s Browne and Beyond: Modernizing English Higher Education (2013), I invented the conditional-optimistic tense to describe the White Paper’s language about “alternative providers”: “new entrants to the sector…may have different strengths…they may offer particular well-honed teaching models…” (2011 White Paper, para 4.5). They would shake up the stuffy old university sector with a bracing private-sector ethos – although the exact problem to which they would provide the answer was never precisely set out. This was evidence-free policy-making, but with a blithe assurance that everything would turn out for the best (remind you of anything?). I suspect that the unlucky GSM 3,571 would now prefer to have been at a university with some of the boring old strengths.

The OfS email to other universities about the GSM collapse could serve as a text for a doctoral class on bureaucratic buck-passing: its message might be summarised as, “We’re only the regulator; can the rest of you do something? No, we won’t do anything to help.” The GSM 3,571 are, it is clear, on their own; OfS isn’t going to do anything constructive to clear up the mess. On the contrary, when asked “whether transferred students can be subject to special arrangements relating to the reporting of their progression, completion or in respect of other outcome data/metrics…The answer is no.” Nice.

As I noted in my 2013 chapter, you didn’t need particular insights, let alone Cassandra’s skills of prophecy, to foresee problems ahead in the “alternative” sector – because we had the worked example of the United States before us. A devastating critique of for-profit higher education there was made in 2012 in a report by Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “In this report”, Senator Harkin was reported as saying, “you will find overwhelming documentation of exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation”. The for-profit sectors in the US and the UK depend on easily-available public funding to cover student fees and light-touch regulation of institutions with minimal records of achievement and limited accountability. It is a tragedy that British politicians, driven by free-market ideology, and regulators, following politicians’ biddings, failed GSM’s students so comprehensively.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

[1] Office for Students email, 21 August 2019


Leave a comment

‘Care-free at the top?’ Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers

by Marie-Pierre Moreau

Over the years I have expressed a keen interest in the relationship between care and academia. This interest was triggered by my personal circumstances when, in 2008, as a research fellow and PhD student, I took my newborn daughter to the local university nursery and mused on the lack of research exploring the relationship between studying and parenting. What I did not know at the time was that, a decade later, I would be writing about this particular episode and that this thought would lead to the development of a range of research projects, initially focusing on student parents and, lately, on academics with a range of caring responsibilities. Earlier work I conducted with Murray Robertson on the latter group suggested that, at senior levels of the academic hierarchy, academic cultures are experienced as being particularly ‘care-free’, with one participant in particular describing care as ‘glossed over’ in senior academic cultures (Moreau and Robertson, 2017). Winning a 2017 SRHE Research Award enabled us to further explore the in/visibility and mis/recognition of care at that level of the academic hierarchy, as we embarked on the ‘Care-free at the top’? Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers project (Moreau and Robertson, 2019).

It is worth reminding here that very little is known about academics with caring responsibilities, and even less so about those carers who are in senior academic positions. So far, most research in this field has focused on ‘balancing’ motherhood and academic work and has ignored those with caring responsibilities other than the parenting of a healthy, abled child. Likewise, research on those in leadership and management roles has concentrated on their academic lives, usually in isolation of their more ‘personal’ commitments. Drawing on a post-structuralist feminist perspective and a corpus of 20 semi-structured interviews with ‘senior academics’ based in England, the research team explored how members of this group experience and negotiate their hyphenated identity, as senior academics who are also carers. In the stories they told us, participants went to great length to keep care ‘at bay’, drawing on a discourse of separateness which has been a long-lasting feature of academic cultures, in Europe and beyond. Think, for example, of Descartes’ philosophical proposition ‘cogito ergo sum’ and of one of its underpinnings, ie the view that our intellect suffices to define who we are. Despite considerable cultural changes over the centuries, the association of academic excellence with White, middle-class and ‘care-free’ masculinity subsists to this day (Leathwood and Read, 2008).

Yet it is also clear that, despite these discursive attempts to keep care ‘at bay’ and embody the subject position of the ‘care-free’ academic, participants’ narratives simultaneously highlighted the entanglements of care and paid work in their lives – a slightly expected finding in a context where the family and academia have been described as ‘greedy institutions’ which demand full availability and loyalty (Coser, 1974). In particular, this discursive construction of the academic as care-free appears highly gendered, as well as classed and ‘raced’, with considerable variations across this group of academics in terms of who can occupy the positional identity of the ‘care-free’ academic. Those who were the more likely to fit the default figure of the ‘bachelor boy’ (ie a white, middle-class, heterosexual academic) were less likely to experience the tensions arising from combining care and paid work than those belonging to marginalised groups. Women academics, and women academics from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in particular, often described their experience of combining the demands of paid and care work as a ‘struggle’ – a narrative broadly absent from the stories told by their male counterparts. It is also clear that those identifying as LGBTQ were exposed to additional difficulties in their attempt to perform a senior academic and a carer identity, in the context of academic cultures which remain predominantly heteronormative. Likewise, those with responsibilities other than the parenting of a healthy, abled child were, overall, the more dissatisfied with the support received from their institution on a formal basis, and the more pessimistic about significant improvements to this support in the future. Thus, there are considerable hierarchies and intersectionalities at play in the lives of senior academic carers, with their ability to swiftly perform a senior academic identity depending on their location at the intersection of multiple discourses and relations of power.

Such inequalities are maybe best illustrated by the contrast between Jeremy’s and Rosie’s narratives (both names are pseudonyms, with limited detail provided to protect participants’ identities). Jeremy (a professor and a father) talked about feeling ‘relentlessly positive’ about his job, with academic life constructed as eminently flexible and allowing him to care for his children. Combining caring and academia was, in his own words, ‘a very natural experience’. He did not identify any negative impact from being an academic carer, nor did he think there were any senior roles which might be challenging for carers to hold:

… but is any post not attainable?  No, I don’t think that’s correct at all, I think all senior management posts are entirely compatible with having a very active family life or indeed, a very active life without a family outside work.

In contrast, Rosie (professor, caring for parents) alluded to the multifaceted dimensions of caregiving (Lynch et al, 2009) and to its significant impact on her life:

… even when professional services are involved and are supposedly responsible for the person you were caring for, I am still responsible for my mum (…) So this issue affects your day-to-day living, your life, your working life, because if there’s a problem they ring you, she’s refusing personal care, she’s locking herself in her room, she’s throwing things, she’s abusing staff, and you’re the one responsible. It all comes back to you.

Also significant was the finding that some senior positions appear more open to carers. Managerial routes were viewed as particularly hostile to this group due to expectations of full availability and to the ‘ever present’ culture they were linked with, while a research professorship route was deemed highly demanding but more flexible and thus more ‘carer-friendly’. Managerial positions that still involved academic work (ie a pro vice-chancellor or a faculty dean) were deemed the most problematic for carers, due to the multiple demands on those occupying these positions and the resulting workload (eg when individuals have significant management responsibilities and are also expected to be research active).

In the context of an ageing and feminised academic workforce (HESA, 2018), the combination of paid and care work is likely to remain a key concern for the sector for many years to come. To challenge the status quo, we need to move away from a conception of carers as ‘encumbered’ and of care as ‘getting in the way’ of performing the neoliberal dream of the care-free, globally mobile and fully available academic. Instead, care needs to be conceptualised as a part of life that calls for recognition, with the figure of the carer normalised, in senior academia as elsewhere. This requires challenging care-free academic cultures – something individualised practices cannot achieve and even help to maintain. 

Based on the findings from this project, we made the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1: There is a considerable dearth of data regarding carers, including in senior academic positions. HESA and individual institutions should consider collecting data on academic staff’s caring responsibilities in intersection with other identity markers (e.g. position, gender and ethnicity).

Recommendation 2: The sector and individual institutions should mainstream care in university policies and practices so as to ensure that senior leadership roles are compatible with caring responsibilities. While this study highlights particular issues at this level of the hierarchy (eg mobility requirements, a ‘long hours’ culture, heavy workloads), these are likely to vary across institutions and subject areas. Thus, the views of carers should be sought before reviewing extant policies and developing new ones.

Recommendation 3: Institutions need to acknowledge the diversity, intersectionality and fluidity of care. This means a ‘one fits all’ solution is unlikely to be satisfactory. Policies should be flexible enough so that they can be tailored to suit the needs of various groups of carers, particularly women and those with caring responsibilities other than parenting, whose careers and well-being are more likely to be affected by their dual roles.

While the project is now completed and the final report published, the team continues to research this area, with the recent publication of an article on individualised practices of care in academia. Engaging with HE policy-makers and practitioners, as well as with the general public, is another ongoing aspect of our work. This has involved working closely with various HE institutions and national HE bodies; producing a short film on academic caregivers; and developing two briefing papers (to be published in the summer). In doing so, the team aims to raise awareness and encourage the development of policies which recognise and value the presence and contribution of carers in academia.

SRHE member Professor Marie-Pierre Moreau, School of Education and Social Care, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. Contact details: marie-pierre.moreau@anglia.ac.uk. Marie-Pierre and Murray would like to thank the SRHE for their generous support, Prof. Nicky Le Feuvre, Université de Lausanne, who acted as critical friend on this project, our colleagues at Anglia Ruskin University, and the participants to this research who shared their life stories with us.

The following policy briefings may also be of interest:

Academic Staff as Caregivers

Students as Caregivers

References

Coser, L (1974) Greedy institutions New York, Free Press

HESA (2018) Who’s working in HE?: Personal characteristics.

Available online: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he/characteristics

Leathwood, C and Read, B  (2008) Gender and the Changing Face of Higher Education: A Feminised Future? London: SRHE/Open University Press

Lynch, K and Ivancheva, M (2015) ‘Academic freedom and the commercialisation of universities: a critical ethical analysis’, Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 15: 6-20

Lynch, K, Baker, J and Lyons, M (2009) Affective equality: Love, care and injustice Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Moreau, MP (2016) ‘Regulating the student body/ies: University policies and student parents’, British Educational Research Journal 42(5): 906-925

Moreau, MP and Robertson, M (2019) ‘Care-free at the top’? Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers London: SRHE

Moreau, MP and Robertson, M (2017) Carers and careers: Career development and access to leadership positions among academic staff with caring responsibilities London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education


Leave a comment

How are you today, on a scale of 0-10?

By Paul Temple

I do like a nice two-by-two matrix, don’t you? I’ve been told that they’re such a feature of teaching at Harvard Business School that the whiteboards there come with the gridlines ready-marked (that’s in the “too good to check” category, by the way, in case you’re a HBS alum). So my attention was immediately caught when I saw that Rachel Hewitt’s HEPI Policy Note on “Measuring well-being in higher education” (May 2019) featured one. One axis is “mental wellbeing” and the other is “mental ill-health”. This is interesting, implying that the two are entirely distinct categories, when I suspect that most people would assume that the one goes in step with the other. So the matrix quadrant of “optimal mental wellbeing” and “maximal mental ill-health” conjures up a consultation on the lines of:

Psychiatrist: “Good morning, how are you feeling today?”

Patient: “Absolutely great, thank you, doctor!”

Psychiatrist: “So, let’s continue our discussion of your feelings of worthlessness and alienation…”

I’m not saying that the two categories are not in fact separate – I don’t have the expertise to make a claim either way – but the HEPI note, saying that mental ill-health requires “dedicated interventions” whereas lack of wellbeing needs “generalised resources”, doesn’t help me much in grasping the distinction being drawn here. The HEPI note then encourages universities to measure wellbeing so that “we can better understand the long-term trends in the health of those in the higher education sector” with a view to reducing “the likelihood of mental illness”. So the two are it seems, after all, linked in some way. There goes the nice two-by-two matrix then, if mental wellbeing and mental health are actually on a continuum.

So what about measuring wellbeing? There’s a good bit of this going on, by ONS (“On a scale of 0 to 10, how anxious did you feel yesterday?”) and the Student Academic Experience Survey, with an impressive sample size of 14,000. This apparently produced in 2017 a positive response to a “Life worthwhile?” question from just 19% of students – a figure which the HEPI note doesn’t seem to think worth remarking on. Are we really saying that only 19% of students think that their lives are worthwhile? This deeply implausible finding – which might perhaps be explained by respondents interpreting the question as something like, “Could your life be improved in same way?” – is thrown into even greater doubt when it turns out that the DLHE data for graduates has 80% of them answering “high” or “very high” to a “Life worthwhile?” question (and most of the rest give a “medium” answer).

“Not everyone”, goes on the HEPI note, “is keen on the increased collection of well-being measures.” Well, no, if the data are as all over the place as these are. But one key reason apparently given for not collecting wellbeing data is a concern that universities will then be judged on a measure over which they have no control. True, they do not have control over their students’ wellbeing, and nor should they have. Where is the evidence that students define themselves wholly as “students”, rather than individuals who happen to be students and a mass of other things besides? A negative answer to a wellbeing question could just as much reflect the breakup of a relationship, seeing Nigel Farage on TV, or watching Arsenal play, as it has to do with the university. The HEPI note argues the other way, saying that “We cannot make improvements in the delivery of higher education if we do not understand our weaknesses” – the assumption being that the factors that cause poor mental wellbeing are “weaknesses” to be found somewhere in the university, susceptible to management interventions. Universities can try to improve their NSS scores by providing feedback more promptly, or whatever, because students have themselves defined the problem precisely: “We want faster feedback”. No such precision can be available to help improve wellbeing, as your idea of wellbeing may be completely different to mine. Universities should instead do what they are supposed to do – using their resources to create a community which supports the best teaching and research that it can achieve – and allow students to build mental resilience in their own ways by drawing on the intellectual resources that should be on offer to them.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Leave a comment

Putting the education back into governance and teaching

By Rob Cuthbert

The theme of the 4th Annual Conference of the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) was Challenging Higher Education: it did not disappoint.

The opening remarks by CGHE Director Simon Marginson (Oxford) were a rousing call to arms, urging universities to look beyond current bipolar conflicts to develop a more collaborative world, in which UK universities would do more than just “work the British colonial circuit”, in a post-Brexit world of regions where UKHE might not have a region any more. Marginson segued into his introduction of the Burton R Clark Lecture, now a fixture in the CGHE Conference, and delivered this year by Bob Clark’s good friend Michael Shattock (UCL).

In his lecture on ‘University governance and academic work: the ‘business model’ and its impact on innovation and creativity’ Shattock previewed some findings from his latest book, to be published in July 2019. His research with co-authors Aniko Horvath (King’s College London) and Ellen Hazelkorn (Dublin Institute of Technology) in a range of universities in the UK had revealed accelerating diversity of modes and missions, and a trend towards ever more intrusive government policymaking. Governors who might once have been critical friends were now obliged to enforce regulatory guidance from the Office for Students, perhaps the thin end of a wedge of more lay intrusion into what is taught, and how. Paradoxically the idea of the student as customer barely featured in the almost dystopian landscape he painted, first of teaching and then of research. The metric-driven pressure to perform should not, said Shattock, be confused with Clark’s identification of a ‘strengthened steering core’ in the entrepreneurial university. (He would say that, of course, since the original strengthened steering core was probably Warwick’s during Shattock’s towering tenure as Registrar, but it doesn’t make it less true.) That core was closely connected to the academic community, whereas the current academic climate risked repressing rather than fostering academic innovation and creativity. The ‘English experiment’ with HE marketisation had reinforced executive governance; it was time to restore the academic community to its proper role as a key partner in governance. Questions and discussion pushed Shattock to a ‘back to the future’ position somewhat removed from his argument, as he was reluctantly driven to extol an Oxbridge model of governance by academics in contrast to the unduly top-down executive management and governance searingly exposed by his research. It was, nevertheless, a lecture which in a fitting way did justice to Clark’s legacy.

Next up the organisers had conceived a panel discussion on ‘Brexit, UK and Worldwide Higher Education’, not – as no doubt first planned – days after Brexit had actually happened, but on the day after a seven-hour Cabinet meeting had led to proposals for a further meeting, something Cornford surely wrote in Microcosmographia Academica. A post-Brexit Panel would have seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it fell rather flat, despite the best efforts of chair Ellen Hazelkorn (Dublin Institute of Technology) and engaging contributions from Nick Hillman (HEPI) and David Palfreyman (New College, Oxford and an OfS Board member), arrayed perhaps symbolically on the right wing of the panel (as seen from the floor). Lunch intervened before the second keynote from Marijk van der Wende (Utrecht): ‘On a Learning Curve: New Realities for HE in a Changing Global Context’. Her theme was the rise of China, probably soon to become the world leader in HE, and already surpassing the European Union in R&D spend, and the US in scientific output. It was a presentation informed and enlightened by much first class research evidence, but hindered by unreadably small text in many powerpoints, problems with the sound system, and a fire alarm which forced the hall to empty for 30 minutes halfway through her presentation. She was however able to rally and finish with an upbeat quote by the Rector of Leiden about Brexit not holding back the progress of scientific collaboration.

The CGHE team decided to make no concessions for time lost, their judgment vindicated by the continuing presence of most participants staying for the delayed finishing time after 6pm. They were drawn first by the parallel sessions reporting work in progress on some of the many CGHE projects, living up to the Director’s prospectus by offering multi-level global perspectives on public good, graduate skills and careers, sectoral evolution, participation, financing and equity, management and academic work, and more. Golo Henseke and Francis Green of UCL were developing a thesis that social skills were increasingly important for graduate earnings, drawing economic comparisons across Europe, and comparing European and US experiences. Vassiliki Papatsibas (Sheffield) and Simon Marginson were in the early stages of a project on ‘Brexit, emotions and identity dynamics’, where they had been taken aback by the emotional ‘turn’ their data had forced upon them. Does reason enable and passion disable? they speculated. (How else, I wonder, can we account for the flood of academic tweets seizing on every lone shred of evidence pointing to the iniquity of Brexit, from those who would otherwise be railing against government’s own attachment to policy-based evidence?). Aniko Horvath reported early stages in her research with Jurgen Enders (Bath) and Michael Shattock into the scope for negotiated local orders in university governance, drawing interesting comparisons between the UK’s legitimation of committees as part of governance structures, and Germany’s attitude, which regards the role of committees and working groups as at best questionable.

In the final plenary Paul Ashwin (Lancaster) spoke with research-informed passion on ‘Transforming University Teaching’. Oversimplified accounts of the educational process make us lose sight of the educational arguments for undergraduate education. Too often we mistake privilege for ability, and prestige for quality. Justifying HE in terms of generic skills is reductionist, and purporting to explain HE in terms of signalling for employers simply reinforces the iniquitous force of global rankings and institutional prestige. Instead we should recognise that universities are the distinctive custodians of structured bodies of knowledge, and teaching is about designing ways for students to develop access to one or other of those bodies of knowledge – that is how teaching may truly be transformational. This is a continuing process of hard intellectual work: we need to change ourselves and our curriculum, not expect students, managers and policymakers to change so we can stay the same.

Thus the conference ended as it had begun, with a call to put education back on centre stage – in these troubled times that is indeed challenging higher education.

SRHE member Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog.