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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Exploring a ‘Sense of Belonging’ and Why It Matters in Higher Education

By Gill Mills and Caroline Jones

This was the first time we had attended an SRHE Event: we were optimistic and excited to experience and develop new knowledge aligned to the subject area of, ‘A sense of belonging within Higher Education’ and we were not disappointed. The SRHE venue provided an intimate but not intimidating environment where we were exposed to speakers covering a range of different elements that linked into the common theme. There was initial insight into the issues of admissions; clearing and contextual data from research delivered by Mansor Rezaian, from the Queen Mary University, then a qualitative exploration of non-traditional students’ journey into an elite university from Debbi Stanistreet of the University of Liverpool. Following these opening speakers there were opportunities for participant questions and answers and whilst we did not pose questions we found great value in listening to the elaborate and interesting discussions that took place. This part of the event created an academic community feel with professionals from across institutions, faculties and disciplines debating contextual dilemmas and experiences.

The latter part of the day explored the construction of ‘spaces’ of student friendship, with an in-depth delivery from Mark Holton of the University of Plymouth followed by some thoughtful ideas on how to use innovative approaches to research for under-represented students in urban settings, courtesy of speakers from the Queen Mary University. There was an extremely thought-provoking presentation by researcher Daniel Hartley and students from Queen Mary University – Dushant Patel and Nadia Hafedh – who are undertaking participatory action research relating to the recruitment of a sensitive community and implications of employing qualitative methodology in generating institutional change. Capturing the students’ voice and listening to their experiences as part of this research brought to life the importance of collaborative research and we found the idea of capturing data using a ‘long table’ approach fascinating. It was also refreshing to hear honest and frank discussions relating to the difficulties that the researchers had encountered thus far, with participating academics offering solutions and suggestions for resolutions or alternative approaches.

The day culminated in small group discussion on key issues affecting a sense of belonging and analysing why this matters in higher education. The opportunity to share ideas and knowledge through these professional networking discussions provided a valuable and timely end to this academic research collaborative event.

The style of the presentations was relaxed, thorough, informative and we found them insightful, enabling us to consider the impact of how the different pieces of research would sit within the context of our own institution. The day gave us valuable time to reflect and develop our professional knowledge based on evidence gained through the sharing of the work of others within academic research and across a range of institutions. We are already looking at the calendar to see which event we can book next! Thank you to SRHE for this opportunity; an exceptionally enjoyable day which helped us develop our own ‘sense of belonging’ to the SRHE community of researchers into HE.

Gill Mills is Course Leader for the Foundation Degree in Health and Social Care and Caroline Jones is Lecturer in Health and Social Care at University Campus, Oldham, which supports their SRHE membership.

Paul Temple


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Mind the Knowledge Gap

By Paul Temple

I teach an MA session at the Institute of Education called “The University in the Knowledge Economy”. We canter through the history, starting with a few reflections on the medieval university, going on to consider the development of science in nineteenth-century Germany, noting Bush’s 1945 Science – the Endless Frontier report, examining Bell’s seminal 1973 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and coming up to date with references to theorists such as Stehr and the policy statements to be found in any British White Paper on higher education in recent decades, or in any comparable European Commission report. My no doubt predictable thesis is that the university has steadily assumed an increasingly dominant place in knowledge production and transfer in modern societies; and that this has certain implications for the ways in which universities should be planned and managed.

But I’m now beginning to think that this rather Whig approach is looking painfully complacent. The development of knowledge economies seems to have had the effect of producing deep social divisions that are only now becoming obvious – the Brexit vote here, Trump in the US, Le Pen in France, and so on. What was widely thought to be an unarguable good – more knowledge, used in new ways – is turning out to have some troubling consequences. It doesn’t have to be like this, of course, but the understandable grievances of those left behind by the knowledge economy – stuck in the knowledge gap, between old ways of working and the new economy – have been both overlooked by otherwise progressive politicians and then ruthlessly exploited by cynical ones. Do we now have “knowledge Britain” and an “anti-knowledge Britain”, to set alongside the “locals vs cosmopolitans” and the “somewheres vs anywheres” divisions? Have those of us working in knowledge businesses assumed too easily that most people were seeing the world from a vaguely similar vantage point to our own?

Universities have got some questions to answer here. If they have done such a wonderful job in creating and transmitting knowledge, then how come the quarter-baked ideas about how a modern economy works (“balancing the books” and so on, as if the national economy were a corner shop) have the currency that they apparently do? How come that the benefits of a single market for goods and services, explained in shelves-full of economics textbooks, have so little political traction? How come that the intellectually discredited idea of grammar schools is still thought to be worth even discussing? (The bitter irony here is that the idea does rest on research – mistaken when not actually bogus – on IQs.)

The idea of the knowledge economy or society seemed not to figure at all in the recent general election campaign. Actually, you could argue that the Conservative campaign’s vision of taking Britain back to the 1950s – Brexit, grammar schools, fewer foreigners, fox hunting – was an anti-knowledge one, designed to cut Britain off from the cultural and economic links on which its knowledge base (and much else) depends while at the same time deepening internal divisions. Accordingly, my feelings towards my fellow citizens became markedly warmer in the early hours of 9 June, when it became apparent that this approach had met with something less than universal acclamation.

At HEPI’s “Policy Briefing Day” in April, a former ministerial special adviser apparently suggested that “universities tailor their priorities to fit the Government’s expressed goal of ensuring the UK’s departure from the EU is a success” (translation: don’t cause trouble, get on side, or else). I suggest that the task confronting universities goes beyond helping the government to manage its Brexit damage-limitation project: it is about working to close the national knowledge gap and in doing so saying, loudly and clearly, that some ideas are just plain wrong.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

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What’s wrong with politicians in HE?

By Rob Cuthbert

The June general election disrupted normal business at Westminster in almost every sense: the summer silly season may be suspended altogether, despite the annual three-month holiday for Parliament. The unexpected election result had something to do with the mobilisation of the student and young persons’ vote by the Labour Party, probably connected to their promise to abolish tuition fees and even cancel all student debt. The storm brewing since the election was sparked into life by the intervention of Lord Adonis, self-styled architect of the fees policy and director of the No 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair. It captured all the worst features of politicians in HE in one episode: selective attention to issues; pursuing personal interests in the guise of caring about the issue; selective memory; rewriting history; not taking advice from people who actually know how a policy might work; and – worst of all to academics – contempt for evidence.

Andrew Adonis, returning to comment on HE after some years away, wrote a scathing but completely misguided piece about fees for The Times on 28 June 2017. ‘Goodbye tuition fees. They were a sensible idea wrecked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s decision to treble them overnight, and by the greed and complacency of vice-chancellors who thought they were a licence to print money’. His motive was apparently to protect his ‘legacy’ as ‘the moving force behind Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to introduce … top-up fees … The intention was that fees would vary between £1000 and £3000 depending on the cost and benefit of each course. But the VCs formed a cartel and almost universally charged £3000.’

Adonis and most other politicians in the Westminster bubble have conveniently forgotten that it was always obvious, well before the vote on £3000 fees back in 2004, that virtually all universities would be charging the maximum £3000, as a Guardian report from 13 January 2004 makes clear: ‘Today’s survey of 53 of the 89 university vice-chancellors in England, carried out by EducationGuardian.co.uk, reveals that, in practice, variability will be minimal while the fee ceiling remains at £3,000, though elite universities are already lobbying for that cap to be swiftly lifted.’ But Adonis is clearly a man who harbours grudges over the long term, predicting that fees would soon be abolished and ‘VCs need to start planning for real austerity. The flow of money from £9000 fees will soon dry up. They could set an example and halve their salaries.

Adonis had stamped his foot and ‘thcreamed and thcreamed until he made himthelf thick’, in the style of Violet-Elizabeth Bott. Despite knowledgeable HE commentators pointing out how wrong he was about almost everything, his ideas ‘gained traction’, as they say in the Westminster bubble. Pretty soon Damian Green, the Deputy Prime Minister, was having to backtrack from an ill-advised response in a wide-ranging interview when he suggested that the whole fees policy needed review.

Conservative commentator George Trefgarne on 26 June 2017 blogged for Reaction, asking ‘Why is nobody in the Conservative Party talking about the broken student loan system?’ Then on 5 July the Institute for Fiscal Studies put out their Briefing Note (BN211), Higher Education funding in England: past, present and options for the future, seized on by the media with front page headlines blaring that three-quarters of graduates will never repay their debt. Steve Jones (Manchester) blogged for WonkHE on 6 July 2017 ‘Are headline writers getting it wrong on fees?’. The answer was mostly yes, but his argument was much too sensible to ‘gain traction’ when Westminster was already in full-blown panic mode.

Mark Leach of WonkHE had offered a primer on 22 May 2017: ‘The Pros and Cons of Abolishing Tuition fees’ after Andrew McGettigan gave his own version on 12 May 2017, in the run-up to the general election, ‘The cost of abolishing tuition fees’. McGettigan got back on the case with his Critical Education blog on 5 July 2017, ‘IFS on tuition fees’, pointing out that the IFS arguments were sound, but inconvenient for Minister Jo Johnson, who had spent most of the previous few days arguing that the HE finance system was not broke and therefore he shouldn’t fix it. SRHE Vice-President Peter Scott wrote in The Guardian on 4 July 2017: ‘why are we not taking seriously a key message that came out of the campaign? Labour’s manifesto promise to abolish tuition fees in England, initially seen as off-the-wall, gained enormous traction. This is hardly surprising given the prospects faced by graduates – escalating debt, doubtful job prospects in a declining post-Brexit economy and decent homes out of reach.’ His piece was titled ‘The end of tuition fees is on the horizon – universities must get ready’.

Adonis wasn’t finished – indeed, he was hardly getting started. He wrote in The Guardian on 7 July 2017 under the headline ‘I put up tuition fees. It’s now clear they have to be scrapped’, saying ‘Debts of £50,000 are far more than I envisaged, and make the system unworkable’. Martin Harris (former director of the Office for Fair Access) weighed in, writing to The Guardian on 9 July 2017:

‘Andrew Adonis is right that the current fee regime cannot survive, but he understates the success of the £3k fee which he devised and which Charles Clarke introduced after the 2003 election … Adonis is unfair in attributing to vice-chancellors the decision to raise fees to £9k. This was a political diktat …  Ministers were clearly told how universities would behave when presented with a fee regime which would in effect label their courses first, second or third class by price. … Since then, a series of decisions by Conservative ministers have made matters worse, especially the abandonment of the categorical promise that tuition fee debt would never increase in real terms. The current regime certainly has to go. But we need to revisit something like the Adonis/Clarke scheme rather than totally abolishing fees. Abolition will inevitably lead to a cap on student numbers and thus to fewer poorer students entering universities.’

Nick Hillman of HEPI added his three penn’orth in a blog on 13 July 2017: ‘Lord Adonis now says the whole system of funding teaching in universities via tuition fees is wrong and should be junked altogether. More than that, he has taken to lashing out at Vice-Chancellors, called for an investigation of tuition fees by the Competition and Markets Authority and is now battling away with academics on how they spend the summer on Twitter.’ Hillman said Adonis was ‘intellectually incoherent … intellectually weak. … [and making] false linkages: ‘it is silly to draw a direct line between higher tuition fees and the current levels of remuneration.’ However Jo Johnson was ready to endorse part of the Adonis rant, saying, “There are legitimate concerns about the rate at which vice chancellor pay has been growing. I think it is hard for students at a time when they have concerns over value for money and want to see real evidence of value for money from their tuition fees”.

Undaunted, Adonis made multiple media appearances, no doubt delighted to be once again in the political spotlight and feeling that his political bandwagon was gathering speed. As John Elledge of CityMetric wrote for the New Statesman on 4 July 2017: ‘Maybe scrapping tuition fees would be regressive. Perhaps we should do it anyway’, arguing that ‘Supporters of fees may be right on the policy – but they’re way off on the politics.’ Adonis even attacked the Times Higher Education for allegedly not exposing the issue of VCs’ salaries, a ludicrous comment revealing his ignorance of years of evidence in THE to the contrary.

The evidence-based debate on the pros and cons of tuition fees continued, but in a different universe. The 11 May blog for WonkHE by Gavan Conlon of London Economics, a longstanding expert commentator in this territory, argued that abolishing fees is fundamentally regressive. Christopher Newfield (University of California at Santa Barbara) blogged for WonkHE on 15 May 2017 about why abolishing tuition fees is a good idea. It was a scholarly values-based argument which built on his recent book The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2016). The common argument in the US is that if public funding goes down, tuition fees go up, but Jason Delisle of the American Enterprise Institute argued for the ‘Bennett hypothesis’ – former US Secretary for Education Bill Bennett said that tuition fees increase until they exhaust the availability of public funds for student support. The long-term trend in the US shows a strong correlation of declining public support with rising tuition, but Delisle argued, in a report released on 1 June 2017, that colleges’ natural explanation should not be taken for granted. Becky Supiano interviewed Delisle for the Chronicle of Higher Education on 1 June 2017.

WonkHE’s weekly briefing on 5 June noted ‘New research from Claire Callender and Geoff Mason … at the UCL Institute of Education … The paper argues that tuition fees debt deters poorer and ethnic minority students from applying to university … The findings challenge the argument that the recent (post-fee increase) growth in full-time HE participation by 18-year-olds from all social classes proves that fees are not a deterrent. UUK chief executive Nicola Dandridge has responded to the paper with a blog criticising the methodology of the report. Dandridge argues that the study’s conclusions do not follow from its survey results and that the survey implies “that student loans are just like other domestic forms of debt such as credit card loans. This is far from the truth”.’

This was conveniently close to the arguments that Minister Jo Johnson had been making, since Dandridge was then unveiled by Johnson as the first chief executive of the Office for Students. It was however somewhat removed from the view of a significant number of her own current employers: later surveys would reveal a third of VCs wished to see substantial change to the fees regime.  Andrew Adonis described Dandridge’s appointment as ‘producer capture’, which exercised OfS Chair Michael Barber enough to write to The Guardian on 10 July 2017 saying ‘Don’t dismiss the Office for Students’ – a clash between two former heads of Tony Blair’s No 10 Policy Unit. At least Barber, the author of ‘deliverology’, is showing early signs of realising the limitations of target-setting in his approach as OfS Chair. Adonis, on the other hand, is showing much of what seems to be wrong with politicians in HE. His memory of events and version of history is selective, his evidence is flawed, his arguments are intellectually weak and incoherent, he seems to be too concerned to ‘protect his legacy’, and he has struck an almost Trumpian note in attacking rather than listening to anyone who disagrees with him.

The fee abolitionists are an unlikely combination of more-means-worse elitism and leftist utopian economics, and as Jo Johnson continues to promote market solutions he remains onside with the for-profit providers scenting new opportunities. Abolishing loan-backed fees would be devastating for those private sector providers, and that alone makes abolition unlikely for the present government, even before we get to the economic cost. If Adonis gets his wish for reform, the messy politics might lead to closures of public sector institutions, with less diversity, fewer opportunities for disadvantaged students, new lowest-common-denominator for-profit providers offering courses with less gainful employment for graduates, continuing student debt, and growing dissatisfaction among disenfranchised would-be students. But you can be sure that when the next crisis arrives, the politicians will be blaming HE, the opposition, the media, or anyone – except themselves.

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

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Academic freedom and freedom of speech

By Rob Cuthbert

In universities worldwide the debate about academic freedom and free speech continues, which is just as it should be. Meanwhile journalists in the popular press seem to have decided that political correctness and the ‘snowflake generation’ have made it impossible for anyone to debate anything in universities any more. But for those journalists, ‘research’ usually consists of looking at other journalists’ opinion pieces and referring to an alleged ‘free speech’ ranking from Spiked. This greatly exercised Registrarism’s Paul Greatrix, whose vituperative blog on 16 February 2017 said that as usual the new ranking was “sure to grab the headlines as examples of shocking repression in the higher education sector are paraded in the quality press”. As if to prove his point, a report from the Adam Smith Institute on alleged left-wing bias in academia was attacked by Aidan Byrne (aka Plashing Vole), aiming to debunk what he called this sinister new addition to the debate. The report was called Lackademia, though the URL was blunter: it read “Left Wing Bias Paper”.

Beyond the mass media there is a more informed debate. A faculty committee at the University of Minnesota Continue reading

Paul Temple


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Steering Column

By Paul Temple

The SRHE Blog hasn’t featured a motoring column before – and actually it’s a bit late to start: if you’ve recently bought a new-ish car, it may well be your last one. That’s because the car makers and the big tech companies are betting the farm on driverless (“autonomous”) cars being the future of road travel – not in some “weekend breaks on Mars”-type sci-fi scenario, but in the next couple of years. At the end of February, an autonomous Nissan Leaf drove six miles around East London, including negotiating a roundabout on the A13 that scares me. It’s generally assumed that these cars mostly won’t be owned by individuals, but will be driverless taxis, summoned to your door (at least, in towns). Most new cars are already at or near what the industry calls “Level 3”, with sensors for parking, automatic braking, lane guidance and so on; “Level 4” cars will add all this to artificial intelligence and so do away with the human driver. The computer won’t make the stupid mistakes that all human drivers do – so one effect that’s already been noted will be the “nice to have” problem of a reduction in the number of transplant organs available.

It’s the combination of the scale and the imminence of this revolution that makes it so interesting social scientifically: this won’t be a gradual evolution, but a big bang – one year, cars like we’ve always known them; a year or two later, a transformation. Like an avalanche, unnoticed high up on the mountain, it is about to sweep down. (Look at one of the many blogs on this, such as “Connected Cars”, to get a sense of how fast things are moving.)

Why should this be of interest to higher education researchers? Continue reading

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What’s wrong with management in higher education?

By Rob Cuthbert 

Matthew Reisz reported for Times Higher Education on 30 March 2017 that ‘the results beginning to come in from the National Senior Management Survey are both startling and dismaying.’ He said: ‘Early data from the National Senior Management Survey, which is being developed by academics at eight universities, find that barely one in 10 (10.4 per cent) respondents is satisfied with the way their institution is managed; 76.5 per cent are not.’

This is fake news: take a look at the National Senior Management Survey. It has grand aims but asks a series of leading questions, and its self-selecting sample is likely to be all those who want to complain about senior management in their institution. There is something wrong with the methods of this survey, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing wrong with senior management in HE. Indeed, the progenitors of the National Senior Management Survey seem to have been motivated by despair at the apparently irresistible rise of managerialism and the equally irresistible rise of senior managers’ salaries, even while university staff salaries are held down. So what’s wrong with senior management?

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Ian Mc Nay


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The higher education business and alternative providers.

By Ian McNay

The sale of two recently designated ‘for-profit’ universities to owners outside the UK is one indication of the government’s market approach to higher education. I return to this below, after covering another piece of evidence.

Those who do not read the financial pages of the Guardian will not have seen an article by Rupert Neate Cannes on student accommodation as giving ‘first class returns to investors’ (17 March 2017, p33). It included two things that shocked me. ‘Last month, the value of contracts awarded to build student housing projects in the UK totalled more than the deals to build care homes, housing associations, local authority housing and sheltered housing added together’, and flats in ‘some student blocks… in London cost as much as £650 a week’. In Reading, there is one block where prices are £300 per week, and the UK average for one builder was £175 a week. Rents for university owned properties already constitute a supplementary fee and exceed the level of the maintenance loan, adding another financial obstacle to equity of access.

That may be one reason why, paradoxically, students are turning to private HE – alternative providers as they were called by government in last year’s White Paper, and now the subject of an enquiry by the Higher Education Commission, to which Ron Barnett and I were recently invited to give evidence. I did some digging around and the picture that emerged surprised me, and moved me from my initial stance of total opposition. Continue reading