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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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HE Finance after Hurricane Adonis

By Rob Cuthbert

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

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

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

Vicky Gunn


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

By Vicky Gunn

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

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


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

by Camille Kandiko-Howson

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

Boycotts Continue reading

Ian Kinchin


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

By Ian Kinchin

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

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


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Launch of Policy Reviews in Higher Education

Bruce Macfarlane

Bruce Macfarlane

William Locke

William Locke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May in October: a climate change for HE?

By Rob Cuthbert

Since Britain voted to leave the European Union in June it is getting harder and harder to know which way the wind is blowing for higher education, and the outlook is no clearer after Theresa May’s first Conservative Party conference as Prime Minister.

The last Conservative government, the one that was only elected a year ago, had a manifesto commitment to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework. Although it was rumoured that the Higher Education and Research Bill might have to make way in the Parliamentary timetable for EU referendum business, the Cameron government made HE a high priority and the Bill survived. No doubt this owed something to Minister Jo Johnson’s close links to No 10, where he had been head of the Policy Unit. The Bill followed the lines which had been clear for some time in the White Paper and before, continuing the drive to turn students into consumers, making it ever easier for new for-profit institutions to enter the market, and aiming to push universities and other providers into ever more intense commercial competition with one another.

Then came Brexit, and (some) things changed dramatically. Jo Johnson, despite his closeness to Cameron, his friendship with George Osborne, and his Eton-Oxford-Bullingdon Club history, survived the cull of ‘Cameron’s cronies’, and survived the split of his responsibilities between two new government departments. He remains Minister for Universities and Science but must now divide his time between the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the new Department for Education, with universities restored to the Education fold. Did this signal no change for HE? Continue reading

Vicky Gunn


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The latest TEF Assessment Framework, automated analysis of data, and some Scottish anxiety

By  Vicky Gunn

I had the good fortune to be in Rio for the Paralympics this September. My step-daughter was competing in an endurance road race. For her, the most important thing was improving on previous race times, but she’d hoped to get a medal as well (even though this was not predicted by her ‘metrics’). At the end of September, the Westminster Government through HEFCE, published the TEF2 Technical Specification[i] and I found, to my astonishment that the original differentiating phrases (meets expectations, excellent, outstanding) were to be replaced with medals: Bronze, Silver, Gold. All of this got me thinking about the Teaching Excellence Framework, built like British Cycling on the idea that we can differentiate excellence for competitive purposes and this is a good in itself. I find this comparison deeply troubling. I, like many involved in quality and teaching development in Scottish Higher Education, have invested several years of my professional life to fostering cultures of enhancement. Indeed, the distance travelled to improvement in teaching provision has been a mantra within the totality of Scottish higher education’s stakeholders (academic, government, student bodies alike). In the Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF), we have been more interested in seeing all Scottish institutions getting ‘personal bests’ (hence demonstrating continuous improvement from within their own context), rather than doing better than all the others (final outcome measure).

However, now that we have the first set of TEF indicative metrics, I (like a cycling coach) am assailed with a few doubts about the laudable concentration of raising the quality of the whole Scottish sector. This is an aim of the QEF. This resulted in engaged participants of a quality system which steadfastly refused the divisiveness associated with differentiated institutional quality review outcomes. Yet, if we individually enter it, the TEF will now demand this of us.  Should Scotland then change its QEF substantially with its aspirational collectivism to be consigned to being a phantasm of a previous era? How long can such a discourse last in the face of going for gold? Should I, as an institutional Head of Learning and Teaching, now focus on competing with HEIs, so my institution is seen as outstanding in comparison to all the others and place the sector’s aspirational culture in a box marked ‘soppy idealism’? To put it in British Cycling’s inelegant but superlatively economic phrasing: how will my small specialist institution medal when facing larger, wealthier institutions?  Continue reading