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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Research that works for everyone: using inclusive methodologies to understand aspirations of higher education towards desistance from offending

by Mark Jones and Debbie Jones

In this Blog we share our experiences of conducting research with adults that have offended or are at high risk of offending and who also experience other challenges relating to mental health, substance use, housing, health, and education. This is our second Blog that discusses a project, funded by SRHE, which sought to understand the role of Higher Education in facilitating aspirations of those at risk of offending/reoffending who wish to desist from offending behaviours. You can read the first Blog that presented the findings of the study here. This blog focuses on two interlinked aspects of the project: the methodological philosophy we adopted in the study; and the use of a Pictorial Narrative Approach to data collection and analysis.

The study was the first of its kind in Wales as it set out to examine the role of Higher Education within the context of prevention of offending/reoffending within a community setting. A key strength of the project was that it brought together academics, third sector and statutory agencies (who seek to support and divert adults at risk of first time offending and those seeking support with desistance from offending) and those at risk of offending/reoffending. The research was therefore very much a partnership and this was a key value and driving force of the research.  We offer three areas of interest for this partnership project with The Hub who offer provision for ex-offenders, their families and the wider community.

Values versus Rules

Our study adopted an anti-oppressive approach and was underpinned by a hybrid approach of participatory action and community engagement and learning. It therefore worked with those at risk of offending/reoffending as partners and sought to empower and encourage aspiration by carrying out research through ‘doing with’ rather than ‘researching on’ participants. With this in mind, it challenged some of the accepted guidelines for effective research design – one example being our decision to move away from the more accepted text book guidance regarding focus groups size (Stewart et al, 2014) and structure (Sim and Waterfield, 2019).

Many researchers prescribe focus group size and conclude that five to eight is an effective size, with others suggesting that focus groups with over twelve participants loose coherence and value (Ochieng et al, 2019). In addition, Sim and Waterfield (2019) discuss the ethics of focus groups and suggest that the researcher(s) need to ensure all voices are heard, which can be difficult due to group dynamics and dominant voices – especially so within discussions that are of sensitive contexts such as our research. Indeed, in addition to recalling their experiences of education in the context of offending, many of our sample expressed experiences of multiple challenges and barriers in their day to day lives which might lead some to consider them as ‘vulnerable.’

However, one of the key strengths of the project was that through collaborative discussions with our research partner ‘The Hub’, it became apparent that to limit the number of participants and try to organise smaller groups would in fact lead to feelings of alienation and exclusion. It was abundantly clear that if we wanted to understand the experiences of the participants – many of which were traumatic and still ‘raw’, then the structure of the focus group had to be engaging, therapeutic and most importantly, on the terms of the members of The Hub. Therefore, to carry out the focus group in line with ‘text book’ instruction would have been in total contradiction to the philosophy of the organisation and indeed our inclusive ‘research with’ approach.

Adopting the view that the value/ethos of the project outweighed the ‘rules’ of focus group design, led us to break with convention and support all sixteen members of The Hub who turned up on the day to participate in the focus group. The members who participated that day shared their experiences of education and also of vulnerability, not only with us but with the wider group. Indeed, Gordon (2020) suggests that in acknowledging the vulnerability of participants in research, consideration needs to be given to the seriousness of it and researchers should develop their approach in relation to the lived context – and this is what we did whilst in the room that day. At times the conversation fluctuated away from the crib sheet of questions as participants struggled to articulate the day-to-day challenges they experienced – some of which are evident from the pictorial accounts in this Blog.

Creative Narrative Approaches that Enhance Storytelling

Sandberg and Ugelvik (2016) point out that ‘story telling’ is nothing new and is in fact a facet of our humanistic behaviours that helps us to make sense of the world we inhabit. Many cultural criminologists have adopted a narrative approach within their research and in recent years have started to explore the role of visual methods as a way to enhance knowledge and engagement with research, to provide a break with the taken for granted view of social reality, and to ‘democratise’ crime control (Francis, 2009; Brown, 2014; Carr, et al, 2015; Sandberg and Ugelvik, 2016).

As researchers with an extensive background in supporting marginalised communities and using qualitative methods in research, we were really drawn to using a fairly new approach called ‘Pictorial Narrative Mapping’ which has been identified as providing a holistic, nuanced account of the phenomena under study (Lapum et al, 2015). We really appreciated that whilst many studies have used creative means of data collection such as drawing, poetry or photography to enable those with limited confidence, linguistic or literacy capacity to participate fully (Glaw et al, 2017), some have pointed out that not all participants have the capacity to be creative (Brown, 2014). Therefore, adopting the Pictorial Narrative approach enabled the members in the focus groups to vocalise their response whilst observing the analyst draw her interpretations of their views. We found this approach worked really well in that it captured the discussions clearly and in a way that the focus group members could see and therefore relate to. This approach as it was ‘live’ also motivated people to comment, acknowledge and start new threads of conversation which meant immediate triangulation of data analysis which is something that has been identified as bringing about increased trustworthiness of the findings (Glaw et al, 2017).

It was clear the process and approach was positive and arguably therapeutic with all members thanking us for the opportunity to take part in the pictorial approach, as the following quote and visual representation summarises:

“This is great! Can we have a copy and then we can go back every couple of weeks and think about what we said today and see if we getting to where we want to be.”   Pete

A ‘strengths’ outcome for participants

Dybicz (2011) discusses the use of a strengths-based approach in social work practice and concludes it requires a shift in thinking from the practitioner and movement to supporting people to reflect, identify and self-direct their own positives and future development goals. Zimmerman (2013) suggests that when using such an approach in research, the process should offer a safe space to reflect on positive factors that can be acknowledged and utilised to transform to new goals, aspirations, and future directions.

These notions capture this research’s philosophy and desired impact and outcomes well. The impetus for the project came from the community and the ethos of the Hub is that the service is user led, and so using this approach gave all sixteen participants a strong voice. All members were heard and listened to with their stories captured accurately by the artist. Each of their narratives was illustrated and at the end of the engagement event the participants were delighted to see that all their voices were included.

However, it was also apparent that the participants saw the value in this method as a way to measure their own progress and future intentions as the quote above demonstrates.  Measuring any form of intervention or personal development towards desistance has been shown to be problematic but as Pete’s quote illustrates, there is power in narrative/visual methods in enabling those at risk of offending to  acknowledge where there are, the strengths they possess and the transition to their new identity – whether that is through HE or something else.

It was clear therefore that members had identified their strengths and felt more positive following the focus group with a greater sense of self-worth. This is illustrated well by John, a participant who was really emotional after the focus group and came back to thank us for supporting him to have his voice heard.

“I’ve never in all my life have someone just listen to me and let me speak, and you know, really listen. It has made me so happy, I really feel good and I can look to the future. Thank you.” John

Conclusion

The benefits of using a value driven process and a Pictorial Narrative Mapping approach to this project are clear. Using more creative, inclusive, and non-standard approaches can be extremely useful from a scientific point of view, offering deeply satisfying and valued experiences for both research participants and researchers. The impact and outcomes of such approaches offer shared power and clear ethical integrity and when working with some of the most vulnerable people in society also create contexts where there is personal growth from being part of the research process and so in this way an embodiment of a strengths approach to social research. So in conclusion we would suggest that when appropriate, be bold and step away from the confinement of the methods texts that sometimes holds us back as researchers and endeavour to make those societal changes happen in practice. Our research might not change how Higher Education reaches out to those at risk of offending across the whole sector but what we have done is enabled those without a voice, to feel valued and heard and, in our view, this has been the true value of this project.

Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research and is now Director at Higher Plain Research and Education. HigherPlainResearchEducation@gmail.com Twitter @A_HigherPlain.

Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University. Deborah.a.jones@swansea.ac.uk, Twitter @debjonesccjc. 

Our lead partner in this research is The hub in Swansea. Debbie and Mark are grateful to SRHE for funding the project.

You can read the full report of this research for the SRHE here.

References

Brown, M (2014) ‘Visual Criminology and Carceral Studies’ Theoretical Criminology 18(2): 176-197

Carr, N, Bauwens, A, Bosker, J, Donker, A, Robinson, G, Sucic, I, and Worrall, A. (2015) ‘ Picturing Probation: Exploring the Utility of Visual methods in Comparative Research’ European Journal of Probation 7(3): 179-200

Dybicz, P (2011) ‘Interpreting the Strengths Perspective Through Narrative Theory. Families in Society’ The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 92.10.1606/1044-3894.4132

Francis, P (2009) ‘Visual Criminology’ Criminal Justice Matters, 78

Glaw, X, Inder, K, Kable, A, and Hazelton, M (2017) ‘Visual Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Autophotography and Photo Elicitation Applied to Mental Health Research’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16: 1-8 

Gordon BG (2020) ‘Vulnerability in Research: Basic Ethical Concepts and General Approach to Review’ The Ochsner Journal 20(1): 34–38 https://doi.org/10.31486/toj.19.0079

Lapum, J, Liu, L, Hume, S, Wang, S, Nguyen, B, and Harding, K (2015) ‘Pictorial Narrative Mapping as a Qualitative Analytic Technique’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 14(5)

Ochieng NT, Wilson K, Derrick CJ, and Mukherjee N (2018) ‘The use of focus group discussion methodology: Insights from two decades of application in conservation’ Methods Ecol Evol 2018 9:20–32 https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.12860

Sandberg, S and Ugelvik, T (2016) ‘The Past, Present and Future of Narrative Criminology: A Review and an Invitation’ Crime, Media and Culture 12(2): 129-136

Sim, J., Waterfield, J. Focus group methodology: some ethical challenges. Qual Quant 53, 3003–3022 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11135-019-00914-5

Stewart DW, Shamdasani PN, and Rook DW (2014) Focus Groups. Theory and Practice (3rd edn) Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications

Zimmerman MA (2013) ‘Resiliency theory: a strengths-based approach to research and practice for adolescent health’ Health education and behavior: the official publication of the Society for Public Health Education, 40(4): 381–383 https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198113493782


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Higher Education and Desistance from Offending

by Debbie Jones and Mark Jones

It is often the case that those entrenched in patterns of offending find it difficult to stop due to stigma, discrimination and other structural issues limiting opportunities to bolster aspiration (Ministry of Justice, 2010; Shapland and Bottoms, 2011). Several studies have concluded that studying within Higher Education (HE) can be a significant ‘hook for change’ offering development of personal agency and widening positive social networks, key factors towards desistance (Lockwood et al, 2012; Runell, 2017).

Yet, despite widening access to HE being a global endeavour (Evans et al, 2017), the Prison Education Trust (2017) highlight that HE can feel unwelcoming for those with a criminal record. Evans et al (2017) found that, despite a drive to widen participation and access to HE in Wales, the internal culture and narrative can become ‘entangled, reinforcing the status quo at the expense of developing non-traditional student participation such as adult learners.

This blog shares our research carried out in Swansea, Wales which was funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education. The project explored the aspirations, barriers, and challenges for those at risk of offending to study in HE and considered what might be needed to support the desire to desist from offending within the context of a HE setting. The data collection phase consisted of two engagement events: one for those that had offended or were at risk of offending and were members of our partner and host organisation ‘The Hub’ (n = 16), and the other with practitioners who worked with people at risk including two participants who were also studying at Higher Education and had offended (n = 10).

We adopted a Pictorial Narrative Approach as a data collection tool and community engagement activity (Glaw et al, 2017). We will talk more about the Pictorial Approach and share some of the visual data in a forthcoming blog but for now, we want to share some of the key findings from the project.

It was clear from the data that aspirations, short and long term, varied but there was a common desire to ‘get back on track’. This was articulated as achieving better mental health and well-being which was seen as a ‘daily struggle’, securing employment, with some of the group wanting to use their own experiences to help others, and the development of positive family ties and relationships.  Such aspirations have been identified as key drivers to desistance (McNeill 2019) and might be the necessary pre-requisites before any consideration can be given to embarking on higher education.

However, one of the more concerning factors from the data was the impact of previous education. 12 participants reported negative educational experiences, feeling like a ‘lost soul swimming in a fish bowl’. Many recounted negative learning experiences within the classroom such as, ‘getting the answers wrong’ and being ‘told off’ leading to feelings of embarrassment and intimidation. A majority of participants identified other forms of educational exclusion such as learning difficulties and bullying. Such experiences left the participants with feelings of alienation and resentment of the whole education sector. For participants who had been to prison it was often ‘the beginning of their education’ where they found hope and aspiration. Prison education was viewed as offering opportunity to develop basic skills such as reading and writing and for one participant it offered the chance to pursue a higher level of education at university on release from prison.

In terms of barriers and challenges to accessing HE, most of the participants were sceptical of HE and identified university as marketing itself as a vehicle for gaining employment but really ‘just wanted the money.’ Three of the participants in the first group had attended university and felt the level of debt acquired in the pursuit of a degree was excessive with no guarantees that it would lead to a job. Indeed, funding of a degree was a perceived as an insurmountable barrier for the group. All participants from the first group were claiming benefits and felt university was out of reach because of the trade-off between state support and the notion of ‘degree debts’. Even something as simple as paying for public transport to get to university was seen as problematic.

There was recognition however that university could help people gain confidence and improve their well-being if the issue of exclusion/rejection for previous offending could be addressed. One participant reported, ‘I applied for university but they rejected me because of my conviction, only drink related offences mind you, but they rejected me anyway but even when I walk across the campus now I feel proud and it makes me walk with my head held high – the university has a good vibe about it’.

Indeed, there was a strong sense of despondency amongst the group who felt their convictions would prevent them from going to university. One participant reported that he had been told that he needed to be ‘clean from drugs for two years before I can start doing courses, it’s really fucking hard’. Another participant articulated the views of the group when he said, ‘if you have the money they’ll take you but not if you have a conviction’.

The findings from this pilot study suggest that HE can offer people who have offended, or are at risk of offending, the opportunity to develop positive personal agency. However, for that to happen universities need to reconfigure how HE is delivered in the truest sense of widening access. This might include: the delivery of HE in partnership with prisons and existing community rehabilitation programmes to overcome issue of stigma and increase confidence; training for student services to meet needs of those students with a criminal record or at risk of offending; and, better outreach and marketing of HE and student loan systems to those at risk of offending. You can read the full report on the project at http://www.srhe.ac.uk/downloads/reports-2018/JONESdebbiemarkReport.pdf

Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University. Deborah.a.jones@swansea.ac.uk, Twitter @debjonesccjc.

Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research and is now Director at Higher Plain Research and Education. HigherPlainResearchEducation@gmail.com Twitter @A_HigherPlain. Our lead partner in this research is The hub in Swansea. Debbie and Mark are grateful to SRHE for funding the project.

References

Evans, C, Rees, G, Taylor, C, and Wright, C (2017) ‘Widening Access to Higher Education: The Reproduction of University Hierarchies Through Policy Enactment’ Journal of Education Policy, 34(1): 101-116

Glaw, X, Inder, K, Kable, A, and Hazelton, M (2017) ‘Visual Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Autophotography and Photo Elicitation Applied to Mental Health Research’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 16: 1-8

Lockwood, S, Nally, J, Ho, T, and Knutson, K (2012) ‘The Effect of Correctional Education on Postrelease Employment and Recidivism: A 5-Year Follow-Up Study in the State of Indiana’ Crime and Delinquency, 58(3): 380-396

McNeill, F (2019) Rehabilitation, Corrections and Society Retrieved July 01, 2019, from http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/159625/7/159625.pdf

Ministry of Justice (2010) Understanding Desistance from Crime. Available at: http://www.safeground.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Desistance-Fact-Sheet.pdf

Prison Education Trust (2017) To be Truly Inclusive, Universities Must Help Prisoners Feel They Belong. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/aug/16/to-be-truly-inclusive-universities-must-help-prisoners-feel-they-belong

Runell, LL (2017) ‘Identifying Desistance Pathways in a Higher Education Program for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals’ International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61(8): 894-918

Shapland, J, and Bottoms, A (2011) ‘Reflections on social values, offending and desistance among young adult recidivists’ Punishment & Society 13(3): 256–282 https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474511404334


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

by Kate Carruthers Thomas and Holly Henderson

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

Kate Carruthers Thomas on Massey’s spatial concepts

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

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

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

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

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

Holly Henderson on de Certeau’s spatial stories

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

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

Fadia Dakka on Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis

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

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

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

Sol Gamsu and Michael Donnelly on the relational construction of place

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Supervising and assessing ‘the new generation of researchers’: the power of posing questions and sharing perspectives

by Bing Lu

The SRHE event on doctoral supervision and assessment, followed by a celebratory book launch, in February this year had at first struck me as pretty ambitious. The description on the website said that, as members of the research community, we should strive to undertake new research through supervising and assessing ‘the new generation of researchers’. With doctoral supervision being my own doctoral research field, I cannot help contemplating whether our research community has already moved into a new generation. How does this ‘new generation of researchers’ differ from the older generation in terms of research interests when they first embark the research journey? And how much intellectual tradition we should keep in such a fast expanding community which is increasingly marked by globalization and individuality? With this curiosity in mind, I arranged my trip to London, hoping to find answers from the presenters and other attending researchers.

The six speakers were authors of the six newly published books in the Success in Research series. Referred to as being ‘interactive and practical’, these publications aim to add value to doctoral education, and cover six themes: inspiring doctoral researchers, collaboration and engagement, seeking funding, publishing, mentoring, as well as doctoral assessment and supervision. The event was attended by a wide range of researchers coming from different universities, experienced and novice supervisors, research developers, recently graduated doctoral students, and postgraduate students who are undertaking doctoral studies like myself. It was a pretty fun and productive day led by the positive and energetic ‘lady gang’, as Pam Denicolo from University of Surrey amusingly called themselves.

As the first presenter, Pam articulated ‘inspiring’, a major theme that would go through the whole session. By inviting the audience to think over the question, ‘what is inspiring supervision?’, she reminded supervisors and researchers of proactive participation in the research community by doing things like deliberately creating ‘lucky opportunities’, and reflecting on actions that make supervising/being supervised enjoyable. Julie Reeves, a research developer from University of Southampton, then presented on the value of collaboration and engagement. We were invited again to reflect and discuss with other members the nominal value of inspiring collaboration and why it matters in research supervision. It was a fun-filled experience of listening to others and sharing my own views with them in the group discussion. Also I noticed how effectively the first two presenters led us to think by deliberately posing reflective questions and encouraging us to talk. By doing so, I felt the boundary between presenters and audience was blurred, as we all contributed to each theme by listing our ideas on posters, with many of them indeed being ‘inspiring’.

The four presenters in the afternoon also demonstrated their topics with the same strategy, posing enlightening questions and prompting original thoughts. Marcela Acuna Rivera, research development manager, from Royal Holloway, University of London contributed a practical speech on seeking funding. Her presentation kindly provided a nuts-and-bolts guide navigating research funding with an emphasis on preparing the application, and reminded us why having a holistic view of the research landscape matters so much. The presentation up next was on publication, given by Dawn Duke from University of Surrey. She offered 10 top tips regarding publication strategies, and posed powerful questions about why impact matters in research community and who cares/should care about one’s own research. Funding and publication are always valued and even prioritised in research community, and sometimes the two issues cause anxiety among novice researchers. The two speakers presented both topics in a fun and productive way, pinpointing the significance of being confident and prepared for success.

Mentoring in the research community is a field I had known less about before, but was able to gain more understanding thanks to the fifth speaker, Alison Yeung, from University of Surrey. As an experienced mentor in helping postgraduates with writing skills, Alison explained the relationship between mentor and mentee, narrated her own stories of mentoring students, and invited us to think over the value of mentoring in assisting supervision. Sue Starbuck, from Royal Holloway, University of London contributed the wrap-up speech on doctoral assessment. She declared that doctoral assessment should be inspiring and empowering, and invited us to work in groups reflecting on the factors and motivators stimulating us to improve productivity in the assessment process. Again it was a quite fun discussion.

Have the questions that I posed at the beginning of this post been answered? I think yes. The global research community is fast expanding and changing today, and the rate is being accelerated by different facilitators like technology and increasingly professional training support. Having said that, in the doctoral education, as the main site for cultivating modern researchers and an area of practice for a large number of researchers/supervisors, there still exist essential traditions that can be followed. These traditions are people-oriented, characterized by inventiveness, curiosity and everlasting pursuit of answers. This productive event again verified the power of posing questions and sharing perspectives as a strong support to any volatile situation in the research community.

SRHE member Bing Lu (Warwick) is a second-year doctoral researcher from Education Studies, investigating how academics who have returned after a doctorate abroad conduct doctoral supervision in their home countries. Twitter @BingluAlice


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The SRHE Student Access and Experience Network

by Manny Madriaga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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“What I wish I’d known” – academic leadership in the UK, lessons for the next generation

by Fiona Denney

This blogpost presents findings from a research project funded by the UK’s Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s (LFHE) Innovation and Transformation Fund in 2015. 18 academics in leadership positions across 5 universities were interviewed about their leadership experiences and what they wished they had known before taking up their leadership posts. Eight key themes about the context within which they lead were identified. The themes are presented here along with a discussion of how this contributes to our understanding of the development of those who aspire to leadership positions in higher education.

Although much exists in the education literature and wider management and leadership literature about the qualities of “good” or “effective” leaders (Steffens et al, 2014) there is relatively little that considers the experience of leaders in the academic field (Peters and Ryan, 2015). Those in academic leadership positions are interesting to study because they have usually reached their leadership position as a result of being highly successful in their discipline area – particularly with regards to research – but not necessarily because they exhibit the characteristics or skills necessary for their leadership role. Research on the role that prestige plays in academic progression indicates clearly that esteem factors such as obtaining grants and publishing are important for progression to a leadership position, but that the role itself may require the individual then to prioritise other aspects which can cause identity conflict and dissatisfaction (Blackmore and Kandiko, 2011; Coate and Howson, 2016).

The themes from the study presented here have been developed into training materials which are freely available across the UK HEI sector here. The research provides an evidence base for focusing training and developing the next generation for the challenges of leadership ahead of them actually attaining a leadership position, and takes the literature beyond prestige factors to encompass the other aspects that aspiring leaders need to consider in their career.

The eight themes that emerged are divided into: Aspects that help career progression; Aspects of leadership that were found to be challenging; and, The “serendipity principle”

Aspects that Help Career Progression

Career Advancement and Planning

Developing and planning a career whilst still being open to unexpected opportunities were highlighted as important aspects of becoming a research leader. In particular, interviewees gave the following advice: learn about roles you are interested in and know the criteria for progression; take time to plan ahead; and, use appraisals to discuss and plan career development. Many of the interviewees did not have linear career paths and some had spent time in other sectors. They also suggested that personal values are factored into career planning. They talked about having a sense of a good ‘fit’ between themselves and the institutions they chose in their careers, concluding that the ‘best’ institution might not always be best for them.

Mentoring and Role Models

Interviewees mentioned the importance of mentoring and role models from two perspectives: reflections on the pivotal roles that effective mentors and role models had played in helping them to develop; and also the role for them, as leaders, to provide mentoring and to act as role models for the people that they lead. They also mentioned the role that informal mentoring can play and that mentors can be identified in a range of different settings.

Building Networks

The interviews revealed the importance of building and maintaining networks as a means of career progression as well as supporting networking activities for their own ECRs. They also acknowledged that social media are increasingly important for the new generation of researchers – although they didn’t always feel that they were the best equipped to advise on how to use it!

Building a Research Profile

All interviewees emphasised the importance of doing the “business” of research in order to progress with their career as research and academic leaders. There was no getting away from this core message – the markers of esteem, such as publishing papers, were key to progressing in their academic careers and, if anything, they felt that the pressure to publish is more intense now than when they started out.

Aspects of Leadership Found to be Challenging

Balancing Work and Life

Many of the leaders interviewed for this study commented on how important it was to put appropriate boundaries in place in their lives to stop work from consuming everything. They reflected on the steep learning curve that they encountered when they stepped into a leadership position and found that the workload increased exponentially. In particular, they emphasised that you can’t do everything and that prioritizing and not saying “yes” to everything were important skills to learn.

Impact of Culture and Environment

It was clear that interviewees perceived that academia has undergone considerable cultural and business change in recent decades and that this has consequences in terms of work-life balance, management, leadership and the balance of teaching and research. Interviewees suggested that the most significant shift has been towards a performance management style in combination with an increased emphasis on the importance of research and grant income.

Working with Others

All interviewees referred to the importance of working with other people to being able to achieve goals and lead well in an academic environment. There were a variety of contexts for this – networking, management, dealing with difficult people, meetings, giving feedback and the development of additional skills such as listening. What was clear in all of this is that academia is not a career option for people who want to work by themselves – working with others in a way that achieves things positively is a key aspect of working in today’s academy.

Challenges of Management and Leadership

It was clear from the interviews that being a leader in a UK university is likely to involve an element of management, and interviewees were responsible for managing people and finances, leading and developing strategy and policies and leading and managing their own research and teaching.  Common themes in the interviews included the challenges of managing and leading within a modern higher education environment, the complexity of meeting organisational goals, working with staff with differing contributions and motivations, and balancing administrative and mechanistic processes with the need to be innovative and creative in research.

Conclusions

“I think I ended up getting where I am through a lot of just hoping I’m doing it right.”

Through asking our interviewees what they wished they’d known before they started in a position of academic leadership, the study found a high level of uncertainty and a lack of knowledge about how to do key aspects of the leadership role. The common thread throughout the interviews was the concept that the leaders were relying on luck, trial and error or ‘serendipity’ to get things right as a leader. In future research, the role of serendipity is important to understand as it identifies key gaps in training and preparation for succession planning and it also raises the question of how much of leadership is due to good instincts and whether it can actually be taught – in line with trait and contingency theories of leadership.

Fiona Denney is a Professor in Business Education in the Brunel Business School at Brunel University. Between 2003 and 2019 she worked in academic staff and researcher development, including as Assistant Director of the Graduate School at King’s College London and heading the Brunel Educational Excellence Centre at Brunel University. Fiona is a member of the Executive Committee of the UK Council for Graduate Education, a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the RSA. Her research interests are focused on academic leadership in modern universities. 

References

Blackmore, P, and Kandiko, CB (2011) ‘Motivation in academic life: a prestige economy’, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 16(4), 399–411. https://doi.org/10.1080/13596748.2011.626971

Coate, K, and Howson, CK (2016) ‘Indicators of esteem: gender and prestige in academic work’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(4), 567–585. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2014.955082

Peters, K, and Ryan, M (2015) ‘Leading higher education: Higher Education Leadership and Management Survey (HELMs)

Steffens, NK, Haslam, SA, Reicher, SD, Platow, MJ, Fransen, K, Yang, J, Ryan, MK, Jetten, J, Peters, K, & Boen, F (2014) ‘Leadership as social identity management: Introducing the Identity Leadership Inventory (ILI) to assess and validate a four-dimensional model’, Leadership Quarterly, 25(5), 1001–1024 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.05.002

This is the fifth in a ‘virtual symposium’ series which began with Jane Creaton’s blog on 28 February 2020: Leadership in a Changing Landscape.


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Troubling transitions: re-thinking dominant narratives surrounding students’ educational transitions

by Karen Gravett

This blog draws on recent research into educational transitions within higher education. Student transitions are a central part of higher education policy and practice internationally. However it is striking that much of the work within this important area is underpinned by unquestioned assumptions surrounding what transition as a concept might mean. Too often understandings of transition defer to narratives that reinforce stereotypic and limited understandings of students’ experiences of life and learning.

In recent years, student satisfaction and successful outcomes for students have become key institutional priorities, and narratives surrounding transition can be seen to employ a number of recurring ideas in order to explain and regulate students’ outcomes. These include the navigation of distinct stages: induction; ‘welcome’ week; the ‘first year experience’, as well as conceptions of transition as a structured process, or a linear pathway, to be smoothed and bridged. Words matter. These narratives have implications for how students’ learner identities are constructed, as well as for how students are interpellated into discourse. Recurring tropes of bridges and gaps reinforce the implication of a personal deficit within the student, a ‘gap’ to be ‘bridged’ that exists from the very outset of a student’s experience at university. These metaphors are also underpinned by the assumption that individuals should adapt to their university environment.

Such narratives also ignore the multiplicity and diversity of individuals’ lived experiences. Depicting students’ experiences as uniform is particularly problematic given the reality of today’s diverse student populations and differing individual circumstances. Pathway metaphors also support a view that upholds individualised discourses of aspiration and resilience, and yet recent events remind us of how quickly trajectories can become unsettled, how easily linear pathways can be disrupted, through no fault of a student’s own. Within the narratives surrounding student transition, then, an intense focus on fixed time frames and ‘progressive’ outcomes can be seen to construct limiting timescapes of higher education and such fixed conceptions can be problematic for students who may for a variety of reasons need to ‘drop out’ or change direction.

Overall, the need for more nuanced understandings of students’ experiences into and through higher education has been brought into sharp focus recently with the unprecedented disruption to life and learning as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Understanding difference becomes even more important as we begin to see how different learning experiences may be for different students – those with space to work at home, those with a stable home, those with access to computers, printers, broadband connections, those without ill-health or caring responsibilities. And other new questions arise: is it still appropriate to speak in terms of rites of passage, linear pathways and first year experiences? What does transition into higher education now mean given that are students are currently transitioning to online study and facing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change? Perhaps it is time instead to consider how we can we foster greater consideration of the granularity of students’ experiences, considering that beneath institutional discourses there may lie a more nuanced picture: one where students’ experiences can be understood as diverse, messy, and rhizomatic.

Recent empirical research with staff and students also suggested the diverse, fluid and ongoing nature of students’ transitions at university as depicted in these students’ comments:

You’re constantly changing, you’re constantly meeting new people. (Laura, second interview)

I was already quite independent when I came to Uni … because my mum, she’s disabled, so I already do a lot of stuff at home for my brother. (Maria, first interview)

It doesn’t feel like I’m living the same experience as they would, even though we go to the same uni. (Mena, first interview)

In these studies, our data portrayed tensions between the stories, narratives and linear timescapes that surround traditional conceptualisations of student transition, and the fine-grained, messy, changing, becomings of students’ lived experiences. The implications of such a reconceptualisation thus offers new potential for a rethinking of approaches to theorising and doing transition, as well as raising new questions regarding our understanding of students’ experiences. A new question for institutions now exists: in how to reconcile the fluidity and rhizomatic experiences of students with the conventional linear and modular institutional approaches to the acquisition of knowledge that may be driven by neoliberal agendas of efficiency and managerialism.

Indeed, to date such traditional conceptions of transition have encouraged a focus on short term, practical, strategies to promote success, for example pre-entry, induction and welcome week initiatives. Perhaps instead we might wish to consider individuals’ lived temporal rhythms, the ongoing nature of learning and development within higher education, and the ongoing nature of transition itself. What would a rethinking of transitions as something necessarily troublesome, as rhizomatic, and as part of an individual’s ongoing series of becomings offer? Key implications will be a need for institutions to offer support beyond the initial stage conventionally termed transition, as well as to seek to depart from approaches that construct students as experiencing a homogeneous ‘student experience’, or as experiencing a transition period that should necessarily be managed, smoothed and eased at all. Rather, considering how we can share an understanding of the inevitable challenges and difficulties inherent within learning, and the ongoing nature of change and becoming may be more useful, particularly in our troubling times where we might conclude we are now always experiencing a period of transition, or becoming.

This blog post is based on research recently published in Studies in Higher Education and Higher Education Research and Development. Karen Gravett is Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Surrey. She is an Associate Editor of the journal Higher Education Research and Development, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a co-convenor of the Society for Research in Higher Education Learning, Teaching and Assessment network.


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Five reasons why rich people shouldn’t found universities

By Paul Temple

Some ‘alternative providers’ are the product of a rich person’s ambition to create something different or distinctive in the HE sector. But it doesn’t always work in the longer term…

1             Rich people expect to get their own way

Rich people – I mean seriously rich, not merely well-off – tend, in my limited experience, to want to have things their own way. Doing what other people suggested probably wasn’t how they became rich in the first place. So a university founded by someone like this will be planned the way they want it, with other ideas being pushed aside. (If the person had simply wanted to support higher education they could have become a benefactor of an existing university – as many rich people of course do – but they would then have had to fit in with how an established institution worked or risk having their money politely declined.) The founder’s ideas may have been quite sensible, perhaps even innovative, at the time of the university’s creation, but he or she will have been reluctant to adjust their views as time passed and the original conception became less attuned to contemporary realities. Universities need to be in states of constant evolution, while pretending that nothing has really changed: that is the secret of their longevity. A single founder, continuing to exercise at least a degree of control and certain of the correctness of their original “vision”, impedes this evolutionary process.

2             “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” (Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises)

Having access to a seriously rich person’s cheque-book might seem like a dream come true to most university finance directors. But a kind of dependency culture develops if, whenever a financial problem arises, some more cash magically appears. The university comes to resemble an oil-rich sheikhdom, able to buy-off internal tensions without having actually to resolve them, and not having to bother much about external pressures. So the university business model appears on the face of it to be working, because of regular cash injections into the balance sheet. Difficult questions about the university’s priorities and how its future sustainability can be ensured don’t get asked seriously, let alone answered: the priority is to ensure that the founder is happy in order to keep the cheque-book open. Short-term imperatives obscure longer-term perspectives. The university gradually drifts further and further away from real sustainability – but…

3             Even the rich don’t live for ever (yet)

If the university had problems when the founder was alive, they can become much more intractable once they’re dead. However clear the founder thought his or her intentions were about supporting the university financially after their death, there will be others with their own claims to understand the founder’s “vision” and what should be done to protect it (see below). The magic cheque-book is suddenly not so open: it’s not that the money isn’t there, it’s just that, well, we maybe need to reflect a little on what the founder “really” wanted and how best to achieve the “vision” in the new circumstances. Someone involved in a “wishes from beyond the grave” discussion of this sort remarked that early Christianity must have been a little like this: “Speaking as someone who knew Jesus well, I can say that what He would have wanted is…”

4             “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” (F Scott Fitzgerald, The Rich Boy)

You might perhaps think that your financial affairs are complicated because you have a couple of bank accounts, a few credit cards, a mortgage, and an ISA. The seriously rich, though, are surrounded by a horde of financial advisers and lawyers who set up offshore accounts, “investment vehicles”, trusts, foundations, real estate portfolios, the list goes on, to protect their wealth. When their client dies, these advisers become strangely reluctant to hand money over, regardless of what seems (to the intended beneficiary) to have been their client’s clear intentions (see above). Those controlling the money emphasise their heavy responsibilities to safeguard their late client’s “vision”, and can they be quite certain that the university’s plans are consistent with it? How can they be completely sure that the founder’s money will be managed wisely? “Tell us more about your plans” is a request to which the answer can be, as university planners know, a one-paragraph mission statement or volumes of studies and data – to which endless queries and objections can be presented. When the late founder’s wealth is tucked away in different forms, controlled by different people, under different legal jurisdictions, getting it can be slow, expensive – or, in practice, with the clock ticking and the university budget going into the red, impossible.

5             Just buy the yacht

Instead of founding a university, just buy a nice yacht and sit on deck in the sunshine at Monte Carlo with other rich people and, really, save the rest of us a lot of trouble.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546


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Professors in Preparation: Supporting 21st century professorial leaders

by Julie Hulme and Deborah Lock

Becoming a professor is not easy but for some reason becoming a professor in teaching and learning, or from a professional practice base, appears to be harder than most. Part of this is because there is no consensus about what a pedagogic or practitioner professor looks like, and part of this is linked to uncertainty about appropriate selection criteria, and the type of evidence required to demonstrate professorial behaviours and activities (Evans, 2015a, 2015b).

There is a lack of guidance and role (and real) models that aspiring professors (education, scholarship and/or professional practice) can turn to for advice about teaching and learning career pathways (Evans, 2017). According to McHanwell and Robson (2018): “There are relatively few teaching-focussed staff in more senior positions who can review, mentor and support teaching staff; act as role models for junior staff who are seeking to develop a teaching/education career (Fung and Gordon, 2016); and help individuals to collate a mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence that provides a clear sense of their teaching achievements.”

The Professors in Preparation network (#ProfsInPrep) was established in October 2018, following a discussion about these issues on the PFHEA email list in which leaders in higher education were commenting on the challenges of gaining reward and recognition for their education and scholarship achievements. We decided that the time had come to instigate change for ourselves, and arranged what was to be the first of a number of workshops, webinars, and other events. The network found an online home on OneHE, and the community now hosts around 150 aspiring professors, plus professorial mentors (many from the National Teaching Fellow community).

#ProfsInPrep aims to provide aspiring professors with a supportive community through which the pooling of knowledge through the sharing of and reflection on ‘lived’ experiences, and identity stories to aid successful applications (Waddington, 2016, Macfarlane and Burg, 2019). The network is based on the premise of a virtuous circle in which members who achieve professorship continue to contribute and provide support to the next generation of professors. In other words, we have established a ‘pipeline’ community for those who contribute to higher education through educational or practitioner-based careers.

The goals of the network are not only to support reward and recognition. Recent media coverage has portrayed academia as a competitive, individualistic professional environment, framed in terms such as “upward toxicity”. Psychological research suggests that transformational leadership, which builds collegiality and strong team identities, can improve mental health and wellbeing of individuals, reduce staff turnover, and produce higher quality work (Cheng et al, 2016). Likewise, Holliman et al. (2016) suggest that “academic kindness” can support productivity, and professional development within higher education, for both students and colleagues. Our review of academic promotions criteria suggests that promotion frequently depends upon research outputs and grants, which are largely individually driven (although we recognise not always), even within educational pathways. A focus on individual success can reduce motivation for academic citizenship and collegiality that could facilitate academic kindness and potentially counter the supposedly toxic culture. We suggest that promotion pathways need to reward such collegiate behaviour.

Increasingly, universities are offering educational and practitioner pathways to promotion, and some are building academic citizenship and service into their criteria. However, the progression of individuals along these pathways has not yet enabled the centrality of education within the mission of higher education to be adequately reflected. We suggest that promoting academics to the professoriate who embody the values of inclusion, collegiality, and caring, often located within those on educational and practitioner-based careers, can help to change the culture of academia, and bring kindness, instead of toxicity, to the fore. Those who achieve promotion via these routes will then be available to act as role models, and, as well as helping other aspiring professors to understand the ambiguity of promotion criteria and facilitate the progression of more minoritised groups, such as women and BAME individuals.

Ultimately, our intention is to facilitate the development of a professorial community that represents the rich diversity that exists within the sector, and that can self-propagate through mentoring and support. We suggest that an academically kind professoriate, promoted for service to students, education, and professional practice, will provide the leadership that is needed within 21st century higher education.

Join #ProfsInPrep at:  https://bit.ly/pipjoin 

Julie Hulme is a Reader in Psychology at Keele University, a Chartered Psychologist, National Teaching Fellow and Principal Fellow of the HEA. Deborah Lock is Deputy Head of College and Professor of Inclusivity and Innovation in Teaching at Lincoln International Business School, and a Principal Fellow of the HEA. Together, Julie and Deborah founded the Professors in Preparation network in October 2018.

References

Cheng, C, Bartram, T, Karimi, L and Leggat, S (2016) ‘Transformational leadership and social identity as predictors of team climate, perceived quality of care, burnout and turnover intention among nurses’, Personnel Review, 45(6): 1200-1216

Evans L (2015a) ‘What academics want from their professors: findings from a study of professorial academic leadership in the UK’ in Teichler U and  Cummings W (eds) Forming, recruiting and managing the academic profession. Vol 14 of The Changing Academy – The Changing Academic Profession in International Comparative Perspective series. Cham: Springer

Evans, L (2015b) The purpose of professors: professionalism, pressures and performance. Stimulus paper commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. London: LFHE

Evans, L (2017) ‘University professors as academic leaders: professorial leadership development needs and provision’ Educational Management Administration & Leadership 45(1): 123-140

Fung, D and Gordon, C (2016) Rewarding educators and education leaders in research-intensive universities York, UK: Higher Education Academy

Holliman, AJ, Hulme, JA and Wilson-Smith, K (2019) ‘Transition and adaptability in educational and organisational contexts’ Psychology Teaching Review 25(1): 4-11

MacFarlane, B and Burg, D (2019) Women professors as intellectual leaders Leadership Foundation: University of Bristol and University of Southampton

McHanwell, S and Robson, S (2018) Guiding principles for teaching promotions York, UK: AdvanceHE

Waddington, K (2016) ‘The compassion gap in UK universities’ International Practice Development Journal 6(1): 10


This is the fourth in a ‘virtual symposium’ series which began with Jane Creaton’s blog on 28 February 2020: Leadership in a Changing Landscape.


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Virtually inaccessible

by Dai O’Brien

With the current climate of everyone working from home, remote meetings and dashing to move all teaching and course materials online, there seem to be two schools of thought opening up in discussions on social media. One is a response of almost resentment and caution, a feeling of being rushed into something that most academics are not trained for and have no experience of. The other is a feeling of almost relief, a ‘finally!’ moment from those who are more willing or able to embrace the online teaching classroom and virtual meetings.

However, what neither of these two camps seems to engage with are the problems of access for deaf and disabled people. There seems to be an assumption from many that placing resources online magically makes them accessible to all, and that technology will solve all ills. I’m sure that many of us are quickly finding out that this isn’t necessarily the case. In this blog post I will focus on deaf access to this move online for academics working in HE, not only for teaching, but also for professional, collegiate matters.

Many of the insights of this blog post are from research I conducted as part of my SRHE Newer Researchers Prize funded project, The Spaces and Places of Deaf Academia (2017-2019). This project focused on the experiences of deaf academics working in HEIs in the UK, exploring their experiences of the workplace on both a physical and social level. While this research obviously was conducted before the current pandemic, there are useful lessons that can be taken from the findings which are worth bearing in mind during the current migration to online and remote working and teaching.

If anything, this move to online working exacerbates rather than resolves many of the problems deaf academics face. While it was often difficult before to find BSL/English interpreters or other communication support workers at short notice to attend meetings and to interpret or provide access for everyone to those meetings, it can be even more difficult now to find interpreters and other communication support workers who have the technological ability and resources to provide the access that deaf academics need. Even when they do have the right technology and skills, meetings held over apps such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom require pre-meeting meetings between the interpreter, the meeting chair and the deaf academic to ensure that all parties know how to use the technology, the chair understands how to run a remote meeting, and new ground rules are established and upheld to ensure access for all. This is all extra labour required from the deaf academic to ensure that they can participate on a level playing field. Sometimes these pre-meeting meetings last longer than the meeting itself! If one is to consider a similar situation arising where a deaf student needs access to a seminar or lecture live-streamed online, power imbalances in the student-lecturer relationship may lead them to feeling unable to insist on such a pre-lecture meeting to iron out any potential problems, resulting in them missing out on vital contact hours.

In the first couple of weeks of remote working, I have found myself sometimes inundated with meeting requests from colleagues, managers and students. During a normal working week I would have felt confident and comfortable in re-scheduling these meetings for a time when I had interpreters booked. But the immediacy of the need to navigate the sudden change in working conditions, and the relaxing of usual work boundaries and time frames that working from home seems to impose, have meant that this has not always been possible. Remote working comes with an implicit expectation that you are always available to meet, anywhere, so long as you have an internet connection. This isn’t true for those of us who need communication access provided by BSL/English interpreters. We are still restricted by the availability of the interpreters, and our ability to pay them. Luckily, I work with colleagues who understand this. However, similar restrictions apply to students. They may have limited funds to pay for communication access, access which is required not just for face-to-face or streamed teaching, but also any podcasts, uncaptioned videos or other resources that we feel able or compelled to share in this new virtual teaching space.

Some of this technology offers automatic captions or other automatic access options. But very often the output of these automatic functions is extremely poor, if they work at all. For deaf students (and academics) these disjointed, context free, incorrect captions are often more of an additional barrier than an access solution. It is not enough to rely on technology, or to expect it to act as a saviour. We all need to be considerate and critical of our new online remote approaches and consider whether or not they are truly accessible.

Dr Dai O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies in the School of Languages and Linguistics, York St John University. Read his 22 November 2019 blog What are the experiences of deaf academics working in UK HEIs’ here, with BSL interpretation.

References

O’Brien, D (2020) ‘Mapping deaf academic spaces’ Higher Education DOI: 10.1007/s10734-020-00512-7

O’Brien, D (2020) ‘Negotiating academic environments: using Lefebvre to conceptualise deaf spaces and disabling/enabling environments’ Journal of Cultural Geography 37(1): 26-45 DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2019.1677293