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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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).

Paul Temple


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Policy amnesia? – sorry, remind me again…

By Paul Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Paul Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wonkfest – where people know policy backwards

by Rob Cuthbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Impact of TEF

by George Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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