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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Guiding principles for supporting BTEC students

by Chris Bayes

At an SRHE ‘Student Access and Experience Network’ online conference on 19 November 2020, I and colleagues who lead the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) Working Group on ‘Supporting BTEC students’ were privileged to speak about the development of our Group. We also introduced colleagues to the Guiding Principles publication we have recently produced in partnership with Pearson, the UK’s largest awarding body, whose vocational qualifications include Edexcel NVQ and BTEC from entry level to Higher National Diplomas. This blog provides an overview of the development of the Group, our publication and our proposed next steps to support BTEC learners’ progression into higher education.

The beginnings of the Group: NEON, why BTEC learners, and how we developed Guiding Principles

Our Group is one of a number of Working Groups co-ordinated by NEON. NEON is a professional organisation supporting those involved in widening access to higher education. Its Working Groups are led by members and bring colleagues from the widening participation (WP) sector together to take forward a specific agenda or area of practice.

The ‘Supporting BTEC Students’ Working Group was formed in 2018, following a successful initial conference hosted that summer by Brunel University. The conference sought to explore issues around the progression, retention and success of students accessing HE via the BTEC pathway. At our first meeting in September 2018, we invited guest speakers from Association of Colleges, Pearson and UCAS, who gave contrasting views on the post-16 qualifications landscape in England and the role of the BTEC qualification within this. The meeting itself was extremely well attended with around 70 colleagues present. As a NEON Executive member, I was particularly pleased to see the number of teacher colleagues taking part in this meeting – our membership has historically consisted of WP practitioners based in institutions and those working on the UniConnect collaborative outreach programme.  This showed that we were covering an issue which was hugely topical across the sector.

The last decade has seen an increase in the number of learners progressing to higher education having studied a BTEC qualification. One in four students currently gaining access to HE have taken a BTEC National, about 100,000 students. There is a clear correlation between students studying BTEC qualifications and socio-economic status; research undertaken in 2016 by the Social Market Foundation showed 47% of students entering higher education from the most disadvantaged areas (Q1) are BTEC holders.

As a Group, we wanted to work to support the access, progression and success of BTEC students.  Over the course of the past two years, we have refined our focus to developing our Guiding Principles publication, written for colleagues working with BTEC students at each stage of the student lifecycle.

Our Guiding Principles

Following our first meeting, we developed some terms of reference for the Group. Our initial thinking was to develop resources to support teachers and advisors for student progression and to capture the scope of activity taking place to support BTEC learners at each point of the student lifecycle. We are still compiling this information and so if you have an example of practice you would like to share, please let us know!

As the group evolved, we decided to focus on our meetings as opportunities to share practice with invited guest speakers and have used this knowledge to shape our Guiding Principles.  Abstracts of each of these principles are provided below.

  • Championing fair higher education admissions practices for BTEC learners – Dr Alex Blower (University of Portsmouth)

One of the guiding tenets of the NEON Supporting BTEC Students Working Group is to champion fair admissions practices by universities. The group contends that BTEC students, who are often first in their family to attend university, should not have to dig for information about course entry requirements or face additional barriers. It argues that BTEC qualifications should feature as prominently as A levels in prospectuses, and websites, as they are the second most common qualification used for university entrance in the UK. The Group campaigns to make entry requirements/eligibility criteria clear and accessible to BTEC students at all UK HE providers, including Russell Group institutions and those with higher entry tariffs. BTEC learners should be able to establish their eligibility for an undergraduate degree quickly and easily, without the need for them to make further enquiries. If BTEC qualifications aren’t accepted due to course content, the group argues that this should be clearly indicated. The group believes that uniformity and transparency in admissions practices across the sector is a prerequisite to equitable access to Higher Education for BTEC students.

  • Conducting meaningful outreach activity with BTEC learners in schools and colleges – Rebecca Foster (University of East Anglia)

One of the biggest barriers to vocational students entering HE is that pre-entry activity run by Recruitment and Outreach professionals is targeted towards A level students, rather than being focused on their needs. The pre-entry guiding principle champions the need for staff working with students’ pre-entry to be inclusive of vocational learners. This is especially important as learners studying vocational qualifications are often from the most underrepresented backgrounds. Therefore an inclusive approach is paramount, especially from a widening participation perspective. Through raising awareness of the important but sometimes nuanced differences between BTEC and A level learners such as curriculum, learning style, learner identity and learning environment, important changes in promotional language, bespoke events and CPD for college staff can be put in place. The group hopes this will culminate in more vocational learners being aware of HE as an opportunity to them and for practitioners to be equipped to provide appropriate advice and guidance to support their progression.

  • Supporting the transition and student success of BTEC students in higher education – Rebecca Sykes (University of Leeds)

Research shows that BTEC students entering university are more likely to be from a widening participation background, have lower progression and retention rates, be at different starting points in terms of academic preparedness and understanding assessment expectations in HE, and that a sense of belonging is one of the biggest challenges facing this cohort. Our third guiding principle, focusing on transition, attainment and retention, uses the core principles of identify, evaluate, share and embed, to create an environment where BTEC students succeed during their studies and beyond. Valuable, informative and engaging conversations in the group meetings and across conference sessions, has allowed open discussions about the barriers facing this cohort of students, enabling us to recognise how practitioners can be instrumental in their own institutions to help overcome these challenges.

  • Understanding the needs of BTEC students through engagement with research – Chris Bayes (Lancaster University)

There is a lack of effective knowledge exchange between policy makers, practitioners and researchers active in the field of widening participation.  With reference to the progression, retention and success of students accessing university via a BTEC pathway, we have identified gaps in terms of knowledge transfer between practitioners and teachers working with applicants prior to university, and academics working with these students when they are at university. Some traditional universities have been guilty of reinforcing a deficit model perception of BTEC students. For many degree programmes, BTEC students’ prior learning has better prepared them for the progression into HE. By supporting the development of reflective practitioners across the sector, our Working Group is ensuring that staff are able to support today’s increasingly diverse student population, regardless of their prior academic background.

Further information

PDF copies of our Guiding Principles publication can be found via the NEON website – https://www.educationopportunities.co.uk/resources/research/. To find out more about Working Group, please visit https://www.educationopportunities.co.uk/programmes/working-groups/supporting-btec-students/ or join our LinkedIn Group – https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8805592/

The Department of Education is undertaking a consultation exercise to review post-16 qualifications at level 3 in England. The consultation proposes a new system for Level 3 qualifications that creates a dual route based on A Levels and T Levels. This proposed new landscape does not therefore see a separate role for BTEC qualifications, which at present offer learners a route into either higher education or employment. If you care about safeguarding the future of the BTEC, you can access this consultation via the following link: https://consult.education.gov.uk/post-16-qualifications-review-team/review-of-post-16-qualifications-at-level-3/. The deadline for this consultation is 15th January.  We will be working with Pearson to deliver a practice-sharing event showcasing case study examples of how the BTEC qualification supports learners at each stage of the student lifecycle.  Should you wish to be involved in this, please get in touch via c.bayes@lancaster.ac.uk .

SRHE member Chris Bayes has worked in the field of Widening Participation (WP) since 2007, holding practitioner and managerial roles in WP teams at a number of universities and previously leading a number of collaborative partnerships in NW England.  Chris is a research-active practitioner and his research paper ‘Blurred Boundaries – Encouraging greater dialogue between Student Recruitment & Widening Participation’ appeared in the Forum for Access & Continuing Education (FACE)’s 2019 Conference publication. Chris has been an Executive Board member of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) since 2015 and has acted as Chair of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC students’ Working Group since this was established in 2018.


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From corona crisis management to ‘new normal’ – a Danish university educational perspective

by Helle Mathiasen

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The statement by Helle Mathiasen can be found here.

This year, in many ways, we have all become richer with the transition of campus-based teaching to online teaching. However, it has also been a challenge for most educators and students, as explained in The evaluation of online teaching in Spring 2020 (published in Danish on 18 September 2020, to be translated to English this Autumn). Much of traditional teaching had to be quickly changed, which often resulted in digitalisation of the regular campus-based teaching without regard to the changing conditions of communication.

This type of teaching was called emergency teaching, which is important to keep in mind when planning and implementing teaching in coming semesters. Going forward, the path from emergency education to a ‘new normal’ needs to be critically and reflexively explored. There was rarely time among educators to reflect critically on the didactic choices they made in haste. The teaching had to be provided immediately but now we need to take time to reflect on our decisions, since Autumn teaching is already organized and currently being implemented. It may still be in a ‘state’ of ‘crisis’, but it is important that the solutions planned and implemented this Spring may not necessarily be able to draw the ‘new normal’. Surveys about students’ experiences of ‘emergency teaching’ tell about serious consequences, which result in low motivation, great frustration and explicit need for more interaction. 

Management is aware of the challenges posed by the digital transformation from technical, organizational, educational and strategic perspectives. 

Using a communication theoretical approach, we can open up an important discussion, focusing on the communicative possibilities when we are physically present (f2f) compared with net-mediated communication in its broadest sense. There are, so to speak, more communicative connectivity options compared to net-mediated communication, both with synchronous and asynchronous communication. Teaching is in this theoretical frame defined as a specific form of communication, whose underlying intention is to effect change by the students, who direct their attention toward the communication. It is the engineered context which brings about the possibility for the activation/ continuation of learning processes, hence knowledge construction. 

Together with the communicative perspective related to teaching, we can discuss the concept of ‘good teaching’. By good teaching we mean teaching in the presented theoretical framework, where students and educators have the opportunity to communicate. That is, both ways, and not just one-way communication. It is thus about focusing on the social dimension through communication (dialogue, plenary/group discussions). It is about providing the opportunity for social sparring and reflection – and the opportunity to ‘check’ one’s professionalism with fellow students and educators. It is about being able to immerse oneself professionally and actively participate in the social community. Being with others on campus is part of student identity building and their development towards professional people.

Increased online learning risks instrumentalising teaching to reduce it to a more or less rigid template, where time and activities are set and spontaneous discussions are tight. This may mean that the development of independence, autonomy, co-determination skills and academic bildung are given more difficult conditions in which to develop. We must pay close attention to when online teaching is more often suited to more factual knowledge and the lowest taxonomic levels, where to reach the higher levels of analysis, synthesis and creativity as well as deeper professional discussions, it is more difficult to get it to work online.

We need to think about what is teaching quality and use the knowledge/research that is in the field – so that we can offer students a variety of teaching and learning environments that provide students with the best conditions to learn what is required according to curricula. That may include online teaching, but in a critical reflective format and not with an approach where emergency teaching becomes the ‘new normal’. The digital tools and platforms are important to have access to, but indeed not enough. The attention for a didactical part is crucial, when redesigning courses into online environments and mixed f2f and online teaching environments. It requires renewed concrete attention to support the educators’ didactic development. It also requires support for students and educators when it comes to developing the opportunities for unfolding communication and knowledge sharing.

This is an invitation to discuss the communicative and educational perspective on the currently developmental digital transformation.

Helle Mathiasen is professor at the University of Copenhagen, Department of Science Education, Denmark. Her primary research interest lies currently within the field of communication forums: internet and computer-mediated, various forms of face-to-face communication forums as well as hybrid forms. This field is joined with the concepts of learning, teaching, pedagogy and didactics. The current focus of her research is on the themes of the organisation of teaching, communication environments, and learning perspectives


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Transitioning a large first year Human Physiology group to fully online due to Covid-19 and supporting their learning

by Amy Larsen, Deanna Horvath, Stuart James

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The authors’ statement can be found here.

There is no going back: in a post-COVID University the new norm will inevitably be greater reliance on online and remote learning. The student experience will no longer be structured around a bricks and mortar campus that only those in proximity can access, but allow students more choice and flexibility in when and where they learn. The National Guidelines for Online Learning tell us that effective online learning requires a whole-of-institution approach, curriculum that is designed specifically for online, meaningful learning analytics and teacher presence. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic universities were not afforded the time to implement this best practice approach.

As coordinators of one of the largest subjects (Human Biosciences A (HBA)) at La Trobe University (LTU) delivered to  about 1600 students from 14 different degrees in their first semester of University study, our team faced a significant challenge to pivot from a blended to fully online delivery due to COVID-19 in five working days. We were particularly concerned about the support for students and staff in the transition to the new learning environment, in addition to the curriculum changes required. Students had completed three weeks of the subject activities prior to this shift, which included 2-hour face-to-face workshops per week structured for peer learning, and interactive seminars with clicker audience response. While we were unable to implement all of the recommended National Guidelines, we examined the subject structure and determined we needed to establish and maintain online teacher presence, implement solutions for asynchronous delivery of learning content, and provide high quality online synchronous options to replace previously face-to-face weekly workshops and fortnightly seminars.

Asynchronous: what happens when you are absent is just as important as when you are present

Remote and online learning can leave students feeling isolated; thus, we established an online teacher presence through extensive communications throughout the transition, including a video from the coordinators detailing what to expect at the recommencement of their studies. This outlined the key changes to the workshop structure and assessments, as well as setting clear expectations for students for the rest of the semester. The learning resources in HBA were created using H5P which enables the addition of interactive activities with immediate feedback on learning materials, providing students the opportunity to undergo active learning asynchronously. Forums remained another useful asynchronous learning tool where students had an open space to ask questions which generated discussion between students and academic staff regarding subject content.

Synchronous: generate peer interaction and connectedness with an online learning community

The biggest challenge we faced with synchronous learning was replacing the approximate 50 weekly face-to-face workshops with virtual classrooms via Zoom. Students were provided with numerous support resources to assist their familiarisation with Zoom, gain access to their sessions, and to set clear expectations of how online workshops would be delivered. In terms of delivery, online workshops involved combining two classes into one session, allowing us to pair academic staff with varying degrees of experience. This also prevented a class from halting completely in the event of a staff member disconnecting due to varied reliability of home internet connections. The main room was used for general discussion, breakout rooms provided students the opportunity to undertake collaborative problem-solving tasks in small groups, and Zoom polling allowed students to test their knowledge in real time with instant feedback and discussion from teachers during a class.

Delivering seminars fully online came with fewer challenges than workshops. Effective communication around online seminar scheduling and access, the use of live chat, polls, and recording sessions for students who could not attend live were all key factors in ensuring students had an enriching learning experience. Interestingly, we found that the nature of online seminars allowed for a much higher degree of interactivity between teachers and students compared to their face-to-face counterpart.

The student perception

Students were surveyed after undertaking three weeks of online workshops for feedback on both their experience of the online workshops (see Table 1), as well as how well they perceived their transition to online (see Table 2).  Overall, students perceived the experience of online workshops as positive.

Positive72.2%
Neither Positive nor Negative12.7%
Negative15.1%
Table 1: Student Experience in the ‘new’ online workshops

Even though the students found the experience of online workshops positive, just over half of the students found the transition easy while the rest were undecided or found it difficult.

Easy55.6%
Neither Easy nor Difficult 11.9%
Difficult32.5%
Table 2: Student Transition to online workshops

Student feedback

Some qualitative student feedback on the transition to online highlighted the importance of the LMS for the organisation of learning resources and communication of important information – “Lectures link clearly with enquiries set out on LMS, they are well prepared before delivery flow well and easy to follow along. Having two facilitators is excellent – one to talk and one to answer questions, and they back each other up. Thanks, it been a smooth crossover” and “In all honesty I would like to commend HBA on its smooth and efficient transition to online learning … HBA by far had the best process and communication when we became online. They were very clear and concise with information and made the steps as simple as possible. I think the support system that they have set up is exemplary as everything is well laid out via the LMS”

Student feedback also identified that workshops, including Zoom breakout rooms and polling, created an engaging and supportive learning environment with their facilitators and they were able to receive immediate feedback on subject content and identify gaps in their knowledge – “That despite being moved onto online study, it is still just as easy to communicate and get involved with your facilitators and fellow group members. I really love the way the quizzes have been set up to show the most common option answered by students and immediate feedback is given to address where any gaps in knowledge are evident” and “We get feedback and clarification from our quizzes immediately. We are encouraged and easily able to ask questions using the chat format”.

Student satisfaction

Overall student satisfaction for the subject improved (2020; 4.13/5) when compared to pre-COVID delivery (2019; 4.04/5). Thus, it can be inferred that delivering the subject in a fully online mode did not affect the quality of student experience.

So, what have we learnt from this experience?

  • The importance of clear, frequent communication and setting student expectations early.
  • LMS organisation and support for navigating the online learning environment is key.
  • Teacher presence in both asynchronous and synchronous activities is vital.
  • Students were overall satisfied with the online learning experience.

Amy Larsen is a Lecturer in the Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology department at La Trobe University, and for the past eight years has acted as the Subject Coordinator of the Core First Year Physiology Unit HBS1HBA. She has expertise in teaching large, diverse first year cohorts in both face-to-face and fully online modalities.

Deanna Horvath is an experienced online educator with a focus on technology enhanced learning and equity in higher education. Deanna is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology at La Trobe University and coordinates the universities largest online course.

Stuart James has over eight years of teaching experience with three of those years in fully online teaching. He is passionate about innovative learning and teaching solutions to enhance student engagement & success. Stuart is currently an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology at La Trobe University.


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E-learning in the face of a pandemic through the eyes of students

by Thomas J Hiscox

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The statement by Tom Hiscox can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present unique challenges for the higher education sector around the world.  The reduction in fundingrapid redevelopment of learning resources to suit online delivery and rapid upskilling of academics to teach using new platforms have all contributed to the stress on Australian academics, but what effect has this change had on our students?

When COVID-19 reached Australia, strict measures were rapidly implemented at a Federal level to suppress the spread of the virus. Strict bans on gatherings of greater than 50 people were imposed, essentially putting an end to any face-to-face class delivery in 2020. The transition from a face-to-face delivery to a completely online delivery was rapid, but like all academics we were presented with two choices: asynchronous delivery (where the learning content is pre-recorded, allowing students to progress at their own pace) or synchronous delivery (where the content is delivered in line with the student progression through the unit).

The scramble to convert face-to-face classes to online

We had been using a flipped classroom format for a few years prior to COVID-19, so we were in a slightly better position than other units, however face-to-face workshops and practical laboratory classes, which relied on students working on problems in small groups, had to be transitioned to online equivalents.  The burden of pre-recording these face-to-face sessions was too great, so we opted for the synchronous delivery, where classes would be delivered live. This decision gave us the benefit of having extra time to redesign content to suit an online delivery, but consequently meant we only had one chance to get it right.

We quickly transitioned weekly workshops to live-streamed sessions delivered via Zoom. Laboratory classes were conducted live, with a facilitator in the lab completing the various procedures while students watched at home on their devices.  This entirely online mode of teaching was vastly different to what the students were expecting when they enrolled in their degree. We became interested in how the transition to online teaching affected the student experience.  Based on attendance numbers in our online sessions during the first few weeks of delivery, we were aware a significant proportion of the cohort were not engaged. This posed a few key questions. Why did so many students choose not to participate? Did the transition to online learning influence their decision and cause a reduction in motivation?

The student perceptions of online learning

We employed a mixed methods approach involving voluntary student surveys to explore student perceptions of how COVID-19 has influenced their study1.  The study, which is still in progress, consists of two anonymous online surveys.  The first survey (delivered midway through the March semester) identified a number of problems in our delivery, which directed some interventions that were implemented for the start of the July semester, the effects of which will be measured in our follow up survey (the data from which is yet to be analysed).  The surveys consist of a series of both closed and open-ended questions on their perceptions of the first year biology course.

In the first survey we found that 63.3% of respondents chose not to attend the live-streamed workshop, despite the majority (72.1%) of the respondents identifying the value of these sessions. When questioned why they choose not to attend, 31.6% of respondents cited “Lack of motivation” as their primary reason, other reasons included , “Connection issues” (26.5%), “Prefer to watch recordings” (18.4%) and “Clashes with other units” (17.5%). 

We conducted a thematic analysis of the qualitative data collected from the survey. This analysis mirrored similar themes in the quantitative survey. Amongst the qualitative data, 35% of responses aligned with the “Lack of motivation” theme, many of these responses (15.7%) further highlighted themes of anxiety and stress amongst the cohort. In some cases, this stress was associated with a lack of guidance in the degree of depth various topics will be examined at. A student reported:

“I honestly just really hope that I’m teaching myself everything that I need to know, I get really anxious and stressed that I’m not performing to the best standard that I can … From, a very stressed and anxious first year.”

In other cases, the level of anxiety and stress was attributed to a feeling of isolation, which can be summarised by the student comment below:

“I felt disconnected from other students and teachers. More support and social inclusion would be helpful”

Our conclusion from the initial survey was that isolation could potentially be having a significant impact on the performance of our students. The lack of social interactivity appeared to have broken an important component of the educational process – communication. Some of the problems were at the institutional end; we had underestimated how much we rely on simple face-to-face communication to answer student questions. In the fully online environment, simple questions that could easily be resolved at the conclusion of a classroom session, now had to be postponed and asked via email or by forum post. This does not only include communication between staff and students, but also between the students themselves. However when we surveyed students that did attend the online sessions live, it appeared these sessions may have another valuable benefit. They promote a sense of community.

When we surveyed the students who did attend online workshops live, 66.2% reported as being highly engaged during the session. When questioned “What did you enjoy most about the online workshops when attended live?”, 25% of respondents reported that they “Provided a sense of community”, while 24% stated that the workshops “Were more engaging when presented live”; the ability to ask questions in real-time was also highly reported at 28% (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Factors that students enjoyed while attending online live workshops (n=372).

The outlook for 2021

At the time of writing this post, Melbourne (the capital city of Victoria) is still under lockdown.  University campuses across metropolitan Melbourne remain closed for all students, except those that must satisfy key qualification requirements.  There are strong indications that strict social distancing policies will remain into 2021 across Australia. What does that mean for the university campus, where hundreds of students move in and out of a single lecture theatre or teaching laboratories at the conclusion of the session? The solution could be running more sessions, with classes running late into the night. Or is the writing on the wall for the end of face-to-face classes?  I believe online education will remain the primary offering of many Australian universities, potentially only allowing students to attend an on-campus class two or three times a semester. If this were to happen, serious consideration needs to be made into fostering a community spirit and engagement amongst students, for both their mental wellbeing, but also to maximise their performance and learning.

1 Our research was conducted as approved by the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee (MUHREC) as per project 2020-25523-49505.

Dr Thomas Hiscox is an education-focussed lecturer within the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University, where he teaches in units across first, second and third years. Tom is also the coordinator of the first year biology program, which has an enrollment of  approximately 1600 students annually. His research is focused on the development and recognition of key employability skills by students during their undergraduate degrees.


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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.

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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.