The Society for Research into Higher Education

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In the duck house

By Paul Temple

Last autumn, David Palfreyman and I completed our book Universities and Colleges in the OUP “Very Short Introduction” series by compiling the index. It’s a sign of how fast things have changed that if we were preparing the index now, just a few months later, I think that one entry would have to be on the lines of “Greed, vice-chancellors, accusations of.” How on earth have we got to this?

Our late and much-missed friend and colleague, David Watson, would, I am certain, be incandescent with fury at how some of his fellow vice-chancellors have allowed Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, plausibly to compare some vice-chancellors’ expenses claims with episodes from the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal. Halfon picked out the £1600 that Surrey University had paid to relocate its new VC’s dog from Australia, comparing it to the notorious “floating duck island” which, as it happens, cost the same. As with the duck-house, it’s the pettiness, the bathos – not to mention the comedic potential – that catch the attention. Was there nobody at Surrey able to say, “Vice-Chancellor, this really won’t be a good look if (when) it comes out”? And if not, shouldn’t there have been? Continue reading


The Digital University, Social Justice and the ‘public good’

By Helen Crump

The event organised by the SRHE Digital University Network in Belfast on 16 February focused on the theme of social justice and the ‘public good’ and how the ‘digital’ plays out when these concepts are (re)framed within the context of digital citizenship, digital literacy and open learning. The three speakers reflected critically on the concrete challenges and material struggles that digitisation entails and provided a space for developing dialogue.

In relation to digital literacy, Professor Mark Brown of Dublin City University highlighted the proliferation of models and frameworks that exist across Europe, the UK and the USA that aim to capture the nature of digital literacy and offer suitable ways to intervene and thereby produce the skills and competencies deemed necessary to live, learn and work successfully in the knowledge economy. He problematised these in relation to the tension between public and private good. Furthermore, he also noted that Continue reading

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Doing good by wealth

By Paul Temple

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when “millionaire” was used to describe someone who was almost unimaginably rich. Then, sometime towards the end of the last century, “billionaire” took its place – a reflection, probably, of both inflation and increasing disparities of wealth. Now, in America, being a billionaire is no big deal (540 of them, apparently) – you have to be a multibillionaire for people to take notice. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss, is worth $100bn. Globally, the top 1% own as much as the remaining 99%. (SRHE members need to tread a little carefully here: Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay

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English university education: inside one ex-minister’s mind set

By Ian McNay

In January, I attended an event at the Centre for Global Higher Education, where David Willetts was promoting his book, A University Education, (Oxford University Press). SRHE News in January 2018 had click links to several reviews. I got there early and had time to read the introduction before he started speaking, drawing on his time as Minister for Universities and Science in the coalition government. The oral presentation and the written word provided a fascinating insight into narrow perceptions and selective recall of one of those people with political/policy responsibility for HE provision as we experience it today.

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Beware of slogans

by Alex Buckley

Slogans, over time, become part of the furniture. They start life as radical attempts to change how we think, and can end up victims of their own success. Higher education is littered with ex-slogans: ‘student engagement’, ‘graduate attributes’, ‘technology enhanced learning’, ‘student voice’, ‘quality enhancement’, to name just a few. Hiding in particularly plain sight is ‘teaching and learning’ (and ‘learning and teaching’). We may use the phrase on a daily basis without thinking much about it, but what is the point of constantly talking about teaching and learning in the same breath? Continue reading

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A new approach to the assessment of learning outcomes in Japanese Universities

by Toru Hayashi

In recent years Japanese universities have faced unprecedented demands for developing student learning and have rapidly reformed courses to introduce active learning and practical internships. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology-Japan (MEXT) states that: ‘Amid the rapidly changing circumstances at home and abroad surrounding universities, expectations and demands towards universities, Continue reading

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Examining the Examiner: Investigating the assessment literacy of external examiners

By Dr Emma Medland

Quality assurance in higher education has become increasingly dominant worldwide, but has recently been subject to mounting criticism. Research has highlighted challenges to comparability of academic standards and regulatory frameworks. The external examining system is a form of professional self-regulation involving an independent peer reviewer from another HE institution, whose role is to provide quality assurance in relation to identified modules/programmes/qualifications etc. This system has been a distinctive feature of UK higher education for nearly 200 years and is considered best practice internationally, being evident in various forms across the world.

External examiners are perceived as a vital means of maintaining comparable standards across higher education and yet this comparability is being questioned. Despite high esteem for the external examiner system, growing criticisms have resulted in a cautious downgrading of the role. One critique focuses on developing standardised procedures that emphasise consistency and equivalency in an attempt to uphold standards, arguably to the neglect of an examination of the quality of the underlying practice. Bloxham and Price (2015) identify unchallenged assumptions underpinning the external examiner system and ask: ‘What confidence can we have that the average external examiner has the “assessment literacy” to be aware of the complex influences on their standards and judgement processes?’ (Bloxham and Price 2015: 206). This echoes an earlier point raised by Cuthbert (2003), who identifies the importance of both subject and assessment expertise in relation to the role.

The concept of assessment literacy is in its infancy in higher education, but is becoming accepted into the vernacular of the sector as more research emerges. In compulsory education the concept has been investigated since the 1990s; it is often dichotomised into assessment literacy or illiteracy and described as a concept frequently used but less well understood. Both sectors describe assessment literacy as a necessity or duty for educators and examiners alike, yet both sectors present evidence of, or assume, low levels of assessment literacy. As a result, it is argued that developing greater levels of assessment literacy across the HE sector could help reverse the deterioration of confidence in academic standards.

Numerous attempts have been made to delineate the concept of assessment literacy within HE, focusing for example on the rules, language, standards, and knowledge, skills and attributes surrounding assessment. However, assessment literacy has also been described as Continue reading