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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Mobilities and the ‘international academic’ in higher education

by Vera Spangler, Lene Møller Madsen, and Hanne Kirstine Adriansen

December marks the month of the International SRHE Research Conference. It was an interesting week full of presentations and discussions around the theme of Mobilities in Higher Education. In the opening plenary talk, Emily Henderson invited us to reflect critically on the different ways in which mobilities of academics and students in higher education are discursively constructed. She debated how discursive constructions of mobility may influence who can access academia/higher education, who can gain recognition, and who can establish a feeling of belonging. Emily’s presentation set an interesting and highly relevant ground for the week to come, opening space for critical thought about  academic mobility and experiences of mobility, subjectivities, and power. Our presentation about who is considered ‘the international academic’ addressed similar ideas and observations, which we would like to share in this blog post in order to open the conversation with a larger audience.

Never has the higher education sector been so mobile, particularly as internationalisation occupies a central position on the global agenda of policymakers. Over the past decade we can observe a significant increase in academic mobility. This is partly due to the fact that the academic profession is becoming exceedingly internationalised and globalised, often involving some sort of travel on the part of the academic throughout their career. In the academic sector, having international staff is often seen as integral to the institution’s reputation and recognition. Likewise, international mobility is perceived as inherently beneficial for the individual and as a valuable asset for academic research careers. Professional stays abroad can function as a mark of distinction or valuable international capital.

Mobility and, notably, internationalisation are often used with many positive connotations, presented as neutral and unconditionally good. Internationalisation is often deemed instrumental in enhancing the quality of research and education. Universities put increasing effort into attracting international academics, seeking their contribution in establishing an international research and teaching environment to promote the status of the faculty and their position internationally. Particularly for universities outside Anglo-America, international scholars constitute an important element in creating a so-called ‘international university’. However we often see a uniform, unidirectional, and unproblematic description of how to attract and retain international academics in higher education strategies and mainstream policy documents. There is a dominant prominence in university strategies of attracting ‘global talent’ and ‘the best and the brightest’, promoting a specific idea of the ‘international academic’. Yet questions remain about how academics of different national and social backgrounds understand the role of being an ‘international academic’ and how their understandings are consonant with those sought, promoted and shaped by higher education institutions.

Our paper for the SRHE conference tried to unpack ‘the international’ in international academic mobility based on interviews with international academics (varying in age, nationality, and academic position) living and working in Denmark. The data stem from the larger research project Geographies of Internationalisation, which explores how internationalisation affects the perception of quality, relevance and learning in higher education and how these perceptions travel with mobile academics. Our conference presentation examined what it means to be an international academic, who the ‘international’ is, and how the academics’ ‘international-ness’ is being used and/or neglected by institutions.

During the interviews, interesting conversations emerged as to when one is considered international – do you have to be recruited as ‘an international’ or can you just be a ‘love migrant’ who then gets employment at a university? Others pondered how long one could live in Denmark and still be considered ‘an international’. Our analysis shows that ‘the international’ is not a neutral concept, but often ‘international-ness’ is associated with those from the centre (the Anglo-American academy), while academics from the (semi-)periphery are viewed as less international, perhaps just ‘foreign’ as one interviewee stated. Language is an important factor in this context. As we have shown elsewhere, English is often conflated with the international, for instance internationalisation may simply mean English Medium Instruction. This may explain why academics from the Anglo-American academy can appear to possess more of that universal character that is international. In this way, we point to the uneven geographies of internationalisation, and how universities in the (semi-)periphery can end up mimicking the Anglo-American academy in their attempt to internationalise.

While internationalisation can bring many social, material and professional benefits concerning, for instance, intercultural competencies and employability, there is a diversity in geographical patterns, constraints, demands, privileges and motivations that are to a large extent silenced in prominent policy documents and discourses. Hidden behind its neutralising and universalising discourse, internationalisation is a multi-dimensional, highly uneven process; a plural landscape of possibilities for some, and disadvantages for others. For some years now, critical scholarship on internationalisation has been growing. There is increasing concern that internationalisation practices and mainstream policies reproduce global inequalities and already uneven relations and geographies. There are a number of different ways to avoid this. Along with other scholars of critical internationalisation studies, we encourage efforts to rethink and critically explore consequences, practices and discourses of internationalisation both in scholarship and in academic conversations to open up questions for a renewed focus and to find ways forward.

Vera Spangler is a PhD student at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England. Her research project is a comparative study between England, Denmark and Germany with focus on knowledge legitimacy and the role of student mobility in the re/production of global hierarchies.

Lene Møller Madsen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen. She is part of the research project Geographies of Internationalisation, responsible for the WP on academic mobility. She holds a PhD in human geography, and have worked with pedagogical training of staff for many years including international academics.  

Hanne Kirstine Adriansen is Associate Professor and academic international coordinator at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark. Originally trained as a human geographer, her research concerns mobility, space, and education. Since 2019 PI of the research project Geographies of Internationalisation with 14 affiliated international scholars and master students.

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A pantomime without a happy ending

The year-long pantomime that was government in 2022 started trying to be managerial and serious, just as the true pantomime season got into full swing and TV started showing the usual repeats specials. Rather too much sherry and mince pies before the pantomime highlights compilation meant that I fell asleep during A Christmas Carol – so I’m not sure if this was just a dream (or a nightmare) …

This year every university and college is putting on its own pantomime. What’s showing near you? We offer these plot summaries to help you choose what to watch.

Cinderella

Higher Education Cinderella has been condemned to a life of servitude, enforced by the ugly sisters DfE and the Office for Students (you can’t usually tell them apart). Life is only tolerable for HE Cinderella thanks to all the friendly student mice, and UUK, an apparently kindly character in the service of the household, but with suspiciously shiny Buttons. There is much excitement in the land as Parliament decides to stage a magnificent Election Ball to find a suitable person to be the government Prince. Cinderella would love to go but has no well-paid staff to wear; the DfE and OfS ugly sisters prepare eagerly by appointing more recruitment consultants. Suddenly the UCU Fairy Godmother appears and declares “You shall go to the Election Ball”. The USS pumpkin is miraculously transformed into a golden pension and the student mice turn into horses, although there do seem to be fewer of them. Best of all, Cinderella’s pay rags turn into a shimmering and apparently permanent contract, and her glass ceiling is transformed into slippers. Cinderella climbs into her pension, pulled by all the student horses, to attend the Election, but her Fairy Godmother warns her that she must return home before the election result is announced. At the Election Ball there are several wannabe Princes: none appear to be very Charming, but nevertheless they pay her close attention, making all kinds of promises. Some even make pledges. Suddenly the first exit poll appears and Cinderella rushes back home, losing a glass slipper in her haste. The pension turns back into a pumpkin, and the Fairy Godmother has disappeared and seems unable to work her magic. However there is a new Prince after the Election Ball, who has announced that he will scour the kingdom to find the person who can wear the glass slipper. He visits the household and cries with delight that Higher Education Cinderella is the one for him, but since there is only one glass slipper there must be a cutback in student numbers. Cinderella goes back to sit on the pumpkin with her low pay, weeping over the lost mice. She realises the glass slipper thing was all cobblers.

Dick Whittington

Higher Education Dick has lost more and more income as his student fees were eroded by inflation, but he hopes that if he strikes out for a better life he might find somewhere the staff are paid with gold. He travels hopefully and reaches what might have been the golden triangle, but it seems no better than the old place. He spends years trying to make his fortune, without success. His Admissions Cat catches lots of home student mice, but he is forced to send it abroad in the hope of making his fortune from lots of international students. In despair Dick strikes out again, accompanied by Freedom of Speech Bill.

Dick (suspiciously):                     “Is there somebody following us?

Bill:                                                 ”Let’s ask the audience. Is there anybody following us?”

Audience (shouting excitedly): “It’s the minister!”

Bill:                                                 “Where is she?”

Audience (still excitedly):           “She’s behind you!”

Bill:                                                 “Oh no she’s not”

Audience:                                      “Oh yes she is!”

And they were right, the minister was right behind the Bill. Bill trudges on but suffers so many proposed amendments he slows down until he eventually gets passed. On the road Dick hears the sound of UCU bells saying to him “Your turn again, Whittington” and he goes back to his place on the picket line.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Jack lived in desperately poor circumstances with his departmental colleagues, until one day all he had left was one research grant. He decided to take his research to the conference market to see if he could generate any more funds. But even before he got to the conference he met a pro vice-chancellor (Research) who said if he handed over his grant as a contribution to overheads the PVC would give him a handful of sabbatical beans. He went back excitedly to his department to tell them the good news, but they pointed out that by giving the grant away the whole department was doomed. Jack was distraught and he threw the sabbatical beans into the departmental workload model. The next day when he woke up he was astonished to see that everywhere he had thrown a sabbatical, a research grant application had sprung up. Pretty soon the grant applications had grown into a full-fledged research grant money tree which stretched right up into the UKRI. Jack started to climb and when he got to the top he discovered a land where there lived a giant called Russell G. He crept into the giant’s home, sneaked away with some more research grants and went back to his department. That kept them going for a while, but soon they needed more funds and Jack had to climb the money tree again. This time the giant was waiting for him, and roared “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of a teaching institution.” Jack raced back to the money tree with the giant close behind, scrambled back down to the ground and hacked at the money tree until it toppled over. Unfortunately the giant was already halfway down. It fell right on the top of the department and squashed it flat, leaving only a handful of the most research-active staff, which Russell G picked up before leaving.

Sleeping Beauty

A Higher Education princess is warned that if she pierces her tuition with a student fee she will die. She tries to rid the kingdom of all traces of tuition fees, but still they slip in and gradually get bigger until they become impossible to avoid. At last she succumbs and as the fee takes effect she falls into a deep sleep, becoming lost because she is, like almost everyone else, beyond the reach of Test and Trace. Nothing will wake her until one day a prince arrives on a pantomime horse and vows to rescue her from her slumbers. The horse is played by the twins REF and TEF: no-one is quite sure which end is which, until the front half confirms the protection of the research budget and all the talk about low quality courses comes out of the rear end. Before the Prince can rescue the princess he decides, out of an abundance of caution, to commission a review by the Office of Budget Responsibility. (In the past this had, unwisely, been deemed unnecessary for a pantomime with a short run.) The OBR review shows that waking the princess will cost almost as much each year as Covid PPE contracts, whose benefits are mostly still being sought long after the VIP lane was closed. So the prince decides to leave her asleep.

In every case the performance ends with the audience singing a seasonal favourite, “The 2022 days of government”, ending with the chorus:

“On the last day of 2022, the PM sent to me:

five Secretaries of State

four DfE reshuffles

three HE Ministers

two pension schemes

and an HE (Freedom of Speech) Bill)”

… then I woke up, and I wasn’t sure whether this was Christmas Past, Christmas Present or Christmas Future. You decide.

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.


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Will universities fail the Turing Test?

by Phil Pilkington

The recent anxiety over the development of AI programmes to generate unique text suggests that some disciplines face a crisis of passing the Turing Test. That is, that you cannot distinguish between the unique AI generated text and that produced by a human agent. Will this be the next stage in the battle of cheating by students? Will it lead to an arms race of countering the AI programmes to foil the students cheating? Perhaps it may force some to redesign the curriculum, the learning and the assessment processes.

Defenders of AI programmes for text generation have produced their own euphemistic consumer guides. Jasper is a ‘writing assistant’, Dr Essay ‘gets to work and crafts your entire essay for you’, Article Forge (get it?) ‘is one of the best essay writers and does the research for you!’.  Other AI essay forgers are available. The best known and the most popular is probably GPT-3 with a reported million subscribers (see The Atlantic, 6/12/2022). The promoters of the AI bots make clear that it is cheaper and quicker than using essay mills. It may even be less exploitative of those graduates in Nepal or Nottingham or Newark New Jersey serving the essay mills. There has been the handwringing that this is the ‘end of the essay’, but there have been AI developments in STEM subjects and art and design.

AI cannot be uninvented. It is out there, it is cheap and readily available. It does not necessarily follow that using it is cheating. Mike Sharples on the LSE Blog tried it out for a student assignment on learning styles. He found some simple errors of reference but made the point that GPT-3 text can be used creatively for students’ understanding and exploring a subject. And Kent University provides guidance on the use of Grammarly, which doesn’t create text as GPT-3 does ab initio but it does ‘write’ text.

Consumer reports on GPT-3 suggest that the output for given assignments is of a 2.2 or even 2.1 standard of essay, albeit with faults in the text generated. These seem to be usually in the form of incorrect or inadequate references; some references were for non-existent journals  and papers, with dates confused and so on. However, a student could read through the output text and correct such errors without any cognitive engagement in the subject. Correcting the text would be rather like an AI protocol. The next stage of AI will probably eliminate the most egregious and detectable of errors to become the ‘untraceable poison’.

The significant point here is that it is possible to generate essays and assignments without cognitive activity in the generation of the material. This does not necessarily mean a student doesn’t learn something. Reading through the generated text may be part of a learning process, but it is an impoverished form of learning. I would distinguish this as the learning that in the generated text rather than the learning how of generating the text. This may be the challenge for the post AI curriculum: knowing that is not as important as knowing how. What do we expect for the learning outcomes? That we know, for example, the War Aims of Imperial Germany in 1914 or that we know how to find that out, or how it relates to other aims and ideological outlooks? AI will provide the material for the former but not the latter.

To say that knowing that (eg the War Aims of Imperial Germany, etc) is a form of surface learning is not to confuse that memory trick with cognitive abilities, or with AI – which has no cognitive output at all. Learning is semantic, it has reference as rule-based meaning; AI text generation is syntactic and has no meaning at all (to the external world) but makes reference only to its own protocols[1]. As the Turing Test does not admit – because in that test the failure to distinguish between the human agent and the AI is based on deceiving the observer.

Studies have shown that students have a scale of cheating (as specified by academic conduct rules). An early SRHE Student Experience Seminar explored the students’ acceptance of some forms of cheating and abhorrence of other forms. Examples of ‘lightweight’ and ‘acceptable’ cheating included borrowing a friend’s essay or notes, in contrast to the extreme horror of having someone sit an exam for them (impersonation). The latter was considered not just cheating for personal advantage but also disadvantaging the entire cohort (Ashworth et al, ‘Guilty in Whose Eyes?’). Where will using AI sit in the spectrum of students’ perception of cheating? Where will it sit within the academic regulations?

I will assume that it will be used both for first drafts and for ‘passing off’ as the entirety of the student’s efforts. Should we embrace the existence of AI bots? They could be our friends and help develop the curriculum to be more creative for students and staff. We will expect and assume students to be honest about their work (as individuals and within groups) but there will be pressures of practical, cultural and psychological nature, on some students more than others, which will encourage the use of the bots. The need to work as a barista to pay the rent, to cope as a carer, to cope with dyslexia (diagnosed or not), to help non-native speakers, to overcome the disadvantages of a relatively impoverished secondary education, all distinct from the cohort of gilded and fluently entitled youth, will all be stressors for encouraging the use of the bots.

Will the use of AI be determined by the types of students’ motivation (another subject of an early SRHE Student Experience Seminar)? There will be those wanting to engage in and grasp (to cognitively possess as it were) the concept formations of the discipline (the semantical), with others who simply want to ‘get through the course’ and secure employment (the syntactical).

And what of stressed academics assessing the AI generated texts? They could resort to AI bots for that task too. In the competitive, neo-liberal, league-table driven universities of precarity, publish-or-be-redundant monetizing research (add your own epithets here), will AI bots be used to meet increasingly demanding performance targets?

The discovery of the use of AI will be accompanied by a combination of outrage and demands for sanctions (much like the attempts to criminalise essay mills and their use). We can expect some responses from institutions that it either doesn’t happen here or it is only a tiny minority. But if it does become the ‘untraceable poison’ how will we know? AI bots are not like essay mills. They may be used as a form of deception, as implied by the Turing Test, but they could also be used as a tool for greater understanding of a discipline. We may need a new form of teaching, learning and assessment.

Phil Pilkington’s former roles include Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, and CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union. He is an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE. He chaired the SRHE Student Experience Network for several years and helped to organise events including the hugely successful 1995 SRHE annual conference on The Student Experience; its associated book of ‘Precedings’ was edited by Suzanne Hazelgrove for SRHE/Open University Press.


[1] John Searle (The rediscovery of the mind, 1992) produced an elegant thought experiment to refute the existence of AI qua intelligence, or cognitive activity. He created the experiment, the Chinese Room, originally to face off the Mind-Brain identity theorists. It works as a wonderful example of how AI can be seemingly intelligent without having any cognitive content.  It is worth following the Chinese Room for its simplicity and elegance and as a lesson in not taking AI seriously as ‘intelligence’.


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Reflecting on a second virtual conference…and looking ahead

by Camille Kandiko Howson

I had the honour of being asked to give some closing remarks at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s Annual Conference this year, alongside Prof Chris Millward and the SRHE team. ‘Mobilities in Higher Education’ was the theme of the Society’s second virtual conference. First some reflections.

Mobilities in higher education refer to the movement of students, faculty, and staff within and across national borders for the purpose of pursuing education and research opportunities. This phenomenon has increased significantly in recent years, driven by factors such as globalization, advances in technology, and the growing demand for a highly skilled workforce.

The impact of mobilities on higher education institutions (HEIs) is complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, mobilities can bring benefits such as diversity and internationalization, enhanced research and teaching capabilities, and increased funding and partnerships. On the other hand, mobilities can also pose challenges such as language and cultural barriers, issues with accreditation and recognition of qualifications, and unequal access and participation.

To address these challenges and maximize the benefits of mobilities, HEIs need to develop strategies and policies that support the mobility of students, faculty, and staff. This includes providing adequate support services, facilitating credit transfer and recognition of qualifications, and promoting intercultural competence and global citizenship.

In conclusion, mobilities in higher education are a crucial aspect of the contemporary global education landscape. HEIs need to carefully consider the opportunities and challenges posed by mobilities and develop strategies to support and enhance this phenomenon.

I’ll pause here, because I did not write the previous four paragraphs. I put the title into the ChatGPT open AI chatbot and it spit out the abstract above instantly. This tool launched during the conference week, exciting many delegates and kicking off worries about the future of assessment and feedback in higher education. The possibilities also reminded me why we like to meet up as a community -virtually and physically – to share what is happening and how we can actively shape the future. The conference theme was widely adopted across presentations, showing our desire to come together to learn, teach and research higher education. Now on to my (human) thoughts.

Last year in summarising the conference I highlighted the following:

  • the focus on belonging
  • the increased internationalisation of the programme
  • lack of research on policy in HE in England

The second and third of these themes seemed strong again, and in addition I would note the dominance of the conference theme of ‘Mobilities’ (irony not lost for an on-line conference!). The pandemic has not stopped academics collaborating across institutions. I also noticed powerful research and focus on researchers in conflict-afflicted regions. There was also increased interest in international students – across UG, PGT and PRG levels. Topics included notions of quality and murmurings of geopolitical influences for international students.

Some other themes of note were researchers drawing on contemporary theories (eg the ‘Ideal Student’ research by Billy Wong and Tiffany Chui), moving beyond a Bordieusian dominance. In this vein, I was pleased to see the strength of research involving liaising with target student groups, as partners, in steering groups and in evaluating research.

In credit to the SRHE team, there were great links between papers in sessions, with many feeling more like symposia than separate research papers. It was also amazing to see so many outputs from SRHE-funded research projects being presented.

Reflecting on some of the specific sessions I was able to attend, in Session 2d I was intrigued by the term ‘studiability’: the ability to complete courses on time and with appropriate workload. This is not addressed much in the UK and it would be interesting to see more on this. Another paper explored the recursive relationship between public policy degrees and the jobs graduates go on to do. There were different histories and trajectories across countries – always fascinating insights from comparative research.

A theme across a number of sessions came out in 3b exploring racialised impostor phenomenon, and the importance of role models for students. Similarly, in 11f the impostor phenomenon and explorations of race and gender arose, alongside the importance of students (and others) in self-identifying themselves versus being categorised in identity research. Session 12a had a focus on care leavers, care experienced students and those with caring responsibilities and the challenges working across institutions and social services. This topic was explored in a number of sessions – which is really important in an under-researched area.

These sessions really highlighted the passion researchers have and the change people want to see from their research. And to mention what I did not see much of, there was a lack of research on climate change and cost of living – maybe these current issues have not caught up with the pace of research, or maybe they do not fit well with current research paradigms.

I also did a word cloud analysis of the programme. Interestingly, ‘Students’ trumps ‘Research’ but ‘Academics’ beat ‘Learning’. Make of that what you will. Closing on the theme of mobilities, the top three cities listed in the programme were London, Manchester and Birmingham, and the second most common country in the programme was Australia.

As was mentioned throughout the conference, many of us missed getting together in person. We hope to manage that in some form next year, continuing to build our connections (physical and virtual). And to finish, I asked the ChatGPT bot for the theme for next conference and it suggested: “Innovation, equity and the future of higher education.” Another one to go in the mix, and further (human) ideas welcome.

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London. Follow Camille on Twitter @cbkandiko


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Research co-creation may be the key to impact

by Finley Lawson

I have been using a design-based implementation approach to co-creating educational research since 2019 at Canterbury Christ Church University, where a cross-institutional team of teachers, researchers, and school senior leaders grapples with where and how to provide opportunities for students to become ‘epistemically insightful’ (equipped with an understanding of the nature of knowledge within disciplines and across disciplinary boundaries). Previous research by the Centre discovered that pressures within schools dampen students’ expressed curiosity in questions about the nature of reality and human personhood and limit the development of their epistemic insight into how science, religion and the wider humanities relate. We developed the Epistemic Insight Initiative to understand the kinds of interventions, tools, and pedagogies that would address the current challenges posed by a compartmentalised curriculum. The challenge we faced was how we could transform whole-school curriculum practice without removing teacher agency. We wanted to ensure that the intervention(s) met the needs and experiences of each school community, without becoming so contextualised that that the findings and approaches couldn’t be generalised to have wider applicability (and ultimately impact).

Part of our role as universities is to produce (and facilitate the production of) knowledge. As the REF puts it we should be “illustrating the benefits research delivers beyond academia, including how it brings tangible changes to aspects of society and life, and the public value it delivers”. Yet within educational research there is a perceived disjunct between the research undertaken by universities (or professional research organisations) and the research used and undertaken by teachers and practitioners in schools and other educational settings. This is highlighted in practitioner-focused literature where evidence-informed practice is often divided between desk based ‘research’ by teachers as separate from ‘academic research’ conducted by universities or research organisations – a model which emphasises the teachers’ role as a consumer rather than creator of research (Nelson and Sharples, 2017). This divide can also border on a dismissal of teachers’ ability to engage with academic research, by insisting for example that we shouldn’t “expect teachers to learn to read research” and our role as researchers should be to create “teacher-friendly research”, with the implication that this is somehow ‘less than’ academic research (Miller et al, 2010). Why is this divide important for SRHE? We are after all focused on higher education so, apart from a call to consider broader dissemination avenues for our research, why does it matter?

My answer is impact. Not solely, or even primarily, in terms of a ‘REF-able’ impact, but because we know that education research has the power to transform students’ experiences of learning and thus broaden their aspirations for higher education. Whilst there is a wealth of literature on the importance of research engagement within initial teacher education and professional development (for example see Hine, 2013; Hagger and Mcintyre, 2000; Murray et al, 2009), the question of how to ensure that the research ecosystem is reciprocal (i.e. that teachers/practitioners are viewed as knowledge producers not just consumers) is still relatively under discussed. A research ecosystem can be seen as analogous to a natural ecosystem where knowledge is transferred between stakeholders in a process that leads to the emergence of systemic change. The current challenge is to ensure that knowledge flows from teachers/practitioners into the system; Pandey and Pattnaik (2015) discuss this within a university and Godfrey and Brown (2019) within a school but there is less research on bringing these “micro-systems” together into a mutually enriching “macro-system” (although research by Connelly et al (2021) in the Irish context is promising). Educational research is about improving the opportunities and outcomes for those in education. For this to happen the change/intervention must continue to be implemented beyond an individual project, and often within the constraints of existing curricula and assessment frameworks. This means that teachers and educators need to be seen not as a resource for ‘local expertise’ but as a crucial part of the research ecosystem.

The establishment and development of a co-creation relationship across a diverse group of primary and secondary schools has taken about three years and has been led by both teachers and school senior leaders. The linchpin for these relationships has been a shared recognition of the challenges identified within the previous research, and an interest in examining how school students can be better equipped to navigate disciplinary and curricula boundaries. This shared goal means that the school and research centre aims are aligned and therefore the core data collected can be standardised across the schools, but with the addition of contextualised questions that address the specific questions of each school. These local questions alongside school-level data for the core questions are shared with the school to support their practice and development plans. As a research centre we analyse data from across the partner schools, with the advantage that, as the research addresses shared concerns, teacher engagement with the research is high. This ensures a 95% plus response rate across multiple data collection points for each cohort. Teachers and school leaders receive training on the philosophical framework underpinning the research and the learning tools but work in collaboration with the centre to develop lessons and curricula that meet the aims of the research. As researchers we act in a quality assurance role during the intervention development, which means that the teachers are at the forefront of shaping the intervention for their students and within their institutional constraints. This close collaboration means that we address two of the key features required in building research in schools (a) “a willingness to embed the research activity into existing school systems” and (b) “access to sources of expertise and advice” (Sanders et al, 2009). In one school this saw a movement from 10 teachers being involved in the initial curriculum design (plus delivery by 7 members of the senior team) to, in the second year, the entire professional development programme being restructured around research-engaged Professional Learning Communities, where staff undertook their own action-research projects.  Now, in the third year, all staff including support staff are in mixed research teams as part of their professional development.

Sharp et al identify a range of benefits to schools in being research engaged, including teacher retention, raised standards and school development. The biggest impact we have noticed, shared by our partner schools, has been the combined impacts on teacher development/practice and their epistemic agency to investigate the educational questions that matter to them, empowered by an ethos that acknowledges that not every intervention will succeed. 80% of participating teachers in one school agreed that it has improved their understanding of disciplinary methods of their own discipline in relation to one they don’t teach. Across the schools, teachers have changed practice within their teaching and have been empowered to signpost students better to links with other subjects. As researchers, we have seen our work embedded in ways and places that we could not have envisioned and seen a genuine interest from schools to engage in research that required the time and expertise of sometimes the whole staff body (particularly in primary schools). This kind of impact with whole year groups, even whole schools, taking part in research-engaged curriculum interventions and redevelopment would not be possible were we using a ‘traditional’ research model that excluded co-creation. The power of co-creation is that these ‘interventions’, if they can still be called that, will continue far beyond the directly funded projects that started them, because those involved have ownership of what is taking place.

Our role now, outside the continued partnership, is to understand how we, in HE, can use our position to amplify practitioner voices, to share this practitioner research widely within the research landscape. We are still looking for the best way to support those teachers to share their research-engaged practice into teacher education directly (through knowledge exchange opportunities with students on QTS programmes) and with educational researchers. In placing practitioner research within the research landscape, we truly recognise its value within the research ecosystem and can share how generalised interventions/findings can be implemented in practice, in schools or other settings every day. We must ensure that our HE practice includes acting as a knowledge broker, supporting, and enabling the production of knowledge by the communities which HE serves and feeding that back into the wider research environment.

Finley Lawson is the Lead Research Fellow for Outreach and Schools’ Partnership, at the LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion) Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent. His recently-submitted PhD examines the implication of scientific metaphysics for incarnational theology (Christ, Creation, and The World of Science: Beyond Paradox). He is interested in the dialogue between STEM, Religion, and the wider humanities, and how this can be fostered in school curricula. Finley is the Lead Researcher on the OfS-funded Inspiring Minds Project. The co-created research with schools discussed here has been funded by the Templeton World Charitable Foundation and forms part of the wider Epistemic Insight Initiative. As a centre we would like to thank all the schools who have been actively involved in our research but in particular the staff and students at Astor School, Bromstone Primary School, and Wilmington Grammar School for Girls, who have been case study schools during the project and have been involved in publicly sharing their work and experiences.

Email: finley.lawson@canterbury.ac.uk; Twitter: @FinnatCCCU



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Research with international students: reflecting on an SRHE 2022 symposium

by Jenna Mittelmeier, Sylvie Lomer, and Kalyani Unkule

We were pleased to lead a symposium of international authors at the 2022 SRHE conference, focusing on Research with International Students: Conceptual and Methodological Considerations. This was an early session linked for our upcoming open access book of the same name, which we aim to publish in late 2023. This book, as well as our research resource website which led to it, focuses on developing critical considerations for researchers who focus their work on international students and their experiences in higher education.

Research with international students is a significant and growing area of research about higher education. This coincides with and derives from the exponential growth in international student numbers worldwide, making more visible an interest in their lived academic and social experiences. This is also an area that continues to attract newer researchers, particularly doctoral and student researchers who may have a vested interest in this topic as current or former international students themselves, and practitioner researchers who teach and support international students in their professional roles. Research on this topic is interdisciplinary (as with most other higher education research topics), attracting researchers from disciplines including education, sociology, psychology, human geography, business, and beyond.

Despite this growing interest, we note that there have been limited conversations about developing research with international students as a distinct interdisciplinary subfield. Similarly, there have been limited methodological guidance and considerations for how research might critically approach the wide-ranging topics that are being researched in this area. We have written previously about how these omissions perpetuate problems for this subfield and, ultimately, diminish the potential impact of research.

The most significant problem with research in this area is that it tends to frame international students through a deficit lens, depicting them as lower quality students who ‘lack’ skills necessary for success. This is seen through the large numbers of studies which attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘integrate’ international students into expected norms of study in their host institutions, making assumptions about their perceived lack of skills in areas such as critical thinking, language, or writing. International students are also often depicted through research as only experiencing challenges or problems, frequently described as vulnerable rather than capable, managing, or coping. At the same time, research tends to homogenise international students as a collective group or deduce their diversity only to nationality and macro-level cultures. These are among other conceptual concerns we have previously highlighted, which are rooted in limited criticality and nuance through research.

With these issues in mind, our aim in the symposium, as well as through our website and book, was to start a conversation about how research with international students might be designed better, more critically, and more ethically. In particular, we considered the nexus between conceptual criticality and practical methodological designs which can reposition and encourage new discourses about international students. Each of the four presentations highlighted how, within the book, we encourage researchers to develop stronger research designs in the future.

The first paper in the symposium was by Kalyani Unkule, whose presentation represented chapters in our upcoming book where authors re-conceptualise an idea or term that is often taken for granted in research with international students. Here, we argue for the ways that certain ideas within this research topic are often assumed to have a shared, collective meaning, which actually might be more nuanced or complex. Kalyani reflected on the meaning of the word ‘global’ and the tendency for binaries of local and global to limit our thinking in research and practice about international higher education. This is an important critique about the ways that ‘home’ and ‘international’ are seen as opposing binaries in research with international students, ultimately limiting the conceptual nuance of where students’ experiences and histories might intersect these two areas and be more ‘glocal’ in nature.

The second paper was by Tang Heng, whose presentation represented chapters which highlight problematic discourses that shape and frame research with international students. Her chapter focuses on stereotyping and how stereotypes about international students, often through methodological nationalism, are endemic in the ways that research is developed and designed. Tang focused particularly on how theoretical frameworks can perpetuate or relate to stereotyping, but in the book we also focus on other problematic threads through research on this topic: othering, dehumanisation, coloniality, and deficit narratives, among others. This highlights the issues that hold the research subfield back and represent areas for more critical development and reflection in future research.

This was followed by a paper from Vijay Ramjattan, whose presentation represented chapters in the book which show how common stereotypes and discourses about international students might be shifted away from individual deficiencies towards recognition of structural inequalities. Vijay’s presentation focused on deficit framings of language, where international students are often positioned as ‘lacking’ linguistic skills. However, this might be shifted instead to focus on structural oppression of multilingualism and multiple Englishes within institutions. This gives us one example of how researchers can conceptually move away from issues like biases, stereotyping, and deficit narratives by centring the structural roots that cause them.

Finally, the presentation by Samridhi Gupta and Thuy-Anh Nguyen shifted the focus towards practical research designs, demonstrating the section in our book which focuses on how research design choices can purposefully resist existing problems in knowledge creation with (rather than on or about) international students. Their presentation focused on co-designing research with international students, giving practical examples of two research methods which can be designed with students as partners. This demonstrates the ways that methodological choices are fundamentally intertwined with conceptual criticality, highlighting how the method we choose can resist and deconstruct the existing problems set out by previous presenters.

Together, our symposium aimed to open up new reflections and considerations for the historical trajectory of research with international students, considering new ways forward for the research subfield. Both the symposium and our upcoming book aims not to give answers for how to move that path forward, though, but rather to open up questions for individual researchers and the research community more broadly about where we might like to go from here. We ask, then: what should the epistemic space of research with international students look like?

More research resources on this topic can be found at https://researchintlstudents.com/. ‘Research with international students: Critical conceptual and methodological considerations’ will be published open access by Routledge, aiming for late 2023.

Jenna Mittelmeier is Senior Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focuses on the experiences and treatment of international students within the broader internationalisation of higher education.

Sylvie Lomer is Senior Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedagogy and policy enactment. 

Kalyani Unkule is Associate Professor at OP Jindal Global University in India. Her research complements her practice in intercultural dialogue and impact-driven projects in higher education internationalisation and spiritual learning.


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Research ethics committees should rethink risk

by Jacqueline Stevenson, Tom Power and Alison Fox

There are good reasons why institutional human research ethics committees (RECs) or research ethics boards (REBs) are needed in higher education institutions – namely, to ensure research participants are treated in accordance with a set of agreed standards and principles. This includes, for example, avoiding harm, ensuring informed consent, clarifying how any data collected will be stored and used, and ensuring transparency in relation to gaining access to participants through gatekeepers. There is also an ethical imperative to ensure a certain level of quality so that research has the potential to be of benefit to individuals, and society.  

There has been growing concern over the last twenty years, however, that some RECs have become such powerful regulatory bodies that they have almost complete control over what institutional research is conducted, as well as how and where it is undertaken. The ways in which RECs approach the approval of research ethics can seem antithetical to many of the other prevailing discourses of higher education (in the UK in particular), such as the need to decolonise research, the commitment to enhancing equity and inclusion, the focus on the co-creation of knowledge, and the push for greater co-collaboration with external stakeholders. 

In 2004, Haggerty drew attention to the worrying trend of what he coined ‘ethics creep’, where ethics committees have been afforded significant levels of institutional power above and beyond that for which they were initially tasked – including bringing within their scope and oversight those forms of activity which were historically not considered research, such as on-campus surveys, or in-class student research. Moreover, concerns have been levelled at RECs for being secretive in the ways in which they work, inconsistent in their approach to applying their own guidelines, and prioritising a box-ticking approach over any exploration of more meaningful ethical considerations (see Allen, 2008 for an overview).  

A further concern for many educational researchers is that approaches to ethical review, initially developed in relation to biomedical sciences, have largely been positivist. Such approaches can be detrimental to more qualitative research – particularly research which is collaborative in nature, involves participatory methodologies, or is exploratory in approach – where methods may evolve over time (Guta, Nixon and Wilson, 2013). This, as we have written elsewhere, has implications for empowerment and equitable participation, and limits possibilities for challenging the power, dominance, and colonial practices of the global north (Fox and Busher, 2022) . 

Such concerns about the ways in which RECs operate are not, for us, purely hypothetical. We have each grappled with the complexities, vagaries, frustrations and ‘emotional vicissitudes’ (Monaghan, O’Dwyer and Gabe, 2013) of gaining ethical approval. We have done this as educational researchers, as members of RECs trying to influence our own ethics committees, and as supervisors supporting doctoral researchers, including those raising concerns at the SRHE’s professional development events about their struggles to gain ethical approval for planned projects. This is particularly problematic since the “de-risking” of research plans can stifle innovation, limiting possible contributions to existing knowledge and the development of new knowledges.  

The privileging of research ethics approvals for projects which are quasi-scientific in approach, rather than those that draw on innovative qualitative methodologies, can significantly limit our understanding of the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ of global concerns, such as educational disadvantage, poverty, climate change, or global health issues. 

It is eminently possible, however, for RECs to approve projects which are methodologically innovative, participatory in nature, collaborative in approach, and which involve external stakeholders – including from countries where approaches to research ethics may be thought of differently to how they are thought about in the global north. To do so, however, requires RECs to accept a significant level of trust in their academic researchers. Such trust is demonstrated by some RECs but is by no means universal.  

Despite these complexities we recently gained ethical approval for the 3MPower (Mobile Learning for the Empowerment of Marginalised Mathematics Educators) project at The Open University, UK, achieving an outcome which may not only offer hope to other researchers of what is possible, but which might also act as an exemplar to other research ethics committees of what can be achieved if they are prepared to put faith in their own researchers. 

The 3MPower project, funded by the EdTech hub, is a collaborative project generating evidence on technology use for Teacher Professional Development in Bangladesh, with a particular focus on children’s foundation numeracy skills in schools serving marginalised, low-income, rural communities. The project brings together researchers from the Open University and Dhaka University, Bangladesh, and involves a broad range of national stakeholders including government policymakers, policy implementers, teacher educators, rural education officers, and rural teachers. It also enables early career researchers working with PEER (Participatory Ethnographic Evaluation Research) researchers in Bangladesh to elicit the voices and experiences of marginalised teachers in rural communities.  

Inherent in the methodology are several approaches which are at odds with the normal requirements of RECs. 

First is the commitment of the project team to empower all those involved in the research, and to share power equitably between and across both researchers and other stakeholders. This has required institutional acceptance that the locus of control over the research activities cannot rest solely with The Open University and that research approaches need to reflect both the global north and the global south. 

Second is the commitment to trusting researchers in the field to behave with appropriate respect, integrity, and trustworthiness without the need for written information sheets to be provided to research participants or to have written consent elicited from them (these were considered both epistemologically or culturally inappropriate and thus a barrier to participation). 

Third, although the project’s broad methodological approach had been explicated in the ethics application, the methods being used are organic and constantly evolving dependent upon emerging findings from the field. For this reason, specifying detailed interview or survey questions was accepted as not possible before the research started.  

The REC was therefore required to trust its researchers to act with integrity. However, it is important to note that the researchers were also required to keep the REC updated about the developing research by submitting amendments to the REC application in response to iterations of the collaborative design. This allows ongoing dialogue between the research team and the REC – ensuring that the processes of ethical approval go beyond the ‘tick box’ activity critiqued above. 

In short, the REC agreed to the team delivering a research project underpinned by a set of principles which are at the heart of all good educational research! These include empowerment and power sharing; decolonising research by recognising and valuing the experiences, voices, and knowledges of others, especially those from the global south; and trusting in the skills and experiences of others, including those working in different countries and with different cultural beliefs. However, because the project team could not specify and submit all the artefacts normally required by a REC at the outset (consent forms, information sheets, survey tools, interview protocols), it is likely that the project would have not gained approval in many other HEIs – or certainly not in the form it has done.  

The 3MPower project team had several advantages. Not only did Tom, as the Principal Investigator, have extensive experience of working on similar projects but all of the research leadership team had prior research experience in Bangladesh. Moreover, as the then Deputy Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee Alison had extensive understanding of qualitative, education-related research ethics, drawn not only from her institutional experiences but also from work reviewing and developing research ethics frameworks including with the British Educational Research Association (BERA). The project team therefore had a key advocate and a team of researchers who were already trusted.  

So, with support and through dialogue, ethical approval was granted, and the door was opened for ongoing support and mutual learning between the research team and REC about what is considered worthwhile and culturally appropriate research in Bangladesh. This is likely to be different for researchers in a less privileged position or where those involved in RECs have less experience (and this is often the case). Certainly, those PhD students who attend our SRHE professional development events tell a very different story.  

If we are to respond to society’s key challenges then it is time for RECs to become more risk-tolerant rather than risk-averse. This might involve re-evaluating risk through the eyes of gatekeepers and participants in the research context, giving greater weight to their voice during the ethics approval processes. RECs need to enable and not suppress innovation, and to both empower and trust higher education researchers and their research teams. This requires a rethinking of positionality, perspective, and philosophical beliefs about the way in which research can be conducted.  

Such rethinking of ethical practices can disrupt prior assumptions and contribute to learning about other ways of knowing and valuing within RECs. However, change needs to take place more broadly and more consistently across the sector. This needs to be done and done soon. The SRHE can, and should, be a key driver in pushing for change. 

Jacqueline Stevenson is a research associate on the 3MPower project at the Open University, visiting professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Leeds, and chair of the SRHE’s Research and Development Committee.

Tom Power is the Principal Investigator of the 3MPower project, a member of the Edtech Hub’s Building EdTech Evidence and Research (BETER) advisory group, and a Deputy Associate Dean for Knowledge Exchange at the Open University.

Alison Fox is Associate Head of School for Research and Knowledge Exchange for the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport, Chair of The Open University Human Research Ethics Committee and a member of British Educational Research Association Council.


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Using Tentacular Pedagogy to change the HE culture

by Kai Syng Tan

From Leonardo da Vinci (whose trans-disciplinary inventiveness was attributed to his ADHD) to bell hooks (whose professorial role drew on her activism and poetry practice), history has no lack of examples of how creative and neurodivergent processes have produced insights to catalyse social and culture change. There are also growing calls for interdisciplinary and creative approaches prioritising equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) to solve wicked global challenges (AHRC 2022, WEF 2016).

However, the ‘dog-eat-dog’ culture of Higher Education (HE), austerity measures and more are leading to harmful consequences, and stakeholders with protected characteristics are worst affected (Berg, Huijbens, and Larsen 2016; UKRI 2021; Bhopal 2020; Blell, Liu and Verma 2022).  Creative arts (CA-HE), often deemed less valuable than STEM subjects, are particularly threatened (Puffett 2022, Redmond 2020), evidenced in the closure of departments, and exacerbating the already tense relationship between the CA-HE and HE (Elkins 2009). Furthermore, research suggests CA-HE is elitist (Annetts 2018; Starkey 2013), racist (Orr 2021; Tan 2021a), and failing neurodivergent students and staff by not paying enough attention to their mental wellbeing (who are over-represented in CA-HE at around 30% in the student population, in Bacon and Bennett 2013; RCA 2015).

Octopuses and Tentacles

I have been cultivating ‘Tentacular Pedagogy’ (TP) for 24 years as a HE teacher and consultant. Prioritising creative thinking, leadership and EDI, this teaching and learning practice draws on the octopus’s extraordinary composition of three hearts and nine minds. My keynote lecture for the European League of Institutes of the Arts Teachers Academy argued for a polycentric, transversal, (co-)creative teaching/learning approach which aims to make CA-HE more inclusive. In doing so, and following artist-academic James Elkin’s (2009) call to use creative research to inform and transform HE, TP rallies CA-HE to play a more (pro-)active leadership role within HE and beyond in nurturing a more creative and compassionate future. UNESCO (2021) have called for HE to ‘repair injustices while transforming the future’ by 2050, with a new ‘social contract’ that prioritises ‘human dignity and cultural diversity’, plus ‘care, reciprocity, and solidarity’.

Three Hearts and Nine Minds

TP features three EDI tenets and nine dimensions. TP’s heart(s) lies in neurodiversity, decolonisation (and the related notions of anti-racism and internationalisation), and intersectionality. Neurodiversity has remained largely ‘invisible’ in HE (Tan 2018), even though it has been called a ‘competitive advantage’ or ‘the next talent opportunity’ for organisations (Harvard 2017, WEF 2018). This is a missed opportunity, given HE’s ‘omnicrisis’ (Gill 2022). Activating research about how creativity, neurodiversity, and leadership interrelate (Tan 2021b; Tan 2019, Baron-Cohen 2017; Lesch 2018, Abraham et al 2006), TP cares about teaching/learning with/from/for/by marginalised ideas, methods and communities, who are often excluded from HE and syllabi. Surviving – even thriving – within hostile systems, TP purports that these communities are already creative and leader-ful by nature and design, and CA-HE should learn from them. TP also allies with other minoritised communities to address all social oppression (Obasi 2022, Walker 1983). Just as each tentacle of the octopus is an independent mind, TP’s nine embodied ‘minds’ teach/learn through nine Cs.

Creativity, Community and Co-Creation

TP celebrates creativity, community and co-creation. This concerns creative thinking (Krathwhol 2002, Marton and Säljö 1976) encompassing everyday creativity and disruptive invention alike (Kaufman & Beghetto 2009). TP engages with external communities toform unique learning communities. Learners include peers, professors and professionals within and beyond CA-HE and HE, including psychological and social sciences and third sector organisations. TP also foregrounds multi-directional and anti-hierarchical learning. Often gathered in the same learning environment together, TP’s diverse learners, including the ‘teacher’, learn via collaboration.

Creativity, Community and Co-Creation were exemplified in the 75th Anniversary Celebrations of the 5th Pan African Congress in Manchester(PAC75) for Black History Month 2020. Led by Manchester Metropolitan University in collaboration with the Universities of Manchester and Salford, and local arts bodies, PAC75 marked Manchester’s impact on global history in nationhood and Black Lives Matter through a programme celebrating diverse leadership and intersectional engagement through culture. In 18 seminars, performances, and workshops black students chaired sessions with elders like Afua Hirsch and Kwame Anthony Appiah (Princeton), elevating their self-worth and leadership. Materials produced continue to be used, for example in Manchester’s ‘Remaking Modern British History’ MA, and at the University of Ghana.

Collage, Can-Do, Curiosity

TP cultivates novel, meaningful synergies between diverse and/or disconnected body-minds, subjects, disciplines, classes and cultures, driven by ‘productive antagonisms’ (Latham and Tan 2017). TP itself collages pedagogies like undercommons (Moten and Harney, 2013), and STEM-to-STEAM movements (Pomeroy 2012, Eger 2011). Following the shapeshifting octopus, TP also nurtures a can-do attitude. Agility, resourcefulness and enterprise are cultivated through role-play, advocacy, volunteering and action-learning. As an artist-teacher-reflective practitioner (Thornton 2005) and a REF-submitted researcher, I conjoin teaching/learning with scholarship, research, knowledge exchange, community/ industry/public engagement and widening participation. Furthermore, like the adventurous octopus, TP teachers/learners are exploratory and ‘ill-disciplined’ (Tan and Asherson 2018). Using play and interdisciplinarity, ‘deficits’ become positive action.

The ethos of collage, can-do and curiosity are played out in the Neurodiversity In/& Creative Research Network. The Network was set up to continue conversations and actions started by an art-psychiatry project #MagicCarpet (National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement Culture Change Award 2018) that I led at King’s College London. I invited a #MagicCarpet participant to co-lead the Network. Today, this global alliance embodies bell hooks’ ‘beloved community’ (1996) that affirms — not eradicates — difference. It comprises 360 neurodivergent people, including the inventor of neurodiversity, sociologist Judy Singer. Local and spinoff groups that members lead like the Kansas City League of Autistics and the Scottish Neurodiverse Performance Network empower HE staff and students to connect and advocate for themselves and others. Applying TP’s ‘cross-species’ learning through intersectionality, the Network is an evolving hub, and models what an inclusive teaching/learning ecosystem looks like. Its masterclasses and seminars foster best practices in teaching/learning and research between and beyond CA-HE. HE teachers, students and researchers and professionals aside, members include activists, policy-makers, clinicians, CEOs and entrepreneurs who learn from/with one another as critical friends. Unusually, the Network welcomes self-proclaimed ‘allies’ too, which protects those unable/un-ready to disclose their difference. To counter exceptionalism and racism, which is not uncommon in other disability/neurodiversity-led communities (Barbarin, 2021; Russell, 2020; Mistry, 2019; Tan, 2019; Rashed, 2019), the Network welcomes racially-diverse people, and those with neuro-differences beyond the ‘classical’ remits of neurodiversity like stroke and PTSD.

Established in response to the pandemic, the Network attracted 150 members by April 2020, hinting at how CA-HE has hitherto failed neurodivergent teachers/learners. The Network has ignited pathways to improve teaching/learning practices and cultures, empowered neurodivergent HE stakeholders, and led to further work such as a dance commission ‘Dysco’ for Southbank Centre by a Glasgow PhD student (Watson 2021) and a journal article by a US neuroscientist (Zisk 2021). Members tell their own stories, instead of being ventriloquised, commodified or white-washed by others. Mobilising their new-found confidence, skills and knowledge, members forge new initiatives, and lead further changes at local, institutional and sectoral levels, to collectively make CA-HE and HE more equitable. For instance, a member, as Jisc Head of Strategic Support Unit, founded Jisc’s first ever neurodiversity group, which is now 100 members strong. That group is supported by Jisc’s new EDI director, while the member has gone on to become a Trustee of the National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service. Members will co-produce A Handbook of Neurodiversity and Creative Research (2024) with a major academic publisher, with reviewers describing it as a ‘distinctive’ and ‘valuable’ intervention with a ‘very high scope of impact’ to HE.

Circulation, Courage and Curating Change

Neurodiversity is a subset of biodiversity (Singer 1998); ergo, TP ‘re-pays’ nature and society, prioritising ‘zero waste’ in natural and human resources, and enacts ‘Look, Think, Act’ to ‘sustain reform in teaching/learning ecologies’ (Patterson et al, 2010). To enrich the 3Rs (writing, arithmetic, reading), TP ‘up-cycles’ frameworks like ‘Curiosity, Compassion, Collaboration and Communities’ (Orr 2021), rhizomatic learning (Guerin 2013) and ‘tentacular thinking’ (Haraway 2016). TP seeks to dismantle colonialist ‘monuments’ and master’s narratives (Lorde 1984). Its ‘unruly’ tentacles celebrate ‘multiplicity in knowledge production’ (Zarabadi et al, 2019; Branlat et al, 2022) and, like the audacious octopus and ADHD-er, power towards unknowns. Last but not least, TP is about curating change. ‘Curating’ originated in care, and octopuses have thrived for 300 million years: TP nurtures future-facing models of leadership marrying compassion and vision. I seek to embody such a change-maker in what/how I teach/learn. As an outsider gate-crashing into environments historically shut to others like myself, I use my privilege to open doors for others, and make them co-leaders.

Circulation, Courage and Curating Change are enacted in a new MA Creative Arts Leadership for which I am Programme Leader, to be launched in September 2023 at Manchester Metropolitan University. Prioritising decolonised and environmentally-conscious models of change-making, the MA is with/for/by teachers/learners to generate personal, organisational, and social change, and addresses gaps in current HE offerings in leadership development and arts management/policy. Using examples like MMU alumna artist-turned-suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst, the MA counters the danger of a ‘single story’ (Adichie 2009) of how ‘leadership’ is taught/learnt. The MA entangles creativity with business acumen, sustainability and inclusion.

The mission of the study of art and design is to develop ‘cognitive abilities related to the aesthetic, ethical and social contexts of human experience’ that ‘contributes to society, the economy and the environment, both in the present and for the future’ (QAA 2019). Amid multiple threats to CA-HE, Tentacular Pedagogy’s nine ‘tentacles’ can extend teaching excellence in CA-HE and HE. TP’s ‘three hearts’ of neurodiversity and how it intersects with race and gender, manifested in the examples above as subject and teaching/learning approaches, and in collaborating with neurodivergent teachers/learners, illustrate how a more inclusive CA-HE can foster a legacy of teaching excellence and make HE thrive. 

Dr Kai Syng Tan PhD FRSA SFHEA is an artist, curator, academic, consultant, agitator, change-maker, volunteer and gatecrasher who is known for her ‘long-established expertise in using creative research as a form of critical co-creation of knowledge’ that ‘challenges dominant frameworks in and beyond the academy’ (AHRC review 2021). Her keynote lectures, op-eds, exhibitions, creative interventions and more have been featured at MOMA (New York), BBC, Biennale of Sydney and Tokyo Design Week. She has (co-)led projects with budgets from £0 to £4.8m (opening and closing ceremonies of ASEAN Para Games 2015). Her creative leadership innovations include extending ‘Running Studies’ through her RUN! RUN! RUN! Biennale. Apart from being the first artist on the Editorial board of the British Journal of Psychiatry Bulletin, Kai is a trustee board member of Hear Me Out (charity for detained migrants), and was Expert Panel Advisor for Media Authority of Singapore (2007-2012). Having taught/examined/consulted at more than 100 universities worldwide, Kai is a Senior Lecturer at Manchester School of Art.

Kai is grateful for the feedback and critical friendship of Susan Orr,  Stephanie Aldred, Chrissi Nerantzi and Laura Housman in developing aspects of Tentacular Pedagogy


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But what do the numbers say? How the movement towards datafication might change English higher education

by Peter Wolstencroft, Elizabeth Whitfield and Track Dinning

“The simple truth is that the average student leaves university with £45,800 of debt and if they have nothing to show for it then we have failed them” (Hansard, 2021). The speaker of these words was the then Minister for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan and the sentiment underpins many of the current mechanisms used for assessing quality in English HE. The publication by the Office for Students (OfS) of their new expectations for student outcomes (OfS, 2022a) has, once again, triggered a debate about how we measure the quality of a university education and its impact on the students that study in English universities. The stakes have never been as high, as the OfS state: ‘Universities and colleges that perform below these thresholds could face investigation to allow the OfS to understand the reasons for their performance. If, following investigation, performance is not adequately explained by a provider’s context, the OfS has the power to intervene and impose sanctions for a breach of its conditions of registration.’ (OfS, 2022a)

Since the Browne Report (2010) normalised the payment by students of increased fees for undergraduate programmes, universities have faced a balancing act between two separate imperatives that have influenced the relationship between students and universities. These two approaches are firstly, the educational imperative, that stresses the primacy of the learning experience and the student’s journey through their studies and secondly, the economic imperative, that requires organisations to ensure that their finances allow them to continue to operate. It can be argued that the growing dominance of the latter is rooted in the increased measurement of the sector and how this is used to define the quality of provision provided by any given university. In practical terms, what this means is that, for English universities, adherence to benchmarking figures and ensuring that targets are met may be a key driver in decision making at all levels of the organisation.

Whilst the datafication of education (Stevenson, 2017) is not a new concept, the new OfS guidelines are likely to exacerbate this approach, indeed it can be seen as a formalisation of an ongoing process. A key consequence of this shift has been a reimagining of the relationship between the student and the institution. Originally characterised by some in the post-Browne era as one akin to a customer purchasing a product, it evolved into the student being viewed as a consumer who uses a service but who is also an active participant in the learning process and from there to a co-creator of the process (Tomlinson, 2017). Whilst this apparent balancing of influence has generally been viewed as having a positive benefit in terms of the student experience, the shift exemplified by the new regulations means that the performance of students is increasingly measured in quantitative terms. The danger with this approach is that there is the potential for universities to focus on the quantitative measure of success alone, which would neglect all of the wider, but not measured, improvements in the student journey that have occurred since the Browne Report, such as the increasing amount of employer engagement and the amplification of the student voice.

Concerns increased with the publication of the latest expectations from the OfS and their focus on quantitative measures. Whilst other quality mechanisms such as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and Ofsted inspections rely on a mixture of quantitative measurement and a supporting narrative, the new guidelines focus largely on data and the outputs for each student. Targets are set for continuation and completion rates as well as graduate outcomes and these targets are aggregated in each of a phalanx of different subsections of students. Many concerns within the sector relate to the vague nature of the wording regarding non-achievement of the targets. Despite the assertion that “(the) OfS only makes a judgement that a provider is not compliant after considering the context in which it is operating” (OfS, 2022a), there is currently no guidance as to how this consideration will be achieved.

English universities have greeted the new guidance with some concern: for example, the latest intervention focuses partially on the salaries students receive fifteen months after completing their programme of study (known as ‘graduate outcomes’). This is controversial as it is a measure that attempts to compare very disparate programmes. The Complete University Guide (2022) quotes average salaries after fifteen months’ employment for accounting and finance as £25,000;  optometry is as low as £17,000 and music degrees average £21,000. In contrast medicine graduates earn an average £30,000. Aside from the issue of disparities in earnings, there is also a lack of accounting for regional disparities with Statista (2021) reporting the median annual earning for full-time employees in the North West being 30% lower than salaries in London. This inequality and its impact on graduate outcomes has already been cited in the decision by some universities to stop offering programmes despite their educational benefit (Weale, 2022).

The backdrop to the revised guidelines (commonly known as ‘B3’ after the subsection of the document it occupies) has been an ongoing discussion about the desirable outcomes of degree level education. The discussion has increasingly focused on how to root out supposed poor practice. If students invest significant amounts of money in their education then many assert with the HE Minister that they should get ‘value for money’ and a positive outcome when their studies are complete. Defining these points drives much of the current discussions. What constitutes a ‘low quality degree’ has been one facet of this discussion, but more pertinent is the achievement gap that exists between differing groups of students and differing programmes of study. Whilst this has always been known, increasing spending has meant that there has been greater scrutiny on groups and programmes perceived to be underachieving.

The revised guidelines focus on definitions; the changes might seem relatively minor when looked at in isolation, but when grouped with other changes in the sector they might have profound implications for university procedures. Universities previously had to ensure that benchmark figures for retention and achievement were met for whole cohorts, but the sector will now subdivide student groups using criteria such as gender, sex or background (OfS, 2022b) and explore the performance of each group. This is likely to change the approach for many universities, as often these subgroups are likely to be small in number, which means that one student’s failure to complete their studies is likely to have a proportionally greater impact on the university as a whole. There is therefore a considerable danger that universities which serve large numbers of disadvantaged students will be less inclined to take risks in admission: this will narrow, rather than widen, access and participation.

On the surface the definitions appear straightforward, with universities needing to make sure that a set percentage of their students continue with their studies, complete their studies and are in what is deemed ‘graduate employment’ within 15 months of graduation. However these figures may lead to a significant change in the way universities manage data and indeed, deal with students.

Under pressure to meet set benchmarks, universities are likely to focus even more attention on the definition of a student within HE. There is always a set period of time between a student registering and when they are included in official figures. This allows for ‘buyer’s remorse’ when students withdraw early on and it also allows people to transfer between programmes if they decide that their initial choice was not the one they want to pursue. Students who withdraw from a programme before the cut-off date are not taken into account in the final figures used when calculating retention figures. This change might affect English HE in the same way as it did when introduced to the further education (FE) sector. Within FE, students were not counted in final figures until they had been enrolled for 42 days. This meant that many organisations completed what became known as a ‘data cleanse’ before the cut-off date, a process where students who were deemed to be at risk of failing their programme were removed from their studies, or moved to a different award.

The danger when introducing new metrics is always that there will be unintended consequences. Whilst trying to measure the quality of a programme of study is clearly worthwhile, the primacy of the data could cause problems. The need to ensure that programmes of study are seen as high quality means that ignoring metrics is often foolhardy and can have detrimental effects on the whole university. Instead, careful analysis is likely, to ensure that programmes score as highly as possible in each category. This could lead to a range of ethical dilemmas regarding the amount of support students receive if they are in danger of failing in their studies.

Looking further down the timeline, the shift towards the datafication of the sector is likely to affect the validation of new programmes of study. Whilst employability has been a strand within many programmes for some years, potential graduate outcomes are likely to be viewed as critical to the acceptance of a programme of study, marking a significant shift away from a purely educational analysis of proposed programmes. The challenge is to make sure that programmes of study continue to be challenging and rewarding for students but that they also meet targets, close attainment gaps and ensure positive learning outcomes for graduates.

The new guidelines are another stepping stone in the balancing act between educational and economic imperatives. The new guidelines set clear targets but it is the unclear consequences of not meeting these targets that will cause universities most concern. Universities with large numbers of disadvantaged students might need a fundamental rethinking of their student population. If there is no allowance for the incoming student population when measuring outputs, universities will need to review the level of support they provide and face the ethical dilemmas involved. Without greater clarity from the OfS, failure to meet targets may mean that more programmes in subject areas with historically low graduate starting salaries will close, data will increasingly become the key determinant of educational decision making and the relationship between students and universities will once again be redefined.

Dr Peter Wolstencroft is a Deputy Director at Liverpool Business School, part of Liverpool John Moores University. He has held a variety of roles in the sector and together with his co-authors is dedicated to enhancing the student experience for all students and in particular for those for whom higher education is a new experience. He is the author of numerous articles on education and co-authored the bestselling textbook ‘The Trainee Teacher’s Handbook: A companion for initial teacher training’.

Dr Elizabeth Whitfield is an Assistant Academic Registrar: Student Experience at Liverpool John Moores University. She is also a senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a member of the programme team for the postgraduate Certificate in HE at LJMU. Current project and leadership roles focus on the student experience, in particular student communications and digital support schemes.

Dr Track Dinning is a Deputy Director at Liverpool Business School, part of Liverpool John Moores University, a Senior Fellow of Higher Education Academy and a Certified Management and Business Educator.  Her research focuses on Entrepreneurial Education and she utilises her research to develop and enhance the curriculum in the field of employability and enterprise. She has a shared vision with her co writers to ensure a high quality student experience for every student.

References

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2010) Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education (“The Browne Report”). Available at:

(accessed 1st October 2022)

Hansard (2021) University Tuition Fees Debate, Volume 702

Office for Students (2022a) New Expectations for Student Outcomes Available at : OfS sets new expectations for student outcomes – Office for Students (accessed 1st October 2022)

Office for Students (2022b) Associations Between Characteristics of Students Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/associations-between-characteristics-of-students/ (accessed 18th October 2022)

Statista (2021) Media annual earnings for full-time employees in the United Kingdom in 2021, by region Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/416139/full-time-annual-salary-in-the-uk-by-region/ (accessed 8th October 2022)

Stevenson, H (2017) ‘The “Datafication” of Teaching: Can Teachers Speak Back to the Numbers?’ Peabody Journal of Education 92:4, 537-557 DOI:10.1080/0161956X.2017.1349492

The Complete University Guide (2022) What do graduates do and earn? Available at: https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/student-advice/careers/what-do-graduates-do-and-earn (accessed 8th October 2022)

Tomlinson, M (2017) ‘Student perceptions of themselves as ‘consumers’ of higher education’ British Journal of Sociology of Education 38:4, 450-467 DOI:10.1080/01425692.2015.1113856

Weale, S (2022) ‘Philip Pullman leads outcry after Sheffield Hallam withdraws English lit degree, The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/jun/27/sheffield-hallam-university-suspends-low-value-english-literature-degree (accessed 18th October 2022)

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SRHE News at 50: Looking back…

by Rob Cuthbert

SRHE News is now 50 issues old, covering a momentous 12 years for higher education worldwide, but especially in the UK, and even more especially in England – an opportunity to reflect on what we thought and how we felt as it happened, and whether things seem different now.

Since 2010 the UK has seen four general elections, four prime ministers, and in England nine Secretaries of State for Education, and seven ministers for higher education (two appointed twice). In that time Brexit accounted for much political turmoil but ‘got done’, after a fashion. Undergraduate fees were trebled, to deliver most tuition income via students rather than a funding agency. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 aimed to enshrine the market with students as customers, and established the Office for Students. There was much political talk of ‘low quality courses’; the Teaching Excellence Framework rose and fell. Two Research Excellence Framework exercises continued the remorseless evidence-defying concentration of research funding. Publishing worldwide was roiled by open access initiatives, especially the EU-inspired ‘Plan S’. Vice chancellors’ salaries soared into the stratosphere but more and more staff joined the precariat; industrial action became commonplace as job insecurity and low pay for many was aggravated by swingeing reductions in USS pension entitlements. Covid disrupted everything with a lightning shift towards online learning amid much student dissatisfaction, but enrolments surged. Government incompetence accentuated massive problems with school examinations and HE admissions, with disruptive enrolment changes rippling across the entire HE system. As HE coped with all this it was assailed by politicians wanting to fight culture wars, and cronyism installed apparatchiks where once there had been civil servants.

After the first issue of SRHE News in February 2010, No 2 (The World to Come), came out just before the May 2010 election with HE facing major financial cuts, but we were still upbeat:

… in difficult times let us think not only of what the community can do for our institution, and what our institution can do for our students. Those things are important, but let us think too of what our higher education sector, working together, can do for the community in the difficult world to come.

Optimism dwindled as fees were tripled; No 3 asked ‘What Next?’, and the 2010 SRHE Conference feared the worst:

Two issues came through strongly at Conference … first, that this might be the end of the idea of higher education as a public/social good; and second, that the Government has chosen to deconstruct one of the UK’s greatest achievements – a higher education system which until now is still the envy of many other nations and a highly successful export brand. This is a high stakes gamble with the life chances of a whole generation. (No 4 The English experiment)

No 5 asked: Is SoTL special and precious, or too special and too precious?, suggesting that universities should take their share of responsibility for the plight of HE:

For many of our universities the “student experience” has become the organising concept, the fount of a thousand strategic priorities and key performance indicators. But the student experience tends to be conceived as if the interpretivist paradigm had never existed, becoming no more than a quantitative summation of student surveys and managerialist evaluations. The ‘student experience’ has become a stick to beat academics with, instead of the carrot that motivates them. It has also become a tool for reductionism, as students are driven ever closer to being the consumers and customers which neither they nor their teachers wish them to be. The student experience is conceived as some kind of unified average instead of being celebrated for its individually constructed uniqueness.

No 6 urged us to reframe (This isn’t why I came into higher education) and No 7 said we should be Taking the long view of higher education reform, in contrast to the short-termism embedded in HE policy, exemplified by The ‘failure’ of the CETLs and the usefulness of useless research  (No 8):

… how ‘useless’ or ‘useful’ was the scholarship of teaching and learning embedded in or stimulated by CETLs and the CETLs programme as a whole? The HEFCE-commissioned evaluation tells us only that it was not very ‘useful’ in the terms defined by the current policy framework. It tells us next to nothing about its value in other frames of reference, or even in a policy frame over a longer timescale.

In 2012 the Finch review of options for academic publishing seemed immediately to have got it wrong, as later experience showed:

we must look beyond Finch for the open access formula that ‘maximises benefits and minimizes risks’. (No 9 ‘Open access’ publishing: is gold overpriced, is green more sustainable?)

As the year progressed we were thinking about the future (No 10 Strengths, weaknesses and the future of research into higher education) and asking ourselves at the 2012 Conference What is higher education for?’ (No 11). In early 2013 we hoped that good sense might yet prevail:             

HEFCE still might, as the Government White Paper suggested, take the lead among the various sector regulatory bodies such as QAA and OIA, all having set their face against the super-merger to create a super-regulator hypothesised but not thought through by the Browne Review. (No 12 Hanging by a thread)

Alas, it didn’t:

Just like the railways, the national system of HE in England is being dismantled, with new forms of competition being imposed or encouraged. Public subsidies will continue, but in a much less transparent form, which will presumably provide growing profits for new HE providers. The rationale for spending cuts and wholesale privatisation is increasingly challenged. In sum, we seem to be edging closer to repeating the history of rail privatisation. It may not be Virgin territory, but is higher education on the right track?” (No 13 On the right track?)

Universities minister David Willetts left in a Government reshuffle in mid 2014:

… after all the noise about open access, the UK is left with a model which is out of line with the emerging preference of most of the developed world, and provides public subsidies for big publishers. This is not paradox but consistency. In open access to research, as in open access to undergraduate opportunities, David Willetts professed to improve standards and openness but his legacy is worsened access for some, increased cost and debt for many, a transfer of public funds to private sector providers, and a system which is likely to cost the government more than the system he inherited. (No 17 This is an ex-Minister)

However, his tenure was probably the high point of the last 12 years. After musing about Degrees of freedom (No 14) by early 2015 we had resorted to satire (with topical cricket references):               

This editorial is in affectionate memory of policy making for English higher education, whose demise is deeply lamented. (No 15 Reputation in Ashes)

But some of the problems of HE are self-inflicted: the woeful experience of UNC Chapel Hill was an example of

a long-term institutional systemic failure of academic accountability and quality assurance. The sorry saga reminds us that while embracing plurality and difference in higher education is a necessary condition of academic excellence, inspiring future generations also needs a sufficient measure of the more prosaic virtues of compliance and accountability. (No 18 Embracing plurality and difference in higher education – necessary but not sufficient)

By 2015 we were picking over REF outcomes (No19 Was that a foul REF?) with football analogies. We lamented the tragic loss of our former SRHE President (No 20 David Watson, 1949-2015), sadly just before he and we were able to celebrate 50 years of the Society (No 21 Special 1965-2015 Valuing research into higher education: advancing knowledge, informing policy, enhancing practice).

In October there were Green shoots but no Green Paper (No 22) but, when it finally appeared, we could only speculate, gloomily: Where do we go from here? (No 23):

The Green Paper on HE issued in November 2015 suggests that the problem with English HE is its failure to embrace the market, red in tooth and claw; the Government proposals are designed to accelerate market forces and promote competition as the solution. Teaching in some places is ‘lamentable’: solution, a Teaching Excellence Framework which sorts out sheep, goats and others, and rewards them accordingly. It is still too difficult for new providers to enter the HE market: solution, levelling the playing field to make it much easier for entrants with no track record. The market isn’t working properly: solution, sweep up most of the key agencies into a new super-regulator, the Office for Students, which will put students’ interests ‘at the heart of the system’, to echo the previous White Paper – on which there was much ado, but almost nothing to show. And much more, but with a consistent theme in which students are the key customers and what they pay for is simply economic advantage in the workplace. In 50 years we have come a long way from Robbins and ‘the general powers of the mind’, let alone the ‘transmission of a common culture’.

David Watson, with his memorable analysis of the ‘Quality Wars’, was still our guide:

Central administrators trying to standardise and ‘calibrate’ that which should be diverse do so at their peril. External examining is quintessentially subjective: academic standards are those which academics agree to be the standards, through legitimate processes. What matters are robust and rigorous processes; ‘calibration’ (if it means measurement, as it almost inevitably would) is not necessary and probably not achievable. Grade inflation is a systemic risk when competition treats students as customers: it is a predictable outcome of Government policy. The HE Academy research suggests some grade inflation at the margins; that we have not seen more is a tribute only to academics’ concern for standards in the face of institutional pressure for better ‘results’ to improve league table position. (No 24 The Thirty Years Quality War)

The Brexit referendum in 2016 gave us a new Prime Minister but by analogy suggested that parts of the HE establishment were ripe for change (No 25 Universities reel after Hexit vote). No 26 (‘May in October: a climate change for HE?’) asked: would the new PM mean changes to HE policy? Not at all:

Smita Jamdar, partner and head of the education team at lawyers Shakespeare Martineau blogged for WonkHE about the Bill … “Some, maybe even a lot, of this may change as the Bill works its way through Parliament, but the main principles on which it is founded are unlikely to. We will undoubtedly be left with a more explicitly regulated, less autonomous and less stable English higher education sector, with greater risks for prospective students, students and graduates alike. I only hope that the upside, whatever Ministers think that might be, is worth it.” (No 27 Post-truth and the Higher Education and Research Bill)

In 2017 amid political ferment we asked What’s wrong with higher education management? (No 28):

The responsibilities of HE’s governors and senior managers are clear: to stand up for the best of academic values and to be transparent about their motives – supporting sustainable research and teaching. Their role is not to be a transmission belt, either for unthinking performance measurement from above or for unthinking academic populism from below. They need to rediscover, where it is lost, their responsibility to lead the institution by exercising their independent value-based judgement, and to educate those inside and outside the institution about the legitimate perspectives of other stakeholders in the higher education enterprise, and about the inevitability of disagreement and compromise.

And then in No 29 ‘What’s wrong with politicians in HE?’:

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.

The prospects for HE looked increasingly bleak (No 30 ‘HE finance after Hurricane Adonis’) and       

The excessively economic framing of HE policy is ‘nonsense on stilts’, and it will sooner or later collapse under the weight of its own absurdity. (No 31 Nonsense on stilts)

The government overreached itself with its winner-takes-all mentality to quango appointments, when the execrable Toby Young’s appointment to the Office for Students board was overturned (No 32: The Toby Young saga and what it tells us about the blunders of our governments):

DfE civil servants trying to respond to the Commissioner for Public Appointments were between a rock and a hard place. Saving the minister and his fellow-travellers in OfS from their mistakes was a hard place to be, but the civil servants’ biggest mistake was losing hold of the rock of civil service integrity.

But it wasn’t just ‘them’ doing it to ‘us’:

Too many ‘academic staff’ are less likely to see the bigger picture, and more likely to weaponise educational and academic values for some real or imagined battle with ‘the university’ or one of its malign manifestations: ‘the management’, ‘the admin’ or sometimes just ‘them’. But it does not need to be like this. (No 33 Doing academic work)

Populism and Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ had taken hold in the USA; the UK had its own problems:

The Times leader writer represents a culture where distrust of the rigour of the social sciences is all too common, fuelled not only by hoaxes such as these, but also by every instance of academics who slip into unthinking intolerance of anything but a dominant perspective. The appropriate response to alternative views is rigorous examination sufficient to assess their worth, not a priori dismissal. … The price of academic freedom is eternal academic vigilance. (No 34 Fake research and trust in the social sciences)

By January 2019 we had resorted to more football analogies (No 35 Academia: the beautiful game?):

… more research is needed. And more teaching. And better policy, leadership and management. Then academia could be a beautiful game.

The open access movement was regrouping for a fresh onslaught:                              

Plan S is higher education’s version of Brexit. It may not have generated quite as much media coverage as that unreal thing, but it has its full share of intransigent minorities, suspicion on all sides, special pleading, accusations that the elite is merely looking after its own interests, and claims that a voiceless majority will be the ones who suffer the most. (No 36 Axe S?)

Meanwhile, Philip Augar’s postsecondary review, commissioned long before by PM Theresa May, had been published after a long delay, amid scepticism that it might ever see its proposals implemented:

… former education secretary Justine Greening had said it was “inconceivable” that the new Prime Minister would adopt the Augar review plans. She “believes that the model she explored in government of funding English universities through a graduate contribution plus a “skills levy” on employers could be taken up by the next prime minister.” Her plan would abolish tuition fees and loans … the Augar review’s recommendations were “hugely regressive” in increasing the burden on low- and middle-earning graduates, while lowering it for those on higher incomes … It is possible to take a very different perspective on Augar, as Nick Barr (LSE) did in declaring it progressive rather than regressive, simply because it proposed to redress the balance between FE and HE. But Greening’s comments are directed more towards heading off the Labour Party’s putative promises on tuition fees, returning to a pre-Augar position which re-institutionalises the chasm between the HE market and the micromanagement and planning of FE. (No 37 Augar and augury)

No 38 echoed that plus ça change vein (#AbolishOxbridge (or, the survival of the elitists)) and by January 2020 widespread industrial action was reflected in No 39 Happy new year? If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here:

The employers are between a rock they did not create and a hard place which they have brought on themselves. The hard place is the deep concerns of many staff about their workload and working conditions, the precarity of their employment, their pay and pensions.

And then came Covid lockdowns, bringing even more work for some, while others had too much time on our hands, so SRHE News offered a new kind of diversion – an SRHE-themed cryptic crossword. Its conspicuous lack of success did not deter a second attempt before we admitted defeat. No 40 advised What to do in the pandemic but No 41 (On not wasting a good crisis) criticised national responses:

It seems that in English higher education, some people have been determined not to waste the Covid19 crisis, either as an opportunity or as a threat. How well have they done? Consider the efforts of the Office for Students, Universities UK, and the government in England.

The A-levels debacle of 2020 prompted reflections on Policymaking in a pandemic (No 42):

My HEPI blog on 16 August 2020 about the A-levels debacle said: “for five months the Government and Ofqual have been too secretive, made bad choices, refused to listen to constructive criticism, tried to tough it out and then made the wrong concessions too late.” Not decisive, not inclusive, not transparent, and not how to make policy in a pandemic.

Things hadn’t got better in January 2021 …

What are the key issues in HE quality and standards, right now? Maintaining quality and standards with the massive transition to remote learning? Dealing with the consequences of the 2020 A-levels shambles? The student experience, now that most learning for most students is remote and off-campus? Student mental health and engagement with their studies and their peers? One or more of these, surely, ought to be our ‘new normal’ concerns. … For government, the new normal was just the same as the old normal. (No 43 Quality and standards in higher education)

… they just got worse, with the appointment of Lord Wharton as chair of OfS …

We need more people, leaders and staff on all sides, to speak truth to power – not just playing-to-the-gallery ‘our truth’, but a truth people inside and outside HE will find persuasive. (No 44 Cronyism, academic values and the degradation of debate)

… and worse:

In sum, government HE policy is in something of a hole, pursuing internally contradictory policies which might play to a wider ‘anti-woke’ agenda but in economic and political terms seem likely to run counter to any thoughts of levelling up. But the Secretary of State keeps digging, even after the great A-level disaster of 2020. It may not be too long before this becomes another fine mess. (No 45 Another fine mess)

But when PM Johnson finally reshuffled Education Secretary Gavin Williamson out of digging an even deeper hole, all we could do was hope:

We can hope that the faux outrage of the culture wars and the faux consultations on decisions already made might give way in future to something more approaching evidence-based policy and proper consultation. (No 46 English higher education policy: hope and pay)

The spectacular success of the online 2021 SRHE Conference allowed us to get back to basics:

… does research into HE also need to (re)connect and (re)build? What exactly is the territory for research into higher education now, what needs to be joined up, where should we be building? … several maps and guides … suggest a field that is maturing rather than one in immediate need of reconnection and rebuilding.(No 47 Are these transformative times for research into HE?)

 

But soon we discovered in detail how the crony-laden Office for Students proposed to attack HE’s basic values:

In 699 pages of consultation the OfS has done its bureaucratic best to profess transparency, openness and rigour, while diverting our energies and attention from what an experienced ministerial adviser called the ‘assault on the values which our HE sector holds dear’. The consultations amount to a detailed enquiry about how exactly these values should be assaulted. We are in a consultation tunnel with only one track. What we can see is probably not the light at the end of the tunnel, it may be the lights from an oncoming train. (No 48 Tunnel vision: higher education policy and the Office for Students)

In July 2022 SRHE was rocked by the end of The Helen Perkins era (No 49):

For so many SRHE members, Helen Perkins and the Society have been inseparable and it will be hard to imagine SRHE without her. But the academic and financial health of the Society have never been better, and the staff team she created but now leaves behind is a strong guarantee that SRHE will continue to develop and prosper.

For 12 years SRHE News has aimed to fulfil the ambitions of the editorial in SRHE News No 1:

SRHE News is changing, with a new editor, a new format, and some new ambitions. SRHE News will carry official communications from the Society, comment on developments in the field of research into higher education, and provide news and current awareness for the research community. The News will have a global perspective and the balance of content will reflect members’ interests. I hope we can make SRHE News a publication that informs and entertains SRHE members – academically credible journalism with a unique research-into-HE perspective.

The 2014 Conference set new challenges for SRHE News, starting with the launch of srheblog.com. We imagined that SRHE might ultimately create:   

… a website for research into HE which is:

  • differentiated and searchable, so that specialists can easily find the research that particularly interests them – as if Google Scholar had been tailored just for people doing research into HE
  • interactive, so that you can find other people with similar interests and engage in structured and unstructured discussions with them – as if SRHE Networks had suddenly gone 24/7 digital and local wherever you are
  • constantly refreshed and updated with new entries, with a range of regular targeted communications for which anyone could sign up and sign out at any time – like The Chronicle of Higher Education, the best kind of newspaper sites, or the Impact of Social Sciences blog
  • genuinely global in its reach, to promote capacity-building, inclusion for isolated researchers and breadth for researchers wishing to learn from other perspectives
  • accessible for non-specialists and useful as a vehicle for communicating research results to a broader public and improving research impact
  • entertaining, informative and readable, like SRHE News
  • and free (No 16: Sustainable blogging)

We’re still working on it …

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.