The Society for Research into Higher Education

Leave a comment

Exploring British Muslim transitions to PGT studies

by Zain Sardar and Amira Samatar

The social mobility charity, the Aziz Foundation, has published a major new report examining the progression challenges encountered by British Muslims aspiring to PGT studies. We consider this a timely intervention, in the context of a rapidly changing student demography, indicated in the popular usage of such terms as ‘hyper-diversification’ (Atherton and Mazhari, 2020) within HE policy discourse, and corroborated in recent projections by the professional membership body, Advance HE. In the wake of these demographic trends, a recent TASO publication (Andrews et al, 2023) reports that the sector is gripped by a high degree of uncertainty over the most expedient institutional approaches to adopt in dealing with disparities in progression and attainment. 

Transitions: British Muslims between UG and PGT studies will be of benefit to HE practitioners, researchers and forward thinking institutions willing to engage in an analysis of the granular experiences of discrete, minoritised communities. That is, decision and policy makers open to targeted interventions, as opposed to the one-size fits all, universal approach that delineates the current comfort zone in HE. We are particularly concerned with the direction in which the widening participation agenda will seek to evolve, encouraging the better incorporation of the access needs of faith communities in any future trajectory.

The progression challenge

The policy exceptionalism that discounts British Muslims from HE regulatory frameworks and formulas helps to sustain the equality gaps that hinder academic progression. To expand on this theme: recently there has been a greater regulatory focus on disparities in relation to ethnicity, which is certainly welcome. For example, there is a consensus that the most pressing sector wide challenges centre on the degree-awarding gap, as mentioned above, and access to doctoral studies for minoritised communities (OfS, 2020). However, a lacuna is still visible: the disadvantages that accrue around faith – as an operative dimension of the British Muslim identity – are still not part of the ‘intersectional mix’ making it onto the regulatory agenda (although we should acknowledge that the new ‘Equalities of Opportunity Risk Register’, established to regulate the student experience, does make mention of Muslim students) (OfS, 2023).

The progression challenge, however, is very evident and borne out in the Office for Students’ (OfS) own data dashboard. It indicates a drop off in British Muslim participation between the undergraduate and postgraduate taught level (from 12% to 8%)(OfS, 2021-22). Furthermore, this is not replicated amongst those from non-faith backgrounds or other control groups, such as Christian students.

We can thus detect in national datasets the contours of an entrenched social mobility fault line. The sector’s response to this is critical, as dealing with these disparities will necessitate enhancing the current access regime. It will need to build in more responsiveness to the forms of disadvantage that holds back intersectional communities – such as British Muslims – from participation at the postgraduate level.

An intersectionality of disadvantage

Transitions centres the testimonies of British Muslims, deploying a Critical Race Theory (CRT) methodology and qualitative analysis to examine the lived experiences of candidates for the Aziz Foundation’s flagship Masters Scholarship programme.

The charity has awarded over 560 scholarships since its inception in 2016, and commenced surveying its candidates in 2019/20, subsequently undertaking this exercise on an annual basis. In having access and utilising the Foundation’s rich seam of data, we would like to position the report as a form of community-based research. From our perspective, participating survey respondents are co-producers of knowledge, supporting an investigation into the factors that inhibit educational progression, as well as shining a light upon the reasons why British Muslims wish to pursue PGT study. 

Moreover, the key concept of ‘intersectionality’ is deployed in order to explore the British Muslim identity through the testimonies (or autoethnographies, in which respondents are invited to reflect on their own condition within HE) of scholarship candidates. As both faith and ethnicity, and the interaction between the two, determines the experiences of, and hardships faced, by British Muslims, this is a crucial focus area. We emphasise this as a ‘hidden’ dynamic, as this type of intersectional disadvantage – in its granularity – is rarely acknowledged in its complexity by HEIs within institutional strategies. 

Pipeline issues and recommendations

Transitions explores why the transition to PGT is of so much significance for British Muslims, as well as the wider sector. It has ramifications beyond the low number of this demographic who progress all the way into academia as researchers and members of the professoriate. For instance, Masters programmes are thought of as a way to redress imbalances in social capital, providing minoritised communities with opportunities to widen networks for professional development. This is important in relation to labour market outcomes, taking into account the underrepresentation of senior leaders across professions and industries of a British Muslim heritage.   

More widely, we would like to ask institutions to reflect on ways in which they can mend the ‘broken bridge’ of PGT – and so fortify the academic and education-to-work pipeline. Some of our report recommendations for institutions and the sector provide a starting point:  

  • Amongst HEIs, there ought to be parity of esteem and financial resources between pre-entry widening participation and postgraduate widening participation
  • HEIs to be proactive in incorporating ‘British Muslim students’ as a disadvantaged group in Access and Participation Plans (APPs), considering institutional context
  • The ‘broken pipeline’ at PGT ought to be bridged with appropriate funding opportunities such as ring fenced scholarships

We urge institutions and practitioners to read our report carefully and consider our full set of recommendations.

Ultimately we believe that the future of the widening participation agenda can be effectively shaped through institutions that take the initiative, developing innovations and extending access to constituencies at the sharp end of the intersectionalities of disadvantage. 

Transitions: British Muslims between undergraduate and PGT studies can be accessed here

Dr Zain Sardar is a joint programme manager at the Aziz Foundation. He leads on the Foundation’s engagement with its university partners and higher education stakeholders. As well as completing his PhD in law at Birkbeck, University of London, he has previously worked in higher education administration and policy. Zain also currently sits on the Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Doctoral Education external advisory board.

Amira Samatar, MA Ed., AFHEA, is a postgraduate researcher whose academic interests centre around the educational experiences and journeys of racially minoritised students in British universities, with a specific focus on Black British women’s experiences beyond the postgraduate level. Amira is an associate at MA Education Consultancy and is committed to progressing social justice agendas within the higher education sector and to this end, increasing opportunities for Black and Muslim students


Andrews, S, Stephenson, J. Adefila, A et al (June 2023) Approaches to addressing the ethnicity degree awarding gap, TASO Atherton, G and Mazhari, T (2020) Preparing for hyper-diversity: London’s student population in 2030 Access HE


Follow my leader? I don’t think so.

by Paul Temple

The team that ran the MBA in Higher Education Management at the Institute of Education in London would meet each July for a year-end review and to think about what improvements we might make to the programme in the coming year. In most years, someone would suggest re-naming the programme as “the MBA in Higher Education Leadership”, or perhaps “Leadership and Management”. I always objected to the change, on the grounds that while I could say what I thought “management” was and had some ideas about how it might be taught, I had no idea what “leadership” actually was and even less of an idea about how we might teach it. Of course, everyone has examples of great leadership being enacted: my own favourite is Ernest Shackleton addressing his crew standing around on the Antarctic pack-ice in October 1915: “The ship and stores have gone – so now we’ll go home”. But telling us what outstanding leaders say and do isn’t the same as telling us what leadership is.

Actually, though, the real reason for my objection was the thought of having to present the case for a change of course title at Institute committee meetings at which, I foresaw with perfect clarity, those present, having no special knowledge of the subject and no responsibility for the decision’s outcome, would obey Watson’s First Law of Higher Education: that an academic’s degree of certainty on any given topic is directly proportional to its distance from their actual field of expertise.

I was reminded of all this by a review of the “managers vs leaders” debate in a recent issue of The Economist (28 October 2023). One distinction noted there from Kotter in 1977 was that management is a problem-solving discipline aiming to create predictability, whereas leadership is about change and the unknown. This is close to the aphorism which we sometimes used when asked about the distinction: management is about doing things right, whereas leadership is about doing the right things. (Shackleton was certainly leading his crew into the unknown, but he had people with him who were excellent problem-solvers.) The Economist review quotes research by Bandiera et al at the LSE that suggests that CEOs “who displayed the behaviour of leaders were associated with better company performance overall”, although some firms, the researchers concluded, would be better off with “manager” CEOs. Helpful, eh? What the review notes, though, is that the success of the leadership-oriented CEOs’ companies may depend on top-class managers sitting with them round the boardroom table. In other words, as you might have guessed, successful organisations need both good leaders and good managers in their top jobs.

Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, Helen MacNamara, his deputy, and Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, are civil servants working at the very pinnacle of British public service. It is, I think, a safe bet that their annual appraisals consistently identified their outstanding leadership qualities: if they had been seen merely as excellent managers they would be working at somewhere like DVLA in Swansea, not in the Cabinet Office or 10 Downing Street.

And yet, as the Covid inquiry has revealed in awful detail, in the worst British peacetime crisis in modern times this group of supposedly brilliant leaders were collectively unable to ensure that the centre of government operated with even an ordinary level of effectiveness. Yes, they had to deal with a catastrophically useless Prime Minister and the – how shall I put it? – difficult Dominic Cummings (I blogged about him here in February 2020), but – look, guys – sorting out problems like these are what you’re there for. Leaders, as opposed to poor old plodding managers, are there to deal with impossible situations (OK, so I do have a definition of “leadership” after all): Shackleton didn’t say to his crew, “Well, sorry, but I’ve no idea about what to do now.” This is actually more or less what Case – just to remind you, the head of the Civil Service – says: “Am not sure I can cope with today. Might just go home.” Well, you and I have probably felt the same sometimes, but we weren’t supposed to be running the country during a crisis.

Other failings of this group of supposed top leaders? A notable one was when the rest of us were wondering if it would be OK to meet a friend in the park, MacNamara was taking a karaoke machine into work to ensure the party went with a swing. And of course there was “Party-Marty” Reynolds, sending an email inviting staff to a bring-your-own-booze party at Number Ten. Meanwhile, my next-door neighbour was dying alone in hospital, his family and friends unable to say goodbye to him. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of a rethink about leadership.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.

Leave a comment

Why do vocational FE students choose to go to HE?

by Neil Raven


In a previous blog, I explored the reasons why some students on level 3 (advanced) professional and applied courses decide against higher education. Those whose views were sought came from a further education college (FEC) located in the East Midlands. FECs are significant providers of such (vocational) courses in England (Archer, 2023, UCAS, 2023). Yet, their HE progression rates are typically lower than those reported by schools and sixth form colleges (GOV.UK, 2023). Indeed, the desire to address this differential has been highlighted by the Office for Students (OfS, 2022), including through the work of the Uni Connect programme (Raven, 2023). It also chimes with the government’s levelling up scheme, and the view that FECs are key players in addressing inequalities in regional skills levels (OfS, 2022). However, acknowledging the rationale amongst FE college students for rejecting HE provides only half the picture. Any initiative that seek to widening higher education (HE) participation should also take account of the drivers for progression amongst the same groups of learners, since a good number of FE college students doing vocational programmes go on to some form of higher-level study, although many more have the potential to do so. This was one of the key areas explored in a recent research project and discussed in a book chapter from which the findings in this blog are taken (Raven, 2023).

Method and approach

This research gathered the views of students in the second (and final) year of their level 3 professional and applied courses. The sample comprised 110 students from two FE colleges: one in the Midlands (60 participants), the other in Eastern England (50 participants). In addition to gaining insights into their motivations for pursuing higher-level study, the research looked at the support these students had received. A questionnaire was used for this purpose, with answers captured in a one-to-one meeting between my fellow researcher and each participant. Whilst these meetings required time to organise, this approach to the administration of the questionnaire ensured that all the questions would be understood and considered by those who volunteered to take part in the study (Raven, 2023: p59). To facilitate comparison – and draw out common themes – we chose participants who were pursuing the same three subject areas at each college. These comprised sport, animal management and child care, which were amongst the most popular options offered and where the ambition at both institutions was for more students to take the HE route.


Three broad sets of motivations for progressing onto higher-level study were voiced by participants across both colleges and amongst the three subject areas. The first set concerned the learning opportunities HE presented. These included gaining more skills, ‘furthering and improving one’s knowledge,’ and acquiring a higher-level qualification (Raven, 2023: p64). The second set of drivers related to ‘the experience’ a university education would offer. Here, participants talked about the social aspects of HE life, including the chance to make friends, gain greater independence, and acquire ‘new life skills.’ The third group of responses focused on the improved ‘employment prospects’ arising from going to university (Raven, 2023: p64). A higher education, it was argued, would open up ‘better job opportunities’, and enhance one’s chances of securing a well-paid job. In addition, it would enable the pursuit of a chosen career and help secure access to sought after professions (Raven, 2023: pp64-65).

Participants also provided insights into the ‘sources of next-step guidance’ that had proved valuable in their decision to pursue a higher education (Raven, 2023: p70). Five sources were discussed, although not every participant alluded to all of these. They comprised the support provided by family members, including ‘parents, sisters and brothers, [along with] extended family members and relatives’, as well as ‘friends.’ (Raven, 2023: p70). Online sources of information were also discussed, including the UCAS website. In addition, a number of participants talked about ‘the insights gained from the work experience’ component of their courses. The guidance and encouragement provided by college staff was also highlighted, in particular that offered by tutors and careers teachers (Raven, 2023: p70). However, surprisingly few made reference to outreach activities, including campus visits and university open days.


Whilst these findings are from a small study, the consistency in responses amongst participants who came from three different subject areas and were studying at two separate colleges suggests that they are of significance. Moreover, the motivations identified are consistent with those that have been discussed in other studies (Wiseman et al, 2017). The Uni Connect programme is seeking to raise progression rates from FE colleges (OfS, 2022). These findings suggest the value of ensuring any support offered considers and engages with the drivers likely to facilitate participation. They also draw attention to a gap that could be filled through the provision of outreach interventions (Raven, 2023).

That said, more research is needed. The questionnaire used in this study proved an efficient way of gathering the views of the majority of students on the designated courses. However, the deployment of focus groups, or semi-structured interviews, with a sample of the same students would enable a more detailed exploration of HE drivers, and a closer consideration of the nature and effectiveness of the support they received, and the types of outreach that would be of greatest benefit to them and their peers.

Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at


Thank you to the students at both colleges who participated in this study. Thank you also to Dr John Baldwin for overseeing the questionnaire survey.

Leave a comment

Painting and shaping Learning Landscapes with Assemblages in mind

by Peter Goodyear

This third SRHE Landscapes of Learning symposium – Assemblages – was a deeply engrossing and thought-provoking event. In this response, I want to do three things: pick and connect some particularly fruitful points from each talk – there were many, so this is hard; comment on assemblages and assemblage thinking in relation to current and future learning arrangements, and segue into the practical work of realising better spaces for learning in better universities. Landscapes are both depicted and made. An alertness to relations and flux can sharpen our perception, but can an assemblage sensibility inform better architecture?

Points plucked from the talks

Carol Taylor’s keynote made a persuasive case for connecting Deleuzian thinking about assemblages with a broad set of posthuman perspectives. She went on to offer an impressive array of spatially and materially-grounded example studies, illustrating her approach and also inspiring further research. Assemblage thinking helps us to see things that would otherwise be invisible, to give (almost?) simultaneous attention to questions of how, why, when and what, and to refuse sharp distinctions between bodies, things, words, ideas and feelings – to start with relations between things, rather than with the things themselves. Forming better ways of understanding the circumstances in which things happen is important for students of all fields and disciplines. It is important for teachers and other education workers in a second sense, because it helps set up situations for valued learning and for inducting students into practices of knowledge-making, including the practices of shaping convivial epistemic environments for themselves.

Tim Fawns used ideas of entanglement to reconcile hackneyed arguments about “technology in the service of pedagogy” vs “technology as driving and constraining pedagogy”. Pedagogy first or technology first? In most cases of educational innovation, pedagogical practices and technological infrastructures already exist and are used to justify, explain and constrain one another. They are already assembling or, one might even say, co-constituting one another. This argument is even stronger if one looks more broadly at the personal aims and technologies that students bring with them, and when one takes properly into account the complicated learning places that students configure, furnish and equip for themselves and their peers. 

Karen Gravett’s talk made clear that very little is known about how students’ activities are distributed in space, how students find, make and curate places for learning and what this means for matters of belonging (to a university). Certainly, university teachers and leaders cannot claim to know this in any representative, well-theorised or systematic way. Indeed, it emerges that there are many ways of belonging, no one way of managing campus spaces to afford inclusion and no simple metric connecting qualities of place with feelings of belonging, such as might be useful for an estates director’s KPIs.

Harriet Shortt researches relations between places, artefacts and organizational life, including places we might too-simply tag as “for work” or “for learning”. The main research site she spoke about was a newly-built Business School, though she was using this to advocate for participant-led visual methods: getting the users of buildings to photograph places of significance to them and share their annotated images. This is very useful for post-occupancy evaluation but also raises lots of deeper questions about place-making, including how people reconfigure places to resolve tensions between privacy and community, or collaboration and interruption.

The four talks illustrate the importance of understanding study activities through students’ eyes and experiences, with a capacious framing – so that what students curate and contribute isn’t simply missed – and then weaving more elaborate descriptions that catch multiple entanglements (place, tools, tasks, bodies, minds etc) so that all participants and stakeholders can agree a shared understanding of how things are being achieved, sufficient to improve the circumstances in which joint work is done. Subtle observation and an openness to complexity are important when making descriptions of how things are coming to be as they are. Then provisional simplifications are needed to agree on collective action.            

Assemblages and assemblage thinking

At several points in the “Assemblages” symposium, a leitmotif emerged: an allusion to using theoretical language at Academic Board. This recognisable shorthand conjures up our shared frustrations, as scholars of higher education, with the conceptual and linguistic gaps between research, policy and practice and with a paradox at the heart of educational work in universities: the insistence on discussing education in a vernacular language, unpolluted with exotic terms-of-art.

I am academic enough to value fine-grained disputes between knowledgeable scholars over what Deleuze and Guattari were trying to say when they wrote about rhizomes, lines-of-flight, segmentarity or assemblage. I also endorse something Carol Taylor said about the dangers of extracting ideas and terms from their intellectual homes and deploying mangled versions of them to serve dubious ends.  

But, in my own practice, I am deeply invested in understanding how knowledge, ways of knowing and ways of coming to know, that emerge in our work as scholars of education, can be made useful to other teachers and to students.  I have a practical interest in this occurring, coupled with an intellectual interest in how people actually do this work; I study epistemic practices at the boundaries of disciplines and professions. I try to understand what happens when (say) university managers in education, campus infrastructure and IT try to create better learning spaces or when people try to help design ideas travel. In thinking about “assemblage”, I am interested in how clusters of ideas migrate and become useful – to students, when they are tackling challenges that matter to them – and to teachers, architects, technologists and others involved in shaping educational spaces. So, I would say:

  • Whatever disciplines, professions or roles our students might be preparing themselves for, they will need subtle and sophisticated tools for understanding the world and acting ethically and effectively with others. Posthuman and postdigital perspectives can help students analyse the complex (learning) situations in which they find themselves, and reflect more deeply about how good work is accomplished.   
  • Scholarly teaching must acknowledge the complexities and risks involved when ideas move outside the domain of specialist scholarly debate. It is one thing to induct students into academic life by modelling scholarly disputation. It is quite another to maim or kill a half-grasped idea while it is in flight. There is a time and a place for correcting other people’s use of the term “assemblage” – but perhaps not at meetings of Academic Board.  

It’s also worth noting that “assemblage” exists somewhat independently as a technical term in fields such as archaeology, ecology, data science and art practice. One can use the noun “assemblage” to speak about the toolset of an ancient culture, the animals and plants typically inhabiting an area, a complex data set or a three-dimensional collage of objets trouvés, though these usages don’t normally have strong connotations of flux and evolution, such as we find when assemblage is understood as a verb. Moreover, there are lines of analysis within organisational science and science and technology studies (STS) that talk cogently about sociomaterial and sociotechnical assemblages, free from any visible Deleuzian mooring. I’m thinking, for example, of writing by Wanda Orlikowski, Susan Scott and Lucy Suchman on  technology in organisations and sociomaterial entanglements in working practices: productive resources for thinking about educational technology, technology in higher education, current and future learning spaces.

In sum, “assemblage” helps us notice and depict sociomaterial relations and change, but it is not the sole preserve of Deleuzian scholarship.

Learning landscapes: making places for coming-to-know

“A key element of placemaking is thus its open-ended and contingent nature. Placemaking is a dynamic experience, through which people, practice and the materiality of place undergo constant change.” (Sweeney et al, 2018, 582).

Harriett Shortt asked why so many new campus buildings mirror corporate head offices. Why do estates directors and architects impose these giant glazed voids upon us? She asked us to think of other more congenial forms: galleries and museums, for example. I think we should also be bolder and think how it might become possible for everyone involved in university life to engage in intentional place-making. We see what can be done in course and curriculum design through movements such as “Students as Partners”. We get other glimpses of what’s possible in the place-making events captured in the images our speakers shared. Beyond that, I suggest, we might try to make a scholarship of learning places that works in symbiosis with much more organic, bottom-up developments: less concerned with space-efficiency metrics and enabling the corporate; more invested in giving biophilic form to the market-place of ideas. There’s a well-established strand of work in architecture, urban planning and place-making on which we can draw. Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Marwa al-Sabouni and Thomas Heatherwick spring to mind.

It can be helpful to make a distinction, in educational work, between analysis and design. The first tries to depict and understand an existing state of affairs. The second involves steps to protect or improve upon it. The two depend upon one another, but work upon different objects. They require a dual ontology. In reflecting upon past and present educational events, we do well to acknowledge that tasks, tools and people are deeply entangled – considering assemblages or agencement helps here. But in thinking about what we can change (eg for the next time a course is run, or for the layout of a new learning space), we must break tangled realities into components over which we have some control. By “we” I don’t just mean teacher-designers or learning space researchers. Everyone has a role in this kind of place-making.

Collectively shaping material instances of what Raewyn Connell calls the “Good University” or Ron Barnett calls the “Ecological University” involves some tricky challenges. How do we form coalitions around images of what universities should be doing? How do we identify zones in which we have power to make change – including changes that give us more power to make other changes? How do we consolidate incremental changes so that we don’t dissipate our strength in perpetual defensive work? How do we co-create the infrastructure and reshape the landscapes that afford more socially responsible, sustainable and just ways of working and learning together?

Some of this may still be in our DNA. Jane Jacobs closed her great book on the organized complexity of cities with the following words. I like to think we can apply them to universities.

“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” (Jacobs, 1961, p448)

Peter Goodyear is Emeritus Professor of Education at The University of Sydney. His research on place, space and learning has appeared in a number of books, including “The Education ecology of universities: integrating learning, strategy and the academy” (Routledge/SRHE, with Rob Ellis, 2019); “Spaces of teaching and learning: integrating research and practice” (Springer, with Rob Ellis, 2018) and “Place-based spaces for networked learning” (Routledge, with Lucila Carvalho & Maarten de Laat, 2017).

Leave a comment

Landscapes of learning for unknown futures: presenter responses to audience questions (Assemblages Symposium)

by Karen Gravett and Tim Fawns

SRHE’s ‘Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: prospects for space in higher education’ symposium series, delivered with Professor Sam Elkington and Dr Jill Dickinson, aims to foster continuous dialogue around learning spaces. Here, two of our presenters Dr Karen Gravett and Tim Fawns, reflect on some of the ideas and issues raised during the third symposium on ‘Assemblages’. This blog has been compiled by Sam Elkington, Jill Dickinson, and Rihana Suliman (SRHE Conferences and Events Manager.)

What is the role for human agency in these types of assemblages with human and non-human actors, so as not to feel helpless or a “cog” while respecting the need to de-centre the human?

Karen: Humans still have a key role within assemblages but the perspective is shifted from thinking about the relational connection between humans and nonhumans or materials. This enables us to ask new questions, for example with respect to teaching in a classroom, we might notice not just what the teacher is doing or student is doing, but how the space and objects within the class interrelate and entangle to shape learning in different ways. How do bodies and spaces work together and connect? How are relations shaped by object-space arrangements in classrooms and what inclusions or exclusions are produced as a result?

Tim: Agency is always relational, contingent on the agency of other elements. The agency of humans is constrained by the people, technologies and materials we are bound to or surrounded by. However, a complex understanding of constraint also allows for more agency, because by understanding how they are constrained, humans have more possibilities for action. We can more clearly where we can act on entangled relations. For example, by better understanding our place within a system, we can more easily see the different places where we might be able to reconfigure things to free up space to move.

The teaching approach at many HE institutions is heavily lecture-based. How does this lack of interaction with students affect the conversation we’re having around assemblages and learning space more broadly?

Karen: Teaching that does not include interactions between students and teachers or students and peers and that is transmission focused suits many of the traditional tiered teaching spaces that still dominate UK universities today. This is how we often assume teaching should ‘be done’ to students. If we think about these kinds of object-space arrangements we can see that they may not be conducive to creating meaningful dialogue, to fostering relationships, to engaging a diversity of learners, or to enabling innovative teaching to happen. Fortunately, there is also a lot of creative teaching that is happening both within and beyond these spaces that teachers can learn from. Teachers have always found ways to be subversive and also institutions are increasingly creating new and more flexible learning spaces.

Tim: I am wary of assumptions that there is no interaction in lectures. There is always interaction (and intra-action) in any educational activity; that is one of the premises of an assemblage. In this question, the lack of interaction is seen from the teacher’s point of view. It is important that we focus on what students are actually doing rather than what we assume they must be doing according to a particular teaching method. Spaces are always complex; there are always many things going on, many of which will divert from our expectations. However, the material configuration of a space (e.g. tiered lecture seating and a podium), and the scheduling of time, do impose real constraints on the activity that is likely to manifest. Within any method, we can tinker with these parameters of material and temporal configuration and, thereby, open up more possibilities for agency.

Where does collaborative learning happen in our future learning landscapes? We still seem to work in a very individualist learning mode, through assessment practices to curricula and beyond…

Karen: Yes there is a real need to move beyond values of individualism that are present within both academia and society, and to think about our relational connections and how these matter. Collaboration can happen everywhere and anywhere – via a student-staff partnership project; via dialogic modes of teaching, via group work, via walking and other creative pedagogies. Online and offline. We just have to value it and make it happen.

Tim: That our assessment processes and practices, and our formal structures of higher education, are so tightly configured around individualist learning is a challenge. However, it doesn’t change the fact that collaborative learning is inevitable and, to me, the primary form of learning, particularly if we are thinking of assemblages. As we continue to embed more collective and collaborative practices in education, such as student co-design, group work, and the integration of artificial intelligence technologies, alternative narratives will emerge that fit better with our experiences of collective learning and education. It will be fascinating to see if we adapt practices, policies and structures in response, and how the different narratives – collective and individual – will co-exist in tension and negotiation.

Some universities have created a lot of flexible collaborative classroom spaces – we find that when we create them at my institution, faculty either don’t know how to utilise them or prefer to still use them as lecture halls continuing the individualist learning.  How can we create a space that ‘entangles’ both?

Karen: I find really helpful what Diane Mulcahy (2018, p 13) says about space, that “Thinking the term ‘learning spaces’ as something we do (stage, perform, enact), rather than something we have (infrastructure) affords acknowledging the multiplicity, mutability and mutual inclusivity of spatial and pedagogic practices”. In this case educators may need support to think about how they can make and enact the classroom to become an inclusive space. In my institution this happens via conversations for example as part of our PGCLTHE or other peer observation and mentoring practices. Perhaps teachers could be supported to see different ways to teach and to learn from others who are innovating and experimenting in the classroom.

Tim: The configuration of those spaces is actually a big step forward, even if practice and culture are slow to adapt to the new possibilities. A large part of what we need to do now is share practice and engage in open conversations about new possibilities. Individualist teaching may be the bigger barrier here: if we teach as individuals not as teams, and if we don’t talk enough about what we are all doing, we will have less exposure to alternative ways of educating. I think we are then less likely to develop practices that attune to wider contexts and possibilities.


Mulcahy, Dianne (2018) ‘Assembling Spaces of Learning ‘In’ Museums and Schools: A Practice-Based Sociomaterial Perspective.’ in Spaces of Teaching and Learning, Understanding Teaching-Learning Practice, edited by Ellis, E and Goodyear, P 13–29. Singapore: Springer

Dr Karen Gravett is Associate Professor and Director of Research at the Surrey Institute of Education at the University of Surrey, UK, where her research focuses on the theory-practice of higher education, and explores the areas of student engagement, belonging, and relational pedagogies. She is Director of the Language, Literacies and Learning research group, a member of the SRHE Governing Council, and a member of the editorial board for Teaching in Higher Education, and Learning, Media and Technology. Her work has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Society for Research in Higher Education, the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education, the British Association for Applied Linguistics, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her latest books are: Gravett, K. (2023) Relational Pedagogies: Connections and Mattering in Higher Education, and Kinchin, IM and Gravett, K (2022) Dominant Discourses in Higher Education.

Tim Fawns is Associate Professor at the Monash Education Academy, Monash University, Australia. Tim’s research interests are at the intersection between digital, clinical and higher education, with a particular focus on the relationship between technology and educational practice. He has recently published a book titled Online Postgraduate Education in a Postdigital World: Beyond Technology. Personal website: Twitter: @timbocop

Leave a comment

Responsibilities and gatekeeping in using language certificates for HE admission

by Jana Berg, Michael Grüttner, Stefanie Schröder

With the exception of a few master’s degree programs, the German higher education system is dominated by monolingual organizations. Therefore, language certificates are a key element of access to German higher education for international students. Trust in language certificates is critical, both for international student applicants and for university staff as well. However, in admission practice, there might be a tension between professional responsibilities and a lack of trust in the validity of standardised language certificates.

From 2017 to 2021, we conducted the study “Refugees’ pathways to German higher education institutions (WeGe)” on study preparations for refugee students in German higher education at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), which was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research under grant number 16PX16015. Our interview partners included staff of HE institutions as well as preparatory colleges that have to decide about admission to study preparation courses for international students. Those courses often include language instruction, but an at least intermediate level of German proficiency is usually mandatory for enrolment.

Our interview partners demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility. On the one hand, to fulfil their perceived role in the context of quality assurance by selecting capable and motivated students. And on the other hand, to prevent students from wasting their time with futile endeavours. This responsibility was embedded in their role, but also reflected in their perception of tasks and priorities. At the same time, we found notable insecurities regarding the quantitative evaluation of language skills. Standardised language certificates, even though formally recognized on an institutional level, were commonly perceived as no representation of actual language proficiency. Interview partners referred to their practical experience that language skills of applicants with the same language certification varied widely.

This insecurity between institutional quality conventions and formal access criteria raises problems for the perceived responsibility to ensure a maximum chance of success for students. We illustrate this with qualitative interview material from one case that emphasised the perceived lack of reliable documentation of skills by standardised language certificates. The interviewee strongly identified with the role of keeping up quality conventions. However, he perceived a strict formal protocol based on paperwork as insufficient, as his professional experience had shown that language certificates do not always match his expectations in an applicant’s language proficiency. He emphasised: “I don’t really care about documents, the skills have to back them up”. His strategy to deal with this lack of trust was his personal, informal language test: “Whenever it is possible, if the people are present, I do an assessment test. It is 100 tasks with 40 minutes, like a snapshot. It is supposed to show what people can access spontaneously”. Theoretically speaking, a tension arises between two quality conventions, a first concerned with an evaluation that takes into account the local circumstances and personal responsibility for the individual purpose of the international student applicants, and a second concerned with an evaluation that treats every international student applicant as equal and self-reliant (Imdorf & Leemann, 2023). As a compromise between these two quality conventions, university staff invent localised, self-designed short language tests to address this tension.

After high dropout numbers and bad experiences with a lack of language proficiency in the past, our case study participant reported that his now more selective and rigorous procedure had improved the course results of participants. However, it was still very much based on his individual perception of potential participants, as one exception he had made emphasises: “A prime example is a woman from Sudan, South Sudan, with two small children. […] she got up at four in the morning to study before the children were awake. […] And I don’t know why, I looked her in the eye, and she wanted to. And went through with it, mercilessly. So really, as a prime example. And is now studying electrical engineering.”

This case emphasises how professional insecurities can cause the development of professional strategies that devalue institutionalised procedures and increase the relevance of subjective impressions. However, it is not an issue only related to this case, even though this interviewee was especially explicit in addressing his insecurities and his coping strategies. Our findings imply that this divergence between perceived professional responsibilities and institutional conventions on the one side, and the quality and reliability of even internationally recognized certificates on the other side, is causing a lack of direction. This void is met with strategies of additional support, individual assessment criteria, and sometimes a stronger emphasis on personal perceptions of applicants. This has implications not only for HE professionals, but also for accessibility and equity in higher education. When practitioners perceive documents as unreliable and adapt their selection measures accordingly, application procedures become unreliable and less than transparent to applicants. However, all HE application procedures should transparently respond to one question: what counts?

On a practical level, we recommend addressing such insecurities with HE practitioners, by offering practical training and creating opportunities for exchange and supervisions. Additionally, a closer look at the perceived insufficiencies of language certificates could and should also be used to further develop standardised language tests, best in a dialogue between test providers, teaching professionals and course participants. Further research in the area of study preparation on conditions conducive to the acquisition of German language skills at the university level could also usefully contribute to improvement.

Dr Jana Berg is a postdoctoral researcher at the German Center for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW). She holds a Dr. in Sociology from the Leibniz University of Hanover. Her main research is on widening participation, the governance of HE internationalization, and climate science communication.

Dr Michael Grüttner received his Dr in sociology from Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany. He conducts research at the DZHW with a focus on social inclusion, migration, lifelong learning, and higher education.

Stefanie Schröder, MA, is the coordinator for continuing higher education at the Hochschulallianz Ruhr at Bochum University of Applied Sciences. Previously, she worked as a researcher at the DZHW. Her research focuses on educational inequalities, alternative access to higher education, and anti-discrimination data.

Leave a comment

Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: Reflections on the Assemblages Symposium

by Sam Elkington and Jill Dickinson

Wednesday September 13th was the final instalment of the three-part SRHE ‘Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: prospects for space in higher education’ symposia series, delivered in partnership with series co-convenors Professor Sam Elkington and Dr Jill Dickinson.

This was the final symposium in the series following on from the inaugural symposium event (in April 2023), which used the lens of ‘Networks’ to discuss contemporary evidence of how HE learning spaces are becoming increasingly connected, permeable, and interwoven (both physically and digitally), revealing increasingly adaptive learning environments. A second symposium event (in June) took up the lens of ‘Flexibilities’, engaging the idea of flexibility as a critical and prevalent aspect of how learning is situated relative to the demands of students for greater control in fitting their studies around their learning needs and preferences, as well as other aspects of their lives outside education.


In this final symposium, we shifted the focus by using the lens of ‘assemblages’ to examine the expanding range of contemporary HE learning spaces and the heterogenous collection of material and non-material, human and non-human elements that compose them. Through this lens we can glimpse how, as educators, we must work with a larger amalgam of discourses, bodies, ideas, objects, tools, technologies, and institutional structures and processes to negotiate and construct practice and meaning for the purposes of learning. Such a view offers leverage on contemporary learning spaces without making totalising claims about their character and form, and without demanding arbitrary distinctions in service of some simplified conceptualisation of their functionality – the ‘lecture’ space, the ‘social’ space, the ‘personal’ study space. Instead, the idea of assemblage contrasts such simplification with complexity, a distinction each of our presenters sought to interrogate and elaborate in their own way.

In her keynote address (“Posthuman pedagogic assemblages: Reconceptualising how objects, bodies, materialities, affects and spaces come to matter in higher education landscapes of learning”), Professor Carol Taylor (Bath) wove together an array of theorical perspectives to present a ‘working’ framework for better understanding emerging posthuman pedagogic assemblages, as a means of pushing back against unsettled current and ongoing conditions. Combining insights from her own investigations of posthuman materialities with critical contributions by Braidotti (2019), Barad (2007), Delanda (2006) and Bennett (2010), Carol moved to trouble normalised and common sense ideas about knowledge-making and space. She argued for the need to pay new attention in profoundly changed (and not yet post-) pandemic times to the entangled, productive, and ever-changing constellations and configurations – assemblages – of objects, bodies, spaces, materialities and affects, and how they come to matter in contemporary HE. Considered from this perspective, assemblages help us understand how things happen – as a process, rather than a stable or static enactment ‘in space’.

For Carol, this renders explicit the importance of humans as ‘beings-in-relation’ and pushes beyond a view of space as a container to one of direct material engagements in the world, of unfolding ‘material moments’ and of ‘affective flows’ where digital, physical, and biological boundaries are blurred. Carol provided compelling examples to illustrate the analytic value of transdisciplinary theoretical assemblages in the creation of new knowledge of, and for, landscapes of learning in HE. Assemblages are complex, concurrently emergent and convergent. They make us think outside  hierarchical ways of working. This opens the way to a radical reconceptualisation of the learner-as-assemblage, and of pedagogy as a spatial-material praxis comprising material and expressive properties. That shapes how we tune into everyday HE spaces, as well as our own complexities in shaping and perpetuating educational practices that comprise them.

In his presentation (“Mutually navigating the messy, postdigital spaces of education: entangled design, practice, and knowledge”) Tim Fawns (Monash) drew together ideas from postdigital education, and his own work exploring entangled pedagogy, to consider some of the pressing and ‘messy’ tensions around learning and space design, practice, policy, infrastructure, and relational knowledge and expertise across different institutional levels. Tim challenged the conventional attitude that holds learning spaces as fixed ideas; instead, he suggests all spaces are postdigital, comprised of an ongoing (re)shaping of purposes, context, values, methods, and technologies. Technologies for learning are multiple and contingent, assembled by their (intra)actions and potential for meaning-making in that moment, for those individuals and/or groups involved. Amidst such complexity, Tim showed how our actions acquire more meanings and resonances, such that our movements in and through spaces are not easily summarised or simply presented. All agency in these assemblages is distributed, it is relational and contingent – it is entangled. This should move us past fixed conceptions of how things are and how things are done. This includes the dominant mindset of context last, (pedagogical) method first . It reveals the practical importance of developing and honing a relational expertise – the ability to configure and orchestrate pedagogical assemblages as a means of negotiating spaces for learning. From this entangled perspective, there are always more spaces going on. Physical spaces overlay arbitrary concepts of structure and control to reveal borders that are blurred and porous, where learning leaks out, and in, from ‘other’ connected spaces, offering different meaning(s) depending on what is happening. For Tim, the goal here is to show that the apparent immediacy of space is always mediated, more complex than it appears – linked to, and made what it is by, relations to other people, objects, and spaces. It exists within an ongoing process that sustains and recreates it.

Karen Gravett (Surrey), in her talk (“Assemblages of belonging in the digital university”) continued along a relational plane of inquiry, approaching ideas of materiality and human connection in digital educational environments through her research examining student engagement, belonging, and mattering in higher education. Karen used the lens of assemblages to animate the many (inter)connections students have with different spaces within the digital university, and how these spaces are at once shaped by and situated within a multiplicity of things, both human and non-human, material and non-material. By examining the situated character of spaces experienced by students, Karen’s research has shown the importance and value of better understanding how the (inter)relationships within those spaces work, and how students go about designing and curating different components of space to create their own spaces, that belong to them. Crucially, this is a relational and processual belonging – it is not a static quality of space – connected to a variety of different objects and materialities that move and change with the students themselves. For Karen, paying attention to how such relations work, to affective encounters and the situatedness of students’ experiences of belonging, encourages us to think about, and actively focus on, equity issues and the plausible (dis)continuities of assemblages in shaping student belonging. This raises important questions around who can and cannot curate assemblages of belonging. Karen’s research has revealed that students’ sense of belonging is experienced in many different ways (even in the same spaces), supporting and connecting to multiple communities. In response, we must develop environments and practices that attend to the inherent complexity of students’ situated experiences of belonging, built upon values of openness, flexibility, and honesty.  

In the final presentation (“Picturing Places for Learning – how photographs tell stories about where learning happens”), Harriet Shortt (UWE, Bristol) shared work exploring the affordances of visual methods for providing rich new ways of seeing and understanding spaces and places for learning. Harriet drew together insights from a variety of research projects that have used participant-led photography to investigate user experiences of different buildings and the materiality of work amidst a drive towards more ‘open’ learning spaces. Greater openness might, on the one hand, permit opportunities for a shared transparency and grounds on which to hone relational expertise (as discussed by Tim Fawns and Karen Gravett). On the other hand, it can lead to feelings of exposure and lack of privacy for students and staff. Harriet’s research provides insights into how people organically manage the lack of privacy that such spaces present, by creating their own spaces that are intentionally sheltered from (over)exposure through the (re)organisation of space, objects, and things. Exposure to increasingly open spaces can invite spontaneous interactions and unscheduled conversations that might be desirable, from an organisational perspective, for encouraging connections between stakeholders. However, according to Harriet’s research, the lived experience of constant connection and always being seen can erode any sense of privacy or personal space which can, in turn, be detrimental for the quality of experience had by students and staff alike. Harriet used the analogy of ‘den building’ as a provocative means of illustrating how many people in her studies have resorted to seeking out or creating ‘just-for-me’ spaces where they can detach from others and determine routines and limits that are personal their circumstances and needs. Harriet’s work asks important questions around whether we should be redesigning learning spaces and wider campus infrastructure to allow for what she termed ‘being alone together’ spaces to emerge and exist, spaces where people (students and staff) can be alone but also maintain a sense of connection.

Following this formal part of the session, we invited the keynote speaker and the presenters to engage in a panel discussion. Chaired by Professor Sam Elkington, this provided opportunities to highlight, and focus in on, some of the cross-cutting themes that had started to emerge from the earlier discussions. It also provided space for more collaborative and reflective discussion and Q&A with the audience. Key points included:

  • a need for collaborative approaches to instigating a ‘values-based institutional reinvigoration’ around learning spaces
  • the disconnect between the architectural trend towards ‘homogenised’ learning spaces and the values that we, as educators, seek to instil in teaching and learning
  • the increased transparency of learning spaces, and the consequent need to find, and perhaps claim, less-exposed learning spaces, and ‘alone-together spaces’, particularly given well-documented issues around mental health and wellbeing, and sense of belonging
  • potential options for ‘disrupting’ pre-allocated spaces by arranging and/or using them in different ways, by bringing in different materials, or by restriking the power dynamic between tutor and students, by encouraging students to explore the spaces available for themselves
  • the important role that visual methods can play in encouraging engagement with research findings around this theme and a need for meaningful, collaborative stakeholder engagement, and from start-to-finish, in the future development of learning spaces

The keynote, the presentations, and the panel discussion in this third and final symposium encouraged the speakers and the audience to engage not only with the thoughts and ideas presented in this session but also draw links with the earlier symposia around the themes of Networks and Flexibilities to develop more holistic understandings given the multiplicities and complexities that characterise learning spaces.

From the outset we envisaged this Symposia Series as an integral part of a longer-term project that continues to push to the fore conversations about the future possibilities for learning spaces within HE. We want to bring together, and engage, a range of key stakeholders in meaningful discussions and debate to help support evidence-based decision making. When we designed the series we also saw it as an opportunity to test options around multimodality for continuing conversations where everyone with an interest could engage with the range of synchronous and asynchronous elements on offer. These included traditional ‘conference-style’ formats such as key notes and presentations, sketch notes, social media discussions, and reflective blogs.

We’re looking forward to reporting on the findings from the project at this year’s Annual Society for Research into Higher Education International Conference. As part of that presentation, we will also be asking the key question ‘So what, now what?’ and outlining our plans for the next stage of the project and calls for others to get involved in the community of practice we have developed around this theme.


Barad K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Half-way. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

Braidotti, R. (2019). A theoretical framework for the critical posthumanities. Theory, culture & society, 36(6), 31-61.

DeLanda, M. (2019). A new philosophy of society: Assemblage theory and social complexity. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Sam Elkington is Professor of Learning and Teaching at Teesside University where he leads on the University’s learning and teaching enhancement portfolio. Sam is a PFHEA and National Teaching Fellow (NTF, 2021). He has worked in Higher Education for over 15 years and has extensive experience working across teaching, research and academic leadership and policy domains. Most recently Sam worked for Advance HE (formerly the Higher Education Academy) where he was national lead for Assessment and Feedback and Flexible Learning in Higher Education. Sam’s most recent book (with Professor Alastair Irons) explores contemporary themes in formative assessment and feedback in higher education: Irons and Elkington (2021) Enhancing learning through formative assessment and feedback London: Routledge.

Dr Jill Dickinson is a Reader of Law at Leeds Beckett University. As an SFHEA, Jill was also selected as a Reviewer for the Advance HE Global Teaching Excellence Awards, and she has been shortlisted for National Teaching Fellowship. A former Solicitor, specialising in property portfolio management, Jill’s research focuses on place-making and professional development, and her work has been recognised in the Emerald Literati Awards for Excellence. Jill holds a number of editorial roles, including board memberships for Teaching in Higher Education and the Journal of Place Management and Development. She has recently co-edited a multidisciplinary collection entitled Professional Development for Practitioners in Academia: Pracademia and co-founded communities of practice around this theme.


Must do better:  making the Office for Students accountable

by GR Evans

The House of Lords Committee on Industry and Regulators pulls no punches in Must do better. This Report on its Inquiry on the Office for Students published on 13 September finds the OfS to be underperforming in a number of respects. It criticises its ‘prescriptive regulatory requirements and time-consuming processes’ and its  ‘inappropriate micromanagement’, with ‘little regard to the need to protect institutional autonomy’. Institutions are found to be reluctant to engage with it ‘for fear of a punitive regulatory response’.

‘The student interest’ in which it was set up is described as ‘defined by the OfS in line with the political priorities of Ministers rather than the priorities of students’. In comparison with its  threatening mass of detailed rules for providers the OfS definition of  required ‘outcomes’ affecting students (student continuation beyond a first year; progression to completion; gaining employment) is found to be ‘simplistic and narrow’.

The Office for Students is a non-departmental ‘arm’s length’ public body with executive functions. These are far more extensive than HEFCE possessed in its role of ‘buffer’ between Government and providers of higher education and Must do Better is concerned that the OfS has been adding to them. Moreover Must do better says that the lack of close attention to the underlying objectives of his statutory duties ‘makes it difficult for the OfS to be held accountable’.

The OfS is a regulator. Must do Better says it ‘should improve its adherence to best regulatory practice through closer alignment with the Regulators’ Code’ dating from 2014. It should do so ‘with respect to how it implements its policies and procedures, as well as how it develops them’. The Regulators’ Code has ‘accountability’ as its overall aim, and emphasises reciprocal and mutual responsibilities between regulator and regulated, a point on which the OfS is now found conspicuously wanting.

The provisions for its accountability seem inadequate to address the potential abuse of power arising from a failure of the OfS to engage appropriately with the providers it regulates. If it decides a provider ‘must do better’ in meeting its ‘outcomes’ requirements, the Office for Students can remove it from its Register, take away its degree-awarding powers and its university title or impose a monetary penalty, with the provider paying the costs of its investigation, with internal appeal only against the scale of the costs.

Appeal against an OfS decision on such matters lies to the First-tier Tribunal Health, Education and Social Care Chamber (Care Standards). It must be made within 28 days of the issue of the decision by the OfS, on the grounds that the decision was based on an error of fact; was wrong in law, or unreasonable, except where the decision was to revoke degree-awarding powers or University title. In that case the grounds of appeal are not specified and the decision may be made afresh. The Tribunal will take into account evidence that was not available to the Office for Students when it made its decision.

A landmark case was brought by Bloomsbury Institute Ltd, formerly the London School of Business and Management, after its application for Registration was refused by the OfS in May 2019 under Registration Condition B3, namely  that ‘student continuation rates from year one to year two (“continuation rates”) and rates of progression to professional employment or post-graduate study (“progression rates”). First came an attempt at judicial review on a several grounds. That was unsuccessful but an appeal succeeded on two grounds, ‘delegation’ and the failure of ‘publication and consultation’. Bloomsbury is now on the Register subject to an Ongoing Condition about student ‘continuation’ (R. v. Bloomsbury Institute Ltd. and The Office for Students [2020] EWCA Civ 1074).

Must do better points to the agreed accountability ‘framework’, not between OfS and providers but between OfS and Government. The current Framework document between the Department for Education and the Office for Students is dated January 2023. This promises ‘reviews’ to ‘ensure intra alia that the OfS is delivering effectively’ against the ‘aims and objectives’ of the Public Bodies Review Programme, but ‘The date of the next review is yet to be determined’. 

It may take some time to arrange. Must do Better notes the National Audit Office’s recent criticism in its Central Oversight of Arm’s Length Bodies that ‘review programmes’ had ‘failed to meet their ambition of reviewing every ALB [Arms Length Body] within a Parliament’. Must do better notes ‘that the Government is committed to a public body review of the OfS’, but calls for that to go beyond the ‘considering whether the OfS’ work remains useful and necessary’ by placing ‘ its work in a wider context, focusing on the strategic issues facing the sector’.

In any case the Office for Students’ Framework Document provides accountability only through the Secretary of State (ultimate accountability to Parliament) and the Minister for Higher Education (day-to-day responsibility). The DfE’s Senior Sponsor for OfS will ‘hold quarterly performance reviews with the leadership of the OfS as part of performance monitoring and accountability’. These do not seem to be on published record. Government ‘recognition of the problems created by regulatory duplication in the higher education sector’ is welcomed but Must do better  wants  the DfE to ‘set out in further detail the steps it is taking to streamline regulatory responsibilities within the sector, including its proposed timetable for this’.

There is published self-criticism. The OfS’s Annual Report for 2022-3 took stock of its own performance expressly in terms of the requirements of its Framework relationship with the DfE:

This year we experienced some resource challenges, which had implications for some business plan activities. Our Performance analysis report identifies where this was the case.

OfS accordingly tracked its ‘performance against’ its eleven Key Performance Measures and Operational Measures and ‘reported to the DfE’ on its ‘progress’. KPM 11 covers ‘Efficient Regulation’ and lists under the headings: ‘Minimum and maximum number of OfS data and information returns for providers’; ‘Average number of OfS conditions of registration subject to enhanced monitoring per registered provider’; Amount of regulatory fees paid by providers per student’. The Operational Measures count Reportable Events; Notifications; Registration; Degree awarding powers, and time taken to resolve these. The OfS Annual Report adds that its ‘performance against budget’ is ‘monitored and reported each month’ and its ‘performance against financial target’ on an in-year basis. It has monitored  its performance in paying its creditors, ‘greening’, the Cabinet Office’s Functional Standards for Counter Fraud and salaries.

Must do better makes recommendations but it is far from clear how accountability can be insisted on. Must do better finds it ‘worrying that some institutions would be unwilling to engage with the OfS’ particularly ‘in the early stages of falling into financial difficulty for fear of a punitive regulatory response’. The 2022-3 Annual Report looks towards the  individual providers with which the OfS has a regulatory relationship, but chiefly in terms of their ‘Financial sustainability and governance’. It had required 250 providers to complete their annual financial return for the 2020/2021 financial year:

Of these, 117 were subject to further assessment, there was informal monitoring of 51 providers, of which 31 were subject to additional formal monitoring. Three providers were subject to Student Protection Directions, which enable the OfS to intervene “quickly and in a targeted way” where there is a material risk of market exit. One provider exited the market.

 It was recognised before the burden was increased with the creation of the OfS that already  ‘the accountability burden in the higher education sector is out of proportion to the risk of financial or academic mismanagement.’ This may no longer be true, and if so that matters in connection with the full title of Must do better: the Office for Students and the looming crisis facing higher education.  The Report outlines this crisis in terms of the diminishing value of the tuition fee against the expanding institutional cost of teaching an undergraduate and the growing reliance on income from international students.

It expresses concerns about the adequacy of OfS’s checking of financial sustainability especially with reference to the latter. It finds it too trusting, which is especially a concern in the light of the recognition that providers in financial difficulties are afraid to raise their concerns with the OfS. The OfS Register defines the providers whose students are entitled to loans from the Student Loans Company. It currently lists 425, in two categories, those which may charge fees up to £9,250 and those without a ‘fee cap’ to which the SLC will lend only £6125, less if the provider has no TEF rating. There is perhaps a further growing concern which Must do better fails to pick up and that is the multiplication of alternative providers not all of which have degree awarding powers or university title and not all of which are offering courses above Levels 4 and 5.

How badly is the Office for Students failing? Can it improve sufficiently to help protect the future of English higher education? It has been publishing reassurance that it is making efforts to connect better with the providers of higher education it now regulates. It has published the findings of two assessment visits on Business and Management courses and celebrates ‘positive engagement’ from local graduates on an OfS programme. It is ‘advising’ on ‘what works in supporting disabled students’. This is all a warrant of a wish to repair flaws and to improve what it does but the criticisms of Must do Better may not be easy to meet piecemeal.

A letter to the Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee from the chief executives of the Russell Group, GuildHE, MillionPlus and the University Alliance in January 2023, suggesting that the OfS was failing to comply with the Regulators Code  helped to prompt concerns that this was encouraging providers to resort to litigation. That led to further concerns in March about the lack of ‘basic safeguards around transparency, fairness and accountability’ in the conduct of the OfS.

The Lords’ Industry and Regulators Committee began its inquiry in March and the now published evidence submitted to it fully supports the conclusions of Must do Better. If the Office for Students is beyond reform could it be abolished? That would require fresh legislation. The Higher Education and Research Act (2017) depends heavily on the belief that, with the block grant shrunk to vanishing point for teaching and tuition fees a chief source of university income, HEFCE’s allocation of a block grant in the capacity of a buffer between Government and providers would no longer be enough. When providers were attracting their funding directly, institutional autonomy was no longer to be trusted without a new Regulator. The drawbacks of this policy change are now apparent. Perhaps it is time for a radical rethink.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

1 Comment

Interest rate changes could challenge universities, student loans and post 16 and vocational education

by Sir Adrian Webb

The publication on 13 September 2023 of the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee report on the Office for Students drew attention to the financial challenges facing universities in the UK and to the challenges associated with regulating and overseeing these risks.  

This week we look set to see these challenges increase with the possible increase in the  base interest rates by the Bank of England (the “Bank Rate”) to 5.5% when the Monetary Policy Committee next meets on Thursday 21st September (Guardian, Financial Times, 24 August 2023 ). If there is another 0.25% increase in the base rate, as is widely anticipated, this will place government and university finances under further pressure over the next few years with significant negative implications for HE students, the UK Government’s education budget in general and the further education college budget in particular. Furthermore, this anticipated rise in the Bank Rate may not be the last of these increases if Government spending remains high and inflationary pressures persist through the winter months. 

The most immediate and direct effect will be on the interest payments that universities need to pay on short term loans. According to HESA, average HE provider debt as a proportion of turnover stands at 0.16%, but with highs of 454% and lows of 0%, with unrestricted reserves of 204% of income (HESA, 2023). Of course, financial indicators expressed as a percentage of income for institutions of very variable sizes give no feel for the absolute amount of cash owed, or the annual cost of repayments.  

The top 13 higher education providers by percentage of debt are all small private institutions; most have recorded deficits in recent years and appear to have low levels of cash available to cover running costs. The next 35 institutions by scale of debt all have debt levels of over 50% of turnover. Among these institutions there are 22 large pre- and post-92 universities in all parts of the UK.  

The challenges presented by potential increases in interest payments will be exacerbated over the next two years by the continued decline in the real value of student tuition fees, limitations on the recruitment of overseas students with dependants and a decline in the proportion of students applying to low and mid-tariff universities.  

When student tuition fees were first introduced, HE providers were encouraged to set fees at between £6,000 and £9,000 per annum. Some price competition between institutions was expected but in practice the vast majority set their fees at the higher level. Recent analysis by Mark Corver of DataHE, an independent higher education consultancy, indicates that the real level of fees that higher education providers charge students as tuition fees has dropped below £6,000 if the value is deflated by the Retail Prices Index (RPI), slightly higher if other measures of inflation are used.

Over the last five years, many HE providers have been attempting to cover the reduced value of undergraduate home tuition fee income by recruiting larger number of international students, particularly from China, India and Nigeria. This approach has attracted large numbers of students to the most selective universities and those in major cities; many universities now have more than 25% of their students recruited from these sources. The announcement of restrictions on the release of temporary visas to support the dependents of international students has already had an impact on the recruitment of people from overseas who want to study at UK universities.. This impact looks set to continue and increase in 2024. 

To illustrate the issues faced by the more highly indebted institutions with a significant number of international students, consider the composite case of the University of Camberwick Green, with net debt of circa £200m and current loans with a weighted average debt cost of 3.5%. If this institution needed to renew all of its existing debt obligations this would likely double the costs of debt servicing from £7million to at least £14million. This would mean an additional annual outlay as a proportion of turnover in excess of 5%, dependent on the interest rates agreed with lenders and the term of their loan (e.g. revolving credit facility, private placement, bond or bank lending).  For a university like Camberwick Green, which has also recorded large operating deficits in recent years, additional debt is likely to be more expensive and so the short-term options are likely to focus on selling assets or laying off staff; these are not easy or attractive options. Changes to course portfolios and/or increased international student recruitment and transnational operations are unlikely to produce the necessary returns quickly and without undue financial or reputational risk.  

The more prestigious and selective universities in the more affluent parts of the UK are unlikely to face pressures that are likely to bear down hard on those which are, by conventional measures, less prestigious and less selective, in parts of the UK that engaged in levelling up activities with significant HE involvement. The impacts of high indebtedness, declining student recruitment and operating deficits are already being felt with significant redundancies planned at ten universities. 

The next most significant impact of higher interest rates will be on student loan repayments and the arrangements for funding this activity. The student loan book currently stands at £206bn with an additional £20bn of loans being issued each year. The internal real interest rate charged on these loan arrangements by HM Treasury, i.e. the real discount rate (excluding inflation), was set at -0.7% in 2021 at the height of the Covid crisis and remains the rate proposed in the Plan 5 changes scheduled to come into place during 2024. The nominal discount rate taking account of inflation is 1.9%. If Bank of England interest rates and by consequence HM Treasury bond/gilt rates move to 6.25% in 2024, as has been forecast, and the student loan rate is changed as a consequence, this will create an adverse upward movement in real interest rate charges on the loan book of circa 5%. Dependent on the scheduling of the loans this will then feed through into the calculation of the principal debt students are required to repay and also the Resource Allocation Budget (RAB) charge paid by the UK Government on loans that are forecast not to be repaid. Under revised accounting rules introduced in 2021, a proportion of this increased RAB charge will need to be accounted for in the national deficit in the year it is incurred and cannot be delayed until the loan matures. With forecast increases in the scale of the student loan book through to the next decade there are likely to be powerful voices in the Treasury wishing to pay down this debt or reduce the scale of its growth. This in turn is likely to mean a need to revisit the current arrangements in advance of the next HM Treasury Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in 2025. 

The current loan book is financed in part by the spread (difference) between the notional interest rate charged to students on loans they have taken out, which is currently set with some reference to the Prevailing Market Rate (PMR) for commercial loans, and the lower rate paid by the Treasury for its borrowings. The PMR was set at 7.3% in February 2023 and confirmed at this level for the period between September and November 2023 on 11th August. . At present the Bank of England Bank Rate is 5.3% and so the spread between the student loan rate and the Bank Rate was 2%. If a similar spread is expected if  the base rate rises further to 6.25% the PMR could be 8.25% or even higher. Interest rates at this level would make almost all student loans un-repayable, effectively converting the loan system into a graduate tax confined to new students and also potentially introducing a significant element of “moral hazard” as many students would face little incentive to do anything other than maximise their student loans. Given that they will never repay them; they will face an additional marginal loan repayment (tax) rate of 9% on undergraduate loans and 6% on postgraduate loans, so why not take out as much loan as possible and complete a postgraduate taught or research degree, even when the economic returns to them individually and to the public purse are negative. Beyond this “moral hazard” argument there is also arguably a “moral outrage” argument to be had about imposing an age-related differential income tax rate on younger people who are recent graduates. 

The problems outlined above are then likely to be heightened by forecast increases in the number of prospective undergraduate students entering the system over the next seven years.  In 2021/2022 there were 2.16 million U.K. domiciled students in UK HE institutions and a further 0.68 million students from the EU and other overseas countries. By 2030 the number of UK domiciled students is expected to increase by between 200,000 and 400,000 as a consequence of increases in the number of people in the relevant age groups. This would be at an average additional cost per student of at least £60,000 per three-year undergraduate degree, based on loans for tuition fees of 3 x £9,250 and for maintenance of 3 x up to £13,022 for students living away from home in London. Many students study for longer than three years on foundation and/or masters programmes, hence the forecast of £60,000 per student. This is an additional annual cost of loan outlay of £12bn or more. This seems unlikely to be fundable. 

The implication of these cost pressures would be serious enough if they were confined to HE, but they are not. Far from it. At present the growing costs of HE are being paid for by other parts of the UK Government’s education budget, resulting in real terms cuts to the further education budget, consequent low rates of pay for FE college staff, and cuts to the adult education budget. In adult education, FE and apprenticeship provision pay rates are set locally rather than nationally and so reductions in institutional budgets in this part of the education sector have tended to be accommodated by falling wages and unfilled vacancies rather than through redundancies as has been the case in the university sector. These different parts of the post-school education system are making greater use of part-time and temporary contracts and precarious jobs. This at a time when the need for more and better vocational education is increasingly widely recognised and the need for “industry standard” staff capable of delivering the new and upgraded skills required by rapid technological change has never been greater.  

Across the UK 70% of adults have not been to university, but like many older graduates they would benefit from the opportunity to take a course at a local college or other adult education provider. With 20% of the adult working age population (5 million people) currently economically inactive and with chronic skills shortages in all parts of economy it is very worrying that the pay of college lecturers in catering, construction, digital, engineering, health and social care is considerably below the rates paid to comparably skilled people working in the private sector. Employers in the UK spend on average 50% less than their counterparts in mainland Europe on workforce education and training. The combination of reductions in employer spending on training and cuts in UK Government funding for FE and apprenticeships has led to a reduction of over 1 million student places in adult education, apprenticeships and FE per year in the last ten years. This is not the position the UK needs to be in to improve productivity. Indeed, it is the very opposite of what is required to support such mission – let alone to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth.  

Who is responsible for monitoring and governing this system? At the moment the financial position of individual universities is overseen by their governing bodies, aided by internal and external auditors predominantly drawn in combinations of two of the big four audit firms. The Office for Students (OfS) monitors the financial position of individual higher education providers as part of its regulatory function, but it is not formally required to intervene financially at an early stage to support institutions in difficulties. It may issue a requirement to improve the plans for protecting students, but it is not required to prevent an institution from failing. The Student Loan Company (SLC) is overseen by an independent board and supported by a representative from the sponsoring departments in the UK’s national governments (i.e. Department for Education, Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Office in the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive). Whether the OfS, national regulators in the devolved nations or the SLC have modelled the scenarios outlined in this note is a moot point. Indeed, it is more of a mute point because no one is publicly talking about these issues and the problems that go with them in a joined-up way with a long-term perspective. It would be helpful if they did, and if there was a debate about the consequences for higher and further education providers and student loans of the return to real interest rates more in-keeping with the long run historical average. Given the commitment of central banks around the world to move in this direction after 15 years of ultra-low interest rates there is a pressing need for a comprehensive review of where we are heading and what needs to be done about it. 

As we approach a General Election in 2024, now is the time for the major political parties in the UK to commit to the appointment of a Royal Commission or equivalent to look at these issues with an impartial, sector neutral and critical eye.  Over the last hundred years all major changes of this type have proceeded in this way (i.e. Smith Report 1919, White Paper on Education 1943, Robbins Review 1964, Dearing Review 1997 and Browne Review 2011). Indeed, in 1997 Gillian Sheppard (Conservative minister) and David Blunkett (prospective Labour minister) agreed in the run up to the General election to respect the Dearing Committee proposals. A similar arrangement was reached regarding the Browne Review between Peter Mandelson (Labour Minister) and George Osborne (prospective Conservative Minister) in the run up to the general election in 2010.  The settlements in 1944 and 1963 were similarly effectively cross-party. This is a fundamental issue for the future of the UK and deserves to be made non-political with recommendations for the long term. Previous reviews have produced long term plans which have been implemented when they had cross-party support and straddled a General election. 

Sir Adrian Webb was an academic at the London School of Economics and Loughborough University; he was Deputy Vice Chancellor at Loughborough and Vice Chancellor at the University of Glamorgan. As well as holding a number of senior management positions and a wide range of public service/consultancy roles in local and central government (including HM Treasury, DHSS, Home Office, DFES, and the Ministry of Justice) and in Wales, he has also held many roles in the Third Sector. Sir Adrian was a member of the Dearing Review committee in the late 1990s and chaired a review of further education colleges and funding in Wales in 2007. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organisation with which the author is affiliated.