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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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.


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Freedom of speech and students’ unions

by Phil Pilkington

In March 2023 Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), wrote a review of Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter-terrorism by Alison Scott-Baumann and Simon Perfect (both SOAS), covering freedom of speech, populism (of the left and right), ‘no platforming’, and students. I disagree with his argument and his conclusions.

Nick Hillman’s review may appear a slight text, but it demands a response as it sheds light on a particular and influential perspective on higher education. The comments on freedom of speech interest me as someone who over many years had to ensure events with guest speakers either did or did not take place, running to hundreds of events. Hillman notes correctly on risk assessment: ‘you do not always know which event which will be the one that flares up’. One event I approved did not go well: the experience of a student’s conversion from Sikh to Islam caused a furore, not on campus, but throughout the region and nationally, ignited by formidable Sikh activists. Nick Hillman perhaps has limited experience of the consequences of such events, which can include death threats, social media storms, massive impact on ethnic minority groups on campus and their alienation from the culture of the university. ‘Flaring up’ is a delicate euphemism. Many opinions in the review are misleading because they are ahistorical and expressed without the benefit of material, practical experience.

The book identifies four possible responses to the issue of free speech on campus: libertarian; liberal; guarded liberal; and no-platforming. Hillman says the authors back the ‘liberal’ approach and “the authors regard the threats to free speech on campus as coming almost wholly from the right”. He argues however that there are threats from the left, exemplified by Jeremy Corbyn’s period as leader of the Labour Party and its association with anti-semitism. The authors argue that right-wing populists “sneak into the gap” between neo-conservative and right-libertarian, an argument Hillman criticises because: “the right are portrayed as wrong if they want to limit more extremist speech, wrong if they push for a looser libertarian approach and wrong if they take a position in the space between these two positions. If you’re on the right and you have a view about free speech, it is deemed to be incorrect on sight, which seems unconducive to a reasonable conversation. At this point, the careful architecture of the authors’ argument starts to crumble, not least because left-wing populists and others (eg the NUS) are in exactly the same ‘gap’, which is really a chasm.”

Hillman’s suggestion is that to have a ‘no platform’ position while opposing the PREVENT strategy is to occupy an equally inconsistent liberal ‘gap’. But there is no inconsistency: the matter is much more subtle, complex and dangerous. There is a case for both positions on practical and historical grounds. Historically, a ‘no platform’ position was taken up in the 1970s by many students’ unions against the rise of the far right (the National Front and later the British National Party) which had gained some questionable success in marches in the East End of London and some success in local election results into the 1980s. Students’ unions are often conflated with the National Union of Students (UK), but  many students’ unions[1] did not have ‘no platform’ policies and a few were not affiliated to NUS, which is a confederation of students’ unions, guilds and associations.

A university or polytechnic campus was a focal point for the far right, not to gain support from the students or staff in debate but as a ‘piece of theatre’ for their supporters, who would have been suspicious of higher education. This situationist political action had the lineaments of populism, more recently shown in the occupation, and videoing for social media, of campus buildings by National Action, an organisation which celebrated the murder of Jo Cox MP and is now proscribed by the Home Office. No platform policies were subtitled ‘for Racists and Fascists’. Nick Hillman may have had in mind more celebrated and extremely rare cases of ‘cancel’ culture, but these should not be confused with ‘no platform’ policies nor the actions taken by students against the rise of racist political groups and parties. This stand was important in itself and influential in later legislation for protected characteristics in the Equalities Act. The other purpose of the policy was of course to ensure support and harmonious relations on campus when ethnic minorities were threatened.

No Platform policies were arrived at by debate, with motions democratically passed by the student body. PREVENT in contrast is a statutory duty of universities, instructed by the Secretary of Education under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to have a PREVENT policy and strategy which should “balance freedom of speech with the assessing of risk of external speakers”. Unlike No Platform policies it was not debated by the student body. Responsibilities under the Act rested with university trustees/governors, but as a member of staff at a students’ union I was allocated some responsibility for ensuring duties were met and I liaised with anti-terrorism police officers on the adoption of the policy. My experience confirmed the findings of Greer and Bell that the liaison was almost entirely taken up with intelligence of far right and multinational far right groups active in the area who could target the ethnic minority community and students. Political objections by some students’ unions (and NUS) to PREVENT were based on the perception that it was Islamophobic. Attacks on Muslim students on campus at that time, both verbal and physical, reinforced their perception that PREVENT discriminated against them. There was no causal connection between the Act itself and the attacks, but the ‘hostile environment’ was a reality: I established a Hate Crime Reporting Centre within a students’ union to support Muslim students (amongst others).

For many the practical objections to PREVENT were insuperable. The monitoring required to trigger concern for ‘indicators of being drawn into terrorism’ was impossible: for example, that lecturers and other staff should note changes in behaviour, declining academic performance, etc. What might have been possible in a school classroom setting could not apply to a cohort of hundreds of students on a computer science course, for example. Staff training was advised, so that they might notice changes in behaviour likely to be related to susceptibility to terrorist activities. This might have focussed on academic staff and personal tutors, but in our mass HE system I prioritised training for staff working in halls of residence to notice changes in behaviour; it was nevertheless unlikely to be effective.

Overall, to suggest a ‘liberal gap’ between no platforming and opposition to PREVENT fails to recognise the details and the historical roots and practices of the two. It was and is more complex than that.

The review then goes on to address failures in understanding right and left populism and the related threats to free speech. There are some difficulties with this application of populism. I have suggested that the historical origin of no platforming was a reaction to the rise of a violent far right in the UK using a campus and its students as part of a situationist spectacle, against an (educated) elite rather than for support. These historical origins open up a wider discussion. Speech is more than opinion and our right to hold or possess it. Freedom of speech has some conditions of origin and direction, otherwise it would be simply incomprehensible noise. The theatre of speech has attributes beyond facts, truth conditions, empirical evidence, or whatever other enlightenment features may be included in ‘debate’. Debates are rare – most external speakers give a presentation, answer a few questions and then leave. These linguistic details are rarely considered in the discussions about free speech. The focus is on the handful of cases involving ‘cancelling’ or postponement, among the tens of thousands of events each year. Why is this a priority for HE, given the problems facing the sector? Why has it become such a priority? Who has driven this as an issue? Has it been tangled up with a populist view of HE in the UK?

Using the criteria developed by Michael Cox (LSE) for an understanding of populism, it can be argued the UK government is not so much right of centre, as Nick Hillman suggests, but is a government becoming right-wing populist. How is that possible and how could it be related to interests in free speech and universities? Cox’s criteria for right wing populism match many government policies and rhetoric in the UK. Populism of the right is nativist, declaring allegiance to those living ‘somewhere’ (with no social or actual mobility in deindustrialised regions) against the socially and literally mobile who live ‘nowhere’ (graduates, the metropolitans). It distrusts elites, has a disdain for intellectuals, promotes a conspiracy theory of the establishment as traitors, is sceptical about science, and seeks to ensure cultural elites (eg Arts Council, BBC, museums, university governance et al) are ‘loyal’. Some of Cox’s criteria may not be met, but recent developments in the Illegal Immigration Bill, following Theresa May’s Home Office policies of creating a ‘hostile environment’ and the Windrush generation deportations, contribute to a perception of the current government as right-wing populist.

Cox argues that left wing populism is rare, given that the basic condition of populism is nativistic (or ethnically based) whereas the left will focus on class divisions across ethnicity and be internationalist. However, Hillman identifies Corbyn, the former leader of the Labour Party, and ‘Corbyn-mania’ as left populism because of the antisemitism attached to his time as leader. The apparent implication, since half of university staff and two-thirds of students supported the Labour Party at the time of Corbyn’s leadership, is that many in universities also supported a form of left populism.  This leaves hanging the thought that perhaps they presented dangers as a form of populism to the university spirit, essence or whatever it is about freedom of thought and speech. Hillman says the ‘gap’ between free speech and clamping down or cancelling becomes ‘a chasm’. But that depends on who is deciding what happens in that gap. The free speech imbroglio – if it is that – flows from some deliberate choices. We should ask not how it happened – it began as a counter to racists and fascists attempting to threaten campus unity and vulnerable individuals – but how it became such an obsessive issue for some. An issue which crowds out the academy precariat, the loss of research collaboration with Europe, the financial instabilities of HEIs, the enormous foreign investment in halls of residences, the rise of AI to challenge the curriculum and assessments, graduate indebtedness, et al.

Hillman’s review then turns to students’ unions, suggesting that stricter controls have been introduced; his meaning is not clear unless he means the incorporation and charitable status formalised by the Charities Act of 2006. That Act made students’ unions accountable to a board of student trustees, with charitable status no longer depending on the ‘parent institution’. The recruitment of external lay trustees by student officers allowed for greater expertise on financial, commercial and employment matters but overall control and campaigning policy remained in the hands of elected student officers via student councils, referenda and general meetings according to their constitutions. Ironically, this is the strongest form of democratic control on a UK university campus, notwithstanding trade union activities, in terms of size and scope of activities. Hillman went on to say: “the authors condemn the common idea that student unions should avoid political campaigning that is not focused on students. They envisage students backing a motion that devotes resources to protesting about a national economic policy and argue ‘we think their students’ union should have at least the possibility of enacting the motion if they so wish.’ This sounds more like finding an excuse to divert charitable funds from their proper use than protecting free speech. If a group of students want to campaign against a national economic policy, there are plenty of existing and legitimate routes for them to do so (including joining a political party) aside from (mis)using their fellow students’ charitable financial resources.”

The misuse of funds by students’ unions has long been a trope. It was certainly around in the 1970s and early 80s over alleged support for the IRA or hunger strikers. Probably the biggest financial scandals within students’ unions were the seeming misuse of funds to support rock bands – or to put it another way, to provide grants and arts subsidies to future global rock stars such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer. This was considered to be ultra vires by the then Attorney General in 1973, at a time when there was no legal identity for students’ unions. Unions subsequently separated commercial operations from charitable core activities.

The case against students’ unions campaigning on ‘non-student issues’ because it would be a misuse of students’ resources is simplistic on two grounds. Firstly, there is the question in a universal HE system of what is and is not a student issue. NUS research showed that over 80% of students were concerned or very concerned about climate change – an NUS led survey won a UN award for environmental understanding in the tertiary sector.  So is global warming a student issue? Tick. What about the growth of foodbanks? Students have been accessing them through agreements between students’ unions and the Trussell Trust. A tick for the cost-of-living crisis. Inflation and government fiscal policy are connected, so what are the limits? Childcare costs and the mature students’ society? Disabled students and the benefits test? And so on. A student body is a global body. There is interconnectedness and there is empathy. Who is to decide if ‘x’ is a worthy subject for a students’ union to campaign about? The student body decides on policy collectively. As a charity the students’ union has a legal personality; to make a collective decision is to form a corporate opinion.

Secondly, charities have been deeply concerned with their gagging by the Lobbying Act of 2015. This goes much further than students’ unions and their alleged profligacy in ‘irrelevant’ campaigning. The Act states that charities (including students’ unions) may have political activities in accordance with the aims and objectives of the charity, but not party politically. When there is a close correlation between a charity’s position and that of a political party manifesto (which is usually a position opposing the ruling party) then there is considered to be a contravention of charitable status. The objection to the Act’s powers over charities is not limited to students’ unions, it has been an objection voiced by many large and respected charities such as Amnesty UK, Friends of the Earth, Shelter, et al. Is the condemnation of supposedly ‘irrelevant’ campaigning another aspect of right-wing populism?

Assumptions about parallels between left and right wing populism are highly questionable, and practical knowledge and experience of campus issues around freedom of speech and counter-terrorism points in a very different direction to the one encouraged by topical but superficial political narratives, such as those represented in Nick Hillman’s review.

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


[1] Note: ‘students’ unions’, not as in the review ‘student unions’


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The Polytechnics legacy – continuing to break down the academic/vocational divide in the twenty-first century

by Kat Emms

For two years Edge Foundation has been drawing together lessons from past education policies. Government is at risk of institutional amnesia for a variety of reasons, such as a high level of organisational churn (Stark, 2018) and at Edge we believe it is essential that decision-making about future policy builds on and adapts evidenced best practice from the past, in order to avoid repeatedly falling into the same traps. As part of Edge’s Learning from the Past series one recent initiative was SRHE Fellow Professor Gareth Parry’s (Sheffield) paper on Polytechnics.

The polytechnics were designated in the 1960s as new institutions formed from existing technical and other colleges within the English further education system, and with one in Wales. Rather than focussing on traditional further education provision, these establishments wholly or largely concentrated on higher education (‘advanced’) courses. In the 1960s Britain was facing an increase in demand for higher education and these new institutions would help meet this demand. Furthermore they would help diversify the sector through offering higher education across a number of levels, notably sub-degree as well as degree and postgraduate courses, while also offering the ability to study in different modes (full-time, sandwich and part-time). Offering sub-degree qualifications and more flexible modes of study supported access to higher education for those who would otherwise not have had such opportunities.

The new polytechnics were mostly formed by a merger between two or three colleges – colleges of technology, art, commerce or more narrowly specialist institutions. The responsibility for these newly developed institutions lay with local government (Sharp, 1987), with awarding powers coming from the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA).

The polytechnics policy was based on an economic need to equip the workforce with the vocational, professional and industrially-based expertise it required, particularly in the face of international competition. Traditional universities were not able to meet this need alone. Polytechnics provided centres of excellence at higher education level across a range of disciplines, and offered more practice-based, work-related learning. The CNAA’s charter required that their degrees be comparable in standard and quality with those in universities (Silver, 1990).

By the late 1980s the polytechnics were becoming large institutions with strong national roles, equipped with their own central admissions service to manage student applications. Their establishment as independent, self-directing institutions was realised by the Education Reform Act of 1988, which removed the polytechnics and larger higher education colleges from local government control. The Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 eliminated the binary divide and enabled the polytechnics to acquire university title and the power to award their own degrees.

The former polytechnics increasingly shared similarities with existing universities, partly because traditional universities also adapted to compete and meet societal demands, for example through widening participation in their student recruitment and developing more work-related elements for their existing curricula.

Several features bequeathed by the original polytechnics can still be seen in today’s twenty-first century HE system. In the 1960s/1970s the polytechnics tackled skill shortages facing many sectors in the UK economy; in 2017 Degree Apprenticeships (DAs) were established for similar reasons. The advent of DAs emphasised a vocational orientation, with these courses now firmly a feature in pre-1992 universities including those in the Russell Group, as well as the former polytechnics. This epitomises the polytechnics policy, which explicitly aimed to achieve a  ‘blurring of boundaries’ and ‘a breakdown of the traditional demarcation between vocational and academic courses’ (Pratt, 1997, p309). DAs were meant to be an innovative new model bringing together the best of higher and vocational education, whilst also upholding the same standards as non-apprenticeship degrees. Not only are DAs continuing to blur the academic/vocational divide within the sector, they are also supporting the formation of new partnerships between employers and higher education providers in order to develop new forms of higher-level, occupationally relevant education.

As well as helping the HE sector to diversify provision, polytechnics were acclaimed for expanding and diversifying the student population going into higher education (Scott, 1995). DAs have the same aim: they target school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds, and mature learners already in the workforce, to offer them the opportunity to enter higher education. However, so far the evidence that they are achieving this is mixed, with recent research showing that fewer degree apprentices are eligible for free school meals than those attending university (Cavaglia et al, 2022).

As with the polytechnics in the 1960s, the HE sector is also seeing again the opening of new, and arguably innovative, higher education institutions across England. Locally focussed developments such as Milton Keynes University, ARU Peterborough and UA92 aim to meet the needs of the local community and employers. They do this through a particular emphasis on designing and developing their provision in collaboration with local stakeholders including the local authority and employers.

The new HEIs are to an extent emulating the polytechnics’ approach, not necessarily by offering distinctly new professional routes, but in ensuring that students’ education is continuously relevant to the real-world and professional life, through engaging with employer projects or developing students with a wide set of transferable skills. This is reinterpreting ‘vocation’ in a way which is more relevant to the 21st century: a profile career and the development of transferable personal skills is crucial for today’s workforce, compared to the sometimes narrower range of technical skills required and delivered by the polytechnics.

The polytechnics transformed the HE sector by diversifying provision and the student population. The blurring of the academic and vocational divide can still be seen in today’s higher education sector, particularly when we consider degree apprenticeships and newly established higher education institutions, with their provision becoming adapted to a 21st century world of work. At Edge Foundation we are exploring these two areas in our forthcoming research which will be published in early 2023.

Katherine Emms is Senior Education and Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation. Her main areas of research cover higher education, vocational education, skills shortages and employability skills.


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Mobilities and the ‘international academic’ in higher education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Gamekeepers, poachers, policy wonks and knowledge

by Adam Matthews

I was excited to attend SRHE’s event, Bridging The Gap: Improving The Relationship Between Higher Education Research And Policy on 4 November 2022. It was the first time I’d been to London since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The event promised to bring together and bridge the gap between those making higher education policy and those researching it. The event description pitched the former, in government, thinking that academic research is too narrow, theoretical or impenetrable for their purposes focusing on critique rather than practical solutions. The latter were descried as thinking government only selectively engage with academic research evidence to support their desired arguments and outcomes. This then was quite a gap to be bridged.

SRHE put together two panels of highly experienced policy makers and academics – some having experience of both – described more than once as gamekeepers turned poachers. Maybe this is the start of, and one of many ways of, bridging that gap.

Sticking with the analogy, gamekeeping policy makers want to see accessible, broad and practically orientated research; the poachers are asking to be listened to even when the gamekeeper doesn’t like the answer. As the panel sessions developed it was clear that there are some vessels bridging the gap in the choppy waters below the unbuilt bridge – think tanks such as HEPI and Wonkhe (nicely described as a newspaper for people who work in universities). It was suggested several times that both were primary and vital sources of knowledge for policy makers and university leaders. HEPI’s Nick Hillman may be a little biased here but this does present a real challenge to higher education researchers and the influence of their work. Both HEPI and Wonkhe provide in many ways an insider’s view having former special advisers writing news, commentary and reports. Some (such as Peter Scott) have argued they are ideologically and politically influenced. Many voices are needed to help inform policy but, as was clear at the event, this isn’t a simple case of finding one possible solution.

Each panel member spoke from their own perspective on policy and systems, and education and students, expertly chaired by David Palfreyman and Nick Hillman. Policy levers mentioned were access, REF, TEF and system wide changes. These are areas I have engaged with in my own work on part-time access, the relationship between REF and TEF and the identity and practice of quasi-public university institutions. There was quite some frustration directed at ‘my lot’, the higher education researchers, for only being interested in complex writing, academic journal articles and not for writing blogs, starring in podcasts and simply presenting ‘the evidence’. In defence of me and my colleagues, we do try to do both. However, promotions and kudos sit firmly in citations and h-indexes rather than short form communication. Training in the form of a PhD often has little development in teaching, never mind media and blog posting; we needed to get to the magic 80,000 words!

I raised the very academic word of epistemology – knowledge and understanding and how different mediums and research methods produce different epistemic outcomes. Epistemology is something which academics in social science and humanities think and write a lot about – usually whole chapters in an 80,000-word thesis, and a field of study in its own right. Yes, I could have said knowledge and understanding instead of epistemology. This is an important point: understanding the gamekeeper, poacher and policy wonk is not always easy for each other and bridging gaps will take work, but this effort feels worth it for all parties. The event certainly made me realise how little I know about how policies are made, other than watching the West Wing over and over again. And as Leo McGarry says in the political drama: ‘There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em – laws and sausages’. I am open to seeing how policy is made, not so much the sausages. More West Wing below.

Some ‘non-academic’ panel members conveyed a sense of frustration that knowledge wasn’t accessible in a neat package that could then be applied to policy. This epistemic cause-and-effect positivism defies the many different types of academic research – large scale quantitative, secondary data analysis, small scale qualitative, systematic reviews, speculative futures, developing theory, conference papers to develop ideas, public seminars … the list could go on. My point is that trawling ‘the literature’ won’t find the ultimate and objective truth or answer (my own epistemic position) but it might help. Another epistemic view of mine is that HE research in many cases isn’t an objective hard science.

In my own work, in particularly teaching, I have been working in interdisciplinary ways with Engineers, Computer and Data Scientists and Physicists. We speak in different disciplinary languages, epistemic languages with different knowledge and understanding of the world. Key to interdisciplinarity is integration. The Manifesto of Interdisciplinarity states:

The essential feature of interdisciplinarity is integration: interdisciplinary research and teaching should seek to synthesize the insights generated by the specialized research undertaken within disciplines.   

We all speak and work in our epistemic cultures, bodies of knowledge and experience that we know well. The key is integration – the bridge that this event has hopefully started to build. My experience of interdisciplinary teaching and learning is dialogue and centring around common goals and issues. Moreover, we should not underestimate long-term trusting relationships which allow for critique and admitting you haven’t a clue what your colleague is talking about!

The work of all parties is different and the outputs that we produce (policy, news articles, events, teaching, academic books and journals) are all designed for different audiences and purposes. The work of HEPI and Wonkhe is vitally important and it can move quickly, for example Nick Hillman and Mark Leach played out an insightful debate on student number controls, over 2 days and three pieces, highlighting no safe return to student number controls, the possibility of a different way of looking at number controls with some final words from Nick. The exchange offered an excellent resource on the debate of student number controls delivered quickly and from different perspectives. A more in depth, academic, peer reviewed piece of work on the same subject by one of the event organisers, Colin McCaig (Sheffield Hallam), equally adds to the knowledge base but in a different way. We do also need to consider academic freedom and distance between the game keepers and poachers and allow for critical analysis.

Yes, academics need to write in more creative ways to convey ideas and evidence but we also need book, thesis and journal length depth and analysis building on bodies of knowledge and literature – it’s what we do, but there are many forms of media to explore.

I am an avid reader of HEPI (and have written one blog for them) and Wonkhe – looking out for their references to policy wonking from political drama the West Wing. Writer Aaron Sorkin is a master of using dialogue to explore ideas and the SRHE event this November was a good starting point for dialogue on bridging the gap and improving the relationship between gamekeeping policy makers, HE-researching poachers and commentating policy wonks.

As Sorkin via President Bartlett reminds us, ten words are not enough …

The ten words and epistemic cause and effect of ‘This is what the research says, now make the policy’ is certainly not enough. I hope this is the first of many dialogues between policy makers, policy wonks and higher education researchers that I am involved in.

Dr. Adam Matthews is Lecturer in Education, Technology and Society at the University of Birmingham working across Social Sciences and Engineering and Physical Sciences. Adam’s research is focused on the idea of a university at system and policy level.


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Interdisciplinarity

by GR Evans

Historian GR Evans takes the long view of developments in interdisciplinary studies, with particular reference to experience at Cambridge, where progress may at times be slow but is also measured. Many institutions have in recent years developed new academic structures or other initiatives intended to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. We invite further blogs on the topic from other institutional, disciplinary, multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives.

A recent Times Higher Education article explored ‘academic impostor syndrome’ from the point of view of an academic whose teaching and research crossed conventional subject boundaries. That seemed to have made the author feel herself a misfit. She has a point, but perhaps one with broader ramifications.  

There is still a requirement of specialist expertise in the qualification of academics. In its Registration Conditions for the grant of degree-awarding powers the Office for Students adopts a requirement which has been in used since the early 1990s. An institution which is an established applicant seeking full degree-awarding powers must still show that it has “A self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to the assurance of standards supported by effective quality systems.”

A new applicant institution must show that it has “an emerging self-critical, cohesive academic community with a clear commitment to the assurance of standards supported by effective (in prospect) quality systems.” The evidence to be provided is firmly discipline-based: “A significant proportion (normally around a half as a minimum) of its academic staff are active and recognised contributors to at least one organisation such as a subject association, learned society or relevant professional body.” The contributions of these academic staff are: “expected to involve some form of public output or outcome, broadly defined, demonstrating the  research-related impact of academic staff on their discipline or sphere of research activity at a regional, national or international level.”

The establishment of a range of subjects identified as ‘disciplines’ suitable for study in higher education is not much more than a century old in Britain, arriving with the broadening of the university curriculum during the nineteenth century and the creation of new universities to add to Oxford and Cambridge and the existing Scottish universities. Until then the medieval curriculum adapted in the sixteenth century persisted, although Cambridge especially honoured a bent for Mathematics. ‘Research’, first in the natural sciences, then in all subjects, only slowly became an expectation. The higher doctorates did not become research degrees until late in the nineteenth century and the research PhD was not awarded in Britain until the beginning of the twentieth century, when US universities were beginning to offer doctorates and they were established as a competitive attraction in the UK .

The notion of ‘interdisciplinarity’ is even more recent. The new ‘disciplines’ gained ‘territories’ with the emergence of departments and faculties to specialise in them and supervise the teaching and examining of students choosing a particular subject. In this developing system in universities the academic who did not fully belong, or who made active connections between disciplines still in process of defining themselves, could indeed seem a misfit. The interdisciplinary was often disparaged as neither one discipline nor another and often regarded by mainstream specialists as inherently imperfect. Taking an interest in more than one field of research or teaching might perhaps be better described as ‘multi-disciplinary’ and requires a degree of cooperativeness among those in charge of the separate disciplines. But it is still not easy for an interdisciplinary combination to become a recognised intellectual whole in its own right, though ‘Biochemistry’ shows it can be done.

Research selectivity and interdisciplinarity

The ‘research selectivity’ exercises which began in the late 1980s evolved into the Research Assessment Exercises (1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001, 2008), now the Research Excellence Framework. The RAE Panels were made up of established academics in the relevant discipline and by the late 1990s there were complaints that this disadvantaged interdisciplinary researchers. The Higher Education Funding Council for England and the other statutory funding bodies prompted a review, and in November 1997 the University of Cambridge received the consultation paper sent round by HEFCE. A letter in response from Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor was published, giving answers to questions posed in the consultation paper. Essential, it was urged, were ‘clarity and uniformity of  application of criteria’. It suggested that: “… there should be greater interaction, consistency, and comparability between the panels than in 1996, especially in cognate subject areas. This would, inter alia, improve the assessment of interdisciplinary work.”

The letter also suggested “the creation of multidisciplinary sub-panels, drawn from the main panels” or at least that the membership of those panels should include those “capable of appreciating interdisciplinary research and ensuring appropriate consultation with other panels or outside experts as necessary”. Universities should also have some say, Cambridge suggested, about the choice of panel to consider an interdisciplinary submission. On the other hand Cambridge expressed “limited support for, and doubts about the practicality of, generic interdisciplinary criteria or a single interdisciplinary monitoring group”, although the problem was acknowledged.[1]

Interdisciplinary research centres

In 2000 Cambridge set up an interdisciplinary Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In a Report proposing CRASSH the University’s General Board pointed to “a striking increase in the number and importance of research projects that cut across the boundaries of academic disciplines both within and outside the natural sciences”. It described these as wide-ranging topics on which work could “only be done at the high level they demand” in an institution which could “bring together leading workers from different disciplines and from around the world … thereby raising its reputation and making it more attractive to prospective staff, research students, funding agencies , and benefactors.”[2]

There have followed various Cambridge courses, papers and examinations using the term ‘interdisciplinary’, for example an Interdisciplinary Examination Paper in Natural Sciences. Acceptance of a Leverhulme Professorship of Neuroeconomics in the Faculty of Economics in 2022 was proposed on the grounds that “this appointment serves the Faculty’s strategy to expand its interdisciplinary profile in terms of research as well as teaching”.  It would also comply with “the strategic aims of the University and the Faculty … [and] create a bridge between Economics and Neuroscience and introduce a new interdisciplinary field of Neuroeconomics within the University”. However the relationship between interdisciplinarity in teaching and in research has still not been systematically addressed by Cambridge.

‘Interdisciplinary’ and ‘multidisciplinary’

A Government Report of 2006 moved uneasily between ‘multidisciplinary’ and ‘interdisciplinary’ in its use of vocabulary, with a number of institutional case studies. The University of Strathclyde and King’s College London (Case Study 2) described a “multidisciplinary research environment”. The then Research Councils UK (Case Study 5b) said its Academic Fellowship scheme provided “an important mechanism for building interdisciplinary bridges” and at least 2 HEIs had “created their own schemes analogous to the Academic Fellowship concept”.

In sum it said that all projects had been successful “in mobilising diverse groups of specialists to work in a multidisciplinary framework and have demonstrated the scope for collaboration across disciplinary boundaries”. Foresight projects, it concluded, had “succeeded in being regarded as a neutral interdisciplinary space in which forward thinking on science-based issues can take place”. But it also “criticised the RAE for … the extent to which it disincentivised interdisciplinary research”.  And it believed that Doctoral Training Projects still had a focus on discipline-specific funding, which was “out of step with the growth in interdisciplinary research environments and persistent calls for more connectivity and collaboration across the system to improve problem-solving and optimise existing capacity”.

Crossing paths: interdisciplinary institutions, careers, education and applications was published by the British Academy in 2016. It recognised that British higher education remained strongly ‘discipline-based’, and recognized the risks to a young researcher choosing to cross boundaries. Nevertheless, it quoted a number of assurances it had received from universities, saying that they were actively seeking to support or introduce the ‘interdisciplinary’. It provided a set of Institutional Case Studies. including Cambridge’s statement about CRASSH, as hosting a range of externally funded interdisciplinary projects. Crossing paths saw the ‘interdisciplinary’ as essentially bringing together existing disciplines in a cluster. It suggested “weaving, translating, convening and collaborating” as important skills needed by those venturing into work involving more than one discipline.  It did not attempt to explore the definition of interdisciplinarity or how it might differ from the multi-disciplinary.

Interdisciplinary teaching has been easier to experiment with, particularly at school level where subject-based boundaries may be less rigid. There seems to be room for further hard thought not only on the need for definitions but also on the notion of the interdisciplinary from the point of view of the division of provision for posts in – and custody of – individual disciplines in the financial and administrative arrangements of universities. This work-to-be-done is also made topical by Government and Office for Students pressure to subordinate or remove established disciplines which do not offer the student a well-paid professional job on graduation.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.


[1] Cambridge University Reporter, 22 April (1998).  

[2] Cambridge University Reporter, 25 October (2000).  

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Memo to Universities UK: don’t let this crisis go to waste

by Rob Cuthbert

Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero[1]

Our text is from Boris and Horace. Boris Johnson had Churchillian aspirations, and it was Churchill who supposedly first said in the 1940s: “never let a good crisis go to waste”, in the context of the formation of the United Nations. And it was Horace much longer ago who urged us to seize the day, and put little faith in the future.

As we survey the present carnage[2] in government, what are vice-chancellors to do? First, take stock of the damage to the machinery of government, both in the Department for Education and the Office for Students. At government level we had three Secretaries of State in the space of just 48 hours. Nadhim Zahawi, the last-but-two incumbent, had shown some signs of common sense, although admittedly his predecessor Gavin Williamson had set the bar very low. Nevertheless Zahawi had done nothing to rein in his universities minister Michele Donelan, who seemed to prefer fighting the culture wars to addressing the real problems of English HE – declining levels of funding, an epidemic of student mental health problems, profound staff dissatisfaction and the threat of mass redundancies and even insolvencies in too many universities. She had taken to telephoning individual vice-chancellors to question some aspect of university management or student behaviour, while enthusiastically pursuing the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which at the time of writing is at the committee stage in the House of Lords, procedurally close to its establishment in statute – perhaps. Her reward as the resignation carnage unfolded was a big promotion to Zahawi’s job, as he moved to be Chancellor of the Exchequer on Rishi Sunak’s resignation. But as the ministerial resignations surged past 50 on Thursday 7 July, Donelan obviously thought that it was safer to join in than to be, perhaps, buried in an eventual massacre of the survivors. But her timing was bad. Her letter of resignation was made public less than an hour before the news emerged that Boris Johnson had bowed to the inevitable and agreed to step down as leader of the Conservative Party – but to continue as Prime Minister, possibly until the Autumn party conference. For a brief period the DfE had no ministers at all, but the Donelan resignation made no difference to the outcome. Had she stayed, she would probably have remained in post and the outcomes for HE might have been different. Instead James Cleverly is the new Secretary of State. He has previously served in the Cabinet, but his views on Education have been “mainly confined to a yearly jeremiad on how A levels were getting easier”, according to David Kernohan’s instant appraisal for Wonkhe on 8 July 2022. At the time of writing the new Universities Minister has yet to be named.

The tsunami of ministerial changes will make waves for the regulator too. While that would be true of any ministerial change, in these peculiar circumstances the waves may reach storm heights. The chair of the Office for Students owes his position to his closeness to Boris Johnson. Baron Wharton of Yarm, as he now is, was simply a former MP when he took on the role of campaign manager for Boris Johnson’s successful bid to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party. (In the past there has been some dispute about whether he really was ‘the’ campaign manager, but no doubt there are now fewer claimants to that ‘honour’.) Wharton was rewarded first with a peerage, and then with the chair of the Office for Students. Controversially, he has continued to take the Conservative whip in the House of Lords although the OfS is by statute an independent regulator. It comes as no surprise that the OfS is fulfilling the prediction made before OfS was established by Director of Fair Access Les Ebdon, when he said “the OfS will do whatever the government of the day wants it to do”.

One of many ministerial letters of ‘guidance’ went to the OfS from the then Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi and the then Universities Minister Michele Donelan on 31 March 2022. It said in effect that they like the way the OfS is doing the government’s bidding, but they want it done quicker and better. The interim OfS Chief Executive, Susan Lapworth, tried to defend the position in her HEPI blog on 13 June 2022: “ministers are not ‘politicising’ the work of the OfS when they make use of these lawful mechanisms to express their priorities and expectations. Rather, they are making proper use of the powers Parliament gave to them and that feels entirely democratic to me.” She noted that “ministers appoint the members of the OfS board: the OfS chair, independent members, the Chief Executive, the Director for Fair Access and Participation, and, subject to the passage of the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill, another future director. These are all subject to the normal processes for public appointments. It is, though, hardly a surprise that ministers would wish to appoint people broadly aligned with the policy preferences of the government of the day. And a democratically elected government gets to make those decisions.”

Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan in their 1 June 2022 blog for Wonkhe noted: “… the first meeting for a new [OfS] board member announced by the Department for Education (DfE) as one Rachel Houchen. She’s the wife of Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, who “lives in Yarm with his wife Rachel” and who until recently was assistant headteacher and governor of a local school, making her arguably more qualified than James Wharton to be on the board. No problem – according to the OfS interim chief executive, it’s OK to appoint the wife of your good friend and neighbour (and Conservative MP) to a seat on the board, if you’re the Chair who still takes the party whip in the House of Lords, because, “once appointed, we all ensure that OfS decisions are taken independently”.  

Now all bets are off. It remains to be seen whether the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill will be enacted; it might depend on the kind of drubbing it gets in the Lords at committee stage, and whether a limping government has the inclination for a fight on that particular hill. That will determine whether we get a higher education free speech ‘tsar’, directly appointed by the Secretary of State (whoever that is by then). But the Donelan-pleasing initiative announced on 26 May 2022 is already looking more uncertain. The OfS launched investigations into eight universities and colleges to decide whether they meet the OfS’s conditions for quality, which had just come into effect. “Other factors to be considered include whether the delivery of courses and assessment is effective, the contact hours students receive, and whether the learning resources and academic support available to students are sufficient. To support this work the OfS is recruiting a pool of experienced academics to lead the investigative work.” OfS warned that they would be putting ‘boots on the ground’. But on what grounds? Diana Beech (London Higher) was in combative form in her HEPI blog  on 16 June 2022: “In sum, it appears that before implementation of the B3 risk framework, we have moved to a process of investigation based on undefined thresholds or metrics, accepted a subject-based evaluation rather than sector or institution, and accepted that volume balances against scale of variance. Consequently, questions must be asked about the timings, approach and motives for this announcement, which comes before the new Chief Executive of the OfS has been announced and also before a much-anticipated ministerial reshuffle.” Beech, of course had no inkling then of the scale of the ‘reshuffle’, but those questions must be asked with even more urgency now. Will the new DfE ministerial team wish to persist with such an ill-founded venture?

The situation poses existential challenges not just for government and the OfS, but perhaps also for Universities UK. There is an unprecedented opportunity for UUK to reset the terms of engagement between government and universities, by asserting a new and better interpretation of what the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 should mean. There is a chance to put an end to unproductive top-down meddling and reinstate constructive dialogue. But will UUK seize the day?

Some recent signs are not hopeful. OfS have repeatedly criticised ‘unexplained’ increases in the proportion of first class and 2:1s degrees, most recently in a report published on 12 May 2022, readily spun as ‘grade inflation’. In response Universities UK and GuildHE jointly announced on 5 July 2022 their plans to return to pre-pandemic levels of first class and 2:1 degrees being awarded over the next two years. The UUK ‘commitment’ is carefully worded, so the details of how the new arrangements will work are yet to be determined. However UUK accepted the language of ‘unexplained’ increases in the proportions of first class and 2.1s, even though the possible explanations include ‘better teaching’ and ‘students working harder and better’ – for which there is some research evidence. In principle the UUK announcement can only be seen as a shift to norm-referencing and away from criterion-referencing. There is no reference in the UUK announcement to the value of academic autonomy, or the need to be mindful of that autonomy. There must be a danger that UUK will continue to be reactive rather than assert more vigorously the value and the values which underpin the excellence of the English HE system.

But there are encouraging signs too. On 9 May 2022, while Michele Donelan was still fighting the culture wars as Minister for Further and Higher Education, UUK issued a strongly-worded rebuttal of government proposals to cap student numbers and introduce minimum entry requirements: “proposed reforms to post 18 education and funding in England would turn back the clock on social mobility while limiting the government’s own levelling up agenda. … UUK strongly opposes the introduction of student number caps, which would hurt those from disadvantaged backgrounds the most. As well as limiting student choice, student number caps entrench disadvantage because students who are unable to move location to attend university have fewer opportunities to apply and be accepted to university, making them more likely to choose a path with poorer employment outcomes. Limiting educational opportunities is also counterproductive as the UK looks to upskill and meet the growing need for graduate skills. There were one million more graduate vacancies than graduates in 2022. As part of its response to the consultation, UUK has also raised issues with using minimum entry requirements. The universities most likely to be most affected by minimum entry requirements recruit high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

This is the kind of robust response which UUK will need to maintain and strengthen. The clear statement of values which underpins the statement is the best way to show in practice how UUK will stand up for HE’s best interests and the ‘brand’ that is British (not just English) higher education. Zeenat Fayez (The Brand Education) wrote in a HEPI blog on 11 July 2022: “Brand is a comparatively new concept for universities and can be an intimidating commercial term; but, distilled to an essence, it is simply the reputation of an institution. Marty Neumeier encapsulated the concept best in his description: ‘a brand is not what you say it is. It is what they say it is.’ A brand can therefore be said to be a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or company. Consequently, brand management is the management of differences, not as they exist on data sheets, but as they exist in the minds of people.”

There are profound differences within HE, not least between staff and vice-chancellors, thanks to the long-running dispute over pay, pensions and conditions in USS institutions, and the equally severe problems facing many other universities as student numbers have shifted upmarket, away in particular from Million+ universities towards those Russell Group universities which have chosen to expand. This jeopardises opportunities for many potential students unable to move beyond their local institution, especially across arts and humanities subjects, as the reported redundancies in too many universities demonstrate. In some cases vice-chancellors have been tin-eared in response, as in the case of one VC announcing redundancies to a mass staff audience online, simply making a statement and not taking questions, and another threatening to stop recruitment to a programme where staff are currently taking industrial action. However a number of individual VCs swiftly and robustly disagreed when Michele Donelan wrote to all English HE providers on 27 June 2022 about “growing concern that a ‘chilling effect’ on university campuses leaves students, staff and academics unable to freely express their lawful views without fear of repercussion.” As for the Race Equality Charter and Athena Swan: “I would like to ask you to reflect carefully as to whether your continued membership of such schemes is conducive to establishing such an environment. On that note, I would draw to your attention that, in May 2022, the interim CEO of the Office for Students, warned that universities, should “be thinking carefully and independently about their free speech duty when signing up to these sort of schemes.” Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe on 27 June 2022 was quick to note there had been no ceasefire in the culture wars.

It is time for the sensible tendency in UUK to reassert itself. That would enable UUK to reset how people inside and outside HE think about the management of differences, especially those between HE staff, UUK, OfS and DfE. It might even enable UUK to give a lead in the broader culture wars. By asserting its position vigorously and properly, and by being proactive on some issues rather than simply responding to another government initiative, UUK has an unprecedented opportunity to restore some faith and trust in its capacity to represent the sector’s interests.

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

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


[1] “Seize the day, put little faith in the future” Horace Odes 1.11

[2] After pausing to be grateful that carnage for once refers to somebody else’s mess, rather than commercially-inspired student drunkenness.

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Sir Gavalad, the Knight of the Wholly Failed

by Rob Cuthbert

There was a time when knighthood meant something. It started out as a career path for the elite, for those headed for the cavalry, but: “As knighthood evolved, a Christian ideal of knightly behaviour came to be accepted, involving respect for the church, protection of the poor and the weak, loyalty to one’s feudal or military superiors, and preservation of personal honour.” The concept may have peaked in medieval times, but myths and legends continue to frame the knight as someone whose exemplary conduct has won them distinction. The “most perfect of all knights” was Sir Galahad, one of the three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table who achieved the Holy Grail.

Knighthood continues as a reward bestowed by the monarch for supposedly meritorious service. The British Honours system has many faults and some would like to abolish it completely. Its structure and nomenclature still embodies class privilege and explicit echoes of empire, even in HE, where VCs and professors of ‘elite’ universities aspire to knighthoods while the best of the rest will usually go no higher than CBE. But with the announcement of a knighthood for Gavin Williamson the government has once again plumbed depths which would not long ago have seemed unimaginable.

There might be some embarrassment involved, even for this apparently shameless government, given that the announcement was sneaked out as the war in Ukraine was dominating newspapers and airwaves. For years Williamson had been by a country mile the least respected, least popular and least successful member of the Cabinet – and that was the view of the Conservative Party. He finally lost his ministerial post in the reshuffle in September 2021. For reasons known only to himself, the Prime Minister decided at the time to soften the blow of Williamson’s dismissal by giving him a knighthood, as Camilla Tominey’s column in The Telegraph on 5 March 2022 made clear. Presumably he could not be given a peerage, either because he did not have enough roubles, or because, against all reasonable expectation, the 46-year-old harboured ambitions of yet another political comeback. So a knighthood was the sweetener of choice. But what did he do to ‘merit’ it?

Gavin Williamson had risen without trace to become Chief Whip in Theresa May’s Cabinet. When Sir Michael Fallon resigned as Secretary of State for Defence in November 2017 the Prime Minister followed standard practice and turned to the Chief Whip for suggestions about his replacement. Williamson, to widespread astonishment, proposed himself and May, weakened after the 2017 general election, agreed. He was not successful, not respected by senior service personnel, and attracted widespread ridicule for telling Russia to “go away and shut up” in 2018. Vladimir Putin obviously took careful note. He was fired as defence secretary in 2019 for allegedly leaking details from a National Security Council meeting about Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G network, which he denied.

He then supported Boris Johnson’s campaign for leadership of the Conservative Party and was rewarded by a return to Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. It was, then, the education sector that bore the brunt of his incompetence at a time in the pandemic when effective leadership was desperately needed. Williamson stumbled from one disaster to the next, issuing vague or ambiguous advice to schools, or clear instructions just hours before they were meant to take effect, making school staff scramble to work out their implications. He announced that schools must stay open and then reversed his decision just days later. And, worst of all, he made the difficult problem of handling national examinations in 2020 far worse than it needed to be, with profound effects on schools, HE, individual students and their future careers. Policymaking in a pandemic needed to be decisive, transparent and inclusive. Instead it was indecisive, obscure and included only those outside the DfE who would be later blamed for getting it wrong. Higher education institutions did the best they could to cope with the flood of proportionately much better-qualified applicants, with no thanks to the flipflopping by the Secretary of State for Education and Ofqual which repeatedly changed the admissions arithmetic, right up to the last minute. Even so tens of thousands of young people were dissatisfied or destroyed by the results that finally emerged from the abandoned algorithm and centre-assessed grades, and denied any realistic chance of appeal. The surge in numbers in unexpected places changed institutional strategies for several years and immediately jeopardised the prospects of the next cohort of applicants.

The gratuitous damage to so many students brought to mind the last time a senior Cabinet minister had made a major promise affecting higher education and then completely reversed his decision. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg pledged before the general election in 2010 to abolish student fees, then went into coalition with the Conservatives, He did not simply abandon his pledge – as Deputy Prime Minister he was party to the decision to treble student fees instead. A ‘National Scholarships Scheme’ was supposed to be some compensation but was, unsurprisingly, an insignificant damp squib; it had to be quietly abandoned. Mealy-mouthed protestations about the ‘compromises’ necessary in coalition did not dissuade the electorate from destroying the Liberal Democrats at the next general election. Clegg’s complete failure led, naturally, to a knighthood; he became Sir Nick and departed to make his fortune in the Metaverse.

It was perhaps the most egregious example of a complete failure in HE policy leading to ennoblement – until now, as Sir Gavalad becomes the second Knight of the Wholly Failed. This is not just failure, it is Massive and Shameful (M&S) Failure. But some politicians have no shame.

Such knighthoods deserve a special ceremony. Perhaps Prince Andrew could be persuaded to do the honours.

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

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


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Understanding the value of EdTech in higher education

by Morten Hansen

This blog is a re-post of an article first published on universityworldnews.com. It is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

EdTech companies are, on average, priced modestly, although some have earned strong valuations. We know that valuation practices normally reflect investors’ belief in a company’s ability to make money in the future. We are, however, still learning about how EdTech generates value for users, and how to take account of such value in the grand scheme of things.


Valuation and deployment of user-generated data

EdTech companies are not competing with the likes of Google and Facebook for advertisement revenue. That is why phrases such as ‘you are the product’ and ‘data is the new oil’ yield little insight when applied to EdTech. For EdTech companies, strong valuations hinge on the idea that technology can bring use value to learners, teachers and organisations – and that they will eventually be willing to pay for such benefits, ideally in the form of a subscription. EdTech companies try to deliver use value in multiple ways, such as deploying user-generated data to improve their services. User-generated data are the digital traces we leave when engaging with a platform: keyboard strokes and mouse movements, clicks and inactivity.


The value of user-generated data in higher education

The gold standard for unlocking the ‘value’ of user-generated data is to bring about an activity that could otherwise not have arisen. Change is brought about through data feedback loops. Loops consist of five stages: data generation, capture, anonymisation, computation and intervention. Loops can be long and short.


For example, imagine that a group of students is assigned three readings for class. Texts are accessed and read on an online platform. Engagement data indicate that all students spent time reading text 1 and text 2, but nobody read text 3. As a result of this insight, come next semester, text 3 is replaced by a more ‘engaging’ text. That is a long feedback loop.


Now, imagine that one student is reading one text. The platform’s machine learning programme generates a rudimentary quiz to test comprehension. Based on the students’ answers, further readings are suggested or the student is encouraged to re-read specific sections of the text. That is a short feedback loop.


In reality, most feedback loops do not bring about activity that could not have happened otherwise. It is not like a professor could not learn, through conversation, which texts are better liked by students, what points are comprehended, and so on. What is true, though, is that the basis and quality of such judgments shifts. Most importantly, so does the cost structure that underpins judgment.


The more automated feedback loops are, the greater the economy of scale. ‘Automation’ refers to the decoupling of additional feedback loops from additional labour inputs. ‘Economies of scale’ means that the average cost of delivering feedback loops decreases as the company grows.


Proponents of machine learning and other artificial intelligence approaches argue that the use value of feedback loops improves with scale: the more users engage in the back-and-forth between generating data, receiving intervention and generating new data, the more precise the underlying learning algorithms become in predicting what interventions will ‘improve learning’.


The platform learns and grows with us

EdTech platforms proliferate because they are seen to deliver better value for money than the human-centred alternative. Cloud-based platforms are accessed through subscriptions without transfer of ownership. The economic relationship is underwritten by law and continued payment is legitimated through the feedback loops between humans and machines: the platform learns and grows with us, as we feed it.


Machine learning techniques certainly have the potential to improve the efficiency with which we organise certain learning activities, such as particular types of student assessment and monitoring. However, we do not know which values to mobilise when judging intervention efficacy: ‘value’ and ‘values’ are different things.


In everyday talk, we speak about ‘value’ when we want to justify or critique a state of affairs that has a price: is the price right, too low, or too high? We may disagree on the price, but we do agree that something is for sale. At other times we reject the idea that a thing should be for sale, like a family heirloom, love or education. If people tell us otherwise, we question their values. This is because values are about relationships and politics.


When we ask about the values of EdTech in higher education, we are really asking: what type of relations do we think are virtuous and appropriate for the institution? What relationships are we forging and replacing between machines and people, and between people and people?


When it comes to the application of personal technology we have valued convenience, personalisation and seamlessness by forging very intimate but easily forgettable machine-human relations. This could happen in the EdTech space as well. Speech-to-text recognition, natural language processing and machine vision are examples of how bonds can be built between humans and computers, aiding feedback loops by making worlds of learning computable.


Deciding on which learning relations to make computable, I argue, should be driven by values. Instead of seeing EdTech as a silver bullet that simply drives learning outcomes, it is more useful to think of it as technology that mediates learning relations and processes: what relationships do we value as important for students and when is technology helpful and unhelpful in establishing those? In this way, values can help us guide the way we account for the value of edtech.

Morten Hansen is a research associate on the Universities and Unicorns project at Lancaster University, and a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Hansen specialises in education markets and has previously worked as a researcher at the Saïd Business School in Oxford.

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English higher education policy: hope and pay

by Rob Cuthbert

The long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle offers a faint hope for some improvement in HE policymaking in England: there is of course plenty of room for it. Former Secretary of State Gavin Williamson never recovered from the A-levels debacle of 2020, having already been held in low esteem before then. His standing in the HE sector was at a record low after a series of increasingly frenetic measures which seemed more like attempts to curry favour with the Conservative Party and the right wing press than coherent policy initiatives. Those measures included T-levels in post-16 education, a consultation on initial teacher training reform, the Free Speech Bill working its way through Parliament, comments on post-Covid behaviour by universities, rumoured moves on HE tuition fees, and various initiatives taken by the Office for Students in response to the Secretary of State’s frequent ‘guidance’ letters.

Announcing his departure on Twitter, Williamson said it had been a pleasure to serve in the role and that he was proud of the “transformational reforms” he had led in post-16 education. FE and schools begged to differ. A coalition of influential education bodies had written to Gavin Williamson about his T-level proposals on 29 July 2021 saying: “It is impossible to square the government’s stated ambition to ‘level up’ opportunity with the proposal to scrap most BTECs, including all larger versions of the qualifications that are deemed to overlap with A levels or T levels (86% of respondents to the review disagreed with your proposal to remove funding for qualifications on this basis) … Many young people will be adversely affected by this proposal, but disadvantaged students have the most to lose, a conclusion that your Department’s own equalities impact assessment supports.” We can hope that the new DfE team will think again.

Similarly, the consultation on ITT has been universally criticised. Oxford and Cambridge suggested in response that they might pull out of ITT provision, and two senior former inspectors savaged the recent Ofsted inspections purporting to justify proposed reforms. Anna McKie reported for Times Higher Education on 3 August 2021, and Terry Russell and Julie Price Grimshaw blogged about ITT inspections in July 2021 for Teach Best: “The reports show that the evidence base for the judgements made are flimsy in the extreme, repetitive, poorly written, hyper-critical, demoralising and humiliating. It is totally unacceptable that programme leaders across the whole sector, who have turned themselves inside out for two years in order to ensure that trainees get the best possible deal, can be treated like this. We know that some course leaders have suffered illness and extreme anxiety as a direct result of these inspections. Already we are seeing providers taking the decision to close.” A strongly negative response from MillionPlus on 20 August 2021 called for the ‘reform’ to be ‘paused’: “If change is forced through in spite of a near-unanimous sector backlash, it is likely that numerous modern universities, currently the backbone of initial teacher training, will re-consider their provision in this area. This could critically damage the pipeline of new teachers into the profession, potentially hitting hardest the very regions and communities the government has pledged to level up.” Caroline Daly (UCL) blogged for UCL on 13 August 2021: “This is no time for a mass experiment on teacher education”. We might hope that the new DfE team will quietly let this one disappear.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill currently before Parliament embodies the culture wars so popular in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and is reported on more fully elsewhere in this issue of SRHE News. Whatever its supposed merits, we can but hope that the slavish desire to cater to right wing prejudice will be tempered somewhat in the new DfE team.

The installation of Lord Wharton as chair of the Office for Students, and his refusal to stop taking the Tory whip in the Lords, meant that OfS was never going to be the kind of independent regulator required by statute; recent OfS initiatives have reinforced those feelings. The preliminary OfS consultation on a range of quality and standards issues during the winter of 2020-21 was followed by a further consultation published on 21 July 2021. This made detailed proposals about new regulatory requirements, saying: “the UK Quality Code, including its common practices, advice and guidance, risks creating a homogeneous approach to quality and standards assurance that stifles innovation and overly focuses on policy and process rather than outcomes for students. By contrast, our intention is to establish an approach to regulation that protects all students through the articulation of a clear minimum baseline for quality and standards in the regulatory framework, while enabling competition, student choice, provider autonomy and innovation to develop freely above the baseline.”

Picking their way through the weasel words, David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson of WonkHE summed up (on 20 July 2021) its intention as being to sweep away the existing Quality Code, “a longstanding agreed sector standard developed by the Quality Assurance Agency … on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (kind of the sector’s representative body on quality assurance). The code is short, clear, comprehensible … Everybody knows where they are with it (from PSRBs to providers), it is popular, UK-wide, and internationally recognised. And it’s symbolic – insofar as it is a piece of co-regulation.” The first consultation spoke of “up-to-date” content and “effective” assessment. Perhaps this was, as Kernohan and Dickinson said, “meant to give providers flexibility to make their own decisions  … [but] in practice it made them concerned that their definitions of these terms may not match the regulator’s own impressions.”

The Teaching Excellence Framework was evaluated in unflattering terms by the independent review reluctantly accepted by DfE as part of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. That review, completed long ago but published much more recently, seemed to have put TEF in the deep freeze, but OfS now envisages a new-style TEF as an enforcement mechanism for its new ‘definitions’ of quality and standards. The WonkHE writers conclude: “As usual, there’s little on making students feel more powerful – but plenty for OfS.” The attempted reassurance in the OfS blog by Director of Regulation Susan Lapworth on 20 July 2021 failed to persuade, and the THE pronouncement on the same day by OfS chair Lord Wharton that “Good universities have nothing to fear from the OfS’ quality crackdown” smacked more of loyalty oaths than higher education standards.

Those suspicions were fuelled, to put it mildly, when OfS issued on 7 October 2021 probably its most fatuous review to date, about spelling, punctuation and grammar. This followed a series of media scare stories earlier in 2021 about universities supposedly being told that ‘cutting marks for bad spelling is elitist’, as the Mail on Sunday headline had it on 11 April 2021. Minister Michele Donelan duly deplored such alleged behaviour in the House of Commons, as Jim Dickinson noted in his WonkHE blog on 7 October 2021. OfS then conducted a review over Summer 2021 in “a small number of higher education providers … focused on spelling, punctuation and grammar in written assessment” identifying a “cause for regulatory concern”. There will always be stories and cases of daft behaviour by some universities, on issues like spelling, just as on issues like freedom of speech. They need to be dealt with proportionately and the regulator must decide whether there is a substantive case to answer for the whole sector. Here the OfS jumped to the remarkable conclusion that “The common features we have seen in the small number of cases in this review suggest that the practices and approaches we have set out in the case studies may be widespread across the sector.” This is not an independent regulator, this is a body in a hurry to do what it thinks the Minister wants. We can hope that the new DfE team might discourage such excessive compliance, led as it now is by someone who made a success of asking different people for their opinions.

Williamson’s last turn in HE was his speech at the Universities UK conference in Newcastle in September, when he urged universities to get back to in-person face to face teaching – speaking by videolink (!) as Times education editor Nicola Woolcock reported on 9 September 2021. Richard Adams, The Guardian’s education editor, described his speech as ‘combative’: Williamson “accused some universities of being more interested in “cancelling national heroes” and bureaucracy than improving the lives of students and staff, telling vice-chancellors they risk undermining public confidence in higher education.” He went on to attack universities with high drop-out rates and announced that “in the future institutions in England would not be able to count disadvantaged students enrolled on courses with high non-continuation rates towards meeting their access targets.” The Secretary of State’s willingness to take on the universities, albeit remotely, was not of course sufficient to save his job. We can hope that the faux outrage of the culture wars and the faux consultations on decisions already made might give way in future to something more approaching evidence-based policy and proper consultation.

The signs are that real politics might be re-emerging. The restructuring of the DfE entailed the abolition of the role of Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills. This seemed to run contrary to levelling up, as the FE News report on 15 September 2021 noted, with Toby Perkins, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Further Education and Skills, quoted as saying: “Skills shortages are holding our economy back. For all his warm words, the Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the dedicated skills minister shows he isn’t serious about reskilling our workforce for the future.” But the SoS has a track record in this area, so this at least sounds like a reasonable difference of opinion about how to achieve a policy objective.

More fundamentally, we are expecting what the media call an ‘overhaul’ of HE funding, as Richard Adams wrote in The Guardian on 9 July 2021. The options might include tuition-fee cuts, a cap on student numbers for some courses and minimum qualifications for HE entry, in a much-delayed response to the Augar review of tertiary funding. After Covid the government, of course, needs to find or save a great deal of money and the student loan system is a prime target. After long-running disagreements between No 10, DfE and the Treasury over how to achieve savings, there were straws in the wind as first Nick Hillman for HEPI on 10 June 2021 and then David Willetts (in HEPI Report 142) on 30 September 2021 spelt out the possibilities for savings, supposedly while ‘boosting HE spending’ according to Willetts. Consider these – however unpalatable – as the centrist Tory case for savings: it amounts to ‘make graduates pay more’. A different position would involve fee reductions, meaning funding cuts for institutions, student number caps and/or minimum entry qualifications, restricting access and HE numbers. The latter was more likely to have been adopted by the former DfE regime. We can hope there are higher chances now of the more ‘moderate’ course.

The new Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi arrives with a better reputation than his predecessor, and there have been significant ministerial changes at DfE, not least the departure after a very long tenure of Nick Gibb as schools minister. However Michele Donelan remains and has been promoted as Universities Minister, adding post-16 responsibilities to her brief, and she will in future attend Cabinet. She remains something of a blank canvas, having until now loyally followed her SoS’s lead. More worryingly, former Gavin Williamson special adviser Iain Mansfield tweeted on 2 October 2021: “Delighted to be able to confirm that I will be staying on in Government, as Special Adviser to Michelle Donelan, Minister for Higher and Further Education”, as ResearchProfessionalNews had divined some weeks earlier. Mansfield was formerly a DfE civil servant known principally as the architect of the first version of TEF, later as an evidence-defying supporter of grammar schools. And of course Lord Wharton remains as chair of the OfS.

We can only hope that there will at least be something of a return to more sensible politics as the new ministerial team settles in. We can be fairly sure that hard times are coming for HE funding in the government spending review, with institutions, staff, students and graduates paying the price. So there it is, the short term future for higher education policy in England: hope and pay.

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