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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Customer Services

by Phil Pilkington

“…problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para 38 (original emphasis)

The paradigm shift of students to customers at the heart of higher education has changed strategies, psychological self-images, business models and much else. But are the claims for and against students as customers (SAC) and the related research as useful, insightful and angst ridden as we may at first think?  There are alarms about changing student behaviours and approaches to learning and the relationship towards academic staff but does the naming ‘customers’ reveal what were already underlying, long standing problems? Does the concentrated focus on SAC obscure rather than reveal?

One aspect of SAC is the observation that academic performance declines, and learning becomes more surface and instrumental (Bunce, 2017). Another is that SAC inclines students to be narcissist and aggressive, with HEI management pandering to the demands of both students and their feedback on the NSS, with other strategies to create iconic campus buildings, to maintain or improve league table position (Nixon, 2018).

This raises some methodological questions on (a) the research on academic performance and the degree of narcissism/aggression prior to SAC (ie around 1997 with the Dearing Report); (b) the scope and range of the research given the scale of student numbers, participation rates, the variety of student motivations, the nature of disciplines and their own learning strategies, and the hierarchy of institutions; and (c) the combination of (a) and (b) in the further question whether SAC changed the outlook of students to their education – or is it that we are paying more attention and making different interpretations?

Some argue that the mass system created in some way marketisation of HE and the SAC with all its attendant problems of changing the pedagogic relationship and cognitive approaches. Given Martin Trow’s definitions of elite, mass and universal systems of HE*, the UK achieved a mass system by the late 1980s to early 1990s with the rapid expansion of the polytechnics; universities were slower to expand student numbers. This expansion was before the introduction of the £1,000 top up fees of the Major government and the £3,000 introduced by David Blunkett (Secretary of State for Education in the new Blair government) immediately after the Dearing Report. It was after the 1997 election that the aspiration was for a universal HE system with a 50% participation rate.

If a mass system of HE came about (in a ‘fit of forgetfulness’ ) by 1991 when did marketisation begin? Marketisation may be a name we give to a practice or context which had existed previously but was tacit and culturally and historically deeper, hidden from view. The unnamed hierarchy of institutions of Oxbridge, Russell, polytechnics, HE colleges, FE colleges had powerful cultural and socio-political foundations and was a market of sorts (high to low value goods, access limited by social/cultural capital and price, etc). That hierarchy was not, however, necessarily top-down: the impact of social benefit of the ‘lower orders’ in that hierarchy would be significant in widening participation. The ‘higher order’ existed (and exists) in an ossified form. And as entry was restricted, the competition within the sector did not exist or did not present existential threats. Such is the longue durée when trying to analyse marketisation and the SAC.

The focus on marketisation should help us realise that over the long term the unit of resource was drastically reduced; state funding was slowly and then rapidly withdrawn to the point where the level of student enrolment was critical to long term strategy. That meant not maintaining but increasing student numbers when the potential pool of students would fluctuate – with  the present demographic trough ending in 2021 or 2022. Marketisation can thus be separated to some extent from the cognitive dissonance or other anxieties of the SAC. HEIs (with exceptions in the long-established hierarchy) were driven by the external forces of the funding regime to develop marketing strategies, branding and gaming feedback systems in response to the competition for students and the creation of interest groups – Alliance, Modern, et al. The enrolled students were not the customers in the marketisation but the product or outcome of successful management. The students change to customers as the focus is then on results, employment and further study rates. Such is the split personality of institutional management here.

Research on SAC in STEM courses has a noted inclination to surface learning and the instrumentalism of ‘getting a good grade in order to get a good job’, but this prompts further questions. I am not sure that this is an increased inclination to surface learning, nor whether surface and deep are uncritical norms we can readily employ. The HEAC definition of deep learning has an element of ‘employability’ in the application of knowledge across differing contexts and disciplines (Howie and Bagnall, 2012). A student in 2019 may face the imperative to get a ‘degree level’ job in order to pay back student loans. This is rational related to the student loans regime and widening participation, meaning this imperative is not universally applied given the differing socio-economic backgrounds of all students.

(Note that the current loan system is highly regressive as a form of ‘graduate tax’.)

And were STEM students more inclined toward deep or surface learning before they became SAC?  Teaching and assessment in STEM may have been poorand may have encouraged surface level learning (eg through weekly phase tests which were tardily assessed).

What is deep learning in civil engineering when faced with stress testing concrete girders or in solving quarternion equations in mathematics: is much of STEM actually knowing and processing algorithms? How is such learnable content in STEM equivalent in some cognitive way to the deep learning in modern languages, history, psychology et al? This is not to suggest a hierarchy of disciplines but differences, deep differences, between rules-based disciplines and the humanities.

Learning is complex and individualised, and responsive to, without entirely determining, the curriculum and the forms of its delivery. In the research on SAC the assumptions are that teaching and assessment delivery is both relatively unproblematic and designed to encourage deep, non-instrumental learning. Expectations of the curriculum delivery and assessment will vary amongst students depending on personal background of schooling and parents, the discipline and personal motivations and the expectations will often be unrealistic. Consider why they are unrealistic – more than the narcissism of being a customer. (There is a very wide range of varieties of customer: as a customer of Network Rail I am more a supplicant than a narcissist.)

The alarm over the changes (?) to the students’ view of their learning as SAC in STEM should be put in the context of the previously high drop-out rate of STEM students (relatively higher than non-STEM) which could reach 30% of a cohort. The causes of drop out were thoroughly examined by Mantz Yorke(Yorke and Longden, 2004), but as regards the SAC issue here, STEM drop outs were explained by tutors as lack of the right mathematical preparation. There is comparatively little research on the motivations for students entering STEM courses before they became SAC; such research is not over the long term or longitudinal. However, research on the typology of students with differing motivations for learning (the academic, the social, the questioning student etc) ranged across all courses, does exist (a 20 year survey by Liz Beatty, 2005). Is it possible that after widening participation to the point of a universal system, motivations towards the instrumental or utilitarian will become more prominent? And is there an implication that an elite HE system pre-SAC was less instrumentalist, less surface learning? The creation of PPE (first Oxford in 1921 then spreading across the sector) was an attempt to produce a mandarin class, where career ambition was designed into the academic disciplines. That is, ‘to get a good job’ applies here too but it will be expressed in different, indirect and elevated ways of public service.**

There are some anachronisms in the research on SAC. The acceptance of SAC by management, by producing student charters and providing students places on boards, committees and senior management meetings is not a direct result of students or management considering students as customers. Indeed, it predates SAC by many years and has its origins in the 1960s and 70s.

I am unlikely to get onto the board of Morrisons, but I could for the Co-op – a discussion point on partnerships, co-producers, membership of a community of learners. The struggle by students to get representation in management has taken fifty years from the Wilson government Blue Paper Student Protest (1970) to today. It may have been a concession, but student representation changed the nature of HEIs in the process, prior to SAC. Student Charters appear to be mostly a coherent, user-friendly reduction of lengthy academic and other regulations that no party can comprehend without extensive lawyerly study. A number of HEIs produced charters before the SAC era (late 1990s). And iconic university buildings have been significantly attractive in the architectural profession a long time before SAC – Birmingham’s aspiration to be an independent city state with its Venetian architecture recalling St Mark’s Square under the supervision of Joseph Chamberlain (1890s) or Jim Stirling’s post-modern Engineering faculty building at Leicester (1963) etc (Cannandine 2002).

Students have complex legal identities and are a complex and often fissiparous body. They are customers of catering, they are members of a guild or union, learners, activists and campaigners, clients, tenants, volunteers, sometimes disciplined as the accused, or the appellant, they adopt and create new identities psychologically, culturally and sexually. The language of students as customers creates a language game that excludes other concerns: the withdrawal of state funding, the creation of an academic precariat, the purpose of HE for learning and skills supply, an alienation from a community by the persuasive self-image as atomised customer, how deep learning is a creature of disciplines and the changing job market, that student-academic relations were problematic and now become formalised ‘complaints’. Students are not the ‘other’ and they are much more than customers.

Phil Pilkington is Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, a former CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union, an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE.

*Martin Trow defined an elite, mass and universal systems of HE by participation rates of 10-20%, 20-30% and 40-50% respectively.

** Trevor Pateman, The Poverty of PPE, Oxford, 1968; a pamphlet criticising the course by a graduate; it is acknowledged that the curriculum, ‘designed to run the Raj in 1936’, has changed little since that critique. This document is a fragment of another history of higher education worthy of recovery: of complaint and dissatisfaction with teaching and there were others who developed the ‘alternative prospectus’ movement in the 1970s and 80s.

References

Beatty L, Gibbs G, and Morgan A (2005) ‘Learning orientations and study contracts’, in Marton, F, Hounsell, D and Entwistle, N, (eds) (2005) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education, 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

Bunce, Louise (2017) ‘The student-as-consumer approach in HE and its effects on academic performance’, Studies in Higher Education, 42(11): 1958-1978

Howie P and Bagnall R (2012) ‘A critique of the deep and surface learning model’, Teaching in Higher Education 18(4); they state the distinction of learning is “imprecise conceptualisation, ambiguous language, circularity and a lack of definition…”

Nixon, E, Scullion, R and Hearn, R (2018) ‘Her majesty the student: marketised higher education and the narcissistic (dis)satisfaction of the student consumer’, Studies in Higher Education  43(6): 927-943

Cannandine, David (2004), The ‘Chamberlain Tradition’, in In Churchill’s Shadow, Oxford: Oxford University Press; his biographical sketch of Joe Chamberlain shows his vision of Birmingham as an alternative power base to London.

Yorke M and Longden B (2004) Retention and student success in higher education, Maidenhead: SRHE/Open University Press


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Redrawing research methods and rewriting data

by Kate Carruthers Thomas

The call for papers for the SRHE 2019 Conference slid into my inbox not so long ago, marking the point in the year when the mind must focus in the short-term, in order to benefit from all things Celtic Manor in the longer term! The conference theme: Creativity, Criticality and Conformity in Higher Education invites debate on transcending the traditional and building an innovative research culture. The theme is timely in view of my own recent experiments involving graphics and poetry in social sciences research.

One year ago, I sat with a mass of rich qualitative data I’d collected for Gender(s) At Work, a research project investigating gendered experiences of work and career trajectory in higher education (HE). I’d interviewed 50 members of staff, identifying as female, male and gender non-binary, working in academic and professional services roles within one UK university. I set about analysing the data using Massey’s theory of geographies of power operating within space. I wanted to explore ways in which gender operates as a ‘geography of power’ within HE and the extent to which participants’ diverse and complex lived experiences trouble the prevailing career narrative of linear, upward trajectory.

Clear space soon emerged between the rhetoric of gender equality and lived experiences in the workplace and throughout working lives. Despite decades of equal opportunities legislation and institutional equality policies, the glass ceiling remains a feature of our sector. Elements of less familiar career archetypes: the glass cliff (Ryan and Haslam, 2005; Bruckmuller et al, 2014); the glass escalator (Williams, 2013; Budig, 2002) and the glass closet (Merriam-Webster, 2018) also surfaced in the transcripts.  These metaphors, archetypal and architectural – were something of a gift to a researcher concerned with the relationship between space and power. I found myself experimenting – you might call it doodling – with visual representations of the glass ceiling,  escalator, cliff and closet.

Using the visual was not completely new territory for me; as a doctoral student I had employed visual mapping as a research tool (Carruthers Thomas, 2018a) and tentatively used abstract diagrams as aids to explaining my theoretical framework and findings (Thomas, 2016), but I hadn’t picked up a pencil with intent since school art lessons. Nevertheless, four cartoon characters emerged from my doodles; embodiments of gendered dis/advantage in the HE workplace.

Throughout the Gender(s) At Work project, I had been disseminating emerging findings through conference papers and PowerPoint presentations. I had written a chapter about my research methodology (Carruthers Thomas, 2019a). As academics we anticipate and reproduce such formats; they keep the academic wheels turning and form the building blocks of academic credibility. With data collection complete however, I was unsure that the temporal and structural constraints of these conventions were going to do justice to the volume of complex personal narratives entrusted to me by research participants. I was also becoming increasingly drawn towards McLure’s argument for

immersion in and entanglement with the minutiae of the data … an experimentation or crafting … a very different kind of engagement with data from the distanced contemplation of the table that is the arrested result of the process.

(McLure, 2013: 174-175).

In March 2018, the Sociological Review explicitly invited unconventional contributions to its conference: Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges. Still enjoying my experimentation with cartooning, I decided to explore the possibilities of communicating my research findings through a ‘graphic essay’ entitled My Brilliant Career? An Investigation. This would be in the format of a large-scale, hand-drawn comic strip conforming to the structural conventions of an essay or article. My proposal was accepted and the work began! The learning curve was precipitous!

 In June 2018, I exhibited My Brilliant Career? An Investigation at Undisciplining (Carruthers Thomas, 2018b) in the impressive surroundings of BALTIC Gateshead. The four A2-sized panels remained on display throughout the three days of the conference. It was strikingly different, communicating my research this way rather than hothousing it in a 20 minute Powerpoint presentation. Many delegates returned to the exhibit several times to look, bring colleagues, take photographs, ask questions. I engaged in discussions not only about the medium, but about the research process and findings too. And I myself engaged anew with the work, as an exhibit, rather than a cherished work in progress. I later translated the four panels into an A1-sized academic poster, displayed at the SRHE 2018 Annual Conference.

Meanwhile, another call for unconventional conference contributions in the form of poetic and performative work, had come from the Art of Management and Organisation (AoMO). This triggered a second experiment in creative criticality resulting in Glass, a long poem also based on the Gender(s) At Work data. Unlike graphic art, in poetry I do have a track record (Carruthers Thomas, 2018c), but had not considered blurring the boundary between poetry and academia until this call. Yet, as an academic my research practice involves collecting, analysing, distilling and presenting data. My research is a form of enquiry seeking enhanced intelligence and evidence to advocate organisational, structural and cultural change. As a poet, I follow a similar process to create a poem. More, or less, consciously I collect data: ideas, questions, emotions, sense phenomena, then manipulate language and sound to distil the data into poetic form. Glass brings these practices together.

To write it, I returned yet again to the interview transcripts, creating a poem comprising four sections – ceiling, escalator, closet and cliff – using participants’ words and a narrative framework featuring the researcher’s voice, using original poetry. Glass was deliberately written as a piece to be performed, another first, as I had only previously written poems for the page.

Even now, even now in my meetings

I’m still faced with wall to wall suits.

And I still hear my colleagues repeating

the proposal I tried to get through weeks ago

Great idea!

                                                                                (extract from Cliff, Glass 2018)

Glass and My Brilliant Career were created independently of one another, in different media but they draw on the same research data. This is not all they share. Both involved an extended process of analysis and representation; repeated revisiting of the data and work in painstaking detail. Both explicitly draw on and draw in, the affective, bringing the potential for surprise, humour, anger and pain into the room without apology. Finally, both also required me to allow myself to be vulnerable to audience resistance, discomfort, critiques on multiple levels and questions of academic validity.

Largely positive responses to the graphic essay and the research poem at those conferences set me thinking about ways to signpost the potential of creative approaches in social science research more widely and led to another experiment in academic practice.  I designed a multi-modal dissemination programme to take the findings of Gender(s) At Work out to UK universities and research institutes.  The programme featured six ‘options’ from which host institutions could select, mix and match: the exhibit My Brilliant Career? An Investigation; the research poem Glass; a conventional Powerpoint presentation of the research findings: The Workplace Glassed and Gendered and another giving an illustrated account of my emerging graphic social science practice: The Accidental Cartoonist. Building on both the research findings and visual methods, I also designed two participative workshops. Mapping Career challenged participants to develop meaningful visual alternatives to the reductive metaphors of career ladder and pipeline and On The Page explored the way simple visual and graphic methods might be used in research and teaching. I publicised the programme via email across the UK HE sector.

The response was extraordinary. Since November 2018 I’ve visited universities and research institutes from Edinburgh to London; Cambridge to Bangor. Audiences have included academics in all disciplines, professional services staff, senior management, conference delegates, Athena SWAN teams, women’s networks and mentoring groups, postgraduate and undergraduate students. I called the initiative the ‘gword tour’ after my blog the g word (that’s g for gender).   Six months, 30 ‘gigs’ – all that’s missing is the T-shirt!

One day I might be discussing Gender(s) At Work aims, research methods and findings to Athena SWAN leads and women’s networks; on another I’ll be delivering the Mapping Career workshop at a staff conference. I’ve presented The Accidental Cartoonist to academic developers and EdD students and encouraged academics to experiment with visual methods in their research and teaching practices in the On The Page workshop. Glass has been performed at some unlikely venues, including the Wellcome Sanger Genome Campus, the Stansted Airport Novotel – and to audiences somewhat larger than those at the average poetry reading!

How will you crack the glass enclosing some,

exposing some, blinding others

to their privilege?

Reflect on it.

                                                                                (extract from Epilogue, Glass 2018)

Throughout the gword tour I have diligently handed out structured feedback forms (in return for a free postcard), providing me with a continuous feedback loop and resulting in adaptation and tweaking of individual sessions throughout. Now the tour has concluded, a large pile of completed forms await me and I’m looking forward to getting the bigger picture. Meanwhile I’m already musing on two questions which have arisen throughout the past year. Firstly, whether and how addressing familiar topics through unfamiliar media can disrupt audience expectations and dislodge habitual responses to tricky subjects such as gender equality; secondly, whether what I have described in this blog constitutes being ‘differently academic’. 

By ‘differently academic’ I mean taking the opportunity to sit with our data for longer, deliberately to approach it from different angles, to explore its creative dimensions. I mean bringing data to diverse audiences, in diverse ways over an extended period, a process which has only further energised and deepened my engagement in the original research questions. Audience after audience has grilled me on my research rationale, process, findings, limitations and implications. Each time, their questions, comments and challenges have pushed my analyses further and opened new lines of enquiry.

I fully intend to publish my reflections on these questions in conventional academic formats: papers, articles and chapters.It may be that creative, critical work in our field can only gain academic legitimacy through this route.Meanwhile, other opportunities have arisen. Glass was published in the Sociological Fiction Zine in May 2019 (Carruthers Thomas, 2019b). I am currently working on a set of visuals for a new academic research centre and will be poet-in-residence at an academic conference in November 2019. The SRHE call for papers defines creativity as ‘transcending traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships’. I hope to continue to be creative and critical in my academic work, not for transcending’s sake, but ‘to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, and interpretations’.

SRHE member Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas is Senior Research Fellow and Athena SWAN Project Manager at Birmingham City University  kate.thomas@bcu.ac.uk  @drkcarrutherst Blog: – the g word https://thegword2017.wordpress.com/

References

Bruckmüller, S, Ryan, M, Rink, F and Haslam, SA (2014) ‘Beyond the Glass Ceiling: The Glass Cliff and its Lessons for Organizational Policy’, Social Issues and Policy Review, 8(1): 202-232

Budig, M (2002) ‘Male Advantage and the Gender Composition of Jobs: Who Rides the Glass Escalator?’, Social Problems 49(2): 258-277

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

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018b) My Brilliant Career? An Investigation. Graphic Essay exhibited at Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges Sociological Review, Gateshead, BALTIC.  June 2018

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018c) Navigation, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Cinnamon Press. 

Carruthers Thomas, K (2019a) ‘Gender as a Geography of Power’ in G Crimmins (ed) Resisting Sexism in the Academy: Higher Education, Gender and Intersectionality, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Carruthers Thomas, K (2019b) Glass. Sociological Fiction Zine, Edition #5 www.sofizine.com.

McLure, M (2013) ‘Classification or Wonder? Coding as an Analytic Practice in Qualitative Research’, In Coleman, R and Ringrose, J (eds) Deleuze and Research Methodologies, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.  Chapter 9. pp.164-183.

Merriam-Webster (2019). [online] Available from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/glass%20closet Accessed 28 May 2019.

Ryan, M and Haslam, A. (2005) The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions, British Journal of Management, 16(2): 81-90

Thomas, K (2016). Dimensions of belonging: rethinking retention for mature, part-time undergraduates in English higher education, PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London

Williams, M (2013) ‘The Glass Escalator, Revisited. Gender Inequality in Neoliberal Times’, Gender & Society 27 (5): 609–629


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‘Care-free at the top?’ Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers

by Marie-Pierre Moreau

Over the years I have expressed a keen interest in the relationship between care and academia. This interest was triggered by my personal circumstances when, in 2008, as a research fellow and PhD student, I took my newborn daughter to the local university nursery and mused on the lack of research exploring the relationship between studying and parenting. What I did not know at the time was that, a decade later, I would be writing about this particular episode and that this thought would lead to the development of a range of research projects, initially focusing on student parents and, lately, on academics with a range of caring responsibilities. Earlier work I conducted with Murray Robertson on the latter group suggested that, at senior levels of the academic hierarchy, academic cultures are experienced as being particularly ‘care-free’, with one participant in particular describing care as ‘glossed over’ in senior academic cultures (Moreau and Robertson, 2017). Winning a 2017 SRHE Research Award enabled us to further explore the in/visibility and mis/recognition of care at that level of the academic hierarchy, as we embarked on the ‘Care-free at the top’? Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers project (Moreau and Robertson, 2019).

It is worth reminding here that very little is known about academics with caring responsibilities, and even less so about those carers who are in senior academic positions. So far, most research in this field has focused on ‘balancing’ motherhood and academic work and has ignored those with caring responsibilities other than the parenting of a healthy, abled child. Likewise, research on those in leadership and management roles has concentrated on their academic lives, usually in isolation of their more ‘personal’ commitments. Drawing on a post-structuralist feminist perspective and a corpus of 20 semi-structured interviews with ‘senior academics’ based in England, the research team explored how members of this group experience and negotiate their hyphenated identity, as senior academics who are also carers. In the stories they told us, participants went to great length to keep care ‘at bay’, drawing on a discourse of separateness which has been a long-lasting feature of academic cultures, in Europe and beyond. Think, for example, of Descartes’ philosophical proposition ‘cogito ergo sum’ and of one of its underpinnings, ie the view that our intellect suffices to define who we are. Despite considerable cultural changes over the centuries, the association of academic excellence with White, middle-class and ‘care-free’ masculinity subsists to this day (Leathwood and Read, 2008).

Yet it is also clear that, despite these discursive attempts to keep care ‘at bay’ and embody the subject position of the ‘care-free’ academic, participants’ narratives simultaneously highlighted the entanglements of care and paid work in their lives – a slightly expected finding in a context where the family and academia have been described as ‘greedy institutions’ which demand full availability and loyalty (Coser, 1974). In particular, this discursive construction of the academic as care-free appears highly gendered, as well as classed and ‘raced’, with considerable variations across this group of academics in terms of who can occupy the positional identity of the ‘care-free’ academic. Those who were the more likely to fit the default figure of the ‘bachelor boy’ (ie a white, middle-class, heterosexual academic) were less likely to experience the tensions arising from combining care and paid work than those belonging to marginalised groups. Women academics, and women academics from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in particular, often described their experience of combining the demands of paid and care work as a ‘struggle’ – a narrative broadly absent from the stories told by their male counterparts. It is also clear that those identifying as LGBTQ were exposed to additional difficulties in their attempt to perform a senior academic and a carer identity, in the context of academic cultures which remain predominantly heteronormative. Likewise, those with responsibilities other than the parenting of a healthy, abled child were, overall, the more dissatisfied with the support received from their institution on a formal basis, and the more pessimistic about significant improvements to this support in the future. Thus, there are considerable hierarchies and intersectionalities at play in the lives of senior academic carers, with their ability to swiftly perform a senior academic identity depending on their location at the intersection of multiple discourses and relations of power.

Such inequalities are maybe best illustrated by the contrast between Jeremy’s and Rosie’s narratives (both names are pseudonyms, with limited detail provided to protect participants’ identities). Jeremy (a professor and a father) talked about feeling ‘relentlessly positive’ about his job, with academic life constructed as eminently flexible and allowing him to care for his children. Combining caring and academia was, in his own words, ‘a very natural experience’. He did not identify any negative impact from being an academic carer, nor did he think there were any senior roles which might be challenging for carers to hold:

… but is any post not attainable?  No, I don’t think that’s correct at all, I think all senior management posts are entirely compatible with having a very active family life or indeed, a very active life without a family outside work.

In contrast, Rosie (professor, caring for parents) alluded to the multifaceted dimensions of caregiving (Lynch et al, 2009) and to its significant impact on her life:

… even when professional services are involved and are supposedly responsible for the person you were caring for, I am still responsible for my mum (…) So this issue affects your day-to-day living, your life, your working life, because if there’s a problem they ring you, she’s refusing personal care, she’s locking herself in her room, she’s throwing things, she’s abusing staff, and you’re the one responsible. It all comes back to you.

Also significant was the finding that some senior positions appear more open to carers. Managerial routes were viewed as particularly hostile to this group due to expectations of full availability and to the ‘ever present’ culture they were linked with, while a research professorship route was deemed highly demanding but more flexible and thus more ‘carer-friendly’. Managerial positions that still involved academic work (ie a pro vice-chancellor or a faculty dean) were deemed the most problematic for carers, due to the multiple demands on those occupying these positions and the resulting workload (eg when individuals have significant management responsibilities and are also expected to be research active).

In the context of an ageing and feminised academic workforce (HESA, 2018), the combination of paid and care work is likely to remain a key concern for the sector for many years to come. To challenge the status quo, we need to move away from a conception of carers as ‘encumbered’ and of care as ‘getting in the way’ of performing the neoliberal dream of the care-free, globally mobile and fully available academic. Instead, care needs to be conceptualised as a part of life that calls for recognition, with the figure of the carer normalised, in senior academia as elsewhere. This requires challenging care-free academic cultures – something individualised practices cannot achieve and even help to maintain. 

Based on the findings from this project, we made the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1: There is a considerable dearth of data regarding carers, including in senior academic positions. HESA and individual institutions should consider collecting data on academic staff’s caring responsibilities in intersection with other identity markers (e.g. position, gender and ethnicity).

Recommendation 2: The sector and individual institutions should mainstream care in university policies and practices so as to ensure that senior leadership roles are compatible with caring responsibilities. While this study highlights particular issues at this level of the hierarchy (eg mobility requirements, a ‘long hours’ culture, heavy workloads), these are likely to vary across institutions and subject areas. Thus, the views of carers should be sought before reviewing extant policies and developing new ones.

Recommendation 3: Institutions need to acknowledge the diversity, intersectionality and fluidity of care. This means a ‘one fits all’ solution is unlikely to be satisfactory. Policies should be flexible enough so that they can be tailored to suit the needs of various groups of carers, particularly women and those with caring responsibilities other than parenting, whose careers and well-being are more likely to be affected by their dual roles.

While the project is now completed and the final report published, the team continues to research this area, with the recent publication of an article on individualised practices of care in academia. Engaging with HE policy-makers and practitioners, as well as with the general public, is another ongoing aspect of our work. This has involved working closely with various HE institutions and national HE bodies; producing a short film on academic caregivers; and developing two briefing papers (to be published in the summer). In doing so, the team aims to raise awareness and encourage the development of policies which recognise and value the presence and contribution of carers in academia.

SRHE member Professor Marie-Pierre Moreau, School of Education and Social Care, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. Contact details: marie-pierre.moreau@anglia.ac.uk. Marie-Pierre and Murray would like to thank the SRHE for their generous support, Prof. Nicky Le Feuvre, Université de Lausanne, who acted as critical friend on this project, our colleagues at Anglia Ruskin University, and the participants to this research who shared their life stories with us.

References

Coser, L (1974) Greedy institutions New York, Free Press

HESA (2018) Who’s working in HE?: Personal characteristics.

Available online: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he/characteristics

Leathwood, C and Read, B  (2008) Gender and the Changing Face of Higher Education: A Feminised Future? London: SRHE/Open University Press

Lynch, K and Ivancheva, M (2015) ‘Academic freedom and the commercialisation of universities: a critical ethical analysis’, Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 15: 6-20

Lynch, K, Baker, J and Lyons, M (2009) Affective equality: Love, care and injustice Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Moreau, MP (2016) ‘Regulating the student body/ies: University policies and student parents’, British Educational Research Journal 42(5): 906-925

Moreau, MP and Robertson, M (2019) ‘Care-free at the top’? Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers London: SRHE

Moreau, MP and Robertson, M (2017) Carers and careers: Career development and access to leadership positions among academic staff with caring responsibilities London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education


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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. 


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What is an academic judgement?

By Geoff Hinchliffe

Academics make academic judgements virtually every working day. But what exactly is an academic judgement? As a starting point, one might have recourse to appropriate statutory documents: for example, the 2004 Higher Education Act mentions that a student complaint does not count as a ‘qualifying’ complaint if it relates to matters pertaining to an ‘academic judgment’ (Higher Education Act, 2004, p5, Section 12). The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) helps to provide a gloss on the term:

“Academic judgment is not any judgment made by an academic; it is a judgment that is made about a matter where the opinion of an academic expert is essential. So for example a judgment about marks awarded, degree classification, research methodology, whether feedback is correct or adequate, and the content or outcomes of a course will normally involve academic judgment.” (OIA, 2018, Section 30.2)

But although it is heartening to see that some deference is paid to academic judgment, little light is thrown on what it actually is. This can, of course, be useful: for example, Cambridge University’s (2018) complaint procedure quotes the OIA definition without further elaboration. Providing no-one is prepared to question the nature of academic judgement, who are we to complain? But, at the risk of disturbing sleeping dogs, I propose to enquire more closely as to what constitutes an academic judgement.

Two points are worth making at the outset. The first is that academic judgements should not be construed as the special preserve of those designated as ‘academics’. Students also make academic judgements along the same lines as academics, so it’s not the case that academics make special judgements that students couldn’t possibly understand. The second point is that the object of judgements – what is being judged – may vary considerably, but the kind of judgement being made is still of the same type. The elements of judgement remain the same whether the object of scrutiny is a first year undergraduate essay or a paper in a leading journal.

It seems to me that there are four basic types of academic judgement and they frequently operate in combination – it is this that gives the whole business of judgement its mystique and rarefied quality.

1. Process judgements

When we evaluate any kind of process that has (or is supposed to have) a definable outcome we tend to use a set of criteria, although the latter may be carefully delineated or may operate as background guidelines. Examples are the following of some clinical procedure (where the criteria are strict) or following laboratory protocols (ditto). But they could also include the evaluation of the methodology in a piece of empirical research, in which we consider the suitability of the methodology used and its success or otherwise. Process judgements are also entailed in the evaluation of essays in terms of structure and argumentation leading up (hopefully) to a conclusion. In this case, we evaluate the process of writing and structuring an essay or report; we consider, for example,  whether the author has ‘signposted’ the argument so that its trajectory has some kind of sense and cohesion. Process judgements tend to be ‘rule-governed’. But as I have indicated, in some cases the rules are pretty clear and in other cases there is much room for flexibility. So, regarding essays, there are no fixed rules for demonstrating a process of argumentation; but neither are there no rules at all. In the film Pirates of the Caribbean it is explained that the Pirate’s Code is not to be adhered to strictly at all times because it is not so much a fixed code as ‘guidelines’. Very sound advice too.

For those interested in philosophy, process judgements are roughly akin to what Wittgenstein thinks of as ‘following a rule’ (see Wittgenstein, 1958, paras 201-2). In this case, what Wittgenstein has in mind are the rules for using words so that they have a meaning that is understood. But since meanings are never fixed (unless through prior stipulation) then they are indeed ‘guidelines’. Who would have thought a pirate would be reading Wittgenstein?

2. Epistemic Judgements

In the case of epistemic judgements we are assessing claims to knowledge. That is, we are assessing whether the claimant has sufficient evidence and reasons for making a knowledge claim. Of course, we are also interested in the context – that is whether and to what extent the claimant is aware of relevant context that may affect the claims they are making. Furthermore, we are often reluctant to make positive judgements if the claim simply asserts a proposition – to the effect that such-and such is the case – even if the proposition is true. We need to see the evidence and reasoning that back up the knowledge claim – bare assertions are usually not enough.

There are two further features of epistemic judgements: first they are objective, in the sense of being propositional – they purport to say ‘how the world is’. Second, they are universal in the sense that in making such a judgement I am claiming that everyone will reach the same conclusion as myself. Of course, others may disagree but the idea is that, in principle, these disagreements are adjudicable (Steinberger, 2018, p38).

Notice that if I am marking a student paper then I am assessing the kinds of epistemic judgements the student is making – whether the claims made are true and whether they are well founded. It’s not the case that the student is doing one thing and I am doing something else – the writer of the paper and the assessor are both making the same kind of judgements. That is, the student needs to be in the habit of assessing their own epistemic judgements as to evidence and reasoning in exactly the same way that I, the assessor, am doing. The process is the same: the only difference is that in the one case the outcome is a paper and in the other, the outcome is a mark.

3. Reflective Judgements

This kind of judgement is tricky to explain but I think readers will see its importance. By ‘reflective’ I don’t mean the reflective judgement beloved of writers of practitioner manuals where ‘reflective’ means ‘self-reflective’. Thus interpreted, reflection is usually reflection on a procedure and one’s part in it. In other words, practitioner self-reflective judgements are really a kind of process judgement.

What I have in mind as ‘reflective’ is when we think of a piece of data, a theory, or a concept in functional or relational terms. We look for a broader framework within which phenomena can be better understood. Thus, Kant thought that when we reflect on a natural phenomenon we situate nature in a purposive or teleological framework, in order to provide a kind of interpretive unity (Kant, 2000, p67).  More generally, we can think of reflective judgements as contextual: we look for links and relationships in order to make sense of the object of study, to bring some sense of order and unity to bear. Reflective judgements can be highly creative when links are made between phenomena that weren’t thought of before. Quite a lot of Foucault’s work was of this type – for example, the way in which he related different kinds of formative behaviours into the notion of the disciplinary: in seeing that behaviours in schools, prisons, hospitals and the like were produced and reproduced he was able to fashion a new concept – the ‘disciplinary’ – which gives us real insight into how modernity works.

Peter Steinberger (2018, pp47-50) explains the nature of reflective judgements rather well, in my view – he sees reflective judgements as different from what I have called epistemic judgements (following Kant, he calls the latter ‘determinate’ judgements). What a reflective judgement does is to provide an interpretive context in which different knowledge claims can be related and thus better understood. Reflective judgements operate at the level of meaning. When we ask our students to make the links both within and across modules we are asking them to think reflectively.

4. Normative Judgements

We need to be clear that normative judgements are not the same as ethical judgements. I see the latter as delivering a verdict on the worth or rightness of a person or action. As such, ethical judgements play (or should play) a minor role in academic research and production. It is irritating if a historian gives us ethical verdicts on her subject matter (Henry was a good king, but King John was a bad one) – ethical judgements are almost always unnecessary.

But normative judgements are something else. They involve according due sensitivity to the values and norms associated with the subject matter under consideration. By their very nature, normative judgements are contextual. For example, if a student fails to appreciate the nature of religiosity in fifteenth century England (for example, by seeing it in terms of ignorance and superstition because of a modernist, secular approach which the student brings to bear) then it is the normative judgement that has gone awry. Or, if a research methodology fails to take due account of the needs of confidentiality, again, it is a normative judgement that is deficient. Normative judgements often operate in combination with other judgements (especially with process and reflective judgements) and this is one of the reasons why academic judgement can be complex.

Conclusion

If I am right then there are four basic elements to an academic judgement. Typically in any assessment all four elements are operating together – process, epistemic, reflective and normative. The judgements we use are precisely those that we want our students to develop. We can see straight away that attempts to categorise and tabulate all of these elements may be helpful but are unlikely to be comprehensive. The precise nature of the judgement will vary according to subject matter and no set of assessment criteria that I have seen comes anywhere near to giving full justice to the complexity of the judgements involved. Moreover, most of those outside academia (government ministers, MPs, media people and the like) are just clueless regarding how much they know of this complexity.

Complex, yes: but not so complex that we can’t attempt to say what is involved in giving an academic judgement. But the above sketch cannot be the last word – if I have succeeded in suggesting some initial ‘guidelines’ then that is a start.

SRHE member Geoff Hinchliffe teaches undergraduates in the School of Education at the University of East Anglia. This blog is partly based on a paper he gave at the 2018 SRHE Research Conference.

Bibliography

Cambridge University (2018) Student Complaints https://www.studentcomplaints.admin.cam.ac.uk/general-points-about-procedures/academic-judgment

Higher Education Act (2004) http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/8/pdfs/ukpga_20040008_en.pdf

Kant, I (1933) Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Kemp-Smith, N, London: Macmillan

Kant, I (2000) Critique of the Power of Judgement, trans. Guyer, P and Matthews, E, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

OIA (2018) Guidance Note on the OIA Rules http://www.oiahe.org.uk/rules-and-the-complaints-process/guidance-note-on-the-oias-rules.aspx#para30

Steinberger, P.J (2018), Political Judgement, Cambridge: Polity Press

Wittgenstein, L (1958) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell


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Teaching for Epistemic Justice in a Post-truth World

by Kathy Luckett

In Teaching in Higher Education’s recent special issue on ‘Experts, Knowledge and Criticality’ (2019) we noted in the editorial that traditional forms of expertise and epistemic authority are under threat. In his subsequent blog, Harrison warned: “Higher education is in danger of sleep walking into a crisis”.

In this post-truth era it is useful to be reminded of Castells’ (1996, 2010) warnings about the crumbling of liberal democratic institutions, which he predicted would become ‘empty shells’, devoid of power and meaning in the ‘information age’ (2010:353). As early as 1996 he warned that the ‘network society’ would bypass the rationalising influence of civil society institutions (include here institutions of higher education). Castells also predicted a related loss of influence for the old ‘legitimising identities’ based on roles located in civil society institutions – such as those of experts and academics in universities and research institutes. The information and communication technologies of the fourth industrial revolution have huge potential to democratise flows of information in open spaces on the web and strengthen civil society, but Castells’ corpus shows how this ‘communication power’ is caught in the contradictions of the global capitalist market. Nation states have limited power to regulate information flows on behalf of their citizens, while control of communication power now rests in the hands of global corporations such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon and Apple which are driven by market rather than democratic logics.

At a cultural level, individuals’ access to mass communication via social media has led to ‘communicative autonomy’ and the emergence of radical forms of individualism which undermine older identities based on tradition or citizenship of sovereign nation states (Castells 2010, 2012). Despite the decline of these older forms of solidarity, those individuals who participate in the wealth and power of the global economy feel recognised and included in society, but those who do not feel excluded and misrecognised. Because the latter groups no longer feel (or never were) included as full citizens of civil society, they are taking up ‘resistance identities’ put out on social media. Resistance identities are invariably based on subordinated groups’ sense of misrecognition and exclusion from the mainstream and tap into axiologically charged ‘structures of feeling’ (Rizvi, 2006:196).  In some cases, the construction of resistance identities draws on fundamentalist or essentialist notions of culture, ethnicity, religion or place. More generally, resistance identities create a sense of belonging by appealing to individual attributes, authentic experience and/or personal pain and trauma. On social media these attributes become reified as new cultural codes, captured in new images of representation and commodified for display. Castells (2010) describes these as closed fragmented identities that fail to connect or transcend into broader forms of human solidarity.

This analysis by Castells is useful for thinking about the recent student protests on South African campuses (2015-2017). Student activists in the #RMF (RhodesMustFall) and #FMF (FeesMustFall) movements creatively used multi-media platforms to spread their message, organise protests and perform their politics, creating new anti-establishment resistance identities and cultural codes. In a post-settler society such as South Africa, where identities remain highly ‘raced’, the contradictions of global capital alluded to above are played out through a race-based identity politics that pits ‘blackness’ against ‘whiteness’. Undoubtedly the assertion of ‘blackness’ by black students and staff, particularly on historically white campuses, was a consequence of their continued misrecognition and exclusion by the ‘whiteness’ of institutional cultures and practices, a generation after South Africa’s political transition (the long shadow of ‘coloniality’). In such neo-colonial contexts, the frustration and anger of black students from poor homes and schools is exacerbated by their continued exclusion from academic success and from the promise of employment in the global economy and the relief from poverty that this guarantees. What also became apparent during the protests was the students’ rejection and dismissal of authority based on the old ‘legitimising’ identities of civil society – such as those of university executives, senior managers, academics and government officials.

In such post-truth contexts where the liberal democratic order is dissipating and our own roles and identities are no longer naturally legitimate, the challenge for academics is how to connect with our students and teach in ways that address their concerns and issues. I suggest this means teaching for epistemic justice. What does this mean?

In the editorial for the special issue (Harrison and Luckett, 2019) we argued that we should work with the destabilisation of modern epistemology and its problematic blindness about the relationship between power and reason. We noted the capacity of digital technologies to open up previously protected boundaries around knowledge production – to include historically excluded and silenced knowers and their ways of knowing. However, we also advocated that we teach our students how to use the epistemic rules, criteria and norms developed by expert communities of practice for validating truth claims. The promotion of epistemic justice involves showing students how to move beyond naïve scepticism and judgmental relativism about truth claims and how to become active and critical participants in processes of knowledge production. The articles in the special issue include creative ideas and strategies on how to give students the tools to judge truth claims for themselves.

I believe the degree to which the academy is prepared to work at promoting epistemic justice – not only on campuses but also on digital platforms – will be reflected in our students’ capacity to judge old and new truth claims for themselves. The achievement of greater epistemic justice in curricula and pedagogy in higher education institutions could empower students to refuse capture by the communicative and axiological power of closed, potentially authoritarian forms of resistance identities. Social and epistemic justice entails the freedom to choose to dis-identify from fixed social identities and encouraging students to work with identity as a process of becoming who they hope to become in a complex heterogeneous public sphere.

Here are a few questions for further reflection:

  • What are the implications for our teaching of the fact that students are highly ‘mediatised’ and may not recognise our expertise and authority as legitimate?
  • When students take up resistance identities do we acknowledge that this is invariably a consequence of their feeling misrecognised and excluded?
  • To what extent do our institutional policies that claim to address equity, access, diversity and inclusion, assume assimilation and compliance? To what extent do they challenge given hierarchies of power and unequal patterns of participation in the academic project?
  • Do we articulate for students our own social and historical locations, acknowledging their political salience for our academic work?
  • In our curriculum development, how far is it possible to challenge the hegemonic grip of the North over knowledge production? Do we, wherever possible, promote a ‘pluriversal’ approach to knowledge that includes making space for new cultural codes, new knowers and alternative ways of knowing?
  • Do we teach students to critically historicise and contextualise the development of the modern disciplines and thus question false claims to universality?

Kathy Luckett is the Director of the Humanities Education Development Unit and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is a member of the Review Board for Teaching in Higher Education.

References

Castells, M (1996) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. The Rise of the Network Society Volume I Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Castells, M (2009) Communication Power Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Castells, M (2010) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. The Power of Identity. Volume II (2nd edn) Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Castells, M (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age Cambridge: Polity Press

Harrison, N and Luckett, K (2019) ‘Experts, knowledge and criticality in the age of ‘alternative facts’: re-examining the contribution of higher education’, Teaching in Higher Education 24 (3): 259-271

Rizvi, F (2006) ‘Imagination and the Globalisation of Educational Policy Research’ Globalisation, Societies and Education 4(2): 193-205  

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Ten ways Times Higher Education can change the story

By Rob Cuthbert

Tips from an editor on how Times Higher Education can shift the negative perceptions of people in higher education to reassert its value to the sector.

Times Higher Education has faced a blizzard of negative comment over the past year or two. It has been exasperating to see the THE’s incredible work and achievements eclipsed by endless stories about university rankings. The result is that it has been easy – far too easy – for THE to be cast as part of the problem rather than a solution. How has this happened, and what can THE do to get back on track? These questions are unlikely to be answered at THE Live, where a two-day conference will culminate with the THE Awards. Here are 10 ways that THE might consider changing the story:

1. Remember why you do what you do

News media have attributes that many academics admire and respect; journalistic integrity cannot be bought, nor can a workforce that really is in it for love more than money. And yet at times they can appear unaware how powerful these attributes are and instead they scramble to be the poor relations of the commercial sector. “THE is the world leader in university data, rankings and content, with institutions, academics, students, industry and governments utilising the information to gain insight, inform strategic priorities, benchmark, assess and select higher education institutions.” Sure, the problematic (de)monetisation of journalism is largely the cause. But external factors can’t shoulder all the blame. Leadership, culture and self-respect all matter, too. Journalists’ primary mission is finding all the news that’s fit to print, with academic respect and economic impact spinning out from that. Focus relentlessly on excelling in these areas, and the private equity funds will follow. And if they don’t – well, it’s still the right thing to do.

2. Stop the civil war

One of the most damaging trends for UK higher education has been the multiplication of university league tables, creating a sense of “them and us” between people in HE and journalists who write about it. We know that rankings are inevitable, but they have created a debate on social media in particular, in which academics’ grievances are mostly not raised in toxic and personal terms, but they may still upset sensitive THE journalists. Many of the concerns that fuel this atmosphere are legitimate, but HE can see that the proliferation of rankings by THE have little to do with anything except increasing the demand for the THE’s data services. The proliferation has to stop. Replace it with a sense of collegiality and mutual endeavour, and that will be a big step along the road to THE regaining HE’s respect.

3. Demystify, demystify, demystify

I am not sure if private equity-owned news media realise this or not, but for those on the outside, they are very opaque organisations. What do they do? Who do they do it for? And how am I benefiting? Nowadays most people canardly believe in the outdated idea of a newspaper,  employing mostly journalists rather than a bunch of number-crunchers.

4. Don’t obscure the good work with fripperies

There are always ways to rationalise the creation of yet another set of university rankings, but to be blunt, they make you seem not interested in anything but reducing whole universities to one number. Do you need all of them?

5. Don’t be a troll

Do not waste time trying to tell people on Twitter who are oppressed by rankings-driven managerial metrics that they should rise above them, when you are the main source of the rankings that are fuelling – sometimes even causing – the oppression. We know that rankings, like sin and human weakness, are unavoidable; we’d just like the rankers to stay out of the pulpit and cut out the sermons.

6. Don’t be an ostrich

Facing up to a problem is sometimes uncomfortable. But it’s never not a good idea. The most significant blow dealt to the THE’s good name in the past couple of years has been the multiplication of rankings. And a significant compounding factor was the silence echoing back, as THE journalists chose en masse to put their heads in the sand. I understand their reasons: they felt there was nothing they could say that would satisfy their readers. But the row could have been defused much earlier with recognition that this wasn’t going to blow over as it had in the past, and with some proportionate responses from those with the most responsibility for rankings. Similarly, it is a mistake to dismiss all concerns as wilful nonsense – rankings inflation deserves serious investigation, so blanket denials are not the right response.

7. Do tell stories

And make them stories that real people in HE will connect with. THE seems obsessed with rankings. The data are always compelling, and it may well be that this is useful in selling more data consultancy services and more copies of THE. But did any university ever really improve its teaching and research after deciding its target was to become a top 10/20/50 UK university?

8. Value people, not rankings

I have lost track of the number of times I have seen another new ranking while reading a copy of THE. I understand why, but don’t be fooled: it is students, staff, teaching and research which really matter. Show us people, not numbers. Show us education, not metrication. Invest in people. They are the ones who count.

9. Accept that the world is changing – and that’s OK

Our higher education media in the UK may be one of the world’s best. But there’s also a sense when you travel around the world that the UK media are too wrapped up in selling data services and rankings and not as interested in education as they should be. Come back to the UK from a trip to Asia, and the debates about global rankings can seem stale and repetitive. Let’s not stagnate. Trying new things is rarely as bad as the naysayers would have you believe.

10. Don’t write articles that are just selling THE Live this autumn

The THE used to be one of the wonders of the world. Reading it should be a joy. That it isn’t for many in academia tells us that something has gone wrong. But it can be put right. THE needs to rekindle a sense of optimism and enthusiasm and find a way to change the story. Not write stories that are just puffery for another THE event.

With acknowledgement to the usually excellent John Gill, ‘10 ways universities can change the story’, THE 24 April 2019.

Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog.


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The VERY big financial picture for English universities?

By David Palfreyman

The Financial Sustainability Strategy Group, a dedicated bunch of HE nerds, has churned out 90 pages on the funding model of UK universities (February 2019), based on TRAC data (Transparent Approach to Costing, as compiled and collated since 1999). 

The core activity of teaching UK/EU undergraduates brings in c£13.25billion of income and covers its full economic cost (FEC). Within that overall picture, subjects vary in matching fee income to their FEC. Even after some (HEFCE) top-up grant subsidy for STEM, there is an internal transfer as subsidy to STEM from the cheap-to-teach and massively expanded subjects such as Law and Psychology, as well as the cheap but less expanded Humanities. International student fee income is c£4.5billion, with a third of such high fee-payers coming from China. The FEC is more than covered – leaving a 40% surplus transferred to subsidise research. 

Research generates c£9.25billion (£1.5billion as HEFCE QR and the rest as grants/contracts from various sources) but recovers only about 75% of its FEC. Research grants from Government cover 80% of their FEC, from industry and the Research Councils 75%, from the EU 65%, and from charities 60%. The overall loss on research will, therefore, vary according to the mix of research funding from these various sources. The Russell Group lose the most but are best placed to attract more international student fees. A thing called ‘Other Activities’ generates c£5.5billion and has a 15% profit on its FEC – again a source of subsidy for over-trading in under-priced research. 

What are the challenges and threats to this financial model? 

  1. Any wobble in the UK share of the global student market – especially since most universities in their financial projections make happy assumptions about growing their International fee income. 
  2. The hikes due in employer contributions to USS (c5%) and to TPS (c8%). 
  3. The freezing of the £9250 UK/EU UG fee.  
  4. The impact of (now unlikely?) Brexit on EU undergraduate numbers and their fee income – although the loss of EU research grants when every one involves a subsidy of 35% of the FEC would be no bad thing!
  5. Whether the Augar Review will recommend UK undergraduate fees should be cut from £9250 to, say, £7500 – and, even if it does, whether any Government ever implements the proposal.
  6. How those universities that have borrowed massive amounts will be able to service the interest payments as the above happens – let alone save up so as one day to repay the capital. 

In the current financial year English universities get c£1.5billion of funding from the OfS, mainly for the extra cost of STEM teaching over and above the £9250 tuition fees but also for various specialist programmes. Then some £1.6billion is shared out by UKRI to all UK universities as support for research (based on the REF). The OfS and UKRI funding is the job HEFCE used to do before the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act. So the direct taxpayer spend on HE is c£3billion pa, plus spending on support for teaching in UK universities beyond England – and not counting the cost of the subsidy to the student loans system, nor the financing of the various research councils. 

We await the Augar Review; meanwhile the supply of UK 18-year olds continues to decline until the early 2020s, which can be bad news for some universities, as the OfS warned in its analysis of Financial Sustainability of Higher Education Providers in England on 4 April 2019. The flow of EU students may reduce IF Brexit ever happens, and on the spending side institutions face significant increases in employer contributions to pensions. All in all, this is not a rosy picture in the short term and potentially grim in the medium term – unless, of course, the Augar Review gets lost in the context of Brexit-induced government chaos or the Treasury generously substitutes extra grant funding for any Augar reduction in the £9250. Unless indeed any ‘Brexit dividend’ leaves room for more public spending on HE as a call on taxpayer largesse alongside the NHS, social care for the elderly, the funding of schools, etc etc…

SRHE Treasurer David Palfreyman is Bursar, New College, Oxford, Director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (OxCHEPS), and a member of the Board of the Office for Students. He writes in a personal capacity.

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Axe S?

By Rob Cuthbert

People on both sides argue passionately about what they see as the biggest change in their working lifetimes. The present situation is flawed, but some believe the best way forward is to work within the system for continuing improvement. However others believe with equal passion that the best way is to crash out, with no deal for the big unaccountable bureaucracy on the continent. The European Commission is heavily involved. The debate has run for years, but then the powers that be announced that they would implement a phased transition to completely new trading arrangements. Battle lines were drawn and both sides dug in for a conflict which so far shows no sign of resolution.

Plan S is higher education’s version of Brexit. It may not have generated quite as much media coverage as that unreal thing, but it has its full share of intransigent minorities, suspicion on all sides, special pleading, accusations that the elite is merely looking after its own interests, and claims that a voiceless majority will be the ones who suffer the most.

Everyone is in favour of open access, in much the same way as everyone is in favour of free trade, but it turns out that neither concept is as clear-cut as it first appears. Academics’ guerrilla warfare campaign against what they saw as the exploitative practices of some publishers has now led to some major cancellations of contracts, the biggest and best-known being the decision by the University of California system to cancel its contract with Elsevier. Such legal opposition runs alongside illegal but massive file-sharing operations, the biggest being the Eastern-European based SciHub. Meanwhile the launch of open access journals such as PlosOne has not dented the supremacy of the major publishers: such journals may already have peaked with a very small proportion of the total publishing market.

Hence Plan S, an initiative by 13 European funders, the European Commission and charitable funders including Wellcome and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This group, known as cOAlition S, want all scientific publications arising from research they fund to be published in compliant open access journals or on compliant open access platforms from 2020. They launched a consultation on their proposals which generated a huge worldwide response from academics and academic publishers.

The UK entered the field early with the 2012 Finch Report (see SRHE News 9, July 2012), which controversially led government to choose Gold Open Access (OA) as its primary route, with the REF embodying this requirement. This means that ‘article processing charges’ (APCs) have to be paid up front, whether by the author(s), the institution or the research funder. It was envisaged that APCs would fall over time thanks to competition between publishers, but in fact there has been a 16% rise since then, as David Kernohan reported for WonkHE on 20 February 2019. The last-but-one HE Minister Jo Johnson asked Sussex VC Adam Tickell in 2016 to advise further – thatadvice and an Open Research Data Task Forcereporthave now been published. Kernohan reported that: “the UK hit 54% of outputs as OA in 2016, up from 15% in 2012. We are firmly on track to achieve the target. And there is substantial evidence that OA articles are downloaded more, cited more, and used more than their non-OA counterparts, both from journals and repositories.” The upfront cost of Gold OA is a clear disincentive for many researchers despite REF requirements: grants may not cover publication costs and research may be unfunded. The research councils currently provide block funding for APCs, but this is unlikely to be permanent, and Kernohan suggests total expenditure on APCs could triple in real terms from the 2016 figure, to £818million by 2028 if gold OA achieves 100% take-up. Something has to give, and a policy initiative is keenly awaited.

Robert Harington (American Mathematical Society) asked ‘Plan S: what about researchers?’ on the LSE Impact Blog on 17 January 2019. On 21 January 2019 University College London (UCL) said Plan S was “heavy-handed”, the Plan S coalition should engage more with universities and researchers, and the requirements of individual subject areas need to be more precisely understood, as Ashleigh Furlong reported for *Research on 21 January 2019.

Jeffrey Brainard wrote in Science on 25 January 2019 that scientific societies supported by journal subscriptions describe Plan S as “an existential threat … Many journals now follow a hybrid model, publishing individual papers open access for a fee but deriving most of their income from subscriptions … Plan S’s requirements will disproportionately hurt the journals that many societies publish … Such journals typically have high [APCs] … and the societies typically have lower profit margins than … commercial publishers … The largest, Elsevier, based in Amsterdam, publishes more than 2500 journal titles; scientific societies each publish at most a few dozen.”

Steven Inchcoombe of Springer Nature said Plan S might put Nature out of business, as Rachael Pells reported in Times Higher Education on 13 February 2019: “All the focus [of Plan S] is on the supply side and we think a lot more focus should be on demand – by which I mean the researchers themselves, and other funding agencies that are not yet signed up with Plan S”. Springer Nature then resorted to special pleading, saying titles such as Nature should be treated differently under Plan S: the cost per article of in-house professional editors and the high refusal rate means average APCs are between €10,000 and €30,000 (£8,770 and £26,300), which would be “very difficult” to recover via an article processing charge. 

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) summarised the tsunami of responses to the cOAlition S’ call for feedback on the Guidance on the Implementation of Plan S, writing for The Scholarly Kitchen blog on 11 February 2019, picking out seven themes:

  • Clear support for the transition to open access and the goals of Plan S.
  • Concern that the implementation guidance reflects models that work for STEM but will negatively impact HSS scholars.
  • The technical requirements for publication, repository, and other platforms are poorly thought out.
  • The predicted effects on small, independent, and society publishers raise concerns for the viability of these publishers.
  • Setting a fair and reasonable APC sounds fair and reasonable but it is also likely impossible.
  • Scholars and organizations in the Global South object to being told what they want.
  • The timelines are not feasible.

Martin Szomszor, Head of Research Analytics at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), part of the Web of Science Group, blogged on 14 March 2019 for The Impact Blog about findings from ISI’s The Plan S footprint: Implications for the scholarly publishing landscape, asking four key questions:

  • Without carefully paced transition to allow for the emergence of new titles, is there a risk of unusual constraints and disjunctions in publishing opportunities in affected subjects? 
  • Might restructuring the spread of well-cited papers have unplanned contingent consequences?
  • How can the shift to Gold Open Access and associated APCs be managed equitably to protect the positions both of unfunded researchers in G20 economies and of a wider spread of authors in emergent research regions, especially given the collaborative nature of academia?
  • There are many small publishers, including those linked to learned societies, who publish an important part of the Plan S funded output in serials central to their discipline. Will transition be more difficult for them and, if so, can this be managed effectively but flexibly?

Jon Tennant (independent) wrote for The Impact Blog on 5 March 2019: “The whole point of Plan S was to disrupt the status quo and transform the world of scholarly publishing. If it yields to those who it is trying to disrupt, at the cost of the greater good, than that’s not exactly progress. Open Access is not a business model, so let us stop treating it as such. I believe that science can help us shape the world to be better, and can help solve the enormous problems that our planet currently faces. I do not believe that having it under the control of mega-corporations and elite individuals or institutes helps to realise this, or is in the principles of fundamental human rights.”

Richard Poynder (independent), who has been called the “chronicler, conscience, and gadfly laureate” of the Open Access movement, wrote for The Impact Blog on 6 March 2019: Plan S and the Global South – What do countries in the Global South stand to gain from signing up to Europe’s open access strategy? He noted thatPlan S raises challenging questions for the Global South … To succeed, Plan S will need other countries to commit to the initiative. To this end, Plan S architect Robert-Jan Smits spent considerable time last year lobbying funders around the world. But should countries in the Global South sign up? Perhaps not … legacy publishers would have little choice but to replace current subscription revenues with article-processing charges (APCs) … Plan S would lead to a near universal pay-to-publish system. APCs range in price from several hundred to over $5,000 per article. This is unfeasible for the Global South and so researchers would be excluded in a different (but more pernicious) way than they are under the subscription system: free to read research published in international journals but unable to publish in them.”

Clearly Plan S poses a host of difficult moral, ethical and financial challenges for all learned societies, including SRHE. Like most societies SRHE joined in a collective response from the Academy of Social Sciences response in February 2019, to which SRHE Director Helen Perkins contributed significantly. That response said:

“3. The AcSS supports the principle of open access as an important public benefit. A key question though is how best to implement this principle, and how to balance it against other principles (academic excellence, autonomy and freedom). Balancing open access is not just a question of balancing one principle against another but considering how in practice open access can be broadened, while not undermining the conditions for producing excellent research and ensuring that an appropriate degree of academic autonomy is supported.

4. Like many other respondents, the Academy of Social Science has concerns about the method and speed of implementation proposed both by cOAlition S and, in the UK, UKRI. We are concerned that these plans are still accompanied by little detail in many important areas, and little empirical evidence about possible effects on the wider systems and structures within which academic research in produced (as well as consumed), or of the effects on different disciplines. We do not believe that ‘Gold’ access is the best solution in all cases; we think that Green (and hybrid) journals are capable of meeting aspirations for wider access.

5. We believe that cOAlition S, and in the UK, UKRI and others, should engage more widely with a range of stakeholders to consider relevant evidence about systemic effects, looking also at distributional effects (between early career and established researchers; research in different parts of the world; and researchers from different disciplines) and a range of possible
unintended consequences, including the effects on the social sciences. This should inform proposals about how to implement aims to improve open access, but would require changes to the timetable announced by cOAlition S.”

The British Academy response in February 2019 was blunt:“ … our initial response … set out our concerns about Plan S’s antipathy to hybrid journals … these concerns are not allayed by the new Guidance. … cOAlition S’s hostility to all forms of hybridity will have precisely the opposite result to its stated intentions.” Meanwhile Euroscepticism persists in Brussels, with Robert-Jan Smits, described as the European Commission’s ‘open access envoy’ declaring there is ‘something fishy’ about publishers setting up mirror journals to get past Plan S proposals about hybrid journals, while publishers protest that mirror journals are simply a necessary part of hybridity.

Echoing Brexit, it seems the divide between the proponents of Plan S and the defenders of the status quo has not diminished, and the initial response to the deadlock may well be to extend the deadline. Elites may be divided, but no doubt they will still emerge unscathed; the price of any change will be paid by marginal communities in the North and the global South. With Brexit many academics, bolstered by overwhelming academic belief in the rightness of their cause, have seized on every shred of evidence to dismiss the alternative. Will Plan S be able to exploit its superficial appeal to the evident rightness of open access, or will academics be willing to engage with the difficult ethical and moral questions which Plan S poses? It may be time for the Creative Commons to take control.

SRHE News Editor:  Professor Rob Cuthbert
rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk  

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com.


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Supporting disadvantaged students is more expensive than you think

By Marcia Devlin

A national election looms in Australia and while no-one is under any illusion about the likelihood of higher education being a key issue for the Australian public when they are considering for whom to vote, those in the sector are hopeful that, at the very least, higher education policy common sense will prevail. Depending on your particular higher education interests, the focus of such policy common sense will differ. For me, at least partly, the focus will be on equity policy.

I recently led to completion a national study that looked in part at the costs of supporting students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in Australian universities. We used a mixed methods approach, incorporating quantitative analysis of national higher education data and qualitative exploration and validation.

The complexity of university finances, the opaque nature of equity funding and the generally low level of understanding of the precise costs of supporting low SES students in the sector provided challenges to meeting the project brief. That said, we used data from 37 universities over ten years and a sophisticated quantitative methodology and detailed consultation with senior executives at four universities on the quantitative findings to test their validity. The results were, as one Vice-Chancellor described them, “stunning”.

We found that the average costs of supporting low SES undergraduate students are around six times higher than the costs of supporting medium and high SES students. This was for a university with an average number of undergraduate low SES enrolments. At the postgraduate level, the average support costs for low SES students are around four times higher than those for medium and high SES students for a university with an average number of postgraduate low SES students.

These are, indeed, stunning findings.

We found that the kind of additional support needed by students from low SES backgrounds includes: outreach support to raise aspiration and relevant individual capital prior to enrolment; academic, personal and financial support while at university; and in some cases, support to care for students with highly complex needs.

We found that the additional cost incurred in supporting a low SES student compared to other students include those inherent on the support listed above and additionally, the costs inherent in the interventions required to address disadvantage throughout school and university.  We found that the costs of establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple and/or regional campuses, particularly but not only those located in highly disadvantaged communities, also contributed to the cost differentials.

In simple terms, we found that universities that are strongly prioritising or enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions.

Because low SES students are not a homogeneous group, we found that additional support costs are not the same for all low SES students. As will be unsurprising to those working with equity group students, depending on their particular background and circumstances, low SES students may experience different levels of disadvantage and/or multiple disadvantage. In the four universities consulted, there were different costs in, and different approaches to, supporting low SES students. This was partly because of the differences in the universities’ missions, the number and geographic locations of campuses, whether the student was undergraduate or postgraduate and the characteristics of the particular low SES students for whom support was being provided.

There are a number of policy implications that an incoming Australian government might like to consider:

  • Given universities that are enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions, moving from activity-based to mission-directed costing may be a fruitful area for further exploration.
  • Given that the costs of supporting low SES students are four to six times higher than those of supporting medium and high SES students, consideration could be given to applying the principles of ‘cost compensation’ in university funding for low SES numbers. In rudimentary terms, this would mean that each low SES student would attract four times (postgraduate level) to six times (undergraduate level) more funding than otherwise like students.
  • Given the lack of homogeneity of low SES students and the differential costs for different universities in supporting low SES students, consideration could be given to the distribution of funding to support low SES students according to the investment/cost need of a university/campus/area in which a campus is located, rather than according to the number of students at each university who meet the technical definition of ‘low SES’. This would also help reduce perverse incentives to seek only the least costly low SES candidates.

I’m not overly optimistic about these findings being immediately embraced and celebrated by either side of politics. I am hopeful, however, that a government genuinely interested in equity might recognise that properly funding universities to enact their missions might be purposefully conceived as an investment that lowers social disadvantage and ultimately improve economic outcomes for both graduates and communities. In other words, I’m hoping policy common sense will prevail.

SRHE Fellow Professor Marcia Devlin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Senior Vice-President at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. The study referred to above was funded by the Australian government through the National Priorities Pool