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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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The CGHE Annual Conference 2021: Remaking higher education for a more equal world

by Rob Cuthbert

While face-to-face CGHE conferences can be an endless delight, the Zoom-based 2021 Annual Conference on 11/12 May 2021 was more of a mixed blessing, perhaps because we are all jaded now with so much screen time. But, after an uncertain start, well-chosen keynotes lifted the spirits, research projects nearing completion justified their investment, new projects showed their promise, and CGHE Director Simon Marginson inspired a global audience of more than 250 with his encyclopaedic knowledge and the bold sweep of his analysis.

The opening session, with multiple 4-minute presentations conceived as each presenter’s ‘pitch’ for how to remake HE, didn’t really make the most of the academic talent on display, but the keynotes which followed were ample compensation. First, Dr Roberta Malee Bassett, global lead for tertiary education at the World Bank, gave the 2021 Burton R Clark Lecture, ‘Tertiary education systems and diversification: Adapting the wisdom of Burton Clark in promoting effective and inclusive reforms around the world’. The World Bank’s vision for tertiary education was that it would make “a strong contribution … to equitable growth, social cohesion and societies with strong democratic foundations …”. This suggested that, despite so much emphasis elsewhere on skills and knowledge, perhaps the remaking of higher education should put values as the defining characteristic of universities and tertiary education more broadly.

Immediately afterwards, Chris Millward of the Office for Students offered a case study of the history of access and participation in the UK, especially England. It was, if not quite Panglossian, a story which skated over many policy missteps in the last 20 years and diplomatically avoided a critique of present policy. Millward is slowly and skilfully doing all he can within policy constraints to remake things to be more equal, and he held the attention of the diverse audience by drawing out general lessons from what might have been a parochial story.

The momentum was sustained with a set of reports from near-completed projects in the CGHE stable. Highlights were Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath (both Oxford) redrawing Clark’s triangle after their research into 6 varying European systems of HE governance, and Stephen Hunt (Oxford) arguing on the basis of his extensive research that private HE institutions, sometimes lauded by government for their diversity and innovation, may be doing no more than relocating disadvantage.

Thereafter Zoom fatigue began to take its toll: the promise of CGHE’s new project on ‘The Research Function and Mission of Higher Education’ inevitably remains unfulfilled at its starting point. The final session of the day was something of a reprise of the findings of earlier CGHE projects, asking ‘Too Many Graduates? – Perpetuating or Challenging Inequalities’. Its strong list of contributors – Paul Ashwin (Lancaster), Claire Callender (UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck), Ariane de Gayardon (Twente) and Golo Henseke (UCL Institute of Education) – also helped to dilute the Oxford-flavoured staff mix which at times was overdone.

The second day began with an intriguing but only just beginning account of planned research into supranational spaces, before Simon Marginson’s keynote on ‘Globalisation: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. He offered an autobiographical vignette first, to ground us for the impossibly broad sweep of his subsequent analysis. Like a tightrope walker crossing Niagara Falls, his ambition seemed ridiculous until you slowly realised that he really was going to make it to the other side, as he assembled successive research findings in a compelling argument. The analysis of global knowledge production was a safe first step, suggesting that global integration had not, yet, worked out so well. Three critiques of Euro-American globalisation led to the suggestion that: “Global knowledge is the hope of the world, but the world is mostly excluded from it.” The unforeseen future would perhaps be dominated by multipolarity, with familiar North-South differences increasingly subordinated to East-West and other axes, and his optimism shone through: there is “a doorway in time” and we have agency, even if structures are difficult to change. He concluded that we need to be more vigorous in asserting support for the values of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, to work for a better definition of valid academic knowledge and renounce any general epistemology, to discard the machinery of exclusion, and give ourselves and others the room to grow and change.

The conference’s final sessions did well to avoid anti-climax. First came three very different perspectives  on HE and mental health, which with its successor illustrated some of Marginson’s argument for an ecology of knowledges. Then Vincent Carpentier (UCL Institute of Education) continued on his distinctive path taking the long view of historic funding patterns in English and French HE, Lili Yang (Oxford) spoke on the possibilities of the Chinese concept of tianxia weigong (all under heaven is for all) and Ka Ho Mok addressed the experience of Asian, mostly Chinese, students in studying abroad and then returning home to work.

Thus the CGHE stars continued their trek to boldly go where no-one had gone before, following CGHE’s 2020 book edited by Claire Callender (Birkbeck/UCL), William Locke (Melbourne) and Simon Marginson (Oxford), Changing higher education for a changing world. My review of that book anticipated that Marginson would aim to address what he called a “frontier problem of social science”, to understand better what higher education “does for the collective” and not just for individuals: “Just as physicists continue the search for a string theory of everything, Marginson commits himself, and perhaps his Centre, to developing a theory of everything in higher education. This first volume is declared as simply mid-range findings. We look forward to some grand theorising as the CGHE’s work unfolds.“

Here it comes …

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. He is current chair of the SRHE Publications Committee.

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Cronyism, academic values and the degradation of debate

by Rob Cuthbert

The pandemic has accelerated many trends which were already apparent, such as the switch away from the high street to online purchasing, and in HE the move to on-line, remote and asynchronous learning. The influence of social media has also accelerated, partly or wholly replacing the normal policy business of face-to-face discussion and debate. But perhaps the most significant change of all for HE has been the accelerating decline in the quality of regulation, governance and policy debate.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 may come to be seen as the high water mark of a particular kind of policymaking which has been ebbing rapidly ever since: the tide has gone out on deliberative and measured debate. A majority in HE strongly opposed marketisation, but the Act was the culmination of a long period of debate which at least gave credence to opposing views and saw them represented in discussion inside and outside Parliament. The market ‘reforms’ were promoted by ministers – David Willetts and Jo Johnson in particular – who had at least grudging respect from many in the system, because of their own respect for academe, however partial it sometimes seemed. And much though we might regret the marketisation changes and seek their reversal, we might also accept that they were enacted by a government which had a mandate for change explicitly endorsed by the electorate. But that was then.

In 2019 the government was returned with a sufficient majority to ‘get Brexit done’, which it did, much to the dismay of most in higher education. HE’s dominant Remainer sentiment no doubt helped to fuel disregard in Whitehall for HE opinion. What is often wrongly still called ‘debate’ has been polarised, accentuated by social media’s echo chambers during the lockdown. In the ‘culture war’ both sides have dug their trenches and hoisted the ‘no surrender’ flags. In HE this has diverted attention away from the real and massive problems of the student experience in the pandemic, and towards the misrepresented and overstated issue of free speech, academic freedom and diversity of opinion. The supposed justification for recent free speech initiatives in HE has been amply covered elsewhere, and is summarised in SRHE News 44 (April 2021).

In this culture war academics and academic institutions have their share of blame. The Policy Exchange ‘research’, cited in support for the Secretary of State’s recent announcements, shoddy though it was, nevertheless pointed to the issue of Remainer conformism in much British academic culture, in which some staff have self-censored their support for Brexit. I tried much earlier to parody this conformism, arguing that “perhaps the best thing to do was to accept the will of the people, freely expressed”. But democracy depends on the willing consent of the governed, and the governed in HE are increasingly unwilling to consent to changes in which their views are simply ignored. There is no shortage of comment on new policy initiatives; the HE sector is comparatively well-served by think tanks such as HEPI and WonkHE, as the recent CGHE seminar on ‘Universities in Medialand’ suggested. But there is little sign that government takes note of policy commentary which contradicts its current narrative, even when obvious contradictions are pointed out. Thus, for example, market forces must rule, except when students choose the ‘wrong’ universities. The student experience is paramount, except  when students report high levels of satisfaction – so the National Student Survey, until yesterday a crucial element for teaching excellence, must today be rubbished.

Nowhere has the contempt for opposing views been more obvious than in the appointment of a new Chair for the Board of the Office for Students. The notes to the 2017 Act establishing the OfS explained that: “This Act creates a new non-departmental public body, the Office for Students (OfS), as the main regulatory body, operating at arm’s length from Government, and with statutory powers to regulate providers of higher education in England.” (emphasis added). The first OfS chair was Sir Michael Barber. It was rumoured that Barber sought a second term but was denied. Who might be appropriate to take on the role? Another respected figure with experience of HE and of working with government, able to sustain that arm’s length role for the Office? Former UUK chair Sir Ivor Crewe (former VC, Essex) was interviewed, as Sonia Sodha and James Tapper reported for The Observer on 14 February 2021: “Perhaps it was the long passage in Professor Sir Ivor Crewe’s book The Blunders of Our Governments about the way ministers’ mistakes never catch up with them that led Gavin Williamson to reject the expert as the new head of the Office for Students. Or maybe the education secretary was put off by the section of the 2013 book, written with the late Anthony King, dealing with how ministers put underqualified, inexperienced people in charge of public bodies. The job of independent regulator of higher education in England was instead handed to James Wharton, a 36-year-old former Tory MP with no experience in higher education who ran Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.” The selection panel had been criticised for its dominant reliance on government supporters rather than HE expertise, but the chair-designate was nevertheless still to have his appointment endorsed by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee.

The Committee’s approval was very likely but could not be taken for granted, and Nick Hillman made some sensible proposals in his HEPI blog on 12 January 2021 on ‘How to grill the prospective chair of OfS’. We’d have suggested grilling on both sides, but presumably Boris Johnson’s campaign manager only has one side. The Education Select Committee duly questioned Lord Wharton of Yarm on 5 February 2021 and endorsed his appointment, which was announced by OfS on 8 February 2021. Rob Merrick reported for The Independent on 2 February 2021 that Lord Wharton had been subject to ‘hard questioning’, in the course of which he said he didn’t see why he could not retain the whip, nor why his role as Boris Johnson’s campaign manager should raise any conflict of interest issues.

So the ‘independent’ regulator was to have a partisan chair who proposed to retain the government whip. Conflict-of-interest issues raised themselves almost immediately, with wider ripples than expected. Lord Wharton had just been installed as Chair when he was revealed to be a paid adviser to a company seeking to build a cable connection through land at the University of Portsmouth. The company, Aquind, has a £1.2billion project to connect the electricity grids of the UK and France. It wants to put a cable across University of Portsmouth land, which the University opposes because of the disruption it would cause. Portsmouth Council and local Conservative and Labour MPs all oppose the project. Aquind director Alexander Temerko is a Conservative Party donor, whose website has several pictures of him with Lord Wharton, and also pictures him with the Prime Minister and Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. The planning dispute, involving possible compulsory purchase, has reached the Secretary of State for Business, but the previous incumbent Alok Sharma had to recuse himself from the case because his constituency party had received £10,000 from Temerko. Sean Coughlan told the story for the BBC on 19 February 2021, noting also that: “Conservative MP David Morris, another recipient of a donation, had to apologise to the House of Commons for a breach of paid advocacy rules after asking a question in support of the Aquind cable project.”

Lord Wharton’s appointment was greeted with incredulity in HE, but attracted little interest more broadly; in macropolitical terms the chair of OfS is a small bauble. And there were of course already many higher-profile reports of cronyism in government. The difficulty for HE is that the regulator may now be driven further and faster to unrealistic extremes. OfS, obediently pursuing its statutory responsibilities and ‘having regard to ministers’, is already in danger of leaving HE realities behind:

  • On 14 January 2021 the OfS wrote to universities and other HE providers, hard on the heels of a DfE letter to OfS, saying that the regulator expected institutions “to maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of their provision and to inform students about their options for refunds or other forms of redress where it has not been possible to provide what was promised.” Universities are losing tens of millions every week during the lockdown, without the kind of support provided for many other sectors, and on student hardship “the government can never quite resist overselling the multiple purposes to which the money might meaningfully be put”, as David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson argued in their WonkHE blog on 2 February 2021.
  • The OfS consultation document issued on 26 March 2021 put into practice the ‘instructions’ received earlier from Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. It proposed to steer more funds to STEM subjects and, among other things, halve additional funding for performing arts, media studies and archaeology courses. WonkHE’s David Kernohan was quick off the mark with his critical analysis on 26 March 2021.
  • OfS announced on 30 March 2021 that after the first phase of a review of the NSS, commissioned by Universities Minister Michele Donelan, there would be ‘major changes’ including dropping all references to ‘student satisfaction’. Of course, consistent reports that 85% or more of students in most universities are satisfied with their experience would be embarrassing for a government determined to prove otherwise.
  • OfS Director Regulation Susan Lapworth blogged for WonkHE on 31 March 2021 about a new condition of registration which would allow OfS to step in where a provider was at risk of failure, not to rescue the provider but to prevent a ‘disorderly’ closure. OfS had consulted on the proposal, which was not supported by most respondents, but went ahead anyway. The condition affects only the failing provider. Two obvious problems: (1) failing providers might not be inclined or well-placed to take the protective measures which OfS deems necessary; (2) previous experience shows that students need help from other institutions to facilitate transfers, but the Condition is silent on other institutions. They will often be willing, but might be unable to help without further support.

In the past funding councils were statutorily responsible for in effect providing a buffer between HE and government, to regulate excesses on either side. There is no danger of ‘provider capture’ in the new framework, the risk now is that the arm’s-length relationship with government has very short arms. Recent US experience shows the danger of such closeness. The Obama administration’s tighter regulation of for-profit HE after well-publicised shortcomings were swiftly reversed by Donald Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but Joe Biden is now progressively restoring Obama’s closer regulation. Such to-ing and fro-ing simply creates a more disorderly system for students to navigate.

We can learn a better lesson from the US: Michelle Obama’s dictum “when they go low, we go high”. We need to reinforce our support for academic values across the sector by continuing to show respect for opposing views, and to win cases by argument rather than by seeing who can shout loudest on social media. We have examples in the way that, for example, Eric Lybeck (Manchester) has offered to debate free speech with the authors of the Policy Exchange report. We also need to broaden the base of explicit opposition, and not leave it to the usual suspects: in particular, we need university leaders to step up and speak out more than they do.

It is often true that leaders can be more persuasive in private conversations than public speeches, but in current circumstances leaders, especially vice-chancellors, need to be more concerned that they will lose the confidence of staff and students if they fail to speak out publicly. There are honourable exceptions, but too many vice-chancellors seem to be more interested in avoiding blame than speaking out about real problems. It is certainly not easy, operating in the space between government, staff or student disapproval and social media pile-ons from the left or right; just one past or present remark or action, if uncovered or reinterpreted, could be career-ending. But that is why our leaders are well paid – to pursue the best interests of the institution and the people in it, not to be silenced just because the  problems are very difficult, nor out of fear or self-interest. We have recently seen research leaders not hesitating to speak out about proposed cuts in research funding – and those cuts have now been reversed. We need more people, leaders and staff on all sides, to speak truth to power – not just playing-to-the-gallery ‘our truth’, but a truth people inside and outside HE will find persuasive.

Rob Cuthbert is an independent academic consultant, editor of SRHE News and Blog and emeritus professor of higher education management. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and of SRHE. His 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.

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Some different lessons to learn from the 2020 exams fiasco

by Rob Cuthbert

The problems with the algorithm used for school examinations in 2020 have been exhaustively analysed, before, during and after the event. The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) called for a review, after its warnings and offers of help in 2020 had been ignored or dismissed. Now the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) has produced a detailed review of the problems, Learning lessons from the approach to developing models for awarding grades in the UK in 2020. But the OSR report only tells part of the story; there are larger lessons to learn.

The OSR report properly addresses its limited terms of reference in a diplomatic and restrained way. It is far from an absolution – even in its own terms it is at times politely damning – but in any case it is not a comprehensive review of the lessons which should be learned, it is a review of the lessons for statisticians to learn about how other people use statistics. Statistical models are tools, not substitutes for competent management, administration and governance. The report makes many valid points about how the statistical tools were used, and how their use could have been improved, but the key issue is the meta-perspective in which no-one was addressing the big picture sufficiently. An obsession with consistency of ‘standards’ obscured the need to consider the wider human and political implications of the approach. In particular, it is bewildering that no-one in the hierarchy of control was paying sufficient attention to two key differences. First, national ‘standardisation’ or moderation had been replaced by a system which pitted individual students against their classmates, subject by subject and school by school. Second, 2020 students were condemned to live within the bounds not of the nation’s, but their school’s, historical achievements. The problem was not statistical nor anything to do with the algorithm, the problem was with the way the problem itself had been framed – as many commentators pointed out from an early stage. The OSR report (at 3.4.1.1) said:

“In our view there was strong collaboration between the qualification regulators and ministers at the start of the process. It is less clear to us whether there was sufficient engagement with the policy officials to ensure that they fully understood the limitations, impacts, risks and potential unintended consequences of the use of the models prior to results being published. In addition, we believe that, the qualification regulators could have made greater use of  opportunities for independent challenge to the overall approach to ensure it met the need and this may have helped secure public confidence.”

To put it another way: the initial announcement by the Secretary of State was reasonable and welcome. When Ofqual proposed that ranking students and tying each school’s results to its past record was the only way to do what the SoS wanted, no-one in authority was willing either to change the approach, or to make the implications sufficiently transparent for the public to lose confidence at the start, in time for government and Ofqual to change their approach.

The OSR report repeatedly emphasises that the key problem was a lack of public confidence, concluding that:

“… the fact that the differing approaches led to the same overall outcome in the four countries implies to us that there were inherent challenges in the task; and these 5 challenges meant that it would have been very difficult to deliver exam grades in a way that commanded complete public confidence in the summer of 2020 …”

“Very difficult”, but, as Select Committee chair Robert Halfon said in November 2020, things could have been much better:

“the “fallout and unfairness” from the cancellation of exams will “have an ongoing impact on the lives of thousands of families”. … But such harm could have been avoided had Ofqual not buried its head in the sand and ignored repeated warnings, including from our Committee, about the flaws in the system for awarding grades.”

As the 2021 assessment cycle comes closer, attention has shifted to this year’s approach to grading, when once again exams will not feature except as a partial and optional extra. When the interim Head of Ofqual, Dame Glynis Stacey, appeared before the Education Select Committee, Schools Week drew some lessons which remain pertinent, but there is more to say. An analysis of 2021 by George Constantinides, a professor of digital computation at Imperial College whose 2020 observations were forensically accurate, has been widely circulated and equally widely endorsed. He concluded in his 26 February 2021 blog that:

“the initial proposals were complex and ill-defined … The announcements this week from the Secretary of State and Ofqual have not helped allay my fears. … Overall, I am concerned that the proposed process is complex and ill-defined. There is scope to produce considerable workload for the education sector while still delivering a lack of comparability between centres/schools.”

The DfE statement on 25 February kicks most of the trickiest problems down the road, and into the hands of examination boards, schools and teachers:

“Exam boards will publish requirements for schools’ and colleges’ quality assurance processes. … The head teacher or principal will submit a declaration to the exam board confirming they have met the requirements for quality assurance. … exam boards will decide whether the grades determined by the centre following quality assurance are a reasonable exercise of academic judgement of the students’ demonstrated performance. …”

Remember in this context that Ofqual acknowledges “it is possible for two examiners to give different but appropriate marks to the same answer”. Independent analyst Dennis Sherwood and others have argued for alternative approaches which would be more reliable, but there is no sign of change.

Two scenarios suggest themselves. In one, where this year’s results are indeed pegged to the history of previous years, school by school, we face the prospect of overwhelming numbers of student appeals, almost all of which will fail, leading no doubt to another failure of public confidence in the system. The OSR report (3.4.2.3) notes that:

“Ofqual told us that allowing appeals on the basis of the standardisation model would have been inconsistent with government policy which directed them to “develop such an appeal process, focused on whether the process used the right data and was correctly applied”.

Government policy for 2021 seems not to be significantly different:

Exam boards will not re-mark the student’s evidence or give an alternative grade. Grades would only be changed by the board if they are not satisfied with the outcome of an investigation or malpractice is found. … If the exam board finds the grade is not reasonable, they will determine the alternative grade and inform the centre. … Appeals are not likely to lead to adjustments in grades where the original grade is a reasonable exercise of academic judgement supported by the evidence. Grades can go up or down as the result of an appeal.” (emphasis added)

There is one crucial exception: in 2021 every individual student can appeal. Government no doubt hopes that this year the blame will all be heaped on teachers, schools and exam boards.

The second scenario seems more likely and is already widely expected, with grade inflation outstripping the 2020 outcome. There will be a check, says DfE, “if a school or college’s results are out of line with expectations based on past performance”, but it seems doubtful whether that will be enough to hold the line. The 2021 approach was only published long after schools had supplied predicted A-level grades to UCAS for university admission. Until now there has been a stable relationship between predicted grades and examination outcomes, as Mark Corver and others have shown. Predictions exceed actual grades awarded by consistent margins; this year it will be tempting for schools simply to replicate their predictions in the grades they award. Indeed, it might be difficult for schools not to do so, without leaving their assessments subject to appeal. In the circumstances, the comments of interim Ofqual chief Simon Lebus that he does not expect “huge amounts” of grade inflation seem optimistic. But it might be prejudicial to call this ‘grade inflation’, with its pejorative overtones. Perhaps it would be better to regard predicted grades as indicators of what each student could be expected to achieve at something close to their best – which is in effect what UCAS asks for – rather than when participating in a flawed exam process. Universities are taking a pragmatic view of possible intake numbers for 2021 entry, with Cambridge having already introduced a clause seeking to deny some qualified applicants entry in 2021 if demand exceeds the number of places available.

The OSR report says that Ofqual and the DfE:

“… should have placed greater weight on explaining the limitations of the approach. … In our view, the qualification regulators had due regard for the level of quality that would be required. However, the public acceptability of large changes from centre assessed grades was not tested, and there were no quality criteria around the scale of these changes being different in different groups.” (3.3.3.1)

The lesson needs to be applied this year, but there is more to say. It is surprising that there was apparently such widespread lack of knowledge among teachers about the grading method in 2020 when there is a strong professional obligation to pay attention to assessment methods and how they work in practice. Warnings were sounded, but these rarely broke through to dominate teachers’ understanding, despite the best efforts of education journalists such as Laura McInerney, and teachers were deliberately excluded from discussions about the development of the algorithm-based method. The OSR report (3.4.2.2) said:

“… there were clear constraints in the grade awarding scenario around involvement of service delivery staff in quality assurance, or making the decisions based on results from a model. … However, we consider that involvement of staff from centres may have improved public confidence in the outputs.”

There were of course dire warnings in 2020 to parents, teachers and schools about the perils of even discussing the method, which undoubtedly inhibited debate, but even before then exam processes were not well understood:

“… notwithstanding the very extensive work to raise awareness, there is general limited understanding amongst students and parents about the sources of variability in examination grades in a normal year and the processes used to reduce them.” (3.2.2.2)

My HEPI blog just before A-level results day was aimed at students and parents, but it was read by many thousands of teachers, and anecdotal evidence from the many comments I received suggests it was seen by many teachers as a significant reinterpretation of the process they had been working on. One teacher said to Huy Duong, who had become a prominent commentator on the 2020 process: “I didn’t believe the stuff you were sending us, I thought it [the algorithm] was going to work”.

Nevertheless the mechanics of the algorithm were well understood by many school leaders. FFT Education Datalab was analysing likely outcomes as early as June 2020, and reported that many hundreds of schools had engaged them to assess their provisional grade submissions, some returning with a revised set of proposed grades for further analysis. Schools were seduced, or reduced, to trying to game the system, feeling they could not change the terrifying and ultimately ridiculous prospect of putting all their many large cohorts of students in strict rank order, subject by subject. Ofqual were victims of groupthink; too many people who should have known better simply let the fiasco unfold. Politicians and Ofqual were obsessed with preventing grade inflation, but – as was widely argued, long in advance –  public confidence depended on broader concerns about the integrity and fairness of the outcomes.

In 2021 we run the same risk of loss of public confidence. If that transpires, the government is positioned to blame teacher assessments and probably reinforce a return to examinations in their previous form, despite their known shortcomings. The consequences of two anomalous years of grading in 2020 and 2021 are still to unfold, but there is an opportunity, if not an obligation, for teachers and schools to develop an alternative narrative.

At GCSE level, schools and colleges might learn from emergency adjustments to their post-16 decisions that there could be better ways to decide on progression beyond GCSE. For A-level/BTEC/IB decisions, schools should no longer be forced to apologise for ‘overpredicting’ A-level grades, which might even become a fairer and more reliable guide to true potential for all students. Research evidence suggests that “Bright students from poorer backgrounds are more likely than their wealthier peers to be given predicted A-level grades lower than they actually achieve”. Such disadvantage might diminish or disappear if teacher assessments became the dominant public element of grading; at present too many students suffer the sometimes capricious outcomes of final examinations.

Teachers’ A-level predictions are already themselves moderated and signed off by school and college heads, in ways which must to some extent resemble the 2021 grading arrangements. There will be at least a two-year discontinuity in qualification levels, so universities might also learn new ways of dealing with what might become a permanently enhanced set of differently qualified applicants. In the longer term HE entrants might come to have different abilities and needs, because of their different formation at school. Less emphasis on preparation for examinations might even allow more scope for broader learning.

A different narrative could start with an alternative account of this year’s grades – not ‘standards are slipping’ or ‘this is a lost generation’, but ‘grades can now truly reflect the potential of our students, without the vagaries of flawed public examinations’. That might amount to a permanent reset of our expectations, and the expectations of our students. Not all countries rely on final examinations to assess eligibility to progress to the next stage of education or employment. By not wasting the current crisis we might even be able to develop a more socially just alternative which overcomes some of our besetting problems of socioeconomic and racial disadvantage.

Rob Cuthbert is an independent academic consultant, editor of SRHE News and Blog and emeritus professor of higher education management. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and of SRHE. His 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.


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Let them eat data: education, widening participation and the digital divide

by Alex Blower and Nik Marsdin

The quest for an answer

As an education sector we like answers, answers for everything, right or wrong. Sometimes we’re more concerned with arriving at an answer, than we are with ensuring it tackles the issue addressed by the question.

Widening HE participation is led by policy that dictates which answers we provide to what questions and to whom. All too often this leads to practitioners scrambling for answers to questions which are ill fitting to the issue at hand, or looking for a quick solution in such haste that we forget to read the question properly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again laid bare the stark inequality faced by children and young people in our education system. With it has been an influx of new questions from policy makers, and answers from across the political and educational spectrum.

A magic ‘thing’

More often than not, answers to these questions will comprise a ‘thing’. Governments like tangible objects like mentoring, tutoring, longer days, boot camps and shiny new academies. All of which align to the good old fashioned ‘fake it till you make it’ meritocratic ideal. For the last 40 years the Government has shied away from recognising, let alone addressing, embedded structural inequality from birth. It’s difficult, it’s complicated, and it can’t readily be answered in a tweet or a soundbite from a 6pm press conference.

The undesirable implications of a search for an ‘oven ready’ answer can be seen in the digital divide. A stark example of what access to the internet means for the haves and have-nots of the technological age.

‘So, the reason young people are experiencing extreme inequality and not becoming educationally successful, is because they don’t have enough access to technological things?’

‘What we need is a nice solid technological thing we can pin our hopes on…’

‘Laptops for everyone!’

Well, (and I suspect some voices in the back know what’s coming) access to technology alone isn’t the answer, in the same way that a pencil isn’t the answer to teaching a child to write.

Technology is a thing, a conduit, a piece of equipment that, if used right, can facilitate a learning gain. As professionals working to widen HE participation, we need to challenge these ‘oven ready answers’. Especially if they seem misguided or, dare I say it woefully ignorant of the challenges working-class communities face.

After distribution of the devices, online engagement didn’t change

Lancaster University developed the ‘Connecting Kids’ project during the first wave of COVID-19, as a direct response to calls for help by local secondary schools. The project achieved what it set out to in that it procured over 500 brand new laptops or Chromebooks, and free internet access for all recipients. Every child who fell outside of the Department for Education scheme who was without a suitable device in the home would now have one. Problem solved, right?

Not quite. Engagement in online learning environments prior to the DfE scheme and Connecting Kids initiative in years 8 and 9 was hovering at about 30% of students engaging daily, and 45% weekly. After the distribution of devices, engagement remained at nearly exactly the same level. Further inspection of the data from the telecom’s provider demonstrated that of the 500 mobile connections distributed, only 123 had been activated. Of those 123 only half were being regularly used. Of the 377 ‘unused’ sim and mi-fi packages around 200 showed ‘user error’ in connection status.

Again, this may come as no surprise to the seasoned professionals working with children and young people at the sharp end of structural inequality, but it turned out the ‘thing’ wasn’t the answer. Who would have thought it?

Understanding communities and providing resources

Fast forward 6 months and monthly interviews with participating school staff (part of the project evaluation, not yet complete) show that online engagement in one school is up to 92%. The laptops have played a valuable role in that. They have enabled access. What they haven’t done however, is understand and make allowances for the circumstances of children, young people and families. That has taken a commitment by the schools to provide holistic wrap around services in partnership with other organisations. It has included short courses on connecting to the internet, and provision of basic learning equipment such as pencils, paper, and pens. It has included the school day and timetable being replicated online, live feedback sessions with teachers and learning assistants, and drop-in sessions for parents and carers. Most importantly, it has included a recognition of the difference between home and school, and the impact it has on the education working-class of young people.

Back to policy and widening participation. If we are to make our work truly meaningful for young people, we must critically engage with a policy narrative which is built around a desire for quick fixes, soundbites and ‘oven ready things’. We owe it to the young people who are being hit hardest by this pandemic to take a step back and look at the wider barriers they face.

To do this we may need to reconceptualise what it means to support them into higher education. This starts with challenging much of the policy that is designed to improve access to higher education built upon a premise of individual deficit. The repetitive waving of magical policy wands to conjure up laptops, mentors and days out on campus will only serve to leave us with ever increasing numbers of students and families who are left out and disengaged. Numbers that will continue to rise unless we take the time to engage critically with the complex, numerous and damaging inequalities that working-class young people face.

Reshaping university outreach

This leaves us with something of a conundrum. As HE professionals, what on earth can we do about all of that? Is it our place to address an issue so vast, and so intimately tied to the turning cogs of government policy and societal inequality?

Well, if recent conversations pertaining to higher education’s civic purpose are anything to go by, the answer is undoubtedly yes. And we need to do it better. Within our mad scramble to do something to support young learners during the first, second, and now third national lockdown, our ‘thing’ has become online workshops.

For many of us the ramifications of the digital divide have been acknowledged, but we have shied away from them in work to widen HE participation. We’ve kept doing what we’ve always done, but switched to a model of online delivery which restricts who has the ability to access the content. Can we honestly say, given the disparity in digital participation amongst the most and least affluent groups, that this is the right answer to the question?

Rather than an online workshop series on ‘choosing universities’, would our time and resource be better spent by organising student ambassadors from computing subjects to staff a freephone helpline supporting young people in the community to get online? Could we distribute workbooks with local newspapers? Could we, as they did at Lancaster, work in partnership with other local and national organisations to offer more holistic support, support which ensures that as many students are able to participate in education digitally as possible?

For us, the answer is yes. Yes we should. And we can start by meaningfully engaging with the communities our universities serve. By taking the time to properly listen and understand the questions before working with those communities to provide an answer.

Currently based at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Alex Blower has worked as a professional in widening access to Higher Education for the last decade. Having completed his doctoral research in education and inequality last year, Alex’s research interests focus around class, masculinity and higher education participation. Follow Alex via @EduDetective on twitter.

Nik Marsdin is currently lead for the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden North Project) at Lancaster University. Nik worked in children’s social care, youth justice and community provision for 12 years prior to moving into HE.  Research interests are widening participation, school exclusion, transitions in education and alternative provision. Follow Nik via @MarsdinNik on Twitter.


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Blue-skies thinking

by Paul Temple

A few years ago, a recently-retired Permanent Secretary talked to our MBA group at the Institute of Education, on a Chatham House rule basis, about policy-making in government. One of his remarks which stayed with me was about the increased speed of policy change during his professional lifetime. The key word here was “change” – as an end in itself. A newly-appointed Secretary of State, he explained, after a week or so in the job, would be invited to pop in to Number 10 for a cup of tea. “How’s it going, then?” he or she would be asked. If the answer was, “Oh, fine, thanks, everything seems to be running smoothly”, then they were toast. The correct answer was, “Well, I expected a few problems in taking over from X, but, really, I was shocked to discover how bad things are. But I’ve got a grip on it, and I’ll be making big changes.” Status around the Cabinet table depended on the boldness and scope of the policy changes your Department was pursuing. Effectiveness was a secondary matter.

The March 2020 budget included the commitment for the Government to “invest at least £800m” in a “blue-skies” funding agency, to support “high risk, high reward science”[1]. This seems to be the one possibly lasting legacy of Dominic Cummings’ reign in Downing Street: as I noted in my blog here on 6 February 2020, one of his stated goals was to create a UK version of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), famous for initiating the internet. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reported on the Government’s plans on 12 February 2021[2], expressing puzzlement about the lack of detail on the proposed Agency’s remit since the proposal was unveiled in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech: “a brand in search of a product” was the Committee’s acid summing-up of the position. (Perhaps Cummings is being missed more than was predicted.) The Committee recommended that the “Haldane principle should not apply to how UK ARPA’s overall focus is determined. Ministers should play a role in shaping ARPA’s initial focus” but after that, it should be able “to pursue ‘novel and contentious’ research without case-by-case Ministerial approval” (p45). Which Minister(s) will have this focus-shaping responsibility is not yet clear.

The Committee obviously struggled to see what precisely an ARPA could do that UKRI, with perhaps some amended terms of reference, could not do. But of course the big difference is that an ARPA will be change – a shiny new initiative – and so much better for the Minister involved than tinkering with existing bits of governmental machinery. I expect they’ll find a way to launch the ARPA involving the Minister standing next to some fancy scientific kit wearing a hi-vis jacket and a hard hat.

As David Edgerton has pointed out[3], the so-called Haldane principle – that government should decide on overall research funding but that decisions on individual projects should be made by researchers – was never actually formulated by Haldane himself (Viscount Haldane, 1856-1928) and has a somewhat chequered history in science policy. Nevertheless, for much of the twentieth century, what was considered to be the Haldane principle underpinned the funding of UK research, with the idea of academic freedom so central to research funding that, as Edgerton says, it was “a principle that didn’t need to be written down”. That was then.

This began to change with the 1971 report by Lord Rothschild on The Organisation and Management of Government R&D[4], which, controversially, introduced the client/contractor relationship into public funding of research. This began the long and winding journey, via the Research Assessment Exercises, starting in in 1986, which led to the “impact statements” of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework in order to demonstrate proposals’ value for money. As Susan Greenfield once remarked[5], this was like saying that you’re only going to back winning horses.

Lyn Grove, whose PhD research[6] cast a fascinating light on why and how researchers approached their topics, quoted one of her respondents as saying, “the main thing is that you should try to do research that answers a question that is troubling you, even if it’s not yet troubling the rest of the world”: a pretty good summary of what blue-skies research should do. Is the ARPA blue-skies proposal going to take us, at least in part, back to a lost world, where researchers could pursue troubling ideas without considering their possible “impact” and where failure was accepted as an unavoidable aspect of research work? Has research policy, almost inadvertently, really run full-circle, driven by the incessant demand for novelty in policy-making? In the context of increasingly intrusive interventions by government into everyday university life (the idea of a university “woke warden”[7] would until recently have been a good joke), it somehow seems implausible. But we can always hope.

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


[1] House of Commons Science and Technology Committee website, visited 13 February 2021

[2] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmsctech/778/77803.htm

[3] Research Fortnight 12 December 2018

[4] Published with other material as HMSO (1971) A Framework for Government Research and Development Cmnd 4814. London: HMSO

[5] Greenfield, S (2011) ‘Research – the current situation and the next steps’ in The future of research in the UK – value, funding and the practicalities of rebalancing the UK economy London: Westminster Education Forum

[6] Grove, L (2017) The effects of funding policies on academic research Unpublished PhD thesis London: UCL Institute of Education

[7] briefing@wonkhe.com, 15 February 2021


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Building a Sustainable Future: Higher Education Institutions and the United Nations Global Goals (2015-2030)

by Maryna Lakhno

The idea of sustainability in higher education has been around for a long time. It started with early international discussions in the 1990s, continued during the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2004-2015) and is currently embodied in the global engagement of higher education institutions (HEIs) within the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 

The SDGs Puzzle

The SDGs are not primarily oriented towards higher education. There is nothing in this initiative that binds HEIs to act, let alone placing legal oblations on them. So it may seem puzzling that many universities worldwide, from New Zealand to Mexico, voluntarily decided to work with the Agenda 2030. Some have altered their institutional strategies and behaviors in fundamental ways in pursuit of the SDGs, even though this requires significant financial and organizational efforts. Those diverse and multifaceted changes include sustainability shifts in campus operations, curricula, ways of teaching/learning, outreach activities as well as research. Why are the SDGs so attractive for universities?

The SDGs as ‘agents of change’

First of all, education institutions in general are frequently seen as inevitable drivers for sustainable solutions:

Sustainable development cannot be achieved by technological solutions, political regulation or financial instruments alone. Achieving sustainable development requires a change in the way we think and act, and consequently a transition to sustainable lifestyles, consumption and production patterns. Only education and learning at all levels and in all social contexts can bring about this critical change.

UNESCO (2011)

Their ‘agent of change’ function incorporates numerous angles. In general, universities are created for public good and have crucial influence on humankind, as they spread knowledge and participate in governance nationally and locally (Sedlacek, 2013). HEIs have the potential to become platforms of innovation and have a direct influence on future decision makers. Being a centre of knowledge, these “institutions have the responsibility for preparing their graduates for entry into government, business and industry sectors” (Thomas and Nicita, 2002).

HEIs go beyond their walls

Furthermore, universities are frequently associated with the crucial stakeholders of regional development, which allows them to support their “faculty and administrators to regional boards” (Goldstein, 2009). This process can be of a great benefit to both sides, making educational institutions serve as “bridging organizations between societal and other institutional actors” (Sedlacek, 2013). A university does not end inside its walls and includes multiple stakeholder groups which are governments, international organizations, NGOs, businesses, faculty, administrative employees, students and their parents (Hussain et al, 2019).

The SDGs are universal

In fact, the SDGs touch numerous aspects of central concern to the university. Their multifaceted nature makes it possible to unite pre-existing policies under one umbrella. If we look at the main messages of SDGs, we see that their core values are all-inclusive, be it in terms of gender equality, poverty reduction, climate protection or education quality.

Building bridges between continents and research traditions

Goal 17, namely Partnerships for the Goals, is one of the stimuli that asks HEIs to act beyond national borders. University networks play a key role, acting as facilitators of information exchange, SDGs good practice models and source of empowerment for further action. This can be done at any level of the university, starting from inclusion in the curriculum of an HEI and ending in its sustainable investment strategies.

The Global Goals are ‘affordable’ for all HEIs

To conclude, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved by HEIs with smaller endowments. Their universal and non-binding nature does not require an HEI to follow all the goals at once. Additionally, they give space for institutional creativity, which is so valued in times of limited resources yet offers unlimited prospects for a better future.

Maryna Lakhno is a doctoral research fellow in the Yehuda Elkana Center for Higher Education at the Central European University in Vienna. The preliminary title for her dissertation is Universities: Local Agents of Global Changes. The SDGs as a Policy Framework for Higher Education.’ By scrutinising the UN SDGs from both actional and ideational perspectives, she aims to contribute to higher education policy by pointing to the existence of a new and consequential, although unexpected, global policy framework.

References

Goldstein, HA (2009) ‘What we know and what we don’t know about the regional economic impacts of universities’ in Varga, A (2009)  Universities, knowledge transfer and regional development: geography, entrepreneurship and policy. Cheltenham: Elgar, pp 11–35

Hussain, T, Eskildsen, J, Edgeman, R, Ismail, M,  Shoukry, AM, Gani, S (2019) ‘Imperatives of sustainable university excellence: A Conceptual Framework’ Sustainability 11 (19): 5242. DOI: 10.3390/su11195242.

Sedlacek, Sabine (2013) ‘The role of universities in fostering sustainable development at the regional level’ Journal of Cleaner Production 48:  74–84  DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.01.029

Thomas, I, and  Nicita, J (2002) ‘Sustainability Education and Australian Universities’ Environmental Education Research 8 (4): 475–492  DOI: 10.1080/1350462022000026845

UNESCO (2011) From Green Economies to Green Societies: UNESCO’s Commitment to Sustainable Development Retrieved from UNESCO: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000213311

Paul Temple


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A stress-test of the physical university

by Paul Temple

The impact of technological change on the continuation of the university as a physical entity, as it has been known in Europe for the last nine hundred or so years, has regularly come up for debate throughout much of the last century. Every development in communications technology – telephone, radio, TV, computers, email, the internet – has led to confident assertions that the days of the university as then understood were numbered. Why should students bother to turn up at a distant university when the teaching on offer there could be delivered readily and cheaply using the new technology of the day? (On the other hand, the transformative communications technologies of the nineteenth century – the railway and the steamship – were turned to advantage by the new University of London when it created its distance-learning operation in 1865.)

A favourite work of mine in this declinist genre is John Daniel’s Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media (1998), where the then-VC of the UK’s Open University confidently predicts that the growth of university student numbers in countries such as China and India will mean that only “mega” virtual universities will be able to cope with national demands. Even the Chinese, Daniel then argued, would not be able to expand physical university capacity at the rate required: to which one can now respond, “Oh yes they could”.

The pandemic lockdown in the UK, which has completely closed university campuses for (at the time of writing) about six months has shown what can be done in terms of online teaching when there’s no alternative. All the university teachers I know have become overnight experts on the use of Zoom and Teams for both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, for doctoral examinations, and more: exactly the direction in which Daniel thought higher education should move. But I haven’t heard any calls for this to continue indefinitely, and for campuses to be mothballed. My friend Jane, who teaches a large, mainly Chinese, postgraduate group at UCL, tells me that her students say that they would find online learning less appealing if they did not already know their peers and teachers from previous time working on the campus. Without this prior group-building to give the basis for informal peer support, Jane thinks that her learners could easily become isolated and would struggle. Everyone, especially it seems, students, wants to get back to the physical university.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. I have previously (Temple, 2018) noted the complex relationships between academic work and the physical environments within which it takes place. Just as the current lockdown has led people in all kinds of jobs to re-evaluate their work environments, so the temporary campus closures should have prompted thinking about how university built environments contribute to their outputs. The relationships between people and the built environments in which they live and work is an under-remarked factor in all manner of social and economic activities: Richard Sennett, for example, has over many years investigated these relationships in different settings, most recently in his book Building and Dwelling (2018). The idea that an activity as complex and deeply personal as higher learning can be completely divorced from its physical context seems improbable: Sennett analyses this complexity by using the term cité to represent ideas of belonging and consciousness, and ville to indicate physicality, the dynamics of space, and how elements of the built environment fit together. We might think of online teaching during the lockdown as taking the cité out of the ville: it might work initially, but eventually the ville infrastructure starts to be missed. Although Jane’s students liked the increased availability of recorded material, even live online interactive sessions were not for them adequate substitutes for a seminar room discussion. Other aspects of the physical university will be missing too: studies have shown how students value a working environment shared with other students – a library or study centre – even when they are personally unknown to one another. The enormous popularity of UCL’s new 1100 seat student study centre, in use (pre-Covid) around the clock, is a good example of what Nørgård and Bengtsen have called “the placeful university” (2016) – their way of thinking about the interactions between people and places.

The Covid-19 lockdown has given us a stress-test of university teaching without the campus. Teachers and students have worked hard to make it a success, usually helped – as with Jane’s students – by being part of a learning community with a pre-lockdown history. We need in future to give the ville aspects of university life the credit they deserve.

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

References

Daniel, J (1998) Mega-universities and knowledge media: technology strategies for higher education London: Kogan Page

Nørgård, R and Bengtsen, S (2016) ‘Academic citizenship beyond the campus: a call for the placeful university’. Higher Education Research and Development, 35 (1): 4-16

Sennett, R (2018) Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City London: Allen Lane

Temple, P (2018) ‘Space, place and institutional effectiveness in higher education’ Policy Reviews in Higher Education 2 (2): 133-150

Paul Temple


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The coronavirus isn’t a neoliberal

by Paul Temple

In a blog post last December, I attempted to chart the broad changes in UK public-sector planning and management over the decades since 1945. I suggested that while central planning methods based on the idea of “predict and provide” applied across nationalised utilities, transport, health, local government services including schools, universities, and more, for the first few post-war decades, this was gradually supplanted from the 1980s onwards by market-based methods, generally described as neoliberal. My conclusion in relation to higher education was: “Central planning has gone, but its replacement depends on central funding and central intervention. I don’t think that we’ve seen the last of formal central planning in our sector.”

Obviously, I’d like to claim that I foresaw that the catastrophe of the Covid-19 pandemic would sweep away ideas of supposedly finely-balanced markets in fields such as health and education. What in fact I was thinking was that quasi-markets and the rest of the new managerial apparatus would eventually be seen to have fallen short on the neoliberal promise of efficiency without political interference, and the search would then be on for an alternative model. What goes around, comes around.

It’s too early to see exactly what the post-Covid higher education landscape will look like, but I think we can assume that government policy – in this new age of the expert – will ensure the survival of strong research universities, in the “golden triangle” and beyond; and it is equally hard to believe that universities such as Bolton and Sunderland, recently reported to be in financial difficulties, will be allowed to fail by a government politically committed to helping “left behind” regions. Whatever is presently being said by ministers about “no bailouts for universities”, politics is going to trump economics. In the context of the worst economic depression since the 1930s, the 1830s, the 1430s – you choose – this all points to a strong national planning function, involving control of student numbers (as we already know), research planning, and capital planning. The OfS, and even HEFCE, mantras of simply being there to keep the student marketplace looking neat and tidy, and not being concerned with institutional planning or even survival, now seem positively quaint.

Helpfully, we don’t need a crystal ball to foresee the future for higher education planning and funding, because the health sector has provided us with a worked example. On 2 April, the Department of Health and Social Care announced that £13.4 billion of hospital trust debt would be written off – just like that, as Tommy Cooper would have said. This is equivalent to about a third of total annual higher education spending. In less dramatic circumstances, this would have been a major event, but with so much else going on, it seems to have been filed by the media under “boring bureaucratic stuff”. The reason given for the write-off, according to the press notice, was to help hospitals “in maintaining vital services”; as Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State, put it, “nobody in our health service should be distracted by their hospital’s past finances”.

The present NHS structure of semi-autonomous hospital trusts with their own budgets dates from 1990. What was presented then as an essential method of improving NHS efficiency now turns out to have been a “distraction”, getting in the way of providing “vital services”. Who knew? All those person-centuries of work by hospital managers and highly-paid consultants in devising budgets, cutting costs, and then cutting them again to stay within an arbitrary budget, were essentially pointless. Careers were built, and wrecked, on managing a “distraction”. Hospitals, it seems, should simply have been given the money they needed to do the job required of them, as in olden times. The neoliberal model, as applied to UK health care, ended up (at best) delivering nothing.

As I noted in the book that I edited with Ron Barnett and Peter Scott in honour of Gareth Williams’ contributions to higher education studies, Valuing Higher Education (2017), the higher education landscape contains, on the one hand, institutions that require incomes; and on the other hand, students who wish to benefit from this institutional provision. (The universities/students, hospitals/patients, parallel is obvious.) Accordingly, the financing of UK higher education traditionally considered the needs of both institutions and individual students. But in recent years, policy in England has swung in a way that might fairly be described as revolutionary: it has moved, so far as teaching costs are concerned, from considering the needs of institutions to an almost exclusive focus on the needs of students. From a neoliberal perspective, putting the interests of the student-consumer above maintaining a planned pattern of institutional provision was self-evidently correct: this was the basis of David Willetts’ 2011 White Paper, with its unsubstantiated claims about the benefits that would arise from largely unconstrained student choice, the removal of most restrictions on the use of the university title, the entry of more “alternative providers”, and the rest. Will any of this agenda outlive the coronavirus? To preserve some semblance of a working higher education system into next year, I suspect that a lot of the Willetts 2011 policies will be found to be “distractions”, just like their NHS equivalents.

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


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Troubling transitions: re-thinking dominant narratives surrounding students’ educational transitions

by Karen Gravett

This blog draws on recent research into educational transitions within higher education. Student transitions are a central part of higher education policy and practice internationally. However it is striking that much of the work within this important area is underpinned by unquestioned assumptions surrounding what transition as a concept might mean. Too often understandings of transition defer to narratives that reinforce stereotypic and limited understandings of students’ experiences of life and learning.

In recent years, student satisfaction and successful outcomes for students have become key institutional priorities, and narratives surrounding transition can be seen to employ a number of recurring ideas in order to explain and regulate students’ outcomes. These include the navigation of distinct stages: induction; ‘welcome’ week; the ‘first year experience’, as well as conceptions of transition as a structured process, or a linear pathway, to be smoothed and bridged. Words matter. These narratives have implications for how students’ learner identities are constructed, as well as for how students are interpellated into discourse. Recurring tropes of bridges and gaps reinforce the implication of a personal deficit within the student, a ‘gap’ to be ‘bridged’ that exists from the very outset of a student’s experience at university. These metaphors are also underpinned by the assumption that individuals should adapt to their university environment.

Such narratives also ignore the multiplicity and diversity of individuals’ lived experiences. Depicting students’ experiences as uniform is particularly problematic given the reality of today’s diverse student populations and differing individual circumstances. Pathway metaphors also support a view that upholds individualised discourses of aspiration and resilience, and yet recent events remind us of how quickly trajectories can become unsettled, how easily linear pathways can be disrupted, through no fault of a student’s own. Within the narratives surrounding student transition, then, an intense focus on fixed time frames and ‘progressive’ outcomes can be seen to construct limiting timescapes of higher education and such fixed conceptions can be problematic for students who may for a variety of reasons need to ‘drop out’ or change direction.

Overall, the need for more nuanced understandings of students’ experiences into and through higher education has been brought into sharp focus recently with the unprecedented disruption to life and learning as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Understanding difference becomes even more important as we begin to see how different learning experiences may be for different students – those with space to work at home, those with a stable home, those with access to computers, printers, broadband connections, those without ill-health or caring responsibilities. And other new questions arise: is it still appropriate to speak in terms of rites of passage, linear pathways and first year experiences? What does transition into higher education now mean given that are students are currently transitioning to online study and facing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change? Perhaps it is time instead to consider how we can we foster greater consideration of the granularity of students’ experiences, considering that beneath institutional discourses there may lie a more nuanced picture: one where students’ experiences can be understood as diverse, messy, and rhizomatic.

Recent empirical research with staff and students also suggested the diverse, fluid and ongoing nature of students’ transitions at university as depicted in these students’ comments:

You’re constantly changing, you’re constantly meeting new people. (Laura, second interview)

I was already quite independent when I came to Uni … because my mum, she’s disabled, so I already do a lot of stuff at home for my brother. (Maria, first interview)

It doesn’t feel like I’m living the same experience as they would, even though we go to the same uni. (Mena, first interview)

In these studies, our data portrayed tensions between the stories, narratives and linear timescapes that surround traditional conceptualisations of student transition, and the fine-grained, messy, changing, becomings of students’ lived experiences. The implications of such a reconceptualisation thus offers new potential for a rethinking of approaches to theorising and doing transition, as well as raising new questions regarding our understanding of students’ experiences. A new question for institutions now exists: in how to reconcile the fluidity and rhizomatic experiences of students with the conventional linear and modular institutional approaches to the acquisition of knowledge that may be driven by neoliberal agendas of efficiency and managerialism.

Indeed, to date such traditional conceptions of transition have encouraged a focus on short term, practical, strategies to promote success, for example pre-entry, induction and welcome week initiatives. Perhaps instead we might wish to consider individuals’ lived temporal rhythms, the ongoing nature of learning and development within higher education, and the ongoing nature of transition itself. What would a rethinking of transitions as something necessarily troublesome, as rhizomatic, and as part of an individual’s ongoing series of becomings offer? Key implications will be a need for institutions to offer support beyond the initial stage conventionally termed transition, as well as to seek to depart from approaches that construct students as experiencing a homogeneous ‘student experience’, or as experiencing a transition period that should necessarily be managed, smoothed and eased at all. Rather, considering how we can share an understanding of the inevitable challenges and difficulties inherent within learning, and the ongoing nature of change and becoming may be more useful, particularly in our troubling times where we might conclude we are now always experiencing a period of transition, or becoming.

This blog post is based on research recently published in Studies in Higher Education and Higher Education Research and Development. Karen Gravett is Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Surrey. She is an Associate Editor of the journal Higher Education Research and Development, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a co-convenor of the Society for Research in Higher Education Learning, Teaching and Assessment network.

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Asserting the nation: the dominance of national narratives in policymakers’ constructions of higher education students

by Rachel Brooks

In 2010, the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) came into being. It represents an attempt to standardise many aspects of higher education across the continent to facilitate the movement of staff and students across national borders, and ensure that the region of Europe is a competitive player in the global market for higher education. Scholars have suggested that it has tended to foreground values more commonly associated with an Anglo-American model of higher education (such as marketisation and competition) rather than those that have traditionally underpinned higher education in continental Europe (including collegial structures of governance and the autonomy of academic staff). It is thus often argued that higher education systems across Europe are becoming more similar, with greater homogeneity observed in their approaches to teaching, methods of governance, and underpinning values.

This blog draws on interviews with policy influencers in six countries (Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain) to consider the extent to which convergence is evident among the policy community within Europe, particularly in relation to how they understand higher education students. Do they, for example, see all higher education students, wherever they study in the EHEA, as broadly similar, or do they differentiate between those in their own nation-state and other parts of the continent? Analysing such discourses employed by policy actors is important, not only in teasing out the extent to which European higher education is indeed homogenising and whether distinctions are made between students of different national origins, but also because the language used by policymakers can have a significant impact on the ways in which social groups are understood and society more generally is shaped.

It was striking in many of the interviews that distinct ‘national narratives’ were drawn upon quite frequently by policy influencers to explain what were believed to be key characteristics of higher education students from their particular country – even if the available empirical evidence suggests that the characteristics were, in practice, shared by students in many other parts of Europe. An example of this is the construction of students as employment-focussed.

A common theme across the dataset was that, over recent decades, students had become increasingly employment-focussed. This was evident, for example, in national policy documents where the construction of the higher education student as a ‘future worker’ was a common trope across all six countries. Policy influencers also talked at length about how the role of the student had increasingly come to be understood in relation to the labour market, and how steps had been taken to provide better information to prospective students about employment destinations and earnings of graduates from their chosen discipline, with the intention of guiding them towards degrees perceived as having better economic returns. However, while such themes were common across the six countries, they were typically discussed and explained in national terms, often with reference to very specific national histories.

In Ireland, for example, the close relationship between higher education and employment was discussed by several interviewees. In the first extract below, a civil servant responsible for higher education policy explains this in terms of Ireland’s experience of unemployment:

Ireland’s very big on employment [within higher education policy] you see because we’ve had such a long history of unemployment and under-employment, it’s deep in the policy DNA here, in a way it mightn’t be in other countries.  Like we are all about how do we get jobs, how do we keep jobs, how do we fill jobs! How do we … that’s our central core mission.

Notable here is the comment she makes about the likely difference from other nations. She goes on to say that this relationship between education and work is not contested in Ireland because of the manner in which it has been viewed historically, and the national consensus about the labour market gains that follow from higher education. These sentiments were echoed by others. Two other Irish interviewees emphasised the way in which education was a key part of the nation’s history and culture, not least because it was seen as the most effective route out of poverty and into well-paid employment. The perceived distinctiveness of the Irish experience was thus often explicit in many of these narratives.

The Polish respondents also commented on the close relationship between higher education and employment but, in this case, it was not always evaluated entirely positively. A government interviewee believed that Polish students focussed primarily on the labour market outcomes of their study, and that this differentiated them from their Western European counterparts:

I think that the Polish student population, perhaps along with the student populations of other post-Communist countries, are markedly different than their counterparts in, in Western Europe where the markets, you know, this whole capitalism thing has been for hundred … for decades! And [in Western countries] … this attitude towards finding your … your success on the labour market perhaps is not as pronounced. 

He believed that Poland’s relatively late embrace of capitalism explained the keenness of Polish students to secure well-paid jobs on graduation and think of their higher education almost exclusively as a period of labour market preparation. Another government interviewee drew on a somewhat similar comparison to explain Polish students’ attitudes. As far as he was concerned, students’ expectations about the jobs they should be taking up on graduation were far too high, and they were often reluctant to work their way up within organisations. These were again attributed to Poland’s recent economic and political history:

In my opinion, the[ir] demands are too high. It might be because of the opening of the Polish borders after the fall of the Communist regime. When I was a student in the 1990s, it was not so easy to cross the border as a student and to spend one year or six months abroad. Now it is, and the living standard is of course much higher in Western countries, and being able to look at a better life – it might be the reason why students have become more demanding.

Thus, while Irish and Polish interviewees remarked upon very similar trends among their student populations – trends that were evident in the other four nations, too – these were explained through national narratives, emphasising the distinctiveness of their particular historical trajectory. Discussion of wider transnational influence was notably absent.

The recourse to ‘national narratives’ such as these (of which we have several other examples in our dataset), is significant because of the light it sheds on understandings of the EHEA. Despite assertions about the increasing convergence of higher education systems across Europe, the policy actors’ narratives suggest that, in some cases, national frames of reference have not yet been usurped by European ones. They are also significant because of the ways in which they conceptualise students. Words do more than name things, they impose limits on what can be said, and construct certain possibilities for thought. Thus, the emphasis on students as distinct from those in other parts of Europe may have a bearing on how they are understood by other social actors, and by students themselves.

Rachel Brooks is Professor of Higher Education in the Institute of Education at University College London. She is an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, a member of the Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and a member of the assessment panel for REF 2021 (sub-panel 23: Education).

This blogpost is based on an article recently published in Sociological Research Online. It draws on data from the Eurostudents project, funded by the European Research Council, through a Consolidator Grant to Rachel Brooks (grant number: 681018_EUROSTUDENTS).