srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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).


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Guidance or interference? OfS under pressure

by GR Evans

The Office for Students received yet another ‘strategic guidance’ letter from the Secretary of State for Education, then Gavin Williamson, dated 1 January 2020.  This is the fourth in a year.  HEFCE used to receive just one, to go with the  annual statement of the ‘block grant’ figures covering both teaching and research.  This energetic approach recalls concerns about potential for future ministerial interference repeatedly expressed in the House of Lords during the debates before the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. The new legislation protects ‘the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers’ at s.2(1)(a) and s.2 (8) (b) and (c), and specified instances of institutional ‘academic freedom’ in ‘performing’ a provider’s ‘access and participations functions’ at s.36.  It defines the Haldane Principle at s.103 but in a curiously lop-sided way, in connection only in research and for UKRI not OfS.  So both the tone and the content of this series of letters of ‘guidance’ bear looking at closely for their implications.

OfS now receives only a Teaching Grant, because infrastructure funding for research now goes to Research England within UKRI. The same Minister was in charge of both – Chris Skidmore, one of the three who have gone in and out of that office since 2016. UKRI is in the Department of Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. So for research funding purposes the Minister of State operated in another Department of State altogether. Research England has taken over the infrastructure funding of research, the ‘R’ element of the old ‘block grant’.  Skidmore did not sign the latest letter to OfS,  though HEFCE often used to get its letters signed by both the Secretary of State and the Minister for Higher Education.

The ‘teaching funding’ element of the old block grant has now shrunk to a fraction of its earlier size.  In the latest OfS letter Gavin Williamson provides ‘some specific steers on funding priorities given the need to ensure we are spending public money in the most efficient and effective way’. There is to be a continuation of policy preferences tersely described, such as ‘allocations for high cost subjects’, ‘world leading small and specialist institutions’ and ‘supporting successful participation for underrepresented students’.  There is also to be a requirement to work ‘closely’ with  the DFE to ‘identify’ areas where the need is greatest, while ensuring ‘value for money’. A proposed review of ‘the funding method’ is strongly approved as a ‘move to evaluate value for money’.  ‘I know that  the OfS have been working closely with my officials on funding policy and I hope to see this continue’, Williamson concludes.

The tone is directive. Skidmore had been writing to Research England too, but in a rather different tone. On 2 October 2019 he wrote to David Sweeney, who had moved from HEFCE to head Research England to become its Executive Chair, to thank him for his outline of his ‘proposals’ for the development of the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), to be added to the TEF and the REF.  He also took the ‘opportunity’ to ‘share’ his ‘priorities’ for ‘the future of research and knowledge exchange’.

Among them was Open Access,  ‘a key feature of REF2021’.  Skidmore pressed this urgently, merely noting briskly ‘the implications for Learned Societies of this implementation’ and encouraging  ‘Research England to develop mechanisms which will support them in the transition’ and to engage in ‘dialogue with publishers’, for open access monographs (free books) are on their way. There is no mention of the consequences of the huge upheaval for institutions and academic authors, caused by authors having to pay for publication themselves and institutions having to fund those they choose to support. The heat of anxiety on all that has been growing.

The overriding purpose of research as described in Skidmore’s letter to Research England is to be ‘the creation, transmission and exploitation of knowledge for economic and social benefit’ with KEF in a prominent place and a Knowledge Exchange Concordat being framed, ‘ensuring that it effectively supports our shared priorities around research commercialisation and impact’.

It could of course be understandable that as a new entity the Office for Students  and Research England should both need a specially vigilant ministerial eye on the way they were shaping themselves and their work.  But the artificial separation of Government control of the T and R elements in the old block grant is creating new problems. A controversial Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (the Augur Review), was published in May 2019, proposing a reduction in undergraduate tuition fees from the level of £9,250 a year at which they then stood.  In the summer of 2019 the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee questioned Philip Augar and members of the Committee about the implications for the future of the ‘dual support’ system with its established division between infrastructure and project funding. The Committee was concerned that though ‘traditionally’ the dual-funding system had ‘supported the research community well’, the failure to increase the infrastructure component –  Quality Related (QR)  funding – since 2010, had ‘led to a deficit in funding which universities have had to plug through cross-subsidies’. In other words teaching and research cannot in practice be supported by quite separate funding streams within universities. For example, libraries serve both students and researchers.

Skidmore’s letter to Research England is not insensitive to this problem:

University partnerships with business will be a significant contributor to reaching the 2.4% target by leveraging additional private investment in research through schemes such as UK Research Partnership lnvestment Fund (UKRPIF).

He links that with the ‘impact agenda’, which will increase the benefits and effects from excellent university research for the economy and society, and in addressing key societal challenges such as climate change and ageing’.

The OfS has so far been noisier than UKRI in publishing policy objectives, many of them more ‘social and economic’ than academic or educational. That is unavoidable because the former Office for Fair Access created under the Higher Education Act 2004 ss.22-41, has been absorbed into the OfS. This has encouraged the OfS to launch many objectives which seem to belong in that area rather than in the purely academic. However, the Government’s locus in social and economic affairs is clearly of a different kind from its long-controversial place in controlling the way public funding for higher education is spent.  Those letters from Secretary of State and Minister to OfS and UKRI are beginning to form a corpus worth close study.

Meanwhile it looks as though teaching and research are to be prised even more decisively apart. The Government reshuffle removed Chris Skidmore but replaced him  with Michelle Donelan, who is to be a Minister only in the DfE.  Announcement of a Minister to take charge of research in BEIS was slow to emerge, but the eventual announcement led Nature’s news reporters to ask “Has the UK’s science minister been demoted? Amanda Solloway comes to the job with no ministerial experience, amid concern that the Prime Minister’s office is controlling the science agenda.” Clearly we must continue to watch this space …

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

Paul Temple


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Weirdos and misfits? I’ve met a few…

By Paul Temple

Perhaps, like me, you’ve had some harmless fun recently in drawing up a mental list of the “weirdos and misfits…with odd skills” you know in university life who might work with Dominic Cummings at Number 10. (In a few cases, I couldn’t decide who I’d feel sorriest for.) Now that Brexit has been “done”, it seems that Cummings plans to “turn the UK into a leading centre for science, putting it at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, robotics and climate change” and needs some hired help. (This and other quotes come from a Financial Times profile of Cummings of 18/19 January 2020, said to have been fact-checked by its subject.)

The irony here, presumably unintended, would be almost funny if it wasn’t completely maddening. I’d be surprised if you could find a single working research scientist in the country who doesn’t view Brexit, so far as science is concerned, somewhere on a spectrum from “unfortunate” to “utter disaster”. Certainly, if there are any Brexiteer scientists working at UCL they’ve kept a very low profile indeed over the past few years. And now the man who has done as much as anyone to damage UK academic work by destroying our links with European partners calmly tells us that his “new agenda” – sensibly distancing himself from the tedious details of working out a new trade deal with the EU – is to achieve a scientific renaissance.

But Cummings, it seems, is thinking beyond the UK merely becoming better at science than it has so far managed when working collaboratively with European science networks. Cummings, an Oxford ancient and modern history graduate, clearly considers that he possesses the skills to apply science “to understanding and solving public policy problems”. This is probably what most social scientists, if pressed, would say they are trying to do, but I don’t think that the humdrum problems that most of us work on are what Cummings has in mind. Instead, “his inspiration is the US government’s Manhattan Project…[and how] the failing NASA bureaucracy [became] an organisation that could put a man on the moon…[he also plans] to set up a civilian version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency”. Big, shiny projects are what he wants.

I’ve used the Manhattan Project as a case study in my teaching, and I’ve no doubt that much can be learned from it. It helped that J Robert Oppenheimer was both a world-class physicist and, as it turned out, a world-class project director, who was able to work with a multi-national group of scientific egoists in a collection of army huts in the New Mexico desert and produce the world’s first atomic explosion within 28 months of starting work. But Oppenheimer knew what he had to do, had a fair idea about how to go about it, and could call on all the resources of the world’s scientific and engineering superpower. It doesn’t at all detract from his achievements to say that the Manhattan Project was in a certain sense straightforward compared to, say, improving health care or reducing crime for a large population. Leaving aside resource limitations, knowing “what works” in these and other areas of social policy has a different meaning to knowing “what works” in nuclear engineering or rocket design. Habermas described this difference in terms of “the ideology of technique”. Even defining what “improved health care” might look like will be contested, as will its measures of success. Nobody doubted that they’d know a nuclear explosion when it happened. (Actually, Oppenheimer might have agreed that quantum mechanics and problems in social policy do have something in common: if you think you understand what it is you’re observing, you’ve got it wrong.)

So my guess is that the clever Oxford humanities graduate, with no formal training in either natural or social science, is going to become very frustrated in attempting to apply methods from the former to try to solve complex problems in the domain of the latter. Paradoxically (or maybe not), this puts me in mind of the education research that I had some acquaintance with in the afterlife of the old Soviet Union. There, the necessary assumption was that if enough data were collected, and the precepts of scientific Marxism-Leninism were correctly applied to them, then a definitive solution to whatever the problem was would be found. There had to be a “scientific” answer to every question, if only you did enough work on it. To suggest otherwise would be, literally, unthinkable in a Marxist worldview.

Still, perhaps Cummings will show that answers to problems in big science do in fact read across to social policy: after all, compared to making Brexit the tremendous national success story that we’ve been assured it will be, it should be quite easy.

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

by GR Evans

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

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

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

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

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

The OfS has drawn up its own guidance.

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

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

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

From HEFCE buffer to OfS Regulator: the transition

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

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

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

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

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

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