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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Making space in higher education research: Reporting back from our higher education geographies conference symposium

by Kate Carruthers Thomas and Holly Henderson

Space and place are too often the background and too rarely the central focus of higher education research. This was the argument of our symposium, which offered four ways of theorising the spatial in higher education. The conversation that began in this symposium extends far beyond the time allowed, and so we are continuing that conversation here, with each of the four symposium contributors summarising their use of the spatial in higher education research.

Kate Carruthers Thomas on Massey’s spatial concepts

I work with the spatial concepts of Doreen Massey to research and theorise higher education (HE).  Massey was a radical geographer, bringing a feminist perspective to discussions of space, place and power and her understanding of space as plural, heterogeneous and fluid energises an analysis of dominant forms of space and power in HE. My SRHE 2019 paper drew on two research examples: Gender(s) at Work (2018) exploring ways gender shapes experiences of the workplace and career in a post-1992 UK university, and Dimensions of Belonging (2016) problematising a sector-wide reductive narrative of ‘student belonging’ in relation to part-time students.

Applying Massey’s spatial propositions to HE frames ‘the university’ as a product of social relations shaped by geographies of powersocially-coded masculine. Universities originate from monasteries: elite, male-dominated spaces of knowledge production. The contemporary university remains shaped by the power geometry of patriarchal disciplinary discourses, traditions and cultures as well as male-defined constructions of work and career success. Massey coins the term ‘power geometry’ to describe how individuals and groups are differently positioned in relation to flows of capital and culture, to different geographies of power in particular contexts. How they are positioned shapes how they experience the spaces they are in. Gender(s) at Work extends the notion of geography of power to gender, examining how gender operates as a geography of power to position individuals and groups in relation to the flows and connections (of prestige, reward, status) within that activity space.

I also use Massey’s device of ‘activity space’ – the spatial network of links and activities, of spatial connections, locations within which agents operate (2005: 55). This multiscalar tool enables a view of individual universities as activity spaces (shaped by their own geographies of power) and as nodes in the wider activity space of a stratified HE sector. Dimensions of Belonging theorises four English universities as sites in relationship with locality, economy and the HE sector, with each university campus a complex territory of power and inequality in which belonging is negotiated.

To capture lived experiences of university spaces, I created a methodology of spatial storytelling; one sensitised to ‘the social as inexorably also spatial’ (Massey 1993:80).  This mobilises the idea of power geometry through combining narrative enquiry and visual mapping, disrupting and revealing spaces between organisational rhetoric/corporate narratives and lived experiences. 

Working with Massey in researching and theorizing HE both energises my analyses of space, place and power and leaves room for complexity and contradiction.  Spatial storytelling reveals ‘spaces between’ leaving ‘openings for something new’ (Massey 2005: 107).

Holly Henderson on de Certeau’s spatial stories

Higher education happens in places. It does not, however, happen in all places equally, and nor does it happen equally in any one place. The complexities of how higher education is understood and accessed in different places, and how places themselves are defined in relation to higher education, are multiple. In a previous project, which looked at students studying for degrees in post-industrial towns without universities, and in a current project, which looks at access to and experiences of higher education on small islands around the UK, I have used concepts from social geographies to try to get to grips with what it means to say that higher education happens (unequally) in places.

I use spatial analysis in three ways. Firstly, using the concept of spatial stories (de Certeau, 1984), I see any place as defined narratively through layers of stories. These stories are the ways that a town or street comes to be known as a ‘kind of’ place. Often, we do not notice that we are telling or hearing them, but they are fundamental to the way we understand our surroundings. Secondly, I extend spatial analysis to the relationship between higher education and place. In the UK, and especially in England, the dominant story is of a particular mobility pattern, in which the 18-year old undergraduate leaves the place of the familial home and moves into university accommodation in a new place. Finally, I ask how individuals narrate their own stories in relation to these first two factors; do they see themselves as belonging to the place they are living in, and has that question of belonging affected their decision to move or stay in place for degree education? Does the place they feel they belong to require that they make a decision between staying without studying higher education, or leaving in order to study? And if the place they are living and studying in does not have the same history of providing higher education as that of a well-known university city or town, does higher education fit straightforwardly with the enduring narratives through which the place is defined? These questions, and others that stem from them, position place at the centre of higher education research.

Fadia Dakka on Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis

Prompted by Ron Barnett’s claim about the ‘ineradicability of rhythm in university time’ (2015), my reflection extends to the nature of time, place and change in contemporary academia. In keeping with the theme of the Symposium, I emphasise how making space in higher education research subsumes both making time and ‘dwelling’ in it. Therefore, rhythm does not simply refer to the pace of activities within the university, but also to its ontological, epistemological and ethical dimensions. Using rhythm as a critical lens and a pedagogical orientation, I have examined the production of time and space in the everyday life of a teaching-intensive university in the West Midlands (2017-18), drawing inspiration from Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis (2004 [1991]) and Critique of Everyday Life (2014 [1947,1961, 1981]). I am particularly interested in the ethical and political implications that can be drawn from rhythmic analyses of ‘felt’ time and space (Wittman, 2017) in contemporary universities. On this basis, I have empirically explored notions of anticipation, dwelling, appropriation and presence within the contemporary university.

The analysis of the participants’ spatio-temporal experiences within the institution has revealed a plurality of academic rhythms that respond to radically different logics. The logic of accumulation, rooted in temporal linearity, exacerbates procedural anticipation, conflating quantification with educational progress. Within this logic, the emphasis on individual productivity and time-management produces an impoverished educational experience centred on constant adaptation and compliance. Spatially, this coincides with the abstract, conceived grid of institutional timetables, schedules and deadlines, the oppressive repetition of which reinforces a ‘pedagogy of domination’ (Middleton, 2014). On the other hand, the poetic logic, that translates Aristotle’s ‘poiesis’ as the human activity of bringing something new into the world, resonates with ideas of transformation, appropriation and dwelling which, in turn, reaffirm the centrality of imagination-relation-anticipation as a necessary condition for meaningful change.

Appropriation, dwelling and (anticipatory) presence have strong implications for how we inhabit the university space. For instance, the participants’ unorthodox production of space documented in the project epitomizes the Lefebvrian act of subversion whereby the perceived and lived spaces produced by the participants effectively disorientate the conceived space of the institution (Lefebvre, 1991 [1974]). The participants’ refusal to inhabit the homogeneous yet fragmented space of the capitalist institution (Stanek, 2011) contrasts with their dwelling in pockets of autonomous, reflective space/time meticulously carved out in their everyday. These forms of spatio-temporal appropriation need to be increasingly performed as collective, liberating acts of quotidian resistance, in order to subvert the capitalist institution from within. 

Sol Gamsu and Michael Donnelly on the relational construction of place

The moment of entry to higher education (HE) sees major patterns of internal migration within the UK. Accessing HE is, as we know, a process that is deeply implicated in the creation and reproduction of inequalities. Binding these basic points together in an analysis of flows of students between home or school and university allows us to show how the geography of education is central to core debates in geography. Like my colleagues, the work of Massey has been central to how I have conceptualized these processes. Place for Massey (2005: 139) forms ‘where the successions of meetings, the accumulation of weavings and encounters build up a history.’ Regional boundaries are formed through the concentration of particular social practices that become symbolically and spatially associated with certain boundaries and reflect and re-create divisions and hierarchies (Cooke, 1985; Paasi, 2011).

These patterns develop over time and are rooted in particular political economies with HE provision largely instigated, or at least largely financed, by the state. The historical and contemporary geographies of local and national state power, the spatial contexts of regional dominance within England, the relative autonomy of the Welsh, Scottish and (Northern) Irish systems of governance in relation to power of the Anglo-British state – HE has been a central field that has been shaped by and in turn reinforced the spatial hierarchies and divisions created through the state. Beyond these structural geographies though, cultural geographies of regional division are also reflected and created by individual mobilities created by daily or termly movements to and from university and home.

Our paper (Gamsu and Donnelly, forthcoming) explores these theoretical issues, using social network analysis (SNA) methods to highlight how recognizable regional and national boundaries are present in students’ mobility patterns. Taking the example of students moving from Northern Ireland to Liverpool we explore how student mobilities reflect historical patterns of migration across the Irish Sea. Using the same SNA approach, we examine the distinctive hierarchies of schools and universities present in school to university movements. We find a cluster of primarily English elite private and state schools and universities. Quantitative SNA methods are complemented by qualitative interviews and mapping techniques to allow us to show how student mobilities at the micro-level create, reflect and reinforce historical spatial boundaries and socio-spatial hierarchies of institutions.

In Conclusion

To draw these distinctive approaches together we briefly revisit the original aims of our symposium, the first of which was to highlight the often unseen ways that space and place structure higher education, and structure it unequally. Inequalities and difference underpin Henderson’s work with spatial stories working to understand ways in which higher education happens (unequally) in places, while Carruthers Thomas frames the university itself as a complex territory of power and inequality. Spatial analyses throw up difference and relationship in Dakka’s uncovering of a plurality of contradictory academic rhythms in the everyday life within a teaching-intensive university and, in analysing flows of students between home/school and university, Gamsu and Donnelly highlight the shaping of HE through local, regional and national differences reflecting historical and contemporary geographies of local and national state power.

The second aim of the symposium was to demonstrate different possibilities for the use of spatial theory in researching higher education, providing new insights into enduring debates. To this end, each of the four papers foreground particular spatial/temporal concepts or processes. By putting place at the centre of her research into island HE Henderson gains new insights into narratives of HE and belonging. Gamsu and Donnelly frame the moment of entry into HE as a pattern of internal migration, using social network analysis to highlight regional and national boundaries in student mobility patterns.  Carruthers Thomas positions gender as a geography of power within the university as means of examining spaces between organisational rhetoric of equality and lived experience. Meanwhile Dakka introduces opposing logics – the logic of accumulation and poetic logic to challenge the privileging of individual productivity over reflective space/time carved out in the everyday.

Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas is a Senior Research Fellow and Athena SWAN Project Manager at Birmingham City University, UK. She specialises in interdisciplinary enquiry into contemporary higher education, inequalities and gender; in spatial methods and analyses. Kate also uses poetry and graphics as methods of disseminating her research in these fields. 

Dr Holly Henderson is an Assistant Professor in Education at the University of Nottingham. She has previously held positions at the University of Birmingham and began her career teaching in Further Education in London. Her research and teaching focus broadly on sociological issues of inequality in education. In particular, she is interested in access to and experiences of post-compulsory and higher education. Her research is theoretically informed by social geographies, which enable analysis of the ways in which place, space and mobilities structure educational possibility. She is also interested in narrative and its relationship to subjectivity.

References

Barnett, R (2015) ‘The time of reason and the ecological university’, in Gibbs, P, Ylijoki, OH, Guzman-Valenzuela, C, Barnett, R (2015) Universities in the Flux of Time London: Routledge pp 121-134
Carruthers Thomas, K (2019) ‘Gender as a Geography of Power’ in Crimmins, G (ed) (2019) Strategies for Resisting Sexism in the Academy London: Palgrave Macmillan

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018) Rethinking Student Belonging in Higher Education: From Bourdieu to Borderlands London: Routledge

Cooke P (1985) ‘Class practices as regional markers: a contribution to labour geography’ in Gregory, D and Urry, J (eds) Social relations and spatial structures London: Macmillan, pp 213-241

De Certeau, M (1984) The practice of everyday life (S Randall trans.) California. University of Berkley Press
Gamsu, S and Donnelly, M (Forthcoming) ‘Social network analysis methods and the geography of education: regional divides and elite circuits in the school to university transition in the UK’ Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie

Lefebvre, H (1991 [1974]) The Production of Space Oxford: Blackwells Publishers Ltd

Lefebvre, H (2004 [1991]) Rhythmanalysis: Space, time and everyday life London: Bloomsbury

Lefebvre, H (2014 [1947,1961,1981]) Critique of Everyday Life London: Verso

Massey, D (1993) ‘Power-Geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place’. In Bird, J, Curtis, B, Putnam, T, Robertson, G and Tuckner, L (eds) Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Chance. Abingdon: Routledge pp 59-69

Massey, D (2005) For space, London: Sage

Middleton, S (2014) Henri Lefebvre and Education. Space, History, Theory New York: Routledge

Paasi, A (2011) ‘The region, identity, and power’ Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 14: 9-16

Stanek, L (2011) Henri Lefebvre on Space. Architecture, Urban Research and the Production of Theory Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press

Wittman, M (2017) Felt Time. The science of how we experience time. Cambridge: MIT Press

The Symposium was held at the 2019 SRHE Research Conference at Celtic Manor. I bet you’re sorry you missed it.


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The SRHE Student Access and Experience Network

by Manny Madriaga

On the 28th February 2020, SRHE launched the new Student Access and Experience Network. The network merged two formerly separate networks to encompass the entire continuum of student participation in higher education from access to experience and success, providing an insight into academic, social as well as welfare aspects. (The launch event occurred on one of those non-strike days for those of us engaged in the UK’s UCU industrial action.) It also occurred as the Covid19 pandemic was beginning to emerge as a factor in the UK  life – the day before the launch, the UK government’s chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, indicated that the country could face at least a couple of months of disruption. At the time of writing, just over 40 days has passed since the launch event, and much has changed in all our lives. It definitely has affected our work, our relationships with each other, and our connections to our students. This has triggered us to open up a space to discuss many of the issues that we have recently confronted in the sector due to Covid19.  Particular questions have arisen as to whether university responses to the pandemic will reduce or exacerbate structural inequalities for students in accessing and engaging in HE. For instance, Dai O’Brien has described in a previous SRHE blogpost that teaching and working remotely during this time can be virtually inaccessible.          

The launch event highlighted key issues around the whole student lifecycle. The event began with questions around access and the history of university outreach programmes with Dr Julian Crockford’s presentation, ‘Tensions, Contradictions and Perpetual Loose Ends – ‘Widening Participation’ in HE Policy (audio and slides)’, outlining contentions around theory and practice in targeting interventions to specific groups of students. The seminar then extended conversations with Dr Camille Kandiko-Howson’s paper, ‘From Cinderella to Queen Bee: Student Experience Research (audio and slides)’, highlighting issues of student participation and success and the role of higher education institutions within that. Finally, the event provided an opportunity to explore inequalities in graduate outcomes with Professor Nicola Ingram and Dr Kim Allen sharing their recent work (audio and slides). 

From these stimulating presentations, questions and discussion emerged from the diverse audience of widening participation practitioners, researchers, and graduate students. In these conversations, we engaged with evidence of how higher education not only transforms students in positive, meaningful ways, but also significantly marginalises many. As a new network, we have set out to explore these processes of marginalisation and structural inequalities that affect the access and experiences of students in HE. The HE sector is rarely value-neutral and meritocratic. Instead, universities, and other higher education contexts, are highly contentious spaces, structured by class, gender, and race, among other things. Notions of the ‘traditional’ student obscure the varied pathways into higher education as well as the intersectional nature of students’ identities, including special needs backgrounds, experiences of care and estrangement, and age. It is worth mentioning here that Dr Kandiko-Howson rightly argued in her presentation that we should not be talking about the ‘student experience’ as something monolithic. We should be talking about student experiences. This is similar to the point made by Karen Gravett in her SRHE blogpost in challenging the dominant narrative of students as experiencing a homogeneous ‘student experience’ in their university transitions.   

The beauty of all three presentations at the SRHE SAEN launch event is the offer of conceptual tools to challenge dominant discourses in widening participation, student experience, and graduate employability.  Dr Crockford, for instance, shared his own experience of working in widening participation, shining a light on the data issues in monitoring and evaluating university access. Reflecting upon her own experience as convenor of SRHE’s Student Experience Network, Dr Kandiko-Howson held up and reminded attendees of the seven principles of good undergraduate teaching practice of Chickering and Gamson (1987). Being reminded of these principles parallels our own ambitions as a network in countering much of the deficit-oriented perceptions of students on issues of access, retention, and academic performance. Professor Ingram and Dr Allen introduced their ‘social magic conversion table’ to demonstrate how employers may sift and exclude certain groups of university graduates to construct their ‘ideal’ graduate hire.    

Although we come equipped with new knowledge and have made new connections with others across the sector, we do have anxieties and more questions about the state of higher education and our students during the time of global upheaval. The launch was one of the last events we actually attended in person. We are all working remotely and attempting to connect to our students with our online lectures. We are aware we are not the only ones. Thus, we are asking you to contribute to crowd-sourcing an array of the following to inform research, practice and policy in the area of widening access, student experience and progression in the light of Covid-19. Our goal is to bring together diverse perspectives, ensure all voices are heard, and start building a repository of ideas and solutions in response to current circumstances. 

Please add to the following Google document: https://tinyurl.com/sk6jv5h  

Based on the resultant log of initiatives we are hoping to bring together researchers and practitioners in moderated discussions in the coming months to inform policy and practice.

Dr Manny Madriaga is a Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University. He is a co-convenor of the Society for Research in Higher Education Student Access and Experience Network.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


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Digitalisation, Assetisation and the Future of Value in Higher Education

by Rob Cuthbert

Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster) led a seminar hosted by the SRHE South West Regional Network/International Centre for Higher Education Management at Bath University on Wednesday 19 February 2020.

The SRHE South West Regional network, convened by Rajani Naidoo (Bath) and Lisa Lucas (Bristol), never disappoints, and this seminar was the perfect antidote for a windy wet Wednesday in the West, with a brilliant presentation by Janja Komljenovic, co-Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Evaluation at Lancaster University.

The presenter declared her research interests in digitalisation and marketisation, and made a convincing case that these things should be seen as two aspects of the same HE phenomenon: digital infrastructure is “the hidden architecture of HE”, citing Ben Williamson (Edinburgh). An introductory tour d’horizon of educational technology in its manifold apps and applications in HE showed us the range of the possible, but this was no more than scene-setting, creating a platform for what was to come. Higher education has conceived of markets as if they were driving commodification and making the value of HE no more than something that can be measured in a price. Komljenovic wants us to achieve a radical reframing, in which commodities give way to assets, and price gives way to rent. Market-making in HE is, she argues, a process of assetisation, not commodification, drawing on a wide range of sources from many disciplines, not least Kean Birch’s ‘Towards a theory of rentiership’.

Assets differ from commodities in many respects, but in particular they change the way we should think about ownership, monetisation and value. Digital assets can indeed be owned, but are more likely to be licensed or rented out than to be purchased outright. Some have argued that digital data are the ‘hot’ 21st century product that occupies the place in the global economy which oil had in the last century. But the analogy is deeply flawed: monetisation of HE assets involves subscription not pricing, and the uses to which assets may be put are subject to contractual restrictions, quite unlike the buyer’s freedom to do as they please with a barrel of oil once purchased. And value is not backward-looking, bought and paid for, it must have a future orientation – higher education is not something that can be banked, its value lies in its potential to deliver in the future. Hence one direction for research is to explore the nature and value of emerging HE assets, who owns them, who can charge for their use, and on what terms.

Dynamic experimentation means that edtech may be oversold. Something touted as the new disruptive technology can prove to be overly ambitious when held up to the light, with the latest disappointments being MOOCs’ original claim of free access to high quality education and, it seems, the blockchain university. Digitalisation is different, and it indeed calls for new ways of understanding the higher education enterprise. The seminar challenged us to reconstruct our understanding of what a higher education market might mean in a digitalised world, to rethink what we understand by ‘value’, and to re-examine what we understand by ‘university’ – and whether the university itself is a sustainable platform for whatever HE may become in the 21st century. What a treat.

Rob Cuthbert is the editor of SRHE News and Blog.


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Practising a Pragmatic Critical Pedagogy in Higher Education

by Mona Sakr

Reflections on a workshop hosted by the SRHE Academic Practice Network

At a workshop on 8 May 2019 in the SRHE offices Jennifer Bain and Juliet Sprake (Goldsmiths University) shared their emerging conceptualisations of a ‘pragmatic critical pedagogy’. Their ground-breaking approach comes about as a way to grapple positively with the tensions and affective dissonance that critical pedagogues encounter in the contemporary HE landscape, characterised as it is by neoliberal definitions of learning as consumption and the relentless emphasis on ‘student satisfaction’. What do we do with the uneasiness we feel? How do we move from our experiences of discomfort? Bain and Sprake shared in this workshop the spaces that they have created as a response to these questions, and, in particular, innovations emerging through a research and teaching project that they have conducted with partners in the Philippines.

The approach presented in the workshop hinges on the infusion of critical pedagogies with principles and processes that are essential to design education. Bain and Sprake argue that working with design mindsets and methods can enable us to find and make the micro-adjustments to practice that allow critical pedagogies to flourish in a potentially stifling wider climate. Through design, we can grapple with the contradictions and complexities we encounter as researchers and teachers without falling into a pit of despair. Through the design process, we identify responsive actions to the disjunctions and the dissonance. As we move against and around dominant neoliberal discourses of ‘learning as consumption’, the design process can inspire us to move on to the ‘what next’.

As participants in the workshop, we had the opportunity to try out for ourselves the design infused critical pedagogy that Bain and Sprake advocate. What Bain and Sprake call ‘pragmatic critical pedagogy’ was put to work in small groups where we decided on a particular problem statement relating to the research-practice culture of universities; statements such as ‘collaboration is time-consuming’ or ‘teaching-led research is undervalued’. We were then prompted through a series of design-focused questions to see the opportunities for design at work in the statement. We applied particular design mindsets (such as ‘optimism’ or ‘empathy’) to find new ways of seeing the problem. The point was not to ‘unsee’ the contradictions, tensions and frictions, but rather to see them from a different perspective, inviting new avenues for action.

Reactions to the task were enthusiastic. Discussion after the activity suggested that participants appreciated how the design nature of the task invited participants to launch into genuine and open dialogues with each other. At the same time, as you would expect, new points of tension emerged. What does the design process do to the affective dimensions of  critical pedagogy? Do design mindsets (such as ‘optimism’) override affective dimensions that might be a vital part of critical pedagogy? What happens to the anger, what Freire calls the ‘just ire’ (Freire, 2004), that comes with disjunction and dissonance? What happens when we push beyond despair to occupy an artificially induced space of optimism? How much of the design approach privileges working within the constraints and conditions of our situation (designing for an audience and to a brief), and therefore enables micro-adjustments that align with, rather than challenge, the status quo?

It is exciting to see that Bain and Sprake are currently extending their research, with support from the British Council, to look at how pragmatic critical pedagogies might play out on digital platforms. As they observed in the workshop, digital learning tends to be designed around behaviourist principles of learning, rather than tuning into the foundations of critical pedagogy. It will be fascinating to see how their explorations as part of the project ‘A Sustainable Framework for Design Thinking in Education’ might begin to unsettle the dominant models of digital learning and help to move the sector forward. 

SRHE member Mona Sakr is Senior Lecturer in Education and Early Childhood at Middlesex University. Her latest book is Creativity and Making in Early Childhood: Challenging Practitioner Perspectives.

Reference

Freire, P. (2004). Pedagogy of indignation. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.