srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay


Leave a comment

Ian McNay writes …

By Ian McNay

The news from Ukraine is that, at least in Odesa (one ‘s’ in Ukrainian) market, my country is known as ‘Bye, Bye, Britain’. I was there as part of a project on developing leadership training. At the rectors’ round table, we were thanked by the British Council rep. for being honest. We were discussing HE governance, and lessons from the UK, without doing the usual thing of pretending our approach is wonderful and everybody should imitate it. We learn from mistakes more than from things that went well, perhaps because they imply that there is a need to learn.

One challenge in Ukraine is the nostalgia for the old days. When I first went there 20 years ago, I asked an undergraduate class for their models of good leaders. My first three answers were Hitler, Stalin and Thatcher, which led to a discussion of the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘good’. That preference for strength over everything else is still there. In a survey of the ex-Soviet republics, the question was asked: ‘would you rather have democracy or a dictator who solves problems?’ Ukraine topped the table of those opting for the second, with over 50% choosing efficient despotism. The Czech Republic scored only 13%.

This is relevant to us because Theresa May has been claiming to be strong and has resisted the operations of democracy. At organisational level, since power tends to corrupt, the signs are not good: a recent survey of UK managers for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed that only 8 per cent claimed to have a strong personal moral compass, and so are susceptible to corruption. Even UK university managers would score better than that, despite the disappearance of collegial democracy.

Wouldn’t they?

Did you notice…? The Universities UK blog reported a survey of the teams who prepared the institutional submissions to the Teaching Excellence Framework, and found that even they were dismissive of its validity and reliability – basic requirements for us as researchers. 72 per cent of those most closely involved in the exercise did not believe that it ‘accurately assesses teaching and learning excellence’. Only 2 per cent, 2 per cent, thought it did. Even they might change their view, since the views of students – those ‘at the heart of the system’ and the alleged beneficiaries of the exercise – are to be given a lower weighting, since their voice, through NSS, gave the ‘wrong’ message. More weight will now be given to post-graduation data on jobs and earnings, which are more heavily conditioned by accidents of birth, and employer prejudice, than the quality of teaching and learning. So much for promoting social mobility, another claimed objective. Russell Group universities will benefit, since they scored poorly on NSS, and recruit more of those privileged by birth. That couldn’t be a reason for the change, surely? That would suggest that corruptive pressure had been applied to the reward process, as in the awarding of Olympic Games to cities or the football world cup to countries. Or in awarding Olympic medals – gold, silver, bronze – in boxing. Or bonuses to bankers. Still, footballers and bankers are now our benchmarks, according to the head of the world’s leading university, so we still have some way to fall.

Don’t we?

‘That way madness lies’ (I have just played Lear in a local ‘Best of the Bard’ concoction).

Recent reports from some universities suggest grade inflation is just as much an issue as the cost of living index. UK wide figures are not yet available for the latest batch of graduates, but in 2016, 73 per cent of first degree graduates got a first (24%) or upper second (49%), with the gender split favouring women by 75/71. Four years previously, the figure had been ‘only’ 66 per cent. So, despite expansion lowering entry tariffs, more ‘value’ is added to compensate. If 50 per cent of an age cohort now study for a degree, that means that 12 percent of an age group got a first class degree. A few years ago, when I passed the 11+, only 11 percent of the age group in my home town did so.

Did you notice the figures for ‘alternative providers’ from HESA, interesting in the light of the recent report from the HE Commission? Of the 6,200 graduates they produced (2,000 more than the previous year), 58 per cent got ‘good’ degrees. No Inflation – it was 61 per cent in 2015. 14 per cent got firsts, and women again outperformed men, by nine percentage points – 63/54.

The Commission’s report goes well beyond simply comparing the provision of full-time first degrees, emphasising the potential role of apprenticeships in adding to diversity of routes; urging flexibility of funding to allow flexibility of study patterns across the sector and outlining the greater part employers should play in developing work-related and work-relevant provision. I was interested that, of over 120 names on the attendance list, only 6 were from mainstream universities, and three of those had given evidence to the enquiry. Does the sector not think there is a challenge from the alternatives? Will they just wait for the demographic upturn early in the next decade, and then supply the same-old to a similar sub-set of the market? Are they aware that some of that demographic upturn is of children of EU immigrants who may well choose to return to their parents’ home country to study where fees are much lower, if they exist at all? And that nearly all recent growth in demand has been from BAME applicants, who suffer from admissions decisions which imply unconscious (I hope) decisions, particularly in elitist universities, as work by Vicki Boliver and Tariq Modood and statistics from UCAS show?

Finally, and still on my campaign for equity…I have a plea. At a recent symposium, participants commented on the inequity, at a global level, of the monopoly role of the English language, which has an exclusionary impact on those outside the Anglo-Saxon countries. Some national governments are bothered about its impact on knowledge transfer within the country that sponsored the work that produces journal articles. My suggestion is that any journal with ‘international’ in its title or its statement of aims should publish abstracts in, preferably, three languages, but at least two: the second being the author’s first language or that of the host institution of the research reported; the third another global language, probably Spanish. So, if you are on the editorial board of journals, or review articles submitted, can I urge you to make representation about this. It would enhance awareness across a broader landscape of HE, and allow those beyond the current privileged language enclave initial access to relevant work and to follow up with some contact with authors, since email addresses are now commonly given. It would also support the Society’s role in encouraging newer researchers. Simples!

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich

 

 


Leave a comment

Comprehensive universities

By Paul Temple

Tim Blackman, the VC of Middlesex University, will, I guess, have been pleased by the interest created by his polemic, The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection, (HEPI Occasional Paper 17, July 2017). One response on Wonkhe (20 July) by fellow VC Edward Peck supports Blackman’s wish to see “comprehensive universities” – in the sense of comprehensive schools, where admission is not determined by exam results – but worries that the result would be a government-directed “complicated and centralised” higher education system. This conclusion soon found (I think, unintended) support from Sonia Sodha writing in The Guardian on 18 August, in a piece I first mentally filed with the “Why don’t other people’s children become plumbers?” literature. But Sodha goes further, with proposals that might have caused a Soviet bloc educational apparatchik to hesitate, including standardising degree classifications across the system and “introducing a [minimum] quota for working-class students at each university”. I began to wonder if the piece was actually a wind-up aimed at Daily Mail columnists.  Continue reading

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Leave a comment

HE Finance after Hurricane Adonis

By Rob Cuthbert

So there is to be a review of higher education finance. Probably. But it is still unclear whether it will be a ‘major’ review, whatever that means. It might only mean ‘major enough to see off the threat from Jeremy Corbyn’, but we await most of the detail.

After the June general election the apparent appeal to young people of the Labour Party pledge to abolish fees, and perhaps even write off student debt, sent the Conservative Party into panic mode. Of course it might not have been a pledge, nor even a promise, more an aspiration or a direction of travel. Students have heard that kind of thing before.

Storms were brewing, but no-one expected Hurricane Adonis. Continue reading

Vicky Gunn


Leave a comment

Notes from North of the Tweed: Do we need a new way of designing Scottish higher education policy?

By Vicky Gunn

The Brexit vote seems to have somewhat taken the wind out of the sails of higher education policy in Scotland. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF2) crossed the border in a small foray. Five institutions (St Andrews, Dundee, Abertay, Heriot Watt and RGU)[i] popped themselves into the Whitehall metrics melee and the SFC sent an encyclical reminding the sector that the Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF) was still the Scottish Government’s preferred (and legally required) approach to quality. Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO)[ii] emerged as the new dataset to appraise and the Vice Principals Learning & Teaching had to turn their minds to what it means for Scottish sector to have one, three, and five year details of income, tax, pensions, and type of work, at a disciplinary level. Thus, after a little lion rampant, Universities Scotland TEF working group settled back into business as usual, facing the Department of Education with the now normalised questions regarding devolved metrics’ divergences. We have yet to discuss the grade inflation metric[iii], but planners everywhere will be running analytics to see what increases in the top levels of degrees Scotland has seen since 2010.

The same sense of ‘new normal’ becalm cannot be said of Scotland’s approach to its cultural policy, however, and it is to this that I briefly reach. The current round of cultural policy creation Continue reading


Leave a comment

Student voice in UK Higher Education politics: NSS, TEF and boycotts

by Camille Kandiko-Howson

Higher education policy is increasingly becoming metrics-oriented, with rafts of self-declared ‘wonks’ joining researchers, academics, policy officers and journalists. Although national quantitative datasets have been  running for over a decade, relatively little research has come from them, particularly compared with the thousands of publications using the US National Survey of Student Engagement. However, as metrics have risen in importance, the national datasets are gaining prominence in policy and research. The UK National Student Survey (NSS) dominates because of its use in national league tables, and from 2016, its inclusion in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). On the plus side, many institutions have used the data for improving the student experience, but it is also decried for driving a consumer-approach to higher education.

Boycotts Continue reading

Ian Kinchin


Leave a comment

From ‘evidence-based’ to ‘post-truth’: is this a trend in higher education?

By Ian Kinchin

Is there a trend within higher education that parallels the general trend in society, from ‘evidence-based’ to ‘post-truth’? There has been a trend (that I have been aware of for several months, though it has probably been going on for very much longer) of a move away from research and data towards a justification of claims in the media by using statements such as, ‘a lot of people think that’. This trend has been played out very publicly in elections in the UK and in the US in the past year, where it seems that if you say something often enough and loud enough, then it will be accepted as part of the canon. Maybe that has always been so? But when we have Government ministers on the TV telling us that we shouldn’t listen to experts because sometimes they can get things wrong, it does sound like Homer-Simpson-reasoning.

We seem to be witnessing a similar trend in higher education where ideas seem to be distorted to fit political and economic aims. If you are really cynical, you might go back through press cuttings and see a move from ‘evidence-based’ to ‘student-centred’ to ‘post-truth’. I am not arguing against student-centredness here, but I am aware of the ways that is can be miss-represented so that the phrase ‘but the students want it’ seems to trump other arguments without any real analysis of what or why. But there is a question (probably many) here about what students want, which students want it and why students want it – whatever ‘it’ might be. Continue reading


Leave a comment

Launch of Policy Reviews in Higher Education

Bruce Macfarlane

Bruce Macfarlane

William Locke

William Locke

The first issue of the new SRHE journal, Policy Reviews in Higher Education, was launched at the Annual Conference on 8th December 2016, with a cake and after dinner speeches from the Editors, William Locke and Bruce Macfarlane.  The first issue (January 2017) is free to view for a limited period on the journal web site.

The following is an extract from the Editorial to the first issue of the journal.

In 1976, the first issue of Studies in Higher Education was published. According to its founding editor, the late Tony Becher, its purpose was to ‘demonstrate that higher education is a worthwhile field of intellectual enquiry’ (Becher, 1976:2). If judged by reference to current levels of publication activity in the higher education field, this modest goal appears to have been largely met. Studies, started with just 2 issues in 1976, with 27 authors contributing 24 papers. By 2014, it had expanded to 10 issues publishing 126 papers from 275 contributing authors.

Forty years on from the founding of Studies there is a substantial number of well-established academic journals devoted to higher education studies or specialist areas of interest such as teaching and learning, quality and policy. Policy Reviews in Higher Education joins Studies and Higher Education Quarterly as journals of The Society for Research into Higher Education. Why then, it might reasonably be asked, do we need another journal about higher education? This is a perfectly fair question, but we think we have a good answer.

First, Policy Reviews has an avowedly international and comparative orientation and encourages in-depth analyses of policy issues and developments relevant to any aspect of higher education. The internationalisation of higher education has been accompanied by the globalisation of higher education policy, policy transfer and borrowing. While nations and their national and local systems have different histories and configurations, many are facing similar issues and drivers, for example, around high participation, financial sustainability, equity, and the integration of higher education with other key components of political economy. These challenges demand fresh thinking and new perspectives, which are also based on historical understanding and a willingness to look forward, which the broad scope of this new journal will seek to encourage.

The second distinctive feature of Policy Reviews is that it offers a different sort of academic space for longer, more extended analyses and reflections on policy issues in higher education of between 8,000 and 12,000 words. The overwhelming majority of higher education journals publish relatively short papers of between 5,000 and 7,000 words, often based on small-scale empirical enquiry. At the other end of the scale are opportunities to publish academic monographs in book form that normally range between 45,000 and 70,000 words. Policy Reviews seeks to fill the gap between these formats by offering authors an opportunity to develop an in-depth piece of reflective analysis that can speak to an international readership.  However, we recognise that articles of this length require a different level of commitment (and risk), and so we have introduced a first Review Proposals stage, when authors propose an article in no more than 500 words.  These proposals are evaluated and feedback given by reviewers before any invitation is made to prepare and submit a full paper, which is then peer reviewed in the conventional way.

The breadth of perspective, together with the opportunity for extended contributions, will distinguish Policy Reviews in Higher Education from other higher education academic journals. Part of maintaining this breadth is to ensure that higher education remains a permeable field and not one that discourages contributions from different disciplinary areas. Higher education as a research field would ossify without continuing to draw on fresh ideas and concepts from other academic fields. In this spirit, we would encourage authors from any disciplinary background to consider contributing to the journal.

We also wish to emphasis that we do not regard ‘policy’ as a word that should exclude contributions to this journal focusing on any aspect of higher education that is subject to policy debate and development at any level. Divisions between ‘policy’ research on the one hand, and ‘learning and teaching’ research on the other, may reflect distinct scholarly tribes within the higher education field that participate in different conferences and networks and largely publish in different journals. However, this divide does not make much sense when there are critical areas of policy development, for example, in respect of learning and teaching, such as student engagement strategies and the development of academics as teachers as well as researchers.

We aim for between four and six longer form articles in each issue of the journal and have been very encouraged by the quality and quantity of contributions submitted so far. This has occurred even in advance of the launch of Policy Reviews and before readers can begin to see how our aims and vision might be realised over a number of issues.

A brief glance at the biographies of the authors contributing to the first issue will show that, as editors, we welcome – and have every intention of publishing – contributions from those near the beginning of their academic and publishing careers as well as those with long and distinguished publications records (and those in between).  We also seek a wide international spread of authors, their current locations and their areas of study.  Where gaps emerge, we will seek to encourage and even commission contributions to address these.  We have already drawn heavily on our highly supportive international Editorial Board, with its even more widespread expertise, in promoting the journal, as well as reviewing papers. At this point, we have no initial plans for Special Issues whilst the journal establishes itself, but we may consider this at a later stage.

Tony Becher wanted to win over the ‘retrenched sceptic’ who doubted the value of higher education research. While such critics are still around today there are now far more active scholars who research, write and publish about higher education and should be capable of defending and explaining its importance. The reputation of the field can only be enhanced through more in-depth comparative analysis that looks at how policy has evolved and developed across international contexts. This will, we would hope, boost our collective learning as both scholars and policy makers about higher education as a global phenomenon and the issues central to its future development.

Reference: Becher, T. (1976) Editorial, Studies in Higher Education, 1(1), 1-2